The first text came just after Avalanche's failed attempt at blowing up the Sector 5 reactor.
Cloud was at Aeris's house, set up in the spare bedroom after their escape from the Turks. His PHS beeped twice in his pocket – a forlorn sound, painfully loud in the tranquil silence of a house settling down to sleep. The blond ex-SOLDIER fished it out and flipped the black clamshell open, expecting a message from Tifa, worrying over him. He hadn't given anyone else in Avalanche his number yet.
Subject: Is it really you?
'Hey, Cloud, right? It's Kunsel - I'm a friend of Zack's. You ever hear of me? It's been a long time, maybe you've forgotten. Zack used to talk about you a lot, but then you disappeared on the same mission as he did. I couldn't believe it when I heard about what went down at the Sector 5 reactor. You're supposed to be dead, yet you suddenly turn up in Midgar! Could it be the other escapee was you?'
He should have ignored it. But the name struck a chord, even though the message didn't make any sense.
Against his better judgement, he tapped out a quick response.
'What are you talking about? Who's Zack?'
He waited, but there wasn't a reply, so he set the PHS on the bedside table and lay down to sleep on the soft, cool sheets. It had been a long time since he'd slept in a bed like this. How long, exactly? He couldn't remember, but it felt like years.
Just as he was about to drift off, the silence shattered under the high-pitched tones once more. He fumbled to smother it before the sound could wake up the rest of the house.
Subject: Are you serious?
'You don't need to play dumb with me. I won't report you to ShinRa.'
Annoyed now, Cloud sent a reply.
'I don't have anything to do with ShinRa anymore. I quit SOLDIER. How did you get this number?'
The wait for the response was even longer this time. He didn't bother lying back down - simply sat there in the dark, walls of the room lit a faint blue from the screen's glow.
Subject: Something's not right
'I need to check up on some things. I'll be in touch.'
Weird. Maybe a misunderstanding.
Cloud entered the name and number in his PHS as a precaution, then promptly put it out of his mind, and drifted off to sleep.
Contrary to his expectations, that was not even close to the end of the mysterious messages. But Cloud had forgotten about the unusual PHS mail he'd received the night before in the midst of his rush to save Tifa from Don Corneo. Until the message tone cut through the clamour of Wall Market, demanding his attention.
Subject: Heard about your plan
'Getting into the Don's place, right? You gotta check out the Honeybee Inn. I bet they'd have the stuff you need! You need a Member's Card to get in, though. There's a guy who hangs around outside Wall Market who gives them out.'
He fumbled and nearly dropped the PHS in his shock. The hell?
'How do you know about that? And you still haven't told me how you got this number.'
The words on the screen didn't even come close to expressing how spooked he was.
The reply came swiftly.
Subject: I've got your back
'It's no use trying to keep secrets from me, because I know how to get information. So you can drop the act. Trust me. I can't do a lot, but I'm gonna look out for you.'
Cloud looked over his shoulder, paranoid. Who could have possibly told? The dressmaker?
In the end, he got the Member's Card and went to the Honeybee Inn, out of curiosity more than anything else. It did help his disguise a lot, but when he asked the guys in the hot tub if they knew a 'Kunsel', he wound up getting asked if it was a crush or a boyfriend, followed by an odd mix of leering and high-pitched wailing.
The conversation fell apart from there.
They had Tifa back, and everyone had made it out of Corneo's mansion thankfully unmolested. Now Cloud was busy trying very, very hard not to pass out from the stench of sewage. He was a guy. Guys weren't supposed to mind things like this. And after the past few hours, he was determined to protect whatever manliness he had remaining.
He was also a SOLDIER, though, and this was one of those instances where even slightly enhanced senses were an awful, awful burden.
Two lonely beeps echoed down the drain. It was the third time that hour.
"Is that your PHS?" Tifa asked.
"Yeah." He stabbed a rat scurrying in front of them with his sword, just to give him an excuse to focus on something else. It was a big rat at least, so he didn't feel bad.
"Then why aren't you answering it? It might be the others trying to contact us!" Avalanche preferred to use mail rather than calling directly. Easier to encrypt, and less chance of ShinRa being able to hone in on their position that way.
"It's not," Cloud replied. "It's just spam." And as far as he was concerned, that was the end of the discussion.
It was just too creepy. Who the hell knew that much about Midgar's sewers?
"Those… those bastards! What the hell's it all for?" Barrett railed at the sky, waving his gun arm haphazardly.
Dust swirled around his boots. The air was so choked with smoke that even with a whole section of the Plate gone, they still couldn't see the sun.
His PHS beeped – the sound almost lost under the wailing of the grieving and wounded.
Subject: Sector 7
'If you're reading this, I guess you made it out okay. Can you believe it? A whole Sector, gone, just like that. I'm on crowd control in Sector 8 right now, it's a disaster. You should know, they're blaming you guys for dropping the Plate. Yeah, right. Who do they think they're trying to fool? The slums were getting to be a real problem. They're not even talking about rebuilding-'
There was more, but Cloud deleted the message without bothering to read the rest. Right now, he couldn't care less what someone in ShinRa had to say.
Less than two days later, Cloud lay flat on the concrete floor of a holding cell, staring up at the featureless grey ceiling. He couldn't sleep, even though he was still tired from all the fighting and stair climbing and vent crawling they'd been doing earlier. His thoughts refused to settle.
His PHS screen lit up, painting the cell with a dull blue light. For some reason, even though ShinRa had gone to the trouble of confiscating their weapons and materia after their botched rescue attempt, they hadn't bothered to take his PHS. Maybe they forgot. It had been a busy couple of days for the company, after all. Or more likely they were hoping someone would call for help, leading any remaining Avalanche members straight into the behemoth's den.
Cloud had been determined to ignore the mystery messages, deleting them as quickly as they arrived. He toyed with the PHS for a moment, still simmering with anger at ShinRa, but not so hot-blooded anymore.
He didn't know what to make of this 'Kunsel' person who'd been messaging him almost religiously these past few crazy days. On one hand, he was suspiciously-well-informed. On the other, his tips to help him get into Corneo's mansion had turned out good. And he had tried to warn him about ShinRa's plan to pin the Plate disaster on them, even though Cloud hadn't been in the mood to listen.
With an air of weary resignation, he scrolled through his mail.
Subject: Don't panic
'Heard you guys were captured. I told you to be careful! Have you been ignoring me? Still, it was pretty gutsy, walking straight into Headquarters like that. You're certainly living up to the SOLDIER reputation, at least. I've hardly had any sleep this week thanks to you. You better be grateful.'
A tentative hope began to take seed. He was reluctant to trust anybody from ShinRa after what happened in Sector 7, but he was out of options, and his mystery contact might be the last lifeline they had left.
Besides, it wasn't as though things could get any worse at this point.
'You have a plan?'
Subject: Just sit tight
'I'm working on it. I can't do a lot from the inside without blowing my cover, but I'll figure something out.'
"Whose PHS was that?" Barrett demanded. "I'm tryin' to sleep in here! It ain't comfortable as it is! Damn ShinRa…"
"Barrett, shut up!" Tifa complained from the next cell over.
Grumbling, Barrett fell silent again. Cloud rolled over onto his side. Sleeping on the floor of a cold cell felt far too familiar.
Three hours later, he was woken up by another beep from his PHS.
Subject: Check your door
'You'll have to take care of the guards yourself, though.'
Except when Cloud went outside, the guards were already dead.
Cloud swore as the helicopter veered away from the roof of the building, Rufus and Palmer clinging to the rope ladder, swinging out of reach. Too slow. Nothing he could do now. He needed to get the hell out of there and try to meet up with the others before ShinRa clamped its jaws around him again.
He ran for the elevator, jamming the button for the doors. They opened with an obedient ding, and he slipped inside. How far behind was he? Were the others still safe? They should have had a clear run. There hadn't been enough time for anyone to react. Rumours could circulate at light speed, but orders took longer to process.
His PHS beeped just then. He scrambled for it.
Subject: Need a lift?
'Did you see the exhibition floor on your way in? It's a big showcase of ShinRa's technology. One of the highlights is the Hardy-Daytona. It's a real beast, one of the first motorbikes designed with a 4-cyclinder engine – uses a VE4-Ge type. ShinRa touts it as an example of vehicle design, but the reason it hasn't gone into mainstream production is because the thing is too damn heavy.'
Cloud cursed under his breath. He was in the middle of an escape, and Kunsel was telling him about transport research and development?
Until he reached the end of the message, and understanding dawned.
'The weight shouldn't be a problem for a SOLDIER, though. It has a nice, fresh, full tank of fuel, just so you know. Guzzles gas like mad, but ought to be enough to get someone out of Midgar.'
It only took a split second to make the decision. He messaged Tifa to go ahead without him, and slapped the button for the exhibition floor.
Somehow, they'd made it out of Midgar in one piece. Him, Tifa, Aeris, Barrett, and Red XIII.
The truck had been totalled, so they were left heading to Kalm on foot, trudging through the desolate wastes with nothing but a few potions and some low-level materia up their sleeves. The sun beat down mercilessly on his neck, his throat was parched and coated in grit, and there was precious little to look at save the scraggly tufts of shrubbery struggling for life between the rocks. Tifa and Barrett walked a little further ahead, no doubt discussing everything that had happened to Avalanche. Aeris and Red XIII were walking with him, but when Cloud's PHS vibrated in his pocket, he savoured the distraction and dropped behind to read the message in privacy.
Subject: About that girl
'I hear Aeris is with you guys. Take good care of her, okay? She was really important to a good friend of mine. I tried to look out for her, but the Turks were already taking care of it. Guess that didn't work out.'
'I've been meaning to ask for a while now. Who ARE you?'
Subject: Just another SOLDIER
'I guess you wouldn't remember, considering. I'm in SOLDIER, Second Class. We're getting kind of elite these days. ShinRa stopped making new SOLDIERs a couple of years ago. The official reason was that the company didn't see the need after the Wutai War finished, but nobody believes that.
So there aren't that many of us left now - our numbers have been dwindling for a while. Me, I just keep my head down and don't cause any trouble. I'd like to quit, but I guess you know better than anyone that you can't just 'quit' SOLDIER.'
Still no mention of his cryptic comments from the first message he sent, though. And it was odd that he couldn't remember him, considering he was in SOLDIER. Cloud guessed he'd be hard pressed to remember everyone, but it bothered him.
"Aeris," he said in a low voice later, when the others couldn't hear. "Do you know someone called Kunsel?"
Her brow furrowed and lips pursed for a moment in concentration, before nodding. "I think I remember. He was a SOLDIER – a friend of my old boyfriend. I met him once, but it was a long time ago now."
So it was true, then. As much as he'd helped him over the past few days, Cloud had nurtured some doubts. It could have been a code name, or a cover. Or a crazy stalker.
Actually, the crazy stalker points were still stacked precariously high.
"Do you know him?" Aeris asked.
"…No. It was just something I overheard." He didn't want to tell the others about the messages. Aeris would probably understand, but the rest would simply see it as a risk. Cloud certainly had. Why should they trust anyone from ShinRa?
…But then, why would anyone from ShinRa want to help him?
Subject: ShinRa update
'The Vice President has already arrived from Junon to take over the company. His timing's a bit suspicious though, arriving right when he did. And he hasn't made an official statement on the President's death yet either, so everyone's still confused. Some people are suggesting that you guys did it, others are saying it was Sephiroth. I mean, they said Sephiroth was dead, but they said that about you, too.'
Subject: About Avalanche
'I've been thinking about that group you're with. You know, Avalanche used to be a completely different group to the one you're with now. ShinRa took them down eventually, but they didn't brag about it like you'd normally expect. They were really well equipped, too, and had all sorts of weird technology – took out a fair few SOLDIERs in their time. I always wondered where a group like that got that kind of funding. Think I might look into it.'
Subject: The legendary monster
'You ever hear about the Midgar Zolom? I've never seen it myself, but apparently it's a snake as big as a house that lives in the marshes. It was probably just a regular serpent that got mutated by mako waste and grew to a huge size – mutations are really common these days, though ShinRa won't admit the reactors have anything to do with it.
Something like that would eat your average SOLDIER for breakfast, so if you're going through the marshes, be careful. You might want to hire some chocobos from the farm in the grasslands – that way you can just outrun it.'
Cloud stared at the massive carcass impaled on a tree.
He appreciated the warning, but it didn't look like they'd need chocobos after all.
After encountering the Turks in the mythril mines, they were stuck debating what to do. Half of the group thought that they should take the hint to Sephiroth's whereabouts, for lack of any other clue. The other half – although mostly Barrett – thought it was a ShinRa trap.
Cloud's PHS jumped in his pocket. No one was paying him any attention, so he flipped it open and checked his messages in a routine quickly becoming familiar.
Subject: Sephiroth sightings
'You're chasing after Sephiroth, right? The Turks are, too. Heard they're going to Junon to chase up a sighting. The sighting seems real enough – posted up by the Silver Elite. You ever hear about them? They used to be this big exclusive Sephiroth fan club, though these days it's more of a cult. Honestly, they kind of creep me out.'
Confirmation then, that the newest Turk really was a rookie and not planting false leads.
While he was grateful for the tip, he still couldn't entirely shake his paranoia regarding his mystery benefactor, so for the first time in several days, replied.
'I don't get it. Why tell me all this? What's in it for you?'
It took a while for the response to come. Barrett and Tifa kept arguing in the background.
Subject: For the friends I couldn't help
'I had a friend once. I don't know exactly what happened to him, but he ran afoul of ShinRa, I guess, same as you. I couldn't do anything for him. I still have a chance with you.'
It was a disquieting sort of response, and Cloud almost felt guilty for asking. It must have been Aeris's old boyfriend.
He snapped the PHS shut, drawing the attention of the bickering parties. "We're wasting time. Let's go to Junon."
Subject: Watch your pockets
'Be careful heading into the Fort Condor area. There's been a spate of muggings in the forest recently by someone calling herself the 'Treasure Princess'. Reminds me of this kid a friend of mine used to go on treasure hunts with. Come to think of it, she'd be about… nah, it couldn't be.'
"What are you reading? Your PHS? Ohmigawd, that model looks ancient. If I'd seen that I wouldn't have even bothered trying to rob you guys!"
'…You could have told me sooner.'
Subject: Saw you on television
'Nice job in the parade. Did the instructions help? I think you probably only stuffed up, what, twice? Guess that military training stays with you.'
'I was wearing a helmet. How could you tell it was me?'
Subject: Takes one to know one
'Actually, I messed up the instructions I sent you. I was kind of writing it out in a hurry, got left and right mixed up in one part. That's how I knew. Technically, you got it perfect.'
Cloud grumbled under his breath, but reminded himself that he should be grateful he got any sort of instructions at all on such short notice.
Subject: The beach!
'On your way to Costa de Sol! You ever been before? Used to be the favourite spot for SOLDIERs to go on holiday - ShinRa had a bunch of facilities there they could stay at for free. The President has a villa there too, though it doesn't get used very often. Seems like a waste of money. I wouldn't be surprised if they decided to sell it soon.'
"Who is it you're always texting?" Red XIII's voice rumbled next to him in the cramped confines of the submarine cargo hold.
Cloud quietly slipped the PHS back into his pocket. "Sometimes I wonder, too." Red's tail flicked at that, but he didn't pry.
Kunsel wasn't secretly a Turk, was he? He couldn't be. Otherwise Avalanche would have been flushed out before they even blew up the first Reactor. And Fort Condor could have probably beenblackmailed into surrendering.
Subject: Hojo's a jerk
'Apparently he just left a letter of resignation. Happened while you were in Junon, actually. He's disappeared from Midgar. Not sorry to see him go - never liked the guy - but I can't help but feel that with everything else going on, this is a bad omen.
You guys found Sephiroth yet?'
Subject: The Gold Saucer, too?
'Costa De Sol, and now the Gold Saucer? If I didn't know better I'd think you were on a holiday. I doubt there's much behind that sighting, though. I mean, why would Sephiroth go to the Gold Saucer? Whatever he's after, I don't think it's Loveboat rides.'
Subject: You must really like prison
'It's a lot harder to break you out from another Continent, you know. Okay, settle in, I'm going to tell you everything I know about Chocobo Racing.'
"Cloud! I had no idea you were so good at Chocobo Racing!" Tifa gasped when the race was over and the group was reunited.
Cloud shrugged. Knowing the layout of the course in advance helped a lot, even when you were a complete novice. The dirt on the other jockeys didn't hurt, either.
"I made a fortune betting him on him!" Yuffie bragged, arms laden with what appeared to be useless junk from Prison Town.
"I thought you said he was 'definitely going to lose'," Barrett grumbled. It appeared he hadn't fared as well in the betting stakes, if his missing armour was anything to go by. His loss for gambling against a comrade. Although in Barrett's defence, he didn't know said comrade had a handful of aces stuffed up his sleeves.
The messages kept coming. Three, four, half a dozen times a day. Cloud replied once for every ten messages sent, but it didn't seem to put off his dedicated informant any. The ex-SOLDIER was frankly bewildered, but had begun to take some comfort in the beep of his message tone.
It was almost magical, at times. Kunsel was better than a bestiary. Cloud hardly ever bothered with Scan materia - typically whenever they moved into a new area, it wouldn't be long before Kunsel had sent him some conversational brief about the local flora and fauna and what sort of materia he might want to equip. Any time ShinRa made a move, he'd get half a dozen messages about all the politics between the departments and the speculation going on within the company, along with some advice about how they might want to move because of it. Any township they passed through, and he had a summary of what the place was like, what supplies were available there, how much a night at the inn cost, and any points of interest to check out.
He'd been uncharacteristically brief on Gongaga, though.
'Gongaga was always a small place, even before the accident with the Reactor there. You're on wheels now, right? You should skip it.'
He would have, normally, but they had that letter from Dio saying Sephiroth had been seen heading in that direction. The buggy started giving them problems, too, so in the end the choice was taken out of his hands.
Then they'd walked straight into a Turk trap.
"They followed us… But there weren't any signs of it. That means…" Cloud murmured.
"A spy?" Red XIII asked.
"No way!" Tifa protested.
Cloud grimaced. "I don't want to think about it. I trust everyone." Why hadn't Kunsel warned him? Or had he not bothered, thinking they wouldn't go there? Had his advice to skip the town been more than just a suggestion?
Barrett grumbled. "Maybe you're the traitor! Always on that PHS. Probably reportin' back to ShinRa."
Cloud glared at him. "I have just as many reasons to hate ShinRa as you."
"Come now, lads," Cait Sith interjected. "Let's not be fighting. We should check out the town."
Cloud wanted to move straight onto Cosmo Canyon, but if ShinRa were about, he figured it was best to be cautious. After all, his long-distance sentinel was still human.
He was pretty sure, anyway. With SOLDIERs, that point tended to be debateable.
Subject: Turk Legends
'I came across some interesting files the other day, about a legendary Turk who worked for the company thirty years ago. His last mission before he disappeared was a long-term assignment in Nibelheim. But why would the Turks station someone in a small place like that? I wonder what happened to him. I spoke to a reporter once who thought the mansion there was haunted, maybe his ghost is still around!
Lots of curious things seem to happen in Nibelheim. Didn't you grow up there?'
Subject: Speaking of ghosts
'That friend of mine sent me a message when he was in Nibelheim on a mission once. He said he found a materia in the water tower that was turning the town's water red. It must have washed downstream from the mountain. If the water's got materia floating around in it, no wonder all the monsters in that area are so big.'
Subject: There's a place you should to check out
'That Turk legend and materia story reminded me about this old rumour I heard. Apparently there's this secret materia cave in the Nibel ranges. It's hidden behind a waterfall, but the only way to get to the lagoon is through an underwater tunnel. Let me know if you find it.'
"How on earth did you know this was here, Cloud?" Tifa asked, giving him a strange look.
Cloud shrugged. Vincent moved deeper into the cave, transfixed on the woman encased in crystal.
"The lad's a bloodhound!" Cait Sith cheered. "I never seen anybody sniff out materia like he does, either! Who'd have ever thought to check the water tower?" Yuffie crossed her arms and pouted, still sulking that somebody had proven better at scavenging for materia than her.
"Guess that's what it means to be a SOLDIER," Barrett commented gruffly. "Knowin' your monsters and your materia an' all that."
Guiltily, Cloud turned to inspect the cave. The credit was Kunsel's really, but Barrett didn't need to know that.
Cloud had been dubious on stopping by Wutai, figuring they'd be better off finding out some more information on the Temple of the Ancients instead of picking a random direction. But Kunsel had mentioned a legend about a powerful summon and some rare materia, then implied that they might even be able to ditch Yuffie there. Cloud thought that however good Kunsel's intelligence might have been, he simply didn't know Yuffie, but took the tip anyway.
Kunsel turned out to be right. They did manage to ditch Yuffie. Unfortunately, she took all of their materia in the bargain, so they didn't get the clean break they wanted.
In the end, he wasn't surprised his mysterious text-buddy had known Yuffie was a Princess. He was a little disconcerted to receive commentary and directions on making his way through the Pagoda of the Five Gods, which was supposed to be forbidden to anyone other than Wutai royalty, but really, he should have been used to it by now.
Subject: A spy?
'The intel we're getting on you guys is too good. I think you've got a leak on your team. Looking into it from this side.'
It had been an ominous message, out of the blue. It wasn't the first time the concern had been raised, but hearing it from Kunsel…
Cloud had been anxious to get moving as soon as he read it, but when they got to the Gold Saucer's ropeway, the tram had been closed. His anxiety grew, but there was nothing that could be done. Luckily Cait Sith had been able to hook them up with rooms in the Haunted House Hotel on short notice.
The others took the chance to relax. Cloud couldn't manage to settle however, and was almost relieved when Aeris turned up outside his door and whisked him away for a date of all things. Complete with stage play, sideshow attractions, and a loveboat ride.
It was a surreal experience after the past few frenetic weeks on the run, but managed to distract him for a while. Until they approached the station, and his PHS beeped, shattering the tranquil dream.
Subject: Heads up
'The robot cat.'
Cloud stared at the glowing screen, disbelieving.
"Hey, isn't that Cait Sith? What's he doing?" Aeris asked, peering through the crowd.
He cursed under his breath. "Cait Sith! Wait up!"
It was too late, though. The cat knew he'd been had, and Tseng was already waiting.
After the Cait Sith debacle, he didn't hear from Kunsel for a couple of days. In fact, his PHS lay silent until they were halfway to the Temple of the Ancients.
Subject: They're ok
'I'm sorry – I couldn't find out what the Turks were planning until too late. They've become more cautious lately – maybe they finally realised you guys were getting information from an inside source. But don't worry, Marlene and Aerith's mother are both safe. Everyone knows Reeve's a softie.'
Vincent chose that moment to materialise at his shoulder. "You should be careful with that."
Cloud jerked, snapping the PHS shut and eyeing the former Turk cautiously. "What are you talking about?"
The gunman ghosted past towards the bridge, red cloak billowing in his wake. "Your friend would make a fine Turk. But operating so deep in enemy territory…" His words lingered in the air for a long, tense moment. "…it's a fragile situation. Especially with ShinRa in our midst."
The ex-SOLDIER's grip on the device tightened.
That keen, crimson gaze turned to rest on him, and it felt as though it was burning past every mask to reveal the truth beneath by sight alone. Just when he thought he might crack, the former Turk's stare slid away like water, and the pressure eased. "…Don't concern yourself. I won't say anything to the others."
His piece said, Vincent disappeared down the narrow hallway.
Cloud was torn between relief that Vincent was going to keep his silence, or concern that he'd found out about Kunsel's messages in the first place. Granted, not much slipped past the former Turk, but it was a chilling reminder that he couldn't afford to be careless, now more than ever. Considering he was the one on the run constantly getting thrown into jail, he often forgot to consider what kind of risks his volunteer informant was taking, delivering him an endless stream of intelligence from the belly of the beast. Kunsel had mentioned it in the past, but back then he hadn't cared. What would happen if the Turks found one of ShinRa's own SOLDIERs passing Avalanche information?
He was glad now he'd never told the others about the messages he received, and resolved to be extra-cautious with his PHS. Cait Sith could never be allowed to know.
Subject: Got mythril?
'There's a weaponsmith near Gongaga that needs some. If you're going to run into Sephiroth, you might need some tougher equipment, and this guy has some really rare goods. Only he keeps his best stuff behind the counter, so if you want to convince him, you've gotta have something better to trade than just gil.'
"I happen to have some mythril right here," Cloud told the weaponsmith.
The smith was taken aback. "You do? Well, that's great! But mythril's so rare now, I can't just… I know! There's a chest upstairs, there's something in there the little lady might like," he offered, with a friendly gesture towards Aeris. "If you think it's a fair deal…"
It turned out to be a very fair deal. Aeris was practically beaming when she first tried out Great Gospel.
"What are you, psychic?" Cid complained later. "You just 'happened' to have some mythril? We flew halfway 'cross the continent to get that damn crap!"
"You're jus' new. Spiky-headed punk's always doin' stuff like this," Barrett scoffed. "Must be some weird SOLDIER thing."
It was definitely some weird SOLDIER thing, just not the SOLDIER they were thinking of.
The Temple of the Ancients did not go well.
Cloud sat with his head in his hands. He'd handed over the Black Materia. He nearly attacked Aeris. And now she was missing. Gone to the Sleeping Forest, alone.
Tifa and Barrett kept telling him that they needed to go after her. But they didn't understand. He nearly attacked Aeris.
He didn't know what was happening anymore. The taunts from Sephiroth. The flashbacks. He wasn't sure if he was really in control.
He was going crazy.
The others had left for now, presumably to give him a private moment to pull himself together. But Cloud didn't know how. He was so uncertain…
On a whim, he pulled out his PHS. He cradled its weight in his hands for one long moment, thumb running across the smooth plastic casing, before finally gathering the courage to flip it open and tap out a message.
'Am I going crazy?'
Subject: Something wrong?
'I think this is the first time you've sent me mail first. And I think you're already crazy. You'd have to be, to pull off some of those stunts.'
'I'm serious. You know everything, right?'
Subject: Sure I know
'But some answers you should find out for yourself.'
He frowned. He chose now to suddenly get coy with his information?
'It's unfair. I don't even know what you look like.'
He still knew next to nothing about Kunsel, in fact. Didn't know what he looked like. Not even what he sounded like. He'd toyed with ringing that number a couple of times, but there was always a risk ShinRa could tap into their calls - or even that Cait Sith would overhear.
Subject: What does fairness have to do with it?
'Hey yeah, that's right, isn't it? It's kind of funny, I guess after doing all that research I felt like I already knew you. Tell you what, I'll make you a promise. When this is all over and you can come back to Midgar, we'll meet up. Go for drinks at the Goblin Bar or something. It'll be great.'
Cloud was inexplicably comforted by the prospect. It was something to look forward to. It might have sounded mundane to anyone else, but it made him feel normal.
For now, that was enough.
He went back out to meet the others.
Barrett crossed his arms - as well as one could when one arm was a massive machine gun. "So what's it gonna be?"
Tifa hastened to assure him. "Cloud, it'll be alright. We're all with you."
He hesitated. He'd decided, but…
"If it happens, it happens," Barrett grumbled. "Don't worry 'bout it. If you go all weird, I'll whack you upside your spiky white head and bring you back to normal!"
"…You're right," he admitted. "Thanks."
"Let's go already!" Yuffie declared, and bounced ahead. Vincent glided after her, apparently having pulled 'make sure she doesn't steal anything important' duty that day.
As they made to follow, his PHS beeped once more.
Subject: Hang in there
'I know it's tough, but you can do it. By the way, if you want to make it through the Sleeping Forest, there's meant to be this artefact that can counteract the magic in the area, called the 'Lunar Harp'. Kind of crazy, huh? You can probably find out more from the archaeologists in Bone Village.'
Cloud smiled faintly at the message. It would be okay. Kunsel had his back, too, even half a world away.
"What're you grinnin' at?" Cid drawled. "Message from your girlfriend?"
"What?" Tifa squawked. "Cloud, is that true? What about Aeris?" The 'what about me' part went unspoken.
He rolled his eyes and snapped his PHS shut. "Come on. We're going to Bone Village."
"But ain't the Sleeping Forest over-" Cid began.
"Bone Village," Cloud repeated. He didn't want to waste any more time.
He wished he never went.
Cloud stared at his PHS, hand trembling. The rest of Avalanche were scattered around the Sleeping Forest, dealing with their own grief and respecting his need for privacy.
Frustrated, he ran a hand through his spikes.
A part of him wished Kunsel already knew, so he wouldn't have to tell him, wouldn't have to write this mail. Kunsel always knew everything, after all.
But not this. And Cloud didn't want him to find out from someone else. Which meant he had to send it now instead of later.
'I'm sorry. I couldn't keep her safe after all.'
Subject: What happened to the General?
'Sephiroth really has become a monster. Killing the President I can understand, but what did Aeris ever do to anyone? The Wutai have these awful bedtime stories they tell their kids about him – how if you say his name out loud, he'll cut you down before you can finish. We used to laugh and think it was just propaganda, but now I wonder if it was all true.'
Subject: Do you want me to tell them?
'I haven't been by to see Aeris's mother since the news – I don't think she knows yet. I thought maybe you'd want to do it, but you're half a world away. I'll tell her tomorrow unless you get back to me before then. I don't think she'd appreciate hearing it from Reeve.'
Subject: Are you ignoring me again?
'Did Sephiroth say something? Come on, Cloud. Talk to me. Tell me what's bothering you.'
'You're staying at the Icicle Inn now, right? Quickest way to get down the Glacier is snowboarding. That'll cheer you up. You can't stay depressed forever. Aeris wouldn't have wanted that. And with SOLDIER-reflexes, snowboarding should be a cinch. Want me to run you through the basics?'
After Aeris's death, Kunsel was far more supportive than Cloud felt he deserved. He sent him message after message – condolences and reassurance that it wasn't his fault to begin with, then every nasty personal rumour he'd ever heard about Sephiroth – and there were some vicious ones - then endless trivia about the Northern Continent and Great Glacier. Barely an hour passed without a message, almost as though Kunsel feared he would disappear too, if he didn't keep up a steady line of communication.
Cloud never had been good at replying, but now, in his uncertainty, stopped sending any replies at all. He couldn't understand it. Kunsel asked him to look after Aeris, and he'd failed. Kunsel didn't ask a lot, but he hadn't even been able to fulfil that one measly request.
Nothing made sense anymore. He didn't know what was happening. All he could do was trudge forward and cling to his mission, fiercely ignoring all the doubts gathering in the back of his mind.
Then they reached the crater, and everything went wrong.
For a long time, he floated in a green delirium, tormented by memories that didn't make any sense. Nothing came through.
Except every now and again, he heard a faint beep.
His hand would twitch to answer, but he didn't know why.
Subject: Hope you get better soon
'Hey, heard you've been laid up in Mideel. Rotten timing. ShinRa's acting tough, but things are out of control - I don't know how much longer the company has, things have been a mess since President died and the WEAPONs started turning up. Scarlett and Heidegger have started doing whatever they want. We could really use someone of First Class calibre out there. Whatever First Class SOLDIERs we have left have been called back to Midgar to protect some big project, not that there are very many of them.'
Subject: About SOLDIER
'Continuing my last message - SOLDIER was always pretty exclusive, as you know. But it's a ghost town in here these days. A lot of SOLDIERs have been disappearing over the past two years. There's a rumour going around about a place called 'Deep Ground', but I can't find out anything about it. Sounds pretty suspicious to me.'
There were a few more messages after that – background about Mideel, updates on ShinRa, news about what the rest of Avalanche had been up to while he'd been unconscious. Somehow his PHS had not only survived his swim through the Lifestream, but continued to receive messages all the while. There was probably an advertising campaign to be had in that.
He was lucky Tifa hadn't looked at it while he'd been comatose. Or maybe she had, but didn't want to risk upsetting him with a confrontation now that he was finally back. Although Cloud was alreadyupset – he just didn't want to the rest of Avalanche see that.
'Why didn't you tell me?'
Subject: You're finally awake?
'About Zack. That I was never in SOLDIER.'
Subject: Welcome back
'So you got your head on right finally? That's good news, man. I know what you're thinking, and don't worry about it. Zack wasn't the sort of guy to get upset about something like that. I wonder how you got all of his memories, though. I have a theory that it's related to how Genesis made all those copies back during the big desertion.
Sorry I didn't say anything sooner. I didn't think you'd believe me.'
It made a lot more sense, now. The first message Kunsel had sent him. How he knew Aeris. Why he helped him. All along, he'd been teaching him things any SOLDIER should have known, filling the gaps in his knowledge that Zack's stolen memories hadn't been able to. He wondered if the rest of Avalanche would have so readily believed him to truly be ex-SOLDIER if it weren't for Kunsel's steady guidance.
Subject: By the way
'The promise still stands. We'll go out for drinks when this is all over. I'd like to meet the real Cloud Strife.'
That was the last bit of reassurance Cloud needed. He'd changed, but nothing else needed to.
"You ain't changed that much," Cid remarked grumpily. "Still got that creepy foresight."
Cloud rolled the yellow materia in his palm. W-Item. Their supply worries were finally over.
"It appears the trip down this train tunnel was worthwhile after all," Vincent agreed tonelessly. He gave Cloud a look, which the blond deliberately didn't acknowledge.
"Let's keep going to ShinRa Headquarters," he said instead, turning back the direction they came and making his way unerringly through the underground tunnel network, courtesy of Kunsel's flawless directions.
Everything had happened quickly after he'd woken up. They'd destroyed the submarine with the Huge materia. They went into space. They learnt about Holy, and returned to the City of the Ancients. And now they were back in Midgar, trying to put a stop to ShinRa's latest scheme before they did even more damage to the Planet and played right into Sephiroth's hands.
Avalanche fought several SOLDIERs on their way through it all, but Cloud kept an eye out for any sign of Kunsel – not that he'd recognise him, but there was sure to be some sign. They'd only run into First Class SOLDIERs in Midgar so far, though – Kunsel said he was Second Class. Probably for the best – Barrett would have tried to gun him down, and then Cloud would have been left in the awkward position of explaining why it was in Avalanche's best interest to let this particular SOLDIER go.
Subject: Good riddance
'Heard you killed Hojo. For one scientist, he sure caused a lot of problems. I guess in the end, he was only on Sephiroth's side. Just pride in his creation, or was there more to it? I'm not sure if we'll ever understand.'
Subject: ShinRa's out of plans
'The President's in hospital. Scarlett and Heidegger are gone. ShinRa's useless now, and Meteor's still coming. What about you, Cloud? What are you going to do?'
That was a very good question.
"Meteor's gonna fall in about…" Cloud murmured.
"Seven more days," Nanaki supplied. "That's what grandfather said."
Cloud nodded, carefully stowing his PHS away. "Red XIII… you want to see everyone in Cosmo Canyon again?"
Nanaki paused, then finally admitted, "…Yes."
"And Barrett. You want to see Marlene, right?"
"Don't ask me that."
Cloud folded his arms, decided. "We'll beat Sephiroth. If we don't release the power of Holy in seven days… there won't be a planet left to protect. If we can't beat Sephiroth… it's as good as death for us. We'll just go a few days sooner than the rest."
They didn't have anything to lose, now.
Everyone left the airship not long after that, and it was just him and Tifa remaining. Later, under the stars while Tifa slept on his shoulder, his PHS beeped. Cloud opened it, careful not to wake her.
Subject: To the Northern Crater?
'Sounds like you're our last hope, now. There's not a lot of data on what's inside the Northern Crater, but you might want to bring a Morph and an Enemy Skill materia with you. There are some really tough monsters up there - you should be able to get something useful out of them. I'm sending through all the notes I found.'
Cloud eyed the attached notes with incredulity. Kunsel's idea of 'not a lot of data' wasn't exactly the same as most people's. Still, he appreciated it. Fighting Sephiroth would be difficult enough without having to contend with unknown monsters.
'Thanks. For everything.'
It seemed too insubstantial for all the help he'd received, but he couldn't just go off to the Northern Crater without saying anything.
His PHS beeped again. Tifa stirred, but didn't wake.
Subject: Don't mention it
'Just make sure you come back alive, okay? We've still got to go have those drinks. We can celebrate you saving the Planet. It's a promise.'
Cloud nearly sent another reply, pointing out that he hadn't ever agreed to any promises, but in the end just grumbled to himself and started updating his bestiary, suppressing a smile all the while.
"We don't have a lot of time to spare," Tifa said, biting her lip and peering into the craggy caves ahead. "Are you sure we'll be able to find Sephiroth before it's too late?"
"Course we can. We've got our freaky psychic SOLDIER with us," Cid groused, stubbing out his cigarette and hefting his Venus Gospel – which they'd only gotten after Kunsel had given him that tip about that mechanic in Rocket Town – onto his shoulder. "Oi, stop starin' at your damn PHS and get going! Ain't hardly any signal here anyways…"
It was true. Cloud checked his PHS one last time before they headed in, but all he had in his inbox was a truncated message.
Subject: Become a hero
*Text lost in transmission*
"Right," he said. "Let's mosey."
They killed Sephiroth and returned to Midgar in time to see the Lifestream itself rise up to defend the Planet. The Reactors were trashed. The metropolis fell into darkness. But in the end, the Planet survived. Life could go on.
It took two weeks after Meteor fell for Reeve to get the communications towers up and running again.
'Kunsel. We won. But you probably already know all about it, right?'
'ShinRa's gone, and Sephiroth's been defeated. A promise is a promise. We can finally go have those drinks. Tifa's going to open up a new Seventh Heaven. You should drop by.'
'Haven't heard from you. Did you make it out of Midgar okay?'