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At precisely 6:09 am, Cloud Strife heard a creak outside his window, sighed, and quietly reached for the hunting knife under his pillow.

He had already been up at that point, partially for a quick workout -- it didn't really do much for his actual physique due to the enhancements, but it had been a habit for so long it felt wrong not to. There was a small part of him that still felt a small thrill of satisfaction at his own ability to put himself through a morning routine that would have had most professional athletes red-faced and exhausted and not even feel winded.

He carefully crept towards the window, staying low to the ground, and crouched underneath it. If they were burglars, they were certainly persistent. Any thief with half a brain would have moved onto another building by now, after he had noticed them the first eight times. Salvagers didn't come in this far from the ruins of Midgar. And it should have been obvious, given the shabby look of nearly everything in Edge, that he didn't have anything worth stealing, save perhaps his bike, which wasn't even upstairs anyway. Yet nearly every morning at the same time, there they were. Figures, outside his window, in the corner of his eye. Watching, until the minute it was clear he knew they were there -- and, he somehow knew, trying to get in.

He hadn't brought it up to Tifa, let alone anyone else. They'd have thought he was mad, which was an option he hadn't entirely ruled out himself -- they never left any scent for him to follow, and he wasn't really sure how they had gotten onto the roof anyway. The hallucinations were one of the few things he had managed to leave behind with that mess four years ago, and what sort of hallucinations woke you up eight days in a row at the same time?

Barret would probably suggest a shrink again, and Cloud would brush him off and say he was fine, really, and Barret would just shake his head and give him a look and mutter under his breath. Tifa might actually believe him, but the thought of that appealed to Cloud even less. She did enough worrying about him as it was. And about the bar, and the kids that passed through it, and who knew what else she hadn't told him about. Tifa needed good news.

So, here he was, crouched under the window next to the tire he'd been using as a chair for months on end, ready to stab a complete stranger that for all he knew maybe just really really wanted food. There was a bar and grill one floor down, after all.

He sat in silence for what must have been two minutes. A soft tapping started against the wood -- quiet at first, and slowly, then louder and more insistent. It grew in volume until a hundred fingers must have been drumming against the window, and a rushing sound began building behind it, until it felt as though the noise was coming from every wall. Something moved through it all.

Cloud jumped up from under the windowsill and yanked the window open, brandishing the knife at the rain.

"...fuck's sake..." he muttered, sitting down on the chair his family had insisted he replace his tire with, dropping the knife on the table. Upon further reflection, he got back up and pulled the screen down, the water already starting to spray on the papers on his desk.

He turned his chair back to the desk and away from the window. If he didn’t look directly at it, then nothing would be there, and there would be nothing to worry about. And truth be told, he was worried that if he looked at them, they’d somehow be able to see him. Today was a good day -- he had woken up and gotten out of bed knowing exactly what he was doing and why. No need to acknowledge anything to the contrary.

He thumbed through the papers absently. Most of them were bills -- not for him this time, thankfully. Invoices he had been meaning to send out to clients, largely for repair work, or delivery. A couple were accounts, but the numbers part of it all never made much sense to him, so he often had to drag in someone that had actually finished their primary education to help him. Usually that was Reeve, but Reeve's time was extremely limited these days now that the rebuilding effort had moved beyond literal construction of roads and buildings and was now focused on political infrastructure, and Cloud always felt a bit guilty about calling him over for the sake of paperwork, and therefore never brought it up. The end result was a large pile of stressful charts that he could never motivate himself to do alone.

A noise from the end of the hall snapped him out of his intense focus on absolutely nothing constructive, and he hastily flicked the water off an account involving a leaking roof and got up, stashing the hunting knife back under his pillow. Tifa was awake.

Cloud crept downstairs, careful not to wake whoever was asleep on the couch in the back. He'd since lost track of who was here this week. Maybe Yuffie? He probably should have written it down somewhere.

"You're up early," he commented as Tifa came downstairs. Cloud was usually up by 7 (they had talked him down from 4 am, reminding him that most of society didn't run on military time and the extra sleep would do him some good), but Tifa usually slept in until 10 in preparation for the late shifts the bar usually offered.

"The storm woke me up," she said, rummaging through the fridge for eggs. "Maybe I should start a garden, with all this rain.” She paused, staring out the window for a moment. “Wouldn't have to bother taking care of it much." She took a can of corned beef hash from the cupboard and set about dumping the mixture into a frying pan.

Cloud watched her intently. He was banned from the kitchen after the incident with the dishwasher. "It's nice," he said quietly. Tifa looked faintly uncomfortable and refocused her efforts on chopping mushrooms, so he looked away.

The streets would likely be empty today. Cloud was one of the few people in the city that owned a vehicle, by dint of him building it himself, and nobody wanted to walk in the rain. Tifa wasn't the only one it set on edge these days.

"...Gonna be across town today. Broken roof," he continued. "Was gonna save it for tomorrow, but they'll probably want that finished now."

"You should visit Yuffie while you're out," she replied, grateful for the change in subject. "She stole from the till last time she was here, and she knows I'd probably break her fingers. She'd listen to you."

He shrugged. "Headed into the ruins today, too. Maybe she'll turn up. Don't think she's left for home yet."

Tifa looked up from the pan on top of the stove, which was now giving off the tantalising scent of grilled mushrooms. "You're fixing a roof in the ruins?" she asked, doing her best not to sound as though she thought he was wasting his time.

He seemed to notice anyway, and shook his head, looking a bit embarrassed. "No. Was thinking, it's been a while since anyone's checked on... things, out there."

A look of comprehension settled on her face, and she looked up from the pan at him. "D'you want me to come with you?"

He scratched his neck nervously. "If you like. You didn't really know him. Wouldn't you be bored?"

"No."

Cloud looked at her appraisingly.

"...It's something that matters to you. And I figured you'd need someone with you anyway," she said, shrugging. "Johnny comes in at five today anyway. We'll switch off and I'll meet you there." She dumped half the mixture in the pan into a bowl and set it in front of Cloud, and he relented.

They ate mostly in silence, with Tifa intermittently speaking to him about the bar, or the relief effort, or how he really should remember to lock the back door more often, but he didn't mind it much. He appreciated the company, and it was nice to spend time with someone that realised you couldn't really have much to say. Mornings made it more difficult. At the very least, his family said he'd been getting much better, and it helped to hear speech.

Eventually he got up and pulled on his boots. "You'll be here later tonight, for the dinner rush?" asked Tifa.

He nodded, so she could see. "See you later tonight," he confirmed, and turned to leave, pulling on his jacket from the hook on the wall nearby and opening the door to the now slightly less street empty.

Tifa dashed forward and quickly slammed the door shut again, causing him to jump. "Wait!" She produced a pair of tinted sunglasses he had left on the counter the night before. "Don't forget."

Cloud grimaced and put them on. He would look a bit odd, he supposed, wearing sunglasses in the rain, but that was the least of his problems. "Right. Sorry. Later tonight."

Tifa moved away from the door and went back upstairs, probably to resume sleeping. Cloud left Seventh Heaven and headed around out back for his bike and the crate of supplies he kept next to it.

He stuffed the crate awkwardly into the harness on his back (it wasn't really meant for things that weren't swords, but it would hold well enough for a few short trips through even roads), and dug his phone out of his pocket, flipping it open and cupping it under his body to shield it from the rain, scrolling through the tiny two inch calendar the screen offered. Roof, moved up to today. That first.

The drive over helped wake him up a bit more -- weather was another thing that helped, he had noticed. Outside stimulus that wasn't overwhelming, the way sound and light and scent could be, and the act of driving gave him something familiar to focus on.

He should have been focusing on it, anyway. After the first two days, he had started keeping track of it. 6:09 am, every day, without fail. It seemed like the sort of thing a human would do -- whatever they were up to, it was planned and consistently executed. But they didn’t have any scent. Everything had a scent. Even water, if you could believe it. Maybe they were hallucinations after all. He considered sleeping outside, and seeing if he could get a glimpse of them as they approached the building. The idea didn’t appeal to him much, though. If he was outside, they would know he was there, and see him, and…

He couldn’t think of anything worse than having them see him, but that only made him feel worse.

A loud honk cut off his train of thought, and he swerved quickly to avoid an oncoming truck. You’re still thinking about it, he chided himself. That’s not important. Your job is.

His hair was plastered to his face from the wind and the rain by the time he pulled off the overpass. He didn't speak much to the first clients -- out of pragmatism, not inability -- and got straight to work after a few quick questions. An out-of-place pipe rather than an actual hole in the roof, fortunately, that was welded back into place with fire in about an hour. The couple had been a bit suspicious as to how he got onto the roof of a five storey building that quickly, but then he was a young man in his prime who did this for a living.

By this point the rain had let up a bit, and he checked his phone again in the lobby of their flat. Dislodged pipe, check. Next... of course, that sink. It had been a week already, hadn’t it?

He checked the time and saw he had about an hour left to get there, so he made a quick run to the nearest store, consulting another list on his phone that he'd saved as a memo by now: bread; tomatoes; some sort of greens he couldn't pronounce the name of; dish soap; and two rolls, the kind with berries baked into them. He awkwardly shoved the bag over his shoulder to hold it in place during the trip, and made his way back into the city again.

He had barely knocked on the door when it flew open and he was hurriedly pulled inside. "You look like a drowned cat. Didn't I tell you last time to get a hat or something?" said the old woman currently somehow leading him into the kitchen by his sleeve. Ms. Suk. She was a regular of his. He opened his mouth to answer and she cut him off again. "Never mind that. Get yourself situated, I've got a lot more work for you today than I planned."

He unpacked the groceries and sat down at the table, not removing his jacket. She simply shook her head and busied herself with the tea kettle. "How's that nice young lady doing? Tessa?"

"Tifa," he said. "We hired some extra hands. Too busy for just the three of us anymore." He watched her work, suppressing a pang of guilt.

"Mm. About time, too. It's a shame about Shinra, really, she could have been quite successful working for the president, all his fancy dinners and such. She's got the talent to. Don't get up," she warned, as he moved his leg slightly in preparation to help her with one of the lower cupboards, "I'll not have you tiring yourself out this early."

A few minutes later, and after much uncomfortable staring at the tablecloth on his part, she had tea set out for the both of them, and a cheese sandwich for Cloud, with the rolls set off to the side. Cloud chewed in silence for another few minutes.

"My sink," she began, regarding him shrewdly over her teacup, "has not been draining properly since the day before yesterday. I suspect I must have accidentally dropped some silverware down it. I'm sure you're aware of how clumsy I can be. Bad joints, you know."

Cloud nodded. It seemed like a fork and bits of cloth lodged itself in the drain every week at about the same time, for about two months now.

"It's very fortunate you're here, I can never make heads or tails of any of this myself," she continued. "You can take off your glasses, you know. I don't know why you'd bother in this weather."

Cloud finished his sandwich and started on his roll. "Medical condition," he said. That part wasn't entirely a lie. "Too much light gives me headaches."

"Mm. Well, it's a good thing it's raining out then, isn't it?" she said brusquely. "When you're finished, we can get started."

It didn't take long to get the dishes cleared away, and after setting then by the sink, he had the u-bend unscrewed, this time removing a handful of yarn. He reassembled the pipe and showed it to her.

"Well, how about that," she said offhandedly, and he set about washing their dishes while she fiddled with the portable radio in the background. She was unable to get it to produce anything other than heavy static and distorted, indistinct voices neither of them could make out properly.

"Damn weather," muttered Ms. Suk, and switched it back off. "Well, I suppose we'll just have to talk to each other, won't we?" She led him upstairs and gestured to several boxes.

"I need all of this moved downstairs and out of the way. It's mostly things my son sent me from Kalm four years ago to help us get by, but it doesn't do me much good these days, and if I trip over them one more time in the dark I'm going to disown him." She brought out a mug of water and set it on a nearby table for him. "Off you go. I'll let you know what needs keeping."

In the next hour he'd come to regret the lack of a functioning radio. She spoke frequently of her own family in between sorting through dusty boxes of blankets and unused china, of how her son had gone to work for Shinra and had set aside some money for her to live, about how much nicer things had been since she had come to Midgar from western Wutai, about her sister who hadn't gotten out of the city in time, but when the conversation turned to him he found himself drawing a blank. He mostly tried to redirect it about his family as well -- Barret, coming by with Marlene to visit every other week, Nanaki's letters (he wasn't entirely sure how he was writing them), Cid visiting every now and then to remark on his bike or other things he'd built. Ms. Suk continued to probe elsewhere.

"What about you, dear? Where are you from?" she asked.

"...Nibel," he said, after a pause. She nodded thoughtfully.

"Thought you had a bit of an accent, but I couldn't quite place it. Your Standard's quite good." He took a sip of the water and unpacked another box that only looked a few years old compared to everything else. Clothes, mostly, with some photographs he set aside for an end table downstairs. "You don't see many people around from that region. Was it nice there?"

"Cold, mostly." Ha. "The weather's nicer down here."

"I'd imagine so. Your parents, were they natives?"

"I --" Something tore through him, like putting weight on a broken leg, and it opened its mouth to speak. He tore himself away from the daze in his head back to the dimly lit room and the sound of rain, suppressing a wince. "Yeah. Yeah, they were."

"Do you speak much of the language yourself?" she asked. He took deep, slow breaths, not caring for the moment about the mess of old scents that did nothing to help him orient himself. "You're a bit young to, I'd think, but if they knew some perhaps you picked it up?"

"A bit. Just phrases. Suffixes. Stuff that gets mixed in." God, how he missed that radio.

"You've got a good ear, then. Most boys your age don't even know there are other languages. I suppose they speak it up there a bit more. Pah! They did a lot of good for the world, but if there's one thing I begrudge Shinra for, I suppose it's all that culture that got washed away. Nobody's bothered to remember. When I was a girl, we used to... did you want to take off your jacket?" she suddenly interjected. "You look like you're about to have a heat stroke."

It was true. The heat of the house, combined with the work, his own body temperature, and the stress (god, the stress) had sweat running down his face. He hesitated for a moment, braced himself for the inevitable, then obliged. If it'd keep her on the subject of Wutai, maybe his head would stop pounding.

Instead she fixed her eyes on the melted-looking scar running up his left arm and disappearing into his sleeve. "Ah. Goodness, you're certainly lucky, aren't you? Or perhaps very unlucky, as it were. How old are you?" she asked, scrutinising him more carefully.

"Nibel was hit pretty hard. That's why I came to live here, after it was over." Another lie, covering up more questions he couldn't answer.

She nodded curtly. "Well, we're happy to have you, dear," she said. He felt the pit of guilt in his stomach twist a bit tighter, but at least it had the intended effect, and she switched the topic to the rebuilding effort and kept it there for the next half hour.

By the time they were finished, he had a trash bag he dumped out the back, a full bin for recycling, and a pile of old clothes. Ms. Suk scooped the clothes into an empty bag and pushed it into his arms.

He stared at it blankly for a moment. "...Should I put them in the wash?"

She "hmphed" amusedly. "Those? Of course not. What am I going to do, wear them? At my age? Something like that, it'd be awful on my figure. I'd look like porridge someone poured into a sock, if they fit at all. They're yours now."

Cloud blinked. "I can't take these," he objected.

"Why not? They look about your size, and you could do with something decent to wear that isn't worn thin. Makes you look like a hoodlum, and we both know you're certainly not too good for anything I could offer you, don't we?" she said pointedly. "Go, get them out of my sight. They're only taking up space. And here, for your trouble," she added, pressing a wad of gil into his hand. He was certain it was quite a bit more than what he had asked for. She handed him the pocket radio, too. "Something else for you to fix. It's obviously broken."

Cloud nodded numbly, struggling to come up with something to say that wouldn't sound as inadequate as "thanks".

After another quick exchange and her thrusting another package into his hands "for the road", this one containing some sort of spicy baked egg and cabbage mixture that he could never remember the name of, and he was hustled out the door into the now sunny street again, until she found something creative to stuff down her drain next week.

“Get a hat!” she yelled after him.

He flipped open his phone again, wondering if he should perhaps get a proper watch. A bit past noon, with five hours to kill. He could head out to the ruins early and see if there was anything worth salvaging, but it'd be more efficient if he just picked Tifa up himself. And besides that, it'd be easier to get where he was going without carrying a box full of scrap metal and screwdrivers and a bag of clothes all day.

There was a small crowd of patrons in the bar by the time he got back. He came in through the back, set down the crate and the clothes, put his food in the fridge, and made his way towards the front and slipped in behind the bar and began washing the dust off his hands.

"You're back early," she said over her shoulder, fetching him an apron.

"The roof thing took less time than I thought," he explained. "Tables or bar?"

"Bar. I need to help out in the kitchen," she said, and slipped into the back without another word as he set about making drinks for the patrons.

As it turned out, there wasn't much to do either way. Once the initial crowd cleared out, business slowed to a trickle, and Cloud found himself leaning against the counter with his back to the door, chewing at a hangnail on his thumb.

Tifa reemerged from the kitchen and crossed her arms. "That's bad form. What if someone walked in?"

"Nobody's gonna walk in."

"You don't know that."

"Yeah, I do. There aren't any cars coming, and the sidewalks are empty for at least a block both ways."

Tifa uncrossed her arms and sat down. The vibrations-off-the-sidewalk thing still freaked her out a bit, he suspected, but also Cloud really wanted to win his petty argument for not doing anything.

"I brought food."

"I saw. Kimchijeon?"

"Sorry?"

"The food."

"Oh." He scratched his neck. "Got some clothes, too. Dunno how well they'll fit. The shirts'll be nice, at least. See if there's anything that'll fit you in there."

"Oh!" She smiled. Most of her clothes doubled as work clothes these days and were worn threadbare much like his own, and she'd been putting off buying anything nice for herself for months. "I'll make something for you to bring over next time."

"That'd be nice."

He stood in silence for another few moments. Now that the sky had cleared up, the whole bar was comfortably warm from the sun filtering in through the windows. Tifa was prepping some sort of drink mix, occasionally glancing out the window just in case. His hair and jacket had finally dried out.

They were always busy, it seemed -- he and Tifa and Barret and the rest of the family. That was a new experience; having something to do or be done constantly. People to see, and things to fix, and a room of his own to keep tidy. Or not keep tidy at all. If he wanted he could do nothing at all, for a whole hour. Maybe two. Maybe even a day. (A day, he had thought, seemed like far too much time. It wasn't as though he disliked work.) And then, if he got lonely, he could go downstairs or open his phone and talk to someone that expected nothing of him but his company, and maybe for him to wash dishes or do laundry sometimes.

It was too perfect. He had always suspected as much, and two years ago he'd received an unpleasant reminder of how easily it could be taken away. Having something to lose, for the first time in years... that was a new experience, too. All it took was one mistake.

He thought of the people looking in through his window and wondered if he was on the verge of one of those mistakes right now.

"Hey... Tifa?"

She looked up from the bottle she'd been unscrewing. "Yeah?"

The words caught in his throat. "...If it's all the same to you, I'm gonna head out early," he managed to get out. "Let me know when you switch off, and I'll come pick you up."

"Alright," said Tifa. "Remember, later tonight."

"Later tonight."

Cloud quietly seethed at himself the entire ride back into what was left of Midgar. She'd been so patient. Coming up with the system they had, letting him live in her building, putting up with his presence. If we're having any trouble, we'll talk to each other. Even if it's stupid, she'd said.

All it would take was one mistake, though. Maybe a panic attack at a bad time. Maybe if he had one of his bad days at the same time as one of hers, and neither one of them handled it well. Maybe if Marlene saw. She wasn't there often, and she had seen quite a lot for a girl her age, but there was no point in scarring her further.

That was the point of this trip, though, wasn't it? For his own benefit. Something like that. Some things were a lot more difficult to fix than others.

He pulled his bike up alongside an old abandoned church in what used to be Sector 5, opened up Fenrir and removed the centre blade Vigilante, and proceeded into the city. Strictly speaking, civilians weren't supposed to be here, and going any further on a vehicle was impossible due to the millions of tonnes of twisted steel piled high, with human remains they hadn't been able to retrieve sealed away under concrete and melted skyscrapers. If it was decomposing at all, it was doing it very, very slowly. The earth here was still barren -- not even bacteria seemed to thrive here anymore.

Cloud had been one of the few people "allowed" to head as deep into the city as he was today. If a building collapsed on or underneath from anyone else, it would have been a problem. Cloud and Yuffie were both light enough to navigate unstable ground, and athletic enough to get through what would be completely impassable territory to anyone else.

It had to be him, visiting like this. There was nobody left that would care about that spot on what was left of the sixty-eighth floor. So every week, he came back. One day it would all crumble, but until then it was something that he considered his duty. The world had already forgotten him, so Cloud couldn’t afford to.

It was eerily silent as he climbed higher and deeper into the ruins. Occasionally he'd hear the creaking of metal, as more infrastructure crumbled in on itself, but there was nothing living here for hundreds of miles. The silence set him on edge, and he switched on the radio, which now seemed to be working properly. He'd try to get her to take it back later, if he could convince her to.

Cloud delicately hopped off the top of the six storey building he'd scaled and landed lightly on the wreckage of a train below it. The tracks were mangled and the supports keeping them up had collapsed years ago, but he'd found one could still mostly follow them in towards the centre of the city. Every now and then, he thought he recognised a building. It was impossible to tell anymore. Sector 6 looked just as bad as everything else.

Eventually he reached something that did look familiar -- a pile of shattered glass that had once been part of the neon sign next to it: Shinra Electric Power Company. He made sure his gloves were on properly, bent his knees, and took another leap, managing to get a handhold on the ledge of the second storey. The stairs were blocked on many floors due to collapse, and some passages he'd discovered the last time around had since collapsed in on themselves, so he'd opted to cut his way straight through the ceiling rather than bother shifting rubble. It was faster that way, and at the very least if the building collapsed in on itself anyway he'd already have his sword out to cut himself free before he was crushed.

On the sixtieth floor, the trumpet solo the radio had been broadcasting was suddenly replaced with heavy static again. He stopped to retune it, but it only got louder. He was surprised it had gotten reception this far out at all, and clipped it onto his back pocket again. Perhaps the signal would sharpen if he made it back outside at the top.

On the sixty-first floor, the signal did sharpen, but the jazz solo did not resume. The indistinct voices he had heard before became slightly clearer, but no more intelligible. Cloud saw something move out of the corner of his eye.

His sword had already been out, but now he switched it to its wider stance with a quick flick of his wrist and held it at the ready. Something else moved, and he whipped around to face it.

They were all around him now, and no longer at the periphery of his vision. Shapes he couldn't make out, as though his eyes didn't quite focus on them. The shadows outside his window were here now, with no glass to view them through. He took a step back, and they seemed to move with him. He could hear the distorted noises more clearly now, and it was no longer coming from the radio. They had no scent.

He wanted to get away, to attack, to yell at the shapes, anything, but suddenly his thoughts felt muddy and confused, and his sword clattered to the ground as his hand didn't quite want to grip it properly anymore. The shapes moved faster and they seemed to twist the world around him as they moved, as though they were taking the world and dragging it with them, like ink splashed through water. The noise was deafening and overwhelming, and the air felt thick.

Cloud Strife abruptly stopped thinking.

It was a curious sensation, if it could be called a sensation at all, given he couldn't process it. Every thought he'd had was snuffed out as quickly as it came, and nothing else followed them up. He simply existed, mind inert, his sword still lying at his feet. If the shapes were still there, he wouldn't have known, or cared.

He stood there, completely motionless, scarcely breathing. He took a step forward, then another. He began to walk, at first aimlessly, and then with purpose. He went to the sixty-second floor, and then the sixty third. At the sixty fourth floor, he stood in the centre again, this time for longer. The world seemed static at times, and spun around him at others. His breathing came in odd spurts, as though his lungs simply stopped working on and off.

His phone rang.

Cloud coughed, stumbled forward onto his stomach, and cried out, his sunglasses clattering off his face.

He didn't answer it right away, nor did he pick up on the second or third calls, and simply lay there, trying to pretend he wasn't shaking slightly. The radio had moved onto another song more prominently featuring a saxophone. He felt sick and disoriented.

He put his glasses back on, went back downstairs, collected his sword, and began descending Shinra Tower, frequently stealing glances over his shoulder. He saw nothing but rubble.

He walked back to Fenrir, replaced his sword in his harness, rather than inside his bike, and drove back into Edge, trying to sort out his thoughts. His head throbbed.

He remembered very clearly walking up the stairs. The motion, the sounds of his footsteps, the careful observation of his surroundings and the fixed staring at nothing with his eyes unfocused. But there was a strange period of nothing that accompanied all of it. He hadn't thought anything, been aware of anything, felt anything the entire time. It was as though a portion of his life had simply been replaced with images shot from a camera.

There had been something in that tower with him. He was certain of it, though he didn't know how. He wasn't harmed, as far as he could tell, apart from a scuff on his cheek that would already be healed by the time he got home. It hadn't felt like anything he'd experienced before, even with Sephiroth. That was the worst part of it all, he thought. If it was related to him, he'd at least know how to deal with it. Sephiroth was dead. Explicitly dead, killed twice over. The first time had been fairly thorough, he'd thought, until it had turned out the dead part of him needed killing again, two years after that. None of it had made much sense to any of them, but that had destroyed him for good. He had at least sensed that.

A sharp stab of pain in his head brought him back to the present. Sephiroth might have been dead, but the genetic tampering was still irreversible. He'd have to deal with it sooner rather than later.

When he got back home, Tifa was standing there looking concerned, which was almost worse than looking angry. "You didn't answer the phone. What happened?"

"...Not really feeling well," he supplied lamely. "We'll go back out there some other time."

"Jenova?" she asked, to which he gave a small nod. Whether or not it was the problem before, it was certainly the problem right now.

"If you need me to find someone to cover for you, you'll have to let me know now. If you’re not feeling up to it I can find someone to fill in." She looked over her shoulder at the clock. It was nearly eight. “Do you need me to sit with you for a bit, or…?”

He waved her off. "No, I can still help. Just gotta deal with this real quick."

"You're sure?"

"Yes. S'cuse me." He hurried up the stairs to Tifa's room and closed the door. She'd almost certainly seen his sword out of its storage and on his back.

He removed his boots, his harness, and his gloves, and sat in the middle of her bed with his legs crossed. He took a deep breath and calmed himself, and quietly found the source of his headache and dove into it.

This "meditation" was something he did every day, as a means of keeping himself in check. Jenova would always be a part of him, whether it was in his head or his DNA, so Cloud had given up suppressing it. In his case it was a temporary measure at best. Instead he had opened himself to it, trying to supplant it and incorporate it into himself, to take all that deliberate gnawing at his psyche and make it his own. Progress had been slow but steady, although not without its drawbacks. The benefits far outweighed them, as far as he was concerned. And he'd learned quite a bit more about Sephiroth, and himself perhaps, than he'd intended to. Some things he'd shown to his family. Others, he'd been afraid to acknowledge, even though he knew he'd have to sooner or later.

Usually it was something he did before bed. Clearly that wasn't an option today.

Half an hour later, he emerged, feeling a bit odd as he usually did after it was done. He glanced around the room and noted that there hadn't been any fallout from the process this time. If he were in a better mood and didn't have a dinner shift to attend to, he might've taken that as a sign to experiment with some of the more mundane things he'd uncovered. He slid off the bed and put his boots back on.

As he headed to the door, he paused and glanced under the bed, at the box he knew was hidden there, and the odd white materia kept stored in it. Perhaps it would help if he...

Best not to, he thought, and closed the door.

Chapter Text

 

Cloud went through the dinner service in a kind of stupor. When they closed the kitchen at 11, he was too disoriented by the events of the day to properly feel tired. He hadn't realised he'd been sweeping around the same table for the last fifteen minutes until Tifa tapped him on the shoulder and told him he could go to bed if he liked. He spent most of his time looking over his shoulder, catching things flitting from surfaces out of the corner of his eye. He had a nasty feeling there probably wasn't anything there, at least not now. He expected to see them everywhere and now they were everywhere. They wanted in. They wanted in, and they were patient and he would slip up eventually. 

At 6:09 am, he was roused from his sleep by a noise. He rolled over and turned his back to the window, keeping his eyes firmly shut until he drifted back to sleep. 

 


 

Contrary to what Barret thought, Tifa did not spend every moment of her day worrying about Cloud. That wasn't to say she didn't spend every moment of her day worrying. Most of it she could handle --there was a bar to run, bills to pay, and former Turks to throw off her property. Most of it was something she was used to by now, and was even easier than it had been before now that she was no longer checking for wiretaps and EM sweeps every four hours to hide the terrorist organisation cloistered away in her basement. Just a nice, legitimate business that she didn't have to launder money for or smuggle explosives into for a change. Other things, she couldn't fix -- Nibelheim, or worse things besides. There was plenty of worry to go around.

One of her more recent worries was the rebuilding effort -- she was being called in to help with aid -- a quick supply run to what used to be the cities up north. The bar was important, but so was this. As of two years ago, she'd started specifically requesting any and all volunteer jobs that had room for another person on them be given to her. It was the least she could do, considering. 

She didn't start worrying about Cloud until he retreated back into his room after filling his last appointment, closed business for any more, and did not emerge the next day. Tifa waited for a few hours or so, in case he had decided to sleep in (unlikely, but one could always hope), then went out back to check for his sword. As she had feared, he had removed it from his bike and likely had it on him constantly again.

She endured another half hour of prep work for when the bar opened at lunch, then knocked on his door. "It's me. Can I come in?" 

"Close the door behind you," came the muffled response. Tifa quietly let herself in to avoid startling him, then shut the door and turned around. 

She was no stranger to panic attacks -- not her own, and certainly not Cloud's. But this time seemed different: normally, Cloud would switch off the artificial lights in the room but open a window and sit in front of it on a blanket, staring out of it. She'd sit next to him for a while if they were both up to it, and wait it out. There were probably better methods, but that's what he seemed to prefer the most. 

Cloud was indeed sitting in front of the window staring intently at it, but there were papers taped over it, muting the early morning sun and leaving the room poorly lit. His sword lay on his lap, his fingers clenched tightly around the hilt. Tifa sat down next to him, on the side that didn't have the blade pointing towards her.

"...Bad day," he said after a moment of glancing between her and the window, by way of explanation. She nodded uneasily. 

"...Do you want me to call --"

"No," he interrupted. "I think she's on her way anyway, right?" Tifa didn't answer. "You can go if you like. I'll be fine, I promise."

"Show me you've got your phone on you," Tifa said, crossing her arms. Cloud reached into his pocket and held it up for her to see without taking his eyes off the window.

"And you're going to use it?" she pressed. Cloud just looked at her wearily. 

"Are you going to use it?" she repeated, this time sounding a bit irritated. When it came to Cloud, pride and shame seemed to be one and the same for him as far as she was concerned. "I'm going to call you at ten. Will you answer it?"

"Yes. Phone call at ten." He tore his eyes away from the window, properly this time, and focused them on her. She could see bags forming underneath them. "You had stuff to do, and we planned for it, right?"

They had. Cloud did not handle being alone well anymore, among other things, so they had worked out a system. But still...

"If you need to, call me," she relented. "Okay? Even if it's to ask me how to set the clock on the oven."

"I thought I wasn't allowed --" 

"If you really need to set the clock on the oven, then call me."

"Alright."

She gave his hand a quick squeeze, and he squeezed back so hard she thought he might've broken a finger, but at least it was something. 

"You know..." she began carefully, "if there's something bothering you --"

"There's not," Cloud said quickly. Tifa glanced between him and his sword looking unamused. They were both silent for a moment. 

"...I've been seeing things," he finally admitted. Tifa kept her expression neutral, even though Cloud could probably smell the quick thrill of fear that went through her. 

"What kinds of things?" she asked evenly. If they had learned anything from the last few times, it was that if Cloud was seeing something it was only because, at the risk of it being tautological, the rest of them simply couldn't. The fact that a lot of it was in his head didn't make it any less real. Yet, anyway. He was rather like an anxious, well-armed canary in a coal mine. 

"Just... I dunno. Things."

"'Things'?"

Cloud squirmed a bit, clearly uncomfortable. "They don't look like anything. It could probably just be floaters." He curled and uncurled his fingers from the hilt of his swords, the way she would do sometimes with her hands, a habit he had picked up (mimicked?) from her. Wanting to fight an enemy that wasn't there, in the vain hope that one could pound whatever the issue was into submission. 

"...Sometimes, I'll look at a window or a mirror really quick, and I'll think I see something reflected in it," he said hesitantly. "But then there's nothing there. I've -- I've thought about moving the furniture, so it looks less like people. If that's okay." 

"As long as you don't block the doorways," she replied. He still had not let go of her hand. 

"Is She --"

"I haven't felt a pull or anything," he quickly amended. "And if I do, I'll let you know."

Would you? she thought to herself, looking at the papers on the windows. Then again, would she tell Cloud if it had been her? She couldn't be sure that she would.

"Alright." She stood up. "I trust you. Just don't hurt yourself okay?"

"I'll be fine," he said, quickly turning his gaze back to the window. "Call at ten o'clock. See you in ten days."

"See you in ten days," she said, and left, closing the door behind her again.

 


 

Cloud stared at the door for a moment after she left, then turned his attention back to the window. There hadn't been anything unusual since that morning. No noises, no shadows, no heaviness in his limbs. Perhaps if he just kept watch, they wouldn't show up again. Perhaps if he didn't look at them they wouldn't be there. He didn't know which set of rules to follow, which only made him more anxious. 

Perhaps he was just going stir crazy from being confined to one place for two days.

He let himself into Tifa's room again and closed the door to that. For good measure, he drew the curtains across the window anyway. Just in case. 

He had realised a while ago it was always better to do this in Tifa's room. It made reaching the right state of mind more difficult, but her familiar scent made things easier to stop in case it didn't work out properly. He could probably go in deeper in his own room, with his own scent, but that made coming back a lot harder too. 

Maybe I can just zone out through everything for the next ten days, he thought. He made a good effort for about ten minutes, but the fact that there was nothing going on downstairs actually distracted him from being able to focus on anything, let alone functions in his brain he still had a very poor handle on. He got back up and went downstairs. 

It was quiet. The bar hadn't opened yet, and the rest of the staff wasn't there either. He sat down on the couch and began to listen for anyone coming. The lights hummed in the ceiling. A few ice cubes settled as the ones under them melted. Next door, someone's dog paced across a hardwood floor in anticipation. 

He felt the panic start to set in about two minutes later, when the dog and its presumed owner left for a walk. The bar was absolutely empty, and would remain so for a while. There was nobody here. No one knows you're here. No one --

He felt himself reaching for his phone, then scolded himself for it. It would probably only be an hour. Toddlers could wait by themselves longer than that. 

After another fifteen minutes, Cloud found himself resentfully conceding that said toddlers had better resolve than he did, and walked back upstairs to his room. Sleep. If he just slept through as much of this as possible, he wouldn't even know he was alone.

And besides the point, he was exhausted. Sleeping had been a privilege, as he'd been made aware of a long time ago. Cloud thought he'd be sick of sleeping by now, but the fact that it wasn't on anyone's schedule but his own anymore made it significantly more appealing. 

He stole a pillow from Tifa's room anyway before going back to his own and buried his face in it. It was gonna be a long ten days.

 


 

Tifa leaned back into the window of the airship she was on as the icy wind stung her face. Rebuilding here had been one of the bigger challenges they'd faced. The remote location, coupled with the harsh weather, made it hard to get both people and supplies up this far, and people were one of the few commodities that were even lower than supplies. Most human life in the northernmost continent had been wiped out, and what few survivors there were had fled the area until the carnage had died down. They had considered leaving it uninhabited (after all, it wasn't as though there was suddenly a space issue), but she supposed Barret had been right: people wouldn't want to leave their homes, no matter how bad they got. 

Its isolation had given it one advantage: there had only been two cases of geostigma in the entire area, and only a handful more of more mundane diseases. If anything like it ever popped up again, it would be good to have a haven to fall back to.

Tifa hoped it wouldn't. She knew she wouldn't be able to go through all that a second time, and she wasn't sure if she'd have let anyone else do it either. 

Someone cleared their throat behind her. "Miss Lockhart?" It was one of the other volunteers, looking at her expectantly. 

She closed the window and adjusted the collar of her coat. "We're landing soon?" she asked, and the man nodded. 

"Good. It's a six hour hike to the settlement. The sooner we get going, the better." She hefted her bag over her shoulder and a first aid kit over the other.

Now that they were on the ground, the air didn't have the bite of windchill to it. It wasn't as bitterly cold as it could have been, considering it was summer, which made it the ideal time to set up as much as they could before the area was too closed off by the elements. It would also be more difficult to get birds willing to cooperate the colder it got.

They unloaded the chocobos from the airship as well, though most of the volunteers and staff would be walking. The supplies were the first priority, and they could carry a lot more if unencumbered by a rider. It didn't take long to get everything packed up, and then they headed out into the wilderness, with Tifa at the front. 

Every now and then they found the strewn remains of a house. Bones, sometimes animal, sometimes human, picked clean by scavengers long ago. As they pressed further into the mountains, they found more intact remains, preserved by the cold and a lack of bacteria to take care of them over time, not unlike Midgar. The most they could do was incinerate the bodies using magic. It seemed disrespectful, but they couldn't afford to waste fuel that was meant for the settlement, and couldn't carry every body they found back with them with their limited personnel and time. It would have to do. It was better than leaving them in the ice. 

Tifa clutched the little green materia tightly (fire had not been one of the spells she had chosen to master), restoring the warmth to her hands, then passed it to the woman behind her leading one of their birds. Nobody spoke much. Most of the people here either had once lived here, or knew someone that had. Tifa herself had seen much of the carnage firsthand -- Sephiroth had been a force to contend with. It seemed as though they had been running from him as much as they had been pursuing him at times. 

Sephiroth... when Cloud had first recounted some of "his" escapades in Soldier, he had mentioned his strength and skill and ability with almost as much reverence as he had contempt. She hadn't quite understood it until she saw it for herself, though. She had supposed he was simply a very powerful mage (which he had been), or unnaturally strong (which he had been). But it became quite clear that there was a lot more to Soldier than just performance enhancements. 

She "knew" that, of course -- she knew about Jenova, had heard the stories about the dodging of bullets and the surviving broken necks: it had been another thing entirely to see it; to know for certain that what they were fighting was utterly inhuman. To see things done that must have been magic, but couldn't possibly have been, because there was no magic to do the sort of things he did. 

It was impossible. All of it was, by definition. Magic had rules. Things it could and couldn't do. It was one of the first things anyone learned about it in school -- magic was the rules that let you use other rules to your advantage. 

It shouldn't bother her as much as it did, with all the things they'd seen. She tried to think about something else, and looked around her environment. Snow. Rocks. Icicle. Snow. A burning chunk of someone's arm. Moss. More snow. 

She quietly asked for the materia again when it had made it all the way down the line to anyone that didn't know enough magic to cast it themselves. It was going to be a long hike. 

By the time they got to what could generously be called a "town", Tifa was in a lot better condition than the rest of her group -- growing up in Nibelheim and climbing mountains for most of her life (and for some years, for a living) had acclimatised her to the conditions they had faced, and she was one of three people in any state to unpack anything as soon as they arrived without a rest first. A few representatives from the WRO spent several minutes panting before beginning to assemble the large receiver tower they had brought in pieces with them. The sooner they established connections, the easier it would be to coordinate future endeavours. This area was the last to be added to the grid, due to the remote location and the need to hike out on foot for the time being. 

Tifa, meanwhile, began doling out the other supplies they had brought with them -- mostly batteries and dried fruit. There were enough animals nearby for things like fur and meat, but power and fresh produce was harder to come by. 

One of the men lingered nearby her table and seemed to be waiting until everyone else had left. She glanced at him occasionally, doing her best not to stare back. After another ten minutes when the crowd had thinned out, he spoke. 

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" he said. Tifa actually looked at him properly then. He seemed too old to be coming onto her (though one never did know), and the question was phrased with a certain amount of sincerity. 

"...I don't think so. Do you own the cabin on the outskirts?" she guessed. They'd spent three days in that cabin waiting for a storm to pass, but that had been years ago. 

The man shook his head. "No, I live here. But I know I've seen you somewhere."

Tifa shrugged, keeping her tone as professional as possible. "Just one of those faces, maybe. It's a bartender thing, I guess."

That seemed to spark something in the man. "Yes, that's it! You were on the news two years ago. Something about a --"

The colour drained from Tifa's face. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"That girl in Edge, that's you isn't it? They said you were a hero. Gave some big speech over you and that nasty pandemic business, didn't they?" he continued cordially, oblivious to her discomfort. 

"Oh. Yes, that. No, just a look-alike. Excuse me," she said, and retreated into the crowd to find something else to look busy doing, leaving the man standing there looking bemused.

Of course. Of course there had been fucking cameras there, and of course anyone with a working screen had seen it. She'd hoped no one would remember, but obviously someone did. Now she could hope he didn't say anything to anyone else. 

Her thoughts inevitably drifted back to the stigma after that. It was still poorly-understood what it was -- something auto-immune, she'd heard. She wasn't sure how true it was. The contagion seemed to spread regardless of how well they had quarantined it, and there were theories it had been spread directly through the Lifestream, which had become tainted as well -- apparently its cells weren't the only part of it that had been infectious. That would be the sort of thing Sephiroth would do, because by all rights it made no sense and was just another perversion of the rules of how everything should work.

Either they didn't teach that sort of thing in whatever school Sephiroth had gone to, or he knew and simply didn't care. She had watched him move through the air with nothing but force of will; pass through walls as though they weren't there at all; rend buildings to pieces without so much as lifting a hand; create spaces inside spaces that might not have been there at all. It was as though he simply ignored the world around him and what it should be and its rules, because no one had told him he couldn't.

It was completely alien. Which was fitting, all things considered, and for a while that was the easiest way to think about it. Weird alien stuff from a weird alien guy. 

Then Cloud had done it too -- understood the rules that weren't rules, and...

He wasn't human, they knew. Not biologically, anyway. It was easy enough to pretend he was most days, but sometimes he would move in a way he shouldn't, or something else would, or...

Or whatever had happened during Meteorfall. Tifa didn't understand it, and if Cloud himself did he wasn't telling. 

"Miss Lockhart." Thank god, a distraction. Tifa turned around. Shera waved at her.

"Got a job for you," she continued. "Scouting."

Tifa approached her and lowered her voice. "Scouting? I thought we had this area mapped."

"We do. The important parts, anyway," she explained. "It's not where we're concerned with, it's what. There's a lot of small caves a bit further up north. Now that there's more raw Lifestream in the atmosphere than there was, we think some of the local wildlife might have started moving closer."

Well, that was another reason she'd been assigned to this job specifically, she supposed. Mountaineering was already a pretty valuable skill, but there weren't a lot of mountaineeers that could also handle "local wildlife". The great glaciers has small pockets of dragon populations sprinkled throughout the area, among other things. 

"Don't be gone too long." Shera handed her a small bag. Tracking tags, in case she found a nesting female, the gods forbid. "If you're more than twelve hours we're sending a rescue party after you."

The minute Tifa was out of sight of the settlement she felt her shoulders unknot. This was something she could handle -- a big cave with a bunch of monsters in it. It was almost like old times. Those few brief weeks had probably been the happiest in her life in a long time, even amid the near-death experiences and the recent sting of loss. The sense of accomplishment one got from puling themselves up a sheer cliff-face, the thrill of a fight alongside that growing family they had built with each other, the little discoveries of bits of ruins left over from the Ancients. 

There seemed to be a lot of them in this area, she mused as she began to make her way across a particularly narrow crevasse by bracing her weight against the wall above it. Never anything too intact -- bits of old armour, sometimes the remains of weapons, presumably from the ensuing fight against Jenova. She wondered how long they had lasted -- if they'd been wiped out in a matter of days, or had slowly been worn away over a few decades or even centuries.

Tifa carefully slid down the side of the cliff she found at the end of it, kicking off the wall at the end to land lightly on her feet. Cloud or Yuffie would have probably just jumped straight off, but she was no slouch either (and also had a better sense of self-preservation than the both of them combined, in all honesty).

There was a huge structure in the distance -- a natural ridge that seemed sunk into the ice as much as it jutted over the horizon. No one had gone there -- there was little point given the arctic temperatures and the long hike over. It was just far enough out of her way to where she probably wouldn't be able to take a look, either. Perhaps someday, though...

There were rumours the lost capital of the Ancients was this far up north. Who knew, maybe she'd finally discover it and be famous for something that wasn't awful and upsetting.

Further around the edge of the cliff she'd come down from, she found an entrance to the cave system. A few gremlins were lurking around the entrace, she'd have to deal with those first, and that probably meant the cave was already teeming with them.

Never mind dragons, this would be what she'd have to deal with for the next few hours. 

Tifa sighed, worked out the last few kinks in her neck, and adjusted her gloves. It was gonna be a long ten days. 

 


 

Cloud had one of his bad days then.

It was something that would never quite go away, he had realised. He wasn't really sure why, and didn't care for the idea of seeing a doctor to find out. It could have been Jenova, or the tests, or leftover brain damage, or just something psychological, or a whole host of other things. Whatever caused it, it was another thing he just had to deal with, and another reason they had their system. 

By the time he woke up, there wasn't a Cloud. All the pieces that made him up had fallen apart or crumbled away in a wash of deafening voices, not all of which were his, and not all of which were Jenova. Bits of noise that had been him once drifted away, each one of them not large enough or loud enough in their own right to properly be a person.

There was a noise. A real one, that existed. Something heard it, and realised it had perceived something else different from itself, and realised that it was itself. It clung to that idea, which was all it could really do: I

There were more bits, then, after it realised that it wanted to be, and would continue being. I am. It was all he could do to latch onto the concept, because that was all he was -- I am

More voices buffeted him and continued tearing at I am, making him waver, the I am faltering before strengthening itself again. Something touched him (real?) and pulled him, and his thoughts weren't yet strong enough to focus on it. They continued focusing on themselves, and suddenly I am was a self-evident, obvious thing.

Then he realised, as much as he could "realise" at that moment, that something was horribly, terribly wrong. That he was hurting very badly, or was about to. The fear sharpened his thoughts, and he became acutely aware of the something touching him. It was a hand, holding his and giving it a gentle squeeze. 

That didn't make sense, he thought, and the thoughts came easier that time, which they had obviously been doing the whole time, and he was Cloud, and something was wrong... but that didn't make sense, because he was here. Maybe nothing was wrong after all. 

Since he existed, then he must be able to move, which he did then. The hand was still there touching his, which was nice, and there was a noise too -- the same one he had heard and recognised. Talking. It was someone, and they were talking, at him... to him? His thoughts briefly fogged over again, and he looked at the source in confusion. 

It snapped into place then, more or less. He was Cloud, and nothing was wrong. There was warm air filtering in through the window, and someone was holding his hand and sitting next to him, and talking about...

"...up and left me there! What a dick! If you hadn't come and picked me up I'd probably have been there for hours or --" The voice stopped, as though it had noticed something. 

Cloud steadied himself against the other voices and turned to look at where it was coming from. "Jessie?"

Jessie smiled. "Hey, there you are! 'Bout time."

Cloud nodded mutely. At some point she appeared to have led him downstairs and onto the couch in the living area in the back. He stared at the floor and continued lying against Jessie, waiting for the fog to clear. She was saying words, but his brain wouldn't quite parse them properly, and his thoughts wouldn't line up the way they were supposed to in order to make many of his own. It was nice to just be for a while, though.

She continued to talk. About him, maybe? And someone else. Three someones. And a fourth? No, that was her too. Only lost, because of another someone, that said something wrong. His head felt heavy and talking seemed too complicated. So were the directions, which Jessie wasn't supposed to get because he should have been here? No, someone else. 

It must have been another hour or so before the fog cleared from his head enough to make requests from his mouth. "How long was I out?"

She paused, checking the clock. "'Bout three hours, give or take. I had to spend a while poking you to until you twitched to make sure you didn't fall down the stairs if I went to the trouble of getting you out of bed, and even after that you didn't really respond to anything," she explained. 

He grimaced. Four hours was a marked improvement over the two days it had taken him three months ago. He wished he felt happier about it. 

"But, hey," she continued, directing his attention to an end table she had pulled up in front of them, "I made us lunch." Chopped up fruit in a bowl and some cheese. Like himself, Jessie couldn't cook much either, but at least she wasn't barred from the kitchen.

She then scooted away from him and hauled a large box up onto the couch between them. "Found this just lying on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere," she said, and opened the box, displaying the remains of an old sweeper bot. Before Shinra had collapsed, taking most of the government down with it, they'd been used to prevent unauthorised travel in and out of the city, but now that Shinra's servers were no longer active they sat around waiting for orders that never came until they broke down on their own. 

Cloud immediately cheered up. "Wait wait wait, lemme --" he blurted, before disappearing out the back door. A moment later he came back with an old broken down desktop computer he'd smuggled out of an old military base the week prior and set it on the floor. The screen was miraculously still intact. Jessie squealed in delight. 

They didn't really have the sort of plugs either one would use, so Cloud was forced to jab his thumb into where the cord would have been and continuously run a lightning spell through it while Jessie carefully unloaded the magazine from the sweeper. The power surged and cut out intermittently, but it was better than nothing. Within a few minutes, they had switched off, Cloud dismantling the remains of the robot to look at what was left of the engine, and Jessie excitedly working her way through the state-of-the-art command prompt with one hand and keeping the power supply going with the other (lightning was really the only spell she had bothered mastering). 

Jessie would handle the software. Cloud would deal with the hardware. They had a good arrangement. 

So, it had been Jessie's turn this week. And Yuffie a week before that, and then Tifa, and then Barret. So next week it would be Barret again. Probably. 

Their system was something Tifa had come up with after he slipped into his third vegetative state after Meteorfall and they realised this wasn't going to stop. Cloud needed more or less constant watching, for a variety of reasons. There was always the risk of him mentally shutting down and starving to death in his own bed, of course. But his anxiety had returned with a vengeance after his memory had been sorted out, and the blanks in it were filled in, to the point where it was unmanageable at times. The thought of isolation, for any reason at all, was unbearable. It was more than dislike -- it was a full-blown phobia, and as much as he knew it was completely idiotic and juvenile and so, so stupid and pathetic to wind up sobbing, backed up into a corner to fight off a threat that wasn't there, it didn't take more than an hour or two before the first nagging sensations of terror began to set it. There were other problems, too -- his brain not storing memories properly at times, things that triggered panic attacks that Cloud couldn't understand why, and the very real threat of the entity still sitting at the edge of his consciousness that he had to focus on browbeating into submission once every few hours. 

Barret kept insisting he see a doctor, but the thought of seeing another doctor was one of the only things that scared him more than being alone. Or maybe that was the reason why in the first place. Never again, he'd sworn, and he'd meant it, even if it killed him.

He loved the company, of course. It was everything he'd never even hoped to have in a million years. But he hated the reasons behind it. There was another fear, behind all the rest of them, that if they had the choice to they'd never come back.

That was probably the only reason Tifa even let him live with her for free. Because he was a danger to himself and everyone around him. It couldn't possibly be enjoyable, putting up with him the way she did. No small wonder no one else could before.

So, his family worked in shifts, making sure he got out of bed, or at least was awake and simply choosing not to. Making sure he remembered that he was supposed to be somewhere, and when he was supposed to be there. Making sure he didn't go outside without his sunglasses on. Making sure he wasn't alone.

Weeks with Jessie were actually a bit easier, in that regard. She was almost as much of a mess as he was. It was a bit ironic that they had someone as jumpy as her building their bombs at one point.

Yeah, but Jessie has her own place, he thought bitterly. You live off Tifa's charity. Jessie doesn't have nightmares about --

"You okay?" asked Jessie. "You've been kinda quiet. We don't have to do this now."

"...No, I'm fine," he said. "Do you think we could move this, though? Don't wanna get grease all over the rug."

It took them a few minutes to get everything, lunch included, packed up and moved upstairs, before they went back to taking their finds apart, metaphorically in Jessie's case, literally in Cloud's. 

"Anything interesting on there?" he asked, wiping his hands off on his pants before reaching for a piece of cheese. 

"Nothing we didn't already know," she replied, looking up from the lines of green text on the black screen and scooting the plate closer to him. "But this was last updated right before Sephiroth cacked the president, so it's before they patched that bug where it doesn't check for signatures of incoming communication requests while you're scanning for unauthorised communication requests. I've always wanted to poke around with that one a bit, just for its own sake." Cloud pushed the plate back towards her, and she took another slice of cheese for herself. "The keyboard's a little water damaged, too, and I keep getting bad sector errors. Did you leave this thing in the rain yesterday?"

"A little, yeah. Is that bad?"

"You can't leave computers outside, Cloud! They're meant for indoor use in labs and fancy military guy stuff. I waterproofed mine for Avalanche but that's not industry standard."

He shrugged. "Nothing's industry standard anymore, technically." He stuffed a handful of berries into his mouth and turned back to his dismantled robot. "The mako drive on this thing overheated and melted most of the moving parts together," he said, picking up the ungainly chunk of metal that used to be the engine and giving it a firm shake to demonstrate. "Not that it'd matter anymore. The lock on the maintenance panel was still working, actually. Must've been a backup battery in there. I don't have the code for it or anything so I just had to rub a magnet against it for a while." He gestured to the chunk of neodymium he kept in an old sock he'd been using. 

Jessie sniffed. "Can you keep that away from the computer, then? And stop picking out all the blueberries like an infant-baby?"

Cloud opened his mouth to firmly refuse and tell Jessie exactly what hole she could put her pineapple chunks in before a noise in the kitchen took the words from his mouth. It seemed like movement. 

"...Did you hear that?"

Jessie stared at him for a moment. "Uh... no. Sorry."

Normally he would have left it at that -- there were plenty of noises he noticed that most people that weren't Nanaki didn't. Lately, however...

"Be right back." He got to his feet and quietly walked to the kitchen, pacing himself to make it sound as though he hadn't heard anything, the electricity he'd been using earlier now humming at his fingertips in deadlier amounts.

He stepped around the corner, looking around. The kitchen appeared empty. 

No, not empty. Something else moved. Maybe a floater across his eye. Maybe not. Cloud took another couple steps forward, and the noise started up again.

He tensed up. They had followed him from the tower. They must have. They couldn't get inside, could they? He hadn't let them inside. He couldn't quite see them, but they were inside now.

"Jessie?" he called out in warning. That was all he got out. If she replied, he wouldn't have heard, as his thoughts were abruptly snuffed out again. 

It was different this time -- more inconsistent. A few moments later, he was suddenly treated to the shock of having a functioning mind and realising that he couldn't move all at once before it drowned him out again. Brief periods of awareness seemed to come in waves that he had no control over, no matter how much he struggled. He tried to leave, but his legs didn't seem to work, and half the time he couldn't seem to feel them at all. Every muscle was locked up, and in the brief flashes he was able to feel anything, he felt a sharp, stabbing pain in his chest. The shapes whirled around them, and he was struck with how much he hated looking at them. Everything felt far away, as though he was being pulled somewhere. Before it could, something else pulled him away, with sharper claws, and it seemed as though he were falling. Help was the last coherent thought he managed to have, as the claws loosened and he slipped under.

 


 

"Jessie?" Cloud's voice echoed down the hall, a note of alarm in his voice. Jessie looked up from her computer. 

"Yeah?"

No response. 

"Do they need me on tables already? Isn't it a little early for that?"

Silence. 

"Cloud, Tifa called! She's pregnant and Red's the father!"

Nothing. Jessie snatched up an electric drill from Cloud's tool kit and ran into the kitchen.

Cloud was standing there, quite alone, staring at a spot under the sink. She lowered the drill in confusion. "What, what is it?" She looked under the sink. It was empty, and she turned back to Cloud. "What are you... looking..."

His jaw was set, but his eyes were unfocused. His face was ashen and his lips had acquired a blue tint. He had stopped breathing. 

"Cloud?!" She slapped him then, uncertain of what else to do. It always worked in the movies, didn't it? 

Cloud didn't start breathing again, but that was enough to unbalance him and cause him to topple to the floor with a dull thud. She rolled him over, her panic growing, and fumbled for her cell phone as his eyes rolled back and he passed out.

Before she could finish dialing, he started breathing again.

 


 

Cloud stood on the edge of the crater's lip, staring over it, hefting the Buster Sword in his hand. His foot shifted, and a pebble dislodged and skipped down the walls of the cliff. The wind howled, drowning out the staccato tapping after a few moments, and the cold bit right into him through his jacket. Barret came up behind him. 

"You ain't done it yet?" he said, clearly wanting to be on his way. 

Cloud shook his head. "It's dumb. I know it's dumb. It's just --"

"'Course it's dumb. Of all the stupid-ass things you've done, you standin' here for ten minutes and not moving is the dumbest." Cloud said nothing. "What are you gonna do with that thing, anyway? That's what he wanted. Jackass is dead. You gonna keep doing what he wants? Who'd it be for?"

Cloud didn't turn around. "...I dreamt about it for years. It was everything I wanted. It feels like... if I did, it'd all be for nothing. Wouldn't it?"

Barret snorted. "You could do ten times as good as anything they wanted you for. Wasn't that the whole point? This was your own damn idea."

"I guess so." He shifted on the balls of his feet. 

"You guess?"

"...No. I'm right. That's why this was a good idea. I thought of it." Barret rolled his eyes, but Cloud thought he saw him smile a bit. 

Cloud took about ten steps back, judged the weight, then took a running start and hurled the Buster Sword off Gaea's Cliff with a yell.

They watched it clatter off the rocks, making a racket all the way down, before it bounced out of even Cloud's sight. For a split second, Cloud had the urge to jump down after it and retrieve it. He'd have to fix that. Maybe make his own sword. One that was even better than that one. 

"Let's get back to the ship. Marlene's probably getting bored," he said, turning back to Barret, but Barret wasn't there.

There was nothing here with him. He could hear wind, louder than ever, but the air was still around him. Things were lurking behind the wind. They reached for him, gesturing for him to come closer, and he reached back, but the living room floor was in the way. 

Cloud snapped awake to see Jessie peering over him, looking shaken, rocking herself nervously. A couple of the new wait staff watched from the doorway.

"...Are you okay?" she asked hesitantly.

"Yeah. Fine," he grunted. The room spun around him, and he shut his eyes to avoid being sick all over her leg. "Must've tripped."

"You... you weren't breathing." Well, so much for that lie. 

"I choked when I tripped," he supplied. 

"That's not funny, Cloud."

"It's what happened."

"...Well, I'm covering your shift. We already decided," she said slowly. "Go lie down somewhere."

Cloud sat straight up. "You can't do that."

Jessie looked away and took a deep breath. "It was Jensen's idea. I had to have her help me carry you."

Jensen scowled and retreated back out to the dining room. Jessie did not look at Cloud's face. "You stopped breathing. If it were anyone else I'd say you should probably see a..." she stopped short at his glare. "I said if it were anyone else!"

"I'm not gonna lie down, because I feel fine," said Cloud, feeling even worse as he stood up. "I'm gonna be sitting in the dining room, and if you guys need me then I'll be right there ready to say I told you so." He began to head back through the doorway.

"Glasses," Jessie interjected sharply, offering them to him.

"...Right," he said, quietly sliding them on. The last thing they needed was to cause a panic. He paused on his way out again. 

"...Please don't tell Tifa," he added quietly.

Jessie crossed her arms and glared at him. 

"Fine," she huffed, and got up herself to grab an apron. "Moron," she added under her breath, obviously not caring that Cloud could hear her anyway.

Cloud sat in the corner of the dining room, picking angrily at the placemat. He'd lost another two hours this time, judging by the clock. If he'd been unconscious for that long just from lack of air he probably would be in the hospital, even for someone enhanced. Whatever it was had taken longer than just a few minutes to actually let him wake up.

There had to be a pattern. It was usually at 6:09, but today it hadn't been. It had started at the tower, but they watched him at home, and were clearly already inside. This time he had suffocated. Last time he had walked up a few flights of stairs and stood still for over five hours. This time he hadn't been able to move at all, but he'd still been aware, if barely. 

Was it Jenova? This morning he'd had to put himself together again. No, it couldn't be that. Yesterday he had been fine, and had only started having problems afterward. It was Jenova's sort of thing to use him, but not to get its host killed. If that had been an attempt on his life, anyway. It would have been much easier to have him throw himself out a window at the tower. 

He had been alone at the tower. But Jessie had been in the other room. Did they know that? Would they have cared about her if they did?

There's no pattern, he thought glumly. There's no pattern and there's no "they" and you're going crazy and all that stuff Hojo put in your brain finally melted a hole in it. He didn't even have solid evidence any of it was real. It could just as easily be a relapse, entirely on his part, or worse. 

Cloud suddenly couldn't stand another second indoors under the fluorescents. He made a quick stop to his room, retrieving his sword and the portable radio, then slipped out the back door. Maybe he would lie down somewhere. Because he wanted to.

There was a spot he liked in the ruins. He'd discovered it on accident four years ago, after he put a hole in the roof. He'd thought about fixing it, but that would have worked against the whole reason he liked being there in the first place. Years later, Tifa had coincidentally rediscovered it on her own. 

Cloud parked Fenrir just outside the old abandoned church and stepped inside. Between the holes in the roof (besides the one he'd made when he crashed through it) and the stained glass windows, broken or otherwise, the building was filled with sunlight. Some of the broken pews still had cushions on the seat. While the isolation wasn't ideal, sometimes it was just nice to take a nap somewhere and wake up with the sky in full view and the sun in his face. 

Cloud switched on the radio again and retuned it to one of the three stations available at this point, which was playing a song he vaguely remembered liking during his time in the military. He couldn't recall any lyrics. He lay down on one of the pews and wondered if he used to know them. 

In all likelihood, it was probably just a regular old-fashioned crack-up. The kind he'd never been able to handle before, but especially couldn't now. He'd told himself, and had believed for a while, that it had ended when he had gotten out of the lab; the crying, the pleading, and eventually the resigned submission when he realised no one in the world would help, the shame at the things he'd done and said for the sake of his own self-preservation, and then later for reasons he didn't even understand himself. There was no one left that could hurt him, not really. It should have been over then. 

It wasn't over. It would probably never be over. Every last one of them were dead, and there still wasn't a single part of his life that they hadn't dug their fingers into and taken for themselves. He could do whatever he wanted, and pretend to be a mechanic, and have a family that was willing to pretend along with them, but no matter what he was still, in some way, exactly what they had made him. 

"It's not fair," he said to the radio, which indifferently continued hitting on an undisclosed third party by comparing her eyes to blue jewels. Cloud felt as though he were being mocked, and tuned the radio back to jazz before tossing it over to the patch of dirt that had broken his landing four years ago, next to the pool of deceptively harmless-looking water. It landed speaker-down but continued playing. It didn't take him long after that to doze off in the warm sun filtering in through the windows. 

He slept for longer than he had wanted to, and was woken up by the sound of his phone ringing. Tifa. He'd forgotten entirely. 

He missed the first call while fumbling through his pockets for the right one, but when he called back she picked up on the first ring.

"Hi. Sorry. Dropped my phone," he said. He wasn't entirely sure why he lied about misplacing what pocket he put it in. Maybe it sounded less stupid that way? The first lie of probably several in this call. 

"Well, you called back on your own," came Tifa's voice from the receiver. "How is everything?"

"I spaced out earlier today," he said hesitantly. "I'm fine now, but Jessie's covering for me at the bar."

"How long were you this time?"

"About four hours."

"That's good!" She sounded genuinely happy about it. Cloud felt his chest clench painfully, and kept his gaze on the floor, as though she were there in front of him. "And you were worried it was getting worse."

"Yeah... guess so," he replied, trying to match her tone.

"They've got reception set up here, finally. Don't feel bad about calling, we've got the juice to support it now. They think they'll have a generator here in the next six months, as long as nothing goes horribly wrong all at once." A pause on the line. "Is Jessie there with you? Your end is pretty quiet."

"I stepped out for a bit. It's really nice out tonight." It was. The sun had just set, and the first few stars were beginning to appear. It was a bit colder, but not unpleasantly so. 

"Send me some warm weather if you get the chance, alright?" she joked. "I'll see you soon."

"Mm. See you soon." He flipped his phone closed. 

It wasn't fair.

Chapter Text

"...dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, and it lies between the pit of man's fears, and the summit of his knowledge.This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area that might be called... The Twilight Zone." The television cast an eerie glow across the blanket, illuminating it enough to stand out but not enough to distinguish it from the monochrome wash the room had taken on in the dim light.

At a little past five, more or less, a loud crunch started its occupant awake. The source of the noise licked its paws contentedly, indifferent to the stern glare it was now receiving from its owner, who reached for the remote under the couch cushions and switched the television off.

"You little shit." The cat, being a cat, said nothing.

Aeris Gainsborough sighed heavily and rolled off the couch she had fallen asleep on to go find a broom. The sad, crumpled remains of her peppermint weren't going to sweep up themselves.

It might not've bothered her as much if she had already been up, but now it was too late to go back to sleep. She shuffled into the kitchen and considered getting herself something caffeinated, but thought better of it. She couldn't afford to be jittery, today of all days. She returned to her living room/study and began scraping up the remains of her potted plant and salvaging what she could into a glass jar she grabbed off the counter. Perhaps it had been for the best -- it has been starting to encroach on the rest of her garden.

Breakfast consisted of eight eggs, dumped into the frying pan with a generous amount of cheese and butter. If caffeine wasn't an option today, a protein high would have to do, and there was no point in leaving perishables in her fridge anyway. She ate quickly, going over the cards for her speech and trying not to hate parts of it now that she was rereading it for the umpteenth time. It was too late to change any of it herself -- the committee had already approved this version to air, and going off script on what would probably be the second-most important day of her life (if she was lucky) was a risk she wasn't willing to take, no matter how awkwardly-phrased and corny the bit about humanity's next step into the future was.

She wolfed down the entire pan in about twenty minutes and got an early start on her hair, carefully pulling it back into a braid she thought would look dignified. Not that it would matter much, the makeup people she'd be assaulted with would probably redo it the minute she showed up anyway. They'd told her the pink ribbon she usually wore looked "unprofessional", so she tied it around her arm instead, hiding it under the suit they had picked out for the occasion. They'd never know.

Her cat Cassiopeia rubbed up against her leg, and she had to gently shove her away. The last thing she needed was to show up covered in hair.

She went over her speech again. And again. And another time to be certain. She went back to her desk and looked over her research, which was technically more important, then lost interest in that and went back to the speech. Loaded with plenty of big long words -- the suit, the vote against her ribbon, the speech, it was all meant to give off the impression of maturity. Probably to offset her age (there was a time and a place for milking the wunderkind angle and today was neither), but there was also the matter of her lineage to consider. This was her project now, after all. Today was about that as much as it was about the project itself.

She herded Cassiopeia into her carrier and checked over her luggage again: a briefcase with the summation of her life's work, which she quickly stuffed her speech cards into, and a tupperware container of licorice allsorts. Bringing in fresh produce probably wouldn't be allowed at the facility, but her candies would probably survive a quick sterilisation. The best part about liking licorice allsorts, Aeris had discovered, was that no one ever asked you to share them with you, so one could just eat the entire box undisturbed, though she did include another container of gummy bears for her coworkers as a peace offering. Outside comforts like this would be missed greatly in the coming weeks.

Briefcase, personal effects (outside toiletries had been prohibited as well), cat... on a whim, she rummaged through a drawer and fished out an old Polaroid camera, quickly throwing it into the bag with the candies. If astronauts got to take pictures of space, she wanted to document her work as well.

Aeris quickly piled everything by the door and made one last check around her house -- her house, another one of the perks of this job. It had really started to grow on her, and it was a shame she wouldn't see it for so long. She locked the door, unlocked it while trying to figure out if she had locked it properly, locked it again, and began her walk down Kenilworth Avenue to the nearest bus stop. This was it.

Cassiopeia yowled angrily the entire drive over to the kennel. "There won't be any plants to eat if you come with me," said Aeris, glancing around them, trying to spot the plainclothes bodyguards she'd been assigned for the trip. Perhaps they weren't here yet. "There will be lots of other cats there you can ruin gardens with together." She hoped there would be, actually. Perhaps then she'd finally get it out of her system.

After depositing her horrible greenery-chewing roommate and lightening her load somewhat, she made her way down to the train station. It was here she started catching a few stares. Shame she hadn't worn sunglasses or something.

On the train out of Reading, the "find the plainclothes" game she had been playing became much easier. The wiry-looking man reading a magazine she wasn't sure about, but the woman sitting across from her that looked as though she ate broken glass and bullets for breakfast that kept staring at the door next to her was easier to spot. Aeris checked her nails and did her best to ignore them both. It was only for a few more hours.

A woman on her left spoke to her then. "This is gonna sound a bit stupid, but you look exactly like that Dr. Gainsborough woman."

Aeris managed a quick smile. "Ah... that's 'cause I am." The woman laughed and went back to her phone, clearly not believing her, but a few other people on the train had heard and craned their heads to get a look. Aeris looked back, and they turned away.

She’d insisted on using public transport -- she didn’t have a driver’s license of her own yet, and she hadn’t liked the idea of the fancy chauffeur they had offered her waiting outside honking their horn when she just wanted to have a lie-in before the big day. If it was on her own terms, she could get a bit of extra sleep. That would surely be worth a few odd looks from the general public, right?

Stupid cat.

The train pulled into London an hour later, and she was immediately mobbed by more security detail the minute she stepped off the platform. She was at least grateful for the help with her luggage, but with them came the press. She kept her gaze focused directly ahead until they made it out of the station and reached the car. They'd have their answers soon enough.

She drummed on the seat all the way to the university, and stopped halfway through going over her speech in her head to realise that she had forgotten to put the pan in the dishwasher before she left, and the kitchen would probably smell awful when she got back. Too late now.

She was swarmed by hair and makeup the minute she set foot on campus, and was herded into an office they had appropriated as a green room. As predicted, they immediately undid her braid and began combing it out to tie it back into a bun.

"I spent good time on that, you know," grumbled Aeris, and then was forced to hold still while they applied foundation.

"I was beginning to think you'd bailed on us," came a voice from next to her, and Aeris managed to crane her head just enough to see Cissnei in the chair next to her, whose artist appeared to be finishing up.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it," she replied. "All this is just for show. We could just go directly to the facility and not waste twelve hours on all this media circus stuff.”

“It’s a proud tradition, though!” said Cissnei, getting up and watching them attempt to herd Aeris’s hair into a fraction of the volume it normally took up, making her wince. “Everything like this needs something quotable. Armstrong, Sagan, Einstein, Curie. You need a line that someone can spend two hundred takes on trying to nail the one that nets them an award when they make the dramatised documentary version of this in ten years or so.”

“This entire speech is the most generic combination of words I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“It’s not the words,” said Cissnei, sneaking a peak at her speech cards, “it’s the delivery. Think Frank Sinatra.”

Aeris grunted as the makeup staff finally peeled off and stopped trying to remove her scalp. “Mum and Dad didn’t have a speech.”

“Well, you’re not Dr. Gainsborough or Dr. Gainsborough, are you? You’re Dr. Gainsborough,” she commented dryly, clearly amused at her own joke. Aeris rolled her eyes.

A voice came from outside the office. “Gainsborough, Sauvage, you’ve got two minutes!”

Cissnei flashed her a quick smile on her way out the door. “Bonne chance!

Aeris went over her speech another time, liked it even less than before, then followed CERN’s interpreter out to the auditorium.

A smattering of applause greeted her presence, a few camera flashes, and then silence. The world was watching now. Cissnei was there waiting by the podium with the other interpreter, and gave her a curt nod.

“There are times, in the course of human history, that are known to change our world, our society, in profound and irreversible ways,” she began, with Cissnei beside her, repeating what she had said in French. “From the discovery of the double helix which let us understand where we came from, to the first splitting of the atom, showing us where we are, to our first steps as a species into the Earth’s atmosphere, inviting us to all the places we could go from there. They’ve yielded medicines, and knowledge, and prosperity… as well as destruction, and conflict, and loss of life. Our world is a product of these changes, benign or otherwise.

“It is difficult to accept the world for what it is, to comprehend the scope of how deeply these changes have affected who we are, but it it is harder still to understand our place within it. It can be daunting to know how much harm they could cause, and how much potential for good they might have had.” She kept her gaze on the audience. Not the words, the delivery. Aeris hoped whatever charisma she had managed to dredge up for this day was having an impact on anyone. If anything, she probably sounded vaguely threatening.

“Today, I believe we are on the cusp of one of these changes. And I believe that, not only as a nation, but as a people, we have understood our capacity for greatness. In taking our first steps into exploring another world, we shape the boundaries of our own.” She paused, and dipped her head briefly to some of the men just offstage. “It is through this understanding that has allowed CERN to lead the world forward with this groundbreaking research. Every nation has banded together for the invigoration of the human spirit.”

It was barely an overstatement. It had been the project of the twenty-first century, and nearly every country in the UN had pitched in. The confirmed existence of other universes, of other worlds, had ripped through the scientific community. Thus far the data they had was mostly numbers, but the trail blazed by the late Doctors Ifalna Gainsborough and Hugo Gainsborough (the latter more commonly known by his name before marriage, Gast, for the sake of easy distinction) had left them with something significantly more concrete, and suddenly the prospect of a physical presence in these worlds was alarmingly, startlingly real.

For the last year, billions of euros had been dumped into the construction of a massive compound in the French countryside. Though Aeris had been largely in charge of the project, there were other scientists contributing to its building as well, and she had yet to set foot in it herself. She’d be on a plane to Cannes in the same day if she could just get through this speech.

Eventually, she finished up with another line about being inspired by everyone to make the world better. Utter schlock. Waste of time. There was a warm applause from the audience. Good. That was squared away, at least.

She nodded to one of the general directors of CERN waiting offstage, and retreated offstage herself. Official questions were their problem. At the very least she could ditch her stupid speech cards and wait for Cissnei to finish up the presentation; the other interpreters had been hired specifically for this event, but Cissnei was part of the project proper. If they found anything, it would help to have an expert at hand in case any messages were exchanged. Aeris was a physicist, not a linguist. And of course, there was the more practical side of things being lost in translation between the multinational team they’d assembled from the top scientists in the world.

Personally, Aeris would have been satisfied with a few interesting matter samples, and maybe some microbes if she was really getting her hopes up. At the very least, they had finally confirmed there was something on the other side of it all to begin with.

Truth be told, this project had been in the works for nearly twenty years. Aeris had been the one to rekindle it after the accident that had claimed the previous directors’ lives. Everyone had been leery of the prospect at first -- never mind her age, the word “nepotism” had been on their lips from day one. She’d had to work twice as hard as anyone else to prove she was worthy of the project on her own merits, and then four times that to forge ahead with the data her parents had managed to collect in the bridging experiment before it had all gone to hell.

And to think they’d called it pseudo-science nonsense five years ago. She’d show them pseudo-science…

No, she wouldn’t. That’s the opposite of what she wanted to do.

Eventually Cissnei returned from the stage as well, and from there they were herded back into a car and to the airport. No time to waste.

On the plane, Aeris went over the roster of who they’d picked out for the project.

“Tseng, Wu, biophysicist,” said Cissnei, leaning in to check the paper she was holding. “China’s pick, probably.”

“I remember him from the meetings,” replied Aeris. “Sort of stuffy. Do you suppose he’s any good?”

“Good enough, I guess. I’m not a biophysicist. He’s got three doctorates, I think, which is apparently the minimum,” She adjusted herself in her seat and gestured to Aeris’s peanuts. “Do you want those?”

“How many do you have?” asked Aeris, as Cissnei opened her peanuts anyway. Cissnei shrugged.

“One, for now. Not all of us skipped seven grades. I’m just here on the charisma factor.”

Aeris snorted. “Oh, only one doctorate. How old are you?”

“Is it a contest now?”

“Only if you want it to be.” She looked over the list again. “These are some flashy dossiers, though.”

“Well, let’s hope they’re nice.”

After they touched down, there was another hour-long car ride north from Cannes to the facility. The roads eventually thinned from eight lanes, to four, to two, to a thin strip of dirt that would allow the bare minimum of passage.

It was a bit strange, seeing the sleek new building positioned in that vast, empty field. Cissnei stepped out of the car and voiced what Aeris had been thinking: “It looks like a fortress.”

Indeed it did; apart from of the building where the entrance would be, there were almost no windows. The compound was circular, with three levels stacked on top of and within one another, with a large rectangular structure the size of a supermarket on its own functioning as the front entrance, like an immense closed stadium. A wall had been erected around it, and the whole layout was compact and centralised. All likely necessary, to minimise risk the second time around.

The compound was meant for living in over a period of three to four weeks, and the place was kept tightly sealed in case of any sort of contamination, so only absolutely necessary personnel would be dispatched to the site. Therefore, the team was fairly small, to avoid straining resources, and most of the more mundane functions would be more or less fully automated. They were expecting six or seven members -- from what she could recall, the rest would be arriving tomorrow.

They had each been issued a keycard the week before, and then it only granted them access as far as the lobby. The security was a bit unnerving, and served as a reminder of the threshold she was about to cross. This was it. The culmination of billions in investment and twenty years of work and two lives. The lobby itself was largely empty, with reception being little more than a vacant all with a plaque on the wall detailing procedures for unpacking luggage for decontamination, which was where the only other door led.

They funneled, one at a time, into a chamber at the end of the lobby, where they removed their clothes and placed them in a separate compartment in the wall with the rest of their belongings, which they carefully unpacked. Aeris reluctantly parted with her ribbon and closed the door, and then stepped into the shower that had just switched on. It seemed a good deal of the process was automated. Both she and her belongings on the other side of the wall were exposed to quick flash of UV, and it occurred to

Aeris thought she was probably pushing it a bit with the candy. After the spray switched off, the vents in the room opened, vacuuming out the contaminated air and pumping in filtered oxygen, before the next chamber opened and she was treated to another chemical shower and another radiation purge, this one searing off the very first layer of skin.

After three more rooms, she reached the antechamber of the final decontamination room area, where she was to remain for 24 hours while inhaling low levels of antibiotics laced in the filtered air. Uniforms were provided on the wall until her clothes had finished baking (she worried briefly about the camera surviving the trip), and she hastily put hers on before stepping into the temporary living area and waiting for Cissnei to finish up behind her.

The room was sparsely furnished -- three beds (most likely why they were having the rest of the team file in the day after, as well as to avoid gunking up the machinery all at once) with sterile cotton blankets and foam mattresses; a few chairs; and two lamps; one of which that was fixed into the wall, upon which a compartment opened, allowing her to collect her research, her possibly-ruined camera ,and her mildly-irradiated sweets. There was a simple desk with a screen built into it that connected to the database waiting further inside, to allow review of the materials during downtime, and a rather tall man sitting at the desk watching her expectantly.

“Dr. Gainsborough,” said the man in greeting, rising from the chair and giving her a polite nod.

“Dr. Tseng,” she returned politely. If he was part of this project as well, then most of this section of the building would have been his idea, to prevent forward contamination. Just in case.

He nodded again. Very formal, this one. “Well met. Though just ‘Tseng’ is fine.”

“Then I’m fine with ‘Aeris’,” she replied, then turned around as Cissnei passed through the door from the airlock behind them, her hair on end nearly as badly as Aeris’s. “And this is Dr. Cissnei Sauvage, linguist and interpreter.”

Hen gaoxing jian dao nin,” was Tseng’s curt reply. Cissnei returned it with an equally reserved, “Nin yeshi.” The stiffness in the room was palpable. Aeris rolled her eyes.

“Well, if we’re gonna be cooped up in here all day with each other, we might as well get to know one another,” she said, pulling up a chair and pulling her hair over the back of it.

“There are very few people in the world that do not know who you are by this point… Aeris,” he said slowly, clearly uncomfortable with the familiarity.

Aeris shrugged. “So what about you?”

“I volunteered for this project because I felt it held potential,” he said shortly. “It had been my goal to contribute to it for seven years when the late Dr. Gainsborough published her first paper, but as you can imagine the ensuing complications made this impossible for some time. This is a rare opportunity for me.”

Aeris and Cissnei exchanged a look at this news. If Tseng was being truthful, that would mean his interest predated the bridging experiment. Back when the project had been a wild goose chase searching for something that most like didn’t exist, and held no more water than a television psychic claiming they could speak to the dead -- a career-ender for anything it touched.

“Well… we’re glad to have you,” she replied, not quite sure what to make of this.

Cissnei pulled up a chair for herself next to the desk. “I had worked with Aeris before this, six months ago. She recommended me for this. I thought it would be fun.”

Tseng blinked. Cissnei continued.

“Yes. Being part of all this work, being there when we start finding things. It’s exciting.” She gestured to Aeris. “Getting to spend time around people with the mental capacity to understand what you’re saying. I think it will be very enjoyable.”

“I suppose that angle could be appreciated, too,” said Tseng. He returned to his seat as well, and looked at Aeris. “This may be a bit obvious, but you’re…?”
She shrugged. “It was their project, yeah. Lots riding on this.”

He nodded, then turned back to the desk. “We may as well be on the same page. This is mostly just an archive of the date we’ve collected over the last few years,” he said, gesturing to the screen. “I believe we’ll be adding to the data stored here once we get out of decontamination.”

Aeris pulled up her own chair to the desk and leaned over it with him, with Cissnei hovering behind them curiously. The test data itself was a bit beyond her, it seemed, but Aeris found it helpful to have someone to explain concepts to out loud, forcing her to organise her thought process. Cassiopeia never asked the right questions, and was more prone to chewing up her chives and vomiting them on her rug than she was to asking what supersymmetry was or why one shouldn’t call the Higgs-Boson the “god particle” because it was a stupid terrible name that nobody really used.

“What do you think we’ll find?” asked Cissnei, after another hour and a good old rousing round of explaining what a top quark was and why nobody could find it despite enormous mass. “On the other side, I mean.”

“Hard to say,” said Aeris. “I’d be happy with recognisable matter. Maybe some microbes, if we can find something that helps us know what to look for.”

“Just microbes? If it’s another universe, you’d think there would be people there too. Maybe Rome never fell. Maybe we all do Carrousel. Something like that. ”

Tseng cut in. “It could be. There could, in theory, be an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of permutations, if my understanding of the situation is correct. However, you are assuming worlds like this are the majority, when in all likelihood -- and likelihood is the important word here -- they are not.

“Thus, life is thought to be quite common,” continued Tseng dryly, watching Aeris rearrange her belongings around her bed. “But complex life exceedingly rare. If we are correct in assuming that a world like ours is the odd one out, while there may be trillions of permutations of worlds with complex life, there will still be a far greater number where conditions were not favourable for life to evolve beyond the unicellular stage.”

“Maybe. Maybe it’s a kind of life we don’t know exists yet,” said Cissnei.

Aeris expected Tseng to rebut her, but he merely nodded. “Perhaps. That is why I am here, after all. Why you are here, and why the rest of us will be here tomorrow. There is no telling what we will find. If it were practical, I believe they would have imported hundreds of experts here. They still may, depending on what we uncover in the coming weeks.”

“They’ll reevaluate the staff after the first period’s up and they clear us out of here to do safety checks,” said Aeris. Her hair had finally begun to un-frizz, and she set aside her ribbon and began to carefully rebraid it.

“Then they’ll send in more people if they think we need it. Or maybe if we ask. And then we get to check things out for ourselves. Eventually. Most of the groundwork has already been taken care of, over the years,” she added, trying her best to emphasise the silent “by me as well” at the end of her sentence.

“What if we only find a bunch of rocks?” joked Cissnei.

“Then we get to call in a really excited mineralogist,” said Aeris. “We won’t be able to go right away, though. Have to make sure where we’re going is safe enough to send someone through. Run the numbers.”

“See if any lab rats come back inside out.”

Aeris made a face. “...Yes, that too.” It was probably for the best that they weren’t meant to eat anything for twenty-four hours. Cissnei remained nonplussed and got up from her chair, stretching out on one of the beds.

“Anyone got a phone charger?” she said after a moment of silence. Tseng opened the one briefcase he’d brought with him and produced his, looking at her curiously.

“What do you intend to do?,” he asked. “There’s no signal in here.”

“Just some background noise, maybe.” She unplugged the other lamp and put her phone in. “It’s too quiet. Feels like an interrogation room in here.”

The room dimmed with the removal of one of their light sources, but Aeris actually did feel her shoulders unknot a little once the space was filled with a noise other than the buzz of fluorescent light bulbs. The song was vaguely familiar to her -- seemed like a much older one, maybe from the nineties. Something indie and obscure. Maybe French? She couldn’t make out many words under the heavy distortion from the track itself and the speaker. She found herself humming along, until it occurred to her she was probably driving Tseng nuts, who probably didn’t care much for rock music and was probably jet-lagged into hell, something he more or less proved by shuffling over to a bed and crashing right then and there.

The lack of light and the music made her eyes heavy. She spent another hour reading at the desk, before Cissnei had to nudge her upright and direct her to a bed to keep her from drooling on the screen. Perhaps now she’d finally catch up on the time she’d lost thanks to her shithead cat.

Besides, tomorrow there was important work to be done.

Chapter Text

The click of the door to the decontamination airlock opening up was what woke up Aeris, and she quickly gathered up the few possessions she had brought with her and nudged Tseng awake. Cissnei was already awake somehow, and had already proceeded through ahead of her. Aeris was quick to follow -- the room was cold and humid, and an automated notification from the intercom had notified her that the other half of the team were on approach and would be using it in an hour or so.

The last airlock on the way out led into a small antechamber that would open up into the main facility. Aeris stepped out through the door, and it clicked shut behind her. Aeris looked down the long hall that stretched out in front of her, and began to lead the way down it.

"It's hard to believe it's all real," said Cissnei from behind her. "I guess someone had to be the person that realised you could actually send people into space, but it's still..."

"I guess so," she replied, heading deeper into the compound and passing through the first ring, mostly containing supplies, and into the second, containing living quarters for the crew. "All the numbers check out in the simulations, anyway." Another luxury they had now that they didn't the first time around.

They branched off into their own rooms, laid out like the spokes of a wheel. There were ten in total, though only six would be occupied with the other four containing supplies. Aeris dropped off her candies in one of the rooms, claiming it as her own, and quickly followed after Tseng and Cissnei.

The next ring in was the biology lab. Tseng was already unpacking his briefcase onto the desk provided. The whole thing seemed almost too big for just one, maybe two people, and this section of the building alone probably had as much money sunk into it as the next three rings combined. Who needed eight different kinds of microscopes? Tseng did, apparently.

It had several doors leading into the next innermost ring, the medical ward; close enough to the labs for quick response in case of accidents, deep enough into the facility to prevent more of them through potential biohazard leaks. Hopefully.

There were two more rings, increasingly smaller, both separated from the sections in front and behind them by airlocks, containing a veritable jungle of computers and machines and detectors that might not ever get used. The idea was to never have to outsource anything they might find outside the facility and have it all done in-house.

Aeris took a deep breath and steeled herself in front of the airlock door of the second-to-last ring of the building, glancing at Cissnei, who nodded, not entirely sure what to expect.

"Excited?" she asked.

"Yes. Nervous, too. My feet are tingling a little."

"That could also be because we're pretty much on top of the generator right now," said Aeris. The entire thing was buried underground and heavily insulated, but the sheer amount of power on tap still made the whole area slightly charged with static.

"...Is that safe?"

"Yes," said Aeris grimly. "They wouldn't have let us build this place without getting it reapproved sixteen times. See for yourself if you don't believe me." And with that, she pushed open the door.

It seemed an unimpressive enough space upon first glance -- several computers along the outer wall, a large screen built into the inner ring. Desks, a whiteboard, and a couple servers.

Slightly more unusual was the rack of towels, and the raised metal disc about two metres across, covered by a glass panel and wired up to one of the more formidable computers in the room.

And of course, the large tank in the centre of the room. That too.

Aeris ran a hand over the side of it, suppressing a thrill of giddiness. It came up to her chest in height and was twice as wide, with a lid that was presently closed over the top. There were ten times as many wires leading from this one as there were the metal disc, and in particular three thicker ones were linked to the screen mounted on the wall.

"Spooky," remarked Cissnei, also staring at the tank, unwilling to touch it. "You're not worried?"

"Even if I was, it wouldn't matter." Truth be told, she was immensely worried. The simulations guaranteed no risk, sure. The lab rats they'd used in the trials seemed to be doing okay, sure. There would be five other people in the room with her in case something as stupid as her flipping over and choking on neuroconductive fluids happened, sure. The medical wing was intentionally right next door, sure.

A wild thought crossed her mind as she considered just jumping in the tank right now before she got cold feet. She even went as far as tipping up the lid. It was empty at the moment, of course, the drain in the bottom clearly visible. That would change in a matter of days, or perhaps hours if they were fortunate enough.

"It's exciting, too," she said after a moment, closing the lid. "We may as well get started with setup. Have everything running for when everyone gets here."

"'We'?"

"You could help, I guess. Get everything switched on and running."

"I am not touching the devil tank, though."

Aeris put her hands on her hips and frowned. "It won't do anything, even if it were on. You aren't in it, and we haven't picked a signal to replicate."

"What if you're wrong?"

Aeris gave the tank a firm pat on the lid. "Then we learn a valuable science lesson. Come on, give me a hand with the contact disc."

They worked for several hours after that. While a good majority of the simpler functions were automated, the instruments themselves weren't. Most of it wound up being staring at loading screens, waiting for systems upon systems to boot up. At about six hours into prep, Tseng joined them, having finished his work in the biolabs.

"You seem busy," he said, glancing over the pair of them. Cissnei had been pacing in circles around the room's circumference and seemed to have somehow managed to annoy herself with it, and Aeris was staring at a monitor watching driver 56 of 1189 load, a thin stream of drool of going down her chin.

"We're sciencing. What have you been doing?" Aeris shot back defensively.

"Much of the same thing," he admitted. "You aren't accomplishing anything at the moment. Neither am I. We may as well retire for the time being."

"Isn't this important?" objected Aeris, as Cissnei all too willingly went right for the door.

"Yes, but we're not supposed to be doing much without half the staff present anyway," she said. "Eat something."

"Fine, but I'm staying here," said Aeris. "I'd like to get a head start on finding a good anchorpoint. If they like, they can tell me to pick a new one when they get here."

Their meals consisted of prepackaged rations. They could have been quite a bit worse, considered Aeris as she dug into some sort of precooked meat pie-esque thing. She had offered the gummy bears and allsorts again, and no one had been particularly interested.

After another half hour of waiting for the system to be fully online, the light beneath the glass-covered disc flickered on as Aeris sat at the computer next to it and began to enter in a string of numbers -- the data from the first bridging experiment.

Once it was determined that the planes of reality they had discovered more or less had atoms the way they were understood in their own, there came talk of visiting said planes using the same technology. The process was simple, in explanation anyway. Safely sending a remote-controlled drone through to another universe had been considered, but ultimately was impossible -- there would be no way know what was on the other side without observing it, and there was no way to observe it that didn't involve sending a billion dollar rover through and hoping it didn't come out on the other side miles underground, or in the vacuum of space. The method considered by the late Dr. Gainsborough involved energy signatures -- the human consciousness was really little more than electricity, and if there were a point of reference on the other side that they recognised and had already mapped, one could use that as a jumping-off point to send their own signal through.

The problem with that, however, was the same catch-22 with the drones; there was nothing for them in the other dimension to see if there was anything for them in the other dimension.

That, and the fact that it sounded ridiculous and essentially ended her mother's career.

Eventually, she and her husband (nee Dr. Gast) had decided someone would have to be the first one in the pool. The effort had been privately funded, unsupervised, and ultimately, fatal.

People had died for these numbers.

It wasn't until three years ago that Aeris realised that they must have succeeded directly prior to the whole thing quite literally blowing up in their faces. The data was garbled enough that it had nearly been discarded, but it was there, and she had worked through it all herself, filtering out distortion, correcting for bugs, and deciphering what she could from burnt papers.

They had their signature, and with it their waypoint.

The glass-covered disc flickered on a few moments later, and pinpricks of light began popping up on its surface. All of them were instances of the pattern they had identified. Some were steadier than others. Most of them didn't remain fixed for more than an instant, and were limited in scope. She sifted through the options, watching them flicker in and out of existence, until she zeroed in on the most consistent one she could find. Good scope, steady source, very few variations. Perfect.

She scooted over to another computer and began running the calculations for it. It would probably take a lot longer on her own, but a head start was still a head start, and Cissnei and Tseng probably had a limited understanding of particle physics and the numbers that went into it anyway.

She was about five hours deep into her work before she turned to look at the disc again and swore.

The waypoint she'd been setting up calibrations for had terminated, she realised. All of them had. She could continue, but the results would be skewed with the signal truncating as it had. Perhaps she could wait a while and see if it picked up anything else.

She got up to retrieve the container of allsorts, and noticed another waypoint. Very steady, decent scope, but not particularly strong -- it had barely registered at all.

It was better than nothing, though, and five hours wasted was still five hours wasted. She scrapped the work she'd done for the first point with a heavy sigh and began on the next one, this time frequently checking to see if it was still there.

She peeled her face off the desk sometime later, not having realised she had fallen asleep. At some point someone else had left another ration pack next to her. She picked it up and went back to the outer ring to the living quarters.

Cissnei was there waiting for her. "It's about time you left that room. They're getting out of decon in ten minutes."

"Who? Oh." Aeris wiped a drool stain off the side of her face and allowed Cissnei to lead her around to the other side of the ring. "Where's Tseng?"

"Asleep," said Cissnei. "He probably didn't want to admit he was still nauseous in front of the project's head."

"I'll get him. You can say hi for me," she said, and started off down the hallway again.

"Should you be here if you're in charge -- okay, goodbye," she heard Cissnei say behind her.

By the time she got back with a decidedly less-put-together Tseng, Cissnei already appeared to be having a conversation with the three men that had just arrived, and Aeris paused uncertainly for a moment.

The first was clearly who the Netherlands had sent, what with the blond hair and blue eyes and the significant height advantage he had on most of them. He seemed mostly content to watch the others. Perhaps this was because of the language barrier, as Cissnei was presently engaged in a conversation in German with the second man. He seemed to be the oldest of the three, a few years older than the blond man, his black hair streaked with grey in places, and Aeris was fairly sure she recognised him from the meetings. She could tell even through the reserved, formal way he carried himself that he had been dying to talk to someone all day.

Aeris was half convinced the third was an intern that had wandered in by mistake. He was significantly taller than all of them and oddly musclebound for a physicist, and looked about as young as she was. He hadn't stopped fidgeting with the sleeves of his scrubs and was clearly bored out of his mind. Her mind went back to the dossiers after another moment -- by process of elimination, the lab in Hawaii had sent him over.

Cissnei paused mid-conversation and turned to Aeris and Tseng, who quickly made an effort to straighten the collar of his shirt.

"Dr. Gainsborough aus dem Vereinigten Königreich Großbritannien und Dr. Tseng aus der Volksrepublik China," said Cissnei, gesturing to each of them as they exchanged handshakes. She turned to Aeris. "Dr. Angeal Hewley from the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr. Lazard Deusericus from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Dr. Zachary Fair from the United States of America."

They each gave a polite nod at the mention of their names. The blond man, Dr. Deusericus, smiled. "It's an honour to work with you on this project, Dr. Gainsborough."

"Likewise, and Aeris is fine," she replied. "It'll be too stuffy if we keep up the titles the whole time we're here." She turned on her heels again and began to move back towards the sleeping quarters. "Well, get yourselves in order. We've got a lot of work to do."

The tall one, Fair, blinked in surprise, but if he would have said anything she wouldn't have heard it, already on her way towards the fifth ring, unable to keep the grin off her face.

 


 

"So, uh... that went well, I guess?" Zack watched the project head disappear around the corner and went back to messing with the sleeves of his uniform.

"Swimmingly," came Lazard's voice behind him, sounding somewhat amused as Angeal heaved a heavy sigh behind him. Zack had decided almost immediately to be on a first-name basis with everyone he was in decon with. Lazard had tolerated it good-naturedly, more or less. Angeal had responded by looking at him exasperatedly and accidentally-on-purpose not hearing him on occasion.

"So... Ange. Can I call you Ange?"

Zack received another stern look.

"Angeal, then. It's unprofessional to ignore your coworkers, Angeal."

Angeal sighed and proceeded down the hall to the living quarters.

"This relationship's off to a great start," said Zack, heading after him.

"You can't blame us for wanting to maintain a professional environment," said Lazard.

"Yeah, but we're basically bunkmates now," said Zack, looking at one of the identical white doors Angeal had just disappeared into. "Can you imagine spending a month at a time living with someone you couldn't stand? Like a girlfriend, but you can't dump them, because it's her house, and also you've lost the keys, and there are no windows and neither one of you can leave without causing an international incident."

"That's... certainly colourful," said Lazard.

"Tell me about it," muttered Zack, and picked a room at random.

It was fairly minimalist -- a bed in the corner, with a couple pillows and some blankets. He'd have to see if there were any more pillows in the supply section.

He spent a full two minutes just sitting on his bed and staring at the mirror over the sink in front of him -- it was the first time in a month he hadn't had any cameras pointed in his face. His jaw ached from the constant need for a "winning smile". He scowled at the mirror over, which was immensely satisfying, which involuntarily made him smile again, which started the cycle over.

A knock on the door dragged his attention away from the mirror. "They're setting up for the first round," came Lazard's voice. "You're needed in the fifth ring."

Zack got to his feet and stepped outside. "What, already?"

Lazard began to lead him back. "Yes, already. Apparently they'd been taking care of the preliminary work over the last day or so. Nothing left to do but start."

Zack took his time making it through the facility -- he spent a few minutes watching Tseng and Lazard hurry around medical, and offered to feed the five rats they had available to them, until Tseng had to shoo him away when he tried to take one out to pet.

He probably shouldn't be getting attached to something that he'd have to watch get dissected, but then that was why he wasn't a biologist.

Another two airlocks led him into the fifth ring, where Angeal and Aeris were already deep in conversation, with Cissnei mediating between the two. Aeris was the first to greet him.

"I don't recognise you from the meetings," she said eventually. "So you're... Zax?"

"It's Zack," he grumbled. "That's a typo. And... yeah. Cosmologist. I was kind of a last minute addition."

"How last minute?"

"Try three weeks. They briefed me on the way over."

Aeris frowned, and he quickly continued. "That big scary room one door over? That was my design." She continued watching him, which he took as a sign to continue. "Partially my design, anyway. They figured, y'know, since I built it, they might as well have me operate it too. So, I'm here!" He waved. "Hello!"

"So how's it work, then?" A test. He hoped it wouldn't be like this the entire time he was working.

"The last one just ripped a hole open in spacetime for stuff to be fed through. It was, uh... brilliant, I'm sure, but wound up with some... casualties," he said, crashing into every single elephant in the room on the way to his desk. "That one just tears the hole at you."

"That sounds lethal."

"Oh, it is," said Zack, shrugging. "But by then you're in another universe. Kills you and brings you back before the laws of physics have time to realise you're dead."

It finally got her to look away, at least. "Well, welcome to the project, Zack."

"You too," he replied, turning back to his own screen and hiding a grin. Test passed, first name basis achieved.

 


 

Everyone spoke very little during the first part of setup. Deusericus, after getting set up in the medical room, had joined Tseng in observing everyone else until they were needed. Hewley, thank god, was finally present to help fine tune the calculations she'd made in a hurry and without much sleep, with Cissnei helping to translate the occasional communication or two -- it seemed he understood some English, but spoke very little of it himself. That left Fair hovering over their shoulder, apparently making Angeal nervous.

After a while, Aeris spoke up again. "I'm still sort of surprised they have someone else this young on the project," she said. "I was involved from day one, and I recommended Cissnei. What's your story?"

"Maybe they thought it'd be good publicity or something if they sent someone from Mauna Kea." He shrugged, leaning on the desk. "Genius from a poor family, y'know. Makes a good Lifetime movie. I don't think it's bragging or anything to say I'm pretty photogenic, either."

Aeris frowned. "You're awfully up-front about it."

"Hey, I said that was one of the reasons," he said, looking mildly offended. "You don't think I got my doctorate off a basketball scholarship, did you?"

"Well, you can show me," she replied, and passed him a set of papers. "Help get the overlap signal set up."

Zack looked through them, still looking mildly stung. "What's this from? I thought we'd never done this before."

At this Angeal spoke up, and Cissnei began translating.

"'We've never done this with a human before. We have tested the process on rats, using a weak partial signal. We know it's nonlethal as long as one doesn't choke and drown, and we know some kind of connection has been made, but the rats can't tell us what they're experiencing, what they've seen, or what the process is like,'" she relayed. Angeal then addressed Zack directly. "Ten days, ten rats. All fine."

"How does that work out for you?" he asked Aeris. "You'll be comatose, right?"

"That's what this is for," chimed in Deusericus, gesturing to a large screen that seemed to be more heavily wired up to the tank than the others. "This will be the first test to make sure it works."

"...And if it doesn't?" asked Zack.

"It has to," said Aeris, tying her braid more closely to her head in a bun. "They didn't tell you much, did they?"

Zack shrugged. "They went over the math itself, and the work I'd be doing. And the gateroom. Y'know, making sure anyone that goes in there comes back out in one piece. Not so much about the hell tank."

Cissnei pointed, looking triumphant. Aeris quickly continued, cutting her off.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-eight," said Zack. "You beat me by a year, looks like." He grinned, and Aeris again for a split second wondered if he mightn't have been an intern.

"Did you want to be here, or did they just send you over?" asked Aeris. "Why are you involved?"

"Well..." he scratched his neck. "I mean, of course I wanna be here. It's really exciting, you know? I wanted to be a part of it. That's why the rest of us joined, right Lazard?" he said, turning to Deusericus for support.

"Something like that," said Lazard, clearly amused at the familiarity. Zack had probably been doing that all through decon. "There are many reasons. The challenge, the honour for one's nation, having something nice on one's retainer..."

"And that's why you're here?" said Aeris, leaning away from the computer screen to let Angeal have a final look.

"More or less," he replied. "There's a suit for you on the examination chair. I'll meet you inside in five minutes for a physical before we start."

Cissnei flashed her another thumbs up as Aeris stood and left the room.

Lazard emerged ten minutes later following the physical, with Aeris behind him. After confirming she was in decent enough shape to not have a heart attack midway through the process, she had changed into what appeared to be a cream-coloured wetsuit, with silvery spots of conductive foil running down the spine. She'd tied her braid back up into a bun (showed them about her ribbon being work-inappropriate), and hauled herself up to sit on the ledge next to the lip of the tank as she watched it slowly fill.

She sat patiently as Lazard enlisted Cissnei's help in attaching electrodes to spots on her head and neck, as well as several more sensors monitoring her vitals. She very slowly slid her feet in -- the fluid itself was slightly viscous, and had a silvery tint to it -- and felt them drag through it with a bit more resistance than water. It had been diluted somewhat, and gallium generally wasn't known for being poisonous, but Aeris couldn't help but think of pitcher plants.

They passed her sealed oxygen mask and helped her secure it to her face. Apart from air, there would also be a mild sedative mixed in, enough to keep her from unconsciously thrashing around and flipping herself over. She and Cissnei flashed another thumbs up, and Aeris carefully lowered herself into the tank. The fluid had been heated slightly, but she still shivered as she carefully positioned herself to float on her back.

"The first set's active," she heard Tseng say from somewhere to her right. "Count down from ten."

Aeris felt her thoughts skip a beat, and she felt as though they were sagging slightly, leaving a small space underneath them. The large screen flickered on.

The sedative began to kick in, and the sagging smoothed out, leaving the space within reach. Aeris focused on it, and began to count.

Numbers began appearing on the screen, neatly typed: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

"Spooky..." she heard Zack mutter. She was sure Cissnei would probably be inclined to agree. 

"Now up from twos," came Angeal's voice. On a new line below the first came 2-4-6-8-10. Ready.

"The screen's online. The main set's coming in two minutes," said Lazard. "Good luck." The lid was closed over her, leaving her in complete darkness.

The large screen was essential for two of reasons -- once she'd made contact, she'd essentially have no knowledge of her surroundings, and no way to communicate in the event of an emergency. There would be no way to take notes, either, lacking a presence any more physical than electrical signals, and vital information could be lost due to simple human forgetfulness. The screen doubled as both.

A microphone in the lid of the tank directly over her clicked on, and Zack's voice wafted through, echoing slightly in the confined space.

"We're sending a partial at first, to see how you handle that," he said. "Just keep talking to me until you can't."

"Shouldn't a doctor be doing this?" said Aeris. The sedative had fully set in, and the warm water (well, some of it was water) she was suspended in made it feel a bit like a hot tub.

"Lazard's looking over your vitals right now and Cissnei's on translation duty. Besides, I am a doctor," he replied, and she could still hear the toothy grin in his voice.

"So 'm I."

"Well, then we're fine. You've got twenty seconds. Can you count for me?"

"Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen..." Spots of light began to appear in her vision. Minor hallucinations, something they'd expected. She made a note of it on the screen for them to go over later. The darkness in the tank suddenly seemed a lot bigger. Zack was saying something else to Tseng, and she could hear them all moving around her. The lights began flashing faster, and she shut her eyes.

"...four, three, two --"

 


 

Once, when she'd been four years old, Ifalna Gainsborough had taken her daughter to the zoo. It had been the height of summer, and while Aeris would have likely preferred to stay outside staring at the ostriches all day, her mother had successfully managed to corral her into the indoor deep sea exhibit after she started turning pink. One of her earliest memories was looking through those tanks, and coming across the informational video about dead fish, drifting to the abyssal zone at the bottom of the ocean, where there wasn't any light, until something much bigger and stranger than it snapped it up.

It was unimaginably deep here -- and at the same time, empty. It was absence, and yet she felt something incomprehensibly huge around her, and there was nothing around her at all, because here was nothing. She felt the nothing pass through her, and a low, deep noise began getting louder, like howling wind, even though there was no noise, and no wind.

Suddenly there was something, actually, and she was stunned she had missed it before. She was clearly seeing something, but for some reason her eyes didn't want to focus on it -- because of course, she had no eyes, and she was looking at nothing that existed, as far as her brain was concerned. Everything seemed distorted and distant and somewhat dreamlike.

She was in an enclosed space. That much she could make out. There was ground beneath her, and noises that she couldn't properly hear around her, because of course she wasn't hearing anything, there was nothing to hear.

She was here. She was looking at another world.

She began frantically taking stock of everything around her that she could see, which was not a lot. She wasn't entirely sure where the signal they'd overlapped with had come from, and she found she was unable to look around freely. Maybe an anchored point? That didn't make sense.

There was, at least, solid ground, or something that looked like it anyway -- that was already a promising start. She couldn't "see" particularly well, and every few seconds they plunged back into darkness, but the space around her seemed more or less Euclidean, though she would know for sure when she traversed it herself.

She was interrupted about thirty seconds later with the realisation that her chest hurt. That wasn't right, was it?

The pain got worse, and she made a note of it. Ten seconds later, she saw a tank lid slide open above her with a concerned Lazard leaning over her and offering her a towel. She tore off the mask and took deep breaths of air, even though she hadn't had any trouble breathing before.

She pulled herself out of the tank. Zack was still staring at the screen, looking gobsmacked, as was Angeal, whom Cissnei was translating for in a low, rushed voice. Tseng looked almost ready to express an emotion.

"You did it," said Zack. "You really, actually did it. Holy shit..."

"That's not workplace language," she said.

"We just discovered another planet in another universe," said Cissnei, also busy staring at her notes, "I think we deserve a 'holy shit' or two."

"Feedback," said Tseng brusquely. "We gave you two minutes. Tell us everything you can."

Aeris hesitated for a moment, wiping the accumulated moisture from her face with the towel, getting her words in order. "...It was a bit scary," she said. "I... saw something. Almost definitely objects and not hallucinations. Couldn't move for some reason. It sort of felt like I was choking."

Angeal turned around. "The partial?" he asked. Aeris shrugged.

"Can't think of any reason otherwise. Your head stayed above the surface the entire time," said Lazard.

"There's other issues we need to fine tune," said Zack, finally turning away from the note screen to look at Aeris, thumbing back towards it to direct her attention there. Prominently displayed was

minor hallucinations look like lights

very dark here, spatial distortion or limited human perception

amazing sol4igroundηdid232 lλわooks enclosed struχ24ure cave meれt maybe sign2αλわ111 yos1れ deの twowall 33tΘ1子14 metrρe供 unmer

hurtπ痛ain 6chest mine

Aeris frowned. "That's... not what I wrote."

"We figured as much," replied Lazard. "You're lucky we managed to parse the last bit. That's a safety concern we need cleared up before we try this out in full. Get cleaned up and meet us back here to disseminate our findings."

A couple hours later, they had discovered most of the difficulties had been due to it being a "test run" in the first place. The choking sensation had its roots in the same problem: higher brain functions had registered, leaving the more basic ones behind.

They'd been deemed unnecessary and a waste of power on a test run.

"Maybe you don't need to breathe, but your brain thought you did," explained Tseng. "Just as it had decided you had no nerves with which to move. Easily fixed."

Other issues lacked the necessary data for them to do much more than guess. Strangely enough, the pattern they'd used to get here seemed to be missing parts of it, snuffed out by Aeris's own, yet the signal had been more or less maintained. And there was the matter of her notes.

"I took measurements of what I saw," she explained. "Don't know how accurate they were. There shouldn't be that many numbers."

"We don't know what's making it do that," said Zack. "Shouldn't we -- "

"No" interrupted Aeris. "We're doing the next run tomorrow, and it'll probably clear up with the rest of the issues we had when we do it for real."

"And if it doesn't?" asked Tseng.

"Then we do it anyway. I'll just have to remember everything until we get it worked out." She was met with silence. "Think about it. Do we have any alternative? We've come this far."

Angeal said something else, and it took Cissnei a moment to tear her eyes away from the note screen, realise he was talking, and relay it to everyone else.

"'We keep going. We've made incredible progress, and we're about to make more. Would it be possible to do it with the lid off, and watch you directly?'"

"Probably. Maybe a bit of sensory bleed, but I can keep my eyes shut," she replied. "I'd say we do the next run today, but I don't know if I want to be drugged twice in one go."

Angeal said something else.

"'It's all about finding the path of least resistance. From our end, at least. We have a limited understanding of physics that --' I didn't translate that for you. How did..." Cissnei trailed off, looking between Aeris and Angeal, who sighed.

"I felt it would be prudent to allow you to continue translating. I assumed there was at least one other person in the group that would also require your skills," said Angeal curtly. "Clearly no one else thought the same."

"...You spoke English this entire time," said Cissnei slowly.

"Yes."

"Everyone here speaks English."

A chorus of affirmatives from the group.

"I -- why am I here, then?!" she sputtered.

"I assumed someone else would need the help," said Angeal.

"So did I," added Tseng.

"...If it helps, I know Spanish," offered Zack, scratching his neck. "If you wanna leave, the airlock's that way."

"Well, perhaps I don't!" she huffed. "Perhaps I am going to stay here anyway so you can all continue to spare my feelings!"

"Actually, maybe you have to!" said Aeris brightly. "You already went through decontamination. Going back out off schedule counts as an emergency. It could set off an investigation and stall the project for weeks. Maybe even months."

"...Thank... you?" said Cissnei after a moment, considering whether or not this was a good thing.

"You're welcome," replied Aeris. "The drugs have made me very tired, and I'm going to take a nap." Which is what she did.

The next two days were spent processing their findings and fine-tuning the tank for their first official launch. There unfortunately wasn't much data to go on about the other universe from the trial run, so most of the focus was on Aeris herself and the tank. Lazard had decided that the lid could be opened mid-process as necessary, but that the lights should remain dimmed. Cissnei would be watching the entire time ready to pull the plug at the first sign of distress, a position that she was determined to take very seriously out of resentment. Angeal and Zack would both be working with Aeris herself to focus on refining the overlap signal. Tseng had been largely quiet the entire time. Aeris walked up behind him and cleared her throat.

"Anything we should know about?" Aeris probed.

"Actually, yes," Tseng admitted. "It's not really concrete. More of a guess than a hypothesis, but... the reason we're able to recognise the signal as a familiar pattern is... I think, partially because it's organic in nature. That must have been what the late Dr. Gainsborough was identifying."

Aeris paused to consider this. "How do you know?" she asked.

"Brainwaves. Or something like them."

"...Is it intelligent?"

"That's difficult to say," said Tseng. "It could be an intelligence we lack the scientific knowledge to comprehend, but based off what we know about biology on Earth, no. Very little, if any brain activity. If there was, there would've been interference the entire time. Some sort of animal, most likely."

"Definitely bigger than a microbe, though?"

"Definitely bigger," agreed Tseng, and it was clear he was trying to downplay his excitement.

"How big did you feel?" asked Zack.

Aeris considered this as well. "I don't really know. It was hard to see, and everything was kind of numbed."

"Y'know, if you want someone else to go in for you --"

"You're volunteering?" she interjected, her eyes narrowing slightly. Zack held up his hands.

"Hell no. You wouldn't get me into that thing for a million dollars. Which is maybe how much they're paying you to do that anyway, so a billion. I thought maybe someone else could volunteer, though."

"It's really not that bad," she said. "A bit unsettling, maybe, but it passes quickly enough."

"You can swim in the hell bathtub all you like, then," returned Zack, turning his chair around to face her.

"I will," said Aeris, "and it'll be groundbreaking for everyone, I'm sure. Now come help me compile this. There's something here Angeal says might be a bug, and we'll need to do the next run perfectly or risk falling behind schedule." She opened the container on the counter to her left and tapped it with her pencil.

"Gummy bear?" she offered.

"Thought you'd never ask," interjected Angeal, reaching over the both of them. It was about time, she supposed.

Chapter Text

The rubber ball hit the floor without anyone catching it and rolled under a desk as an ear-splitting scream sounded from the tank.

Zack was the first one over, abandoning his game of catch and wrenching the lid of the tank off, revealing a flailing Aeris, now thrashing and clutching at her side, her right arm curled into her body. Lazard was there just a moment afterwards, which was fortunate considering her movements had caused her to briefly slip under the surface of the fluid, cutting off her scream with choked coughing.

"Give me a hand," he instructed, a bit unnecessarily, as the entire crew had now crowded around the tank to pull her out, splashing the floor with neuroconductive fluid.

Everyone looked at Lazard, so Zack looked at him too. Lazard seemed to be ignoring all of them, examining Aeris's perfectly undamaged arm. "She's stable, it looks like," he said.

"So how many stable people do you know scream for no reason?" returned Cissnei as she dodged Aeris's other elbow as it flailed at her.

"Not now," said Lazard sharply. "Aeris? Can you hear me?"

 


 

"This suit itches," said Aeris, after a moment of consideration, blinking the blinding flash out of her eyes. She awkwardly reached her arm behind her back, pulling at the fabric there with the silver foil at her spine.

"The sooner you get into the tank, the sooner you won't care," replied Angeal without turning around as he fiddled with the camera, trying to fit it back into its case. This one was much fancier than Aeris's cheap polaroid -- these cameras were CERN's own equipment, for personal documentation, and given first contact was about to potentially occur, the public would probably want a photo of the moment for posterity.

"They got their photo," grumbled Aeris, waiting until Lazard finished attaching the electrodes before carefully lowering herself into the liquid, "at the press conference."

"Those were just promos. They don't count," said Zack, who had just come back in holding a couple towels. "Anything we get from your brain is gonna be really grainy and smudgy. So these will have to do."

"Then let's get this done," she said, carefully floating herself onto her back again as someone outside her field of vision lowered the lights in the room.

"So, this is it?" came Zack's voice from the microphone, and also from directly above her, since the lid of the tank was off.

"This is it," she confirmed. "D'you dare me to write 'Aeris was here' on the nearest wall?"

"If whatever space poodle you're piggybacking off of has thumbs."

Aeris pulled the mask on over her face. "Here's hoping."

"Count for me," said Zack, and the note screen flickered back on.

 


 

The low droning sound was louder now, which she knew was a ridiculous concept -- there couldn't be any sound because she presently didn't have ears to perceive it, and even if she did, there was no reason it would be louder this time.

It was impossibly, unfathomably deep here, and Aeris felt for one wild, irrational moment that she wasn't supposed to be here, that the emptiness wasn't empty at all, and that somehow it knew she was here.

The first wave of sensation was overwhelming, and washed her clean out of the empty space. Her surroundings swam, and she again felt the choking sensation, and took a deep breath.

The fact that she had just "breathed" suddenly hit her, and she hastily made a note of it as her vision slowly began to sharpen.

The numbness was gone now, and was replaced with an overwhelming amount of information. Her vision was fuzzy and distorted, but there were smells reaching her nose that she had no name for. She felt as though she were standing in a vast hall, the smallest noises amplified tenfold. Her entire body felt tense, as though she were crouched at the starting line of a marathon, ready to spring into motion at a moment's notice.

As surreal as everything looked and sounded, it felt awfully tangible for something being experienced via proxy. She was breathing, somehow, or at least her brain was very convinced that she was. She imagined as though she were awake, and it was simply a very strange dream, and decided to move forward, just one step.

She felt -- actually felt -- herself move, her weight settling as her foot (or at least what she had convinced herself was a foot) hit the ground. She suppressed a small gasp, and actually began to look around properly.

She still wouldn't quite focus on anything around her, as though she were trying to puzzle her surroundings out of a magic eye picture, except for the brief periods where everything was too sharp, and she was forced to shut her eyes and blink it away. Her vantage point seemed to be about a metre and a half off the ground, more or less. She was in some sort of enclosed structure, the edges of which seemed a bit rough -- rocks, she was fairly confident, though the minerals in them would probably remain undetermined for now. There was light coming from a spot to her left that seemed less solid. A hole in the wall, then, with a sun, or perhaps a moon. Looking directly up revealed more of the structure over her head. No good.

She took another step forward, and then another. It felt awfully similar to walking, with a slightly different centre of gravity. She wasn't sure how much of it was her own brain interpreting it into something familiar for her, and how likely it was the creature she was using was actually bipedal. She wondered briefly if she was naked, but as she continued to slowly walk, she realised that there didn't seem to be anyone around to care.

There was a spot a couple metres ahead that seemed passable, the wall lower to the ground, to reveal space in front of it, and she willed herself forward and began to climb. The structure she was in seemed to have multiple layers to it, she realised, as she explored further. Some paths seemed natural and easier to navigate. Others she had to haul herself up, and was pleased to find another set of limbs in the front, just as fuzzy and distorted as everything else, that functioned familiarly enough for her to use them as leverage during her climb.

After spending a while climbing without reaching the top, she concluded that perhaps she was underground and that the light source might not necessarily be a star. She paused, feeling slightly winded, more from occasionally forgetting to breathe, and began to take notes. On her surroundings, the light outside, the way sounds seemed so much louder, the unfamiliar scents, and the way her environment seemed to shift from looking like a Picasso fever dream one moment to a series of sharp lines the next.

She blinked hard a few times, the strange shifting landscape beginning to give her a headache, and then actually considered the fact that she had blinked. She stopped surveying the landscape for a moment and began to very carefully focus on each nerve reporting information back to her.

Four limbs, that much she could tell. At least six or seven fingers -- halfway through counting the world around her suddenly seemed to swim again, and she found herself losing count, and for a brief moment she was certain she was climbing ten minutes ago. She breathed in, and then out again, paying careful attention to the air in her lungs, wondering how much of it was her own mind tricking her into the sensation, and how much of it was real. It certainly seemed real -- made a note of that too, and resolved to ask Tseng how likely it was that another species on another world would have evolved respiration.

What was strange, she thought, was how she was still moving. She wasn't moving. She was standing here, and she had been moving maybe ten minutes ago, hadn't she? The world continued to pinch itself around her, and something moved next to her. Or maybe around her. Or maybe in her. The sky was the ugly red colour of an open wound, and in the distance, there was a second moon, and Aeris was slowly but surely becoming more whole. Older songs leaked in through the gaps, and one of them seemed oddly familiar...

Aeris.

Really familiar. The walls seemed a lot closer, too.

"Aeris."

It sounded --

"Aeris!"

She was lying on her back on the floor, with Zack shaking her slightly and Lazard staring at him disapprovingly. She was still drenched, and everything around her seemed just as unreal as before. She blinked a couple times in confusion and looked between the two of them.

"...You pulled me out?"

Zack nodded. "There was some weird stuff going on with the signal Angeal and I will go over with you in a little bit, but on top of that, uh..."

"You fell asleep," said Lazard, a hint of amusement in his voice. "Actual sleep, not the temporary induced coma. A bit too much sedative. It took us a half hour to notice when you stopped writing us notes."

"You feeling okay?" asked Zack, handing her a towel as Aeris started shivering, the colder air of the room finally beginning to get to her.

"Fine," she replied, wrapping it around herself and getting to her feet. "What about the signal?"

"It's... c'mere," replied Zack, leading her over to one of the computers, where Angeal was seated, frowning at the screen.

"Another bug," he said after they had pulled up chairs. "One we didn't anticipate. Everything we got off you kept overlapping."

"That, coupled with your notes... we figured there's something going on."

Aeris turned away from the screen and looked back at her own notes. A lot of them were measurements, this time clearly in English, as anticipated. Some were sensory information. But they seemed to be out of order -- something she distinctly remembered "writing" towards the end of the jump posted before her noting the light in what may or may not have been the sky.

"It's not just scrambled, either," said Zack, following up her thoughts, "you wrote some of it in backwards. We checked, and it's not supposed to be able to do that."

"We found a specific point in space to use," began Aeris, "but not so much a point in time. It's all out of order -- what we measured the last time and this one." She turned back to Angeal. "That accounts for some of the fuzz, probably."

Zack stared at the screen for several moments. "So we've got our pick of anywhere in... time, basically?"

"Anywhere there's a good frequency for us to use, I'd assume."

"That's -- that changes everything."

"It would," said Aeris, "if we didn't only have one point left with a good frequency... maybe that's what shut off all the others. Maybe they're too far back?"

"That's too many 'maybes' for a project with billions dumped into it already," interjected Angeal. "We should do things in order from now on. Maybe if we know it's safe we'll investigate that later." Aeris didn't bother hiding her disappointment, but conceded that perhaps he had a point. Instead she turned back to the screen.

"Do we have enough data to do that? We've got two points in time that we've chronicled so far."

"Maybe so," he replied. "Only one way to find out for sure."

Aeris nodded and turned on her heel back to the tank before Zack caught her shoulder. "Wait, that's not --"

She pulled her arm away and gave him a stern look. "Why not? We're wasting time."

"Because we just drugged you for four or five hours straight, is why," he said, holding her stare, "and because it won't do anyone any good if you wind up addicted to nox or dead. And because you've been basting in NC fluid the whole time and it's probably a bad idea to spend all day in it."

With this, Lazard stepped over. "As the medical professional on this project, I'd say wait at least a day. Perhaps two."

"...One day, then," relented Aeris. "Don't blame me if we wind up off-schedule." With that, she strode off, taking the towel with her.

She knew it was probably a bit juvenile to let it bother her so much. She supposed by anyone's standards they'd probably already made enough of a groundbreaking discovery to break even on the massive investment that was this project, but for some reason it didn't feel like much. Two bridgings in, and there were already two human errors that could have been easily caught ruining both runs. This was supposed to be the good one, the one that didn't ruin any careers or cause any deaths.

She wrung the NC fluid out of her ribbon and changed out of the jumpsuit. Her fingers had gotten a bit pruney, and her limbs felt stiff. She thought back to how she had felt strangely energised during the bridging, and if it had been her own pent up energy from being cooped up as long as she had.

The warm shower in the medical room provided her an opportunity for her to begin shaking off the effects of the drugs, though the temptation to nap was still great. One day to kill, then. Fine. She could handle one day.

She returned to the fifth ring half an hour later and began to rearrange her notes into something coherent. She kept a copy of the originals as well, just in case. Historic something or other, probably. Zack was still there, as was Cissnei, still looking rather glum.

"A watched computer never compiles any data," said Zack after several minutes of silence from the both of them. Aeris grunted.

"Mine won't, maybe," she said. "You want help with anything?"

"No," said Zack quickly, then added, "No, uh... I'm sort of a perfectionist about this stuff. I'd rather do it myself first. No offense or anything." He scratched his neck nervously. "But hey, if I screw it up, you're welcome to point it out before Angeal does."

Aeris shrugged. "Suit yourself."

There was another few minutes of silence that was eventually punctuated by Cissnei getting out her contraband phone and putting on music again. Definitely early nineties, she decided, before Nirvana killed everyone's careers. A lot of instrumentals.

"...Sorry about this," she said to Cissnei after a moment.

"Don't be," said Cissnei. "It's a fair tradeoff, I think, getting to be here for it. And besides, maybe someone will want a break from speaking English all the time."

"Do you?" asked Zack.

"A little," she admitted. "Though this is maybe a problem the two of you don't have."

"I know a bit of French from school," offered Aeris. "It's probably terrible, though. Last time I was in that class I was thirteen."

"I'm about used to it by now," said Zack, to her surprise. "Picked up English young enough to where I didn't have to think about it too hard."

"I thought you were American?"

"I am now, yeah. My family and I are from Guatemala, though," he said. He looked away again. "I was only half kidding about the basketball scholarship. It... wasn't the one I wound up going with, but they did offer it. Good think I went into STEM instead, right? I'd hate to think you'd all have never met me." He turned back to Aeris, the cheeky grin back in place. "So, what about you two?"

Aeris shrugged. "Lived here more or less my whole life, if the complexion wasn't a tip-off," she said. "Moved to America for two years when I was eight because my mother had gotten a job there at Harvard. Then we moved back."

"I ran into Aeris at one of her first seminars," said Cissnei. "I was not working as an interpreter then, but both our parents were there for the conference, and we both got dragged along." She tapped her phone a couple times. "No signal here," she said to no one in particular. That seemed to prompt something from Zack, and he got up and walked out of the room.

"You want to help me practise my French?" Aeris scooted her chair closer to Cissnei.

"You know what? Yes," Cissnei turned down the music on her phone and steepled her fingers. "It'll be nice if I'm the one that knows what we're talking about for once."

 


 

After making a quick stop at his room, Zack went back out to the first ring, the one that was mostly storage rooms. He brought with him a rubber ball about the size of a tangerine, his own smuggled contraband. The first ring would hopefully be empty enough to where nothing important would be broken if he missed a catch, but he doubted that would happen anyway. It was something he'd grown rather fond of during his brief time at college -- apparently, being able to rapidly calculate vectors in your head made a lot of ball games much more interesting. At least, they did to him.

The first throw had the ball resounding off the wall with a sharp thock that reverberated strangely around the curved hallway. Zack turned around and waited -- he'd put quite a bit of power behind his first throw. Sure enough, the ball came ricocheting down the other side of the hall, where he caught it neatly. He threw it back the other way with a short grunt, turned around, and after a moment caught it again.

He continued that way for some time. The facility had been designed for a bunch of scientists to do science in, and not an athlete to remain in shape, not counting the treadmill in the innermost room. Jogging in circles would probably make him nauseous, so this was his alternative. He wished he’d had it during the jump they’d done earlier today. Once the procedure started, there wasn’t much that he could do with his hands in the meantime until the whole thing was over, and that could be at least an hour, maybe more.

Despite the stuffiness, the environment had been a nice change of pace. Nobody had asked him for anything but to do his job. Everyone was a little prickly, sure, but he was confident that would fade given enough time -- everyone liked Zack. And when everyone here wound up liking him as well, it wouldn't really matter whether or not they did, because by then he'd have done his job anyway.

The rest of the day passed slowly enough as they slowly, methodically catalogued what data they'd managed to collect thus far. Zack in particular spent a lot of time checking and rechecking the disc listing their only waypoint. The bug Angeal had mentioned hadn't affected anything they'd been doing so far, meaning either it wasn't a bug, or that perhaps the same mistake had been made in every step of the process, hopefully causing it to cancel out. The effects hadn't been felt so far, but he wanted to make sure they stayed that way.

It took him the entire day and some of the next to go over every single set of numbers Aeris and Angeal had been using, and in the end he found nothing. It was airtight. Maybe Angeal had made the mistake?

Except he hadn't, because when he went back a second time, there was the anomaly, plain on its face. So someone was doing something wrong, and it wasn't Aeris, who'd done everything branching from the data salvaged from the first bridging experiment to setting up the frequency they were using now, and it wasn't Angeal, who had looked over her data and found a glaring mathematical impossibility, and it wasn't Zack, who had checked over both their work three -- no, four times now, and found that they were somehow both correct.

Maybe Tseng had gotten into the files? Unlikely -- from what he'd read, he'd been trying to get in on this project for years, and wouldn't risk jeopardising it over something that stupid. Lazard? He was a medical consultant and wouldn't have any reason to get his patients killed. Cissnei? Maybe, if she wanted to feel like she was contributing... but the bug was found before she'd been snubbed. It had possibly been around for years. Why had no one caught it until now?

He began to toss his ball again, this time straight up in the air, since there wasn't much he could safely bounce it off of surrounded by all these computers. The door to the fifth ring opened as Aeris and Lazard came back in, ready for another round, and Zack groaned upon realising how long he'd spent in this room. Perhaps no one had caught it up until now was because they'd had no data to check it against. Except they did, because that data was what this project was based off of. So what had they found? Drs. Gainsborough and Gast.

He almost asked, but then thought better of it. "Hey so is it possible your dead parents might've screwed something up?" wouldn't be the best jumping off point for him to use now that the team had finally started warming up to him, and neither would accusing someone of tampering with the computers. So instead he set his work aside to share with Angeal later and went to grab more towels for today's bridging.

"You look terrible," commented Aeris as she came in with the suit on, tying her hair back.

"Thanks," mumbled Zack. 

"It's something I have to be concerned about," she said. "Angeal isn't going to be able to run this procedure by himself."

"I'm fine," he said, brushing the hair out of his eyes and sitting up with a groan. "Just frustrated."

"About the bug?" asked Aeris, looking over the electronic dry erase board he'd been using and the scratch paper he'd branched out onto when he'd filled that out.

"That -- yeah, I mean --"

"You shouldn't worry about it. It's been working so far, hasn't it? Any problems we've had up until now have been human error. The numbers are solid."

Zack wordlessly nodded. "I guess so, but --"

"So the problem is on our end, not the process's," she said, climbing back up to the edge of the tank and holding still as Lazard began to attach the electrodes. "We'll get it sorted out once we've finished collecting enough data to sort it with."

"Sure. Sounds good." Zack pocketed his ball and sat by Cissnei.

"You look terrible," she said to him as he leaned back in his chair. Zack looked at her dourly but didn't say anything.

"You could've smuggled in anything and you picked that," she said, gesturing to the lump in his pocket. He fished it back out and shrugged.

"I've got issues with sitting still for hours on end," he said. "And I didn't smuggle it. It's been decontaminated like everything else, including your grubby, germ-infested phone. Why not just bring an iPod or something?"

"Because nobody owns iPods anymore, Zack. They all have phones."

"I'm still here," came Aeris's voice from the tank. Zack clicked on the microphone.

"Ready when you are," he said, rolling the ball between his fingers on the table. "Down from... make it thirty."

"Why thirty?"

"Stronger signal, more to check," grunted Zack. So tired.

A sigh came from the tank, then numbers, which also began appearing sequentially on the screen.

Eventually, the counting stopped, and Zack forced himself to wake up properly and went back to rolling the ball between his fingers and staring at the screen as more data started coming in. Couldn't afford to doze off in the middle of a jump. If something went wrong, which it wouldn't, it'd be immediately blamed on him. Don't screw up. Was that a three or an eight? Don't screw up. Just make it through the next few hours. Don't screw up.

Which is what he spent the next ten minutes repeating to himself before the deafening shriek snapped him out of his stupor.

 


 

Something seemed to press against her this time. Or maybe she was the one not pressing hard enough, like trying to submerge a kickboard underwater. She was more acutely aware this time of the sudden pop-in of sensations, the first of which was a blinding light she hadn’t noticed the first two times.

It definitely felt... not necessarily better, but sharper, and not in the painful way. The shapes were a lot clearer this time, but at the same time, they were still blurred. That didn't seem right.

She stared out in front of her, and it became apparent to her that she she was a bit chilly. She realised was moving very, very quickly, and marvelled at the feeling of the wind in her hair, though that didn't feel quite right either (perhaps because she might not have had any? Something to be determined this time around).

Something else was wrong -- she wasn't moving herself, but her surroundings, still slightly distorted, continued to rush past her. Her body felt strange and tingly, and there was a deafening roar all around her.

And then she saw something moving at her. She couldn't make out what it was, but it was coming closer, and closer, and she had just a moment to realise that she wasn't stopping, that she couldn't stop, before she slammed into it.

Her vision went white as an agonised scream tore itself from her throat. Her right arm, and much of that side, felt as though they had been crushed in a vice, and her head was ringing. Things were touching her all over in the vast empty space she was in, clawing towards her, trying to get at the cut they'd made, at the organs that were surely spilling out all over the lab floor, and she had just a moment to realise that it was the emptiness itself that wanted in before --

"AERIS! Can you hear me?"

Her eyes snapped open to see Lazard kneeling over her, concern on his face. Her arm still stung, and it was because she realised she had dug her fingernails into her forearm hard enough to draw blood. She immediately relaxed her hand and sat up, giving a confused look to all the shaken faces surrounding her.

"...Why am I on the floor again?" was the first thing out of her mouth as soon as she noticed, replacing the much more obvious question that she was planning on asking. It was chilly here as well, if only because she was still drenched from the tank. A few moments after she began shivering, Cissnei handed her a towel.

The others shared an uncomfortable glance, and before waiting for them to answer she forged ahead anyway. "That was out loud, wasn't it?" She got a nod from Cissnei.

"Are you alright?" asked Lazard, who still hadn't backed off and was now checking her pupils for dilation response.

"Yeah, I'm... fine?" she said uncertainly, which seemed strange in and of itself; apart from the small cuts she'd unknowingly gouged into her forearm, the pain was completely gone, and there was no evidence of any damage, physical or otherwise.

"We didn't get any notes on the screen from you," said Tseng quietly, shaking his head at her first attempt to stand up until she'd been fully looked over. "Everyone assumed the worst."

"I'm fine... I mean, I didn't really have time to take any. Everything happened very fast."

"Explain."

"I was only there for maybe a few seconds. It..." she screwed her face up, trying to remember. "I was... moving. I mean, I wasn't moving -- walking, but I was moving anyway. Very quickly. Everything sort of dragged. And... I hit something." The meaning of what she was saying suddenly clicked for herself. "I was falling, then. Must have been."

"Off of what?" asked Angeal, who quickly ran back over to the computers, with Cissnei following him.

"No idea. Hurt like mad, though, so it must have been from high up." Lazard finally backed up and allowed her to get to her feet, then left to get something with which to patch up her arm. A thought occurred to her as she stared at the droplets of blood welling up at the little crescent shaped nicks, and she looked back up. "Our waypoint -- is it still --"

"I'm checking now," said Angeal tersely. The room went silent. If Tseng was right, and the waypoint was organic, and if it had fallen off of something....

About five minutes later, he nodded. "Yeah. Still running like normal, looks like." Aeris felt her chest unclench. There was that going for them, at least.

"You said it hurt," said Lazard, who had just finished applying the bandage.

"Yeah, it did."

"I want you to submit to another physical, then," said Lazard. "It could be because your mind tricked itself into thinking it did, or you could have nerve damage. We won't know for sure until I check."

"It was clearer this time," said Aeris, "and my head didn't hurt looking at anything. The clearest it's been. We keep going. We're getting closer."
Zack, who had been quiet up until now, let out a quiet breath he must have been holding. Aeris turned to look at him.

“What?” he asked nervously.

“Did you see something?”

“No. I didn’t.”

“...You shouldn’t lie about something like that,” said Aeris, crossing her arms. Zack stood up.

“I’m not lying!”

“Then why’d you say it like that?”

“Because -- I don’t know, maybe I should have?” he pinched the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t see anything. Maybe I’d have noticed it normally, but... “

“Well… we’ll find out later when we go over things, won’t we?” said Aeris. Zack wilted a bit but did nothing but glance uncomfortably at the computer screen again.

"The sooner you let me look at you, the sooner I can clear you for another run," said Lazard from the doorway, clearly still rattled. Aeris turned to leave, still staring at her arm. It had felt so much more real that time. In fact, if it didn't sound completely mad to suggest it, it almost felt like --

Chapter Text

Cloud had been staring at his window for the last hour. It was past 7:30 in the morning. Nothing had woken him up. Nothing had moved. He hadn't heard any whispers. Jenova had resumed its usual buzz in the back of his mind.

He slowly reached back and peeled away some of the paper he'd covered the glass with, and was greeted with a view of the street. He began tearing away more of it, and pulled open his window. A cool breeze wafted in from the street, carrying the scents of the market that had just started to set up a few blocks away. The sharp tang of garlic and some sort of fish sauce made his mouth water, and he resolved to pick up the kebabs he was reasonably sure was the source later on.

The normalcy of the idea suddenly struck him, and he closed his window again and jogged downstairs, snatching his sunglasses off the counter on the way down. Jessie was still asleep in the back room, so he gently shook her, and received a muffled, "...go 'way..." in response.

He considered leaving anyway, but eventually decided against it. The market probably wasn't even set up yet, and showing up an hour early before the food was even cooked would come across as extremely rude at best, and raise a lot of uncomfortable questions at worst. Instead he decided to have a proper shower. It had been longer than he would have been comfortable to admit.

He left his sunglasses in the sink, where he'd hopefully notice them and remember to put them back on, and peeled off the clothes that were probably starting to smell a bit. The boxers and sweatpants were his, but the overlarge t-shirt was something Barret had left on the couch last month that he'd taken to using as pyjamas, since walking around topless in front of potential customers was something he'd been trying to avoid doing lately. The splotchy scar covering much of his left arm and a third of his torso and back was hardly the most gruesome injury he'd sustained, and was one of the few he was actually proud of, to a degree, but given its source... well, best not to scare people off.

The water from the showerhead -- as hot as he could stand, which was usually close to boiling -- eased the knots in his shoulders away, and he leaned against the wall with a tired groan, because he could, because he controlled when the water went on and off, thank you very much. No more rushed public showers, or dunks in a freezing river in the middle of nowhere, or... other things. As a result of all of it, Cloud didn't have much in the way of modesty, but this was just one more thing that was nice to be able to do on his own time.

After his six minute shower (he gave himself an extra minute just because he could, and refused to feel guilty about it), he leaned out of the shower and realised he'd forgotten to grab a towel. Jessie was asleep downstairs, the bar was empty... nobody would see.

He leaned out the door and fixed his gaze on the linen closet at the end of the hall. The door flew open of its own accord, and a few towels flopped out onto the floor, before one in particular raced into his waiting hand and he dragged it inside.

Now that he probably should have felt a bit guilty about. But it was convenient, the hallway was cold, and no one had seen it. Besides, it's not like he could do much more than that with it. Ripping apart skyscrapers was undeniably out of his skillset for the foreseeable future.

He dried off, put his sunglasses back on, and went to his room to actually put on clothes. Clean ones, at that.

After that, he was at a loss for what to do. There was nothing to fix, or to fight, and no one had told him to do anything in particular. Instead he just went downstairs to wait for Jessie to wake up.

It was another hour until she did. She yawned, then gave a bit of a start when she realised Cloud had been sitting there staring at her the entire time.

"Don't you have anything you'd rather be doing besides watching me sleep?" she said uneasily.

"No."

"No... pressing appointments?"

"Not anymore." He thought about this for a moment. "...I guess I could go make some."

"Do that. And go outside while I change, thanks. Not all of us are fine with stripping in front of an audience." And with that he was herded back into the hallway, trying not to feel faintly insulted. If he didn't know better it almost seemed like he had made her uncomfortable.

He snatched up one of the server pads from behind the bar and stared at the paper, trying to think of appointments he could just "make". He didn't really know anyone outside of the former members of Avalanche. He assumed more socially adept people could make friends by approaching strangers on the street and striking up conversations about weather, but Cloud liked pretty much all weather, and interacting with strangers didn't really appeal to him. And it wasn't as if he just knew if someone across the city had a broken roof, or a crooked door, or...

A clogged sink. It had been a week already, hadn't it? Perhaps there was something that he knew needed fixing.

He scrawled a quick note to Jessie, stuffed his wallet into his pocket, and left the bar. Street meat first. Then Ms. Suk.

The streets were much busier now that it was sunny, and later in the day, so he parked Fenrir and took a walk through the market to actually buy his kebab. He felt eyes burning into him and looked around, and caught a fleeting glimpse of a pair of eyes widening at being found out before vanishing into the shadows. He frowned, then bought a second, and proceeded into the alley.

As expected, a few metres in and around the corner, he found a child, perhaps around twelve years old. Her clothes were dirty and her hair was matted, and the skin around her jaw and neck was melted-looking. He stared for a moment at the location -- she was lucky to be alive.

His silence gave the wrong impression, and she glared at him. "I was here first. I've been here for weeks."

He nodded. "That's fair enough," he said evenly, then held out the kebab. She shifted her glare to the food, just as suspicious as before, which had been expected. In response, he clamped his own kebab between his teeth and used his free hand to roll up his jacket sleeve, exposing his left arm and the matching scar tissue on it. She stared at it for a few moments, then looked back up at him, not as hostile as before. "I thought grown-ups didn't get the stigma."

"Most can't," he managed to say through his teeth. She looked at the grilled chunks of chicken he was offering, clearly hungry, then quickly snatched it from his hand and sat down against a wall to eat. Cloud sat next to her, taking a bite of his own.

"My friend told me about you," she said, in between bites of food. "He said you lived in the Sector Six ruins. You caught rabbits."

Cloud nodded. "I did, for a little while."

"I thought he made you up." Cloud finished up his kebab and looked up to see the girl peering inquisitively at his sunglasses. "Do you really have -- "

"Would it matter if I did?" he said tersely. She shrugged and went back to eating.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Aya. My friend's name was Denzel. He was outside when the rain came."

Cloud nodded again. What was there to say? "...My name's Cloud."

"It's nice to meet you, Cloud." The girl, Aya, was now looking at him curiously. "How old are you?"

"Twenty-five, I think. Give or take a few months."

"You don't know?" He shook his head. "Well... that's mostly not a grown-up. So I guess I can see why you got it. Were you outside too?"

"Yeah. I could've gone inside, I was close enough. Stayed out anyway. I thought... it'd either kill me, or it'd make me better. I was sick of being... sick, I guess."

For some reason, it was fairly easy talking to this stranger he met in an alley. It felt like talking to Tifa, or Barret -- perhaps because they'd all lost the same things, more or less.

"That's kind of crazy."

"Kind of, yeah. I do a lot of stupid things."

"...I went outside too, though. Because I wanted to be better. So I guess we both are."

Cloud finished picking the last bits of meat off of his skewer and began to snap it into even pieces. "Crazy, or better?"

"Better," she said simply. "It's not crazy to want to not be sick all the time. Even if it did hurt a whole lot either way."

Cloud would have replied, but a noise from behind him took the words from his mouth. Because there was nothing behind him but a brick wall.

He froze, and the noise began getting louder. The alley they were in suddenly felt a lot wider.

"...Is something wrong?" said Aya, suddenly looking concerned as Cloud's eyes fixed on one of the shadows in front of him. It didn't seem to acknowledge her, and was instead slowly approaching him.

"I have to go," he blurted. He jumped to his feet and tore out of the alley, leaving the girl yelling something he didn't bother catching after him.

They were keeping pace with him now as he tore through the marketplace over to Fenrir. He was moving very quickly now, far more quickly than a normal human should be able to run, and drawing all sorts of looks and startled yells from the passersby in the stalls, but none of that mattered more right now than getting back to his bike. He refused to let it happen a third time.

He vaulted onto Fenrir and turned the key, taking off. They were still keeping pace with him, and he felt the edges of his mind begin to fog over again, but the sudden burst of speed he got out of the engine tore himself away from them, and he streaked down the street, even faster than he had been running, and raced onto the nearest overpass.

His victory was short-lived. He was tearing down the highway at well over the speed limit, and yet they were still surrounding him. His surroundings blurred from the speed and from the shadows until he couldn't even tell what he was drowning in anymore.

So he didn't even notice as he slumped forwards on his bike, and then went flying as it tipped him forward and flung him from the seat.

He didn't get to hear the loud honking of every car around him, or the screaming of the pedestrians watching.

He didn't notice the semi truck speeding towards him, far too close to possibly swerve out of the way.

And he didn't get to see everything go black a second after.

 


 

There were hands pressing in all around him. The sirens were deafeningly loud, the lights too bright. He wanted to ask them to please turn them down a bit, but for some reason he couldn't move, and everything hurt, and every breath was laboured and excruciating. The faces pressed in around him, and someone put something over his face. A mask, for air.

For the first time in years, Cloud felt genuine fear.

"...don't..." he tried to say, but nobody heard him over their own chatter or the din of the sirens. "...please, don't..."

He knew where they were taking him. He struggled to stay awake, but he still felt nauseous, and dizzy, and the crushing pain in his arm and side were making it hard to stay awake at all.

Don't... he thought desperately, hoping they could somehow hear him.

They were taking him back. They were taking him back, and he never, never,

never

never

never --

 


 

-- never getting out of here. The thought came to him suddenly and simply, as though he had forgotten to put away some clothes, or didn't heat up the wash water quite enough. He was going to die here. Either of old age, or because they killed him first, and for everything they inflicted upon him they were always very careful to keep him alive. The realisation slowly settled in, and as monumental as it was, it did nothing to get him to move from where he lay, still drugged, on his side on the floor of his cell. He reeked of dried blood and stale urine, but eventually they'd spray him off with ice water when it came time to dump him back in the mako tank anyway.

At first, when he had woken up on a stretcher, he thought he was in the medical ward. There were tubes running in and out of him, and from what he could glean he had been out for at least two days. He was still too disoriented from everything that had happened in Nibelheim to even notice the cuffs at first. Eventually, his chest began to heal, and when they still didn't discharge him he started to worry.

That was six months ago. There was nothing positive left to hope for from this place anymore.

He'd tried to escape again. He hadn't gotten particularly far; there were too many sedatives in his bloodstream, too many guards surrounding him, too many hallways to make it down before his legs gave out from under him and he dropped the scalpel he'd stolen. He'd been dragged back to the testing not even ten minutes later when the two guards he'd managed to gouge had been cleaned up and the wounds healed shut. Worse than useless. He couldn't even bring himself to feel sad about the foiled attempt, because he hadn't expected much from any of them in the first place these days.

Hojo had almost seemed disappointed he hadn't gotten further.

"I'm beginning to wonder if those security tapes I was given weren't faked, Series 3," he had said coldly. He gripped Cloud's jaw in his hand and forced him to look up at him. "You have made things more difficult for both of us, to no end. All it has done is demonstrate your ineptitude, and believe you me, neither of us are interested in that. Our goals are not dissimilar. If you could get that into your thick skull, we could have this done much more efficiently."

Cloud had doubted that greatly, and informed the professor in a succinct, efficient manner by wrenching his jaw free and sinking his teeth into Hojo's hand as hard as he could manage before spitting out a muffled, "Fuck you." Hojo yelped in pain briefly, then turned to look at Cloud, his jaw set, and Cloud had earned a knee in the gut from the guard restraining him. Cloud didn't care.

Whatever it was they had planned for him had to wait another ten minutes while Hojo checked for contamination and bandaged his own hand (Cloud realised he had managed to break the skin, as small of a comfort as it was), during which time Cloud was forced back into the examination chair. Hojo began putting away most of the surgical tools he had prepared for the experiment Cloud had interrupted, and instead approached him with a pair of pliers, gesturing to one of the lab assistants to take notes.

"At this stage in the proceedings, the subject has been exposed to sixty percent of the mako concentration of a First Class, and has received ten of the first round of fourteen secondary injections, including two of four retroviruses," he had began, readying an alarmingly high number of sample jars. "Tissue rejuvenation and healing rates have shown a noted improvement, as you have all likely noticed, but our tests have been largely limited to partial samples and simple structures that adult stem cells can easily form replacement cells for. The recovery ability of more complex structures, such as major and minor organs, remains untested." At this Cloud felt his heart skip a beat, and even his assistants gave him a questioning look.

"However," Hojo continued, looking mildly irritated that his subordinates had chosen to question his judgement, "to remove a major organ at this stage of the proceedings would be reckless, even for a project that has been largely trial and error. Therefore, we will begin with the removal of several non-regenerative but, ultimately, non-essential structures." And then Hojo had spun around and struck him across the jaw with the full weight of the pliers.

He'd tasted blood, but the professor had struck again, and then a third time, and that time he felt something crunch. A scream escaped him and his jaw hung slack, and Hojo grabbed it again, forcing the pliers into his mouth, and before he had time to register what was happening there was a wet cracking noise as a molar was wrenched from its socket.

Cloud screamed again, a more shrill, guttural sound, and tried to jerk away, splattering blood down his chin. He'd promised himself he wouldn't, five months ago, but he couldn't help it. There wasn't any point in not screaming, really -- there was nobody around to care whether or not he did, except for perhaps the professor, who always managed to get what he wanted out of him anyway. There wasn't anything he could prove to himself or anyone else here.

Hojo wasn't done. He dropped the tooth into a sample jar, then returned to Cloud. He removed the molar next to it, then the premolar next to that one, and the one next to that, slowly and methodically, categorising each tooth. Cloud's mouth was full of his own blood, and he coughed, cutting off the agonised noises he was making, because it hurt, he couldn't help it, it hurt so much, and the motion of struggling to keep his airways clear spattered more blood onto those neat, white coats. This elicited another pause, where they checked to make sure none of it had gotten onto anything it shouldn't have. Series 3 was a biohazard now.

After what felt like an eternity, Hojo finally put the pliers down and Cloud had thought that perhaps he was finished. Then he had picked up the scalpel.

That had been two days ago, or maybe three. Now he lay sedated on the floor of his cell, diluted blood and saliva dribbling down the side of his face in a thin rope as he was unable to close his jaw properly, and unable to swallow without a tongue. At some point during the removal of his upper left canine, his bladder had given out, eliciting a disgusted laugh from the guards that were now outside his cell. He couldn't bring himself to move, and simply lay there in his cell, bruised, naked (clothes were a privilege and not a right), occasionally gurgling, his cheeks sunken in now that there was nothing in his mouth but torn, bleeding gums. He was sure at one point he must have been dying, though the thought wasn't entirely an unwelcome one. His throat would probably be sore from screaming later, and his head would ache from dehydration, if he could feel either of those things at all through the pain of everything else. Whatever body fat he'd had had long since wasted away, but the performance enhancers he'd been flooded with were meant to artificially rebuild muscle just as quickly, leaving him gaunt and bony and misshapen. He found himself wishing that none of what they'd removed would grow back, because if what the professor had said was any indication, if they did they'd start cutting off more.

He imagined he looked disgusting, sitting in his own urine, eyes red and puffy, nose running, drooling blood. The guards certainly seemed to think so. The more he thought about it, though, the more he realised this was really a good thing. It had been excruciating and humiliating, but this also meant some other tests, the worse ones, would be delayed for a bit while Hojo focused on physically unmaking him, rather than mentally.

If he was honest with himself, he'd actually come to crave some of the tests. In between sessions, whether they were surgeries or injections or dunks in the mako tank or the other tests, the worst ones that took him apart, Hojo had taken to locking him in his cell for days at a time with the lights off, keeping him on an IV drip so he wouldn't even need human contact for food or water. The silence, the bare white walls, the lack of any scents but his own, were all things he would have killed to have a month into the project, when the mako treatments had begun and the sensory overload was one of the worst things he'd had to deal with. Now he found himself longing to be taken back out and put into the mako tank, brought to the operating room, or even just beaten by a bored guard. Negative attention was still attention.

He had tried talking to himself at first, to fill the space around him with some sort of sound. But after a while, he ran out of anything to say, and eventually voices had started talking back, and now he was afraid to say anything that might be worthy of a response. Within hours, faces would begin to peer at him from the walls, which he was sure were beginning to press in on him, like melted plastic, until they were an inch away from him. Now, hands hooked into his jaw, and the faces swarmed his vision, trying to claw their way down his throat, taking out pieces from inside him, and some of them must have managed it because he could feel his thoughts beginning to break down. Lights appeared, flickering, and he realised it was because the room was on fire. He forced himself to shut his eyes, but his chest felt heavy, because the tiny, confined area was full of smoke, and when he opened his eyes again his mother was leaning over him, gently stroking his face and brushing away his tears with her charred fingers, until she dug them into his face and pulled out his tongue. He couldn't move and she kept digging and digging and digging, and he awoke with a cry in the blackness of his cell, not having realised he had fallen asleep. The eyes around him, his only company, quickly returned and melted the walls in further around him, sharpening their gaze. By the end of it, he would have given anything to see anyone. Even Hojo, who didn't particularly care whether or not he begged.

Hojo didn't seem too fussed either way whether or not Cloud sobbed himself into exhaustion. Why should he? Regardless of how much noise he did or didn't make, the tests still got done one way or another. He had thought, for a moment, about what someone else would think if they could see him now... but nobody else that would have thought anything about him in the first place came to mind.

There was no one. His mother was dead. Tifa, the girl that had spoken to him twice, was dead. There was no one else in the world that even knew he existed. The sound of his crying had echoed hollowly in the near-empty room for the first few hours. Now that he wasn't being immediately cut open and bled, tears seemed a ridiculous prospect. A luxury, even. Though perhaps that's because there wasn't much in the way of fluids in his body at the moment anyway. Maybe the guards had a betting pool, but he doubted it, and wouldn't care much if they did.

No friends would come to save him. No family would wonder where he was. No one would come to him, like in the movies he'd heard everyone talk about but never actually been able to afford to see himself, and tell him that he was strong, that he could make it through anything, that he was anything other than some bastard child from a hick town that never once accomplished anything in his life. No one had ever cared before, and now no one ever would.

Hojo had seen potential in him. Hojo cared if he was alive.

Cloud hoped so, anyway. Because this was all he'd ever have. Until he was dead.

Hojo came back to his cell after maybe another four days, when his tongue had grown back enough for him to swallow if he put his mind to it, which the professor seemed to approve of. Cloud had not moved from where they had roughly thrown him into the cell a week ago, and sores had formed on his stomach and legs. His jaw had already healed crooked, with a chance his molars might as well, and would need to be rebroken and set properly.

He came back for me, thought Cloud. He still needs me.

He allowed himself to be dragged back to the worst procedures, which this time they had begun with a new injection, some sort of black, rot-smelling miasma. When bits of him started unwinding again even faster than before, he couldn't seem to be bothered to hold onto them.

Before, he had dreaded these ones most of all -- they were horrible in a way that was worse than any physical pain Hojo put him through. He would have cut out his own tongue a thousand more times than endure another one of their sessions. Now, he wasn't even sure what it was they were taking apart anymore. Everything -- time, memories, emotions, one day to the next -- began to run together in a confusing blur. He just wished Hojo would tell him what it was all for.

No, he thought, as they unhooked the machines after five minutes, or maybe five hours, and began prepping him for the mako tank again. Not just Hojo. There's the other lady.

There was another head doctor on the project, he'd discovered eventually. Hojo worked for Director Lucrecia Crescent, the founder of the Jenova Project. Every month, sometimes more often, sometimes less, she would visit the facility and examine his progress. Cloud liked it when she visited -- it put Hojo in a better mood, and Hojo in a better mood meant more time testing, and less time in his cell, alone. Director Crescent also seemed to be invested in his progress even more than Hojo was.

"Series 3 seems to be responding very well," she had said at month ten, or perhaps eleven, leaning in close and examining his eyes. They glowed brightly, the blue ringed with green, tendrils of light snaking around in his irises towards his pupils, which contracted into thin, reptilian slits in the light. At first it had been only for brief periods directly after mako treatments from the tanks, but now they seemed to be this way permanently, which had garnered a good deal of interest from the staff. They gave him injections of the rot-smelling substance nearly every week. It made Cloud happy when he got them now. Like a hole he didn't know he had in him was being filled.

Director Crescent turned her back to him to address Hojo. Cloud liked to hear her talk. She had a nice voice. It felt like part of him. He didn't know what that meant, but he knew it was true. "It's surprisingly loud," she said.

"I'm led to believe he's already established contact with Jenova," said Hojo... proudly? "He responds quite readily. He's mentioned quite a few interesting things to us about Her already. Haven't you, Series 3?"

It didn't feel strange to him to hear his designation anymore. He was never addressed by anything else. Cloud nodded, eager to confirm. "I can hear Her all the time now. I don't -- I don't know what She's saying. But I can hear Her." He could. She would sing to him into his blood, and it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. He couldn't understand the words, because they weren't words to him, not yet anyway. But they would pull him into Her and make him a part of the tearing, deep, lovely, empty music that filled him up the more parts of him Hojo pushed away. There wasn't really a difference between what he did and what She wanted him to do, not anymore. She was him, and besides, it wasn't as though there ever was much of a him in the first place.

And if there was anyone that cared, more than anyone, whether or not he was alive, that knew him inside-out, that saw him as valuable, as useful, that was with him even when he was completely, utterly alone, it was Mother.

 


 

He woke up in blinding pain, which was to be expected. He felt weak and dizzy. Every sound felt like a needle through his eardrums. The scent of antiseptic and blood choked his lungs.

He decided to chance opening his eyes, and immediately regretted it. He was in a bed with pale green blankets, next to a window with the curtains drawn. He didn't seem to have any weapons on him, and he found himself desperately wishing for one as soon as he noticed the many, many needles inserted into his left arm, and his complete inability to move his right. One side of his head was bandaged, muffling his hearing there. He clenched his hand to keep it from shaking. It wasn't working.

The mask was still over his face, and there were an obscene amount of tubes running in and out of his body -- a couple from his torso, another from his right arm, and one which he was fairly certain was a catheter. He tried to sit up and was met with another pang of agony, but he forced himself to anyway. He noticed the electrodes that had been applied to his chest, as well as the tiny clip clamped onto the index finger of his left hand, which was still trembling along with the rest of him.

That's one thing that can be dealt with, he thought, and immediately yanked them off.

He shoved over the ECG machine, which immediately began making a racket that made his headache exponentially worse, and tried to push himself out of bed. No luck -- there was something very wrong with his chest. Nothing he couldn't handle himself, if he could just escape before they --

"Gods above, he's awake," came a voice from the doorway, which was currently positioned behind a crash cart and the six staff members that had been wheeling it in.

He wasn't sure how long they stood there staring at one another. Time felt strangely gluey. They'd probably drugged him. If he could get these IVs out, then maybe...

A hand caught his own, and the lab assistants -- nurses, the nurses began to gently press him back into the bed. He punched one in the jaw, and he must have really been a wreck, because even with his off hand it should have been enough to crush the nurse's skull like a rotten watermelon. As it was, it simply sent him careening back into the wall, while another one began injecting something else into one of the IV drips. More drugs, he realised, as his arm turned to jelly and they began to subdue him.

When he woke up again in what felt like five minutes but what he knew from experience was probably a few hours, he found the mask swapped out for oxygen tubes and his arm handcuffed to the bed, and tears began welling up in his eyes and sliding down his cheek. He was running out of time. He was in no fit state to do magic, but maybe if he shorted out the lights in just the right way...

"Mister... Strife? You've been through a major ordeal," came a voice from his right, and he turned to see one of the doctors standing at his bedside. "We're here to help you, but I'm going to have to ask you to not assault any more of our staff or attempt to leave the hospital, or we'll have to restrain you further."

He quickly fought back his tears and glared at the doctor, which extremely difficult considering how hard it was to keep his eyes open in the first place. He sure hoped she noticed. Whether or not she did, she gave no indication and continued speaking. "My name is Dr. Laughton, and you're at the Edge Medical Centre. You were in a motorcycle accident. You've been in a coma for three days."

Cloud stopped pulling at the handcuff then, which to his credit was beginning to give way, along with the metal of the bedframe it was attached to. The doctor did notice this, and quickly continued.

"Your body was caught between the wheels of a semi truck and was wound around one of the axles. Paramedics managed to pull you out, but you sustained a fair bit of damage. Your arm was more or less detached from your shoulder," she said, showing him a few x-rays. Cloud didn't know a particularly large amount about human anatomy, but everything he was seeing looked pretty much smashed. He now turned his gaze to his right arm, which was heavily bandaged and in a sling.

"Normally we wouldn't have been able to save it, but due to your... unique biology, the tissue was... easily salvageable by the time we arrived in the operating room."

Unique biology... Cloud's hand ripped through the handcuff then, prompting a yelp from the doctor, and flew to his face. No sunglasses. So they knew.

"...We, er... you'll be happy to note your family was contacted, and your... caretaker has been involved in the process, and he's been made aware you've regained consciousness. You were heavily concussed, so it was in question for a while." She cleared her throat nervously as the pair of glowing eyes burned into her. As concussed as he apparently was, Cloud was sure that even dilated the pupils were not as round as they should have been on a human. If she wasn't lying about contacting his family, it also meant they had probably warned her about what he did to the last doctor they left him alone with.

"...The bigger concern was your ribcage. Your first four ribs on your right side were crushed, and one of them punctured your lung. The second nicked your axillary artery which was already, er... severed. Your collarbone was broken as well, and your third, fourth, and fifth vertebrae have sustained some bruising. You're very lucky to be alive, Mr. Strife."

"When can I leave?" he demanded.

"...We would recommend you stay another night, at least," said Dr. Laughton slowly. "It's generally recommended you stay two weeks, but I'm told you live with two trained healers. You will need to come back in after those two weeks to have the screws in your arm and chest removed. That will require surgery, after which we would recommend two days recuperation."

"Did you take any blood samples?"

"...We -- "

"Burn them."

"Mr. Strife, we need to know if you were inebriated at the time of the crash. It will help us with your treatment. Witnesses say you were speeding and fell off your bike. Apart from a check in at a clinic in Mideel four years ago we don't have anything about your medical or legal history on file, so if you have any psychiatric or neurological disorders... Mr. Strife?"

He stared at Dr. Laughton for a few moments, uncomprehending, before the events of what felt like a few minutes ago began to come back to him. For a moment, the fear returned, and he looked wildly around his room, looking for anything out of place.

"Mr. Strife?"

"I'm fine. I fell asleep. Why don't you tell me what you learned while I was out?" He had managed to stop crying by now, and his terror was slowly being replaced with hostility at the thought of these people putting their hands on him, poking through his insides, making note of every little abnormality lurking in his organs by now...

Whether or not he would have risked further injury to himself to inflict a few on the doctor in front of him, he'd never know. At that moment Barret walked into the room looking haggard.

"I'll allow you two to visit. We'll review treatment later," she said, and hastily fled the room.

Barret waited a full minute for the doctor to round the corner before fixing his gaze firmly on Cloud. "Talk."

"...I fell asleep --"

"Cloud, you're being held together with screws and magic right now, so you're gonna tell me what happened right the fuck now! We both know you didn't crash your damn bike."

His bike! "Is Fenrir okay?" he blurted out before he could stop himself.

Barret pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, your goddamn bike is fine. And so's the lady it skidded into and the driver whose truck you gummed up. What isn't fine is you, so better tell me what the hell's going on right now!"

He looked away. He didn't know the answer, and that was one that Barret didn't want.

Barret seemed to notice him shutting down, and he took a deep breath and tried again. "I need you to tell me what you do know. People are afraid, Cloud."

Cloud forced himself to look at Barret, who he realised hadn't taken his gaze off Cloud. There were bags under his eyes, and his metal arm had what looked like dried blood on the back of it that hadn't been cleaned out yet.

"...I think I passed out. I don't really know. It's... this is the third time it's happened. I thought -- " That seemed to make Barret look even more exhausted, and all the hostility drained out of him in lieu of guilt. " -- I thought... if I drove fast enough, I could outrun them -- it."

"'Them'?"

Cloud swallowed. "Can you please turn the lights off? And the screen. They're hurting my eyes."

Barret got up and dimmed the room lights and switched off the television, which did wonders for Cloud's headache now that he no longer had to listen to the high pitched whine the screen was giving off.

"...I've been seeing things."

Barret looked about ready to explode, and he paced in silence for about a solid minute before rounding on Cloud again, doing his best to keep his voice down.

"...You've been seeing things."

"...Yeah."

"For how long?"

"'Bout three weeks."

"And you didn't tell anyone."

"What the fuck was I supposed to do, Barret? Walk into the nearest clinic and go, 'Hey, I know you're all probably looking for an excuse to decide I'm the next Sephiroth so here's some bona-fide proof I've lost my marbles!'?"

"You're supposed to tell us so we can do something before it gets to that point," he growled. "Because one of these days, you ain't gonna have the chance."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means, how much money do you think it cost to have that driver disinfect his truck?"

"That's not what --"

"How long do you think I've been in this building, watching the doctors to make sure they don't do nothin' they ain't supposed to with you? How long do you think I spent here making sure they didn't send you somewhere else we couldn't watch?"

Cloud was quiet.

"Or how about this: What do you think is gonna happen to you when Reeve and I ain't the one calling the shots anymore?"

The soft beeping of the heart monitor punctuated the silence for what felt like an eternity. Eventually Barret spoke up again, and while his tone was gentler, it did nothing to lessen the impact of what he said next.

"There's gonna be a government set up real soon, Cloud," he said, sitting back down next to his bed and looking at him gravely. "These people found out what you are, because they had to. We told them who you were, because we had to. Because you ain't got any papers, any birth certificate, nothing. All they know is you're the last mistake Shinra's got left still alive. They know they watched your damn arm put itself back on in the ambulance over. They know what you can do, and what people like you have done before. Now, maybe Reeve and I will have a place in that new government. And maybe we won't. And if we don't, then there's suddenly a whole lot less we can do to help you when shit goes south. Because then you really will be on your own, and we both know you can't handle that."

Cloud remained silent. The room seemed even smaller than before.

"...Can you please open the blinds?" he asked softly.

Barret got up and opened the curtains. It was night out, but there was enough moonlight for it to be clearly obvious he was looking outside. Then he sat back down.

"See a doctor, Cloud."

Cloud swallowed thickly as his vision began to blur with tears again, and he struggled to turn his head away, ashamed. Barret put his organic hand on Cloud's shoulder and gave it a small squeeze, and they sat like that until both of them fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Getting released from the hospital the next evening proved to be a much greater ordeal than Cloud had anticipated, considering Barret lacked a car and the hospital wasn't willing to offer chauffeuring to him after the earlier incident with the nurse. He wasn't sure why it was such a big deal -- they were right in a hospital anyway, so all they would've had to do was move him to another room to put his teeth back in, but apparently he had been asked not to come back, which was fine by him. Never again.

Barret assured him he'd arranged an escort, and it took several reassurances to the doctor that Cloud could handle the walk home despite having woken up from a coma the day prior for him to finally get clearance to leave. They were nice enough to give him a pair of disposable sunglasses for the time he'd be outside, at least.

When he walked through the door to the Seventh Heaven, he was met with two familiar faces. The first was Marlene, asleep on the couch, who came with Barret during his weeks. The second, to his surprise, was Yuffie.

"Where's Jessie?" asked Cloud, frowning in confusion.

"Hello to you, too," said Yuffie, rolling her eyes. Cloud opened his mouth to recover, but she shrugged it off. "You were out for three days, remember? It's Barret's turn. But she actually freaked out and left two days ago, and I've been covering until he could get out here."

"She...?"

"She'd got it into her head that it was her fault or something. She showed us your note. I told her it wasn't her fault you went and got yourself all maimed, but she's taking it pretty hard." Yuffie shrugged. "I dunno, maybe she thinks this is another Wedge thing."

Barret shot a severe look at Cloud, who turned his gaze to the ground.

"Well," said Barret almost calmly, which made the pit in his stomach worsen, "I'll have to remember to ask Jessie what happened while she was with you, huh?"

Yuffie looked between them uncomfortably. "...Are you two okay?"

"Yeah."

"Yup."

"Well... alright. Do I get a hello now?"

Cloud nodded and pulled her into a hug with his good arm, which Yuffie gingerly returned.

"I asked her to come out here," said Barret. "Kept an eye on Marlene for me while I was at Edge Medical." He turned to Yuffie. "We'll need to have a talk later, about you staying extra, at least until Tifa gets back."

Cloud's blood ran cold, and he spoke up. "Does Tifa --"

"Know you almost died? Yeah," said Yuffie, handing him his phone, which appeared badly scuffed but at least operable. "She offered to fly back early, but we told her Barret was already here. She'll wanna hear from you, though."

"Right... so I guess I'll take care of that lat --"

Yuffie narrowed her eyes. "Call her, Cloud." They watched him expectantly. Cloud took a deep breath, and dialed. She picked up on the first ring.

"Cloud! I'm so sorry, I would've come back but there's only one airship in and out, and -- what happened?! You're okay, right?"

"I'm... fine." He wished Barret and Yuffie would stop staring at him. "I just got home now. Barret and Yuffie are with me."

"What happened? Did someone run you off the road? I don't --"

"I..."

He looked between Barret and Yuffie, who was covering for Jessie, who had left because of him.

"I'll... do you have time to talk tomorrow?"

"...Cloud, what's wrong?"

"Call me back tomorrow. Take care of what you need to. I... we need to talk about -- about what I told you before you left."

There was a period of silence on the other end of the phone, before a very quiet "okay" came through, followed by a click.

He pocketed his phone with some difficulty through the bandages, and turned to Barret and Yuffie, the latter of which who was now glaring at him.

"...I promise I'll tell you tomorrow, okay? I just... I wanna get home. Sit down." That part wasn't really a lie, at least not entirely. Enhancements or no, his legs were about ready to give out from all the walking following everything his body had been through in the last three days.

"Whatever. But Barret and I decided that I'm gonna be staying with you 24/7."

"Fine. That's fine." He staggered over to the couch and slumped onto it, then gently shook Marlene. "Hey. Hey, little girl. What are you doing, sleeping in my spot?"

Marlene yawned and spent a moment rubbing the sleep from her eyes, then threw her arms around his neck, prompting another pained groan from him. "Cloud! You woke up!"

"Yeah. Had a real good nap."

"The doctor said you weren't gonna," said Marlene, sniffling a bit, and Cloud saw her eyes looked a bit red. "She said if you didn't wake up after one day then you might not wake up at all."

"Well, most doctors are full of sh -- nonsense," he corrected at Barret's indignant grunt. "I've shook off worse than that, remember?"

"Papa took me in to see you when you were asleep," she continued as Barret picked her up. "Can you show me your arm cuts?"

"Marlene!" objected Barret. Cloud gave a rusty laugh.

"I wanna see 'em and Dr. Laughton didn't let me!"

"...I haven't seen 'em yet either, actually. If I have a look at them first and it's not too bad, I'll let you see, okay?"

"You're not gonna like what's under there, Cloud," Barret warned. Cloud shrugged.

"I've had worse," he said, which was undeniably true. "We're gonna have to change the bandages soon anyway."

"Sooooo, you're gonna at least tell us something, right?" said Yuffie. Cloud sighed.

"I must've -- passed out," he muttered. Barret would probably never let him live it down if he claimed to have "fainted" in front of him.

Yuffie's scowl deepened. "You needed to wait until tomorrow to tell us that?"

"Just... give me a little time, okay?" Yuffie "hmphed" and sat down on the other side of Cloud. "So... how's Wutai?"

"Y'know. Better. Dad's still pushing the whole succession thing. 'Course, he's dropped it lately. You know, after you almost died."

"I didn't almost die," he said sharply as the smile on Marlene's face faded a bit.

"Well, Dad thinks you did. If he calls you gotta act real sick, or he'll tell me to come back home."

"Did you speak to the Planet again?" asked Marlene, poking a particular spot on his ribs. Cloud winced, and he and Barret exchanged another uncomfortable glance. They'd never really gotten around to explaining much of the events from four years ago to her. They'd have to eventually.

"No. The Planet doesn't really speak to people anymore. We all forgot how to listen. I just had a really good nap, is all."

"Shouldn't you be sleeping now?"

"In a little, yeah. Shouldn't you?"

"Papa said I could stay up for when you came home," she said quickly, "and now that you are, can you arm wrestle me?"

"No arm wrestling tonight, baby girl," cut in Barret. "Cloud's home, so you gotta get to bed. Say good night."

"I'm not tired, though!"

"It's ten thirty, so you'd best get tired as fast as you can."

"But Cloud just got here!"

"Cloud wants you to go to bed so you'll be awake tomorrow," said Cloud, trying not to smile. "If your pa says it's okay, you can teach me another recipe, alright?"

"Fine..." mumbled Marlene, and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before trudging upstairs with her stuffed tonberry to Tifa's empty room. Cloud watched her go, hoping she'd grow out of the phase soon enough. The toy was eerily lifelike, and Cloud and Yuffie had mutually agreed to stuff it into a drawer whenever she was out of the house without it so they wouldn't have to look at it.

"I'm gonna head up to bed, too," said Cloud, and carefully got back to his feet. Yuffie followed suit.

"Get some rest," she said to Barret. "You look awful. I'll keep an eye on him."

Barret shuffled into the back room again without a word to the contrary, so he really must have been exhausted. Yuffie began helping Cloud up the stairs to his own room. "Besides, I gotta help you with all that gauze, and I've been using your bed while you were gone."

It was another few minutes before they finally had all the medical supplies laid out on the bed, and another still before Cloud managed to wrestle himself out of his clothes and into his boxers. Yuffie's hands were probably a bit better suited to carefully untangling surgical gauze from a wound, and soon enough the entire mess was laid bare.

His chest was covered in ugly purplish-green splotchy bruises, which Yuffie gingerly placed a hand on and began healing. He'd technically mastered that spell himself, but White magic had never been his strong suit, whereas Yuffie had some innate skill with it. Cloud breathed a sigh of relief after a moment, signalling to Yuffie to move onto another area. If this was how it looked now, he could only imagine what it had been like before the healers at the emergency room had gotten to him. Hopefully, between Yuffie and his own "unique biology", they'd be gone by tomorrow night. Then they took a look at his arm.

When he'd seen the x-ray, he'd imagined that the bone had simply been very badly broken in two, but looking at it now explained why he couldn't seem to move it at all. His arm seemed to have been pinched off from below the elbow, tearing it almost entirely off save for a bit of skin at the top of his shoulder, the only bit that didn't have stitches and what must have been holding it on. It had been sewn back on, with the stitches already having been smothered more or less in his own regenerated flesh. Perhaps he'd go back to the hospital in one week instead, just to get it over with. There must have been a lot of screws in there. He'd had worse. He'd be fine.

Yuffie began healing away the bruising around his shoulder as well, but she was staring at another scar on the other side of his chest -- the one Marlene had poked at earlier, running horizontally just below his ribcage.

Cloud looked up at her. "What?"

"Nothing. Just... they asked a lot of questions about it. They asked a lot of questions in general, but especially about that one. Apparently it's been infected for, like... years."

Cloud shrugged. "I didn't notice."

"Oh. Well, in case you did, it's not anymore."

"Did you say anything?"

"I told 'em about the doctor in Mideel, and he didn't say anything about it. Just mentioned the mako poisoning."

He sighed and relaxed into the wall. It would have to do.

"Did you break any arms this time?" asked Yuffie as she carefully helped him into a clean work shirt and sweatpants that wouldn’t be ruined too much if a bit of blood spotted on them. "Besides your own, I mean."

"...No," said Cloud slowly, conveniently hiding his face in the shirt while he spent some extra time adjusting it. Not for lack of trying, certainly.

"Ugh. Just don't get yourself arrested, alright? Prison's gotta be worse than a hospital."

"Speak for yourself," he grunted, shifting against the wall to try and keep himself upright.

There was a pause as she appeared to carefully put together her next sentence. "...I always pictured that old manor as... y'know. Kind of a jail cell."

"There were a few rooms like that in it, yeah," said Cloud brusquely. He continued when she opened her mouth again. "I'm gonna get some sleep. You should too."

"...Sure." Yuffie scooted herself off the bed and eased herself into the sleeping bag and six blankets she'd brought with her for the occasion. Cloud closed his eyes, still propped up against the wall with a pillow, and spent a while listening to her breathing.

The window was still open, and the stars were out, and his room was comfortably warm...

 


 

It was cold in the storage room.

Cloud didn't understand why he was here. There didn't seem to be much of a pattern to the Professor's behaviour. He knew that if he did anything bad there were any manner of consequences he’d wind up subjected to. He also knew that if he was good, they would say how well he was doing, and tell him how great he would be.

The problem was knowing what were the good things to do, and what were the bad ones. Telling them about Mother was usually good. Even things that he didn't think were good, like how Her voice hurt sometimes, or how he felt parts of him were missing, and he wanted them back now, seemed to earn approval. Escaping was always bad, he had learned. Giving the wrong answers to questions, or not knowing the right ones, was bad. Speaking without being spoken to first was usually bad. His teeth and tongue had grown back a month ago, and he knew better by now. Injuring guards was good, but only if he injured them in certain ways, and otherwise it was bad.

He didn't know what he'd done this time that was bad. He had told them about Mother, like he was supposed to. They had nodded, and taken notes, but instead of leading him back to his cell, or leaving him in the tank overnight, they had cuffed his hands and led him into storage.

"Sit facing the wall," they'd instructed. "Don't move from this spot." Cloud sat facing the wall like they wanted. He thought maybe it was another test.

Instead they had brought the Box in after him. Cloud swallowed. He hadn't seen the Box in months, after his fourth escape attempt. It was a steel cube, no bigger than a dog carrier, just barely big enough to fit a boy in his late teens that was a bit on the small side inside of it, with a few air holes in the top. It was if he had done something bad but it wasn't conducive to the project to start additional testing.

"Get in."

Cloud carefully backed himself into the cramped space. No hesitation, because that was bad.

Then they turned out the lights and closed the door and locked him inside.

He didn't know what he'd done. Were they mad? The Professor didn't look mad, but alone time in the dark for a few days was usually because he'd done something bad and they just didn't have time to punish him properly. He thought he'd been doing good.

Maybe this was good? Maybe the Box was supposed to help him. If he wasn't so stupid, he could understand the rules better, and do what they wanted.

"This is good," he told himself aloud. "This is a good thing." Mother seemed to think so too, because there was nowhere to move away from Her in the small cramped space. It was so much louder, in the absence of any other sound or stimuli, and there were so many of them.

Cloud shivered. He hadn't lost clothes privileges, but he had been taken straight here from an exam, and hadn't had a chance to retrieve his shirt. He hoped it would be in his cell when he was let out.

"This is good," he whispered to himself again, blinking back tears. "This is good. This is good. This is good..."

There was another voice. One he wasn't used to, that didn't seem like Mother's, or the howling he sometimes heard that She didn't seem to like, because it used words.

"Who goes there?"

Cloud froze. It sounded like a man's voice. Sephiroth? No, he was dead. It was too deep to be Hojo's. A lab assistant? Perhaps, though he hadn't heard the door open.

"Series 3. I'm here because I need to be here. It's good to be here. Being here will help me be better."

The new voice seemed confused. "No name?"

Not a lab assistant, then. Series 3 was the only designation he was supposed to have and reply to, as far as he knew, and he didn't have a proper number yet. Cloud realised it was another fake voice, the ones he heard after mako treatments, or when he was alone in his cell for too long while they fixed the equipment.

There was no harm in talking to it, then. It wouldn't say anything that had right or wrong answers.

"It's good for me to be here. Isn't it?"

"That depends on why you are here," said the new fake voice, suddenly sounding heavy. "I suppose... yes, it could be good for you to be here."

It sounded almost familiar. Which, perhaps it was. He knew the fake voices were just ones he made up. Sometimes they sounded like the villagers, or that one girl in the blue dress, or Ma.

"That's why I'm here, then. I think...." He shifted uneasily, trying to get into a position he wouldn't regret being in by tomorrow when his arm fell asleep. "I don't know. They don't tell me, and I can't ask."

"Who are 'they'?" the new fake voice asked. It was very deep, and quiet and scratchy like Cloud's was now, as though he didn't use it often. Cloud felt he had heard it before, but not anywhere that made sense. From a dream, maybe.

"The doctors," he said. He tried his best to speak up, because he was badly muffled now, with his cheek pressed against the metal. "They're making me better, so I won't be weak. Then I'll be useful to Shinra. I don't know how."

"Shinra..." the voice said quietly. "My sins have come back to haunt me, even away from my dreams."

And Cloud knew who the voice was then, and smiled.

"Hello, Pale Man."

Cloud remembered the Pale Man then, a memory he dragged out of the green haze so many of them had fallen into over the last seven, or eight, or maybe nine months, or days, or lifetimes. He remembered when he was very young, and he had made believe about a man living in the floor of the old mansion. He was tall, and pale, and had glowing red eyes, and would chase away monsters when Cloud was asleep. Eventually, Ma told him he had grown too old for imaginary friends, and he had to stop exploring, and visiting the Pale Man, and telling everyone at school about how he would come up from under their beds and eat them if they didn't share their toys with him.

He had missed the Pale Man for a long while after that. It was nice to have company, even if it wasn't real. Maybe here in the dark, he'd brought himself back some company on his own.

The silence in the room resumed, and Cloud cursed himself for becoming distracted and making the new voice, the Pale Man, disappear. Then it spoke again.

"...What did you call me?" There was a hint of growing horror in the voice now.

"It's me. It's... Cloud." His name felt strange and foreign on his lips, and a thrill of fear went through him even though there was no one present to hear him say it anyway. "I miss visiting you. I'm going to pretend I'm visiting you now, though." He could almost see the Pale Man now, red eyes peering at him through the air holes through all the other equally fake eyes peering at him through the air holes. Cloud stared back to try and make it all more real, the glow emitting from his own eyes the only light in the room.

"This cannot...." He didn't sound happy. Cloud thought as hard as he could about the Pale Man sounding happy to see him, even though he never really had sounded happy about anything, so maybe it would happen.

"We're here together," he said to the eyes. "Like how I used to visit. I didn't bring any magic rocks for you. Ma says I'm too old to believe in that stuff. Just Mother here now." His voice cracked, and he swallowed thickly, trying to keep the emotion out of it.

He'd missed the Pale Man a lot more than he'd thought.

"No." Not a response. Denial. Fury. Shock. Disgust. "No."

"That doesn't make sense." Nothing made sense anymore. He didn't know why he expected a hallucination to as well.

"No." The eyes vanished into the sea of the rest of them, and then there was a loud slamming of wood on wood. Silence followed.

"...Pale Man?"

The Pale Man had disappeared. It was just as well, he supposed. Mother wanted to speak now, and he obligingly let Her wash over him in the dark, feeding Her more of himself he knew he'd never even realise he missed.

A pair of eyes opened a few hours later, but the thing staring out of them wasn't Cloud. The quiet gasp of pain he uttered was enough to wake Yuffie, who looked up at him from the floor.

"Do you need another heal?" she asked, then frowned when he got out of bed, scanning the room, his eyes landing on the window.

"Cloud?" she asked again, a bit more nervously this time. She then frantically began untangling herself from her blankets as Cloud climbed up on the window sill.

"What the hell are you -- !?" Cloud, who did not hear what she said before, would not have heard the rest of what she would have said anyway, as he had already jumped.

He landed lightly in a crouch, grunting in pain again, then straightened up and began to walk down the street. Behind him, Barret had already pushed open the front door and was yelling something else he didn't hear. He continued looking at the space around him, and began to move faster. In another few moments, he had broken into a sprint, leaving them both behind.

He took a running leap and latched onto the side of a building, hauling himself up with his good arm. He sped across the roof and jumped to another, and another, and another, ignoring the pain in his chest entirely. The landings were clumsy, and he stumbled on the last one and tripped forward onto his knees.

He sat there for a few minutes, then straightened up and turned his gaze towards the sky, which he spent several more minutes inspecting. He didn't even notice when Yuffie had scrambled up onto the roof after him, having finally caught up, or Barret barging in through the rooftop access door, panting from all the stairs he had just sprinted up.

He did not turn acknowledge either of them at first, even when they called his name, and kept his gaze on the stars, and suddenly neither one of them wanted to touch this strange man that had snuck out in the middle of the night and had fixed his gaze on the sky with an almost hungry look on his face.

Then there was a cool metal hand on his shoulder again, and Barret was towering over him shouting his name, and he suddenly gasped as it hit him all at once where he was, and what he had been doing, and that it had happened again, and that there was no pattern.

Barret looked angry. Or perhaps concerned. It was difficult to tell. Yuffie was still hanging back, still hesitant to actually approach him.

The pain from his recent physical activity began mixing with the nausea and disorientation, and he roughly shoved Barret away from him as he heaved bile onto the bleached concrete of the roof, and knelt there, shivering.

"Cloud, you --"

"I don't know."

"Dammit, Cloud, this isn't the fucking time for your --"

"I don't know!" His throat tightened as the emotion crept into his voice against his will. "I don't know, alright?! I don't know!"

The door to the roof opened again as someone, probably one of the tenants, joined them on the roof. "What's going on here? It's three in the morning!"

"Nothing," said Yuffie, as another two faces peered out from the doorway. "Just a discussion. It won't happen again, and we're leaving now."

The man eyed the puddle of vomit with a look of disgust, and then Cloud himself, sans sunglasses, with an even greater look of disgust, then turned and went back downstairs through the small crowd of tenants behind him, perhaps to fetch a custodian that would also want to know what was going on. Barret spoke up, his fist still clenched. "Let's get outta here."

It took another half hour to walk him at a normal pace back to Seventh Heaven. Marlene, thankfully, was still asleep. They had him sit back down on his bed. Cloud hadn't said a word since the rooftop.

Yuffie brought him a cup of tea and set it down in front of him on his bedside table, and sat down across from him in his work chair, with Barret sitting next to him, probably to keep him on the bed. Cloud didn't really feel like moving anyway.

"...Was it Jenova?" came the inevitable question from Barret after another few minutes of silence. Cloud shook his head.

"How do you know?"

Cloud said nothing.

"Can you hear Her now?" asked Yuffie.

He nodded. It was a stupid question; he could always hear Her.

"What does She want?"

Cloud said nothing at first, then looked up from the cup of tea he'd been staring at and addressed Yuffie.

"Can you hand me my phone?" he said.

Yuffie looked at him appraisingly for a few moments and exchanged a glance with Barret, who looked about ready to drop, then grabbed him his phone off the desk.

Cloud very slowly dialed Tifa's number and waited. The first call went to voicemail, and he cursed himself for forgetting the eight hour time difference. She was probably working. He dialed again, and this time she picked up.

"Hello?"

"...Hi, Tifa."

"Is... is everything okay? I thought you were asleep."

He remained silent.

"Cloud? Are you still there?"

"Please come home."

The anticipated alarm immediately filled her voice again. "Cloud, what's wrong?"

He drew a deep, shuddering breath. If he cried again in front of his family, that would be it.

"...Please come home," he tried again. "Okay?"

"Cloud, what's going --"

He hung up as whatever composure he'd managed to scrape together in the last half hour shattered again. He clutched the phone tightly as tears overtook him again, and he buried his face in his knees so his family wouldn't see that on top of having a high-maintenance deadbeat they had to drag back into the house at 3 am, they also had an unstable high-maintenance deadbeat they had to drag back into the house at 3 am that couldn't keep it together for more than an hour. Pathetic. Absolutely pathetic.

They'd only be able to put up with so much, he knew. Surely there was something he was supposed to be doing at this point to hold up his end of the bargain, but he couldn't imagine what it would be. No one else cried for no reason, or needed to be helped out of bed, or kept company. He couldn't provide parenting advice to Barret. No one, Cloud included, trusted him enough to babysit. Jessie had managed to work through the deaths of Biggs and Wedge on her own. Yuffie mostly screamed her issues at her father and then complained about it to them. Even Tifa was fine on her own for more than an hour.

So he just remained dead weight and sobbed into his knees with Barret pulling him into a hug and Yuffie now sitting on his other side, which just made him cry harder, everything pent up over the last three weeks spilling out for both of them to see -- for both of them to deal with.

He managed to stop a while later with much prompting from Yuffie to drink his tea before it went cold, and found that Barret had at some point fallen asleep sitting on his bed from exhaustion. Cloud leaned against him, and Yuffie against Cloud, the three of them too tired to move. When they'd been on the road they'd had occasions where there wasn't much room to be picky about personal space, and after a while they'd stopped thinking about the piles the eight of them would wind up in. After everyone had settled down, of course, they'd gone back to using real beds, but Cloud had found himself missing them ever since.

He lay there sandwiched between his family, welcoming back the familiar feeling it provided. He didn't really know what to call it. It was warm, but that wasn't an emotion, just a physical state he enjoyed. He supposed it made him happy, but it felt strangely painful, too. All he could think about was how he'd have to go back to feeling the minute they left.

Jenova was so much louder now. He began his "meditation", allowing Her to flood himself, listening to Her music. He pushed in deeper than he had in years, tempering Her voices with the steady sound of Barret's breathing, of Yuffie's quiet snores, weaving them all together as they wove into him. He eventually drifted off to sleep like that, Mother twisting and burrowing into his mind, his family around him, both of them reminding him that he belonged here.

 


 

Cloud woke up before Yuffie and Barret, but didn't really feel like moving. Partially because it was comfortable, and partially because waking them would hasten the arrival of the interrogation he knew was coming. He'd said tomorrow, and he had meant it, and everyone had probably been too tired to protest it, especially after chasing him halfway across town. So of course, it would be most practical to discuss it in the morning.

This morning. Now.

When they did wake up an hour later, the first thing they did was decide that this definitely counted as a serious matter and began calling every other member of the family in, which was something Cloud had dreaded happening since this had begun. Now he had an entire audience to upset.

The second thing they had done was herd him into the back room and sit there staring at him. Reeve had been the closest geographically and had arrived before everyone else, and had joined Barret in looking stern, or maybe angry.

"I heard you had something you wanted to tell us, Cloud," said Reeve evenly.

"...I've been hallucinating again, for about three weeks," began Cloud. He was met with silence. He was supposed to continue. "They're... shapes. If I try to look at them they go fuzzy."

"Is it --"

"It's not Jenova," he interjected, cutting off Reeve. "And it's not the Planet, either. At least, I don't think so."

"So, when you crashed your bike, it was because you got... spooked?" asked Yuffie, trying not to sound dubious. Cloud shook his head and paused. This would be the hardest part.

"It, um... it was because I couldn't move. I'll start seeing things, and then I'll... I'll do things," he faltered. "It happened again last night. That was the fourth time. I don't know what causes it, or how to make it stop."

"He jumped out the window in the middle of the night," explained Barret to Reeve, "and we chased his ass across sixteen blocks and found him standing on a roof."

Reeve looked concerned again, and again Cloud cut him off. "I wasn't gonna jump," he said. "I was looking at the sky. If it wanted me to jump it could have thrown me out of Shinra Tower, when it happened there."

"You didn't think about it?" asked Barret. Cloud shook his head.

"I didn't think about anything," he said, and everyone visibly relaxed a bit. "I don't... I didn't mean to crash the bike, either. I just... I couldn't do anything."

"...Would you have jumped?" asked Yuffie after a moment.

"No," said Cloud decisively. "I haven't -- I haven't thought like that in years. I wouldn't ..."

"Well, that's good to know, but it doesn't leave us with a lot of leads, besides the obvious." Cloud leaned away as Reeve turned and leaned in to inspect his eyes, which were a bit more green than they usually were. The pupils were slitted, but then, they always were.

"It's not Jenova," said Cloud, a hint of irritation creeping into his voice now. "Jenova responds to it, and it makes Her louder, but it's not Her."

"That you talking, or is that what that thing wants you to say?" said Barret pointedly.

Now Cloud was the one made uncomfortable, and he looked away. "I haven't... there hasn't been any pull to Reunion. It's not Jenova."

"We can't ignore this, Cloud," said Reeve slowly. "Not your family, or the WRO. This is --"

"I want to visit the tower," he interrupted again. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.

"Cloud --"

"I don't care how we do it, Reeve. If you say no, I'll do it anyway. I'm visiting the damn tower."

No one had been enthused about the idea, but eventually they agreed that Barret would come with him as far as the edge of the ruins, and Yuffie would see him in further, just in case. It really had been a while since anyone had been out there.

It was probably a good thing Yuffie was there with him -- she chattered constantly, always stopping to point out an interesting bit of rubble or a potential shortcut, or to complain about her father. Cloud appreciated the conversation, as usual, and that was more or less how she usually was, but he did notice her endgame as well -- it would be a lot more obvious if something were to happen if he suddenly stopped responding.

The climb to the sixty-eighth floor was much slower this time due to his injured arm, and several times Cloud had to stop on the way up to look around. He found what he was looking for eventually, in the remains of a decorative garden in what was once a lobby.

The sixty-eighth floor wasn't so much of a floor as it was a collection of rubble on top of the sixty-seventh floor, as a result of the more recent fight Cloud had had two years ago. In spite of that, there was a small bit of unbroken floor behind one of the larger rubble piles, and on that spot stood a knee-high pile of rocks.

Yuffie stood back out of respect. Cloud wouldn't have minded if she wanted to pay respects too, but he supposed it would have been awkward. After all, she had never known him.

Cloud approached the pile of rocks and sat down in front of it.

"...Sorry I couldn't make it out earlier," he told it. "Things have been really busy." He took a deep breath. The sixty-ninth and seventieth floors were strewn about the rest of the ruins, and the floor simply opened up to the sky above, which was still choked with grey, but less so than it had been before. The sun even managed to occasionally peek through.

"Tifa finally got more people to work at the bar," he continued. "It lets her go out of town a lot more often. I miss her, but she likes to help." He clenched and unclenched his hands nervously. "I got into a car crash. I'm okay, but it hurt a lot. I got to punch a nurse. Knocked out two of his teeth." He smiled a bit. "I... I want to think you'd have been proud of that."

He reached into his pocket and took a deep breath. "...I, er... I brought you another magic rock." He withdrew the object he'd retrieved from the garden -- a round, smooth stone. He set it carefully on the pile.

"Make a wish," said Cloud. "Maybe it'll come true."

He sat like that for a few more minutes. He wondered what had happened to the "magic rocks" he'd brought him in that basement. He'd thrown them out after Cloud had left, most likely. He always was hard to read.

Eventually he stood up, his legs still unsteady, but feeling calmer than he had this morning. He signalled to Yuffie that he was ready to leave with a nod, and she climbed down from the rubble pile she'd been sitting on.

"I've gotta go. I'll try to come back sooner next time." He took another long look at the pile of rocks in preparation for the long climb back down.

"See you, Vincent."

Chapter Text

There was an incessant scratching at the entrance of Seventh Heaven. It migrated to the windows, gradually increasing in volume, before going back to the front door. It wasn't until it was accompanied by an indignant, "Really!" that Cloud actually acknowledged the noise and allowed Nanaki inside.

"The back door was unlocked. You know that," said Cloud, who'd been sitting in the empty dining room in a booth and took his seat there again.

"And what's wrong with me going in the front door?" replied Nanaki, hopping up onto the table and allowing himself to sprawl out on it.

"The claw marks, mostly," said Cloud. "I'm gonna have to sand those out now."

"I thought you enjoyed fixing things."

"Sanding off claw marks isn't fixing things," said Cloud, but began giving him an ear scratch by way of a greeting anyway.

"How's your arm?" he asked, leisurely stretching out to allow Cloud better access to his neck.

"It's fine. Marlene thinks it's neat."

"You showed her?"

"She asked. She wanted to know if I was gonna get a prosthesis."

"Is she here now?"

Cloud nodded. "Yuffie's volunteered to keep her upstairs while we're... talking."

It was late afternoon, and the bar had been closed early due to "a family emergency". Said family emergency had been waiting for everyone to show up, his anxiety gradually mounting as more and more arrived. Jessie had been the first to arrive, and hadn't made eye contact with him as she walked past him and upstairs to visit Marlene. Cid had been next, having the easiest access to an airship and not being beholden to anyone in particular about it. Nanaki had arrived just now and had been receiving appreciative head pats for the last ten minutes. So that just left --

"Here she comes," said Nanaki as soon as they noticed the frantic footsteps and the panicked swearing outside, before the door was pulled open with just a bit too much force.

"You're alright?" asked Tifa, dumping her bag on the floor next to the table and hurrying over to him. From the way she had asked it the question seemed less a status update and more marvelling that he wasn't rolling on the floor frothing at the mouth.

"Yeah. Fine. Easy on the ribs," he said as she went in for a hug. As they pulled apart he noticed she looked about as bad as Barret had on the first night back from the hospital, the bags under her eyes prominent.

"Who's left?" she asked. Nanaki stretched himself and then hopped down off the table.

"You're the last one," he said. "I'll go gather the others." He slunk off to the back without another word, leaving them both alone together.

"...How was your trip?" asked Cloud eventually.

"Fine. Sort of cold, I guess."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I got to shoo off a dragon. Adolescent bull. Really cranky." She sat herself down in the booth across from him. "Reminded me of you."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "I'm not cranky."

"You're almost 100% crank. Barret says you're banned from Edge Medical now."

"Not a big deal. Yuffie's good at healing, and I'll take care of whatever she --" He paused. "Wait, he called you?"

"Yes. A few hours ago when I landed."

He frowned. "What else did he say?"

"That you weren't immediately dying and that I could come straight home instead of visiting you in the ICU," said Tifa. "You scared the shit out of me, Cloud, you can't just... call me and say something like that and hang up without explaining. I thought you might've..."

"Might've what?"

"...I don't know. Had a really bad episode. Maybe... maybe you might've hurt yourself."

"I wasn't going to -- is that what everyone thinks of me?" said Cloud, his voice rising in anger.

"We're worried about you!" she said, matching his tone. "We're worried about you, and we have every right to be! You said to come home, we all came home! You can't just turn around and try and brush off the fact that you called me up at three in the morning crying your eyes out now that we're actually here!"

Cloud took a deep breath and looked away uncomfortably. "...Is this about the stigma?" he sighed.

"Other way around. The stigma is about this. You can't just --"

"But I'm fine now, so what does it matter?!" His hands were gripping the table now, digging into the wood slightly. "Why can't it just be okay that I'm fine now?! Why can't you all just appreciate --"

"Don't none of y'all get the party started without us," came a voice from the doorway as Cid leaned against it with a wry look on his face. They turned to look at them, Cloud going a bit pink. "No, go ahead, don't mind us."

Cloud unclenched his hands from the table and picked a splinter out of his thumb. Tifa sat back down, having apparently stood up at some point without either one of them noticing.

Cid detached himself from the doorframe and took his place at a table, with everyone else sans Yuffie following behind him. Jessie sat the furthest away from the group and refused to look at Cloud. He suddenly felt very tired.

Nanaki hopped back up onto the table and gave him an insufferably smug look (at least, as smug as someone with a muzzle could look) upon seeing what Cloud had done to the table. Cloud made a face at him when he wasn't looking, and then turned back to Reeve, who cleared his throat and began to speak.

"Alright, everyone's here. As nice as it'd be for this to be a big family reunion for its own sake, this is... an emergency meeting for an issue that we're going to deal with now before it becomes too big. Cloud?"

Cloud took a moment to steel himself before getting to his feet. It had been years since he had played the part of leader. It should be easy enough.

You're not having a crisis, and they're not here because they have to deal with that crisis, he told himself. You're noticing warning signs, and they're here to help pinpoint what they mean. It's just another mission, and after this we're gonna find someone and kill them and that'll make it all stop.

In theory, anyway.

He relayed the whole story quickly and quietly, about the shadows in the morning, the bike crash, the roof... and eventually, under Cid's suspicious prodding, the kitchen, with Jessie. Everyone immediately turned to her. Jessie swallowed.

"You kept that a secret?" said Reeve incredulously. "Jessie, this is something we needed to know about."

"He didn't want you to know, and he asked, and it was his business, and I thought --" She had bent nearly double, rocking herself.

"It's not her fault," Cloud said quickly. "I shouldn't have asked that. I'm sorry."

"Why did you ask her that, Cloud?" said Tifa, peering closely at him. Cloud looked away and said nothing.

"...Whatever the case, it's something we have to deal with now." Reeve pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm gonna have to tell people about this."

"The WRO?" asked Cloud. Reeve shook his head.

"Higher than that. This is now a federal problem."

Cloud jumped to his feet. "What? Why?"

"If my understanding of the situation is correct, there's a sizeable risk that --"

"What he means is you're dangerous," said Cid, glaring at Reeve, who sighed heavily.

"...Alright, yeah, that's what I mean," he said resignedly. "Even if this isn't Jenova -- which I'm not convinced of -- you have lost control of your actions to an outside force four times so far, and we don't know any way to stop it. This time it was just a car accident. Next time we might not be so lucky."

"'Just' a car accident?" interjected Barret.

Reeve leveled his gaze at him. "Given the scale of what we know Cloud is capable of, yes. Just a car accident."

"I haven't --it hasn't made me attack anyone." The inside of Cloud's mouth was dry.

"Neither did Sephiroth. Not right away," said Nanaki, who was now sniffing him curiously. "Perhaps whatever this entity is is simply testing the waters."

Tifa spoke up again. "...Can you hear Jenova saying anything about this?" she suggested. Everyone turned to look at her now. "You can hear Her. Understand some of what She wants, right? As long as you have it under control, it's a resource, just like before."

Cid looked at her incredulously. "You're actually suggesting he --"

"She can't do anything to him. Not with all of us here." She looked at Cloud again. She looked incredibly nervous, but she kept talking anyway. "Do you think you could do it?"

He considered this for a moment. Jenova didn't have as much power over him as She once did, true, but the damage to his psyche had been done years ago, and he was potentially clay in Her hands if he wasn't careful.

"...I think I could, yeah."

"It's a lot to ask," she added. "You don't have to if you don't want to."

He shook his head. "I want to. I can handle Jenova better than I can handle... whatever-it-is."

Tifa nodded and placed a hand on his arm. "I'll spot you. Fifteen minutes and I'm gonna cut you off."

He sat back down and tried to pretend everyone wasn't staring intently at him, and that Barret's arm hadn't just shifted back into a gatling gun, and that Jessie hadn’t just shut down again. Deep breath in, deep breath out.

He barely had to reach for Her before She snagged him and pulled him away. It was dark here, but he knew that it was far from empty. A million million voices scratched at the fragile scrap of self he had left. He had nothing left to fight against them with -- what little he might've had before, five years alone in Nibelheim had destroyed what was left of it. Rather than wasting energy trying to maintain himself against Her, he allowed Her to overtake him, gathering as much of Her voice into himself as he could while he still had the presence of mind to.

Eventually, his will crumbled entirely, and he was awash in that deep space for a second, or an hour, or a century. Part of the music, and the depth. Part of Mother.

He was suddenly jarred back to reality and found himself slumped in the booth with an aching jaw. He stared at the ceiling for a while with vivid green, inhuman eyes as who he was slowly began to put itself back together. Everything felt distant.

"...you hear anything?" That must have been Tifa. Maybe she had punched him.

He nodded numbly. "Heard Mother."

"What did She want?"

"She wants out. She wants to be whole."

There was a motion across the room, which got him to notice Cid. He was here now too. That was nice.

"Anything we don't already know?" he asked. Cloud turned his head and fixed his eyes on Cid and earned a small shudder from the latter. He couldn’t seem to make his eyes focus on anything.

"She wants out. She wants to be whole. She's waited to be whole. Her children will make Her whole."

Cid rolled his eyes. "This was a waste of twenty minutes."

"Her children will make Her whole. Her children will bring Her Reunion."

"Well, looks like he's checked out for the day," he heard Reeve say as Barret retracted the gun back into a hand. "We may as well consider our options and call in what reinforcements we have."

Cloud felt a wet nose press into his arm. Nanaki. It was his friend Nanaki. "Is he going to be alright?"

"I'll take care of it," said Tifa, who moved somewhere he couldn't see and carefully picked him up with a grunt. "Maybe he'll mention something else."

Words kept happening from his mouth on the way up the stairs. He could hear them discussing them in the dining room. Reunion, children, whole. Their words and Her words that weren't words, not the way humans knew them, and his words, the ones in between the two, kept blending together all the way to his room as Tifa set him down on his bed and sat down next to him, squeezing his good hand.

After a moment it occurred to him that perhaps he was supposed to squeeze back, but for some reason he couldn't really move. Mother hadn't given those parts of him back yet. Still, there it was. The thought was strangely comforting even though it wasn't a part of them.

She was saying words now, to him. Tifa, not Mother. He tried to respond, but the words he wanted to make himself wouldn't stick together long enough for them to be said. There were only Mother's words now. Tifa kept talking, though, so he had another chance, and another, and another. Eventually, he managed one.

"Sorry."

There was a pause in her speech, and she said something back. "Me too."

"Didn't mean to yell."

"I know. I'm sorry I didn't trust you."

It was another few minutes before he managed more: "Didn't want anyone to worry."

"We're gonna worry about you. That's something we chose to do anyway. That's part of how having a family works."

"Don't leave."

"I won't."

After what felt like another eternity, Cloud finally managed to make his fingers contract. About time. She might've left.

Tifa let out a sharp hiss of pain as he very nearly broke her hand, and he loosened his grip and turned to look at her properly. It was easier to write his own words in now.

"You get anything good from that?" he asked.

She shrugged. "Same old crap as usual. Bit weird that She's mentioning children again, considering they're all dead."

"You think there's more? Remnants, maybe? Another experiment that got out?"

"Nanaki thinks there could be. I think he's wrong. There's nothing left, right? You checked about a hundred times after... after the stigma." She clenched her fingers nervously.

He nodded. "Nothing. Not even any samples."

"Well... no news is good news, right?"

"Right."

She leaned up against him, careful not to bump his arm. Another thing he'd missed. At least it was easy enough to convince Tifa to sit with him. Half the time he couldn't work up the nerve with anyone else. They could say yes if he asked. But they could also say no, and that would hurt almost as much as if he never asked at all and just went about his business not being lonely all the time like an adult was supposed to be.

Tifa didn't want to say anything, obviously, but a quick look out the window told him it was already night. He must have been sitting on his bed with Mother -- Jenova, for hours. Maybe five or six. It had gotten worse again. 

The worst part of it all was that even after all this time, it wasn't really unpleasant. In fact, it felt wonderful to be "whole". It was as though he'd been choking, and he was finally permitted to breathe, this basic function of his mind and body that he denied himself so he could keep his individuality. The fact that one day he might not want to refuse was yet another thing he was terrified of.

He curled up against Tifa a bit closer. She'd have to bail him out if that day ever came. He hoped she would want to. 

"So... why fire?" came the question after several moments of silence.

Cloud looked up at Tifa from a bit of skin he'd been picking at on his left wrist with his teeth, confused by the question. "You must've mastered about ten spells by now," she clarified, "and fire's always your go-to. Why?"

"It... it's easy to use," he said. He reached through to the Planet on a path he now knew by heart, gently coaxing a small flame into existence and staring at it as it ran through his fingers, as though it would look different now that he was considering it properly. "It's pretty similar to what I can do innately. Does big explosions just as well as quiet arsons. It's got a lot of useful non-combat applications, too."

Tifa shook her head. "No, I know, just... it doesn't bother you, in fights?" There was another period of silence. 

"The smell, I mean," she added quietly.

He looked up from the fire at Tifa again, who was staring at it with a distant expression on her face. "We were both at Nibelheim," said Tifa. "If -- if you saw anything close to what I saw... smelled it... I don't know how you stand it."

The flame in his hand flickered and went out. He knew exactly what Tifa was talking about: had stepped over the mangled bodies in the streets and sprinted frantically to their cabin; had run back in for his mother, maimed and screaming as the flames claimed her; had to be dragged back out by Tifa's sensei when he succumbed to the smoke, too lethargic to do anything but watch her burn. The mako had seared away many things from that day that he'd had to win back, but the scent of charred flesh and burning hair had not been one of them.

Eventually he spoke up, still staring at his empty hand. "I, er... I sort of got used to it. From before Nibelheim."

Tifa frowned, fixing her gaze on him. "Before?"

"Nibelheim was only unique because it wasn't planned and they didn't have a coverup story ready to go," he said, failing to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "I worked for Shinra for two years before that. It's what they do."

Tifa was quiet. Cloud continued, the words coming easier the longer he talked. He didn't know if she actually wanted to hear it or not, but he was loath to interrupt a clear memory, especially if he managed to recover something else. "Three houses in the Sector 1 slums, I remember doing. And in Wutai, when they were cleaning up after the war... whole villages, along the southern half of the main island. Little villages, even smaller than Nibelheim."

He leaned back against the wall, staring out the window. "They weren't in the news. Nobody cared about those villages. Nobody cared about Gongaga, or Corel... and nobody really cared about Nibelheim, either." He glanced nervously at her. She was looking at him. He held his ground. "I never felt like that smell was a part of Nibelheim. It was just... a part of fighting, I guess. Had been for a while."

She looked at him for a while, then nodded. "It was tricky for me, at first. Almost wasn't let in to Avalanche at all. They took me on the first bombing mission, and after it went off things got a little... intense for me. So they stopped taking me."

"You came with me for the run on Sector 5," said Cloud.

She nodded. "Yeah. And that was the first bomb run I'd been on in years since then. I volunteered, and I guess Barret was too surprised to say no."

"Why'd you volunteer?" asked Cloud, and while she didn't smile, he saw Tifa's expression soften a bit.

"Had to keep an eye on you, Mr. Soldier First Class," she replied. Cloud let out a quiet huff of laughter. "After the bomb went off, it was a little easier this time, since it had been so long, and I thought maybe I'd started moving past it... before Sector 7, anyway."

There was another period of silence as Tifa quietly clenched and unclenched her hands. She didn't really have any mastered spells that she could cast in such close quarters -- it was rather like cracking one's knuckles, something Tifa found thoroughly unappealing.

"I thought maybe Barret dealt with it easier," she said, "but then I remembered Corel. I don't know how he does it."

"Maybe he's not bothered by stuff like that. Maybe he's got different stuff that gets to him," said Cloud eventually.

"He's right in the other room. You could ask him," said Tifa.

"No point," said Cloud. He'd rekindled another flame, smaller this time, and wove it between his fingers like a pen. "He'd tell me to stop asking. He's probably only afraid for Marlene's sake. I can't really picture anything getting to Barret like that, can you?"

Tifa shrugged. "Well, let's check." She raised her voice. "Barret, can you come back in here for a moment?"

She reached out to his flame as Barret stepped in through the door, scooping it out of Cloud's hand and sculpting it with her own mastered spell, Flare, and it violently flashed out of existence in midair with a deafening crack, causing Barret to jump and yell a string of words that prompted a loud, ugly laugh from Cid in the next room.

"Is that all you called me in here for?" he said, clearly unamused.

"Yes, and you've been a big help," replied Tifa politely as Cloud struggled to keep a straight face. "Really," she added, as Barret's scowl deepened.

"I'll let everyone know he's awake. Good to know y'all are taking this seriously," he said, and closed the door to Cloud's room again.

"Loud noises," said Tifa after Cloud allowed himself a brief chuckle. The strange static aftermath of a magic discharge hung heavy in the air. "See? He has a gun for an arm and you can still startle him."

"I guess so," said Cloud after a moment. "It's... maybe he's got something else that it means to him."

"Yeah, maybe..." said Tifa. There was another moment of silence as the unspoken thought passed between the both of them; who had Barret watched burn before Corel?

"...He probably wouldn't tell us what it was, though," said Tifa eventually. "But maybe when all this is over, we should ask anyway."

Cloud nodded. "Maybe we should."

There was a knock on the door. “Are you okay? I heard something loud.”

Cloud quietly swore under his breath. He’d forgotten about Marlene.

“We’re fine,” said Tifa, opening the door. “Is Yuffie still with you?”

“She went downstairs for drinks.” She looked nervously at Cloud, whose eyes probably still weren’t quite right. “...Can you come make me a float?”

“Yeah, alright,” replied Tifa after a moment. She turned back to Cloud briefly. “You’re okay here, right?”

He nodded. “Gonna stretch my legs a little, actually. Everything still feels weird.”

He watched as Tifa went off with Marlene, then let himself downstairs as well to find Cid and Reeve still talking in the dining room.

“Do we have a plan yet?” said Cloud uneasily, pulling up a chair. It was so much easier when they could just go stab whatever the problem was.

Reeve shook his head. "Not a lot we can do for now. The WRO is a volunteer group. It'll take time to get a response from anyone with any real power."

"I thought you were in charge?" asked Cloud.

Reeve shook his head. "I'm in charge of a large relief organisation that doesn't have any real authority over any particular sovereign nation or city-state. Edge wants to be one of those city-states. I can apply for a leadership position just like anyone else, but..."

"I thought you'd be a shoo-in. You're pretty much the only politician left alive, right?"

"Not necessarily. And people... don't really like former Shinra staff, as I'm sure you've noticed by now. The WRO's come under a lot of fire over the years for having my name attached to it."

"You're trustworthy, though. You --"

"-- helped you kill every other member of Shinra in what was unarguably a coup, even if it was a coup for the right reasons." Reeve sighed, watching Tifa disappear up the steps with Marlene holding a root beer float. "I knew I'd have to get out of this game eventually. If I'm not a part of the process anymore, now is as good a time as any."

"...Well, if I was allowed to vote, I'd vote for you," he said eventually. He got up from his chair and walked behind the bar, doing his best to make drinks with just one hand. "If you're voting on anything, anyway. Is this a vote?"

"It's a vote, yes. And your support's appreciated," said Reeve, then looked over at Cid sharply. "You're not supposed to be smoking in here," he said in response to the lit cigarette he now had between his fingers. Cid held up another finger on the hand he wasn't using and took another drag.

"Tifa's gonna put that thing out on your face," warned Cloud through his teeth as he bit the cap off an opened bottle of brandy they had in the fridge.

"Just like she's not gonna mind you're pouring yourself a drink," returned Cid, gesturing to the third cocktail he'd been making. Cloud waved him off.

"She doesn't care if I drink. It's not like there's a rule against it."

"You can't have booze with pain meds, Strife," drawled Cid. "They shoulda told you that on the way out of the hospital."

"They told me a lot of stuff," he replied offhandedly, slowly screwing the cap back on after topping the glasses off. "Doctors say shit all the time, and it's never important."

"Actually, that's not quite --" began Reeve before he was interrupted for the fifth time that night.

"You're gonna put yourself in another coma and we just got you out the last one, dumbass."

"I've had worse," said Cloud, and went back to his seat with his drink.

"I hate it when you do that, you know," said Reeve. "You can't just shut down every conversation about your health."

"Can and will." He took a sip of his drink, and Reeve just shook his head and echoed Cid's "dumbass” sentiment but let the conversation drop anyway.

"What, we don't get any?" asked Cid, then stopped as he noticed the two glasses float over and set themselves down in front of each of them. Cid snatched his up and gestured pointedly at Cloud with it. "I thought you said you were gonna stop doing this shit."

"I have one hand, Cid."

"So take trips," said Reeve, now also frowning. "It's one thing if it's an emergency. Casual use of this kind of thing is gonna make this a lot harder to deal with. Especially now."

"It's convenient and it's not hurting anything."

Cid narrowed his eyes. "If someone sees you doing that --"

"Look, just... everyone already saw my eyes, probably. Barret told me about the arm, and I got spotted on the roof. Damage done. The mobs'll probably be here in a day or two," said Cloud, his face falling a bit as what he was saying suddenly hit him. People knew now. Someone would have told someone else. Everyone would know that there was something living in Seventh Heaven that wasn't human.

"So it's not like it matters," he finished quietly after a moment. He took another few large swallows of his drink.

"...You can stay at my place for if you want, 'til things blow over," said Cid, taking a swig of his own drink. "Couch is yours for as long as you need it."

Cloud nodded. "Thank you." It still sounded insincere. "I can..." Pay him? Fix something for him? Give bad relationship advice? Cid could do all that himself.

"You can make me drinks," said Cid. "'Cause this is damn good and the bar back home is shit."

"I didn't come up with it. It's Tifa's recipe," he said, shifting in his chair. Cid shrugged and took another drink anyway.

"You have as much right to be here as anyone else," added Reeve. "You don't need to move unless you want to.

"Dumb fuckin' assholes'll never know what you did for 'em anyway." Cid drained his glass and Cloud moved it back into the kitchen and into the sink with a small jerk of his wrist, just to bother him.

"You goddamn smartass --"

"Is Cid smoking in there?" came a voice from the doorway. Jessie had come back out of the back room. "Tifa's gonna kill you."

"Not if you don't tell her," he said, flicking some ash off his cigarette.

"I won't have to. That stuff smells. You know that, right?" She let herself into the kitchen, then turned to see Cloud drinking and scowled at him. "Sure, why not? Let's have you run the dishwasher and use the oven while we're trying to think of more ways to piss Tifa off." Cloud's face went furiously red.

"It was one time --"

"It was four times for the first and six for the second and you know it."

"He's been doing not-magic, too."

"Reeve!"

"Gods, I was joking. Anything else?"

Cloud stood up again. "If I make you one too, will you shove off?"

She shrugged. "I guess so. Make sure it has an olive on a toothpick."

Cloud slunk off behind the bar as they continued talking. It had been easy enough to take the compliment from Cid, but really he hadn't done anything for them. Well, perhaps that wasn't strictly true. They'd taken out Shinra together, killed Sephiroth together. He'd helped dig through the rubble of Midgar for survivors, too. He'd been one of the few people on-site with any sort of first aid training and mastered White magic, and definitely the only one capable of lifting massive chunks of downed buildings off civilians. But he'd had help with that too. He wasn't the strongest healer in their family, let alone in that volunteer group. And he'd helped dispose of the bodies. But Cid probably wouldn't bring that up to try and lighten the mood. The man wasn't that tactless.

Cloud knew exactly what Cid had been talking about, and that was something Cloud was absolutely sure he hadn't done. He couldn't have. No one, not even the man that killed Sephiroth, could do something like that, could they?

It was, by definition, impossible. Magic had rules.

There was nothing he could do about them being convinced it was him, though. If it was something they thought he'd done, he'd let them keep giving him credit for it. Another lie onto the rapidly growing pile, but it wasn't like he had a lot of purchase in this group as it was. He needed every edge he could get.

After getting Jessie her drink (and hovering it over to her while looking Reeve dead in the eye), he went back upstairs to check on the rest of his belongings. His sunglasses were smashed. The temporary ones he'd been given by the hospital wouldn't stay on his face because they were too big, and not because he was too small. He'd have to send someone out to get new ones, not that it would matter much anymore. His phone was badly scuffed, but still seemed to work alright. His wallet only had eighty gil in cash and a couple condoms in it in the first place, and both were still there. He made a mental note to put something else in it with his phone number on it in case it got lost, since it wasn't like he had an ID. His radio was back to producing nothing but static.

Guess I can't give this back to her now, he mused, and began to leave his room.

He stepped out the door, and the static faded into music again. He froze, and then went back inside. The music lapsed back into static.

He glared at the radio and snatched it off his desk, then jogged back downstairs with it. He dropped it unceremoniously into Jessie's lap and hauled himself up to sit on the bar a small distance away.

"Can you fix that thing for me?" he asked. Jessie looked at him strangely. The radio was playing music again.

"Seems fine to me," she said, shrugging. She tossed it back over to him, and as he snatched it out of the air, the music shut off again. Cloud stared at the radio, and now Reeve was staring too. He quickly switched it off.

"Yeah, probably. I'll deal with it later," muttered Cloud, and finished off the rest of his drink in one go, just in time for Barret to walk in and scowl at him.

"...What?"

"Did you listen to a damn word the doctor told you?"

"Nah. Are you gonna ride me about the booze too?"

"Your dumb ass is gonna wind up with another seizure."

"I don't do seizures anymore." At least, he was pretty sure. It had been years since the last one, and there was almost nothing left to set them off anymore.

"There's a difference between your episodes and poisoning yourself. And Yuffie can't heal either one, so you'd better --"

"What am I not doing?" Yuffie had peeked her head into the room curiously, then frowned when she noticed Cloud with his empty glass, and she gestured with her own. "Can I have one?"

"You sure can," said Cloud, giving the smallest smirk. "Barret, do you want one?"

Barret grunted, which was probably the most graceful "yes" he was gonna get out of him for the time being.

"What are we getting?" said Nanaki as he trotted into the room after her.

"Cloud's making drinks," said Yuffie. "You want any?"

Nanaki cocked his head to the side, then shook it. "I'll have a sip of someone else's. I don't know if I would like alcohol."

"Is he above drinking age?" objected Jessie.

"I'm fifty-two. Is that sufficient?"

"Isn't that like... twelve for you?" said Yuffie.

Nanaki's tail bristled, and the fire on the end of it sparked briefly. "Fifteen at least! And it's fifty-two!"

"I'm making two drinks," said Cloud decisively. "And one of you better share."

Might as well ask Tifa if she wants one too, he thought. And as the notion occurred to him, she came walking down the steps, her mouth drawn in a thin line. He braced for the inevitable conversation but pressed onward anyway.

"Hey, Teef, do you want... Tifa?"

Instead of also lecturing him about why he shouldn't be allowed to have a nice drink to take the edge off things, or even making Cid put out his cigarette, Tifa walked right past him without looking at anyone and out the front door.

"Tifa?"

Tifa was already off down the street. Cloud looked guiltily at his empty glass. Maybe he shouldn't have been drinking.

Marlene peeked down from the top of the stairs after her, looking a bit guilty. "...Did she leave? Was it something I said?"

Barret set his drink down and shifted enough to allow her into the booth next to him. "What's wrong, baby girl?"

"I made Tifa mad."

"I promise you didn't," said Barret. "Tifa couldn't be mad at you."

"I found a box under her bed, and it made her mad."

Cloud quickly shot Barret a significant look. After a moment a look of comprehension settled onto his face and he turned back to Marlene again.

"She's not mad at you, baby. She was worried you'd get hurt. There was a gun in there."

"Tifa owns a gun?" The skepticism was clear in her voice.

Barret nodded. "It's a gun. You remember back when Shinra was around, and we had to fight them?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, we had to buy a lotta weapons to fight them. We still have some of 'em around, just in case something else bad happens."

"Like your arm?"

"Like my arm."

"So why was she mad? You aren't shooting everyone." Marlene tapped the back of his metal hand, which looked for all the world like another prosthesis, albeit a very fancy one. Reeve had called in a couple favours after his original gun had been crushed when the Highwind crashed and he’d been pinned by rubble.

"She wasn't mad," said Barret wearily, clearly regretting this particular story already. "Guns aren't safe to touch if you don't know how to use 'em. It could go off and hurt you."

"...So, can you teach me how to use a gun?” asked Marlene. “So Tifa won't be mad."

"Look, why don't we go see Tifa, and she'll tell you she ain't mad," said Barret. "Alright?"

"I'll get her," said Cloud, heading for the door. He'd been anxious to anyway.

"Glasses," said Nanaki rather firmly.

Cloud grunted and stepped back from the door again. "Someone's not getting a drink."

"If you'll recall, I didn't ask for one."

"I'll go get her," said Barret. "You too," he added to Nanaki. "Gonna need someone with a nose on 'em to find out where she went."

"What about Marlene?" asked Cloud. It was almost definitely past her bedtime. Marlene looked at Cloud hopefully.

"...I'm making an exception just this once, 'til we clear this up," said Barret uneasily as Marlene's face lit up. "Keep an eye on her." He knelt and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. "Be back soon, baby girl."

"Thank you!" squealed Marlene, the earlier conflict all but forgotten at the prospect of staying up late with everyone else. The minute Barret and Nanaki were out the door, she rounded on Cloud.

"I wanna do an arm-wrestle contest!" she said. Cloud shrugged, then winced at the action. His shoulders were definitely not up for shrugging for the time being.

"Alright, but go easy on me," he said. "I've gotta use my bad arm." Marlene immediately ran off to get paper to write up tournament brackets and scores on.

Cloud had no idea what time it was, and the alcohol was making him a bit dizzy, now that he really thought about it. Marlene pinned his arm five times, and then had to stop because one of those pins (the one where he'd decided to give her a bit of a challenge and she'd responded with using both hands and shoving his arm at an angle) actually managed to elicit a genuine cry of pain from him as it twisted a muscle he didn't know was still sore. Yuffie got out a deck of playing cards and did a few witch's tricks, since she was always good at the sleight of hand stuff, then began trying to teach Marlene how to do one of the easier ones. Reeve went upstairs to take a phone call. Cloud went out back to his bike and removed his swords, just in case. Cid took off his shirt to compare scars and wound up falling asleep in his chair. Jessie fiddled with the portable radio, trying to find that third station that was rumoured to have started up lately.

Through it all, Cloud kept glancing anxiously back at the door to the Seventh Heaven, because he could have sworn that on the way out there had been something clutched tightly in Tifa's fist.

Chapter Text

She had been stroking his hand for the last five hours. Any minute now, she'd tell herself. He's fine. He's stayed together through worse. Any minute now.

She could hear the buzz of conversation downstairs. Cloud wasn't quiet, either, softly murmuring about Mother, and Her Reunion. She was pretty sure he hadn't blinked once, which was one of the less eerie things she'd seen him do tonight. She quietly reviewed the conversation she'd had with Barret on the way off the airship.

"He's in a bad way," he'd said, and she'd immediately feared the worst. So technically speaking his present state was a pleasant surprise. He was still alive. He hadn't had any relapses of the conditions he still refused to see a psychologist for. He hadn't run off to go die alone in the Wastes.

Cloud hid too much, was the problem. He somehow managed to both trust them implicitly and not trust them at all. Tifa thought that after four years he would have loosened up about it, but if anything he'd gotten worse. They'd been as patient as they could, since having a social life outside of his mother (either one, really) was a new experience for him, but Cloud seemed to be cottoning onto this. Any help offered seemed to make him wary, as though it were a trap.

He would never talk about himself unless very directly prompted either. In fact, the very concept of doing so seemed to send him into a mild panic. She didn't remember much about the boy from Nibelheim she had thought was a bit creepy when she was young, but she was certain he hadn't been like that. Cloud never talked about what had made him that way, either. They weren't sure he knew himself.

She decided to try talking to him again, to see if that prompted anything. She'd run out of conversation at hour three and didn't know if he'd remember she'd been repeating herself over and over again, so she opted for a story instead. A very old one, about a barren woman who made a bargain with the mountain for a child from the fey, and the horrible things it had done to her neighbours in the name of fleeing its mother and repaying its debt to the gods in the earth, until one day she was forced to drive a spear of mage-cast iron through its heart. She'd always been fond of that one when she was little, and had once spent an entire week drawing different kinds of dresses the mother might have worn, and different kinds of spears she would have used to kill the bargain child. It was one of those stories that hadn't quite aged well, in the same way that "cock" used to just mean "rooster" once upon a time. Not that there was anyone left alive that would catch the double-entendre.

Perhaps an old story in Nibeli wasn't the best thing to be reciting to Cloud right now; he barely remembered the language, and had all but lost the stories of the gods. (The proper gods, the ones that stoked the hearth and shaped the black earth around flame, not the twelve they worshipped here around Midgar.) It was just one more bit of culture Shinra had buried that they'd never get back. He probably didn't even remember getting his ears pierced.

Eventually the slitted pupils twitched, and shifted, and he turned to look at her -- not in the right way, not in a way a human would ever move, but he couldn't have known that. She gave his hand a squeeze.

"Sorry," he'd said, and was confused for a minute before remembering the fight they'd had over five hours ago. It had likely been minutes from his perspective.

They had talked for awhile, and things had almost felt like they had before, when they'd been travelling. It had been months since they'd had a good spar. Cloud had been giving her casting pointers, and she'd been teaching him hand-to-hand in turn. He was a fast learner. She'd have to see how much he remembered.

Marlene knocking on the door jarred her from her train of thought.

“Are you okay? I heard something loud.”

Next to her, Cloud muttered "fuck" in a voice that might have been slightly too loud, and she shot him a look before getting up and opening the door to Marlene.

“We’re fine. Is Yuffie still with you?”

“She went downstairs for drinks," said Marlene. Of course she had. It was long past ten. “...Can you come make me a float?”

Tifa considered it for a moment. It was absolutely past her bedtime, but this was a special occasion, and she probably wouldn't get much sleep knowing something was wrong with her family and they were talking about it in the other room. “Yeah, alright."

She said, before turning back to Cloud. “You’re okay here, right?”

Cloud nodded -- gods, she hated it when he moved after getting like this -- and scooted himself off the bed. “Gonna stretch my legs a little, actually. Everything still feels weird.”

Marlene led her back downstairs to the kitchen and eagerly dug a notebook out of the bag she'd brought over for her stay. It said "RECEPIES!!! by Marlene Wallace Age 5 6 7 8" on it in bright orange highlighter, and Nanaki had brought her pressed lilies from an entire continent away for her to glue to the cover. Tifa hoped one day she'd be able to take Marlene to see live ones.

Marlene flipped the notebook open to a new page and began taking careful notes as Tifa poured her root beer from the tap at the bar, then scooped ice cream into it. She presented it to Marlene, who held up a hand and climbed up on the counter, digging through the spices available until she found the cinnamon, then sprinkled a few liberal shakes into the glass and began to stir it.

"It's a new one I came up with right now," she said proudly. "They make vanilla cinnamon candies, so they should make vanilla cinnamon drinks."

Tifa decided not to clue her into the existence of lattes just yet and nodded as Marlene finished stirring and took a drink. "It sounds really good."

"It tastes good, too," said Marlene, licking a bit of ice cream off of her chin, and Tifa didn't doubt it. They'd had her making hard drinks for them at one point, after all. Tifa had begun teaching her tricks she could do with the cups. "Can you help me make a new one with meat?"

Tifa nodded, then glanced back towards Reeve, who was now discussing the election. "Sure. We can do it upstairs if you promise not to spill your drink."

She led Marlene back up to her room, where she'd been staying for the night, and she briefly considered sleeping arrangements before resolving to deal with it later. If worst came to worst they could all just pile into one or two rooms together. They'd all dealt with worse.

They spread out blankets on the floor, and Marlene upended a box of markers she'd brought with her next to her notebook.

"So, what kind of meat?" asked Tifa.

"Chicken. There's this food cart in the market that has it on a stick, and they cook it so it doesn't even taste like chicken. But not in a bad way. I wanna do something like that."

They spent the next few minutes alternating between discussing ingredients and drawing pictures of kebabs in her notebook, stealing sips out of her root beer float (which was, in fact, delicious). Marlene's stuffed tonberry leered at them from the corner. Tifa tried not to look.

"Where's the green?" said Marlene at one point. "I want to draw the spices."

Tifa felt around for the marker on the blanket, then carefully stood up. "Scooch up for a second," she said, then began to shake out the blanket. After a moment, they heard a quiet clatter, then the sound of something rolling before settling against a hard surface with a click.

"I'll get it!" said Marlene, and began to squeeze herself under the bed. Tifa could hear the sound of her rummaging, and a moment later returned out from under it with a marker and a wooden box.

Marlene began to undo the latch, and Tifa sprung from where she'd been standing, staring blankly at what was happening, and snatched it out of her hands. "Don't touch that!"

It had been the wrong thing to say. Marlene's eyes began to fill with tears, and Tifa quickly knelt by her. "Hey, no, don't -- it's fine, it's just..."

"I didn't know," said Marlene, her face beginning to screw up. "I didn't see what's in it, I swear!"

"It's not..." Tifa was staring at the box in her hands. The wood was like ice in her hands, in contrast to how its contents had felt when she'd first discovered it, almost burning hot. Her thoughts quickened.

It was insane. There was nothing this would accomplish, surely. Maybe it wouldn't do anything at all. Maybe...

"Stay here, alright?" she said, and gave Marlene a quick hug before snatching the white materia out of the box and quickly heading downstairs. Cloud said something to her as she passed him, but it barely registered. She left the bar and began walking briskly down the street.

There were four spots she knew would probably work. The little town in Mideel was too far away, as was the Candle. She was never, ever going back to Nibelheim. So that left the old broken down church.

The walk into the ruins was fairly long, and her phone rang twice on the way there. She ignored it -- she would call back as soon as this was over and done with.

The inside of the church was still warm, at least compared to the outside. There was still a little spot on the floor that had been cleared of dirt where Cloud had set his bedroll two years ago. Tifa looked at it for a moment, and knelt in the dirt in front of the pool of water.

There was a spot in the dirt, too, that showed signs of disturbance -- the spot where she'd buried her medal. Tifa stared at it contemptuously. A medal, of all fucking things.

It was the closest she'd get to being able to bury all those victims of the stigma. Victims she'd killed.

She clutched the materia tightly in her hands and tried desperately to find the knowledge of how to use it that it had placed in her head. As before, it was nigh-impossible. It almost seemed designed so that one couldn't use it.

Tifa still didn't know what the materia was meant to do. She knew what it did, but it was impossible to tell if that was the spell working as intended. What was even more unfathomable was the entity it put her into contact with in order to use it. She sat there, and she reached, and reached, and reached...

The sky was choked with grey. The infected were in the streets, their eyes like Cloud's, empty and inhuman, staring towards the swirling mass of shadowy matter above the city. Loud crashes could be heard, even in the distance. Tifa ran towards the source, dodging the people that cried out for her to help, and the claws of things that sprung out of the earth to rake at her legs. She would help. She would help them all.

The white materia clutched in her hand almost seemed to buzz, and she felt it pulling her through the ruins to a specific spot. She followed, even as the world seemed to shake apart above her head. It was drawing her towards a building -- a ratty old church, long since abandoned.

She burst through the doors, looking around for what led her there, and the air in the building seemed to thicken as she caught a flash of something in the pile of dirt towards the front -- a luminous green thread, vanishing as soon as it appeared. The Lifestream. It had led her here? The men at Cosmo Canyon two years ago had said it would destroy whatever was a threat to the Planet. There was certainly a threat to the Planet, and it wasn't in some old abandoned church.

She stood in front of the dirt, gripping the white materia as tightly as she could, as though that would make it work more. Something was different about her using it here; the wall she seemed to have to punch through seemed thinner, or perhaps she was just closer to it. She centred herself, trying to not force the memories, to let the spell come to her, and then something caught and pulled her in, and she Saw.

Humans had long since forgotten how to listen to the Planet. They are not meant to speak to it. The consciousness at the centre of the world, of all things, the force that had lent her a spark of itself that would one day be washed back into the fathomless ocean it had sprung from, was vast, and old, and furious. What it knew was years, and depth, and anger; and for the first time, Tifa, a human, saw it all. And it saw her.

She steeled herself against it. Try. She had to try. If Cloud had survived this, so could she.

It spoke to her then, and its voice washed against her, threatening to drown her out. The white materia burned in her hands.

She didn't know if it knew words, but she began to talk anyway.

Jenova is here, she began. The Calamity from the Skies. It came here two thousand years ago, and it's poisoned you and it's poisoned us. We can't fight it ourselves.

It roiled against her. A response would have been nice. She felt herself drifting, and she tried to remember that she was standing in a church in what was left of Midgar, begging for the lives of humanity.

We need help, she told it. Help us. The stigma, it's -- it's killing both of us. That's... you need to help. If you won't give me that power, you'll need to use it yourself. Help us.

Silence again. The air around her smelled like burning ozone. Far above her and in the distance, she felt a discharge of magic -- an enormous one, if she could feel it this far away. The kind she'd seen combatants let loose on death's door, a blade in their heart, their life dripping out onto the ground.

Her heart sunk into her stomach, and she thought of Cloud, still wasting away, fighting an opponent that was stronger than ever. She thought of her friends, still trying to evacuate the city as things made of black rotting smoke clawed their way into being began ripping apart anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way. She thought of how, even if they won, Cloud would have a month left to live. Perhaps two. That they might have six, or twelve, until they were eventually claimed by the stigma as well. She thought of how this man had died once already, and would continue to manifest again and again as long as there was a single drop of Jenova left. She thought of the decrepit remains of the world and the families they'd fought to preserve. She thought of how there was nothing she could do about any of it.

The materia in her hand began to glow. The spell gradually faded from her mind, until it locked itself behind the wall again. She stood there, defeated. She hadn't managed to cast it after all.

And then the Planet unleashed its fury.

It had been festering there, for almost two thousand years, and had been building more and more over the last hundred. It had built towards the humans draining its life away and the parasite burrowing into its veins. It was two thousand years of pain and anger on an incomprehensible scale. The white materia would summon a force to destroy whatever threat remained to the Planet. Before Holy, there could have been Weapons. And before Weapons, there were the Cetra. The Weapons were dead, and there were no Cetra left alive to shape the will of the Planet, to temper and channel its force. Tifa had reached the Planet, but Tifa was only human.

By the time they'd discovered the damage done, it was far too late to stop it.

Holy burst from the patch of dirt in a torrent. When it arrived in the form of a violent maelstrom that lasted three days, it burned away Jenova with the wrath of the world She and the humans She had infested had destroyed.The rain sank into the sores of anyone unfortunate enough to be caught outside, and the flesh sizzled and disintegrated upon contact. Tifa watched, her clothes drenched, as it carved away at their bodies. One child had a patch on her arm that looked like a particularly bad rug burn. Another was missing a chunk of his forehead and part of his eye, and was unmistakably dead and stigma free. The injured-but-alive took cover inside the buildings, while anyone carried those who couldn't walk inside.

As the storm continued, she began to observe. Some were stepping out into the rain, deliberately. She watched it mangle their bodies. She watched more and more pour out, as it became clearer what the rain did. There were even more on the second day, and more still on the third.

All this she watched in complete silence. She set about moving the bodies somewhere they wouldn't be washed away.

They found Cloud eventually, when the rain finally stopped. He had been lying on the remains of a skyscraper in the ruins, his left arm and chest bloodied from the rain and from the multiple stab wounds all over his body. It had taken him another day to wake up, but he was somehow still alive. He kept looking at his arm and doing something with his mouth that she thought might have been a smile. She thought he was delirious from blood loss at first, until she noticed, exactly, what part of his arm he kept looking at, and what parts of his flesh the rain had removed.

Most people had not been as lucky as Cloud. Most people had had the sores on their faces, rather than their arms.

Tifa did not speak to anyone for a while after that. How could she? What was there to say? Few had recognised her, fortunately enough -- she had been drenched. They had aired a televised service a few days later, formally thanking her for the cure. She didn't say a word during that either.

Cloud didn't say much to her during that time, either. Or maybe she didn't remember him saying much. He seemed afraid to, she assumed. Barret had stayed at Seventh Heaven another month, joined at the hip to Marlene, who he frequently checked for sores on her arms. He would often sit by her at the bar. "You did your best," he'd say. "You did the only thing you could do."

That had been the part that hurt the worst. "The only thing you could do".

It seemed that was all she'd ever been able to do.

"Tifa."

Tifa turned to see Nanaki and Barret standing behind her. She looked at them. Barret looked back and saw the white materia in her hands. He looked back up at her face incredulously, and Tifa threw the white materia into the pool in the church in frustration.

"Didn't work anyway," she said, looking away from them.

"What in the world were you --"

"Nothing. Look, I chucked it," she continued, cutting off Nanaki. "I shouldn't have been keeping it under the bed anyway, we should've known Marlene would find it. We're lucky she hasn't gotten to anything else."

"...What were you trying to do?" Nanaki sat down and watched her patiently.

"Something isn't right." She could feel her hands shaking slightly as what she might've almost repeated caught up to her, and she clenched her fists to keep them still. "You know he wouldn't just snap like that. We know something's wrong, and we're all just..."

"You can't fight this one away, Teef," said Barret, sitting down on one of the pews. Tifa sat next to him. "Cloud can handle it in the meantime."

"Sometimes he can't," said Tifa. "He probably wouldn't accept help anyway."

"You ain't his caretaker," said Barret. "And not the world's, either."

"We used to be," she said, and there was an uncomfortable silence for several moments.

"...I am not sure the Planet would know what this is to begin with," said Nanaki. "But thank you for trying."

"No. I know that. I threw it out. We're done here." She stood up, then paused. "...Don't tell Cloud. Alright?"

Nanaki cocked his head to the side. "And what are we supposed to tell him, should he ask?"

"Not this. It'll just make everything worse. You know how he... how we -- you know how it’ll go."

“He’s rubbing off on you,” said Barret. “Thought you had more sense than that.”

“Let’s just go,” she said, and strode out the door, leaving the white materia behind, like she should have done in the first place.

She returned back to the bar and found the front room empty. She checked the back and found Cid and Jessie camped out in the back room. Jessie was asleep, but Cid was lying against the couch, smoking a cigarette. Tifa stood in front of him, cleared her throat, and waited.

Cid put out his cigarette. “What the hell kinda bar doesn’t allow you to smoke in it?” he growled.

“The kind that I live in,” she said. “The whole place is gonna smell now.”

“Think I’m entitled to one fuckin’ cigarette, lady.” He stood up and stretched. “Everyone else went to bed.”

"What time is it?"

"'Bout one in the morning. Mind tellin' me what you ran off for?"

"I thought I had a lead," said Tifa uncomfortably.

"...And?"

"And I didn't."

Cid continued to stare at her.

"It was nothing," she said, a bit firmer this time. "I wish it wasn't, but it was."

"This ain't gettin' to you, is it?"

Tifa shrugged. "We've dealt with worse and come out--"

"'Cause if it is that's nobody's business but your own, but you're gonna rip yourself apart trying to pretend everything's fine when it's not. Just look at your boyfriend over there." Tifa shifted uncomfortably at the word boyfriend, and Cid rolled his eyes. "Fuckbuddy, then. Whatever you two are callin' it."

He got up and stretched himself out with a pained grunt. "No shame in admitting you're outta your depth. Shit, we've all been that way for four years."

"...I want to help," she said after a moment. She suddenly felt very tired as the events of the day began to catch up to her.

"Ain't that the fuckin' statement of the year," muttered Cid. "I'm heading out back for a smoke. Your bed's probably full by now. No one likes Cloud's piss-poor excuse for a mattress." Cid disappeared around the corner, and a moment later she heard the screen door swing open and then shut.

Tifa removed her boots, which were still a bit muddy from the church and the half-melted snow slush up north (she'd been there earlier today, hadn't she?), and quietly crept up the stairs. She made a quick stop to her room to change into sleep clothes (which were really just some of Cloud's "civvies" she'd decided were comfortable), stepping over a sleeping Barret on the way over. It seemed nearly everyone had filed into her room. It was slightly larger, which left more space for blankets. A quick headcount indicated Nanaki was the only one missing.

She left a quick peck on Marlene's forehead before leaving. She probably owed her that much.

She checked Cloud's room and found him and Nanaki curled up against one another in his bed. If it could be called a bed, anyway. It was really more of a cot: the mattress was only a few inches thick, and there was a single blanket and a single pillow for comfort. No, that wasn't right -- there were two pillows now. One of them was hers. She wasn't sure how she'd missed it before.

She'd have to see about buying him something warmer when he wasn't looking. She knew from experience he wouldn't accept it as a gift. Cloud didn't do gifts. If anyone got him anything, he'd wind up either "paying it back" or "working it off". The actual chair for his desk had been an uphill struggle as it was. They could barely get him to do birthdays, and not just because he didn't quite remember when it was.

Tifa carefully slipped in behind him, since Cloud was already using Nanaki's stomach as a pillow -- Tifa shook her head in exasperation -- and slipped under the blanket. Cloud jerked awake and twisted around to look at her. He was still using Barret's shirt, it seemed -- he was practically swimming in it.

"It's me," she whispered.

Cloud stared uncomprehendingly at her for a moment, then nodded and rolled back over. She wasn't sure if it was because he didn't remember her leaving, or was too tired to know what was going on. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt toward the latter.

She hooked an arm over his shoulders -- partially to keep him from jumping out the window again without her knowledge, and partially because she wanted to. He relaxed into her grip, and a moment later she heard his breathing even out.

For a moment, Tifa wondered if he actually needed air.

She scolded herself for considering it. Of course he needed air. You probably couldn't genetically engineer someone to not need air, could you?

Perhaps you could. It was possible to genetically engineer someone to be able to walk through walls, after all.

It would be so much easier to deal with if they just knew what it was they'd spent five years splicing him with. What kind of thing Jenova was, what the world it had come from was like, if it had come from one at all. Cloud had a lot of issues understanding the passage of time -- perhaps She experienced it differently? Anything that had been preying on planets for an unfathomably long amount of time would have to. And She would have to be a predator, naturally, because she couldn't think of any bigger predator out there that would eat something that already ate the Lifestream. Maybe there was something lurking out there that ate galaxies, and Jenova was just the space equivalent of a rabbit. She certainly seemed to spread like one.

Sometimes she'd find herself thinking of Her as a disease Cloud had -- other times, as a person. When they'd been fighting Her on the ground, they'd thought of it as more of an animal. She wasn't really sure which one was more correct.

On that day four years ago, though; the sky filled with fire, the low roar of something immense entering the atmosphere, of Meteor hanging in the sky, seeming like more of a living entity than a chunk of rock as it began tearing through Midgar to reach the earth below it... she wasn't sure what to think of it then.

The noise it had been making was the worst. She wondered if it was anything like the music Cloud claimed to hear. She'd asked him to hum the tune once, but he'd just shaken his head. "It doesn't have one I can make," he'd said.

She wondered how much time he spent listening to it that they didn't know about. By the time she managed to get to sleep, the sky had already begun to lighten.

A noise roused her from her sleep. When she opened her eyes, the bed was empty. She heard the mumbling, crackling chatter of a poorly-tuned radio. Perhaps Cloud was fixing it? Then she heard a low growling, and she sat up.

Nanaki had backed up against the opposite wall, ears flattened and teeth bared. Across from him was Cloud, who was sitting at his desk wheezing faintly.

She got up from the bed and slowly approached his chair. "Cloud?"

Cloud didn't respond. The distressed look on his face quickly faded away to one of indifference. He looked hollow.

The last time Tifa had seen that look on his face it had been four years ago on the Highwind, when he'd tried to slit Barret's throat.

Then his head tilted towards her and the eyes focused on her, and a new expression appeared that looked wrong on Cloud's face. He seemed inquisitive, in the same dry sort of way one would look at an interesting bug. His arm moved.

Tifa had seen enough, and immediately ripped him from his chair and pinned him to the ground with a loud thud, twisting his good arm behind his back and applying pressure to his throat with her other hand to partially restrict his breathing. No human could match the strength of a Soldier (or something very like one) no matter how strong they were, but Tifa had the element of surprise and, unlike Cloud, eight more years of experience than him from the tuition of a trained professional. She wasn't sure what kind of training the thing using Cloud had, but she'd gone toe to toe with Soldiers before. It would have to do.

She heard Cloud grunt involuntarily as he hit the ground, but he didn't do anything to free himself. She kept contact on him anyway.

Nanaki crept into place beside them, still on edge. "There's something wrong. It shouldn't be here."

She looked sharply at him. "What shouldn't?"

Nanaki just paced anxiously. "...I don't know."

Cloud began to struggle against her then, and she braced herself against him more firmly as Nanaki prepared to pounce if necessary, but then she paused. His movements were all wrong -- not a former MP attempting to break himself out of a hammerlock. He didn't even try to blast her off into a wall; it was just uncoordinated thrashing.

"Shh... shh, c'mon, it's okay," she said, doing her best to sound soothing while maintaining the pressure on his neck. "It's okay... wake up." Could he even hear her like this? He'd never been straightforward with her about the whole thing. Might as well try anyway.

By this point the noise from their struggling and Nanaki's growling had gotten attention, and a moment later five more people burst through the door into his room. They stared at her. Tifa stared back. Cloud continued thrashing.

"Don't just stand there," she snapped, as Cloud gave a particularly spirited thrash and she was flung off, prompting Nanaki to pounce on him instead.

It took the combined efforts of Tifa, Barret, and Cid to wrestle him back into the bed. They were probably a bit rougher than they should have been, given he was a bag of broken bones at this point. She'd apologise to him later.

A few moments later, he stopped moving entirely. Tifa very carefully released her grip on his arm, panting heavily, and saw with a brief flash of relief that he quickly pulled it towards himself but made no attempt to leave the bed.

Everyone was quiet for a moment.

Tifa took a deep breath. "...You --"

"I know." He sounded tired. "I remember."

Tifa looked away and turned to the others. Barret let go as well, looking worried. Marlene was now peeking in through the doorway, her eyes wide and her face drawn. Reeve just looked grim.

"That's what that was?" she asked again.

Cloud closed his eyes. "Mm-hm."

"You in any pain?"

"Yep. You gonna break my legs next, too?"

Well, at least he was coherent. Yuffie sat down on the bed next to him and ran a weak healing spell through him. There probably wasn't much point in getting him to take anymore pain pills right now.

Barret stood up. "Marlene and I are gonna have a chat," he said firmly. Tifa nodded. Cloud rolled back over into his pillow, causing Barret to simply shake his head and walk out the door.

"...What time is it?" asked Tifa after a couple minutes of silence.

"A little after eleven," said Reeve. "We would've woken you up, but we thought you'd both appreciate a bit of a lie-in." He sank into Cloud's chair and sighed. "A good thing, in retrospect.

"I wouldn't have let him leave," said Nanaki. "I was watching."

"He could've run off anyway. It's not like you could've barred the door or anything," said Yuffie.

"I shouldn't have slept in," said Tifa curtly. "That's really all there is to it."

"I'm right here," muttered Cloud into his pillow, and everyone went silent again.

Eventually, they all filed out of the room. Tifa got up to leave as well. Closed the bar might be, but she still had dates to check and product to rearrange. Cloud caught her arm on her way to the door.

"I'll just be downstairs. Alright?" she said.

"What if it doesn't stop next time?" he said. "What if I wind up like that again, and it doesn't go away?"

Tifa glanced back at the door. What could she possibly say? She'd long since run out of fodder for lies to keep him stable.

"If I did... you'd kill me, right?"

She turned to look at him sharply. "Cloud --"

"I don't want to wind up like that ever again. I'd already be dead anyway, right?"

"I'm not killing you." He looked away at the anger in her voice, but this wasn't something she'd back off on. "You'd still be alive, and we'd find a way to fix it. But I'm not killing you. You..."

"But if there wasn't anything left to save, then --"

"There would be. And I'd -- we would find a way to do it. And you're not convincing me any other way, so you might as well drop it."

How dare you ask me that? was what she also wanted to say, but didn't. How dare you ask me that after everything?

She hoped he knew it anyway. He ought to.

She stood there for a moment, trying to come up with something else for him to reply to.

"...Why don't you come with me downstairs?" was what she came up with eventually. "You can help me check dates, and we can talk."

"Your customers aren't gonna like that I've been around your food," he said flatly.

"They don't..." She hesitated. They would know now, wouldn't they? If Cloud had been outside with no glasses, or if the paramedics had talked about what they could've seen...

"...Fuck 'em," she said eventually, with more confidence than she felt.

Cloud let out a short huff of laughter. "That's bad form. What if somebody heard that?"

"Nobody's gonna hear it."

"Well, I heard it."

"Guess you did. C'mon." She offered a shoulder, and he got to his feet with a pained groan and hobbled his way downstairs. She glanced at his swords lying by the bar and sighed. One thing at a time. At least they weren't in his room.

They spent the next few hours combing through their inventory. She talked to him for a while about the cave she'd spent several days clearing out. He'd asked a few questions every now and then, mostly about what kinds of things she'd punched, but otherwise kept quiet. Yuffie stopped in at one point, and by the time Tifa remembered she was supposed to be yelling at her for skimming thirty gil off a register she had already slipped out the back door again. She eventually got Cloud started chopping vegetables, since he at least knew how to handle a blade. He seemed to enjoy it... probably. It was always hard to tell. She didn't think she'd ever seen him properly smile once.

Come to think of it, she wasn't sure when she'd last smiled either.

Chapter Text

It took Aeris a moment at first to figure out whether or not she was dreaming.

She was certainly lying down. Perhaps she'd simply dreamt getting into the tank?

She sat up and looked around -- definitely still hazy. Her arm hurt like mad, too. Maybe not dreaming, then.

Still, her surroundings were a bit clearer. She was in the enclosed space again, and this time there was a light coming from somewhere across from her -- a hole, perhaps. She stood still for a moment and took stock of the sensations she was experiencing again. She moved her left thumb, then her forefinger, and then her middle finger. They definitely felt like fingers. She opened and closed her hand -- was it a hand? Maybe she just wanted to believe it was one.

She noticed something else that she hadn't before, perhaps because she wasn't quite convinced she was awake. Her muscles felt tense, as though she were crouched at the bottom of a pool, ready to push off. As she walked over to the hole, her body felt strangely light.

She reached forward, and found more space behind the hole in the wall; it was an opening after all. She heard a noise behind her, and it suddenly occurred to her that the hole had been a perfect rectangle, but she had already hauled herself up and her momentum carried her out the window and onto the ground below. She was surprised at the ease with which she landed. She'd certainly never been that physically able on her own two feet.

She had two feet, didn't she? Two something, anyway.

Flat. It was almost perfectly flat. It could have been a natural migration trail but for the structures lining it on either side. The sky -- and it had to be the sky, the space above her was so large -- sprawled out before her. It was spattered with stars.

This was more than she could have hoped for in a thousand years. She hoped they'd finally gotten imaging sorted out. Zack would probably lose his mind at what she was seeing, if the notes she'd been making hadn't gotten everyone riled up already.

The structures were blocking her view, though. She'd have to find somewhere higher up.

She took a few steps forward. Apart from the pain on her right side, she still felt strangely energetic. She cautiously broke into a careful jog.

It felt incredible. Aeris wondered if maybe that was why people ran for their own enjoyment, if it felt this good. She went a bit faster, and the ground seemed to fly under her feet, every movement effortless, the kind of running she'd only experienced in dreams, when she'd been able to will herself to wherever she wanted. She was certain she couldn't run this fast herself.

She still felt light. Perhaps the gravity was lower here? Only one way to find out.

Aeris ran another few steps and leapt into the air.

She must have sailed about five metres up, and for a moment she was certain about her gravity theory until she began to fall again at about the speed she was used to on earth. She felt her heart abruptly jump into her throat as the ground hurtled towards her. She twisted about in mid-air, trying to get her bearings and managed to stumble onto her feet atop one of the structures as her weight settled again.

My legs are like a bouncy castle was probably not the most scientific note she could have taken, but she wrote it out anyway. She broke into a run again, noting the perfectly flat surfaces she was sprinting across. It all felt so effortless.

Aeris reached the tallest building she could find and turned her gaze skyward. There were so many stars here -- the kind of sky she'd seen once or twice out in the country, far away from any light pollution. She began focusing intently on a particular patch of the sky, making a note for them to retrieve an image. The quality would probably be terrible, but anything for them to study would be worth straining over a grainy, blurry picture compiled from brainwaves from several hours. She began categorising each patch of sky, making her own observations about what she could see. The world continued to sharpen painfully and blur around her at the same time, but she was certain she saw something move out of the corner of her eye...

Then that something was in front of her, towering over her and filling her vision. Whatever it was, it was big.

OUT PLEASE NOW, she wrote. A moment later, the lid was popped to the tank and she was pulled out of it. Zack joined Lazard in helping her out. Both of them looked ecstatic.

"We got visuals!" he blurted out. "I mean, they're not done rendering yet, but we finally got something! If we can get a few more for comparison we could get a lot of info about the orbits of --"

"Forget the orbits," she said, tripping out of the tank. "And the sky and everything. I saw one."

Zack stared at her. "Saw what?"

"...No idea. But listen -- I think -- I think there's people over there."

Tseng left his place at the desk and approached the three of them. "How do you know?"

"You saw my report, didn't you?" she said, gesturing frantically to the screen. "I'm telling you, there were buildings -- I have hands, I'm almost certain I did."

"We found aliens?," asked Zack, whose eyes had somehow managed to become wider. "Like, alien-aliens? Not just a bunch of animals?"

"I don't know what else it could be. We have to --"

"It's entirely possible you could be anthropomorphising your data," said Tseng. "You're walking on what you've called legs, and running down what you wanted to call a street. A dog isn't smiling when it bares its teeth."

"Yeah, well, if you're so smart why don't you tell me what it is? I'm doing my best. I still can't see anything properly," she said, suddenly trailing off. "Maybe whatever I'm looking through doesn't see very well." She allowed Lazard to hand her a towel and began to pat herself dry. "I ought to ask."

"This seems a whole lot of conjecture," said Angeal, who was the only one that didn't look impressed. Zack made a derisive noise in the back of his throat.

"Man, did you leave your sense of adventure back in Germany or what?" Zack gestured wildly to the screen. "Aliens, Angeal!"

Aeris gestured to Zack pointedly. "See? Someone gets it. Besides, I know what I saw. Look, I'll show you -- "

"Tomorrow, you'll show us," warned Lazard. Aeris grunted.

"Fine, tomorrow then."

"...I do believe you saw something," Tseng added. He had gone back to staring at the screen with an intense look on his face. He left the room without another word.

"Do you think the reason your chest hurts now is because something laid an egg down your throat?" added Zack.

"I haven't seen that movie," replied Aeris. "And if you're going to make fun of me..."

"I'm not," he said, and he sounded serious. "Just... first contact. Man." He shook his head. "I didn't think we'd get this far."

"I did," said Aeris. Zack turned to look at her, and she shrugged again in response.

"My parents were willing to stake their careers on getting this far," she continued. "It had to have been for a reason."

"Is that what you believe?" he asked.

"Of course it is. I didn't have any reason to think they'd be wrong, and I especially don't now. Do you?" Aeris stood up as well and yawned. "Need a nap."

She shuffled off to the showers, feeling Zack's eyes on the back of her head the entire time.

 


 

This time felt different. The strange "blackout" she'd experienced, she'd attributed to her brain making up stimuli where there were none. She quickly posed a question to Tseng about it in the notes, because she wasn't sure if the human brain could conjure up the sudden cacophony of millions of voices whispering into her ears. It was gone as quickly as it came. Anything was possible if you were hallucinating, she supposed.

Her weight was supported by something, and the area she was in was well-lit. A brief glance around seemed to indicate it was the same area she'd been in the day before. She then turned and looked to her left.

There was something there, undoubtedly. About the size of... actually, she wasn't sure what size she was here, but whatever it was, it was as big as her. She made another note to begin compiling images as she studied it herself. It was making some sort of noise, or perhaps the noise was coming from behind her. Its face -- and she immediately scolded herself for calling it a "face", because that was an assumption she didn't have much evidence to back up, and of course humans naturally wanted to see faces where there weren't any but she could have sworn -- was moving. It was almost definitely alive. It was close, too; she could have reached out and touched it...

...and then it reached out and touched her. Her world tilted around her as it seemed to grab her and flip her over itself before slamming her into the ground. Hard.

She felt her arm (which she had definitely decided was an arm) being twisted up behind her back, and for split second she almost asked them to pull her out again. Then she hesitated.

This was for real. There were actual sentient lifeforms here that she was actually (literally) in contact with, and she was the only one in a position to gather information about them. If it was worth billions of euros in investment, it was certainly worth a bit of danger as well.

Her resolve faltered slightly when whatever it was behind her settled its weight on her back and began limiting her air supply. She began to struggle against whatever it was -- it seemed fairly light, but it was clamped onto her quite firmly, and the pain she was presently in didn't seem to be helping.

Perhaps she'd leave this bit out of the report until she was done fighting for her life. If her team pulled her now, who knew when she'd get another look at them?

There was more noise around her, and then several more of them appeared nearby. She reared back to throw the one on her back off and flipped over, getting a good look at each one.

You're safe, she reminded herself. Whatever happens to you here you'll be fine. But the pain she was in felt quite real, and the things that has just began to fan out around her were definitely bigger than her. Another thought occurred to her as she felt herself being picked up, and the noise around her increased: would they kill the one she was using? It was still injured from whatever it had fallen off of. Perhaps it was being culled. If it died, that was the end of the project.

She began to struggle harder now, and found herself surprised by how easily she was able to tug herself out of their grasp. Perhaps they weren't very strong. Or perhaps they were a different sort of thing than she was.

Then she noticed the surface she was on. It was soft, and as her hand latched out she grabbed onto something that sturdy and woven and --

Woven. It was fabric.

Upon further consideration, it occurred to her that she seemed to be wearing clothes.

This settled it.

Any plans of escape were immediately put an end to when one of them got their hand into her other arm, the one that was still unusable.

The pain was incredible. The closest thing she'd felt like it was when she was eight and she'd fallen out of a tree and gotten a dislocated shoulder for her trouble. Someone on the other end clearly must have noticed, because the next thing she knew she was waking up in the tank, still sputtering and thrashing.

She shoved a very worried Lazard away from her and blurted out, "I found a blanket!"

There was a moment of stunned, and probably confused, silence.

"Or a -- or a coat, or a toga, or something. They've figured out textiles. They're intelligent. They have to be." She was breathing heavily. Whether it was from the psychological effects of being choked or excitement, she wasn't sure.

Tseng was the first to speak up. "Are you sure?" he asked severely. "Are you absolutely sure?"

"I know I am," she said. "It has to be."

"Did they say anything?" asked Cissnei.

"Might have. I don't know, my hearing's sort of funny. I think they might've been angry."

"Hostile, you mean?" asked Lazard.

"I don't know yet," she said. "Maybe they're panicking. Maybe we did something culturally unacceptable."

"Have you tried to say anything yet?" asked Cissnei. "Do you know if they use a verbal language at all?"

"You keep mentioning fingers," pressed Tseng. "How many? How do you suppose your bones are arranged? You've mentioned bipedal locomotion a few times. How is your balance affected by it?"

"We can't use it," interjected Zack suddenly. Everyone turned to look at him.

"We can't really prove it's a blanket," he said glumly. "All we have is your word of mouth, and some blurry pictures, and whatever meaning you apply to anything you find. No one's gonna believe it if we try to publish this."

She glared at him. "You think I'm --"

"I believe you. Everyone here probably believes you. But you don't have to convince us."

She looked around at the others, NC fluid still dripping from her hair.

"...We did it, though," she said, and there was an edge to her voice now. "I saw them. We -- they can't just throw out that much data. We found aliens, Zack."

"No, like, I know, and that's really cool, and we're all really happy, but --"

"He's right," said Angeal, speaking up. "All we have is things we've gathered on our own. What we need --" and with this he stood up and approached the board, "-- is a message back."

He picked up a marker and began making writing two lists: THINGS WE CAN GUESS and METHODS WE COULD USE.

"Let's think," he said. "We want to send a message to an unknown party. We cannot use symbols of any kind, because they may not recognise them. What do we know about this party?"

"They have eyes," said Aeris, "assuming our contact point is the same species as they are. I'm the same size, about."

Angeal marked "VISUAL MEDIUM" in the GUESS category.

"You said they might be mad, right?" asked Zack.

"Almost definitely mad," said Aeris. "I was attacked. I think."

Cissnei looked at her incredulously. "What in the world did you do?"

"I don't know yet. If we figure this bit out first we can ask."

Angeal reluctantly wrote "HOSTILE (?)" under GUESS, then added "TEXTILES" as an afterthought. "I think that's about it. Any methods we could use?"

"The hydrogen line," said Zack immediately. "That's always the go-to, right?"

"It would be," said Tseng. "But those were always broadcasted as a signal, to be used in another signal. We also have no way of knowing what that is. It's another universe, with potentially another set of natural laws entirely. Perhaps a three here is a two there."

"...Something like that could explain the bug we keep finding," Zack admitted. "But we still can't nail down what it is. Figuring out the laws of physics of an entire universe we've had limited access to could take months. Maybe years."

"We're not thinking about the content of the message, either," said Aeris. Her teeth were beginning to chatter from being soaking wet and cold for so long, but she ignored it. "We need something more than the hydrogen line if we're to avoid my being choked again the next time we visit."

Lazard looked at her in alarm. "You were --"

"I'm fine, let's stay focused," she interrupted, causing Lazard to shake his head in disbelief. "Primes, maybe. Though I suppose that could have the same problem as the hydrogen line."

Angeal nodded and wrote down "SPIN-FLIP" and "PRIME #" under METHODS. It reminded her a bit of a teacher in a lecture hall, until she realised that was almost certainly what he'd done at some point in his life.

"Anyone else?" asked Aeris. "We'll take anything we can get."

There was a pause, and then Cissnei whistled five notes. That got a brief chuckle out of everyone present except Tseng. Perhaps he hadn't seen the movie, or maybe he just didn't "do" jokes.

"It's not a terrible idea," mused Aeris. "There's mathematical basis in it. Five hundred hertz is still five hundred hertz whether it's on Earth or on Saturn, so a B is still B."

Cissnei leaned back in her chair and smiled. "Thank you. I try."

"Only within the same universe, though," said Zack. "We're back at the hydrogen problem again."

"We haven't even figured out how we're going to convey this either," added Lazard.

"Or what we're going to convey," said Angeal, nodding. "Something that potentially tells them about who we are without it being construed as a threat."

They continued throwing ideas back and forth across the next fifteen minutes. Aeris and Lazard unconsciously found themselves humming the five notes, and then blaming Cissnei for getting it stuck in their heads. Cissnei looked more than a bit smug by this point.

Eventually she found herself thinking about the song itself. It hadn't just been the five notes, had it? There had been the rest of the conversation. And if an alien culture had picked music as its medium, it was perhaps a very prevalent part of their culture. A good way to send a message that would be understood while telling the receiving party about themselves... assuming they had ears, or any concept of what "sound" was. Would a B be a B in a different atmosphere? What about an atmosphere with different gravity? Was five hundred hertz still five hundred hertz in another world? Was she breathing oxygen? Was oxygen the periodic element with eight protons?

She frowned. It would have to be, wouldn't it? Because...

She got up, and walked to one side of the room, and counted the steps. Then she turned around and walked to the other, heel to toe. Then she went back the other way. Fifty steps. And then fifty steps. And then fifty steps.

"...What are you doing?" asked Zack, which got her to look up and realise she was being stared at.

"Walking. I've been walking."

Zack turned to look at Cissnei uncomfortably, then back to her. "...Yeah. That's -- yup."

"No, you don't understand; I've been walking."

Another period of silence. Aeris rolled her eyes.

"Movement is consistent from point A to point B, every time. I can take twenty steps in one direction here, and I'll be twenty steps away from where I started," she explained. "It's the same way in the other world. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to navigate at all. I'd find myself walking backwards, or not moving even if I was moving.

"Therefore," she said, quickly snatching up another marker, "a one is still a one. And so a two has to be a two, because it's two ones, and a three has to be a three. But let's focus on one, the thing that we know exists."

"So hydrogen is is hydrogen because it's gotta be," said Zack quickly, picking up what she was saying. "Because hydrogen is hydrogen because it's the element with one proton. If it had two it would be helium."

"Binary is an option, then," said Angeal, and immediately wrote it down. "Is and is not are non-negotiable states."

"That still doesn't tell us what we're sending," said Cissnei.

"Yes, it does," said Aeris, writing furiously. NC fluid dripped onto the board several times, and she wiped them off on Angeal's uniform and received an indignant glare in response. "Because there's another constant that's found in nearly everything in the world, and if one is one and two is two then it'll be in theirs as well. Any intelligent species with a basic grasp of mathematics -- there!"

Aeris took a step back to allow everyone to admire her handiwork. Simple, to the point, and (hopefully) posing a question that required a response.

"You think that'll work?" said Cissnei, who also seemed to recognise what she'd drawn.

"If they keep off you long enough for you to convey it, it should," said Tseng. "Only do the first part for now. See what happens."

"Get some rest first," said Lazard, throwing her a towel. "We'll try again in twenty-four hours."

Aeris did take a short nap due to the sedative, but after it began to wear off she found she was too wired to actually sleep. She lay in bed, still trying to come to grips with everything they had discovered over the last several hours. If she was right about what it all meant, anyway.

Apparently she wasn't the only one lying awake, because there was a knock on the door to her room.

"It's me," came Zack's voice through the door.

"And Cissnei," added Cissnei. "We were talking and I told him you had snacks."

She opened the door and gave them both a questioning look, then sat back down on her bed. Cissnei sat next to her, and Zack took his place on the desk, rather than using the chair right next to it.

"Tired?" he asked. Aeris shook her head.

"Me either," he continued. "You'd think we would be since we've been at this basically nonstop."

"There is too much to think about," said Cissnei. "What do you think it will be like?"

Aeris pulled the blanket closer to her. Even after the shower she still felt a bit chilled -- it seemed 90% of her time here had been spent soaking wet. "There would be a big cultural exchange. Everyone always thinks it'll lead to... I dunno. The end of racism. One-nation world, or something."

"Not if they want to start a war," said Zack. "We could be contacting something that wants us dead."

"They already know we're here, though," said Aeris. "So the best we can do is run damage control."

Nobody said anything for a moment. The prospect that they had just potentially started a war was not a pleasant one.

"...If they have weaving," began Cissnei, "then do you suppose they have art?"

Aeris shrugged.

"Why does that matter?" asked Zack.

"Any culture that has art is good, isn't it?" Cissnei looked at the floor nervously.

Aeris considered this, then nodded. "Definitely. So it'll be fine."

Zack scratched the back of his neck. "'Good' is kind of a complicated concept..."

"Not when it comes to starting a war," said Aeris.

"Maybe, maybe not," said Zack. "Killing is bad, right? Unless death isn't a concept to you, so you have no frame of reference to why it wouldn't be right. It's wrong to have sex with someone when they don't want to, unless your whole species mates passively with... spores, or egg piles, or something."

"...Do you notice anything on your body that could have been used to lay eggs?" said Cissnei after a moment.

Aeris shot her a look. "That's disgusting. I wasn't exactly paying attention."

"Maybe you should have," said Zack. "Important scientific documentation. Someone's gonna have to write this stuff down. Tseng would have a field day." He looked at the drawer under the desk curiously. "Next time just rummage around downstairs for an ovipositor or something."

"You don't have to be that lurid about it," she said sharply. "And that seems extremely rude."

"What, you think it might be in your mouth instead?"

"I brought you in here for snacks," said Cissnei quickly, before Aeris had a chance to reply.

"Snacks. Sure." Aeris reluctantly scooted herself out of bed and got out the two containers she'd brought in. "I have licorice allsorts and gummy bears."

Zack went for the gummy bears, as predicted. Aeris had a few more of her allsorts before putting the container away -- the restocking period was coming, but until then she wanted these to last.

"The UN is gonna lose their shit," said Zack, who appeared to be strategically de-limbing his bears.

"We'd have to come up with laws for this too. Currency exchange, if they have money. Who gets to say what to them. Whether or not you can legally have sex with them." Aeris shot a look at Zack for the last part.

"I'm not gonna stick it in an alien," he said, popping the remaining gummy bear torso into his mouth and crossing his arms. "Probably, anyway. Are we talking green ladies, or...?"

"This isn't a professional conversation to be having," said Cissnei.

Zack smirked. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much. You brought it up."

"Actually, you did too," said Aeris. "With the spores."

"I was trying to make a philosophical point and you know it."

Aeris sighed. "We should be asleep. Especially you," she said, nodding to Zack. "If everything goes well and we haven't started a war, it'll be up to you to make sure I don't die of radiation poisoning when we finally use that room in the middle."

"...No manches, this is really happening, isn't it?" he said quietly.

Aeris handed him the tub of gummy bears and climbed back into bed. "Here. Try not to eat them all at once."

Zack nodded. "See you tomorrow, then. Or whatever counts as tomorrow in here." He left the room, leaving her alone with Cissnei. Cissnei gave Aeris a quick hug, then left as well, still in a daze.

Aeris stared at the door for a moment longer, then turned out the light.

 


 

The entire room was buzzing with excitement as Aeris climbed into the tank. They'd spent a few hours prior going over the "photos" she'd taken on her last excursion. She begrudgingly admitted that perhaps they weren't the best evidence. The images were extremely grainy and rendered in greyscale, and more reminiscent of bad photos of the Loch Ness monster than anything else.

The data was more useful, though the persistent bug that was present in nearly all of it was starting to become a problem. They wouldn't be able to present a good deal of their findings if the scientific community considered it inaccurate and flawed.

Aeris thought she had been finally getting used to the process, but when Zack began to count down again she found the nerves catching up to her again. She didn't have much time to dwell on it as she was flung through that strange deep space and opened her eyes.

She had a split second to process that she was still surrounded, and that she could move her right arm again, before something pressed up against her neck. It felt sharp. It was being held by, or attached to, one of the figures to her left. Most of them had been slightly larger than her, but this one appeared a bit smaller.

She moved very slowly, keeping her eyes on the room itself. She would have made eye contact, but some species on Earth considered that a threat. She didn't want to take her chances.

She began to feel around the room. The figure moved with her, keeping its... whatever-it-was nearby her throat. She was surprised at how soft everything was here. Perhaps it was all plant fibre.

She found a large flat surface with nothing clearly on it that gave easily under her fingers. Perfect.

She wrote her message into it, neatly and deliberately. The figure next to her was making noise, and as much as she strained to listen to it, she couldn't really make out much more than that.

She stepped back, admiring her handiwork with a small smile. She documented a picture of it as well. Then she requested an extraction.

They pulled her out of the tank and dried her off. No one left the room just yet. Everyone was silent. Zack was nervously rolling the ball around on his desk. Tseng kept tapping his fingers on his chair. Aeris picked at the towel, and tried to think of something to say, and failed, and picked at the towel some more.

There was nothing left to do but wait.

 


 

"Fucking --!"

"Sorry. Y'know, if you held still it wouldn't hurt as much."

"I am holding still."

"No, you're not. There!"

Yuffie stepped away from him with the cast and the tray of cut stitches as Cloud gingerly tested out his arm. It still looked awful, but the bone had healed almost completely, and the only thing left on his flesh was another jagged scar -- one of many at this point. It felt stiff, and he couldn't raise it above his head without him forcing it with his other arm, but it was nice to have some degree of independence again.

"You're gonna be all lopsided now," said Yuffie, gesturing to his left arm. Cloud shrugged, and again regretted doing so.

"I'll get a good workout in later. Maybe grab lunch first, though." He glanced out the window and blinked in surprise. It was pitch black outside.

"Or not. I didn't realise it was so late."

Yuffie stared at him. "...It's not, Cloud. It's... what are you talking about?"

"I -- look, it --" He gestured to the window again, and froze.

The black was seeping in through the window now, and from the roof, and up from the floor, which seemed to empty into an abyss below him. He looked around in a panic and immediately went for the knife under his pillow as Yuffie just stood there staring at him, shouting his name as he could feel his thoughts being smothered.

He dropped the knife a moment later. He stood there motionless, swaying slightly.

Yuffie snatched up the knife and put it to his throat.

Cloud looked down at the knife, and very slowly, purposefully proceeded to his desk. Yuffie lowered the knife again, puzzled, and said his name. Cloud was long gone, and didn't respond.

He began carefully touching the things on his desk -- the papers, the wood itself. An empty beer can crumpled in his grip, and Yuffie raised the knife to his throat again. His hand eventually landed on the wall above his desk.

He flattened a hand against it, as though testing something. Then he raised it again, and began to engrave something. Yuffie stood there, and Cloud looked at her once or twice, seeming more or less uncaring.

The whole thing was over in about thirty seconds. Cloud suddenly crumpled into a heap on the floor and groaned.

He curled himself up, pulling his head down to his chest. He had tried that time -- really, really tried. But he hadn't been able to fight off Sephiroth, either, so he didn't know why he'd expected to be able to fight this. Too weak.

It had happened again. It was going to keep happening. There was nothing he could do to stop it and it was going to happen over and over again until it got him killed or he just lost it himself.

Yuffie bent down to help him up, and he shoved her roughly away from himself. "I'm fine," he snapped.

She crossed her arms and sat down on the bed angrily. "Whatever. Get up on your own time."

She likely would have left if she could, Cloud realised. They'd started stationing people with him to watch him constantly. Because he was a danger to himself and the people around him, probably.

He bit a splinter out of his finger solemnly. It had him punching holes in plywood now. None of this made sense.

He looked up at what he'd been made to draw, frowning slightly. It looked like aimless scribbling to him. Yuffie was looking at it now too.

"What's --"

"Dunno. So don't ask."

Yuffie stuck her tongue out at him as Tifa and Jessie burst through the door. They looked at Cloud, and then Yuffie, and then what they were staring at.

Cloud raised a hand to blow the entire wall to shreds, and Jessie caught it. "Wait."

"For what?" he spat. "For it to come back?"

"Cloud, look at it. Actually look."

He reluctantly lowered his hand and looked. And looked, and then shook his head.

"I don't know," he said. "Just looks like they wanted me to wreck my bedroom."

"I've seen that before." Jessie was now looking at it intensely. "I can't put my finger on where."

"It's probably something I've drawn before on my paperwork," muttered Cloud, glancing at all the unfinished forms on his desk. "Kinda looks like an electrical diagram, a little. If you squint."

Cid leaned in the doorway just then. "Did all y'all come rushing up here for any reason, or...?"

"Get in here and look at this," said Tifa, ushering him in.

"Did he lose his shit again?"

Cloud glared at Cid in response. "Fuck off."

"Just asking. So, what..." he trailed off, as his eyes landed on what Cloud had engraved in the wall.

       o
   oo
oo oo

 

He turned back to Cloud quizzically. "You put that there?"

Cloud shook his head. "No. Whatever it was did. That's all it came here to do, I think. It left after."

Cid stared at Cloud, then turned back to the drawing.

"Fuckin' hell," he breathed. Cloud looked back up at him.

"...You know what it is?" asked Yuffie. Cid nodded.

"I know what it is, yeah. If I'm right. Which I am."

Cloud's breath caught in his chest for a moment. "What is it? Is -- will it help me get rid of them?"

"Probably not. That's a message in a bottle, and we're gonna throw it back."

Cloud looked between the wall and Cid. The man looked... excited. It unsettled him.

"Cid, what --"

"Back when I was in the space program, we'd use to send out messages like that via satellite," explained Cid, who was now inspecting the wall closely. "Nobody thought we'd ever get anything back, but it was to let the universe know we existed. Prime numbers was one of 'em. That there's another one -- the golden ratio. Identifiable patterns that would exist everywhere no matter what."

Tifa looked at Cloud. It was good to know she seemed just as lost as he did -- neither one of them had finished school. Perhaps this was something they'd have covered.

"Get back up, kid. And put some gloves on. You're gonna pick up where they left off."

Cloud retrieved his gloves from under his bed where he'd tossed them carelessly a week ago, and under Cid's instructions, added a few more dots.

 

         oo
       o  o
   oo
oo oo  o

 

"...I don't want to talk to it," said Cloud after they finished. He sat back down on his bed and went back to picking wood out of his hands. "I want it to piss off."

"Well, tough goddamn titties, because it's made an effort to talk to you. You think it'll stop if you ignore it?" Cid sat down next to him. "That'll have to do. We're gonna run out of space if we do more of it."

"...It's gonna come back," said Cloud. "It'll keep happening, won't it?"

No one said anything. Cloud swallowed thickly.

"Everything just... stops, when it -- when it shows up. It's like being dead, but you're still there."

Cid put his hand on Cloud's shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze. No one really felt safe leaving him with just Yuffie now. Jessie went downstairs and fetched the others, just in case it happened again.

As it stood, they didn't have to wait long. An hour later, Cloud seized up again, and began to stare at the wall.

 


 

The room was absolutely silent as they watched the screen, waiting for a reply from Aeris. The cameras had been set up, though there wasn't much for them to look at, and none of them really knew much about framing a shot anyway.

Zack fidgeted with the ball at his desk. He exchanged a nervous glance with Tseng, who had gone back to tapping on his chair. Angeal stood stock still directly in front of the screen.

Numbers began to appear on it.

1

1

2

3

5

Zack stopped breathing and clutched the rubber ball tightly enough to leave marks in the surface.

8 -new

13 -new

The room was silent for a moment longer. Then Zack jumped violently as Angeal let out a triumphant yell that sounded like something out of a drill sergeant. Cissnei grabbed him and shook him.

"We did it!" she screamed.

"I know!" he yelled back. "I know, we fucking did it!" He felt himself shaking from sheer giddiness. He looked back over towards Lazard. He was applauding quietly. Tseng had turned away from the group to get out of the view of the cameras, but Zack was pretty sure he was crying.

"Look!" shouted Angeal suddenly, and pointed at the screen. There were more numbers coming in.

 


 

Cloud had been staring for ten minutes before he raised his hand again. He put a few more holes in the wall then: 21.

Someone took his hand gently and guided it to another part of the wall. Cloud seemed to understand, and punched holes where his hand was moved. They were bunched together more tightly to save space, but the next one was 34, and then 55.

Cloud pulled his hand away and wrote another on the very edge of the wall, reaching from the floor to the ceiling: 89.

Then his hand dropped. He stood there until someone placed something into his hands. A pen, and a piece of paper.

He sat down on the ground and began to draw, mangling the pen as he had the wall, but not before he managed a very crude silhouette of a naked man and a woman, their hands raised in greeting. There were more marks then -- one dot beneath a number 1, and two dots beneath a 2, all the way to nine. A circle -- a 0 -- was positioned over no dots at all.

He began to write something else, but the pen was mangled beyond the point of use at that point. He stopped, and went very still.

Cloud let go of the pen, staring at what he'd drawn. There was ink all over his hands. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes again, and he forced them down. He'd already cried twice in front of his family, and that was well over his allotted amount of times of never.

He handed off the drawing wordlessly to Reeve, who had come up behind him now. Reeve stared at it, then handed it off to Cid. The two of them were now muttering to each other, but none of what they were saying made any sense to him. Cloud leaned against the wall he'd ruined and opened his mouth to ask what any of it was supposed to mean.

Before he could ask, there was a loud crash as shards of glass came raining down over him. He managed to duck his head to avoid the worst of the damage, and everyone scrambled away from the window that had just exploded next to him, and then from the cloud of fire that sprayed out from the centre of the room. Cloud barely managed to reach out to the flames and shape them inward in time to keep the whole room from going up, and Tifa had to smother the rest of the fire with his blanket. When she had finished, she lifted it up, and they all turned to stare at the remains of the Molotov that had been flung in through Cloud's window.

Chapter Text

Cloud leaned out the window and looked out into the street below him. He promptly got a rock to his face for his trouble, and he quickly ducked back inside as more followed them.

"About what I expected," he muttered. A mob assembled in two days wouldn't have more than Molotovs and rocks, right?

"There's a lot of them," said Jessie as she risked a quick look out the window. There wasn't a person left alive in Edge that hadn't lost something to Meteorfall, or Shinra, or Soldier, or all three.

"I could probably take 'em out," said Cloud. His sword was downstairs, if he'd even need to use it. Even if anyone present had access to materia, it was a safe enough bet that they wouldn't be as good as he was.

"Don't," said Reeve sharply. "I've already contacted the authorities."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "And what makes you think they aren't gonna join the mob themselves?"

"Because I know their boss. Cloud, if you kill anyone..."

"I'm not gonna kill anyone. Just scare them off a little." Truth be told, he couldn't really blame the mob outside. He'd certainly taken measures on his own time to find a few employees he'd discovered had worked for Hojo. The world was better off without them.

"Someone else should do it," said Cid. "Don't wanna give 'em another reason for them to think you're a threat."

"Dibs," said Yuffie quickly, and began to hurry downstairs, but was shoved back into the room by a furious Barret on his way up, Marlene trailing behind him. Neither one of them managed to get a word in before he leaned out the window himself.

"You motherfuckers best clear out!" he bellowed. "You set foot in this bar and I blow your damn head off!"

"See? Barret's got the right idea," said Cloud, as the mob quieted ever so slightly and Reeve pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Are they here to kill us?" Marlene managed to squeak out. "Do we have to leave?"

"It's okay. They're only here to kill me," said Cloud. This was not as comforting as he thought it would be, as Marlene stared at him in horror. "And it's not gonna work," he quickly added.

"Let's just find somewhere without windows and wait it out," said Jessie.

They all piled into the kitchen, where Nanaki was already waiting, anxiously pacing. Marlene was quietly hyperventilating now. The last time she'd experienced anything like this would have been years ago, waiting in the basement of the original Seventh Heaven during a raid. She'd been just old enough to understand that there was danger. Now she was old enough to understand why.

"They don't like you very much," said Nanaki as Cloud perched himself on top of an oven.

"I'd guessed," said Cloud, who was absently watching Yuffie trying to distract Marlene with more card tricks. He and Nanaki were probably the only ones present who could still make out what the mob was saying from the kitchen. "Shinra's murderer" was one of the more polite ones. "Freak" and "abomination" were some of the more dramatic ones. And one of the older terms he hadn't heard in a while, "dead-eye".

"I could take 'em. Just saying," Cloud grumbled.

"Don't," said Tifa. "If you retaliate they'll just see that as you proving them right." She sat down next to him on the counter. "Even if they have it coming," she added with a small smile.

Cloud almost reached out for her hand, then paused. His own palms were still covered in ink from the pen the thing had made him crush, and it was beginning to dry into a sticky mess.

"What did any of that mean?" he asked quietly.

"What did what?" asked Nanaki.

"I smashed up my room with tic-tac-toe or something," said Cloud.

"It was binary, dumbass," said Cid.

"Binary tic-tac-toe, then --"

Cloud heard another crash, and the crackle of flames. Someone had thrown another Molotov, this time through the front window.

"Right," said Cloud, and slid off the stove and ran out the door before anyone could stop him.

A few people were already beginning to widen the hole in the glass to climb in through. The minute they saw him, a cry went up through the crowed, and they backed off from the hole as Cloud raised his hand, claiming the flame that was already consuming a couple tables for his own before snuffing it out. He saw people readying weapons: some had kitchen knives and crowbars and shovels; another two had guns, though he couldn't make out whether they were traditional projectile or thermal; many were unarmed, but that didn't discount the possibility of materia on their persons, or even mastered spells.

The one in the front, he actually recognised; it had been the man from the roof, and he was looking at him with that same expression of disgust, only now he was holding a shotgun -- definitely projectile. More easily dodgeable than thermal, but a hell of a lot more destructive if he couldn’t.

Cloud stared them down as the reality of what they had come here to do seemed to settle in for them.

"Go on," he spat. "There's a hundred of you and one of me, right? I'm a danger to everyone in the city, right?"

He snatched up his sword from where it lay by the door and stepped outside, and he saw the people nearest to him flinch. One woman spoke up.

"You took my daughter from me." The contempt in her voice was overlaid with grief. "You people took her away."

"You're fucking crazy," yelled another one. "You all are, it's just a matter of time."

More people began to speak up.

"You people firebombed Angola!"

"My son was left to die! You promised him a new life and you left him to die!"

"Justice for the real Junon!"

"They should have euthanised Sephiroth and you both!" screamed the man from the roof, and the din of the mob picked up again, emboldened by their own righteous anger.

"I had nothing to do with that!" shouted Cloud, but it was lost in the roar of the crowd, which seemed to have gained enough confidence back to start calling for blood again. He began to scan the crowd again, trying to tally up how many he could take out before someone pulled a trigger or had time to get off a spell. The one in the back with the rifle, maybe not. The man in the front from the rooftop as another story -- he had a clear shot, and all the motivation to do it. But if Cloud could get to him first...

One of the braver ones clawed their way to the front, and the next thing Cloud knew there was a man throwing himself at him.

He sidestepped it easily and delivered a quick jab to his back with his elbow. Before the man had a chance to get up Cloud delivered a firm kick to his ribs, shoving him back towards the rest of the mob as Tifa came out of the kitchen and joined him outside by the doorway.

"Get the hell off my property!" she yelled. "I already called the cops! Clear out! Clear the fuck out!"

It was too late -- the rest of the mob surged in towards them both. Tifa dropped into a defensive stance right away, but Cloud had already taken a swing at the nearest citizen with his sword.

It had been with the flat side of the blade, of course, but the woman it connected with went flying into a news stand and crumpled against it, gasping in pain. A fist sank into his gut, and hand grabbed his leg and yanked, trying to throw him off balance. He lashed out with the other foot, kicking the closest thing he could get his leg into. He heard a dull crack as someone's kneecap gave out, and a scream. Good.

Beside him, he heard Tifa having a similar experience -- there were already six people limping away from her as she body checked a seventh into a wall. While none of them had any broken bones (probably), the crowd seemed more and more willing to at least leave her alone. A crowbar impacted the back of his head the second he looked away to watch her, and he rounded on his assailant and grabbed his arm, ready to snap it like a twig as he heard the cock of a shotgun behind him --

A bullhorn cut across the din and Cloud let go to clutch at his ears in agony -- it was so much louder for him, and inside he also heard Nanaki involuntarily howl. Someone in a uniform began shoving him and the mob apart, and Tifa grabbed the back of his shirt and dragged him back inside the minute they were both free.

Tifa just gave him a look.

"They attacked me first," he said. "I swear to you."

The back of his head itched, and he reached up and found it wet -- the skin had already healed, but his hair was still damp with his own blood. Tifa had a busted lip but was otherwise untouched.

"It doesn't matter anymore," said Tifa. "They got what they wanted, even if they didn't realise it."

He looked out the window, and the glass and burned furniture that was now in his home. The air smelled like smoke and and blood and awful cologne.

"Now what?" said Cloud.

Tifa shook her head. "...I don't know."

He watched the crowd disperse over the next half hour. He let Tifa do most of the talking to the authorities. He quietly swept up the glass and the ashes. He nailed boards over the broken windows. He did his best to wash the blood and ink and soot from his hands and hair.

He went back to his room, and he sat in front of his boarded-up window, and he imagined looking out at the sky.

 


 

Aeris was probably just a little bit drunk. They'd had a small party in the fifth ring with their ration packs, Aeris's candy, and a bottle of champagne someone had had the foresight to include with them, probably for an occasion just like this one. Zack was still over the moon about the whole thing, and was grinning from ear to ear as usual, but there was something different about it this time. He'd always looked slightly bitter when smiling, now that she thought about it. But this one looked real. Angeal and Lazard had decided to abstain from drinking, and were somewhere in the fourth ring going over the medical equipment. The chance that it might get used had suddenly gotten a lot higher.

"So -- what now?" asked Aeris. "We could send back '144' but it wouldn't get us any closer to communicating with them. Not really."

"Don't worry about that right now," said Cissnei. "Worry about what we're gonna tell the rest of the world."

"...Are we going to tell the rest of the world?" asked Tseng.

"I mean... we've gotta, right?" asked Zack.

"What would we tell them? We don't really know much ourselves," said Aeris. " That could cause a panic, too."

"Well, we're gonna have to tell someone. The board of directors, probably, when they ask what the hell we've been up to all this time."

"So, they just get to decide whether or not the world finds out about any of this?" asked Cissnei.

"Probably." Aeris turned back to Tseng. "We'll be on the panel though, right?"

"Also likely," said Tseng. "As for Cissnei, I am not sure. Officially she's here as an ambassador."

Cissnei looked up from her empty cup. "If they say no, am I supposed to just take this to my grave?"

"Hope not," said Zack. "But it's possible." That fact didn't seem to be doing much to dampen his mood. Perhaps he was drunk as well.

"Well, maybe I can get one of them to write a speech for me," said Aeris. "For the aliens."

"If they understood it," said Cissnei. "Or if you could get the message out."

"I don't see why I wouldn't," said Aeris. "If I can get a word in..."

Oh.

"I suppose we know why they're mad now," said Aeris. "If they're intelligent, I've just been walking one around."

"That's not possible," said Tseng.

"How's it not possible?" she replied.

"It makes sense, doesn't it?" said Zack. "If they're the same thing as whatever Aeris has been using, then we've been broadcasting right into them."

"That's true," said Tseng. "But it isn't possible. We picked up brainwaves, I believe. The human mind is complicated. So is the mind of anything else intelligent, I would assume. What we picked up was either an animal, or near brain death. Aeris shouldn't have cancelled it out entirely."

"But we don't know that." She stood up suddenly. "Maybe their brains work differently. If they have brains. Maybe it's like octopi --"

"Octopuses," cut in Tseng. "The root is Greek."

"...however you say it," she said, giving him a look, "and they've got decentralised nervous systems."

"We can find out," said Zack. "Next time we do this, why don't we just run the signal we found and yours at the same time? We can do that, right?"

"...In theory," said Tseng slowly, looking at Zack as though he were surprised he'd suggested it. "I would have to ask Lazard if that was advisable. It seems unsafe."

"There would be a risk of seizures," said Aeris. "I can guess that much. But I still say it's worth it."

"We will figure that out tomorrow," said Cissnei. "We have earned this. Pass me the champagne."

Somehow everyone managed to get themselves back up the next... morning? It had been a while since she'd seen a window, and time had more or less lost all meaning. Officially it was 5:00. That was morning enough.

They had forgotten to clean up the ration packaging from last night, so she wound up picking most of it up herself. She was just about finished when Zack walked in.

"Oh -- shit, sorry. I can, uh..."

Aeris shook her head. "It's fine. At least no one's hung over."

"Cissnei is, a little. I let her sleep for a bit."

Aeris nodded. "That's fine. She's..." She tried to search for a polite way to say "nonessential personnel".

Zack was nice enough to save her from the end of that sentence. "Yeah. Anyway, we're gonna have medical on standby for you, just in case."

"I'll be fine. It's for science," she said, smiling a bit. Zack frowned.

"You're... really invested in this, huh?" he asked.

"Yes. Aren't you?"

"Yeah -- I mean, I am, yes, but... what's your stake in this?"

"You already know. Nearly everyone does."

"Just... that's their reason, isn't it?"

Aeris turned to look at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. Never mind."

"What about you, huh?" she asked, crossing her arms. "Why are you really doing this?"

Zack's face hardened. "Because I need it. I need to be doing this."

There was something in his voice that almost sounded like anger. It was quickly gone again.

"I mean, just think of the tv deals we'll be getting from this," he said, and he was back to the other grin. The punchable one.

Aeris shook her head as Lazard walked in the door. "Guess it's time," she said. "Wish me luck."

Zack just shook his head. He still seemed preoccupied with something when the time came to count her down, given he'd given her the count of "three hundred I guess".

"Really."

"Look, there's a lot of stuff me and Angeal are doing. Just try to relax."

The hallucinations were beginning to creep in again. She shut her eyes, but she could have sworn she was hearing whispers as well. They were a lot harder to tolerate for this long.

"How much longer is this gonna take?" she asked. Zack didn't reply.

"Zack?" She opened the lid of the tank, and fell out into the dark emptiness.

It felt much more like falling now, too, until suddenly it felt like being dragged. She reached out to catch herself on anything, but suddenly everything she was falling through wanted to catch her, grabbing and pulling at her with a thousand hands made of nothing, and she absolutely didn't want to be caught. She felt herself falling again until she landed hard.

She looked up, and for a moment she was certain she was hallucinating again -- she was sitting on the floor, in a rather dingy little room. Looking around, it was fairly utilitarian -- no nicknacks, no odds and ends. A single cupboard with one of the drawers half-open, containing unfolded, wadded-up boxers. A tire sitting against the wall, and an office chair, and a desk. And above the desk, an unadorned wall with --

          oo
        o  o
    oo    
oo  oo  o

Her breath caught. There was no distortion. She could hear muffled conversation in the distance, and soft breathing in the room besides her own. The room was pitch black, but she found she could somehow still see. On the bed above her was a very large man, built like a truck and with the most expensive-looking prosthetic arm she'd ever seen, and next to him was a girl with her hair in a plait that looked about seven or eight.

Humans. They looked human.

She looked down at herself, then, and saw a hand. She could see every detail on the surface that she'd missed before -- five fingers. Heavily calloused, pockmarked with scars. The palms were stained a dark blue with... paint? It would explain the dampness she'd experienced towards the end. She flexed it experimentally. It still felt very sore.

It had never looked this way before. She hadn't been able to see much of anything.

Unless it wasn't her seeing any of this.

She sat there for a moment, staring at her hand. Not hers. Someone else's.

She took a deep breath and did the first thing that came to mind.

 


 

Cloud lay on the floor of his room, still awake. It was about six or seven in the morning. The mob had dispersed. They had originally been planning on stationing Reeve in his room to keep tabs on him, but Marlene was still convinced Cloud was going to be killed and demanded that she and Barret be there instead. Cloud hadn't felt right having Marlene sleep on the floor, and as much as Barret resented his "tiny-ass army cot" Cloud had managed to convince him it was better than the floor. That left Cloud with his old bedroll, which still smelled of grass and diesel and woodsmoke. Outside he could still hear the rustle of garbage left by the mob. Cloud had helped Tifa clean up the bar, but he refused to fix anything outside. That was their mess.

Marlene sniffled in her sleep. This had been the exact thing he'd wanted to avoid and he'd walked headfirst into it anyway. Though he wasn't sure what the solution would have been apart from putting bars on his window. He had about as much now, with the board he'd had to nail over it.

Something moved above him, and he thought for a moment Marlene had woken up. He turned to ask her what was wrong.

He tried to, anyway, but perhaps he was still half asleep, because nothing happened. There were more moving things now, on the ceiling. He began to hear the voices again as the world blurred around him. It was here again.

He tried to get a word of warning out to Barret, but that didn't happen either. He couldn't move, and though he could feel the fear flooding him already, his breathing and heartbeat remained steady.

It suddenly occurred to him that he was still aware, and that his vision and thoughts had cleared. There were no more shadows, and no more whispering, but there was still something there, watching him. He tried and failed to warn Barret again. He was completely paralysed -- it didn't even feel like he was breathing anymore; rather, that someone was breathing for him.

He felt himself sit up. He raised his hand, or maybe his hand was raising itself. He struggled again to scream, to lie back down, to just blink on his own terms, but whatever it was wasn't even fazed by his efforts.

Marlene was in the room. Marlene was in the room with him and this thing and he should have never allowed this.

The thing knew he was here, though -- he could feel its thoughts twisting in around his own, and he frantically strained against it as it burned itself into him, and lowered its hand, and took a deep breath, and spoke.

Hello, it said.

He was stunned for a moment, and didn't respond. He felt himself shift into a more comfortable sitting position against the side of the bed.

Hello? it repeated. Then he felt his lips part, and it said it out loud, very quietly. "Hello?"

What do you want from me? he thought.

He felt himself smiling, which sent another thrill of fear through him.

Oh! Ah... It sounded surprised. Or rather, it sounded like he was surprised, with that voice-that-wasn't-a-voice he'd think to himself with. Greetings and well-wishes on behalf of my team and our civilisation. We come offering friendship, peace, and a future of prosperity with one another.

Cloud took another moment to process what he was hearing. He had about a thousand questions whirling around in his head.

What? was the only coherent thing he managed to get out of any of them.

It seemed to contract in around him further. If his struggling was doing anything, it didn't give any indication that it noticed. None of them ever did. Not Sephiroth, not Jenova, not this thing. We --

Who's 'we'? What... I don't...

...My name is Aeris Gainsborough. He -- it -- was staring fixedly at his sword, leaned against his desk. My colleagues and I have spent a long time trying to meet you all. It's an honour to finally speak to you.

He felt himself stand up then, very quietly. His gaze landed on Marlene and Barret. It raised a hand, and Cloud's heart nearly stopped.

Don't! he pleaded. She isn't -- she isn't a threat to you, none of them are -- you're here for me, right? Don't hurt my family. Please.

He felt his hand lower, and now it was the thing -- Aeris's -- turn to be confused. Don't... what?

I don't understand what you want from me. Just... leave my family out of it. They haven't done anything.

There was a long period of silence. He sat back down on his bedroll and steepled his fingers.

...What's your name? it asked.

I'm -- I'm Cloud , he thought. Cloud Strife. I'm Cloud Strife.

We're well met, Cloud, it said. I won't do anything with your family. I just want to talk to you and look around. Is that alright? The voice was calm and soothing now. The way Mother -- Jenova would be, to lure him in.

It was so much stronger than him, though. He hadn't fought off Sephiroth's influence head on, either. It would take some doing.

Alright, he relented. Please don't hurt anyone. They haven't done anything.

I, er... I won't, it said. It seemed deeply uncomfortable now.

He felt himself stand again, taking another curious look at Barret's arm.

So... who would you say you are, Cloud? He looked down the hall and began examining the door to the closet there, and the towels inside it.

I --

He didn't understand the question. And if he didn't understand it, then he could give a wrong answer. And if he gave a wrong answer, Aeris might not be open to negotiation anymore. But no answer was a wrong answer too.

I-I'm a mechanic. I like to fix things.

There was a pause. It didn't seem angry, yet. It turned around and went down the stairs. ...A mechanic? For what?

Just my bike. Sometimes I fix engines, if anyone around here has one. Or... or doors. Old pipes. Leaky roofs and things.

It looked around the bar, the area where he'd first passed out when Jessie was here. It felt like years ago.

So you're a mechanic as a hobby, and a carpenter as a job? it asked, as it looked at the board that had been nailed to the windows, and the scorch marks on the walls and ceiling from the fire.

Yes. No. I -- sure.

It began to walk to the door, where he could make out a figure lurking nearby. Without thinking, he blurted out, Stop! You can't.

...Is it not safe out at night?

Not for me. The mob left a few hours ago. And I lost my sunglasses in the crash, so I can't...

Aeris looked at a bit of glass on the floor that he'd missed sweeping up. Mob?

I crashed my bike.

And suddenly he felt a sudden surge of anger, because now he finally understood.

You made me crash my bike. I was supposed to die in that crash, but I didn't, and they saw me live and more people saw me when you made me run off in the middle of the night, and then they came here and tried to -- you did this. You did this! The whole time I thought I was going mad, and it was you! I -- gods, I can't move, I can't --I --

It was quiet for several moments. He could still feel it there, though, and he still had no control over his body.

...I didn't -- please don't hurt my family. I said it, not them, please --

I'm sorry, it said. I'm -- I'm so sorry. If we had known...

Cloud said nothing. Aeris carefully picked the bit off glass off the floor, and went looking for the garbage.

I owe you an explanation. My team and I, we're doctors working with an organisation trying to make contact with extra-dimensional life. It's a very big project, funded by almost every...

Cloud had stopped listening. There was a faint ringing in his head. He dimly felt himself slip the glass into a bin under the sink.

No. It wasn't fair. He'd fought all this time for so long, and it wasn't fair. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no --!

"No!" He screamed the word out loud and fell to his knees as the nausea began to overtake him again. "God fucking dammit, no!"

He scrambled to his feet and ripped one of the boards off the window frame, flinging it into the street with a roar and eliciting a startled yelp out of whoever was lurking outside nearby. He grabbed another one, but a hand caught his shoulder.

He turned around to look at Tifa, and at everyone else that had come rushing downstairs. He swallowed as his throat began to constrict, but he refused to cry again. He had done enough crying.

"What's wrong?" she asked. He opened and closed his mouth a few times. He was still shaking with fear and rage.

"Take a wild guess," he said bluntly. "I'm going back to bed. You all should too."

They all filed back up the stairs. The figure by the door cleared its throat. “This something I should know about?”

Cloud whirled around as they stepped into the light. He was surprised he didn’t recognise that awful cologne earlier. “Reno?”

“Attaboy. Think your girlfriend will let me have a drink for once? As payment for services rendered.” Reno leaned against the doorway. His voice was casual, but his posture was tense and alert, and he didn’t actually dare set foot in the bar.

“No. I think you shouldn’t push your luck on whether or not we might try getting even, to make up for lost time,” said Cloud, casually flexing his fingers to get the point across.

“Is that any way to thank someone that’s risking his life for you?” said Reno, feigning offense, and for the first time Cloud noticed he was wearing the same uniform as the group from earlier.

“You’re a cop?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, it’s not like my old job’s viable anymore,” said Reno, shooting him a look. “And besides, I already got the skills for this. Might as well use ‘em.”

“Like mass murder?” Cloud said bluntly.

“Like knowing how to follow the orders of a superior officer,” retorted Reno. “And a good sense of self-preservation. I’m hardly gonna announce the Turk thing publicly, am I? Don’t wanna wind up like you.”

“They had to have known. You’ve got records.”

“Yeah, but they need manpower. Besides, they’ll let just about anybody be a beat cop no matter how much they might or might not suck,” said Reno with a smirk. “Right, Spikes?”

“Don’t call me that,” said Cloud icily. “That isn’t my name. It’s Cloud.” He had taken a step towards Reno without realising it. The world seemed to fall away at the edges. It absolutely wouldn’t do to be called something that wasn’t his name.

Reno appeared to recognise he’d crossed some sort of line, and stepped away from the door. “Look, I’m just here for crowd control, yeah? So ease up off my ass about it. I’m here for your benefit, Cloud.

“If you weren’t such a shitheel in general I might actually believe that.”

“Look, a job’s a job,” said Reno, sounding faintly annoyed as his facade began to crack. “Killing people the company doesn’t like and putting bodies in wood chippers and throwing people out of strip bars and keeping you alive for the night pays bills the exact same way. And right now, it makes sense for me to follow orders. Got it?”

“...Whatever you say,” said Cloud eventually. Mutual need was a surprisingly powerful driving force. Stronger than a lot of things he wished it weren’t, in fact. “Have fun electrocuting civilians.” He turned to leave.

“Have fun thinking about how empty everyone’s lives are now!” shouted Reno at his back as he ascended the stairs.

Cloud did not reenter his own room. Marlene and Barret were in that one.

Instead, he went to Tifa’s room and nudged her by way of permission. She looked at him questioningly. He was too tired to explain himself and gave her a blank look before slipping into bed next to her. He pressed his face into the pillow to give himself time to collect himself, then curled up against her.

He didn't sleep for the rest of the night.

 


 

 

Aeris allowed Lazard to help her out of the tank and sat on its edge, wordlessly staring at the screen where she'd been keeping a meticulous transcript of the entire interaction. Don't hurt my family. She read the words again, and again, still in shock.

She didn't think it would go this way. She didn't know how she thought it would go; maybe there would be a diplomatic exchange. Maybe they'd learn a lot about one another's culture. Maybe they wouldn't learn anything at all and they'd just spend several minutes having communication issues. But she hadn't expected the pleading, and the fear, and the raw anger.

She'd still had hope for all the former things at first. It had been strange enough that she'd been able to understand it -- them. (Him? It certainly seemed male, if she was going by her own understanding of humans in her own culture, which admittedly might not apply here.) They had allowed her to look around the dwelling they were in. There was plumbing and electricity. There were engines, though what kind, she wasn't sure. There was glass and trees for wood and refrigeration for perishable food, which was part of the local cuisine. She'd caught a glimpse of the remains of a computer in the room she'd started out in, which looked like something out of the seventies or eighties. Next to it seemed to be a pile of mechanical detritus, which seemed to be in line with the claim they had made about being a mechanic. Next to that, bafflingly enough, had been a sword -- an enormous one, nearly as big as she was. Perhaps it was ceremonial in use; it looked fairly elaborate, and if they'd figured out electricity they almost certainly had weapons technology beyond that.

The pictures they'd be getting off her would be usable. The entity they were in contact with was open to communication. But now...

Worst case scenario, she'd expected crushing disappointment -- that it was just a bunch of space monkeys on the other side after all. Nothing like this.

She turned to Zack, who was still reading her transcript.

“We’re gonna have to shut down the project,” he said.

"You say that as if it's your decision," said Lazard after a moment.

Zack rounded on him. “Well, do you have any other suggestions? I’m pretty sure we’re getting slammed up the ass with a human rights violation once this is over no matter what we do.”

"You're just head of the post-bridging operation." Lazard sank into an empty chair, looking exhausted. "CERN is the head of this project. How do you think they'll feel about us closing down the entire operation after getting concrete evidence of extradimensional intelligent life?"

"They'd realise what we were doing is wrong, obviously --" began Zack. Lazard shook his head.

"They'd either demand we continue with the greatest scientific discovery of the century, or they'd assign someone else," he said. "This is happening, with or without us."

"You said it was an animal," said Aeris, cutting across both of them. She turned to glower at Tseng now as well. "You said it was just an animal. That the brainwaves --"

"It was," snapped Tseng. "That was not and is not human brain activity. It's barely animalistic brain activity. This... this shouldn't have happened."

"What am I supposed to do, then? Just keep scrambling its brain until another mob catches up to it?"

"Yes. That's exactly what you're supposed to do." Lazard wasn't looking at Aeris anymore. He'd gone back to staring at the "signal disconnected" message on the screen. Aeris shook her head in disgust.

"This is wrong," said Zack. "What about all that bullshit I had to memorise about the betterment of humanity?"

"Arguably it's human nature to trample all over whatever indigenous culture happens to be in the way in the name of discovery," said Angeal dryly. He handed Aeris a towel. She snatched it out of his hands and threw it at him.

"This is the situation we're in," he said, handing the towel to Zack. "Until you come up with a way to change it to another one, we just have to make the most of this one." He headed for the door.

"What do you think?" she asked Cissnei. Cissnei shifted uncomfortably.

"Well... what do you want to do?"

"This isn't about that. Is this about doing the right thing, which we've all decided isn't a priority anymore!"

"You don't have to yell about it," said Cissnei, crossing her arms. "I am trying to help."

"Well, you're not," she said. "None of this is any help!" She trudged off to the showers without another word.

She didn’t go back to her room right away -- they’d all be looking for her there. She paid a visit to the rats she wasn’t supposed to be getting attached to and sat in front of their cages.

The first ten rats from months prior -- she supposed he would have encountered them too. She wondered if they’d also seen out of his eyes. He hadn’t mentioned them, but they would have had to, wouldn’t they? She wondered briefly how it would feel to have rats living in your brain for nearly two weeks.

So, here was the greatest scientific discovery of the century, maybe even in the course of human history, and it was already tainted. There was a very good chance she’d be removed from the project, of course, not to mention the inevitable public outcry. At least the whole project wouldn’t be dismissed as pseudoscience by anyone that wasn’t dismissing things like the curvature of the earth and global warming and landing on the moon.

That had been the biggest concern, going into things. “Oh, you’re that girl with the parents that blew themselves up doing that starkers Heaven’s Gate thing, yes?” they’d surely have said. “I’m sorry, but we’re not interested in new age sciences. Though I’m sure Worldview would love to have your work.”

But they hadn’t. Because obviously she had the numbers to back it up, and everyone had recognised that, and not long after sharing her research there had been several government-funded groups all vying for her attention.

She’d been doing the research for quite a while, but with the funding came a new realisation -- what the research would actually lead to. Or more specifically, her part in it: for the first time, she would actually get to do something.

And by and large, she’d done nothing. She had gone to school, skipped several grades, gone to other, more prestigious schools, finished those… and then would go on to study more things, perhaps, until she died.

Between dying surrounded by more research and dying alone on another planet (and with a jolt she realised that it was now a very real possibility; the “another planet” part of it at least, ideally the second half of the project would contain little to no dying), she’d take the latter in an instant.

Several hours later after she had retreated to her room to sleep off the sedatives, she received a knock on the door to her room.

"What?" she grumbled.

"It's me," she heard Tseng say from the other side of the plexiglass.

"And have you come here to ease my conscience?"

"In a manner of speaking. I've come here to ensure this doesn't distract you from your work."

Aeris stood up from her bed and yanked the door open, glowering at Tseng. "Excuse me?"

Tseng held her gaze. "The project is continuing. You know it, I know it. The least we can do is ensure it isn't for nothing."

Aeris flopped back down on her bed. "And you're doing this out of the goodness of your heart, right?"

"Of course not. I have my entire life tied up in this," said Tseng, shutting the door behind him and sitting down at her desk. "It only benefits me to continue. But I am not the only one."

"What -- you think I want this?"

Tseng shrugged. "Not this specifically, perhaps. But I doubt I am saying anything surprising when I say that you clearly did want this basic circumstance in some way or another."

"That doesn't matter," said Aeris.

"It does matter. Especially when the project hinges on you wanting to keep going."

"Of course I want to keep going!" Aeris snapped. "It's a problem that I want that at all!"

"But you do, and it's required that you do," said Tseng. "Ride that as far as it takes you."

"Is that what you're doing?"

"It certainly is now. Are you or are you not dedicated to --"

"Yes. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"Only if you mean it. I am not the one you have to convince. That would be the board of directors." Tseng stood up and gave a polite nod. "I look forward to completing this project with you as painlessly as possible for everyone involved."

Aeris watched Tseng leave, then rolled back over on her bed. She was unable to sleep much that night. She spent most of it writing -- they’d probably want a detailed log of everything she’d seen, beyond the pictures they could get. She took a deep breath and started going through it all, piece by piece. Just data. No pleading, no near-death experiences.

She dwelled on the arm she’d seen, the prosthetic one. If it was prosthetic, anyway. Perhaps it was a covering? The detail and motor control it appeared to offer was incredible. She wondered if it was standard fare for someone to have an arm like that, or if this was simply a very wealthy family. It didn’t seem to be. There were three people piled into one room. She had been on the second floor of a modest-looking diner. It was all a bit shabby, but nothing that would indicate they were destitute.

Then there were all the other people in the building -- and at this she paused, because how would she know there were other people? She couldn’t have. Yet she felt certain there were: at least five, maybe more. It seemed, now that she thought back on it, that she had heard them breathing, but that seemed unrealistic. She’d have to check… well, later.

The sword, too, had been a point of interest. It wasn’t behind a glass case, suggesting it wasn’t particularly old. The various gears and catches along its length suggested it had moving parts, though why a sword would need moving parts was beyond her. And it was massive; something like that would require two people to carry it, assuming it was made of real metal. It looked like it was real metal… sharp metal, at that.

The wood on the door… there were trees that were used as a construction material. She wondered what trees they used, and where they were available. Something seemed strange about the street she’d gotten a glimpse of, but she couldn’t place her finger on what it was.

It was night out, it seemed, but the moon must have been several orders of magnitude brighter than their own because she found she had no difficulty seeing in the dark. Or, she considered, perhaps the native species, while clearly human-adjacent in many ways, had better night vision.

And, of course, there was her. Or rather, “him”. The person she’d been marauding around in. The scars on her hands… some of them looked like bites. From what animal, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps Tseng would know.

From what she could tell, she seemed about the same size as she did on Earth, assuming the entire world wasn’t scaled up or down as well. Young male, more on the small side… a bit of an anxious disposition. Or perhaps he was just anxious because there was something reaching into his skin and plucking at his nerves and throwing him in front of cars. She kneaded her eyes with the heels of her palms. Moral concerns later. Record the facts.

Her senses seemed to be working more or less properly now, but there was still something that hadn’t faded from the earlier runs: the dreamlike quality of movement. Every step came easily, and the world seemed strangely soft around her. She still felt the energy coiled in every tendon. She still felt as though she could have jumped ten metres into the air if she wanted to. She realised with a start that perhaps she had. And gravity still felt normal -- she’d felt the blood rush to her head as she’d bent down to pick up the glass, and had watched it fall into the bin under the sink as it would have on Earth.

There were so many things she couldn’t figure out on her own, and there was only one person that could give her answers. Apparently she wasn't finished running damage control just yet.

 


 

"...It spoke to me."

He'd gone right to Tifa the next day. This almost definitely didn't qualify as stupid, and everyone else save her and Barret were downstairs keeping an eye out for any troublemakers (and in Jessie’s case, to glare daggers at Reno and make vaguely threatening motions with her beer). The WRO was expected to arrive in two or three days. He wasn't sure why it had taken as long as it had, but the mob appeared to have finally forced their hand.

He was restless -- he hadn't left the bar in three days now. Tifa had suggested they spar, but there wasn't much any of them could do that wouldn't put even more holes in the walls. Cloud had been doing diamond push-ups for the last half hour, with Cid sitting in his office chair, angrily chewing on an entire pack of gum.

Cloud had been working up the nerve to bring this up to her all night, and throughout this morning. He wasn't really sure why -- they knew he wasn't crazy by now. He supposed it was still one of those mental blocks in place from the labs. It was stupid. He was stupid. He should be over this already. That's what he told himself over and over again, between each push-up. You're over it. You're over it. You're over it. You're over it. You're over it.

"Last night, I mean," he added. "Before you found me downstairs."

Tifa froze in the middle of one of her crunches and stared at him.

"Cloud, you probably shouldn't --"

"No," he interjected. "I mean, it spoke. With words. Said something about friendship and prosperity."

Tifa glanced at Cid, who suddenly seemed very, very interested. "And... that's not something it normally says."

"It doesn't normally say anything. Not that I can remember." Cloud pushed himself to his feet, working out the kinks in his arms. "Neither does Jenova. Not the way you'd understand it, anyway."

"Did you say anything back?" asked Tifa.

Cloud sat on his bed and looked away. He picked at a bit of flaky skin on the mottled scar tissue covering his left wrist.

"I'm trying to help. You know that," she pressed.

"I asked it what it wanted. It said it wanted to talk."

"Did you say anything else?"

"It wanted to go outside," continued Cloud. "You came downstairs before it could."

"What was it after?" asked Cid, who seemed to have started paying attention.

Cloud shrugged. Then he took another breath.

You're over it. You're over it. You're over it.

"It said I was part of a project," he said dryly.

The room went silent again. Cloud looked down and realised he'd picked his left wrist bloody again. He sat on his hands.

"You think --"

"Maybe," said Cloud, interrupting Cid. "But it can't be anyone from Nibelheim. They're... they died. All of 'em. I checked." There had been a lot of chaos immediately following Meteorfall. No one had noticed the extra bodies, or would have had resources to investigate where they came from.

"There are only a few groups left with the resources to pull that kind of thing off," said Tifa. "All that's left of Shinra are a few ex-Turks. Wutai would probably want nothing to do with it."

"The WRO," said Cid.

"Reeve wouldn't sell me out like that," said Cloud.

"Wouldn't he? Jackass already did it once, from what I hear," said Cid. “Barret brings it up from time to time.”

Cloud shifted uncomfortably. "...That's not the same thing. He didn't start a 'project'."

"It might not be Reeve that's running it," said Tifa. "He's one guy. There are other people in the WRO. And other people in the government."

"They got the info they need, too," said Cid. "You can bet your ass they keep tabs on anyone and anything with mako in it."

"It didn't know who I was, though," said Cloud. "The WRO probably have a file on me, after the doctor thing..."

"When it comes back, ask it," said Cid. Cloud nodded, then thought of something else.

"...If I don't get to it first, can you -- when you get a chance, talk to Reeve," he said. "Ask him if there's anyone named Aeris Gainsborough working for them, or for Edge."

Tifa frowned. "Gainsborough... sounds a bit northern. Not Nibel northern, north-northern."

"Maybe it's someone up there?"

"Couldn't be," she said. "I was just there. The population was almost entirely wiped out thanks to Sephiroth. Unless there's some secret underground bunker stashed away in an iceberg, they don't have the people or the resources."

"Oh. Right." He'd seen that -- well, "seen it". Eavesdropped, more like. He wasn't sure how he'd forgotten.

"It's worth asking, though," said Tifa. "You never know what might turn up." Cid nodded, now watching Cloud carefully. Cloud shot a glare at him, and he looked away.

"We both know it's gonna turn up again," said Cloud. "You can stare at me then."

And then it hit him that it would come back again. And probably the day after that, and the day after that. Suddenly Cloud wanted to break something again. “If it’s got a name, what do you think it is?”

“It’s hard to say,” said Tifa. “I still don’t really think it’s Jenova. She never calls herself anything, and She probably wouldn’t organise a ‘project’. Now I don’t know what it could be.”

Cloud looked over at Cid. “Those holes from before. They meant something to you, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Mind explaining it in standard for me?”

Cid swiped a piece of paper from Cloud’s desk and an undamaged pen and rolled himself over to them. “Right -- the golden ratio.” He wrote a one, and then another one. “Add those for me.”

Cloud looked at him. “It’s… it’s just two, right? Is this a trick question?”

“Nope.” He wrote down 2 on the paper and crossed out the first 1. “Now add those.”

“Three?”

“Why’s that a question? Thought you finished first grade, at least.” He crossed out the other 1, and wrote 3 next to the 2. “And those.”

“Five. So, what’s --”

“Every number in this sequence is proportional to the two that make it up. That ratio’s in nearly every single part of the natural world. Anything intelligent that can add one and two and get three and not have it be a question for some fuckin’ reason would spot it right off the bat.”

“Where are you going with this?” asked Tifa.

“Something that can recognise patterns in nature, like a bunch of people organising a project, is looking for other things like it,” said Cid. “And it found Cloud.”

“Okay, but what’s ‘it’?” asked Cloud.

“Something named Aeris Gainsborough, apparently,” said Tifa. “So it says, anyway.”

“...So, if it knew something that I didn’t, it’s probably real, right?” asked Cloud. “The numbers, I mean. So how come I can hear it and none of you can?”

“No offense, but you’ve kinda got a track record for hearing voices that ain’t really there.”

“Piss off.”

“He’s right,” said Tifa, looking at his chest. “You don’t have to be crazy for him to be right. We all know you’re not crazy.”

“Don’t put words in my mouth, lady,” grunted Cid. “He’s fucking batshit. He just hears voices that have nothing to do with that.”

“...Thanks?” said Cloud. “Look, it’s not… it doesn’t feel like Jenova. And… it didn’t -- I mean…” He glanced at Tifa. “You were there with me, in the Lifestream. The Planet doesn’t really do words.”

“Not the Planet. We know someone that does do words, though --” began Cid.

“Sephiroth is dead,” cut in Cloud sharply. “I’d know if it was him.” And that was the end of that line of thought.

“...Maybe it’s not your Jenova,” said Cid. “We still don’t really know what’s out there. Maybe there’s more.”

“...There better not be,” said Cloud. The Planet wouldn’t survive something like that again, and Cloud probably couldn’t… do whatever it was he had the first time. If he had done anything.

“It’s not outta the question,” said Cid, spitting out his gum into the trash. “Jenova’s been around for a few billion years. Maybe the reason we ain’t got a reply yet from any civilisations besides our own is ‘cause there’s no one left, because a certain someone got to them first.”

“And the name?” asked Tifa. “That bit doesn’t fit.”

“Maybe it’s someone that died,” said Cloud. “And they’re trying to reach me from the Lifestream.”

“You’re no Ancient,” said Tifa. “And we dealt with Hojo’s landline. I thought you’d stopped hearing that kind of stuff.”

“I have, mostly,” said Cloud. “I’ll catch bits and pieces from the mako, but it’s just noise. Maybe it’s too processed. Or I can’t understand it right. Or both.”

“Maybe you’re not hearing it from the Lifestream,” said Tifa. “Nanaki… he said ‘it shouldn’t be here’. But he couldn’t tell me what it was. I don’t think he knew.”

Cloud slouched against the wall -- the non-busted one his bed was against. “Then we still don’t know.”

Cid shook his head. “We still don’t know.”

No one said anything else after that for several minutes. Cloud threaded a flame between his fingers, watching the light illuminate the bones in his hand, the flame gradually shifting from orange to white to the shimmering blue of his own native magic the longer he sustained it. Cloud considered himself lucky, landing the innate magic that he had. Some people’s wound up being completely useless in a fight-or-flight situation, which was the entire point of lingering innate magic in the first place. Cloud had thought his own magic was in the ‘useless’ category for the longest time; he’d only ever used it as a light until he was fifteen and stranded in the slums without a gun during a riot. But even then, he’d always been fond of the colour. It reminded him a bit of… he couldn’t remember. Something to do with home. And grass, maybe. It had involved grass, too. And sun.

"...I've been thinking," said Tifa, cutting off his train of thought and causing the fire to fizzle into tiny sparks. "Just -- I don't have anything really planned for sure, but... when all this is over, maybe we could take a trip down to the beach."

Cloud blinked. "What for?"

"Just for fun. Doesn't have to be the one in Costal del Sol. It can be by Junon or something," said Tifa. "Somewhere quiet. It might be nice."

"A really empty beach," suggested Cloud, "where I can fight you without breaking furniture." He thought about it, and he could picture the warm weather, and the quiet, and the steady rushing of the ocean, and the sky above them, bigger than ever. He thought about taking a nap right there on the shore, out in the open, where nothing would come along and take a bite out of him. In his head, his skin didn't become red and peeling like it always did in the sun. Tifa usually fared a bit better than him, but only a bit. But there wasn't any sunburn in the version he was making up. There wasn't anyone else around to stare at his eyes, or mutter amongst themselves about his various disfigurements, or make fun of him for the way he looked beyond all that, because Tifa wouldn't care that he couldn't grow a beard or anything else.

Tifa might not, at least. He glanced at Cid.

"Should we bring anyone else?" he asked.

Tifa shrugged. "If you want. I was thinking it could be just us, though."

“I’m not really into beaches,” said Cid. “Too damn hot. Knock yourselves out.”

"That's fine," said Cloud. It did sound like it would be nice, actually. Even if it was all in his head.

Somewhere quiet and safe with company. He'd always thought Seventh Heaven was a place like that, and here he was, cooped up inside it with his feet tucked up underneath him because there might still be glass on his floor. Maybe he'd expected too much -- of his home and Tifa.

"...I'll get us something to eat," said Tifa, which made Cloud realise he'd spaced out on her again. Before he could apologise she'd disappeared downstairs.

He sat there and waited. For Tifa to come back, for him to black out again. For when he could go to the beach and see how big the sky was there.

Chapter Text

"Does it hurt?" asked Tifa.

Cloud had been sitting in the bathroom with her for an hour, with Barret standing guard out front. Best to keep it in one place as much as they could. It had to be soon. They'd been waiting all day. It would be soon. They knew it would be soon --

He forced himself to actually pay attention to Tifa and shrugged, as though he weren't a bundle of nerves at the moment. "Not really. It's just... it's really unpleasant."

"Like Jenova?" asked Tifa.

"...A little," said Cloud. "I don't really... it doesn't make me want to be used, like Jenova. And it's a lot clearer, too." He set down the shampoo bottle he'd been reading for the sixth time so far. "I do hear things, though. Sometimes it sounds like Her."

"Can you hear it now?"

Cloud shook his head. "Just Mother. And She's not very loud right now." It took him a moment to figure out why Tifa was staring at him. "I mean --"

"I know what you meant," said Tifa. But now she looked worried again. Perfect.

"It's not what you think," he said quickly. "I just got used saying that."

"...How much do you remember about your ******************," asked Tifa. Cloud blinked hard a couple times as a searing white light crossed his vision, and Jenova's whispers momentarily peaked into shrieks.

"...Not a whole lot. I think I looked more like her than Father," he said, as a dull ache settled into his temples. "I don't remember how, though." He strained harder, trying to recall anything about Ma that he had left, which wasn't particularly a lot. "...The folks in the village called her a whore a bunch. I don't know if she was an actual prostitute or not." He looked at Tifa expectantly.

Tifa looked away. "I don't know. I never really bothered with you much in those days. Papa said if I hung out with bastards I'd get knocked up, and that was good enough for me."

Cloud looked at her incredulously. "He said that to you? You were, what... five?"

"Not in those exact words, but yeah," said Tifa, relaxing a bit. This was always a sore subject for her. "And you scared me. I didn't want to deal with you back then anyway. Especially after you bit Argos."

"Wish I remembered that."

"You probably don't," said Tifa. "When it started bleeding they shoved you in the supply closet of the general store."

"Maybe not," said Cloud. He considered reading the conditioner again, just for a little variety, and decided against it. "...It's -- I wish I felt worse about it. I remember it all ending but I just don't remember... them." He looked back at Tifa nervously. "Sorry if that sounds kind of dickish."

"Let me out," said Tifa.

Cloud blinked. Maybe he'd lost track of the conversation and said something especially rude. "The door's right there. Barret won't listen to me, though, so --"

"Let me out," said Tifa again, and this time her voice didn't just come from her mouth. It came from the walls, and the ceiling, and inside his head. "Let me out. Let me in. Let me out." Tifa was staring at him, but he got the horrible sense she was full of something -- that it was moving under her skin, ready to burst. The walls, too, had things behind them. This little pocket in the bathroom was the only thing between himself and the vast, roaring space surrounding them. There shadows were there, slipping themselves into his flesh -- no, out, he was leaking like the walls would be soon; and the noise of it all was unbearably loud, so loud it was sure to tear through the walls and the floor and the horrible thing that only looked like Tifa. He wanted to scream to let some the noise out of his head, but his jaw didn't seem to be responding to him anymore.

"Let me in. Let me in. Let me out. My child."

Shut up! thought Cloud. Just shut the fuck up!

And, miraculously, the noise stopped. The walls were no longer hiding something horrible, and Tifa was standing there, looking rather alarmed. "...Are you okay? Is it here?" she asked.

I think so, he thought. No. That wasn't right. He'd wanted to --

His mouth opened, and what came out instead was:

"No, I'm fine."

 


 

Something touched her.

She knew something touched her, she was sure of it. She looked around frantically to see what it was, but suddenly there was the sensation of cold tile beneath her, and she let out a sharp gasp.

She made a note of it anyway, because if they needed any more reason to be sure they were doing something terrible it was hallucinations filled with bad omens. Round two of invading someone's personal life. Here goes.

"...Are you okay? Is it here?" came a voice to her left.

She turned and saw she wasn't alone. There was a woman here with her, one she hadn't seen before. She was, Aeris decided as she looked at the arms coming out of the camisole she was wearing, the kind of woman that could probably rip apart a telephone pole and use it as a toothpick. This was almost definitely the person that had body slammed her into the floor.

Aeris immediately panicked.

"No, I'm fine," she blurted.

She felt something stir in her head. Her vision went strange for an instant and her head swam, and she realised it was because she was feeling two emotions at once. One of them was hers -- the one involving guilt and fear of being thrown out a window. The other one was white hot fury.

...You lied. You lied to her, said a small voice. Cloud, she remembered. This person was called Cloud.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean -- Aeris faltered.

Yes, you did! said Cloud. Why... why would...

Fear, this time. Defeat. Something that felt like sadness but much uglier. She was surprised she hadn't noticed him doing this last night because it was absolutely unbearable and, more importantly, distracting. The woman was saying something else. Aeris focused harder on it, and the voice quieted down.

"...sure? We can wait somewhere bigger if the size is getting to you," said the woman.

"Okay. That's fine," said Aeris. This was unworkable. The door opened, and Aeris realised she was sitting next to the toilet.

"...I'm gonna be a minute, actually," she said, gesturing to the toilet. The woman nodded and left the room, closing the door behind her.

Aeris turned her attention back to the voice in her head that was, for all intents and purposes, screaming.

Please be quiet and listen to me for just a moment, she thought.

Fuck you.

That seemed to be a universal gesture, then. At least Cissnei would get a kick out of the transcript.

I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do about this, but --

You can go away and never come back.

Alright. That’s true. I can go away and never come back. And then someone else will show up to replace me and do the same thing. And maybe they won't want to listen to you and try and make this as painless as possible for both of us.

...What are you --

Listen, thought Aeris, I'm part of a multinational, multi-billion euro effort to explore other worlds. This is... a lot more than we ever expected to find. Maybe interesting plants, or some sort of sponge. Maybe even complex animals. Never people. Never... whatever species you call yourself.

...We're humans, it said, after a moment. Aeris's stomach did another flip.

...Well, that settles that, I suppose.

What?

Just -- I didn’t think… I mean, I suppose it makes sense now, obviously, that we’re both human, and -- you know, it’s really interesting that -- it’s just that before all this started --

You’re a human, he said incredulously.

Yes -- anyway, we just... the pattern we're using is... you, I think. We don't entirely understand it. But the whole project hinges on... your cooperation, I suppose. If you'd be willing to offer it.

I'm not, it -- he said.

I understand, said Aeris. I'm sorry. But there's no way around doing this right now. And then she did something she knew no scientist should ever do, and she twisted the evidence to suit her views. ...Yet, anyway. Not without your help.

What do you mean? He had calmed down enough for her to think straight, and she quickly pressed on.

We don't know what it is about you that makes you're the only contact point we have, and we don't know much about you personally either. If you can just give us information for a little while, we can try other methods of contact that don't involve you or your... your family, at all. Alright?

There was a pause. How do I know I can trust you? he said.

...I promise. I don't want this any more than you do. I swear, none of us knew.

Silence. Aeris pinched the bridge of her nose, which felt different under callused fingertips. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror then, and started slightly. Blond flyaway hair, pale complexion, very fine features. Crooked downturned nose, as though it had been broken more than a few times. Clean shaven. A scar above the eyebrow, and another one by the jawline. Pierced ears -- both in the same spot on each ear, also worth asking about. Nothing out of the ordinary, except for the eyes; the pupils were slitted like a cat's, or perhaps a snake's. What she'd at first thought was simply a vibrant shade of blue actually appeared to be paired with a natural bioluminescence. She continued staring, and she could have sworn there were tendrils of acidic green moving and twisting around the pupils. She shivered involuntarily, and then noticed the bags under said eyes, and the sallowness of the skin, and the worry lines etched into his face, and the steady contamination of fear into her thoughts. She looked away from the mirror.

How about... we'll compromise. You can talk to me and help us both out. And I won't do anything you don't want me doing anymore. I didn’t know you were -- well, a person, and… and if I’d known, then... you tell me where to go, and I'll go there. Okay?

...Okay, came the reply.

Good. She prepared to leave the room, then quickly turned around and flushed the toilet and ran the sink for a few seconds, then opened the door to the enormous man with the metal arm. So... let's try again. My name's Aeris. What's yours?

...My name's Cloud, he said nervously. The man looked at Aeris uncomfortably, and she gave a small smile and a wave in response. The man seemed stunned by her (perhaps waving wasn't a recognised gesture here), and she quickly walked past him into the hall.

...And that was Barret. His daughter's Marlene.

I remember them from last night. She looked down the hall and made her way into another room. They live here?

No, said Cloud. They visit sometimes. The whole family is over right now.

Is there any special occasion?

You could say that, said Cloud coldly. The coma, for starters. The wandering off in the middle of the night. Smashing up the walls.

I'm sorry -- began Aeris, and then stopped. Wait... how long ago was the crash?

Few days.

...You're in really good condition, then, said Aeris. She decided to actually sit down until she knew where she was going in this building. What are your doctors like? What kind of medicine do --

I got released and we healed the rest back home, next question, said Cloud rather bluntly. Aeris tried again.

What do you mean by "healed"?

...You know. Made it so I wasn't bleeding everywhere. Wiped the blood off. Bandaged what needed bandaging. Stuff like that.

Did you use any kind of medicines to do that?

You're awfully interested in all that doctor shit, aren't you? said Cloud, and the way he phrased it it seemed almost like an accusation.

Aeris wanted to scream. Of all the people to make first contact with, and it was some stick-in-the-mud alternative medicine whackjob. Probably unvaccinated.

No, that wasn't fair. She was in his space. She threw him under a car. Of course he was angry. Still, he could stand to be a bit more cooperative about it.

...I am, actually, because we noticed a few things while we were doing this. We want to make sure you're not sick... apart from the physical injuries.

Uh huh.

Look. Aeris forced her hands to unclench. I’m sure this is going to sound terribly rude, but... do you have a brain?

Fuck off.

Deep breaths. Handle this professionally. I am doing my best, Mr. Strife. You're going to have to work with me.

What kind of question is that?

The kind where we detected the bare minimum of brain activity required to function. Look, where… the way things work where I’m from is, when we think, there’s electrical impulses that travel in our heads. And if someone isn’t thinking as much, there’s less --

I know what a brain is. I have a brain.

Well… we didn’t find as strong of a reading as we would from someone in my world. Not that I’m saying you aren’t thinking as much. Maybe you’re thinking differently. We know what we're measuring is correct, but we don't know if maybe we're measuring the wrong things, and you're somehow still functioning like this. We'd like to know if this is typical of... er... humans. From what she'd seen in the mirror earlier, she still wasn't sure if that term meant the same thing to Cloud as it did to her.

...I have a medical condition, said Cloud. It was the first time he hadn't sounded snide. If anything, he seemed about as confused as she was. ...A few medical conditions, actually. I think -- I mean, maybe that's why you're not getting as much... I dunno, thinking, as you would from people without something like that.

...I'm not sure that's how it works, said Aeris.

Well, since you’re so damn smart and you know more than me I guess you can just leave now. So much for that, then.

Sorry. Let’s just… your ears. You got them pierced. Is that commonplace? Are there any reasons people do it specifically?

...Some parts. In Nibel and Gongaga and around Corel. They do it when you’re eleven. Makes you an adult.

Who does it? Your parents? A religious leader?

Your father if you’re a guy, your mother if you’re a girl.

So your father did yours? How did he do it?

He didn’t, and I didn’t want Ma doing it because everyone would laugh. I wound up doing my own with an ice cube and a sewing needle. A lot of guys started getting it done in the city, but it’s just a trend for them.

So, would you say there’s a stigma against --

I’m not comfortable talking about this with you.

Oh. That seemed to be a yes, which meant she’d probably been rude again, which meant he was probably no closer to trusting her. Well… let’s try a different question. What... what kinds of technologies would you say your society most excels at?

Huh?

Well... it looks like you have electricity and running water... Simple concepts, she reminded herself. Chances were he hadn't spent years of his life researching the concept of technological development in extraterrestrial species. He was just some blue-collar bystander that was unfortunate enough to get caught up in all this.

A thought suddenly occurred to her. You mentioned you're a mechanic, right? Could you show me some of the work you do?

There was a small jolt of excitement -- the same kind she'd get when someone asked her about a show she liked. It was quickly replaced by hostility again. I mean... you'll have to go there.

Yes -- sorry. She got to her feet and looked around the room she was in. ...Tell me where.

There's a door that leads behind the building through the back room, said Cloud. Aeris strode down the stairs, and quickly pulled up short at the bottom upon being met with an older man sporting a five o'clock shadow and a strong aura of cigarette smoke about him, who immediately began to follow him as though this was perfectly natural.

...What does he want? Should I say something? she asked, glancing nervously at the man.

That's Cid. And he wants to keep an eye on me. Someone has to constantly.

Why?

Because I asked them to, because you keep happening, and it's freaking everyone out.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?" said the man, Cid, suddenly. He stepped between her and the door, giving her a judging look.

"Er..." Right. The mob bit.

You want to fix Fenrir. She's still all dinged up.

"Just... gonna fix Fenrir a bit. I won't go far," said Aeris. It was strange, speaking aloud in a voice that wasn't hers.

Cid shook his head. "If you lose it again, we need you in here. Ain't no one in here that can outrun you if it gets going."

"Well..." faltered Aeris. "I mean, you might be able to. If you got a good pace going."

Perhaps there was some double entendre involving running in this society that she wasn't aware of, because Cid sniggered loudly and began laughing.

"Yeah, just fuckin' maybe. Just get a good stretch in. Drink some water. Quit smoking," said Cid. Aeris blinked in confusion. Cid must have interpreted it as offense, and he continued.

"Too risky. I'm real sorry, but... actually, maybe we could clear a space in here. You'd have to move the damn thing, obviously, but..."

"Yes, that would be fine," said Aeris.

Cid gave her another look, and stepped away from the door, muttering something that sounded an awful lot like "dumbass" under his breath. She was finally allowed outside, at least, and took her first look around at the world, which was no longer blurred and distorted. In fact, it seemed almost too sharp...

She had a brief moment to catch a glimpse of the sky -- heavy overcast, it seemed, with bits of pale blue peeking through. It was very warm, even then -- perhaps thirty degrees or so. She couldn't see much from the alley she appeared to be in, but there were pedestrians out dressed in light summer clothing, save for one oddball with a heavy jacket. She couldn't see any cars parked on the side of the road, but she could hear the roar of an engine off in the distance. Something still seemed odd about the street, though she still couldn't quite put her finger on what. Then she took her first breath of fresh air.

The information hit her before she even knew what it was, and her eyes widened as a flurry of some sort of unknown stimulus from an equally unknown source bombarded her. It took her a moment to realise it was scent, but it was unlike anything she'd experienced with it before. There were smells she recognised like dirt and soap and cooking meat, and there were scents that were completely alien to her, ones she knew meant things like humans and dog and the woman-from-the-bar and grass-from-far-away, but didn't know how she knew those things. And the noise -- more and more of it, pouring in from every direction; until between the sheer cacophony of her surroundings and the sudden experience of apparently having scent as a viable source of information about the world, she could barely think straight.

Cid was saying something to her. She could hear him quite plainly but she was distracted by how he smelled like Cid who smelled like Cid who smelled like Tifa who smelled like soap Tifa bar Cloud human Cid --

"While I'm still young, Cloud," drawled Cid. Aeris forced herself over to what was probably the largest motorcycle she'd ever seen, still nonplussed.

"...Something wrong?" he asked.

"It's -- yes. Noise --nose -- no," was all she managed to stammer out. God, she would have given anything for a sinus cold right now. She was going to blow this whole thing already.

Strangely enough, Cid didn't seem to think anything of this, and simply gave her a reassuring pat on the back as she stood there looking confused and overwhelmed. "C'mon. I'll get the tools. You just take care of the bike."

She looked down at the bike, then back up at Cid, who had already turned his back to her and did not appear interested in helping her move it. She looked back down at the bike.

Pick it up, said Cloud. Aeris didn't have much room in her thoughts at the moment to argue, and bent down to get a good grip around the middle before giving it an enormous yank.

Aeris nearly fell flat on her back as she wildly overcompensated and the motorcycle was effortlessly lifted into the air. She looked over at Cid, who seemed to be barely managing with the heavy toolboxes he'd tucked under his arms, and strode in after him. Aeris shut the door behind them, somehow not even having much trouble holding it with one arm, and gently set it down on the floor. The tortuous smells had already leaked inside, but they were being slowly replaced with ones that were apparently familiar enough for her brain to filter them out.

It was then that Aeris suddenly realised she'd lifted about 200 kilos of metal as though it were little more than styrofoam.

She looked back at Cid. His pupils were rounded. Come to think of it, Tifa's had been too. And Barret's. And nothing had been glowing on any of them.

Several questions. But for later. Cloud seemed to be trying to get her attention.

Here’s how this is gonna work: I don't want you dinging out dents you don't know how to ding out and making everything worse, he said, and if you touch her and I haven't told you to, I swear to every last god I'll kill you. So we're going to open her up and check if the engine is okay, and then we're going to not touch a single fucking thing otherwise. Alright?

I wasn't going to, said Aeris, gritting her teeth. Deep breaths. She owed him for the car. This is fine. Thank you for your cooperation. This is really helpful.

He continued onward without a moment’s hesitation. Pop open that panel with the big scratch on it.

They passed the next two hours (or whatever passed for hours here) carefully disassembling their way towards the inner workings of the motorcycle. If this had accomplished anything, it was that it seemed to relax Cloud quite a bit. He seemed more focused on instructing her which tools (some familiar, some not) to ask Cid for and what parts went where than he did about his current situation. Most of it made very little sense to her, particularly when Cloud started talking about materia and currents, but she took careful notes of every last bit of it. Whatever it was all about, he seemed to know a great deal about it, and a detailed account of how this particular engine worked, what developments had been made how many years ago, and how common certain elements were in general society (apparently the motorcycle, Fenrir, was a particularly fancy handmade custom job) was waiting back on the server in the fifth ring. Cloud wasn’t exactly a political leader, but a mechanic wasn’t a bad substitution for the time being.

So, what kind of car hit you? she asked as he was enthusiastically going over the internal gyroscope he’d installed.

I never said it was a car. It was a semi.

...A what?

A semi. It’s a kind of vehicle they use to --

No, I know what a semi is, that’s… you were on a motorcycle. You should be dead. How did you --

That’s what the doctors said, too. And the mob.

...How did you survive?

There was a long pause. He was wary of her again, and ashamed of something else.

Guess I was just lucky, he said finally. I’ve always been pretty tough, you know. And they were able to sew my arm on in the ambulance ride over.

Your arm came off?!

I put it -- I mean, they put it back on. Like I said. So it’s fine.

Seems like you’re in good health now. That’s… She experimentally waggled the fingers, and reached up to touch feel her arm. Towards the shoulder she found a mass of scar tissue.

...Are you sure you don’t want to talk about the medicine you had access to? We don’t have anything like it where I’m from. You could save a lot of lives with that kind of knowledge.

I’m sure, he said tersely, and there was a note of finality in his voice. She let it drop for now.

Halfway through Cloud giving an impassioned speech about how Fenrir's power supply worked, and how he got the idea from "mako", something that people used to use before it was outlawed, Cid spoke up, making her jump slightly.

"...I meant what I said earlier," said Cid. Aeris blinked again. Should she have known this? She probably should have known this.

Cid didn't seem bothered by her confusion, either. "When we spoke a couple days back, I said you were welcome to crash at my place until this all blows over," Cid recapped, without a hint of the annoyance or sarcasm she'd expected to continue over from earlier. "There's nobody there that'll give you shit for setting foot outside your own damn house if I tell 'em not to. You worked hard, getting where you got. And I'm proud of you, even if all those assholes ain't. You know that, right?"

What do I say? asked Aeris frantically. But Cloud either didn't want to tell her, or was at a loss for words himself. Something swelled in her chest and crept up into her throat. She was sad? Happy? Disappointed? This one felt more complicated. She wished he'd stop doing it.

Aeris nodded, doing her best to look as though this were a normal conversation between... brothers? cousins? in-laws? What exactly constituted a "family" in this culture, anyway?

It was a normal conversation, right? Maybe it wasn't. Maybe someone had died recently.

"You're a good kid, Cloud," said Cid, beginning to pack up the tools. The swelling feeling intensified again, and she finally recognised it; it was love. The same kind of feeling Aeris had experienced over things like her mother applauding her at her graduation, or her father carrying her home from the hospital when she'd dislocated her arm even though he'd always said she was much too big to be carried, or those two years with her ex when things seemed to be going amazing.

Over "you can sleep on my couch for a while", apparently. And yet here he was acting as though this man had just proposed to him.

She'd take the outdoors again in an instant before she had to sit through another second of this. It was gawking at a funeral times a million.

"...Thanks," she said eventually, though she was sure it sounded insincere.

There was movement above her -- god, there was way too much movement everywhere -- and a moment later the woman from earlier, Tifa, reappeared at the bottom of the stairs.

"There you are. I thought we were gonna try to limit collateral damage."

Aeris looked at Cid uncertainly.

"Thought we'd get some work done," said Cid. "This way he stays inside, yeah?"

"You're right next to a door," said Tifa.

"I was watching him!"

"I'm not gonna go back outside," said Aeris. She'd had enough of that nightmare to last a lifetime.

Tifa frowned. "...I'd still feel better if you were closer by than that. C'mon." She disappeared up the stairs again. Aeris nervously followed.

They were shut up in the bathroom again with little fanfare. Tifa sat on the edge of the bathtub, and Aeris sat down under the towels against the wall.

How are your families typically structured? Are all these people blood relatives? It was as good of a time to ask as any.

No, was the unhelpful reply she got.

...I see. Well... how do families typically form?

Well, my mother laid a clutch of about thirty eggs, said Cloud. Then when we hatch we dig our way out of the broodhole. We're raised communally by all the fathers, and whoever manages to eat their siblings the fastest gets to pupate and reach adulthood.

And... how long would you say each phase is? This was a lot to write down...

About three months as an infant, six years as a larvae. I'm twelve years old.

Oh. Really? You're very articulate.

No. All of that was bullshit. And about tonberries.

Aeris sighed heavily. Sir, I am trying to -- why are you making this difficult on both of us?

Because I hate you, said Cloud. Because -- because this is all I have, because I can't move or fight you off or ask for help or anything. You could make me slit my throat or someone else's right now and I wouldn't be able to stop you, and the only guarantee I have that you won't is that you want me to "trust" you. Like I have a choice not to. Like... as though it would matter even if I didn't. Which I don't.

...I wouldn't do that, Cloud. I would hope you'd believe no one would do something like that.

They would, he spat. If someone had that kind of power, they would in a heartbeat, just to prove they could.

"Are you okay?"came Tifa's voice again, making her jump and interrupting her reply. She was staring at her concernedly. "You seem upset about something."

"It's nothing," said Aeris. Tifa simply crossed her arms.

"Cloud, you were in a coma over this, and you're still... we promised, didn't we?" She moved from her spot on the bathtub and sat next to him. Very close. Very very close.

"You can tell me. I won't hate you, I just want to know. I'm worried," she said.

You made her worry, came the bitter reply in her head. It wasn't me. It was you. You made her worry.

"It's..." Aeris faltered. Tell me what to say.

I don't know what to say.

Is she your sister? Is she your wife? Do you have either of those things here? She's still staring at me.

She's not my sister. I don't have any relatives.

"Cloud? If there's something wrong, you can let me know about it," repeated Tifa, but this time her words were tinged with suspicion.

"I'm perfectly fine," said Aeris.

Tifa's eyes narrowed. "...Really."

"Yes."

"So, if you're fine, you won't mind going back to a hospital for a quick check-up."

"Yeah that's -- that's fine."

Tifa's eyes widened -- whatever she had been expecting, it apparently wasn't that.

And just like that, Aeris was forced onto her back and pinned to the floor, her head impacting with the tile with a loud crack.

"You're not Cloud," she said. "You're not Cloud, you're --" and then she did something odd, and used her free hand to grab Aeris's left arm and yank it into view. The arm -- Cloud's arm, was absolutely covered in scars. The vast majority of them appeared to be some sort of acid burn.

Tifa looked from the arm back to Aeris. "What..."

"He's safe," she said, trying her best to sound calm and reassuring. "He isn't in any pain. He can hear you."

"Give him back," she demanded, and Aeris was certain there was fear undercutting her tone. Tifa moved her hands to his neck. "I thought -- I thought you were dead. I thought we killed you."

Aeris frowned. "Killed...?"

Tifa was staring at Aeris now, looking rather upset. She hadn't actually started squeezing yet.

"...I won't do it, you know," she said. "I know what you're trying to do, and I won't do it."

Do what? What is she talking about?

I tried to make her promise that if anyone ever did to me again what you're doing to me now, she'd kill me. She didn't want to promise.

Aeris was now staring at Tifa, alarmed and confused and still aching slightly. What do you mean, "again"?

...None of your business.

No help. None at all. Absolutely ridiculous. "...I don't -- I don't want you to kill him. I'm going to sit up again, alright?"

Tifa did not move. "What did you do to him?"

"I'm not sure. That's what Cloud is supposed to be helping me find out," said Aeris. The sarcasm seemed to confuse her further, and she sighed again.

"I just want to help," she said. "I'm going to sit up, and hopefully we can talk about this."

Tifa stared at her for another moment, then slowly moved off to the side. Aeris sat up, rubbing the back of her head. Her fingers lingered over the outlines of several more scars she could feel under the hair. Perfectly curved -- maybe surgical in nature? They seemed to be from before the recent accident, given she couldn't feel any bald patches. Odd.

"Introductions are in order, I think," said Aeris. "What's your name?"

Tifa stared at her. And stared. And stared.

"You mean you don't know?" she said eventually.

Aeris opened her mouth to reply and got a lungful of warm tank air. Zack was leaning over her.

"Sorry for cutting you off, but we didn't wanna keep you drugged for too long," he explained.

"That's alright," she said. She felt as though she'd hit a wall with that particular session anyway.

"This is -- this is incredible," said Zack when they were going over the data half an hour later. "I mean, it's -- wow. You know?"

"I think I do," said Aeris. She looked around at the team -- they seemed elated. She envied them a bit -- they hadn't had to also endure someone panicking into their head for the last few hours. "Where's Tseng?"

"'Compiling data.' Sulking, more like," said Cissnei. "He's a bit disappointed to find out it's just humans."

"Your idea of smoothing things over is interesting," said Angeal dryly. "They don't seem to like you much more than they did before."

"They probably never will," said Zack, shrugging. "This guy clearly has a chip on his shoulder about the whole thing."

"Well they'll need to if we want to keep this project going," said Aeris, setting a dry towel down on a desk a bit too hard. "How are we supposed to get information like 'atmospheric makeup' and 'cultural basics' from someone like this? There's -- he can tell us something, I suppose, at least about himself, but he doesn't seem to want to."

"You'll have to compensate for damages somehow."

"How am I supposed to do that?" grumbled Aeris. "Run back home, pick him some flowers, and take them into the tank with me? If you're so smart, you figure it out."

"Well for starters, you can loosen up a little," said Zack.

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"You're treating this like it's customer service, and he's mad because his food had a hair in it," said Zack.

"Show me where I made light of --"

"Nah, not like that. I mean, look at what you're saying." Zack quickly went back over to a computer and scrolled up through her transcript. "'I am doing my best, Mr. Strife. You're going to have to work with me.' 'I understand you are frustrated.' Seems like he's got an issue with authority figures, and you trying to be one of those and getting mad at him probably isn't helping. You gotta pick one. At least then he'll know where you're coming from."

Aeris eyed him amusedly. "Do you have a psychology doctorate as well?"

"Nah. I think Lazard does, though. Right, Lazard?"

"I don't," said Lazard. "Please remain focused."

"That's no good. Six people cooped up in one tiny space and no shrink for any of us." Zack leaned back in his chair and spun back around to face Aeris again. "Honestly, though, if it were me, I wouldn't want a professional anyone giving me orders."

"I assumed, if it were me, I'd want to know someone in the equation knew what they were doing," said Aeris, yawning as the drugs started to creep up on her again.

"But you'd want it to be you, right?"

"...I would."

"You don't get out much do you?" asked Zack. "No offense."

"...Not really," admitted Aeris. "Between the constant moving and getting jumped a bunch of grades, it was hard to find anyone to talk to. Why, do you?"

Zack snorted. "I wish. Been on a bunch of teams with testosterone-fueled asshats, though, and you've gotta be good at handling people that don't wanna be handled."

"Oh?"

"Hey, if you're reading into that for anything about you, that's on your end, not mine," said Zack, switching off the monitor. "Just saying, it's worth a shot. Not like he's gonna hate you more."

"Alright," said Aeris. "With a couple changes."

 


 

"Deep breaths. Come on."

It had been a good thing they were already in the bathroom. One of the first things Cloud had done upon regaining his senses was hunch over the seat and spit up the contents of his stomach into it. The nausea hadn't been as bad this time. It seemed to mostly be from nerves.

"I'm okay," said Cloud. "I'm fine." He was still shaking, he knew. But there was something he'd had this time that he'd been missing the last several times, and that was control. Or at least the illusion of it, which was still better than nothing.

They'd finally moved him out of the bathroom, given the danger had passed, and they had him back in his room sandwiched between Tifa and Cid, who hadn't made eye contact with either one of them.

Cid took a deep breath. “...I shoulda said something, and I didn’t. Just figured you were outta your head like normal.”

Cloud nodded. “It’s okay.”

Tifa cleared her throat nervously. "How long were you...?"

"Since before, in the bathroom," replied Cloud.

"Barret told me to check on you." Tifa hadn't looked at Cid, either. "He said you were acting weird."

"Where is he now?"

"Out with Marlene," said Cid. "He's trying to get someone to watch her while he deals with this. No sense in keeping her cooped up here with us."

"He can leave if he wants," said Cloud. "I wouldn't mind." It wasn't fair to either of them. Not to anyone here, really, but especially Barret and Marlene.

"Well, he's staying here. His choice. Ain't nothin' anyone can do about that."

Cloud nodded. He didn't really understand why. If any of them had a right to bail on this dumpster fire, it was Barret. He thought back, trying to come up with a single moment that would explain any of it.

As incidental as it was, Jessie had been the first one to actually touch him.

He realised months later that it must have technically been Tifa, carrying him home from the Sector 2 landfill while on a supply run, bringing home a body and an extra mouth to feed instead of the raw materials for weapons she was supposed to have been salvaging. But Jessie had been the first one he'd been conscious of.

"You've got soot on your face," she'd said, and before he could actually reply she'd already spat on the corner of her shirt and carefully wiped it off. Her hand had lingered for perhaps a bit longer than had been appropriate, but Cloud hadn't noticed. The unexpected contact had come as a shock, as was the question it had prompted -- when was the last time anyone had actually touched him? It must have been a few weeks before he'd signed on with Avalanche, hadn't it? He was pretty sure he'd had plenty of friends in Soldier. Someone had probably brushed up against him or shaken his hand or something. But it still felt like a lot longer, somehow.

The second one had been Barret. Tifa had been asking him all sorts of questions -- questions he knew the obvious answers to, but she hadn't stopped staring. He wasn't sure if she was displeased with him or not. She was so hard to read. Barret, he could deal with because Barret was uncomplicated -- Barret hated him because he was an asshole and an "expensive leech", and Cloud did his best to live up to that reputation, because who cared what Barret thought? Nothing complicated with that, and Cloud liked things uncomplicated.

So it had come as another, even greater shock when they were in Kalm when Barret had approached him as they were packing up to leave.

"I know none of that was easy to talk about, but I'm glad you did. And I want you to know, I'm seein' this through to the end if you are."

And then he'd put his hand on his shoulder.

Barret said something else after that. Cloud didn't remember what it was, because all he'd been paying attention to was the warmth of the hand on his shoulder.

It hadn't been anything remarkably intimate, he knew -- he'd had loads of squadmates in Soldier that had definitely done the same thing. And he was sure they liked him better than Barret did.

It just seemed like a long time, was all. And it actually felt really nice.

And he found himself badly wanting it more.

Barret took his hand off his shoulder after he was finished saying whatever it was he was saying and walked away, and Cloud didn't know how to ask him to please do it again, for longer this time.

It was such a juvenile thing to want, too; Soldiers probably didn't care about that sort of thing.

And just like that, the notion was gone, and he barely remembered thinking it in the first place.

Chapter Text

Cloud had been doing paperwork for the last three hours. He eventually learned it was three hours because Tifa had come to him in the middle of hour two, wondering what he'd been up to. He'd said "nothing", and as far as he knew that was accurate because none of the work was done and he had been sure before it had only been ten minutes. He'd been staring at the holes in his wall for longer than he'd thought.

Everything felt fuzzy today. It was Yuffie's turn to watch him right now, and he'd blanked out twice in the middle of her conversation. She'd said something to him. About him? Maybe. He knew he'd said something, too. She'd said something after that, but without the sentence before it he didn't know how he was supposed to reply to this one.

"...Yes?" he offered.

Yuffie crossed her arms. "What did I just ask you?"

He didn't know. He was supposed to know, wasn't he? If he didn't know the answer fast enough, she'd be mad, and --

"I was asking you if you needed help with expenses. You said yes, and then I asked you which part you wanted me to work on first," said Yuffie. Was she mad? She was probably mad now.

"Oh," said Cloud.

"Well, let me have a look," she said, and leaned over the form he was working on. She stared at it, then looked back at Cloud.

"So... is this a prank?" said Yuffie, and held up the paper he'd been working on for him to see. He'd blacked out most of the form, nearly every inch covered in formless scribbles.

"That's..." Now that she had brought it to his attention, Cloud did have a vague memory of doing that. It had made sense at the time, and he knew it wasn't right now, but couldn't quite put his finger on why that would be the case.

"It's that modern art you hear so much about, right?" said Yuffie, before crumpling the paper. "Are you feeling okay?"

"Yes."

"You are Cloud, right?"

"Yeah." He was, wasn't he? "I'm Cloud. I'm Cloud."

"Prove it. What did you get me for my birthday?"

"Water canteen. Materia inlay. I made it." She was mad. If she was mad at him, they'd make him listen for longer this time. There was a chemical tang to the air.

"...Yeah, I guess so. So did you want help with this stuff or not?"

"...What?" She wanted something. He didn't know what. He was supposed to know. She would be mad.

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "Y'know, let's do this later." Something seemed to click for her, and she turned back to him. Cloud flinched at the sudden movement.

"Tell me what you want to do later," said Yuffie pointedly. Cloud stared at her. He couldn't seem to point his thoughts in any particular direction right now. Doing later. What you want to do. What I want to do. I want. Want to do I want I am I want. A muscle in his arm spasmed.

Yuffie seemed to take his hesitation as a sign and wheeled his office chair over to the bed before dumping him out of it onto the blankets. There was too much noise in his own head, drowning out his own thoughts, and then drowning out him. There was a woman fussing about him, positioning him against something soft and folding him into a shape for her to slip in next to so she could write words into him more easily. He was melting into the walls, which were already covered with the words he'd let leak out. His arm arced out involuntarily, grasping frantically at something that wasn’t there.

The bits of him that used to be Cloud dissolved back into the green. It was too much trouble to be anyone, let alone be Cloud, right now. This is fine, was the last thought he managed to have for a while.

Schhhhhhick.

The sound was satisfyingly smooth, as good as the blade felt in his hand, lighter than air despite the reinforced steel it was supposedly made of. His breathing was heavy, his blood pounding in his ears, the scent of combat, of adrenaline and sweat and a mix of hormones he didn't even know how to describe, hanging richly in the air. A red heat sprayed up his arm and into his face. He let the body of the monster he'd run through slump off his sword, leaving it on the ground where it had fallen next to what remained of the other three.

A buzzer sounded, and he lay the sword down on the floor in front of him and stepped away, kneeling on the ground and putting his hands behind his head. Some of the blood ran past his nose and into his mouth, delivering a wealth of information that only parts of him, the old parts, could use. The lab aides quickly rushed in and began removing various sensors from him that had been monitoring his vitals, and the guards quickly escorted him out of the examination room once they were done.

He had grown taller in the time he'd been here (one year? ten?) -- not a whole lot taller, since he had never exactly been large, but enough to be the last bit of height he had to go. No longer a boy, very nearly a man. They had improved him, for which he was grateful. It felt good to be as strong as he was, to know he was better, the same way he knew he was taller. To know he was being made whole. To perform well for them, all these humans that had made him everything he was, and to finally begin whispering back to Mother.

The things he fought varied from week to week in size and shape, but they were otherwise generally consistent -- older specimens. The bad ones, the ones that didn't work out, and were consigned to the storage room until a use had been found for them. In this case, that use was bettering him, Series 3 of the Jenova Project. Giving him something to cut through, so they could measure how skillfully he did it. That was all they were good for.

Not like him. Not like Cloud.

In front of his cell, they were met with Hojo standing in the hallway accompanied by a pair of guards of his own, his hands steepled expectantly. Cloud stood and waited to be addressed.

"Welcome back, Series 3. It seems congratulations are in order."

Cloud waited, either for the professor to be finished speaking, or for him to be given orders to speak.

"Your performance this week has been excellent thus far," he continued, now only barely managing to stare down at Cloud due to his recent growth spurt. "My expectations for you were quite high as it stood, and yet in the three years since this leg of the project began, you have still managed to exceed them by leaps and bounds."

Cloud nodded after a moment, judging the risks of speaking unprompted. It appeared to be expected here, though. "Thank you, professor," he said.

"Your cooperation has been noted as well. I have therefore decided that you are worth investing in at this stage, as the potential next iteration of Soldier... among other things," he said, clearly pleased with his work. "And the President happens to agree. As such, I think we're due for a few formalities. As well as certain rewards, for good behaviour."

He stepped back and nodded to the guards escorting him to open the door to his cell. Cloud kept his eyes on the ground so Hojo wouldn't see the confusion in them. He should know what was going on, probably. Shouldn't he?

He was led inside, and the door wasn't shut immediately behind him prompting him to actually look up around himself. His eyes landed on his cot, and his mouth fell open.

It was a sword. A real sword, a proper sword, one that he probably wouldn't break by putting his full strength behind it. It was massive, nearly as tall as him, and more than half as wide. The blade was finely sharpened, the metal engraved, with a hinge near the base with a couple hollows for storing materia directly in the blade, for easier spell channeling. A sword that must have needed to be specially commissioned, which wouldn't be done for just anyone. A sword designed with an incredible amount of strength and destructive power in the arm of the wielder in mind.

A Soldier First Class's sword.

His sword.

Next to it, neatly folded, was a distinctive uniform and a pauldron.

Cloud's knees went weak.

Hojo watched intently from the doorway as Cloud knelt down next to it and reached out a shaking hand to grasp the hilt. "Perform well enough, and perhaps one day when the world is ready for you it will be official."

His arms suddenly felt like jelly as well, and he supported the blade with his other hand, looking it over. It was his sword. His. Just like a Soldier.

"Thank you," he managed to choke out.

"Hm." The guards began to file out. Cloud didn't look back at any of them, busy looking at his sword. His sword.

"Earn it." The door slid shut.

I will, though Cloud, the sword sitting on his lap, the uniform pressed into his face. I will. I will.

He fell asleep that night, on his cot and under his blanket that he had earned, next to his sword, the First Class uniform clutched to his chest. He really should have put it away, but he didn't want to let it out of his sight so soon. Clothes were a privilege and not a right.

He was looking forward to putting them on, but the next morning he was told to strip, and was then sprayed off with the hoses in preparation for an operation. Dr. Crescent was there, which meant it was probably an important one.

Once the sedatives were in his system he couldn't do much more than move his eyes, but from what he could see from his position on the operating table, there was something in a box that she and Hojo seemed excited about. It looked almost like a materia, and had the same sort of magical tug around it as one, but Cloud had never seen a white materia before.

He was jarred from any further contemplation when the operation began, the searing pain of the scalpel carving into his chest below his right pectoral making it significantly hard to focus on anything at all. He caught a word every now and then, about the Ancients, contact, naturally receptive. He couldn't make much sense of it, and it made even less sense when the materia was lowered into his abdominal cavity and the slow, excruciating process of sewing up what wouldn’t heal right away. After the drugs wore off, he kept quiet; both because he had not yet been addressed, and because something was concerning him.

It was strange -- although he was very, very much in contact with the materia now, the spell didn't come to him. There was no rush of knowledge, no easy recollection of all the ways one could reach into the Planet. It seemed to be reaching to him, trying to pull him somewhere, but to where he wasn't sure.

Maybe it was just because his chest hurt too much to focus. He hoped they wouldn't ask, because "nothing" was almost always a wrong answer.

After another hour or so, when he had been deposited back in his cell, he eagerly changed into the uniform -- his uniform -- and looked at his reflection in the sword. He was stronger now, his muscles more defined, and his features were sharper and more mature-looking than they had been when he was fourteen. The uniform was a bit big on him, since most Soldiers trended away from a slight build, but the shirt fit comfortably. His eyes were unmistakably glowing, and they even looked a little bit like Sephiroth's did, the pupils still just a bit more biconvex than they were perfectly round like a human's, as dilated as they were as the sedatives slowly worked their way out of his system.

It had been quite a while since he had seen his reflection (months? years?), and it was with a small jolt that he realised it was him, in that Soldier uniform, with those mako eyes, looking like a grown-up. He spent the rest of the night staring back at his reflection in the dim (though not for him) light provided by his eyes.

He didn't feel any older. He couldn't quite remember how old he'd been when he had first come here. Fifteen? Maybe sixteen. He'd been thinking of himself as such for long enough. The further back he thought, the less there was to remember. Maybe the doctors knew how old he was.

Could he buy lottery tickets? Cigarettes? Booze? Could he get married? Own a house? It had been a long time since he'd thought about any of these things, but looking at his face -- a man's face, a Soldier's face -- brought it all flooding back. These were things he wanted when he was younger. Things that came with being a grown man in Soldier.

For the first time in a while, he thought about the name tied to all those old worries. Cloud. This is what Cloud wanted, wasn't it?

He quashed the thought almost immediately, as though it were an unpleasant image. It wasn't allowed to be his name. That was bad, like Cloud. He knew how to not do anything bad anymore.

He realised after another moment that much of it wouldn't matter -- he was Shinra's now, and if Shinra hadn't mentioned these things to him yet, they probably wouldn't at any later point either. He wouldn't need any property beyond his sword, or companionship beyond the company. Shinra was his home. He rarely ate food these days either, receiving much of his nutrition intravenously.

There was something else he had wanted with Soldier, too, the reason it had been his dream, but he couldn't remember what it was anymore.

It probably wasn't important.

 


 

There was something that felt wrong this time. It was night, Aeris could tell. She'd deliberately waited to avoid another encounter with Cloud's family in the middle of the day. One thing at a time.

She was pretty sure Cloud was here -- at least, something was. But there were no thoughts coming from the presence; no steady stream of resentment bleeding into her perception. It was little more than a niggling feeling in the back of her head, the way the "whiteboard" was.

She felt something on her hand and looked down -- there was a young woman sitting next to Cloud in bed, her fingers laced around his. She appeared to have fallen asleep sitting next to him. He had been propped up against the wall. Some sort of animal appeared to be asleep across his lap. It was quiet here, and both the woman and the animal were curled up quite closely to her. The blanket even seemed to be handmade. It would have been nice if it didn’t feel incredibly intrusive, which she supposed it was.

It's me again, said Aeris. No response. That wasn't right.

...Hello? Cloud? If you're willing, I'd like to talk. And apologise

Something seemed to brush up against her as she said his name, but it was so faint she wasn't sure she imagined it. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on it.

She felt her way towards the something -- there was something here. She was sure of it. As she listened, she could feel bits of thought occasionally congealing before disappearing again. Something was definitely wrong here.

Well, she didn't know what this was. But someone else would.

She extracted her hand from the young woman's and gently shook her. "Psst. Wake up," she whispered.

The young woman did not wake up. The animal did, and she managed to choke down a gasp as she saw that it was apparently on fire. Before she could shake the woman harder, the animal opened its mouth.

"You're awake!" it said. "I was worried, you haven't been this long in a while..."

"...You talked."

The animal (wolf? lion? it certainly seemed too big to be a dog) stared at her, cocking its head to the side, and then bared its teeth.

"You're not Cloud," it said in a growl.

"I -- no, I'm not. I came to apologise," said Aeris. "What's wrong with Cloud? He's not... he's not here."

"And whose fault is that?" It had walked itself forward and was now snarling in her face.

"Not mine. He was like this when I got here."

"Well, you're most likely making it worse."

"Just -- listen," Aeris hissed. "I came here to try and fix things. And I can't do that if I don't know what's going on because no one will tell me anything."

"...Cloud is having an episode," said the... something, glancing at a digital clock by the bed -- a digital clock that used a twelve hour system, maybe? "This one has lasted ten hours and forty-nine minutes. I had hoped he had finally thrown it off, but it was just you."

"An episode of what?" There shouldn’t be any reason what she’d been doing would have given him any brain damage (well, apart from the incident with the coma), but anything further and she’d have to call off the project anyway. Talking was one thing. Scrambling someone’s brains was another.

"Cloud has sustained severe and continuous psychic damage over the last decade. It is difficult for him to maintain his sense of self. It is an ongoing battle, and on occasion he loses ground."

"What do you mean, ‘psychic damage’? From what?”

“That is Cloud’s business. Not yours.”

“And... how long is he usually like this?"

"It's difficult to say. It could be a few hours, or a few days. His longest was a little over two weeks."

Two weeks with their contact point out of commission... that could end the project, and doing things achronologically was nigh unworkable.

She had another thought, then, of a headline -- “DISGRACED SCIENTIST FIRED. RUINS THE LIFE OF BRAIN-DAMAGED BYSTANDER. ACTUALLY WORSE THAN MENGELE.” She pushed it away.

"What's your name?" asked Aeris. The dog-thing stared at her suspiciously.

"Nanaki. I am visiting until Cloud gets better and you go away."

"And you're..." Calling something that could talk a "pet" would probably be a bit rude, even if she was reasonably certain that was the case in one way or another. Who else let their friends sleep in their beds? Not that she couldn’t see why. She wondered if he would allow her to feel his fur.

"I am Nanaki," said Nanaki shortly. "I'll be waking Yuffie now."

"Wait!"

Nanaki stared at her. "For what?"

"...Maybe I could help. I can sort of feel him... moving?" That wasn't the right word. "He's here. I could talk to him."

"You do that. I am going to wake Yuffie now anyway."

"Don't --" she shook her head and let it drop. Priorities -- dealing with whatever fugue state this was.

She closed her eyes and tried to focus on the strange presence that wasn't the whiteboard. If she hadn't been deliberately looking for it, she wouldn't have noticed it as anything more than occasional intrusive thoughts in the back of her mind. Whatever it was, it wasn't truly thinking.

She tried writing to it in the way she wrote to the whiteboard. Hello, she said.

Hello came the reply, but it was merely an echo of her own words; stimulus, response.

It's me Aeris, she thought. It's me Aeris, echoed the parts that weren't really a person. They began to twist closer to her.

I came here to talk to you. If you can hear me please give me a sign. Again, she heard the not-a-person echo her thoughts -- no, not echo. They'd been thinking them at the same time.

Cloud? Are you there? No, not thinking them -- she was thinking with those bits, as though they were just another part of her mind.

They began to congeal around her, and more and more they became another part of her thoughts. Stop it, they said, or she said. She tried to say to them, anyway, but there didn't seem to be any of them left.

He was gone. How could he be gone? He had just been there -- and now here he was, twisted up so deeply into her she couldn't tell what was her own mind and what was him, mimicking.

Not good. Not good at all, he had to be here; she searched her own thoughts frantically. She was here to talk to Cloud, and Zack had her count to thirty before she came here, and Lazard had taken a blood sample from her as part of a routine checkup --

She felt a thrill of repulsion run through her, and a very small part of her said no.

She thought more about the appointment. It had been just in case constantly drugging her was having adverse effects on her, she remembered. She had looked away from the needle going in, but she had watched it on the way out.

The thing that said no pulled away further, and it seemed to recognise itself then. Parts of her turned out to be the pieces she'd collected, and more and more of them identified themselves -- never again -- broke his arm -- I don't belong here. It became easier and easier to find the parts that had convinced themselves they weren't parts of anything else. She pulled away from some, and pushed others in towards each other, each thought connecting to another idea that distinctly wasn't her, and for some reason despised having its blood drawn.

It was still twisted up against her, but it was distinctly no longer her.

Who, it asked. She hadn't told him to do that.

Are you feeling alright? She replied.

I'm here, he said, as if to remind himself. I'm here. I'm Cloud.

Someone was touching her, and she opened her eyes to see Yuffie twisting her arm behind her back. She sighed. "I'm not going anywhere," said Aeris.

"Fat chance," said the woman. "I shoulda kept a better eye on you last time."

Aeris sat up and pulled her arms away from her back -- Cloud was a lot stronger than her, it seemed. She still needed to ask about that business with the motorcycle.

"See? I’m helping. I can hear him," said Aeris. "There's something wrong with his head. What do I do?"

"You leave," said Nanaki.

"Fine. I'll figure it out myself. Should be easy enough," said Aeris, and closed her eyes again.

I'm here, she could hear him saying. He was still built around her and through her, using her to define what was and wasn't himself.

...I thought I'd apologise, said Aeris. I likely sounded bossy and rude. So I thought I could start by telling you a little about myself in exchange.

Cloud said nothing. She wasn't sure if he could really hear her.

I'm from Reading, and I study physics in London. That's a really large city in the United Kingdom. We have a queen, and a prime minister. Neither one of them really does much of anything for the country, but at least people like the queen. It felt strange, narrating to herself and and knowing someone was there to listen.

My parents, they studied physics as well. Most people in England, they live with their parents until they become adults. Mine are gone though. I didn't know many people besides them, so it was very difficult. She could feel him listening now, a gentle probing against what she was saying. When I turned out to be good at physics too, it was decided that I should get into the field as well. It's all very fascinating. And now, I'm picking up the project they left behind.

I'm not from Reading, she heard him say, as though trying to convince himself.

No, I'd imagine you aren't, said Aeris. Where are you from?

Nibelheim. I'm from Edge. I'm from Nibelheim. I'm from 6 7 dark in the storage room don't make me go back don't want to go back I'm from 3 I'm from Nibelheim Sector 7 Edge Nibelheim Midgar please don't make be go back 7th Heaven off Reedgrass and 25th.

She needed to get him... out, for lack of a better word. This was too much information too fast. She wondered if he was getting about the same experience from her.

Then he asked, Yuffie?

Aeris started slightly. ...No, I'm not Yuffie. I'm Aeris. I came to apologise.

She didn't get a response that was articulated with any words, but there was a good amount of confusion and unease rather than the expected hostility.

I'm not from Reading, he said again. I'm not from Reading...

Something clicked into place then, and she felt a stab of pain shoot through her that had her gasping out loud. She reached up to grasp at her head, but her arm stopped halfway and put itself back down.

"She's here again," she felt herself involuntarily say.

"Yeah, I know," said the woman. "What should I do? Should I get Tifa, or... you're awake."

"I am," said Cloud, as Aeris felt her jaw part and her mouth moving to form words she had no input in making. And then she blurted out, "I said I was here to help. I just want to talk. I --"

Her speech broke off into a sharp gagging noise as the throat they were both using tried to say two things at once. Nanaki looked between her and the other woman helplessly.

"I'm going to talk to Cloud for a bit," she said slowly. "Then I will leave."

"...Two hours," said Yuffie. "Or I'll..." she glanced at Nanaki, who didn't seem to know how to finish the threat either.

"Yes. Two hours." She closed her eyes again and leaned back against the wall again.

What happened? she asked Cloud. He must have still been a bit disoriented, because what he said next didn't make much sense.

I've been trying to push in since you started doing this, but it was too hard. You let me in. I thought you did this. I don't know why you let me think and move this time, and not the others.

...What do you mean? The others? The earlier runs, probably.

That's the only way I know to describe it. I wanted to move but you wouldn't let me. And now you are letting me. That's what it feels like.

Well -- look, I was serious when I said I was sorry, pressed Aeris. So... if I'm gonna ask you a bunch of questions, then you should ask something too. Does that sound fair?

...You helped me, said Cloud.

Sorry?

You... in my head, you talked to me. It... it helps to hear people talk.

Oh. Well... least I can do.

He was quiet for a while. He seemed conflicted about something.

...How are you doing this? he asked eventually.

Well, began Aeris, I do a lot of very complicated calculations based around that signal I mentioned earlier -- the one we found coming from this world, that has something to do with you. Then I get into a tank with a lid that's filled with liquid gallium, and some other metals. Brainwaves are just electrical signals, after all. We pick up those signals, and we can tweak one set of signals into another to match mine.

Is that what you're doing now? he asked.

Yes. Technically I'm asleep right now. I'm writing down what we're saying on -- well, that's another conversation. I'm keeping track of it, though.

...So, you didn't... do anything to me?

What do you mean? she asked nervously. Whatever the implication was, it seemed unpleasant.

To do this. You didn't do anything to me. I'm not... I'm not different from how I was before you started this?

I doubt it, said Aeris. I don't quite understand why the data we obtained led us to you, but since it did, I don't think it's very possible that we might have based that data on you before even meeting you.

...So, we're humans. And so are you, apparently.

Well… I think so, said Aeris. In a manner of speaking.

"In a manner of speaking"?

Yes. You mostly look like what humans in my world look like, but I think there might be a few differences. I'm not certain. Your family seems to be what I'm used to... mostly, anyway, the wolflion was new, but I couldn't help but notice your eyes --

Aeris felt her fists clench involuntarily.

What about 'em?

A sore subject. Perhaps there were different subspecies of humans, and this one was a minority. Well... I noticed earlier they glow. We have animals that naturally produce light in my world, but humans usually aren't one of them. Does it impair your vision any?

Shouldn't you know that by now? he deadpanned.

I... yes, I suppose I should. Are there many humans with glowing eyes here?

Not anymore, said Cloud. And it's not a normal thing. They're from mako treatments.

...What's mako?

There was a pause. What do you mean, what's mako? It's -- never mind. They used to use it to power stuff --

-- until it was outlawed. Yes, I remember that from yesterday. But... it's a medication, as well as a fuel source?

Not a medication. Performance enhancer. I've had five years worth of shots and tissue infusions of it.

Performance... that's how you lifted that motorcycle. Not everyone can do that?

No. Just me.

And anyone else that's had those... injections. Are they legal? How many others are there?

They were legal -- they were issued by Shinra. And there's nobody left anymore. They're all dead.

Was it a health compli --

I thought I was asking the questions here, snapped Cloud.

I'm trying to get some common ground here. A lot of what you've been saying doesn't make much sense to me. Things like "materia" and "mako" and --

Well... maybe you can tell me the kinds of things you do know, he said, and for some reason this reply didn't seem as testy as the others.

I could tell you about the people on the team with me.

...How many of you are there?

There’s six of us. I suppose technically there’s more, since we’re funded by CERN, but there’s six of us specifically on this project.

...What’s CERN?

It’s the organisation I’m part of. We study physics.

Physics? He said it as though he didn’t quite believe her.

Yes. You know, different kinds of matter, spacetime, dark energy. Things like that.

So if you’re a physicist, how come you’re messing around with me?

Like I said before, that’s what I want to find out. This was an accident, sort of, finding you. We know how this works, but not so much why. Or maybe it’s the other way around…

Just physics, though?

Well, I mostly study physics. So does Fair, albeit a different application of them. And Hewley mostly does maths, which is sort of a purer form of physics -- which we’ll need when we start planning things like navigation. Lazard is a medical doctor, just in case something goes wrong, because we won’t be able to leave for medical attention.

...And why’s that?

Well, this place is a clean room, isn’t it? Say one of us showed up on your doorstep tomorrow --

Please don’t.

...Hypothetically. If I came straight there, there’s a good chance both of us would die.

Probably. If I didn’t kill you, someone else would.

That’s… well, that’s not really what I meant. Like… let’s say -- you have colds in your world, right? Something you get sick with for a day or two?

Yeah, we have colds and the flu and stuff.

Well, let’s say that we didn’t. If I went to your house and was around you, I’d pick up whatever you were carrying and bring it back home with me. Even if it didn’t make you very sick, it could kill us because we have no natural immunity to it and no way to treat it. The same goes for you. So we’re locked in here with no contact from anyone else for a few weeks at a time, for your safety and ours. There’s an even cleaner clean room in the middle of the facility too.

Sounds like you’re talking about a lab.

There are parts of it that are labs, yes. Tseng has one for biology things. I don’t really understand much of what he’ll be doing, but then that’s why he’s doing it and not me. But viruses are viruses. Even if neither one of us are sick, we could still transmit something to one another.

...What do you mean? There was a hint of suspicion in his “voice” again, but this time it seemed tinged with interest.

Well, the way I understand it, viruses make more of themselves by changing your DNA to pump out more of them. Even after you’ve recovered, they’re still there in your system for good -- sorry, I’m not -- you’re familiar with the concept of DNA, right? Do you call it something else?

We know what DNA is, he said shortly. And I know how viruses work.

Ah… good. Then you know how --

Yes.

I haven’t even said anything.

I know what viruses are.

...Out of curiosity, what do you know about them?

There was another pause as he seemed to be considering something.

Most of what you already said. They latch onto a host, rewrite the DNA of the host cell. Really contagious. They’re sort of… the odd phylum out, because they’re alive, but they’re not actually alive the way bacteria are, and that’s a hard thing to wrap your head around. They exist to make more of themselves because that’s what they are. Anything in that weird in-between space that acts the way that does, we call that a virus.

That seems about right, said Aeris, even if the last bit hadn’t quite been clear. For someone with a hatred of modern medicine he sure seemed to know a lot about it. Do they usually teach that kind of thing in schools here?

I guess so. We went over it a little before I dropped out. I didn’t learn it in school though.

...When did you drop out? He did seem the type, now that he mentioned it.

I kinda stopped going to classes when I was eleven. But I left officially when I was thirteen. Spent three months on the road on the way to Midgar. Probably missed a lot of stuff I should know, but Tifa usually helps me out with the bookwork.

...Why did you leave? Aeris herself had technically finished grade school when she was thirteen, but leaving voluntarily was completely unthinkable. Was it a money issue? How long does school usually last?

Sort of. I thought it would be nice to help out Ma with the whole food thing. So I went and enlisted.

...Enlisted? That didn’t sound good. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

Yeah. You know, military, police, military police… they mostly deployed me in Midgar, though I got sent to Wutai a lot during my first year. Mostly cleaning up pockets of resistance hiding out in the jungle. Work for disposable grunts...

You… they dep -- how old were you?

Fourteen. What’s your problem? He likely could feel her disgust and sadness slowly settling in, and it was probably giving him the wrong idea.

Fourteen.

Yeah. I mean, I did leave a little late. Everyone else in my squad was twelve, except for a couple guys in their thirties that just never got promoted. I got enough shit from them about dragging my feet, I don’t need it from you.

Sorry. I just… where I come from, that -- letting children into the military... it’s considered a war crime, she said weakly. There was a brief pause. If they’d been speaking aloud, she would have been sure he’d snorted in disbelief.

What’s a “war crime? asked Cloud.

Definitely not good. And absolutely as bad as it sounded. Before she could reply properly, someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she jumped and reflexively swatted at whatever was in front of her, but for some reason her hand came up short of actually touching anything. Cloud was determinedly holding still.

Watch it, he warned. Yuffie, who was sitting in front of her, had flinched away from her arm.

“Sorry,” said Aeris. “Has it been two hours already?”

“No,” grumbled Yuffie, edging away from her just in case. “But I’m getting everyone else up. You’ve got questions to answer.”

“I -- I also have some questions,” said Aeris, her voice sounding slightly panicked. “How is it that none of you have heard of war crimes?”

Yuffie stared at her. “I mean… it’s a war, right? The whole thing is made of crimes. It seems a little redundant to make a word for that kind of thing. You can’t exactly march up to soldiers or world leaders and arrest them for fighting a war the way wars get fought. I mean, maybe they do where you’re from, but...”

Aeris just gawked. Cloud took the opportunity to speak up then.

“She’s been asking about physics a lot,” he said. “Can you get Cid? I can’t make heads or tails of any of this, and I’d like to sleep soon. The WRO’s gonna be here in the morning, I think.”

“Who --” began Aeris. Then she shook her head. We need to come up with a system.

What “system”? replied Cloud rather irritably. You’re the one that’s letting me do this suddenly. Even though you didn’t have much of a problem forcing me to do whatever before.

I didn’t know! I didn’t… never mind. Just -- I don’t know how I’m “letting” you. Your head was a bit funny when I came here. Maybe it has something to do with that.

I’ve got a system for you. You keep quiet and let me talk for once.

...Alright. That’s fine.

“Just… get everyone,” she felt herself say. “I wanna get this settled.”

Nanaki stared at her hard, then exchanged a look with Yuffie, who turned to her and said, “Password?”

What does she -- ?

“The hell are you talking about?” said Cloud, voicing her own confusion.

“The real Cloud knows the password,” replied Yuffie without missing a beat.

“Fuck off, no I don’t.”

Yuffie nodded to Nanaki. “Yeah, it’s him.” Nanaki sniffed and padded out of the room to fetch more onlookers to complicate things.

...Now what? asked Aeris.

Now, said Cloud, we get a few things straight.

 


 

Control, or at least the illusion of it. Gods, he’d missed this. It was something he experienced in brief spurts during a repair, or in the middle of a fight -- periods where Cloud knew exactly what he was doing, how he was going to do it, and why. There was a clear problem and a path to a solution and Cloud would force a straight line between the two because it was the easiest way to do things.

“She says her name is Aeris Gainsborough,” he said, “and that she’s human. She doesn’t seem to know anything about Jenova, or the WRO. She’s part of a group called Sern, or something like that. I wasn’t supposed to be part of this. We’re trying to figure out why I am.”

“How’d she get ahold of you?” asked Cid.

Cloud shook his head. “We don’t know that either. She mentioned something about a pattern --” he paused as Aeris filled him in on more information, trying to keep himself focused on some point in the room so no one would comment on his eyes glazing over, “-- but the person that discovered it died years ago. So we’ll have to answer a lot of these questions ourselves.”

“If she’s a human, how is she doing this?” asked Tifa. She’d positioned herself in front of the window and kept glancing at the door as well. Cloud shrugged.

You explain it, he told her.

And she did, and he felt his mouth move involuntarily as she launched off into another explanation. Something about broadcasting, and other universes, and distinct electrical signals, and waypoints.

“...and he’s the only one there is, and we don’t really know why. There were others at first, but they all flashed out in seconds. I don’t know why that is either.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the room.

“...Well, the WRO’s going to be here tomorrow morning anyway,” said Reeve. “We’ll know for sure by then.”

“If you’re humans, I guess y’all live on the Planet, right? One of ‘em, anyway,” said Cid, looking a bit disappointed.

...What does he mean by that? Is there only one planet here? What happened to the others? probed Aeris. From the pictures we got of your sky we know there are probably other planets out there, so --

The Planet is the one we’re on, he said. Why would you think there’s only one? How many Planets do you live on?

Just the one, replied Aeris. But you just… you call your world “the Planet”. It doesn’t have a name?

No. What other Planet would we be talking about? It doesn’t need a name; if it wanted one, it would ask for one.

...You just call it “the Planet”, then?

Yeah. Why, don’t you?

No. We call ours Earth.

...So, you’re getting on me for us knowing what planet we’re obviously talking about, but you call your planet “dirt” just to be sure.

“He’s zoned out again. Someone pinch him,” he suddenly heard Jessie say from in front of him. He blinked hard and brushed her hand away rather firmly.

“I’m fine.” He leaned back against the wall, yawning. “She says it’s called Earth.”

“Sounds fake,” said Cid. “Let’s say I buy that. Best case scenario, who’d you want to be in contact with? ‘Cause the space program was dissolved over a decade ago, and starting up a new one’s been outlawed as treason.”

“What? Why?” said Aeris, using his mouth again.

Stop that, he snapped.

I’m trying.

“Hate to break it to you, sweetheart, but you ain’t the first alien we’ve brushed up against,” drawled Cid. There was a glint in his eye that Cloud hadn’t seen there since the night before.

“It was decided it was… safer,” supplied Reeve in a clipped tone. “Given that we have no way of knowing what else was out there. We would likely not survive a second confrontation. Of course, this may count as an exception given this isn’t really an airspace violation.”

…”What else”?

Long story, said Cloud, rubbing his forehead. ...Though I guess it’s one I’ll probably have to tell you anyway.

“There’s a lot of countries involved,” he continued aloud. “So there are a lot of people that are interested in the project continuing. They’re here for information, she says.”

...Who are all these people? asked Aeris. You never really said. You mentioned family, but you never said how.

“...She wants to know who you are,” relayed Cloud. “Personally, I think. And how we met.” He got another flash of confusion from Aeris and wasn’t sure why. He was answering her question, he thought.

There was another pause as a glance went around the room. Cid was the first to speak up.

“Cid Highwind,” he said. “Used to be into aeronautics. I’m the one that deciphered your vandalism. Met Cloud when I joined Avalanche.”

“Reeve Tuesti,” said Reeve. “Senior member of the World Regenesis Organisation. I was… initially sent to gather intelligence on Cloud. I met him properly when I joined Avalanche.”

Intelligence? I thought you said you were a mechanic.

I am a mechanic. I used to not be a mechanic. Shut up and listen.

“I’m Tifa Lockhart. Cloud and I grew up in the same town. We…”

“You don’t have to tell her anything,” said Cloud. “In fact, you probably shouldn’t tell her anything about that in the first place.”

So… it’s complicated? Is that why you were sleeping with that other girl when I got --

Shut up.

“Fine, then. I had to leave Nibelheim when it burned, and I met up with Cloud in Midgar five years later. I convinced him to join Avalanche, and he lives above my bar now.”

What’s Avalanche?

A group we used to be part of. We blew up reactors, fought Shinra, saved a bunch of people…

Er --

I said it was a long story. Later.

“I am Nanaki,” said Nanaki. “I met Cloud during his incarceration in the Shinra Tower. I joined Avalanche as a matter of prudence, given we were both fleeing from the military in the same direction, but I stayed as a matter of personal attachment.”

“Lady Yuffie Kisaragi of the Golden Kingdom of Wutai,” said Yuffie. “I tried to mug Cloud ‘cause he looked like a dumbass. I joined Avalanche to mug him some more because he definitely was a dumbass and let me. Now we’re friends. I still take his stuff sometimes. It’s a game we play.”

"It's really not," said Cloud quickly.

"Then stop leaving your wallet around in the back of your dresser drawer where anyone can find it and I'll start taking you seriously," retorted Yuffie, pointedly dangling it in front of him. He snatched it out of her hands. She'd probably taken it when he was asleep.

"Barret Wallace," said Barret. "Mr. Wallace or 'sir' to you. I hired Cloud as part of Avalanche. Abdicated due to... personal reasons, and 'cause I got sick of him taking all my damn money. Let him handle the payroll for a change."

"I'm Jessie Mahoney, and I was working for Avalanche as our technician when Cloud signed on," she said. "I dated him twice and dumped him because he was a giant prick the whole time and Tifa's the only one that can put up with it. We still hang out though," she added, as Cloud shrank a bit further into the bed.

Ignore that.

Absolutely not.

"...Aeris is from Reading," he said eventually. "She likes space."

You like space, right?

I do like space! Though I wouldn't say that's my specialty. So, that's your family? They're all former co-workers.

Yeah. What's wrong with that?

Nothing. I love all of them, she said enthusiastically. Only...

What?

Do you not have any relatives? Or are families not organised by blood here?

Usually they are. I said already I didn't have any. They died years ago.

Oh. Well, your family's brilliant and I like them already. Tell them I said hello.

"...She says hi," he added lamely. He got a chorus of monotone "hey"s from around the room.

So, the stories behind these people are as good as they sound, aren't they?

I guess. I mean, we all kinda met in unusual --

There was a knock on the door downstairs. They all froze.

"They're here awfully early," commented Tifa. "After all that time they spent dragging their feet..."

"Can't be, can it?" said Cloud, frowning. "It's probably Reno doing something scummy."

The knock returned, louder this time, and someone downstairs who distinctly wasn't Reno announced themselves as a driver for the WRO. Cloud slid himself out of bed.

"Everyone clear out, I gotta get dressed." So much for sleep.

Cloud watched everyone file out, then began to shrug off his pyjamas.

Wait -- I'm still --

Then leave. Not my problem.

That's not the... Her voice trailed off as she forced him to stop and stare at his skin, or more accurately, what was decorating nearly every inch of it.

What happened to you?

Oh. You mean...? Stabbed a bunch, among other things.

...You’ve led an eventful life, then.

I guess so. Avalanche picked me up as a mercenary. It was Tifa’s idea to join. I remember I almost left after the second job when they cut my pay.

I don’t know why you’d leave. There was an unusual pause, where she seemed to be focused on something he couldn’t see. I’d love to have a family like that.

Why, what’s yours like?

My parents died a few years ago. I haven’t dated in a while. I guess this project is the first time I’ve gotten to talk to someone in a long time. Another pause. What are they like? That dog, he seems nice.

Nanaki’s not a dog.

Well, what is he, then?

...We always thought it was rude to ask, so nobody ever did.

Do you suppose he would be mad if I pet him?

...I mean, maybe not. You’d have to ask.

I’m going to next time I come back. He looks like he’d appreciate a good pet.

Don’t make it weird.

I’m not, she said indignantly. And another question -- do you always sleep together like that?

Not… not for a while, I guess, said Cloud. We used to, on the road.

It was kind of nice, she said.

Yeah, he said after a moment. It was.

It took him another couple minutes to get dressed, because Aeris was torn between wanting to examine more of his body and attempting to respect his privacy, which meant Cloud had a difficult time looking at what he was doing at all. She'd taken a particular interest in his boots, or more specifically, what was stuck in the treads of them (scientists, complete nutters, every last one). Then he'd buckled on his harness and loaded his sword into them.

...What's that for?

It's a sword. You use it to kill stuff and defend yourself.

...And... you expect to kill someone during this visit? Will they be alright with you bringing a weapon?

I don't know. It never hurts to be safe, right?

As it turned out, the WRO was very much not on board with him bringing his sword with him, and after a heated argument insisted he at least have it in the back seat rather than in his hand. He reluctantly agreed, if only because he could probably set the driver on fire and retrieve it faster than they could pull a gun on him.

Aeris stared out the window through most of the drive, staring at the city as it blurred past them, which was actually fine by Cloud; he didn't care much for cars. Too cramped. There had been a time when he'd been just as enthusiastic about them as he was with bikes, but that was before he'd spent a fifth of his life locked in very small spaces. Any distractions were more than welcome, even if they came in the form of someone forcing him to stare at every single street sign and pedestrian she came across. She even seemed fascinated by the brief view of the Wastes they caught when they were on a highway overpass.

Aeris suddenly sat up straighter and addressed him.

I figured it out!

...Figured what out?

What was different about your city. I haven't seen a single plant anywhere, the entire time I've been here. Apart from the wood you've made things out of. What happened to them all? In my world, they usually plant grass and things in cities. Do they not do that here?

...Not in Edge, said Cloud. We're too close to where the reactors used to be. Nothing really grows here anymore without a lot of coaxing. They're not gonna waste that energy on things like grass and flowers when it has to go to things like food and lumber. Most wood we have to import in.

That's...

I've seen real flowers before, said Cloud proudly. There was this jungle we were visiting. They were everywhere. You see the pictures, but it never really captures the smell right. One day, I'm gonna go back and visit.

Aeris was silent.

There were flowers just outside Nibelheim too, when I was little, he continued. Tiny blue ones. I don't remember them, though. That's what Tifa says.

...I have a garden at home, said Aeris. I grow different flowers and mints and things. Maybe I'll bring pictures, if we ever --

Silence.

If you ever what?

No response. The strange presence in his head seemed to have vanished, and he felt the beginnings of nausea begin to creep in. Before he could investigate any further, the vehicle ground to a halt.

"We're here," said the driver. Cloud let himself out and immediately fished his sword out of the back seat, the expanse of the facility they'd driven to looming ahead of him. It had been built fairly recently on the outskirts of Edge, and there was still construction equipment littered outside of it. Tifa and Reeve emerged from another car that had pulled up beside him.

"We're right here with you," said Tifa. Cloud nodded, and slipped his sword into his harness anyway.

 


 

"Why did you pull me?!"

"Shh!" That was Tseng, clamping a hand over her mouth and hauling her out of the tank with Zack. For some reason, half the computers against the wall were in the process of rebooting.

"We had a power issue," he explained in a low murmur. "And when we went to sort it out, we --"

"Something moved. I saw it. I know I saw it. It followed us up here," whispered Zack, anxiously glancing around. "It was big. Way bigger than a rat."

"What would even be in here with us?" hissed Aeris, removing his hand from her mouth. "This entire compound is sealed off."

"Maybe something came through?" muttered Zack. "Can't have, though, the centre room's still closed off."

They sat in silence for another few minutes. There were no sounds beyond their own breathing, and the dripping of NC fluid onto the floor. A faint hum could still be felt coming from below them, and Zack was still staring fixedly at the maintenance hatch set into the floor by the wall. It sat there, unremarkable as always. The whiteboard flickered back to life.

"...You must have imagined it," said Lazard eventually. "We've all been cooped up here too long. It's getting to us. The next restock period is in a couple days, at least."

"I didn't imagine it. It was... I don't know what it looked like," broke off Zack, frowning. "I saw -- it was something. I was looking at it, but when I looked at it, it was like... like I didn't want to see it, so I couldn't."

"We need to get out of here for our own mental health," said Angeal. "We're well ahead of schedule, at least. Did we save the transcript?"

"Right here," said Cissnei, patting one of the computers. "I dumped it as soon as the lights started flickering."

"You're not authorised to be using those," warned Angeal. Cissnei rolled her eyes.

"Fine, I will delete it."

"Thank you, you're a valuable part of this team," interjected Aeris. "Speaking of which, you read --"

"Yeah, we read it," said Zack. "Part of it, anyway."

Aeris approached the computer. "What do you mean?" she asked, then leaned in and saw for herself.

We know what DNA is and I know how viruses work.

Good. Then you know how

yconfirming@@*@

not said anよything.

I know what viruses are.

Out of curiosity what do you know about them?

Most of what you already said. They latch onto a host, rewrite the DNA of the host cell. They are very contagious. they 門6226s7xuuu8subecause they 偽 infect65535ria are and that’s わ a hard thing to unれderstand they exist πολ8xujれονται. Anything with behaviour between in not 4μεtween, we call that a virus.

That seems about rigわht. do they usuallれのy teach that kind of thing in schools here?

I guess so. We went over it a little before I dropped out. I didn’t learn it in school though.

when did you drop out?

I sort of stopped going to claこs000learn90 when I was elevどe11111ten one. But I left officially when I was thirteen. Spent 3 akkkkkkkkkkkkk traξid missing should know, but Teefa usually helps me out with the booもkkeeping.

"A good chunk of it's like that," said Cissnei as Aeris scrolled through, hoping to god she’d remembered to switch it off for part of the conversation. The official report did not need details of her personal life in it. "Most of it we can parse, but..."

"I thought we fixed this bug," said Aeris. Most of it looked more or less legible, at least. Good.

"We thought it was caused by the partial," said Angeal. "But it seems like there's some sort of interference bleeding through this time. Tseng and I will look into it."

Tseng nodded. "We have something to work with, it seems, but..." he gestured to the bits of the transcript that were legible. The ones about war crimes and the potential for an international incident across two worlds.

"Mm," nodded Aeris. "Do you think we could ask for an official diplomat during the restock period?"

"It wouldn't be out of the question," said Tseng. "It explains a lot of the hostility, too. They're expecting the worst because it's not out of the question for them to expect it.

"So... the situation as it stands is that we are in contact with a likely shellshocked former child soldier from a world with no equivalent of the Geneva Convention. It may have been obvious, but that would explain why his expectations of us are likely not good."

"We really oughta ask for a shrink, if Lazard can't do it for us," said Zack. "Like, I'm just saying, it just turned into a necessity."

“I thought you said he wouldn’t want a professional anything in his face?” quipped Aeris. Zack shrugged. "Look, there's a lot to go over," she added. "I'm getting back in in six hours. I want to know more about the rest of them. Especially that aeronautics man. He said they'd already had first contact with someone, and it's probably a good story and no one wants to talk about it."

She retreated back to her room to sleep off the meds. Lazard must have been at least partially right about drugging her for as long as they were, because she had very strange dreams.

The sky was burning, the ugly red colour of an open wound. It whispered to her things she couldn't understand, and behind all of it she heard music -- the most beautiful, terrible sound she'd ever heard. She covered her ears and looked out at the city, and then at the low roar coming from above them, and gasped. It was big. Too big. Aeris didn't think she'd ever seen anything that big before in person. But the more she looked, the more she felt it was looking at her, and the more she felt an insatiable hunger, and a spark of rage that kept growing and growing --

The world ripped in half. She was dead, she knew. She had to be. But she wasn't afraid -- she was returning to where she needed to be. It was time to finally be let out --

Aeris awoke with a jerk and stared at the ceiling, reorienting herself. She could have sworn, though, that the whispers were still echoing around the room, if only for a moment.

Chapter Text

Tifa couldn't feel her hand anymore. She hadn't said anything for fifteen minutes, but she'd have to soon, given tissue damage was probably right around the corner. Cloud had clamped onto her arm when they'd said they had to draw blood, and he hadn't let go long after they'd already taken the needle out.

"They'll burn those, right?" he asked. They'd been sitting in the waiting room for a while as the staff ran blood tests. Thus far Cloud had threatened six people and a nearby fax machine with immolation, and Tifa was about ready to tear her hair out.

This place wasn't a true hospital, not the way Cloud was treating it. There were hospital like places in it, certainly, back when it had been. In the early days after Meteorfall, it was a hastily-constructed relief centre, built to house the homeless, provide medical care, and organise what little infrastructure anyone had left into something resembling a coordinated plan.

These days, the building was a massive complex with several wings -- a medical wing, left over from Meteorfall and the stigma, dedicated to studying "medical anomalies"; a business wing, which was most of the building these days, coordinating trade agreements and political restructuring; and the federal wing, which would probably wind up taking over the entire place in a few months now that there wasn't any mysterious space diseases or unmanageable monster populations or mass famines ravaging the population. Right now they were in the medical wing, which was in the centre of the entire complex as the other wings were added on around it.

"I don't know, Cloud," said Tifa, who sounded as exasperated as she felt. "Probably not for a while, until they sort this out."

"It was an awful lot of blood," he growled.

"It was one bag," said Tifa. "They'll probably do another tomorrow. Eat your sandwich," she added, hoping he'd unclench his hand from her arm to do it. To her relief, he let go and took several large, angry mouthfuls of the peanut butter sandwich they'd given him.

"Where's Reeve?" asked Tifa.

"Talking to some clown with a clipboard," said Cloud, picking some peanut butter out of his teeth. "Seemed mad about something."

"He's sure been gone a while," said Tifa, peering down the hallway, as though he might come back at any minute.

"Does it usually take this long?" asked Cloud. "To get results, I mean. You've been here before, right?"

Tifa shrugged. "I donate eggs. It's not the same thing." Various organisations all over the world had begun paying couples to "repopulate", as it were, but Cloud was sterile, and Tifa had no plans to raise any babies anytime soon anyway, so this was as good of a compromise as she could manage. "It'll probably be a couple hours, at least."

"Better be," muttered Cloud, then looked guiltily at Tifa's arm, where a bruise was already beginning to form. "Shit, did I -- ?"

"It's fine," she said tiredly. She covered it with her own hand and healed it away, leaving the area a bit sore but otherwise unmarked. She stared at the reddened skin for a while, then glanced at Cloud, who was staring morosely into his water cup.

"Mr. Strife?" came a voice from down the hall. Reeve had returned with a woman, the latter of whom was holding a small sample cup. Tifa didn't recognise what it was for, but Cloud seemed to and let out his breath in a huff of annoyance.

"Gotta do this one by myself. I'll be a couple minutes. If it's longer than that or if anyone goes in after me, get Reeve," said Cloud, before standing, snatching the cup out of the nurse's hand with a hostile glare, and storming off to the bathroom a few doors down.

Reeve sat down next to Tifa on the couch looking tired. He didn't say anything for several moments.

"You need to talk to him," he said quietly. Cloud was several metres away and behind a few walls, but it never hurt to be safe.

"I know."

"Do you?"

"Screw you. It's complicated."

"Someone's going to have to do it. He'll listen to you. I can't keep fending off assault charges like this. Do you know how many mobs we haven't had? The ones I've headed off before now?"

"He doesn't understand --"

"He's a grown adult, Tifa. You run his life enough as it is. You know it, I know it, he knows it. So he either does understand and refuses to accept it, or he needs to."

Tifa shook her head. "You were around before Soldier was Shinra's response to everything. I got to grow up in a house with an education for a while. Cloud's... we're the first people he's ever really talked to besides his mother, and he doesn't even remember her. He's spent his whole life fighting, as kids, in the military, in Nibelheim, for us; he doesn't know how to stop. He's never had to or been told to before."

"He's going to have to learn. I think he can, he's clever enough." Reeve was eyeing her carefully. "That's an excuse. That's not why you haven't said anything."

Tifa said nothing. Reeve sighed heavily.

"I don't know why you're putting this off. He'll listen to you, he always does."

"That's the problem," said Tifa without thinking. Reeve gave her a questioning look.

"...He puts a lot of stock in what I think about him. I don't know how he'd react if he got it into his head we didn't like him, or if he saw himself as a liability. Look at what happened the last time," she said pointedly.

"It'll have to be soon, then," said Reeve. "This isn't sustainable. Actually, that's part of why --"

The door opened down the hall, and they both stopped muttering amongst themselves as Cloud returned and handed the cup back to the nurse and sat on the other side of Tifa.

"If they ask for semen next, we're leaving," he said flatly. "I'll take my chances with the semi again."

"I don't think that's likely," said Reeve. "Though it's more likely they'll want bone marrow --"

The light fixture above them shattered. Tifa flinched and covered her face to avoid the shower of glass raining down on her as she felt a wave of cold air wash around her. Cloud barely reacted.

"They can knock you out for it," said Tifa quickly. "You won't feel anything. We'll watch to make sure."

Cloud nodded stiffly. No one came to clean up the glass for some time, and by then they'd herded Cloud off to another room -- this one with a PET scanner in it. All of the nurses were keeping their distance by this point, so Tifa was taken aside briefly by another nurse and given instructions for walking Cloud through the process.

"We'll be doing three scans," said the nurse. "The first to be used as a control. The next one, we'll need him displaying elevated Jenova-related brain activity. And we may have to wait for the third, depending on if he has another one of the episodes you've mentioned or not. You said they're a daily occurrence, right?"

"That's all this is? Comparisons?" she asked.

"We don't have much to go off right now," he replied. "Not until the blood tests come back, and personally I don't think they'll tell us much. Even if he would submit to a kirliograph, that probably wouldn't do much good either, given..." the nurse gestured delicately. "So we're monitoring brain activity. See if that gets us anywhere."

“You think that’ll work?”

The nurse shrugged. “It’s hard to say. We won’t know until we try. You're gonna have to give him this, though," he said, and gestured to a small bottle full of reddish-brown liquid and a syringe.

"It's not happening," she replied immediately. "He's not gonna like that one bit."

"It's just tracer fluid. We'll need it to see properly," said the nurse, glancing tensely back at Cloud, who was giving a nearby nurse a rather venomous look. "He'll be more likely to accept it from you than me. I can tell you how to set it up, but someone's going to have to do it."

Cloud hadn't particularly wanted to subject himself to a PET scan either, which didn't make much sense -- as far as she knew, the entire benefit of doing one was that it was non-invasive. He'd been staring at the machine with something akin to muted terror since entering the room. Seeing her approach him with a tray containing a pouch of saline and the bottle of tracer fluid certainly didn't do anything to change his opinion.

"No," said Cloud immediately as she approached him, looking betrayed. Tifa sighed.

"It's just sugar, mostly," she said. "You're gonna need it for this. They can't help you if we don't know anything."

"Tifa --"

"None of us have anything to go off of right now," she said, losing her patience. "Not even that woman. You don't trust me to do this?"

"That's not it, it's --"

"I'm sorry, alright? I'm sorry for what they did, and I know there's -- that there's nothing I can do to help you get through any of it, and --" She stopped, hoping she hadn't sounded too angry. Well, she was angry. She wasn't even sure at whom anymore. "...But don't you go shoving that off on me when I'm trying to help you now," she snapped.

Cloud stood there for a moment, then sat on the PET machine's table and wordlessly offered her his arm. The left one. Tifa sighed.

"They say you'll need to take the earrings out, too," she said, after she'd flushed his vein with saline and rigged the machine to inject him with the contrast as best she could. "You can put them back on when it's done."

Cloud seemed almost as hesitant to actually do this as he had to allow her to inject him with contrast. Eventually, he reached up and removed his earrings and set them on the tray. Tifa noted that there was a significant amount of dead skin built up in the crevices of each one, and wondered when the last time he'd actually taken them out was. Months, at least. She'd wash them before giving them back for sure.

The first scan went uneventfully enough. Between Tifa's vague knowledge of first aid and the nurse's instructions on how to properly use a needle, they managed to get everything set up without any damage to either Cloud or the unfortunate staff that happened to be at work today. After they'd finished with the first one, she'd pulled him aside to go over the plan for the second one.

There was a sense of familiarity to this, but not in a comforting way at all. The last time Cloud has genuinely been at risk of any Jenova-related episodes had been four years ago, either when Sephiroth felt the need for an extra pair of hands, or when they'd realised that the connection went both ways and Cloud had to consciously tap into it himself. It had saved a lot of lives in the end, but it took its toll on Cloud in more ways than one.

Tifa had hated it. She knew it was for the greater good, but she still hated it. For her, it was ten or more agonising minutes of sitting there, watching Cloud attentively, unable to help him in any way except to knock him out to keep him from doing anything he'd regret, watching him grow strange and distant when it worked, watching him twitch and convulse when it didn't. It was another thing from that period of her life she thought she'd earned the right to never deal with ever again.

Eventually, he'd learned to control it, and she'd learned to accept that it was something she had no control over herself. And he'd grown less distant, had fewer seizures, had learned to live with it constantly; and she'd begun to believe they could move on with their lives.

Maybe she was just angry at everyone and everything.

"Just a quick one this time, right?" she asked. "Don't go too deep."

"I'll be fine," he said, though he sounded drained and unhappy and kept glancing back over at the PET machine.

"I know it's the last thing you want to hear right now, but you've gotta calm down or you're gonna be knocked out for hours," said Tifa. "If you need help, just tap your finger on the --"

"I'm fine," he interrupted. "I know. I'll be fine."

Tifa nodded and went back to "keeping watch" for any nurses as he lay back down on the table and began to calm himself. They didn't have to wait long -- seconds later, she heard him gasp sharply, his back arching and his hands clawing at the table. That didn't seem right -- he hadn't been that reactive in this state in four years. She didn't have time to dwell on it as he relaxed back into the table and she got the machine started again. She made the mistake of looking at his face briefly while she was doing it, and was met with his eerily serene expression, and the vivid green catlike eyes peering back at her. She resisted the urge to snap his neck and run, and quickly took a step back. She'd held his hand enough this last week. Hopefully he'd understand her absence for this one.

She asked Reeve to talk him down from this one and excused herself for a moment under the guise of wanting to look at the PET scans.

The staff present seemed like they were... not necessarily enjoying themselves, given the prospect of being badly maimed by the end of the day was still a very real one thanks to the patient sulking one room over. But they were talking amongst themselves curiously. Tifa hoped that mean they'd be able to help.

"...Find anything yet?" she said hesitantly.

The nurse she'd spoken to earlier shook his head. "It's hard to say. It's a good thing we did these two scans first to act as a control -- there's a lot wrong here. It would be hard to know if it was an effect of the episodes you've mentioned, or something he could have sued Hojo for medical malpractice over. There's a lot of damage here, you know. Medically speaking, he should still be a vegetable."

"Damage from Jenova?"

"Maybe," said the nurse, gesturing to the second set of pictures they'd pinned up. "We're seeing a lot of activity that's in line with temporal lobe epilepsy but... again, the damage makes it difficult to know if that's really what it is, or, if it is that, if Jenova's even the cause of some of it. It could be mako poisoning, it could have been head injury, it could be mako that's crystallising into deposits his bloodstream -- rare, but it's happened. It could even be genetic. Hopefully we'll know for sure soon."

"How much do you know about Jenova?" asked Tifa.

"More than most, not as much as we'd like," said the nurse. "This clinic was started to deal with the stigma before it was... dealt with, and we discovered a link there. All of us have a basic knowledge of it because it's our job to. Unfortunately, a lot of information about Jenova went down with Shinra's servers."

They had to wait quite some time for the third scan. Cloud sat in the waiting room and stared at her throughout most of it. She knew he didn't mean it badly, but it was unsettling nevertheless, especially with those eyes. Tifa had gotten better about guessing what his various stares and grunts actually meant, because of course he would never actually ask for anything, not directly. One would think he didn't have a tongue, the way he acted half the time. Nanaki was still the best at it out of all of them, though Tifa considered it cheating to just sniff him and check if he was feeling anxious.

Cloud suddenly got to his feet and looked around, walking right past Tifa. He'd suddenly taken a great deal of interest in the television, as though he'd never seen one before. Tifa wasn't sure how much it mattered that it was playing the same rerun of The Planet's Most Dangerous that it had been playing for the last four years since the studio that made these was destroyed in an explosion of magic the likes of which the world had never seen, but Cloud was utterly enraptured as he watched a brood of seaworms skeletonise a cow in two minutes.

He turned back around suddenly. "Where are we, anyway?"

"...The clinic at the WRO," said Tifa cautiously. "You're Aeris?"

Cloud nodded. "We didn't really get a chance to speak to one another properly. There was a complication on my end, but I'm back now."

"A 'complication'?"

"Yes. A brief power outage. You haven't noticed anything strange yourself, have you?"

"No more than usual," said Tifa, still watching Cloud very closely. Aeris cleared her throat nervously.

"I'm sorry for lying to you the first time around. I could have handled that better. I panicked and thought you might as well."

Tifa continued watching them. Aeris only seemed somewhat focused on her, and kept stealing glances at the television, which was now advertising a restaurant much fancier than Tifa's.

"...Is he alright?" she asked. Aeris paused, apparently listening to something.

"He can't move again," said Aeris. "I'm trying to figure out why. He said to tell you, 'Don't tell them yet.' Does that mean anything to you?"

Tifa groaned. "Tell him that the faster we do this, the faster we can leave, and the faster you can get back to fixing this whole mess on your end. Which you are doing," she added sharply, "aren't you?"

Aeris nodded curtly. "I can't say much for the progress we expect to have, but yes. I don't need to tell him, though. He can hear you." She paused again. "He really does insist on ten more minutes, though."

"Five," said Tifa. "Final offer."

"Five is fine," replied Aeris after a moment. She sat back down. "Would you mind me asking a few questions?"

"About what?" said Tifa warily.

"About... well, a lot of things, I suppose," said Aeris. "Truth be told, I'm not really sure where to start..."

"What are you gonna do with the information?" asked Tifa. "What's the point of all this? The semi, the wandering off in the night..."

"Well..." began Aeris, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. "A great deal of it's prep work. Finding out what this place is, how strong the gravity is, if the laws of physics apply in the same way, what the people there are like..."

"Prep work for what?"

"If everything goes well, for a visit in person," said Aeris. "We have the equipment, but no way of looking at the place we'd send anyone. Even if we just chucked in a robot, it could be incinerated the minute it got here because we could be throwing it into a star, and that would be the end of billions of pounds and years of hard work."

"You. Coming here?"

"Eventually, yes. I hope."

"Why? What could you possibly have to gain from all this?"

"Knowledge and exploration for its own sake," said Aeris simply, as though this were obvious. "We didn't expect anything to be here apart from a bunch of rocks and perhaps a few microbes. Now that we know we're wrong, it's more important than ever." She gestured to the television, which had gone back to showing The Planet's Most Dangerous, where the host was excitedly feeding another cow carcass to yet another predator. "All of this -- this culture, this world -- don't you think it's worth it to learn about for its own sake? Wouldn't it be terrible if all of this was here, and no one ever got to know about it?"

Tifa glanced back at the television. It didn't really seem all that exciting to her to watch a carnivorous plant from Gongaga eat half a dead cow, but Aeris was gesturing to the television as though it were airing a grand symphony.

"And of course, there's the political side of it," she continued. "The first partnership between two universes. It would give people a lot of hope, to know they weren't alone. We could learn a lot from one another. Of course... I don't really know how most of that will go now. I've made a mess of the whole thing, now that we know Cloud is involved. If enough fingers get pointed, someone might start a war over this whole mess. Maybe on your side of things, or perhaps even on mine. My country has its own enemies, and this technology was never supposed to be capable of this..." She slouched in her chair. "So, there's really no way to go but forward. If all of this was for nothing, at least I tried, even knowing it was pointless to."

"...I guess so," said Tifa after several moments. Aeris cleared her throat again in embarrassment, as though someone besides the three of them had been listening.

"So, er -- what's your atmosphere made of?"

Tifa blinked. She hadn't needed this information in years. "Nitrogen, oxygen, some other stuff..."

Aeris nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, but what concentrations?"

"just off the top of my head? 70-30 to the nitrogen, I think. I don't know. Reeve might." Tifa frowned. "He's been gone an awfully long time..."

"Reeve was the older gentleman, yes?"

Tifa nodded. "He arranged the drive here. Cloud agreed to it, I don't know why he's being so difficult about it now..."

She stood up. "That had to have been five minutes. Let's get this over with."

"Cloud says that was only four minutes. He says he was counting."

Tifa gave him a look. Aeris looked away, and Tifa got back up to fetch the nurse.

The staff still refused to go near Cloud, and found it just as unnerving that he was suddenly making the procedure so easy on everyone. A muscle in his face kept twitching, and at one point she thought she saw his lips mouth something along the lines of "shut up".

Half an hour later, Cloud was herded into a private room in preparation for another sample, where she distinctly heard Aeris mutter, "I'm not asking that. It's probably not a semen sample," and Tifa stepped back out to speak with the nurse about the results. She still hadn't seen Reeve.

Instead of curious chatter, she was met with a roomful of grim faces. They still had the pictures up from the previous scan, too, which was strange.

"...Good news?" asked Tifa, a pit of dread settling in her stomach. The nurses exchanged a glance with one another.

"That depends on your perspective," said one of the nurses. "We've determined he isn't having a psychotic or dissociative lapse of any sort."

Tifa had already figured that much out by now, but there was still a tiny voice in the back of her mind that still wondered. "Good. That's good, right? If -- if he's not crazy, then this is something we can deal with on our own, right?"

A hush went across the room. One of the nurses took out another set of images and put them up next to the ones on the wall.

"These are the ones from the previous scan," said the first nurse. "And these are the ones we just took." He gestured to the images on the wall when she'd walked in.

Tifa looked between them in confusion. "I don't get what I'm supposed to be seeing. They both look --"

"-- the same," said the nurse. "They are. The same brain activity in the same amounts in the same areas, the same changes in vitals..."

Tifa faltered. "I don't..."

"The entity Cloud is in contact with is Jenova. Undeniably. He's been speaking with Her, and has already shown to have a great deal of influence over him. With everything that implies."

She felt numb. None of it made sense -- Jenova didn't speak. Cloud had said so, again and again. And it certainly didn't speak to anyone that wasn't Her host. Had She adapted? Did Cloud know? He had seemed so sure...

"So what does this mean?" she said. Her throat suddenly felt dry.

"It means Cloud can't leave. I'm sorry."

"No."

"Ma'am, I understand this has to be upsetting, but --"

"No! Where the hell is he? We're leaving, right now." She shoved past the nurse into the hall.

Cloud was lying unconscious on some sort of stretcher, which was being wheeled down the hall away from them.

"What did you do to him?!" she screamed, shoving her way past the first three nurses before someone grabbed her from behind and pinned her to a wall. A trained grip, with gloved hands. They'd brought guards in. On loan from the police, judging by the uniforms. When had they had time to do that?

"He's just been sedated to avoid a confrontation," explained another nurse as two more guards piled onto her after she incapacitated the first one with the back of her skull. "This is for his safety too. If Jenova is influencing him the way She was with Sephiroth, we'd have no choice but to execute him to avoid massive loss of human life. None of us want to do that. If we just --"

"Fuck you," she spat. She clenched her fist, and the two guards holding her were violently slammed against the ceiling by a gravity spell. She brought them back down and hurtled over them, but a wall of ice suddenly sprang up in front of her. She slashed her hand through the air as a localised windstorm whipped up indoors, threatening to fling the guards into another wall, but one of them closed the distance and tackled her to the ground. She quickly flipped them both over, delivering a series of blows to his head, then whipped up to face the other guard.

She never got the chance. One thousand volts coursed through her body, and she caught a glimpse of a drawn taser. She struggled to get back up, but her limbs wouldn't stop twitching long enough to obey before she was cuffed and carried down the hall in the other direction, away from Cloud.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," said one of the nurses, as she was carried out of the building. "This is all we can do."

 


 

Cloud had been sitting in the waiting room by himself for a while. They'd been amusing themselves trying to figure out how he'd been able to move before, and making very slow progress. If Aeris distracted herself to to the point where she was half asleep and Cloud focused everything he had into it, he could twitch his fingers. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

Do you think it's bone marrow? Aeris asked. That seems like the sort of thing, doesn't it?

Tifa said she'd be there if it was. We've been here a while. Do you think they forgot? he asked. And if they have, do you think we could just go home? They got their scans and their blood and their cheek swabs and their piss. I don't know what else they'd need.

Perhaps they want to perform a biopsy.

They better the fuck not. You better not let them.

I won't. As interesting as your medicines are, I don't think I want to experience them firsthand just yet.

The door opened, and a nervous-looking nurse came in with a cup of tea and another sandwich, and fled the moment he set the tray down. That probably meant more blood. He was just about fed up with getting stuck with needles

Threaten to break his neck for me, said Cloud.

No. He's already afraid. He smells quite strongly of it -- this is strange, the scent thing, how do you deal with this?

I didn't, at first, said Cloud. Aeris started on the sandwich enthusiastically.

What kind of meat is this? she asked. It tastes like turkey.

Probably turkey then, said Cloud, watching as she took careful, fascinated sips of the tea.

What about this, then?

...Don't know. Chamomile, maybe. It smells kind of funny. I'm not a tea expert.

Ah, we have that too. A shame we don't have any milk.

Butter would be nice, said Cloud absently. A lot of milk and honey and butter.

Cloud felt himself make a face. Butter?

Yeah. They make it that way in Knowlespole. Way up north, even more north than Nibelheim. I kinda got attached. It's actually not bad... A strange sense of calm washed over him, and he had a vivid memory of resting in that cafe away from the blizzard outside, Cid taking notes -- actual real paper notes -- about how the tea was prepared here, and talking to Cloud about flavours and aftertastes, and Cloud was just happy to sit and listen to him.

Sounds nice... said Aeris. I make fancy teas sometimes. Just for me and Shithead.

Shithead?

I mean, Cassiopeia. My cat. Do you have cats here?

Of course we have cats here. What kind of place wouldn't have cats?

Cassie and I, we'll watch the rain and drink it out of fancy cups. Sometimes it's nice to do something like that for yourself...

Yeah, thought Cloud to himself. Yeah, it is.

Aeris was saying something else to him. Or maybe he was saying something else to Aeris. But it was warm in the office, and he was full, and he was full of a sort of peace he couldn't remember experiencing in years...

 


 

Cloud opened his eyes and was puzzled to find himself in a bed, and realised he hadn't left for the WRO at all. He hoped he hadn't overslept. Yuffie should have woken him up.

Yuffie wasn't with him, though. Neither was Nanaki. They'd gone to get Tifa and the others... no. They'd already done that. Aeris had come, and he'd woken from one of his lapses, and the WRO had shown up early... they'd gone there, hadn't they? And they'd done a battery of tests, and it seemed like only five minutes ago he'd dozed off in the office after he drank --

Cloud bolted upright and looked around the room he was in. A cell, about the size of his room in the hospital. No windows. No doors -- no, there was a door, at the front of the room, but there wasn't any handle on this side, and the gaps between it were too small for him to slip a finger into. The walls were covered in padding, and while there were vents, they too were flush with the walls and ceiling. Aeris seemed to be gone. The room was eerily quiet with no other noise but his breathing. They had taken his sword, and at some point his clothes had been removed and replaced with clean hospital scrubs with no pockets.

Cloud leapt out of bed and threw his shoulder into the door. It held firm -- it must have been incredibly thick: Cloud had thrown himself (and been thrown) through solid cement before. If only he had a sword…

He began looking around his cell for something to use as a weapon -- the sink, maybe, if he could rip it off the wall. It wouldn’t do him much good if they had guns, though. Deflecting bullets was significantly easier than dodging them. Maybe the blanket? It didn’t seem very sturdy, probably specifically to keep him from using it to strangle anyone.

So that left him with the much more risky option of blasting his way out of the cell. The quarters were too close to summon anything that wouldn’t kill him too… Ultima might do it, but he could easily get caught in the explosion himself, and he wasn’t sure what would be waiting for him on the other side. If there was a way to see what --

“It’s good to see you’re awake, Mr. Strife,” came a voice from the ceiling. An intercom. “Would you prefer Mr. Strife, or Cloud?”

“I’d prefer if you let me the hell out of here,” he growled. “You’ve got ten seconds before I burn this whole complex to the ground.”

He heard some noise in the background briefly -- someone said something about “violent outbursts” and “signs of influence”. The voice turned its attention back to him.

“I’m sorry. It’s better for your own safety if you remain in your room.”

“Like hell it is!” Cloud delivered another fist into the wall. Sturdy. Way sturdier than what would be expected of any normal prison cell. They had planned for this -- for him. “I wanna talk to your supervisor. Where’s Reeve?”

“Former-director Tuesti is no longer employed in the WRO.” said the voice. Cloud froze.

“...What?”

“His contract was terminated six hours ago. He’s been frequently abusing the privilege his position offers to grant political pardons to certain individuals he’s acquainted with.”

Cloud felt his stomach twist up uncomfortably with guilt. “He’s…”

“The actions he took have endangered both the general public and you,” the voice continued. “It’s been decided that --”

“So, what? I’m being… arrested?”

“You aren’t in any legal trouble. We don’t believe you to be accountable for your behaviour at this particular time. We’re here to help you.”

“You can help me by letting me out before I kill you.”

“Mr. Strife, your judgement is severely impaired. Jenova has been influencing you for nearly a decade. We have no way of knowing whether your actions and words are your own. Therefore, it would be safer for you to remain --”

“Asshole.”

“Mr. Strife --”

Asshole!” His fist became wreathed in flames. “Open the door.”

“Cloud, you’re very sick --”

“Open the fucking door, or I burn this whole place down with me in it!” he bellowed. “How long do you plan on keeping me here?””

“As I’ve said, we’re here to help you. We understand the circumstances you’re in are not your fault.”

“Good. So let me --”

“As such, we’d like to find a way to cure you, if you’re willing to cooperate.”

The flame sputtered out. “...What?”

“Jenova appears to have a significant amount of influence over you. What happened with Sephiroth was tragic and unavoidable. This time, we have the opportunity to prevent that. We’d like to find a way to reverse, or at least mitigate, Jenova’s integration into your own genome.”

“...You can cure me?” It had been so long since he’d fantasised about not hearing Her voice in his head, he was having a difficult time imagining it. It had been better, he knew. Felt better. Maybe his eyes would look normal. Maybe he wouldn’t need glasses. Maybe he could just go outside.

“We’d like to try. Much of the data we had on Jenova was lost during Meteorfall, of course. We’d have to gather more. We’d need to run several tests to determine --”

“How long would it take to cure me?”

“That’s difficult to say for certain. If everything goes well, we could begin making progress towards one within a year.”

The fireball came back. “Ten.”

“...Excuse me?”

“Nine.” He fed more magic into it. An alarm somewhere tripped, either in the distance, or directly outside his cell, depending on how thick the walls were. “Eight.”

“Mr. Strife, please understand that while we realise it may be difficult to control your impulses, we can’t allow you to harm the staff here during your stay.”

“Fuck you. Seven…”

Something was happening to his vision. It was suddenly much harder to maintain the fire, and it died out again as he stumbled and the world tilted and bucked around him. “What…?”

He looked up. There was air flowing through the vents now. It smelled faintly chemical, like the tea had. Maybe some sort of opiate, he realised, as the general feeling of wellbeing washed over him again. Whatever it was, it was strong. He struggled to stay on his feet, but he was very tired, and it was safe here… he’d missed feeling safe…

“Six…” he mumbled, though he couldn’t remember why he’d been counting. He fell bonelessly to the ground, glaring halfheartedly at the wall. He needed to stay awake. He needed to stay angry. This was wrong…

Sixty-seven two, he thought instead. The number comforted him. Sixty-seven two three. The voice was saying something else over the intercom in a soothing voice. This was wrong. He shouldn’t be here. He knew that, didn’t he? Sixty-seven two three. It had taken him so long to recognise it, to get rid of that stupid Buster Sword… he still wanted it back... Sixty-seven two…

 


 

"Did I do something wrong?"

The fear bled into his voice against his will as he was escorted onto the table and clamped in place to keep him from thrashing around. He was almost certain the sessions with the one test that he was still afraid of were over, so was almost certainly for punishment purposes. But he didn't understand why. He thought he had been good, just like they wanted. It had been so long since they'd punished him that he'd thought maybe he had finally figured out how to be good, but now he wasn't sure.

He quickly realised that he obviously hadn't learned a thing, because here he was asking questions he hadn't been told to ask, speaking when he hadn't been given permission to speak, and referring to himself when he definitely hadn't been given permission to do that.

He was still shaking terribly by the time they stopped the machines. He didn't say a word for days afterwards, even when prompted. He desperately wanted to know what he had done wrong, but he hadn't been given permission to ask, so perhaps he'd never know. That thought scared him almost as much as being taken back to that room again.

He did try to figure out what he'd done. There was another test -- they'd had him listen to Mother, and She had drawn him into the deep place full of Herself, and the world seemed to fall away around him. He had done well, he'd thought. The Professor had called it a stunning success, and he'd looked at him, glowing with pride. And he'd smiled, and reached out to the Professor, and the Professor had looked at him with... he didn't know.

Maybe that had been bad. He hadn't been attacking him, though. He thought that was obvious. He thought maybe, since he had done so well, and the Professor had been smiling... the way he'd recoiled from his hand, though, had looked at him coldly as he pleaded not to be taken back again -- it hurt the way the machines did. Worse, maybe.

The Professor didn't reach back. He never had. So maybe that was the bad part -- he'd asked for something without realising it.

He knew what he'd done wrong the next time, though. He was being made to run, testing how long he could go before his body gave out. A day and a half into it, he had been told to stop so they could fix one of the electrodes. He didn't stop. He felt violently ill, and it was as if someone had taken their words and scraped the meaning from his brain. For a moment, he wasn't even sure where he was, or how he'd gotten there, or how long it had been since words started falling apart.

The Professor thought maybe it was residual stubbornness, and began treating it as such, but the lapses got worse and worse, and it got hard to tell what was him and what the others were saying, until it all ran together. He could feel them all over the inside of his skin, scraping away what used to be written there.

He sat inert in his cell these days. His arms felt strangely flimsy, like paper, and he couldn't bring himself to move much in between the blank periods. He ran a constant fever, and he swung wildly back and forth between shivering intensely and lying on his side on the cool floor of his cell, trying to keep himself from melting into the walls. Sometimes he would stroke the spot on his left wrist for comfort. It was still covered in a bandage so he couldn't pick it off, but it was good to know it was there. That he had earned it. Then his thoughts would go blank again as all the words ran out of them. He'd been poked too full of holes, and now a bluish green fog was rushing in and out of him, blowing it all away.

He could have sworn there was a word that had been erased that shouldn't have been. It was important he made it to Soldier, wasn't it? It was for something. He wasn't sure sometimes, until the Professor or the Director would come by and remind him, and he'd remember: His designation was Series 3. And that this place was his home. And he was special, he knew -- the Professor would say that a lot too. Shinra wanted him to be a weapon, but the Director knew he could be more. Mother would help him be more.

The old parts of him sloughed off more and more, and eventually Mother stopped writing new ones. He asked Her once. What did I do wrong? But if She replied, the fog swallowed it.

Sometimes he could move, but couldn't think, and he would find himself ripping up his cell, knocking holes in the walls, smashing his cot, tearing at his own skin, trying to get out of the cell, of his own flesh, of his own poisoned blood, of his ruined mind. He didn't know how to get out of any of these things, so Mother would rescind what will She had given him, and he'd be left at the mercy of the fog again.

Once a week, if he was lucky, there were periods when his mind was working but the lab was empty and everyone had gone home, so he was left in the mako tank with all the lights off for a day or two. He used those times to think. He thought about how he was in Soldier, and he had gotten here by being very brave and better than the other test subjects that weren't good enough for Soldier. He thought about the Director smiling at him during the tests, and telling him how wonderfully he'd done with her nice voice that crawled around the inside of his head. He thought about the Professor looking at him proudly, telling him how he'd always known he was special, that he would do a good job. He thought a secret thought, too, one he was almost sure wasn't allowed, but he snuck back to it anyway, because it was his secret; a fake person that didn't exist, that was Mother and the Director and the Professor all in one, would embrace him, and tell him what a good subject he was, and her arms were warm, and she called him her child. He thought it so often that it started leaking out of him, and the Professor would speak to him in the Director's voice and tell him to try harder, and the Director would look at him and he would feel Mother's cold fury burning through her.

He wanted so badly to do well for them. It was all the good he could do for the people that had looked at him and decided he was worthy. He wanted to be worthy. He tried his best to think of more ways to prove he was useful, all through the trip to the mako tank, and the hours he'd been soaking in it. Let me be good, he thought. Let me be good enough. He pleaded and begged for an answer, over and over again, his heart clenching painfully with how badly he wanted it, even though no one could hear him.

But someone did hear him.

It was roaring and vast and old, like Mother. Unlike Mother, its voices seared and cut and dragged like the fog did, and they were agony to the touch. His chest burned, and he screamed, the sound gagged by the mako in his lungs. They carved their way through him, exploring him, and something burned a single question into him: what do you want?

Help, he thought. Help me. It hurts. I'm alone. Help me.

The voices twisted around his question, but did not seem to understand it. He asked again.

Please help me. I want to be good enough. It hurts.

They continued to twist around indifferently. He saw for a split second what they were, and he knew it wasn't the fog -- it was steam. It was fire. It was almost as old and deep as Mother, and it was like trying to pour the ocean into a thimble, but continue to pour it did, burning in its wake. Too much. It was too much, and he pleaded for it to stop, but the fire, the light, the rushing green and blue that twisted around the fog like water through oil, did not understand or did not care, or both. He couldn't look away, because there was nowhere to look that was safe -- it was inside and around him. It was him, the way Mother was, but Mother had pulled away and was nowhere to be found.

They burrowed in deeper now, and then there was another sharp jab in his chest as a white light filled him up, and he could feel himself being ripped apart more and more as another word came to him: false.

Then they vanished as quickly as they had come.

Series 3 spasmed in the mako tank and then floated there, motionless.

 


 

Aeris didn’t realise when she’d fallen asleep. It hadn’t been the first time, though. It felt like the first time. She didn’t realise when she’d fallen asleep until after her dream was over. She was sure she’d had one like it before, but she couldn’t quite remember. She wished she had written it down before going into the showers. There was something about it that was strangely familiar.

The sky was burning, the ugly red colour of an open wound. It whispered to her things she couldn't understand, and behind all of it she heard music -- the most beautiful, terrible sound she'd ever heard. She covered her ears and looked out at the city, and then at the low roar coming from above them, and gasped. It was big. Too big. Aeris didn't think she'd ever seen anything that big before in person. She was pretty sure it was looking at her, and the whispering in her head intensified into an almost painful shriek. She ignored it.

Her hand was curled around another, belonging to the woman next to her. Another hand was draped over her shoulders, as though to steady her. It was funny, staring out across the imminent ruin of all that was -- it hadn't really mattered much who she was or what she'd done. The world would go on without her. The hand holding hers tightened, and she amended the thought, because didn't it matter now? It mattered to these people, here. She mattered to them. Perhaps that was enough.

They had done all they could.

She woke up, and for some reason felt horribly lonely.

Chapter Text

Aeris had been staring at Zack and Cissnei huddled around her phone for the last three hours. She knew it was three hours because the battery finally ran down on whatever terrible game they'd been emulating and Zack complained loudly about the fact that it was supposed to last longer. She was supposed to be reviewing the transcript -- she'd been the one the most pushy about their schedule, after all. It's not like there wasn't anything to review, either -- new information on how families were structured, this time without any nonsense about larvae and eggs; the absolutely clusterfuck awaiting her with the fact that she'd have to explain they were in contact with a civilisation that took an "anything goes" approach to both warfare, human rights, and diplomatic relations, that would be fun to deal with; and a few interesting tidbits that seemed to hint at a religion of some sort -- a mention of gods, plural, except on occasion only god, singular, and something rather curious about the planet asking for a name, and a mention of returning to it, clearly hinting at some sort of implied afterlife. She'd have to ask about that later. She had scribbled a note in shorthand that she probably wouldn't remember to check later and had let her attention wander.

Instead, she was thinking about how to best approach her coworkers. Waking up next to someone like that back in Cloud's room, it had been nice. It had been a long time since she'd experienced something like that -- maybe when she was eighteen and had begun dating for its own sake? She'd never really had much in the way of peers, due to being repeatedly jumped grades and put in classes with people several years her senior. And after that, her work had always made her too busy for any sort of social excursions. Besides, who would she even go out with in the first place?

Cissnei was already friends with her, or at the very least was an acquaintance, though she wasn't sure how comfortable she'd be with casual human contact (which was such a strange thing to be uncomfortable with, in her opinion). Zack was fueled by fifteen percent coffee and eighty-five percent machismo, it seemed like, which could either mean he'd been looking for an excuse to get extremely familiar with everyone, or did not even remotely consider anyone else here his equal. Tseng was allergic to fun. Angeal seemed good-humoured enough, but in a dry, professional way. Lazard was technically her physician and they weren't really supposed to get overtly familiar with their patients.

Teachers were easy enough to get along with, though. She wheeled her chair over to Angeal with a good shove off the counter.

"Busy?"

Angeal shrugged. "Not particularly. Much of my work won't be starting for another week or so, though I have gotten portions of it done early... was there something you needed?"

"A sounding board, preferably. I'd like to get my thoughts in order." She straightened her printed copy of the transcript out from their last conversation, reading over some of the more interesting parts of it. The interference seemed to be gone for now.

I talked to your friend.

Teefah (sp?), or Reeve?

Teefa. She seems nice. How long have you known her?

Years. you'd have to ask her that.

I see. How long is a year for you out of curiosity?

like in days?

Perhaps? For that matter, how long would you say a day is?

24 hours (clarify cesium-133 second standard later?).

Good. So how many of those in a year?

358, except when it's 360 every 6 years.

So then how old are you?

25, I think.

You don't know?

No. I don't remember a lot from before I was 14 (age of enlisting, maybe coincidence)

Any reason why?

Mako poisoning I think. It does funny things to your head.

Is it all just a big blank?

I remember Ma. don't know how she looked, or what she was like. she returned to the Planet when I was 16.

I'm sorry for asking but does that mean she's dead?

Yes. That's what that means.

I'm sorry for your loss.

Why are you apologising? you didn't kill her. hard to miss something you don't remember

Doesn't it bother you?

Of course it bothers me. but she's gone, and nobody's alive that remembers her. So there's no point in trying to get her back. it's not like I don't have a family now anyway.

"He's obviously hiding something big," said Angeal. "The question is, is he hiding it because it's personal or is he hiding it because he knows it's relevant?"

"How do you go about asking that?" said Aeris. "This is the first conversation we've had where he didn't tell me to fuck off once. If he knows it's relevant, he'd tell us, wouldn't he? So we have the information we need to move onto the next stage and stop messing with his head."

"Would he?" Angeal gestured to another page of the transcript.

Why are all the doctors afraid of you? Are they prejudiced? Are you a minority subspecies?

the last time I was in here I broke a lady's arm.

Why?

Said I would. I said, you stick me with that needle, I'll break your damn arm in half. I told her. I warned her. I'm a man of my word. Didn't need her fucking flu shot anyway.

"He doesn't seem to have much sense of what's good for him, is the point I'm trying to make," said Angeal.

"But what we're trying to do is going to directly benefit him --"

"I'm not certain he cares. He's very... spirited. Try appealing to his better nature."

Aeris gave him a look, then shook her head. "I'm going to try speaking to Tifa about it. She seems interested in his wellbeing. If I just explain to her we're trying to help... what do you think he could be hiding anyway?"

"...Maybe he's just embarrassed," offered Angeal.

"He's done all this over embarrassment? He said he'd tell me eventually. I don't understand why he's like this." She looked over the papers again. "He's younger than I thought."

"He's your age."

"He is." She's been thinking of him as older, but it seemed he was actually a year younger give or take. She'd gotten used to most people she knew being her senior by twenty years or so. The fact that she was technically the "adult" in this situation in more ways than one was something she hadn't considered. Perhaps that's why he'd calmed down as soon as she'd stopped trying to prove herself to him. She went back to reading the transcript.

What does it mean, to return to the Planet?

It means a lot of things to a lot of people. But we all come from the Planet, and when we die, our souls return to it. For a long time, everyone thought that's what the Promised Land was, too

So you're Jewish?

I'm what?

Never mind. It's a religion. For instance, I'm a Jew. We have one god, and one day hope to return to the Promised Land. Do you have religions?

Yeah.

What's yours?

I don't know.

So, you don't believe in any of them?

I didn't say that. I just said I didn't know. I don't remember anymore. Same as Tifah's, I guess. With the gods of the hearth and the gods of the mountain and the sky, and their circular war.

And when you return to the Planet, do you meet these gods?

I mean, some people think that. I guess maybe I did too. I don't know. What are you asking, exactly? Returning to the Planet isn't a belief, like the gods of the hearth. It's a fact, like gravity.

I'm sorry. I didn't intend to be rude.

You weren't rude. I just don't get how you don't understand that.

"He's very devout," commented Angeal. Aeris shook her head.

"It was more than that. The way he said it..." she pondered, "he wasn't angry. It was... it was as though he really didn't know how I didn't know about his culture. It must be very ingrained. You know how every culture on Earth, or very nearly, has some sort of flood story, suggesting something like that really did happen?"

"So you're suggesting there was some... mass earthquake?" asked Angeal.

"Maybe. We could do with an anthropologist, too."

"How many spare rooms do we have left?"

"...Not enough for an anthropologist," admitted Aeris. "Nobody expected to find anything more than rocks and germs. They might shut the project down even if I hadn't thrown our ambassador into traffic, just because we're underprepared for this. Come back to it in another year or two."

"You think they would, after all this?"

"I don't know. Maybe." She stared at Angeal. She wasn't actually sure if they were closer or not. Suddenly it didn't seem to matter much -- they might not see each other again for a while if the entire thing was shut down. It was such a stupid thing to try and engineer, too.

Instead, she just got up and hugged him. She made her way around the room with everyone, even managing to get a confused hug back from Zack and Cissnei before heading back to her room to organise her findings.

There wasn't anything that was scientifically helpful. The atmospheric content had been useful information, at least. Though she couldn't imagine them ever getting to a point in her lifetime where she'd get to walk around on another world with no isolated air supply. She looked over the transcript again.

If you're not sure how old you are, is there any way you normally keep track of it?

We normally mark it based on the day you're born. I think I was born sometime in the summer, so we just decided it should be the first day of August.

August as in the month August? Did you have an Augustus Caesar?

I don't know. Haven't heard of them. But I'm not good at history.

Sorry. Continue.

So, every year we celebrate the day you're born with a small party. We call that a birthday.

We have those as well. Please continue to tell me about your celebratory customs.

She smiled a bit. That wasn't quite how the conversation had gone...

 


 

Do you do presents?

Yeah. Do you?

Aeris had been examining a patch of skin on her arm where she was sure there had been a needle hole. Injuries didn't seem to stick here, between this and the coma. She'd made a note to ask Cloud about that as well. But she hadn’t yet.

Yes. I got a bottle of very fancy champagne and some garden tools from a colleague. But my birthday is in the winter, so I had to wait until the ground thawed out to use them. The tools, I mean, not the champagne, she added with a hint of distaste. She hadn't really cared for the champagne, either. It had tasted terrible and not at all sweet, which probably meant it was extra expensive and it was extra undignified to say you didn't like it. Apparently she wasn't even supposed to open it, she was just supposed to let it sit on a shelf for another ten years.

I get tools for my birthday sometimes. Wrenches and screwdrivers, not garden tools. Don't really need 'em anymore, but it's nice when someone remembers I like that kind of thing. One time I got a knife, though.

What kind of a knife?

Hunting knife.

That big one under your pillow?

That's the one.

Have you ever stabbed anyone with it before?

No. There's never been any reason to. Not until recently, anyway, but then that's what I've got my sword for.

Was that a present as well?

It was, yeah. But it was from me.

Why a sword? Why not a gun? You have guns in your world, right?

Because I'm better with a sword. Duh. And because swords are better. If you're going to kill someone, you should do it with your own two hands instead of pressing a button. Have some respect.

Yes, but a gun would be a lot more efficient.

No it wouldn't. Not for me. And guns are stupid.

Yes, but --

Have you ever used a gun or a sword?

...I can't say I have.

See? You're in no place to talk.

So you're telling me, you've used a sword.

Yeah.

Instead of a gun, when a gun was an option.

Yeah. I don't know what part of this you're not getting. Maybe this is why someone got you gross champagne for your birthday instead of a real present.

It was expensive gross champagne, thanks. It's a huge honour to get gross champagne from your boss.

Are you sure it was even gross? Maybe you just don't like dry stuff. There's no shame in that. I get a lot of customers like that. Some people just can't handle it.

You work in a bar, that's cheating. Piss off.

And then he'd laughed. Or, something like it. A strange little burst of amusement that had her own mouth curling into a smile involuntarily.

Didn't think you had it in you, "ma'am". I bet it wasn't even bad. I bet it was really subtle and complex and you're a big baby that can't handle anything that isn't ginger ale.

Well, maybe I am. And maybe ginger ale is just good.

I never said it wasn't.

 


 

She'd begun editing what went into the transcript at this point. She was supposed to be learning about another culture and forging a path ahead for humanity, not debating with someone about swords and guns and birthday presents. Not to mention, with sections like the above, she'd been a bit too distracted to take note properly and had to hastily fabricate a couple generic lines on the spot so Lazard wouldn't think something had gone wrong because she had stopped "writing". She'd been getting more and more spotty lately. Hopefully no one had thought much of it.

She didn't know why she disliked the project so much now. This should have been a big turning point.

She awoke to someone shaking her and found Zack and Cissnei leaning over her bed.

"Don't do that," she reprimanded. "It's creepy."

"Sorry," shrugged Zack. "We were thinking -- do you wanna hit up a bar or something? To celebrate."

"This might be the last time we will get to work with each other for a while, depending on how things go," said Cissnei. "We should make the most of it. Grab something to eat."

Aeris smiled. "I'd like that. Maybe I can try out the champagne."

Zack blinked. "I... I guess you could, yeah."

Going back out through decon was much faster than coming in -- an hour later they found themselves switching places with the inspection crew, which was already waiting outside for them. They'd have a week to decide what to do from here while the facility was re-cleaned and restocked.

They found a small cafe several hours away, closer to civilisation. Cissnei had to do most of the talking for them, though Aeris insisted on ordering her own drink in broken French. Zack stood there, looking lost.

"The others didn't want to come?" asked Aeris, after she'd received her cocktail. They wound up getting a pizza to split. Zack had gotten a sparkling water, and Cissnei had surprised them both by requesting straight gin.

"Don't know. They left earlier this morning," said Zack. "We got three, right? Good enough. So..." he continued, lowering his voice, "no ovipositors, huh?"

"No," she said flatly.

"How do you know? Did you look?"

Aeris smacked him with her napkin. He shrugged.

"In all seriousness... we aren't gonna get to use any of the pictures. Everyone's gonna think they're fake."

"What's fake about them?" asked Cissnei.

"What do you think? 'We totally found aliens, you guys. They look just like us except they have cat eyes'."

"I mean, maybe it's a statement," said Aeris. "About how humanity thrives, so on and so forth." She paused to take a sip of her drink, then stopped. "Actually, maybe that's something to think about. People are the same all over, aren't they?"

"I guess," said Zack. "I don't know if they'll see it that way... man, we're getting shut down for sure."

Aeris glumly dug an ice cube out of her glass. That would probably be for the best, she knew rationally -- Cloud would probably be glad to never see her again, and no one would have to deal with any ugly politics in the event that two entire worlds' worth of geopolitical conflicts came into contact with one another. She wanted to continue, she knew. She also knew perhaps it was selfish to want it to continue, but she wasn't surprised she felt that way. What did surprise her was why.

The entire point of it had been furthering humanity as a species... well, actually no. No one actually bought into that. The entire point of it had been finishing her parents' work and following in their footsteps and clearing their names by showing her discovery to the world. That was the point, wasn't it?

When she'd been sitting there in that waiting room talking about guns and birthdays, the thought hadn't entered her mind. She found herself wondering if Cloud would want to talk to her again, and if she'd get a chance to pet that not-a-dog, and if Tifa would be willing to talk to her again about something less boring than the atmosphere.

She still wanted to do the project, of course. What did it matter why, as long as it got done? But it still felt like a betrayal of why she started this in the first place. Remaining professional about this wasn't a matter of her pride -- it was a matter of... family tradition? Maybe. It was important, even if she didn't have the right word for it.

"...I mean, because no one will believe what we found," amended Zack, getting the wrong idea from her silence, "not because we're all gonna be jailed for human rights violations."

"Keep your voice down," hissed Cissnei.

"I'm just saying. Maybe they'll be too distracted by the weirder bits to even notice the whole... y'know."

“Why are we still talking about the project?” said Cissnei. “We have been talking about the project for weeks.”

“Not me,” said Zack. “I just got here, remember? In comparison, anyway. If it weren’t for this thing I’d probably have just let them pick me up with the next draft. That stuff pays crazy good as long as you don’t do anything stupid like beat your girlfriend or make your pet dogs snort cocaine.”

“Draft for what?” asked Aeris.

“Basketball, probably. In case you hadn’t guessed,” he said, gesturing vaguely above his head to indicate his height. “I’d have probably gotten some free press just for being the first pro player with multiple doctorates. Get my career started early.”

“That was the deciding factor?” asked Aeris. “Your career?”

“Well, what about you? What did you do before you went and dumped your life into bothering some random asshole from Jiffy Lube?”

“Well… I finished school obviously. Then I went into physics after my parents. They were always talking about how important the project was, and since I had the skills to help --”

“You’re talking about it again,” Zack interrupted. “We need a non-project goal. Hobbies. Something.”

“...I’d always wanted to be a pilot, actually,” said Aeris. “At first it was just space shuttles, but then I got interested in aeroplanes for a while. That was what I was set on for a while, was flying.”

“So, why did that not work out?” asked Cissnei.

Because it was all entirely false and Aeris had never had more of a passing interest in flight before. But that was better than admitting that there hadn’t been a non-project goal; that her entire life had been working towards this moment, and now that it was here, it was…

...Ordinary. She didn’t know how something like that could be ordinary -- she’d met a bunch of aliens that were all sitting on some sort of enormous secret-that-wasn’t-a-secret. She’d made… if, perhaps not a friend, at least an acquaintance. It was all very exciting. But…

She don’t know if she expected some sort of epiphany. She certainly didn’t feel like one was coming on. An entire world had been opened up in front of her, quite literally, and she didn’t really feel like she cared. That didn’t make sense. She obviously did care, she did strongly hope they weren’t shut down after this. None of it made much sense.

Though, now that she was spinning a ten-minute lie about it, the plane thing actually seemed interesting too. She knew more about the subject than she thought. She wondered if Cloud knew how to fix a plane. If they had planes. They probably had planes, right? Reeve mentioned airspace violations, so they definitely had planes that maybe one day she could have a look at.

“I haven’t been on a plane in years,” said Zack. “Not until recently. Suddenly a bunch of ‘interested parties’ are in my face, and I’m being flown around everywhere, and there aren’t enough barf bags in the world.”

“What kind of interested parties?” asked Aeris.

“Same ones that started throwing money at you, I guess,” said Zack. He opened his mouth to continue, then shook his head and took a drink from his soda water.

“I like planes,” said Cissnei, shrugging. She was pushing around the ice cubes in her drink, looking glum.“I think they’re exciting.”

“With the rush to get to the terminal, and a bunch of strangers shoving you around?” said Aeris.

“No. It’s just fun to up and go somewhere else. Even if it’s work, it still feels like a vacation.”

“And how often do you actually get to go to the beach on these vacations?”

“Almost never. It’s usually a conference room full of old angry men.”

“The beach is overrated,” said Zack. “It’s nice, but it’s overrated.”

“You’re just over-beached,” said Aeris. “You’re spoilt on a beach that isn’t piss-cold all year.”

“It does too get cold.”

“Ten degrees is not ‘cold’.”

“Well, tell you what -- when all this is over, we’ll wait until the winter and we’ll see for ourselves.”

“How do you know you’d remember to keep in contact that long?”

“How do you know we'll even be in contact that long?" he retorted. Something must have shown on her face in response to that, because he suddenly looked uncomfortable and went back to eating.

“I’ll cover it,” said Cissnei as they got up to leave. “First useful thing I have done in weeks, no?”

“Come on,” Aeris huffed. “You’ve --”

“No, you come on!” snapped Cissnei, angrily throwing her money down on the counter. “I was only there that long because I wasn’t allowed to leave. Chances are I will not be reapproved for the second part of this, if there is one. It is the least I can do.”

Aeris exchanged an uncomfortable look with Zack, who was already on his way out the door. She left after him. “Look…”

“Tell me one useful thing I have done for the project,” she said, shoving the door out of her way.

“...You dumped what we had of the transcript the other day,” suggested Zack. Cissnei rolled her eyes. “Alright, whatever. You were useless. You happy?”

Aeris glowered at Zack. “Oh, come off it --”

“She was! I’m not saying anything everyone wasn’t thinking already,” he protested, as Cissnei sat there and glowered at him.

“...Alright, fine. Why’s she need a use? Maybe it was nice having her around,” Aeris fired back, standing on her toes to try and get her point across. God, he was tall.

“I’m right here!”

“Well then fine!” shouted Aeris crossly, rounding on her. “It was nice having you around!”

Then thank you!”

“You’re welcome!”

Zack was staring at them both, looking rather bewildered. “Is… this a European thing, or…?”

“Shove it, Fair,” said Aeris. Zack raised his hands in defense and turned away, still looking nonplussed.

“...I mean, I thought this was going pretty well,” he said after a few moments as they drove back to the airport. “Good talk.”

Aeris and Cissnei both made a general noise of assent.

“So… now we wait?” asked Aeris.

Zack nodded. “Seems so. Best case scenario, we’re all back in a week.”

Aeris didn’t ask for the worst case scenario. In truth, she wasn’t sure what it would be. The project continued, but they’d have to double down on the work? Or perhaps she’d be removed from the staff for mishandling the whole thing? Or maybe she’d be invited back, but everyone else would be gone. It wouldn’t really feel the same. Or perhaps they’d all be jailed, that wasn’t out of the question either. Or maybe the project would continue, but her backers would pull out and no one would believe the research. Or maybe CERN themselves would just shut the whole thing down. Or perhaps…

There really wasn’t anything to be done about the whole mess. She’d just have to hope for the best. At least Cloud would have a week to recuperate -- she got the sense he seemed high strung in general.

So, a week to mull things over. Just her and Shithead, and her work. For the project.

Zack tapped her on the shoulder, and she started slightly. "Thought I said not to do that."

"I tapped you. Doesn't count. Anyway..." he shrugged. "You and Cissnei already live here, and I don't really feel like getting on another twenty hour flight back to Hawaii just for a week. Would you care if I hung out at your place? Just for the week."

It was the kind of question he'd almost certainly asked on purpose. Had she really looked that disappointed?

"I know it's kind of out of the blue," continued Zack, as though he wasn't obviously asking for her benefit, "and I don't even know if you have a spare room, and I totally get it if you want your space, but..."

She really shouldn't, she knew. It was vastly inappropriate. But then, she'd also been living with these people for days on end anyway. And Zack seemed decent. And all professionalism had gone out the window the minute the medically advanced civilisation they'd made first contact with had been revealed to know the phrase "fuck you".

"Yeah, alright," said Aeris. "But I hope you're not allergic to cats."

They'd parted ways with Cissnei shortly after the plane ride, when she'd been nice enough to drop them off at the kennel first to pick up Cassiopeia, who yowled angrily the entire bus ride home.

"Is she usually this grouchy?" said Zack, as he swiftly withdrew his finger from the carrier as a set of claws swiped at it a moment later.

"No. She's an attention whore, and she's mad I didn't dote on her for ages," said Aeris. The bus rolled to a stop a few moments later.

"I got it," said Zack, and before she could say anything else he'd hefted their combined luggage in one hand and the carrier in another, its contents still hissing and spitting at everything she could see through the door.

She remembered, all too late, that the pan she'd cooked her eggs in was still in the sink. The house probably reeked -- yes, there was definitely a smell, she quickly realised as she stepped inside. At least she'd remembered to empty the litterbox.

Zack set down the carrier once they were inside and knelt by it. "Can I let her out?"

"Yes. Just keep her away from the patio. She likes to eat the plants."

She saw Zack carefully unlatch the door to the carrier, and watched as a very grouchy tortoiseshell streaked past him a moment later.

"She'll say hi later," said Aeris in response to Zack's somewhat offended look. "She's gonna have a good sulk first."

"So, am I staying on the couch, or...?" questioned Zack. If he noticed the smell, he wasn't acting like it.

"I've a spare room you can use," said Aeris. "I'll get something for us to eat later. Snacks are in the kitchen."

"It's just you here?" he asked.

"Well, me and Shithead," she said, gesturing towards the direction Cassiopeia had sprinted off in. "It's not all bad, really. I've got my work..."

Her work. Her parents' work, at least. Hers now. Her very very important work. Humanity. Something or other.

"Something wrong?" asked Zack. Aeris realised something must have been showing on her face and quickly flashed him a small smile.

"No. Just thinking about what to do in the meantime. We could try and organise our findings into something we could publish, but the whole thing might be pointless in a week, depending on how things go."

"Well... why don't we check the news? See if we're famous yet."

Aeris fetched her laptop from her room. She could have used the desktop computer, but she wanted to sit on a couch. She'd missed couches.

There wasn't much on the news about it that wasn't already common knowledge -- obviously they'd be debating about whether or not to publicly release the information.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of focus put on their age. A quick self-google had revealed Zack already had a small following of people interested in more mundane aspects of him than his scientific achievements. Aeris, too, had something of a following, though her name also turned up a number of conspiracy theories surrounding the failed bridging experiment, and how her parents had been taken in by the aliens on the other side and ascended to a higher plane of existence.

Aeris would have liked to believe that. She'd never been brave enough to look at the photos herself, but apparently there was a great deal of viscera everywhere that had clued authorities into the fact that, perhaps, there might not have been any survivors.

The computer was right there, though. Perhaps she should look. For closure. If there was ever a time for it, it was now, before everything they'd worked for came crashing down under its own weight.

She sighed and searched "gainsborough gast explosion remains". Zack, who was still sitting next to her, gave her an alarmed look.

"Are you okay?" he asked quickly, clearly convinced she wasn't.

"Yeah. Just... I wanna look," she said as nonchalantly as she could. She only succeeded in alarming him further. Too late now -- the picture had already loaded.

It wasn't actually as bad as she'd thought. But it was about what you'd expect from someone standing next to a very small hydrogen bomb. There wasn't as much... paste, there was no other way to describe it, as she thought there would be. Still a lot, though.

There. She'd looked. She closed the tab and went back to self-googling, then closed that tab when she inevitably found her head badly photoshopped onto a porn star's body.

"You're not worried, are you?" asked Zack. "It's totally safe, I promise. And we'll send rats through first, obviously..." He rubbed his neck nervously. "God, I shouldn't have been petting them. If any of them survive, at least one is getting dissected."

"I'm not worried," said Aeris distractedly. They wouldn't need to dissect all of them, surely. They'd need some alive to observe over the next few days anyway. And maybe if Cloud wound up dying from anything that developed from doing this, they'd find some other waypoint and whatever was left of his corpse would be used for educational purposes. And there would be others, probably, because there would be more visits now that there was an entire world to develop relations between, and it was her project after all, hers, she'd made such a fuss about that, her project, not her parents', she was doing this for her --

In that minute, she saw the whole of her life stretching out in front of her in two long, narrow paths -- one of more projects, and more terrified mechanics she'd have to possess. More guilt. More objectives being put in front of her to complete, walling it in, stretching it further. More refining this project that had sucked everything she knew into it.

The other path was empty.

Aeris curled up further into the couch and turned the volume up on the television. Zack looked at her concernedly, but said nothing for a long while.

Cassiopeia had finally warmed up to her again by the time she went to bed -- perhaps the fact that she'd been living in a clean room for several days had removed her scent? Or perhaps she was getting used to smelling her again after it had faded from the house. That wasn't likely, though. The scent of humans tended to permeate whatever they were around. One only really noticed it was there when one stopped smelling it for a while.

God, it was so bizarre that she knew that now. So far, the smell thing definitely had to be the strangest part of that world, bar none.

Aeris had another strange dream that night -- one she'd had several times before she was eight years old at the zoo with her parents in front of her favourite exhibit, the ostriches. She'd always wanted a pet ostrich in those days. In the dream, they always came up to the fence and permitted them to dig her grubby, cotton candy-encrusted fingers into their feathers. A voice from behind caught her attention.

"Aren't you Dr. Gainsborough?"

Aeris turned around, but of course they weren't talking to her. Her parents had been approached by another pair of visitors. Her mother nodded graciously.

"You were in the news recently -- about the parallel universe thing, yes?" said one of them. "Amazing stuff, never thought I'd see something like that in my lifetime." He leaned in closer, looking at Aeris. "Is that your daughter?"

Her father nodded proudly. "Aeris. She's eight years old, and already in her ninth year."

The man laughed. "Well, now! The apple certainly doesn't fall far, does it? I expect she'll have quite a bit to contribute to the field when she gets older." The man crouched to address her directly. "Do you like physics, Aeris?"

"I like ostriches!" she had said proudly. That earned another laugh out of everyone present.

"With that kind of enthusiasm, she'll make a great scientist," said the man. Her parents leaned over her pen in the zoo with great interest.

"She's too small right now," said her father. "She can't help us yet. She'll have to get bigger first."

They had all hunkered down to watch her. She was exposed in the pen. She wanted to hide behind something, but there wasn't anywhere to hide in the fifth ring. There were thousands of people watching from the rails now, and her parents were lost in the crowd. Their faces blurred together into a leering, flesh coloured mass. They all had cameras, wanting to take a picture of the alien she had discovered, and she and Cloud were exposed for the world to see, the scientist and the project bound together in a single exhibit. She was trapped in skin that wasn't hers, and Cloud was desperately screaming in her ears to be let out. They were twisted together too deep, and when Tseng pulled her, she woke up inside the tank in Cloud's body again, and was moved back into the exhibit. She woke up again, in her bed, and she was still Cloud, and he was still pleading to be let out, and she woke up again, and was still Cloud. She was here, in this body, in this exhibit, forever.

She woke up a fourth time and immediately grabbed a mirror. Just her own sweat-slicked face staring back at her this time. Her own hands, not pockmarked by battle scars, but not familiar either -- no dirt under the nails from her garden, due to the thorough decontamination weeks ago.

She got up right then and there and went downstairs to the patio. She'd never gardened in the middle of the night before. First time for everything, she supposed. She needed the dirt back right now.

She was woken up by Zack, who looked rather alarmed at this point. He tossed her a blanket.

"Jesus Christ, do you always sleep outside in the dirt?"

"No. Just... wanted to check on the plants. It's been a while, you know?"

"Whatever, lady. Aren't you cold?"

"No," she said as she began to shiver. Good thing it had been late summer.

"...Alright. Well, if I've got permission to go through your kitchen, I wanna make breakfast. If there's anything I missed, it's cooking."

“You cook?” asked Aeris, following him inside. Everything was sore. This was a mistake. She was never sleeping outside again, ever.

“I mean, as a hobby, yeah.” He began going through her cupboards. “Do you cook much?”

Aeris shook her head. “I was never much good at it. Never learned before, and haven’t really bothered to.”

“Well, you’re missing out,” said Zack, as he began chopping up some of the vegetables he had insisted she buy, even though she really didn’t bother with cooking from scratch, with a couple exceptions. It was a lot easier to just buy something canned, season it, and get back to work. “It’s really just chemistry, you know -- monosaccharides will brown if you heat them at this temperature, but introducing lipids will slow that reaction by this percentage -- and then you get to try and figure out how exactly long in your head.”

“And that’s fun for you?”

“What is? Cooking? Yeah, obviously.”

“I meant, guessing at things, for its own sake.” Aeris began to feel a bit useless, and decided she might as well make tea with what little space the stovetop offered.

“Oh, that too. Part of why I got into basketball, you know. If you know where the ball is gonna be before anyone else, it makes the game a lot more interesting.”

“So, why didn’t you just go into basketball?” asked Aeris. Whatever Zack was doing with those vegetables, it smelled amazing. “Seems like you’d enjoy it a lot more.”

“I don’t,” he said shortly, as that odd look passed across his face for another moment. “...I mean, not as much as theoretical astrophysics,” he said, flashing her another obnoxious movie star grin. She rolled her eyes. “Although I guess at this point it’s not really theoretical anymore…”

“Now, cooking,” he added, as he switched the stove off and dumped the contents of two different pans into bowls and fetched them a couple plates, “cooking I could get into. Who knows, maybe once we’re all fired I’ll go on Chopped or something.”

Aeris helped herself to a few generous spoonfuls of everything and took an experimental bite. Her eyes watered.

“Oh, wow,” she said.

Zack raised an eyebrow. “That bad?”

“No, it’s fantastic -- what is this?”

“Not anything fancy or anything -- sauteed some mushrooms and onions in butter, and, uh… we didn’t have sausage or anything, so I improvised,” he said, gesturing to an empty tin of corned beef hash. “Mixed the eggs and rice in with it, threw in some red pepper and a little cheese. Shit, we shoulda got some fruit too...”

“I have fruit,” said Aeris, and quickly got up and left the table for the patio again with an empty bowl. She came back with it filled with strawberries.

“Grew them myself,” she said, as she began rinsing them off in the sink. "I've got edible herbs out there as well."

"Wish I'd known that earlier. Remind me about that later."

"Remind yourself," said Aeris, taking her plate and the bowl of strawberries and sitting on her couch next to Shithead. Zack uncertainly followed her. She dug the remote out from under the blanket she'd left it buried in a lifetime ago and switched on the television.

The news was on. Some important-looking doctor was discussing Tseng's presence on the project and his credentials, and what a huge deal it was that he was involved in this monumental endeavour.

"I think we should change the channel," said Zack quietly. Aeris nodded and flipped to a competitive baking show as Shithead marched her way across her lap to demand attention from Zack.

They spent the week stubbornly ignoring the outside world. Aeris went back to fending the cat off from her herbs. Zack didn't even bother changing out of his pyjamas for most of it, except to make another grocery run. He seemed to have taken her comment about his cooking skills as a personal challenge, and it had become clear early on that he was showing off, although Aeris had no trouble admitting she was actually impressed, even if it did make him insufferably smug. She preferred smug to the grinning mascot she'd encountered in the facility, though. He seemed less on-edge here. And perhaps it was just his face, but he seemed to look happier when he wasn't actually smiling.

She'd miss him when he left.

Chapter Text

"Those motherfuckers."

"Listen to me --"

"They fucking planned for this, from the first call! They --"

"Tifa, I need you to listen to me."

Tifa had been dropped back off at the bar, where Reeve was waiting with her next to Barret. Barret looked just as furious as she did. Reeve just looked grim.

“Yes, they planned for this. This has been in the works for four years.”

Barret turned to him this time. “You mean, you --”

“God dammit, will you both listen to me! They’ve been wanting an excuse to lock Cloud up for years, and he keeps giving that to them. I couldn’t deflect this one, but it would have happened sooner or later.”

“He isn’t crazy --” began Tifa again.

“You have to understand the mentality behind this decision. He’s unstable,” said Reeve. “I don’t think any of us would argue with that. We have a system in place to mitigate the worst of it, but he’s… he’s had a rough upbringing, obviously, and that’s stunted both his emotional development and his view of the world. Everyone he knows, he categorises as either his best friend or a target. He’s incapable of seeing anything between the two.”

“...Maybe so,” said Tifa as she exchanged an uncomfortable look with Barret. “But --”

“He’s unstable,” said Reeve, sinking into a booth. “You have to understand, that’s undeniable. And he’s dangerous. Dangerous doesn’t mean crazy, before you start, it means dangerous. The man can dodge bullets, Tifa.” He took a deep breath, kneading his eyes with his palms. “It took eight of us to take down Sephiroth. And then two years later, he did it on his own and survived. He’s a lethal mage that’s mastered more magic than most people are ever exposed to in an entire lifetime. And… you saw what he did, that day at Meteorfall,” added Reeve softly. “We all did. Even if he denies he had anything to do with it, we all saw. That kind of power… Cid and I have been trying to discourage him from using it that casually, but…”

“So they’re afraid of him,” spat Barret. “Buncha cowards.”

“They have every reason to be, because neither of those things pair well with the third thing, which is that he’s killed before, and doesn’t have much keeping him from killing again besides the fact that he knows we’d disapprove of it,” said Reeve. “Tell me, Tifa -- how many of your customers has he casually threatened with disembowelment?”

“That’s just talk,” she said sharply.

“Is it?” asked Reeve incredulously.

Tifa looked away. It wasn’t. She knew it wasn’t. She’d seen him grandstand to get his way before, usually with Barret. Those times were different from the ones with that cold glint of hatred entering his eyes.

Reeve pressed onwards. "We've been keeping tabs on him from day one. For about six months before the stigma was officially recognised as a pandemic, there were plans to incarcerate him. Worse things have been suggested. At least three times, a lobotomy in some form or another was mentioned. You try explaining to a roomful of people that just watched the world nearly end that he's 'one of the good ones'."

"You didn't --"

"Obviously I didn't let them. Any brain issues he has, the WRO had nothing to do with them." Reeve sighed heavily. "So, we compromised. I bugged his room."

A stunned silence fell over the two of them. Tifa looked at him with narrowed eyes.

"...For how long?" asked Tifa coldly.

"Four years ago. The batteries would've died after four months, and by then he'd fallen a bit on the priority list due to the stigma, so I never bothered switching them out."

"Well, ain't you a regular fucking humanitarian," spat Barret.

"Oh? And what would you have done?" replied Reeve without missing a beat. "Some changes you can accomplish from outside the system. Some you can't. You have your methods. I have mine. But if you can come up with a better solution than blowing up the building, I'd be happy to listen."

"Better than selling out everything that ever made you a decent man," said Barret. "That boy trusts you. Like Marlene trusts you. That's two times you double-crossed him now."

Reeve looked at Barret exhaustedly. "I joined your organisation because I wanted to do the right thing. That is all I've been trying to do. Please listen to me. When all this is said and done, I will tell him myself."

Barret crossed his arms. Tifa stared at him expectantly, and decided to check her own room when Reeve left, just in case.

“While I'm airing out dirty laundry, there are other incidents that… before today, I would have risked my job to tell you about. I have reason to believe he’s involved in a string of deaths that cropped up not long before the WRO first formed. There were at least thirty that we know about, all formerly involved with Series 3 of the Jenova Project in one way or another. Shinra has a lot of enemies, it could have been anyone, but some of the things done to those bodies…” he shook his head. “I can’t prove it was him. Maybe it really is just a coincidence. But I can’t prove it wasn’t him, either.”

Tifa forced herself to sit down across from Reeve, as though that would calm her somehow. Everyone besides the three of them had cleared out and taken Marlene with them in order to distract her. She’d probably wind up staying with Nanaki or Yuffie until this mess blew over -- as far away from the conflict as possible, ideally.

“He’s emotionally unstable, said Reeve, looking at Tifa hard, “highly suspicious of strangers, refuses to seek medical treatment for any of the three psychological disorders that we know about, has an intense dislike for authority, a deep-seated link with Jenova, is comfortable with the idea of committing acts of violence, and gods, does he ever have the means to commit them if he should ever decide the world has given him a reason.”

“So they think he's Sephiroth,” said Barret shortly. “That’s their problem. We just convince them he ain’t a threat to anybody.”

“You can’t convince them of that,” said Reeve, “because it isn’t true. That’s what you need to understand. We’ve been the only thing keeping him away from several murder one charges. No, nothing we say to them is gonna get them to let him go.”

“But he would never…” she trailed off.

“He wouldn’t because we’d never let him hear the end of it if we did,” said Barret, as something seemed to dawn on him. “He sure as hell don’t do that for everyone else. It’s no good to have someone else be your moral compass. He should know this himself.”

“Tifa…” said Reeve, looking at her imploringly, “you know how he is.”

And in a strange way… she did.

It had been four months ago, when they’d been alone together. Alone, and on the same bed together. They’d been planning this night for quite a while -- Cloud was sterile, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other potential “biohazards” he was host to. Maybe even lethal ones. He’d been nervous -- Tifa had had her share of partners after coming to Midgar. Cloud had grown up in captivity and everything he knew about sex prior to their relationship had come from whatever his mother had deigned to tell him, which he likely couldn’t remember anymore anyway, and a hazy memory of a smuggled-in blue movie he’d gotten a glimpse of when he was fourteen.

She’d moved closer to him, watching him uncomfortably fumble with the hooks to her bra under her shirt, glancing at her expectantly now and then. He’d been so eager to please… not just her. Everyone. Every little acknowledgement they’d given him for something he’d done made his face light up like it had on his first “birthday”. He’d even started seeking out situations like that, she’d noticed. From the little gifts he thought they’d like, to the way he’d drop whatever he’d been doing in a heartbeat if someone needed something. He never complained or objected or backtracked out of something.

Her hand had slipped into his pants at some point, but she hadn’t actually begun doing much of anything. “Did… is something wrong? Did you want me on top for this?” said Cloud. He had been looking at her, confused, and faintly upset.

And he’d never, ever say no to them if they asked him to do something he didn’t want. He’d convince himself he did want it, it seemed like. Nobody was that accommodating.

She let go of him and removed her hand from his waistband.

“I’m sorry, just… I should have mentioned. My period started, and I didn’t want to say anything,” said Tifa, by way of an explanation.

“Oh… well, er… did you just want to sleep, then?” Not even an objection, after they’d planned this for two weeks. If he was disappointed, he’d hidden that too.

“That’d be nice,” she’d said, and that had been the end of that.

They hadn’t been involved to that degree for four months. What they had was a carefully-constructed facsimile of a relationship, in that they both pretended they were equal parties that could hook up at any time but just chose not to, for mutual reasons. When she’d been younger and stupider and more hopeful, she thought having someone willing to die for you would have been a terribly romantic thing. All it was instead was sad. It was hard to date someone that would probably, actually, without hesitation, jump off a cliff if she told them to. Or throw themselves in front of a train.

Or hand over the Black Materia. So eager to please...

The word puppet flashed through her mind for a moment, and she pushed it away. Cloud wasn’t their puppet. They didn’t force him to do anything. He could make decisions for himself.

Could, but doesn’t, said a part of her that was still angry. He asked you to kill him.

“So… now what?” asked Tifa. She suddenly felt as tired as Reeve looked.

“If they don’t give him back, we gotta bust him out,” said Barret. “Obviously.”

“Where would we hide him?” asked Tifa. “How would we even pull it off?” She looked at Reeve. “How are they keeping him there anyway? It’s been a whole day. If he could have broken out himself, he would have by now.”

“I don’t know. I can guess, but they could have made changes to the initial design and not told me after I showed myself to be corrupt.”

“A breakout like that…” Barret let out his breath in a huff. “That’s three months. Maybe more. You can’t even leave that boy alone for an hour. He ain’t gonna last that long.”

“He might have to,” said Reeve. “All we can do is --”

“No. Fuck that.” Tifa stood up. “This whole thing -- it’s because they think he’s talking to Jenova, right? That’s their excuse.”

“That’s their excuse this time,” said Reeve. “If he assaults someone again, I won’t be able to get him off anymore.”

“We’ll cross that river when we come to it,” said Tifa shortly. “That’s what they’re basing this on, right?”

“Sounds about right,” said Barret, as Reeve nodded uncertainly.

“But we know it’s not,” said Tifa. “It’s some little old lady that didn’t even know he was there at first. She didn't know who I was, either. And Jenova doesn’t talk.”

“The scans indicate that apparently she does now,” said Reeve.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Tifa. “If we can get her to just -- explain, or -- or if we could talk to her, figure this all out… she’d help, right?”

“Can’t do that if they’re both locked up now,” said Barret, silencing her.

“...There’s gotta be a way,” said Tifa eventually. “We just need to figure this out.”

Barret shrugged. “Let’s hope he don’t lose his mind before then.”

 


 

Cloud was lying on the bed in his cell, watching the intercom on the ceiling spark and fizzle. He'd managed to put his fist through it, both because he thought there might be spare parts he could use to escape, and because he'd gotten absolutely sick of his "overseer" trying to get him to work through his hostility. The small magnet in the speaker might've been useful, but the gas had kicked in almost immediately, and by the time he'd woken up again it had been confiscated. They'd probably use a different kind of speaker next time, if anyone was brave enough to come into his cell for long enough to repair it.

He'd been in a constant state of various levels of sedation over the last three days. He was presently feeling the same dreamy contentment the gas generally offered. It was probably for the best, really. Between the quiet, and the isolation, and dread at the prospect of spending years in this place, he'd started to lose it an hour after the speaker had first clicked off. He found himself regretting smashing his only source of human contact moments after waking up. It would have been very easy to just break down without him being half out of his mind.

He wouldn't, though. His family obviously wouldn't stand for this. It was only a matter of time before they came to break him out, if Cloud couldn't find a way out himself. Therefore, he'd gone out of his way to make the staff as miserable as possible in the meantime.

Yesterday he'd iced the door over. Didn't help him get out, but it made it that much harder for them to get in. He'd dumped the medications he'd gotten (most of which were more sedatives) down the drain, and when they'd tried to make him take them intravenously he'd managed to get one of the other nurses with the syringe instead, which held everything up for another hour while she was rushed off. Apparently the stuff they'd been using on him was practically chocobo tranquiliser.

He still hadn't managed to find the cameras. That would be priority one, if he was going to come up with an escape plan. They were somewhere, he knew, but he couldn't see anything on the walls besides padding. He was willing to bet there was probably at least one in the shower, but on day two he decided he didn't really care if a bunch of doctors saw his unmentionables, and he hoped whoever was looking was profoundly uncomfortable every time.

The cell was solidly-built, and newly constructed as well -- he couldn't find a single part of it that looked worn down or rusted or faulty. He'd tried to pick up the bed and use it as a battering ram, but the whole thing seemed to be built directly into the floor with no space beneath it to be used to get a good grip on it. And anyway, whoever was watching them had their hand on the knockout button. They didn't even allow anyone into the cell with him to draw blood or leave him food unless he'd been breathing it for at least five minutes, as he'd learned from when he'd tried to hold his breath and fake it the first day. He'd have to be subtle about this.

No keys, no wallet, no more electronics he could dismantle... his hand flew to his ears -- his earrings. They'd given them back after the third scan and hadn't taken them away yet. He carefully popped them out and looked them over. Perhaps he could make some sort of lock pick? Or perhaps a weapon, even if it was a really ineffective one. Maybe. But...

Maybe not. They might break, or he might have to break them to do it. And if it didn't work, they'd take them away. He didn't want to lose them.

They're just earrings, he told himself. Don't be stupid. If they could get you out, you should use them. Your freedom is worth more than earrings. But he couldn't make himself do much more than stare at them. They're just earrings, you moron. They're

 


 

A pained yelp echoed in the grubby bathroom in the barracks. He nearly dropped the needle he'd been using, his clenched tightly enough to make his jaw hurt as it pierced cleanly through his earlobe. He stared at it in the mirror for a moment in morbid fascination. For about ten seconds he thought it looked kind of badass, what with the blood and all. Then it just made him nauseous, and he wanted it out as soon as possible.

Had to leave it in, though, or the other side would be lopsided. His fingers were in more pain than his ears, honestly. He should've worn gloves to deal with the ice. Too late now. He'd spent long enough psyching himself up to do it. If he left the bathroom now, he'd never get the courage to go back in.

He'd thought about asking one of his seniors to do it for him, but decided against it. It would have been nice perhaps having his CO do it -- someone that had taught him how to get by in the army, so it would feel about the same. They'd laugh, though, or worse. So it was probably better this way: just him, a cup of ice, and a large sewing needle.

The second hole tore another pained scream from him, but this one he clenched his teeth around harder, muffling the sound. It wasn't even the worst pain he'd been in -- Wutai had shown him that. He thought having a cool bullet scar would make him tougher somehow, but all it had done was hurt and bleed a lot. But getting jabbed through the ears with a sewing needle still hurt like a bitch. He was allowed to say that, wasn't he?

He carefully eased out each needle and inserted the cheap studs he's picked up in the slums into each hole. He snatched the healing materia he'd smuggled out of the training room and wished away the open wounds, and just like that it was done, the flesh sealed neatly around the rods of metal through them, simply in need of a quick rinse first.

It had been messy, but he'd done it. He felt just a hint of pride at his accomplishment. Hadn't even needed a father to do it for him. None of the other boys in Nibelheim could say that. Now he was an adult, just like them.

 


 

"Just come in through here," said Jessie, leading him into the back. He could navigate perfectly well himself via sound, and all she was doing was bumping him against furniture. What a waste of time.

"You're all in there," grumbled Cloud. "I can smell you. Just because I can't see them doesn't mean I don't know they're there. You don't need to blindfold me for bad news, just... just get it over with."

"Fine, doofus. Just get in the damn door. We're late enough anyway," said Jessie, shoving him roughly through the door. Cloud reached up to take the blindfold off.

"SURPRISE!"

Cloud let out a yell and reflexively moved his hand from his face to the hilt of his sword before realising he recognised all the voices. He ripped the blindfold off and stared at them all, and then the room, in confusion.

There were several balloons taped to the walls, and an extravagant-looking blueberry cheesecake next to a plate of chopped fruit and sliced sausages, the fancy kind that he hadn't had in... years? It was always hard to tell. Several boxes and paper bags were piled high behind it. The windows were all opened, allowing the sun to flood the room. Lined up behind the table was his family, wearing forced smiles to hide their own anxiety.

Cloud stared blankly at it all for several moments. "...What?"

"It was Tifa's idea," said Yuffie, shrugging. "I told her, y'know, it was weird you didn't remember when your birthday was, apart from summer, and we got to thinking we'd just have to pick a day, right? First of August, so we'd remember it. But then we realised you've got a lot of lost time to make up for."

"Nine years worth, at least," said Tifa quietly. "So, why not get started this week? I made the cake myself."

"I helped!" shouted Marlene indignantly over her. "I did all the stirring!"

Barret nodded. "You did a great job, too." He turned to look at Cloud. "So, we all took the week off. You oughta do the same. Might do you some good."

Cloud could only stare numbly at them all, at a loss for words. He nervously approached the table, but couldn't make himself touch anything on it. He felt faint, and his chest hurt something powerful. He supposed it had been a little tight lately, but this felt different. Unfamiliar.

"You wanna do presents first, or...?" said Yuffie, looking uncomfortable. He stuttered. She thought he didn't like it.

"I -- I mean, the cake might --" Presents. For him. Had he ever had a present before? From Hojo, perhaps, which he'd thrown off a mountain two years ago. From his mother? He couldn't remember. He wasn't sure if she'd have had the money for it, anyway. He was sure she must have.

"You got to open Tifa's first," Marlene demanded angrily, still sore about being uncredited towards the cheesecake. "Papa and I helped pick it out. You gotta open that one first."

"Which one is it?" he asked hoarsely. Tifa gestured to a box about the size of his fist on the table. He picked it up and shook it gently. Not much noise escaped it.

Everyone was still watching him. He dug his fingers into the seam of the box and popped it open.

Inside was a pair of ear studs -- little pewter Nibel wolves, intricately shaped. Probably handmade, though he didn't know much about metalworking of this sort. His breath caught.

"You never really got proper ones," said Tifa. "No time like the present, right? And now we all match."

Cloud looked up and noticed for the first time the ring she was wearing -- a simple wolf's head on a band. Barret had one as well, though his was much thicker. Cloud briefly considered what it would be like to get punched with a ring like that.

"We figured you'd lose a ring," said Tifa. "Given all the handiwork and everything. But I don't think you'll lose those. Right?"

"I won't," breathed Cloud. His hands shook as he plucked the earrings from the cardboard they were embedded in. He stared at them in his palm even as his breath hitched again and his vision began to blur. He quickly pulled up a chair and sat there, transfixed by the two tiny bits of metal in his hand. The pain in his chest boiled over and soon he was crying, deep sobs wracking his body, his fist clenched around the earrings as the metal bit into his skin. He didn't understand; he wasn't sad. He didn't know what was going on anymore. Maybe he was sick.

"Well, good to know none of us are topping that one. Might as well leave now," grumbled Cid, rolling his eyes, but he went to grab a knife for the cheesecake anyway. Marlene looked confused and uncomfortable. She tugged on Barret's shirt.

"Why doesn't he like it?" he heard her whisper.

"He likes it just fine," replied Barret. "He's just an idiot."

Words. They'd want a response, for the earrings, for the cake, all of this. "I-I'll pay you back for all of this," he choked out after another minute. "It -- it was probably expensive, I swear, I'll --"

"No," said Tifa firmly. "You don't need to earn this. I'd say you already did already, right?"

It was too much. He didn't understand. All of it, the food, and the sun, and the earrings, and the nine years they'd decided he'd earned something for and had seen to it personally that he got it, and the next nine days filled with talking and warmth and the strange swelling feeling in his chest. He didn't understand.

Three months later, when he stole away in the middle of the night and couldn't bear to leave the earrings behind along with everything else, he still didn't.

 


 

Cloud put his earrings back in.

Aeris hadn’t come back yet. That was odd. Maybe something in the sedatives they’d had him breathing were preventing it.

By day four, it became much harder to keep the isolation from getting to him. He kept himself amused by keeping track of which staff brought him food or medications on which days. He’d thought about refusing to eat -- they were obviously drugging his soup, given he wasn’t taking the actual pills they’d supplied him -- but he wouldn’t be able to escape if he was skin and bones. He’d learned that the hard way.

At first, he'd been tempted to just ride out this mess on a wave of narcotics. It would certainly be less lonely or panic-inducing than four bare white walls. They'd switch the gas on every time he tried to smash something; if he wanted to he could rip the showerhead off the wall and nap through another few hours in a state of mild euphoria.

He refused to do that either. He'd done that the first time he'd given up, with Jenova. He wouldn't do it again, now that there wasn't any reason to anymore.

Jenova seemed to be noticing the widening cracks in his psyche, and had become louder than ever lately. It was getting harder to fight her like this. It had definitely been a mistake to smash the intercom. He'd fix it himself at this point. Maybe they were deliberately holding off on repairing it on purpose -- to coax good behaviour out of him.

He didn't want to play into this. But sitting there in his cell, alone, hugging his knees to himself and trying to pretend it was still a week ago when he'd been pressed up against another human that was just happy he was alive, he began remembering all too vividly what it felt like to think the world had just forgotten about you. He couldn't go through that again. Never again.

On day five, he stayed in his bed and didn't bother holding his breath and allowed them to fix the intercom. He refused to cry in front of these people. But maybe if he waited patiently enough and let them draw blood, they’d talk to him. There was no point going crazy by himself.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Strife,” said the voice a couple hours later. “Are you feeling any better?”

Cloud nodded.

“That’s good. That’s what we’re here for, you know. To help you recover.” It was a very nice voice -- in the regular way, not the way Director Crescent had sounded. He wondered if they were actually another doctor, or just a mouthpiece that they thought he might like better.

“She hasn’t spoken to me all week,” said Cloud. “So I can go now, right?”

“That’s good that you aren’t directly hearing her right now,” said the voice. “But the biggest threat to you is still subconscious influence, and that’s much more difficult to judge. Have you felt compelled to any unusual locations lately?”

“I want to go home,” he said bluntly.

“You will. In the meantime, is there anything we can get you to make your stay here more comfortable? It will need to be approved, of course.”

Cloud blinked. “What?”

“Books, perhaps? Are there any foods you’re partial to?”

“Is -- is this a joke?”

“You’re here to recover, Mr. Strife, not to be punished. A welcoming environment will encourage that.”

“...I want to go home.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t allow that at the present time. If it would help, I could arrange a visit with your friends.”

Cloud sat up on the bed. “You -- I don’t -- what?”

“If you’d prefer these conversations remain between us until your mental state is less compromised, that’s also understandable --”

“You’d let me see them?”

“It would be inappropriate to allow non-staff into your room with you at the present time, but we would allow you to converse with them via the intercom. Would that be acceptable?”

“Yes,” he said quietly.

“I’ll be sure to contact them. Is there anything else we can do for you?”

Cloud shook his head. No point in pushing his luck.

He was going to see his family. Maybe they could help him. Maybe they’d convince them to let him out. At the very least, it would make this hell bearable.

“Now… if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions. Is that okay?”

Cloud nodded again.

“Can you describe to us what it felt like when Jenova first made contact with you?”

“I already told you, I’m not --” he began.

“You misunderstand me. I mean, when your… gene therapy first began.”

Cloud went quiet. “...I don’t want to talk about this,” he said.

“Mr. Strife, we have very little information to go off of. We’ll be able to help you if you help us.”

He swallowed. He knew how this game worked. They had something he wanted. He had something they wanted. The winner was the person who decided they didn’t need the thing the other player had first.

Cloud had always been bad at this game.

“...Just little urges at first,” muttered Cloud. “Felt like there was something missing. Sometimes the world felt wrong, but I didn’t know how.”

“At what point did Jenova begin giving you direct commands? Can you describe what it felt like?”

It felt like someone reaching into everything you were and pulling at something that should never be touched, until you weren’t sure where you ended and the someone began. It felt like being ripped apart so slowly and insidiously that by the time you noticed it it was too late. It felt like four white walls with something swimming just out of sight behind them, something big and empty and full of music and knives and ice to burn the insides of his veins --

Cloud’s breath began coming in short, panicked gasps. He backed up further into his bed against the wall. It was empty in here besides him. It would be empty for days yet. Maybe weeks. Maybe months. Maybe years.

“I don’t -- I don’t want to --” he choked out.

“You’re safe here, Mr. Strife,” said the voice, which was coming from all around him. “Just tell us what we need to hear. It figures that you’re too idiotic to understand simple Standard. A disappointment of a specimen. Or perhaps you didn’t figure out how this works from the first time. In any case, we clearly have a lot more work to do.”

“No --” His head was swimming. He stared at the door. The minute it opened, he’d be dragged away again…

The chemical smell slowly filled the air, and the voice continued speaking.

“I think we’re done for today,” it said. “It’s alright. Take your time. You can tell us when you’re ready.”

He felt himself slowly calming as his breathing evened out and he settled back into the drugged haze he’d drifted into. He was safe here. Just a cell. Safe here.

The voice didn’t come back for the rest of the day. Cloud could not bring himself to ask for it, no matter how empty his cell got.

On day six, he went through every test without resistance. He didn’t punch any of the nurses. He answered the questions he was asked as neutrally as he could. He even allowed them to knock him out for what they claimed was a bone marrow sample. He couldn’t risk doing anything that would jeopardise them rescinding visiting privileges, let alone anything else. They’d taken his shirt away briefly on day three when he’d tried to use it to strangle a guard with instead of using his earrings as a lockpick, and he’d found himself regretting the decision all day and waiting in a quiet panic while they made him promise not to do it again. He wouldn’t. Clothes were a privilege, not a right.

Jenova was roaring in his head -- a vast, empty noise, like the wind howling interspersed with the music -- or perhaps it was the music. It was as loud as it had ever been.

He'd caved and asked for another two blankets so they wouldn’t be able to tell he’d been crying. He hadn’t been crying. He was just upset. What kind of an adult felt lonely and sad and cried all the damn time? Not a stable one, that was for sure. Not the kind they’d give visiting privileges to. Even if it was a lie, he still chose to believe that if he was good enough, his family would visit him. At this point, that thought was the only thing keeping him from winding up like last time.

She was so loud. He couldn't hear himself think. He couldn't think. She pulled at him, slowly, steadily, and there was no one else to pull back. The intercom was a faint noise in the background compared to the din in his head. It was the worst it had been in years. Someone was trying to soothe him -- maybe the voice, maybe Mother. Maybe no one.

Something inside him snapped.

"Shut up!" he screamed. " Just shut up! Shut the fuck up!" He curled in on himself, clawing at his head, and began beating the back of his skull against the wall. The padding kept him from doing much damage to himself, and his screams only rose in intensity. He couldn't take another minute of it -- it was as bad as he remembered. It was worse, because now he couldn't even knock himself out to get away from it.

The gas kicked in at this point -- he wasn't sure how long it had been on -- and he blissfully sank into unconsciousness. Whatever She did to him now, at least he wouldn't be aware for it.

On day seven, Cloud stared blankly at the wall and did not move again.

 


 

“Reapproved, effective immediately.”

"What?" Zack looked up from the cereal box he'd been digging through and quickly swarmed over to her to read over her shoulder.

"That's what it says," said Aeris, tilting her laptop for him to see. "Request for additional staff, denied... got another pretty sizeable grant... gag order..."

"So, how are we supposed to handle the whole... first contact thing?"

Aeris stared at the screen. "They just... 'something something endeavour something additional knowledge...' they just want us to keep getting information."

"...That's it?"

"That's it," said Aeris, looking through the document again. "This is weird."

"I know."

"No, this -- this is weird. It doesn't make sense. It's like they don't even care we found an entire -- they're not even mad, is the other part. You'd think they'd be furious. Or overjoyed, or something, not just..."

"Well, they didn't shut us down," said Zack.

"Yeah..." Aeris closed her laptop. "That's weird too, actually. Not even a delay while they... I don't know. Talk to the UN, maybe."

Zack read over the letter again, in case he'd missed something the first time. They'd been denied extra staff, but permitted extra resources. There was almost no commentary on the fact that they'd discovered another civilisation. They didn't seem upset or excited. In fact, with the blunt way they'd been asked to continue their research and proceed with the project, they almost seemed... disappointed?

His mind went back to the meeting he'd had before being roughly shoved into this project. They'd been interested. Everyone had. But...

None of this sat well with him. But he didn't know for sure, so he wasn't going to jump to conclusions and make things more complicated than they needed to be. He couldn't afford to blow this. Still, he thought he'd done what he'd been asked to do. This non-reaction was even more unnerving than the pink slip he'd been dreading.

All he said out loud was, "Well, I guess that means I finally get to earn my keep in the next bit, huh?"

"Mmhm," said Aeris, looking thoughtful. She obviously seemed as bothered by this as he was, albeit probably for different reasons. "At least Cloud will be happy about it."

"You're not?"

"No, I am," she said. "Get your things. We'd better go share the good news."

Chapter Text

The first time they'd stepped into the fifth ring, there had been an undercurrent of excitement to the entire room, rivalling the actual physical buzz of the generator buried beneath them. Zack hadn't been able to sit still. Tseng had been stock still, tense with expectation. Angeal had carried a certain enthusiasm in his voice. Cissnei had looked confused, but eager to see where things went. Lazard had a sort of laser focus to him, and seemed oblivious to everyone else present.

There was still an energy about the group upon meeting up two days later, but it was one of apprehension and unease. Zack was still fidgeting, but he kept looking about the room as though expecting an explanation from someone. Tseng was as motionless as ever, but he seemed agitated and irritable. Angeal had been watching Aeris expectantly since he'd set foot in the room. Lazard kept turning and muttering to him, and Angeal kept shaking his head. Cissnei had apparently assumed everyone else had been briefed more thoroughly than she had, and when she found out her succinct letter had been the same as everyone else's, she'd gone from irritated at being left out to nervously checking her phone every few minutes, even though she didn't have a signal.

"Everyone excited?" said Aeris when she'd come back in from changing into her jumpsuit. Everyone nodded, probably for each other's benefit. Due to wanting to avoid another motorcycle incident, they'd decided to wait until what they were reasonably sure was night. There had been an entire day of uncomfortable smalltalk hiding nervous speculation in between. Aeris almost didn't want to get back into the tank, feeling as though it might be booby trapped somehow.

"Let's keep the lid open and turn the lights off for this one," said Lazard. "Just as a safety measure.” Aeris doubted he knew what they were taking safety measures against, but she also wasn't going to disagree. The whole day had felt as someone had gone through her house and shifted every piece of furniture she owned five degrees to the right.

It was almost a relief when the lights began flashing out of the corner of her eyes. Cloud was probably less high-strung than these people by now, and that was saying something.

She woke up in a bed slightly nicer than the one she'd been in the last time. Plenty of new, clean blankets, instead of the old worn one that had been patched a hundred times that she'd been lying on top. Someone else seemed to have tucked her in, too, judging by the position.

Something was wrong. She closed her eyes and listened for Cloud. As she'd suspected, he'd entered that strange fugue state again. She could already feel herself dragging the little scraps of blank consciousness into her own mind, and knew she'd have to filter them out from herself again.

It was both easier and more difficult this time -- easier, because she knew what needed to be done. And more difficult in that he seemed even more addled than he had been the first time. His thoughts, when he began having them again, little by little, were strangely malleable -- it was as easy for her to shape them together into what she was reasonably certain was a person as it was to accidentally dash them to pieces again just by overpowering them with her own.

It stopped, he said after a moment. She asked him to clarify, but he didn't respond. He twisted back around her, and, feeling curious, she reached back.

She had a sudden sensation of falling very slowly. For a moment she was worried perhaps she'd disconnected early, before realising she could look around. Then she wondered if she might have been dead.

She was in that strange, deep space again, the one she hallucinated about at the beginning of each jump. But now it was filled with light, and she could see things moving around her -- or at least, she could see the space they were displacing. Instead of complete darkness, she was surrounded by lights in indescribable colours that filled her with equal parts awe and dread.

She felt herself gagging, and she found herself heaving up some sort of dark fluid that dissolved into the abyss around her. And then suddenly she was outside herself, or perhaps inside herself, and some distance away from her she saw Cloud. She swam, or perhaps flew, a little closer to him to see.

He was diffused into the space around her, as was she, and the shapes she could see whipped past him and blurred him further. His skin was bare, but the scars running down his back and criss-crossing his arms and across his chest seemed smudged somehow. His eyes were vacant, but in awe of the shapes around him. While she could see vague suggestions of where they were, she had no doubt he was looking directly at them, even as they continued to drag him apart. She yelled at him to move. He didn't seem to hear her, but she could still feel him there with her -- bits of him, at least -- as though they were still lying in the bed.

They must still have been, she realised. And she was dreaming. She didn't seem to be breathing, but then she didn't seem to need to either. Still, Cloud was real -- that much she was certain of. The rest, a byproduct of her mind interpreting things as it would.

She reached out to him then, and suddenly she realised how small he was -- she hadn't been far away after all. She cupped her hands around the patch of abyss that he was diffused into, not knowing how much good it would do. Aeris opened her hands a bit, still uncertain this wasn't a dream. Just the movement caused him to swirl together into nothing again, and she quickly snapped her hands closed more tightly and pulled closer to her chest so he wouldn't wash away.

She floated there, hunched around this strange patch of matter and thought that was allegedly a man. She slowly brought her hands closer, pushing it back in towards itself, and she felt Cloud's thoughts sharpen slightly. She carefully withdrew her hand again, watching the currents her hand created pull it apart slightly. It was strange, how easily she could shape and mould something as complex as the human mind.

Fear was one of the first things she got from him, drawing out another pang of guilt. And a deep loneliness. Cloud, or whatever was left of him, seemed to sense her presence, and almost seemed to consciously wind himself back towards her, as though hungry for any sort of proximity towards anyone.

Aeris worked slowly, cautiously. She was still reasonably certain she was dreaming -- she still hadn't breathed in quite some time. It was some time before all the pieces were clinging together properly, and his gaze was still fixed and vacant and faintly awed at something she could only see that she couldn't see. The other things in the empty space didn't seem to be around anymore.

She stared down at the approximation of a person she'd moulded in her hands. That was him, wasn't it? Not really him, she knew, it couldn't be. And yet, the more she had worked, the more he had thought, known, reacted in minor ways to her presence. Even in the dream, she had shaped the culmination of another human life. She drifted there for several long moments, transfixed. He seemed a little more solid than her, actually -- her own hands didn't seem quite real, as though she didn't really belong here, in this strange empty space.

Something caught her eye off in the distance -- it was Cloud. She looked down and still saw the remains of the first one in her hands, then looked back up at the second one. This one seemed a bit more solid, and a little more reactive -- panicked and disoriented, thrashing at something only he could see. Feeling a bit uncertain, she reached out and caught that one too. He continued to flail, but didn't acknowledge the hand encircling him in any way. He didn't seem to be able to see her.

She assumed it probably wouldn't be good if she left him here to dissolve. She'd gotten ahold of him, but she didn't know where she'd take him. There didn't seem to be anywhere to leave to, and as flimsy as he was she was sure he'd run out through her fingers.

She was leaving, though, she knew that much. Anywhere was better than here. Wherever here was.

She blinked. "Here" was the bed, obviously. And she felt too stunned and confused to react to anything at the moment, so it must have been Cloud drawing tremulous, uneven breaths, digging his nails into his own arms.

Cloud? Cloud curled up further into the blanket and didn't answer.

You're here, he said after a moment. You came back.

I -- yes, I did. I probably won't be soon enough, though.

Cloud said nothing again. Aeris felt herself shaking. Her throat had a knot in it, and she felt him fight it down.

...Thank you, he said after another moment.

I'd be more willing to accept that if you explained to me what I'm being thanked for.

You -- Cloud paused. Excitement. Apprehension? ...I can't hear Her anymore.

Hear who --

I can't -- that's why it seems like She's louder after you leave, it's because I can't --

Cloud scrambled out of bed and ran over to the mirror to look at his face. He seemed rather preoccupied with, and then disappointed by, his eyes.

So if She's still here...

Who? Who is "She"?

Jenova. I can't hear Her when you're here. This is... shut up a minute.

And then he sat there, staring at one of the walls. This is what it's like. This is what it's like just to think...

The walls. They were padded. She stood up then, earning another jolt of protest from Cloud. There didn't seem to be any exits that she could see.

Cloud... what's going on?

I... they locked me up.

Aeris stood and began feeling the walls of the darkened room, looking for some sort of hidden catch or lever or button. For what?

They think you're Jenova. They think that's why you've been making me do things. Plus, I used to work for Shinra, so that's not --

And what's Shinra? snapped Aeris, losing her patience. What was any of that? Why are you in the mental ward? Why was there a mob after you? What in the world did you do?

...You wouldn't understand. There's a lot of stuff --

Then start from the beginning. Tell me what Shinra is. All of you clearly know something big, and no one will tell me. I feel like at this point it might be helpful to know. She continued running her hands over the walls. There! A spot where there was a seam about where a doorway would be. It was too small to get her fingers into it, though. She couldn't find a handle, either.

What are you doing?

Trying to get you out, obviously. Just start talking, I can multitask.

...You're not gonna get out that way. It's reinforced steel. At least two feet thick. It's like a vault door or something.

Have you tried yet?

Once. If I poke around too much they turn on the gas. Beyond that, I've... I've been asleep.

Cloud, I'm not stupid.

I wasn't --

You were. And... perhaps I've been treating you like you're stupid as well. But you have to realise, it's not like I haven't noticed you aren't quite...

Quite what? he snapped.

Oh, come off it. You picked up a motorcycle like it was nothing. You're the only person with eyes like that. None of these things are normal. Not in my world, but not in yours either. No one treats you like you're normal.

Cloud flinched.

...I'm sorry. That was a rotten thing to say.

No, he replied after a moment. You're right. They don't. And I'm not.

Aeris felt her muscles begin to contract against her will, and "stopped moving" to allow Cloud to climb back into bed. They seemed to be getting used to this, at any rate.

...I lied to you a little, said Cloud. He was gripping the blankets very tightly. Aeris's fingers hurt, but she didn't try to loosen them just yet. I'm not really a human. Not the way you're thinking. Not the way these people are thinking, either.

Aeris was quiet for a moment. Cloud's face was carefully neutral, but the fear and the loneliness still weren't something he could hide from her.

...I'm not angry, she said. But I don't understand why you'd lie about something like that.

Wanting something isn't the same as it being true. And I thought it wouldn't matter. And it -- it's not fair. Being like this. I didn't want this. I told myself I did for a long time, so it would hurt less, but wanting that didn't make it true either. Aeris felt herself retreat further into the blankets. I'm locked up because... because of what people like me did. I'm inclined to do it too, one day.

Is there a name for your species? Aeris asked as gently as possible, but apparently this had been the wrong thing to say anyway.

No, he said sharply. Just Cloud is fine. And it's not -- it's not my species, it's just a thing they did.

Who's they?

Shinra.

Shinra... he'd mentioned that group before, briefly. Something about injections. And they... what did they do?

There was another, longer pause. Aeris felt him grab a handful of blanket and squeeze. He didn't say anything for several moments. She became acutely aware of how heavily the cell they were in was soundproofed. The effect was a bit unnerving, and she found herself nervously putting notes on the whiteboard both to keep them from pulling her, and to have something to do.

...They wanted weapons, said Cloud after a while. Shinra had already taken over everything over fifty years ago. But it's hard to flush out resistance with fissions when they're sitting right under your own cities. They needed a trump card.

"Fissions"?

Fission bombs. Do you have those?

...Yes, we do. Please continue whenever you're ready.

There was another slightly shorter pause. His hand had moved from the blanket to his wrist, and he seemed to be rubbing it now for comfort.

They made Soldier. Or, they tried to. Mako makes you a lot tougher, but it does all kinds of nasty stuff to the human body too. Most of those guys died from cancer within months. Or... they said officially it was cancer, anyway. Who knows. They tried some stuff with biomechanical implants, but that was too expensive. Then they found Jenova.

...And what's Jenova?

Not what. Who. She's... they found this body. The remains of a Cetra, they thought, buried for at least two thousand years. It was only pretending to be a Cetra, though. Or maybe whatever it was infecting was a Cetra a long time ago. And they found out all that tissue was perfectly preserved, and some of it was still alive, so...

The room was absolutely quiet. Cloud seemed to have noticed this too, because he seemed alternately in a panic about it and cherishing the silence.

Jenova's a virus, he said, or something like one. We don't really know what else to call Her. She doesn't really fit into any known category we have, but She's the most like a virus, so that's what we went with in the end. They... you know, they started with a few tests on rats and things. Genetic engineering, mostly. Retroviruses, at first. Live tissue injections, too, once the hosts had gotten used to it. She'll integrate Herself into whatever DNA you put Her in front of.

Then they tried on people, but they all went mad. Yelled stuff about voices, wound up getting put down after people started getting killed. That info's not public, we found that out after... anyway, they never really got anywhere until they started with a human embryo. Sephiroth was the first, and the best. The effects of mako helped counteract some of the effects of Jenova and vice versa. Complemented them, and stuff. So after him, there were more. They called that Soldier. They were faster, and stronger, and smarter, and better than anyone else. I used to want to be one when I was a kid.

Sephiroth went mad one day, too, he added numbly. There was a sore spot on his wrist now from where he'd rubbed it raw. Burned Nibelheim. Killed Ma. He just did it because he was angry, I think. He could have chosen not to. The voices get to everyone in the end, though.

...And you, you were in Soldier? she asked. She hadn't been writing anything for a while. She wasn't sure if she should.

No. The mako gave me seizures. They said I wasn't allowed. I was -- I saw Jenova in the tank. I saw the things they had in the pods, and killed Sephiroth. They couldn't let me go after that. And they needed more samples, and -- Ma was already dead, and my CO, so nobody would notice if I was gone. Nobody did notice.

Aeris suddenly became keenly aware of the buzzing noise the fluorescents were making. She almost lifted up her shirt to look at the scars again.

...I'm sorry, said Aeris. You got out though, right?

Not because I got rescued, he said. Or because I even had plans to escape. I didn't have anywhere I would've gone.

...So, how did you get out?

Cloud paused again, and it became clear after several minutes that he didn't seem particularly up to answering this one.

...Not because anyone remembered I was there, he said eventually. Do you think anyone's noticed I'm here yet?

I... Cloud?

Nobody's come for me yet. It's been a long time. I don't think anyone's coming.

Aeris's head swam as about a hundred panicked, irrational thoughts began bubbling up in the back of her mind -- and, apparently, in the forefront of his.

They're going to leave me here I got too hard to put up with and they're going to leave me here nobody's coming for me --

Cloud --

-- caused too many problems for everyone and this is why this happens --

Aeris couldn’t recall a time when she’d been at a loss for words before now. She could feel tears welling up now, driven by that deep, profound terror that was creeping into her consciousness more and more. When her own parents had died, she’d been too stunned to cry until much, much later. Nothing had felt real. Her own life wasn’t in danger -- they’d simply been gone in an instant. There hadn’t been anyone else to comfort, and she hadn’t much felt the need to be comforted.

And really, there wasn’t anything she could say, of the things that she knew you could say to a grown man that seemed to be having some sort of panic episode. Because there was a good chance he wasn’t getting out of here for a long time, from what she knew about things like prisons and asylums. And a lie wouldn’t help anyone, if he believed it at all.

Instead, she had to settle for the truth, and hope it was enough.

Well... I came.

You -- you did. You did...

Do you want to stop talking for now?

No. Stay. I just need a moment.

She waited for several more minutes. He seemed to be intent on working himself into a lather, so she forced him to close his eyes and take deep, slow breaths.

Can you tell me a little more about Jenova? she asked. Deep breath in. Hold.

She came from space or something. She feeds on Planets. She's been doing what she did to ours for billions of years. Back out. Hold.

And you said... you hear voices? A deeper breath. She caught herself moving her hand to reach out and pat him on the back or something, only to quickly realise why that wouldn't work.

Everyone that shares Her genes does. But... I guess that's just me these days. She allowed him to breathe out himself, then took another one back in. His head seemed to be clearing a bit more. ...I can't hear Her when you're here. Maybe you drown Her out.

How long have you been in here? Back out again.

I don't know. I don't know how long I was out, and it's hard to tell without anyone making sure I know. Maybe a week or two. I don't know. The breath on the way back in hitched briefly, and she went back to doing all the deep breathing herself.

Do you know why they're keeping you here?

Yeah. They think -- they think you're Jenova. I tried telling them Jenova doesn't use words or say stupid things about why I shouldn't have snapped that nurse's neck, but they didn't listen.

The voices you hear, they --

Something clicked into place. ...You're the only one that hears them. And you said... there used to be more. About ten thousand? Half of those with... less human DNA, more Jenova? And the first one, Sephiroth, who had the most, besides perhaps you.

...Yeah. How'd you know?

...Then that means I’m Jenova.

What?

Or -- I'm using it. I think. That's why I couldn't find anyone else, that's why there were thousands before, and they all -- you're the only one left. And that big one, that -- tell me, is Sephiroth still alive?

No, he died four years ago.

...Which means you've been like this for nine or ten years, yes? Aeris stopped focusing on deep breathing exercises and immediately refocused her efforts on the whiteboard. Cloud stood up and began pacing.

If we told them, they wouldn't believe me, would they?

Why not?

Jenova's a virus. She influences unconscious behaviour. Nothing I say is taken seriously because it could just be something She wants me to say. It's... I have a history of that, too. So they don't have any reason to listen to a word I say.

...A “history?”

Being upset over nothing all the time. Hearing voices. Being used.

Aeris let out a weary sigh.

When my family came over, they thought it was Her. And I’ve never been good at… at not being used.

Aeris rolled over. Or maybe Cloud did. She’d wanted to roll over anyway. But that’s it though, isn’t it? It has to be. It fits too perfectly.

How does that work, though? You’re not anything like her, I don’t think. Jenova's... you don't have eyes in places you wouldn't think eyes would be, do you?

...Places like where?

Your tits.

Aeris stopped halfway through writing "evidence of previous incident of first contact linked to potentits", and realised far too late into the project that there was no "backspace" key on the whiteboard.

...Excuse you?

That's a no, then, he said quickly. Among other things.

What --

So then... how come you've got information that lets you track Jenova if it's got nothing to do with you?

I don't know. That's just the information my parents recovered.

Before Cloud could reply, a speaker in the ceiling clicked on and a melodious talk show host voice drifted down from the mesh.

"I'm glad to see you're awake, Mr. Strife!" said the voice warmly. "Are you feeling well?"

Cloud glowered at the speaker and said nothing.

...Who's that?

My... minder, I guess.

He seems... nice?

"Can we get you anything? I've put in arrangements for your family to visit you in a week or so. Does that sound reasonable?"

Aeris felt herself nod as shame began to heat her face. "Thank you," muttered Cloud.

...I just wanna see Tifa. This doesn't mean I'm conceding anything. I just need to see Tifa.

Aeris didn't think that was something to be quite that ashamed over, but Cloud seemed deeply humiliated at the mere act of nodding. He sat back down and stared at the wall.

"Can we get you anything else, Mr. Strife?" said the voice. Cloud shook his head. The intercom clicked off.

What the fuck do you want? he snapped at her in response to her puzzlement. I just wanna see my family. They're not winning.

That's perfectly fine, said Aeris. But you know, there's no point in making yourself miserable while you're here.

What's that supposed to mean?

...What have you been doing in here by yourself?

Push-ups, said Cloud. Sit-ups. Stretches. Keeping an eye on the staff. Staying ready.

Well, it's no wonder you're in a state. Is this part of the punishment?

Is... is what?

Having nothing to do. You're bored.

I'm not bored. It could be much worse. There's a warm shower. They even gave me clothes, look. I get new ones every day.

They had better! said Aeris. They could be worse, perhaps. You're allowed to complain, though. They couldn't even give you a magazine or anything?

...I don't know. They probably won't let me have anything I could use as a weapon.

Well, perhaps you should ask. I won't have very long to help you break out before I stop visiting, so we'll have to come up with something quickly.

Cloud stopped pacing. ...What?

Which part of that confused you?

Just... can you say that in parts?

You should ask for something to read.

The other part.

I'm going to help you break out, obviously, said Aeris a bit impatiently. Unless you'd rather stay here.

...Why?

Because I caused this. It's the least I can do, she said. And because I'm the only person that can fix it. They don't know about me -- not really. You basically have an earpiece they can't take out to six of the smartest people in the world, aren't you lucky? In my world, at least. But now there's a time constraint to worry about, so we'll have to work quickly.

Time const -- why?

...Well, we've been approved to move forward with the project. Once we can get a little more information, we can just come here ourselves. No more traffic accidents.

Doesn't matter much now, said Cloud. They're not gonna let me out if I say I've stopped hearing voices.

Not even if I show up in person and explain the whole thing myself? said Aeris.

...Maybe. I don't know. Maybe. She felt him quickly squash a brief flicker of hope, before he went back to glaring at the wall. What kind of information are we talking here?

As much as possible. Aeris took another quick look around the cell. ...They knew you were awake. Are there cameras in here? Microphones? She couldn't find anything mounted in any of the corners. The microphone was probably concealed inside the speaker on the ceiling, but there was nothing on the walls but cloth and padding. Not even a door handle.

Yeah. They can see me. I just don't know from where.

Well, that'll be something else we'll have to find out.

...So, what first?

First, said Aeris, we get some reading material. See what they're willing to give you.

He almost agreed. Almost. ...I can't.

Why not?

...If I ask for something else, they might cancel my visit.

Suppose they don't, though? They're trying to keep you happy, right? As long as you stay put and don't do anything too escapey, they'd probably let you have whatever you want.

You don't know that.

I don't, said Aeris. I could be wrong. But, listen -- if we can get out of here, you'll be able to see them whenever you want, right? Cloud said nothing. There was a deeper fear present. Aeris wasn't sure whose it was. ...I have no idea what I'm doing anymore. You're in some sort of political insane asylum. And I'm going to help you escape, because if one single thing is going to go right in this mess, it's going to be that, but I might be wrong, and I don't know what will happen if I am. But you need to trust me when I tell you that if I'm going to accomplish a single thing by the end of this, it's going to be getting you out of here.

Cloud hesitated, then gave a very small nod. Then he turned his attention back to the speaker.

"Hey. You're still there, right?" he asked. The speaker clicked back on.

"Is there something you need, Mr. Strife?"

...What do I ask for?

Just something to read. Let them set the rules. Don't box yourself in.

"...I'm bored. Can I get something to read?"

"Certainly. Was there something you had in mind?"

...What now?

Well, what do you like to read?

I don't know. I don't really read much of anything. It's hard to do.

Well, maybe you can -- wait --

"...Maybe an encyclopaedia?" asked Aeris. "Something long with a lot of information."

There was a pause as whoever was on the other end considered her request.

Why an encyclopaedia?

It'll have dry, boring information you don't have. The more we know, the sooner we can set up a chance for me to come here myself.

...So, when you say that, does that mean you're actually --

"I believe we can do that. We'll have to give you the pages sans binding," interrupted the voice, "for security reasons. I'm sure you'll understand."

"That's fine. Thank you," said Aeris.

See? It's all about seeing what you can get away with. Work the system...

This was working out smoothly so far. Aeris felt surprisingly calm about it. Too calm, actually. Maybe it was Cloud. She'd done a great job of calming him down and that's why she was feeling so happy.

Then her feet went out from under her and she noticed the chemical tang in the air.

What...?

They don't open the door if I can stand. It's not safe, said Cloud dreamily. One of them, or perhaps both of them, were staring distantly at the door, which swung open from the outside. Whatever they had given her, it wasn't just tranquiliser. There was some sort of narcotic element to it, as any thought of resistance was all but wiped from Cloud's mind as they were picked up and moved back into bed. They didn't do as much this time. Usually I'm asleep by now. Maybe they decided I'd slept enough. That was a joke, maybe.

It was another few minutes before she regained enough wits to look around her, and found a stapled packed of paper at the foot of the bed.

So they just... drug you? That's not... this can't be legal.

Why would it be illegal? asked Cloud, reaching for the packet. There's drugs in the food as well. Probably something addictive, so they can take it away if I injure the staff again and let me go through withdrawal. Hojo did that a couple times...

Hojo? asked Aeris, faintly sickened.

...The lead doctor working under Director Crescent. For the Jenova Project. Anyway, he continued, we got something to read, I guess. He held up the packet, which had Vogel Encyclopaedia, Vol. 1 printed on the first page.

...No it didn't. She knew that's what it said, but that's not what was actually written there. She looked at it again. The one was a one, obviously, and that was an E... but there were symbols from other languages, and a few she didn't recognise at all.

And yet, clearly written on the front was Vogel Encyclopaedia, Vol. 1.

She suddenly realised these had been the first printed words she'd seen since coming here.

...Cloud?

What language is this written in?

...Formal... language? It's... it's a title?

No, as in the language. Which one?

Standard Continental. The one you've been speaking.

I've been speaking English. Aren't you?

...What's an English?

The thing you're speaking right now.

It's not, though. It's Standard. And my Standard's not even that good. I relearned how to talk in like... two days.

I... I suppose it's not. So then why am I reading a language I've never seen before in English?

But you're not. Are you? Seems like Standard's your first language.

But it isn't! she said, gesturing to the packet in frustration. She began flipping through the pages. All of it in gibberish. All of it perfectly legible. I've never seen this language before in my life. Why can I read it?

...Do you know how anything in your "Very Important Project" works? asked Cloud flatly.

Apparently not! she snapped, too frustrated with the entire situation to feel insulted.

Well... guess.

I don't know. I can't read this. I shouldn't be able to. And you shouldn't know English, if you haven't...

She looked around the cell. Ever since she'd begun talking with Cloud, things had been steadily making more and more sense. But not just in a figurative manner. They hadn't done anything differently between the first few runs and now that had suddenly allowed her to see clearly, to hear properly, except...

...I'm going to try something, and it'll be very brief, but unpleasant. Do you trust me?

There was a moment of hesitation, then, ...Yeah. Go for it.

Aeris steeled herself, then wrote, "shut off secondary overlap pattern for twenty seconds, resume as normal"

She tensed up. For a moment nothing happened, then --

The world was plunged back into discord. Her eyes wouldn't focus on anything again, because her brain was convinced there was nothing in existence to focus on. Sounds were strange and muffled and distorted. A low howling noise echoed in the distance. If she hadn't known she was in a cell, sitting on a bed, she wouldn't have been able to glean much more from her surroundings than "enclosed space". Even the walls seemed twisted and warped and a thousand miles away and an inch in front of her face all at once. Her own body (or rather Cloud's) felt like a vague suggestion of itself. Cloud's presence was completely absent.

Suddenly the world zoomed back into clarity, and a mildly shaken Cloud was intent on burying himself back under the covers again, clutching the packet like a security blanket and swearing under his breath. He seemed to have forgotten she was there.

It was you too, said Aeris. Not just Jenova.

What...?

Are you alright? What did that feel like?

...Didn't feel like anything. What was that for?

I can't read... Standard, or whatever it was you said. But you can. I can't see anything properly here -- but you can. You're what allows me to perceive everything here. Before, everything looked -- well, it was a mess. Nothing I'd call a building. But you can see that it's a building, so I can see it too.

...How did you do that? said Cloud eventually.

We picked up another set of electrical signals during our first run. In order for you to be conscious, it looks like we have to map them onto you at the same time as mine. Otherwise it seems you just get lost somewhere in the process.

It's Jenova, explained Cloud, to her surprise. If you're using Her to do this, then... well, She's always been stronger than me. You've been using Her to wipe me out. But... I don't know, it's never been like that.

We need to test this, said Aeris. Do you know any other languages?

Nibeli. Ever heard of that one?

Never. Speak some of that.

I'm, uh... I'm saying words. Hello. Goodbye. I miss you --

No good. Still English.

But you can’t read?

Yes. Well, no, but you can read. Get it?

Not well.

Doesn’t matter. This… she focused hard, trying to recreate the sequence of characters she saw on the whiteboard, this actually changes a lot. Suppose I got all the way over here and didn’t speak the language?

And you’re going to learn a new language? Right now?

How hard can it be? Cissnei knows about a hundred… oh, she’s going to love this.

Cissnei?

Friend of mine. And coworker. I’m sure she’ll be interested in meeting you one day, too. But first…

Aeris spent the next hour or so reading through an abridged version of the history of another world. Cloud talked her through some of the cultural barriers -- that apparently odd-toed ungulates had never evolved here, but there were a much wider variety of avians and reptiles than was found on Earth that were domesticated in their stead (and there hadn’t anything quite as jarring in a while that reminded her she was in fact speaking to an alien as, “What’s a horse?”), that apparently Shinra had owned the press for about a century so any information in most books published either before or after that period had to be taken with an absolutely massive block of salt, that because of that there were big gaps in the knowledge of any culture besides the ones focused around Midgar -- but Aeris began questioning how reliable the English she was interpreting this into was after coming across a passage that had no place being in an encyclopaedia at all.

While most accusations of witchcraft in the eleventh century were the result of moral panic, socio-political turmoil, crop failure, or fueled by property disputes, the greatest contributor was the stigma against Black magic, which was said only to manifest around thieves, murderers, adulterers, immigrants, and those possessed by evil spirits. It was not until 1733 that thaumaturgical personality theory and humouralism were debunked as pseudoscience by Dr. Eva Sitchin (p. 267). Even in light of this new evidence, it was not until 1771 that practising Black magic was decriminalised worldwide during the Kanagawa era.

Cloud?

Yeah?

What in the fresh hell am I reading?

Oh -- well, you know… it’s not like most people do stuff like that anymore. You know, they used to throw you in the stocks if you had one blue eye and one brown eye, too. Thought it was demons. Of course, that was before anybody knew what demons were. They’ll still lock you up if you say you’re hearing voices, though, he added bitterly. That never changed or anything.

No, the… She reread the passage again, still not sure if she was understanding it correctly.

Is it still illegal where you’re from? asked Cloud, clearly not understanding the question or noticing anything wrong. Which didn’t make sense. They had electricity. They had engines. They had indoor plumbing. Surely they’d moved on as a society from things like this? Perhaps Cloud in particular was just superstitious.

It’s a shame, honestly, he continued. It’s dead useful stuff. I mean, maybe I’m biased, since I’ve got an affinity for Black too. In the army, they were still on that personality-based shit -- everyone does it, we’ve all done it -- and they kept giving me White and wondered why everything I cast was so ineffective. I can do White if I need to, but it’s just not as reliable. I used to want to be a mage when I was little, y’know, but the universities for that kind of thing were way too expensive...

Aeris was about to comment on how he was still talking absolute gibberish, and how in her world they had since disproven things like magic, and how she was a scientist so she would definitely know what she was talking about. She hesitated for a moment, because he was speaking with the same sort of enthusiasm he’d had for his bike earlier, and it seemed like a shame to interrupt him just to prove how right she was, because this was the first time she’d really seen his mood pick up since getting here.

In that moment, Cloud’s hand burst into flames.

Cloud carried on, completely unconcerned by the fact that his flesh was apparently burning, and Aeris could do nothing but sit there in shock and watch as he ran his fingers through it.

...but I could probably teach a class if I wanted. Most of the people they have teaching this stuff, I bet they don’t even have a tenth of the real-world experience that I do. Trial by fire, you know? Pun kind-of intended.

What the fuck.

The fire went out on its own. The skin on her hand was completely undamaged. ...You don’t seriously still have the whole “Black magic is from making deals with the fae!” stuff, do you? I mean, I’m assuming you’ve got electricity and plumbing and things…

You were on fire.

...Not really.

Your hand was on fire.

Cloud said nothing, clearly baffled.

What was that?

It -- it was fire.

I’m bloody well aware it was fire, what did --

I… I mastered fire. You -- you know? he said, a little helplessly.

No! What was that? Explain it to me as though… Aeris sighed. ...Explain it to me as though I’m an idiot and I know nothing about what’s going on.

I, uh… I had a materia. For fire magic. And… and I mastered it, and the materia turned into two materia, because I put enough of my own knowledge back into the materia for it to be two of them, and… and then I did fire.

...That was magic?

...Yes?

That was magic. Magic is real. You did real magic.

You’ve never seen magic before?

That -- you can’t -- it isn’t -- do that again.

Cloud’s hand once again wreathed itself in fire on command, although it felt like no more than a warm draft. Aeris ripped off a tiny piece of the paper she’d been given and fed it into the flame, where it quickly burnt to hot ash. The intercom clicked on again.

“Mr. Strife, we won’t hesitate to sedate you again if you continue threatening to burn this establishment down.”

Cloud promptly held up his middle finger on the hand that was on fire toward the speaker, which made quite an image, and the fire went out. Aeris’s brain short circuited.

Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.

Are you okay?

Aeris was staring at her hand, and the fine layer of ash her fingers were dusted in. “Are you okay,” he says, she thought, not considering whether or not he could hear her. Magic was real. Magic was a real thing that people could do. She, Dr. Aeris Gainsborough, Ph. D, 26, had set out on the greatest scientific endeavour in human history and discovered actual magic.

I -- I have to go.

Wait! Did I say something wrong? Look, if you’ve got a thing about fire, that’s fine, I get it. It’s just a habit, and I’ve been trying to break it, and if it bothers you I can stop --

The hint of fear that began creeping back into her mind was enough to get her to pause.

Nothing is wrong. I just -- I have to…. Tell someone? Throw something? Celebrate? Scream?

Don’t go yet. Please. You’re the first person that’s actually talked to me in… I don’t know how long it’s been. I haven’t been able to think straight since. She’s quiet when you’re here.

Who’s quiet?

Mothe -- Jenova. Just… stay a bit longer.

Aeris listened as the intercom clicked off, leaving the cell in silence again.

...Alright. I have a lot of questions for you, anyway. About -- about magic.

I thought you were a scientist?

I am. This is… I’m a bit out of my depth here, she said faintly.

Well… what do you want to know?

Let’s start with an easy question. What… how exactly would you define magic?

Magic is… Cloud began thumbing through the encyclopaedia. There’s gotta be something in here that says it better than I do. Basically, magic is… it’s you, interacting with knowledge of how to interact with the Lifestream, which calls up all kinds of phenomena. And that can be almost anything, but all of it comes from the same action, which is manipulating energy to direct it into something, or even using that energy yourself. But there’s always rules to it.

Interacting with… you mentioned materia. What is it, exactly? How does that play into all this?

You… you’ve never seen magic before? asked Cloud, as it suddenly seemed to dawn on him.

Never, said Aeris. We don’t have it in my world. Tell me everything.

How do you not… I guess you haven’t discovered how to use it yet, but… I just don’t get it. I mean, you’re doing magic now, right?

Aeris blinked. What?

Right now. You said you were doing magic before. How do you not know what it is?

Tell me when I said I was doing magic.

You explained how you were doing this. You said it was magic.

How dare you? If you’re just going to mock everything I’ve --

You said that! You said it was magic! You told Tifa. With electrical signals and manipulating them with other signals to line up with other signals, or whatever it was. Your words.

That’s not magic. That’s science.

You literally just described magic though. And there’s science in magic, and magic in science, they’re not different things.

How. Aeris could feel herself shaking. Explain to me how they are not completely different things that have fuck-all to do with one another.

Well… I guess, let’s say you have a cup of water. If you made the water colder, it would freeze. I could also do the same thing by just freezing it myself. It’s still just as cold, and the circumstances are the same, and the water will be the same temperature either way, but… like, you’d have to introduce something to make it that way. Either you’d put it in a freezer, or you’d use magic to make the water ice over right there. Same materials, and same temperature, and same outcome, but the only thing that changed was magic, messing with the energy and what it’s doing in the system. There’s a limit to what you can do, obviously -- physics has rules that can be bent with magic, but magic’s got rules of its own.

It made sense -- which was insane enough to consider by itself, and every crackpot explanation made sense when you didn’t understand the laws of physics that would suggest otherwise. Though, before now she’d been assuming that said laws were more or less a constant across both worlds, and here was a man that could light himself on fire that was claiming otherwise. Because it couldn’t be real, but...

...But there was something else, too, that seemed strangely familiar about it...

There wouldn't happen to be some sort of… constant, would there? Representing magic.

Yeah. I’m sure it’s in the back somewhere, said Cloud, and flipped through the packet to what looked like a reference section. Aeris burned the set into her memory.

So… do you just wake up one day, knowing… magic? she asked, barely believing the words that were coming out of her own mouth, so to speak.

No. You learn it from materia. How do you not… never mind. So, materia is just the condensed knowledge of how to perform a spell -- or… it’s how to reach the Planet to call up the magic you want. We all used to know how to innately, thousands of years ago, but we all forgot. Anyone that knew died centuries ago. So, we’ve gotta relearn it from their memories. That’s what materia is.

Cloud flipped over one of the sheets of paper and began scratching a crude chart into the paper with the ash Aeris had made.

There are five kinds of magic -- Black, White, Physical, Summoning, and Innate. Innate’s the only one nobody has to learn, but because it’s usually a fight-or-flight thing, a lot of people go their whole lives without learning what their innate magic is. Summoning is… complicated, and it’s just gonna confuse you if I talk about it right now, but it’s big and flashy and dangerous and if you don’t know what you’re doing when you’re casting you’ll probably get yourself killed. And there’s still a bunch of debate over whether Time spells are Black or White, but they’re wrong and it’s obviously Black. So, Black magic --

Sorry, just… condensed knowledge? What does that… look like, exactly?

Yes. You don’t have materia either? Like… it’s one thing to not know you can use it, but…

No magic, no materia. You need to tell me everything.

Okay, so… materia is just… they’re about yea big, unused? Cloud drew a small circle about the size of a grape on the paper. And by the time you’ve mastered them, they’re about this big. He made a fist. Any time you cast a spell that’s not innate to you, you’re just piggybacking off the memories of how to do the thing you just did. And eventually, you “remember” it so often that those memories start becoming your memories, and you start pouring your own memories back into the materia, and it grows, and eventually sorta… buds off a new one. Natural materia aren’t perfectly round, and they’re usually a little bigger, but… I mean, you get the point, right?

Maybe? Continue.

So, let’s say I want to cast, uh… gotta think of something that won’t piss off the goober in the ceiling.

Aeris was reeling. She was learning magic. She was being taught magic. She almost pinched herself, but Cloud had moved his hand as it began barely snowing into his palm from three inches above it.

...Ice. You can feel that tug, right? That’s the Planet, and me knowing how to reach it.

Aeris closed her eyes and focused on the sensation, though it was nearly impossible considering how distracting the fact that there was a tiny snowstorm sitting in her palm was. It was barely there, like the whiteboard but deeper, and slightly out of her reach.

That’s it. See if you can maintain it. If we’re both seeing and reading the same things, you should know the same spells, too.

Her heart was hammering in her chest. She was going to do real magic. Magic was real and she was doing it.

She steadily pushed into that strange mental space Cloud had created, and for one fleeting moment the flurry in her hand intensified as she felt herself brush against him closer than she ever had before --

Everything had gone all wrong. He didn't know how it happened, or what he had done to make things this way. If it had been him. Or maybe nothing was wrong, and he was asleep again.

Things were bad now. He had been doing well, but now everything was bad. The first time he went to sleep, they had woken him up, and run tests, and decided it had been a fluke. Then it happened again, for longer, and then again, and again. He didn't know the right answers to the questions anymore. He lost clothes privileges and hadn't earned them back since. He never spoke out of turn, but that was because it was getting harder and harder to speak at all. All the little songs in his blood, Mother's and the other ones, the ones that were so much angrier than Mother, gave him pins and needles under his skin, and in his head, and gradually he could move less and less. He didn't have blood anymore, he realised, and the sounds they wrote into him to replace it were too big to fit. His words were starting to disappear as well, along with his time.

It had been two days. Only it hadn't, it was two weeks in between the last five minutes. It didn't mean anything to him anymore.

As much as "him" was anything. It was a fleeting concept that appeared less and less. Mother tried to spin more of "him" together, and the old voices pulled him the other way, and he crumbled in their grasp.

The Professor stood over his body on the table, and he struggled to stay him is am I am as they spoke to him.

"What is your name?" came the words. He couldn't recall if he had one, but something in the back of his head reminded him that that was a wrong answer anyway.

"What is your designation?" it came again. He didn't know what that meant, either, and he didn't know how to make his mouth do anything anymore. Not that it mattered. He was here for Mother. He wasn't here at all. Wasn't anyone anywhere isn't Reunion I am.

He fogged over again, and the next thing he was aware of was the Professor, standing over him a hundred metres tall, bigger than him, bigger than anyone. He was angry.

"You have disappointed me, Series 3. Fifty-four months of my time and energy, and this is what you manage in return. Pathetic." The Professor was getting bigger and bigger, and he was trapped on the cold metal they kept him on, ready to reach in and cut him apart. He couldn't hide anymore, because the Professor was too tall, and too strong, and could wave a hand and the walls would trap him in the cold metal again. He couldn't fight back anymore -- the walls were solid, and the Professor was everywhere, and they had taken all his parts and replaced them with paper, which folded too easily, and was so much more difficult to move, and made everything look strange and unreal with paper eyes, and sound distant and muffled with paper ears.

Not all of the paper was fresh. They wrote on a tiny part of it, on his left arm, in blue ink -- L.C. 67-2 [S3]. His number.

Something else stirred through the fog. An emotion. Fear. His fingers twitched, and his glazed eyes locked with the Professor's for an instant. The Professor turned away and addressed the walls, the white walls covered in needles that would close in around him in a second if he fought back. The wall listened closely to what he said, and he tried to as well.

"Series 3 was certainly a learning experience, but unfortunately we must conclude that this, too, was another failure. Widespread brain damage in addition to severe mako poisoning. Appears to be worsening with time, likely irreversible. A shame." A scratching, and a tapping. The walls were remembering what he said, and writing on more paper that would eventually be made part of his body. "In addition to complications stemming from the suppression procedures, it seems the subject failed to establish a direct connection with the Planet despite being given the best line of communication that could have possibly been provided."

He felt another tremor go through him at the contempt and anger in the Professor's voice, the fear momentarily blotting out all thought again and plunging him back into the voices and the green and all the other things tearing at him. When there was enough of him to be seeing, he was in another room, and the walls had changed their shape. Hours ago? Days?

"Send a notice to the President about the project's termination." A pause as one of the walls said something too fast and quiet for him to use the words in his head. "Yes, in storage."

"No!" It was the easiest word for him to make, and the first one he'd managed in months. "No, no --"

The Professor loomed over him, as big as the sky. "Hm. Too little too late, Series 3." His expression was unreadable, and he didn't seem to be addressing him anymore, so much as the walls. "Though it's likely he'll not have enough cognitive function for it to matter. Prep him for the container."

The walls pressed in around him as he was moved out of the operation room, down halls, and into the dark of the storage room. This time, there was no Box. Instead, a metal cylinder was being readied for him, and tubes and wires were forced down his throat and up his nose and into his veins. He no longer seemed able to gag. Something large and metal was tossed in the room with him. Sword. Made for him. It was important to him. He didn't know why. The part of him that was written on had probably gotten soggy and fallen off into the mako.

He tried to get another word out. Maybe "no" again. It was stifled by the tubes in his mouth, and all he got out was a strangled wail as he struggled to move his numb paper limbs against the walls' hands pushing him into the pod.

He was a failure. He was being thrown out with the rest of the other failures.

He wasn't useful anymore. To anyone.

What did I do? He could feel the fog curling in around him again, and this time he didn't know how he would wake back up. What did I do wrong? It would be so easy to let go. No more hurting. No more confusion. No thoughts, too heavy for him to think, muddying up his head.

He was shut inside the pod, which began to fill with fluid that quickly settled into his lungs, and he gently floated in the pod, the words written into him running off into the liquid, his limbs growing heavy and falling apart, and then he began to float away, in his head, away from Mother, away from the howling blue and green, away from everything. What did I do wrong? It was peaceful here. No self, no emotions, no grief, no loneliness, no Cloud.

No Cloud. No more Cloud. No more.

The door to storage was closed and locked for the last time, but the pair of glassy blue eyes pointed at the door saw none of it.

 


 

The sky was burning, the ugly red colour of an open wound. The music was impossibly loud, but it was easier to listen to it now. She was here. She was real. She could be part of the music, and not part of it. She'd finally understood that -- embraced it, used it, made it her own. It was just another part of her.

Tifa squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, calmly, reassuringly, and wondered if she should have been more afraid. But really, she'd done all she'd wanted to do. It wasn't a lot, perhaps, but it felt like a lot. It felt like an impossible, unreachable dream, but she had done it, she had reached it, it was here, it was real, it wasn't ever going away... today was a good enough day to die.

Aeris gasped and clutched briefly at her throat to pry out the tubes that she was sure had been there an instant ago. Or perhaps it was Cloud doing it. Although Cloud didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, and had shut down. She wondered if he had slipped into another fugue state, but thankfully he only seemed to be in shock.

Cloud?

Cloud said nothing to her, and had retreated back under the blankets, the encyclopaedia having been thrown to the floor at some point.

She wasn’t sure what she had seen. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Cloud had gone quiet again, and was steadily rubbing the spot on his left wrist, which now contained nothing but scar tissue and a sore.

Before she had a chance to say anything, she woke up in the tank, where Lazard and Angeal were hauling her out again.

“The whiteboard crashed,” said Zack. “Safety precaution. We can’t risk losing contact with you, especially now. You went quiet for a while there, too,” he added.

“I was busy,” she snapped. “I need to go back now. We were --”

“It’s okay. We started dumping what we had when you stopped communicating, just in case,” said Zack, oblivious. “Get a load of this.”

He redirected her attention to a computer screen that Cissnei was presently plastered to. She was taking frantic notes over the part of the transcript where she’d attempted to transcribe what she was seeing directly.

The witch trials 1066are 迫 ranging)))8害 early 放 し laws prevented prosecution of////////3////\/\//((; continued for 0x0001001 months until eventual deaπάγd

One of the last paragraphs she’d tried to copy verbatim. It was gibberish, but gibberish that was vaguely suggestive of the language she’d encountered. She could see where there had been characters she didn’t have the means to write, grammatical structures she could no longer understand. She remembered the paragraph, too -- it had been the last one she’d read before she was sidetracked by --

“The bug,” she said, turning to Zack. “You’ve got the proof for it, right?”

“Yeah, it’s on the de -- we just found an entire language, a world history, we know what we’ve been patching you into the whole time, don’t you care --”

Aeris was already copying the work onto the dry erase board twice; once as they had been doing it, this time with the extra variable plugged in.

“Aeris?”

She ignored them. Again, she got two answers. And one of the answers was the one that made sense, the one that indicated that their project was fundamentally impossible, and the other was that magic was real.

She stared at the board, frozen. She could say it. “ Our machinery works because in another universe, the physics are completely different, and there’s magic, and that’s what makes it go. Also by the way I think I just went digging through another man’s brain because of it.” They’d seen a lot of incredible things in the last few weeks. Surely they’d believe her? She had the numbers to back it up.

But then, so did Ifalna Gainsborough.

“...Sure. The -- the language bit, don’t know how we didn’t see it before,” she said. “No England, no English.”

“You will need someone to catalogue all of this information,” interrupted Cissnei. “It’s very fortunate you have a professional nearby who could do just that, isn’t it?” She was practically vibrating.

“Yes, it’s --”

“Shush! I have something to do now. I’m going to go do it.” She snatched up the transcript and a photograph and tore out of the fifth ring, presumably to find a computer to use where it was quieter.

Zack tapping her on the shoulder was what snapped Aeris out of the daze she’d been in, staring at the tank for the last few minutes.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Oh, come on. I’m a moron and I still know you’re upset about something.”

Aeris glanced back at Angeal and Tseng, who were presently staring at her curiously. Angeal, who would think she was crazy. Tseng, who was married to the project and would probably ask questions it might not be wise to answer.

Zack, who’d been nervous and jittery about something since coming back, even moreso than usual, and claimed to have seen something creeping around downstairs, and she hadn’t believed him.

“I’m fine,” said Aeris. “But could I ask you something?” She gave Zack a very hard stare.

“Uh… yeah, sure,” said Zack slowly. “What kinda question is it?”

“About the sixth ring,” said Aeris. “It’s your design, isn’t it?” She turned on her heel then, hoping Zack would take the hint and follow, and praying nobody else that was obviously suspicious would as well.

The minute they were shut away in the third ring, Aeris rounded on him.

“Magic is real.”

“...Is this a metaphor, or --”

“Magic is fucking real, Fair. I just watched a man burn paper with his mind.”

“See, I know what it sounds like you’re saying, but I’m not sure what it is you’re actually --”

“The bug,” she interrupted. “Your stupid bug, the one you’ve been fussing over the whole time.”

Zack gave her a blank stare. “You’re not seriously suggesting…”

“Check it yourself. I’m sure Angeal will have a lot of questions… I should have waited to check…. what?”

Zack was now looking at her thoughtfully, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

“Zack? Look, if you think I’ve lost it, then you can let me know now. I need to get back in there. I said I’d keep him company.”

This seemed to get his attention. “‘Keep him company’?”

“He has a condition,” said Aeris. “I said I’d help him manage it. It’s not like he’s in a good position to do that himself. Weren’t you reading the transcript?” She’d been cutting bits here and there for the sake of privacy, but she thought she’d gotten the gist of the conversation.

“Oh -- you mean, because he’s in the hospital? He can handle himself for a couple days while we get all this information figured out, can’t he?”

“No, he can’t. He’s…” she sighed heavily, carefully weighing each word, “...he’s not well. And it’s my responsibility, seeing as how I’m partially responsible for this --”

“Well, we’re not gonna be able to get you in there any quicker if a sixth of our team is asleep half the time,” said Zack. “What’s your angle?”

“He’s miserable, Zack,” she shot. “If you must know it’s because I walked in on a metaphorical and literal mental breakdown, and we’re the only people that have access to him.” She took a deep breath and then added, “So, in the meantime, I’m going to keep him company, and then I’m going to help him escape.”

“Like… break out?”

“That’s what ‘escape’ means, yes.”

“Aeris, you can’t just -- this is politics now, if the UN found out about getting involved in something like this --”

“But it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “Or was that all talk earlier?”

Zack groaned, kneading his forehead with his hands. After a moment, he shrugged.

“Sure. Fine, we’ll go stage a jailbreak. Just… try and keep this under wraps, yeah?”

“No one will care. We have enough information to keep us all busy until then,” said Aeris.

“And what about after?” Zack was looking at the rats, looking pensieve. “What about when you get there, and we have to start exchanging information?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Aeris. “It’s… it’s a lot to take in.”

“Tell me about it,” said Zack. “How do you think we’ve been tracking a thinking virus before we’d even heard of it?”

“My mum must have found a sample, before… well, before the whole thing collapsed,” said Aeris. “Do you think she found Cloud? Maybe she had to use magic to do it, or --”

Cállate,” hissed Zack again. Aeris was almost affronted before she noticed he was warily glaring at a spot in the corner of the room. Aeris looked there too.

The rats continued quietly scratching about their cages. Aeris didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, and apparently neither did Zack, who looked away and grimaced.

“...That’s a question for the rest of the group,” said Zack. “Come on, this place is giving me the creeps.”

Zack had spent quite a while examining the board after they had returned to the fifth ring. She watched his face go from smug to incredulous to almost panic-stricken. Not that she could blame him. Angeal, too, was watching him with a modicum of interest. Zack erased the whole thing and sat down in front of one of the computers, looking floored.

He was strangely quiet as they talked through the next two hours, too. Quiet even for someone who wasn’t Zack. Perhaps he’d decided the best way to keep a secret was to not say anything in case he let something slip. Perhaps he was just in shock. She wasn’t really sure what to think of a lot of this herself.

She’d felt those tubes. Felt the desperation and the loneliness and the confusion as she was shoved into the cylinder. She found herself looking at the tank again and feeling a faint chill. Perhaps that’s why he always seemed so angry -- with her, and more recently with his captors. Of course, she’d be angry too if someone locked her up until further notice.

So, he hadn’t been human after all. It was unexpected, but not a surprise. The strength, the smell thing… the fact that they couldn’t seem to interface with anyone else but him. That everyone else they’d met didn’t have the strange eyes he did.

It couldn’t have been too bad, though. That dog thing -- there were other things that weren’t humans around. The man with the metal arm, the woman that had body slammed her into the floor, they seemed nice enough. And he had a job, too, as a mechanic. He seemed to like that. She remembered Cid offering her a place to stay. And obviously someone had come along and gotten him out of that cylinder, too, so he could have all this in the first place.

She was angry, she realised, much to her surprise. Why was she angry? Was she jealous? Maybe. Of him? Also maybe. Of his friends? That didn’t seem right -- it was such a childish thing to be upset over, anyway. Why was she angry?

Was it about magic? That could be it. After all, she’d spent her entire life building up to the discovery that Magic Was Real™. Still… she couldn’t help but want to learn more about it. Maybe Cloud could teach her --

Cloud. He was still in that cell by himself. Should she go back and check if he was okay? But everyone was still talking. It would have to wait.

Besides, she wasn’t really sure what she’d say to him anyway.

Chapter Text

Cloud didn’t stop running long enough to check if his toes stung because there was a rock in his shoe, or because snow had seeped in through the holes in the leather. Marcus, the butcher’s son, thundered behind him, yelling words Cloud knew neither one of them was allowed to say. Marcus yelled them anyway because he was a big dumb baby that did things he wasn’t supposed to do and threw tantrums about little things like Cloud biting his arm.

They were well outside town now -- Cloud went exploring near the base of the mountain all the time, but this was the first time he had come this far. Of course, this was also the first time he’d challenged someone to a fight directly and scheduled a meeting place for it. They’d been pretty evenly matched, as far as he was concerned. His own face was bloodied and his nose was almost assuredly broken, and Marcus was seven years old, two years his senior, but Marcus was probably hurting just as bad from his bite, maybe.

Perhaps it was a good thing he was smaller, he thought, as he managed to duck into a dead thornbush. He managed to barely slip under the branches, which formed a natural arch, but Marcus gave up after scraping his forehead and giving up.

Cloud stayed there for what felt like an eternity, too afraid to come back out. If he went back to town, Marcus and his friends would find him and kill him and feed him to their dogs, like the ‘taians did to Shinra soldiers they caught. Marcus had certainly threatened as much. Wutai dogmeat was a favourite threat of his. “Bargain child” another, which Cloud didn’t really understand yet, but made Ma really angry when she heard it. Cloud thought being a bargain child would be kind of neat. If Ma got him from the Fae, that’d make him pretty special, but every time he asked Ma told him to not ask ever again. He didn’t see why -- being a present from the Fae would be way better than having anything to do with Father. At least he didn’t have to see him anymore.

(It was another two years before Cloud began to guess as to why asking about Father might not have been well-received. It was another nine before he began to wish he’d never wondered in the first place.)

It was so cold out, though. He’d need somewhere to hide, just for a little while, until he could sneak back home. Hopefully Ma wouldn’t worry too much while he was gone. Ma always worried.

He wandered through the snow for a while -- his hands began to hurt, and he found himself wishing for the fire materia Ma kept at home. His own innate magic hadn’t manifested yet, but Cloud hadn’t ever heard of someone’s innate magic being Become Dry and Warm. Then again, stranger things had happened.

Maybe it would soon, though. Maybe he was actually dying horribly right now and his body would notice before he did, and soon he’d be able to fly and throw cars and set fire to Marcus’s stupid face.

He was so wrapped up in his car-throwing, Marcus-smashing fantasy he almost didn’t notice when the grass under his feet gave way to cobblestones. He looked up to see he was shockingly close to the old Shinra mansion.

Maybe he could go inside.

Maybe it was really haunted.

Maybe he’d meet a ghost.

Maybe he’d make friends with a ghost, and the ghost would come back to town with him and kill Marcus and Johnny and Oskaar and Argos and the stupid mayor and his dumb baby daughter (who was a year younger than him and only four and practically an infant as far as Cloud was concerned) and everyone else but him and Ma.

Cloud couldn’t get himself into the mansion fast enough.

The doors to the front, frustratingly enough, were locked. So were the windows. For an abandoned mansion the place sure was well-maintained. There were rumours it wasn’t abandoned, and some Very Important Lady from Shinra still worked here. Cloud was willing to bet she was another ghost.

So, he was forced around to the back of the building, where he found a wooden door to a root cellar. The wood was rotten and riddled with damp, and even pulling with his numb fingers it easily gave way.

The basement of the mansion was still chilly, but it stung much less than the thin Nibel air. As soon as the doors were shut behind him, he peeled off his soaked shoes. Even the cold stone floor was warmer than the snow. He crept down the dark hallway, his teeth still chattering.

There were lights in the ceiling that were still on, which was odd for an abandoned haunted mansion. The hallway was lined with doors, but everything behind them was dark. Cloud felt a prickle of fear in his gut, and ran past them as quickly as he could, for fear that he would accidentally look in one and something would look back, and then it would see him, and…

Cloud couldn’t think of anything scarier than having it look at him.

One of the doors was wooden, and didn’t have a spooky window on it. It too was old and rotten, and gave way with a firm push. He shut himself inside the room, where none of the window doors would be able to look at him, and turned to look at his surroundings.

There were boxes everywhere here. Some of them were wooden crates; some of them metallic cylinders lining the wall; a couple were just ordinary cardboard, stacked on shelves and numbered. But there were a few laid out on the floor that almost looked like coffins.

Cloud swallowed and contemplated if it was better to get killed by a ghost or by Marcus.

He stared at the box. He felt like the box was staring back at him. The seconds crept by as he felt himself flinching at every scratch in the walls or drip from the ceiling.

Well, if something was going to kill him, he was going to know what. He marched over to the box and, with some difficulty, shoved the lid open. Then he screamed and jumped back.

There was a corpse in the box. A fresh one, given that it had all its skin on, but deathly pale, with matted, unkempt corpse hair. And glowing red corpse eyes.

That wasn’t right.

The pale man sat up and turned to look directly at Cloud, still standing there, soaking wet and empty-handed save for his drenched shoes.

Cloud began to cry.

He realised he wasn’t dead yet a moment later when the pale man spoke to him directly.

“Was it you who roused me from my nightmares?”

"I didn't mean to!" he blurted. The corpse stared at him blankly, and a metal hand emerged from the casket and rested on the edge. Cloud swallowed. Maybe it didn't speak Nibeli. It certainly hadn’t spoken it and it was staring at Cloud expectantly with its dead corpse eyes.

“I didn’t mean to,” he managed to squeak out, this time in Standard Continental. “I don’t wanna die. I-I’ll -- I’ll fight you.”

“Unnecessary,” said the pale man. “Leave this place. I shall return to my slumber.”

And then he lay back down and shut himself into the coffin again.

Cloud stopped crying right then and there out of sheer confusion.

He stared at the coffin, wiping his nose off on his sleeve.

He got up on his toes and shoved the lid off again.

The pale man continued to lie there, and Cloud wondered if he hadn't imagined the whole thing. Very carefully, he reached in and prodded his face. A red, glowing eye cracked open and stared at him. Cloud stared back.

"...Why are you going back to bed?"

The pale man continued to lay there, but Cloud held his gaze. He did not answer, so Cloud tried another question.

"Who killed you?"

And when he got tired of waiting for an answer for that one:

"What's your name? My name's Cloud."

The pale man sat up very, very slowly, and Cloud took a step back.

"Why have you come here?" said the voice. He sounded like a corpse, too -- deep and gravelly.

Cloud swallowed. "I'm exploring," he said. "I'm an explorer."

"You are much too young to be any sort of employed guide," said the pale man. Cloud glared at him.

"Well, I am! Maybe I'm just really good, so they hired me early! You just died before they announced it. I was on the news."

The pale man blinked, at a loss for words.

"I came here looking for materia," continued Cloud. "To use in the war."

"...What war?" said the pale man, a hint of curiosity creeping into his voice.

"The war against the 'taians," said Cloud. "I been finding rare materia for Shinra to use. I'm a professional materia finder. They been saying they need their secret weapon to win. That's me."

The pale man was regarding him with an odd look in his eye. "It is indeed a grim day for our nation, that they would require the use of children to win their battles for them."

"I'm old enough to fight," said Cloud, his anger bubbling to the surface again. "I been fighting just before I got here. I --"

He looked around and snatched a rounder chunk of concrete off the ground in front of him, and before he even began to consider doing anything else, threw it at the pale man's head.

"That was materia that I find!" he yelled. "It was magic, and now you're gonna die again!"

"That was a stone," said Vincent dryly. "It has no magical properties whatsoever. Leave me to my atonement." And with that, he pulled the lid of the coffin over himself again and closed it with a slam.

Cloud's eyes were filling with tears again, but this time it was out of anger and humiliation. Not even the stupid basement zombie thought he was anyone worth being.

He'd show him. He'd go find some materia right now.

"Right now" didn't happen until three days later. Partially because Cloud forgot, because Ma was tired and forgot to buy groceries again, so Cloud had to sneak into the back room of the general store and take some himself. He tried to go to school, too, but the first day back he decided he had better things to do than avoiding every other person in his class and the stupid teacher that liked him about as well as they did. Instead of attending class the next two days, he spent time combing through the caves littering the base of Mount Nibel. Most of the locals didn't bother with the mountain much, because it was supposed to be the gateway to the land of the dead (which Cloud had just apparently proven was true). But Cloud didn't have much to do in the town besides watch other people that were stupider and meaner than him enjoy themselves, so he'd taken to entertaining himself elsewhere.

"Wake up," said Cloud three days later, staring at the coffin in the basement. The pale man didn't respond, so he set down his bag with a grunt and shoved the lid off again. The pale man was indeed there, and his eyes opened and fixed on Cloud, this time regarding him rather coldly.

"I brought materia," he said, grabbing his bag and dumping the contents out onto the floor. There was now a small pile of stones of various shapes, colours, and sizes in front of him. Some he'd selected because they looked round enough. Others he thought just looked nice. "So this proves it."

He held up the first one, which was in fact an actual materia: fire, and belonging to his mother so they could light wood for the stove and heat up bathwater. "This is Ultima. I killed a dragon for it."

The pale man continued to glare at him. "You are four years old."

"I'm five and a half!" snapped Cloud, "And -- and screw you!" Ma wasn't here to hear him swear. He could swear all he wanted. The thought filled him with courage, and he pressed on. "Shinra hired me to kill the dragon and get the materia for me."

The pale man bristled. "Shinra?"

"Yeah. They're there to civilise the 'taians. There's a big war over it now. I'm helping!"

"You would do well to stay away from Shinra, Cloud," warned the voice, and Cloud realised it was the first time he'd used his name.

"Why?"

"The company is not what they seem. They cannot be trusted."

"You're just jealous because I'm a famous materia finder and you're dead." Cloud picked up another rock. "Did Shinra kill you?"

The pale man frowned. "Why have you returned here?"

"To show you all my materia. So, this one," said Cloud, reaching for a round stone he'd found inside one of the caves, "this one is Earth, and you can tell because it's brown."

"That is patently false."

"You're patenly stupid." He picked up another rock -- a big white one that reminded him a little of an egg. "And this one's ice -- and it's a summon. An ice summon."

"Summon materia are red."

"Well, this one is white, from the ice. It's extra-rare."

"You have disturbed me to lie about a pile of stones."

"But I found --"

"Leave this place."

And Cloud did leave, but not before throwing his ice summon materia at the pale man, where it missed by a good two feet. The pale man didn't even flinch.

He needed to find better stones, was the problem. Or maybe even more real materia.

It wasn't easy to get materia like that, especially in Nibelheim. He had to wait until the general store closed again, and then sneak in through the window in the back. There was a tiny crack in the window sill, enough for someone with very small, bony hands to slip their fingers through and lift the latch. Cloud would use this window if whatever he wanted (usually things like flour or kerosene) were too large to fit inside his coat.

(Sixteen years later, he would comb his hands over the windows of a building very much like this one while a stranger told him that there had never been any holes of any kind anywhere.)

They really only had two kinds here -- fire, and a remedial materia known for dealing with various poisons and minor curses. One for withstanding vicious Nibeli winters, the other for dealing with vicious Nibeli wildlife. Ma already had fire. So Cloud stole healing.

Nobody at school the next day could prove he stole anything, but everyone suspected him anyway. It went about as well as it always did, but at least this time everyone else wasn't around to watch Johnny give him a black eye and a fat lip. Which was good for Johnny, too, because this time Cloud got in a real good bite, and nobody bothered to chase him this time.

He got some rocks from Mount Nibel, too. They probably were magic. Cloud always felt like he was being watched whenever he went near the mountain.

Cloud shoved the lid off the pale man's casket without bothering to announce his arrival this time.

"Why do you continue to return here?" he said, and though his face remained as impassive as ever, Cloud was pretty sure he was angry.

"Well... you don't have anyone else to talk to, right? So... I thought maybe you'd get lonely," said Cloud, nodding sagely.

"Go away."

"No. I brought more materia this time." He dumped his bag of rocks out again, and held up the healing materia.

"This one is extra special. It grants wishes."

"There is no such materia."

"You just haven't heard of it. I discovered it myself. And -- and I wish you'd come back to the village with me, and come with me to class," said Cloud, staring at the pale man expectantly.

"No."

"I did it on the wish magic, so you have to."

"I do not," said the pale man said sharply, and Cloud recoiled and fell silent. " You seek to distract yourself from some greater unpleasantness by disturbing my rest and fabricating stories about your employment for a war machine despite your young age. You stand to gain nothing by retreating into a false reality, and you are beyond help if you believe you can avoid confronting your situation, whatever that may be, by pretending there is not one. Do not return here again."

Cloud was silent for several moments. He heard the whoosh of a cloak and realised the pale man had stepped out of his coffin to retrieve the lid from the floor. Cloud's throat felt painful and hot.

"...Why can't we just pretend?" he asked. "Why do you care so much if I just pretend?" There were tears running down his face now.

"I have never found avoiding the reality of my sins, and of other people's, to be of much use to anyone," the pale man stated simply. He was looking down at Cloud, who had sat down against the side of the pale man's coffin and was beginning to cry harder.

It wasn't fair.

He didn't realise how long the pale man had been staring at him until he heard him move again. He had stepped back into his coffin and was looking at Cloud as impassively as ever.

"...What are some other arbitrary spells you have assigned to these stones?" he heard him ask.

Cloud sniffed in surprise, then reached for a reddish-brown stone. "This -- this one is a summon, like you said. It's even the right colour. I made sure when I found it."

The pale man nodded. "I suppose it is. What would you say it summons?"

"Fenrir."

"Fenrir is not a summon."

"Well, it should be. When I grow up, I'm gonna make a Fenrir summon."

"Summons take thousands of years to coagulate. Sometimes more, if their stories are lesser known."

"Hey pale man, how did you die?"

Cloud watched expectantly as the pale man blinked at the sudden shift in conversation.

"...I tried to interfere with... official Shinra business. Though, technically speaking, I am not entirely dead."

"Well, duh. You're talking. What did you interfere with?"

"...It is not for young ears to know."

Cloud gave him an odd look, then shrugged. "Well, I'm sure you didn't mean it."

That must have been the wrong thing to say, because the pale man abruptly closed his coffin lid again, and Cloud was left staring at it dejectedly.

Cloud didn't visit the pale man again for another week. He wanted to have a good collection of materia ready for him this time. He told Ma about the pale man.

"It's good you've found an imaginary friend," she said, not really looking at him. She was always tired, for as long as he could remember. Tired and nervous and always looking over her shoulder. Cloud didn't remember much from when his father had been around, but he was pretty sure she was like that when he was here too. He didn't really understand it much, though. He remembered feeling that way himself when Father had been around, but now that he wasn't, there wasn’t any reason for them to be like that. But after he left, Ma had only gotten worse. She was a lot younger than all the other mothers in Nibelheim, but she somehow managed to look older than all of them put together.

“He’s not imaginary,” he pouted. “He’s real and I met him. He lives in a coffin.”

Ma looked at him then, as though she wasn’t sure how to respond. “You haven’t been playing in that cemetery, have you?”

“No, I didn’t find him in the cemetery. I found him in a basement.” There wasn’t much point in going to the village cemetery anyway. There were only a few bodies in it so far, and according to Ma, the place was a blemish upon their village. Most bodies had been burnt to ash at the foot of the mountains to return them to the Hearth they’d been made in, but there was a growing trend to just stick them in the ground. Apparently they did it that way in Midgar and Mideel and Gongaga. Cloud thought it was a bit sickening, just leaving corpses in the ground to rot, and Ma was outraged by it (it was one of the many topics Cloud had learned not to bring up around her), but the cemetery kept getting a little bigger each year anyway; just another plot of Shinra land swallowing the village.

“Is he nice?” asked Ma, returning to patching up Cloud’s shoes as best she could.

“No. He keeps telling me to leave. I don’t know why he’d like being dead and by himself. He yelled at me about doing magic.”

"What does he look like?" asked Ma, a note of concern in her voice now. Her accent was much thicker than Cloud's since she'd learned Standard after Nibeli, and not the other way around like him. She still wasn't looking. Not really.

"I'll do a drawing," said Cloud. He sat down in front of their bed and did his best to faithfully recreate the pale man to the best of his ability. When he was done, he held the drawing in front of her face. Ma looked at it for a long time, and then looked at him, still looking as worried as ever.

"That's your friend, sweet?" The worry in her voice was now much more palpable, and Cloud wondered if perhaps he had done something wrong.

"Yes. He's dead. He lives outside the town. He's really angry all the time but he never sounds like it."

"...Just be safe, okay?" said Ma, shaking her head sadly.

He left school early the next day to try and get to the pale man before it got cold and dark. Cloud had been out in the dark many times, setting and checking snares for food, or just hiding from the townsfolk, but it was always nicer to do things with more light. As per usual, the pale man had shut himself inside his coffin, and it took Cloud banging loudly on the roof of it for him to be acknowledged.

"So, if you can walk around and stuff, why do you stay down here?" he asked, when he was halfway through categorising all the different kinds of fire materia he had (there was regular fire and then super fire, and then fission fire, which was different from and even stronger than a Flare spell).

The pale man regarded him thoughtfully for a while before answering.

"I must atone for my sins," he said.

Cloud blinked, nonplussed.

"My crime was one of inaction. I allowed someone I cared for deeply to make a terrible mistake. By the time I interfered, it was far too late to alter the course she had set for herself. She is likely long dead."

"Why didn't you stop her if it was so bad?"

The pale man said nothing, and Cloud got bored of waiting for an answer.

"...So, this one is lightning -- that one's Black magic, because it takes more control than pershison. I got teached that in school --"

"You must keep your loved ones close, lest misfortune befall them as well," said the pale man suddenly. "Do not repeat my mistakes. We must all atone for our sins eventually."

"Er... okay. I'll -- I'll watch out for Ma."

The pale man nodded. "Yes. Mothers should take care of their children."

Cloud was extremely uncomfortable, and politely excused himself. By then it had gotten darker, and he had to create a tiny light in the palm of his hand with the fire materia to see himself home. Ma said he always made the best lights -- nice and steady, and it didn't tire him out for almost four hours. Sometimes five. Cloud wasn't good at that other word he couldn't say, but he was really good at control.

"Ma?" he asked when he got home. Ma was bent over the wash basin, scrubbing it out, which Cloud thought was pointless since they washed themselves in it so it was obviously already as clean as anything could possibly be.

"What is it, sweet?" she said, managing a tired smile.

"What's a sin?"

Ma dropped the sponge she'd been using into the water and fumbled for it, muttering a word Cloud wasn't allowed to say under her breath.

"Who -- where did you hear that word?" she asked.

"The Pale Man told me it. He says we all have to tone for our sins. What's tonement? He said that too."

Ma looked unhappy with him, and Cloud shrank back, swallowing nervously. "I'm sorry," he said immediately.

"No, you didn't do anything wrong. A sin is... a very bad thing."

Cloud nodded in understanding. "He said I should be careful, and that you should look out for me."

Ma's mouth thinned into a line, and she went back to scrubbing immediately. "I don't think you should be spending so much time around the Pale Man, Cloud. He doesn't sound like a happy person."

"He's not. I don't think I ever seen him smile..."

That wasn't right, was it? Maybe the Pale Man didn't like him much. Well... not "maybe". Ma was really the only person that liked Cloud, and the Pale Man acted more like the mayor -- like he was better than Cloud, and wanted him gone as soon as possible. But the Pale Man stayed put, and that was good enough for him.

He tried his best to cheer the Pale Man up after that. He brought even more rocks. Snacks, too -- rabbit jerky and dried berries, preserved for the winter, and once a bit of bread and some honey. The Pale Man never touched any of it. That made sense -- corpses didn't need to eat.

As the weeks piled on, the ground around the pale man's coffin came to be littered with rocks and stones of all shapes and sizes. Cloud visited nearly every day. Ma would ask where he kept going. "Exploring", he would tell her. She didn't exactly approve of him going that close to the mountains, but he'd been out there on his own often enough to catch rabbits for dinner, so she made him promise not to go any deeper than the old bridge. That was fine by him; the mansion wasn't even that far.

Argos from his class picked a fight with him that day, which was unusual, since usually Cloud wound up initiating things in one way or another. But it was a weekend, so he hadn't even been in school. He was in the general store, and Ma had given him a little money from her job to buy something for a change. The owner was watching him like a hawk the whole time, only looking away to recount the money in his drawer before turning his sour, unshaven face back to Cloud. Argos had come in afterwards, with the mayor's daughter and Johnny trailing behind.

Before he had much time to register who was here and why, he was shoved face first into a shelf of candy bars. The owner yelled sharply at them over the counter as Cloud clutched at his nose. It hadn't quite healed from the last time, and now it was sore again.

"What the hell do you think you kids are doing?" the owner barked.

"He was stealing again! I seen him steal!" said Argos. Johnny glanced at Argos in confusion, and the mayor's daughter turned to look at Cloud, scandalised.

"I wasn't this time, honest!" yelled Cloud, and made to lunge at Argos. Before he could get there he and Argos were grabbed by the back of their shirts by the owner.

"Check his pockets! He's a liar!" yelled Argos.

"I en't taken anything! I didn't!"

"Then what's this?" The owner removed a candy bar that Cloud didn't recall being there from his coat.

"He put that in there! I-I didn't take it, I swear! I swear I didn't! I swear I didn't!" Cloud flailed in his grip. "I have money! I swear I didn't!"

"That's my money!" screamed Argos back. "He stole my money from my bookbag!"

"Ma gave it to me! Ma gave it to me because I been good at school!"

"Your ma doesn't got any money because she's a slut!" Cloud wasn't sure what that word meant but it was clear it was an insult.

"No she's not!"

"Yes she is!"

"YOUR MA'S A SLUT AND THAT'S WHY SHE WENT AND HAD YOU!"

By that point the owner was too distracted by the overwhelming cacophony of two five year olds screaming at the top of their lungs to realise he'd let go of both of them, and Cloud threw himself at Argos again. Argos was heavier and succeeded in rolling them both over for easier punching access, but by this time Cloud had gotten quite good at biting.

The mayor's daughter, Tifa, letting out a shriek as Cloud sank his teeth into Argos's hand was what finally got him to look down, and Argos was peeled off him almost as quickly as Cloud himself was hauled to his feet.

"Savage little thieving shrike," grumbled the owner, and before he had time to react he was thrown over his shoulder and carried off.

"Let me go!" he shrieked, kicking at the owner's chest as he felt his pockets being rummaged through. From his elevated position he could see Tifa looking wide-eyed and absolutely horrified with him, and Argos glaring furiously at him through his own angry tears, nursing a hand that was now bleeding quite a bit.

"I'll be returning this money to the young man you've injured," said the owner distastefully, "and having a word with that mother of yours."

"Give it back! It's mine! Ma gave it to me!" he screamed even louder. "The Pale Man will come and kill you if you don't give it back! He'll kill you like he got killed! He got ripped into a million pieces! He'll do the same thing to you! Give it back!"

"That's quite enough of that," snapped the owner, and opened the door to a closet. "Now stay put while I fetch the necessary parties."

Cloud was dropped roughly in the closet, and the door was slammed closed in front of him.

"Let me out! Ma!" His voice pitched into a panic as he began to beat at the locked doors. He heard footsteps moving away from him, and realised a minute later that the store was now empty.

He screamed louder, hoping to be heard. "Ma!" Maybe she would hear him. Maybe she would come get him, like she had before.

"You stay here, sweet, and don't come out until I say it's safe, okay?" he could almost hear her saying. The memory of that night, and the nights after it, were still burned into his brain.

"Ma!" he sobbed. His hands hurt from beating at the doors. A minute passed, then two, then ten. Ma didn't come. Cloud sat in the corner of the closet as his cries died down into whimpers. Perhaps they'd forgotten he was here. An hour passed. Maybe more. Eventually he just fell asleep from exhaustion.

He was shaken awake by the general store's owner dragging him out of the closet by the arm. Ma was there, looking even more exhausted than usual.

"I have explained the situation to your mother," said the owner flatly. "Your money will be returned to you. But this boy is not to set foot in my store, woman," he added, turning to Ma. "He's caused enough trouble for everyone in this town as it is."

Cloud ran into his mother's legs, and she gave him a short hug before standing to address the owner.

"Mr. Katrinsson, I assure you that --"

"Don't lie to me, woman, I know you put him up to it. You're lucky I don't call the police on both of you. Why don't you earn an honest living like the rest of us, eh?"

Cloud was quiet on the walk home. He felt the eyes on his back, as usual. He kept his face lowered so they wouldn't see how red it was or how badly his nose was running.

"I'm sorry I got you in trouble," said Cloud. "I really en't take anything this time."

"It's alright. I'm making a little more money now, so we'll be okay for a while," she said tiredly. "...The manager said you threatened to kill that boy, though."

"I didn't. I said the Pale Man would rip him to pieces. That's how he died, you know. I'm gonna get him to come kill them both -- him and that dumb baby what always follows him around."

Ma's grip on his hand tightened considerably, and she knelt to address him at eye level. "You can't say things like that to people. It's not nice."

"He said bad things about you," said Cloud. "I oughta get the Pale Man to kill his mama too."

"Listen, Cloud," said his mother sharply. "He's imaginary. He won't be killing anyone. And you need to stop talking to him." She sounded angry. Cloud hadn’t heard her angry in a long time.

"But..."

"You won't be talking with him anymore, Cloud. Find a new friend. You're getting a bit old for imaginary ones anyway."

"He's real, Ma!" Cloud objected. "He's real, and he --"

"I said that's enough!"

Cloud swallowed and nodded, and neither one of them spoke for the rest of the walk. Ma stroked his hair until he fell asleep that night, and hummed a song he'd heard a million times, and he wasn't sure why.

He still made one last visit to the Pale Man.

He had to move quickly, because he suspected Ma had noticed how long he was off "exploring" the base of the mountains these days. It probably wouldn't be long. He wasn't sure what to say anyway.

The Pale Man was asleep, as he always was. Cloud knocked on the lid of the coffin, and then pulled it up when he didn't respond.

The Pale Man opened his eyes and sat up and looked at him irritably, as he always did. Cloud swallowed nervously.

"...Ma doesn't want me visiting you anymore."

"Your mother is wise. Listen to her. You would do well to socialise with children your own age." For an adult, the Pale Man sure could be stupid sometimes.

Cloud rocked himself nervously. He thought words would magically show up now that he was here. Still nothing.

"...You won't forget about me, right? We'll always be friends?"

The Pale Man regarded him coolly. "It would be an embellishment to refer to us as friends. We are not well-acquainted by any stretch of the imagination," he said simply.

"...Oh." He could feel his throat tightening again.

"...But I doubt I will forget about you."

Cloud nodded. It was good enough.

"I got you a present, just to make sure," said Cloud. He reached into his coat pocket and produced the healing materia he'd stolen from the general store weeks ago.

"It's the special wish materia. It really works. Maybe you can use it to bring your wife or whoever back," explained Cloud. He dropped it in the Pale Man's coffin, ignoring his blank stare.

"I'll miss you," said Cloud. The Pale Man nodded.

He stood there for a moment, frozen to the spot. He would have badly liked to lean in, to wrap his arms around the Pale Man's midsection and be held in return. But there was almost a barrier he projected, a kind of intangible energy that told Cloud that he couldn't do that, a feeling that made it somehow impossible. It was an almost physical ache, and as much as Cloud pressed against it, it didn't stop being any less true.

Instead he just turned away and left the basement of Shinra Manor, for what he believed would be the last time.

Chapter Text

"So, what's it this time, toots? You here to threaten to break my neck, or just rip my balls off?"

It hadn't been easy arranging this meeting covertly. Tifa was beginning to wonder whether it was even worth it in the first place. Rude had the sense to keep quiet at least, which was fine by her, even if he did stare a little much for comfort. Reno was fucking impossible, though.

"I thought we could come to an agreement," she said shortly.

"Aw, and here I thought you didn't like me," drawled Reno. "Hear that, Rude? Looks like you might even have a chance!" Rude rolled his eyes behind his shades and turned away. "But wait -- it'd be a shame for me to compromise my good name" -- Tifa snorted -- "my good name as an officer of the law just for a stiff drink and some cash. Or a little backroom action, if that's what you're offering --"

"Out, Sinclair."

"Hey, whoa, alright, no jokes then. Joyless hag..."

"I don't need to hire you. It'd just be easier if I did."

"Oh, 'hire' me?" said Reno with a smirk. "See, that kinda makes it seem like you do need me. Because you wouldn't be hiring me if it wasn't something that you couldn't hire someone else for. Assuming I say yes, anyhow. My schedule might be too packed."

"The only reason I'm even considering this is because I know how much of a scumbag you are," said Tifa. "I still owe you for Biggs and Wedge. Keep out of this mess if you want, but don't give me a reason to think it's not worth keeping our truce." Reno rolled his eyes.

He was messing with her, she knew. But he knew she was also bluffing. She probably wouldn't be considering hiring him if it were something she could get from anyone else. And Reno hadn't gotten to be head of the Turks by being stupid -- he knew which hands were and weren't worth biting. Tifa's was not one of those hands.

Elena's flat was neutral territory. Tifa considered her decent enough -- cold, perhaps, and a little unfriendly, at least to her, and maybe a little bit unscrupulous to throw her lot in with the Turks, but decent. She was a stickler for rules, at least, so she'd probably have been the first to rat on either of them if they tried anything illegal, like assault. Or wrecked her furniture should a fight break out. She was across town for the day, but no one wanted to risk crossing her anyway.

She didn't like being this far out from Edge, especially at a time like this. But after what Reeve had said about Cloud's room being bugged, she wasn't sure if she could trust anywhere she knew that Reno would agree to come to. So, here she was, sitting on an impeccably clean L-shaped couch across from Reno, who had already sprawled out on the other side of it with his feet propped up on the armrest, Rude looming behind him looking impatient. It was strange to see him out of uniform.

Tifa had brought Yuffie along as her own insurance. Both of them might not be particularly large, but Yuffie lived nearby enough for it to be convenient, and more to the point she was unsettlingly good at concealing weapons, something that she had a nasty feeling Reno might know a thing or two about as well.

"So, did you actually have a proposition for me, or did you drag me out here so we could chat for old time's sake?" said Reno. "I got places to be."

"It's about Cloud," began Tifa. Reno held up a hand immediately.

"Even if I thought I could, which I can't, he wouldn't accept --"

"You haven't even heard what I'm gonna ask," said Tifa impatiently. "All I want is information. You can give us that much -- there's cops all over that place."

"And what makes you think I'd be willing to abuse the power given to me as an offi --"

Behind her, Yuffie was unable to stifle her laughter.

"...Yeah, alright, fair enough," said Reno, shrugging. "But you better not rat me out. I got friends. If anything happens..."

"Lips are sealed," said Tifa. "We just want to know what's going on. They've gotta be keeping documents or something, but nobody will tell us anything. They won't even let me in the same room with him. No one knows what they're doing, or..."

"Yeah, it's real sad and everything. How much?"

Tifa reached slowly into her pocket and withdrew a small stack of gil and set it out on Elena's glass coffee table. Reno waited until Tifa pulled her hand back to inspect it himself.

"FIfteen hundred," said Tifa. "You get another fifteen hundred after it's done." Three thousand gil was about all they had saved up at the moment, especially considering how long the bar had been closed. Maybe she could get some more later, but for now she hoped it would do.

Reno looked at her in disbelief. "I'm sorry, you want me to risk my job as a police officer -- at least, assuming they don't lock me up for taking bribes and spying -- for three thousand gil?

"It's all I've got right now," said Tifa. "And I already said you didn't need to break him out. Just tell us what's going on."

"Not for three thousand gil, I'm not."

Tifa took a deep breath, trying to maintain her composure. He knew she was bluffing when she said she didn't need to hire him -- she wasn't stupid enough to go sniffing around for another cop that might be open to bribes. Not without getting into a lot of trouble if she didn't find one, or even worse trouble if she did.

"How about this -- fifteen hundred up front, and thirty thousand when you're done," said Yuffie from behind her suddenly. Reno let out a low whistle. Tifa whipped around to look at her.

"What? Since when?"

"Since now," said Yuffie, then turned to Reno. "Deal?"

"I mean... shit, that's definitely a better deal... what do you think, Rude?"

"I think I might want a cut," said Rude, raising an eyebrow.

"For doing what, standing there like a shaved bear?"

"While you two work that out, I'm gonna have a private word," said Tifa faintly, before standing and heading to the bathroom, dragging Yuffie by the sleeve after her.

"Are you crazy?!" she hissed as soon as the door was closed.

"What? He was gonna say no. We need this, right?"

"And what do you think is gonna happen when they find out you don't have thirty thousand gil?"

"Thirty-one thousand, five hundred," said Yuffie. "I'm paying back your cut too. And I do." Tifa stared blankly at her. Yuffie shrugged in response. "I'm royalty, idiot. How do you think I got a flat in Junon all by myself? And if anyone's got money right now, it's Wutai. We're about the only place that didn't get Sephirothed, especially after Shinra went down and took the world with it."

"Yuffie," Tifa sighed heavily, rubbing her eyes. This whole month was just an elaborate clusterfuck of every single possible thing going wrong all at once. "If anyone finds out Lady Kisaragi bribed a cop to get information about another state's prisoner for..."

"Well, no one has to find out," said Yuffie. "And maybe I don't care even if they do."

"You can't just throw away your entire future over this!" pleaded Tifa. "Think for just five minutes --"

"Ugh, you sound like Dad now." Yuffie made a face. "Cloud would do the exact same thing for us, you know!"

"That's..." not a good thing, she wanted to say.

"And besides, what's so great about ruling a country because you're supposed to, anyway?" continued Yuffie, rolling her eyes. "Anyway, thirty gil of that is technically yours, if you wanted to feel like you were contributing. I took it from the till last time I was over."

"Yuffie..."

"It'll be fine," she said insistently. "Anything that comes up after this, we can handle once we're all back together. So don't even worry about it."

Tifa stood there for a bit as Yuffie's eyes bored into hers. She was angry, she could tell. Not at Tifa, but still angry. But there was a direction to the anger. Yuffie had probably been steering that anger all week. She realised that was something she used to know how to do as well; it was something they'd all learned during those long weeks on the run from everything and everyone, chasing and being chased, with nobody in the world to watch their backs but each other.

"...Alright. Okay. Just... don't do anything stupid."

"Wouldn't dream of it," said Yuffie, and slipped back out of the bathroom. As she left after her, Tifa could have sworn there was a hand towel missing from the rack by the sink.

"You've got a deal," said Reno as she entered the living room again. He held up the fifteen hundred gil to show her before pocketing it. "I've done this kinda thing before. Information is a guarantee. Physical documents, if I can get 'em. Anything else... depends what I find, I guess."

"What do you mean, depends on what you find?"

"All I'm saying is, why do you think they won't let you in the same room as him?" said Reno. "I worked at Shinra for seven years before the bottom went out from under it. Usually if something's quarantined like that, it's either to keep you out, or something else in, right? So, like..."

"Just let us know what they're doing with Cloud and you'll get paid," said Tifa tiredly.

"Can do," said Reno. "Just don't get your hopes up or nothin' that there's anything left to save." He forced himself to sit up, and for the first time in their meeting he looked her in the eyes.

"'Cause honestly, there's something wrong with that guy. Really wrong. And I think they know that too."

 


 

It was a strange feeling, becoming self-aware in real time. Most people would speculate their whole lives what the exact moment a human being recognised its own conscious existence at birth felt like. Not him. He knew exactly what it was like, and he was damn well sick of it.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been out by the time he recovered from realising he existed and that he was Cloud, who was from Nibelheim that burned down and was locked up and afraid and angry and alone when Aeris helped nudge him back to individuality. The further out he moved from where he was, the longer it had been, right? It seemed like he'd moved outward a lot. He wasn't sure how much more he'd have to go until visiting day came. Perhaps he had missed it.

Rise and shine, he heard Aeris say, the false cheeriness in her voice masking the anxiety they both knew she felt. How are you holding up?

I'm okay, he said, which they also knew was bullshit.

He felt Aeris trying to move and found his limbs heavy and sluggish. There's something wrong.

Yeah. Cloud blinked slowly. They saw me freak out last time you were here. The air's been drugged ever since.

I'm sorry. Was that... were you remembering that?

Yes.

I didn't mean for --

I know. Just... don't bring it up again.

...Just one more question, I promise.

Cloud sighed heavily. It wasn't like he was divulging information anymore, he guessed.

The bit at the end, with all the fire... you saw that too, right?

Yeah. Another one of mine. Don't know how accurate it is, but...

...It is?

What do you mean?

I've been having that same dream for a couple weeks.

Cloud very slowly began to sit up, looking around groggily for the new packet they'd given him. Volume 2. She'd want that. You sure it's the same one?

Positive.

Cloud paused. That's not possible.

What do you mean? We've been sharing memories this whole time, apparently.

Yeah, I guess so, said Cloud. He found it at the foot of his bed. Someone had laminated each page this time, to keep him from starting fires with them. It must have taken hours. They'd given him a marker to write with in compromise. Only...

What?

I only remembered it just then, when you saw it. Apart from that bit... I have almost no memory of Meteorfall.

Is... is Meteorfall that event?

Yeah.

So... I've been dreaming of an event I wasn't there for days in advance before you knew about it yourself.

Seems like it. He flipped open the packet. Another thing you don't know how it works, right?

Aeris seemed to sigh. ...What's Meteorfall? she asked after a moment.

The world almost ended.

Is that a joke? I thought you might have done jokes, because of the thing you said about your mum laying eggs, but then magic was real -- dragons, you mentioned dragons, were they real too?

Dragons are real. We all almost died. We lost ninety percent of the world's population, and another ten percent of that ten percent from the aftermath. Starvation, not enough medical supplies, collapse of infrastructure... plague.

Oh. He felt her fumble for something else to say, likely around the foot in her mouth.

That's actually what the rest of this building is for, said Cloud. The WRO -- World Regenesis Organisation, they stepped in after the power vacuum, given most of the world leaders were dead by that point.

What happened to them?

I killed 'em.

...Is... that...

Also not a joke. I had help. And I only killed some of them, mind. Lord Kisaragi's still around, he's Yuffie's dad. Yuffie will be one when Lord Kisaragi abdicates the throne. Reeve, you've met him, he was our mole into the Board of Directors. Reno's still around -- he and the rest of the Turks bailed in their own self-interest, and we figured it wasn't worth it to go after them. And Barret, he's been moving up in the world lately. Kinda took over Corel in the governor's absence, but he's been thinking about staying with the job. And President Shinra and Funsize Shinra are both dead, but contrary to what the news said about Avalanche, I didn't do those two. Someone else got to 'em first.

There was a brief chill of discomfort and underlying fear coming from her.

It's not like we did it for fun, said Cloud quickly. I'm no murderer. Unlike some. There just... wasn't anything else we could do. The last people I saw protesting got lined up in front of a firing squad on live television, and that's one of the more dignified ones they've done. You shoulda seen what they were gonna do to Tifa. Trust me, the world's undebatably a better place without 'em.

...What happened here? asked Aeris, clearly at a loss.

Cloud quietly flipped closed the packet, stifling a yawn. He had a feeling they wouldn't be getting much reading done today.

You know how I mentioned Sephiroth? The first Soldier First. A wry smile crossed his face. That one was a joke, sort of. Did you get it?

Yeah, I... I got it.

So... the thing you have to understand -- the thing you need to understand about all this is... Cloud faltered. I... I know things might seem bad now, looking at this from the outside in, but you have to understand, they... they could be so much worse. They were so much worse.

It was Tifa what hired me for Avalanche. I... she found me in the Sector 2 landfill. Just dumb luck. We both thought the other was dead, and... there was a lot going on, he said uncomfortably. More than we both thought, and definitely more than I realised. I was hired as a mercenary. Said I'd take any job, and I meant it.

Avalanche is... that's where your family is from, right?

Yeah. He closed his eyes again. The sedatives and Aeris's company were easing the constant ache of loneliness, and the memories of his family brought a strange sort of contentment to him. I was a real asshole back then. It -- it was a wonder any of them ever put up with me. I guess because they had to, but -- well, I'm getting ahead of myself... Avalanche. If there were other resistance groups, they were either dead or too small to be doing anything. Barret didn't believe in small. Hard to imagine, I know.

Is that how he lost his arm?

No. But it's part of why he formed Avalanche. We started out... small, I guess. Planted a couple bombs in reactors. Then a mission went wrong. We lost half our crew, Jessie got nabbed for interrogation when she was going back for Marlene... I guess it's a good thing, actually. If we hadn't sent her off to Sector 5, she would've... it's funny how that works out, huh? he said, though there wasn't much funny about it. He could still vividly remember Wedge's broken, twisted body on the ground; Biggs desperately gasping for air that no longer did him any good with his heart rapidly pumping more blood into his lungs; the cold pit of dread at not knowing if Marlene and Jessie had made it out before the plate fell. Too close. It had all been too close. He wished he'd been nicer to Wedge... the last thing he'd ever said to him before all that was "you useless sack of shit", because he was so much better, wasn't he? Soldier First Class. So much better. God, he should've been nicer to Wedge --

Cloud? Are you okay? Cloud jumped slightly at the voice. Aeris was still there. It hadn't been that long, had it? How long had it been?

Yeah. Sorry. So... it wasn't until then we decided to just... go down in a blaze of glory, I guess. Get Jessie back, kill the President, and/or die trying. I mean, definitely Jessie first, but the president too if we had time. And hook up. She asked me out the minute we got out of that tower. Said life was too short. And just like that he'd made himself sad again. So, er...

I thought you said the president...

Yeah. We all got caught, but someone else got to him first. Sephiroth. Which is weird, because I killed him too, actually. Five years ago. His fucking fault I spent five years getting cut to bits and sewn back together. Of course, we had to leave Midgar after that -- known terrorist cell, in the office with the dead president they were on the way to kill anyway, the only witness says it was done by a guy that died under mysterious circumstances five years ago... didn't look great. Picked up Nanaki on the way though. Hojo had him locked up. We figured we'd accidentally-on-purpose let him out of his cage as a diversion, but then he said he didn't appreciate doing all the general-mayhem-causing work for no compensation and just kinda stuck around.

I like Nanaki.

Yeah. He's a good guy.

...You mentioned Hojo before, said Aeris cautiously. Is he --

I don't want to talk about it, said Cloud immediately. You already saw more than I've ever told anyone. I -- I know you didn't do it on purpose, but... just don't talk about it. Ever.

It hurt. It still hurt as much as if it had all happened yesterday. The harder he fought against it, the deeper every minute of those five years dug its claws into him. He was supposed to be moving on, wasn't he? That was the healthy thing to do. Not being afraid all the time like an idiot. Only people that had stupid things like that happen to them were afraid all the time. Not healthy ones.

...Alright, he heard her say eventually. So... I guess you made it out, since you're standing here.

Yeah. We were on the run for a while after that. Tried not to stay in one place for too long. We didn't want to get caught, but we were looking for Sephiroth too. And... he was looking for something else -- a weapon. And Shinra was looking for that weapon, but they couldn't find it on their own, and they couldn't find Sephiroth, but I could, so... we all kinda followed each other for a while.

How did you find Sephiroth?

...I just could.

Cloud, you're lying. I can tell you're lying.

It was Reunion, he said. Sephiroth is like me -- part of M -- of Jenova. And... Jenova wants Reunion. She still wants it, even now, even though there's no one left to give it to Her.

He paused for a bit, worried that speaking about Jenova would cause his mind to drift back over to Her without meaning to, but there wasn't anyone there but Aeris, and while she still seemed intent on threading herself deeper and deeper into him, it was still very clearly Not Him, and that was something Cloud could keep up with.

It's... remember I told you about viruses, and... how nobody believes anything I say, because it could be something She wants me to say?

He felt Aeris making him nod, and he looked up nervously, wondering if anyone had seen him do it. Probably. Well, they thought he was crazy anyway. No loss there.

That's all part of Reunion. If... if any of Jenova is separated -- chunks of matter, like an arm, or Her mind, or if something's... genetically related, I guess, like me -- then all those pieces will get called back together. She wants to put Herself back together, to feed on the Planet and leave. She's been doing it for... for longer than there was a Planet, probably. Feeding and spreading and putting Herself back together and feeding and spreading and reassembling again.

...If it wants to spread so much... the others. It's just you now isn't it? Did...

They were all drawn to Reunion too, said Cloud. None of them survived. Some of them just died from exhaustion, I think. Others... I don't know what happened to them, it was like...

What? Aeris asked when he stopped talking.

...It was like they were melting.

"Melting" was a generous way to describe what he'd seen that day. He vividly remembered watching, unable to tear his eyes away from what looked like a magnet being ripped from iron filings, and bolting from the scene when he felt a tingling in his own skin and wasn't sure if it was psychosomatic or not. He'd had no desire to find out.

...Sephiroth knew about the connection. He'd been using it to draw me to Reunion for weeks. But when I got there...

He didn't know what to say to her next. He could never tell her the truth of it: how he'd been exposed before everyone, everything worthwhile about him revealed as a delusion made by a broken mockery of something that liked to call itself Cloud, a Soldier, a human being; how he'd begged, pleaded Hojo to take him back, had finally known what the numbers tattooed on his wrist were after all this time; how he had known they were a tangible, living testimony to how he'd been a success, and yet they'd taken that back from him, but he was a success, wasn't he?; how he had felt the tears running down his face, had seen Hojo's inscrutable expression morph into one of contempt; how he'd been unworthy of even being a numbered object, to be cherished and studied and regarded as something with promise; how he'd been told it was a mistake to think he ever could have been successful at anything, even being a construct, and feeling the horrible truth of every word cut him to the bone; and how he'd known that there was still one purpose left to him, one last thing he could be, and that anything was better than being a failure, than being nothing. Even being a puppet...

Nothing had changed. Millions were dead now, and still nothing had changed. He did this. He did all of this.

You know, you're very prone to spacing out. I don't know if anyone's told you that.

Cloud jumped again. ...I've been told that, yeah.

Are you... we can talk about something else if you like.

I'm okay, he said. He was helping Aeris now. That wasn't bad, was it? If he started panicking again like he had on that day, he'd be just as useless. He took a deep breath of the narcotic-laced air and allowed it to soothe his nerves. Aeris hadn't forgotten about him. His family would visit soon if he was good. Everything was alright. We couldn't stop him from getting the weapon in the end. Summoned Meteor. Most powerful Black magic there is. There wouldn't have been anything left of the Planet, but...

...But what?

I don't know.

What do you mean, you don't know?

I mean I really don't know, he said, and he knew Aeris could feel the truth in it. Big blank spot. I'm watching Meteor enter the atmosphere, and next think I know I'm being dragged out of a bunch of rubble, and they're saying, hey, the big fuck-off meteor the size of the city is gone, and the airship's toast, and so's most of Midgar, and most of the people that were in Midgar, but... y'know, Planet's still there. Mission accomplished, I guess?

And there was that Something Else that his family kept insisting on, but Cloud still wasn't convinced. It wasn't Holy, obviously -- they hadn't gotten it to work at all. Not until two years later, when Tifa finally managed it in order to purge the 'stigma, and they finally knew what it looked like. So that was their theory shot down.

Just that one city being destroyed, that did this to your planet? asked Aeris.

Well... kinda, said Cloud. Shinra was based out of Midgar. So that was all gone. And... most of humanity, they were living there too. So there was that. But before that, there was the Weapons. And Sephiroth. There wasn't really anyone that could stop him.

How? You've got magic. Just... turn him into a frog or something. Is that something you could've done?

FIrst of all, said Cloud, rolling his eyes slightly, that's a common misconception. There are a lot of very complicated circumstances and variables and everything that have to be just right for that spell to even work in the first place. And second of all, he continued, amid Aeris's disbelief, magic is just a tool. There are things you can and can't do with it, and... and anyway, Sephiroth could do things that...

He glanced over at the mirror over the sink on the other side of the room. A pair of inhuman, catlike eyes stared back. Cloud missed his sunglasses.

I don't know. Whatever it was, it wasn't magic. I saw the guy walk through a solid wall on at least one occasion.

There isn't a "walk through walls" spell?

No. No matter how much energy you move around, walls are walls.

And frogs are much smaller than people. What happens to the rest of you? Conservation of mass --

You're missing the point. There are -- there are rules, things the world says you can and can't do, and he can do things by just -- deciding he could do them. Like he decided the rules didn't apply to him, so they didn't. Go through walls. Fly. Level a building without moving a muscle. He... he moved us somewhere. Or maybe we just hallucinated it. Or maybe we didn't go anywhere, and he just... sectioned off a part of the world, and... it looked like Nibelheim. It wasn't, obviously, the whole place was on fire but Nibelheim burned years ago, and everyone acted like we were still in... I don't know. It wasn't...

I see, said Aeris, not doing a very good job of convincing either one of them.

That's not something people can just do, said Cloud. I can't do that. It's not magic when he does it, it's just... it's Jenova convincing you that you can do something, and then it happens because She wants it, or you do, or maybe there's not a difference.

Perhaps the reason he wasn't explaining this very well was because he didn't understand it properly -- not that anyone else did. He'd thought about trying the walls thing himself, but he wasn't sure how thick they were, and suppose he got caught halfway through? It was one thing to move cups around to irritate Cid, or fetch a towel without leaving the bathroom, or to panic and break something without meaning to (he was extraordinarily lucky on that front, he realised suddenly: heated glass from a light fixture raining everywhere had a nasty tendency of landing in eyes). He hadn't even been thinking about what he'd been doing during the times he'd stood on the underside of something he long since should have fallen off of. It took a special sort of focus, to let Jenova trick you into ignoring how the world should work.

Maybe he's had more time the practise than me, but -- whatever. He was lethal before he decided he could just ignore reality when he felt like it. Afterwards, nobody really stood a chance.

Well, you're not dead. So something happened to him?

Yeah. Killed him too.

Oh. Right, yes. I think I saw that, sort of. How?

Wasn't easy. He'd been using me for a while with Jenova, a bit like you're doing now. But that kind of thing goes both ways. Maybe I wasn't as strong as him, but maybe that's why he wasn't paying attention.

...Do you suppose you could see where I am now?

...I don't know. I don't think so. You're not really infected. If I could've pushed back towards you, I would've done it when you first showed up.

I see, she said again.

Maybe wherever Aeris lived was too different for her to really understand Jenova. Maybe they had things like Her everywhere. That wasn't to say Cloud understood Jenova either. Jenova was something that couldn't exist, that was an aberration to everything that had any sort of logic or familiarity to it. It made sense in a strange sort of way that so was the effect She had on the world.

The speaker clicked back on, and Cloud looked up sharply, realising far too late his lips had been silently moving the whole time. He mentally scrambled for an excuse. They probably saw him nod, too --

"Mr. Strife, your family is here to see you," said the voice.

A wave of emotion hit him like a truck (and he could definitely attest to the accuracy of that simile now), and he swallowed thickly and nodded.

The microphone went silent again, before...

"Cloud? Can you hear me?"

He felt his breathing catch. He'd forgotten what it was like, to have a hole that deep suddenly filled. He'd taken it for granted, being able to just hear Tifa's voice whenever he wanted. He should have called more, just because he could. He should call everyone. "I'm here. I missed you."

"I missed you too," she said. Cloud started to feel a bit light-headed. He was breathing too much. The drugs were making him dizzy.

"I'm sorry," said Cloud. It was all he could think of to say.

"...For what?"

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you anything. And -- and I'm sorry I hurt your arm, and got Reeve in trouble, and wrecked your bar --"

"Cloud, a bunch of angry morons wrecked my bar," said Tifa.

"And I'm sorry I put everyone through this, and I don't know how to fix any of it -- I just let you fix everything, and I know it makes you unhappy, and I'm sorry everything I do is -- is stupid. I'm sorry I'm stupid."

He couldn't stop. He hadn't meant for it to turn out like this. He'd used up so much energy pretending he was fine for... however long it had been, and there was nothing else he had in him to stop the tears or the desperate apologies that kept tumbling out of his mouth, and even as he wept he cringed in disgust at himself; that this was all he could ever do at the end of the day, was cry and rely on everyone else. No matter how hard he tried to change himself, this was always the end result. Disgusting. No wonder Hojo hadn't wanted him. Tifa shouldn't either, none of them should. He only ever got worse.

Maybe she should leave him here...

Stop that, snapped a voice in his head. Aeris. He'd forgotten she was there. Cloud was mortified. She'd seen him acting like this, they all had, everyone was watching and he couldn't stop crying --

She's not leaving. I'm not leaving. You're being stupid. You're going to feel awfully silly when all this is over and you're back with your friends, won't you?

"I don't --"

She's right there. Talk to her. Haven't you missed her?

He nodded shakily, his vision a blurry mess, either from tears or from drugs. He could smell it a bit more heavily now. They were trying to calm him down. He wanted to be awake for this visit -- he didn't know if he'd get another one.

"...I'm sorry," was all that came out again.

"Do you need a minute?" asked Tifa. He'd obviously scared her. Aeris began breathing for him again, holding him still. As strong as the urge was to begin picking at his wrist, where his tattoo no longer was to comfort him, Aeris's control seemed to be stronger.

"No, I'm okay," was his automatic response. He probably wasn't fooling anyone, but he didn't even know how to say otherwise. His head hurt, but there were still tears streaming down his face.

"It's good to see you," said Tifa uncertainly. "You've been doing a good job of holding out so far. The... the staff here says you let them draw blood the other day. That's not nothing, right?"

Cloud nodded again. The hands were just as clammy, the needle just as threatening, the smell of antiseptic just as strong after all these years. Another wave of tears hit him. He imagined what it would have been like in Nibelheim with Tifa coming by his cell to tell him he was doing a good job.

Do you want me to go? asked Aeris. He'd made her uncomfortable, there was no hiding that.

"Please don't -- please don't go. I'll stop. I can stop. I can stop, I promise, just don't go --"

"I'm not going yet," said Tifa. He was making it worse. He was scaring her and making it all worse. The world around him was swimming at the edges. Definitely the drugs this time.

"I love you," he blurted out. "I love all of you -- I never said anything, I didn't want anyone to leave --"

"Nobody would do that. Cid said he's setting up a room for you to stay for a little while. Yuffie's got space, too, if you want to stay a little closer to Edge."

Cloud nodded again. Cid was nice. So was Yuffie. They were all so nice to him. He didn't do anything, and they were still all so nice...

"I'll bet he's got a project you can help him on, too," continued Tifa. “You talked about making another bike, didn’t you?”

“Just for fun,” said Cloud. “To see if I could.”

“I bet you could,” said Tifa. “Cid said you did some real impressive stuff with the engine. You could probably make a lot of money off that kind of thing.”

“Reeve -- Reeve said I should get a patent.”

“He’s right. He said it’s really light for a V8.”

“Reeve’s an idiot. It’s not a V-anything.” He felt Aeris ease up a bit and drew a deep, shuddering breath himself. There were still tears trickling freely from his eyes, but he began to feel a bit calmer again.

“It isn’t? He said it was.”

“He assumed it was. I never let him look. Too much weight, not enough power. Size isn’t everything.”

“Then what is it?” Tifa didn’t deal in engines. She was asking for his benefit. Cloud didn’t care.

“Compression-rotary. Mythril-tipped apex seals, helps counteract the wear you’d normally see with that kind of thing.”

“I see.”

“It’s a secret, okay? I gotta figure out how to do a patent first. And if I want credit for anything, it’s that.” He told a joke. Ha ha.

“I won’t tell anyone.”

Cloud wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve. “Is… is the bar running again?”

“...Not yet,” said Tifa after a moment. “I wanna get the window fixed first. Besides, how am I supposed to run the place when I’m missing a busboy?”

“You don’t need him,” said Cloud. “I heard he got suspended without pay once for threatening the customers. They shoulda fired him years ago.”

“As his manager, I have faith he can improve,” said Tifa. “He has a great work ethic. I’ve never once seen him back off on anything.”

“...I love you.”

“I love you too. Keep at it, alright?”

He was already dizzy from the fumes, but now he was dehydrated as well, and the world began to swim around him. He was too frazzled to motivate himself to do anything about it, so Aeris carefully edged him out of the bed herself and shuffled over to the sink, using the padded wall to balance herself. He filled his hands with water, since they hadn’t given him a cup, and took a sip.

His head cleared a little, then -- he wasn’t sure if the water was drugged as well, but it was cold and refreshing and at least did something to wake him up. Something occurred to him.

“Is it just you here? They said ‘family’.”

“Me and Barret and Nanaki. They’re having us use the phone one at a time. It’s… you can’t see them? They’ve been waving.”

He blinked. “No. Should I be able to?”

“Well, yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m looking at you right through the --”

The speaker clicked off suddenly.

“Tifa?”

There was no response from either her or his minder.

“Barret? Nanaki?”

He strained his ears, listening for any sort of sound. He could very faintly make out muffled shouting. Someone was angry. Maybe multiple someones.

“Oi, jackass! Give the phone back!” he barked. No one responded.

He began to pace in his cell. Aeris suddenly cut in again.

It’s somewhere obvious. Somewhere anyone on the other side would think you could see, but you can’t. Why can’t you see it?

I don’t know. She’s looking right through the… camera? You can’t see through those. There has to be a window somewhere. A big one.

He began frantically combing the walls of his cell again. The mirror? He grabbed hold of the edges and wrenched it from the wall with a grunt, to reveal more padding behind it. There wasn’t anything he could see indicating there was a gap anywhere. The cloth seemed to be -- the cloth. The closer he got to it, the more he realised how sheer it was. Examining the torn edges, he could see it had a sort of sharktooth weave to it -- light could pass through one side and render it opaque, but from another…

Cloud created another fire in his hand and began feeling the walls, searching for any patch of it that looked as though there might be something behind it. The gas was flowing heavily now. Cloud held his breath. He only had seconds -- there was quite a lot of the stuff in his system already.

There -- a spot by the door, nearly as long as he was tall, where the light from the fire seemed to interact differently. He dug his fingers into it, but his arms had no strength left in them. Stars appeared at the corners of his vision. He was so close. They cut off his access to his family. Cloud decided the deal they’d had was off.

Cloud took in a lungful of air, enough to send him to his knees, but it gave him the burst of strength he needed. The flame in his hand flickered, then sparked, and then roared to life in an vortex that swept around the room. The noise was deafening, and Cloud was no longer devoting energy to controlling the fire, and even as he felt the heat began to curl painfully into his skin, he kept feeding it up until the minute he blacked out.

 


 

“We’re running out of time.”

“I know.”

The wound in his chest had been stitched closed. The stitching wasn’t particularly good, and they’d probably need to heal it properly very soon, but that wasn’t important right now. The little chunk of materia he was holding was the closest thing they’d had since this started at a real chance to fight back.

And yet, he hesitated. He got a vague sense of foreboding from the little opalescent ball clutched tightly in his fist. It was almost as though it didn’t like him. Maybe he was imagining it. He hadn’t even activated it yet, and it already felt like his hand was burning.

Still, he kept staring at it. Every breath he took was accompanied by steadily building discomfort, and the longer he held it, the further he felt like he was drifting away somewhere familiar. There were older, less-remembered places under this one, and the deeper he tried to breathe, the closer the low howling noise started to pull him --

Cloud was awakened by a sudden stabbing pain in his lungs, and began to cough immediately. The inside of his mouth was gritty with ash.

He must have been unconscious for about an hour, judging by the state of his cell. The padding in his cell was burnt off the walls, and there across from his bed was a large observation window. The glass seemed quite thick. Watching him were a couple nurses, and three cops. Cloud recognised one of them. Reno. None of them seemed to be looking at him at the moment.

Someone had moved him back to his bed, it seemed, and the blankets he’d had before had been replaced with new ones. There was soot all over the ceiling. His arm was heavily bandaged, and he could still smell scorched hair and burnt flesh.

Oh good, you’re not dead.

Seems like it.

Aeris made him get up and have another drink, which helped to wash away the grit in his mouth. They left you in here. Even though it’s all burnt up.

Yeah. I guess it’s not like there’s any other cell they could put me in where I wouldn’t just smash through the wall…

So it had been a bit of a rush-job. He supposed they must have started building as soon as they’d called in the WRO. Maybe it had been appropriated from a room they’d had already.

We know where they’re looking from, said Cloud, so we know they've got blind spots.

They also know we know, said Aeris. And they probably won't be too happy you set fire to your room.

If they're mad now, they're not gonna like the next part.

You have an idea?

Not yet. But we have something to make ideas around. That's a start.

His head was pounding, and he was dizzier than ever. He'd probably been breathing ash and sedatives for a while now.

So… said Aeris after a moment. You’ve been dating your boss?

I’ve exclusively dated my boss. She conscripted me for Avalanche, too.

That’s so trashy.

I know.

...Do you suppose we'd get along?

Dunno. He kept his face low to the sink, breathing the cool, fresh air around the running stream of water. I think talking to people scares her. You gotta force opinions out of her. It's stupid. I wouldn't mind if she just told me stuff.

You're one to talk. Getting answers from you is like pulling teeth.

Cloud ran his tongue along the inside of his mouth uncomfortably. That's different. You threw us into traffic. And I thought you were a doctor.

I am a doctor.

Not a real one. If you were a real doctor, we'd have issues.

There was a brief surge of annoyance from Aeris at his compliment. Cloud didn't bother to ask why. Maybe it was a cultural thing.

I'll have to go soon, said Aeris. I've tried to keep the notes as neutral as possible, but they'll start worrying if I lose contact for too long. And I need to start preparing for the trip over.

Come back soon, said Cloud.

I will.

Aeris vanished, and Cloud stumbled upon realising he hadn't actually been standing up on his own. Jenova flooded back into him, reclaiming what he'd managed to take for himself, but he fought harder this time. He was determined to get as much planning in as possible before he slipped under again, either due to the sedatives or Jenova.

The door was still intact. Big heavy vault door. There was probably a key. Maybe. There might not be a key. It could just be electronic. Or thumbprint based. Or...

He barely managed to make it back into bed before his mind quit on him. He'd had a flash of an idea, but it was swallowed up just as quickly. At least he wouldn't be lonely while he waited. Mother was here again. She sang him to sleep, the way She always had, and this time he tried to listen more closely.

Let me out. Let me out. Let me out. Let me out. Let me out. Let me in.

Chapter Text

The floor was immaculately clean these days.

There had been a time when it wasn't -- when it was covered in dust and dead insects from disuse. Stacks of paper from promising research projects that piled up in corners and on desks. Uniforms and equipment from new subjects. And, once upon a time, stones of all shapes and sizes and colours, and crumbs from home baked bread, and dirt tracked in by a boy that was small enough to squeeze into places he ought not to be.

All of it had been swept away long ago. The place had been cleaned and remodelled and sterilised, and not even rats would enter the mansion anymore, even long after it had been abandoned by the scientists. All that was left were the failed projects.

Something moved in the dark. There was a scraping, then a creaking of old, damp-riddled wood, and with a crash the lid of one of the coffins was knocked the floor and crashed against the Buster Sword lying on the ground next to it.

Vincent Valentine arose from the coffin. All this time he had listened. Heard the screams of defiance and anger, and then weeping, and the pleading to no one in the dark, and at long last the sound of resigned mantras, repeated one after another, and then of silence. He had listened, and he had done nothing. Until now.

Vincent had realised long ago that he could do nothing for them. It was yet another consequence of his failures. One by one, they were fed into the ravenous combine that was Shinra, and one by one they were used up and discarded. But the boy... the boy had been the first in years. The same child that had been so eager to feed himself into those whirring blades one day, and lo and behold, now he was here. Another testament to his cardinal sin.

And yet... there had been something strange about his eyes. He'd seen that look somewhere before. In fact, it had been one of the last things he'd seen before a bullet had ripped itself through his chest, tearing his old life away with it. The look those eyes had given him as he choked to death on his own blood had been full of many things, but one that they were utterly devoid of was regret. He had failed, and in the end, she had chosen this path. For better or for worse.

Lucrecia. The tissue grafts -- they were continuing her research posthumously.

This boy, the boy from the village that hadn't stopped bringing him rocks, that was now huddled in a dog crate and muttering nonsense to himself, that was half-mad already and twisted into a shell of whatever he used to be, was here because of him.

Vincent shut himself away after that, never to reemerge. There could be no atonement for this.

He would awake from time to time in response to noise -- always reminders of why he was here in the first place. Sobbing, rattling against the walls of the little metal box, incoherent rambling... he heard it less and less as time went on, until one day it ceased altogether, as did the visits to the storage room. Vincent hoped that by some miracle the boy had perhaps died in his sleep. He did not awaken for some time after that.

The sounds of a struggle dragged him back out of the deep slumber he had returned to. This was a larger group than he remembered.

"Hold its arms so I can get the legs in," said a voice. One of the lab assistants.

"I am holding. It can't move, I don't see what the big deal is."

"There's still the issue of involuntary muscle responses, and from this guy that could easily wind up taking your head off. So pay attention. I gotta get this all the way to the nerve."

A plaintive, muffled wail echoed through the room along with the voices of the lab assistants. He knew that voice. He doubt he'd be able to forget that voice. The boy was still alive?

"It's looking at me."

"No it's not, it just has its eyes open. Doesn't got any real brain function anymore. Just between you and me, this is why you don't stick a pressurised pump into someone's spinal column and fill it with mako, that's probably what did it. How can you be smart enough to grow a person in a vat and not know that?"

"The president gave him the grant money, man, I ain't gonna question it."

"Yeah, well, that's why we don't have grant money anymore, do we? Hurry up and finish the form so we can leave, it's freezing in here."

"Humanoid... purpose for archiving... organs?"

"Maybe education. It's not gonna make very interesting combat training exercise, and it's technically still alive. They'll probably want to keep it in one piece so they can figure out what not to do for the next time."

"Serial number... six seven dash two, Series three. Jenova Project."

"Project head?"

"Let's see... says here it's one of Crescent's, officially. Guess that explains why Hojo's so bummed out about the cancellation."

"Urgh. Freaks me the hell out. Her and the doc. Somethin' not right about her."

"Hey, you can't say it doesn't make sense though, right? Birds of a feather."

"Yeah, whatever." There was a loud click, followed by the sound of rushing fluid. "So... she's gotta sign off on it, right?"

"Yeah. She's in Midgar right now. The doc's planning on leaving too, so just give that form to him and he'll deliver it to her himself. Guess we're all out of a job now..."

"Yeah, guess so..."

Vincent barely heard the door close and lock behind him over the pounding of his own heart in his chest. Lucrecia was still alive. Head of the Science Department, from the sound of things. This boy -- Lucrecia had done this. To him. To both of them. And Hojo -- he was still involved in this as well? The first child, the one she'd had with Hojo, must not have made it to term. That must have been why the project was still running. The boy -- he was Series 3, it all made sense now. But Lucrecia couldn't have been his mother, could she? He had mentioned a mother quite frequently all those years ago. She did not seem like Lucrecia, and the boy looked nothing like her nor Hojo. This boy had simply been fallout.

It all made a sickening amount of sense. At least now he finally knew, so he could have some peace of mind.

But peace of mind did not return to Vincent. He waited days, and then what must have been weeks, and the men did not return for Series 3. They really were just leaving him here.

He was ill, it seemed. Severe mako poisoning, not to speak of whatever else had been done. If anyone would know how to treat this, surely it would be Lucrecia? She was in Midgar... still making choices like she had the first time he did nothing.

But Lucrecia was still alive. This boy was still alive. Surely something here could be salvaged out of this nightmare.

Vincent decided to leave his coffin.

His legs felt weak as he took his first step in what must have been at least ten years, but they held steadily enough, and he strode over to the wall and flipped the light switch.

The back of the room was lined with glass pods. Vincent did not want to think about what was in most of them, but resting in one of them, a light coat of dust covering the glass, was the boy.

It was a mistake to call him "the boy" now, he realised -- it was a much sharper face peering blankly back at him from inside the cylinder. But while his hair had grown out to his shoulders and solidified into a mat, he didn't seem to have much in the way of facial hair. Perhaps it was malnourishment? Every part of him looked chewed and diminished, and his skin was every bit as unhealthily pale as Vincent's.

He inspected the pod and found a small button in the side that seemed to open it. The fluid inside slowly drained, and Vincent watched impassively as the body inside slumped against the wall of the cylinder, being held up by the tubes coming from its mouth and nose. Vincent carefully disconnected them, and hesitated only briefly before removing the intravenous lines and the feed hooked into the back of his neck. If he had caused any damage removing them, it would be another thing that Lucrecia could fix.

The boy -- no, not a boy. And it wouldn't do to call him Series 3, either. He'd had a name that he said many years ago he would remember. Something to do with the sky. An old Nibeli one, translated into one succinct word for the sake of the Standard that everyone in Midgar spoke. Cloud. His name was Cloud.

Cloud's emaciated body fell to the floor. It appeared they had taken his clothes long ago, and he likely would not survive for long this far north, damp and naked. He pulled a couple of the Soldier First uniforms off one of the shelves and used one of them to pat him dry, then set about stuffing him into the second. It was far too big on him. Another pang went through Vincent at the thought, and he steeled himself against it. He must remain focused. It was unlikely he would have another opportunity for redemption.

The old wooden door had since been replaced with a steel one, requiring some sort of key combination to open. Vincent braced himself against the door and pushed, but it held firm. They had taken his gun from him long ago, and the two spells he had mastered during his time in the Turks worked strictly on people and not doors, and would be of no use here.

One of his sabatons clicked against something metal. The sword. His strength wasn't nearly that of a Soldier, but it was certainly much more than it should have been, and would do for his purposes.

He picked up the sword out from under the lid to his coffin and, with a loud grunt, rammed it into the door like a battering ram. It took another ten blows or so before the metal finally caved and the door opened outward, now crooked on its hinges. His arms ached, especially from disuse, but he held the sword steady and stood absolutely still, listening for the sound of boots on stone and cocking weapons. Someone must have heard that.

A minute passed, and no one came. Something stirred in one of the cylinders on the wall behind him. Vincent refused to look at it again, and dragged Cloud over to the door. Upon further reflection, he placed the sword on the magnetic harness Cloud was now sporting on the back of his uniform, then hefted them both onto his back. Until he could find a gun, it was better than nothing.

He had mastered some magic, but not much. He looked around the storage room for anything that might have been useful. Something was still shining in his coffin. The healing materia -- it was still there. Perhaps...? No, that wouldn't work. Mako poisoning, if that's what this was, was well beyond his capacity to heal with an unused materia. Still, he pocketed it anyway, just in case.

Starved as he was, Cloud was fairly light. It was just as well, since the sword weighed easily as much as he did, if not more. The mansion might be abandoned, but he was still stealing company property. Someone would notice eventually. He would have to move quickly.

Nibelheim was just as he remembered it. Perhaps his mother... no. If they had her child, Shinra would have tied up the loose ends involved. He himself had done as much during his employment. Besides, there was nothing she could have done for him. That's where Lucrecia would come in.

They both stood out rather badly, as he quickly found out. He gave Cloud an impromptu haircut with the Buster Sword's edge, and stuffed his own hair into the back of a coat he'd stolen from a guard station. Would anyone still recognise him? How long had it been since he had gone missing? Or the boy, for that matter? At least ten years, judging by how Cloud had matured. A lot could change in ten years.

The main problem was food. Cloud would not chew, and it took a fair amount of coaxing to get him to swallow. He'd managed to get him to swallow a bit of bread he'd already pre-chewed for him, but it came back up not long after: Cloud had apparently gone quite a while since eating any real food. He considered sneaking back into the mansion for a pack of glucose. He decided against it -- if they hadn't noticed Cloud was missing before, they certainly would now. He would have to figure something else out.

He wound up breaking into a clinic and stealing medical supplies when they reached the next town -- there was a military presence here too, if the massive remains of some sort of missile labelled Shinra Type 26 looming over the skyline was any indication. Vincent dimly recalled mention of a war with Wutai. Was it still ongoing? Was this meant to be used against them? He almost turned to ask Cloud before catching himself.

The expiration labels on the gelatin cups he'd purchased with the stolen money clued him in as to how long he'd been gone. Expires 09/58. Assuming these cups were new and would last about a year, he'd been gone nearly three decades.

The shock didn't really hit him. It didn't seem fully real. He supposed technically this was the "future". That explained how Lucrecia was in Midgar: it seemed they had finished building it. He wondered who was directing the Turks in his absence. Orwell, perhaps, or Avery. Assuming either one of them were still alive. It suddenly struck him that nearly everyone he knew could very well be dead. Thirty years was a lot of time for people to learn too much and become a liability, or for loyalties to waver too much for the company's comfort, or to simply catch a stray bullet at the wrong time. Nobody left the Turks except in a body bag. Or, in his case, a coffin. He was briefly amused by the mental picture of Avery covering up his death. She'd have addressed it to the wrong department, she always did...

He wondered if Cloud had any friends that were still alive. Had he actually joined the military, or had Shinra simply abducted him off the streets? He himself had taken part in such "scouting" expeditions at times, on the occasion when they couldn't simply find a poor, desperate family to volunteer. Eight to ten was the preferred age of most samples -- young enough to be impressionable, old enough to follow complicated orders. And small enough that no one cared when they went missing. The child mortality rate in the slums was quite high in his time. Nobody thought much of it if one or two children slipped through the cracks.

He never saw any of the samples again. Vincent had been a professional, though, and hadn't asked where they had gone. No Turk was stupid enough to want to know.

Next to him in the grass, Cloud made a noise of distress, his hands unconsciously groping for something. Vincent watched him for a few moments until he went limp again. He didn't seem to be responding to any stimulus that Vincent could see. His arm lay twisted at an uncomfortable-looking angle, displaying his serial number quite clearly.

Vincent carefully picked him up and moved Cloud's arm so he could more efficiently bandage it with some of the gauze he had taken from the clinic. One or two times, his hand would twitch, still grasping at nothing. Vincent ignored it. Cloud likely wasn't cognisant enough to feel pain or discomfort, let alone respond to stimuli. Any comforting he did would be lost on both of them.

He had grown quite a bit from the last time Vincent had seen him. It was difficult to tell what was him and what was Shinra's doing, though. He was still just as sickly-looking as he had been the first time they'd met. The strange bony physique he had was doubtless a product of whatever experiments they'd been running on him. His eyes were hollow now -- whatever had been there before, it was beyond Vincent's reach or help. Shinra had shaped his body, and the mako had claimed his mind, and Cloud himself seemed to have gotten lost somewhere in the middle of it all. He wondered who he could have been once, and how much of the boy he'd encountered in that crate steadily becoming more and more unhinged years ago was the person he was currently feeding gelatin and broth too. Not that it mattered much anymore.

Vincent wasn't sure if his own answers were any simpler. He was no longer a Turk -- Hojo had seen to that. Perhaps that just made him Vincent.

Who was Vincent? A dead man, he knew. A man that had failed Lucrecia. A man that wouldn’t fail a second time, though at what he wasn’t really sure. He could offer Lucrecia redemption, but only she could accept it and atone for them both.

Cloud had stopped swallowing, and Vincent didn’t have anymore success afterwards getting him to take more food. He couldn’t have possibly been full, but there wasn’t really anything he could do about that either. Another thing out of his hands.

He, Vincent, was still alive. And apparently Lucrecia had been as well. And so had Cloud. Perhaps it wasn’t so farfetched to assume someone else had returned from the grave.

A week later, and Cloud was still not taking solids. Vincent could not afford to break into a second clinic. It would give him away, if it hadn't already. He would need supplies. And money. He'd need employment on a very temporary basis, with someone that wouldn't ask too many questions -- it was highly unlikely that Shinra was looking for him specifically or expected his involvement in the first place, but he also couldn't risk leaving Cloud alone for too long. His pulse was weak and irregular, and his skin was clammy. His hands no longer twitched, reaching for something that wasn't there. He was practically dead already.

He would not have been the first, or second, or even third person Vincent had watched die. He likely would not survive long enough for Vincent to take him to Lucrecia, if she agreed to fix him at all. In the end, he'd be delivering him right back into Shinra's hands anyway. His eyes landed on the sword on Cloud's back.

It would be kinder, he knew. Whether or not Cloud was aware of it, he was still suffering. It was the principle of the thing. And it wasn't as though he would have much of a life to return to, should he recover. He would spend the rest of his days running. That was no way to live.

Vincent removed the sword from Cloud's back and levelled it at his neck. One cut. He wouldn't even feel the pain. No one recovered from mako poisoning this deep, and it was much better than letting him slowly starve to death or die of exposure. He would be free from Hojo, from Lucrecia, from Vincent's mistakes. Truly free, not out in the wild being hunted like an animal, a marked man for the rest of his life, even if they were to one day stop pursuing him. Vincent had often heard it said that one's face looked peaceful in death, but all anyone had looked like to him was a corpse. Cloud, with his eyes glazed and his face gaunt, was no exception. He sighed and adjusted the blade.

"Why can't I just pretend? Why do you care so much if I just pretend?"

The words came to him unbidden, and he frowned.

"Because it has never done anyone an ounce of good," said Vincent sharply. He realised he was talking aloud to no one. Another thing that wouldn't actually help. Cloud could not hear him.

"Why can't I just pretend?"

He still didn't know how old Cloud was. He could have been fourteen, or forty. His body was too warped, by chemicals and fear and time, for him to tell. Vincent knew he himself was fifty-seven or fifty-eight. He might not look it, after all these years, but he felt the age somewhere very deep. It had settled into him and wrapped itself around his bones, sinking into the fingers that held the sword above Cloud's neck.

Vincent put the sword back down. He was perfectly capable of pretending. He was going to pretend Cloud was awake right now.

"It gains us nothing. You being alive does not serve you any. Neither does my insistence upon talking to you. It's purely for my benefit, in order to come to terms with my thoughts."

Cloud said nothing, as expected.

He had skills he could use. A few mastered spells, though it was likely only fire would be useful to him here. He couldn’t take any jobs that wouldn’t be extremely temporary, both for Cloud’s sake and his own; the longer he was tied to an area, the sooner people would notice he was there. People were not yet asking questions about Vincent Valentine. He did not want them to start.

So, what sort of work was available for former Turks that had avoided the usual method of retirement? Most of them wound up as assassins, most likely. Or mercenaries. Once a Turk, always a Turk, he supposed.

He began picking up small jobs -- a day or two as a porter on the Corel river. That had been one of the first shocks of many -- Corel was gone. He’d expected an economic decline, of course. Coal couldn’t begin to compete with mako in price or efficiency. But Corel was gone. Turks gone. Wiped off the map by Soldier from the looks of things. The bustling little coal town he’d seen pictures of was forgotten and unspoken of.

Phones were portable now, he’d learned as well. He didn’t see much point -- any time one would be away from home long enough to necessitate a portable phone would be long enough for the battery inside it to die anyway.

President Shinra was still alive and still in power. That one was a bit of a surprise, if only because he’d expected the man to have a coronary long before now. Perhaps the science department had perfected biosynthetic organs by now. He drummed the metal fingers of his false hand against the floor of the boat he’d stowed away on -- perhaps they’d be able to grow him a new hand. He couldn’t quite recall how he’d lost it in the first place. He wasn’t sure if it would help if he did.

That was how he made ends meet from week to week: small jobs. He had to be in and out and gone in no longer than a week. Cloud began to put on a bit of weight, but he showed no signs of waking. Little by little, they made their way across the wilderness, and little by little Vincent saw things that were familiar, and things that were different, and things that perhaps had always been that way, but he had simply never bothered to look before.

Not for the first time, he wished he could ask Cloud. Perhaps he should have asked more questions when he had the chance. But then, he hadn’t wanted to know back then.

“If you felt like saying something, now would be an excellent opportunity to start,” said Vincent one day. He had propped Cloud up against a bundle of hay in the barn he’d snuck into. The birds -- chocobos, mostly, with a few aggressive swallows -- were watching them both warily.

“You must admit, there is a certain irony in risking one’s life for someone unable to appreciate the act nor the selfishness of the motivations behind it,” he added.

Cloud said nothing, as usual. Vincent sighed and sat down by the hay next to him.

“I did not care for your visits,” Vincent continued. “I do not felt they accomplished much.” He set about the task of removing his metal hand. Now that he intended to sleep -- truly sleep, not enter a state of prolonged hibernation, he’d found it was rather uncomfortable to have it on during the night.

He stared at the stump that remained of his forearm. He could dimly recall pain. That didn’t really surprise him. And a lot of yelling. And a piercing agony through his arm that seemed to be spreading, and then blissful oblivion.

“Although,” he added, “perhaps I am not without blame myself. If I had been more interest in dissuading you, we would not be here now.” He leaned back against the hay, feeling that strange heaviness building up in his bones again. “It seems my lacking skills as a conversationalist have caused more than a fair bit of misery.”

He looked at Cloud again. It was strange to see him so quiet now. Orwell had always been rather chatty in the beginning. After they'd had to dispose of Yang to prevent a security leak he went quiet. Everyone went quiet in the end.

“Of course,” said Vincent, “you cannot hear me now. This conversation between us is as pointless as the first thirty. You might not have listened then either, even when you could.”

One of the chocobos squawked at him, raising its head crest in warning. Vincent gave it a look.

“And so, here I am, a man that should be well into retirement, peddling my skills as a mercenary,” he said. “That is the hand fate has dealt me.”

He put Cloud to sleep with a quick spell. It was difficult to tell if he was actually resting. This was easier. Vincent wondered if he still dreamt.

He kicked a bit of dirt over their fire and watched it sputter out.

“We are simply what the world makes us, Cloud. No more, no less.”

 


 

Vincent limped his way up the staircase, the body draped over his shoulder unwieldy and making each step grind further into his knee. One of the MPs had managed to get the drop on him with a baton, and while it wasn’t broken, he could feel something grinding against something else that had no business grinding against anything in the first place. The gun he’d stolen was clutched tightly in his other hand. An assault rifle. Inelegant, but better than nothing.

There were more than a few bullets lodged in his abdomen by now. Vincent may have been a former Turk, but that was before thirty years of inactivity and the body he'd been carrying over his shoulders had dulled his skills and slowed his movements. He could heal, he knew, but he wasn't sure if there was a limit to it. He may have died before, but he was certainly alive now. Alive and mortal.

He heard the sound of a pistol firing, and Cloud let out a sharp gasp. He'd been hit. Vincent quickly ducked down a hallway by the staircase leading to the sixty-eighth floor.

It was just a graze, luckily. A gash on his leg that was already closing up right before his eyes. He tore off a bit of his cloak and quickly wrapped it anyway. There were already voices approaching them from down the hall, and he couldn’t afford to get distracted this close.

If he had been a bit less focused, perhaps he would have paid more mind to the fact that Cloud had made a noise at all.

Still, he paused outside the door of the stairwell, the ID card in his hand hovering by the reader uncertainly. There was a very good chance he wouldn't come back out of this door. Cloud might not either. Of course, that wasn't really much of a tragedy. Cloud was practically dead anyway. He would either recover or he wouldn't. And he himself... he was a relic. There were still Turks around, most likely, but the world did not need Turks. The world did not need him. He and Cloud were both relics, forgotten in a basement for too long to have any place besides the one carved out for them there. An old man lingering around older sentiments. A boy who had long since missed his chance to ever pursue newer ones. It wouldn't really be such a terrible loss for either of them.

Still, he supposed he must try. Lucrecia still had a place.

Vincent swiped the card and watched the door retract with a quiet humming noise. He adjusted his grip on Cloud and forced his knee to carry him up the stairs.

There were about twenty guns trained on him all at once the minute he set foot in the lab. He took out two right away as he turned the corner, scrambling for cover behind a desk. A third was close enough to knock out with a quick sleeping spell. That left twenty... at least until backup arrived, at which point his death warrant was signed anyway. He shoved Cloud further under the desk and risked a quick peek at the room around him.

Seventeen guards, with likely some higher ranking military personnel among their number. Five scientists that appeared to be scrambling for cover. Vincent recognised two of them.

He forced his breathing to slow. His ears were already buzzing from the sound of unshielded gunfire.

He heard something behind him and quickly flattened out on his stomach in time to shoot the man that had been sneaking around on his blind side with the rest of the cubicle. Sixteen left.

He couldn't carry Cloud with him, but couldn't leave him alone either. He doubted they'd target him given he was still drooling onto the floor, but he wasn't willing to risk the possibility that he could be wrong. Unless -- he could have sworn his eyes moved to follow him as he crept away along the wall to peek around the corner. No time to check for sure.

He encountered another two trying to flank from the front now that they knew he was headed around the other way. They were only MPs. Vincent was a former Turk. It wasn't really fair. Fourteen.

Controlled, deliberate, methodical. Two in the torso, and one in the head. Thirteen, then ten, change magazines, then eight, then seven...

 


 

There were noises. Things moving beyond the loudest silence. Something stopped to listen to the Other that were noises that were not the loudest silence. Not him. He was him. He was I. I am.

A loud crack sounded in Cloud's ear, making him wince in pain. It was too loud here. It was quiet before. He wanted to go back to the quiet. The noises around him began to drown it out. His eyes focused on something blurry.

White. Blurry white. And grey, and something red and black and brown that danced around him. He feebly reached for it.

The dancing stopped. He realised something had been at his back only when it was pulled away. The blurriness in his vision receded with the fog and the silence, and he could hear voices.

"...did you get here?"

"What have you done? What have you done, Lucrecia?"

The second voice... he knew that voice. Everything was a blur, not just his vision -- he couldn't seem to focus on anything but the floor beneath him, and the voices above him, which kept getting louder and louder.

"What reason could you possibly have to come back here?" A third voice. An icy, sticky voice, sharp and intent and unforgiving. Cloud hated it, and loved it, and a powerful hurt flared up in his chest. "You were a clever man. I'm sure you know how this will end."

Hojo. He hadn't been good enough for him. He could never be good enough. They'd hurt him because he wasn't good enough. He shivered.

"Behind me," said the second voice. "I brought him for you."

"The Series 3 prototype was discontinued six months ago," said the first voice. Soothing, twisting, indescribably beautiful, profoundly hungry, reaching into parts of himself that called for something he had no name for. Part of him.

Director Crescent. He'd dreamed of her touching him, the way Ma once had.

Ma... the village... Sephiroth... it was all gone now... everything was gone...

"Listen to yourself," said the second voice. "I implore you -- was this the world you wanted to create? You both set out for the betterment of mankind -- he's led you down a path much like your own in feature but unlike yours in virtue. He may have chosen, but you --"

"I thought I made my choice clear, Vincent. I thought you knew that as well."

"Your son, Sephiroth, surely --"

"Vincent... Sephiroth is dead," said the Director.

"And you would condemn another to that fate?"

He knew that voice. Cold and rough, like stone under stone under dirt and snow and frost. Magic rocks. A companion in the dark.

The Pale Man.

Cloud's eyes fixed on the shape above him -- the Pale Man was here. The Pale Man was with him. And the others -- he was real? He was real. The Pale Man was real.

"I set out for the betterment mankind, and Series 3 was a stepping stone towards that goal." Director Crescent was looking at him coldly now. He wanted to go to her and the Professor, but he couldn't move. The Pale Man was still standing between them.

"You were always a hopeless romantic, Vincent. We both know why you came here," said the Director.

"Is it is such a crime, that I believe you are worth saving?" said Vincent.

"There is nothing to save us from," said the Professor sharply. "And certainly nothing you could provide deliverance from in the first place. You should have remained in storage. Goodbye."

The sound of weapons cocking echoed around them. He couldn't move. He was trapped in his own body, and he was useless, and he couldn't move, and the Pale Man -- Vincent, after all these years, he'd been there for him, and he, Cloud, was still as useless as ever --

The world bent. The people around them seemed to refract and waver like a passing reflection. The loudest silence howled around him, impossibly loud, and the ground beneath him felt as though it were about to break at any moment and let it all in. Cloud's hand spasmed, desperately reaching for Vincent, who seemed to be a million miles away and right in front of him.

Vincent was consumed in a wall of flames. It happened almost instantly -- one minute he was standing there, convulsing, and the next he was crumpled on the floor, spasming intermittently, ragged screams quickly trailing off as what was undoubtedly spellfire rapidly charred his flesh. A moment later he stopped moving entirely.

The Pale Man was gone. Everything was gone. The Pale Man -- he saved him. He saved him, and he was gone, because Cloud hadn't done anything, and he was gone and he was real and he wasn't alone in the dark and he was gone and the pale man was gone and ma was gone and he was alone and he had never once been held or wanted by the pale man the director the professor all gone it was all empty empty empty empty empty --

There were many things Cloud remembered about that day. He remembered the hands, shoving him and Vincent's charred corpse into a disposal chute in the lab. He remembered it all being too much. He remembered falling, further and further, his already limp body impacting against metal and concrete, and still there was so much further to fall, and knowing there was nothing in the world that had ever wanted him, Series 3, a failure, alone, broken, who ruined everything he touched. He remembered the other things that had been thrown out all around him in Sector 2, about not knowing where the Pale Man's -- Vincent's body was, so that maybe once he might hold it, and know that something real had wanted him, Cloud, that the something was alive. He remembered the rain leaking down from the plate below, splashing onto his face, creating mud that he felt himself sinking into. He remembered screaming and screaming and screaming, and not knowing how to stop. He remembered understanding that no one could ever want Cloud or even Series 3, that no one would miss them, that the world moved further and further away the more he realised it, and that soon enough it didn't seem real, and then soon enough he wasn't real either. He remembered lying there, the water pooling up around him even as he drifted off into unconsciousness. Some time later, perhaps days, perhaps a week, he remembered a pair of rough, work-worn hands holding him, pulling him close, and moving him out of the mud and garbage piled up around him, and carrying him to a little run down dive bar in the slums.

The one thing he didn't remember was the look of confusion on everyone's face in the tower, from the guards to Hojo to Lucrecia herself, because none of them had actually fired yet.

Chapter Text

Tifa was awakened by the rhythmic vibration of her phone. For one wild moment, she hoped it was Cloud, before remembering where he was, and why, and how she'd been forcibly escorted out of the WRO headquarters for the second time. She fumbled for it on the desk by her bed, hearing Yuffie mutter in her sleep downstairs. She managed to flip it open before missing the call, which was fortunate, because there wasn't any number displaying.

"Can you talk?" said the voice on the other end. Reno. She hadn't expected news back so soon.

"How did you get this number?"

"This used to be my job, remember? I don't wanna be seen with you. Can you talk?"

"Yeah. Can we meet in person? I dunno if someone's listening."

"Sure, and bring the money."

"I'm sorry?" said Tifa, her voice tinged with suspicion.

"Things came up after you got kicked out. I used that to my advantage. I've got results."

"Already."

"Yeah. You better not back out on this shit now. Especially now that I've got this -- well... just show up."

Tifa sighed heavily. "...When and where?"

"Six hours. How about the last place we all saw you guys? For old time's sake."

"...Understood. See you there." She closed the phone and set it back down on the table, unable to resist a glance over her shoulder.

"The last place they'd met" was probably Midgar. To be more accurate, it was the tunnels underneath Midgar, but those had long since collapsed in on themselves, killing everyone that had thought to take refuge on them.

Still, she would be entering the ruins. Tifa didn't intend to do so alone.

She jogged downstairs and crept into the back room, where she shook Yuffie awake.

"Reno called," she said in response to the indignant glare she got. "Wants to meet in person."

"Sounds like a trap," said Yuffie with a yawn. "You're going?"

"Yeah."

"And you want me to walk into a trap with you."

"That's the idea."

"...Yeah, alright."

Tifa took another deep breath before speaking the next part. "He says to bring the money."

"What -- now? All of it?"

"That's what he says."

"I didn't think he'd be done this fast," said Yuffie. "I'm gonna have to stop to actually get that much. I don't usually carry thousands of gil around on me."

"Well, you'd better be quick about it," said Tifa. "We've got six hours, and I want to be there in five."

Tifa jogged back upstairs and began rummaging through her dresser. Eventually, she found what she was looking for: a set of old leather gloves, worn from many fights. She thought about looking for the brass knuckles too, but digging those out would take too long, and probably wouldn't help her if Reno decided to try and shoot her anyway. By the time she came back down, Yuffie was already ready to go, appearing unarmed apart from the large shuriken on her back, but Tifa knew better than to think that was the only weapon she had on her.

Between the two of them, Reno probably wouldn't be stupid enough to try anything. But still, you never knew.

One stop at an automated teller (in which Yuffie mysteriously managed to withdraw well over the twenty-five hundred gil daily limit and possibly well over thirty thousand gil as well) and five hours later, they found themselves waiting under a warped piece of sheet metal as a chilly breeze blew through the burnt out remains of Sector 5, making the whole city echo and groan for miles. Tifa shivered.

"You're early."

Tifa spun around to find Reno already approaching them from behind a chunk of concrete the size of a house, sporting a small, portable drink cooler and a nervous expression.

"So are you."

"Yeah, well... didn't wanna risk you guys ambushing me," said Reno. "You brought the money?"

"Right here," said Yuffie, patting the used shopping bag she was carrying. "Checked it for dye packs on the way over."

Tifa and Reno both gave her an odd look, but Tifa quickly turned her attention to the drink cooler. "...You brought beer?"

Reno shook his head. "Documents, and some other stuff. Cash first."

Tifa looked at Yuffie, who eventually nodded and handed over the bag. Reno peered in and prodded the contents experimentally.

"Damn. That -- alright." Reno tied the handles together and pulled it over his arm, then set down the cooler inside their alcove. "After you guys were dragged out, Spikes lost his shit and tried to blow up the facility. Everyone was too busy making sure we were all still alive to pay much attention to anything, and that's when I swiped these."

He removed a small manilla folder containing a thin stack of papers from the cooler and handed it to Tifa, who began to look through them. Something stood out as unusual right away.

"...Most of these are old Shinra documents," she said, gesturing to the watermark stamped on a few of them. They looked to be in worse shape than the others, stained with mud and slightly singed in places.

Reno nodded. "The serial number means they got these from the science department in Midgar. Shinra's stuff on the Jenova Project."

Tifa flipped back to the front and began reading. She didn't understand most of it, but a certain familiar phrase caught her eye.

REUNION THEORY

One of Jenova's most fascinating properties is its capacity for regeneration. Inert and unbonded "cells" will, if permitted, merge back together into a single entity. The same behaviour can be observed on both a cellular and multicellular level. Organisms with infused genetic material will also attempt to merge, but will at minimum consciously or unconsciously congregate into the same spot. Jenova's proclivity for repairing itself is theorised to not just be a method of self-preservation, but potentially part of its reproductive cycle.

Tifa continued reading. There wasn't anything listed here that she didn't already know know -- and a few things that she knew were wrong from firsthand experience. But then...

She found a hand-scribbled note that looked much more recent next to one of the paragraphs about wanderlust and fugue states and reported aural hallucinations, and flipped to the addendum it listed. These documents were from the WRO, and appeared to be some sort of staff notice.

The patient has confirmed a persistent pull towards Reunion, in excess of two years in duration following the eradication of geostigma. This is troubling, to say the least. If it is assumed Jenova has a measure of intelligence, it must therefore understand that the majority of its body is destroyed, save for the patient. If we assume this same intelligence is capable of grasping simple cause-and-effect, it must understand that there are no other instances of itself apart from the patient, and therefore nothing to initiate Reunion with. As expected, the patient has not experienced any particular strong pull towards any known location or entity, and yet Reunion still remains a compulsion nearing a biological imperative.

A lack of human-like intelligence is not a lack of intelligence altogether. Jenova believes there to be another part of itself in existence at an unknown location substantial enough to compel the patient to carry out the next phase of its life cycle following infection. Jenova could have the capacity to be incorrect, or perhaps said imperative is simply an involuntary fact of its biology. We may very well be wrong. But we cannot take the slightest chance that we may be right. We as a species would not survive a third encounter.

The patient is to remain in custody until the secondary host or hosts are discovered, until we can confirm the existence or nonexistence of any such entities, or until a method of eradicating Jenova's presence from any host is discovered. All staff coming into contact with the patient are to be screened for any unusual cellular activity, as well as undergo psychiatric evaluation, conducted by Dr. Grant. Under no circumstances is the patient to be allowed contact with any other living entity not in the preapproved list of medical staff until further notice.

LIST OF SUSPECTED HOSTS

Lockhart, Tifa

  • Age: 24
  • DOB: 03 May 5737
  • Height: 166 cm
  • Weight: 72 kg
  • Blood type: B -- Rh (D) negative
  • Method of contact: Subject has been in an intimate relationship with the patient for four years. Contamination also could have occurred in Nibelheim from 5738-5752 prior to Jenova's relocation to Midgar.

Infection status: NEGATIVE, PENDING REEVALUATION. Donated eggs tested and confirmed free of contamination. May request follow-up blood test in six months time.

Price, Charles

  • Age: 41
  • DOB: 16 March 5720
  • Height: 190 cm
  • Weight: 85 kg
  • Blood type: A -- Rh (D) negative
  • Method of contact: Subject was assaulted by the patient on 20 April 5760. Subject received small lacerations on the lower jaw and received damage to tooth enamel during the altercation (see photo: A #29-MO).

Infection status: NEGATIVE. Blood sample taken prior to patient's internment.

Tifa looked up to see Yuffie reading over her shoulder.

"So they're just waiting this out," said Yuffie. "It's a greater good type thing. They think there's another."

"But there's not," objected Tifa. "I made sure of it. Cloud said he couldn't feel anyone."

"So then why is Jenova still bitching at him?" interjected Reno. "Don't get me wrong, he's fuckin' crazy, but he's unstable-crazy, not voices-crazy. If he says the voices in his head are telling him to burn his house down and kill everyone in it, shit, I believe him."

Tifa shot him a look. "Well, there's nothing else here. I don't know what else to say. If anyone would know, it'd be Cloud."

Reno shrugged. "That's for you to work out. That's not all I brought, anyway. You didn't think I brought this thing for fun, did you?" he said, nudging the drink cooler with his foot.

Yuffie leaned over it and made a face. "Oh, gross. What are we supposed to do with that?"

"Do with what?" asked Tifa, already regretting asking. She rolled up the papers and stuffed them into her jacket, then knelt to look into the cooler. There were two things in it. One of those things was ice. The other was several bags and vials of blood. They were only labelled by serial number, but it didn't take a genius to figure out whose it was.

Tifa looked up at Reno, who had his arms crossed looking smug. "You're welcome, by the way. They had three times that. I dunno if they'll notice it missing right away, though. Spike made a pretty big mess of things over there."

Tifa closed the cooler and slung the strap over her shoulder. "That's a fair question, though. What are we supposed to do with this?"

"Better you guys have it than them, right?" said Reno. "You fought Jenova, right? You musta had someone doing some kinda tech work for you. Give it to them."

"Jessie isn't that kind of technician," said Tifa. "She works with computers."

"What about the other guy? The angry one."

"Cid's an aeronaut," said Yuffie.

"Well... shit. I mean, I can't take it back. Throw it out on your own time, I guess."

She rolled her eyes, but did not give the blood back. In a morbid sort of way, it was nice having it there. Like a lock of hair, but... fluids.

Tifa sighed. "Well... thanks. For... for your help."

Reno raised an eyebrow. "Damn. Never thought I'd live to see the day."

Yuffie cleared her throat. "C'mon, let's go. It's bad luck to stand around in a mass grave." She turned on her heels and began to walk back. Tifa heard Reno do the same behind her.

"So... who do you think it is?" asked Yuffie after several minutes of silence.

"...Who do I think what is?" replied Tifa, as though she didn't know.

"Could be anyone. Cloud's probably beat up a lot of folks. I saw him bite a guy once. Maybe that's --"

"There isn't anyone else," said Tifa firmly.

"How do you know?"

Tifa said nothing.

"Awful lot of blood they took," said Yuffie. "Do you think he's okay?"

"He sounded okay on the phone," said Tifa. "Didn't look beat up or anything. I don't think they took it all at once, either."

"...If they can't find anyone else infected," said Yuffie, staring at the cooler, "do you think they'd just kill him?"

Tifa shrugged. It was a possibility, and one she didn't really want to think about too hard at the moment.

"This isn't right," said Yuffie after a moment.

"Well, that's why we're --"

"No," said Yuffie. "Look around. We've been here."

Tifa looked around them and found they were approaching the bent piece of sheet metal and a large chunk of concrete.

She blinked. "...How did we get here? We've been walking in a straight line."

"Reno probably did something," said Yuffie. "Confusion spell or something. I don't get lost."

"Well..." Tifa turned around and pointed herself back towards Edge's skyline, "let's just keep a better eye on where we're going."

They continued walking in silence for another two minutes, until ahead of her she saw the same piece of bent sheet metal. Tifa turned to look at Yuffie, who was already getting her shuriken out.

"He did something. Had to have. I bet he wasn't satisfied with the money he got already. Thinks we have more."

"If we were hexed it would've worn off by now," said Tifa, though she too tensed, preparing for an ambush. "He isn't that... do you hear that?"

The wind around them wasn't much stronger than a gentle breeze, but the deep low sound of a howling gale was steadily growing louder.

"We need to get out of the open," said Tifa. Yuffie nodded and led her under the sheet metal into an old burnt out train compartment. As she ducked inside, she could have sworn that across the sky she she saw...

Well, she didn't know what she saw. But her eyes didn't want to focus on it, and Tifa was grateful for that, because she never wanted to look at it again.

"The fuck was that?" yelled Yuffie. Tifa shook her head, retreating further into the car, stumbling over something on the floor. "What --" It seemed softer than broken glass or steel piping.

Yuffie made a noise of revulsion, pointing at the thing Tifa had tripped over, prompting Tifa herself to look at what it was.

It was a corpse. A fresh one, from the look of things. Part of it looked as though they'd been torn apart by some sort of animal, gashes opened on the skin, its stomach torn with the contents spilling forth, though what organs were what was nearly impossible to discern given how badly ripped apart it all was. But everything above was simply... missing? No, it was all still here. Not all of the splatter surrounding the corpse was blood. There were bits of bone and skin and other unmentionable things mixed into the slurry. It was as though someone had run it through a food processor.

"Tifa... look."

Tifa forced herself to look where Yuffie was pointing, and saw the shredded remains of a plastic shopping bag and several bits of paper.

She gagged and grabbed Yuffie's hand, dragging them out of the train car. Whatever had gotten to Reno might very well still be there.

Something was moving around them. Shadows, perhaps, or reflections, but from what? They seemed even less solid than that, and Tifa couldn't manage to look at them for more than an instant, as though her brain didn't seem to want to see them at all. The reverberating howling sound was nearly deafening. There was a persistent scratching and tapping beneath it all. It had been sweltering earlier today, and yet Tifa could see her breath as fog in front of her.

The world seemed to warp in front of them, as something moved through it, like someone sneaking behind a projector screen. It froze for a moment, and then rushed towards them.

There was a loud bang as Yuffie let loose a blast of magic, ripping the earth from underneath them in a column of destruction. The distortion passed through it as though it wasn't even there.

"RUN!" yelled Tifa. Yuffie didn't need to be told twice, and was already sprinting past Tifa, grabbing her arm on the way. The thing, whatever it was, didn't seem to be hampered by the actual environment as it warped and rippled its way through whatever it was "behind" towards them.

Tifa gathered the magic she could feel pooling in the back of her head as her adrenaline kicked in, and released it in a crackle of gold light as the world seemed to slow around them. Haste -- not a spell Tifa cared for at the best of times, because you had to wait for it to wear off to interact with anything not under its influence properly. She would deal with the headaches later, if she was still alive.

She'd been running with Yuffie for a few seconds (or maybe a few minutes) before she risked a look over her shoulder. The distortion didn't seem to be behind them anymore. In fact, it didn't seem to be anywhere. Had she imagined it?

Yuffie staggered to a halt in front of her, leaning on a parked truck. They'd made it back to Edge at some point. They were fairly well into the city, too. Perhaps she hadn't noticed in the panic.

"What the fuck," panted Yuffie, "what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck --"

"We've gotta tell Reeve," said Tifa, collapsing onto a nearby bench. "We've gotta --"

"Reeve's been fired, remember?" said Yuffie. "And we can't tell the WRO right now. Or the cops, or the feds, or anyone."

"Whatever that thing was, it smeared Reno over the floor like fucking peanut butter," snapped Tifa. "And it's still out there. We've gotta tell someone."

"And you're still a suspect in -- in whatever it is they're looking for," Yuffie fired back. "How well do you think that's gonna go over, now that you're seeing... whatever that was?"

"You saw it too! You can vouch for me."

"They'll just think I've been fucking Cloud too or something," said Yuffie. "They said they had the room bugged for a while. They know we've hung out in the same bed, at least. All of us have. We can't say anything. I mean, maybe Nanaki could, unless they think Nanaki's been -- "

Tifa glowered at her. "So -- what, we just do nothing?"

"Not nothing. You've got those papers, right?"

Tifa shrugged the portable cooler off her shoulder and put the papers back in it for safekeeping. "Yeah, I guess. And a bunch of blood. He could've stolen a card key, at least..."

It still didn't feel like anything. Maybe none of it ever would.

"Let's... let's get this stuff in a real freezer," said Tifa. "Look over the papers properly."

"You got a plan?" asked Yuffie.

"Not really. But maybe we can talk to someone who might."

 


 

"You've been quiet."

Aeris looked up from the QFT model she'd been working on (with "magic" as a contributing factor -- god, none of this was ever getting published) at Angeal, who had been watching her over his own work apparently for some time.

"Just nervous, I guess," said Aeris. "There's been so many unaccounted for variables so far as it is. A lot could go wrong." That was one of the reasons she was worried, at least.

Angeal looked at her contemplatively. "Even so, it must be worth it, right? The chance to see another world..."

"I suppose so..."

"You 'suppose'?"

She shook her head. "It's... I've wanted this forever, but -- well, look at how everything has gone so far. We made first contact and got our ambassador arrested. What's the next step in this kind of thing?"

"Spreading a disease to the indigenous population, usually," said Angeal dryly.

"Yes, that. I'm expecting that next."

"The sooner you get yourself in the sixth ring, the more we can reduce that risk," said Angeal.

"I'm worried about Cloud," said Aeris. "He's... not doing very well." Even saying that was probably too much.

"You'll be able to check up on him in person soon," said Angeal. "But I suggest you tell him you'll be gone for a while as soon as possible. The higher ups want results. If we keep getting them those results, we get funding to keep in contact with your friend."

Aeris blinked. "I'm a little surprised you care."

Angeal stared back at her, looking affronted. "Why in the world would you think that?"

She shrugged. Angeal set down the papers he'd been working on. "Aeris, do you know why I signed onto this project?"

"It was an honour for your country and it looked nice on your retainer?"

"You don't seem to think very highly of me. Can I ask why?"

"Look at what we're doing," she snapped. "Look at what we've caused. You don't think that --"

"Aeris, I joined this project to learn and discover for its own sake. That, in and of itself, is a goal worth working towards. Not so long ago, I believe you felt the same way."

"Yes, and instead we --"

"And we succeeded," he interrupted. "We've met someone from another world. We've learned from them, built connections with them. We've worked our entire lives for something like this."

Aeris shifted uncomfortably.

"Aeris, you spoke with an alien and he told you about birthday presents -- a stupid meaningless gesture surrounding an arbitrary date, by anyone's measure with no reason to exist, and yet he told you about them." There was a smile in his voice now. "I couldn't be prouder. I only wish it was me."

"Does it mean anything if you're required to do it in the first place?" asked Aeris.

"I don't know," said Angeal. "What do you think?"

Aeris said nothing. She didn't like not knowing the answers to questions.

"...Speaking of which, I know you've been censoring your transcripts," said Angeal after another moment. "There's clearly parts missing. I'd like to know why."

"...Ethical reasons," said Aeris tiredly. "He's been giving me information that isn't really useful to the project. I don't need to publish every last detail of his life."

"Are you sure that's why?" he asked. Aeris rolled her eyes. She was being rhetorical-question'd-for-learning-purposes again. She thought she'd be done with that after finishing her education.

"I'm just making sure you don't get in too deep," said Angeal. "Once you're over there, there will be more people than Cloud involved in all this."

You don't know the half of it, thought Aeris, tiredly retrieving her pencil. She prodded at the paper, trying to remember what step of the process they'd been on.

"I also joined the project because of you," said Angeal after another moment of silence.

Aeris looked up at him, puzzled.

"I taught for years at Bonn," he said. "Twenty years."

"You left tenure for this?" asked Aeris.

Angeal nodded. "I thought it would be the sort of thing I would enjoy. It was something I knew about, and I decided, well... why not share that with someone. And when I finally landed that coveted position, it was all so... pointless." He sighed. "The higher you get into the field, the more everyone just takes it all for granted. Why even teach if no want really wants to learn?

"Math is a beautiful, complicated thing. You know this, I'm sure. It's the language of the universe -- patterns everywhere, that you can find in stars and planets and our own DNA. Speaking the same language, using the same patterns. Knowing that every time you familiarise yourself with a pattern, discover another -- you're unlocking the universe. Understanding something grand and huge and..."

There was an intense look in Angeal's eyes now, and while Aeris did not look away, she felt as though she were seeing something she was not meant to.

"I hadn't seen anyone want to really... to know that, in years. And then there was you -- the paper you pushed, telling the world about the patterns you'd found, about how far you wanted to reach. It was the drive to discover, to learn, just because the world was worth learning and discovering about. I think you used to know that," he said. "I think you still know that. That's why I joined this project."

Aeris looked back down at the paper she'd been working on, then back up at Angeal, who was still steadily watching her.

"This may have gotten... a little out of hand, but it would be a great tragedy for you to lose the one thing making it all worth it in the first place."

"...I'll be sure to keep that in mind," said Aeris, after a moment.

After all, this was her project. It would be a shame to miss out on it all.

She picked her pencil back up, but instead Angeal held out his hand.

"I'll take over from here. Go talk to him. Anything we can learn is another thing we can use to keep this all from going sideways. Fair and Lazard will probably be finished prepping the room by the time you wake up."

It was Tseng that helped her into the tank and Cissnei that had her count down this time, rather than Lazard and Zack. She was distracted enough by the differences to not notice right away that she seemed to be falling for a lot longer than usual. Cloud (and there was only one of them this time, in whatever sort of strange shared hallucination this was) actually turned to look at her, and as she reached out to catch him, he seemed to melt into her skin. She recoiled in disgust, and rolled straight off the bed.

She sat up and began to rub her head, then paused when she felt something gritty in her hands. Dirt? Had she made it outside?

A quick look around confirmed she was still in the cell, but the walls and floor and ceiling were blackened and scorched. Her right arm felt sore, and this time it didn't seem to be her fault. A quick examination revealed it was badly burned, a large blister covering most of the back of her forearm.

Cloud seemed to be working with her this time as she sifted through her consciousness, actually managing to respond to her "hello" on his own in about ten minutes.

Didn't think you'd actually come back, he said, as he got to his feet using the wall to support himself. She... he... the legs that she was currently using felt sore from disuse.

Why's that?

Cloud said nothing, and went about getting a drink from the tap in his room. Every step he took seemed to be as though he were dragging his legs through a swamp.

Gonna try to get out soon, said Cloud.

Do you have a plan?

A little. Been hard to think. Mother is loud.

...Who?

He paused, blinking very slowly at the sink. Aeris caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and noticed his eyes looked fairly bloodshot. Jenova. She's loud.

He made it back over to the bed and lay back down on it with his back to the window, panting entirely too much for someone in his shape.

Been trying to wake up on my own, though. It's hard when it's this empty in here. There's a lot of stuff in the air now, too... head hurts sometimes.

They're cutting off your oxygen, Aeris realised with a burst of anger. They've --

That tracks, said Cloud, tittering slightly. Set a big fire in here earlier. Probably want to make it a little harder. He picked at a bit of fuzz on the mattress cover. Grew up in the mountains, though. Think I'm doing okay so far...

Aeris, who hadn't been deprived of oxygen for several hours prior and was noticing the contrast more or less immediately, begged to differ. You need to get out of here.

Yeah. Been thinkin' about the door.

Think you could blow it up?

Yeah. Would blow me up too, though. Could do it. Maybe I'd go to sleep. Go outside the cell when I'm asleep, then when I'm awake, I'll wake up, and be outside where I went when I was asleep.

The oxygen deprivation was clearly getting to both of them, because Aeris could have sworn that made sense to her for a split second. She would have asked Cloud to clarify, but suddenly her vision swam, and she realised Cloud had passed out.

She forced herself to sit up, uncertain of what she was allowed to do in someone else's body while they were unconscious. She stared at their arm for a moment, and then pinched it hard.

He didn't rouse right away, but he seemed to have noticed something, so she pinched him again for good measure.

I don't think you should be falling asleep right now, said Aeris.

Yeah. Don't got a lot of brain cells to work with in the first place anymore. Didn't you hear? He tittered again. Aeris found herself believing it to be extremely funny. The effect was unnerving.

The door. You were talking about the door.

Yeah. Big vault type door. Electronic lock.

Do you know the code?

No. The panel is on the other side. Can't see it.

Are there card keys you can steal?

Dunno. Jessie would know how to fake a card key. I miss Jessie...

Cloud froze. There was something -- I wanted to think...

About card keys?

No, about Jessie. She's important.

Aeris waited for him to think of what the something was, and realised that they had passed out again at some point. Her time was limited in more ways than one.

Cloud, I came here to tell you I won't be visiting you again.

...What?

I have to leave for a while.

What did I do?

You didn't do anything. I have to --

It's like Jessie. I'm a shit boyfriend.

I -- well, that's not really --

She's really nice. I shoulda been nicer. She brings me old stuff to take apart...

Cloud, listen to me. I have to go so I can come here myself soon. You won't hear from me for about a week.

Oh... can you visit Jessie for me? And Barret, I didn't get to talk to him any...

Which one is Barret?

Big metal arm gun gun arm gun... it's really complicated. Arm and a gun. Can't do computer things, though. That's what Jessie does. And Reeve. She brings me old machines, though... She writes words into 'em sometimes, too. Machines, not paper...

He was a goner like this. She thought about making an excuse to postpone her visit for just a little while longer, but it would be hard to explain to anyone -- even Zack, who was sort of in on what she was doing. She needed to come here in person, for Cloud's sake and the project's. But leaving him in this state...

Oh, said Cloud.

Oh, what? said Aeris, dreading his answer already.

I bet I could open that door. I bet I could do it.

How do you figure?

Repurposed room in a hurry. Electric Shinra Power Code Lock Company. Magnet. Really strong one... sweepers.

What?

Maintenance panel. Big metal coil… magnetic. Did the same thing with an old sweeper in the bar when you visited.

...You’re telling me some big expensive vault door is just gonna cave to some magnet? Surely there would be something computerised in place to stop that… then Aeris realised she wasn’t sure if she’d actually seen a modern PC since coming here, or even so much as a smartphone. Maybe there wasn’t.

Not just any magnet. Need a powerful one. Left mine at home… could you get it for me?

In about a week, maybe, said Aeris. But you know, once I leave, I won't be able to come back and visit you until then.

...Maybe let's just talk for a while, then.

What about?

...What's it like when you do this? asked Cloud. What am I like to you?

I'm not really sure what you mean. It's a little like falling asleep. Then I dream about being nowhere for a little bit, and then I'm you.

Do you like being me?

Aeris hesitated. The question made her uncomfortable for a number of reasons.

Well... you're, ah... you're easy enough to move around in, I suppose.

That's why they do it. They like being me.

Everything was swimming. There was something deeply unsettling about this whole conversation, but the oxygen deprivation was making it hard to fix her thoughts on exactly what.

Who's they?

Jenova and Sephiroth. I was good to use.

I mean -- I'm not -- I'm not really you. You know that, right? Just using a set of electrical signals you've got kicking around your head.

Who are the others?

...What --

When you come here, there are others watching me. Are they your friends?

...Who?

They're watching me when you show up. They want in, too.

Something still wasn't right, but this time it was a bit more obvious as to why.

...What do they look like? asked Aeris.

Don't know. Can't look at them. Deep places...

Do you feel like you're floating off somewhere? Does anything try to grab you? She could feel her breath quickening, though whether it was a response to the thin air or not, she wasn't sure.

Little bit, said Cloud. Like right now. No others, though. Just feels nice. Mother's always touching.

Cloud?

I'm glad you like being me. If anyone else needs to be me, I'm glad it's you.

Aeris would have objected, but their vision had blurred too much, and she realised, as she felt herself slowly sinking through the empty place, that they had passed out again.

She quickly made note of the hallucinations that apparently he had also been experiencing and requested the signal be cut off. She was pulled out of the tank, leaning heavily on Zack and Lazard, the latter of whom was already hovering over her anxiously to check for signs of brain damage from oxygen deprivation. It was physically impossible, but at this point it didn't hurt to be safe, she supposed.

"You were right," she said to Angeal. "We've gotta hurry."

 


 

Mother was here.

"Here" was a bit of a nebulous concept at present. He didn't feel as though he was in any particular place. He went nowhere, where Mother was everywhere. Inside him, singing in his blood, and outside him, curling around and into him as he fell deeper and deeper, and everywhere there was to possibly be. Mother had always been here.

He could see Her now, in all Her glory, and She called to him, urging him towards Her. His body was useless to Her now, slowly failing and no longer able to spread. She was calling him back. He obligingly opened himself to Her, ready at last to be whole. Ready for Reunion.

Something caught and tugged that wasn't him or Mother. There were Other Things, weren't there? Ones outside and away from Mother. Small things. Vessels. Ways in and out, to grow and to hide and to one day leave the way She had found the vessels in the first place.

Cloud wasn't part of Mother. Not yet. He wanted to be, but there was something he was forgetting. It was important.

He tried to shut himself away from Mother, forgetting that She already was him. She bit into him more deeply, trying to make him stay. It was agony to pull away, and he knew it would be more agonising still to continue to be apart. One day he would come back to Her. But he had to go. He had to leave. He needed to leave here. He needed out --

Cloud opened his eyes and found himself lying on his cot in the cell. Mother still hummed all around him, far louder than She had ever been before, so he knew he couldn't really be here. None of it felt properly real, the way he figured most humans must feel. He knew he was still just a part of Mother, even here.

He had been thinking about something important. Springs? Perhaps. Solenoids. He'd been thinking about solenoids, and magnets, and...

The door. He was trapped here, wasn't he? Mother needed to be -- no, he needed out. Mother needed him to get out. Mother needed him back in. He needed out. He needed a magnet to open the door. The one in the speaker would be far too weak. What else in here could be used as a magnet that they wouldn't immediately confiscate?

The head of the tap and his showerhead were made of metal. But even if they didn't gas him for ripping it out of the wall again, he didn't really have anything to magnetise it with.

The gas... it had been a while since he had taken a breath, hadn't it? He must still be asleep after all.

The minute he thought about it, he realised how starved for air his lungs were. He took a deep breath and felt his thoughts begin to blur. He rolled over on the bed to face the wall and dug his nails into his arm. He had to stay him. Aeris wasn't coming back, and he didn't know if he'd wake up again, and if he was out for too long they might have a chance to hide the window again, or move it, or install cameras.

The mattress creaked as he turned, and he frowned. He shifted his weight again. Springs. There were springs in the mattress. Maybe steel or copper?

He needed metal from somewhere else, that they wouldn't immediately take away. Maybe the mattress had some larger pieces in it? Maybe not. Even if it did, he didn't have anything he could cut them off with. The only other metal he had on him were his earrings, which weren't big enough anyway, and...

Well.

He had his materials at least.

He risked another few seconds steeling himself for what needed to be done. You've had worse. You'll be fine. You've had way worse. You've had worse. It's fine. It's... fuck it.

He slowly curled up further in on himself with his back to the window where he knew they were watching from, and pulled his arms in until his hand was touching the mattress. He carefully began to force his fingers against the fabric until he'd worked a small hole into it, which he then began to widen. It was slow work -- any sudden movements from him just tearing the cloth open would have them switching on the gas in a second, and he couldn't really exert himself too much with how little oxygen there was in the air. He was surprised he'd lasted as long as he had, and figured he owed much of his progress so far to Mother.

Once he'd opened up a small enough hole, he slowly began to insert is hand into it, probing for something firm. He found it almost immediately -- now it was just a matter of getting a big enough piece of coil out without anyone noticing. He pinched a bit of coil between his fingers and gradually began to bend it back and forth. He'd already spent half an hour picking at the mattress, but he couldn't afford to rush things. He couldn't afford to wait. He couldn't spend another minute here in this cell, slowly losing himself to four white walls again.

The coil took longer to free up. Cloud had to admit to himself eventually that he was probably stalling a little on purpose, because as much as he'd had worse, he definitely wasn't looking forward to the next part.

It wasn't very good metal, he knew, and was specifically created for him to not be able to do the thing he was going to do with it. He'd have to dump a lot of magic into the whole mess for it to work in the first place. But still... this was the only shot he had.

So it was with only another second of hesitation that Cloud snaked his improvised weapon -- a jagged bit of broken bed coil -- up to his previously-broken collarbone and dug it into his own flesh.

He managed not to scream. He really had had worse. Still, this was nothing compared to the next part.

He parted skin, and then fat, and then muscle, and then he felt what he'd been looking for: the metal plate they'd screwed into his bones to keep them in place. He must have been bleeding all over the bed by now. They would notice soon, blind spot or not. He had only seconds.

He really wished he had a better idea than this. He probably should've asked Aeris or something.

Cloud managed to get a grip on the tip of long metal plate still screwed into his collarbone and yanked.

They would have heard him scream that time, and if they hadn't, they would have heard the crunching noise of his bones cracking as the screws ripped free. All due credit to the truck (and Hojo, he supposed begrudgingly), the metal yielded before his own body did, for the most part. He took a deep breath, held it, and tumbled out of bed, stumbling towards the door.

He wound the wire around the plate, grasping either end of the wire sticking out from his hand, and began to channel a lightning spell into it, frantically rubbing it against where he thought the other (probably significantly less bloody) magnetic coil in the door might also be. He couldn't hold his breath for very long -- the pain in his shoulder was excruciating, and the amount of magic he was pouring into his improvised electromagnet in an attempt to magnetise a piece of surgical steel was making his head swim, and the wires were heating up, burning his hand badly, and gods knew what they'd do to him after this failed, probably operate on him to make sure he didn't have anymore metal left anywhere in his body --

A soft click echoed from the door. Cloud threw his weight into it, and it swung forward.

He barely had time to register the sweetness of the fresh air he was breathing before he heard the sound of an alarm being tripped, now deafeningly loud with the door no longer muffling it, and the sound of a firearm being cocked.

Cloud lunged in the direction of the noise, and heard something crunch as the unfortunate man he'd pinned impacted against the wall. He whipped around and took stock of the room he was in.

There was a desk in front of his observation window, with a telephone and a microphone sitting on it. There was an older man, perhaps in his sixties, sitting in front of it that was gaping at him in disbelief. Cloud rounded on him and lifted him up by the neck, his face twisted into a snarl from pain and fury. This, he could do. For the first time in who knew how long, he felt awake.

"Which way's the exit?" he spat.

"Hallway -- two lefts --" the man choked out. Even like this, he did in fact have a very nice voice.

"Liar," said Cloud, pulling him closer. Truth be told, he had no idea if the man was lying, but if he was, this would probably be the point he found out.

"No -- I don't know past --- third..."

Cloud reluctantly loosened his grip on the man's throat and lowered him to the floor, though another part of him wanted to see him continue to gasp for air like he'd been doing for two weeks.

"Where are they keeping my sword?" he pressed.

"I don't know. Somewhere on the first floor. Maybe in the back," said the man. "Mr. Strife, you're making a mistake. We really are here to help you --"

"Save it," he growled, beginning to tighten his grip again.

"You can't kill me," said the man quickly. "You can't kill anyone here."

"Yeah I can. I won't if I don't have to, but..."

"You can't," said the man again. "Wanted murderers can't go home to their families. Not the way you want to. I was hired to rehabilitate you. I can't do that if you're locked up for good, or in a chemically-induced coma."

Cloud seethed at the man. A part of him -- a very large, dominant, hungry part of him, the part that was howling in his ears, pushing him onwards, wanted to hurt the man very badly, the way he had been hurt.

But unlike the men from Shinra, there wasn't exactly any room to deny his involvement in this mess. Cloud really did hate it when people he didn't like were right about things.

"Thanks for the tip," said Cloud, before forcing his head into a wall and letting go, watching as he crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

He could already hear footsteps down the hall rapidly approaching him. He cast a quick healing spell on his shoulder -- not enough to seal the wound completely, like anyone that was actually good at this sort of thing should have been able to do, but enough to allow him some mobility again for the fight to come.

He tensed, listening to the movement outside. Fifty, maybe? He could handle fifty.

He couldn't stay here. He needed to get his sword and get out. It was probably in a closet somewhere. He could try to sniff it out, but it might not still be carrying his scent after this long. He should have asked for directions.

The noise outside the door snapped him out of his train of thought. Time to go.

Cloud smashed through the metal door and barrelled into the wall of guards, sending two flying. He didn't look back as the sound of gunfire erupted behind him, already streaking down the hallway and around the corner. He skidded to a halt at the first left. He needed to hide somewhere. It would have been easy enough to just kill everyone. With that not being an option, it was only a matter of time before someone got enough tranquiliser darts into him while he was wandering around the facility aimlessly, looking for the Fusion Swords.

He slowed to a jog, realising he'd probably passed several potential second lefts he could have taken, and looked up at the ceiling. Cameras. The building was probably full of them. It'd be harder to hide with them everywhere.

This was the kind of problem solving he could deal with. Find something, break it, move on.

It was with an immense amount of satisfaction that he blasted a hole in the ceiling above him, the iridescent blue flames crackling chaotically through the hallway with a high-pitched sound that made his teeth buzz before sputtering out just as quickly, the wave he'd unleashed shapeless and unfocused with no blade to channel the magic through. He hopped up through the new entrance he'd made, readying another wave as bits of drywall rained down onto the floor below him. The WRO probably didn't have as many floors as the Shinra tower.

Five floors later had him seeing stars briefly. He wasn't used to casting innate magic with no conduit but his own arm. He'd lost a lot of blood, had been drugged for weeks, partially suffocated until minutes ago, and hadn't done any serious casting in years. Jenova was still seeping into his thoughts at every turn, and it was all he could do to remember that he was Cloud, that he wasn't safe here, and that he couldn't afford to slip under again.

He pulled himself up through the last hole and saw his quarry several metres away. The fuse box and the backup generator. It had gotten colder since he'd last been outside, and a stiff breeze cooled the blood soaked into his scrubs, making him shiver. Was summer ending soon? Another thing he'd lost because of all this: the bright sun, the heavy storms, the way the rooms were always just a little too warm, reminding him how close the outdoors really were.

He kept his distance from them, even as he called forth a lightning spell. A real one, not the little jolts he and Jessie and Reeve sometimes used for their work. He couldn't build this much energy long, being this high up and the most electrically charged thing present, apart from the generator, and he'd learned from experience that a cloudless day did not necessarily mean safety.

All magic (except for summoning) lay on a spectrum between precision and control, and nowhere was Black magic more exemplified than lightning. Lack of control of a lightning spell could have him dead in an instant by his own hand, or rendered useless as the electricity arced off into another target altogether. It was a raw force of nature that now began to bead at his fingertips, and by now Cloud had mastered guiding it, shaping it, and bending it to his own will. He raised a hand, keeping his arm relaxed, to serve as a conduit, and then he opened the floodgates, allowing his own magic and the lightning's own inclination toward the path of least resistance to carry it towards the metal cylinder he'd come all this way to reach, scorching the air around him with an audible buzzing noise.

The generator exploded in a shower of sparks and metal shrapnel, deafening him even as the electricity continued to pour into the fuse box, blowing it into bits as well . He'd unloaded that sort of charge into adult behemoths before, and so it was probably a bit overkill to destroy the fuse box completely. They were lucky he was stopping there.

He hopped back down through the hole and into a now darkened hallway. Now he had a bit more time, at least. The cameras would probably be down now, and the hallways were pitch black, at least for most people. As everyone here seemed to know, Cloud wasn't most people.

He crept through the halls silently, looking for a stairwell to the lower floors with the tiny speck of light he'd created in his palm, no bigger than the head of a pin but just big enough for him to see by. Perfectly controlled. Steady for hours. Ma always said he made the best lights --

He drew a sharp gasp as the light flickered and went out. His thoughts jumbled into another indistinct mess again. Mother sang loudly in the dark.

He shook his head and continued walking. Had to stay here. Needed to be here.

The hallways were strangely empty. Perhaps they figured he'd already jumped off the roof and had made a run for it. They'd have definitely heard the explosion he'd created... perhaps they were investigating that.

He turned another corner and into the path of another pair of guards. He turned on his heel and sprinted the other direction down the hall. He could hear them plodding along behind him in the dark as a wave of cold washed over him. However fast they were, he was faster, and he risked a look over his shoulder as he heard the sound cut off behind him. Had they stopped?

Cloud turned around fully at the sight that greeted him instead and frowned. There were no guards behind him. And no hallway, for that matter. Nothing but an unmarked wall with a framed photo of a lake on it, which was rocking slightly as though it had been disturbed by something.

He stopped running. Even smashing through the plaster, he would have felt something. Perhaps he'd gotten turned around in the dark? But it wasn't even really that dark in here, at least not for him. He tapped the wall experimentally, wondering if it was perhaps a hologram, and was met with a solid surface.

He turned and left the wall to find another stairwell. He could think about it later. He needed to get his sword and get out.

The more stairs he went down, the more he could hear something moving. Smelled human. Really, so did everything in Edge, but there were a lot of them there in person. He ran another weak healing spell through his shoulder, just in case, and went down the last flight of stairs.

The minute he opened the door to the ground floor, a blinding sense of agony flooded his body and he felt his muscles lock up. He fell to the ground, dimly registering the drawn taser pointed at him, before another fired, and another.

He lay there, twitching and in pain, as he saw what must have been perhaps every officer in Edge clustered around him, between him and the back office. Of course, they must have known he'd go back for his sword. He was an idiot. He should have left it.

He screamed as another set of darts sank into his skin, spreading another fifty thousand volts throughout his body. Someone approached him out of the corner of his eye with a set of handcuffs. He couldn't go back. Not like this. The conversation they'd cut short would be the last time he'd ever get to speak to his family. He'd never wake up again. The pain was making it hard to focus, and now Mother was seeping into his thoughts as the eyes loomed around him, the world fading at the edges. Mother would take him before these people ever got the chance. He frantically pulled away, from the cops, from Mother, from everything trying to rip him to pieces as Mother tugged as hard as She could, the depth looming all around him, and he dug his fingers into the tile beneath him as it crunched in his grip, squeezing his eyes shut, things reaching, pulling, tugging, and he pulled away, because he couldn't go, not like this --

Nobody touched him. Five seconds passed. Mother -- Jenova was still buzzing beneath his thoughts, but She was... outside him, somehow. Nobody put their hands on him and dragged him away to a cell. Puzzled, Cloud opened his eyes.

The guards were gone, as were the darts from the tasers that had been embedded in his skin. He was in too much pain to move just yet, but the more he looked, the more he was certain he wasn't hallucinating. There was just nobody here.

He uneasily pushed himself into a sitting position. He couldn't hear anyone in the floors above him. The lights were back on, and presumably the cameras with them, but nobody was rushing to his position.

He slowly got to his feet. He could see a door leading to the receptionist counter, and a door leading to a room behind it. The first door was unlocked, but the second door wasn't, so he simply put his hand through the wood and opened it from the other side. Nobody came running to stop him.

He found his sword and harness propped up against a set of lockers, and found his boots and wallet in one of them. He was tempted to take his cell phone as well, but any sort of tracking device they'd put in it would be a lot harder to find than ones they could have put on his non-electronic belongings. He couldn't find his clothes. At least he finally had something covering his feet. Shoes were another thing he'd missed, and at least he still had these scrubs. As always, clothes were a privilege, not a right. And certainly not a given.

He felt himself relax as he tightened the last buckle on his harness and slipped his sword into it. Safe. He was safe now. There was nothing left in the world that could hurt him now that he couldn't hurt back first. Nobody stopped him as he walked out the front door, either. The cool night air caressed his face, the buzz of insects in the late summer air welcoming him back into the world, as it had four and a half years ago.

He sprinted away from the facility, trying to keep out of the open. It wasn't until ten minutes later that he began to see other people, though nearly everyone was indoors. He spotted a couple cops at a distance as well, and shrank back into the shadows of the alleyways. There were a lot of them out this time. He'd need to keep out of sight until...

Until what? If they were competent enough to try and cut him off downstairs, they'd almost definitely stationed a post outside Seventh Heaven by now. And even if they hadn't, it was only a matter of time before they looked for him there.

Where could he go? Everyone in his family would be watched. They'd probably put a bounty on his head, and he didn't have any glasses -- the minute anyone saw his freak eyes, they'd know who he was.

What had he even escaped for in the first place? He would never be able to see his family again. He was never --

"What are you doing here?"

He hadn't been paying attention, and now he had walked directly into a group of children occupying one of the alleyways of Edge. One of them, a boy of perhaps ten years old, had a knife, and was pointing it at him with a sour look on his face. His other hand appeared to be missing -- melted off nearly to the elbow. Cloud sighed heavily. They probably weren't a threat to him, but he was tired, and his shoulder hurt, and now that the adrenaline was wearing off there were a lot of drugs still in his system. Things would get messy far too quickly.

"...Just passing through. You were here first. I can go another way if it's closed here."

He was being stared at. It could have been because of his blood-drenched shirt, or his eyes. Probably both.

"...He's Shinra," said the boy. "It's Shinra's fault everything is like this."

"No, I'm not -- I just --"

"Is that why all the cops are out tonight? They're looking for a Shinra murderer," said a second boy. "We oughta tell them you're here. That explosion earlier -- that was you, wasn't it?"

"Wait," said a third voice. Cloud turned his head a bit to see a girl approaching him from the crowd that had formed behind him. "I think I know this guy."

A hand grabbed his left arm, holding it up for the crowd to inspect before he defensively jerked away.

"So you do have mako eyes. I always was a little curious, you know?"

Cloud blinked, actually looking at the girl's face now. "Aya?"

Aya crossed her arms. "You were really rude, you know. Just running off like that."

"He went into the rain," said the first boy, lowering the knife and approaching him to take a closer look at his arm. "Yours was higher up, looks like," he noted.

"What's with the sword?" said the second boy. "Aya, how do you know him?"

"Guys, this is Rabbit Guy," said Aya, as though this were obvious. A chorus of understanding "ohh"s went through the crowd, and a few more went a bit closer to have a better look at him, or his bloodied shoulder, or his eyes. He didn't mind it as much -- it seemed to be out of curiosity more than contempt or fear.

...He did mind a little.

"Can you, er...?" Cloud shuffled backwards uncomfortably. The children pulled back, but the second boy spoke up.

"Thanks for the meat," he said. "I figured you died of the stigma ages ago."

"...Don't mention it," said Cloud. Truth be told, he'd assumed the same of the kids he'd been feeding. He knew this definitely wasn't all of them.

"My name's Marco," said the second boy. Then he pointed to the first boy that had been missing a hand. "That's Reuv."

"I always figured you were made up," said Reuv. "Adults didn't get the stigma, I thought."

Cloud shrugged. "Most of 'em can't."

"Why are you bleeding?" asked another kid further back in the crowd.

"I..." Cloud was suddenly reminded of what was going on just outside the alleys and why he was standing here getting chills from blood loss.

"I need somewhere to hide for a few hours," said Cloud. "I'm --"

"Geez, did you kill someone?" asked Aya.

"No, this is mine," he said, gesturing to the blood. "I... I got stabbed."

"Can I see?"

"Who stabbed you?"

"Does it hurt?"

"I got stabbed once in the leg!"

"Is the knife still in it?"

Cloud knelt and pulled his shirt down off his shoulder to allow them to look. It was already healing shut well enough, but if he didn't clean it off properly soon enough it could wind up infected.

The passing sound of a car had him suddenly jerking back away from the crowd and crouching behind a dumpster, barely daring to breathe.

"I'm kind of in a hurry," said Cloud, when it had passed. "Sorry. Do any of you have any friends that might have medical supplies?"

"Yeah, but it's across the city by the ruins," said Reuv. "That's a really long way to walk. Oh! But we could take you to one of our suppliers."

"'Suppliers'?"

"Yeah," said Marco. "Nice people willing to help out. I dunno how she'd feel about the mako eyes, but she's your best bet right now."

Cloud mulled it over as another car rumbled past their location. He could get turned in if she already knew he was wanted, but staying here or going back to Seventh Heaven would get him caught anyway."Lead the way," he said eventually.

Cloud had been a little apprehensive about allowing children to lead him anywhere. As it turned out, though, most of the kids were former slum-dwellers. Staying hidden to avoid monsters and worse would have been second nature to any of them from a young age. They seemed to know the city better than he did, at any rate.

He noticed Aya staring at him as they walked. He turned to look at her. "What?"

"Your eyes. You were with Shinra"

Cloud sighed heavily. "...Yeah. I was, kind of."

Aya frowned. "Everybody says it's Shinra's fault the world is like this. For making the Planet angry, I mean."

Cloud nodded tiredly. "They're not wrong. Shinra did a lot of terrible things."

"Why did you join them, then? You don't seem stupid. Or bad."

Cloud didn't answer right away. It was difficult to get himself to actually focus on the question. He didn't know where he was going. He didn't know what he would do when he got there. He didn't know where he would go afterwards. It felt strange, knowing Aya was the last familiar face he'd see for a while. She continued looking up at him expectantly.

"...I thought it was the right thing to do," said Cloud. "And I thought I could impress people by showing everyone how great I was, doing this thing that we all thought was so great. Everyone did, back then. Or at least... maybe I did. Like I said, I do a lot of stupid stuff." He shrugged. He could feel a lot of eyes on him now, and internally he wilted a bit. Just one more companionship bridge he'd been forced to burn tonight.

"We thought we were making people safer. It wasn't until it was too late that I realised I wasn't making anything better at all. But then I was a part of Shinra. And that's all Shinra lets you be." He looked down at the scrubs he was wearing, from when they'd taken his clothes. "Doesn't matter if you realise it's wrong. Doesn't matter if you stop. Doesn't even matter if you leave. You'll always be the person who that happened to, and who did those things."

It wasn't fair.

"Well... you act more like Rabbit Guy," said Aya after a long moment.

"Sure doesn't feel like it," said Cloud.

"How would you know?" she replied.

Cloud shook his head. Going into how he was afraid all the time wasn't something he wanted to talk about with these people. He walked in silence for several more moments, keeping his face lowered.

"I like the colour," one of the other girls -- younger, perhaps around Marlene's age -- said, peering inquisitively at his eyes. "It's pretty. And I like lizards, too."

"...Thanks," said Cloud, not certain how to respond. He'd always thought it'd be neat to have mako eyes when he was younger. Another stupid opinion that drew him to Soldier.

"We're here," said Marco, pointing to the end of an alley. "It's 403. Just go really quick. We can try going across town if she sells you out."

The number sounded familiar for some reason. Cloud nodded. "Thank you for all of this," he said. As usual, it sounded lame and inadequate. "If you ever need anything... I mean, I'm good at fixing stuff, maybe I can..." he shuffled nervously. "Thank you."

"Good luck!" said Aya, flashing him a thumbs up. Cloud gave her one in return, then crept out of the alleyway and back onto the streets, making a beeline for the cluster of houses. With a small jolt, he realised he recognised where he was.

He approached the door of the house and knocked on it, swallowing nervously. He already knew she'd turn him in. This was more trouble than it was worth for her to put up with. Maybe he should just --

"Good god, you vanish for a month and you still haven't gotten a..."

Ms. Suk trailed off in shock, staring at Cloud, who was too exhausted to come up with any sort of story. The blood on his shirt seemed to have dried, mostly.

"I -- I need help," he said. "Reuv said you could -- I need to --"

"Clearly," said Ms. Suk, and dragged him inside, slamming the door shut. "Your shirt's a mess. Come with me, I'll get a towel. Make an old woman like me manage the stairs at this time of night..."

"I can --"

"Don't you go tracking blood all over my house," she said sharply, leading him up the stairs. "There's a bed in the guest room. Go there and stay put."

Cloud shuffled down the hallway until he found a room that seemed less used than the others and gingerly lay down on the bed.

He felt something in his shoulders unknot as he relaxed into the comforter. The blankets were thick and warm and a deep red colour, decorated with pictures of bright pink flowers, and his head sank into the pillows behind him, but the best part was the smell -- it smelled like... anything. It smelled like Ms. Suk, and old cooking projects and remnants of perfume and laundry detergent and an unfamiliar person that wasn't Ms. Suk and a little bit like cigarette smoke. After weeks of seeing white and smelling nothing, it was the best bed Cloud had ever laid in in his life. It was all he could do not to fall asleep right then and there.

Ms. Suk returned to the spare room, drawing the curtains shut, then set down a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a handful of cotton balls and gauze on the bedside table. Cloud hesitated to remove his shirt.

"Really, now. You think I'd have no problem with repeatedly inviting a Soldier back into my home, but I'm going to be scared off by whatever you've got under there."

"I dunno, it's..." Cloud blinked. "You -- wait, it doesn't bother -- you --"

"Knew?" she tutted. "After spending two months talking to you, and the only think you've bothered hiding those eyes of yours behind was a pair of sunglasses that you refused to take off? And here I thought you were bright. 'Medical condition'. Pah! The shirt, dear."

Cloud sat there for a moment as his vision blurred slightly. He rubbed the moisture off on his sleeve and pulled his shirt off with some difficulty.

He was so tired.

He felt Ms. Suk staring at the tapestry of scars covering nearly every inch of skin. Some stab wounds. Some burns. Some from gunshots. The large one, covering a good portion of his chest and left arm, from the stigma.

Most, he knew, from various surgeries.

She said nothing, merely shaking her head silently and proceeding to dab at the gash on his shoulder with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball. Cloud didn't react. He'd had worse.

"...I can't stay here," he said. "They'll come find me. Run more tests. I have to go."

"Anywhere you'd planned to reach?" she said.

"Just... away, I guess. I don't know." He rubbed a bit more at his eyes, which wouldn't stop leaking. "I didn't really think it out this far."

"May I ask what it is you did in the first place?" inquired Ms. Suk as she began to apply a strip of gauze.

"They think I'm crazy. And sick. They -- they want to cure me, I think. But they can't, and they'll just lock me up again, and -- "

"If you're ill, you really should let them --"

"No," said Cloud, then inwardly cringed as he heard his voice crack. "No. I can't go back. I can't go back to that. I -- I have to go. I can't go back. Not again. Never again."

Ms. Suk tied off the gauze and pursed her lips. "Well, at the very least get your head right before you make up your mind. I'll get us dinner."

Cloud clutched his left wrist to himself, gently stroking it as Ms. Suk left the room and busied herself in the kitchen downstairs. You're safe here, that spot reminded him, and everything will work out one day, and you're wanted.

She brought back up some sort of spicy soup with little dumplings in it, as well as tea. She spoke to him the whole time he ate about how she'd made it -- really, you could throw just about anything into a pot and make good soup. Cloud didn't really understand a lot of the terms she used, but he listened to every word. The soup was warm, the blankets were soft, the tea was calming and familiar. Yuffie had made him tea like this once. Three years ago, when he'd stayed with her in Wutai.

"I wasn't in Soldier," he said after a moment, "if that's why you're helping me."

Ms. Suk looked up over her own soup at him appraisingly.

"Why do you like Shinra?" he finally asked. "You're from Wutai. I don't... I don't get it."

"Quite a lot of things improved under them," said Ms. Suk. "I was alive in the days before mako energy, before commercialised healing, or artificial materia, before any of that sort of thing. You can't imagine how it was before that, I'm sure -- it really did make life much easier for everyone. Wutai forfeited its chance to enter the new society they created as equals because of its pride, but in the end, things improved for everyone, wouldn't you say so?"

Cloud thought of the villages he'd been ordered to raze, and the crowds of slum-dwellers he'd fired into, and the language he'd grown up with that he barely even remembered anymore, and the needles in the dark. He regretted asking already, and merely shrugged.

"Shinra did this to me," was all he said. Ms. Suk did not reply.

She cleared their bowls away after he'd finished eating, but left a glass of water. She said something else to him as she left the room. He might've said something back. It was all buried under a layer of tea and warmth and blanket now.

 


 

He awoke either a few hours or an entire day later. It was still night out. The blanket on top of him was warm and quite heavy, and he was tempted to let himself fall back asleep before remembering that he was here on borrowed time. He reluctantly crawled back out from under the covers, feeling his foot nudge against something as he did.

There was a worn-looking bag sitting on the end of the bed, along with a folded set of clothes and an old sleeping bag tied next to it. Opening the bag revealed another set of clothes, a saucepan, a small box containing a sewing needle and some thread, and a reusable water bottle.

He changed into the clothes provided, though he kept the scrub pants in case he needed the fabric for something. They smelled like whoever's room this was, and they felt a bit big on him; but they were warm and dry, and the pants were made of the sort of the light, sturdy fabric he'd usually worn for work. Feeling a little greedy as usual, he slipped the pack and the sleeping bag on over his shoulder after buckling on his sword and harness, and crept downstairs to look for Ms. Suk.

She was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, reading a book, and did not look up right away when he walked in.

"Shouldn't you be on your way?" she said bluntly. "No telling what could happen if they find out you're here."

"Yeah, but... I mean..." He swallowed. "I'm sorry I cancelled my last appointment with you. I..."

"What, is that all? Well, if you want to apologise to me for the inconvenience, you can leave before you get me arrested. And take those clothes with you," she said brusquely. "Like I need anymore clutter around this place. Shame they don't fit -- you really should eat more, you know. Boys your age just burn it right off. I miss being able to do that, sixty years ago..."

Cloud was at a loss for words. "I --" He dug into his pockets, opening his wallet, and offered her the eighty gil he still had in it. It wasn't much, but --

She smacked his hand away sharply. "Do I look like a charity case to you? After everything I've done, you still have the gall to insult me."

Ms. Suk stood up and folded her newspaper, heading past her living room and to the back door of her house. "Prove you've still got a working head on your shoulders. You won't have much time. Get going."

"...Why are you doing this?" he said quietly.

Ms. Suk yanked his head down and planted a kiss on top of his head, then forced his shoulders back and straightened his collar. "You're a good boy, Cloud. Try and keep out of trouble, will you? Might be a bit late for that, though."

Cloud swallowed the hot lump in his throat and nodded. "S -- see you soon, then," he said, even though he didn't really understand any of it.

He forced his arms around her anyway, though. It was the least he could do. He received a firm squeeze in return. "Here's hoping. Da-chao be with you."

"You too," he said softly. He took a deep breath, and then let himself out the back door, hearing it slowly creak closed behind him with a note of finality.

He still kept to the back alleys as he made his way out of the city, leaping from catwalks to rooftops back into the alleys as soon as he began noticing the helicopters swarming around some of the taller buildings. As long as he kept out of sight, there wasn't anyone that could keep up with him on foot if he really got going. Still, every soft tap the heels of his boots made as he nimbly vaulted from building to building had his heart hammering in his chest, certain that someone had heard. He thought about going back for Fenrir, then realised that it was at Seventh Heaven, which was already a non-option, and a pang went through him at the thought of leaving it behind. It was probably better this way.

At last, he reached the outskirts of the city, keeping out of sight under the remains of partially constructed overpasses, intended to one day connect whatever other cities might be build nearby. Until then, though, the only thing that awaited anyone leaving Edge was the Wastes -- miles upon miles of barren land surrounding Midgar. A scar cut deep into the Planet itself. A reminder of what this place once was, and to an extent, what it would always be.

The terrain went on as far as the eye could see. There was an end to it, of course. Somewhere further out there. The sky was huge and empty. The wind tugged at his ill-fitting clothes, emphasising how much room there was in them that he wasn't filling. He felt painfully small.

It was into that vast, vacant cavity left in the world that Cloud forced himself to take the first step into, and then the second, and then another, and another, his body mechanically carrying him further and further away from his family, away from his life, away from Edge.

Alone.

Chapter Text

Tifa had been lying in bed, rereading the documents Reno had recovered for her without really processing any of it. It had been nearly a day since she'd found his remains splattered all over the walls of that train car in the ruins. She thought about calling Reeve, before remembering that there wasn't a lot he could do, and that he was probably under observation anyway. Barret had gone back home to work on the next part of their plan and look after Marlene. Cid had left for Rocket Town as well for similar reasons, but that only left her, Yuffie, Jessie, and Nanaki in Edge. Yuffie at least was still here with her. Neither one of them had made any official decisions on what to do with the information they'd gotten yet. She flipped through the files again, hoping something would jump out at her again.

Reunion. She knew what that was. The regeneration, she knew that too. Weird biology. Dead and alive. Parasitic. Self-replicating. Hallucinations... Cloud always talked about singing, but she wasn't sure that was really a hallucination, just something only he could hear. Perhaps that was the same thing? She tried to recall the things she'd heard him mutter before. It couldn't all be nonsense, surely?

She was startled out of her train of thought by a noise.

It was a low-pitched noise, she dimly noted, staring drowsily at the wall. Not the same as a phone vibrating. She wasn't sure who would be calling her anyway. It wasn't a quiet noise either. She was pretty sure it was a loud one. Actually, a really loud one. The dishwasher was still running, maybe. That was odd. She didn’t remember putting in any dishes. And if she had, they’d be done by now. Maybe it was just her phone after all. But now that she thought about it, it couldn’t be, because that she definitely wasn't the only person that heard it, if Yuffie's startled yelp in the other room was any indication.

The noise was a fucking bomb, actually.

She sat straight up, fumbling for any sort of blunt instrument she could use to fend off whatever had tried to blow her up, before realising that if it were anywhere near where she was she'd probably be dead already.

Maybe it wasn't even a bomb, she considered, as she leaned out the window and saw a thin plume of smoke rising into the air. It hadn't quite sounded like one. Then she noted the location -- it was coming from the direction of the WRO headquarters.

Cloud had broken out. She was sure of it.

She tumbled out of bed and ran for the couch downstairs, nearly crashing into Yuffie already halfway up the steps.

"He --"

"Yeah, definitely," said Yuffie breathlessly. "Should we --"

"Don't know. He'll probably come here first, right?"

"Yes. No. Maybe. I don't know. Do you think they'd come here looking for him?"

Tifa bit her lip. "I... they probably will. Dammit, I knew we should've built a hidden basement in this one too..." She began to pace nervously. "We've gotta -- we've gotta hide him?"

"Where?" asked Yuffie. "They're obviously gonna look for him here soon, if they aren't on their way already. They'll -- Tifa?"

Tifa had already vaulted to her feet, racing for the documents Reno had smuggled out for her that she'd left on her bedside table. She snatched them up, then jogged back downstairs to retrieve the miniature cooler packed with ice. She sealed the papers in a plastic bag and stuffed it into the cooler roughly.

"We definitely need to hide this, if they're coming over here," said Tifa. "The only leg up we have on them right now is that Reno was -- gods, do you think they know he's dead yet?"

"Shit. Maybe? I don't know, there's a lot going on and... shit, how many people do you think Cloud killed just getting out? Smart money's on 'all of 'em.'"

"Maybe they won't notice for a while," said Tifa.

"Rude will. Or Elena or something. Do you think they'd go to the cops?"

"No idea." Tifa opened one of the ovens in the back and yanked out the oven racks before stuffing the cooler into it. She opened another oven next to it and reinstalled the racks into the second one. "Don't let me forget which one that is," she said.

"It's not like we can go back for the body," said Yuffie. "And in the meantime they'll just ask more questions... do you think he had a girlfriend?"

"Probably at least one," said Yuffie. "We can't worry about that now. We don't know if that thing is still there, and anyone we tell might think we did it, and..."

She sighed heavily. "Reno was right. Something's going on here. I just -- I don't know what. None of the pieces go together." She sank onto a stool and began fixing herself a drink. "What do you think that thing was, anyway?"

"I didn't get a good look at it," said Yuffie, now expectantly looking out the windows that hadn't been boarded up. "Too busy running."

"It... it looked like the air was... broken," she said. "It looked wrong -- I mean... it felt like it looked wrong. It didn't actually look like anything. I could only see where it wasn't, and that's also where it was at the same time." She paused. "At least, I'm pretty sure that's what did it. It... it was weird. We never heard him scream or anything. He must not have seen it coming."

"...Do you think Cloud might've had something to do with it?" suggested Yuffie, looking at Tifa as though expecting to be punched for suggesting it.

"What?"

"It sounds an awful like the sort of thing he or... or Sephiroth could do," said Yuffie. "The not-magic stuff. Something being there in a way it shouldn't be. Every time something like that happened, it was always... well..." Yuffie paused, uncertain of what to actually call the strange set of phenomena that seemed to follow Cloud and Sephiroth around. The things just a bit stranger than moving something without touching it. Things nobody should have been able to do. "I mean, they never did like each other in the first place. The timing's pretty convenient, too."

"Maybe," she said noncommittally. She took a few large swallows of her beer.

She didn't even know the explosion was Cloud for sure, either. She didn't know anything. She plucked the phone behind the bar out of its cradle and dialed his number, waiting with bated breath. If he were out, he would take his phone with him, wouldn't he? Unless he were smart enough to leave something that could be so easily bugged behind. Unless he didn't consider it. Unless he did take it, and there were no bugs. Unless, unless, unless.

Cloud's voice sounded through the tiny speaker after the sixth ring, and her heart skipped a beat.

"Strife Delivery and Repair. I can't come to the phone right now, so, uhhhhhhh... just leave your name and phone number, and I'll, um. I'll call --"

Tifa hung up without bothering to leave a message, tossing the phone aside in frustration. Then she stared at it for a while longer. Perhaps she could call Rude? Maybe Rude would know something, somehow? Or maybe Cid would know something about all of this -- he'd recognised those holes in the wall after all, and...

Worthless. All of it, worthless, and in the meantime she just had to sit here as everyone she knew just bled out somewhere while she just sipped her beer.

Tifa drained her glass with a few deep chugs. Yuffie watched her worriedly for a few moments, then sighed and poured her own drink.

The radio sitting on the back counter was off, but she watched the little digital clock display slowly tick by. One hour. Two hours. Three. She had done something very much like this three years ago -- waiting for a knock at the door, assuring her that Cloud would come back, that there was a perfectly rational reason for him to not be answering his phone, and dreading in the back of her mind that she would never see him again --

Yuffie suddenly tensed up next to her, and a second later she realised why. Cars, fast approaching them.

It was a government car, from the looks of it, that pulled up in front of the bar a few minutes later. They really had coopted everything, then. The WRO, the police... she stared at the door for a while as a professionally-dressed woman knocked on the door. She didn't really want to answer it, but they still hadn't fixed the windows yet. She didn't want them kicking down her door as well.

"Can I help you?" she said politely as she pulled open the door. "I was just about to get to bed."

As expected, they filed inside. "Ma'am, forgive the intrusion, but we have reason to believe you're harbouring a fugitive."

"I don't recall giving you permission to be here," said Tifa flatly. The idea was just to make things frustrating for them. She figured they'd probably let themselves in regardless, given the circumstances. If Cloud were to flee to anywhere, it'd be here.

So then where was he?

They began to search the house. She forced herself to not even think about the oven.

"What fugitive would you happen to be looking for?" she asked. "This is just a bar --"

"Approximately three hours ago, Cloud Strife escaped federal custody, injuring fourteen officers in the process," said the woman. "We have reason to believe he may have chosen to hide himself here. You're a close associate of his, are you not?"

"He's not here," snapped Tifa, even as she felt something in her chest clench upon hearing it confirmed. "I haven't seen him since you dragged me off the last time."

"Miss Lockhart, we need you to be cooperative. It's vital for both his and the public's safety that we recover him as soon as possible."

"Well, he's not here," said Tifa. "See for yourself."

"Do you know anywhere he could potentially be hiding?" said the woman, this time turning to Yuffie. "Is it possible he may have fled to Wutai?"

"I don't see that happening, unless you know how he somehow wound up on the other side of the world in the span of three hours," said Yuffie flatly, as the men that had been with her came back from downstairs, pistols still drawn.

Something flashed across the woman's face. "Well... yes, naturally. I suppose you're right. If you do see or hear from him, please call this number immediately," she said, handing her a card. "As we mentioned before, he's very ill. We're only here to help."

"I'll keep that in mind," said Tifa coldly as she led them out to the door.

"So --" Yuffie began, before Tifa shot her a glare and held her hand up to her lips. She ripped off a piece of paper from the receipt printer and wrote BUGS on it, then showed it to Yuffie.

"...I guess this means he's okay," finished Yuffie, tapping her wrist.

ONE HOUR, wrote Tifa. "Yeah. I'm not too worried. We all know he's had worse."

"Anyway," said Yuffie. "Like I said before, I've been thinking about getting a cat. There are a whole bunch on the cat side of town. I might just take one from there if I can find one that likes me."

"Does nobody live in those buildings yet?" asked Tifa, doing her best to sound interested.

"Not yet. I'm thinking, like... a tabby, maybe? Or one of those really big fluffy ones. They're technically an invasive species from Nibel, but they look so dignified."

The wait was agonising as they pretended to talk about cats. She let Yuffie do most of the talking, since that was always something she'd been good at, but she could hear the stress of the wait cutting into her voice as well. Frequently she found herself checking the radio as the numbers slowly, slowly counted up more and more.

The minute she was certain it had been long enough, she immediately strode over to the phone and began dialing a number.

The first call went to voicemail. The second time, Jessie picked up, already sounding panicked.

"Why are you calling this late? Is he dead? Gods, he's dead isn't he, I shoulda --"

"Nobody's dead, Jessie," said Tifa as calmly as she could. "I've just been having a really hard day. I thought we could talk about it."

"Talk? What -- Tifa, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, as she motioned to Yuffie to check upstairs, just in case. "Just... it's really lonely here, you know? Maybe you could stop by and visit. Yuffie and I are here. Maybe you could make us something to eat. Show off a new recipe or something."

"...Yeah? What are you in the mood for?" said Jessie slowly. She was a terrible cook. They all knew that. It was one of the first things they'd bonded over.

"Something fancy," said Tifa. "I dunno if I'll have all the ingredients here that I'd need, and I don't want to screw anything up by just trying it myself."

"You got it," said Jessie. "Lemme get dressed. I'll be there soon."

Fortunately, Jessie lived close enough by to where Tifa didn't have to wait for too long. She did not say a word as she arrived, instead setting her bag down on the couch and removing an old, battered bug detector she'd had since joining Avalanche. Nobody dared to speak as they watched her slowly move from room to room. Eventually she picked up the wall phone in Cloud's room and began slowly dismantling it.

In the end, she removed a very small microphone and shorted it out with a quick spark, and Tifa let out the breath she'd been holding for the last fifteen minutes.

"Give it here," said Yuffie. "I wanna be sure."

Jessie obliged, and Yuffie set the microphone on the floor and crushed it under her heel.

"Okay, so first of all, you're gonna tell me why your damn phones were bugged, and then you're gonna tell me why you called me this late, and --"

"You didn't hear?" said Tifa puzzledly.

"You know I don't keep up with the news, Tifa --"

"No, I mean... literally. You didn't hear that explosion a couple hours ago? Get a visit from the WRO or the feds or anything?"

"...There was an explosion?"

"How did you not notice?" said Yuffie, staring at her in disbelief.

"I was asleep," said Jessie, sounding rather irritated. "So, no, I didn't notice any explosions of anything. What -- "

"Cloud got out," said Tifa, finally growing impatient, "and the WRO or... or whoever's running the WRO, I guess, showed up here, and they're looking for him."

"...Oh."

"But that's all we know," she continued. "Nobody knows where he is. The feds that were just here seemed to imply he'd be on the other side of the world by now, so there's something they're not telling us, but nobody has anyway of contacting him right now."

"Except --" added Yuffie.

"-- except that Aeris woman, yeah," said Tifa. "If we can just -- just reach her or something... so, that's the plan."

"That barely counts as a plan," said Jessie, looking unimpressed.

"I know, but it's all we've got right now. Short of tracking him down ourselves on foot."

"Well, why not?" said Jessie. "We've done it before, remember?"

"That's when we had a compass," said Yuffie. "Nobody left magically knows where Cloud is anymore."

"We've got Nanaki. He's tracked stuff before," said Jessie.

"Not across the entire world," said Tifa. "Which -- I don't know, maybe he's still in Edge. He wouldn't just... leave, would he?" Even when he'd had the 'stigma, he'd stuck close by in the ruins, apparently unable to bring himself to abandon everything entirely. Cloud, who couldn't stand being alone, who'd latched onto her and Barret and the rest of Avalanche...

What could he possibly have to run to?

 


 

"I'm gonna miss these things," said Aeris, popping an allsort into her mouth for what was to be the last time for a while.

Two days, she'd been undergoing extensive training. Day one was nothing she hadn't covered before in the lead-up to this -- mostly just how to move around in the suit. Now that they knew they wouldn't be dealing with any extremes of heat or cold, she didn't have to wear as much of it as before, but there were still quite a lot of things to get used to. A single stray microbe could kill either her or Cloud instantly if one of them didn't have any natural immunity to it. Tseng and Lazard had drilled that into her about a hundred times by now, and even though it had even been switched on yet, the thing in the centre of the sixth ring still made her anxious just looking at it, as though it were contaminated already.

Day two had been discussing diplomatic etiquette. Things she was and wasn't supposed to do. She'd exchanged a few questioning looks from Zack during this time, knowing she'd probably wind up discarding a lot of it due to extenuating circumstances.

She'd gone over their "plan" with him briefly. Officially, all they were supposed to be doing was talking things out with whatever government had Cloud in custody and would hope that'd be enough. The idea was to not say anything that could get her shot. Unofficially...

"Maybe you could steal a... key, or something?" said Zack. "Though you're not exactly inconspicuous, what with the suit and all."

"I don't know if they'd allow me access to him, if they won't even let his family in," said Aeris.

"We'll think of something when we get there, right?"

"Maybe. I don't know." She sat down in the chair they'd wheeled up next to the rats, where Zack had decided to say goodbye. Tomorrow they were sending the first one through to see if it lived.

You really shouldn't be encouraging this, she thought, as she watched him attempt to stick his finger into the cage. She couldn't stand the thought of petting something either Tseng or Zack would wind up killing, depending on which stage of the project it lived to.

"You're not having second thoughts, are you?" said Zack. "Bit late for that."

"No," she said decisively. "This was the entire point of going through all this, remember?"

Zack merely shrugged. "Awful lot of trouble considering you'll just wind up in a cell too. When you get there, I mean."

"Well, that's what you're here for," said Aeris, still watching him pet one of the rats. Something suddenly occurred to her.

"Why don't we just bring him with us when I leave?" said Aeris.

Zack stared at her. "I'm sure the higher-ups will just love that. 'Don't mind us, we just brought back a fucking alien with us. Have fun figuring out the logistics of any of this.'"

"Do you have a better idea?"

"Aeris, even doing nothing is a better idea than that. I mean... for starters, what would he eat?"

"He's human-adjacent. I had a turkey sandwich while I was over there."

"You heard Tseng, though, about the microbes. Just... look, after we get the first couple trips out of the way... maybe. Remember, this stuff is still technically CERN's. They've been keeping tabs on all of this. And there's everyone's respective governments to consider. I mean --"

Zack paused, then shrugged again. "...You get the picture. There's just too much going on, and right now we don't know for 100% sure that he'll survive the trip. Let's just... see how the rats do."

There was so much waiting involved in all of this. Waiting on approval from CERN, waiting on test results, waiting on computer simulations, waiting to see if Cloud was still coherent... she didn't sleep much that night and was up early the next day -- the day she was meant to move into the sixth ring in preparation for the trip. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she strode to the fifth ring for some last minute prep work on her own time while everyone was still asleep. Time had lost much of its meaning, with them spending this much time indoors, but it seemed to be very early in the morning.

She was surprised to see Zack already there, his face lit by the computer screen he was staring at with a blank expression. He didn't acknowledge her right away.

"...Zack?"

He jumped a bit, glancing nervously at her, before returning his gaze to the screen.

"Zack? Is something wrong?"

He didn't say anything. Not right away.

"I... this got sent this morning," he said, swallowing. His eyes darted between her and the screen. "I just read it now."

"Zack?"

She leaned over his shoulder, reading the email that had apparently been sent an hour and a half ago.

[This notice, addressed to the Gainsborough Extraplanar Research Team, is to inform you of an important staff change or changes which are to be implemented immediately.]

There has been a last minute staff change with regards to the second phase of the project. We have written to inform you that Dr. Zachary Fair will be embarking to the discovered universe in place of Dr. Aeris Gainsborough. Dr. Fair has proved to be an excellent addition to the team and it is of the opinion of the Board of Directors that he possesses the skillset necessary to carry out the second phase to the satisfaction of the research team.

Dr. Fair has contributed greatly to the project and the second phase of the project would not be possible without his hand in designing the facility, ad has been committed to this endeavour from day one. We therefore can think of no one else better suited to test it out.

Dr. Gainsborough has been invaluable to the project, having created much of the framework for it from the ground up. Her contributions are vital to the field that she herself pioneered. While we have the utmost confidence in Dr. Fair's own research, Dr. Gainsborough has been deemed too vital to the future of the project should any unexpected incidents occur.

We hope you will all join us on congratulating Dr. Fair on his outstanding performance and contributions and wishing him the best of luck in the coming days.

Best Regards,

Agnès Moreaux

Director-General

"...I didn't know," said Zack. "I swear to you, I didn't know."

Aeris didn't say anything in reply. Her mouth suddenly felt dry.

"I -- I'm sorry," he said.

Aeris turned and walked back out of the fifth ring.

"I'm sorry, okay?! I didn't fucking know! You think this was my idea?!" Zack shouted after her, before he was cut off by the door sealing shut behind her.

She went back to her room and did not come out, even as she heard the others beginning to wake. She dug her nails into her pillow and bit back the urge to scream. She knew it was dreadfully unprofessional, to be acting like this, and that sooner or later she'd have to go back out and direct her project lest she face an HR complaint and be removed from it altogether, an outcome that she was suddenly reminded was entirely within the realm of possibility.

She was still angry. And angry at herself for being angry, and angry at herself for being angry for the wrong reasons, and angry for not being angry enough, and angry at Zack, and CERN, and Cloud, and her parents.

It was about discovery, wasn't it? That's what this was about -- what it had to be about, to justify any of this -- what had happened to Cloud, her whole life, everything. Did it matter who went that much?

Maybe it didn't. But she wanted it to.

She heard someone knock on the door. Presumably they had read the notice by now.

"I'll be out in a minute!" she called as neutrally as possible.

"We need you to oversee Fair's transition into the sixth ring," said Tseng's voice on the other side, "seeing as how you are still director."

"Yes. Of course," she said, clenching her teeth. She forced herself out of bed and opened the door to Tseng, who was watching her as impassively as ever.

"You appear to have heard the news," said Tseng as she walked past him.

"Yeah, I have," said Aeris shortly.

"And?"

She turned to him, glowering. "What am I supposed to say, Tseng? Am I supposed to congratulate Fair for stealing my life's work out from under my nose? Am I supposed to hate him for being more 'expendable' than me? Am I supposed to be fine with this? Am I supposed to fight it the whole way and jeopardise everything I've ever worked for?" Tears began to fill the corners of her eyes, but she refused to acknowledge them. "What -- what would you have me say?"

Tseng said nothing.

"Exactly," she said flatly. "There's nothing to say, so I'm not going to say anything about it."

She turned to leave again.

"I am truly sorry, for what it's worth."

Aeris was quiet for a long moment.

"...Thanks," she said eventually.

She didn't know if Tseng's apology actually made her feel better. She didn't think Zack's had.

But they were here to explore. This was supposed to be a happy occasion. She had to try not to let anything take that away from herself.

 


 

Aeris wouldn't look at him. He hadn't expected much else, but it still hurt to see happening. Zack found himself hovering around her, mouth opening and closing like a beached fish, trying to come up with something to say. Suddenly she turned to address him directly.

"You're familiar with the procedure, yes?" she said plainly. Zack internally grimaced at how formal it suddenly sounded, in contrast to the last few days.

"I -- yeah," he said nervously. "I mean, from the other end, but --"

"Good," she said, cutting him off. "You've got five minutes to shower while Lazard and I get things ready."

This really was it. No turning back now. And she wasn't going. She would never be going, ever. He was going instead. The hot water of the shower did nothing to ease the knots of stress built up in his shoulders.

Lazard looked up at him from inspecting the airlocks as he entered the fifth ring.

"Was there something you needed?" he asked.

"No," said Lazard. "Angeal and I have simply been talking. We hope this won't impair your judgement in any way."

"Look..." he sighed, rubbing his neck, "we've been given a job, and we've gotta do the job, right?"

"...Why, yes, that is the answer I wanted to hear," said Lazard dryly. "How did you know?"

"You don't have to be an asshole about it."

"I'm not."

"You are, and I really don't need to be talked down to right now," said Zack, steeling himself as the airlock slid open. He didn't want to know if Aeris was watching him or not. None of it really mattered either way. He needed this.

"I didn't forget the plan," he said, just a bit loudly. He couldn't risk another look at Aeris to make sure she heard it, and that was probably for the best anyway.

He stepped into the airlock, and the door slid shut behind him, trapping him inside. He removed his uniform and placed it in a compartment on the wall, where it was to be incinerated.

The decontamination process he went through in the next room was similar to the one he'd undergone upon entering the facility, but it was quite a bit more thorough. While the majority of it took place in one room, the sterilising agents he was doused it were a lot stronger, if the smell was anything to go by. There was another bright flash of light as top layer of his skin was burned off, and another chemical shower, before he was finally allowed to proceed through the last airlock, collect another uniform, this one having been specially treated, and enter the sixth ring.

It was a bit of a misnomer to call it a "ring", given it was mostly just a circle at the centre of the facility. There wasn't much inside it; a simple bed, not yet made, its components still packed away in plastic; a compartment full of identical uniforms, each made of a different, cheaper, more disposable material than the ones he'd been wearing before; a larger compartment full of rations, these ones presumably much more basic and tasteless than the ones they'd been eating already; a first aid box, filled with emergency medical supplies and sealed behind glass; a sophisticated-looking hazmat suit which he slipped into with some difficulty (and noticed that it was just a tiny bit small on him with a pang of guilt); and a door to the other half of the room, inside of which was another, smaller chamber, sealed and (almost) ready to be used.

Zack tried not to think about the fact that, technically, there was a non-zero chance of him walking into that chamber and never coming back out if his suit ripped or something, and proceeded to a switch on the wall and flipped it. One of the walls, a large glass observation window, went from black to transparent, and he saw the rest of the team watching him expectantly.

"How are you feeling?" said Lazard's voice over a speaker. Aeris herself wasn't saying anything, but she was looking through the glass at him with an odd expression on her face that for some reason didn't seem aimed at him for once.

"Pretty good," said Zack. "Air pressure seems normal. Nothing busted on this end." A camera flashed at him from behind the glass. Of course. CERN would want photographs of the big day.

He chanced another look at Aeris again, who was looking away.

They continued going over security and health checks, with Zack confirming or denying as needed, his thoughts still miles away. It occurred to him he was basically meeting a stranger. He'd seen the transcripts, and he had a grainy photograph to go by, but Aeris had been the one that had spoken with him for weeks. Hell, he hadn't even seen the entire transcript, given Aeris had been cutting stuff out. There wasn't really time to ask her anything he needed to know in secret anymore.

It wasn't as if, "Hey, cheer up, I'm only here because they don't want you dying horribly and you can go on and lead another bunch of people through a process you'll never get to participate in in the future one day!" was a comforting platitude for either one of them.

He realised that that was almost definitely what was going to happen, too -- Zack was just a precedent. It was almost enough to have him asking to be let back out, and to demand a retraction from CERN, but...

...he needed this.

"First rat's coming in," came Lazard's voice, snapping him out of his train of thought. There was a compartment mounted on the wall: a glass cube that reminded him a bit of library book drops, but more more tightly seal. The "book drop" on the wall beeped, and he slid open the door to see a sealed cube containing one of the rats he'd been palling it up with for the last few weeks.

"You ready, cuz?" he said to it quietly. "You're takin' a big leap for ratkind here."

He opened the chamber in the centre and set the box down on the floor before re-sealing the door.

"Come back in one piece, you hear?" he said, though it was lost as a loud humming noise began to emanate from the chamber.

 


 

Cloud crouched against the rock he'd woken up next to, clutching his sword like a lifeline. He had come straight from realising he existed, was himself, to knowing he was alone, and unsafe. He didn't know how he'd gotten here. He knew that he was Cloud, and that something bad was happening to him, or was going to. He didn't know how he knew that. But something bad was going to happening. He was going to be hurting soon. Someone was going to hurt him. Maybe it was because he had ruined something. Something was going to hurt.

His thoughts scattered as soon as they formed as he tried to remember what he'd been doing before this. He was outside. He was him was outside, because he was with -- Tifa. Jessie. Barret. They were usually with him? Why weren't they here now?

The sword he had wasn't the Buster Sword. It looked like it, but it wasn't it. He needed the Buster Sword. It was important to him. He couldn't remember why, but he knew it made him whole. He had to find it.

His number was gone. Where was his number? He needed his number. He was nothing without his number. His number was proof that he was something at all. He dropped the sword he'd been holding, clutching his wrist to himself, rocking back and forth. Where was his number? Someone had given him a number.

Hojo. Hojo had... he'd killed Hojo. It had hurt to do. Hojo was the one that had made him something. He hadn't wanted to do it. But he'd needed to, because... the Planet. It was dying, and they'd... yes. They'd killed Hojo, and then Lucrecia had come, and she'd been more infested with Jenova than he had, and she'd looked at him, the way he'd always dreamed of her looking at him...

He still remembered vividly, the way her twisted, ruined body had curled around him, even though one of her claws was embedded in his gut. She'd lovingly caressed his face, and tears had welled up in his eyes, from pain or joy or maybe both, and she sang Mother through their blood, and she'd said...

Cloud blinked. That's right. It was all nonsense. She didn't want him after all. Maybe that was why his number was gone now.

Cid's spear had punched through her eye from the back of her head after that, and it had been enough for him to get away before finishing her off. He'd wanted to be the one to do it. He told the others that since Sephiroth took his mother, it was only fair he took his. Everyone had known it was bullshit. Cloud wasn't even sure he knew the real reason himself. Not that it mattered much, after Meteor had fallen...

Meteor had already fallen. He lived with Tifa in Edge, didn't he? So why was he here?

He'd had another episode, he realised, retrieving his sword -- his sword, the one he'd made for himself -- and putting it back in his harness as he began to pack up his sleeping bag. It still smelled a little of Ms. Suk. He'd have to remember to thank her for...

It all came rushing back, as it always did. He was Cloud, who was running from Edge because of the voices he was hearing. He was alone.

He'd woken up all by himself, he realised. His family would be so proud if they knew. He'd only ever managed that twice.

Another couple minutes of packing up gave him time to get his bearings. He hauled his bag back over his shoulder again and scattered the remains of the fire pit he'd made, then set back out on foot again. It had been three days, he'd been out here. Every second had been punctuated by an acute sense of dread and anxiety. He wanted to talk to someone about it, but of course there was no one around, and that just made it all worse.

Sometimes he'd sing to himself to keep himself company, though he hadn't done anything like that in years, and he still couldn't really remember the words. He really did miss that radio.

He'd gone back to eating rabbits, mostly. There were a couple roots and grasses that he recognised as edible here and there, from his days on the road. Yuffie taught him that. He remembered her taking him aside one day, and telling him how obviously he was a moron and it was up to her to keep him from starving to death if he ever got separated from the group. Cloud had rolled his eyes and crossed his arms and called her a little brat (and worse things in his head), but he had still listened to every word. He always had to wait for her to offer them, though -- god knows how she would have reacted if she knew he was interested and wanted to spend more time with her anyway. He scolded himself for the thought. He knew how she would now, obviously. She'd say yes, because they were friends, and she liked him.

But maybe she might not have. What then?

He'd tried to exchange knowledge with her about how to set snares to catch rabbits and find edible berries and mushrooms, to prove he wasn't a moron, it had just been a long time since he'd had to catch his own food was all, but there were strange holes in his knowledge where he knew lessons should be. Lessons from Ma.

They were still good lessons. And he remembered them, too. He wished Yuffie was here to see this.

Still uncertain of where exactly to go, he followed the stream he'd been camped alongside, tossing the bones of the rabbit he'd caught last night into the water. He wouldn't get far on foot, and he knew for a fact there was a bevy of chocobos a bit further to the west. Or at least there had been last time he was out here. He'd always had a way with chocobos, and contrary to what everyone kept insisting it was not just because of the hair. Honestly, some people.

He could do with the company, at any rate. Anything to distract him from the fact that for all he knew, he was never going to see his family again, and it had been nearly impossible to make the one he had now, so who knew if he'd ever hit it off that well again with anyone else for the rest of his life, it was no wonder nobody could stand him before --

Cloud picked up the pace, as though that would help. Maybe if he spent too long away from them, they'd realise how much better off they all were without him, and when he came back one day they'd tell him to leave again. Maybe he would come back, and Tifa would have a boyfriend that knew how to talk to her, and he'd probably be taller and confident and nicer and less afraid and could grow a beard and father children like a proper man could, because he still didn't know why someone like Tifa had picked someone like him when she could have had anyone she wanted, and Barret would tell him that since he'd left Marlene had been doing better in school and how he'd never really forgiven him for taking her school money and was only tolerating him because there wasn't any other choice, and Yuffie would realise how much neater her flat was now that she had time to devote to herself instead of stopping by every few weeks to wipe up his drool, and Jessie would tell him she'd had time to reflect on what a terrible person he'd been to her even before they'd dated, and who did he think he was kidding, thinking he could appease her by bringing her scrap metal and broken down computers, and Cid would tell him he was nuts if he thought he was actually serious about letting him spend time on his couch, that he was just joking and Cloud should have realised how obvious that was and shouldn't go around assuming, and Reeve would laugh at him for being so damn gullible, every time, and Nanaki --

He couldn't stand the thought of Nanaki not liking him. He stopped running. He couldn't breathe. No one would ever want him again. Nobody would come find him. He was going to die here alone. Nobody was coming for him.

He missed his number. It was as though he'd lost his entire hand, instead of just some skin and a tattoo. It was a reminder that he was wanted, was valued, had succeeded at something. Now he had to remind himself of that, and it was so much harder. Especially now. Was it bad that he missed knowing what he was and being content with it? Objects didn't have to worry about what they were or what their purpose was the way people did.

It wasn't as though he'd ever been much good at being a person, anyway.

A strange pressure went through his body before letting up a moment later, and he looked around in a panic, reaching for his sword. He felt as though he were being watched. Something wanted in.

The air in front of him warped, as though the world were little more than a projector screen with something moving behind it, and an object fell out of the air in front of him and landed at his feet. Some sort of glass box, with an electronic panel on the side.

Inside the box was a rat, which was now looking at Cloud and squeaking in alarm. He picked up the box in confusion as the panel on the side emitted a mechanical hiss.

He stood there for a moment, then sat down, watching the rat for what felt like hours. There was something strangely calming about staring at it this way. He felt less alone. Perhaps because it was the first piece of civilisation he'd encountered in a while that didn't want to kill him. Whatever the reason, there was something calming about just sitting in front of the stream, holding this box, watching the rat scratch against the walls as though trying to reach him.

Wait -- this was Aeris's doing, wasn't it?

He rummaged around in the grass until he found a rock, which he smashed against his sword to create something a bit more jagged than the smooth stones that lay around the stream, already worn round by the water.

"Try not to freak out too much," he told the rat, and he liked to imagine it did calm down a little as he began to carve a few words into the surface of the cage. He wasn't sure if they could read them, but it was better than nothing.

The rat continued to watch him. He watched it back, his fingers gently trailing along the surface of its container. He lost track of how much time he spent, just sitting there, watching it groom its fur. Probably not a healthy amount that normal people would do.

He felt the pressure again, and he quickly set the box down in the grass again a moment before it seemed to "fall" back into nothing, taking his message with it:

HELLO

I MISS YOU

-CLOUD

Hopefully they wouldn't mind too much.

Chapter Text

"I mean... is a half hour long enough?" asked Zack, uncomfortably glancing at the door to the gateway chamber where he'd left the rat.

"Should be," said Tseng. "Any harmful radiation that might be present will have had enough time to have a noticeable effect."

Zack looked guiltily at the chamber again at the thought of "Remy", as he'd taken to calling him in his head, slowly having his organs melted on an alien planet. Then again, the entire point of this was to ensure the same thing wouldn't happen to him, but...

"Bringing it back now," said Aeris. Zack kept his eyes on the door. He didn't really want to see if she was looking at him right now.

A light on the door flashed green, indicating the object they'd send through had been returned successfully, but Zack didn't move to retrieve Remy yet. He waited as the box was thoroughly decontaminated, which took another five minutes. About halfway through, the light changed from green to yellow.

"Is that normal?" asked Cissnei. Zack hesitated, then nodded.

"It means the contents have been tampered with. It's pretty sensitive equipment, so it could be nothing, but it's still better to be sure. Even bringing back a twig or a dead bug it landed on could unleash some zombie death plague."

"If we did kill a bug, doesn't that technically mean we've doomed everything?"

"Well, if that's the case, we already crossed that bridge with the whole truck thing," said Zack, then immediately regretted it. Read the room, moron, he told himself as he received a disapproving glare from Cissnei (he still couldn’t quite bring himself to look at Aeris), then went back to waiting for the readings from the air sample they'd taken.

"Radiation levels at 200 millirems," said Zack, frowning. That was definitely well within the safe range -- lower than Earth's even -- but it did raise a lot of questions about why the levels of background radiation they were picking up were so low. They'd seen firsthand there were other stars, and they clearly had a sun similar to Earth's own... perhaps there was some environmental deterrent?

The atmospheric pressure seemed only slightly lower than their own, and atmosphere seemed breathable as well, not accounting for bacteria that could very well kill them. Still, it was good to know that in a worst case scenario if he were stranded and ran out of oxygen, he wouldn't die immediately from taking off his suit to breathe.

Of course, that would leave him extra stranded, since it's not like they could ever allow him back if he got infected by something...

Zack forced himself not to think about it. It was happening either way. He might as well be positive about it.

"Temperature's 293.19143 Kelvin," he said. "Not bad. Kinda chilly."

“Says the man from Hawaii,” said Angeal. “That’s barely below room temperature.”

"Not bad" was an understatement, considering what a huge deal it was to discover an Earth-like planet in another world. Another thrill of excitement went through the team, and for a moment it was almost like it was in the beginning; no drama, no complicated moral quandaries, just the drive to discover and the joy of pioneering a mission that was the first of its kind. But...

"Hold on."

Zack finally opened the door and frowned. Remy looked fine, and he let out the breath he'd been holding on the sight of it anxiously pacing around the interior of the box, but the surface looked damaged. Or -- that wasn't right. It was too deliberate to be just impact scratches... yes, that was an E, and that was an O... a couple letters he didn't recognise. One he was pretty sure was from an Earth language, though he couldn't recall which one. Was this the writing Aeris had been attempting to transcribe this entire time?

Though now that he was looking at it, what was clearly printed below all of it was a very blocky, uneven etching of the word -CLOUD.

Looking more closely at the box, he could see traces of some sort of mineral embedded in the surface, apparently from whatever had been used to scratch in the message.

He held the box up to the window wordlessly before slotting it back into the library box, as he'd privately dubbed it. Tseng was already getting a pair of gloves and a set of tweezers to run the extra sample they'd unwittingly gathered before he was practically bowled over by Cissnei.

"This is it? The language?" she said, staring at it in awe.

"I guess so," said Zack. "Sure looks like one, anyway." He finally forced himself to look up at Aeris. "You can read this stuff, right? Any idea what it says?"

"...Apart from the name, not really," said Aeris. "'Hi', if I had to guess. I can't actually read it. It always just filtered into English for me. Thought I mentioned that," she added a bit irritably.

"How can you just not read it? You've been looking at this stuff for weeks."

"Three days," said Aeris. "And I just said it looked like English to me."

"This one looks just like a heta," interjected Cissnei nervously, "but some of these look like Roman lettering. Maybe it's a sort of pidgin construct. He did say it was called Standard Continental."

"See, this is already the first solid evidence we've had for anything," said Zack. "How come you never asked him about this stuff?"

"Fair," said Angeal in warning.

"I was a little distracted by the entire history of the world I was being frontloaded with and the fact that our contact is locked in an insane asylum," she snapped.

"Er..." Cissnei looked nervously between them.

"Well, you could've just said that instead of biting my head off."

"You ought to be paying more attention, given how important this is," said Aeris with a definite edge to her voice. "Regardless of how late you were signed on --"

"And now you're bitter I've swooped in and taken your job, so --"

The words were out of his mouth before he realised it. He stopped himself mid-sentence, staring at Aeris, whose expression had hardened. Her fists clenched and here eyes shimmered a bit. Before he could say anything else, she turned on her heel and strode away.

"I'll be in the lab," she said as she vanished behind the door. Tseng gave him a rather stern look and turned to leave with the box, Cissnei reluctantly trailing behind after it.

That left Zack with Lazard and Angeal. Zack sighed heavily and sat down on the bed after getting out of the suit and back to his living quarters, not bothering to unwrap any of the dressings.

"Like we weren't all thinking it," he said halfheartedly. Too late. It was a shitty thing to say and he'd said it anyway.

"If she doesn't file an HR report, I might," said Lazard bluntly. "I don't know what you'd call that, but it's sure as hell not helping anything right now."

"I'm sorry, alright? It's not like this was my idea."

"I'm not the one you need to apologise to," said Lazard.

"She wouldn't accept it," said Zack. "There's literally nothing I could say that wouldn't make it sound worse than it already is."

He unwrapped a pillow and wadded up the plastic, not yet throwing it into the hole in the floor that would serve as the trash. It emptied into an incinerator, where the ashes would be chemically treated and then burned again for good measure. Nothing in, nothing out.

And yet here you are, he thought to himself.

This whole situation was a goddamn mess, even before they'd known about Cloud. Something like this, there was no way it wouldn't inevitably be tinted with some sort of politics. Even the moon landing was in response to escalating conflict with the Russians. You could launch missiles from satellites, after all.

It would have been nice if this project could remain untainted as well, but he wasn't naive enough to assume this was all just for the benefit of mankind. And here he was, enabling it. It was what had gotten him here in the first place, though, so it's not like he could complain. At least, not vocally. He laid back on his bed, staring at the lights set into the ceiling, watching the little green afterimages of it burn themselves into his retinas.

"You'll know it when you see it..."

"Sorry?"

Zack jumped a bit as Angeal addressed him. He hadn't realised he'd said anything out loud.

"Nothing," said Zack. "So, I've rethought my earlier stance, vis-à-vis aliens."

"...I don't follow," said Lazard, exchanging a look with Angeal, who merely shrugged.

"Oh, right, you weren't there for that," said Zack. "Would you stick it in an alien? And now I'm thinking, I dunno, maybe."

Lazard gave him a weary look. Angeal merely rolled his eyes.

"Good to know you have your priorities in order," said Lazard, "since this is the most historically significant discovery in the history of mankind."

"Lazard, they look like humans. You totally could have stuck it in an alien, and you'd never know."

"That's an interesting observation you've made," said Angeal. "Perhaps you'd like to share that with Aeris. I'm sure it would brighten her day to know this is the bold new direction the project has chosen to go in."

"...Sorry," muttered Zack. He had a point, but it did kill the conversation, and he was forced to go back to staring at the ceiling. "...Hey, actually --"

"Fair, I swear to god I will have you personally removed from the project," said Lazard. Come to think of it, he hadn't cared for Zack's attempts at conversation when they'd gone through decon together. He hadn't been this grouchy, though. Had he? Zack liked to consider himself an expert on the behaviour of the human animal. He'd been too distracted to make any proper observations lately, it seemed.

"No, listen -- they look like humans, right? Do you think they've been here before? If they interbred, how far back they might've done it... I mean..."

Lazard's irritable expression was replaced with a more contemplative one. "...Hard to say. There's a lot of conspiracy theories out there... from what they've mentioned, we seem to be ahead of them in terms of space flight. I wonder why."

"That explains the computers," said Angeal suddenly. "Why it all seems to be behind as well. No space race, no rapid miniaturisation of computers. No smart phones, no internet."

"They have cell phones, though," said Lazard. "So there was something. And now we enter upon the Prime Directive dilemma."

"We're a little bit late for that, don't you think?" said Angeal.

"The prime what?" asked Zack, while Angeal rolled his eyes and Lazard looked at him in disbelief.

"The Prime Directive, Zack. From Star Trek," said Lazard. "What kind of doctor are you?"

"One that wasn't big on sci-fi. Not me, not any of my friends. We did this cool thing called 'going outside.'"

Lazard looked too scandalised to continue, so Angeal filled him in instead. "It refers to a policy of non-interference. But I was specifically mentioning the sharing of technology."

"Personally speaking, I really do think we should get a few more details on whatever they're doing to get someone out of the hospital in forty-eight hours following a three day coma and multiple broken bones," said Lazard. "It's very hard to misuse medicine. Not impossible, but hard."

Zack swallowed. "I mean... I guess we can ask once things sort of... calm down a little right? Get in contact with someone else? But who knows when that will be?"

"Soon, I would think," said Angeal. "Is that not the reason we're sending you over?"

Oh. Shit. That was happening, wasn't it? That's why he was in this room.

He was saved from having to reply by Tseng reentering the room, his eyes wide. Even Aeris seemed to have cheered up a bit.

“Those bits of minerals that were lodged in the gouges -- we ran an XRF test,” he said. “And it’s silica, but -- that’s about all we know. It’s -- well, clearly I’m not an expert, but… it’s a completely new substance. It looked like granite, so I’d assumed…”

“It was actually a mix of a few different types of rock,” said Aeris. “The ones it did recognise seemed to be sedimentary deposits.”

“No quartz,” said Tseng. “No granite, no feldspar, no -- no things one would typically think of when considering minerals. The soil we scraped off the bottom was the same way. Entire compounds, just… missing. Replaced with chemically similar ones I’ve never seen before.”

“Is that… is that good?” asked Zack, trying to sound as though he were following the conversation for Aeris’s sake.

“It means something is fundamentally different about the formation of the entire planet, and therefore maybe even fundamentally different about the laws of physics themselves,” said Aeris, actually looking pointedly at Zack. “I’m going to ask what.”

“Is that allowed?” asked Zack, before realising how it sounded and rapidly backpedalling. “I mean -- you know, with the… the stages…”

To his relief Aeris seemed to actually consider his question. Lazard spoke up.

“I think given the importance of what we’ve just discovered, they’ll understand if we make an exception,” he said. “Not to mention, I'm curious as to how he gained access to a sharp object and a bunch of potting soil while in a hospital room," he added, giving them a significant look as he allowed the implication to sink in. "While we’re on the subject, do you know what was scratched into that box?”

“Cissnei’s still looking at it,” said Aeris, averting her eyes again. “She’ll let us know when she’s ready.”

“There were fingerprints on the box as well,” said Tseng. “The decontamination seems to have destroyed anything in there, but perhaps we can ask for a DNA sample on a later date.”

“I… don’t think that’ll be happening for a while,” said Aeris nervously. “It’s a cultural thing.”

Zack blinked. This was the first even he’d heard of that. How much had she been cutting out of the transcript?

She walked away from his window, waving Angeal over to her to set up the tank. Zack quietly sighed and went back to setting up his new living quarters.

Shit, he wasn’t even gonna pretend like this didn’t suck. It did. The week he’d spent with Aeris had just been… nice. There hadn’t been anything to prove for once. That had always been the case before -- with the rest of his teammates on every team he’d ever made it onto, between everyone else in the field… it was all so performative. There was nothing performative about sitting on a couch watching a bunch of posh old women talking about cooking, eating strawberries, not worrying about what she’d think of him. He decided he was done caring and she was just… okay with it.

With Cloud, there would probably be a lot to prove all over again. He was a guy, for starters. Guys were all about proving who was “in charge” right off the bat. It was a lot more obvious in basketball meets, but guys in academia did it too. So that would be fun to deal with, all over again. Plus, the guy was former military, or a cop or something -- it wasn’t really clear. Zack had never been in the military, but from what he’d heard it was about a thousand times worse.

Aeris had said he was kind of high-strung. Mentioned something about assault charges, too. The man was probably a walking dick-measuring contest waiting to happen. The former military thing really didn’t make him feel any better about that fact, either. If he knew kung-fu or something, that might not be a contest he’d be able to win. Assuming he didn’t kill him right off the bat. It had taken Aeris long enough to get him to stop spitting venom at her. Zack didn’t like his chances.

Well, there was “just in case, you’re not as important to the project,” and then there was just setting him up to fail. Zack got up from his bed to watch the screen as Aeris began making contact, and tried not to think about the latter.

 


 

Cloud wasn’t quite ready for it when the shadows began to drag through the air again. He had another moment of panic as he dropped the ugly-looking roots he’d been holding, until the shadows faded. That wasn’t right, was it? Aeris said she wasn’t coming back until she visited in person. Was she here now?

He tried to look around, but found himself completely cut off from his body again as it flexed its fingers experimentally. Then something looked around for him, its confusion mirroring his own.

Cloud? Where are we?

...Aeris?

Yes. Who were you expecting?

Nobody. I thought you left.

He felt anger this time, and sadness, and immediately regretted asking.

Change of plans. You’ll… you’re going to be meeting a… coworker of mine. You can trust him, he’s in on the, er… the escape plan. Though you already seem to have managed that, so….

Aeris took a few cautious steps through the waist-high grasses he’d been wading through, inspecting what he realised must have been the first plants she’d seen since coming here in fascination.

...I escaped. I can’t go back anymore, he said.

Well, once I talk to them… that was the plan, right?

I can’t go back, ever