Actions

Work Header

Rock Bottom

Work Text:

1.

 

Cloud woke up in a hospital bed with a doctor leaning over him, a syringe in hand – and promptly freaked the fuck out. He kicked the doctor away from him as quickly as he could and flipped up from the bed while the syringe flew across the room and shattered against the stone floor. Quickly backing away so that his back was against a solid wall, Cloud reached for weapons, for materia, for anything only to find that there was nothing on him and his clothing was not his. He wasn't even wearing his swords' sheathes!

 And he had no idea where he was, only that it looked disturbingly like a laboratory.

 "Fucking – Gaia, calm down, cadet!" the doctor who had been kicked barely a couple of feet backwards snapped at him, looking more annoyed than anything else. "You're in the infirmary – you passed out during your medical examination! You're fine, not in danger, not kidnapped, so just chill."

"I'm where?" Cloud asked with disbelief. "No, wait, I did what?"

Taking in the room a bit closer, Cloud saw that yes, there was text on the wall in bold letters, announcing INFIRMARY LEVEL 31, WARD 2, ROOM 8. He stared at it blankly – because it had been twenty years since there had been any buildings with 31 levels. Then he noticed the diamond logo on the metal door beside the text, and just stared.

"You're in the infirmary," the doctor said, looking in irritation at the shattered glass syringe before going to get another. "You passed out while they were drawing your blood for the tests. I drew the blood while you were unconscious, and was about to give you a mild sedative – a sedative which, mind you, is now leaking there, on the floor, thanks to you," he added, giving Cloud a look. "You're going to have to pay for that."

Cloud ripped his gaze from the ShinRa logo – the pristine ShinRa logo, the sort of ShinRa logo he hadn't seen in way over a decade – and turned to face the doctor. A doctor in a white lab coat – they wore pastel green these days – with the same ShinRa diamond emblazoned on his chest pocket. Then, slowly, very very slowly, Cloud looked at his hands.

They were small, his fingers thinner than he remembered. Blinking at them, Cloud touched his face, his neck, his shoulders, and found the tail of blond hair that he hadn't had since… since his days as a trooper.

"Am I tripping balls?" Cloud asked slowly. Has Tifa spiked his drinks with that Wutai sludge again, in order to get him properly drunk? Was that what was going on?

"I certainly hope not, cadet," the doctor said, looking at him severely. "We don't tolerate any sort of recreational drug use at ShinRa. It will show in your blood tests and you will find yourself out on your ass if we find anything in your blood that's not supposed to be there."

Cloud looked up again, at the doctor, at the room. "Cadet," he said.

"For fuck's sake," the doctor said, walking forward and grabbing Cloud by the chin. While Cloud just stared, the doctor took out a pen light and aimed it at his eyes. "Your name is Cloud Strife. You're at ShinRa HQ, because about six hours ago you entered the SOLDIER candidate trials as a cadet. You passed out while we were performing the standard physical examinations on you, while we were taking blood samples. And it looks like your pupils are a little sluggish. What the hell did you take?"

"SOLDIER… candidate… trials?" Cloud repeated, slowly.

"Yes. Fucking Bahamut, your eyes have a bit of shine to them!" the doctor said with disgust. "You've taken Glint?"

While Cloud just stared at the man in confusion, the man stepped back and walked to the door, hitting the com there. "This is Doctor Hield. Who the hell did the physical examination on cadet Strife – and consequently missed the fucking fact that the kid has Glint shine in his eyes?"

"It was Doctor Fahren," a female voice answered. "He did all the physical examinations for group B."

"Have someone redo group B and bring me the forms to get this Glint kid out of here," Doctor Hield said, releasing the com and turning to Cloud. "You're out of here, kid."

"I am?" Cloud asked in a daze.

"Yeah. Did you really think we wouldn't know you took that shit?" The doctor asked, motioning at Cloud's eyes. "Fucking Glint. Where did you even get it?"

"Uh –"

"You're not from the city, are you? Let me guess. You wandered around, ended up below plate, bragged about how you were going to become a big SOLDIER and then someone walked up to you all, hey kid, I know how you can make absolutely sure you make the cut." the doctor said in mocking tones. "And then they gave you this shiny little pill that made you feel like a super hero, made your eyes gleam like a SOLDIER's and all free of charge."

"Uh?" Cloud answered, beyond confused now.

"Well, congratulations, idiot. In forty six hours you're going to crash from the high, and then you're going to want more of it," Doctor Hield said. "And then you're going to feel like a super hero for a bit – and then you're going to want more and more and for the rest of your miserable life, you're going to be hooked on that shit. And it will be a very short life indeed."

Cloud said nothing, just blinked.

The automatic door slid up to the ceiling, and a woman in a nurse's uniform came in, handing a pad to the doctor. "I'm calling group B back. Do you want to do the examinations yourself?" she asked.

"I guess I’ll have to, since Fahren can't seem to do them worth shit," Hield answered, taking the pad, leafing through the papers before signing a few of them. "Have someone bring this jackass' personal effects to the counter so that we can get rid of him."

"Yes, doctor," the nurse said, and retreated from the room.

"Right," Hield said and came to Cloud again. "You’ve got two options, kid. One, you try and get clean of Glint and come back in six months and retry. If you've only taken one dose, you might manage it. We'll put you through one hell of a medical examination when you come back, sure, but if you test clean, we might let you try to become a SOLDIER. Option two, you don't bother coming back here at all because honestly, you probably won't be a good fit anyway, not if you're gullible enough for this shit. You hear me?"

Cloud nodded slowly.

"Here," the doctor said, handing him the papers. "You tested out during your medical examinations and at this point in time, the ShinRa Health and Medical Department does not approve you for the SOLDIER candidate trials, nor for any sort of employment in ShinRa Electric Power Company. Sign here."

Cloud signed.

"Good. Now get the hell out of here – to the left and down the corridor there's the nurse's station. Wait there and someone will get your things to you."

Cloud went, his head buzzing, his steps a little faltering. He felt like he was in a weird, psychedelic dream. Or in a lucid dream where he was aware he was dreaming but unable to do anything about it. Around him spread out the landscape of the ShinRa infirmary, with its steel grey walls and pristine words on the walls. INFIRMARY LEVEL 31, they announced before directing him ELEVATORS 45 METERS FORWARD, NURSE'S STATION 21 METERS FORWARD, and so on. There were the sort of humming electric lights everywhere that weren't supposed to exist anymore, the sort that breathed as much Mako radiation as light down onto the people below them.

And everywhere, ShinRa employees. Doctors, nurses, a janitor with the ShinRa logo on his back – a couple of troopers sitting on a bench who looked like they had been in a fist fight. A SOLDIER Third Class, leaning onto the counter by the Nurse's Station, trying to chat up the pretty pink haired nurse who was not doing a good job of pretending that she wasn't flattered.

"Cloud Strife?" another nurse asked at the sight of him.

"Yes, ma'am?" Cloud answered, his voice strange and high. Beside him, the SOLDIER Third Class looked at him curiously and then narrowed his eyes when he saw Cloud's eyes.

"Here's your bag," the woman said, handing over the old duffle bag Cloud only vaguely remembered taking with him from Nibelheim. "And here's your paperwork. If you decide to try again in six months, you need to present all of these up front, got it?"

"Yes, ma'am," Cloud answered again, figuring that it was a safe thing to say. He accepted the paperwork, looking at it in a haze. It looked so… official. It had logos and a stamp from ShinRa Health and Medical and everything. When was the last time he had seen something official?

"Good. Try and get clean, kid," the nurse said, not unkindly. "The fact that you can still walk and talk coherently tells that you’ve got high Mako tolerance. If you come back, that's good for the eventual Mako treatments."

Cloud thought of tanks, filled to the brim with acidic green and just stared at her in blank disbelief. Beside him, the SOLDIER Third Class looked disgusted.

She sighed. "Get out of here, kid," she said, motioning to the elevators.

Cloud nodded, turned away, and walked to the elevators. The moment the doors closed on him, he threw up in the elevator’s corner.

For a while after that, Cloud sat in the ShinRa HQ cafeteria, the duffle bag sitting at his feet and the paperwork spread out across the plastic table. He waited for about half an hour to wake up – which didn't happen – and then he waited another half an hour to see if Aerith and Zack were pulling some sort of weird after life prank on him – that didn't happen either.

Instead, everything remained as he saw it. The ShinRa HQ lobby cafeteria spread out in front of him in its sleek modernism, in polished metal and glass. The tables were clean, the chairs practical but stylish, metal and plastic, and everything looked manufactured on a scale that Cloud hadn't seen in years. And while Cloud ran his fingers along the slightly embossed ShinRa logo stamped along the edge of the plastic table, there were people. Constantly there were people.

ShinRa troopers loitered in the cafeteria, chatting and gossiping with what looked like a couple of civilian boys. Every now and then, SOLDIERs passed Cloud by on their way to the elevators where they presented their shiny key cards and headed up to the SOLDIER floors. ShinRa workers in suits and ties made up most of the traffic, coming in and going out in a constant flood of ever changing people. Then there were the maintenance people in overalls, a few engineers carrying boxes of tools. And every now and then, one of the waitresses wandered around the cafeteria, giving Cloud pointed looks and asking would he like another water in tones that suggested that he should really get going now.

ShinRa, as it hadn't been in over twenty years – largely because the building had collapsed years ago. And worse yet, in the mirrors that ran along the length of the cafeteria walls, Cloud himself as he hadn't been in over twenty five years. Thin, wide eyed, with the long hair he had cut short when he had entered the ShinRa Army as a trooper, wearing all civilian clothing. He could hardly even remember looking like he did – the memories were hazy and fragmented at best, and he couldn't remember ever actually owning jeans. If not for the gleam of Mako in his eyes, he seriously wouldn't have recognised himself at all – he looked so small, thin, and pathetic. His arms were sticks.

It had to be a dream. But at the same time, it was too detailed and too precise. And it refused to go away; his own small – fifteen years old, Holy – self wouldn't go away. The numerous troopers and ShinRa SOLDIERs wouldn't go away.

In a haze, Cloud took the ShinRa Today newspaper from the next table and stared at the front page. It had an image of a short haired man talking with a SOLDIER in it, and behind them there was a field with three ShinRa troop carriers in various stages of landing. The title read WUTAI SIGNS THE TREATY.

He was half way through the article about the end of the Wutai war and how the plans for the new Wutai Reactor were now being sketched out, when troopers sitting not far from him decided to move to his table. "So, you here to get into SOLDIER, kid?" one of them asked. "Trying to be like Commander Genesis?"

"Washed out," Cloud answered, glancing up and then back to the article.

"Aw, that's too bad," another trooper said, throwing a grin at the other one. "But you know, you could still try for the army. We don't have such high standards you know – we don't mind if a fella is a little short, and it doesn't take as much muscle to fire a rifle as it takes to swing a sword around."

Cloud frowned and looked up again. "Are you… trying to recruit me?" he asked slowly.

"Hey, it's not as fancy as being a SOLDIER, I grant you – but it's free health care, three meals a day, a bunk to sleep in every night, and the chance to do a lot of really good physical training," the first trooper said, giving him a smile with a lot of teeth. "Lots of SOLDIER candidates do at least a few months if not a couple of years as troopers before they even take a try at the candidate trials. It's a damn good way to get into shape. And you get paid for it."

For a long moment Cloud just stared at the troopers. Had they been waiting deliberately in the cafeteria for this sort of thing? The two civilian boys from before, were they like him – wash outs from the physical exams? Was this how he had gotten recruited the first time? He had walked out of the candidate trials, all forlorn, and gotten beset by troopers like these, just waiting to recruit poor unsuspecting SOLDIER wash outs?

It was a good sales pitch though – if one really wanted to become a SOLDIER. Get training you're actually paid for, and then try again when you're a bit more experienced. What they failed to add was that it was a three year contract, if you signed it, and that the mortality rate of ShinRa troopers was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40% for fresh recruits.

Looking at the politely attentive faces of the army recruiters, Cloud gave into the inevitable. This was too elaborate to be a dream or illusion or even a hallucination – and there was no one with the funds to put up this sort of charade. This was real. The recruiters were real, the ShinRa HQ lobby was real, the paperwork in front of him was real. As was the stick figure Cloud Strife with Mako eyes in the mirror.

Without a word, Cloud tucked the newspaper under his arm, got his duffle bag, and stood up. While the troopers shared surprised looks, Cloud turned and left the cafeteria – leaving his paperwork from ShinRa Health and Medical behind.

Whatever the hell was going on here aside, one thing was damn sure. No way in hell was Cloud signing his soul to ShinRa this time around.

After wandering around Midgar Central Square that surrounded the ShinRa HQ for a while and taking in the half forgotten buildings, shops, advertisement and cars – the like of which were no longer made in his time – Cloud took a seat on a bench. It sat under a street lamp and fake tree – and didn't that say a lot about ShinRa, that the streets were decorated by plastic trees? Shaking his head, he turned to the newspaper he had stolen from the cafeteria and leafed through it idly, trying to get a feel of what the hell was going on.

The year was zero one, February of said year. The Wutai war had ended just the previous year, and the politics of Wutai's surrender had finally come to an end, with Wutai signing away most of their rights and giving into ShinRa's supremacy. First Soldiers Genesis Rhapsodos and Angeal Hewley were still "missing" and Sephiroth was currently in Wutai, supervising the final stages of the disarmament of the region. ShinRa was launching a line of new PHS phones, swords and small personal firearms, and unveiling a whole new generation of anti-personnel combat robots. The President of ShinRa would like to make it perfectly clear that he was absolutely faithful to his wife and had never ever in his life cheated on her. Somewhere, AVALANCHE had bombed a ShinRa science facility of little value.

Cloud inhaled slowly and then let the breath out even slower. Then he threw the paper into a trash bin nearby before starting to rummage through his duffle bag. What he had with him – what he had brought from Nibelheim… didn't amount to much. It was mostly clothing and useless personal items of little value. No weapons, no materia and, worst of all, next to no gil. Most of what he had – a good ten years of a little boy's savings – had gone to the journey from Costa del Sol to Junon and from Junon to Midgar, he recalled.

It was nowhere near enough to sustain him. Hell, it wasn't even enough for a decent meal. He was piss poor.

Well. He had been piss poor before. It was nothing he couldn't handle. And over the years he had gotten very good at making gil with whatever he had at hand. Parts of even low level monsters could have a good turnover, when you know what to do with them, who to sell them to, how to prepare them.

The question now, though, was what to do. He could do a lot, from this sort of position. It was a good year and a half before Nibelheim – before Sephiroth's mental breakdown. Zack was still alive too, obviously. Aerith was about sixteen now. Had she and Zack met yet? Cloud couldn't quite remember.

Staring at ShinRa’s big phallic symbol of an HQ, Cloud wondered what he should do about that, about Zack and Sephiroth and Nibelheim. It had been… a long, long while since he had even thought about the whole mess of Nibelheim. He was in his forties – well, he had been – and the nightmares of the past had finally let go of his psyche and he just… didn't… want to go back to that damn place. It had taken him so many damn years to sort out his psyche and get some fucking peace of mind from Sephiroth and Nibelheim, and the idea of doing it all again?

Not at all attractive. Neither was the knowledge that he would probably have to make it into ShinRa to get into the position where he could do anything about it. And that? That was years and years of horror and gore and after all that, more than ten years of self-therapy that he did not want to go through again.

He had defeated Sephiroth more than once. Jenova had been destroyed, the world had been saved, ShinRa had come down in a great, wonderful crash. And now the mad fates of the world decided that he had to go through all that bullshit, again? The fights, the losses, the nightmares, the pain and blood and agony? For what? If and when he managed to save the world again, would he be sent back, again, like this?

Cloud considered it for a moment – and then thought of what he’d had that he had suddenly been ripped away from. His mansion in Costa del Sol. Denzel and Marlene and their kids – his so called grandkids. Tifa's visits, his own visits to Edge, the cheerful nights of them getting happily shit faced with a mix of really good booze – in her case – and really good drugs – in his case. Nanaki's and Vincent's occasional visits, and the times when the three of them went out and just explored the changing world. The bouts of jobs with Barret, months spent stained with oil and coal and the sweat of hard labour. Beta testing Reeve's and Cid's tech, often at the risk of his own life. Visits to Wutai to spend time with her Empress – who, in her late thirties, really knew how to throw damn fine parties and did so at the drop of a hat.

A future that was healing after ShinRa, Jenova and Sephiroth. A future that had started to really look up, where the Planet was finally recovering, plants were returning to places where they hadn't been seen in decades, where tech had started to become more sustainable, energy more renewable. A future in which he had finally learned to be comfortable in his own skin, found his place in the world, been happy, been satisfied.

All gone, replaced by… this. By ShinRa at the height of its power. Sephiroth, pending his eventual mental breakdown. Nibelheim, not yet burned. The Planet, still dying under the Mako Reactors. This fucked up dystopian past that they had finally, finally left behind. All brand new and gleaming and strong, right in front of him. Mocking him and the hard won victories that suddenly meant shit.

The longer Cloud thought about it, the more tired, annoyed and frustrated he felt. Why was he here? What was he supposed to do? Fix it all? Again?

"No. No fucking way. Fuck that," he said, glaring at the ShinRa HQ and startling a couple of girls walking past him. "Fuck this, fuck you, fuck destiny."

With that said, he stood up, slung the duffle bag over his shoulder, and began making his way through the streets and alleys and endless staircases, towards the entrance leading to Midgar’s slums.

 

2.

 

Once out of the non-light of above plate and into the shade of below, Cloud could breathe a little easier. The Wall Market was a little smaller than he remembered, a little messier, but the people weren't quite yet as desperate as they had been in the future. No one paid much attention to him – but then, why would they? He was still a bit dirty after his journey from Junon, the slight gleam of his eyes said druggie rather than SOLDIER, and being so small and without a weapon, he didn't exactly look like a threat to anyone. With his slightly ripped jeans, travel worn shoes and cheap shirt, he fit right in with the rest of the slum residents.

That didn't mean that the local merchant of cheap and half useless weapons didn't try to rob him blind when he proposed a trade of relatively good clothing for a cheap little short sword.

"You can get clothes and bags everywhere, little boy," the man said condescendingly while Cloud examined the rusty little sword – blunt, chipped and probably never properly maintained. "I can maybe trade them for a dagger. But a sword? Can you even use a sword, boy?"

"Wanna find out?" Cloud asked, gripping the sword and holding the tip out at the merchant, who looked extremely unimpressed with him. "Come on," Cloud added. "Look at this thing. How likely are you to ever sell it to anyone, really? It's practically falling apart."

"But it has a materia slot," the merchant said, pointing at the hole. "You can't get that many weapons with materia equipping capability below the plate."

Cloud glanced down at the slot – which was the reason he wanted it, true enough. "Do you really think that after all the rusting, you can actually equip materia on this?" he asked slowly, scraping the slot with a finger nail. It came back stained with the brown of rust. "No way can it conduct anymore. Hell, the materia probably wouldn't even fit anymore."

They looked at the slot for a while and the merchant sighed. "Gimme the clothes and the bag, and you can have it?"

"You can have my knee in your balls instead, how does that sound?" Cloud asked with a smile, and they haggled. In the end, Cloud traded away his extra clothes and empty photo album from Nibelheim, and walked away as the owner of a sheathless, rusted little sword, which in any other hands would've probably been absolutely useless.

However, Cloud was a weapons smith, among other things. If he couldn't restore a rusty sword, he'd eat it out of sheer shame.

Getting the material for restoring the sword was easier than getting the sword itself. He got a cup of dirty vinegar from a dingy little fast food joint that advertised excellent rat cuisine, and the rest of what he needed he could father from the junk piles of the slums.

He spend about an hour sitting on top of a rusted train cart, rubbing the sword down with vinegar until the rust came off, before using a rough bit of sandstone – which was damn easy to get, seeing that Midgar had been built upon the stuff – and sharpening and polishing the sword until the chips blended away and the edge sharpened. Then he treated the materia slot as well as he could, before adding a bit of bent metal wire to the edges of the slot, which would hold the materia in place in case he came across some.

It wasn't precisely the best sword he had ever held in his hands. But it was sharp and serviceable enough. And after he was done with it, it served well enough against the few low level monsters that infested the junk yard that was the below plate slums. And fighting them let him gauge where he stood, in terms of his own power.

He wasn't what he had been, that was damn obvious. Gone were the times when he could take out dragons in single swipes. His body lacked all the right muscle memory and though his mind knew what to do, his arms and feet couldn't keep up – and it didn't help that he had a sword with barely a foot of blade length, when he was used to the beautiful six feet of stainless steel of his Fusion Sword.

Compared to what his strength should've been, though… well. Last time when he had been fifteen, even the weakest of the slum monsters would've been more than enough to wipe the floor with him. He had had no muscle strength to speak of, his core strength had been… well, non-existent, and add to that the lack of training, lack of coordination, lack of anything that could be even jokingly called fighting discipline did not make for a good combination.

He still didn't have much muscle mass, of course. But he had something. The same something that gave his eyes the shine of what the doctor had called Glint. It didn't feel like Mako. It didn't feel like Jenova either. It felt… well he had no idea what it felt like. But it was something – and probably had something to do with the shine of his eyes.

But it wasn't exactly overpowering him, whatever it was. While he could take the little packs of wild hounds, hedgehog pies and the occasional cripshays with relative ease, the deenglows and the so called ghosts were harder – and after his first encounter with an eligor, Cloud figured that he was better off just plain avoiding them for now.

After a couple of hours of stalking the monsters and slaughtering them, Cloud had a pile of corpses which he mercilessly gutted for their more valuable parts. Skin from the hounds, the spikes and fire glands of the hedgehog pies, the pincers from the cripshays, more glands from the deenglows along with a few organs and the whole corpses of the ghosts. All worth a little bit of gil, when sold to the right people.

Cloud made a bit more attention-worthy sight when he returned to the Wall Market, with the monster parts carried in a wooden crate he had found in the junk piles. For the next hour or so, he haggled with the local Pharmacy, the clothier and what passed for an armourer in the slums, until he had a little bit more gil and invitations to bring more.

"I got some other folk who bring me bits and bobs, but none of them know how to clean up their kills properly," the apothecary said while storing away the glands Cloud had brought him. Then he eyed the three ghosts Cloud had brought. "You couldn't just remove the glands from those like with the deenglows?" he asked with a sigh.

"The gland tends to get ruined if it's removed," Cloud shrugged. "I used to sell to a guy who preferred the whole corpses – the vanish fluid is better removed from the intact corpse, because it evaporates when it comes in contact with air. I can haul the corpses out after you've drained the glands, though."

"Oh. In that case," the man said, brightening up and getting a couple of massive syringes. "You have any experience in draining?"

"Some," Cloud said, accepting the syringe, and together they harvested the usable fluids from the ghost corpses. After they were done, the apothecary counted out the proceeds, which was better than anywhere else Cloud had sold the monster parts.

"Pleasure doing business with you," Cloud said, counting his gil and then hiding them in his belt. "Anything specific you're in need of, that I can get from the slums?" he asked then.

"I could use bone marrow from deenglows and cripshay livers, if you can get them," the man said thoughtfully. "I’ll loan you the tools for removing the bone marrow if you're interested."

"Definitely interested," Cloud said, and with a set of syringes and a scalpel in a little leather case, Cloud headed out again.

"Right," he murmured, sorting out his new funds in his head. He had three hundred gil – enough for a few nights in the Inn and some hot meals. If he could bring a similar haul every day, he was pretty much set. He didn't precisely like the notion of going out slaughtering monsters every day, though.

He was just considering his options for the night – not that it was ever day in the slums – when a familiar figure in an unfamiliar white and blue dress stepped in front of him with hands on her hips.

"You're all over blood and absolutely disgusting. And you're not doing at all what you're supposed to," Aerith informed him. "The Planet and the Lifestream are not happy with you."

Cloud stared at her, at this living ghost of all the things he had once upon a time regretted from his travels to defeat Sephiroth. "Good," he said, his voice shaking a little. "I'm not particularly happy with Her either."

The last Ancient, in all of her sixteen year old glory, stared at him severely while Cloud returned the stare with a slightly cornered look. Then she broke into a smile, laughed, and threw herself into his arms.

Cloud had barely time to return the hug before Aerith took his hand and tugged at him while laughing. Together they ran through the Wall Market, across the Train Graveyard, through the junk yards and piles of trash and to the Church, hand in hand like little kids.

"This is so utterly ridiculous!" Aerith said, laughing, as they ran. "I don't know what possessed them, what possessed the Lifestream. Maybe She went a bit mad with the Geostigma and then the Omega incident – I’m not sure – but this is the most ridiculous thing She has ever done!"

"Preaching to the choir," Cloud answered, a little breathless. "But She didn't tell you why She did this?"

"There was some whispering about saving the future and whatnot – I think She wasn't entirely satisfied with all the loss of life ShinRa and then Deepground caused, but who knows," Aerith answered. "Personally I think She's just a silly, impatient little lunatic – She should've just waited for things to return to normal, but noo…"

They ran up the Church's stairs and inside, where through the broken floorboards the flowers bloomed in place of what Cloud had come to know as the fountain. Catching their breaths, they fell to sit beside the little field of flowers, shoulder to shoulder.

"So, I take it you're not too happy to be here either?" Cloud asked, once he wasn't panting anymore.

"Oh, don't get me wrong, I don't mind being alive again. But having Her undo all that we accomplished? All that you accomplished?" Aerith motioned above them where, beyond the broken roof of the Church, the plate loomed. "I’m not too thrilled about that, no. She should've left well enough alone."

Cloud released a breath and set his sword down beside them. "You ruined your dress," he pointed out, motioning at the blots of red on her front from when she had hugged him.

"Throw in a bit of magic and it'll wash right off," she shrugged, leaning backwards and falling to lay on her back on the splintered wooden floor with a sigh. "So, what do we do?"

Cloud considered that, looking at her surreptitiously. She looked so young, didn't quite have the hips she would in a few years. It was strange – she was cuter now. "I'm not going to ShinRa, for a start," he said. "I'm not too keen with the idea of fighting Sephiroth again either."

"Me neither," Aerith said. "It was a quick death, mind you, but I still would rather not go through it again. But… we probably should do something. If we don't, Sephiroth will probably destroy the Planet."

"I dunno," Cloud said, lying down beside her. "He went nuts and burned Nibelheim down, snuggled with Jenova's head and all that – but before he died and had a Mako bath in the Nibelheim Reactor, I don't think he wanted to destroy the world. He just wanted to kill all the people and destroy ShinRa."

"And that's a good thing?" Aerith asked, dubious.

"Well, not really – but you can't say that humanity has been particularly good for this world," Cloud shrugged. "I've been thinking about it over the years and who knows, after his mental breakdown, he might've calmed down a bit – that is, if I hadn't killed him. He couldn't really move on after that because he, well… died."

"You really think so?"

Cloud let out a huff of laughter. "Hell no," he said. "He was a puppet of Jenova and Jenova wanted to consume the Planet. As soon as she got her claws into him, all he wanted to do was to destroy the Planet and feed her to his mutated corpse of a mother. As long as Sephiroth's sent to Nibelheim – and Hojo will eventually do that – he'll end up with the Planet destruction thing he had going on in our past. Future. Whichever."

"Well, aren't you cheerful," Aerith murmured, stretching a bit and then shifting so that she could rest her head on his stomach. "Maybe we could just destroy Jenova. Do you think Sephiroth would go insane if we did it before he found out about her?"

"Dunno," Cloud shrugged, resting a hand in her hair. "Probably. The First Class SOLDIERs aren't exactly the pinnacle of human sanity and there was that Genesis and Angeal thing too – which is pretty much going on right now. But without her I don't think he'd go the way of world destruction. He'd probably want to destroy ShinRa, which is all good in my books, but destroying the world isn't exactly something humans who still live on said world try to do."

"You wanna bet on that?" Aerith asked.

Cloud laughed and shook his head. "Not exactly good odds," he said.

"Not really, no," Aerith murmured. They were quiet for a moment, staring at the Church roof, before Aerith spoke again. "So, wanna bomb the Nibelheim Reactor with me?"

"It's such a long way away," Cloud sighed. "And we don't have the funds we had. I only have three hundred gil to my name – that's nothing."

"And if I happened to know a relatively easy, not precisely safe, and completely free way from Midgar to the Western Continent?" Aerith asked with a suspiciously innocent tone of voice. "Which might involve the necessity of escape after arrival in Costa del Sol, mind you, but still. It would be free, and after that it'd be just travelling. You could get us a couple of chocobos and it'd be a cinch."

Cloud looked down at her with narrowed eyes. "Does it involve cross-dressing?" he asked.

"… Maybe?" Aerith said innocently and then explained. "Don Corneo hires out girls to Gold Saucer – well, sells them is more to the point. All we have to do would be to be pretty enough to pass, but not too pretty otherwise he might want to keep us. He sells us, we get free passage to another continent. Piece of cake. And," she added, looking at him, "You'll pass even better for a girl, now that you're not a beefcake."

Cloud just sighed at that.

A couple of hours later, after they visited Elmyra and Aerith explained to her about this big important mission she had to do for the Planet because she was an Ancient – which the woman didn't for an instant buy – they made it back to the Wall Market. "She'll get over it," Aerith said cheerfully. "Once we get back."

"I think she'll kill me, once we get back," Cloud sighed. As it was, Elmyra had all but thrown knives at him when he and Aerith had escaped her house.

Aerith grinned. "Like I said, she'll get over it."

For the next hour or so they flitted about the Market in order to get the clothing and the makeup and everything else necessary. It was testament to all the years of giving in to Aerith's whims – most of which the woman hadn't even been alive for – how little of a fight Cloud even bothered to put up. His jeans and t-shirt were sold and changed for a tartan dress of all things – it was second hand and sort of cute, Cloud supposed, but had nothing on the purple gown he had once worn. He didn't get a tiara this time – thank god– nor earrings or pearls. Instead, he got a sheath to hide the short sword in under the dress, strapped to his left leg, and worn combat boots that somehow… fit the dress.

The final ensemble, once the makeup had been added – this time by Aerith's hand, rather than by the girls of the Honey Bee Inn – wasn't bad. Cloud didn't quite look like the bombshell Aerith had made him into the last time around, but more like a cute little slum girl.

"What do you think?" Aerith asked, while brushing the tangles and spikes from Cloud's hair.

Cloud peered at his mirrored reflection in the boutique, not entirely sure. He still looked like himself, more so than the last time. There wasn't as much makeup, just enough to blend out what little masculine features his face had – which, he had to admit, weren't exactly plentiful. He could still move normally and indeed, Aerith had told him to walk like he usually did, rather than to try and act coy – maybe swing his hips a little, but that was about it.

He looked cute and somehow androgynous. It wasn't a bad look.

"It's not bad," he admitted, turning so that his side was facing the mirror. He had no wig this time – he didn't need it with his hair still long and he had to admit, his own hair fit him better than the braided wig had. His hair still stood up in the front, but from the back Aerith had managed to flatten it a bit and the end result wasn't bad at all. "I actually kinda like it.

Aerith let out a small laugh. "It definitely suits you better than what you wore in the future. What was that side thing anyway, the thing you strapped to your hip?"

"An apron, actually. For metal working," Cloud shrugged. "It had a lot of my tools in it and it was just easier to keep it on."

She laughed and finished with his hair, separating the spikes in the front and the longer hair at the back with a hair band. It had a bow in it. It was cute. "There, Miss Cloud, you’re ready."

"Uhhuh," Cloud said, rolling his eyes and running his hands through his hair. "You need to change too, you know," he said, nodding at her stained dress.

"And I will," she added, sauntering up to the boutique's owner and getting herself a whole new outfit – which looked rather a lot like what she used to wear. Pink dress, with a zipper in front, and the wine red short jacket. She didn't quite have the hips to pull it off yet, but it looked good.

"Now, let's go get caught," she said with a shine in her eyes. "And when we do, we need to be mouthy and difficult so that Don Corneo will decide not to bother with us. Curse, Cloud, curse like Cid on a good day."

He laughed at her, linking his arm with hers and together they headed out, with every intention of being kidnapped.

With Aerith's knowledge of the slums, it definitely didn't take long – apparently there was a certain place everyone knew and if a young woman went there, she was sure to get stolen. Some women, with no money and no means to make any sort of living went there intentionally, when all their other options were used up. "It's not much of a life, but sometimes it's better than the alternative," Aerith said sadly. "The alternative being dying of starvation, in this case."

"Ah," Cloud said. "When we get back, maybe we should do something about that."

"How?" she asked.

Cloud shrugged as they settled in to loiter in the Spot of Many Vanished Women. "No idea. But it could be fun to try and figure out."

"I suppose we do need a hobby, if we decide not to bother with saving the world," Aerith mused with humour.

And then they were kidnapped, shoved into the back of a trailer, and shipped off to Don Corneo's mansion. At Aerith's nudging, Cloud cleared his throat and unleashed a good two decades of close friendship with one Cid Highwind. It took him a while to get into the flow of it, but in the end… well.

"Set me down, you chocobo humping asshole," he spat at one of the men, as the guy threw him over his shoulder. "I'll rip your tiny little shrivelled balls off and feed them to you, you Marlboro sucking shit eater."

"Damn, she's got spirit," the man holding Cloud muttered to the other, who laughed at him.

"I'll show you some damn spirit – let me down and I'll spiritedly spirit your fucking dick into your torn prolapsed rectum!"

The man looked uneasy. "… What does prolapsed mean?"

Cloud told him – in vivid detail.

So yeah, he had learned a thing of two from listening to Cid. Aerith, when she wasn't giggling at him, tried to do the same – but she just didn't have the spirit for proper cursing. What she lacked, though, she made up with some well-placed kicking, nailing her captors in some extremely painful places more than once.

In the end, Don Corneo didn't even bother to meet them, probably having heard of how horrible they were from his underlings. Instead they were right away stowed with some other women, some of them older, some younger, none of them very happy looking. Cloud cursed until their captors left them, before calming down with a last "cum gurgling shit faced limp dicks, all of you."

"Well, that's mission accomplished," he said calmly, causing Aerith to crack up helplessly, while the other women in their little cell stared at them in incomprehension.

 

3.

 

It took about six days to get to the Western Continent, one of which was spent on a train from Midgar to Junon. They never saw any of it – they had been stowed in a shipping crate and after their captors had thrown in enough water bottles and food packets to tide them over, the crate was never opened. It wasn't the most comfortable way of travelling, but there were air holes and a couple of mattresses in the crate, and really, both Cloud and Aerith had gone through worse.

By the time they reached Junon, they had gotten to know the other women and found out that about seven of them were there because they had gotten captured intentionally – which, in some cases, had taken a long, long time of loitering in the Spot of Many Vanished Women.

"It's better for a working girl in Gold Saucer," they explained. "They pay more there and so long as you pay your dues to the establishment, you get clean and comfortable accommodations and everything. You can't get a deal like that anywhere below plate in Midgar. And they charge taxes through the nose, above plate."

That left three women who hadn't exactly chosen the life of a kidnapping victim. One of those three was a young girl of about twelve years of age, who had blonde hair and brown eyes and looked very familiar indeed. She wasn't exactly wearing the night blue of a Turk yet, but it was definitely Elena.

"No, I don't want to be here," she said, sniffling into Cloud's shoulder in the darkness of the shipping crate. "My friends, they dared me to go below plate and I… they… I don't want to be here! I want to go home!"

"It's okay, honey," Aerith said from her other side. "We'll get you back to Midgar. We have some stuff to do on the Western Continent, so you'll have to wait a bit but once we get back, we'll bring you with us."

"And you others too," Cloud added to the young redhead and her friend, also girls from above plate who had gotten caught by Don Corneo's men. "We'll figure out a place for you to stay in Costa del Sol – you can think of it like a holiday."

"You seriously mean that?" one of them asked, a little incredulous. "How the hell can you even promise that – you're stuck here, just like we are!"

"Well. Not quite," Cloud shrugged.

"Does that mean you got caught intentionally too?" one of the ones aiming for Gold Saucer asked curiously.

"It's free transport to the Western Continent," Aerith shrugged cheerfully.

"We once did something similar with a ShinRa cruiser – this is much easier," Cloud added. "ShinRa Trooper uniforms, in general, stink. And also this takes a lot less play acting."

"And fighting too," Aerith added. "We haven't had to kill anyone yet. That's always a plus."

"Yeah, that too."

The women stared at them in a sort of horrified awe and together Cloud and Aerith entertained them with somewhat edited tales of their exploits around the globe. It made the crossing over the ocean pass quicker than it otherwise would've, and in the end they made a lot of new friends. Most of them prostitutes, mind you, but there was nothing wrong with that. It wasn't like Cloud could look down on anyone on how they chose to make money – being a mercenary gambling addict, occasional thief and habitual terrorist… well. He really didn't have a leg to stand on.

Not that all of that was bad either. It gave Cloud a unique perspective on how to avoid getting robbed, swindled or, well, killed, which he shared with the girls heading for Gold Saucer. He also taught the girls a bit about chocobo racing while he was at it, how to recognise the good chocobos, what types to never bet on, stuff like that – it seemed like something that would be useful for them.

"How are we going to escape, though?" Elena asked, once the ship reached Costa del Sol.

"You just leave that to me," Cloud answered, and waited. Eventually his chance came, as the shipping crate jostled and jerked and was lifted up in the clamps of a crane. While the crate groaned and swung, Cloud took out his short sword, and charged up Cross Slash.

Thankfully, the noise of the shipyard and the crate in the air covered up the screams of the women as he slashed through the wall. The Limit Break broke the sword on the third slash, but it did its job, cutting a neat triangular hole near the shipping crate's corner. Aerith quickly rushed in and held the cut piece of metal in place, not letting it fall as the shipping crate was set down.

"Ugh. Useless," Cloud muttered at the broken sword and threw it into the crate's corner.

"Holy Gaia," one of the prostitutes muttered. "I'm starting to see how this travel by kidnapping might work for you two. Are you like warrior women, or something?"

"Or something," Aerith said cheerfully and pressed her ear against the crate wall to listen. Cloud did the same, and once they were sure that there were no people nearby and that the shipyard was busy with the unloading of the rest of the crates, Cloud kicked the piece of metal he had cut off, letting in bright Costa del Sol air and the smell of ocean breeze.

"Alright," he said, looking at the three unwilling captives and motioning at Aerith. "Follow her – I'll keep the rear."

"Good luck!" one of the prostitutes piped. "I hope you succeed with whatever it is you two are doing."

"You too, have fun in Gold Saucer and don't gamble everything away. And remember, don't bet on anything below fair," Cloud answered, and then they slipped away and into the chaos of Costa del Sol's shipyard.

After making sure they had gotten away clean, Cloud and Aerith went about arranging accommodations for Elena and the other two girls. Which basically meant that Aerith used her persuasive powers while Cloud just sort of stared at the man from behind her, Mako eyes at full gleam, until the owner of the Costa del Sol inn just caved.

"Sure, they can stay here," the man said, tugging at his collar a bit. "We could use a helping hand around the bar, if they don't mind – just a little something to pay back the fare for the rooms – bu-but they don't have to do much, I swear."

"Well that's just wonderful," Aerith said with a happy smile. "Isn't that wonderful?"

"Absolutely splendid," Cloud said, smiling and cracking his knuckles. "We'll be trusting you to make sure no one bothers them, alright?"

"Y-yes of course!" the man said. "I'll see to it that they're treated like royalty myself, of course!"

Elena watched them the whole time with wide, impressed eyes, while the other two just sighed with relief. "So, we'll stay here, until you get back?" they asked.

"Yeah. It shouldn't be as bad as all that. You do a bit of sun tanning in the mornings and a bit of waiting tables during the evenings. And don't agree to anything you don't like to do. And kick anyone who suggests anything untoward in the balls, alright?" Cloud said. "Now, I don't have much in the way of money, but I'll leave you what I can – and a phone number. If something happens, you get to a pay phone, you call the number and tell the man who answers that you heard people talking about avalanches and that they're building bombs in the inn basement."

"What? Cloud," Aerith said, admonishing, when she saw the number Cloud gave each of the girls.

"Um," Elena said, looking at the number with something like recognition on her face. "Isn't this…?"

"Yes. Yes it is. So don't use it unless you absolutely have to," Cloud said.

Once the girls were settled in properly, Cloud and Aerith bid them good luck and headed to the town market to get some provisions. "The Turks, Cloud, really?" Aerith asked as they approached the tables and booths spread all across the Costa del Sol square.

"It's the best sort of cavalry you can call in this world," Cloud shrugged, approaching one of the sales booths. "It might get the girls a warning, but getting a warning is better than some of the alternatives"

"You grew up to be such a mother hen. It's kind of endearing," the last Ancient laughed, and then saw what he was looking at. "Aww, do you have to?" she asked, when Cloud picked himself a change of clothes. "It suits you so well!"

"Yeah, yeah, but it's easier to travel in trousers," Cloud shrugged. "And I want some boxers on, damn it. I keep slipping out of – erm. Well, the panties are kinda small. Not exactly made to accommodate – you know."

"… Oh. I didn't even think of that," Aerith murmured and giggled. "I'm noticing you not selling the dress, though," she noted, while slinging her new chocobo saddle and packs up to her shoulder.

"Ah, well. It's a nice enough dress. And who knows, it might come in handy," Cloud shrugged, packing the dress carefully away, along with the headband. "I'm almost tempted to wear it to Nibelheim actually – it would be worth it, shocking the ever loving Lifestream out of my neighbourhood. And also scaring Tifa off any mistaken notions of us making a cute couple in the future, that would be nice."

"Ah. Not a happy marriage, was it?" Aerith asked, amused.

"We never actually got married," Cloud sighed, thinking back – or forward – on it. "Which is good, I guess. But still, it would've been better for all parties involved if she had given me a few years to figure out what the hell was going on in my brain before she pushed the whole thing at me."

"Well," Aerith said, amidst her laughter. "If you forget you're gay this time around, I'll remind you."

"If you stay alive long enough, sure," Cloud answered, and she punched him on the shoulder.

A few miles out of Costa del Sol, Cloud saw some chocobo tracks and left Aerith to make them some dinner while he headed off to get them a ride. It was a bit trickier without a chocobo lure, but once a chocobo trainer, always a chocobo trainer. After leaving some crushed greens on the tracks, and walking along them a few times, Cloud spotted a couple of birds – a mated pair, by the looks of it – loitering around the tracks he had left.

"That didn't take long," Aerith noted, after Cloud had sweet talked – and bribed – the two chocobos into bridles and then led them to the camp.

"It's easy when you know how," Cloud shrugged, tying the chocobos to a nearby tree and feeding them a few more greens. "It's been a while, mind you. Once you've managed to breed a few wonderful golden chocobos, you don't really bother with taming wild ones."

The last Ancient just shook her head at him and shoved a plate into his hands. "Eat and then let's ride. The quicker we get going, the faster we can torch Jenova."

"Mm-hmm," Cloud agreed. "How are we going to do that, anyway? We spent the last of my gil in Costa del Sol. We have no money, no weapons, no nothing. And no explosives either, I'll point out, and I don't know how to make some out of nothing. Do you?"

"Actually, I was thinking we could pop down to the Ancient Forest, raid it, and then have Typhoon trash the Nibelheim Reactor," Aerith said thoughtfully.

Cloud considered it and then nodded. Typhoon would be about enough to completely destroy the Reactor, no mistake about it. "Apocalypse was there too, wasn't it? I wouldn't mind a proper weapon."

"I could use one too," Aerith said, considering. "There were some others in the forest too. A gun, I think. Maybe some armour – I can't remember all the stuff, but I'm pretty sure there was a gun."

"More of Vincent's forte, that."

"Well, maybe it's time for a change," Aerith shrugged. "Besides, it's not like Vincent kept any of the guns we found – he started making his own, didn't he?"

"True enough," Cloud agreed. "Do you even know how to use guns?"

"I have absolutely no idea," she admitted with a laugh.

"Ah, well. I can teach you the basics, if nothing else. I remember that much from being a trooper, at least," Cloud said and finished his food. "We're getting Vincent, though, aren't we? Or at least waking him up."

"Of course we are. Can't exactly burn the mansion with him in it, you know?" Aerith asked, giving him a pointed look.

"We're burning the mansion too?" Cloud asked and then considered it. "No. I'm burning the mansion," he said slowly. "And I am going to enjoy it too."

"Yes you are," Aerith smiled.

They got moving, travelling down south from Costa del Sol and making it over the plains, around the desert area of Gold Saucer, over the mountains and then to the rocky plains east of Cosmo Canyon, and towards the Ancient Forest. All in all, it took them about a week just to get to the base of the mountains surrounding the forest, from where it would take climbing and trickery to get to the forest itself.

And all the way there, they fought monsters – with neither of them in possession of a better weapon than what they could find in the area at the time.

"Ever get the feeling that we didn't think this through?" Cloud asked after one fight that had ended with him bashing the monster's head in with a damn rock.

"Oh, but that's what makes it fun!" Aerith said happily.

"I think your stay in the Lifestream might've made you insane. You've definitely lost your touch with reality," Cloud said flatly, dropping the rock in disgust. He was fighting with a damn rock. He, who once had had the greatest collection of broadswords on the Planet. Oh how the mighty had fallen.

"Maybe – but cheer up, grumpy face. It's not like something like this can kill either of us, and whatever cuts and bruises we get, I can heal, quick as anything," the last Ancient said cheerfully. "Besides, it's doing you some good."

"It is?" Cloud asked.

Aerith looked pointedly at the monster whose head Cloud had bashed in. It was a diablo – a monster about four times stronger than the strongest the Midgar slums had to throw at people. Not to mention the fact that it was a flying monster, which Cloud had pretty much stoned down from the sky.

"Well," Cloud said, shaking his bloody hands awkwardly.

"Yeah, pretty much," she agreed, handing him a rag to clean his hands with. "I'm sure you've noticed the Lifestream swimming in your veins by now? I mean, it's shining out of your eyes, you can't have missed that."

He sighed a bit morosely at that. "Why do I have to have Lifestream swimming in my veins?" he asked plaintively while rubbing his hands clean.

"I guess She figured you might need to fight Sephiroth at his best and decided to give you a bit of an edge," Aerith shrugged. "It's an Ancient discipline, something called… hm, paladins? I guess that's about the right word. Anyway, they had the same thing – they took a bit of the strength from everything they killed. The stronger the thing, the more energy they got. You're basically eating the life-force of the things you kill."

"There are no words for how disturbing that sounds," Cloud said flatly.

"When you think about it, Mako treatments are pretty much the same thing. Who knows, maybe Hojo even got the idea from the stories of the Ancient paladins," Aerith shrugged and looked up at the mountain range hiding the AncientForest. "Shall we get to the climbing?"

It took them a couple of days to scale the cliff walls of the Ancient Forest but apparently Aerith was on to something with her weird paladin theory – it was easier for Cloud than he had thought. After a few more diablos and other local monsters, he eventually got to the point where he could carry Aerith on his back for the rest of the climb. "Methinks the Lifestream is making me into your knight in shining armour," he pointed out during the climb.

"My knight in tartan dress," she answered with a grin. "We need to get you a white dress when we have the time."

"I'm not in a dress right now and are you kidding me? White? With my complexion I'd look like a ghost. Besides, I prefer black."

"Of course you do," Aerith snorted and then made a show of coughing. "Purple!"

"Oh, shut up."

And then they were in the forest. After a moment of consideration, Aerith decided to wait outside while Cloud ran through it to get the Typhoon summon, and whatever weapons and items that had been hidden there. While the Apocalypse Sword had nothing on Cloud's own Fusion Sword, it was definitely an improvement to having no weapons whatsoever, and once he equipped the Slash All materia hidden in the forest, he could take multiple opponents in a single sweep.

"Best idea ever!" he enthused after returning to her with the Typhoon summon materia, the Minerva Band armour – and the Supershot ST gun. "I've almost forgotten how it feels to have a proper sword! And this is where we got Slash All! And I got something for Nanaki if we ever run across him."

"Told you it'd be worth it, coming here," Aerith said smugly, accepting the armour and the gun. "So, how do I use this?"

They spent the rest of the day at the edges of the Ancient Forest, where Cloud taught the basics of firing a gun to the last Ancient, and together they took out a whole swathe of the Ancient Forest's monsters. Aerith didn't exactly make a perfect markswoman, but she figured out the mechanisms of firing pretty quickly, and had the aim down decently enough – which made sense, since it took aiming to use attack materia too and she was already an expert with that.

"Now, my knight in tartan, to Nibelheim!" Aerith said, pointing north with her new gun, and with a sigh Cloud hoisted her up onto his back and began the way down from the mountain.

It took another week to make it to Nibelheim. They left their chocobos a little further away from the village, eyeing the mountain range from a distance.

"Hm. Would you mind terribly doing something to your hair?" Cloud asked.

"What's wrong with my hair?" Aerith demanded somewhat dangerously.

"It's extremely noticeable and recognizable, and I'm thinking we don't want people remembering you after we're through here," Cloud said, giving her a look before turning to the village. "They'll remember me though whatever we do, can't do much about that, but I can disguise myself later. You, on other hand… well."

"I don't make as convincing a man as you make a woman?" Aerith asked, amused, and considered her long hair. "Hm. Well, I guess I could bundle it up and wrap a scarf around it…"

"You could also maybe wear my dress? You know, in case you want to keep that one, later on?" Cloud offered.

"The dress you haven't washed since we spent a week or so in a shipping crate? That dress?"

"Ah. Well. Yes. But on the other hand, that would be memorable," Cloud said sheepishly. "And later on when you're all clean and washed up, no one would think that you were the, ah, smelly girl in a scarf."

Aerith sighed.

A little later they marched in, Aerith with her scarf adorned head held high, despite the dirty tartan dress she was wearing – which fit her rather badly too, too tight across the chest and hips, too loose around the waist. People didn't pay as much mind to her, though, too busy ogling Cloud, whispering and muttering behind their hands as they stared at him from a distance.

"What a warm welcome. I'm seeing how you'd be tempted to come here in drag," Aerith mused after one of the villagers had all too casually walked past them and spat on the ground not far from Cloud.

"Yeah, it's a cheery, welcoming place, Nibelheim. I wonder why I ever left," Cloud said with a sigh. "Come on, I'll introduce you to my mother."

Skye welcomed him back with open arms, but eyed Aerith somewhat uneasily. Cloud could immediately tell why and opened the discussion with "Relax, ma, she's not pregnant," much to Aerith's horror and Skye's obvious relief.

"Well, come on in dears," Skye said. "I'll put some tea on and you'll tell me about Midgar."

"I'm not pregnant, what?" Aerith asked under her breath.

"Well. She was about your age when she had me, so," Cloud murmured in a low tone, and shrugged. "The tale of the Strife family is sordid and scandalous. What can you do?"

They had tea, Cloud and Aerith spoke about some non-specific features of Midgar, and Cloud told his mother that he wasn't back, not really. That he had failed the SOLDIER exam, but he had found work and it would start soon and he was in Nibelheim just to visit before his work began.

"Well, that's nice, dear," Skye said somewhat confusedly, looking between Cloud and Aerith. "So are you two… an item?" she asked, giving Aerith a considering look. Judging by her expression, she didn't find the ill-fitting dirty dress, nor the make shift head scarf, all that appealing.

Cloud considered it and then shook his head. "No, actually, um…" Cloud took a breath to tell her he was gay… and sighed. "We're just friends. We sort of work together – she wanted to see places so she tagged along with me."

"I sort of have a boyfriend," Aerith added.

"Oh, I see," Skye said, looking as if she wasn't sure if she was relieved or not. "Is there anyone else, then? You must be beating those city girls off with a stick, huh?" she feebly joked.

It was awkward. So awkward. How the hell had he forgotten how damn awkward it all was? He could vaguely remember it being awful even before he headed off to join SOLDIER, but had it always been like this? It only proved to be more awkward as Skye kept asking him questions like if he had a girlfriend yet, was there anyone he liked, stupid stuff like that and he tried to answer them without blurting out any bothersome truths and just…

Eventually, he just gave up and aimed a pleading, agonized look at Aerith that broadcasted as loudly as he could SAVE ME.

"I think I would like to see a bit of Nibelheim before it gets dark," Aerith said, just as Skye turned to make some more tea. "Night falls quickly here, right? Cloud, could you show me around before it does?"

"Oh, yes, absolutely," Cloud said hurriedly, and then they quickly made their escape, Cloud with a sigh of relief and Aerith with an awkward look about her face.

"Were you and your mother always like that? Like, before too? I'm starting to see why everything was so hard for you, all the damn time," she murmured.

"Yeah, I can't say I learned much in the way of social graces from her. I loved her to bits. We just couldn't understand each other pretty much at all and so we just… yeah," Cloud sighed, rubbing his neck awkwardly. Probably best he hadn't come to Nibelheim in the dress – it probably would've given his mother a coronary.

The last Ancient cast a look at the house they had just fled from. "I can see where you get your looks from, though. She must've been really beautiful when she was young – she still is," Aerith said.

"Yeah, well. It didn't do her much good. I guess that's why she's so hung up on me finding a girlfriend – she sort of always was. Thought I'd end up the way she did," Cloud muttered and shook his head. "Let's visit the shop. I want some fire materia."

The shop keeper didn't quite want to sell it to him, especially since Cloud didn't have actual money, just some more valuable bits and pieces of monsters he wanted to trade. In most shops that would've been perfectly alright – most of what Cloud sold were basic potions ingredients and potions were always in demand – but not Nibelheim. The asshole of a shopkeeper charged twice the price for a simple orb of fire materia with zero growth at all. Cloud paid for it without bothering to put up a fight, though – he'd be causing trouble for the village soon enough anyway, so it was worth it. With the materia equipped in the second slot of Apocalypse, they headed out and turned their steps towards ShinRa Mansion.

On their way through the village of many curiously and suspiciously staring onlookers, they passed by young Tifa, who stared at them with wide eyes from behind the corner of the inn and didn't come closer. Cloud stopped to look at her and then sighed as the girl ran away, shaking his head. "Okay, whatever that was about," he murmured.

"Same thing your mother thought? Me being your young pregnant girlfriend?" Aerith offered with some amusement.

Cloud thought about it and sighed. "Yeah, that's probably what everyone will end up thinking around here," he agreed.

"Poor dear," Aerith said, looking at where Tifa had gone. Then she let out a small chuckle and linked her arm with his. "You probably crushed all her youthful fantasies right there."

"What do you mean me, it's your presence that's making them think it," Cloud said pointedly, and looked up to the distant Nibel Mountain, where the Nibelheim Mako Reactor stood. "You know," he then said. "If we do this, ShinRa will investigate. And just by asking around, they'll figure out who did it. Cloud Strife and some girl he was with. The Mansion burned and the Reactor blew up just a little after they arrived, and so on. Pretty suspicious."

"Yeah, probably," Aerith agreed, stroking her chin thoughtfully. "But that's why I'm wearing this stuff and you're not in a dress, right? So that we can change how we look later."

"Yes, but…" Cloud glanced at his mother's house. "I'm thinking it might be best if we don't come down from there at all."

Aerith arched an eyebrow and then looked up. "Oh," she said in realisation and then looked at him with a frown. "You sure? I mean… your mother…"

Cloud looked at the house and then shrugged. He had come to terms with losing Skye a long time ago. That she had to do the same with him was a small price to pay, to make sure she lived to see old age. "Might be for the best," he said. "Come on. Let's go wake up Vincent."

 

4.

 

After Cloud had taken some of his aggression out on the monsters of ShinRa Mansion, they broke into the underground laboratory. It somehow looked less and more horrifying than Cloud remembered – it was newer, cleaner, had different instruments, one less Mako tank and yet, somehow, a lot more research material. It looked like all the things he had hoped never to see again – changed just enough to inspire whole new nightmares.

"I'm getting the feeling this place isn't as unused as it was in our time," Aerith murmured, while they examined the laboratory and the library.

"I suppose Hojo comes here every now and then to perform some illicit experiments. That's what he did with me and Zack, after all, and I don't think anyone batted an eye," Cloud said, looking at a few specimen jars with disgust. They had human organs in them, in various states of rotting and melting into the Mako they were floating in. "It's his official secret hideout that everybody knows about."

"Not much of a secret hide out, then," Aerith murmured. "So, how do you want to burn it?"

"I'm thinking with a bonfire made of research material. We crank up the AC down here, and it'll power the fire while taking care of the smoke so that the village probably won't even realise the place is on fire until the whole place goes up," Cloud said thoughtfully. "But Vincent first."

"Vincent first," Aerith agreed, and they made their way to the room of coffins. "You know, the fact that there are coffins here doesn't make sense to me," the last Ancient noted. "I mean, coffins sort of indicate the intention to bury with rites and all that, and that doesn't seem like something Hojo would bother with."

"Might be leftovers from the other scientists. You know, the ones that had actual integrity and ethics. Before he killed them all," Cloud said, walking up to Vincent's coffin and knocking on it. "Hello? Anybody there?"

"Why don't you yoo-hoo him while you're at it?" Aerith asked with a laugh.

"I could cat call him," Cloud said thoughtfully. "The way Yuffie and Tifa used to. I think you did it once too, now that I think about it…"

Aerith laughed. "Can you blame me, or them? He's definitely a man worthy of cat calling."

"Can't argue with that," Cloud said, and whistled.

That was when the coffin lid blew open and Vincent sat up to glare at them with a somewhat bleary, confused look about his face. "Who are you?" the man demanded, his gloved fingers reaching for a gun. Then he actually took them in – took in Aerith's horrible get up – and blinked. "You are not ShinRa. Are you?"

"Nope!" Aerith said cheerfully. "I'm Aerith, this is Cloud. We're time travelling terrorists."

"Um?" Cloud said at her, pointedly.

"What? It's true."

"What?" Vincent asked, looking between them. "Terrorists?"

"Yeah. Time travelling terrorists. Hey, that could be an excellent slogan – Cloud, Cloud, make note of that. If we ever start a company, let's call it TTT," Aerith said and turned to Vincent, pointing at Cloud. "He's going to burn the mansion in a blaze of justified vengeance for past future wrongs that will thus hopefully never be visited upon him."

Vincent blinked slowly. "What?" he asked again.

Cloud pushed Aerith away from the coffin. "Ignore her, she's insane," he said. "Though I am going to burn the mansion, she's right about that. Hi," he added. "I'm Cloud Strife, and the crazy person with the vague grasp on reality is Aerith Gainsborough."

"… Vincent Valentine," the gunman said somewhat dubiously. "Why are you going to burn the mansion?"

"Well. Largely for the vindictive pleasure I get from simply doing so, I guess? But also to destroy Hojo's research here," Cloud said, shrugging. "Because it has the potential of turning people insane and having very bad consequences in the future – it's a very long story that I would love to share with you, but this place is already going to give me nightmares and I'd rather not do it here. So."

"So," Vincent repeated, slowly, staring at him like it was him who was the crazy one. Not that Cloud could blame him.

"We're also going blow up the Nibelheim Mako Reactor, and destroy Jenova," Aerith said, peeking past Cloud's arm. "We got an excellent summon to do the job for us. Would you like to join us?"

Vincent stared at them for a long while and then pinched himself with the tips of the golden talon. After a wince and a frown at the pinched right arm, he stood up and jumped out of the coffin. "Fine," he said. "How are you going to burn the mansion?"

"I was thinking of just setting the research library on fire," Cloud answered.

"… That'd do it," the former Turk agreed. Then, after looking at them – down at them – for a moment, he asked awkwardly "How old are you?"

"Fifteen, going on forty one," Cloud answered.

"Sixteen, going on twenty two!" Aerith said cheerfully.

"Ah," Vincent said noncommittally. "We should probably destroy the laboratory equipment before you start the fire, to maximise the intended destruction."

"I love the way you think," Cloud said earnestly.

Half an hour later, they had trashed the laboratories, destroyed every container of Mako or specimens or anything else that looked like it might have scientific value, and emptied all the drawers and boxes of pretty much everything. They then piled up the books of the research library into two piles, one in the library and the other in the laboratory, and while Cloud kindled the fire, Vincent turned the air conditioning of the laboratory on.

"Oh, but I love a good fire," Aerith said cheerfully, rubbing her hands together. "Let's get out of here before we get smoke inhalation."

Poor Vincent kept giving them strange looks all the way from the quietly burning mansion up the Nibel Mountain. On the way, they encountered the usual amount of monsters – and a couple of Nibel dragons too, much to Cloud's delight. Vincent either relaxed or tensed further at the sight of Cloud swinging the Apocalypse at them – it was hard to say which.

"Should we empty the Reactor of personnel before I do this?" Aerith asked once they had made it up to the Reactor, rolling the orb of Typhoon summon materia between her fingers.

"The Reactor is automated – it doesn't have personnel," Vincent said.

"We should check that Jenova is in there, though," Cloud said. "I wouldn't want to pat myself on the back for a job well done here, only to find out later that she was in Midgar all the while. Also, we probably should slice her up and set her on fire a bit too, just to be sure."

"Good point. After you," Aerith said, motioning at the Reactor.

And so they raided the Reactor – which was easier done than said, really. The Nibelheim Reactor was old and frankly rather simply designed, having none of the intricate architecture most of the other Reactors have. They could practically walk from the front door – which Cloud happily busted open – to the Reactor core, in one straight line.

The Jenova shrine was there. Humming the One Winged Angel theme of the play that some idiot had decided to do about the Meteor and Sephiroth incident ten years after the fact, Cloud ripped the Jenova idol off the wall, to reveal the tank with Jenova's bloated body inside it.

"That's Jenova?" Vincent asked. "She's… missing limbs."

"Hojo's used bits and pieces of her, grafting her into other things. Like people," Cloud said, tilting his head. He hadn't gotten that good a look the last time Jenova had been like this, fully integrated into the Reactor systems. "But that's the biggest bit. I didn't realise she was used to process Mako."

"Yeah," Aerith said, shuddering. "The Mako that comes out of her is used on the SOLDIERs. You recall, they stopped making new SOLDIERs after Sephiroth took the head. And then later Hojo took the headless torso to Midgar to try and get the process going again, but couldn't do it, couldn't get her organs working even partially without the head."

"There are no words for how much I want to throw up right now," Cloud informed her thoughtfully.

"SOLDIER?" Vincent asked.

"ShinRa's super soldiers," Cloud answered and pointed at his eyes. "They got eyes like this, a bit shinier. They're basically super humans. Super strong, super durable, and so on. Pumped full of Mako. This Jenova processed Mako, apparently."

"They learned how to do it after Sephiroth's birth – that's Lucrecia's son, the one they pumped full of Jenova and Mako in utero," Aerith added helpfully. "Once they had the template in Sephiroth, they could replicate the process in other people without needing to go at them before they were even born. They're called SOLDIERs."

"How do you know all this?" Cloud asked, fascinated.

"I died and met some people," she shrugged. "Hojo was actually one of them."

"… My utmost condolences for sharing an afterlife with him."

"It wasn't so bad. I got to divide his life-force later on – he made a lovely bunch of bait worms in his next run around."

Vincent said nothing, turning his expressionless red gaze at Jenova. Then, without warning, he lifted a gun and shot Jenova square between the eyes, just below the metal head plate.

"Yikes," Cloud said, as the distilled Mako fluid of the tank started gushing out of the bullet hole. "Warn a guy!"

"You were meaning to slice her up and burn her, correct?" Vincent asked emotionlessly, and fired at the corpse again, this time taking out an eye and punching another hole into the tank.

"You can have the pleasure if you want it. I already got my vindictive revenge when I set the mansion on fire," Cloud said, sliding Apocalypse out of its sheath and offering it handle first to Vincent. "Have at her."

Vincent took the hollow sword and, though he wielded it somewhat clumsily, obviously took great satisfaction in trashing the Mako tank, and then cutting Jenova into pieces. And the pieces that were left into smaller pieces. And then those pieces into much smaller pieces.

"I'm sensing some pent up aggression," Aerith noted thoughtfully.

"Death, non-consensual experimentation and body modification and years trapped in a coffin will do that for you," Cloud said, and threw an orb of fire materia at the gunman. Vincent cast about nine lower level fire spells on the Jenova remains before he was satisfied with the results

"Well. You sure showed her. Good job," Cloud complimented him, accepting his sword and materia back.

"Thank you," Vincent answered. "Now what?"

"Now we cause a natural disaster," Aerith said, linking her arms with theirs and dragging them out of the Reactor. A little while later, she equipped Typhoon into the Minerva Band and held her hand up.

Cloud had never seen anyone use a summon on a building before – especially not one of Typhoon's level of destructive power. It was definitely a sight worth seeing, as the semi-natural forces of Typhoon's Disintegration tore at the Reactor and then all but reversed gravity on it, ripping the whole building into bits and pieces, sending them flying into the sky. The noise was unimaginable and the ground itself shook, and all in all, it was over almost disturbingly quickly.

While Cloud applauded in appreciation and Vincent stared at the rather overblown destruction with wide eyes, Aerith let out a whoop of laughter, throwing her hands up as the Reactor was, more or less, erased from the face of the Planet.

"Ten points," Cloud said. "Excellent execution. Would watch again."

"Thank you, thank you, I aim to please," Aerith said giddily. "It didn't even blow up! Oh, I'd love to do the same with the other Reactors!"

Vincent eyed them dubiously and then at the crater that remained of the Reactor, where the Mako pools had been before the liquid had gone flying. The Mako left on the edges and walls of the crater was solidifying into crystal in the cool mountain air, and everything smelled of oxygen and burnt metal.

"Are you going to do the same with the other Reactors?" the gunman asked then.

Cloud and Aerith shared a look. "Well," Cloud trailed away, seriously considering it.

"We're not that far away from Gongaga and Corel," Aerith said thoughtfully.

"We really shouldn't. We're bound to get caught," Cloud said.

"But She would want us to do it," the last Ancient said. "Besides, they're going to blow up anyway. This way we can make sure no one dies. You know, no one innocent anyway."

Cloud sighed. In the distance, the bits of the Nibelheim Reactor started raining down on the mountain range.

Vincent looked between them. "So," he said. "Gongaga?"

"Gongaga," Aerith said determinedly.

A week and a half later, Cloud leaned back against the comfy cushions in Gold Saucer's lounge area, reading about the destruction of the Nibelheim, Gongaga and North Corel Reactors in a newspaper he had filched. Across from him, Vincent was sipping red wine and doing an admirable impression of a vampire while Aerith brushed her hair – which she had bound in a scarf both in Gongaga and Corel.

"Apparently, judgement day is upon us," Cloud said. "And the Goddess has descended from the heavens to take humanity down a peg or two. The skies themselves swallowed the Reactors and no one is safe from judgement. We're all doomed. The Eastern Continent is next. ShinRa's stock has plummeted and the President had a heart attack and is in intensive care."

"That's nice, dear," Aerith said, grimacing at a tangle near the end of her long hair.

"They don't realise it was a summon that did it?" Vincent asked, idly swirling the wine in his glass.

"Typhoon is an Ancient summon – it hasn't been seen on Gaia in about a thousand years or more, so I'd be surprised if someone actually did recognise it," Aerith shrugged. "And it does look a bit like the sky coming down and swallowing stuff up, when it's used."

"What are we going to do when we get back east, though? I mean, the Junon Reactor is underwater," Cloud said. "And the Fort Condor Reactor is inside a mountain. If we try to destroy that, the whole mountain will go. And the Midgar Reactors… well."

"We could use another summon," Aerith suggested.

"Which one?" Vincent asked. "I don't know a summon that can match Typhoon in destructive power, and yet not take out mountain ranges and cities when used on buildings rather than living targets. Do you?"

Cloud and Aerith thought about it. "Alexander," they then said together.

"It would probably cause some major interior damage if summoned inside a mountain and all, but that's sort of the point – and since it doesn't summon outside forces, it could work without causing too much damage on the general structure of things in Midgar," Aerith mused. "And it should work underwater too."

"But it's so far away," Cloud sighed. "Northern Continent!"

"But hot springs!" Aerith said excitedly. "I could really use some hot springs right about now."

"There's that," Cloud said and sighed. They were in the middle of a glacier but it was hard to beat hot springs. Especially ones that weren't tainted with Lifestream like the hot springs of Mideel. "Alright. How are we going to get there, though?"

Aerith considered. "We could steal the Highwind?" she suggested carefully.

"Cid would kill us."

"We could steal him too. We’d need a pilot, you know."

"Shera would kill us," Cloud said, giving her a pointed look.

"Well. You could breed us a few golden chocobos and we'd be set," Aerith said, with an equally pointed look aimed back at him. "Which one's likely to take a few years, using the Highwind, or you breeding chocobos?"

"Or," Vincent interjected, "We could just take a ship from Costa del Sol, bound north."

Aerith and Cloud looked at him. "You and your practicality is an increasing source of disappointment," Aerith said with a sigh. Vincent just calmly sipped his wine and didn't bother to acknowledge her words at all.

They spent the night in Gold Saucer, where Aerith treated herself in the local beauty salons, Cloud increased their funds by a few orders of magnitude in the chocobo races, and Vincent just… hovered around. Mostly around Cloud, in an attempt to avoid the local theatre's attempts of recruiting him into its plays.

"Can you even get drunk?" Cloud asked, nodding at the ever present glass of wine Vincent had. It had to be the fourteenth glass by the time Cloud was finished with his gambling.

"I like the taste," Vincent answered.

"I know something that could taste even better, pretty boy," a woman that had not so subtly sauntered to them said, all but throwing herself at Vincent. Then she noticed Cloud. "Oh my Goddess, Cloud, honey, is that you? What are you wearing?"

It was one of the prostitutes from Midgar who, judging by the looks of her, had really embraced life in the gambling tower. Cloud considered his options and then decided, what the hell. It was inevitable anyway. "Oh, I know, right?" he bemoaned, tugging at his cargo pants with apparent disgust. "My dress ripped, it was awful and then I couldn't afford anything better than this."

While Vincent arched an eyebrow at Cloud, the prostitute tutted at him disapprovingly. "Oh, girl, this won't do at all. You look awful. Come with me, I'll get you something decent to wear. It's the least I can do for what you did for those girls."

And so Cloud ended up cross-dressing, again – not that he minded that much. After Corel and Gongaga, he figured that he could really use a bit of a disguise. So while Vincent watched on with something akin to morbid fascination, he let himself be dolled up – this time in a dark blue and grey dress that reached his ankles and glimmered in the right light, with his hair done up with a decorative comb holding it. After makeup and a pair of sparkling fake-diamond earrings, he was Miss Cloud once more. Miss Cloud ready for a night at Gold Saucer's high end gambling tables, even.

"Much better," the prostitute in charge of his makeup said.

"Not bad," Cloud agreed, tilting his head a bit. They had used half a jar of wax in order to tame his hair a bit, and the spikes that usually stood up every which way were a little more subdued. He was a bit unsure how he liked it. "I'm going to be travelling more soon, though. I don't think this is an outfit for travelling."

"We'll get you something more practical then," they promised, and soon after the evening gown was replaced by a dark grey bell skirt, tights, a thick belt, tight top with the sort of low, bunched up front that did wonders for the chest he rather didn't have, and a leather jacket of all things. Cloud stared at his reflection and couldn't help but laugh at himself.

"Fuck, I didn't know I could pull this sort of thing off," he muttered, spreading the hem of the skirt. He looked a lot like a Midgar girl, the ones that went to flashy bars and got besotted idiots to buy them all their drinks. "I look so… so… chic!"

"It suits you," Vincent said, with somewhat choked tones.

"You need to experiment more, honey," one of the prostitutes said. "You'd be surprised at what you can pull of, with a little work. You think you can travel in this?"

"Might need some replacement tights but yeah, this works. Thanks," Cloud said.

"Would your friend want some help?" one of the prostitutes asked, giving Vincent a leer.

"Thank you very much, ladies, but I'm perfectly fine," Vincent said, backing away a few hurried steps while Cloud laughed.

After thanking the women for their work – and paying for it, seeing as he had the money for it now – Cloud headed back to the rooms they had rented, with a thoughtful Vincent following him.

"So," the man said slowly, looking him up and down. "Not the first time for you, huh?"

"What, you don't like it?" Cloud asked with a grin, spreading the hem of the skirt. "When you hang around Aerith, you end up doing weird things. It's useful every now and then – like when we got here," he added and then explained the way he and Aerith had gotten to the Western Continent.

The gunman just looked at him after the explanation. "One would think you'd mind more," he said then. "A lot of men would."

"When you've gone through all the shit I've gone through, you stop sweating about the little things. Besides, it's not a bad look on me, don't you think?" Cloud said, flopping down to sit on his bed. "Or does it bother you?" he asked, while toeing off his combat boots – which, somehow, still fit the outfit perfectly.

Vincent looked him up and down, slow and contemplative. "No," he then said, slow. "No, it doesn't bother me."

Cloud waggled his eyebrows at the man and grinned when Vincent turned away, looking embarrassed.

Aerith of course got a kick out of it – especially so when Cloud had ended up in a skirt without any intervention on her part. "Aww, you look so cute, Miss Cloud. I've missed that," she said, hugging him happily. "Does this mean I can finally burn your tartan dress?"

"You're the one who chose it," Cloud laughed. "But you might hold off until after we've dealt with the Junon and Fort Condor Reactors, at least."

"Ah well," she sighed, ruffling his hair fondly. "I guess it can live a bit longer. But if you get another outfit, then so will I. Fork over the gil, missy, and no one gets hurt."

"Fine, fine," Cloud said, and parted with some of his winnings. "I'll need to get some more tomorrow at the morning races, though, if we want to make it North and back. So we'll have to hold off leaving until noon, maybe?"

"That works. We're not in that much of a hurry," Aerith agreed, counting the gil with a gleam in her eyes. Then she smacked a kiss on Cloud's forehead. "Thanks, honey. You're the best."

"Yeah, I know," Cloud modestly agreed.

"I'm not the only one who could use a new outfit, though," Aerith said, looking at Vincent. "You really could use a change, Vincent. Not that I don't love you just the way you are, but someone must've seen you at Corel or at Gongaga, and you're not exactly inconspicuous. You're putting us at risk, you know. It's absolutely rude of you."

"What she said," Cloud nodded.

"I suppose that's true…" Vincent murmured, giving them an uneasy look. "Fine," he then said slowly. "But no cross-dressing. No offence Cloud, but… no."

"None taken," the blond shrugged.

"But we can dress him, yes!" Aerith punched the air, pouncing away from Cloud and latching herself onto Vincent's arm. "Come on, come on. I've been absolutely dying to see you in a waistcoat! Like, for years"

Cloud blinked at the sudden mental image that roused. "Oh. Oh, Vincent in a waistcoat. And dress shirt. And a tie!" he agreed, hurriedly bouncing up and pulling his boots back on. "And dress shoes!"

"With heels!" Aerith nodded excitedly.

"… Well fuck," Vincent muttered eloquently, as they practically dragged him off and to the shopping centre of Gold Saucer for a complete make-over – sans actual makeup, sadly. While Vincent put his foot down about the dress shoes, he didn't say no to a pair of leather boots, which in the end looked mighty fine with the slacks Aerith found for him. And she was definitely right about the waistcoat.

"No, off with it!" Aerith said when Vincent tried to keep the headband on. "Hey, you don't happen to have a hairbrush for an extreme hair emergency?" she called at the shop manager, who brought one forth almost gleefully. Vincent groaned in a very un-Vincent like way when Aerith attacked his tangled hair, but at least it kept him distracted while Cloud tied a necktie around his throat.

"You two are evil," Vincent grumbled, before falling quiet as they pushed him in front of a mirror. His eyes went a bit wide as he saw the ensemble of ashy grey slacks tucked into knee high boots, the matching waistcoat, white button-up beneath it with the tie neatly tucked in. His long hair was still loose and still somewhat messy, but it suited the outfit to a T.

"And you, my good man, are absolutely heart-stoppingly gorgeous," Aerith informed him, Cloud nodding in agreement.

"Oh," Vincent said. "Well. Hmm."

"Yep," Cloud said, patting his shoulder.

"My turn now," Aerith said, flouncing off to get herself sorted out, making a bee line for the part of the store where everything was beautiful and cute and mostly pink.

"I didn't realise," Vincent murmured, smoothing his right hand along the lapels of the waistcoat, the left hand having automatically shifted to the small of his back.

"That you are a sexy, sexy beast?" Cloud asked with a laugh.

Vincent grimaced. "I didn't realise I could still look like… like this. Beneath all this I'm rather scarred. And my arm…" he trailed away. "It seems somehow fake."

"I know," Cloud said, squeezing the man's shoulder. "But that doesn't change what's in the mirror. You look good. Fuck what Hojo did, fuck what happened to you, fuck everything. You look good. Enjoy that, let yourself feel good about that and fuck everything else."

Vincent eyed his own reflection for a while silently, before meeting Cloud's eyes in the mirror. "Is that why you…?" he nodded at Cloud's skirt and top, under which Cloud even had a padded bra.

The blond shrugged. "It's not something I'm religiously devoted to, but I look nice so what the hell, you know? It's a small victory after all the bullshit," he admitted quietly, "To allow yourself to look like whatever the hell you want. But you know, the way I figure it… well, life is stupidly short to spend even a fraction of it denying yourself things you might enjoy. And I, for one, have wasted too many years doing just that."

"Ah," Vincent said thoughtfully before giving Cloud a perceptive look. "In your future, I suppose I spent many years doing the same. Denying myself.

Cloud laughed. "Yeah. You're a bit more relaxed this time around, actually. You were always very tense all the time. Very aloof and standoffish," he said. "And sort of cold. I kinda like this better."

"Last time around, the Planet was in danger and you woke me up in the middle of a crisis," the man pointed out. "That might have had something to do with the general mood. And I suspect you two aren't quite as serious as you might've been, previously."

"Well, you're right about that," Cloud admitted with a grin, glancing towards where Aerith was trying on a red, hooded coat. "I guess it's hard to be serious around Aerith."

"You're not exactly an example of solemnity either," Vincent pointed out.

"Good to know."

They were quiet for a moment, just watching Aerith spin from one clothes rack to another, trying on coats and examining dresses.

"It's very serious, what we're doing, though," Vincent said after a while. "The Reactors, I mean. It has far reaching consequences and as much as you two laugh about it, it's not quite a laughing matter. And it will only get more difficult. The other Reactors are harder to access and in light of the destruction of the Nibelheim, Gongaga and Corel Reactors, they are bound to be heavily guarded."

Cloud snorted at that. True enough, but it was pretty much impossible for him to even try and be serious about it. They had already destroyed three Reactors and Jenova, and burned the ShinRa Mansion, and people thought it was divine intervention. Life was ridiculous. He could see Vincent's point, he really could. It didn't mean he was going to lose sleep, worrying about it.

The blond shrugged at the serious look the gunman was giving him. "All the more reason to enjoy the little things, don't you think?"

 

5.

 

Elena and the other girls had certainly been enjoying their time in Costa del Sol, judging by the tans all three of them sported, but they were happy to jump ship when Cloud, Aerith and Vincent arrived.

"It's been nice, but I'm thinking my folks might be beside themselves by now," Elena admitted.

"None of you thought to call your families?" Vincent asked, while pointedly ignoring the interested looks one of the other two girls was aiming his way.

"Er. Well. No?" Elena admitted. "We've got no cell phones because Don Corneo's people took them away, and the money Cloud gave us was for emergencies and… well… it was a sort of rare chance, to enjoy Costa del Sol? I mean, I for one wasn't all that likely to get an opportunity like this."

"Hear, hear," the other girls agreed.

"Teenagers," Vincent sighed – and then not very subtly hid behind Cloud when his new fan tried to inch closer.

"Well, holiday's over," Aerith said, casting an amused look at Vincent. "Get your things together, girls. It's time to go home."

With their new funds, all six of them took a cruiser to Junon. While it wasn't precisely a pleasure cruise, it was comfortable enough for the three kidnapped girls to get themselves completely trashed on Cloud's money in a final hurrah for their impromptu holiday in Costa del Sol. Thinking about Elena's future as a Turk – who knew if that would even happen now, but whatever – Cloud let them have their fun. And then took great pleasure in needling them about it the following morning, once they were all suitably hung-over.

Eventually they reached Junon, though, where Cloud bundled the girls onto a train that would take them, at last, to Midgar. "Well, I hope you three learned something from this trip," he said severely, while they waited for the train to depart.

"When in doubt, trust the cute cross-dresser?" Elena asked cheekily.

 She was definitely perceptive. "Precisely," Cloud said with a nod, and accepted his farewell hugs and kisses with good grace. "Stay out of trouble – and no more trips below the plate, not without more experienced and trustworthy company," he said severely.

"Yes, Mom! We'll be good!" Elena quipped as she and the others boarded the train, laughing.

Cloud just shook his head at them and watched the train take them away with a sigh. Teenagers, indeed.

"You mother hen," Aerith laughed, watching him. "Chocobo hen. Mama chocobo."

"Keep this up and I'm docking your weekly allowance," Cloud answered.

"I'm sorry, Mom. I'll be good," she promised cheekily and together they headed back to the Junon harbour to look for a ship that would take them northward, hopefully to BoneVillage.

"Seems like there is nothing going northward until the day after tomorrow," Vincent, who had stayed behind to ask around, said when they found each other. "It's technically a cargo ship, but it has passenger quarters too. I booked us a cabin."

"So, for two days we'll do what, romp around Junon?" Aerith asked, glancing around uneasily. She was wearing one of the outfits she had bought in Gold Saucer – mainly because the pink coat she had on had a hood she could use to hide her features. "Do you have any idea how many Turks there are in Junon? Turks, many of whom know me personally? And are probably looking for me, since I vanished weeks ago from Midgar?"

"Well, we'll just have to be careful," Cloud answered, giving her a considering look and then touching the scarf he had around his hair, which he was carefully using to shield the shine of his eyes. "You know what, let's get sunglasses."

A little later, after getting said sunglasses and booking rooms in the local Inn, they wandered around the terraced streets of Junon, taking in the many troopers, the occasional SOLDIERs and, yeah, the many, many Turks that loitered about the city. Junon had always been a bit intimidating, thanks to the sheer number of military personnel just hanging about, but now it seemed filled to the brim.

"ShinRa has increased its forces," Vincent noted. He too had new sunglasses on, a somewhat more subdued, angular pair than what Cloud and Aerith had chosen for themselves. They fit the sleek clothes he had on perfectly, in Cloud's humble opinion.

"Yeah, though this is unusually many military personnel, even for Junon. Methinks they are expecting Judgement day here," Cloud said amusedly, while Aerith got them drinks from a little vendor booth in what amounted to Junon's marketplace. Accepting his takeaway coffee from her, he nodded to a group of Turks and troopers, loitering nearby. "So, know any of those?" he asked.

"Hmm… the redhead is Rod," Aerith said, peering at the Turks. "And the blonde with him is Gun, I think. It's usually Reno and Rude and Tseng who watch over me, though, so I'm not sure."

Even as she said it, Reno came out of one of the shops, walking over to the other two and talking animatedly with them for a moment. Cloud and Aerith eyed him and the expressive way he moved his hands for a moment before they had to look away.

"Oh my Gaia, he's never changed, has he?" Aerith asked, giggling.

"Apparently not," Cloud snorted. "He was like that even when he was getting to his fifties, I swear. Oh, god, the fuss he made when they stopped making that hair dye. Do you know, he's almost blond under that?"

"No!" Aerith giggled

"Yeah, sort of very light brown. It doesn't suit him at all."

"Girls," Vincent said in warning tones, and they looked up to see Reno and the other male Turk – Rod? – coming closer. Hurriedly, the two time travellers composed themselves, Cloud casting a careful look at Aerith. With her hair hidden and the large, red hued sunglasses, she doesn’t look much like Aerith Gainsborough. She looked more like… well, like a movie star trying to go incognito, actually.

"Well, hello there, ladies," Reno said as they came closer. He lifted an eyebrow at the wrapped sheath on Cloud's back – which didn't do much to hide Apocalypse, really – and the Supershot ST that hung in a holster at Aerith's hip. "A fine sight to see on this fine morning, ain't you?"

"You got a moment to answer a few questions?" the other Turk asked, glancing between Aerith and Cloud and Vincent thoughtfully.

"For you two cuties, we’ve got several," Cloud said, forcing his face into as calm and innocent an expression as he could manage.

Rod grinned at them. "Sweet. So, you new in town?"

"We're not really in town at all," Cloud said, while Aerith did her best to hide behind her cup of takeaway tea. "We're just passing through – we just came from Costa del Sol and we're heading to the Northern Continent next."

"Ah, thought so – I'd have remembered if I’d seen you before!" Rod said, snapping his fingers.

"Ah, you're not staying then? What a pity," Reno said, leaning in – and then back again when Vincent shifted forward a bit, looming over Cloud and Aerith with extra force. "Er, right," the Turk said awkwardly before digging a PHS from his phone. "So, actually we're looking for some people," he said and showed them a picture on the phone's screen. "Seen anyone wearing a get up like this? In Costa del Sol maybe, or somewhere else?"

Displayed on the PHS screen there was a very blurry picture of a blonde male in a t-shirt and cargo pants, and a girl in an ill-fitting tartan dress and head scarf. It had been taken, judging by the looks of it, in Nibelheim with a low quality camera phone.

"Uh, no?" Cloud said, in his best teenage girl voice while Aerith practically vibrated beside him. "Also, ew?"

"Ew?" Rod asked, confused.

"The dress. I mean, come on. Tartan? Who wears tartan? I mean, what? You know?"

"Right," Reno said and lifted the phone to show the picture to Vincent. "How about you, dude? Seen these two?"

"Can't say I have," Vincent said, his voice low enough to be a growl, glaring at the two Turks over the edge of the sunglasses. And with his eyes, he could muster up quite the glare.

"Er, right. Well. If you see 'em, would you mind giving us a call?" Reno said, hurriedly handing over a business card with the ShinRa diamond on it. "We're looking for them – runaway kids, you see, very tragic. Anyway, sorry to have bothered you, have a good day."

"Nice meeting you!" Rod added, while Reno practically dragged him away.

The moment they were out of earshot, Aerith let out a wheeze. "Cloud, I'm dying, I'm actually dying, oh my god," she practically gibbered and then turned away and smothered her frantic bursts of giggles into Vincent's shoulder.

"I think it went pretty well," Cloud said modestly, glancing up at Vincent. "What do you think?"

"I think you're enjoying this a bit too much, both of you," the man sighed. "And I think we probably should wait for the ship indoors from here on out."

"Aw, you're no fun."

There were no other encounters with Turks in Junon, largely thanks to the fact that Vincent decided to become an evil overly perceptive bodyguard who steered them calmly away from any possible threat. Which, apparently, included the majority of Junon's population and, on one occasion, a dog someone had let loose on the terrace.

Eventually though, their ship set sail, and they left the military city behind.

"There's something to be said about ocean travel," Aerith mused, while the three of them hung around the deck, watching how the Sister Ray grew smaller and smaller. "I don't think we did it enough, when we were travelling."

"For the majority of it we were travelling over land and for the rest of it, air travel was just easier," Cloud shrugged.

Most of the trip they loitered around the deck, enjoying the chance to do so – it was a nice bit of freedom in comparison to the other ocean trips they had taken. Of course, the further north they got, the colder the weather turned and eventually they retreated to their cabin below deck for the rest of the journey.

When they finally reached the Bone Village excavation site, the local news was buzzing with the death of the two legendary SOLDIER Firsts, Angeal Hewley and Genesis Rhapsodos.

"Oh right, ShinRa did a thing," Cloud murmured, listening to the radio about how the two SOLDIERs had apparently been killed by Wutai insurgents. "I forgot about that."

"Are they important, the two SOLDIER Firsts?" Vincent asked, also listening to the broadcast.

"They're sort of like Sephiroth. And they're actually not dead… yet," Aerith murmured. "Angeal was the mentor of my boyfriend – who I suppose won't be my boyfriend this time around. Pity. Anyway, Genesis was… I actually never met him, so I don't know. He was in charge of the Wutai war towards the end of it, I think."

"Hmm-mm," Cloud hummed while examining the hem of his skirt, wondering if he should invest in pants for the journey north. It was bound to be cold. "I think they had that degradation thing going on – I remember Tseng saying something about it. The fact that we chopped Jenova to bits and burned her is not good news for them."

"Well, it's not like Jenova would've helped them much anyway," Aerith said thoughtfully. "Should we do something about that? I sort of don't want poor Zack to go through Angeal's death again. It was so sad last time around…"

"Can we do something about it?" Cloud asked.

"Well," Aerith said, looking at him. "Maybe. Degradation was basically the human genome rejecting the Jenova genome and the Jenova genome reacting by infecting and disabling the genetic integrity of the host cells… basically it's the same thing as Geostigma, just on a genetic level, rather than cellular."

"Oh?" Cloud asked, surprised. "How the hell do you know that?"

"I died and met some scientists while I was dead. One of those being one Gast Faremis. You know. My father who used to work with this stuff?" Aerith asked pointedly while crossing her arms. "So, anyway. It's like Geostigma, and we know how to cure that, don't we?"

"Yeah, I guess. But can you do the water thing being, you know… alive this time around?" Cloud asked.

"I already do," Aerith said, giving him a look. "Cloud, the water was the rain of the Great Gospel."

"Oh. Oh, yeah, that sort of makes sense, huh?"

"Might I bother you two for an explanation?" Vincent asked blandly.

"Apparently, Aerith can summon up a healing, super plague defeating rain of magical water as one of her Limit Breaks," Cloud said, shaking his head and looking at her. "So, what do we do? Try and get close to Genesis and Angeal and then you rain on them? That might be a bit difficult, with them being, you know. On the run. And high level SOLDIERs. And on the run."

"There's that. But Angeal at least was seen in Modeoheim at some point – I remember Zack telling me about it. Weren't you there too?"

Cloud considered that for a moment. "Yeeaah? Maybe?" he murmured. "I can't remember much of it though. I think there was a facility near Modeoheim. And I think Tseng crashed a chopper when we were there, or something. That doesn't make it any easier getting closer to Angeal though. Especially considering he got a bit trigger happy towards the end – or blade happy, or whatever. I think he and Zack fought in Modeoheim. "

Aerith shrugged. "And Angeal died there, yeah, but that's beside the point. I think I might have a way to get the cure to him. And maybe we can even do it without Zack killing him in the meantime," she said thoughtfully. "You used to carry the healing water in phials, didn't you, in the future? For people who weren't there when it rained? I think we could do something similar." Then she turned to look at Vincent.

"What?" the gunman asked, a little uneasy.

Aerith smiled. "How are you with sniper rifles? Like, say, ones that shoots darts? Darts which, say, could be filled with mysterious healing liquids?"

"Ohh," Cloud said in realisation. "Yeah, that could work." It was about the only thing that could work – given that the SOLDIERs didn't see it coming. And with Vincent's skills, they wouldn't.

Vincent considered it and then shrugged. "I'd need a sniper rifle," he said. "Can we get one, in the north?"

Aerith and Cloud exchanged looks. "This is why we should plan ahead," he said.

"Can't you make one?" Aerith asked. "You're a weapons smith, aren't you?"

"Yeah, one specialising in swords and blades. I've never in my life made a gun. I wouldn't even know where to start."

Vincent looked between the two of them and sighed. "Never mind," he said. "I'll make one myself. I'm going to need your Supershot ST, however, for parts. If you can bear to part with it, Aerith."

"But then I won't have a weapon! Hm. I could trade for your Quicksilver?" she asked.

"I'll need that too."

"Dang it," she sighed. "Well Cloud, I will be relying on you to keep me safe. Again. And in light of the last time we were in the Northern Continent, try to not get me killed."

"Ouch. Do you know how many years it took for me to get over that?" the blond asked, wincing a little. "Years, Aerith. I had traumas. I had mental scars. Hell, I had a mental breakdown over you. Could you please refrain from poking at my barely healed psyche about it?"

"Just don't get me killed again, and you'll be fine."

They stayed in BoneVillage for long enough for Vincent to finish his sniper rifle. The resulting gun was somewhat awkward but Vincent promised that it'd do what was needed from it. He even made a handful of darts for it, which Aerith filled with the rain of the Great Gospel once they were out of town.

"Do you suppose Angeal is already in Modeoheim?" Aerith asked as they headed northward. "The mission when Zack took him out was in April, I think – that won't be in another month."

"He and Genesis were both missing for a long while with no one having any idea where the hell they were," Cloud said thoughtfully. "They were with Hollander though, and the Modeoheim facility was pretty much Hollander's first choice of secret hideouts, wasn't it? They might all three be there, who knows."

They considered it for a moment. "Well, it wouldn't hurt to check it out," Aerith said and pointed ahead. "To Modeoheim!"

"You two really don't have any sort of concrete plan for anything, do you?" Vincent asked amusedly, resting his new rifle against his shoulder as they walked.

"We're sort of winging the whole thing, yeah," Cloud agreed.

The road to Modeoheim was cold and windy and snowy. But seeing as the Northern Continent was the home of an excellent breed of chocobos, it wasn't quite as slow as travelling on the Western Continent had been. Only a couple of days after leaving Bone Village behind, they left the chocobos sheltering in a cave while the three of them snuck into the abandoned town of Modeoheim.

"By the time we got to the Northern Continent, this whole valley was covered in snow and ice," Cloud told Vincent while they made their way slowly towards the not so hidden laboratory. "People will stop adding this place to maps in a couple of years, when most of the buildings get covered up."

"Pretty shortly after we travelled over this place, Sephiroth killed me," Aerith cheerfully added, ignoring the pleading look Cloud sent her way.

"How very fascinating," Vincent said dryly before glancing up. "Under cover, now!"

They hid under a half collapsed porch, while a figure flew over the village. A figure with only one wing. Cloud peered over the pile of snow mostly hiding them and narrowed his eyes. "I think that's Genesis," he said. "Either him or one of his clones, but I think it's him."

"Can you shoot him from here?" Aerith asked while Vincent eyed the flying figure thoughtfully.

"No, with these winds I'd miss without fail. But at least now we know he's here. The laboratory is over there, behind those cliffs?" Vincent asked. "Good. Let's find a spot on top where I can shoot from."

They made their way up to the rocky hills that surrounded the not so cleverly hidden facility; hiding as well as they could in the snow. It was too distant for either Cloud or Aerith to see what might be going on inside or even near the facility itself, but Vincent was different – Vincent had, among other things, enhanced vision. He had never needed a sniper scope.

While the two time travellers waited in silence, Vincent took out one of the darts from inside his jacket where he kept them to keep the liquid inside from freezing. Silently he loaded it, aimed, and then shot through a half frozen window before loading another dart in swift, expert motions.

 Only the nervous tension that had fallen over them kept Aerith and Cloud from jumping up when the window broke and a one winged figure with a large sword launched itself into the air. Vincent wasn't surprised at all – he just calmly shot the man, making him pause in the air and then fall down.

"Oh my god," Aerith giggled. "Poor Angeal – that must've hurt."

"Seems like the effect of the water downs the victim for a while," Vincent noted.

"Yeah. The way they fly is sort of a side effect of the degradation, and the water heals that so… well, they lose their ability to fly," she shrugged, still giggling. "Nice shooting, by the way."

"Did you get them both?" Cloud asked, peering at the facility.

"If the one that flew over us was Genesis and the one that made it out was Angeal, then yes," Vincent said. "I suggest we leave now. They already know where the shots came from. It won't take much for them to find us, if we stay."

"Seconded, let's get the hell out of here," Cloud said, snatching Aerith up into his arms and then practically jumping down from the rocky hill while Vincent more or less flew after him.

Aerith wound her arms around Cloud's neck, giggling. "My knight in a skirt," she said amusedly, peering behind them. "I wonder what they'll think about this. Mysterious sniper healing their mortal disease and vanishing without a trace."

"Well, hopefully they'll reconsider whatever they were about to do, Angeal won't suicide by Zack, Genesis will get his senses back, and stuff. I don't really know," Cloud shrugged. "Also, we're leaving plenty of traces. Can you do something about the snow, cover our tracks?"

"This is not quite meant for that, but let's see," Aerith answered, reaching over Cloud's shoulder and sending a wave of Healing Wind behind them and wiping away the tracks they were leaving.

"I suppose we'll be heading for the hot springs now?" Vincent asked.

"Yep," Cloud agreed. "Then hopefully we'll find that lunatic woman who has the Alexander summon. Then we head back down to the Eastern Continent, steal a submarine, break into the Junon Reactor, and give it the present of a natural disaster."

"I like how well defined our plans are," Aerith laughed, and they headed back to get the chocobos.

They made it to Icicle Inn in three days, and after spending a night recovering from the icy travel, they continued onto the Great Glacier, where Cloud, being the only one with any experience with the place, led the others to the hot springs.

"We don't have to continue right away, do we?" Aerith asked, giving the hot springs a longing look. "I mean. Hot springs, Cloud."

He laughed. "I can try and see if I can find the materia myself," he said. "You can stay here if you want – you too, Vincent. I can manage this by myself, easily enough."

"If you're sure," Vincent said, giving him a thoughtful look while taking out the make shift sniper rifle and the Lariat he had bought from Icicle Inn. "But what if the… lunatic woman isn't there?"

"Then we're screwed, I guess," Cloud shrugged. "I'll be right back. You two enjoy the hot springs."

It was trickier than he remembered, finding the hidden cave in the glacier – but the lunatic woman was indeed there. While Cloud wondered if she was even human – because what kind of human survived the weather of the Great Glacier in a bikini? – the woman all but jumped at him.

"How dare you bring the stink of the hot springs here!" she screamed at him. "Here, to my beautiful icy cave?! You heathen!"

Maybe she was Shiva's long lost sister or something, Cloud wondered while leaving her behind unconscious, and one Alexander summon poorer. He might've felt bad about robbing the incredibly valuable summon from her, but… well. The lunatic woman had attacked him just because he had visited the hot springs. So who could blame him? Aside from the lunatic woman herself.

"I return victorious! Mission: Junon Bombing, Which Will Include No Actual Bombing We Hope, is a go!" he announced when he returned to the hot springs. "And I see you're enjoying yourselves," he added. Aerith was submerged to her ears in the steaming water, while Vincent sat on the heated rocks, carefully cleaning his weapons.

"I'm in heaven," Aerith said and sunk happily below the surface.

Cloud snorted and looked at Vincent. "You're not taking a dip?" he asked while tucking the Alexander materia safely away. "It's not going to bite you. Or hurt you. Might even do the arm a little bit of good."

Vincent looked at the pool of hot water, somewhat hesitant. "Well," he murmured, rubbing at the gauntlet covered arm uneasily.

"Come on, it's wonderful," Aerith said from the water. "And trust me, we've seen much worse."

"That doesn't precisely make me feel better," Vincent said with a frown.

"The fact stands. We're all former guests of one professor Hojo, here," Cloud said while shimmying out of his skirt. "You've got nothing to be ashamed of in this company."

The gunman looked at him, hesitating for a moment longer, before setting his guns down and starting to open his waistcoat. Since the man didn't look away, Cloud kept his eyes on him, through the waistcoat and the tie, and after the last button of the dress shirt was open.

"Nothing?" Vincent asked, running a slightly shaky hand over the ragged, stitch adorned Y of an autopsy scar that marred his pale torso.

Cloud smiled, and dropped his bra onto the floor of the cave. "Absolutely nothing."

"Oh Gaia, get a room, you two," Aerith said, before shrieking as Cloud unceremoniously cannonballed into the hot water.

They spent a couple of days at the hot springs, just enjoying themselves and relaxing – or, waiting for Vincent to completely relax, which took a while. Cloud and Aerith didn't press him when he refused to remove the gauntlet though, letting him work through it at his own pace.

Cloud did wake up half way through the night to see the empty golden gauntlet resting on Vincent's bedroll. The cave was quiet and almost peaceful, with Aerith's sleepy breaths and the sound of the water echoing while Vincent washed. The blond time traveller said nothing though, merely closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

 

6.

 

Eventually they headed back southward, through Icicle Inn, and then towards BoneVillage in order to find a ride back south. It took a couple of days of waiting before one of the ships that periodically came to fetch the findings of the digs came around, and they could start their journey back towards Junon.

"So, do we have an actual plan for the Junon Reactor?" Cloud asked. "You know, aside from the plan to destroy it. We'll need a submarine to even get at it, and that won't be easy."

Aerith considered it. "We could do a feint," she said. "I could send Typhoon to attack the Sister Ray. It should cause enough panic and chaos that the theft of the submarine should go unnoticed, maybe. So while the city is concentrated on Typhoon destroying the cannon, we could do the thing, get the submarine and go underwater."

"Or one of us could go underwater," Cloud said. "How about you and Vincent do the distraction and I'll deal with the Reactor? I've piloted submarines before, so I can do it. And with Alexander, I wouldn't even have to go into the Reactor itself, just get close enough to use the summon."

"That could work," Aerith agreed.

"It's all dependant on you acquiring a submarine, however, and there is no certainty that there will even be one in Junon," Vincent said, thoughtfully. "Isn't the Reactor built very near the coast?"

"Well, not that near," Cloud said thoughtfully. "A couple miles or so off, I think."

"Near enough then. Alexander affects ground, correct? Do you need to be near the ground to use it? Would it matter how far above it you were? If you were, say, on the surface above the Reactor?" the gunman asked, arching an eyebrow. "If it can, then is a submarine even required?"

"Er," Cloud said, looking at Aerith.

She stared at Vincent, looking very unimpressed. "You are no fun at all."

"You can still destroy the Sister Ray if that makes you happier," Vincent said, and she threw her bunk's pillow at him.

It sort of lacked the drama they had been preparing for. While the disguised Aerith and Vincent wrecked some rather spectacular mayhem in the city, Cloud – in male clothing for the first time in a while – took what amounted to a row boat out to sea, until he was smack over the Reactor. Then he just summoned Alexander, waited until the water started bubbling and roiling, and then got out of there – and that was about it.

It was, in a word, anticlimactic.

By the time he returned to the city of Junon, the front was a bit of a ruin, people were screaming, the army and SOLDIERs were running around practically in circles and the pieces of the Sister Ray lay at the bottom of the ocean. Cloud took a moment to appreciate the destruction and chaos, before sneaking into a secluded place to change back into a dress and then heading to Old Junon Inn, to meet his companions.

"Turns out we don't need to go to FortCondor," Aerith said by way of greeting. "The people blew up the Reactor themselves a couple weeks back, in a preemptive measure to avoid the Wrath of the Goddess, as it's called."

"I don't think you're supposed to look disappointed about it," Cloud pointed out, motioning the manager to bring him something to eat. "The folks at FortCondor are good people. I for one don't mind the fact that we don't have to go there and blow their stuff up."

"I guess there's that."

"So, this leaves just the Midgar Reactors," Vincent said. "Do we have a plan for those?"

"Easiest way we could do it would be to go around outside Midgar, and summon Alexander there," Aerith said, while idly drawing the rough outline of Midgar on a napkin, with little circles running along the edges where the Reactors were. "If Alexander can be summoned underwater, it can be summoned from the other side of a wall too. Or we could just go on top and summon Typhoon there, but it'll probably do a number on the city's structural integrity. And we don't want the plates falling down on the slums."

"Using Alexander for each Reactor would be safest, but it would be slow and the risk of discovery would be great," Vincent mused.

Cloud considered the drawing. "You're missing one," he said, and took the pen from her, drawing a circle right in the middle. "There's one hidden under ShinRa HQ. The Deepground Reactor."

"Right, there's that too," Aerith said and leaned back in her chair. "Taking that one down will probably bring ShinRa HQ tumbling down, no matter what we do."

They eyed the crude representation of Midgar for a while. "Well, then it will," Cloud said after a moment. "Let's use Typhoon on ShinRa HQ and see what happens."

"I like how you think," Aerith said, smiling. "But would that reach the Reactor?"

"Probably not. But clear the HQ out of the way with Typhoon and then summon Alexander in the middle of what remains and we should have a nice explosion below ground."

"After that it will be rather obvious that summons are being used to destroy the Reactors," Vincent said dubiously.

"Maybe," Cloud shrugged. "But unless we want to go through the trouble of actually getting down there – and I remind you, that's where Deepground is…"

"Well. It's not the stupidest thing we've ever done," Aerith said thoughtfully. "I'm not liking the potential death toll it will have, though. Especially not when Zack might be in there."

"So one of us walk in and hit the fire alarm," Cloud shrugged.

"Yeah, like that will get the SOLDIERs to come out. It's far more likely to keep them in, looking for the fire," Aerith sighed, and folded her arms. "How could we get the building to empty completely?"

"I have a few ideas for that," an unfamiliar voice said behind Cloud and the three of them looked up.

"Well. Erm. Okay. Wow," Cloud said eloquently at the sight of Genesis Rhapsodos and Angeal Hewley standing there in… possibly the worst disguises he had ever seen.

Genesis wore a hooded black cape of all things and Angeal had a trench coat and a trilby.

Cloud blinked and lifted his sunglasses up, to have a clearer look while Vincent not so casually placed one of his growing number of firearms onto the table, within clear view. Cloud squinted his eyes. Yep. Genesis was still wearing a black hooded cape and Angeal still had a trilby on his head. And not a very well fitting one at that.

Wordlessly he glanced over at Aerith to see if she was seeing what he was seeing. Judging by her expression, she was. And she also seemed to share his opinion of the outfits because the moment their eyes met, they unceremoniously cracked up.

Genesis folded his arms, waiting for them to calm down, giving Vincent a steady look over Cloud's head. Angeal just sighed, touching the brim of his trilby – for Planet's sake, a trilby – uneasily. "You done yet?" Genesis asked after a while, practically radiating annoyance.

"Give us a moment," Aerith wheezed into Cloud's shoulder, while Cloud bent practically in half, squeaking "cape!" into the table's surface and giggling hysterically.

Vincent just sighed at the two of them. "What can we do for you two gentlemen?" he asked entirely too calmly for the situation.

"You're the sniper who left us with these, right?" Genesis asked, holding up one of Vincent's handmade darts. Then he looked at Aerith and Cloud "And you two, I'm thinking you're the ones who've been blowing up Reactors."

"Busted!" Aerith giggled.

"The idea was to not get busted," Cloud said, pushing her away from him so that he could turn around in his chair and look at the two somewhat run away SOLDIER Firsts face to face. "How the hell did you know?"

"We followed you after Modeoheim. You didn't do a particularly good job covering your tracks," Angeal said.

"Aerith?" Cloud asked, annoyed.

"Oops? In my defence, I did say it wasn't precisely meant for that purpose," she said with a shrug before levelling a severe look at the two SOLDIER Firsts. "Though does that mean you two were spying on us at the hot springs? Because if so, then I have to say, I was so very wrong about you, Angeal," she said, shaking her head disappointedly. "For shame."

"No, we were not – hot springs? Never mind, we lost track of you in Icicle Inn until you returned a couple of days later – then we followed you down to Bone Village, where we were trying to figure out what the hell you three were about, all the way to Junon where we watched you wreck happy havoc across the city," Genesis said, taking a chair from a nearby table and pulling it closer so that he could sit down. "And subsequently found out that the Judgement of the Goddess was actually a mere summon," he added, looking disappointed.

"And that's all very fascinating and all, but I'm noticing a very interesting lack of us getting either arrested or skewered here," Cloud said. "I like it, but it's confusing me. Anyone feel like explaining?"

"We're not exactly affiliated with ShinRa these days, now are we?" Genesis asked pointedly.

"We have some questions though," Angeal said, also taking a seat. "Like, for example, how and why did you heal us? What was in these?" he asked, lifting his own handmade dart and looking at it like it was something holy.

"I packed a Great Gospel in them," Aerith said solemnly. "You were healed by the power of prayer. And faith. And Ancient magic. Which I stuffed into darts. And then Vincent shot you with them."

"And I stood around and just watched, contributing to it in no way or fashion whatsoever to the whole thing," Cloud added.

Vincent sighed at them. "The liquid was a powerful healing agent, capable of curing most if not all ailments," he said, making Angeal and Genesis look at him. "Aerith is an Ancient, a Cetra, and thus capable of calling such forces more or less at her whim. It is entirely possible that the healing agent was originally used on Jenova by the Ancients themselves, eons ago, and since Jenova was what ailed you, the healing was especially effective. And these two idiots decided to heal you because they felt like it."

Aerith drew a sharp breath. "He called us idiots," she whispered in wonder.

"Methinks we’re having an effect on him," Cloud agreed. They high-fived.

"Er," Angeal said, looking between Cloud and Aerith and then at Vincent, obviously looking for an explanation.

"My most sincere apologies," Vincent said stoically. "They are utterly incapable of taking anything even remotely seriously."

"Riight," Genesis murmured, looking at Aerith with a look of mixed awe and suspicion. "I didn't know there were any Ancients around anymore."

"That's sort of the point," Aerith said with a solemn nod. "People have a habit of killing us. Like Hojo who killed my mother. And father too actually, but he was human."

"Are you an Ancient too, miss?" Angeal asked, looking at Cloud.

"No, I'm just a regular old crazy person. And also, actually a guy, but I'm in disguise," Cloud added, running a hand over his hair – which he had rather hastily pinned back with a couple of bow adorned clips. "I know," he added knowingly when the two SOLDIERs just looked at him speechlessly. "It's very clandestine."

"Er," Angeal said, blinking.

"O-kay then," Genesis murmured slowly. "Good for you."

"So," Aerith said, leaning forward a bit. "What was that about you having ideas about ShinRa HQ?"

Genesis and Angeal shared a look. "First… why exactly are you destroying the Reactors?" Angeal asked slowly.

"Because we don't like them. And also, they're killing the Planet," Cloud said, resting his elbow on the backrest of his chair. "And we've already taken out four so we might as well keep at it, you know?"

"Or five, if we count FortCondor. They blew it up themselves in order to avoid the Wrath of the Goddess, after all. Meaning us," Aerith said. "But yeah. Give it a little time and Mako power will completely drain this Planet of all life. Plants will wither away, animals will die, monsters will stop appearing, infant mortality will go through the roof and the rate of pregnancies will plummet and in a few hundred years humanity will go extinct. It will all be very sad and depressing."

"Really?" Genesis asked dubiously.

"Go to CosmoCanyon and talk to an old man named Bugenhagen. He’s got proof," Cloud shrugged.

"The Planet life theory was proven false," Angeal said, uneasy.

"By whom? ShinRa? ShinRa's scientists? The same ShinRa scientists who gave you your fucked up physique and then couldn't do shit to heal it?" Cloud asked, arching his eyebrows. "The same scientists who have been killing off competition – literally – for years now? The ones with human experiments and secret laboratories, who make useless clones of you guys for no better reason than because they could? Those scientists?"

"Well," Angeal murmured. "There's that."

In the end, Genesis and Angeal decided to come with them – though it was hard to say if they actually consciously decided it or if they were just drawn in by the whirlpool of Aerith's and Cloud's madness. Before all five of them made any motion of leaving Junon for Midgar, however, Cloud and Aerith in unison pronounced their clothing utterly completely beyond any doubt unacceptable, and dragged the two SOLDIERs into the Junon shopping district.

"Um?" Angeal asked, looking at Vincent for help while Cloud and Aerith steered them into the men's section of the clothing store.

"Despite all evidence to the contrary, you're in good hands," Vincent said, motioning at his own outfit, which had lately come to include a dark red knee length coat. "Their handiwork."

"Oh."

"I can dress myself!" Genesis complained.

"Yes, sure, you can dress yourself in red leather and black capes. Very unobtrusive, red leather and black capes," Cloud said, looking over the two. Then he snatched the trilby off Angeal's head, handing it over to Vincent. "Set that on fire, will you?"

"This too," Aerith added, ripping the cape off Genesis and throwing it into Vincent's arms. Then she looked at the two vaguely terrified looking SOLDIER Firsts contemplatively. "What do you think?" Aerith asked Cloud. "I'll do Angeal, you have Genesis? You're better with street fashion."

"Just because people end up putting me in, granted very excellent, street fashion outfits doesn't mean that I'm an expert on the matter. Also, why do you get to do Angeal? I want to do Angeal."

"I meant men's street fashion," Aerith said, rolling her eyes. "And I'm doing Angeal because I can do suits and Genesis can't pull off a suit without looking like a male host."

"Hey," the redheaded SOLDIER said, insulted.

"A very high class male host," Aerith amended. Genesis didn't look particularly appeased.

"Fine," Cloud sighed. "You," he pointed at Genesis. "Into the booth and out of the leather. I'll be right back."

While Vincent watched with some amusement, Aerith and Cloud forced a variety of outfits on the two SOLDIERs, utterly ignoring all their complaints until the men finally quieted down and resigned themselves to their fate. It took barely any effort with Angeal who was practically begging to be put in a suit – not literally, but still. It didn't take long before Angeal ended up in dark grey pinstripes with a slightly darker suit coat. Aerith even considered an actual fedora for a while, but in the end left him without it.

"Too gaudy. We'll shove him into a barber shop instead," she shrugged.

"What?" Angeal asked, looking a little harried. "Why?"

"The thing on your chin is gonna go."

"But –"

"No buts. It's gonna go. "

While Aerith made good on that threat, dragging Angeal away to get a shave, Cloud went through what felt like half a hundred outfit combinations before he landed on one that didn't make Genesis look too much like a super model on the run. The man just had the sort of face and physique that made everything he wore look like he had just stolen it from the runway.

"Gaia damn you, how about some acne scars or something? Or maybe a wrinkle or two? Double chin? Anything?!" Cloud grumbled while discarding yet another perfectly normal shirt that Genesis somehow managed to turn into a top fashion item by touching it.

"I am blessed by the Goddess," Genesis said without even bothering to fake any sort of modesty.

Cloud eventually managed to cover the man's ridiculous outward perfection with a coal grey coat that had a high collar and a loose beanie and by throwing a loose scarf around the man's shoulders for good measure. And once half of Genesis's face and most of his hair was covered, he looked almost like a normal human. Still a stupidly pretty and fashionable one – Cloud put him in skin tight jeans and ankle high boots and he made them look ridiculously good – but still, somewhat human nonetheless.

"You know the saying about some people being natural fashion disasters? Genesis is like the antithesis of that," Cloud grumbled to Aerith when she returned with a clean shaven Angeal who had also gotten a haircut and now had his hair neatly slicked back.

"Oh my friend, the fates are cruel," Genesis cackled at Angeal, who was sadly running his fingers along the sides of his face, where his sideburns had been.

"They'll grow back," Aerith sighed. "Probably like within the week, with you being SOLDIER and all. Stop whining and put these on," she added, handing over pairs of sunglasses for both of them – angular, barely tinted smoky lenses for Angeal and dark red aviator shades for Genesis.

Angeal sighed and eased the sunglasses on, hiding the Mako gleam of his eyes. Then he blinked at his reflection in the clothing shop's mirror. "… Well," he said, sounding a little uncertain.

"Hmmm," Genesis hummed, turning in front of the mirror and then peering dubiously at the new, ankle length boots that had replaced his knee highs.

Vincent just shook his head at them and then looked at Aerith and Cloud. "Are we done here?"

Aerith and Cloud exchanged a look and then glanced towards the dress section. The gunman quickly stepped into their line of sight, blocking the women's section from view. "Fine," they sighed. "We're done. Spoil sport."

"Well… there's nothing wrong with their fashion sense, precisely," Genesis said, still looking at himself in the mirror. "It's not what I'd pick for myself, mind you, but… I suppose it doesn't look altogether awful."

"I guess I look very official and businesslike," Angeal decided, still touching the now sideburnless spots uneasily. "And I guess it's not like I have any right to wear the SOLDIER uniform anymore…"

"Change is good for you," Aerith assured him. "Give it a couple of days, and you might learn to like it. If not, then you can go back to your jumpsuit and belt that’s thick enough to be used as a blunt force weapon."

By that time, being recognized probably wouldn't matter anymore, if their plans came to fruition. By that time, the last of the Reactors would be gone.

Or they'd all be dead. One or the other.

 

7.

 

In the end, it was a fairly fashionable party that boarded the train for Midgar, with the plans for the ShinRa HQ destruction well on the way to being worked out. The plan mainly included Genesis planting a bomb in the building, blowing it up a bit, and then tripping the bomb alarm in the building to start the evacuation.

"It's the only way to empty the HQ. The President will pretty much ignore everything else," Genesis explained.

"Do we have to do the first explosion really like that, without warning?" Aerith asked.

"Yeah. If we give them a warning, the building will be crawling with people rather than empty. Better to scare them off first," Angeal said. "We'll need explosives, though. We can either steal it from ShinRa's warehouses, or we can make it. Whichever is easier."

"Make it," Cloud said. "I can get the materials from Wall Market, now that I have the funds for it. And I can throw it together no problem. Though can you really get it into the building, unnoticed? You can't fly anymore, can you?"

"We don't have the wings anymore, true, but there are other ways to fly," Angeal said.

"I can pretty much run up the side of the building if I have to – but the best way would be for Angeal to give me a boost from above the Bank of Midgar," Genesis said. "That'd be the most unnoticeable way. We'll blow the top of the building – no one cares if the presidential family gets it, after all. After that, well. The building will empty in a flash."

"Did this just turn into presidential assassination?" Aerith asked, blinking.

"Well… do we care if they die?" Genesis asked. Angeal looked a little uneasy, and the other SOLDIER nudged at him pointedly. "They're the ones who commissioned us, remember?" he said and then looked at Aerith. "And they're the ones who are after the whole Mako thing you dislike so much."

"True enough, I guess."

"I suppose it is the one place in the building that can be blown up with minimal casualties," Angeal said, frowning.

"Minimal casualties meaning the presidential family," Cloud said and grinned. "I like it. So, I'll make a bomb, Genesis plants it, we blow it up, wait for the HQ to empty, Aerith rams it with Typhoon and I shake what's left into happy ruin with Alexander. Questions?"

"What if it fails?" Vincent asked dryly. "What if you get caught? What if Genesis gets caught and the building isn't emptied? What if someone recognises any of you four wanted persons and arrests you before we even get there?"

"…Any questions that aren't horribly pessimistic?"

"What's the plan for the other eight Reactors?" Genesis asked.

"Well, that depends on what the fallout of the destroyed HQ is," Aerith said. "FortCondor did the decent thing and blew their Reactor up all by themselves. Maybe Midgar will do the same. If not, then, well. More of the same, I guess. Either we bomb them, or we wreck them with summons. Either way, I want all of them down for the count by the end of the week."

"And after that?" Angeal asked, looking between Cloud and Aerith uneasily. "After you destroy the one major power source used by the entire Planet, and ruin ShinRa probably irrevocably… what then?"

Cloud and Aerith shared a look. Then they shrugged. "No idea," Aerith said with a happy grin. "But it'll be fun finding out, don't you think?"

They arrived in Midgar just before midnight, along with about a few hundred other commuters. Angeal and Genesis seemed a bit uneasy just walking around like normal, looking like they had no idea what to do, so Cloud and Aerith took the task of guiding them through the scary, scary common folk, away from the train station and, eventually, to below plate.

"Come on," Aerith said cheerfully. "Let's go see my mother."

"No," Cloud said, horrified.

"Yes."

"She'll kill me!"

"No, she won't," Aerith said and ignoring all their arguments steered the whole group through the Wall Market and towards the Sector Five slums.

"Why will she kill you?" Vincent asked curiously.

"Because she'll probably think I kidnapped Aerith. She was about to throw knives at me the last time we met," Cloud said nervously.

"There was a kidnapping though," the gunman pointed out.

"Yeah, but that was Aerith's idea, not mine!"

"Do we even want to know?" Genesis asked idly.

"It's a long epic story that involves a crime lord and prostitutes," Aerith said cheerfully.

"Okay. We definitely do want to know. Spill."

While Aerith regaled the SOLDIERs with the epic tale of how they got kidnapped by Don Corneo's people and stuffed into a shipping crate with a bunch of ladies of the night, Cloud dragged his heels in a futile attempt to avoid meeting with one Elmyra Gainsborough. He was unsuccessful of course, though Vincent was kind enough to snatch the kitchen knife from the air when the woman hurtled it at the blond.

"How about we four wait outside while Aerith talks with her mother," Vincent suggested, carefully steering Cloud so that he was out of Elmyra's line of vision.

"You have the best ideas," Cloud said happily. "How about we go to the Church and wait there, Aerith? Is that a good idea? I think that's a good idea – let's go to the Church, okay? Actually you know what, how about I go back to Wall Market and get you know what for you know what so that we can blow up you know what – how about I do that right now?" With that said, he all but fled.

A couple of hours later, he and Vincent were sitting in the Church's rafters, finishing the bomb while Angeal and Genesis marvelled at the sight of flowers in Midgar of all places, and Aerith finished placating Elmyra.

"She wants your balls on a plate," she said to Cloud cheerfully. "Not that you have any, you coward."

"I'm a survivor and I know when not to bite off more than I can chew, thank you very much," Cloud answered, not looking away from the trigger mechanism he was carefully making.

"That's a first," Vincent said with a huff of quiet laughter.

"How's it looking?" Genesis asked, joining them in the rafters. "And also, why are we up here instead of down on the ground where it would be remarkably safer to do this?"

"It's almost ready and because of reasons," Cloud answered serenely, and pointed at a button on the timer. "When you get there, you just press this and you have half a minute to get the hell out of there before it blows."

"Why half a minute?"

"Any more, and we'll risk someone managing to disarm it," Cloud said and nodded at Vincent who eased the make shift cover of the timer on. "Aaand we're done," Cloud said, lifting the bomb. "Have at it, pretty boy."

"How the hell do you know how to make bombs anyway?" Genesis asked, accepting the bomb dubiously.

"I'm a terrorist," Cloud shrugged. "Comes with the territory."

"How are you going to send the warning after this bomb's gone off?" Aerith asked curiously.

"I'll be doing it," Angeal said. "There’s a relay station for inside building communications a few streets down from the HQ – in case of hostile takeovers. I'll set the bomb alarm warning from there."

"Mm. Okay. I guess we need to get ready too," Cloud nodded, standing up and looking at Aerith. He looked down at the black and white dress he was wearing, which had frills and lace on the hem and looked particularly cute on him, and sighed. "I guess it's time to pull on the big boy pants then. How do you feel about tartan and head scarves today, Aerith?"

She just sighed. "Do we have to?" she asked. "I mean, really? Do you really think we can do this any way other than extremely noticeably? And do you really think that after this, we can hide? Do you?"

Cloud considered it. "Maybe not, but I wouldn't mind anonymity afterwards," he admitted. "I did the hero gig once. It's really not all it’s cracked up to be."

"Fine," she said. "But once it's finished, I'm burning the dress in a magnificent blaze of fire."

A couple of hours later, two upper levels of ShinRa burned magnificently against the darkened night sky, lighting up the dark blanket of clouds that always hung above the city for a while, before a pillar of smoke spiralled upwards, mixing with said clouds. Cloud and Aerith enjoyed the light show with Vincent, hidden in the shadows of a nearby rooftop, while the warning sirens began blaring and people began rushing out, screaming and crying like the world was coming to an end.

"Not bad," Cloud commented.

"Meh. A little overblown with the fire," Aerith criticized, while shielding her eyes from the city's lights so that she could see up to the top of the ShinRa tower. "But I suppose it got the job done. Do you see Genesis?"

"I do – he's heading east," Vincent said, also peering upwards. "Looks like he's being chased by someone."

"Does that someone have long silver hair?" Cloud asked curiously.

"I suppose it might be silver. It looks grey at this distance."

Aerith snorted. "Well, he ought to enjoy that, at least."

Cloud hummed, rolling the orb of Alexander materia in his fingers. With Genesis drawing the opposition to himself, they ought to have an easy run at it when they stepped in. Not quite yet, though – the building, judging by the flood of people coming out, wasn't anywhere near empty.

"How did the ShinRa HQ get destroyed in your time?" Vincent asked idly, while below them the haphazardly organised ShinRa troopers and low level SOLDIERs started herding people away from the still smoking ShinRa HQ.

"First a vengeful Weapon of the Planet spat some lasers at it, and then Sephiroth dropped the Meteor on us, and then Aerith channelled the Holy through the city," Cloud shrugged. "Not much of Midgar survived that, to be honest. Four of the plates fell when Meteor happened, and the others collapsed just a little after that. I think something like four million people died."

Vincent arched an eyebrow at him. "Impressive numbers."

"Yeah, it does make the whole thing seem rather grandiose, doesn't it?"

"Let's avoid the death tolls in the millions this time," Aerith said, still peering at the pillar of smoke rising from ShinRa HQ. "Do you suppose the President was up there? Because I remember him coming by my cage when I was in Hojo's care and he always gave me the creeps."

"He gave everyone the creeps. Can you even imagine what he must've been like, when Sephiroth was a kid? A kid and under constant ShinRa supervision? With the whole of the SOLDIER program riding on him? Ugh. I mean, Sephiroth really went out of his way to very specifically fuck the President up," Cloud mused. "He even left his actual sword behind. That was the Masamune, you know. The rest were spiritual copies that he literally thought up – but that one was the real deal. And he just left it."

"True," Aerith murmured, while Vincent looked vaguely ill.

There was a flash of grey and charcoal and then Angeal was behind them, crouched in the shadows. "I'm going to go help Genesis with Sephiroth," he said. "It shouldn't be more than maybe another ten minutes and the building will be empty. You three will manage without us from here on?"

"Yeah, yeah, we're old hats at this. Just draw as many of the high level SOLDIERs away as you can, and we're fine," Cloud said.

"Have fun and be careful," Aerith said, leaning back and pressing a kiss on Angeal's forehead.

"Yes, ma'am," the SOLDIER First said with a surprised smile, and then he was gone again, chasing after Genesis and Sephiroth – and most likely Zack too.

"He's a good man," Aerith commented, adjusting her head scarf a bit and making sure it covered all of her hair. "It's a pity I didn't get to meet him, last time around. Zack has a lot of him in him."

"Let's try and make sure he doesn't prematurely die this time around," Cloud said, and silently they watched until the ShinRa HQ emptied, with the Troopers and SOLDIER Thirds and Seconds setting up a perimeter around it, warding people off from getting too close.

"You two ready?" Vincent asked from behind them.

"Yeah, this looks like about the right time," Cloud said, turning to him. "Can you do it?"

The gunman gave him a flat look and then bowed his head. A crackle of energy ran over him and a trickle of red smoke leaked from beneath his clothing. Cloud and Aerith watched in silent fascination as the man shifted, making the very air quiver with the sudden change of power and being as Vincent took the shape of Chaos right in front of them.

Aerith whistled in appreciation. "Damn," Cloud said in agreement, when Vincent looked up, his eyes gleaming yellow underneath the ragged headband that somehow had melted into Chaos' horns. Behind him, enormous red wings spread out, impressive and powerful.

Vincent grimaced at them and held out his arms. Giggling, Aerith fitted herself against Vincent's left side while Cloud wormed his way under the man's right arm and then, with Vincent gripping both of them tightly around the waist with his now clawed hands, all three of them launched into the air.

"We should've tried this before!" Aerith whooped, as they lunged up in the air, one powerful wing beat at a time.

"Almost makes me sad I never grew a wing like Sephiroth did!" Cloud agreed, laughing. Vincent ignored them, bringing them high above the city and then above ShinRa HQ itself, where he paused to hover just a little further away so that they weren't engulfed in the pillar of smoke. Above them, the perpetual cover of clouds rumbled.

"Time to rock and roll," Aerith said, and lifted her Minerva Band adorned wrist up.

And like before, Typhoon came down like an unholy force of nature. The smoke of Genesis' explosion was sucked up, then the skyscraper's windows shattered, a level at a time, the shards of glass spinning about madly. While Cloud and Vincent watched down on the destruction Aerith's summon was wrecking, the moment in the summon's ritual that looked like gravity reversing happened. In torn jagged pieces, the building unravelled like a jigsaw puzzle coming undone and the pieces were sucked up into the heavens, like the many ShinRa Mako Reactors before it.

Laughing in sheer delight at the destruction, Cloud wiggled a bit in Vincent's hold so that he could get Apocalypse loose. Then he lifted the hollow Ancient sword with one hand and brought it sharply down. Far below in the swirl of Typhoon's Disintegration, the ground shattered and fell as Alexander ascended from below, destroying the streets and throwing cars and street lamps up into the air as it did. It was a magnificent summon, the biggest there was and easily visible even from that height. A colossal armoured figure that carried a city on its shoulders, its arms bigger than ShinRa HQ itself.

 In a single downward sweep, Alexander pounded those arms against the foundations of ShinRa HQ, making the entire City of Midgar shudder under the force. What Alexander's ascension hadn't wrecked, the sheer force of its blows did and the streets came undone like so much shattered glass. Streets, the supports below them, the struts and pillars, all the way down to the core of Midgar, down to the ground, deep, deep below.

 Midgar groaned and rumbled for a moment and then there was an earth shattering boom below the surface as the Deepground Reactor, unable to withstand the force of Alexander's Judgement, simply blew.

Joyous, Aerith threw her hands up and laughed as Typhoon disappeared and the unholy whirlwind it had kicked up quieted down. Below them, Alexander, his job done, vanished and smoke began trickling from the shattered foundations of Midgar's centre. Aerith laughed louder. "It's gone! Success!"

And it was indeed very much gone. All seventy levels of ShinRa HQ were simply gone, literally swept away by the wind. There was a crater now where the crown jewel of ShinRa's super power had sat, a gaping maw in the middle of the technological pizza of Midgar. Cloud knew that somewhere in the distance it'd be raining down in house sized chunks of debris, scattering all over the dead desert surrounding the city.

It was a happy thought.

Vincent growled low, fangs flashing past his pale lips, and Aerith and Cloud had barely enough time to grab a tight hold on him before they all three lunged down towards the city, past the smoking ruin of its centre, and towards the edge where Vincent aimed at the top of a rather nondescript apartment building, and landed with a heavy thump.

"You are the best of the best," Aerith giggled at him, kissing the pale cheek. Cloud, unable to help himself, did the same on the other cheek and for a moment the claw adorned hands tightened around them almost convulsively. Then the transformation flaked away and Vincent seemed to shrink back into himself, wings melting into a cape, horns into hair.

"You two are mad," he grumbled, a little breathless.

"And you are magnificent," Aerith said happily.

Cloud grinned, ruffling the gunman's hair fondly and then turning to look at the smoke raising now from the rather empty centre of Midgar. "Today's a good day," he said, snuggling into Vincent's side happily. "A damn good day."

Aerith giggled giddily and Vincent agreed with a hum, and they sat down to just watch ShinRa's pride and joy smoke away. It wasn't something you saw every day, after all.

 

8.

 

Eventually though, the smoke of the ShinRa Crater started to die down and the city grew too noisy and restless as the military and the survivors just ran around madly, most of them screaming in prolonged panic. It wasn't very interesting, so the three of them headed back below the plate and to the Church, where they were meant to meet with Genesis and Angeal once they got loose from Sephiroth and whoever else they had to fight.

Meant to – but in the end didn't, because Genesis and Angeal were both there. And not just them, but Sephiroth was there too, crouched beside the flowers and frowning at them, while an awkward looking Zack Fair stood a little off to the side, looking between the three of them uneasily.

Aerith and Cloud stared at Sephiroth and the flowers and shared a look that did nothing to convey how weird they found the scene. "I see we have company," Aerith then said, slow and cautious.

"We had a chat," Genesis said from where he stood, leaning against a wall. He had acquired a white-blue apple from somewhere and was idly polishing it against his scarf. "Also, you'll be happy to know that the entire presidential family was in HQ when I bombed it. And so was one professor Hojo, according to Sephiroth. The good professor refused to believe he was in any danger and didn't want to leave his specimens behind. Heidegger, Scarlet and Palmer might've survived, though, I don't know for sure."

"I think I saw at least Heidegger among the evacuees, but that was just before you summoned the second summon, so it's hard to tell if he made it out," Angeal added, looking uneasy. Sephiroth just stared at them with silent, narrowed eyes while Zack looked like he was about to burst with nervous tension.

"But we killed Hojo? Score!" Cloud said, punching the air.

"That doesn't explain the present company," Vincent said, Lariat in hand.

"You cured their degradation," Sephiroth said, low, staring at the three of them. Slowly the man stood up, but at least he didn't pull a sword. "Or so they say. After all of ShinRa's Science Department failed, after Hollander failed, you cured Angeal and Genesis. On a whim?"

"We do a lot of things on whims. It was one of our least destructive whims, granted, but still," Cloud shrugged, scratching at his thigh in annoyance. After so long in dresses and tights, the cargo pants felt constricting and annoying.

"We were rather hoping you might have a couple of those darts left," Genesis said, folding his arms. "Sephiroth's not degrading – at least not yet – but…"

"And Zack might not have been as heavily modified as the three of us, but he has the same things inside him that made us degrade – all SOLDIERs have," Angeal added. "And what we went through, the pain, we… don't want others to experience it."

"And… you know what that something is?" Cloud asked, resting his hands on his hips, looking at Sephiroth. "Do you?" he asked, meaningfully.

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes at him, though now he looked a bit confused as well as suspicious. "And you do?"

Cloud arched an eyebrow at him and then looked at Genesis and Angeal, both of whom looked rather uneasy. They knew – both about Jenova and the fact that Sephiroth thought Jenova was his mother. And apparently, they were hoping not to share the fact.

"Who are you people anyway?" Sephiroth asked, glancing at Angeal and Genesis who just shrugged.

"Well. I guess its story time then," Aerith said, clasping her hands together and striking a pose. "Gather around, children, and I will share with you the tale of the Ancients and the Calamity."

And so she told the story, in its full lengthy entirety, to first a rather dubious but then somewhat reluctantly interested audience of SOLDIERs. From how once upon a time there had been the Ancients, the Cetra, in their magnificent paradise of a society. Then how, at the height of their power, a disaster struck in the form of a Meteor that came down so hard that the crater still marred the north to this day. How, in that crater, the Ancients found a woman who seemed much like an Ancient, but who wasn't.

"And then this woman of the crater killed most of them," Aerith said cheerfully. "Infecting them and corrupting them. She was not an Ancient at all, but a creature of space, a world eater, that travelled through the stars. In Meteors she'd fall down upon a Planet, a living world, and then corrupt and consume it until nothing but dead rock remained, and then she'd wrap that rock around her like armour and as a Meteor head off again, to find another living world to consume. The Cetra called her a virus, a plague. The Calamity that Fell From the Sky."

But of course, the Cetra managed to triumph over the Calamity – just barely. While the daughter race of the Cetra – the humans – hid away, the Cetra fought very nearly to the last member of their entire species. Eventually, they managed to defeat her and seal her in the Northern Crater. "But not without setbacks, for their numbers had dwindled almost to nothing. And so the last of their entire species settled near the Crater to guard over the Calamity's prison, in a place now known as Icicle Inn."

Cloud nodded along with the familiar story. "And now we'll fast forward about two thousand years," he said, making a fast-forwarding motion with his hand at the audience, which was now listening intently – Genesis had his chin in his hands, even.

"So it happened, that the Calamity slumbered away, until a time not that long ago – actually just a couple of decades back – when a group of brave scientists of one ShinRa Electric Power Company went around travelling the world in search of the Ancient Promised Land," Aerith continued in her grandiose tones, making gestures and everything. "Led by one Professor Gast Faremis, a group of them eventually ended up at the Northern Crater, where they discovered what they thought had to be a remarkably well preserved Ancient woman. Professor Faremis named her Jenova."

"What?" Sephiroth asked, choked.

Aerith ignored him, continuing on. "The thus the newly christened Jenova, or Calamity as we know her, was taken south, to be studied and learned from. The Jenova project took most of ShinRa's scientists’ attention for years, and much of their ethics was shifted about as new discoveries were made."

And so on and so on it went. Sephiroth fell down to sit on the floor beside Genesis as Aerith grandly detailed his birth by one Professor Lucrecia Crescent and Professor Hojo – all while being injected with more and more of Jenova’s Genome in utero. And in the meantime, somewhere, one Professor Hollander got his hands on enough Jenova's genes to make his own projects – project G and project A.

"And so on and so on. Gast eventually left the project because he got uneasy about Jenova. He went back to Icicle Inn to study the crater, hoping to find answers – and found my mother instead, Ifalna, the last Ancient of the Watch that had, two thousand years ago, been placed on Jenova. And I am the glorious result," Aerith finished, motioning at herself. "Tadaah!"

The three SOLDIER Firsts just stared. Then Sephiroth spoke. "I… remember your father. I always wondered why he… And he told you all of this?"

"Yep," Aerith nodded, conveniently leaving out the when and where parts.

"Is he still…?"

"No. Hojo killed him years ago and captured my mother and me. She died in the attempt to get away. I survived," Aerith said.

"And… Jenova is…" Sephiroth trailed away.

"The degradation we had was our bodies rejecting the Jenova genome," Genesis said, making Sephiroth look up. The redhead shrugged. "Which makes sense in hindsight, makes sense now. Seeing as she was, is an… alien."

"Was," Cloud said. "Very much in the past tense. She was in the Nibelheim Mako Reactor. Isn't anywhere anymore."

Sephiroth stared at him and then looked down. "And the cure for your degradation?" he then asked, looking at Genesis and Angeal.

"It removed Jenova's genome from us, or that's what we think. It healed us – I feel years younger now," Angeal admitted. "And it could do the same for you. You might not be showing any signs of the degradation yet, but… knowing what we do about your birth…"

Sephiroth scowled at that and then looked up, at Aerith, Cloud and the silent Vincent who was observing the events without once letting go of his gun.

"Well, I didn't expect this," Aerith said under her breath, glancing at Cloud.

"You know," Cloud answered thoughtfully. "It might prevent the schizo episodes later on. I mean, I got better with them after I had a dose."

"Well, you didn't have a dose, you had a dip. You basically drowned in it," Aerith laughed and then looked at Sephiroth. "Still… I suppose it couldn't hurt. Vincent?"

The gunman shrugged and took out the metal case where he kept the rest of the Gospel darts. He threw it through the air and at Sephiroth who caught it from the air and opened it.

"This is the cure?" the silver haired SOLDIER First asked dubiously, taking one of the metal darts from the case.

"It's the easily administered version," Aerith grinned. "It wasn't like we could just walk up to Genesis and Angeal, now could we? So we sniped them at a distance. Or, well, Vincent did."

"The injection mechanism is automated, just plunge the needle in, and it'll do the rest," Vincent said.

Sephiroth glanced at Angeal and Genesis and, when the pair of them nodded, simply gripped the needle and stabbed himself in the neck, where his skin was bare. While Zack winced where he was standing, the dart let out a small click and Sephiroth jerked with surprise.

Cloud hadn't seen the effect of the water on Genesis or Angeal, having been so far away, but he definitely saw it with Sephiroth. It was instantaneous. The man's skin suddenly gleamed with perspiration and mist rose from him in faintly green swirls – it looked like he was struggling to keep himself from collapsing on the floor completely. For a moment, it seemed like he might manifest a wing – the back of his coat roiled, stretched, and almost broke at the seams. Then there was a shock wave of… something, magic or just simple pressure maybe. Then it was over.

When Sephiroth looked up, panting with his face glistening, the pupils of his still shining eyes were no longer slitted like a reptile's.

 "Congratulations," Aerith said, leaning against Cloud's shoulder. "You are now completely and fully human. You might want another dose later on – you too, Genesis, Angeal – but that's mostly just to make sure the first was absolutely effective."

Genesis and Angeal watched Sephiroth cautiously. "How do you feel?"

The silver haired man frowned, rubbing at his neck. The nick made by the dart was already healed. "I… don't know. Lighter, somehow," he admitted. "I didn't even realise that I felt something weighing on me, but now that it's gone… I suppose I do feel better. I didn't realise…"

"Zack," Angeal said quietly, turning to his student. "You might only have an infinitesimal amount of Jenova in you, in comparison to us, but I would feel better if you had a dose as well."

"But… I don't… What is going on here? What about ShinRa? Is the President really… Did you really…?" Zack trailed away, looking confused. He inhaled shakily. "All this… talk of aliens aside, was ShinRa just destroyed? Why? What is going to happen now? What… what is going on?"

Cloud and Aerith exchanged a somewhat guilty look. Zack's confusion was rather… painful to see, but it wasn't like they could change what had happened. Or would. They said nothing though, just waited and watched as Angeal took one of the darts from the metal case beside Sephiroth and held it out for his student.

"Have a dose first, please. We'll talk about it… later," Angeal said. "Please," he repeated. "If there is only one thing you will do for me, let it be this."

Zack looked at his mentor, grimaced helplessly and accepted the dart. Then, with a wince, he stabbed the needle into his upper arm, and the church echoed with the click of the auto injection. The water's effect on him was less than it had been on Sephiroth – he barely broke out into a sweat and there was no green mist rising from him. But he obviously felt the change inside, judging by the way he shook.

There was a moment of tense silence, as Sephiroth tried to come to terms with what he had heard, Angeal patted his student proudly on the shoulder, and Genesis bit into his apple at last.

"Well, isn't this fun," Cloud said, after the silence got entirely too oppressive.

"Uhhuh. So, now what?" Genesis asked, pushing away from the wall he had been leaning on and coming closer. "The presidential family is dead, ShinRa is no doubt in shambles, and it will take at least a day or two before someone will try to assert control over this mess. It'll probably be Heidegger and Scarlet, if they're still alive."

The words seemed to release some tension in the room, and everyone seemed to breathe a little easier.

"And what are Heidegger and Scarlet going to do, if they're alive and if they manage to assert that control?" Cloud asked thoughtfully, trying to imagine ShinRa as it would be controlled by Gyahahah and Kyahahah. It was a horrifying mental image.

"They will most likely commandeer a building somewhere in Midgar to serve as temporary headquarters," Sephiroth said, eyeing Cloud and Aerith keenly. "If they have any sense, they will order the cleaning of the city centre, but I doubt they will. Unless I return, they will issue a warrant for me, as well as for Genesis and Angeal, both of whom were seen by military personnel and civilians alike. They will need a scapegoat for this and for the death of the presidential family so we will most likely be blamed for this."

"Which would make sense since Genesis is the one who killed them," Cloud said thoughtfully.

"With your bomb," the redhead pointed out. "Never mind what Heidegger and Scarlet will do. What will you do?" he asked then, looking at Aerith and Cloud.

"I was thinking of having a hot bath as soon as possible," Aerith said idly, looking down at herself morosely. She was still wearing the tartan dress and the head scarf. "I want to burn this in a barrel and then fill a tub with hot water and flower petals and then I want to just soak there for at least two hours. Possibly three."

"I'm starving. I want a Slum Burger," Cloud mused. "One of those enormous disgusting things where you don't know precisely what you're eating, the ones that are oozing grease, and the greens are more brown than green."

"Ew?" Aerith said, looking at him weirdly and he just shrugged. He was a growing boy, he couldn't help it.

"I mean, what are you going to do about ShinRa. About the Mako Reactors in Midgar," Genesis said pointedly while Sephiroth just blinked with confusion.

"We'll give them a day's grace. Maybe what's left of ShinRa will take FortCondor's example and shut down and maybe even blow the Reactors up themselves. If the Reactors are still up and running tomorrow, we'll obviously have to destroy them," Aerith said, shrugging.

"Obviously," Sephiroth repeated slowly. "Obviously?"

"It's kind of what we're here to do. And why we destroyed the HQ in the first place – it was in the way. It was the underground Reactor we wanted," Cloud said, unapologetic. "Everything else, even ShinRa's catastrophic down fall, is sort of a side effect."

The silver haired SOLDIER scowled at him and stood up. "Do you have any idea what kind of impact the destruction of all those Reactors will have – is already having?" he asked in a low tone. "Never mind the thousands you've killed, have you ever considered the tens of thousands you've left in the cold, without power, without a means to communicate or without transport? Almost all technology all over the Planet is reliant on Mako power to function. Soon there won't be any new Mako cells for vehicles. Cars, trains, planes, and even ships will soon run out of fuel. And the people you're dooming to unemployment –"

 Cloud blinked at the man's tirade and turned slowly to face Aerith. "Is… Sephiroth giving us a lecture?" he asked slowly. "About loss of life, damage and… unemployment?

"I… think he is?" Aerith answered, looking like she was both horrified and fascinated. Sephiroth glared at them and Aerith let out a slightly hysterical giggle, turning away. "Oh my god, he has a righteous face on. I'm gonna die. Stop him, Cloud, for god's sake!"

Cloud considered the silver haired SOLDIER. He knew that glare Sephiroth was sporting. He was intimately familiar with it. It usually ended up with him being skewered by Masamune. Translating into this situation it probably meant that Sephiroth was feeling overwhelmed by things and needed to blow off some steam.

Well. Cloud had never been anything but excellent in letting Sephiroth blow off steam.

"Sephiroth, honey, we don't care," he said slowly while patting Aerith on the back and then pushing her safely away. "All of it – the death, the destruction, the goddamn unemployment – it's all a freaking small price to pay for the destruction of Mako power. For the knowledge that maybe a thousand years down the line, there's still life left on this Planet. For that, I'd happily kill every single human being in Midgar, if it came to that."

"Oh dear," Angeal murmured while Sephiroth scowled at Cloud, reaching for his sword.

"Not that I'm going to," Cloud added, making a show of rolling his eyes. "That's not the idea. But the Reactors are going to go. We are going to blow them up. If there are any new ones, we're going to blow them up as well, until people get the message and Mako pumping stops."

"But everyone's reliant on Mako," Zack said, uneasy and confused. "Everything's reliant on Mako."

"ShinRa is reliant on Mako. You've been in Wutai, haven't you? They seem to manage life without Mako just fine, don't you think? And there were people and technology before ShinRa started pumping Mako, weren’t there?" Cloud asked, now flippant. "People will adapt. People survived just fine before Mako and they will survive just fine after it."

"Not before the infrastructure collapses and thousands die of starvation because without transportation, Midgar won't have any food," Sephiroth growled. "Nothing grows here – all the food comes from hundreds of miles away, and once the trains stop working…!"

Aerith let out a choked sound and all but collapsed against Cloud's back in a desperate bid of not dying of laughter. Cloud just shook his head. "He's being seriously righteous. This is so bizarre," he breathed. Then what he had been aiming for happened and quickly he scooped Aerith up into his arms as Sephiroth suddenly came at him, sword in hand. "Hey! Rude!" he snapped, landing a few metres away.

"Um, Sephiroth," Genesis said uneasily. "You do realise that these two can summon creatures that can destroy buildings –"

It was too late, the silver haired SOLDIER was already lunging at Cloud. With a laugh, Cloud pushed Aerith behind him and drew Apocalypse, locking the hollow blade with Sephiroth's Masamune. While the silver haired SOLDIER grimaced at him, Cloud considered their locked blades and then smiled. With a twist, he hooked Masamune into the groove along the Apocalypse's blade, and twisted. Sephiroth, obviously not expecting a weapon like the hollow Ancient sword, immediately tried to pull his own blade back – except, it was trapped in the hook of the groove, and thus wouldn't come loose.

Instead, with a shriek of metal on metal, the sleek long blade of Masamune, the best of Wutai's Damascus steel… bent.

Trying desperately not to laugh at the horrified look on Sephiroth's face at the sight of his prize sword, bent out of shape, Cloud jostled his own sword a bit – adding insult to injury by grinding the Apocalypse against Masamune's cutting edge, ruining the sharpness. "You really wanna go, Sephiroth?" he asked and with a rough push and twist, untangled their swords, leaving Sephiroth staring at his ruined Masamune in horror.

"How the hell…?" the man asked, turning to look at Cloud's sword.

"Ancient metal working, bitch," the blond said, holding the hollow blade up with pride. "Meet the Apocalypse. She's over two thousand years old, awkward as hell and I'm pretty much fucked if the edge ever goes dull on me, because there's literally nothing that can even scratch this beauty – including any whetstones we can make. And you and your Damascus steel can just suck it."

"Also, meet Cloud Strife," Aerith added cheekily, motioning at Cloud. "My Paladin Knight."

Sephiroth stared at him in blank incomprehension, before turning to look at Angeal and Genesis in disbelief. He made a sort of haphazard flailing motion at Cloud and Aerith, as if asking if the other SOLDIER Firsts were seeing what he was seeing.

"Yeah," Angeal said with a sigh. "We know, Sephiroth. We know."

"You don't even know the half of it. At least he's wearing trousers right now," Genesis added, shaking his head.

Sephiroth let out a breath and looked at Masamune. "They don't make swords like this in the east," he said, his voice a little choked. "I'm going to have to go to Wutai to get it fixed!"

"Don't be ridiculous," Cloud snorted and put Apocalypse away, motioning to Vincent – who had Sephiroth at gun point – to stand down. "I can fix it – though you're going to have to wait until I get a smithy up and running. Unless of course you're going to try attacking me again, then I might just break the damn thing in half."

The silver haired SOLDIER threw a glare at him. Cloud glared back. Angeal and Vincent just sighed while Zack stared in horror and Aerith giggled.

"Okay, how about we calm down a little," Genesis said, stepping between them. "Cloud and Aerith are going to blow the Reactors up and there's little we can do to stop them. Let's move past that and try to minimise the death toll, like we did with ShinRa HQ," he said, and then turned to Cloud. "Sephiroth has a point, though. Once Mako is gone there will be a collapse of infrastructure. Midgar will starve if nothing's done about it."

"Then we’ll do something about it," Aerith said, stepping to Cloud's side. "You help us destroy the Reactors, and I will make sure no one starves."

"And you can do that?" Genesis asked with narrowed eyes. "There are five million people in Midgar, you know. You're going to feed them all? How?"

Aerith just smiled, reaching out and plucking the half eaten Banora White apple from the man's hand. "Destroy the Reactors for me," she said, taking a single seed off the apple and examining it with satisfaction. "Do that, and you'll find out."

 

9.

 

Whatever Angeal, Genesis, Sephiroth and Zack did the night and the following day, Cloud and the others had no idea. But the result was apparent enough. One by one, the Midgar Mako Reactors were first powered down much to the dismay of the City and then, with rigorously controlled demolition charges, they were de-commissioned.

"Pity," Aerith murmured, to Cloud and Vincent as they watched the last Reactor go from the top of one of the taller buildings left in Midgar. "I suppose that means I won't get the chance of using Typhoon on them."

"I guess it's safer like this," Cloud sighed, watching the smoke trickling out of the now ruined Mako Reactor. "Damn those SOLDIERs and their stupid sensibility. Wonder how they managed it though? I mean, whatever's left of ShinRa and the city in general couldn't have been happy."

"They would've been less happy if you had done it," Genesis informed them, appearing on the rooftop seemingly out of nowhere. "It took most of the morning to get things into order, but it helps that Heidegger took a blow to the head and is currently brain dead and that Scarlet decided not to oppose Sephiroth. And Palmer is a spineless worm."

"Scarlet decided not to oppose Sephiroth?" Cloud asked, curious.

"When Sephiroth made a bid for the presidency," Genesis shrugged. "It was the best way to go about it. He wants to be called the General of ShinRa, though, not the President – bad memories I think."

Aerith and Cloud shared looks. "President Sephiroth of ShinRa Electric Power Company that has no power," Aerith mused. "Well. I did not see that coming."

Genesis snorted, pushing the beanie off his head and running his hands through his hair. "It was actually mostly Angeal's idea. I just wanted to go and blow stuff up, but Angeal wanted to be sensible. But after the announcement was made, a couple of hours back, we managed to get the military under control, so I guess he was onto something. After that, we made a few broadcasts about how the Reactors would have to be preemptively destroyed or Midgar would risk the Goddess's wrath on a much larger scale, and no one put up much fight when he started setting up the charges."

"Huh," Aerith murmured. "Good job. All my congratulations to Sephiroth, I guess." She gave Cloud a helpless, mildly horrified look and mouthed "President Sephiroth!"

"We live in a bizarre alternate universe," Cloud murmured back, shaking his head.

Genesis rolled his eyes at them before growing more serious. "We've done our part," he said, levelling Aerith with an even look. "It's your turn now. How are you going to keep Midgar from starving, lady last Ancient?"

Aerith smiled at him and then took something from the pocket of her red jacket. A seed. "Let's go have a walk in the desert," she said. "I have some planting to do."

Genesis joined them on the little trip out of Midgar, and into the wastes that covered a good two hundred square miles around it. The earth was strange there – not quite as dry as one might expect, but rather muddy and oddly oily, rocky here and there with puddles of somewhat suspicious looking dirty water in places.

"You don't think that will work, do you?" Genesis asked, when Aerith looked around for a spot to plant her seed. "Nothing's grown here in decades. The wastes are polluted."

"Oh ye of little faith," Aerith said, and knelt down, digging her fingers into the dirty soil and dropping the seed into the hole she made before covering it. "Cloud, come here," she then said, and he stepped forward to her side. "I need you to summon Alexander," she said, motioning at the wastes. "I need him to turn this entire area – the whole space around Midgar, the entire wastes. Can you hold him here long enough for that?"

Cloud considered it. He had held summons for longer than they wanted to stay, sure. But that had been when he still had Mako enhancements, and while the thing he now had, whatever it was, made him strong… it didn't make him that strong. "I can try," he said dubiously, eyeing the wastes. Alexander's size and strength might be impressive but two hundred square miles was a lot.

"It doesn't need to be neat or smooth. Just cover as much ground as you can," she said. "I'll pray now. When it starts to rain, summon Alexander."

Then she clasped her hands together, closed her eyes and began to pray.

"Who's she praying to?" Genesis whispered somewhere behind them. "The Goddess?"

Nobody answered him. Above them, the perpetual clouds that had been covering Midgar for decades now roiled and then slowly began to spread out. All at once, they seemed like they were both clearing up and darkening, the shade turning almost imperceptibly different as Aerith prayed. Soon, the sun was blocked out even out in the wastes and almost all the way to Kalm as the clouds covered the entire area, darkening and thickening.

And then it began to rain. First slowly, in a fine trickling mist that they barely felt. Where the water touched down in the dirty, polluted wastes, a little hint of green sparkled, and the pools of dirty water began to clear up.

"I see," Cloud said, smiling, and pulled out Apocalypse. He brought it momentarily up, resting his forehead against the blade near the handle and then, pushing all of his will power and strength into it, he plunged it into the dirty earth.

Everything shook and the rain started coming down harder as Alexander rose through the ground, shaking and rattling and, yes, turning it. Under the demands of Cloud's will, the summon set out, pounding its colossal armoured arms against the ground, sending shock waves through it, shattering it. The rain was a downpour now and it came down hard on the upturned earth, trickling into the tears Alexander made.

Everything glowed green as Alexander began to make his circuit around Midgar.

Then something white bloomed right in front of the still praying Aerith who didn't open her eyes. The flower was there only for a moment, before suddenly a tree began sprouting, looping and tangling as it grew. It was like the breaking of a dam, the growth of that first tree with its pale grey trunk and dark green leaves. It looped and curled and suddenly, hundreds more grew out in an outward ripple, soaking in the rain and following Alexander out around the wastes of Midgar.

It lasted for maybe an hour. Cloud didn't see half of it, the drain of magic was too great and he lost touch with his senses as Alexander kept on working at the wastes. Distantly, he could hear the rumbling of the ground and Genesis cursing and gasping and eventually praying. Then Cloud felt Vincent at his side, arm curling around him, holding him up.

"It's done. Send Alexander back," the gunman finally said and Cloud released the summon. Blearily, he opened his eyes to see Aerith still praying, the rain still falling, and the trees. They grew like enormous entangled roots, looping up and then back into the ground in arches, their branches hanging heavy with leaves and flowers and white-blue apples.

Midgar was surrounded by two hundred square miles of Banora White trees.

"Holy damn," Cloud murmured weakly, reaching a hand and squeezing Aerith's shoulder.

She smiled that smug little smile of hers, and finished the Greatest of all Gospels. "That should be enough to feed a couple of people," she said, opening her eyes and standing up.

"I'd say," Genesis choked out and reached to pluck an apple from a nearby tree. It was enormous. "These… the weather, the altitude… these only grow in the Mideel islands…!" he murmured.

"Now they grow here," Aerith said. Then she let out a giddy giggle. "I wasn't sure if it would work this well! Look at it! Isn't it magnificent!"

"It's certainly well done," Vincent murmured against Cloud's hair and the two time travellers shared a happy look.

"We're done here," Cloud said, clasping Aerith's hand. "We're finished. No more Reactors. No more Mako."

"Yep," she said, jumping over to him and hugging him – and Vincent too, while she was at it. "Now we can do whatever the hell we want!"

"Isn't that what you've been doing all this time?" Genesis asked uneasily.

"Well. Sort of. But now we don't have to worry about the Planet dying beneath our feet," Aerith said happily, kissing first Cloud and then Vincent. "Now we can do absolutely whatever! And I am going to go and fill the slums with millions of flowers!"

They returned to the gobsmacked Midgar, where everyone was hanging on the edges of the city and spilling out over them to the former wastes, to explore the newly created forest of apple trees that hadn't been there an hour previous. Genesis insisted that before Aerith, Cloud and Vincent "flounced off to do whatever," they should meet with Sephiroth and Angeal at least, and so they made their way to the city centre.

An enormous Banora White tree stood now where the ShinRa HQ had been. It didn't arch quite like the others. Instead, it spiralled out in a sort of knotted tangle, branches hanging every which way with apples as big as a man's head. People were gathered around it, staring at it like they had never seen a tree before – which, granted, was perfectly likely in Midgar.

"Why Banora White?" Sephiroth asked when they found the man in the broken, shattered and now blooming Midgar Centre.

Aerith shrugged. "It just happened to be the fruit Genesis was eating yesterday. Had he been eating strawberries, there'd be a field of them out there," she said. "Don't you like Dumb Apples?"

The newly promoted General of ShinRa just sighed, and eyed the enormous tree. Some enterprising people had set up a ladder to get at the lowest branch, and were in the process of trying to get an apple from it.

"Well, at least the city shouldn't starve now," Angeal murmured, with a somewhat bemused smile as he looked at Aerith and Cloud.

"It won't change the state of affairs that much," Sephiroth said darkly. "Without Mako, there will be a technological recession very soon. With any luck, we can keep communications up and running, but transportation, manufacturing… we will have problems even with basic tasks like water and sewage treatment. This is still a disaster."

"Oh, you party pooper," Aerith sighed and shaking his head Cloud stepped forward.

"Anyone got a piece of paper and a pen?" he asked and was given them by a confused Zack Fair. Quickly, Cloud wrote down the names of one Barret Wallace and Cid Highwind, along with their addresses and phone numbers. After a moment of consideration, he added Bugenhagen to the list. "Contact the first about coal, oil, gas and stuff like that. The second about tech, transportation of goods and such and ask how he manages the water treatment on airships. And the last for sustainable and renewable energy sources, and recycling," he said, handing the list to Sephiroth. "If you have any sense, you'll figure out how to hire them all, or at least contract them. It will take some time, but you'll fill the holes Mako leaves."

Sephiroth accepted the list with a narrowed look and then, somewhat reluctantly, nodded. "Any other suggestions?" he asked.

"Make chopping down trees a crime, right now," Cloud said. "With severe punishments."

"What? Why?" the General asked, looking confused

"Because the moment Midgar runs out of reserves, people will start getting cold and they might decide that Banora White trees might make as good a source of heat as they make food. And that might look like a lot of trees now, but give it a few months of continuous, enthusiastic logging and there won't be anything left."

"That's a good point, though. Midgar isn't exactly warm and once the central heating goes out…" Angeal scowled.

"You know, you could just use magic for that," Aerith sighed.

"Magic? How?" Sephiroth asked.

"Fire spells in boilers, for example? They don't use fuel but they burn just as hot. And with a little work, lightning spells could easily be used to power electrical things," she shrugged. "It's what the Ancients did, anyway. That's why they produced materia. They didn't have monsters back then, you know, those came after Jenova. So they didn't exactly need spells for offensive purposes. It was mostly for general easier living."

The SOLDIERs blinked at her, and then exchanged looks. "Fire spells for heating," Sephiroth then said. "That's… a novel concept."

Aerith shrugged. "Think outside the box," she said. "Then set the box on fire and scatter the ashes around. It's good for the soil."

"Er. Right," the General said. "Any other suggestions?" he asked then, sounding like he wasn't sure if he wanted to hear any more.

"None right now, but about that unemployment of yours," Aerith said thoughtfully. "If people want jobs, send them down to the slums. I have plans and I could use some hands to be the heavy lifting manpower."

"Oh, right. Me too," Cloud added thoughtfully. He had some notions that had become very much commonplace around Edge that he was rather looking to implement in the slums – and on their enormous junk piles.

Sephiroth eyed them for a moment and sighed. "Just… just go away already," he said, waving a dismissive hand at them. "And no more gigantic trees."

"How about some non-gigantic flowers?" Aerith asked.

"Go away."

With a laugh, Aerith and Cloud headed back to the slums, with a silent Vincent following behind them. Things were chaotic in the slums, where the quakes caused by Alexander's passing had knocked over some houses. Everything was wet, the rain of the Great Gospel having somehow gotten even into the slums, and there were puddles of faintly shimmering water everywhere.

"I'm going to need seeds. Lots of seeds," Aerith said giddily and flounced off towards the Church, probably to get seeds from the flowers there.

"What are you going to do?" Vincent asked, looking at Cloud. "You have a plan of some sort, don't you?"

Cloud shrugged and motioned at the piles upon piles of junk that people above plate had been dumping on the slums for years. "Do you know how much perfectly good metal there is in those piles?" he asked. "None of it was any use to anyone before, not with ShinRa's manufacturing abilities. That's gone now and recycling is going to become a big deal now."

The gunman lifted a single eyebrow at him. "Recycling," he said. "You?"

"It's surprisingly fun when you get into it, and I like metal working," Cloud shrugged. "After my delivery business went under – thanks to fucking Cid and his stupid empire of airships – I worked as a black smith and occasional mechanic. It was fun."

"Hm," Vincent hummed, and looked out over the junk piles of Midgar's slums.

"You don't have to stick around if you don't want to," Cloud said, shrugging. "We're done with our epic mission to save the Planet. Hojo is dead, Jenova is gone, and Mako is gone. ShinRa's mostly gone, might end up toppling even with Sephiroth and the others trying to keep it up. It's a whole new world."

"No. No, I think… I think I'll stay," Vincent said and turned to look at him. "Unless you mind."

Cloud eyed him seriously for a moment, before smiling. "I most definitely don't mind in the slightest," he said, reaching out a hand for the man. After a moment of hesitation, Vincent took it.

"You look strange in trousers," the man commented idly, looking Cloud over.

"I know. Come on, to the Church. I want to change, like, yesterday," Cloud bemoaned in the girliest voice he could manage and laughed at the look the man gave him before dragging him to the Church, where Aerith was gently coaxing her flowers into give her their seeds.

"You're going to use other flowers too, right?" Cloud asked. "Not that those aren't pretty, but it might get a bit samey if they're everywhere."

"Yes, yes. These will be just Midgar's general introduction to being fabulous," Aerith said happily, kissing one of the flowers before hopping to her feet. "I think I need to pop by Kalm at some point – I shouldn't have said that about strawberries before, because now I really want some."

"I wouldn't say no to strawberries either," Cloud admitted. "Tell me when you’ve got some."

"Yes, yes," Aerith said cheerfully and headed out again, to spread the joy of flowers all around the slums.

"I'm thinking our days of being attached at the hip might be over," Cloud said, looking after her.

"I don't think you two will be able to get loose from each other that easily. After all, you're her Paladin Knight," Vincent murmured with a slight smile.

"I'm pretty sure that was just a joke on her part. Like… forty percent sure. Maybe thirty."

Vincent just shook his head and then looked around the Church. "Are we staying here from here on out, or do you have better accommodations in mind?"

"Hmm… I dunno," Cloud considered the crummy Inns of the slums and then decided against it. At least the Church didn't have bed bugs. Granted, it didn't have beds either, but it wasn't like that was anything new. "I guess this place at least smells nice," he said. "I wouldn't mind a bath myself, though, but I can survive without it. At least until we have time to either find or make ourselves better accommodations."

They had set up camp in the Church attic the night previous, and Cloud headed up there to change, with Vincent following him up. After setting the Apocalypse with its sheath down on his bedroll, Cloud turned to dig around his packs to find some better clothing – the cargo pants were seriously starting to grate on him.

Vincent watched him dress thoughtfully, before taking off the red cloak and bandana he had worn. "Do you think Sephiroth will manage to keep ShinRa from toppling over?" he asked, folding the cape and setting it down.

"Hard to say. He's… different when he's not being all insane. Sort of smarter than I thought," Cloud said, examining his bra and adjusting the padding. "He might be able to do it. Especially if Angeal and the others help him. It probably won't be the ShinRa we know and love, though. Sephiroth is a military man so who knows, we might end up in a dystopian police state that just so happens to be covered in apples. It's hard to say."

"Wouldn't be that different from the way it was before," Vincent mused, watching how Cloud hooked the bra and then pulled the handily bust-enhancing top on.

"What I'm curious about is what will happen to the Turks," the blond admitted. "In my time they sort of dragged Rufus ShinRa back from death's door just so they'd have someone to give them orders. Might be that they'll fall under Sephiroth's command but I doubt it."

He finished redressing, before pulling out a brush and running it through his hair, easing it off the band he had tied it with. "Wanna help me with my makeup?" he suggested with a grin.

"You're probably much better off if I refrain," Vincent answered, watching him with something akin to exasperated fondness when Cloud proceeded to apply the makeup himself.

"So," Cloud said after finishing with one last blown kiss thrown at the mirror. "Wanna go on a date with me? And by date I mean wanna wander around the slums until I find a good place to set up shop with the whole metal working thing? But it would still be a date, just to make things clear."

Vincent eyed him for a moment. "Perhaps," he said. "But I feel I should make something clear before we go."

"Hm?" Cloud asked, turning to face him. "If it's about your body, the scars, the transformations and all that, then trust me, I'm okay with it all. And I'm okay with you working it out at your pace. Seriously. At your pace."

"It's not that… well, perhaps a little, but what I meant to say is," Vincent hesitated. "It's you that's a little awkward."

"… Because of the dresses?" Cloud asked, frowning and looking down at himself. He had sort of grown to like the dresses and skirts and looking in the mirror and finding someone cute there. Sure, he could get used to going without, no problem, but… "I thought you didn't mind."

"It's not the dresses," Vincent said. "It's your age."

"Oh."

"You're fifteen."

"Going on forty one," the swordsman said hopefully.

"You look fifteen, you usually act fifteen, and regardless of how old you are on the inside, that's still a little awkward," Vincent said a bit uneasily.

"Oh. Well," Cloud looked at himself. He hadn't precisely minded being young again, it had some interesting benefits – like the whole being small, looking thin, and fitting into cute dresses thing. But… yeah, it would maybe be a bit weird, with this body. And now that he thought about it, he was rather glad that Vincent had a problem with his physical age, because if the man had been all for it… well.

"I don't suppose you'd mind waiting a few years?" he asked hopefully. "Until I catch up and no longer look like jailbait?"

Vincent visibly relaxed and let out a sigh. "I don't mind waiting at all," he said, obviously relieved. "I'm… very good with waiting."

Cloud grinned and held out a hand. Vincent took it and hand in hand they headed out, to explore the slums of Midgar.

 

10.

 

Midgar changed. It took maybe a day for the shock to wear off and the indignant cry to start and then, slowly, people realised what they had just lost and for about a week, the whole city fell into a stunned stupor. It was pretty much the same as it had been when Meteor had fallen – just with a lot smaller death toll, a slightly vaguer bad guy, and a whole lot more trees.

The Mako reserves ran out a week after the last Reactor had been destroyed. With a sad hum, the gargantuan machinery that was Midgar quieted down as the city's systems started shutting down. The air conditioning below the plate was the first to go – electricity having been cut off the second day after the Change. Then the water pressure all but vanished. And then…

Then there was panic, for a couple of days. Stores were looted, things that couldn't be replaced anymore were broken, and ShinRa – or what was left of it – was worn thin trying to contain the chaos. Some idiots cut down a couple of Banora White trees and burned them in a barrel, huddling around it and gloomily gossiping about the end of the world. Genesis cracked down on them – hard.

Aerith and Cloud watched the whole thing with a great deal of amusement, with a freshly baked apple pie between them, while Vincent tried to pretend like he didn't really want a slice.

"Was it like this, after Meteorfall?" Aerith asked.

"We had it easier – four million people died after all," Cloud shrugged. "So there weren't this many people to do stupid shit. And also, the Meteor pretty much trashed the whole city, so there was nothing for the people to break afterwards."

"I don't think that can be called being in any sense better off," Vincent commented.

"Well, it was easier than this for those who survived. There was enough food to go around and water too, once we got into the city reserves. It was easier to manage housing with heating and some comforts and stuff, when there weren't that many people to look after," Cloud said. "Lots of people just left, though. In the end, Kalm grew bigger than what was left of Midgar."

Bit by bit, Sephiroth got the city under something like control. The harvesting of the Banora Whites, which had been haphazard, manic and at best rather damaging to the trees, became systematic – people even began canning the apples to preserve them. Meanwhile, SOLDIERs and those troopers who could use materia well enough set up make shift central heating with magic powering the boilers of the central heating plant of Midgar. It was awkward and stuttering and they couldn't get the heat up to its previous levels, but Midgar stayed warm.

Then Genesis came to fetch Cloud and Aerith.

"Whatever for?" the blond asked, while Vincent suspiciously fingered the trigger of his new pistol.

"Sephiroth got in contact with Highwind and Wallace," Genesis grimaced. "They arrived just a couple of hours back and they're being… annoying. Sephiroth figured that since you know them, you would know how to handle them."

"Oh," Cloud said and then snorted. Meeting both Cid and Barret for the first time, at the same time? That was a recipe for disaster, especially when one wanted something from them. Sephiroth no doubt had had the two men up at arms about everything since the first words.

"Oh boy, that sounds like a boat load of fun," Aerith giggled.

"Yeah, it'll be hilarious. It's probably better that I go alone," Cloud said thoughtfully, and glanced at Vincent who scowled at him. "You can come, that's fine, but it's not really Aerith's scene, those two together at a meeting table. Especially not since they haven't met her before."

"Yeah, I don't think I could handle the bad come-ons," Aerith laughed. "Though you might end up getting some too, if you go there wearing that."

Cloud glanced down at himself. He had acquired a new dress lately, one that wasn't quite so travel worn. Well, it wasn't precisely a dress – it was a cutesy overall shorts… thingy. It wasn't precisely his style, but the cut of the hip area was bunched up in all sorts of adorable ways, and it was easier to wear in the junk yards than anything with a hem.

"Yeah, well, I know how to hit them where it hurts if it comes to that," the blond shrugged. "First I need to drop by Wall Market and pick up some things, though. Just a little something to make things a bit easier."

"We've set up camp in the Bank of Midgar," Genesis said. "Fourth floor, room four seventeen. Don't delay too much – the last I saw him, Sephiroth looked like he wanted to skewer your friends."

"Yeah, they're fine, agreeable men, Cid and Barret," Cloud laughed. "We'll be there under half an hour – tell Sephiroth to avoid making demands or trying to offer any deals before I get there, alright? That'll just piss Cid and Barret off."

"Why to hell did you recommend them when they're both so… so infuriating?" Genesis asked, annoyed.

"They're both bastards and assholes, yeah, but they know their business. They do good work, when you know how to handle them," Cloud shrugged.

Genesis grumbled and then headed off, back above plate.

"Well, obviously you have a fun night ahead," Aerith giggled. "Good luck."

Cloud just laughed at that, and then he and Vincent headed to Wall Market, in order for Cloud to acquire some… provisions. Half an hour later, he and Vincent navigated the now far messier upper plate, making their way to the Bank of Midgar where the SOLDIER Thirds on guard duty very nearly didn't let them in.

Not before Genesis, who had been pacing along the bank's entrance hall, noticed them. "For the Goddess’ sake, come on already," the commander, who was once more wearing his leather jacket, snapped. "I had to take Sephiroth's materia away from him – he very nearly set Highwind on fire."

"After you," Cloud said, grinning cheerfully and then blowing a kiss at the gobsmacked SOLDIER Thirds before he and Vincent headed inside.

They could hear the cursing and arguing from the hall. "…for a fucking ShinRa stooge that doesn't know the difference between heat and pneumatic engines –!" one voice was saying while another was going, "… all the shit Corel had to go through for that fucking Reactor and for what, for you pissants to –!" and a third was saying, "… don't settle down, I'm going to hurl you out of the window and enjoy every millisecond of it!"

Cloud kicked the door open – his hands were a bit full – and marched in. The conference room fell quiet, and even Sephiroth looked startled. Cid, red in the face, was standing across an oval shaped table, half smoked cigarette hanging from between his gritted teeth. Barret was gripping what looked like a bunch of shredded paper in his hands – two healthy human hands – and he didn't look happy. None of them looked happy to see more people.

Then Cloud set the beer keg he had been carrying on his left shoulder down with a definite bang. While they stared at it in surprise, he set the box he had been carrying on his right shoulder down as well, and then opened it, starting to pull out perfectly baked, still steaming apple pies and setting them across the table. Then he motioned at Vincent, who somewhat reluctantly relinquished the bottles of scotch and whiskey Cloud had, against all odds, managed to buy from the quickly dwindling supply of alcohol the city had.

"Strife?" Sephiroth asked, looking him up and down. He blinked at the get up, glanced at the beer keg, opened his mouth, paused, and then asked "… what?"

Cloud ignored him. "Hello, gentlemen," he said to the other men instead, throwing the scotch bottle to Cid who caught it deftly, and banging the whiskey bottle in front of Barret.

"Well this looks more like it!" Barret said, examining the bottle he had been presented with.

"What's with the fucking pies?" Cid asked, looking at them uneasily.

"They're the only fucking thing that this shitty fuckhole of a city have left that's edible," Cloud answered calmly. "But I figured it ain’t no proper business discussion without some fucking food, so you jackasses are either going to stuff them down your goddamn gob, or you're going to fucking starve."

Sephiroth blinked at that and Vincent just stared at Cloud. Cid grinned. "Well, it's about fucking time," he said and held out a hand over the table. "Cid Highwind."

"Cloud Strife," Cloud answered, shaking the offered hand. "And, if I may say, your work on the PN 45 triple cycle engine is a fucking glorious job. I know it's not precisely your field, but I used to have a bike with that engine, and it was a beast. Got a bit bitchy without proper maintenance, but so worth it."

Cid grinned at him, delighted. "You could handle it, huh, girlie?"

"Oh, psh. The bike was basically a half ton vibrator. It was a pleasure handling it."

"So, you work for these fuckers?" Barret asked, motioning at Sephiroth and Genesis, who were now sharing a semi horrified look.

"No, but I give them the occasional kick in the balls," Cloud shrugged and turned to the two SOLDIERs. "Any chance of getting some fucking glasses here? I didn't think I'd need to bring the goddamn dishware too."

Sephiroth and Genesis shared a look and then seemed to in unison decide to wash their hands of the whole matter – which basically meant they ran away like the cowards they were. Vincent in the end got the glasses from the employee lounge, and Cloud, Cid and Barret made quick and spirited use of them.

Which meant they were all pretty much roaring drunk within the hour. Which was fun – Cloud had all but forgotten what it was like, getting drunk without needing to take enough drugs to down a Midgar Zolom. Vincent remained with them, regardless of the fact that he couldn't even get drunk, watching the whole ordeal with a slightly apprehensive look. Or he looked apprehensive around the start – things got hazy for Cloud somewhere along the middle. And completely blank by the time Barret started making Boilermakers for them all.

He eventually woke up in the Church, his head resting in Vincent's lap, with the gunman watching him in interest. "Are you sober now?"

"Maybe?" Cloud answered. "Sorta hurtin'. Don't think I've had a hangover in… ever. Oh god. Never thought I'd miss Mako injections…"

"Hm. Well, it will please you to know that you managed to contract both Mr. Wallace's and Mr. Highwind's services for ShinRa," Vincent said, gently easing his fingers through Cloud's hair. "Sephiroth was not precisely delighted by your means, but the contract you negotiated seemed better than the one he was hoping to acquire. Mr. Highwind's airship will be remaining in Midgar for the following two months, and will be used in the rehabilitation of the city, while Mr. Wallace has promised to work as liaison between ShinRa and Corel, and their coal mines."

"Mmm," Cloud hummed, nuzzling into Vincent's lap.

"You also spent about an hour lamenting on how goddamn pretty I am and how life just wasn't fair," Vincent added mercilessly. "And you will be the godmother of Mr. Highwind's first child, should he ever have one. And I believe Mr. Wallace promised to name a mine after you. You might've become blood brothers. I lost track of you for a while there."

Cloud smiled. It sounded like a rather standard night with Barret and Cid. "You are goddamn pretty," he said blearily.

The gunman chuckled softly, massaging his scalp gently. "Would you like something to drink?"

"I would like a quick and painless death," the blond answered. Vincent gave him a glass of water instead.

Eventually, things settled down in Midgar, a bit anyway. Businesses died left and right, people were left unemployed. Technologies slowly but steadily became obsolete, as they couldn't be powered without Mako – and a good half of ShinRa's arsenal of flying machines were set aside in the faint hope that maybe they could be refitted with different types of engines than the Mako engines they had. Two months after the Change, one of the now obsolete and useless Mako Reactors collapsed and fourteen people died, a good five hundred were left homeless and people complained loudly and incessantly about how unsafe and unstable Midgar was becoming, with its cornerstones blown and it's centre shattered.

Nobody starved though, because for months after their miraculous creation, the Banora Whites around the city bloomed and blossomed in the morning and bore fruit in the evening in a continuous, fast paced cycle. People got sick of apple sauce, apple pies, apple everything pretty quickly, but no one ran out of food.

Little huts popped up in the apple forest, tents and shacks, as those left homeless in Midgar simply went where the food was. Sephiroth and what was left of ShinRa had announced and were heavily enforcing the law against damaging the trees, so no one dared to do that. Instead, houses were at first stuffed into the holes and rifts left by Alexander, and occasionally under the arches of the biggest apple trees. Eventually, someone started digging one underneath the forest – which, despite how unstable the ground had seemed after Alexander, wasn't actually a bad idea. The top soil was all but solid, completely covered in the roots of the trees in a single two hundred square mile sheet of hard packed earth and roots. With a little work, it made a surprisingly secure rooftop.

Cloud, Aerith and Vincent remained in the slums, though. Cloud had his metal working shop in a corner of the Sector Five slums, with a good forty people hired to bring him the better metal from the junk yards and helping him melt it down – and more than four hundred individuals coming and going, selling him bits of metal they had found. He melted it down and turned it into support struts and walls which the people who were making new homes below the forest used. On the side he had his black smithy, and his first order ever was the straightening of Sephiroth's Masamune under the man's steady, suspicious glare.

"Okay, I have to ask," the General of ShinRa finally broke. "Why do you… actually, which one are you? Male or female?"

Cloud glanced down at his getup. He'd taken to the overall shorts and now usually wore them around the shop. He had a custom made apron though, which wrapped around him and fell in artistic folds and looked rather like a dress. With his makeup and recently painted nails and hair that was growing longer and which he had just sort of bunched up on the top, he supposed he looked girly enough.

He hadn't thought that some people would have actual problems figuring out which one he was. That was actually… kinda flattering.

"I'm a guy," he shrugged. "I just like wearing pretty clothes, is all."

"That's all?" Sephiroth asked. "Half of my military is convinced that you're some sort of insane hermaphroditic amalgamation created by the Ancient."

Cloud laughed at that. "Nah. I'm just a gay guy who likes to cross-dress," he said, unpinning the Masamune from the clamps he had set it in to straighten. "Though the dresses can be laid at Aerith's feet – she's the one who started it," he said, pronouncing the blade straight enough before getting to work on its maintenance. He had done a number on it with the Apocalypse.

"Hm," Sephiroth said, glancing at Vincent who had his own corner of the workshop – where he made, refurbished and repaired firearms for himself and for their various customers. The man was currently going through some shotguns for a Turk who had come by earlier. With the manufacturing plants more or less useless, no one was getting easy replacements if something broke, so maintenance and repair was a big deal nowadays.

"You don't seem to mind," Sephiroth noted.

"Cloud has nice legs. It's not precisely a hardship having to see them," Vincent said with absolutely zero expression, and Cloud cracked up, almost dropping the whetstone onto his foot.

Sephiroth snorted at the pair of them, shaking his head. "I wash my hands of trying to understand you," he said.

"Probably for the best," Vincent agreed.

"You should avoid talking to the Turks about us, then," Cloud added, grinning and thinking back to the face Reno had made when he had realised that Cloud Strife was the same person as the Paladin of the Ancients – as well as that pretty girl he had met in Junon, months ago. "We almost gave half of them a coronary and the other half wants to apprentice under Vincent."

Sephiroth just rolled his eyes, and looked up as Aerith flounced in, flowers in her hair and all over her pink dress – and a freshly baked apple pie in hand.

"Delivery!" she said cheerfully, while Cloud and Sephiroth gave sad looks at the apple pie. "I need you to come look at the pumps again, Cloud. Something's jammed up and I just can't figure out what," she added.

"I'll come by once I finish this," he promised. Aerith ran a greenhouse – well, about a dozen of them. They weren't precisely greenhouses, more like fenced off areas in the Sectors Five and Six slums that she guarded with all the ferocity of a wild hound. Inside those fenced off areas, she had a mix of pots and vats and pipework, old gardening and new hydroponics and a good hundred experiments in getting the maximum growth out of whatever she was feeling like growing. Occasionally, she sold vegetables and strawberries and herbs at the Wall Market. Midgar loved her on those days.

"Hello, Sephiroth, how is ShinRa doing?" Aerith asked, turning to the General.

"It's…," Sephiroth said, making a so-and-so motion with his hand. "The military's fine, what's left of the sciences is still rolling along. Angeal is trying to keep the business thing up and running, but we've lost about seventy percent of our civilian workers. Which is fine, we don't precisely have anything for them to work on anyway. We're splintering."

Aerith lifted an eyebrow at that. "So the military and the actual company are going to go separate ways?" she asked curiously.

"We're currently thinking of it more along the lines of military and what will hopefully be the future government of the city of Midgar and the territories that are still somewhat under our control," Sephiroth shrugged. "With no ShinRa in between."

"Huh," Aerith murmured. "So you mean whoever is going to take charge of the business aspect won't be so much the president of ShinRa, but the Mayor of Midgar?"

"That's the idea."

"Fascinating."

Cloud let out a laugh at her expression and finished his final pass on the Masamune with the whetstone. "Behold the future Mayor," he said, nodding at Aerith while handing the sword to Sephiroth. "Her agenda will be to fill Midgar with flowers and all sorts of green things. God help us all."

Sephiroth gave the Ancient a thoughtful look. "The people would vote her in instantly, if that was her agenda. Hell, they'd vote her in if her agenda was to paint the city pink," he agreed. "Not that there will be voting yet. Apparently, Angeal and Genesis need to set up the ground work for the political machine, whatever that means."

"Well, it's something to consider in the future," Aerith mused, smiling.

 

 

"That's it? Really?" Yuffie asked in disbelief, peering over the rail running around the Shera’s deck, down at the ground a good five hundred feet below them. It was hard to reconcile the nightmares and ghost stories of a dirty, polluted, technological super city with the… thing below them.

"Yep, that's Midgar," Tifa said, leaning her elbows on the rail. "I've visited it only a couple of times, mind you, but that's definitely it."

"It looks like nothing I imagined."

Of course she knew – everyone knew – about the Change of Midgar that had happened ten or so years ago. The Wrath of the so called Goddess, who had one by one destroyed the ShinRa Mako Reactors all over the Planet, and finally struck down ShinRa itself, destroying central Midgar in one glorious strike of divine wrath. Punishment for ShinRa's arrogance and its harmful way of treating the Planet and all that, or so people said. After that, ShinRa had blown its own Mako Reactors in the hopes of avoiding further destruction and…

And in answer, the Goddess had grown a forest around Midgar.

It was such a freaking fairy tale – it had taken Yuffie five years to realise it wasn't, that it had actually happened. The way people spoke of it back then, hushed awe and fear, it had just… it had been ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. Even after her own father had told her that it was true, all true, ShinRa was all but gone, even then she had been doubtful. Even when ShinRa troops had withdrawn and Wutai had been left to its own devices for years, even when Sephiroth himself had come to hand Wutai its rights back officially, bowing Godo Kisaragi back to the rightful throne of Wutai, even then she’d had trouble believing it.

Wutai and ShinRa had been at war for all her life and then, suddenly, without warning…

Sighing, the Princess of Wutai shook her head. She could see the former technological glory of Midgar. It was still there, beneath the greenery crawling all over the place. The buildings were taller than some mountains on Wutai, and she could see cars and motorcycles and such on the streets, idly trickling past each other to destinations unknown. But it was all overshadowed by the colossal tree that arched in spirals and curls over the city, its branches hanging down over the buildings, bigger than the streets below. There were gardens on the balconies and it seemed like every building was covered in vines and flowers. The whole place bloomed.

"You know, they say it's all one tree, technically," Tifa said, looking down as well. "People thought for a long time that there were something like half a million trees down there, but no. They all have the same root system – it's all one tree."

"It's freaking ridiculous," Yuffie murmured before composing herself. She was a grown ass woman, and this wasn't how a princess – soon to be empress – of Wutai ought to act. But it was ridiculous. It was a fairy tale, a kid's story. And it was told like a kid's story too, all over the world. Even in Wutai’s classrooms, teachers would block out the windows and gather the kids on the floors and then, in hushed, play acted scenes, they would tell them of the Wrath of the Goddess.

"Do you think she's still there?" she then asked, because she had to. "The Priestess?"

"Don't you know?" Tifa asked, surprised. "She's the Mayor of Midgar."

"What? I thought that was Sephiroth?"

"No, Sephiroth is the General of the army. The Priestess has been the mayor for almost five years now. She was voted to a second term just a couple of months back."

Yuffie scowled at that. Apparently the news they get from the east still wasn’t up to date or accurate. She had to give their spies a break on that score – after so long under ShinRa's thumb, the idea of… of civil governments and mayors was a foreign one, when one thought about ShinRa's territory. "Does she have any power?" she asked then, resting her hands on her belt, where she had her throwing stars carefully aligned with the patterns of the fabric, to hide them in plain sight.

"I'd say so," Tifa laughed, nodding downwards. "I mean, look at the place."

Yuffie did. The place remained ridiculous looking.

There were steps behind them. "You ladies ready to land?" one of the airship's crew asked, his words a little muffled by the cigarette between his lips. "We'll be docking in Sector Four, over there," he pointed over the rail.

"That's one of the Reactors, isn't it?" Yuffie asked.

"It was. Now it's one of the docking bays," the crewman said and pressed a button on his headset. "Okay, baby. Bring her down."

Tifa and Yuffie exchanged looks, but said nothing at that. The airship began descending, turning idly so that the bow was facing the colossal tree in the middle of Midgar. There were other airships docked in the bay – though they were all much smaller than the Shera, which was the flagship of the Highwind Company. But there were so many. Wutai had three in total, and one of them was privately owned.

"Short distance couriers," the crewman said. "Mostly for hauling cargo around the Eastern Continent."

Then they touched down on the docks. People, probably dock workers, came forward to secure the Shera, and with them there was a small party of what looked like… maybe officials? There was a man in a suit there, looking expectantly up at the Shera, and if Yuffie was a betting woman – and she was – she would've bet that he was there as her welcoming committee.

Just as Yuffie wondered how she was going to get down from the ship to meet her welcoming committee, the crewman stepped forward, leaning over the railing, and bellowed down. "Valentine! Where's the bitch!?"

The black haired man looked up at the deck and then away, to a nearby airship. There was someone lying flat on their back below it. At some spoken word, the someone stood up to reveal a woman with long blonde hair and a somewhat ruffled skirt that bunched up around the hips. She looked a little like she was wearing a corset with oddly poofy sleeves.

The woman bounced forward and then, for some god forsaken reason, flipped the finger at them. "Well hello there, Cid, you asshole, how fucking nice to see you again!" she shouted up at them. "Didn't take you longer than fucking forever to land. Now where the fuck is my goddaughter?!"

The crew member ginned. "Don't you talk smack about the piloting – that's your fucking goddaughter piloting the fucking ship, you whore!"

"The shitty bucket of piss is on the ground, isn't it? So get her the fuck down here!"

Tifa and Yuffie exchanged a surprised look. The crewman – who apparently was Cid Highwind himself – pushed backwards and grinned at them. "Well then, ladies, this way," he said, motioning inside. After a last glance towards the blonde woman who had turned to talk to the black haired man, they turned to follow him – on the way picking up the Shera's ten year old pilot, a brown haired little girl with a wide grin and a missing tooth.

She bounced ahead the moment they disembarked from the ship, towards the blonde woman. "Uncle!" the girl called.

"Hilda, you brat, come here!" the woman said and swung the ten year old into her arms with surprising strength, for a woman so thin. But then Yuffie saw that what the woman was wearing wasn't actually a corset with poofy sleeves – but a breast plate and shoulder guards. She even had gauntlets on and when Yuffie got closer, she could see that what she had thought to be jeans were actually made of chain mail. "Who's the most badass princess of the air?! Now show me that tooth. Broke right off, did it? And how's the other guy?"

"I totally kicked his balls back in," the little girl said, brimming with girlish pride. "I made him squeal. It was awesome!"

"That she did," Highwind said, ruffling the girl's hair. "The mother even tried to sue me, it was beautiful."

Yuffie stared at them. Just stared.

Finally, the blonde woman let the little girl down and turned to look at Yuffie and Tifa. "Tifa," she said, nodding at Yuffie's travelling companion. "I heard you were coming. How's Nibelheim?"

"Miserable," the brunette shrugged.

"Ah. How things change," the blonde said, and turned to Yuffie, with Hilda Highwind still held in her arms. "Welcome to Midgar, your Highness," she said. "I trust the trip was good?"

"Of course it was good, it was fucking excellent," Cid Highwind said, ruffling his daughter's hair and making her grin a wide, gap-toothed smile. The man grinned back, ruffling her hair harder. "Hilda is a class A pilot."

"It was fine," Yuffie said, feeling dangerously out of her depth now. "Um. You are…"

"Cloud Strife – people call me the Paladin," the blonde said, holding out her hand for Yuffie to shake. "I'm here to take you to see the Mayor – she figured it would be polite to add a bit of pomp and circumstance to your arrival."

Well, it explained all the armour the woman was wearing. Except. "I… thought the Paladin was a man?" Yuffie asked, uneasy.

"You thought correctly," the woman – or… man? – said with a nod and looked down at her – his – outfit. "I sort of look the part even," he said thoughtfully. "Not precisely what I prefer, but our Mayor has… notions. And I am highly susceptible to her whims."

The black haired man beside the Paladin coughed at that.

Yuffie stared, looked the Paladin up and down. The whole armour definitely had a female touch to it. It had hips and a bust and the skirt – why did it even have a skirt? – was obviously made with the deliberate intention of enhancing the Paladin's hips. Hell, his armoured boots had high heels. Add in the long hair that fell to his hips in long, practically golden locks and the artistic touch of makeup and he looked stunning.

"Er," the crown princess of Wutai said.

"You'll probably get used to it," Tifa said with a sympathetic smile. "Probably."

"Um. Right," Yuffie said, looking the Paladin over. She blinked and then shook her head. What was she, a ninja or a courtier? "Okay, so, man in a skirt. You look fabulous." Might as well be honest.

The Paladin of the Goddess grinned. "You're not so bad looking yourself, your Highness," he said and gave her an appreciative glance. "I like your belt. Very sharp," he added with a grin before motioning towards the inner section of the dock. There was a short train that seemed to run above the city, waiting there. "Shall we? You coming, Tifa?"

"No, I've got a meeting with Barret," the brunette said. "And then I need to see a guy about a bar. I'll catch up with you later?"

"We'll be off to meet the bastard too," Highwind added. "I need to kick his ass about the mess he's making of the market, the asshole."

"Well, you both know where to find me," Strife said, and turned to Yuffie while motioning towards the awaiting train. "Well, this way, your Highness. The Mayor is waiting."

The train took them straight through Midgar and to its centre, right below the colossal tree. There, Strife led them to the Mayor who was, actually, not waiting at all. She was instead elbow deep in planting what looked like brand new flower beds that ran around the roots of the colossal tree.

The only reason Yuffie knew it was her at all was because of the hair. It was thick and rich and reached her knees, easily, and was adorned by flowers, just like the stories had said. The rest – the dirt on her cheek and hands and all the way up to her elbows, the dirt and green stained apron, the grass stained knees – hadn't been in the fairy tales.

"What do you think?" The Mayor of Midgar, the Priestess of the Goddess, the Last Ancient, asked her Paladin.

"I don't know," Strife said, looking over the veritable meadow of flowers that stretched before them. "You might need more flowers. I mean, the city's practically barren. "

Aerith Gainsborough punched the man on the knee and stood up, turning to Yuffie. Her eyes widened and suddenly she was right in front of Yuffie. "Oh my god, you're beautiful – look at you!" she breathed, taking Yuffie's face between her dirty hands and leaning in. "I knew you'd grow up to be stunning, but oh my god. Cloud, do you see this?"

"Yes, yes, very pretty, pardon my lack of enthusiasm. I already got to see it once," the Paladin said, shrugging. "Though I have to say, she rocks the traditional robes better this time around."

"Um. What?" Yuffie asked, wide eyed.

"Oh, sorry, honey," the Mayor said, pulling her hands back as she realised that she was spreading dirt on the Princess' face. "Was beside myself a bit there. Sorry. Aerith Gainsborough, at your service," she said. "Welcome to Midgar. How are you liking it so far?"

"It's… different from what I thought."

"Good, that's just what we like to hear. Cloud, get the thing," the Mayor said, motioning at something nearby. "Get it, get it."

It was a metal box, beautifully carved with an artistic rendering of Midgar on the top, with the tree and everything. Yuffie accepted it somewhat dubiously – the messages sent back and forth between Wutai and Midgar had said that political gifts wouldn't be necessary, so she hadn't brought anything special with her.

There were three orbs of materia in the box, resting on velvet. All of them were green.

"The Midgar Three," Mayor Gainsborough said, pointing at them. "Quake, to turn the earth, Esuna, to purify and revitalise, and Grow, to, well, make green things grow."

"Oh," Yuffie said, a little wide eyed. "But isn't Grow…"

"Extremely new and extremely rare? Yep, but you're a special case, honey," the Mayor of Midgar said. "I hope Wutai will find use for it – but, just to make things clear, it's a personal gift to you, not to Wutai or the Wutai royal house."

"I… am honoured," Yuffie said.

For some reason, that made the Mayor frown and turn to her Paladin – who also seemed to be frowning. "Cloud, what's wrong with her?"

"At a guess, the early end of the war, peace, and then Wutai's renewed independence led to a slightly different upbringing and this is the result," the Paladin said, considering Yuffie. He narrowed his eyes, which looked rather startling due to the makeup around said eyes. "How long will you be staying in Midgar, milady?" he asked, somewhat predatory.

"Ah. The idea was two weeks, I believe?" Yuffie said, uneasy.

The Paladin and the Priestess of the Goddess exchanged looks. "About long enough," they decided in unison.

"Long enough for what?" the Princess demanded. When the two servants of the Goddess just grinned at her, she looked around for some sort of explanation – or just help – and her eyes landed on the black haired man who had accompanied the Paladin.

The man looked at her almost pityingly. "They most likely mean to corrupt you," he said sympathetically. "With any luck, you might survive with your dignity intact, but I doubt it. Nobody has yet."

She didn't survive with her dignity intact. And neither did anyone else, after the Priestess – "Oh for crying out loud – call me Aerith. I'm nobody's priestess. It's just propaganda!" – and the Paladin – "Oh come on, it's Cloud. I know it's a ridiculous name, but it's still my name. Cloud. Can you say it? Cloouud?" – took her with them and showed her around Midgar. Which mainly meant they took her around, showed her the embarrassing places, and glossed over the boring bits, and introduced her to people.

"That over there? That's Angeal. He's a workaholic, hilariously cheap and sort of scared of our beloved Mayor – she once shaved his sideburns off, and he's never forgotten it. He trains the army, mostly – but on the side he still makes suspenders look like a good fashion choice, as you can see over there."

"And that over there is Tseng – he used to stalk me when I was a kid. He's the leader of the Turks. The Turks are their own organisation these days but he still finds excuses to bring stuff to me, as if he works for me. It'd be almost cute if it wasn't so creepy."

"And thaaat is Reeve Tuesti. He's a wonderful creep with a weird fetish for robotic toys but we all love him anyway. He ages like the finest wine you've ever had, seriously. Also, he keeps the city mostly running – the train we took? His handiwork. So he's stuck with us until he dies."

"And there's Sephiroth – Hey, Sephy! – and there he goes. He doesn't like us much."

"We managed to get him drugged up once and braided his hair."

"Into about a hundred little braids."

"It took him a day to get them all open. It was hilarious."

"And there's Genesis. Cloud is his personal stylist. Doesn't he look fabulous?"

"Oh, there's Nanaki – he's awesome. He's sort of apprenticing under Aerith right now, it's a long story about Planet life and the Lifestream and all that. Him being here means we'll have solar panels soon, so, score!"

"Oh, Zack! He's my boo, you know, hands off, that ass is mine, etc., etc.… He's been at the vineyards I think. Yeah, we have vineyards. Remind me to take you there later. Mmm shirtlessness. Hey, Zack, do a little spin, flaunt for your woman!"

And so it went, all around Midgar. Yuffie ate at least three apples and had four slices of apple pie, was introduced to Midgar's famous apple cider and by the end of the day, they were all roaring drunk.

The following morning she found she had pickpocketed the Priestess of the Goddess – among some other people – and now had a stash of illicitly acquired materia. Valentine's look was pure understanding when she later approached him about possibly returning it all.

"I don't know what came over me – I haven't pickpocketed anyone in years," she admitted, embarrassed.

"Keep them – they'll be looking forward to the chance of pickpocketing you right back," the gunman shrugged.

"Right. Of course they are – what was I thinking?" Yuffie sighed and gave him a considering look. "You seem relatively sane, you know. What are you doing with these people?"

The red eyed man arched an eyebrow at that and smiled a little. "Sometimes I wonder," he said, and then looked up as the half unconscious Paladin of the Goddess stumbled into the room and collapsed all over the gunman. Yuffie swallowed. Cloud Strife was not only half unconscious, but he was also half naked. And wearing female lingerie.

"Sometimes I wonder," Valentine repeated, sighing and hauling the other man up and completely onto the couch where he was sitting, so that the blond man could lay more comfortably in his lap. "Then Cloud does something like this, and I remember."

"I see," Yuffie said regally, tilting her head a little. It was the first time she had ever seen a man wearing stockings and a garter belt. It looked… well.

"The Paladin of the Goddess," she said, thinking about the stories, about the scary Paladin who could summon giants in the defence of the Priestess, giants strong enough to level cities. They had all told her that if she was ever to meet them, she should never anger them because the Paladin wielded the might of the Ancients and there was no chance against him. He was the strongest warrior, the deadliest, the most terrifying. "The Paladin," she repeated, looking at the most terrifying warrior in his female underclothes. "Of the Goddess."

"He is extremely impressive, isn't he?" Valentine nodded with a sigh.

After a moment, Yuffie gave up on sanity and just began to laugh.