Part One: Forsaken
Cloud opened his eyes slowly and saw the endless field of flowers. The raw scent of black earth and green grass assaulted him. The sweet, almost delicate one of blossoming flowers teased him with memories of bygone days and lost happiness.
The Promised Land. Or just the collective consciousness of the Planet? Doesn't matter. It suits her. A bright and beautiful place. She should be in a place like this.
It was so bright. He wanted to curl in on himself and disappear from the shame and guilt he bore. He didn't deserve to be bathed in the light like her.
He stood very still. He didn't think he could face the person who had called him to this place.
"You came. Even though you're about to fall apart. Right?"
Her voice was so cheerful, so calm. It made Cloud's chest ache with her loss. No, that wasn't right. She was here with him now and she was happy to see him.
The hand on his arm felt like a brand, burning his skin to the bone. Cloud couldn't help but flinch slightly at its touch.
She didn't seem to mind though.
"I have faith in you, Cloud. You're not a weak person. You'll do what you have to do," she said gently.
This was wrong. She didn't see how weak, how pathetic he was, what he was really thinking. He took a deep breath. Still, the words were choked and barely came out of his mouth.
"Aeris.. Y-you don't understand. There's a piece of Jenova left somewhere and those.. clones."
They called me 'brother'. Gods. They don't know how right they are.
Cloud swallowed. "They're going to bring him back. Vincent... Vincent said Jenova could do it. She.. She could bring him back."
There was a moment of silence, it dangled over Cloud's head like a sword. "Do you want to see him, Cloud?"
No reproach. No anger. No accusations.
"You don't understand." He was angry all of a sudden with her.
Don't you understand?! I want to see him again. Hear his voice again. See him hold that sword again. I'd do anything. ANYTHING. To see him again.
"Aeris, she can bring him back." The anger drained just as suddenly from him and he felt so ashamed of his outburst.
The smile was in her voice. "You want to see him." She sounded happy for him. "I have faith in you, Cloud."
Her hand moved from his arm and slipped into his hand.
It was warm and soft. A comfort he hadn't had for two years now.
Cloud felt like crying.
"Have faith in yourself. Remember, I'll always be with you. You're not alone, Cloud."
Not alone? But nobody understands. Nobody knows what it's like to kill the person you love. Twice. And be asked to do it a third time. I can't. I can't do it.
She squeezed his hand.
If he was brave, he would have turned around and hugged her. Maybe she was the only one who understood.
He didn't turn. He didn't have that much courage. There was nothing more to say.
Cloud stared at the white and yellow flowers dotting the earth like stars.
There was some warmth where his shoulders touched Aeris'.
Cloud stared at the flowers until the world swirled white and yellow and green......
* * *
His body jerked into consciousness a moment before his mind did. Cloud sat up and looked at his surroundings.
The church. He'd come to Aeris' church. Cloud didn't know why. Maybe he just wanted something familiar, something that reminded him of Aeris.. and Zack who used to visit this church too.
Masochist His mind threw the word at him.
It was right, Cloud thought. He touched one flower with his gloved hand. He couldn't feel it's soft petals, of course. Much like he couldn't feel anything these days.
Cloud rose from the bed of flowers he had been lying in and moved to sit on a nearby wooden box. Sunlight filtered through the half-destroyed ceiling, a breeze stirred what little grass grew between the wooden floorboards. The bandages on his left arm came off slowly. Bits of cotton stuck to his skin and he winced as he tried to remove them as gently as possible. The scabs on his arm now grew nearly to his shoulder. He wanted to touch them but feared it would only spread the infection further.
Geostigma. The effect of the lifestream overcompensating for alien matter in the body. Vincent, why is it you always know more than you let on.
The hard crust that covered his left arm looked like dead skin, dried blood, and pus. The scabs would have been normal if he'd had a wound. But he didn't. It was reflecting the battle going on inside his body. A battle that shouldn't have occurred had Hojo been successful in his experiments on Cloud, had Cloud become a perfect clone of Sephiroth.
I'm a failure. And they think I can save the Planet, defeat the bad guys. I can't even save myself.
Blue eyes, bright from Mako, gazed at the sky.
Cloud felt so alone.
~ To Be Continued ~
Part Two: Forgotten
Those words sounded so hypocritical now. How could he have thought he could live for Zack? Zack wouldn't have made the kind of mistakes he did. Zack wouldn't have sent a friend away in silent anger.
He could hear Tifa on the phone downstairs. He hoped she wasn't going to do the pep talk thing with him, he'd had enough of children and their smiles and rebuilding the world. If he'd managed to hurt Barret's feelings, and that's quite a feat, isn't it Strife?, he didn't know what he'd unknowingly and unwillingly inflict on Tifa.
Tifa. Sweet Tifa. She looked at him as though he was her saviour.
Well, you did volunteer for the job didn't you?
Cloud bent even lower over his knees, his forehead about to touch his kneecaps.
Footsteps up the stairs, and Cloud straightened.
Tifa stood in the doorway. Her body language hesitant and slightly defensive.
"That was Reno on the phone. He says he's coming over with Rude. There's someone he wants you to meet."
The silence dragged on.
"Do you mind if I come in?" Her voice was soft, like addressing a child.
He should at least say something. He managed a quiet, "No".
She walked into the room and sat gingerly near him on the bed.
"I made some soup for Denzel. Would you like some too?"
The safe topic of conversation didn't go unnoticed by Cloud.
Denzel. The orphan was going to die. They were all going to die. Cloud was going to die too. Strangely, he felt very relieved.
"Cloud, do you want to talk about it?"
Tifa was still trying, still reaching. It was too bad there was nothing left of Cloud for her to reach to.
"I don't think I can save anyone." Cloud couldn't look at her. "Anyone," he repeated himself.
"That's not true. You saved us all, Cloud. You're the reason why the Planet and everyone on it is still here." Tifa's earnestness almost made Cloud believe her words.
"Tifa, we lost. This disease that's spreading, it's Jenova's last revenge on the Planet. On us. There's nothing I can do." Cloud tried to make her understand.
"That's not true. Everyone's coming to Midgar to help. Cid, Nanaki, Yuffie, maybe even Vincent if Cid finds him. We can solve this thing together." Tifa's voice was rising higher with every word, she was completely convinced of her idea.
Cloud looked at her. The moment their eyes met, he knew it was a mistake. He couldn't reciprocate the feeling glowing in her brown eyes. He stood and turned toward the door.
"Why do we have to lose to a memory?" She was angry now, rightly so.
Cloud knew which 'memory' she was referring to.
So even you can intentionally hurt someone, Tifa. It's because he's not a mere memory and he will never be one. Not someone who was born with that kind of strength and magnificence, born to lead and rule. He's not a 'memory' to me.
"'I don't care if I just die'," Tifa said, delivering the final blow with slow surety, "Is that what you're thinking?"
He had nothing to say. Cloud looked at the wall decorated with photographs and didn't see it.
They both started when they heard the front door banging open.
He escaped down the stairs and left Tifa behind.
* * *
"Hey Cloud. You're a hard man to find." Reno was bouncing on his feet, too much energy by half.
"Why are you here?" Cloud asked him.
"Trouble in paradise?" The redhead smirked and glanced at the ceiling.
Cloud frowned. There were times he wished he could hit Reno, preferably hard enough to give him a concussion on the slim chance that it might improve his manners.
Rude standing behind Reno like a dark foreboding shadow, cleared his throat and looked pointedly at his partner.
Reno seemed to get the message. His expression became serious for a moment. "There's a guy who wants to see you. Business, you know."
"Who?" Cloud didn't bother to keep the suspicion out of his voice.
"A guy from ShinRa." Reno shrugged.
"ShinRa?" The company was worse than Jenova. Everytime they thought they'd destroyed it, it'd sprout another division or executive willing to resurrect it and resume the business again. It was becoming old, real fast.
"Come on. You've got nothing to lose. And he has information about the three guys who attacked you on your way to Midgar." Reno was nothing if not persuasive.
A raised eyebrow on his part, and the Turk smiled knowing he'd won.
"All right." Cloud could do nothing except agree.
The three of them left Tifa's bar.
Tifa didn't come down.
* * *
Cloud stepped out of the building, a few hundred questions racing in his mind.
Kadaj, the name of the leader of the gang that attacked him. The three men all bore a strong resemblance to Sephiroth, especially the one with the long hair, and they'd called him brother; Cloud shuddered.
The ShinRa man was infected with Geostigma as well, to the degree that his entire body needed to be covered from sight. Yet, he didn't say anything about the disease that ate away at himself and Midgar's population.
Odd. It's as if he doesn't care about himself. He wasn't the only one, Cloud thought wryly.
He walked to his bike.
He called me an ex-SOLDIER. I can be sure he's ShinRa all right with that low shot. If he's been investigating the 'incident' then he knows I never made SOLDIER.
Cloud placed a hand on his bike. He closed his eyes and raised his face to the sky. The sun warmed his cold skin. He thought of another sunny day.
What're you gonna do once we get to Midgar?
I have faith in you, Cloud.
No, he hadn't forgotten. What he wanted to do.
Cloud opened his eyes and his gaze fell on the swords strapped on the bike.
What he wanted....
He thought of those he loved. And lost.
I think.. I want to be forgiven
The thought coalesced in his mind. His heart felt a little lighter.
Yes, I want to be forgiven
* * *
Somewhere in the Lifestream, a girl smiled.
~ To Be Continued ~
Part Three: Foreshadow
Cloud watched the stones melt and the walls collapse on themselves. The stained glass windows shattered and fell in fragments like coloured rain, and what little wood there was in the supports flamed brightly. He'd cast the strongest fire spell on it to make sure the remains of Jenova and Kadaj were completely incinerated.
After defeating the Jenova-infected Bahamut which Kadaj had unleashed on the city, Cloud had raced to the church after Cid told him the youth was seen to be headed in that direction. In the end, it had been easy to kill him. Though the image of bright green eyes crazed with anger and pain would haunt Cloud for the rest of his days. He really had seen that image one too many times.
Should I feel something? The church is the last thing I have of her. And now it's burning to ashes.... but I don't feel anything. I should be feeling pain. I should be crying...... shouldn't I?
* * *
Tifa alternately looked at the burning building and at Cloud. He seemed transfixed by it. They'd all arrived to see Cloud standing alone in front of the church, while it went up in blazes. Cloud hadn't said a word to them. He didn't have to. They all understood what had happened and the necessity of it.
It has to be hard on him. It was the last reminder he had of Aeris. Aeris. You didn't love her, I know that now. But then why? I really thought after it all ended that we'd get a chance to be together. A chance to be happy.
She pushed those thoughts away. She should be concentrating on Cloud; he had to be feeling like shit right now.
"Cloud. Cloud..." She reached with one hand and touched him.
The force with which he recoiled from her touch made her take a step backwards.
He stared at her as though he'd just realized she was there beside him.
Those eyes. They're like the eyes of a child who's seen too many broken promises.
Tifa was speechless. She swallowed. What could, should she say?
"I'm fine. It's nothing. I'm fine." His voice was soft and brittle with some unnamed emotion.
Gods, Cloud. Who are you lying to?
She felt a heavy weariness descend on her.
He turned and moved past Barret, Cid, and Nanaki. She saw how they all couldn't meet his gaze. Except for Vincent who stood to the side and gazed at the scene and its players with a knowing look in his red eyes, his body language spoke of detachment born of long suffering experience.
"We need to talk."
Tifa heard Cloud say to the two silver-haired men who'd come to observe the fight between him and their leader.
The one with long hair inclined his head and replied, "Whatever you say, Brother."
Was it her imagination or had Cloud flinched ever so slightly? And why in hell did they call Cloud that?
She couldn't just let him go with those.. those Sephiroth clones!
He smiled, a sad gentleness gracing his face and making him look impossibly young for a moment. "We'll meet at the bar. I'll see you guys there."
With those few words, he got on his bike and tore out of the place with the two clones on his heels.
Tifa blinked back her tears. She was left behind again.
~ To Be Continued ~
Part Four: Forestall
Coiled power and inhuman beauty. Effortless grace. I'd know these were his clones even without the facial resemblance.
He watched them walk toward him. No fear or hesitation in their body language. Cloud thought they were like children in that respect. The one with long hair introduced himself as Yazoo and his sibling as Loz. Without any prompting from Cloud, he explained their awakening at the North Crater due to the Turks meddling there and the pull they felt to seek out their remaining 'brothers and sisters'.
"Kadaj was the strongest of us. He felt the connection before we'd left the crater. He was the reason we came looking for you, Nii-san," Yazoo said in his low smooth voice.
"Why do you call me 'big brother'?" Cloud feared the answer, knew it, but felt compelled to ask.
"Because you're the oldest of the Remnants. We thought you'd know how to find Mother. What to do to become whole," Loz growled. He used his bigger build and height to loom over Cloud.
Cloud stared back at him, to show any kind of weakness was fatal.
Eventually, Loz dropped his eyes and turned away. The intimidation he tried to impress on Cloud looked more like petulance.
It made sense, Cloud realised. They'd been asleep for years. Whatever genetic memory they inherited was limited and blind instinct drove their actions. For all intents and purposes, they were children in adult bodies, albeit dangerous children.
A cold wind blew past them. Cloud suppressed a shiver. Yazoo's hair danced in the wind, lifted from around his face. So much like the one he was made from. The image made Cloud simultaneously afraid and elated, he moved his gaze to the ground instead.
"You destroyed the last piece of Mother but we still feel it," Yazoo broke the brief silence between them. "We still feel the call."
Blue eyes rose to meet slitted green ones.
Loz snorted. "Just show him! How long are we gonna stand here?" He huffed. Impatience and annoyance in every line of his body.
The would-be SOLDIER watched Yazoo very slowly extend his hand to touch him, trying not to spook him. It was too late before he realised the Remnant reached for the arm infected with Geostigma. The moment Yazoo touched Cloud's arm, he clamped down hard. Sharp pain lanced through him. It bloomed from his arm upwards and scorched his entire body, Cloud fell to his knees. The giant sword on his back clattered to the ground. Another hand landed on his opposite shoulder and he felt Loz's strength holding him in place.
Stupid. So stupid. How could you go off with them?!
"Do you feel it? Can you hear the call?" Yazoo's voice was now soft and seductive. "Brother, listen. Where is it coming from? We want.. we need to answer it. Where is it?" A manic quality coloured the words.
He blinked and blinked again. Trying to sort out the feelings, see past the pain. Cloud was on his knees and panting, he closed his eyes against the split images, the world was bathed in acid green and garish yellow, tried to rise but he was held in place by two men who had the same SOLDIER level strength which he possessed.......
Wait.. what is that...Sharp.Loud.Hurts..Stop.Don't stop.No..Why..I hear it.I can feel.... where is it?
* * *
The two Remnants exchanged looks. The man they held had stopped struggling. Loz raised an eyebrow at his brother, a question. Yazoo was silent and he looked down at Cloud.
"Let go," their captive whispered. There was something menacing in that voice. They both stepped back.
Their 'big brother' stood with his sword in one hand and turned to the right. Those clear blue eyes, 'Mako eyes' they were called, narrowed. He didn't look at them. His gaze directed somewhere in the distance as if he could see something they couldn't.
"I know where it is."
Yazoo and Loz grinned at one another. The excitement of finally reaching their destination and fulfilling their purpose overrode the regret of losing their leader.
"Where?" Yazoo was breathless with anticipation. He saw Cloud stiffen, could almost see him gathering his strength and determination. Those blue eyes grew dark with righteous anger.
"The old ShinRa headquarters. The one they keep warning people to stay away from," Cloud said in a low, harsh voice. He turned on his heel and strode toward his bike.
Yazoo shot a look at Loz and they both scrambled to follow him. Clearly he wasn't going to wait for them.
A few seconds later, the roar of powerful motorcycles shattered the silence.
* * *
Deep and unreasonable anger, it burned away any remaining weariness and lethargy. Cloud's body leaned with his bike when he took a sharp turn on the abandoned highway. The sound of two other bikes was behind him as their riders tried to keep up with him. He didn't care, anger was all he felt.
They lied. Again. Stupid to believe ShinRa. The Turks' loyalty was always to the company they served. Didn't people used to joke that the only honest Turk was a dead Turk? You forgot. You wanted to believe them. Now they woke Sephiroth's clones and took Jenova's head. What else are they hiding at that place? The place they warn people daily on the radio not to go near.
Inner Midgard loomed in the distance and grew closer until its shadow swallowed Cloud and his followers.
* * *
At first glance, the area surrounding the main ShinRa building was deserted. People were afraid of the supposedly high Mako levels and kept away, especially in light of the recent increase in those infected with Geostigma. No one wanted to die and ostracism became the medicine to cure all ills. While fallen debris was everywhere, the building itself seemed intact and there was no trash littering the streets or signs of people stealing building materials like in other sectors. That in itself was suspicious.
Cloud stood before the building. The red logo of ShinRa Electric Company emblazoned on every sign and door, taunting him.
It's like nothing happened. All those years.. I'm standing here again.
He opened the hidden compartments in his bike and withdrew the blades, inserting them into his main sword. He heard his two followers stop near him and ignored them. There were footsteps and in seconds they stood in front of him. Cloud strapped his sword to his back and met their inquiring gaze.
"If you're coming with me, don't interfere. Don't do anything unless I tell you." He gave each man a long, measured look. It was Yazoo of course who smiled and inclined his head. Loz was cracking his fingers and had a feral grin on his face.
Cloud nodded and walked to the main gates of the ShinRa headquarters.
* * *
The feeling intensified with every floor they descended. An inarticulate call, like gravity pulling one's bones to rest on the earth. Except this gravity echoed through his bones and tugged at his mind whispering to him, urging him to hurry. Cloud could feel his feet moving faster, tension building in his muscles. The two men following him were in the same state; Yazoo was breathing heavily as if he couldn't contain himself and Loz kept muttering and laughing.
The elevators were broken and jumping down an elevator shaft didn't seem like a good idea. The group took the stairs until the path finally ended and they stood in an empty storage area. He searched his memory for some idea of what to expect. Cloud tried to remember if Zack ever came here, he pushed away the crippling sense of shame and self-loathing he felt whenever he encountered a memory he stole from Zack. The man was his best friend, his only friend, and deserved to be remembered for more than a convenient identity Cloud made use of.
"Why did we stop?"
Cloud turned, almost surprised to hear the big man talk.
"Aren't we going down?" Loz was oblivious to the uncertainty Cloud displayed.
"This is the last floor."
"No, it isn't," Loz stomped on the metal floor which vibrated beneath them. "I can feel it. The floor is hollow. There's another level."
Yazoo knelt and touched the floor. He raised his eyes and looked at Cloud. "He's right."
"Let me do it!" There was a certain amount of glee on Loz's face that made both Cloud and Yazoo wary and they quickly stepped away.
Loz delivered a powerful electrically charged blow to the floor, his fist enhanced by an equipped lightning materia. The floor parted, wide strips of metal bending like the petals of a blooming flower, beneath him.
They jumped down into the darkness.
* * *
Whatever Cloud was expecting, it wasn't the scene which greeted him when he cut down a large, reinforced steel door with 'Restricted Access' stencilled on it. Bright white light flooded the door frame. He stepped into the room and almost dropped his sword. A sense of dawning horror crept up on him and paralyzed his body.
The room was large, almost cavernous. White ceiling, floors, and walls. Harsh fluorescent lighting that left no shadows for anything to hide in. The sharp scent of chemicals and antiseptic ruled the air. He could hear the gentle whirring of fans no doubt recycling the air in the laboratory. Because it was indeed a laboratory, for beyond the people in white coats staring at him in shock and fear, the banks of computers and electronic equipment, the tubes and beakers of all sizes and shapes filled with colourful liquids..... there was one feature which dominated the room. In fact, it had the place of honour at its very center.
A large cylindrical tank filled with green Mako and a body floating in it.
Cloud couldn't move. Memories assaulted him, imposing images from the past on the present. He distantly heard someone ask him what he was doing here and a gunshot followed. There were cries and shouts from the staff in the lab but he didn't hear them. A hazy veil was thrown over his perceptions; everything sounded faraway and insignificant. His feet carried him forward, slowly, inexorably toward the Mako tank.
The body floating in the green liquid was small and the limbs thin and fragile. It was to be expected; the body was that of a child. Long hair swirled around its face like a silver nimbus. The eyes were closed but Cloud knew. He knew what colour they were, what he would see.....
Oh god.. God no.. no..no.no.no.no..
His hand lay flat on the glass of the tank. The black-gloved hand in startling contrast to the green liquid within.
Perhaps feeling the vibration, the closed eyes fluttered, delicate silver eyelashes framing them, and opened.
Oh god.. it's him. It's HIM!
Cloud knew those eyes, recognized their possessor. He saw them in his sweetest dreams, darkest nightmares, and bloodiest memories. Oh yes. Only one person in the world had eyes in that particular shade of green.
How could they do this.. after everything we... after all the sacrifices.
Pure, white fury burst in Cloud's chest. He was so furious that his hands shook and his voice could barely be heard when he spoke, "Loz, destroy the computers."
It was the first time he'd uttered the Remnant's name and he could feel the man straighten and become filled with purpose and direction. Yes, there was a connection between him and these beings. Now that he wasn't denying it, the connection was like a tether binding them all together if only by virtue of being someone else's creations. Loz started putting his fists into every surface and machine.
Cloud turned to face the scientists. Yazoo had his gun trained on them and they were huddling in one corner of the room. A body was sprawled on the floor, dead and bleeding red.
"Leave," he said and dismissed them while he stepped even closer to the tank.
A cacophony of noise followed.
"Mako-eyes.. that glow.."
"SOLDIER? I thought they were all dead."
"Our work... gone... waste."
"Don't touch that!"
Fortunately, Yazoo put a stop to it by shooting another person. Cloud didn't care. There were screams and sounds of running and cries after that. Then it grew quiet, except for the sound of computers being destroyed.
The child, the boy, in the tank, kept his eyes on Cloud. The expression in them was one Cloud knew well. He'd seen it on his face and Zack's during the years they'd spent as Hojo's test subjects. Painful hope, dread, and terror so deep it rooted itself in the mind like a chronic disease.
He couldn't use his sword and risk hurting the boy. He lifted a fist and made sure the boy saw it and then hit the tank. Twice. The first crack spread vertically along the cylinder and the second punch shattered it. Green Mako exploded everywhere, along with glittering shards of glass. Cloud ignored the burn of spilled Mako and the cuts made by the glass on his arms as he rushed to grab the body slipping down the tank. He held the boy and sensed the fragility of the body, pale skin stretched thin over it. The boy started to shiver violently and Cloud abruptly remembered how Mako could simultaneously burn in searing coldness, yet keep the body submerged in it warm.
Yazoo offered him a white coat. Cloud stared without comprehension until he realised the boy was naked and shivering.
Get it together. Focus. You need to get out of here.
No doubt there would be reinforcements coming. An alarm triggered somewhere. He would have moved but Yazoo and Loz crowded him, looking with a certain amount of hunger and awe at the boy in his arms.
"The Firstborn," Loz said.
"Mother's favourite," Yazoo answered.
"You're scaring him," Cloud told them.
Cloud wrapped the coat around the boy and gathered them all to him as he walked toward the exit. When he stepped out of the room, he looked at Yazoo.
"We're leaving. Burn it to the ground."
Yazoo smiled, a most beatific smile.
* * *
They were running up the stairs. Fast. Fast as they could. Yazoo was casting spells behind them with each level they cleared. Loz, never one to miss out, joined him. Cloud just ran, intent on reaching the ground floor. Fire and lightning magic cast strange shadows on their faces, explosions followed in their wake.
He realised the boy in his arms was speaking. He didn't stop running but spared him a quick glance.
The green eyes were wide and filled with wonder.
"Are you real?"
Only a SOLDIER'S enhanced senses enabled Cloud to hear the question. The boy's voice was faint and hoarse, like he was using it for the first time.
"Are you real? I used to dream about you. I wasn't sure..."
Hesitant, fearful, and that was wrong. Cloud wanted to cringe. This person should never sound like that.
"I'm real. We're going to leave this place. You're not trapped here anymore."
When there was no answer, he dared to look down. The boy was still afraid but he asked, "Do you know me? The scientists... sometimes they would talk.. said there were others.."
They were almost at the surface. He had to hurry; the fire below was spreading, red tongues of flame reaching the upper levels. But he still found time to answer, "Yes, I knew you. It was a long time ago."
"What's your number?"
Cloud almost crashed into the wall opposite the stairwell.
The boy didn't notice because he continued, "They call me S-Jen-02."
"You have a name! You don't need a number," he snarled, on the verge of losing control. The memories of those years at Hojo's mercy still burned... Professor, please.. a number.... a tide of self-hatred and disgust nearly drowned his heart.
The main doors were right in front of him.
"Your name is Sephiroth."
Cloud burst into the open, yellow sunlight hurting his eyes after the gloom of the sub-levels. He turned and saw Yazoo and Loz running toward him. For one peaceful moment, they stood and watched the flames devour the building. Cloud felt a vicious sense of satisfaction at the sight of the red and orange blaze. It lasted until he heard the sound of dozens of guns clicking.
The blond man turned around and faced a full squad of ShinRa troops with their guns levelled at him. The ShinRa man in the wheelchair and the Turks were there as well.
~ To Be Continued ~
Part Five: Foreboding
Behind Cloud, the ShinRa building burned with sorcerous fire. The world seemed to be cast in black shadows and crimson flames. A storm of silence spread over the assembly, waiting to break. A tantalising promise of violence hung in the air.
The man in the wheelchair offered the first volley, he said, "I thought your days as an eco-terrorist were over, Cloud." Rude and Reno shifted near him, unease apparent on their faces.
"Rufus?" Cloud asked, not expecting an answer. The voice was familiar back at Healen Lodge but he couldn't place it at the time; it lacked the arrogance he was hearing now. Cloud looked at Reno, "I feel sorry for you." Reno looked somewhat sheepish and embarrassed. Rude coughed dramatically, trying to look small which wasn't easy considering his towering physique.
"Yes, I survived the Weapon's attack. I managed-"
"Is this what you were hiding? Do you think this will help anyone?" Cloud gave ShinRa's would-be president a long, hard look. "Or.. is it just power you want?"
After a brief moment of silence, Rufus Shinra spoke, "Have you thought what it would be like to re-write history? If the mistakes of the past could be corrected and our destiny written anew. I meant what I said at Healen. ShinRa Company owes a large debt to the world and I aim to see it paid."
Cloud let the words wash over him, not truly listening. Rufus had always had a gift for the dramatic, mixing more eloquent lies into his speeches than plain truths, and speaking as though he stood on a lit stage for the world to applaud. It was nice to know that the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree. Meanwhile, Cloud swept his eyes over the troopers: ill-fitting uniforms, men of varying ages, and most of them holding their guns and rifles with loose grips and a sense of glaring timidity in their stances. The present ShinRa Company was still waiting for its resurrection, he thought drily. He looked at Loz out of the corner of his eye and the Remnant understood immediately and came to him; their connection was certainly proving to be useful. He gently placed the wrapped bundle in the man's arms, shushing the boy inside when he began to murmur protests.
"- may be possible to cure Geostigma and return the Planet to its original state-"
"Rufus, you don't understand," Cloud interjected and pulled his sword from its sheath on his back, "Life is not a play and I won't let you repeat the past."
The Fusion Sword's blade gleamed in the sunlight.
"If life's a play, are you casting yourself in the role of the hero?"
Cloud could hear the smirk in the man's voice. Words were Rufus' weapon of choice and he excelled at attacking with them.
"I never wanted to be a hero," Cloud said; the answer was imbued with a sense of finality.
Afterwards, it was difficult to judge which side struck first. Whether the troopers or the Turks fired their guns or Cloud charged at them first, but Loz and Yazoo escaped on their motorcycles and Cloud defended their retreat.
* * *
On the highway overlooking ShinRa's building, the two Remnants stopped to watch the fight below. The scene was far away and couldn't be viewed by normal eyesight, but distance wasn't an obstacle for Jenova's children.
"He's strong," Loz commented.
Yazoo watched with feigned impassiveness. Yes, their big brother was strong. He would have to be to defeat both Sephiroth and Kadaj. Too merciful though, Yazoo's lips twisted with disdain. He could see that Cloud was disarming the enemy and trying to avoid killing anyone. Pity, they should have killed the Turks when they had the chance. Lying, thieving bastards.
"He's coming," Yazoo said belatedly.
Their brother's motorcycle shone black even from a distance and roared toward them. He might have joined them solely for the sake of the boy they'd rescued from the lab, except he was theirs now. He couldn't deny them or their bond any more. They were one family, united against the world and humanity.
Kadaj would be pleased, thought Yazoo. He smiled, waiting for their Nii-san to reach them.
* * *
"I'm not lying!" Reno shouted.
"Do you think we'll believe you, ShinRa scum?!" Barret shouted right back at him, waving his machine-gun arm in the redhead's face.
Tifa tried not to sigh. The conversation was rapidly deteriorating. All the members of AVALANCHE were standing or sitting in her bar waiting for Cloud, only for Rude and Reno to arrive looking battered and bloody and claiming Cloud attacked them. Things degenerated after that with Cid and Barret displaying an impressive vocabulary of expletives, matched only by Yuffie's own blend of Wutanese swearing.
"That's enough!" Tifa slammed her hands on the bar's counter.
Everyone stopped and stared at her. Honestly, did she have to lose her temper for them to take her seriously?
"Now, why don't you explain yourself again, Reno?" She smiled sweetly at the man, all teeth. "Why would Cloud attack you?"
"He DID attack us! And he burned down ShinRa HQ too!" The redhead turned to his partner. "Yo Rude, tell them." His hands gesturing dramatically.
The big man coughed and said, "It's true. He went inside the building with them. We saw him but I thought it would be better if we waited outside. He came out, the building was burning and he attacked us when we tried to stop him."
She couldn't believe it. No one in this room liked ShinRa but she knew better than most that Cloud wouldn't do anything without a reason. A very good reason. She noticed that the Turks seemed on edge, their eyes never rested too long on one person. They weren't good liars but there was a kernel of truth somewhere in that tale. She wished again that she hadn't let Cloud go with those Sephiroth clones.
"Well, we'll take care of it. You don't have to worry." She forced another smile on her face.
"What do you mean you'll take care of it?! You-" Reno was interrupted because his partner, the more astute of the two, grabbed his arm and dragged him out of the place. He recognized Tifa's dismissal for what it was.
The door closed with the tinkling of the small bell hanging above it.
"What do you think?" Tifa broke the silence, asking the question no one seemed to want to ask but which was obviously on their minds.
"I don't believe it! Spike wouldn't do something like that for no reason." Barret crossed his arms and seemed to dare anyone to budge him from that position.
"There was something hinky in that story," Cid harrumphed and lit a cigarette.
Tifa was too tired to tell him not to smoke in her bar. She poured herself a beer but held the glass in her hand without drinking it.
"Definitely hinky!" Yuffie yelled. "Who's stupid enough to believe a Turk anyway? Present company exempted of course!" The ninja girl said, looking into one shadowy corner.
She put the glass down; Tifa forgot the man was there. Vincent Valentine had a knack for finding a dark, unobtrusive corner wherever he happened to be and melting into it. She tucked a strand of her hair behind one ear and turned to address him, "What's your opinion, Vincent?"
The ceiling fans in the bar whirred gently above the room's occupants, long bars of shadows passed over the people below.
"There was something in that building. Something that made Cloud act," Vincent said quietly, his deep voice somewhat muffled by his red cape.
Nanaki whined. A low mournful, yet enquiring sound.
Yes, that's exactly how I feel, Tifa thought. Her hands fisted. The black leather gloves too soft to creak, unlike her heart.
~ To Be Continued ~
Part Six: Foresight
A floorboard creaked somewhere in the room. Yuffie threw a small shuriken into its direction and a clawed hand caught it. She shrieked like a frightened girl, just for the sake of theatrics of course.
"Kyaaa! Vincent, you creepy old man!" She pointed at him with an accusing finger. Really now, there weren't many people with a gold clawed hand.
He stepped out of the shadows and simply looked at her.
"Geez," She tried not to sigh and went looking for the lamp. "If you've been waiting for me, you could have at least lit the room."
"I didn't think you wanted anyone to know you were staying here."
He sounded very calm and reasonable, which just made her angry.
"This is why people call you a vampire. Normal people leave a light on if it's night time and they're waiting for someone."
She finally found a box of matches and struck one to light a candle and looked at Vincent. The expression on his face revealed by candlelight made her want to take back those words about 'normal people'. He was as bad as Cloud when it came to these situations. Silent and brooding, neither Vincent nor Cloud seemed able to talk or smile or get angry. It made Yuffie feel a bit uncomfortable around them; she felt she had to be twice as loud and cheerful to make up for it.
Yuffie moved around the room lighting candle stubs and old copper lamps.
"So why are you here? I need an answer sometime soon because I'd like to take a shower." She tried to sound grumpy and put out.
The small throwing star landed near her feet.
"Back at the meeting, you didn't say anything about Cloud. Why?" Vincent asked her.
"What makes you think I know anything about him?" Yuffie removed her bandana and started to take off her top and shorts, hoping Vincent would be embarrassed and leave. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it wasn't having any effect. Oh yes, he used to be a Turk. Things like being discomfited by female nudity were beneath him. "I'm going to take a shower," she walked into the bathroom and slammed the door. Lack of Mako energy and electricity meant a very quick, cold shower. Gods Above, it was times like these that made her miss the hot springs in Wutai.
When she came out of the tiny bathroom, wrapped in a towel that dwarfed her figure, she found Vincent staring pointedly at a silver chest full of Materia on the floor beside the bed. He raised one eyebrow as if to say, "Yes?"
Yuffie sighed and went to the bed where she'd thrown her duffel bag. She dropped the towel and pulled on a set of clean clothes, aware that her hair was probably sticking out in every direction.
"Oka~aaay. I did see him at the church before the others got there. He told me I could take the Materia if I wanted to before he burned the place."
"Did he say anything important?"
She turned to face him. He'd taken a few steps toward her and was now standing completely in the circle of light cast by the lamps. Good. They might as well have this conversation face to face and without any misunderstandings.
"Look, I know what you're thinking. What everyone was thinking. No, Cloud wasn't confused or mind-controlled." Yuffie gave him a stern look and Vincent seemed more troubled than reassured by her statement.
"If he does this, the others won't take it well," he said quietly.
She took a comb from her bag and attacked her hair. He didn't say anything more and started to move toward the door. Yuffie sighed; she might as well tell him.
"Vincent, in the end. When we won.. did Cloud seem happy to you?"
Oh yeah, that struck a nerve. He stopped but didn't turn to look at her, then continued walking right through the door.
"Show-off," she muttered to herself. That was some neat Materia there. She flung herself on the bed, lying on her back and gazing at the water-stained ceiling. She had a bad feeling about what was coming. Maybe she ought to give Reeve a call.
I hope you know what you're doing, Cloud.
* * *
"What's that sound?"
His voice was so soft and low that Cloud struggled to hear it. Loz stood near the boy to guard him as Cloud and Yazoo scavenged for food and fuel for the motorcycles in the small town's buildings.
"Nibel wolves," Cloud replied. The howling continued to echo in the valley. "I guess they're roaming beyond the mountains now." He carried two heavy saddlebags and walked to his motorcycle to secure them. Once he finished tightening the straps, he turned to the boy and beckoned. "Come here, Seph."
The boy, Seph, took small steps to reach Cloud. Fear and hesitation manifesting in every line of his body. Cloud ached to see it but he supposed no one gave a thought to the idea that ShinRa's most feared general had to have started out as a mere child. He didn't want to contemplate the process it took to transform a boy into a SOLDIER First Class. Hojo would hardly be merciful...
Cloud shook an old jacket he'd found in the house and helped Seph into it; the jacket along with the shirt and trousers he wore were all very loose on him, the faded browns made him look even paler. Cloud didn't know Seph's age; the boy was short and very thin, his age could be between 6 and 12. He wondered if Seph was around Denzel's age, heavy guilt immediately followed on the heels of that thought.
He looked down at Seph's worried expression. A touch of apprehension chilled Cloud's being. This bond that linked him and the clones together, it seemed to allow for transfer of feelings and thoughts, even vague images. He'd had a taste of it in the past but this incarnation of the bond seemed more reciprocal and might prove useful considering their current circumstances.
"We're out of bullets," Yazoo declared, kicking open the door to the town's supposed ShinRa outpost. Loz grumbled about useless shit and being hungry.
Seph put his arms around Cloud's waist and burrowed even closer. Cloud put his arm around Seph. Odd, he thought, to find himself in the position of protector and leader to his enemies. He pushed the thought away for now. There would be time enough to deal with it once they reached their destination.
"When we reach our base and get settled, you and Loz can raid the ShinRa weapon depots. We need to be prepared."
Loz walked with a swagger toward him. "You think they'll come for us?"
"Let them come," Yazoo stepped closer. "We're no longer weak and alone." His handsome face betrayed true happiness as he looked down at Seph. Seph smiled back at Yazoo and then looked at Cloud, inviting him to share in the joy which thrummed in the bond flowing through the four of them.
Cloud smiled, a small unconscious movement. He placed his hand on Seph's head, running his fingers through the long strands. He would not allow any harm to come to the boy.
~ To Be Continued ~