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Less is More

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“Get bent, you rigid dick.”

His expression is wily and his inflection scathing.

He never used to be this way. He was a polite pup, not a vicious mutt. This unfamiliar venom developed out of necessity. It’s been two years since his mother and hometown burned up and blew away, dust on the wind. In that time he has drifted on that same wind, blowing from town to town, doorstep to gutter, and he’s downright tired of it all. Too long has he watched his back and steered clear of the shadows, the all-too friendly voices, the all-too obvious lies.

Here, in the after, in the gutter, there are streets with hands, shop owners with thick boots, children with sticky fingers, pedestrians with no emotion but disgust, and the shoving and pulling, always. The closeness of the bodies and every eye, and intention, and loathing, and desperation, it pushes in around him. It’s the aroma of grease and rotting food, sweat, moist wood, gunpowder, soil, flesh, breath, filth. They’re crammed in as close as you can get. It's all crushing movement and shouting voices. And it’s only the local marketplace.

Time is subjective. But, if the chaos is any indicator, it’s probably noon. The sky is grey and overcast where it can be seen streaking beyond the sloped rooftops. It’s closing in too, heavy with suspense. It could rain, it could storm, it could blow right through. All he knows, a Cloud as young as fourteen, is that he’s about to be driven from existence and crushed underneath many indifferent feet unless he does something about it right now, right this minute, get a move on.

“Back off!” he growls into the throng.

More shoving, more discord. Nothing changes. He’s scrabbling away. He’s looking for food, for a calm place to stand and look around. Some sort of vantage and advantage. He’s as filthy and moist as the rest of the steaming, writhing cauldron of people crowding and clustering on the flagstone. He’s as much one of them. He’s got to rise above it. He’s got to climb higher.

The town has no name. He's seen no sign and he hears no rumours, only the constant spill of fuck off and get back and what’s the price and you’re too beautiful to be out here. It’s only been a week since he crawled onto this main drag, but it’s all the same. He's been here before.

He’s hidden under a layer of grime and gross, but they, the eyes, the lies, the sickly sweet voices, they still see only his licked clean lips, red, and his tired eyes, liquid blue. Those on the prowl find his youth and confusion easily. They search him out, give him help, give him work, steal his soul, and use him. Sometimes the reaching, shoving hands grab on and won’t let go.

All he wants is peace. All he wants is rest, comfort, and a full stomach. A place to lay his head. Someone to know his name. Someone to call his name. A sense of belonging and reason. Home. A sense of home, and what it was, what it should be, and what it isn’t anymore. He has nothing left to give, and look, his whole life is still rolling out ahead of him.

The crowd crows and shuffles. He shifts with the slide and stomps to the beat. He feels a firm nudge at his left and then a pull from his right. It’s nothing new. The group thrashes. It’s still nothing new, even as the tug intensifies and he’s quickly drawn to the side by his thin arm.

He lurches and yelps, slipping beyond the void marketplace faces looming on. It’s just another day as he fades from the safety of the crowd and into the streets, dragged and half-carried. He’s free but he’s caught, he’s spinning and falling, and now he’s hitting solid wall.

Again, he is surrounded, but by tall shadows and plaster partition, not the sickness of survival. He’s been forced into an alley. His stomach aches, his head hurts. He has no fight. He braces and chomps his teeth, hoping his captor loses interest with his lack of spunk and fire, hoping someone will see, hoping beyond hope. Still so much foolish hope.

He starts hearing breathing, his own and the other’s heated gust. Whispers of be quiet and the press of a pocket knife wanting to be known. He starts feeling a roving hand, fingers, panic. He’s being pushed into the unforgiving gritty wall. He's seeing watery glimpses of inky outline. He's being pawed and prodded. In the gloom, tall and glossy posters, ads, propaganda, and other bullshit paste the brick walls, and they stare back, all pale faces and black eyes.

Stop,” his thin voice finally pleads.

(wake up)

 

 

“Are you daydreaming?”

Reno, of course, hasn't stopped talking.

They haven't stopped walking either.

“No, more like... daywalking,” his insufferable bodyguard revises. He promptly corrects, yet again, adding in a snippy tone, “dreamwalking, I mean.” He huffs a short and well warranted breath out from behind Cloud, the annoyance palpable. “Fuck this. For the millionth time.”

Reno's been bringing up the back. He is moving slowly, matching Cloud’s inching pace. His constant stream of thoughts and complaints make his location known always. It also means he hasn't left, he isn't leaving, and they’re only miles out from Gongaga. Cloud would see the truth of it if he only turned his head, but he hasn’t, and he won’t. He keeps staring straight ahead.

The terrain beyond and all around is mild and flat, making his hindered going as smooth as he could have asked for. Trees grow in cozy patches nearby, huddled together off to their sides in enclaves. He drags the sword in an arrow-straight line. It’s not windy along the way like it was up in town, high on the ridge. Those very same rising hills and cut mountain tooth protect them.

“We're the same, you and I,” Reno carries on, filling what would otherwise be the sounds of wilderness. He’s coming through loud and (almost) clear. “My deadbeat dad didn't torch my mom to a cinder though. He split first. Didn’t even look back. Probably doesn't know we were twins. But, we're connected… All three of us, yo. Look what happened with... your boy’s... situation. What's up with that?” He takes a moment to catch his breath and cough a hounding cough. “Was it... fate? Engineered? The fucking Director? Or coincidence? Shit. Either way. Here we are.”

They have a long way to go yet, if they want to get to anywhere at all. There’s still so much open land between them and anything interesting. So much space allotted between each new act. There will be more than enough time to tune him out and dreamwalk.

Or hear him out.

He’d rather tune him out.

Whatcha gonna lose?

Precious memory.

Damn,” Reno barks.

Cloud almost jumps. His eyes flutter wide despite.

“That’s a lotta shit…” Reno drones, lost inside his mutterings.

He uneasily clears his throat. It’s a tumultuous process. The gravel and grime won’t stop him from complaining though.

“I just want a drink... and a shower! No more fucking walking! No more silence!”

Cloud’s still not interested.

“You did this already! I shouldn’t be surprised, should I? I shouldn’t really be angry. This means I can talk all the shit I want and you won’t dispute. Not like you care! Not like you’re listening. I could call your mother a whore. I could praise Sephiroth for his choices. I could…”

Cloud is clenching his fists around the handgrip of the big damn sword.

“I could…” Reno’s getting hung up. “I could… Fuck it,” he eventually finishes. But, not for long. “I need to take this jacket and shit off,” he moans. “My arms are killing me.”

There’s silence for a whole five minutes. Maybe more. In that time, Cloud keeps on walking. He keeps dragging the mammoth sword along and looking ahead. He doesn't entertain why Reno keeps coughing, or why his arms hurt. He is blank. There is nothing else.

“You know what I think?”

Until there is Reno.

Cloud closes his eyes a moment and exhales carefully.

“I’m gonna take the longest fucking shower… ever. In the history of everything. First chance I get. I’m gonna sleep for a week when I see a real bed again. I want it to be known that, priority number one? That’s accommodations. We both need it. I can’t tell you how much I want to have a warm bite to eat... A real fucking meal. And my hair dealt with. And my hurts. And get a properly fitting pair of pants, and a fucking drink, and… It’s the simple things, man.”

How much longer must he listen to this?

Reno has rambled a rush of this and that, often with a giggle and a smirk, since their unceremonious beginning. What was, what is, what could be. Questions and concerns. Displeasure and commiseration. Exhaustion and stubbornness. He rambles the same now.

Cloud does what he would do in the best of situations and ignores him. He ambles, drags and pulls. He leads them on. Reno follows. The longer they go, the farther they get, the more tired Reno gets, the more honest and desperate and sick he becomes, and the quicker Cloud has to add a growing prickle (just a tickle) of compassion to his immense list of awful bullshit already pending. More guilt and guile. For as much as he hates Reno right now, he pities him. For as much as he doesn't want to listen, he must. He’s still his mother’s son after all.

Before he knows it, they’re already back at the clearing they left to head into Gongaga. What was their springboard and last camp the days before. What was their last camp with him.

Cloud toes his boot at the rocks and dust below. It’s midday, cool and crisp. The grass is still depressed from the tent and their moving about. The fire pit remains, just a clustering of large rocks encircling an old animal den to keep the flames contained.

He stands still and looks everything over: the grasses, the dust, the dirt, the general spread and gentle sloping of the land. This is already familiar and dreaded. This is where he healed him. This is where they had their official goodbye. And… it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t long enough. It shouldn't have been.

“Don’t think about it,” Reno suggests, passing closely by.

Cloud would agree. He knows better than that, than this. But, he's also pissed as hell and looking for trouble. He’s all for flouting good advice, because pain sounds like just the right kind of medicine. Give him twisting torture and rampaging fits over anything else and empty despair.

Don’t. Don’t do it.

Please, don't.

Zack rises from the ashes.

He is untouched, gloriously shining, brilliant as supernova, solar flare, furious and natural and violent. He is reactive and roaring, internal combustion, backdraft, jet stream, jarring and adjusting, and just too much to focus on, to question, or understand, so quit it. Intense friction comes to mind, and buildings buckling, seas rending, earth bending, barren, beaten and divided. Imagine the skies flickering, falling, and sliding on. Think deliverance. He is eternal. He’s alive.

Here he is half turned, all broad shoulders, and about to leave him all over again. Here he is close enough to touch, the rise and bump of his collarbone, the prominence of his throat cords, the sinew of his arms and his long, long stride. Here he comes from the beginning, grinning, head cocked just so, curious, open and sincere. His tendency to scratch the back of his head or neck when uncertain. His every damn cough, and how he always seemed to forget he even had one. How he seemed to forget he was even alive after escaping Shinra and dissection, but would come back online with a roar and a shout. How he harbored a conviction and upheaval Cloud and Reno are still having trouble swallowing down even now.

He’s alive.

In memory.

Stop, stop, stop.

Don't.

“How’re your hands?”

Reno’s concern full in his face.

This is reality. This is the present. Everything come apart.

Cloud wants to tell him: it’s more than just my hands. Instead, he twists and turns away.

“You don’t look so good, yo,” Reno explains, following his escape.

I don’t feel so good.

“Sit down.”

I was planning on it.

Cloud strikes the BDS into the soft ground between them and lowers himself to rest at its wide base. He’s hunching forwards (as usual), bony spine, but not much of his minimal mass, lined up to the more than accommodating blade (and fading handprint). He’s just too damn weighted, too damn depressed, too damn dismal to lift himself any higher and into positive territory.

Reno drifts away to some not too distant place. He can still be heard huffing and puffing and going on about whatever has his feathers ruffled now. It’s not enough to give Cloud the illusion of being alone. He’s still haunted by his tagalong. And everything else.

Reno’s pulling something on the ground behind him when he comes back onto the immediate radar. It’s a sort of duffle bag. It belatedly strikes Cloud as the tent they left behind in the bushes. They hadn’t needed it in Gongaga, so they left it here to be retrieved or forgotten.

Reno drops it next to his rucksack and then drops onto his rear next to that. They’re separated now by air and a few feet of dusty, grassy patch, and all the silence of loss in between.

“This is gonna kill me,” Reno groans, hunched to the extreme.

He’s shirtless and bare but for his fully loaded dual gun holster.

There’s another thing that hits Cloud late.

Reno's shirtless and his arms are all burned up.

Cloud looks down to his own tired and small hands and finds them sore but perfect. They appear as if nothing at all had happened. They were burned in the fire (the house fire, Gongaga, flames and smoke and suffocating horror), yes. He can still remember the sting and sizzle, it’s just that present, but there’s nothing to show for it. The char has healed. Not a scar remains.

Reno gets to tending his very present and angry burns while Cloud broods and exists and tries not to. He burns the end of a cigarette, click click click, and then gets to watching, and existing a little bit more. The smoke screen gives him the much needed distance.

Reno sends him a scowl over an arm as he assesses it. He doesn’t like Cloud’s new habit. Not for a moment. Not a surprise.

Cloud could care less. He’s going to continue. He’ll smoke all of these, find another pack, and then smoke all of those too. That’s how this works, isn’t it? Until the day he dies.

“You’ve gotta stop,” Reno grumbles. “Before it gets outta hand and you’re all pissy.”

Too late.

Reno huffs but lets Cloud alone for the time being. It’s just long enough for him to get the necessary items together in order to start healing his hurts, and maybe, just maybe, putting a lid on some of his blithering. He collects and grumbles and then starts laying a reclaimed washcloth damped by equally reclaimed water onto his damaged arms, easing the burn.

It’s probably the best thing for the problem at this point, rather than ointments or sprays. The flesh is broken, raw, red and seeping. The coverage is extensive, reaching hand to shoulder on the one arm Cloud can clearly see. This also means there must not be advanced medicine between them. No military issue concoctions today. It’s the primitive route.

“It’s not cool,” Reno mutters, starting up again now that he’s settled. “It stopped being cool a long time ago. Fuck those old movies. It’s disgusting, and foul, and I hate that I’m the anticancer fucking poster child over here blowing my horn, but dammit, you know HE’D hate it. He’d hate it and have it dealt with. He’d hate you being a whiny asshole too. You know what would have happened? You’d sulk and you’d pout for a night but he’d take pity on you and then you’d get shotgun after stupid fucking shotgun in consolation. It wouldn’t even matter you don’t smoke anymore because you’d be drinking straight from the tap.”

And you’d know, wouldn’t you, because you’d be jealously watching from the shadows.

He sees Reno’s wild hair, his wiry white spine, his bandaged throat, his hung shoulder, his ailing arms, his missing fingers, his loose slacks, and his ugly honesty. He sees it all from underneath his own wild hair, muddied and segmented, stiff and heavy. He gets a good overall mental picture and then focuses in on Reno’s pallid and sweating face in particular. He feels nothing but rocks in his guts as a result. There’s nothing there but cutting knives and flaring nostrils.

“You’re gonna find yourself coughing and coughing, and then craving and craving... You’ll be smoking a pack a day before you know it, breathless and edgy. Those things aren’t as easy to come by as they used to be too, man.” Speaking of coughing, Reno has himself a noisome row and then pauses for several stabilizing breaths. “You wanna know something about me?” he asks, picking up right where he left off. “You probably know it already… But, I don’t quit. I just don’t. I’m stupid that way. Makes me tough though. As fucking nails. You? You need to quit.”

Cloud exhales slowly, cautiously.

As much as I need you around.

“What made you such a daisy anyway? Yeah, we know the sob story… We know it was hard, and terrible, and tragic,” Reno singsongs. “Shouldn’t you be imbued with righteous clout, or something, because of that? What keeps you down, man? Why won’t you rise up? You’re not as small as you think you are. You’ll fight for others… mostly—but you won’t fight for yourself?” He scoffs, half coughs. “You’d been on the streets for how long... and you’re still a fucking runt? You’re still trying to be the good guy? You’re still trying to make sense of it all? What a daisy. What a sap. Your story just doesn't add up to me, yo.”

Dry and calm. Cloud’s smoke comes puffing, unfurling. His teeth come quietly ticking and clicking. He’s getting annoyed. He’s a raw nerve. He’s open to the elements, and Reno. He can’t breathe over the smoke and the concentration spent not to burst, or twitch a muscle, or scream his head off. And he really wants to let go. He’d let loose and shout to his heart’s content. Howl at the tree tops. Roar at the sun. He’s afraid he’d never know silence again if he dared. He’d belt it out until he was lost. He’d shout out every last breath and then roll his eyes closed at the very end.

I cling too hard to good things, I guess. I always have. An idea, an image, a lie. I look for hope in everything. I did. My nature isn’t cruelty, or malice, or vengeance. I wasn’t built for this. For… the real world. I can’t be a soldier. I’m supposed to be at home right now. In school. Doing chores. Reading a book. Listening to my mom lecture me about girls. I don’t know. Stuff you’re told to expect. Anything but this. My story doesn’t add up because you don’t know the score. You think you do, Reno, but you don’t. It’s nothing but shit. It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing does.

He sticks with silence, bending Reno further out of shape.

“Well, shit,” Reno spits. “I was born a bastard. Two of a kind. Weren’t orphans then. Not like you might think. My mother, our mother, lived long enough to see what we might have become. Dad was never a figure. He was a shadow. We ran Wutai. We thought we did. But, the truth is… it was burned right out from underneath our feet too. Just like you. Because everything burns. The smell of smoke. The smell of burning. I just can’t stand it. Why do you want to fill your lungs with black when your past is just as charred as mine? They died, my pathetic little village… in the worst way. Just a few of us made it out. We watched houses crumble and smolder for a whole day and then we were orphans. We got the fuck outta there. Joined Shinra. Became something strong. And now… it’s just me. That’s what happened back then. That’s part of it. I can explain recently too. If you want. I can explain away the drinking and the sleeping around… The bad shit I’ve done. The codes I’ve broken. I have no control. I had no control. I guess I thought that was control. I dunno. I drank it all into a slumber. I fucked it into oblivion. It hasn’t bothered me... until now. Just when I’m about to lose another battle, another thing I love… because… I… really... am useless. Nothing's changed, yo. I couldn’t save him. Not just… my brother, not just Wutai, but Zack too. That asshole. That… fucking guy. I’m only good at... killing things, yo. That’s what I’ve learned. That’s what I know for sure. I’m cursed or something, and that fire’s gonna get me eventually...”

This all sounds like something Cloud’s heard before: pleas, promises and half-truth. He licks his dry lips and draws in his tobacco exhaust. The smoke builds, his mood simmers. He has no other immediate retort. The smoke burns in his throat. It’s a task not to cough.

Reno digs at the growing wound, sounding rather far away, rather distant and muted. “I had better luck reaching you… when the dust was blowing... and Zack was dead the first time.”

It was cold and quiet too, and—was it early morning or deep night? Cloud can't remember. He only knows that Zack is at his feet, bleeding an outpouring of blood, and he’s a real sight.

“Talk to me!” Reno shouts over the dissolving image.

Cloud almost fumbles the remainder of the cigarette. He swallows thickly and recovers. It’s the smoke that’s irritating his eyes, causing them to sting and water, surely.

Reno is at him, close as a breath, ignoring the offensive smell and an unpredictable response to reason with him more personally and fervently. His hair and face are a mess, his smell sour, his arms newly bandaged, stark white; his eyes wild and seaweed green.

He hasn’t heard a thing from Cloud in hours. Not even a groan or grumble. Cloud has disregarded him for the better part of a day. Desperate times call for desperate, yelling measures.

Cloud is collected. He is cool and calculated. He plays his part. The gruesome memory of his former partner is still very fresh though. He's seeing it again for the first time. It's making ignoring Reno all the more probable, and necessary.

He came back to such a shit storm. After the ordeal that was NCB2, here Zack now rests at his feet in the dust of the Eastern continent. They escaped, they’re free, but Zack is damp and dirty on his back. He’s not moving an inch. He's missing his entire head of hair and both of his eyes. He's on the verge of death. He's a waking nightmare. This isn’t like before at all.

Cloud hears himself wail, “What the hell happened!? What happened to his face!?”

And then Reno shouting in reply, “How should I know!?”

Snap back to the clear blue present.

“Just fucking say something! Anything!” Reno bellows. “If you talk, I'll shut up. I'll quit. Just give me an update, a grunt, anything, come on! You can call me names! You can put a fucking hex on me! I've been yapping to annoy you! I've been spinning some fucked up shit just to get a reaction. I've been going for hours! Look how well I'm doing here! Please!”

Cloud is stony, immovable, untouched.

“I know you hear me, asshole. Don't make me beg. I'm not above begging… but don't you make me fucking do it. Come on. Hey. Hey. Hey. Cloud.”

Reno’s a wreck, touching, petting, and now pulling. He's no different. He's anyone before. He's the slithering body in the back alley. He’s the one before that, and before that. He’s just another nagging voice, an intrusive lie, and a needy want with gripping fingers. He’s not Zack.

“Cloud, talk to me.”

Closer now, softer now.

“Please.”

He told you to leave him, didn't he?

He told you to get a move on. He's done for.

“None of this was your fault. You don't have to drag that thing with you. You don't have to be mad, or sad, or empty. Don't go there. Stay out of it. It’s done. You said good bye. I'm right here. I'm… I could be better, but I am here, yo. You know. I know what you’re feeling. So, talk to me. Talk it out. You know I'm good for it. What reason have I ever given you not to trust me?”

You told him to help.

Help me, help me.

You selfish bastard.

Over and over.

Reno sighs, groans, and clears his throat.

Cloud calmly turns to dash the cigarette out in the dirt.

He left you alone with Sephiroth.

“Geez. Do you blame me? Did I fuck something else up? I know I could have... tried harder to stop him. My bad. His mind was set. That's not on us. He would have gone no matter what. That's my opinion. He did what was right by him, yo. Now we gotta do what's right by us and keep going. He wouldn't want to see you like this, and you fucking know it. Tell me you’re okay.”

Reno rests both hands on Cloud’s biceps. He inspects his face, and then begins slow, building all the stronger. He’s unraveling, shaking him, trembling and pitching. He's not being friendly about it. He's all nails and teeth, making Cloud bottle up a cringe as he whips and sways but stays strong.

The force crests. The struggle intensifies.

“Tell me!”

Cloud’s gonna keep it in though. He goes with the motion, loose and limp. He offers no expression, anger or otherwise. He won't give Reno the satisfaction. He doesn't forgive easily, and he won't ever forget. Reno’s second best and he was the enemy. He’s got no shot.

Cloud waits for the storm to pass and then puffs the white-grey breath of smoke he’d been holding the entire duration right into Reno's too-close and fuming face.

Reno reacts accordingly, wincing and waving the tidal front away. “I’m always the bad guy!” he spits through the lifting fog. “I’m always scraping you back together! You owe me, man. You hear me. You owe me, son of a bitch. And a burning bitch at that...”

Cloud is inert and blank, inactive.

Fine,” Reno growls at him. “I get it though... I do. I would have had Zack's babies too. Trust me. Even if I couldn't look him in the face… He was… virile. You know what I mean? In a way I don't usually subscribe to. Shit. He was so… ugh. He pushed my buttons, but he was something, and you guys were totally hot together. And… you only cared about him. Which really sucks, because I’ve only ever... protected you… I’ve tried anyway. I left my— I, uh— You know. I finally bit off more than I could chew, yo.” He sniffs and stifles a cough. “You’re my fucking albatross.”

Moments later, their break is over and they're on the move again.

The base camp is left for good.

 

 

They head northeast. That will lead them towards small settlements, and the desert sands, and Reno’s rising tower, a place Cloud’s only flown over thus far. It’s also a direction that leads back to bad memories and a town, just a grouping in the hills, filled with the bodies of dead soldiers and remnants of Zack’s psychosis, and part of why Reno must not be too upset by his absence. They don’t have to backtrack that far, but looking out over the land is bad enough.

The hills are golden and shaggy with winter grasses. Every step is a pulsing pain and pinching ache in his legs and back. Cloud’s issued boots are starting to squelch and fall apart. When the fine grit and sand comes, he’s going to have to stop to dump them out every two steps. The sword makes his shoulders and arms stiff too. No matter how many times he switches up arms, it’s a toil. He won’t last to the Saucer, and he knows it. But, Reno doesn’t.

Soon, the direction won't be an issue. They'll be able to look up and see the landmark like a shimmering sun spot, or a monumental mirage, the Gold Saucer, an oasis in the desolation. He will pull himself until he can’t lift himself, and then he’ll drag himself. When he can’t drag himself, he’ll wait until he can. Sweet silence, ugly memories, and nagging phantom hurts until then.

At least the tension has leveled to a bubbling sizzle. Reno has relented and succumbed to silence out of either exhaustion or exasperation. At this point, it could be equal parts of both.

Cloud falls into his dreary and half-dreaming mind again. He senses every step, his forward motion, and the gentle wind, but he doesn't feel any of it. They’re just now cresting more rounded hills, a saddle of them, bringing a winding river into view. Next will come the long drawn-out tongue of the low lying amber valley floor. After that, the southwest edge of the white desert will finally take over for miles and swirling miles. In the dead center of that parched land rises the casino resort, a tree of the dead gilded in gold. But, that’s hours ahead and miles away yet.

The two struggle forward, bringing new fortune closer and leaving the stain of the bad behind. The air chills; birds chirp and flutter. In the distance, herd animals groan and grunt as they pass. Reno starts to complain about temperature, groaning and grunting anew himself. He doesn’t want to put his sweater and jacket back on because of his arms, but he doesn’t want to freeze to death either.

“It almost felt nice in the beginning,” he explains, “now it’s torture.”

The carefree sun is mellow and high, gleaming in thin rays through thin white clouds. The wind is breathy and blowing through the bending grasses. It’s winter weather, but there’s no snow or frost on the ground. Not here. Just the nipping of the mountain chilled air. Cloud can feel it too, that cold breath. He’s frozen to the bone, but that hasn’t stopped him.

He lets Reno suffer and keeps on, pushing, pulling and forcing each new breath.

“We should make camp,” Reno soon offers. “We’re not walking so much as we're stumbling.”

Where Cloud’s response could have (and should have) gone, instead comes an expected bout of silence, and, unexpectedly, the rumble of a distant noise.

They both drop to get low and look about.

Cloud isn’t sure, but it sounds like an engine. Engines mean vehicles. Vehicles means technology, and that means Shinra, which, ultimately, means men with guns. And lots of them.

He looks to the sky, covering his eyes from the minor sun glare. They’re sitting ducks on this hill high up against the horizon and out in the open.

They don’t have to wait in suspense for long. The noise appears as a machine. It flies low to cruise right over their heads, swinging high and pitching back around. It shows in the sky like an oversized insect. The faded red paint immediately becomes familiar. It’s not Shinra at all.

“That’s what’s-his-face,” Reno says.

Cid.

Oh.

They progress ahead, trundling down the far side of the stubborn hill and mounting another to finally meet with the plane and its pilot. The machine is revving down as they arrive, its engine audibly ticking and cooling in the open air.

Cid managed to plop the plane right on the prominent point of the mound. It looks like the top half of an aviation trophy. Something regal and proud, even as it’s beat to dents and tears.

Cloud saw the beauty in Zack too, beyond his dents and tears.

“I saw all the smoke,” Cid starts rambling right out the gate, appearing from underneath the plane's right wing. “I got this bad feelin’ as I was headed back from dropping you... I let it grow though. And grow. I drank and slept on it, and when it wasn’t any better, and the missus was moaning at me, I had to come back and look. I saw smoke…” He stops and actually observes them now. He balks. “Where’s my pal? The big guy? Uhhh… Zack? The hell happened?”

Reno doesn’t make any quick moves to respond. He suppresses a cough, leans his injured lean and drops his face to hover over his sneakers. He goes so far as to look away, out to the open landscape, putting the whole thing aside. His blood-sucked expression is an unreadable mask.

“The town was deserted,” Cid mutters. “Something ugly went down.”

Cloud looks away now, taking Reno’s lead. He graciously avoids the sympathetic and confused eye contact, and the responsibility of informing a comrade. It's reflexive. It’s cowardly. But, Cid is focusing all of his questions and concerns to him, and he has nothing for him.

Reno drops his burdens loudly, one, two: the tent and his rucksack both.

“That’s his sword, isn’t it?” Cid asks, pointing to the BDS at Cloud’s side, and then square at Cloud himself. It’s an act of distrust, accusation, and damnable loyalty.

Reno can’t take it anymore.

Look,” he blurts out, stepping up to Cid. “We’re kinda feeling a little touchy about a few things, okay? We’re kinda tired, and hurt, and a lot outta patience… And then you come along. I might not know you, I might have just gotten here, but fuck off and shut up and just give us a ride, yo. It’s bad. Shit’s been bad. It's exactly what it looks like and we don’t want to talk about it with you.”

Cid raises his arms in defeat and drifts back one or two steps. “Whoa, whoa, mouthy prick... Only here to help. I just… I liked the guy... I can drop ya as far as the coast...”

“No need,” Reno informs, bristling but disengaging. “Just get us to the damn desert...”

 

 

They have to cram into the co-pilot’s seat of the Bronco II once more. It might be easier without a third body this time around, but it’s not very comfortable either. The tent and rucksacks go in an exterior compartment, thankfully, but the giant sword has to stay with Cloud.

It wedges and digs between them. It's not so sharp, as it's well-used and meant more for smashing anyway, but it’s awkward. They end up cramped and coiled around it and each other, hip to hip, thigh to thigh.

The heat of the cockpit is driving Reno insane. He shivers and writhes and shoves. The noise and nearness is driving Cloud insane. He sustains and boils and clenches.

It’s a good time not to think about Zack. On a buzzing flight. Trapped in the air. Shoved so close to Reno they could be the same creature. He’s not thinking of him. Not even his fingers. Not even those. Because then he’ll have to think of his palm, and his wrist, and then what that wrist has done. He’ll think of handjobs and tight openings and slick lips, and everything else, and screaming in the fallout. He’s almost sure he can still smell traces of Zack in this cockpit. Blood and sweat and pine. He can put together just how wonderful it was, and it burns. Oh, it burns and sears.

“Fuck my life,” Reno speaks for the both of them.

Somehow they survive the thirty minute trip and the dry valley and desert edge rolls out below.

As soon as the plane comes to a confirmed rest, bringing itself down vertically, Reno uneasily spills out of the cockpit and gets to work collecting their things from its chipped and rusted fuselage. He’s clearly in a hurry to get to his golden tower and his hot shower.

The aircraft’s engines wind down.

Cid joins Reno, easing himself to the ground to make clipped conversation.

Cloud doesn’t quickly join the party. He stays behind inside the plane, fumbling with the BDS and its impractical size. It’s gotten itself caught beside the seats and the plane’s interior skin. He’s having very little luck extricating it under his current state: bereft.

He leans up from the draining task and spots Reno hovering below, avoiding dialogue with Cid.

Cloud won’t admit he’s taking a break (or considering asking for help). He’s calling it keeping an eye on Reno, his tagalong, his bodyguard, because Cloud’s rucksack is down there too, and what he has left. Reno could double-cross him. He could skim his supplies. He could screw him over. He’s not resting so much as he is fueling his distrust.

Reno suddenly stands upright, pointing a dirty finger at Cid, who is rather close by and yet still caught off guard. “Did you see any soldiers while you were looking around earlier?” Reno asks him. “Like, a group of them? A pretty good sized one. We might want to avoid them.”

“A group of soldiers? I didn’t see shit… but you two,” Cid slowly answers.

Reno nods and then tries, “What day is it?”

“Uh, Tuesday, near as I know,” Cid responds.

Cloud turns back to his task at hand, grinding down his teeth and giving a futile tug.

It’s not moving.

“Do you have a drink? You smell like a bar.”

“Uhhh,” Cid drawls. “No, sorry. I would have… on any other day, but not today.”

“Why’s that?” Reno huffs.

“I’m cutting back… Wife doesn’t like me drinking... and flying.”

Reno snorts a liquidy-sick laugh and asks no more.

Cloud yanks and throttles the sword, growing hot under the collar for more reasons than the unfortunate geographical location. He wants to get on the road. He wants to make tracks.

“Hey. Having trouble there?” Reno directs up at him.

Cloud pulls and wrenches at the giant sword, refusing interaction.

“Ya need a hand?” Cid offers, throwing in his two cents.

Now it’s a show. Now it’s a spectacle.

Cloud shrugs over the blade, ignoring the onlookers.

Cid and Reno say not another word.

It’s Cloud’s burden. He’s going to shoulder it.

He works with it until he has to relent, hands cramped, arms unreliable.

Reno climbs back up to offer a hand, and whatever muscle he has left. With their dwindling powers combined, and Reno’s shouts of pain, the sword finally wiggles and grinds free, threatening to take them both to the ground too early.

His symbol of regret and toil and something lost. Cloud lifts the sword carefully, easing it to the ground tip first to lean against the plane's side. He follows after, dropping firmly onto his two feet.

Reno comes down last.

The eerie handprint is all but gone from the sooty blade, but not from tortured memory. What it might mean Cloud still doesn’t know. A sign? A joke? Reno forgetting he touched it? All he knows for sure is that he’s got to keep going, keep moving, and stop thinking. And so, he does. He takes up his burden, Zack’s sword, and he starts forward, headed for Reno’s tower.

Cid barks out a good luck as Cloud shuffles off without another word or hesitation.

Reno mumbles a see you later, collects his gear, and then struggles to catch up.

The pilot lets them go on their way without more commotion or interrogation about his late acquaintance. He watches them trade the rising hills for the sinking sands. It’s the nicest thing he could have done, to be honest. Other than showing his sympathy.

Cloud did not miss his solemn shrug and dark shroud at the mention of Zack’s condition. He wouldn’t have missed the waves he’s caused. He’s helpless to remember. Every last one.

 

 

The ground is still solid beneath their feet but it's gone dusty and dry. Very little green remains. The valley floor is stripped and bald, and all the same repeats of the same rocks and twigs and shrubs flit by. Direction would have been difficult to keep because of that, the sameness, but, to their benefit, the mountains are behind and the tower is visible in the liquidy distance ahead. It’s a gleaming place marker, and Cloud’s glued to it. If only to have something to be glued to.

“It’s hot as fuck down here. Isn’t heat supposed to rise?”

Before even fifteen minutes play out, Reno is into his grousing.

“Fuck all this walking. Never walked so much in my life… We should make camp before we get too far into the shit and night drops like curtain fall. I don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark in the sand. These aren’t the greatest shoes for that.”

Cloud unwisely ignores him and keeps his bearing.

“We should stop!” Reno crows.

(stop)

He knows he’s tired, and he wants to listen to Reno and slow down, or refuel, but he won’t, and he can’t, so just keep on walking, and dying, slowly, ever so slowly. This is his entire life. This is the rest of it, one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a fucking time.

He’s not going to make it to the Saucer at this rate. He’s going to expire on the fringes within sight of the gleaming sun tower, choking on the desert heat. And he’s just fine with that.

“I can’t feel my arms! It’s hot! We’re not getting anywhere! Come on!”

(stop)

Cloud sways and stumbles. The sword is so terribly heavy. It’s not sliding anymore, it’s not even dragging, it’s pulling him down. He tries to rise above it, to bring his legs forward, to hang on, but nothing happens. He wavers, the sword remains, and the tower twinkles and slides.

“Cloud.”

He falls, and the tower falls with him, crumbling all the way.

“Cloud, hey.”

He can’t see it winking anymore, he’s sunk to his knees. He’s dropped his head. He’s stopped.

(stop)

 

 

“STOP.”

Cloud hears a new voice now, a different kind of voice.

Notes of humanity and early memories from before the fall, from before a town burned to ash and bone, dirt and pebble. The wet alley seems to widen and brighten around him. Here comes his stuttering hope put to body and action and sound.

The pawing shadow on him startles and turns towards the commotion and cry. The pocket knife presses in, biting, and then it pulls away, along with its owner. The fingers clamped around his wrists release, the shadow and hot breath disperses.

The different voice, this strong voice, it howls after, “Stop, stop, stop!”

The outline of a figure steps forward, defying the watery shade and becoming visible in the darkness of their solitude. At the mouth of the tunnel stands a Shinra soldier, a vision of order.

Cloud makes his decision right then, in the damp and the dark, under the eyes of every military poster.

He will become a soldier.

 

 

Hey,” Reno hisses from his side. “Look, I told you, jerk. We need to call it quits, man. Let’s call it quits. Come on. This is seriously unhealthy, yo. You haven’t eaten anything… just cigarettes... You haven’t had a drop to drink… You’re running on empty.”

Reno doesn’t lift Cloud, he crouches over him, pulling him from where he fell on his side. Cloud comes to rest flopped and boneless on his back, and thoroughly undignified.

Reno tries to search his features lost under a fall of stiff hair. After moments with no luck he cheats and reaches out to manually turn Cloud’s head.

“Stay,” he mumbles, cupping his face with his filthy hands, making pointed and forced eye contact. “I’ll be right back.”

Cloud huffs a great breath from his hanging mouth. And then he’s alone.

He was right. It’s already so hot. There is no shade. He’s boiling inside. He’s on fire. His flesh is prickling, his tongue dry, eyes stinging, guts tight and cramping. His fingers, legs and arms are dead and hanging, and because of that, he can’t feel how pained they must be. He’s baking in the open sun, even as it lowers and lowers, the day already largely spent and heading to bed.

He lolls his head back and squints up to the shifting horizon, the yawning, yellowing sky. They’re not even to the desert yet. This is still the outskirts of the valley trapped in between. He can’t understand why his body doesn’t want to take him there, all the way, where Reno will leave him for bigger and better (and easier) things, and all his red delights. Why won’t his body either do as he asks or give up entirely? He can then call it the end or find the owner of this sword.

And then.

“And then…” Cloud grits into the wind, a whisper, a scraping of words lost in the saying.

And then, well, he doesn’t know. He knows he starts rising. He’s not trying to, because he’s not really motivated or fully capable, but he is all the same. He is surely lifting off the ground, inch by inch. The sky is getting closer and the far off tower rebuilding the taller. He rises.

Maybe he’s died. Maybe the world finally crushed him down and his pathetic little broken heart stopped and this is him ascending. This is part one of the other half of his eternal terror.

He’s not dead though. It’s becoming clear what it is. The ground beneath him is rising, not just him. The soil rumbles and pushes up from below, and he better be moving soon.

He strains and rolls to the side, right down the minor slope of the building anomaly. He comes to rest on his stomach half spread out, the sun-baked BDS stuck upright in the ground next to him. He struggles and lifts his shaggy head from the dust to look on.

The dry earth crumbles and bursts open just before him. Something is pushing its way through.

He doesn’t wait another moment, Cloud lurches upright onto his knees. From there, he stumbles higher, pushing off with his hands. He succeeds, only after the second attempt, and using the blade to stand. He’s moving away now, shuffling far, far back, pulling the useless sword with him, heaving it along, adrenaline rushing hard and fast, but it’s not enough.

He looks this way and that. He is still alone. Not even a rucksack was left behind. Reno isn’t ever there when he needs him. He’s all there is, and that isn’t much at all. Not in the flashing, feverish moment. No time for a thrilling, rousing rescue when you’re dead and gone. No room for a knight in shining armour when you’ve already beat your feet and turned away.

The clay cracks, Cloud shudders, and the mystery is closer to being revealed. The earth splits and yawns, clods of hard soil toss and collect. Yellow, leathery flesh pocked with spikes and visible abrasions and scrapes becomes evident. The flesh expands and pours from the growing earthy rend. More and more, a mass of it. It's as big as a truck. It's tubular and undulating.

He had been resting atop a sand worm. And, from the looks of it, it probably knows he’s there, and it probably doesn’t much like having been reduced to a bedroll.

The creature breaks from the earth and twists, coiling and rising. Prepare for strong words. Prepare for body slams and death rolls. If he starts now, he might just get a few feet in before it attacks. If he shouts out now, Reno might just hear his gurgling death rattle upon his return.

The monster climbs erect, blocking out what remains of the diminishing sun and casting a pillar of shade down over him. Cloud has to cock his head back as far as it will go on its root to see.

I can’t do this...