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Is this the real life; is this just fantasy?
(“Bohemian Rhapsody”, Queen)

It didn't seem real.

He'd been here before. He could remember a mission. Wutai troops on a train, disguised as Shinra troopers. He could remember the feeling of motion, the sound of the train rushing over the rails, the pressure of the air in his face threatening to knock him off balance. That was all there. But... there was more this time.

Textures. The feel of the mako-tainted soot on the roof of the carriage, where he was laying, head-down, the rough metal, the discomfort and stickiness of it all. Smells, too - smells he couldn't remember from the last time this happened. It all added to the sense of unreality.

There were other people here. If he’d lifted his head, he could have seen them. The big black guy who was in charge; the girl with the bombs; the fat guy; the skinny guy with the mouth on him. Which wasn't right, was it? Back then, the mission had just been him.

There was a low tunnel - "heads down!" yelled the big guy as they came up to it - and he remembered this. Didn't remember flattening himself on the roof of the train, though. He remembered flying through the space above it. If he'd tried to do that today, he'd have splattered himself across one of the billboards advertising the latest performance of Loveless. Maybe it had been a dream.

Maybe this was a dream. The noise, buffeting his head, bludgeoning his brain. The smells – garbage, rotting food, rotting meat, things breaking down and decomposing, rusting metal. The combination of the rough inner texture of his gloves, and the pitted metal he could feel through them, the roof of the train. He remembered the metal of the train roof had been smooth.

The train was slowing, pulling into the station. The smells were changing - the reek of mako fumes from the nearby reactor; oil and grease from the railbed; and from the entertainment district not far away, the twin smells of alcohol and fried food. His stomach twisted.

A moment of silence, as the train finally came to a complete halt. The two guards for the station walked along the row of carriages, looking the cars over, opening the doors to release the passengers.

"We wait on the roof until the passengers have left", the big guy had said. "Then, we knock out the guards and make our way to the reactor gate."

He watches as the crowd heads down along the station, toward the stairs to the entertainment district in Sector Eight. Nobody lingers. The last stragglers are gone. Time to make their move.

The skinny guy and the girl with the bombs drop down and knock out the guards. Part of him recognises their moves - clumsy, second-hand. The girl's kick leaves her shaking out her ankle; poor technique. Sloppy, unprofessional. But the guards are knocked out, and the fat guy and the black guy jump down, the black guy gesturing to him to follow.

He jumps down, landing in a low crouch - a move made necessary by the weight of the sword on his back. There’s another thing which feels unreal about this whole situation. The sword doesn't feel right - too big, too heavy, too clumsy. It forces him to crouch lower, stand with a wider stance, to be able to balance the weight of the thing through the forms of combat.

"C'mon, newcomer! Follow me," the black guy tells him, as the four of them run off toward the end of the platform. He follows more slowly, fragments of memory insisting the mission isn't over with the defeat of the platform guards. He stops and frisks the first guard, removing the potion he knows (how does he know?) they carry.

He's about half-way down the platform when the other shoe drops. A pair of Shinra military police, so similar in appearance to the figures in his memory. Only two of them... surely there should be more? They spot the knocked-out station guards, and see him, start running toward him, and this is all familiar, this he knows, this he remembers. He pulls the sword from its magnetic harness on his back, and gets into position.

The MPs pause for a second on seeing him, like they aren't expecting him to attack them. Like they're expecting him to be another Shinra dog, just like them. But he's not a Shinra dog any more. Not now. Not after...

He doesn't remember why he's not with Shinra.

It distracts him, lets the MPs get a couple of strikes in, and he can feel the impact of the baton, the shock of the rubber bullets they use. He strikes back...

It feels wrong - the weight and momentum of the blade, the resistance of it hacking through flesh and bone, it all feels wrong. The smells - the metallic smell of blood, and the meaty smell of flesh, entrails, all the things which make up a human. A flash of memory - or nightmare - someone wrist-deep in his own entrails, and he gags for a second, distracted enough not to dodge the second volley from the MP still standing. The bullets sting, and he strikes again, and feels once more the unfamiliar resistance, the feeling of the weight of the blade doing all the work of dismembering a human being, the spray of blood. Then it's over. He's crouched there, sword at ready, with four pieces of Shinra military policeman scattered around him. It took seconds.

The twirl as he re-holsters the sword is unconscious. The bodies lie there on the pavement, rapidly-cooling hunks of meat, blood pooling out onto the concrete of the station concourse. The metallic smell of blood envelops him, makes him wrinkle his nose in distaste. Best not to be around when the guards come to, he remembers. He does a quick rummage through the pockets of the corpses, nets another potion, and a few gil. He takes the potion from the second of the train guards before he heads up the stairs, looking for the people he arrived with.

He spots them on the concourse, wonders how the MPs managed to miss them. The girl is crouched before the lock, brow furrowed in concentration. The plump guy is watching out, his head turning constantly from side to side. It's an inefficient way of maintaining surveillance.

The skinny guy looks up as he arrives.

"Wow," he says. "You used to be in SOLDIER, huh? Not every day you find one in a group like AVALANCHE."

The woman looks up from her work on the lock. "SOLDIER? Aren't they the enemy?" she asks. "What's he doing with us in AVALANCHE?"

The skinny guy rolls his eyes. "He was in SOLDIER, Jessie. But he quit, and he's with us now."

The guy looks over at him. "I didn't catch your name..."

For a moment, he blanks. His name? What is his name? Jumbled recollections of labels, glimpses of initials; S, Z... C...

"Cloud," he says.

The guy grins. "Cloud, eh? I'm -"

"I don't care what your names are," Cloud says. "Once this job's over... I'm outta here."

The moment is broken by the entry of the big black man, a gun clipped to the lower part of his right arm, in place of the prosthetic which used to be there. He frowns at all of them.

"The hell you all doin'!?" he expostulates. "I thought I told you never to move in a group!?" The black guy glares at them. The plump guy looks shamefaced, the skinny guy looks mulish.

"Our target's the North Mako Reactor," the black guy tells them once again. "We'll meet on the bridge in front of it."

There's a beep from the lock Jessie has been working on; the gate slides open. The three slum rats run into the forecourt, scattering as they go. Cloud is left at the gateway, facing the black guy.

"Ex-SOLDIER, huh?", the black guy - Barret, Cloud suddenly remembers; his name is Barret - says. "I don't trust ya!"

Cloud shrugs, and watches Barret follow his troops. Cloud looks up at the bulk of the reactor cooling tower, looming over the forecourt.

He follows Barret in.

Caught in a landslide; no escape from reality
(“Bohemian Rhapsody”, Queen).