Actions

Work Header

Rising Beneath Midgar

Chapter Text

It started because the President's wife was crazy. Or rather, the whole plot was enabled by the utterly bizarre direction the president's wife's paranoia had gone in. Obviously, any woman who was willing to marry that gluttonous pig of a man had to be at least a little crazy, but there's a certain amount of respect that one could give a woman who was willing to do that, after all, she was obviously, sincerely dedicated to her gold digging. And to some people, that was excusable. But no, this woman was crazy for other reasons, such as her utter obsession with the phrase 'what do we do if...'

So it really, it starts like this.

--

Cloud's rear end hit the ground in a graceless sprawl and he cursed mentally. He'd had more than enough practice with this kind of landing than he ever wanted, but he still never seemed to get any better at it. Dusting the dirt off his pants, vest and entire left arm, he checked that the surroundings were the same as usual. They were. He was exactly where he had been sixty eight years in the future, and the landscape was essentially identical even if the individual tufts of shrubbery around him were not.

The time loop thing that he had somehow found himself trapped in had been pretty cool the first time he'd gone back in time. And the second as well. Now though…the novelty had worn off.

The first time he looped, he had done everything right. He killed Sephiroth, Hojo, and the Shinra executives save for Reeve, stopped Nibelheim's burning, and made a massive thermite reaction with Jenova in the middle (on his third life, he added rocket fuel and dynamite just for kicks). The reactors were all safely decommissioned and dismantled after he, Tseng and Reeve took over the crumbling corporation. They built a truly massive array of wind turbines and solar panels in their place. He had made sure Zack and Aerith met and got married, and he himself married Tifa- once- (and made sure not to encourage anything whatsoever in the next time, or any time after that). In his third life, he lived long enough to see Nanaki's environmental initiative buy out the pitiful remains of Shinra's science and weapons departments from them specifically to turn its buildings into greenhouses. 

When he fell into his fourth life, he started getting suspicious. Aerith was not amused by his subsequent harassment and eventually filed a restraining order with Tseng. Not that that stopped him from breaking into the church to visit her whenever he felt like it.

By the time he died for the fourth time and tripped headlong into his fifth life, he was pretty sure there was nothing better that he could possibly do for the world. After a quick, expletive filled, one sided shouting match at the ground, he decided to do everything he didn't think was supposed to happen. He saved Sephiroth, told him about Hojo's lies and cackled in the background as the Silver General decapitated the scientist in the middle of the cafeteria. He even made an effort to be slightly disappointed that the crazy scientist had died. He had tried to convince Sephiroth to spare him just to be contrary. 

He conspired with both the newly nicknamed 'Sephie,' Reno, and Vincent to drive President Shinra insane by 'haunting' the man and his family with 'Hojo's ghost.' He created a new fashion of legwarmers and fluffy slippers with Aerith's help, and got Tifa's help in braiding all of Nanaki's fur. All of it. He cremated Jenova and got Cid to build a ship to launch the ashes into the sun. No matter how contrary he wanted to be, that alien was still on his kill list. And just to piss of the ancients (or the lifestream or Gaia or whoever was the one responsible for this time loop mess), he made it a point to be the worst human being he was capable of being. He was as disreputable as possible, drank himself to almost-death despite the mako, twice, deliberately tried to dig up the WEAPONs for sparring practice, and gambled on every single chocobo race he could, mostly to the effect of winning huge piles of money that he didn't actually spend. He argued with everyone about everything, sulked, lied, brooded, played very well at having a bipolar disorder, and generally succeeded at ticking off or confusing the hell out of everyone he met. On his 'thirty-eighth' birthday which was actual his two-hundred and eighty-ninth, he off-ed himself just because he was pretty sure he was supposed to live, and there really wasn't a point to that anymore. All in all, it was a rather therapeutic life.

The only thing that changed when he started over in his sixth life was that he landed rather painfully on his head.

So in the beginning of his sixth life, Cloud threw a minor hissy fit that destroyed the top of Mt Nibel before he skipped off, avoiding Midgar and Jenova entirely. He ended up in Cosmo Canyon where he started producing Nanaki and Cid's wind turbine designs. When Shinra came calling, he told them as politely as possible, with a giant sword in hand, to back off or there would be consequences.

Consequences were had.

Eventually his company bought out Shinra.

After he captured Sephiroth, browbeat the remainder of SOLDIER corps into working for him and subsequently took over the world, he took some time off to visit a pitifully small island off the coast of Wutai. He figured that if the Planet was still looping him for doing something wrong, the Planet could well take care of the problem itself. He gleefully threw both Jenova and a drugged-into-a-literal-coma Sephiroth into the bubbling, molten soup. Reno, who accompanied him, had cocked his head to the side and said "you know, people tell stories about flinging fair-haired maidens into volcanoes to appease the gods." He then spent two entire weeks giggling about the 'virgin sacrifice' of Sephiroth. Given that he had thrown a sentient being - who he had, in a past life, been on relatively good terms with - into a volcano, Cloud wasn't sure if he should have been more concerned about his lack of compassion or not.

In his seventh life, Cloud threw his hands in the air and became a beach bum in Costa del Sol. That lasted only three years until he tripped into the past while trying to get a margarita.

In his eighth life, he upgraded from a beach-bum, to a beach-bum-anti-Shinra-cult-leader. He managed to convert just under five million people to the theory of 'If you ignore anything hard enough, it will eventually go away.' He liberally applied that theory to everything Shinra did, sold, said and wanted. Eventually, he was dragged into a council to help draft a constitution for the new country that Costa del Sol was forming. They didn't even bother sending an announcement to Midgar before they simply demolished the Corel reactor. He got pulled out of that life only a few decades later, but counted it as a win solely because it had taken only a year until he had acquired a decent tan. (This was opposed to the two and a half years it had taken in his sixth life. It turned out that Mako healing made it all too easy to fluctuate between 'burned redder than a lobster' and 'about as pasty white as Vincent' with absolutely no in-between.) On the down side, Sephiroth went insane anyway and burned down Costa del Sol when an entire beach full of people refused to hail Jenova as their queen.

Cloud's ninth life started as an attempt at doing things right again. It had been a few centuries since he'd done anything like it, so he figured that he had taken a long enough break. It was almost immediately interrupted by Reno recruiting him to the Turks after he caught Cloud breaking into Shinra's giant storeroom of the science department's filed-in-triplicate paperwork.

Fascinated, he accepted the recruitment and spent the better part of a decade as Reno's not-sidekick, not-partner-in-crime, definitely-not-covering-for-him-Tseng-I'm-innocent-really partner. He ended up pushing a lot of paperwork and running for a lot of what passed for coffee, but it was more fun than he'd ever had while working for Shinra. And if he learned the dirty little secrets of everyone in Shinra, as well as the millions of loopholes that he could exploit, well, it was a well earned perk of the job.

He took particular joy in making sure that every attempt Hojo made at getting Sephiroth to go to Nibleheim was somehow diverted by 'incomplete paperwork' or if that didn't pan out, simply making the paperwork, emails, phs messages, and memos mysteriously vanish. He took perverse pleasure in writing up the paperwork to admit the dear Professor to Shinra's Psych Ward after the man broke down. The best part about that was that it was entirely legitimate- the man had cracked and screamed his demands, along with bits and pieces of 'intellectual private property of Shinra Electric Company' regarding Jenova and Reunion, in an incomprehensible jumble of rage. In the middle of the loading bay. In front of two entire platoons of infantrymen, seven third-class soldiers, four second-class soldiers and Director Lazard, who 'just happened' to be visiting at the time.

And then, as icing on the cake, Sephiroth, Reeve and Tseng collectively overrode President Shinra's whining and had Jenova desiccated, salted and burned.

After that it took relatively little prompting- read: Sephiroth's glare- to get the president to look into the validity and logic of every other project Hojo had ever touched.

Within five years, Midgar was down to two functional reactors while actual research was conducted on the nature of Mako and its effect on various forms of life, both short-term and long-term, and in varying concentrations. Not that it would matter if it was harmless. The president was quite fond of wind turbines, as they required infinitely less maintenance than the volatile reactors did, and therefore cost less money.

By the time the Cloud started to feel the itching-burning 'about to be flung backwards through the time-stream' sensation again, he was ninety seven years old, still looked eighteen, and was cackling madly much to Vincent's chagrin. This time, he was going back with a plan.

--

And so, it begins like this.

Chapter Text

--

Reno liked to think himself as a general badass. He wasn't afraid of showing off to make other people believe it too. But despite what many thought, he knew when to use force, when to bluff through a situation and when to run like hell in the other direction.

This situation...well, he really didn't think it qualified for any of the above, because as much as he wanted to bolt, Tseng would have his head if he didn't at least attempt to collect more information.

So the result was that he had spent the last thirty minutes on his belly on the sturdier rooftops of sector five watching...well, he wasn't sure what he was watching and that was part of the problem.

There were four people, three kids and an older man who held his attention. The children were all scrawny slips of things dressed in rags, and pasty white (under the ever prevalent layer of dirt) from the lack of sun. That was pretty normal for the slums. What wasn't normal was the half-pulled out hair, the blackened teeth, the awkward staring, the jerky way them moved and seemed to be constantly chewing. And the blood. Blackish blood splatters on their clothes and a bit on their faces. One kid seemed to have a bite wound on his arm. A bite wound sized for a human mouth. It definitely wasn't normal.

On the other hand, they really didn't seem to be doing anything. One was slowly pacing back and forth at the mouth of an alley, and the second, the one with the bite mark, was shuffling between three merchants, though each of them backed off and pushed her away with a broom or stick when she came close. The last kid, a boy who might have passed for four years old above the plate, but was probably actually six or seven, was following people as they walked passed, trying to hold on to them with blood stained hands. The residents of the slums didn't seem too concerned, however. They brushed him off or shied away like they would for any other four-year-old-would-be-pickpocket and went about their business.

The older man was in much the same state as the children, except that his eyes were almost entirely white and he seemed a bit bloodier around the mouth. That might have been due to the near constant gnawing at his own arm though. However, given that he seemed content to sit at the bottom of a structure that passed for a wall and not so much as glance at the passing people, Reno was okay with him there.

After another hour of observation, trying to determine whether it was all some elaborate prank without actually going down to test the blood himself, there was a commotion. A mother and her young-ish daughter came down the road, eying the seated man suspiciously. The woman pulled her daughter close, as they passed, but seemed non-pulsed otherwise. She commenced haggling with one of the merchants. The daughter, looking around, spotted the blood-stained girl shuffling between people. "Jenie" she called out, and stepped away from her mother.

The bloody girl turned slowly to her friend, changed trajectory and shuffled forward. The other child met her half way, and the slightly cleaner of the two began chattering away in a voice muffled by the dull murmur of the crowd. Reno watched, fascinated as the new girl kept touching the shoulders of the other one, as if trying to get her to respond and getting almost no reaction. Eventually she took the girl by both shoulders and shook her rather more violently than was probably recommended.

The bloody girl reacted almost instantly, lunging forward and sinking her teeth in just above the collarbone of her friend. The kid screamed, high and piercing, wrenching herself away from the black-mouthed little blighter and running back to her mother. She was clutching her shoulder, where a little of the other child's blackish blood seemed to be smeared on her.

It took the merchant, a surprisingly helpful teenager, and the mother banded together to shuffle all three of the blank eyed children into a deserted neighboring alley and drag a few crates in front to deter their return. They tried to get the man who was gnawing on his arm to go with them, but he stoutly refused to either get up or stop chewing on his arm despite the broom in his face, so they simply threw a shredded scrap of tarp over him. Reno wondered what that was supposed to do to protect them.

Long after the mother and daughter left, Reno's phs vibrated to let him know that Tseng was looking for him. He snapped a couple of pictures of the man and the children in the alley before he shrugged off the tattered overcoat he had borrowed for camouflage and caught a train to the upper plate.

As it always did when he knew he had something strange to report, Tseng's office seemed to loom before him, even though he wasn't in the building yet. He hadn't even done anything wrong this time! Just...how did one tell his boss that there were drugged up, possibly cannibalistic, psycho-kids who looked suspiciously like zombies in the slums?

--

Elmyra Gainsborough wasn't a huge fan of the newest fad going around the slums. In the two weeks since it had come to her attention, she made that perfectly clear to anyone who was willing to talk to her about it. Given the other crap she put up with in her life, she couldn't care less if people thought she was boring because of that. Having said that, there were some very nice perks associated with it that she could totally get behind, even if she wanted nothing to do with the fad itself.

For one, there were a lot less monsters. Which was apparently a byproduct of the zolom blood they put in the paste stuff people were using. Where they managed to get zolom blood, she didn't want to know, but it worked. She just wasn't going to be one of the ones to smear it over her skin. Let the neighbors do that.

The second great perk was that the Turks were simultaneously less and more present. More present around the church and Aerith, going so far as to gently shove people away, and less present everywhere else in the slums. It made trading for supplies a lot easier, and smuggling stuff into or out of Midgar easier too according to rumors. Of course, that didn't mean they were gone, they had just moved veeerrry far away from the general populous.

She wasn't sure why, but Shinra seemed to have a 'back away very slowly and don't make it angry' policy when it came to zombies.

The biggest down side, aside from the smell (which wasn't that bad given that everyone normally smelled funny anyway) was that it became such a hit, so quickly. How it started she didn't know, but it was in Sector 5 one day, and a week later it was in Sectors 6, 7, 8 and 4. Mostly children, teenagers and young men seemed to take interest at first, but it spread to their wives and mothers when the rest of the household was already committed to it.

It helped that, as far as she could tell, the cosmetic supplies were all free, and came with a hot meal at every official gathering, as long as you promised to play along or at least promised not to snitch.

It came to pass that some people played along so well that they even came up with background stories and arranged 'contamination incidents' to 'spread the plague' just to mess with the Turks who they knew would be watching. Elmyra was pretty sure that half of the confusion they were spreading was due to the fact that though they could 'trace the infection' via the contamination incidents, most people simply woke up one day and decided to put on zombie face paint. She had heard at least one of them talking about 'spontaneous infection.' Two zombie girls nearby had nearly broken cover laughing.

Well, okay. Maybe it was kind of funny to pull one over all of Shinra.

The incredibly paranoid food vendor that Elmyra always went to in sector 4 was the reason she was out on the streets to witness the skit that morning. It wasn't exactly a secret, but there was an amateur healer who lived in one of the nearby ramshackle neighborhoods. Oftentimes, the patients he was asked to deal with were well past the point of help, so the poor doctor would really just show up at their house to tell the grieving family whether they should burn the body and keep to themselves for a while or whether the individual was disease free enough to have a proper send off.

Some sick group of people had somehow convinced themselves that they had a brighter idea.

Shinra was, while not technically supportive of the doctor, at least peripherally aware of his existence. They knew that something like eighty percent of the older clients he saw didn't survive longer than a week. Elmyra managed to be walking past the pseudo-clinic just as an old man, maybe in his mid-sixties, stumbled out the door, black blood dripping out of his mouth, eyes glazed and footsteps unsteady. A young girl, presumably his granddaughter, was cautiously holding his hand and guiding him past the other slum-dwellers. Behind them, in the doorframe, was the doctor. Clearly, he should have been an actor though, for he put on a grand show.

"Please, I can't let you leave! Miss, you aren't safe, he's not alright!" the young man's eyes were frantic, and he grabbed a bored onlooker. "Please, you have to help, that man, you need to help me get him back, he's not alive, I swear he's not alive!"

The onlooker snorted and gruffly removed the doctor's hands from where they gripped the front of his shirt. "Piss off, quack" he slurred.

The doctor stumbled back, and frantically glanced around for someone else to commandeer. Elmyra averted her gaze and quickly hurried past. She walked as quickly as she could past the grandfather-grandaughter pair and made a left turn into a different road. She was paying just enough attention to catch the flash of a foot as it slid up and over the lip of the roof ahead of her.

Navy blue pants with dress shoes. Well that was interesting.

The food vendor was even twitchier than normal when Elmyra knocked quietly at his unmarked shop door. The woman knew better than to ask him questions that didn't relate to produce, but it didn't stop her from raising an eyebrow at him when he checked the peepholes twice before she left, and when he made sure to make a complete circle around her before he handed her the goods.

"Fucking Shinra dogs, coming after those fucking hoodlums, poking their noses in everything. I won't have none of it, no I won't. Don't you bring it here neither, you got me?" He answered her nonverbal question.

"Wouldn't dream of it" she replied dryly. "It's not my mess, and not my problem."

He nodded and shoved a bundle of half wilted greenery at her. She took the hint and left post haste. The trip home wasn't near as exciting, though it was shorter without the pedestrian congestion. She pushed open the door of her house expecting to be able to sit down and sew a few more quilt patches before making dinner, but that dream was shattered when she saw her daughter.

Aerith sat on the floor of the central room of the house with a bowl full of black, foul smelling sludge, the tattered remains of what had once been a perfectly servicable, if slightly small dress, and one of the neighbors younger sons.

The boy smiled brightly at her. "Hi missus Gainsborough!"

--

Cloud absolutely loved fucking with Shinra.

Especially when they couldn't put the blame anywhere. Shinra loved to point fingers. When there was nowhere for the finger to point, they ran around like a headless chocobo. Not that he'd ever seen a headless chocobo. But if he had to imagine a headless chocobo, it would act like Shinra under threat of zombie apocalypse.

Three and a half weeks after the first documented 'sighting', the department heads were all gathered in a panic room. They had enough paper spread out across the table to build an entire encyclopedia set, three empty bottles of fine liquor in a corner, three Turk lackeys going over surveillance videos for them by the door, and an approximately five-hundred-ninety year old, vindictive ex-science project hiding in the ceiling.

It was a good thing Sephiroth had been excluded from the powwow. He definitely would have heard Cloud's snickering. (Not giggling. Five hundred year olds didn't giggle.)

"I just need a sample, three or four of the creatures, nothing more, and then I'll make a cure! How hard can it be?!" Hojo was shouting at the other department heads, who for the most part were ignoring him and designing evacuation plans for themselves (and their families where applicable).

Tseng, who appeared to be able to plan and field repetitive bullshit at the same time, was the only one who heard the scientist. "We've seen them form hoards before, Professor, we don't know what triggers it, and we don't know how aggressive they are. Our current zombie catastrophe plan recommends exercising every caution in regards to potential angry hoards."

And that really was the kicker, Cloud thought. Shinra already has a 'zombie apocalypse plan' in place. That, and a 'vampire uprising plan,' 'extraterrestrial hostile takeover plan,' 'lycanthropy bio-hazard plan,' 'dinosaur reanimation plan,' 'landshark plan,' and a 'parasitic mind control counteraction plan,' just to name a few.

The way Tseng had told it in his previous life, the President's wife had been a huge advocate of the phrase "what do we do if..." and had the most vivid imagination on the surface of the planet. The Turks used to indulge her on orders of the president. He was pretty sure they regretted that now.

"So we can get the choppers to pick us up here, here or here, right?" Scarlet was murmuring to Heidegger as they peered over a map and completely ignored the rest of the room.

"Yes, and I'll start funneling supplies to the store houses here and here," he jabbed his fat fingers at two additional points and Cloud made a note of all five so that he could make sure the more dedicated zombie players knew to congregate there. When they went above plate. That was still a bit of a stumbling block to be dealt with.

On the other end of the table, President Shinra was quizzing Reeve about the safety features that had been built into his suite of rooms and the feasibility of living in them till the end of his life. Cloud giggled. Snickered. Whatever.

"So we get the creatures when they're alone, pick them off quietly" Hojo was saying, because apparently if anyone made the mistake of responding to him, he would continue to talk. "Send out a couple of second classes to do it just in case-"

"You think I'm going to use second class SOLDIERs as guinea pigs to see what these things are capable of?" Lazard interrupted. "Send infantrymen first if you must. Don't dangle my people out as bait for the hoards that come swarming."

"But this is exactly what SOLDIERs were built to deal with! Monsters! And besides that, we don't have any proof that these things swarming is anything but an accident, or that they are an actual threat to civilians much less SOLDIERs, we've never even seen the process of someone actually turning into a zombie! Why is everyone so worried?!" Hojo was shrieking by the end of it, which ruined the effect of the single most logical thing to come out of anyone's mouth in the last two hours. Cloud shook his head quietly. Hojo being the voice of reason. One more way to showcase how messed up Shinra was.

"If they are dangerous, SOLDIERs are better equipped to deal with the potential backlash, it makes sense to send them," Scarlet put in from her corner. Apparently Heidegger could handle planning mostly by himself.

Lazard folded his arms across his chest. "They're also a limited resource. We can always get more infantrymen, but SOLDIERS, especially second class and above are years of investment that we can't afford to lose right off the bat. The plan we have specifically dictates that we conserve irreplaceable resources to the best of our ability, and that's definitely good advice."

"Besides, we already decided that we're not taking action against them or taking any specimens until we know what they're capable of."

"And we won't know what they're capable of unless we take some sort of action against them, why not learn that and catch some at the same time?"

"Planet only knows what happens if one of them gets lose in the labs..."

"Why should we go poking the mess with a stick, just to see what happens if we poke the mess with a stick..."

"Just think of all the research that could be done on them..."

"...can't even call them zombies unless they're dead."

"...fighting hoards of undead, even SOLDIERs get run down eventually."

"Alright, we need to all calm down..."

"...absolutely no proof that they can't die, where are you getting this from..."

"...form social groups, do they have a social hierarchy? We could use it to our advantage..."

"...clearly should just move to a deserted island somewhere and fortify it..."

"Do you think they can swim? That might be a good idea if they can't swim..."

"If everyone could hold their thoughts for just a moment..."

"...imagine what I could do with a condition that doesn't allow death!?"

"Shut up Hojo, we're planning for the present, not a decade from now."

"...need to sit back and gather more information on their patterns..."

"...exponential rate of spread, and you want us to sit on our asses until they've got us surrounded?"

"...absolute madness..."

"SHUT UP!"

Reeve coughed at the sudden silence he'd made. "Thank you. Now, clearly we're getting nowhere, so I propose we all take a break and maybe we could each individually make a plan or two that satisfies all our needs and we can compare them tomorrow maybe?"

President Shinra stroked his chin. "That sounds fair. We have a day to plan at least." He nodded, clearly mostly for his own benefit. "We meet here tomorrow at noon-"

"But what about lunch?" Heidegger interrupted.

"Fine, we meet at thirteen hundred hours and everyone has at least one plan for dealing with the zombies. Tseng, no more than five plans please. Good? Good. Dismissed."

One by one the directors shuffled out of the room, each with information packets that the Turk lackeys pulled from somewhere. Tseng helped gather up the remaining paper from the table and sort it into a filing cabinet with Reeve.

When Tseng turned to go, he paused in the doorway at Reeve's seated form. "Staying here?"

"My office is overrun with paperwork, and this is as good a place to plan as any," the Director of Urban Development replied with a shrug. Tseng just nodded and shut the door on his way out.

Cloud was just beginning to wonder how long he was going to have to stay here to avoid making noise when Reeve looked straight up at the vent he was hovering over. "You can come out now" he said, sounding perfectly confident. Cloud balked, almost flinching backwards before he caught himself. Mentally, he took stock of his options. Reeve was usually a good go-to guy for sharing his plans. On the other hand, he wasn't doing this to save the planet, so the likelihood of successfully converting him was significantly smaller than it usually was.

"I know you're up there. I designed this building and built those vents for my own use, don't think I don't know when someone's in them."

Well, he was busted, so he may as well wing it. Doing stuff like that usually worked out in his favor. Except when it didn't. Then he usually ended up going back in time.

Cloud pried open the vent and slid forward to drop headfirst into the room, landing on his feet on the tabletop in a flip he once would have envied.

Reeve was staring in open curiosity at him when he met the man's gaze, and it occurred to him that he was still dressed as a zombie, partly opaque white contacts, fake skin flaps hanging off his arm and authentic looking gore matted through his hair and across his face, though he had wiped off most of the blood to ditch the smell.

Reeve laced his fingers together, and leaned back in his chair, posture almost disgustingly at ease. "So, either you're a lot smarter than we've been guessing, or there's something else going on here" he said.

--

Chapter Text

--

The first sightings of zombies above the plate had Reno slamming his head against the side of a building. Discretely. Probably. He dialed Tseng on his PHS because he damned well didn't want to face the director's inscrutable stare in person. It generally took a lot to frazzle Tseng. And Tseng was beyond frazzled at this point.

To be fair, it wasn't really his fault that things were as messed up as they were. The other Directors were running in circles getting nothing constructive done, and the president didn't want to stray from the plan that was already in place for a potential 'zombie apocalypse.' Planet only knew why. The plan looked like it had been vetted by a manic pre-teen with complexes. Parts were too detailed, some parts dictated actions that were contradictory, and some were outright suicide. But they all had Veld's signature on them, so were to be treated with a standard level of seriousness.

Reno sighed again. He had the worst job.

After the brief, mostly one-sided call, Reno went back up on the roofs. Above the plate, the rooftops were an entirely different experience than below. Sunlight, for one, was a slight problem when wearing dark blue suits. Generally, during the day, Turks tended to stay off the roof for reasons of overheating and visibility. As much as the people above the plate seemed to care less whether there were Shinra employees watching them, it was still a little bit ridiculous. The other problem with rooftops was the cleanliness. People above the plate actually cared. Probably because structural integrity gave them the ability to actually do something with the space. Drying lines were not unheard of, and lounge chairs were actually common, so long as the roof was flat. Sometimes they even built storage sheds up there. It was nice not to have to get the clothes dry-cleaned every day, but there was less mess to hide behind and it was hard to get away with covert operations when some busybody woman came up to do the laundry while you were crouched by the eaves.

Zombie watching should not have qualified as a covert operation however. It wasn't like they were going to actually care if he saw them. The only ones who might care would be civilians. And really, they were more likely to see the creeping zombie than look up and see him.

So, to recap, he really, really didn't appreciate being told to survey from the roofs.

The zombie in question, however, was certainly interesting. From the back it looked like a pastry chef. The dark pants under white apron were dusted with flour, and the trademark white puffy hat was perched neatly on his head. From the front, though, there were the regular almost-black blood splatters, bloody teeth and gums and vacant stare. If he had to guess, he'd say that the bite mark on this one was on his ankle, but Reno couldn't be sure. He was just guessing on the pattern of dried blood.

The most interesting part of the thing was that the guy appeared to be dead. Well, all the zombies were probably all dead, but this guy was probably dead before he had been a zombie. He was basing that conclusion off the Y shaped autopsy incision that had bled black ooze through the guy's shirt. Well, that and the fact that he appeared to have almost completely torn off one of his legs at the knee. It was held at an awkward angle, and the foot was twisted around backwards.

Reno took a few more pictures of the zombie just to be safe.

Tseng wanted to see if they could get an ID on the guy, if Reno could get a few good pictures, but so far, he didn't think that was going to happen. The face was swollen around the eyes, throat, but puffy in odd ways elsewhere on his face. Sure, they might find a recently deceased pastry chef of approximately 5'10" with mid length brown hair, but they wouldn't get the ID off facial recognition.

He jumped a gap in roofs as the zombie ambled aimlessly down another back road. It had been meandering like that for the last half a mile. Which was a lot of rooftops, especially when the thing kept doubling back. Reno dearly wanted to put a tracker on the damn thing.

Well, sort of.

He really wanted someone else to put a damned thing, 'cause he sure as hell didn't want to be the one to go near it. If he could shoot a tracker into it, he'd be willing, but there were policies against shooting zombies. Go figure.

Sure, there might have been a few reasons not to shoot zombies if there were a bunch of them, but this one was, as far as he could tell, the only zombie on the entire upper plate. And as much as he thought Hojo was the creepiest bastard alive, if the guy could find a cure for the things, well, he'd get as many specimens as were needed if they were sitting pretty, all alone like this one.

Except that there was no way he could smuggle a zombie corpse to the science department without being caught on camera somewhere. Which would mean Tseng would know. And though he might be thanked eventually, it would be a long ways and many arguments, crappy demotion missions, paperwork, and an angry president later.

And that was assuming that 'killing' something that was probably already dead was even possible. He was not volunteering to drag an undead, struggling monster all the way back to the tower.

More on top of that, Hojo might expect things of him if he did any favors. He shuddered at the thought.

The zombie, previously limping slowly between alleyways, pulled up short at the end of the road, right in front of a loading dock at the back of some shop. Reno's stomach felt like he'd swallowed a brick. The employee access door was wedged open.

He seemed to notice the horrible possibilities at the same moment the zombie did, because the thing turned to look at the open door slowly, before bee-lining for it with a harsh groan.

Reno reached for his mag-rod, cursing that he didn't have his gun on him. Screw the rules, there was no way he was letting it go into a business and infect people on his watch.

By the time he had vaulted off the rooftop onto the fire-escape, skipped down a flight of steps and leapt off the side to the ground, the zombie was up the half-flight of steps and into the building.

There wasn't any screaming yet, so Reno nudged open the door, which had swung mostly shut, and slid inside, back to the wall. The zombie was nowhere in sight, with only one other open door, and noise coming from that direction, it was a pretty sure bet where the thing had gone to. He loped easily past shipping crates and pallets full of goods and plastic. He wasn't sure exactly which business this one was, as the entire block was involved with food transportation from various other cities, but whatever they dealt in caused a lot of white dust to build up in the corners.

When Reno nudged at the interior door with his foot, he was met with both resistance and a sudden feeling of dread. He slammed his body weight into the steel, and a though the door folded inward, it left a trail of bright red blood in the pattern of the door's smooth arc.

He scanned the visible parts of the room, and found no zombie, so with a little trepidation he flipped the door shut behind him to get a better look at the body. "Shit," he cursed quietly. The body was of a young man in a bloody apron over threadbare work clothes. He was face down, with his head and shoulders marking the end of the bloody streaks made by the door. Bits of bloody flesh hung off the kid's neck below his collar. "Shit," he cursed again. Now was about time he should probably call Tseng and get back-up.

A scream from another room stopped him with his hand on his phs. It was quickly followed by a second scream and a series of crashes and expletives. The red haired Turk was moving before he even registered what he was doing. He bolted to the door for the public front of the store, but two feet from the handle, the door burst open from the other side, disgorging three people at once, one of whom slammed into Reno, before pushing around him and running for the back door. "Fire! Get out of here!" one was shouting, while the one who slammed into him was yelling "monster! There's a bloody monster! We lit it on fire, get the fuck out!"

The trio was out the door by the time Reno had processed what they meant, and noticed the flickering red-orange glow showing through the doorway. A doorway that two more people were coming through, one half carrying the other, who was curled over her arm, and bloody all down her front. The pair of them, customers by appearance, seemed a bit affronted by his lack of panic.

"What the hell are you standing around for? Get out!" the man shouted before catching his upper arm and practically throwing him through the back door. He was a lot tougher than the average citizen, Reno halfheartedly noted.

All together the three tripped out the loading bay door, and the civilian pair practically sprinted down the alley to get away.

"Hey, wait a second- get back here!" Reno shouted after them, but they were already gone, and there was a burning building in front of him. "Goddamnit!"

And as if it was mocking him, his phs began to ring.

-- 

Elmyra shook her head in bewilderment as she passed by a ramshackle building that passed as a warehouse if one didn't look too hard. It was fairly well known as a building occasionally used by Don Coreno and his lackeys when they amassed in groups too large for wherever they usually hid. Elmyra didn't know where that was, and she really didn't care to find out.

She also could have done without the not-at-all-subtle party going on in the warehouse. Dark curtains and an extra layer of half rotted shipping pallets did almost nothing to deaden the sound of music and the flicker of colorful lighting.

With a short burst of sound, a pair of giggling prostitutes tumbled out the side door just ahead of her, and she froze. They were both clearly drunk, and dressed as zombies. One had gone so far as to shred a perfectly good dress to display long 'gouges' in her side that oozed zolom blood. She tried to step backwards, hoping they hadn't seen her.

No such luck. Her heel hit an empty can, and the subsequent rattling was just enough to make one of them look up from their frenzied, giggle filled whispers. She prodded the other one hard in the side. The pair exchanged glances, and then broad grins.

Not a moment later, they were stumbling toward her in a passable imitation of shambling corpses. Well, their definition of shambling corpses. She was sort of impressed. They had clearly put a lot of practice into it.

That being said, they still looked ridiculous. She folded her arms across her chest and glared.

The pair came all the way up to her, making ridiculous growling or slobbering noises, only to stop with their faces a few inches from her face. One broke character, and pouted.

"You're no fun," she said, slurring a little bit from inebriation. "You could at least play along, scream a little or run."

Elmyra sighed a heavily put upon sigh. "Why? I don't want anything to do with this little craze"

"Because it's fun!" she answered, while the other, apparently either more serious or less drunk, said "um, you seen what we're doing to Shinra?"

"Oh yeah, that too" the first girl chirped. She couldn't have been older than sixteen, the poor deluded thing.

Elmyra gave them a wary look, which the second prostitute, the brunette, correctly interpreted as a 'no.'

"We've got them totally messed up, really, they all think we're real zombies, and they're planning for crazy things."

"Just today we got someone to go above the plate to play as a re-ani-mated-ed corpse!" The blonde one looked like she was seriously straining herself to remember that word, and Elmyra couldn't tell if she was pleased that their campaign was expanding the girl's vocabulary, or disturbed at the words they were expanding it with.

"They bought that?" she asked. "And wait, what good is that anyway? And how would you…wait, nevermind, I just remembered that I don't actually care."

There were synchronized pouting faces thrown at her, with the kind of desolate looks that only a teenage slum girl, coerced into the dregs of society at a young age could produce. Elmyra sighed. At least Aerith hadn't mastered that look yet, she'd be completely wrapped around the girl's finger the day she did.

Defeated momentarily, she muttered a disgruntled "fine, give me the details before I change my mind."

The sixteen year old beamed and clapped her hands together, bouncing and clearly pleased with her manipulative skills. "Well, the guy was missing a leg already, and the Don helped out making a fake leg that looked all messed up, and we all helped with the makeup and stuff. And we found a real dead person for him to im-person-ate and all, so in case they do a background check or something, it'll all come up clean."

"It keeps Shinra busy," the brunette said. "They ain't watchin' stuff here or above like they usually do."

"Like drug and human trafficking?" Elmyra said with a glower.

"Well, yeah,' she answered, looking a bit chastened, "but also taxes 'n theft 'n "civil unrest" groups. Like, 'm not saying who dun it 'n all, but there's actually potions and vaccines available at some of the clinics here now, 'stead of that paste stuff they usually got. And materia if you can use it, and a few good weapons and metal for more and stuff like that."

"Fresh food too! Four trucks worth, just today!"

"We can get you some if you like! We got fruits and vegetables that are legit green, and stuff that tastes good."

Elmyra blinked and her thoughts immediately went to Aerith. How long had it been since she could regularly offer the girl anything that didn't come out of a can two months past its expiration date? The pair of them ate fairly well for their area too.

The second prostitute seemed to spot her hesitance. "Yeah, maybe the zombie thing's a bit crazy, but if it works. And no one gets hurt as long as we plan things out really well. Like today, we started a fire to get the Turks off our backs, but the Don and the Zombie King planned for that, and everyone got out safe. So if nothing bad is happening, and we're actually helping people, why should we stop?"

Suddenly, that seemed like perfectly valid logic.

--

Manipulating the whole zombie thing was a lot stranger than Cloud had originally anticipated. It was both more difficult, and a lot easier. Easier mostly because of Reeve. He really hadn't expected the man to notice him and cooperate. So the whole, 'zombies above the plate' part of the plan was going a hell of a lot smoother than he planned for.

Don Coreno was also quite helpful and seemed to be getting a huge kick out of the operation. He was pleasantly surprised by the mobsters willingness to spread the rewards of his thefts and use his prostitutes to teach people the proper application of zombie makeup. Cloud had asked one of his lowlife goons about it, and it appeared the man had a huge weakness for theatrics. Cloud should have guessed that extended to large scale pranks. He didn't bother asking any of the prostitutes their opinion after seeing one of their dress-up sessions. It was obvious enough how they felt.

On the other hand, he had greatly overestimated the Turk's observational capacity. Half the planned scenarios that people put on below the plate were completely missed. And the biggest problem Cloud faced at any time now was making sure that a Turk happened to be in the area at the right time. He could no longer count on the small scattering of hidden cameras, since it seemed that no-one was watching them on the other end. Idiots.

And so here he was wandering absently around the entrance to the number two reactor in full zombie gore, waiting for someone to show up and question his presence.

It took three hours.

When eventually, he caught sight of blue suit lurking around one of the nearby corners, he lurched toward the kids, the runners, who had settled nearby to play games in the dirt in their boredom. The kids wisely employed 'standard slum-person response number two,' backed away, wary, and kept putting things in his path until he turned back from them with a groan.

'Off to my real target' he thought, cackling internally.

First, a kid, who was a nine year old by the name of Morey and loved being a zombie almost as much as he loved trains, stumbled out of an alley, one of the other kids having gone to fetch him. He wandered over to Cloud, who made sure to watch him for the cameras, and stuck his face in Clouds side. Morey had been chosen for this particular job, because he had the best 'awkward zombie hug' of any of the kids who had wanted the part. The kid wove a hand into the back of Cloud's blood crusted shirt and handed him a dead rat.

Cloud inspected the fake bite mark Morey had cut into the critter (Gaia, he hoped they were fake- they were suspiciously well done, and this was the slums after all) and nodded solemnly. He patted the kid as awkwardly as he could, which was quite awkwardly if he did say so himself, and Morey shuffled back down an alley. Cloud carefully watched the Turk to make sure he wasn't following the kid home. For a moment it looked like the Shinra employee would, but Cloud made a horrific growling roar and body-checked a teetering stone wall, which collapsed. The Turk turned back.

Still carrying the dead rat in his hand, he paced around the area waiting for the next set of people. About seven minutes later, they showed up. A 'happy' zombie child and two well painted zombie adults dragging a non-zombie reactor guard. The kid was fairly close to just outright skipping circles around the adults, except that he kept remembering to shuffle, and the result was some mix of awkward stumbling and hopping in a generally circular motion. The guard on the other hand, was unconscious, probably drugged, and very, very dusty from his drag through the streets.

The kid zombie ran up to him and made an attempt at an awkward hug, which felt more like an overlarge cat trying to claw its way up his torso due to the kid's enthusiasm. Cloud huffed loudly.

Rika and Ker, the volunteer kidnappers, dropped the guard at Cloud's feet. The blonde stared vacantly at them. They stared back. Eventually, Rika grunted and trudged back down the alley, Ker following slowly.

The kid, Lami, he though, crouched down by the guard, cocked his head to the side, picked up the guard's arm and started gnawing at it. Cloud growled, low as he could. Lami growled back, a lot higher and softer. Cloud bared his blackened teeth and snapped. Lami bolted after the other two, almost too fast, until he remembered to shuffle and nearly tripped over an abandoned door of some rusted out old truck. Cloud watched the alley until he couldn't hear their stumbling footsteps anymore.

The guard on the ground looked, for all intents and purposes, dead. Rika, Ker, and Don Coreno's posse of impossibly makeup savvy prostitutes had completely outdone themselves. He could only barely make out the edges of the putty they'd used to disguise his pulse (and hide a blood pack), and though he couldn't see it, supposedly there was an extra layer built around the man's ribcage.

Specifically so that he could crack it.

And eat his new fake organs.

In front of the Turk.

Cloud tried not to giggle, and ended up hacking rather badly as he dragged the guard by his ankle to a poorly lit corner. The next forty five minutes he spent dedicated to making the most disgusting slurping noises and chewing as loudly as possible. The Turk watching definitely retched audibly at least three times, particularly when he tore open the fake rib cage with a series of cracks from the breaking 'ribs.'

After a follow-up drugging, just to be sure, Cloud surreptitiously checked his body armor, hidden blood pouches and various prosthetic skin flaps before he seized the guard by the ankle again and began dragging him toward the reactor.

Behind him, the blonde could hear the frantic muffled whispering of the Turk into his phs. At either side, there were other zombified citizens of sector two, watching with wicked grins across their faces, just waiting in case they were needed. Cloud felt the corners of his mouth twitch up in anticipation.

--

Chapter Text

--

For all that Reno had known that zombies were a problem for the past few weeks, he had to admit now, that he had no idea what he was thinking, believing that it would be easy to just go shoot them down. He skipped back to the seventy sixth minute of the footage.

Yeah, the short zombie dragging with the dead guard had definitely taken a bare minimum of nine fatal shots to the chest, and still persisted in charging the reactor entrance. He kind of wondered what would have happened if they living guards had managed to get a head-shot in. Probably nothing. But maybe it would have at least staggered the thing.

The worst part probably wasn't even the revelation that the zombies were a) eating people, b) definitely, definitely undead, c) organized enough to give offerings to their leader d) capable of forming a hoard or e) currently in possession of Reactor 2. It was the fact that President Shinra had not once stopped screaming in the last five and a half hours.

--

The zombie council, as it had been informally dubbed, wasn't very good at organizing meetings. It relied rather heavily on trickle-down information and volunteer work. Fortunately, it seemed that there were a lot of volunteers. This was mostly because Don Coreno supplied food at every meeting, but hey, volunteers were volunteers.

The only thing that really kept the meetings coherent was the fact that there was one guy with a plan.

The 'Zombie King' as he was called, because 'Cloud' wasn't a fitting name for any self respecting zombie (or self respecting human, come to think of it) always sat at the head of the table, and almost always had his fingers on his temples, as though trying to kneed away a headache. Today was no different, Elmyra noted, though it was only her third meeting.

"It still won't work," he said, over the general din of the room. "It'll make Sephiroth look like the culprit, but it won't implicate the flying, purple people-eater."

"And why not, it makes perfect sense from my view" one of Don Coreno's underlings said.

"Yeah, but that's cause I've explained it to you and you're not a complete moron. Try saying the same about half of Shinra." That statement basically summed up their entire meeting, in Elmyra's eyes. Because when a lowly gang grunt understood things better than the company running the world, there were serious issues.

"So we get your inside man to explain it then. I don't see why you don't use him more anyway"

"He's not anything to do with science. It'd be suspicious."

"Yeah, but you just said they're idiots, they wouldn't notice."

"Maybe the president wouldn't, but the Turks would. And they're the ones who could ruin everything."

"So get 'em on our side. You said we can't get the boss man, but what about a few bottom feeders? That redhead you like picking on, or someone like 'im."

"I could try, but-" there was an outburst of squealing from one of the corners where an enormous gaggle of prostitutes turned zombie-makeup-artists spontaneously switched modes from 'mildly-calm-by-happy-female-standards' to 'joyous-day-let-everyone-burst-eardrums-in-celebration.'  Zombie King flinched and covered his ears, moaning in pain, and at least half the table turned to glare at the writhing mob of women. One of them mad the decency to look ashamed and hush the group. 

"You okay King?" Don Coreno asked. Sympathy was one of the weirdest looks to ever grace the enormous man's features. It didn't fit any better there than zombies did in Midgar.

"Fine. I'm fine. Yeah. Anyway, I could try to get Reno on board, but there's as much chance of him ruining things for us as there is of him helping. And it mostly depends on whether or not I can get him to suspend disbelief long enough to talk him into things. Unfortunately, he's always been a bit too trigger-happy and headstrong. I don't want to risk it."

"So what about kidnapping a science flunky and getting him on board?"

"No one listens to anyone from the Science Department except Hojo."

"But why not!"

"Because the man's narcistic, has a superiority complex and somehow has veto power over the rest of everyone in the department. Stupid, but its Shinra, so that's a given."

"Ugg. So we're back to square one again."

They'd been going at this for several hours, trying to figure out how to pin the origin of the 'zombie plague' on something they referred to in various ridiculous or insulting nomenclature, ranging from 'psycho bitch' and 'tentacle monster' to 'head in a box.' It had taken her a while to figure out that they all referred to the same thing, whatever that thing was. She hadn't quite figured out why it was so important to pin the blame on something that didn't even seem to be living, but they were all adamant. And, well, if it was going to royally screw Shinra's plans, she wasn't about to argue.

Unfortunately, because the thingamajig was dead, and inconveniently located in Nibleheim, it was pretty hard to plant evidence or implicate it from a continent away.

"So, if we can't make Shinra work backwards to get to the answer, why can't we make them work forwards?" Elmyra muttered, mostly to herself and her neighbor, a very nice old woman who sold pies and knit scarves.

The woman turned to her, crow's feet deepening in confusion. "What did you say dearie?"

"Nothing, never mind," she murmured, waving a hand.

From the other end of the table, the Zombie King said "no, wait, explain that, please."

The table went silent. Elmyra looked around, and everyone was staring at her. "Wait, me?"

"Yes, you said something about making them work forwards not backwards. What do you mean by that?"

"You could hear me from all the way over there?"

Don Coreno puffed up in his seat. "Of course he can girlie, he's the Zombie King, he ain't no normal human. Ain't nothing he can't see or hear!"

"Oh," she said dumbly. "I guess, I just meant that, well, Shinra doesn't have much of a history of figuring out why things work, or how they came to be, so we can't really expect them to want to look for the origin of zombies. We've got to play to what they're good at, which, from what you keep saying, is war and creepy experiments and cover-ups. They'll look for those kinds of things."

"And how do you suggest we do that?" the Zombie King asked, tilting his head slightly to the side. Elmyra was momentarily stunned by the fact that not a single spike of hair on his head obeyed gravity, even when tilting sideways.

"Um, how about making it look like there was some sort of attack, like the zombies are a weapon that someone made out of the creepy-psycho-monster-thingamajig and tried to hide it, but did it really, really badly. Of course, it'd mean taking a trip over to the thing and causing some mayhem there, but that's the only way I see anything working, because clearly we're not going to be able to plant enough circumstantial evidence if we limit ourselves to Midgar."

The table was so silent that were it not for the prostitutes still giggling in a corner, Elmyra probably would have been able to hear the scurry of rats all the way across the street. She surveyed the Zombie Council, all of whom appeared confused as to why it seemed like such a simple answer that no one else had yet come up with. Well, everyone except the King. There was unholy glint in the Zombie King's eyes was slightly worrisome. "What's your name again?" he said.

"Elmyra Gainsborough?" She was pretty sure she'd introduced herself a few times to the group already. But with the way the King looked startled, and then amused and resigned, he clearly hadn't recognized her name before. Maybe she should take offense to that, she thought.

"Missus Gainsborough, how do you feel about getting out of Midgar for a quiet vacation in the mountains?"

She was stunned for a moment as the implications sunk in. "Oh no, not me. Not happening. I have a daughter to keep an eye on, find someone else. Besides, I’ve not even started taking the makeup lessons yet."

The King pouted a little, which was a decidedly odd move for such a serious seeming man, but obligingly turned to the group of prostitutes in the corner. "Say, ladies, do any of you want to take a business trip with me?"

--

Cloud could have been skipping. If this was Costa del Sol, a few lifetimes ago, he definitely would have been skipping. He had definitely skipped merrily for longer distances and less reason than he had now. Being a terrorist skews priorities in life, he found. Dignity hadn't been a priority of his in a very long time.

Instead, he satisfied himself with tearing off another portion of the soon to be patented 'Edible Alien Cake,' and eating it with relish just for the cameras watching. The cake was impressively baked, frosted and lovingly decorated to look like a particularly disgusting, slightly humanoid monster that he'd made a show of pulling out of a mako tank a few days ago. It was rather impressive baking, being as anatomically correct as the original monster had been, and glistening with fake, edible mako slime. On the down side, it was made with so much sugar that he would probably go into a coma before he finished it.

Which might explain why he felt like skipping.

The plan had been elaborate. Elmyra advocated that it was perhaps too elaborate, but Cloud was certain it had to be done this way. He didn't want to be the one to off Jenova this time, as he was clearly doing something wrong there if the Lifestream/Gaia/Aerith kept sending him back. Well, that wasn't necessarily the reason he was looping but he didn't want to consider any other options. They tended to be depressing.

But anyway, the plan had ended up unfurling like this:

He'd hijacked a helicopter ride out to Nibleheim on an architectural survey run that was ever so conveniently put together by Reeve. With him, he'd taken a somehow-hacked-by-Reeve-and-now-untraceable-phs, a transfer cable to connect the phone to the security feed's computer, and a camera. The plan was based on the fact that the reactor's security was on a closed circuit with no human guards present. It was almost completely inaccessible due to climate, terrain and monsters, so it was considered secure by Shinra, and the Turks simply did a remote download of the surveillance footage once every two months, which was the amount of time the computers could store data for before they began overwriting the un-backed-up files. By sheer luck, there was still two weeks before the scheduled remote download, and the whole 'zombie origins' thing could feasibly be condensed to fit in after the last download.

Sometimes, the universe lined up just right.

Which was why, shortly after arriving in Nibelheim, Cloud had dressed as a generally grungy and inconspicuous lab tech and made a show of poking around the reactor like some idiotic tourist. He played at being absolutely fascinated by the creature-creations in their mako tanks, and did a cursory attempt to open Jenova's tank before he meandered over to the half-destroyed control panel.

He poked every button on the panel and made sure to kick it a few times for good measure.

Then, making a show of frustration, he located a crowbar in one of the storage closets in a hallway nearby, and began peeling away the sealant around the edges of one of the tanks. Eventually he got to the edge of the glass, and with an enormous heave, he carefully applied his ridiculous mako enhancements and shattered about a third of the glass of the tank.

Realistically there was no way it would have occurred that way if he was Joe Schmoe of Nibelheim, but since this was only for video...it didn't really matter as long as it looked real.

So as the mako sloshed out of the tank and all over Clouds grungy clothes, he danced in disgust away from the biggest puddle of it. And when the specimen started moving, he made sure to bash it over the head a few times with his trusty crowbar.

The specimen that he had let out had been chosen with particular care, and researched ahead of time in the Shinra Mansion's library. It was the most successful attempt at outright cloning Jenova. Which, granted, none of the attempts were really successful at all, but this one had the least amount of total organ failure. And the most normal number of limbs...sort of. He had decided that a tentacle off an elbow count didn't count as limb, because otherwise he would have had to go with the one that had wings for ears.

Either way, the blonde took a bit too much glee in poking the now-probably-actually-dead thing with his finger a few times, and then wrapping most of it up into his jacket and throwing it over his shoulder. And if the thing oozed all over his clothes and hair as he 'stumbled' out of the reactor, well, all the better for Shinra to think he was contaminated. In between one camera angle and the next, he pulled out his phs and put it up to his ear.

"Hey. Yeah, it's me. Yes. Uh huh," he said into the device, pulling his best Costa del Sol accent. "You'll never guess what I found though. No, not that. It's, no, let me finish, it's one of Hojo's old experiments. Just sitting around in the reactor. Yeah. Yep. And I did my research too, I'll bring you the notes I found in the mansion. It totally looks like it could work. Yeah. The cells are definitely strong in this one; it was still alive when I got it. Well, no, obviously not, I killed it. Yes. No. No, no way. Well it wasn't like I could have carried it out alive anyway. Do you want the sample or not? No, wait, I didn't catch that, the reception's spotty here. Yeah, I'll do that. You sure you can put it in a virus? Alright, you're the boss man. Yep, okay. See you soon."

Cloud hung up, hummed to himself and nudged open the main doors to the reactor. Luckily, it was autumn, and not so bitingly cold as it could have been, so high up in the mountains.

The body was deposited just on the other side of a ridge from the reactor, well outside of the range of the two exterior cameras, where he had a pack with a change of clothes. Not that the new clothes were any cleaner. They had been intentionally spattered with blood and slime in key locations. Such as right around the neck-ish-area and the ends of his sleeves. Josie, the ex-prostitute who had volunteered to follow him out to the frozen mountainsides, eyed him critically and added a smear of black blood to his hair.

"You look great, King" she said as she pulled his shirt crooked at one shoulder. "Give me your boots for a second, I wanna do them too."

Sighing, Cloud surrendered the boots. He had tried arguing once over whether or not she was going too far with the gore and makeup. Two hours of intense lecturing on the necessity of a thorough background story and the importance of minding the details, he vowed never to bring it up to her again.

While she coated his once serviceable boots in four layers of slime, mud, slime and dirt, he unfolded a pair body bag and prepped the corpse for transport. The non-tentacled arm, one entire leg, and one leg below the knee were torn off, a sound that made both of them wince. "That sounds nasty," his companion muttered under her breath.

"Yep. Better here than in Midgar though," he said as he wrapped the limbs in one of the bags and dumped it into the pre-dug pit near their camp site. The rest of the body was patted as dry as possible to prevent the mako from eating away at the plastic before it was transported back to Midgar with them. It was then bundled into the remaining bag, and the towel discarded into the pit.

Josie relinquished the boots, gave him his opaque white contacts in their case. "On to round two" she said with a smile, and Cloud made a show of stumbling back over the ridge on awkward feet, just for her sake. Inside the reactor, he bee-lined for the security office where Reeve's phs was still hooked up to the computer system. The Director of Urban Development was pretty handy with coding (though Cloud was no slouch after so many years in the Turks) and had made switching program over to the second part easy as possible. With that done, he booked it outside and made his way into the reactor through the front door, heading straight for Jenova.

It was pretty hard work, pretending to be only a little bit stronger than a civilian. He had to pretend to struggle while ripping the face plating off the case housing the alien. Wires and tubing were summarily ripped out until there were enough holes to drain most of the mako and a few key places to wedge the handy crowbar. Cloud wondered if perhaps he had a bit too much fun with property destruction as he snapped off sections of glass and smashed apart what remained.

Nah.

When he could finally reach into the tank without risking cutting himself on jagged edges (because bleeding wounds would really mess up the image he had of near complete zombification) he braced himself for the most disturbing part of the act he was putting on. Once upon a time, four hundred years ago, he would probably have thoroughly maimed anyone who suggested what he was about to, and then off-ed himself just to get the mental images out of his head. But as he had realized many years past, dignity was overrated. Sometimes, in order to thoroughly fuck with someone's perception of the entire world, you had to make sacrifices.

Pulling his face into the best imitation of Tifa from his second life that he could manage, he braced himself for the worst: Cuddling.

 

Back in Midgar a few days later, just thinking about doing that made him shiver.

Cloud felt entirely justified sitting in front of a Turk monitored camera, eating utterly unhealthy amounts of cake- artfully decorated to appear like the specimen torso they had returned with- as payment for his troubles.

--

Chapter Text

--

 The president had somehow managed not to completely abandon ship and flee to his well-prepared island. Reno thought that was fairly impressive given his reaction at various other revelations.

Hojo on the other hand... Hojo had thrown an absolute fit, broken the computer monitor, tried to strangle Tseng (to no effect) and summarily got himself admitted- albeit temporarily- to the psych ward of Shinra Medical.

For his part, Reno didn't really care what super important scientific material zombies apparently came from. He also didn't care if the zombies stole it and ate it and all if it's affiliated experiments. He only cared that since there was an origin, and presumably a rogue scientist to go with it, there was probably a way to reverse engineer whatever part of the disease was causing it to make people undead. Provided Hojo could pull himself together enough to get back to the labs.

Until then, Reno had the somewhat dubious pleasure of following the lead zombie's movement through Midgar and trying to establish a pattern and determine the hierarchy of the hoard.

Rather obviously, the lead zombie was the one zombie to whom they had seen others bring sacrifices, the one who had charged Reactor 2, and the one from Nibelheim security footage. He was considered by Tseng to be 'Subject Zero,' the first human infection. And it was really, really weird to hear Tseng name things 'subjects' but when he had questioned it, he'd gotten a glare and a printout of a two hundred and fifty-seven page dissertation on the spread of epidemics. 'Subject Zero' was clearly in charge of a large portion, if not the entirety of the zombie collective, and also had, since Reno started tracking the thing, been spotted eating bits and pieces of one of Hojo's experiment it'd taken from Nibelheim no less than six times. Never had Reno been so disgusted with the stuff that came out of the science department. He had also never been so glad for parents not teaching their kids to share their food. He, and the rest of the Turks when he mentioned it to them, universally agreed that if they had to deal with more than just one lead zombie, it would be disastrous.

The zombie hoard had, since the takeover of Reactor 2, basically moved into the facilities there. Shinra had cut off all routes to the reactor, public and otherwise, and flipped some magic breakers to stop receiving power from it, but the thing had yet to be turned off. Thus, the next biggest concern, after the freaking zombie plague that had taken over, was the fact that without maintenance, and with a bunch of undead cavorting around in it, the likelihood of Reactor 2 exploding had taken a sharp turn for the worse. The only one who didn't have a near coronary at the thought, strangely enough was Reeve. And he was the one who was supposedly in charge of the infrastructure of both the reactor and the city around it.

Reno hadn't been the one to say 'suspicious' but then, he'd been in a room full of paranoid Turks. It was written in everyone's carefully blank expressions.

Rude, the lucky bastard, now had the enviable job of watching Reeve's movements. Half the time, he just sat at the computer monitors and played games on the terminal while he watched his mark doing paperwork in his newly bugged office.

Reno was, predictably, back on the rooftops. For a change, though, he wasn't alone. With him had come Sephiroth, who had taken a disturbing interest in figuring out what had managed to send the head of the science department into "temporary" insanity.

The red haired man had initially been a bit disgruntled at the idea of having the General follow him around below the plate, but eventually, after a series of messages to Rude, had decided that the man's superior senses were a boon to the 'information retrieval' portion of his job, and begrudgingly handed him a beanie with which to hide his ridiculous hair. After all, planet only knew if the zombies were attracted to shiny things.

"They do have heartbeats," had been the first useful piece of information that the SOLDIER had told him. Three grungy, zombie teens had stumbled down the street they were overlooking, and Reno was certainly not going to admit to being jealous of the way the other man could simply turn his head and fucking hear their heartbeats.

"Well, physiologically, I guess that makes sense" Reno mused quietly, while typing it into his phs. "So are they not technically dead then?"

"I could not say for certain. I suspect that would depend on your definition of dead. They could very well not have any higher brain function, and technically be vegetative, but we would not know for certain without an electroencephalogram."

Reno twitched. He was not cut out for big words, but he got the gist of it. "Okay…so coma zombies. They're probably not resurrected-from-the-grave. But what about that one who was definitely dead before he was a zombie? Do you think that's an entirely different kind of zombie then? Or mayhap zombification can actually resurrect a body? Do any of them sound different? Like, off or something?

"A sample size of three would not allow for any statistically valid conclusions" Sephiroth deadpanned.

Reno twitched again. "Right." Either the general was a robot and had an encyclopedia downloaded directly to his brain, he was completely socially unaware, or he was mocking the Turk. Knowing Shinra, it was probably the robot option. Reno settled back against the creaking, rusted roof to wait for his 'bigger sample size' to appear.

The number two reactor loomed over them, just under a kilometer from their position, steam rising from the vents around the edges. Every time he came down here, it was always creepier to watch than he remembered. And now, knowing that there was a hoard of undead gathered inside of it, it was even more intimidating than usual.

Half an hour passed. Three normal slum families and two living drunkards passed below them, never looking up.

"What do you think they're doing in there?" Reno asked, breaking the silence between them.

"I'm sure I have no idea."

"Yeah, but if you had to guess, or imagine, what would be the worst possible scenario you could think of?" Reno immediately regretted asking. It was one thing to try to play pessimist with Rude or Cissnei, but Sephiroth was wayyyy too literal for this. But the words were already out, and the General was already mulling them over. Reno cringed in advance.

"The worst scenario I can imagine is one where the zombies have found a way to introduce the infectious agent into the water or air and are either venting it out through the reactors air ducts, or are planning to blow up the reactor and use that to contaminate all of Midgar. SOLDIERs are then infected and become an army of undead super humans, who raze cities and consume the occupants at the command of Subject Zero.

"The second worst scenario I imagine is one where the zombies are all as physically resilient as Subject Zero, and also are in possession of higher thought processes, which allow them to plan hostile invasion of the upper plate, and hijack the rail and air courier systems to spread the disease to all known urban centers, so as to consume the living population.

"The third worst scenario I have hypothesized is one where a sufficient zombie hoard may make contact with living examples of the science project Jenova, from which we know they were spawned, and the alien life form then uses the hypothetical telepathic powers that Professor Hojo believes they are capable of in order to mind control the human population, thus eliminating free will in all its forms.

"The fourth worst sce…"

"OKAY, I GET IT, PLEASE STOP NOW."

"I have five more dire scenarios, and I have not told you why I ranked them in the order I did, are you sure you've heard enough?"

The worst part was that Sephiroth seemed genuinely surprised that Reno had clamped his hands over his ears, and shoved his head between his knees in order to breathe. "Just send it to Tseng, forward the whole fucking thing to Tseng and shut up, please."

Sephiroth frowned at him but obligingly stopped talking. Reno took a few minutes to collect himself before diving once more unto the breech.

"I think Tseng already has plans for some of those scenarios in his contingency plans. Maybe not as specifically as you said, but I've definitely heard him mulling over mind control zombies before."

The silver general hummed. "Good. At least there's one other person thinking ahead."

"So you've been making plans too?"

"Of course."

Reno waited a few seconds for the elaboration, but when he realized it wasn't forthcoming, he rolled his eyes and relented to use words. "Mind sharing?"

"My plans?"

"…Yes"

The other man looked contemplative for a few moments. "Without specifics on the various scenarios, I believe one of the main priorities should be assessing the physical and intellectual capabilities of all three types of zombies: the leader, the living followers, and the unsubstantiated dead followers. Also of import is to know whether SOLDIERs can be made into zombies. This could be accomplished through a set of strategic confrontations; however I have been explicitly banned from using SOLDIERs to provoke a fight, so observation will suffice for the moment.

"After a skills assessment is made, a proper defense plan can be formed. I believe that sections of the upper plate could be cordoned off and barricaded to preserve the remaining living population. This, however, does not hold true if the disease can be spread in any other than physical contact. The SOLDIERs and Infantry could coordinate countermeasures and acquire samples for the science department after proper defenses are raised. Eventually either a vaccine or cure would be produced. Alternately, all the zombies or all the humans would be killed."

Reno blinked. That was definitely more than he had anticipated. Actually, he had anticipated being told to mind his own business, or just ignored. He wondered briefly how many other people had heard the general divulge so much information in one sitting before.

The shock must have shown on his face because the general smirked. "Mayhap you can pass the message along to your supervisors. An idea supported from two angles is more likely to gain traction at the board meetings than an idea presented by one."

There wasn't really an answer Reno could give to counter that, so he shrugged. "Will do."

They watched the streets below in silence for a while longer. Eventually Reno started fidgeting.

Sephiroth rose in a sudden, fluid movement. "We should get a closer look," he announced, and immediately began making his way down to the street.

Reno looked at him in shock. "Wait, what?" He scrambled up. "Where are you going now?"

The silver haired main gave him a disparaging look over his shoulder before hopping off a crate and onto the dusty street.

"Okay, that was stupid question, but here's another one for you: Why?"

"We were not gaining any significant information at our location. Obviously."

"Well, no, but we were safe?"

"Was that a question?"

"Yes it was man! We don't know what these things can do!" Reno hit the ground a few paces behind where Sephiroth was waiting. "We're here strictly for observation!"

"As the higher ranking officer, I'm amending our mission parameters." He strode down the path towards the reactor, sliding his beanie and tattered urban-camo jacket off as he went.

Reno sputtered. "This is a Turk reconnaissance mission! Turk! I'm in charge!" Four citizens of sector two looked up in alarm at his exclamation, took one look at Sephiroth's distinctive hair, now freely waving, and bolted for shelter.

"You were."

"What the hell, man!" Pulling out his phs, he frantically dialed Tseng's office to update him.

 --

 Elmyra walked in on mass chaos.

There were four makeup artists trying to work on a very frustrated and only partially dressed King, who was waving around three large swords and trying saying something about the smell of mako-icing very loudly.

There were a bunch of panicky looking civilians in full zombie paint watching the mess from the sidelines. She tapped one on the shoulder and gave her most intimidating glare. "What's going on?"

"Sephiroth is coming!" he blurted out. "We knew he was watching, with one of them Turk dogs, but they're coming here, and we don't have a plan! This wasn't in the plan!" His eyes were wide and he was wringing his hands enough to disrupt the carefully patterned blood up and down his arms. "You're part of the Zombie council right? Whadda we do?"

"How long do we have?" she asked, mind kicking into overdrive.

"Minutes, maybe less?"

"What is King doing?"

"Going to go meet him? Fight him? I dun think he even knows himself."

"He wants an assessment of ability!" King yelled from under the mob of women with brushes. "He wants info, and if we don't warn him off, he'll just keep pressing!"

Fairly unconcerned about his ability to hear her conversation from half the room away and above the frantic chatter around him, Elmyra replied evenly "Is it safe to fight him?"

"Safe for me, not for everyone else."

"I meant for the plan."

"Probably not? It'll mean that if they ever retaliate, they retaliate with SOLDIER force against everyone. And given that I'm the only enhanced…"

"Yeah, bad, okay. Other ideas?"

"None current- damnit, stop with the hair already!"

"Okay, so how about shock factor instead? Give him something to gather intelligence about."

"What are you thinking?"

Elmyra glanced behind her at the two individuals she had intended on introducing to King. Aerith met her gaze and shrugged. Zack, quite obviously taking his cues from Aerith, shrugged at her too. "You up for a bit of improv?" she asked.

"I guess? I mean, I didn't plan on it, but…"

"You'd have to desert until the whole thing blows over."

Zack frowned, a cute little thinking movement that made Aerith giggle. "Well, I knew that I'd have to already, and maybe sudden is better. More real."

"Commit now, or forever hold your peace," she told him bluntly. And well, if it sounded like she was saying he couldn't marry her daughter, she could admit that she wasn't above a little bit of emotional manipulation. Just to put him to the test.

"Right. What are we doing," he said, eyes growing stubborn behind milky white contacts.

The King managed to wrestle free of his well meaning attackers and lope over to the three of them. He did a bit of a double take at the gore-smeared Zack before looking over the beaming face of Elmyra's daughter. Something that looked vaguely like recognition and fondness flickered over his features, before they settled on glee.

"Oh, yeah, I guess this could work"

"King, this is Aerith, my daughter, and her friend Zack Fair, SOLDIER Second Class."

"Hi, I'm the Zombie King, nice to meet you and all that, we can all discuss things later- now we need a plan. Elmyra? Nice makeup by the way."

"Thanks, it's all Aerith's work. But for now, we need to keep it simple. Just be seen with Aerith and Zack. Obviously, the general will know Zack, and the Turk will know Aerith, and we can just let them draw their own assumptions for the moment."

"Oh, and the confusion will make him go away! I like your thinking. Okay. So. I'm thinking a re-run of our previous skits- Zack brings Aerith to me as an offering. Right in front of the reactor."

"Sounds good. Maybe I should be with Zack? So the Turks know not to come looking for me?"

Strife raised an eyebrow. "Right, that's fine. You all know the drill then?"

"Yes!" Aerith replied, immediately collapsing sideways towards Zack, who caught her and yelped out a quick "no?!"

"It's easy!" the girl said. "I pretend to be unconscious," she gave up any pretense of holding her own weight and sagged into his arms, "and you just kind of drag me over to the King, and be all awkward. Awkward is good. Improvise, and no talking! And that's it!" She beamed, as if it really was that simple, and Zack immediately caved.

"If we're doing this, I need to get out there now," the King said. "You three take one of the side exits, and make your plans, I'll see you soon."

Strife bolted for the main entrance at a speed that was clearly beyond that of mere mortals. It was odd, Elmyra mused, how one could so easily forget that the man was essentially a SOLDIER himself, when he spent all day with contacts to hide his eyes and makeup to make him seem dead. Maybe he wouldn't have had a problem taking General Sephiroth out of the picture, but unveiling Zack early still seemed like a better option, in her opinion.

Elmyra steeled herself and gestured that the pair follow her. 

She explained quickly to Zack as she walked; "the premise is pretty simple. You're bringing Aerith as an offering to the King of Zombies. There's no end goal, as far as the Turks know. It's just to show that zombies have a hierarchy, so that the military focuses on our leader instead of on the small fry. The small fry can't defend themselves against Shinra, after all."

"And the King is enhanced."

"Yes. So if everything goes wrong, he'll be fine, and you just protect my daughter."

"Yes ma'am."

"Don't worry Zack-y, it'll be fun!"

"Alright. So, I'm thinking you might want to throw her over your shoulder. Walk like we practiced, and I'll do most of the interaction. It's really not that bad, since we're only communicating in grunts and body language. Just do what a zombie would do, and if that fails, follow my lead. Here's the exit."

The 'door' was a hole in the wall that Strife had made and then disguised with trash. It let them out a few streets away from the entrance. By silent agreement, they fell into character, eyes staring into the distance, feet dragging more than normal. Aerith, in her minimalist makeup, swayed with every step, and Elmyra nearly giggled when she saw her daughter blushing as her arm brushed the SOLDIER's rear end.

It didn't take long at all for them to shuffle to the main road.

The King had taken up station by the wreckage of what had once been a truck of some sort. Now buried up to the chassis, the covered back portion was only a few steps above the ground, and had probably been everything from living quarters to a temporary clinic at some point. The enhanced man was probably going to use it to store Aerith if a fight broke out. Which Elmyra approved of.

Sephiroth was already there too- about a block down the road, with a red haired man, a Turk, lurking in the shadows off to his right. She couldn't see it, but imagined that their eyes widened as the trio came into sight. She ignored them.

King, who was apparently in the middle of a staring contest with the Silver Demon, actually startled when Elmyra gave him the most awkward hug she could manage. She reached up to pat his hair, matted with gore as it was, actually growled at her. It was worth it for the knowledge that his hair was probably magical, and managed to be soft in any circumstance.

Zack shuffled his feet awkwardly.

Fair came forward as she backed off, and Strife took Aerith from him in a move as awkward as he could manage without actually dropping her. And once she was tucked safely under his arm, the King took the hem of Zack's torn outfit and tugged him gently back towards the doors to the reactor. Elmyra managed one casual glance down the road before she followed them in.

Sephiroth and the Turk were already gone.

 --

 "…and in light of this new evidence, I feel it is obvious that the current plague is a direct result of the misuse of misunderstood resources that Professor Hojo was given leeway with. I believe that there is sufficient evidence that he has ignored, over the course of many decades, multiple accounts of evidence that implicate that Jenova is not an ancient, and is in fact, detrimental to human health. His theory of Reunion could, in fact, be the very disease we are now surrounded by. This implies not only the willful ignorance, but the intentional disregard for the potential consequences that he knew may come to pass. Consequences that are now upon us."

Cloud was happily munching on his Alien Cake® and watching the panic unfold on the screen before him. The image was a bit fuzzy and the audio had cut out once already, but that was alright. The situation was worth it.

Not that he wouldn't have paid an arm or leg to be in the room in person, but at least this way he'd have a digital recording that he could replay as many times as he wanted.

Sephiroth droned on, voice as low and rich as it was possible to be, and yet still impressively boring, in its scripted format. "It is my recommendation that the following action be immediately taken: the removal, imprisonment and investigation of Professor Hojo until such time a…"

"Now wait a second, you can't just sa…"

"Hojo, shut your damn mouth!" President Shinra bellowed, loud enough to make the speakers emit a high tinny noise. "The General is right, and we've all seen this coming for years! We've made exceptions, I've made exceptions, because the potential for results was always there, but you've gone too far, and this whole mess is your fault." He pointed a large, sausage-link finger at the stringy doctor. "And no one in their right mind is going to let you mess it up more in some half assed, harebrained attempt to fix this!"

Cloud cackled, but managed to resist the urge to tap his fingertips together in front of his nose. Everything was going according to plan. Bwahahahahahaha!

The image flickered uneasily on the screen, and Cloud finally gave in and sent a message to Reeve about it. It was whining, he knew, but he also didn't really care, and the Director had an impress learning curve when it came to dealing with him and his eccentricities, so there wasn't any harm in it.

A few seconds of static filled accusations later, he was rewarded as Cait Sith was subtly adjusted for a better view and smoother data connection.

Cloud grabbed another handful of cake and reclined in his chair.

"I've made up my mind, but I'd like your vote anyway. All in favor of implementing General Sephiroth's proposal, say aye." Four aye's sounded, and Shinra nodded, pleased for once. "Tseng, take him to a holding cell."

Sephiroth rapped twice on the door and two third class SOLDIERS and one of the Turk guards came in.

"You can't do this to me! Sephiroth! I AM YOUR FATHER!"

"You are as much my father as those creatures under the plate are my siblings; which is to say, only when viewed through your particular brand of logic."

"I created you! I created all of SOLDIER! This company runs only because I allow it to! Do you hear me? I made you all, and I will not have this! Put me down you imbeciles! Put me down or I'll have you on my table before the week is out!" Two men in third class uniforms had grabbed the scientist by the upper arms and bodily lifted him to get him out of the room. The greasy rat's feet kicked wildly at the air. "You can't fix this without me! How are you going to make a cure without my benevolence, eh? You need me, damn it! Put me down!"

As the shrieking faded and the door to the office closed, the grim faced president turned to the remaining council.  "Does anyone have any good news?"

There was a prolonged pause.

Tseng sighed from his position almost out of view of the screen. "Sir, there is still the possibility of a cure. We haven't found any leads on the scientist who originally intended to acquire the Jenova sample subjects. It is possible that this individual, however, may know enough about viruses and Jenova itself in order to produce a vaccine or cure.

"But we have no leads."

"None yet. We're working on it sir."

"Good. In the mean time, I don't think I need to express how dire the situation is now. I've scheduled my evacuation for three days from now. The southern end of Wutai is lovely this time of year, from what I hear. If you stay here, you are expected to keep yourself safe and keep me updated. We reconvene tomorrow at 1300."

Shinra exited, followed immediately by Palmer, Heidigger and Scarlet, all of whom seemed eager to engage him on the development of his evacuation plans.

 --

Chapter Text

--

For once, Reno had not been assigned to a rooftop.

Unfortunately, he really wanted to be on a rooftop.

Tseng was currently on a single mission: discover the former identity of Subject Zero. And for that, they needed as much information on the- creature? Man? Being? Corpse. He was going to go with corpse for now. Except, ugh, it was hard to think of it as anything other than a man when it was walking around just one street over.

They had plenty of video footage off of which they had tried to run facial recognition. Unfortunately, it had all come up short of a positive identity. They had, however, matched reasonably well with a tiny little brat of a kid in Nibelheim, and the current going theory was that Subject Zero was the kid's absent father.

Sadly, the brat's mom had nothing helpful to say when Rude had asked. The man had apparently run off eleven years prior, never to be heard of again, and the desolate new mother hadn't had any of his extended family's contact information.

Frankly, it was their best lead only because of the sheer lack of information. Sure there were other close matches; a pair in Rocket Town, one in each of Junon, Banora and Costa Del Sol, three more under the plate that seemed likely enough, except that there was enough miscellaneous information that their histories didn't seem to fit with a crazed lab technician operating as a part of a terrorist group genetically manipulating a virus to spread this apocalyptic plague.

So now it fell to Reno to try to get a biological sample to compare to the DNA of the Strife midget.

Honestly, the red head had nearly quit on the spot when he got the mission parameters. Only the dead eyed stare that Tseng had leveled at him made him reconsider. The poor man. At least Reno didn't have to deal with the insanity that was the Board of Directors. The President had departed only a few hours previously, in the dead of night, despite most of the company still either A) running around like a chocobo without a head or B) largely oblivious and thus in mortal danger. And he hadn't even had the courtesy of leaving a broadcast of the danger, or a decent plan of action. No, he'd said "Stick to the plan, I'll call you when it's safe," and then shuffled himself and Rufus into a chopper.

'I'll call you when it's safe.' What the hell was that supposed to mean?! Safe for whom? And how was he going to even know if Midgar was safe? They weren't broadcasting announcements on any form of media! Scarlet, Heidigger and Palmer were all planning to depart within the next twenty-four hours, and leave their largely overwhelmed and underinformed second in commands in charge. Hojo was detained and stark raving mad, his temporary replacement was an asshole who inherited his dislike for Hollander, who himself was attempting to rebel and seize control of the department even though he was also guilty of misusing the crazy alien cells that were the cause of the whole mess.

So really, it was Tseng, Veld and Reeve trying to take the reins of the entire company. Veld was probably going to simply disappear at some point, and had been more of an administrative paper pusher than a Turk for years now anyway, and Reeve was still under suspicion for being too composed about the whole damn thing. Short staffed did not even begin to describe the Department of Administrative Research.

But here he was, lurking around corners and between abandoned lean-tos, waiting for a bit of extra blood to fall from Zero so that he could scrape it off the dirt and run it back to the temporary head of the science department.

It had been three days.

Frankly, Reno didn't really think it mattered, whether they got genetic proof or not. The circumstantial evidence had been enough to force an in-depth trace of the Strife woman's history, which had lead them to a past relationship in Corel and her former educational history in the same city. From there, Tseng had begun digging and stumbled upon a few purveyors of civil unrest as they were called in his official report.

Granted, there were no official ties between those purveyors and the small Strife family, who seemed ignorant, but, well, Turks generally didn't believe in thing like coincidences, and they really wanted the President to see them doing something. The duo was shipped to Midgar on the most convenient passenger transport they could arrange, and were currently being housed where they could be watched. If nothing else, it would be interesting to see if Zero recognized them and had any familial ties.

Meanwhile, Rude and his team got put on data gathering missions in Corel. Reno's life sucked.

Zero had only come out of Reactor 2 four times in the last three days, as far as Reno could tell. Though, each of those times, he stayed out for hours on end. He'd received one more corpse, which he'd turned his nose up at and refused to eat, and a handful of small deceased offerings from children, one of which he ate. Two questionably dead bodies had been brought directly into the reactor, by enterprising zombie lackeys, and former SOLDIER Zack Fair had been spotted once, wandering around the perimeter of the reactor with a white, dead-eyed stare, and an unnecessarily large sword still strapped to his back.

All of this Reno had reported, but in all that time, not a single drop of liquid ooze had hit the ground from Subject Zero.

Granted, at this point, it was probably all dried and caked on. So goodness only knows how Tseng thought he was going to get a sample off the corpse, but hey, orders were orders.

He was so lost in his own internal grumblings, that the Turk actually missed the approach of the tiny street urchin.

"Hey mister, wha'cha doin' here?"

Reno damn near jumped out of his skin.

The brat was dirty, like all slum dwellers, maybe six or seven, and utterly brazen. He actually had the guts to poke Reno in the arm to get his attention. If he wasn't so thoroughly disgruntled with himself, he might actually like the kid.

The kid poked him again. "Well?"

"Trying to get some of the blood off of that guy, over there" he answered, jerking a thumb around the corner at Zero's general location. It really couldn't hurt to tell the kid at this point. What did he have to lose? "He's really scary lookin' though. But my friend dared me, and now I gotta."

The kid peered around the corner and laughed. "That's King! He's not scary!" and then, before he knew it, the brat had stepped out onto the street and brazenly walked right up to the zombie. Reno watched in awe as the little fool stared at Zero, and Zero stared back down at him. Then the kid poked a couple of fingers past a tear in the corpse's shirt and came away with a smear of black ooze. Zero growled, low and menacing, but the small child calmly patted him on the arm. "Thanks!" he smiled brightly, and then walked back to Reno.

The Turk's jaw was still hanging open after the kid smeared the blood on a handkerchief for him, told him he needed to be less of a sissy, and meandered away.

He booked it back to HQ in a daze of planning. There was no way that that was going to be written down in his report without proper embellishment.

--

There was a Shinra executive at the next meeting of the Zombie High Council.

"The Turks are spread so thin that anyone can get away with basically anything, as I'm sure you're all aware," the man, Reeve, explained to the group. "So I figured it was time to finally meet you all and see the base of operations."

Elmyra didn't like him. He was…suspiciously non-threatening. Like a cook at a soup kitchen who gave you an extra bowl and a kind smile, but you'd never seen him before, he was a bit too different and he'd probably poured poison in the pot.

Her suspicions seemed to be shared by the majority of the room, most of who were shifting uneasily on their feet and making furtive eye contact with each other when the executive wasn't looking. There were a few exceptions of course. Zack, King, Don Coreno and, surprisingly, Josie, the makeup artist seemed to have attached herself to King and refused to let go.

"Yeah, well, now, ya've seen. Got anythin' good ta offer us?" Coreno grumbled, arms folded across his barrel chest.

Once, not all that long ago, Elmyra would have been horribly offended at the idea that she might one day sit in a room with that fat pig in it. Now though… he was still a fat pig with fingers in all the wrong pies, but… at least he was invested in this. Thoroughly invested. He didn't even complain about the profits of his whore houses any more (though that might be because of the prodigious amount of drugs and illicit merchandise he was moving now that Shinra was in shambles) and he was more and more easily swayed by what others on the council had to say, not just King. He wasn't great. But he wasn't the worst. And in this case, he was right.

"Information, mostly" the suit answered, with a calmness that grated like sandpaper. "I've been watching the Turks and tracking what conclusions they come to. So far they've found a few interesting things that we might be able to use, if we play it right."

"Like?"

"Well for one, they seem to be under the impression that King here is the absent husband of one Skye Strife of Nibelheim, father of Cloud Strife."

King choked. Or maybe he smothered a cough. Either way he ended up coughing for a few seconds under everyone's scrutiny. "They think… they think I’m Cloud's father?" he finally managed to eke out.

Which, come to think of it, was rather strange, given that King had originally introduced himself as Cloud. No last name, oddly enough, but back in the beginning, when he still bothered to correct Don Coreno, he had introduced himself as Cloud. Would he have named his kid after himself?

"I have to admit, I'm curious. Is little Cloud your son, King?" Reeve asked, over clasped hands.

"No. No, definitely not," the council leader denied. "Related, yes, but not my kid."

"Hmm. I don't suppose you'll tell us how you're related will you?"

King want quiet, cocked his head to one side and then, after a moment of consideration, shook it.

"Pity. Well, either way, the Turks have taken the Strife duo into custody and plan to see how you react to them-" the table on King's side cracked.

"Sorry, go on," the enhanced man said, prying his fingers out of the divots they had dug into the edge of the surface.

Reeve, off kilter, complied. "Um. Yes, so. They don't have any concrete plans yet, but, uh, I'll keep my ears open and let you know? Yes. Um, and, also, they've taken a look into your- uh- Missus Strife's history and started poking around Corel. They found a budding terrorist group by the name of Avalanche, and are taking that as their primary lead."

King's eyebrows furrowed. "Okay, I get why they're doing that, but what can we gain from it?"

"Well I guess that depends entirely on how you want this to end," Reeve replied. "Tell me King, what's the end goal here."

The pale eyed man looked flummoxed.

"Destroyin' Shinra o'course!" Coreno butted in. "Bring them and theirs down aroun' their ears and see how they like it!"

"Okay, but if we did that, something has to take its place," Elmyra countered. "Doesn't do much good to take out the company that provides most of the infrastructure of the city." Reeve gave her an assessing look, as though sizing up a potential competitor or ally, and then hummed an agreement with her. She narrowed her eyes at him.

"Okay, then we make ourselves a new government after. A real government, like they got in Wutai."

"Wutai has a monarchy, which is basically what Shinra was. We'd be replacing like with like," the executive muttered, seemingly to himself. "It might be better to replace Shinra with a council or something. Something that the populace has a say in." He tapped his fingers against his chin. "I can bring in information if that's what we want to do, but I actually meant a different thing entirely. How are we ending the charade of the zombies?"

When no one made a move to respond, he elaborated. "You can't have meant to keep up the farce forever, and we've almost run the full course of its usefulness. The majority of the directors have been driven from the city, and anyone left with half a brain is spooked and could be manipulated into doing whatever you want. So when that happens, how do you draw this to a close? Is the intention to have a 'miracle cure' or to just break character in the streets?"

"Well honestly, I never thought the plot would get as elaborate as it has, so I never really thought about it," King said. "What would be the benefits of each, in your opinion?"

Reeve's smile reminded Elmyra of a snake. Calculating and far too cold. "Well, personally, I think you should milk this for all it's worth and go for a miracle cure. It would be far too easy for the other executives to reassert control if it came out that the plague was a hoax instead of a grievous error on their part. And to that end, it would be much easier to establish a new governing body if you had the propaganda of a miracle cure on your side. At least, in regards to the ignorant masses on the upper plate."

The King tapped his chin with a dirt smeared finger a couple of times. "That’s not a bad idea. And we definitely have the resources for it. So all we'd have to do is figure out the timing and any goals we want to set before the end."

The director, and indeed, everyone else in around the table who was actually paying attention, blinked in confusion. Nothing was that easy, normally.

"What do you mean we already have the resources?" Elmyra asked, to the general head nodding of the rest of the confused council members.

King smiled beatifically at her. "Why, your daughter of course. She'd be the perfect person to create a miracle cure."

--

The planning session with Reeve was far and away the longest and most arduous council meeting that they had ever hosted. But in the end, they ironed out enough details that Cloud was reasonably sure that the whole plot would be wrapped up within a month or so. Which would be ideal, because the whole thing had already grown far beyond what Cloud was equipped to handle, even with an entire reactor worth of space to hang out in, a council of savvy people to help, and the entirety of his past life to have mulled over how he wanted this to pan out.

Frankly, he just wanted to be able to hop on a motorcycle and to nice long trips out to the wastes to kill things, and he hadn't been able to blow off steam like that for too long. So the sooner this got wrapped up, the better.

Overhead, through the smog of the low humming reactor, Cloud could see the flickering lights of the two Turk helicopters that had been deployed to Nibleheim only a few minutes ago. Reeve had committed to convincing the Turks that it would be in their best interest to do a thorough search of the town, and while they were there, Zack, who had stowed away as an infantryman, would run off to Shinra manor, wake Vincent, convert him to their side with a bunch of information that Cloud had prepped for him, gather the half mauled corpse of Jenova and stow it in the chopper for the next stage of the plan.

Well, first Zack would have to get Jenova from the attic in his old house, but that was just a quick side trip. And really, no matter what the rest of the council said, it had been the perfect hiding place. He wasn't going to leave the thing in any building that had ties to Shinra, and he sure as hell wasn't going to bring the creature back to Midgar where Sephiroth would be affected by it. Since literally no one had any cause to suspect the Strife family of ties to a zombie uprising below the plate in Midgar, it was perfect!

Except apparently they had tied his child-self to things, via facial recognition, and so his old house wasn't exactly the best place to hide things. So really, it was half a miracle that no-one had already found the damn thing, given that they'd abducted the Strife's and moved them to Midgar already. But then, it wasn't like Shinra would suspect it to have been left in Nibleheim, after he'd made such a nice act of stealing the damn thing.

And as though summoned by overly optimistic thoughts, a couple of slum kids in full makeup came barreling into the room, out of breath. Obviously, they were here to give him the bad news. Nobody with good news had this sort of timing. Also, Reeve had said he'd try to make the Turks play their hand with the Strife duo, to get them out of the way.

"They're here," one blurted out, before being shushed by his friends. "Not so loud, this place echoes, remember?"

The first speaker sort of tried to look contrite, with a "oh, right," muttered under his breath, but the kid failed utterly, and his expression was rapidly tilting back towards gleeful. "Is there a good place to watch from?" he asked, at a more appropriate volume.

"If there's room in the monitoring station, you're welcome to squeeze in there, but not outside."

The kids groaned and slumped, but hurried out the door, presumably to try to squeeze their way into he crowded room of the reactor's security station anyway. Cloud took a different hallway and went towards the entrance of the reactor.

Don, Elmyra, Josie and her team were all waiting in one of the rooms off the main hall.

"What do they look like they're they going to do to get my attention?" Cloud asked them, as the makeup team attacked his hair.

"Well, they've hogtied the lady and the mini-you, and dropped 'em in the middle of the street already, so I'm thinkin' tha's it."

Cloud blinked. "Well, I guess that's effective."

"There are also two dozen infantrymen with sniper rifles in the surrounding area," Elmyra deadpanned. "And those are only the ones we can see."

"Ah." Damnit, they'd spent so long on the plan, and within hours there are unexpected snipers? Not how this was supposed to go.

"Yes, so I’m thinking that maybe you should take a few precautions."

"I've got decent armor, but it won't stop sniper rounds, and we can't bring out the regular group with that many guns around. I don't suppose you have any stunning insights or ideas, Missus Gainsborough?" Cloud asked plaintively.

She was quiet for a beat. "We could try to distract them in any way, it will only postpone the whole thing, not solve it. I think we really need to ensure that we get a hold of the Strifes now so they can't force our hand like this ever again. Which means we need to terrify them without putting people out there at all."

"Oh Gaia," Cloud said, for once catching on to her idea before she had to spell it out for him, "you want to blow the reactor."

"What? No, I…"

"It's genius!" Cloud interrupted.

"A great plan, Elmyra m'dear you're a treasure," Don said, backing Cloud up.

"The Turks have been worried about it for a week now anyway, so it'll seem plausible, and we can just go to Reactor 3 and hijack that one instead!"

"That's not what I had in mind…"

 "And if we simply continue the cycle, we can use that method to shut down all the reactors!"

"Wait what now? Wouldn't that be bad for, you know, the people?" his glorious Ideas Lady seemed a bit confused as to how this was suddenly the direction of the conversation.

"I mean, yes, but we'll still have the Deepground reactor that no-one is supposed to know about, and most of the people above the plate will evacuate soon anyway," Cloud started, "and it'd take a week or two regardless, so people could get out if-" but Elmyra cut him off.

"And what about the structural stability of the whole place? The heating, the water pressure, the ability to get food? Midgar has no natural resources to replace those things, nor any helpful neighbors who we can barter with, not that it matters, given that we have nothing to trade except mako, electricity and technology that runs on electricity. And most of the people here, in the slums, don’t have anything saved for emergencies, so we'd all basically starve as people panic and food shortages start. No. I'm using my veto and saying no. We're not shutting down all the reactors. You can have six of them, and you can have them slowly. That’s it."

Cloud spluttered, derailed. "You don't have a veto?"

"I'm a council member, and no one said that I didn't have one, so I'm saying that I do. Vetoed."

There wasn’t actually anything Cloud could say to that, so he just kind of gaped at her while the crowd of women finished their touchups of his makeup, smirking at each other. It was suddenly perfectly clear to Cloud that the planet was extremely lucky that Aerith hadn't inherited her foster mother's brazen bullheadedness along with her general badassery. The world wouldn't have survived.

"She's not wrong, ya know," Don said, almost as though he was a confused at himself for not taking Cloud's side. "Bout the veto, or 'bout the reactors."

The pair of them looked at their leader, presumably for direction, but Cloud wasn't actually ready to give coherent thought. He did actually know that they couldn't shut down the reactors all at once or even in quick succession. He'd gone through the process enough times in former lives. But that wasn't the issue. He was still having a bit of a crisis of epiphany, realizing just how lucky he was with Aerith being as comparatively mellow as she was.

Elmyra eventually took pity on him and gave him a prompt to get back on track. "We can definitely blow this one, though. It is a good idea, even if I hadn't thought of it. And we have a pretty good route to Reactor 3, so that's a safe bet, as long as you take out or scare off the guards for us. Could you do that?"

"Um. Yes. Uh. Yeah, I can do that."

She beamed at him, and it was a perfect mirror of Aerith's manipulative tendencies. Cloud shuddered.

"Do we have time? Do the troops outside look antsy, I mean?"

Don, the overly large and scummy blessing that he was, quickly diverted back to the logistics with Cloud. "Well, them Shinra dogs always look a bit trigger-happy dun they, 'specially now we given 'em the run around, but they dun look like they're watchin the clock, if tha's your issue."

"Well that's good. We need to alert our people, get them ready to move. Girls, if you would?" The makeup crew, ever listening when they weren't gossiping, gave a series of determined nods and began backing out of the room. "Have everyone meet at the side entrance, but don't go out yet."

"You got it, King," one said, and they departed.

"We need to break the reactor," Elmyra stated. "Is there an easy way to do that with any degree of safety?"

"In theory, yes, but nothing I could describe to anyone easily. Fortunately for us, we have a phs and access to Cait Sith."

The woman's eyes lit up. "Of course, I'll get to it then!" and she nearly sprinted out of the room, already dialing the phs Reeve had gifted to her.

"Don, you'd probably head out too, you're not a known zombie and so you shouldn't be seen running with us."

The mobster seemed torn. The council had been all but living in the reactor together for the last two weeks. Frankly, the otherwise odious man had gotten attached to his fellow planners in a way that spoke of a lifetime of too few friends and even fewer equals. It was almost sad, really, how invested the man had gotten in the plan. "I'll meet up in the new reactor as soon as I can."

"Sure. Keep an eye out for messengers- I'll let you know if anything happens."

Properly mollified, the crime boss shuffled out the door, probably to head to the underground passage they'd established only a few days ago. It let out in the basement of a nearby warehouse, and was intended to be their primary method of getting supplies into the reactor. Fat lot of good it would do for that now.

The only one left now, Cloud pulled out his own phs, setting it to vibrate only on messages from Elmyra and firing off a message to the woman. "Can you do it?" In general, no one ever really called each other. Not just because they had previously lacked the sheer number of phs's that they had now, but because all knew how stupid it would look for a zombie to answer their phone. And besides, she was talking with Cait Sith.

The little thing buzzed in his hand with a three word reply. "Yes. Ten minutes."

"Message me a two minute warning. Make sure you give Josie five." He waited for the confirmation and then tucked the phs under his bulletproof vest.

Hopefully, two minutes would be enough. He only needed to grab his unsuspecting family and get them all to Reactor 3 before the main group got there, all while hoping that the meltdown of the reactor stopped Shinra from either catching him with a bullet or realizing that the bulk of the zombies were making a break for it. So if Sephiroth was out there, hiding, he was basically doomed.

He sighed audibly and went for the nearest storage room. He couldn't damn well use his own sword, he was only supposed to be a deceased lab grunt after all, but thankfully, Zack's cover as a trooper meant that he'd had to leave his monstrous slab of steel behind. May as well take it out for a spin.

--

Chapter Text

--

 

"What do you mean you blew up Reactor Two!" Zack's tinny voice bleated through the speaker of Clouds phs. Honestly, it didn't even sound like a question, more of a series of squeaky exclamation points echoing out of the device- particularly because Cloud was holding it a solid two feet from his ears, in preparation for this type of reaction.

"That’s not the important thing here," the blonde said, attempting to bulldoze over Zack's oncoming tantrum. "I need-" the phs made a sound like a miniature grandhorn and Cloud frantically mashed the 'volume down' button. "Zack, shut up for a-" more grandhorn noises. "Right. I'll just let you get that out of your system for a bit," he muttered, and pressed 'end call.'

There was a solid thirty seconds of blessed silence in the closet where the time-traveler was hiding before the device began to ring again. Cloud declined the call and instead, sent a brief message: "Are you going to yell at me if I pick up?"

Five seconds later, he got a reply of "I hate you." Grinning, he placed the call.

"So what were you saying about Vincent?" he began with.

"I hate you very much. We are not done talking about this."

"Later," Cloud said, flapping his hand, as though to brush away the concerns of a man who was literally hundreds of kilometers away from him and could in no way see the gesture. "What did you do to my vampire?"

"I didn't do anything! Apparently it's you he dislikes." Zack managed to sound both smug and disappointed in himself at the same time. "Those pamphlets you made up? Apparently they're both insane and obviously false, so he booked it as soon as he could. Now tell me about the reactor."

"We didn't really blow it up, it's just a bit… melted. And my pamphlets were fine! What did you say to him?"

Zack laughed, a touch hysterically, from the other side of the line. "Fine? King, I read one of them after he bolted. No sane person on the face of the planet would take those things at face value! You sounded insane! And possibly like a cult leader," he added, sounding a bit confused. "Are we in a cult? The Vincent guy asked me if I need help getting out."

Cloud had to take a moment and think over his past life choices. "I don’t think we're a cult?" he said, while shuffling around and finding a sealed bucket of some sort of cleaning supply to sit on. "Does it feel like a cult to you?"

"Dunno. I've never been in one before."

Not according to Cloud's memories, but whatever. "Me neither," he lied. "But lets assume we're not anyway. What happened after he ran away? Did you see where he went?"

"Yeah man, he went straight to the center of town, and then found the Turks stationed here. They talked a bit, but I couldn't hear them. The wind's crazy in these mountains did you know? Like, how does anyone have kids up here, they should all have blown away by now. I swear I sa-"

"Yeah, I've been there before, it's insane sometimes, but that's not the point," the blonde said, trying to get Zack back on track. He was a great guy, Zack, but sometimes his attention span needed a bit of help. "What happened with the Turks?"

"I don’t know. They walked off to the inn, and one of them was on a phs at some point. I can follow them tomorrow when they leave, but I'd be late heading out to Corel."

"Ugh, that’s not good, we need you there to drop off the head!"

"Well, I could just hitch a ride with these guys, same as before. It'd be less suspicious than if the transport simply lost a trooper somewhere in the mountains like we planned."

"True. And I got word from the team in Corel that they're ahead of schedule, so it could be as easy as dropping it off and leaving." He mulled it over.

"It would be only barely slower for me to wait and take the chopper than it would be to go by bike anyway," the purple eyed man helpfully pointed out.

"You just don't want to have to drive all night in the cold, don't you," Cloud grumbled.

"Well, I’m just saying. Speed, comfort and a chance to eavesdrop on what the Turks are planning? It doesn't sound like a bad idea to me."

And then it hit the time-traveler like a freight train. "Shit. It won't matter if the head's in Corel anyway if Vincent tells them it's all a charade. The Turks might have already called their boss, and the gig is up." He sagged into the wire frame shelving behind him and accidentally knocked over a mop. Perhaps the closet wasn't the best place to hide in. "Did he keep any of the pamphlets? What did you tell him?"

"Dude, I did exactly like I practiced, and I'm not sure how much you can take away from the pamphlet- it was definitely creepily cultish."

Zack might have gone on, but Cloud stalled and stopped hearing things. "Wait. You practiced? What did you practice?" Dread filled his stomach. "Who did you practice with?"

"Don? Don gave me a script and your updated pamphlet thing. I mean, I've got a couple of the original ones too, those ones were better, I thought, but he's right the new ones have better dramatic flair. Also, what's his actual name? Don's a title right? Is Coreno his first name or his last name, do you know?"

"Zack. I didn't authorize any updated pamphlet." And another creeping realization came to him. "Oh Gaia. Don Coreno thinks Vincent is an actual vampire. Zack, please tell me Don Coreno didn't give you a script to recruit a vampire."

There was a long pause on the line.

"Well, it started with Greetings oh great Lord of the Night, so I'm not sure what you want of me here. And the pamphlet had blood stains on it. Bonus though, he didn't take it with him."

Cloud slammed his head into the wall. "Well, maybe we're safe. But yeah, I think it's probably better if you took the chopper to Corel. Also, do me a favor and read off that pamphlet for me?"

--

Reno was moping. He'd called Tseng, to get his opinion on whether Subject Zero's possession of the late Lieutenant Fair's sword meant that the ex-SOLDIER was dead or not, and had been informed that someone had lit Niblehim on fire without him.

Not that he wanted to light entire towns on fire generally, but if that was the job to be done, obviously, he sort of expected that he warranted a part in the mayhem.

Sure, it wasn't actually the entire town that was on fire, just the reactor, the old Shinra mansion and one particular house that had previously been occupied by the Strife duo, but that was three whole buildings that Reno hadn't been allowed to light on fire! And on top of that, the preliminary report that Tseng had sent back implied that there was a whole host of other advantageous discoveries that had been made. Insights into the whole origin of the zombies! Cover-ups by Hojo! Not actually dead former Turks! All in a small mountain town that had absolutely no zombies in it. What. What had he done to Tseng to deserve being left in Midgar?

Trying not to sigh like an overdramatic teenage girl, he rolled onto his back and stared morosely up at the bottom of the plate above him. Predictably, he was on a roof again.

Technically, he was supposed to be surveying the entrance to Reactor 3 and overseeing the safety of the barriers that a few infantrymen -disguised as slum dwellers- were attempting to build around the major roads in the area, but really, there were cameras pointed at the entryways and the only zombies he'd seen all day were the two sitting and drooling on a crate just outside the doors. Frankly, after nearly seven weeks of this, the novelty and horror of the generic zombies was beginning to wear off.

He was drifting in and out of consciousness, staring blankly upward, when something suddenly moved in the corner of his vision. Reno blinked back into focus, staring incredulously.

There was no way.

No. No one could possibly be stupid enough to try rappelling down to the slums from the underside of the plate could they?

He tentatively flipped over and clambered further up the corrugated metal roof. Yeah, that was definitely a thing, probably a person, or maybe two people, hanging from a rope from one of the massive pipes on the underside of the plate.

Of all the stupid, suicidal things to do in the middle of the zombie apocalypse! He grabbed the pair of binoculars that Tseng had inflicted upon him a couple of weeks back, took sight of his target and immediately burst out laughing. Professor Hojo and one what appeared to be a young lab flunky of his were dangling several dozen feet from the bottom of the plate.

He grabbed for his phs and went to dial Tseng, but paused, thumb hovering over the 'call' button. No. There was a better option. He switched to messaging and sent off a quick notification to his Boss before dialing General Sephiroth.

The General picked up on the second ring. "Turk. What business do you have calling me?" he said in the most soulsuckingly monotonous tone Reno had ever heard.

"My dear General, there's no need for that tone, you know I'd only bother you with the most serious and dire of concerns," he drawled, watching the delusional scientists sway on the rope. The no-name lab assistant appeared to be simultaneously clinging to Hojo desperately and trying to touch him as little as possible.

"And what is it that is so dire?"

"Yo- were you aware that our darling Professor Hojo has broken out of his cell?"

"What."

"Mmhm, he appears to have recruited one of his assistants and is currently trying to get off the plate."

"Location," he demanded. The distinct sound of Sephiroth's leather coat swishing through the air and a door closing issued through the phone.

"The underside of the Sector 4 Plate, near the edge of Sector three. They're hanging from a rope off of one of the water main pipes, I think. If you look up, you can't miss him."

"…hanging from a rope?"

"Yep. It's too short to get them to the ground, from what I can see."

There was a long and measured exhale on the other side of the line. "I'll be there soon. Have you informed Tseng?"

"Sent him a message, I’m sure he's trying to call me now, but you were more invested in his removal, so I thought I'd give you the honors."

"Mm. I do appreciate it. Thank you, Reno." And then the man hung up, leaving a baffled Turk staring blankly at his phs. Had he really just been thanked by the General of Shinra? Was that normal? It didn't seem normal. Honestly, he hadn't even expected the man to know his name.

His phs began ringing and he picked up Tseng's call. "This better not be a prank Reno," his boss said, or rather, hissed, from the other side of the speakers. Damn, he must be having a bad day.

"No, not a prank. The good Professor and an associate of his are hanging off the Sector 4 Plate's water lines. I don’t think they're going to get to the ground any time soon though. Unless they fall."

"I don't have time for this," the man muttered, and wow, he must be having a spectacularly bad day, if he was saying things like that out loud.

"Don't worry boss-man, I know you're busy, so I called the General. He said he'd take care of it."

And then it was Tseng's turn to say nothing for a few seconds. "Well, I guess that does make my life easier. I'll coordinate with him if it comes to that. Keep an eye on things for me, Reno."

"No problemo, how's the mess in Corel doing? Anything you need help with? If you need more hands on deck, you know I'm your guy right?"

"I need you here, Reno. We have Corel under control at the moment."

Well that was disappointing. "Of course it is, but I'm just sayin'."

"Keep me informed," Tseng demanded, and hung up. Well. Apparently his boss could take lessons on manners from the General.

The red-head amused himself with watching the antics of the struggling pair for the next twenty minutes. They looked rather like an insect trapped in a spider web, attempting to wriggle itself free, but with utmost futility. It was a lovely situation to find the repulsive man in, and he would cherish this memory forever, he decided. When he caught a flash of distinctive silver hair watching from a similar rooftop vantage point half a kilometer away, he gave a perfunctory sweep of the boring entrance to Reactor 3 before running off to meet up with the General. There were enough cameras that he wasn't really necessary anyway.

He caught up with the SOLDIER just on the other side of the wall to Sector 4 and got a cursory nod acknowledging his presence before the man dropped to the street level and bee-lined for the wayward Professor.

Eventually they drew close enough to hear the man's weasel-y voice. And consequently, be noticed.

"Sephiroth, I do hope you've come to your senses by now," the man started, sneering.

"My senses were never impaired, Professor," was the General's bland response. "Yours, apparently still leave much to be desired, however. Tell me, what are you hoping to accomplish from there?"

"Well obviously, I'm escaping to stop this damn mess. Surely that much is clear, boy!"

And, like, wow there was a lot more animosity between the two than Reno was aware of. Wasn't the Professor supposed to be the General's dad?

"It has certainly been made clear to you, Professor, that there is a severe lack of confidence in your motives and ability to do so."

"Ha, if that idiot of a president can't see the necessity of my work, then that's not my problem. We both know I’m indispensible, I'll find another lab, another way to make this cure. And when I figure that out, and figure out how this disease is cheating death, I'll take great pleasure in denying the insolent fool the chance to live forever with me!"

The General's face seemed to have developed a tic at one edge of the upper lip. "That is, of course, dependant on your ability to escape. You don't seem to be doing so well. Can the vaunted and brilliant head of the Science Department not measure out a simple length of rope? It certainly doesn't speak well to your planning skills, does it?"

Gaia, Reno wished he had popcorn. And had had the forethought to record video of this. He absently opened an app on his phs to begin recording audio of the rest. Better late than never, right?

"THIS SITUATION IS NOT MY FAULT! If this IMBECILE here had bothered preparing better, we'd be gone by now!" The tech clinging to the irate scientist scrunched further into himself, cowering but unable to hide from the shrieking madman. "Now, if you would put aside your petty disbelief and help me down, we can have this whole debacle wrapped up within the month, so for once in your life, do as your told boy!"

Oh man, how the hell did the man thing that calling The General petty and a boy multiple times was going to make him inclined to help in any way? Or even inclined to keep him alive, for that matter?

Unsurprisingly, Sephiroth seemed to have come to the same conclusion. There was a particularly nasty smile cutting a gash across his face. "Why certainly, Professor, you'll be on the ground in just a moment," he said. And without a hint of warning, his unnecessarily long sword was arcing through the air. A moment later, the rope above the professor snapped.

Well, Reno supposed, that certainly was fulfilling the man's request. And was not entirely unexpected really. The Professors shrill yell as he plummeted and the dull crunch and snap of the pair of men hitting the ground from thirty feet up was… not quite satisfying, but more like the period at the end of a particularly damning report.

The pair had landed in a heap, just on the other side of a trash pile half the height of the lopsided houses on either side of them. With those poor lines of sight, Reno really should have guessed that they'd end up finding a nasty surprise waiting for them around the corner.

When the Turk and the General came into sight of the downed scientists, they found Hojo unconscious, possibly dead, having been landed on by the tech. The tech, was awake, but seemed to be in shock, clutching his visibly broken leg and bleeding at from a head wound. He was also cowering and pointedly not looking in the direction of the milky white gaze of Subject Zero, at the other end of the street. The lab tech must have known about the watcher, and for some idiotic reason, not said anything.

Zero had the late Lieutenant's sword resting lightly in his grip, tip pointing at the ground, but there was something extremely unsettling about the stillness of him. Reno's hand settled on his mag-rod unconsciously, and beside him, Sephiroth's hand went immediately to his own sword.

"You. Technician. Get over here."

The science flunky hastily scrambled to his good leg and limp/hopped to Reno's side as fast as he could manage. Zero let out an echo-y, inhuman growl at the poor man's retreating back, and the tech whimpered, looking as though he might burst into tears at any moment.

"This one is ours," the General said to Zero as he stepped partially in front of the terrified technician. Then, pausing as if weighing his options, the silver haired man conceded, "that one is dead. If you want him, we won't fight you for him."

Reno's sharp inhale could not have gone unnoticed by the General, but he didn't say anything. Slowly, Zero's gaze dropped from the General to the body between them. The zombie seemed to sniff, cocking his head to the side. In slow, predatory movements, he crept forward. Reno seized the tech around the waist and the three of them retreated in equal measure, not taking their eyes off of Zero.

The zombie crouched to inspect the late professor, laying a pale hand on what looked to be a crushed portion of his rib cage. Seemingly satisfied, the zombie growled once more at them, grabbed the body by the ankle turned his back on them, dragging his prize away.

"Oh shit," the tech said, sliding slowly to the ground once the creature was out of sight. "Oh shit, oh Gaia."

"Damn," Reno echoed, suddenly finding that his knees were shaking uncontrollably. "Ha, Sephiroth, if we end up having to deal with an undead Hojo, I’m blaming it all on you." He stumbled to the nearest stable vertical surface and leaned his back against it. "Maybe, if we're lucky, they'll try to eat him and get sick."

Sephiroth hummed an agreement. "We need to leave before more of them show up."

"Sure man, just give my knees a minute. I gotta call Tseng."

--

It wasn't as if they hadn't explained the whole thing with the scientist, or that their explanation was lacking in any way. It was just that it seemed wrong to throw a person into a mako reactor, regardless of whether or not he was a horrible person or already dead. So she felt she was a justified in ignoring King for a while.

Well, not entirely ignoring. She was happy to stick around when that Shinra Director man yelled at the King for abandoning their well thought out and supposedly foolproof plan on the very first day. (Though if she was honest with herself, it wasn't King's fault- Don Coreno had more of a hand in that than he did.) No irreparable damage had been done, as far as anyone could tell, but it was a bigger scare than any of them had wanted.

And King couldn't possibly have predicted the escape of the Science Professor either, so they couldn't have planned that if they'd wanted to. But really, it could have been handled less… distastefully.

In her newfound time, she ended up hanging out with the newly acquired Strife family. Skye was a very nice, if slightly oblivious woman, and her son was a darling boy, shier than her Aerith had been at that age, but curious and adaptable all the same. Little Cloud was very enthusiastic about learning the ways of the zombies, and while Skye was still confused over the whole plot, she seemed willing enough to play along, if only for her son's sake.

So when the call finally came in that the Flying-Purple-People-Eater had been destroyed by the Turks in Corel, she was happy to include the pair of Strifes in cleaning Aerith up in preparation for 'the grand unveiling' as King kept calling it.

It was rather odd that King was so amused with Don Coreno's dramatic streak when the man seemed so oblivious to his own.

Don Coreno, obviously, had wanted fanfare and a show when Aerith emerged from the reactor, but honestly the man probably would have included trumpets and harps and a chorus of dramatically sighing ladies if he could have, so no one was listening to him anymore. The mess with the vampire thing had come too close for too many people, and even now, no one knew what that Vincent fellow was up to. The last time she'd seen Don, he'd been adopted by his own kitchen crew, who seemed to be determined to keep him out of the way by burying him in cake batter.

To be honest, it seemed like he was rather enjoying his newly enforced hobby.

King, on the other hand, had argued that Aerith should appear to have tamed the entire hoard of zombies that currently occupied Reactor 3, and lead them along like chocobos behind a their rancher all the way through the slums.

Thankfully, all Elmyra had had to do to shoot down that plan was give the ridiculous blonde a severely disappointed look for a solid thirty seconds.

And so, one early afternoon, Elmyra's beloved daughter simply decided that she was done waiting for everyone else to make plans for her. She gathered the people she wanted, and, freshly showered, she simply poked her head out of the front doors of the reactor. After checking that there weren't a bunch of snipers or Turks waiting in ambush, she just walked out. Skye and her son, both looking dirty but fully alive, followed her. Little Cloud towed zombie-Zack out by the elbow behind them. Elmyra followed them, in her own practiced zombie shuffle, making sure to look as lost as Zack did.

The small procession made it half way to Sector 7 before their Turk entourage became obvious, and her darling girl kept up a constant stream of chatter with Cloud to make it apparent that neither of them were any danger.

They wandered past the house she hadn't been back to in weeks, and Aerith waved at a few midday shoppers, who waved confusedly back. Goodness only knew what would have happened if they hadn't sent some of the makeup crew out to spread rumors of a 'cure' that they would be implementing.

The group of five piled into the abandoned church, and Skye immediately frowned at the state of cleanliness of the place. Elmyra recognized the look, she had had many similar thoughts about the place.

And thank goodness for Skye and her boy! They put up with Elmyra and Zack's zombie act as they pushed them into cleaning. Cloud seemed to have a lot of fun pulling and pushing Zack into doing whatever it was he wanted, much to the panic of the Turk in the rafters, she was sure. Together the four of them tucked church benches into alcoves, gathered dusty and rotted wood, loose stone blocks and old clay ceiling tiles together and out of the way. They swept, Skye dusted and Cloud's boundless energy made it nearly fun.

Aerith, meanwhile, plopped herself down in the small plot of flowers she had started a few years back, and set herself to the task of communing with the planet. The process had been explained to her by King, and while Elmyra was extremely skeptical (talking the planet? The last of a separate race of pacifist humanoids? Getting advice from those long dead ancestors that exist in a lifestream? What in Gaia's name is a lifestream?), but she kept her mouth shut. She had less experience with these Cetra things than the other man, and Aerith seemed to understand what he had prattled on about, so she was willing to let Aerith give it a shot.

They slept there overnight, for which, Elmyra's back most certainly did not thank her. Actually, it was more correct to say that everyone save for Zack slept, and when they eventually woke, Zack drifted off, still sitting upright in a pulpit and looking every inch a brain-dead corpse. Eventually, they began bringing in dirt to fill other shattered sections of the floor and Skye began slowly transferring Aerith's hard grown flowers out of the middle of the church. Just in time, too. They had only just finished clearing the circle Aerith had designated when all of a sudden there was water bubbling up from nowhere.

Well, who would have guessed! King sort of knew what he was talking about after all.

--

"I hear congratulations are in order," Reeve said dryly. "The Zombie threat has been eliminated, and the slums have a new Queen."

"Shut up. It's not my fault the plan went to shit."

Reeve gave Cloud a single raised eyebrow of disdain, and said nothing.

"If you hadn't made us put together a plan in the first place, there wouldn't have been a plan to mess up. So I'm blaming you," the five-hundred-year-old said, with the pout and logic of a stubborn eight year old. "We clearly didn't need it anyway."

"Yes. Clearly. Because you had a defined goal more than an inkling of how to wrap the whole charade up without allowing President Shinra to swan back in and resume his control."

A lesser man would have stuck his nose in the air, crossed his arms and ignored the sarcasm. Cloud was trying reallllly hard not to be the lesser man.

Below them and across the street, there was a small pack of zombies being gently and slowly shepherded by Zack and Elmyra into the church. Inside, Aerith was watching over the use of her holy water to wash off the elaborate makeup and prosthetics. Camera crews from the upper-plate media stations occasionally poked their lenses through one of the broken windows, but were otherwise banned from the interior. Instead, the nosy reporters waffled between keeping a weary distance from the pack of zombies, and trying to engage Lieutenant Fair in conversation. The one media spokeswoman with bright red nails and a simpering tone that even Reeve flinched from seemed particularly persistent.

Needless to say, Elmyra was doing most of the zombie wrangling. Zack was practically using them as meat shields.

"Why are you really here? The Turks have to be following you."

"Following you, more like. They stopped caring about my movements a long time ago. Tseng had too much else on his plate." Reeve said. "But now I'm here to offer you a job."

The blonde whipped around. "Say what now?"

"Well, from what the Turks have uncovered, you're a lab tech of some qualification who has been enhanced by this virus and since cured. They want to assess your knowledge and offer you a place as either a scientist or in the army, I assume. The science department is rather…understaffed. Has been for a while now. Something about 'hostile work environments' or so I'm told. And the army is always looking for new recruits."

Cloud ogled at him.

"Or they might just want to interrogate you and then hide you in a dungeon for the rest of your unnatural life," the director deadpanned.

Strangely, that was much more comforting, and Cloud felt his shoulders relax. "Yeah, that sounds much more realistic. Not that I'm gonna let that happen, obviously, but good to know."

"What are you going to do then?"

Cloud shrugged. "Dunno. Guard Aerith for a bit, probably. Blow up some reactors, if I feel the urge. It's really a shame we didn't take out a few more while we had the chance. I'll have to find Vincent and set him straight at some point too."

"Hmm, I don't think that last one will be too hard," the darker haired man said, with a knowing smirk. "I saw him just this morning. He came back with Tseng and his crew from Corel a few days ago, apparently."

Cloud, now gripping the edge of his patch of roof very hard, managed to wheeze out a "and you only thought to mention this now?"

The other man shrugged. "Didn't seem relevant. He wasn't part of the plan anymore. Because, you know, the plan got ruined on day one."

"You're an ass, and I hate you."

"Are we resorting to name calling now? I thought you had more class than that 'King'."

Cloud elected to ignore him. "Did you find out what they know? What did our lost vampire tell them?"

"Apparently enough that the Turks were the ones to set the mansion in Shinra on fire, and decommission both the Nibelheim and Corel reactors. So, it couldn't have gone any better, really."

At this point, Cloud was not ashamed to admit that he was actually gaping. "How the fuck did we manage that?"

"I haven't the faintest idea," Reeve said with a placating smile. "But I'm sure that between them and Aerith, the rest of the reactors will go soon. The citizens of the plate love her, apparently."

"Yeah, yeah, good job you sly bastard, you're a media manipulating wiz," was the grumbled response.

"It's not as though it was difficult. There was obviously something wrong, some abysmal cover-up going on and everyone was looking for a savior. You provided one handily enough, and ta-da. Anyone with half a brain could have done it. I just happened to have… resources."

"And now they're calling her the Queen of the Living," he sighed.

"Yes, and now they're calling her that. Did you know that there are already fan groups that want you and her to become a couple? The Queen of the Living and the King of the Undead. You're a romantic pairing for the ages."

Cloud, horrified, wheezed so hard that he fell off the roof.

Laughing, Reeve peered over the side to look down on him, sprawled in a mud pile and still sputtering, aghast and offended. "So about that job offer."

Cloud gave him a single fingered response and went to go rescue Zack from his red-nailed huntress. He could use some therapeutic destruction, and the poor Lieutenant probably wouldn't ask questions until it was too late. If the Turks and Aerith were going to team up to shut down the reactors, he wanted the chance to ruin one himself before there were none left.

--

"By the way, Reeve, whatever happened to the rest of the board of directors?"

"Hmm? Oh. Well, the president said he'd call us when it was safe. We haven't been called, so we're continuing to operate to the best interest of Shinra Company and Midgar as a whole until then."

"Nobody's told them? Why the hell has no one told them? The Turks should've at the very least!"

"Tseng sent an update, once, but for some reason, he hasn't gotten a response back." Reeve said, looking the picture of innocence. "I think he's using the time as a vacation, now. The poor man has been extremely stressed lately. And really, they abandoned us. It only seems fair, doesn't it? Besides, I'm sure they're perfectly happy on their isolated little island."

Cloud caught the calculating glimmer of Reeve's look. "What island did you say they were on again?"

 

--

 

The End