"It's really hot."
"Oh, shut up," Reno complained, slamming the door to Cloud's car shut after climbing out. His red ponytail was dark with sweat, and he lifted up the hem of his shirt to wipe at his forehead. "You should've grown up in Costa. This ain't nothin'."
Cloud rolled his eyes but didn't say anything else, pressing the button on his keys to lock his car. Waves of heat rolled up from the hot pavement beneath his boots. Summer in Midgar. It was hard to breathe and Cloud's eyes were squinted behind his sunglasses, but Reno was right. It could have been a lot worse. He'd been to Costa on vacation once or twice.
"Come on!" Reno had jogged ahead, out of the sun. He was hunched in a tiny bit of shade cast by a mail drop-off box. It was actually kind of pathetic. Cloud smiled and started walking, plucking at his neckline on his t-shirt. He, unfortunately, had to park in a lot quite a distance away from the History building at Midgar University. It was okay in the spring and fall, when the walk across the huge campus was actually kind of enjoyable (as enjoyable as a walk in the great city of Midgar could be, anyway). Now, though, he and Reno had to get through a sweltering parking lot and walk across the quad, a large, grassy area with no shade whatsoever.
"What do you think Rufus is wearing today?"
"I don't care, Reno."
The redhead narrowed his eyes at him. "Don't say that. I've seen the way you look at him."
At that Cloud laughed, reaching out and shoving Reno's shoulder. "Uh, no. I think you're talking about yourself."
"Sure am. Doesn't mean you can't ogle the guy too."
Cloud shook his head, fanning himself with his folder. It wasn't helping. During the summer most of the undergraduate students were gone; the campus was almost eerily empty. During the school year there would be skinny, bespectacled boys playing frisbee everywhere, girls tanning on blankets (even in the fall; Cloud would never understand that), and people rushing from building to building so they wouldn't be late for class. Now there were just a few people strolling around, and almost all of them were students like Cloud and Reno—older graduate students, here to get advanced degrees in whatever.
He actually hadn't been that fond of Midgar University at first. Cloud spent his undergraduate years in Junon, which was a hell of a lot cleaner than Midgar (if not more boring, despite being the capital city), and at first the thought of attending MU was really unappetizing. Still, it had an excellent History program, and one of his old professors, an elderly man named Cecil Harvey, knew some chairman somewhere here and had recommended him.
So, here he was, sweating like a behemoth and lugging his backpack after an annoying redhead who didn't know when to close his mouth.
They reached the correct building, both of them bounding up the stairs. The inside was air-conditioned, and Reno let out a blissful sigh, stretching his arms up at the ceiling. "I fuckin' hate this, yo."
"C'mon," Cloud said softly. The inside of the Emerald building was big and spacious; there was a domed lobby with bright marbled floors, and a staircase that split in two and circled around the top of the second floor. Cloud took the right and Reno took the left, as always, and they had a sort of race to their classroom. Tifa was always asking them when they would grow up. They never had an answer for her.
Cloud walked inside, nodded at Rufus who was leaning against his desk with his legs crossed, and made a beeline for a desk in the back of the classroom, as far away from a certain other student as he could. The room was stuffy, despite the air conditioning, and someone had opened a window, which was probably not doing any good.
Setting his folder on his desk, Cloud propped his chin up with his hand and looked around at the other grad students in the room. HIST: 534, First-Class Thesis was home to a rag-tag bunch. History nerds, the whole lot of them. There was Yuffie, obsessed with the infamous Wutaian thieves of the Godo dynasty to the point that she had actually lost friends because of how much she talked about them. There was Cid, who was banned from visiting the Continental Air and Space Museum because he had loudly lectured all the visitors about the "truth" of the history of aircrafts. Then there was Firion, who knew so much about weapons, where and when and why each kind of torture device and pointy thing imaginable was created that it was actually kind of scary. Cloud always made sure to never piss that guy off. There was Rude who loved learning about castles, and Squall, who Cloud really didn't want to think about too much right now.
Some more students trickled in over the next few minutes. Cloud stayed quiet in the back, avoiding Squall's gaze, flipping through his folder. Inside were various articles paperclipped together. He sat there listlessly, racking his brain. He was behind, and he knew it. Hell, Cissnei and Elena had already been doing research for a few weeks. And where was Cloud? Still floundering.
Rufus cleared his throat, and the class quieted. Rufus was only a few years older than most of them at 29. He flicked his mop of blond hair out of his eyes and opened a notebook.
"Some of you still need to schedule conferences with me," he began. "You know who you are." His blue eyes glanced Cloud's way. "If I already spoke with you, you can visit me sometime or email me your revisions. If you have questions, schedule an appointment." He flicked a manicured finger at a folder on his desk, which was filled with little grids of time where you could meet with Rufus outside of class (and not like how Reno wanted).
Cloud hadn't touched that folder.
The blond sighed gustily, drawing a few heads.
Rufus shrugged his shoulders, flicked his hair again, and eased himself onto his desk. "Some of you are still thinking, I know. It's a hard process." He gaze swept over the class, lingering on those who were still trying to come up with a good topic for their thesis.
The older blond cleared his throat, which told everyone that he was about to have a speech. "I know, and you know that you're interested and passionate about history. To reach First Class you have to take it to a new level. You're here for a reason." He tapped his fingers against his thigh, and from across the room Cloud saw Reno's eyes zero in on it. Reno.
"You have to step up your game," Rufus said, eyes narrowed. "Don't be afraid to make history. This isn't a basic research paper about a topic—you must synthesize. Discover. Think about something in a way no one else has. Shock the academic world with your discoveries!"
Rufus was a tad overdramatic, but something he said hit home in all of them. A First Class degree in academia was one of the highest degrees offered on the continent. It was not for the faint of heart, and not for those who weren't deadly serious about their subject. In Cloud's case, it was history. It wouldn't suffice to summarize a war or write a book about a famous figure—Cloud had to contribute something to this world, something new, something riveting. Like Rufus said, he had to 'make history.'
But what? What could he do? He was just some 24 year old guy. He wasn't exceptionally brilliant, just very passionate. He wasn't rich; he didn't have endless museum archives and connections at his disposal. He had his brain, his enthusiasm, and whatever resources he could somehow scrounge up at public places and through friends.
What was his thesis going to be?
Cloud wasn't sure, and he was beginning to panic.
He had all summer, though. This class spanned the whole season—and longer, if he needed more time; he would just retake the class in the fall. The idea of being important like that, of making an awesome, important addition to the world of history was really exciting—as exciting as it was daunting.
Everyone else seemed fired up by Rufus' speech. Tseng was furiously scribbling away in his notebook, and Bartz had his arms folded behind his head as he leaned back dangerously far in his seat, seemingly lost in thought. Squall was murmuring softly to Yuffie. Somehow Cloud caught the brunet's eyes. He quickly looked away, standing and strolling over to a tall bookcase in the corner.
He needed a damn topic.
A hand touched his shoulder a minute later, and Cloud looked over at Rufus. He smiled at Cloud, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "How's it going?" he asked casually, looking out the window at the campus instead of at him. Heat waves rising from the ground distorted everything, like the struggling academics high up in the emerald building viewed the world through glass that was melting from these temperatures.
"…Okay," Cloud replied. "I have a general idea of what time period I'd like to explore, but I'm still…not quite sure what I'd like to focus on."
"It's hard," Rufus offered. "Very hard. For what it's worth, think outside the box. You know that there are going to be stuffy old men in their offices talking about theories and recycling the same outdated shit. You have your youth and the most enthusiasm I've seen in a long while. You'll come up with something interesting, I'm sure."
"Thanks, Rufus," Cloud said, slightly embarrassed. Rufus was usually the kind of guy who would ask you out for drinks and then complain about his love life the entire time, not offer actual advice. Cloud was lucky the guy seemed to like him.
"Not a problem. I'm here, if you need me." Rufus touched his shoulder again and moved on to the next person. Cloud leant forward until his forehead rested against the warm glass of the window. He closed his eyes, letting everyone else's chatter wash over him.
He wouldn't stress. He had time to think about it. All summer, even. All summer.
He'd think of something. He'd discover something, somehow, that no one else had. …Right?
"Let's get the hell outta here," Reno told him later, after a long session of bouncing ideas off of each other. "I need a shower, yo."
Cloud nodded vigorously, grabbing his backpack. He waggled his fingers at Firion and Yuffie and left. He noticed Squall exiting directly after him and he held the door open behind him after a moment's hesitation. He kept his head down, so they wouldn't make eye contact. Squall muttered a soft thanks and continued on his way. Reno winced sympathetically, and after that painful moment the two men left the Emerald building, beginning the long trek back to Cloud's car, which was by now probably melting all over its tires.
A wave of hot air hit them both as they walked out, and Cloud let out a miserable groan. "I wish I had a pool," he said sullenly. "I wish my building had a pool, even."
"Doesn't Rude's have one?"
"We should ask him if we can go swim sometime."
"You just want to check out the girls there," Cloud snickered.
"Do not," Reno protested, making a face as he nearly stepped in what at one point was a dropped sandwich and now was a hot, thriving mass of flies, "I have eyes for only one person right now, and he wants me to make history. Heh."
"I'm kind of worried," Cloud confessed softly, taking a swig from his lukewarm water bottle, "about this whole thesis thing. It just seems so hard."
"I know, right? You've got to come up with somethin' totally unique—which is like, impossible, yo—and then do all this fuckin' research and then defend the damn thing in front of all these judges. I hate wearing suits."
At that, Cloud laughed. "I know you do. You'll be fine."
"And so will you," Reno replied, glancing his way, striking green eyes probing. "You always come up with something, Cloud."
"…You're right. Thanks."
"No problem. Race you to the car!"
Reno ended up tripping halfway to the car and fell hard, spilling his papers everywhere. A family passing by, most likely on a college visit for the teenager with them, gawked at the 25 year old man lying on the pavement and moaning in pain.
Cloud laughed, hand over his mouth, and opened all the doors to his car, airing out the inside. Reno eventually got up, nursing a scraped elbow, and got into the car with a pout.
"Ow! Fuck, the seatbelt's hot. This sucks, yo."
"I thought you said it wasn't bad, compared to Costa?"
That night, surrounded by blankets, old field notes and a tub of caramel ice cream, Cloud called his mom.
"I think I'll drop by tomorrow," he said, smiling. "Is that okay?"
His mom said yes, of course, and after talking for a few minutes he hung up, promising to talk longer the next day.
Cloud was stuck in a rut. He didn't know what he was going to do with himself. He had a shitty job, working as a delivery boy for a Midgar-based company. The headquarters reeked of hamster food, and his boss was a dick. There was so much more out there waiting for Cloud Strife, but he wasn't sure what.
Was getting this First Class degree what he really wanted? All Cloud's life he had loved history, ever since a fateful unit in elementary school. To get what he wanted he had to breathe history this summer, to feel it in his heart and mind and soul. He couldn't live in the current year, Midgar City—he had to exist in a different place, a different time. He had to understand completely his topic, whatever it was, and come up with something just… ground-breaking.
It was stressful, all of it: his job, his love life, his future. Cloud hadn't visited his mom in over a month, so it would be good for him to get away for a while. He deserved it, and with luck he would be able to come closer to some sort of conclusion there.
Tomorrow, though. Cloud washed some dishes, took a shower and climbed into bed. He looked at his poster on the back of his door, the famous headshot of Sephiroth Crescent, the ShinRa General in the Gaian Civil War. He had always been Cloud's hero, ever since grade school. There was something about him, the way his eyes—green—sternly looked out of the painting the poster was a picture of, that really spoke to Cloud, somehow. That was why he studied history—people like Sephiroth, who he, in the modern day, could identify with. Everyone had a story, and he wanted to know theirs.
But again, he'd think about that tomorrow. For now, Cloud shut his eyes and rolled over in bed, tucking a curled hand by his head.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Someone was speaking to him.
"Five more minutes," Cloud grumbled sleepily. His thin eyebrows furrowed after a minute when the voices, whoever they belonged to, didn't stop. "I'll be up in a sec…" He grabbed his pillow and covered his head with it, succeeding in muffling the voices a bit—but then, just a bit, and he was beginning to suffocate himself.
With a miserable grunt Cloud eventually realized that it was the radio on his alarm clock blaring, and not anyone actually in his room. Disoriented and blinking rapidly, the blond propped himself up on his elbow and reached out, pressing a button on the alarm. It stopped and he sank back down in bed. He twisted his blankets around himself and rolled onto his back, yawning and gazing dazedly at the ceiling.
He hadn't wanted to get up much lately. Going to bed was just so tempting; he didn't have to think, and he had his dreams, which were always so much more enjoyable than what he dealt with when awake. It was fun—and kind of sad. Cloud didn't know if he was suffering from depression, or if he was just in some kind of funk, but he was down in the dumps and it was affecting his real life.
His job was even more unbearable than it had to be because of his poor attitude. Cloud didn't want to go in, he didn't want to deal with customers, and he kept giving his boss a blank stare that was apparently "creeping" the man "the fuck out."
Cloud couldn't exactly help it. Something in his life was missing. Perhaps it was the rough breakup he had just gone through, or the impending stress from his First-Class thesis and all, but Cloud was hurting, somewhere, deep down.
He had to find his spark. He had to get back onto his game. It was like he wasn't doing what he was supposed to—working as a delivery boy? Puttering around, doing nothing? That wasn't good enough.
The problem was, Cloud didn't know what was good enough for him. He didn't know what would make him happy. He'd figure it out, though. Right?
"Right," Cloud said softly to himself, sitting up. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and wiggled his toes just above the floor. The hardwood got freezing during the winter, and even though it was summer Cloud still felt a bit of hesitation before that first touchdown.
He took a quick trip to the bathroom to splash some water on his face and take a leak, and then Cloud tottered into the kitchen. Even when picking cereal Cloud felt dulled, like there was a sheet of smudged glass between himself and the rest of the world. He picked a box at random, poured some into a bowl, spilling a little but not caring enough to clean it up, added some milk and carried the thing to the table.
Cloud ate in silence, trying not to think about much of anything.
What were his friends doing today? Yuffie would probably be beginning her research, or interviewing people in Little Wutai, a few subway stops away by the river. Firion would be at his job, working at a weapons shop. Cloud dropped by sometimes to check out First Tsurugi—it was an old sword, which Cloud thought belonged in a museum but Firion's boss, Mateus, couldn't bear to part with. Cloud liked Firion a lot. Reno would be drunk, or perhaps chasing after Rufus, or perhaps actually being productive. Reno was big on transportation, the history of the cross-continental railroad that linked Midgar to Corel and Junon and Mideel. There was a lot of awfully shady shit that went on there, and Reno was interested in the railroad's effects on tiny villages, especially those temporary ones occupied by indigenous nomadic peoples. It was a cool topic—not Cloud's thing, but cool. Tseng was probably out of the city already, poking around in the old wreckages of various aircraft for clues about UFOs. Tseng was a weird guy, but was onto something great; they could all feel it. Squall was probably…doing something awesome. He used to bug Cloud about getting off his ass and working all the time. Not that Cloud, you know, actually cared what Squall was up to, and all.
And Cloud? He was eating soggy cereal in a silent kitchen, admiring the scratches on his tabletop.
After showering and dressing Cloud pulled on some sneakers, grabbed a water bottle and left his apartment, choosing to jog down the stairs rather than take the elevator in the event it would wake him up somewhat. His building was pretty nice, or at least it was compared to some others in Midgar. He wasn't rich by any means, and paying off all his school loans was a pain, but for a modest price he had actually done pretty darn well for himself. He nodded at the woman working behind the main desk on guard and stepped out into the morning air. It was already hot, not as bad as it would be later on in the day but still pretty bad.
The section of the city Cloud lived in wasn't as nice as the area MU was located in, but it wasn't the slums, at least. At the edge of the parking lot behind the apartment complex was a dented telephone pole that hadn't been dented the day before. Some drunk must have hit it in the early morning.
His car was boiling already, and Cloud had to open all four doors as well as the trunk like he had yesterday to air it out and bring the temperature down. Eventually Cloud got in with a deep sigh, rolling down the windows. Then he put it into reverse, backed out of his spot and set it to drive, peeling out of the parking lot like he could leave all his mental baggage there too in the exhaust on the scorching pavement.
Nibelheim, his hometown, was about forty minutes or so outside the city limits. Midgar, at one point the capital city of the continent (which was since moved to Junon, more south, where Cloud had previously studied), was surrounded by what was once a lot of farmland and plantations. A lot of it was preserved now, battlefields from wars of the past that most people wanted to protect. Nibelheim was nestled right in the middle the sleepy Nibel woods to the North. Cloud had been really excited to get out, but after living in Midgar, the dirtiest (and most grand, at the same time) city on the whole planet, it was nice to chill out and go back home, find his roots and breathe in some clean air.
He was looking forward to seeing his mom as well. She was a nice woman who had raised Cloud on her own. Cloud's dad, whoever he was, had ditched while Cloud's mom was pregnant with him. He used to feel a lot of resentment about it, but now he could have cared less. He let it go. He was a full-grown man now. His mom was lonely however, he figured, so his visit would be as good for as her as he hoped it was for himself.
Gradually the scenery outside changed from tall, industrial buildings and metal to suburbs and then to farmland, wide open acres of corn and wheat and grass. Cloud was going home.
It always shocked Cloud how similar Nibelheim was every time he went back. There were the same signs taped outside the grocery store that had been there when Cloud was a kid. The town seemed untouched, which was interesting in a historical sense but also kind of cool, just as an inhabitant, to see.
Cloud drove slowly through town, leaning out his window and waving to Mrs. Branford, an old lady who was always dying her hair green for some odd reason.
"Cloud Strife!" she said, hobbling over, clutching a bag full of various yogurts and kinds of nuts purchased at the flea market down the street. "My, you're more handsome every time I see you."
"Thanks, Mrs. Branford," Cloud said, feeling like he was six.
"You here to see that momma of yours?"
"Tell her I say hello, wouldja? She's not around so often these days. You should talk to her about that."
"I will," Cloud said, frowning. "Sure thing."
He continued on his way, thinking, and smiled upon reaching his childhood home. It, too, looked the same. He could almost imagine his old bike sitting out front and his friend Tifa sitting on the front steps, screaming about how boys were gross. He closed his car and attempted to stick his big windshield reflector shield up, but he doubted it would do anything. It wasn't quite as hot here in Nibelheim but it was still pretty muggy.
Cloud walked up the front steps of the porch which creaked under his feet. He pulled open the screen door, which opened with a long, shrill squeak and knocked on the bigger wooden one behind it.
It took a minute, but the shade covering the door was pushed aside and he saw his mom's bright blue eye peering out at him. Then the door opened and his mom smiled at him, opening her arms.
"Hey mom," Cloud said, stepping into her embrace.
"Cloud," she said joyfully, "You look terrible. Come on in!"
"…Uh." Cloud followed her inside, making a face. He cheered up upon spotting the dark, fat dog sitting on the steps to the second floor. "Hey Fenrir," he crooned, kneeling. Fenrir picked up his head and waddled over to Cloud, happily licking his fingers before lying down on his sneakers. Cloud couldn't move, and he laughed, patting the dog's head. They had gotten Fenrir for Cloud's sixteenth birthday. He was getting on in doggy years, but for now he was still chilling with Cloud's mom and eating an unhealthy amount of dog biscuits. They spoiled him.
They both grabbed some iced tea and sat on the back porch in dusty chairs. Their backyard was big, nothing but grass and a tree or two, but Cloud, when younger, had had a lot of fun with Tifa playing around back there.
"So," his mom said. "Have you been eating well?"
"I'm fine," Cloud said automatically, looking away. "I eat like a starved chocobo—Aerith always tells me so."
"I liked Aerith," his mom mused, half to herself.
"What about you?" Cloud offered, wiping his sweaty upper lip with his sleeve. "Have you been taking care of yourself alright? Do you do a lot of fun stuff in your old age?" He poked her shoulder, teasing.
His mom scoffed. "Of course. And if you call me old again I'll put you in time out. Don't think I won't." Cloud chuckled. His mom glanced at him. "So… what about Squall? How is that going? It's been a few weeks since I've heard anything."
"It's…okay," Cloud murmured. "He hasn't tried to contact me or anything. I see him in class…but we don't talk."
His mom gave him a sad look, and that was the end of that conversation. They discussed some of the Nibelheim residents, and what their old neighbors were doing. Cloud told his mom about Tifa, the 'little girl from up the street' and how she was running her own bar in Midgar now named Seventh Heaven. She had adopted a little boy named Denzel, who happened to think Cloud was the greatest thing since SeeD action figures.
He vented a little, complaining about his neighbors in the apartment above his who kept him awake sometimes with their late-night activities, and he griped about how Reno just wouldn't let the whole Rufus thing go. His mom was sympathetic and always knew how to cheer him up with a well-placed joke or a sarcastic comment.
They moved inside at one point because the heat was really too much, even in the shade. Cloud stretched out on the couch by the air conditioner, remembering doing this many times when he was younger. Now his feet hung off the armrest.
"How's the progress with your thesis?" His mom handed him a small cup of ice cream she had grabbed at one of the organic food stands at the food market, and Cloud thought for a minute, idly licking his spoon.
"…So-so," he said carefully. "I have a general idea, but I need something specific. I need something big—" he spread his hands apart for emphasis, "—something that no one else has thought of before. It's not like math, where I can invent some kind of formula. How am I supposed to 'discover' something about history?" He sighed, frustrated.
Mrs. Strife frowned. "Do you mean something like, um... figuring out the real identity of Pharaoh Azul?"
Cloud nodded miserably. "Yeah. Something like that, like solving a huge historical mystery. There's a lot of mysteries out there to solve, but I'm just…me." He sighed. "How am I supposed to solve a question that whole groups of people haven't figured out for hundreds of years?"
A thin hand plucked his ice cream from the cushion next to him. "Go for a walk, Cloud," his mom suggested.
"A walk," she repeated, slowly, rolling her eyes. "Don't come back 'till you've had some sort of realization. Go that way." She pointed to the left, and Cloud figured out what she meant.
"Oh…okay." He pulled on his shoes, gave his mom a last look and left the house, shutting the door behind him. Immediately the heat made him all sweaty and pesky gnats started flying around his face, but he batted them away and started down the side of the dusty road, hands in his pockets.
As a child, Cloud frequently took trips to the large swaths of land around his house. Nibelheim was right in the middle of where the Gaian Civil War had been fought, after all, so there was a lot to see. There were battlefields, still with various trenches dug by SOLDIERs, the fighting force of the western side, trying to preserve the collective continent of Gaia and AVALANCHE, the military for the eastern part of the continent who was trying to secede. The Civil War had been a vicious clash over the use of natural resources, Mako in particular.
Mako was a glowing green substance mined out of the ground and used to power homes, cars, even cell phones. At the time the eastern part of the country was controlled by little more than Eco-Terrorists, but the west had no concern for the wellbeing of the planet. The west, SOLDIER, won in the end, led by Sephiroth Crescent. The guy had been Cloud's hero as a kid—and he still was, to be honest.
Cloud breathed through his nose, lifting his shirt to cover it so he wouldn't inhale all the dust that his boots were kicking up. There was a drought this year, even in Nibelheim.
He walked for a while, looking around. Much of the land was regulated by the Gaian government, but here and there would be a few houses built on battlefield land. There was a big population problem on the continent of Gaia, after all. Here at least it was just endless fields of green grass and tall weeds that swayed in the wind; you couldn't tell that there had once been a war fought there.
Eventually Cloud turned off the main, dusty road and started trekking across a field, mentally reminding himself to check behind his ears for ticks later. Some of the weeds, whatever they were, stung his bare shins when they smacked against them. Cloud pressed onward, though, knowing where he was going. He carefully climbed over a wooden fence that he knew had been used by AVALANCHE to corral their horses in the Battle of Nibel Mountain.
After another few minutes of stinging, sweaty walking, Cloud reached a small, easily-overlooked plaque. It was metal, sticking a few feet out of the ground. It was covered in bird crap and was completely unremarkable, but here it was.
THE BATTLE OF NIBEL MOUNTAIN.
Here early in the morning on September 14, XXXX a division of SOLDIER, led by General Sephiroth Crescent and General Angeal Hewley, successfully defeated General Barret Wallace's large AVALANCHE force. Wallace, wounded, retreated with his army to Rocket Town. Crescent and Hewley's men totaled 85—Wallace had 653, 118 of which were killed.
There were these little things like this all over the place. As a kid Cloud had run around all over, trying to find as many as he could. They charted Sephiroth's journey as a General, his various victories, his few losses.
There was so much history here, hidden behind animal feces and leaves and dirt. True, everything just looked like a grassy field, but here, once upon a time, there had been a war. Men had died, literally, beneath Cloud's feet. Guns had gone off, swords had been swung, spells had been cast. It was so incredible to look at this hot, humid, sticky field and picture a real battlefield instead. Instead of hearing birds chirping and the sound of wind whistling through the grass, hearing shouts, cries of pain, and barked orders: it was hard to imagine.
That's why Cloud studied history. He had grown up around it, and something about it was fascinating. People had done so much so long ago, and people were tempted to think that they, in whatever year they were in, were at the pinnacle of civilization and that everyone who had come before was backwards, incompetent, unimportant. That wasn't the case.
Reno specialized in transportation, Firion in weapons, Yuffie in Wutaian thieves, Elena in early human civilizations—and Cloud specialized in the Gaian Civil War, and Sephiroth Crescent in particular.
Cloud could name every battle of the war. He had studied extensively the events leading up to the war and the aftermath. He knew all there was to know about the major players, and even some of the minor ones. It was in elementary school that Sephiroth became Cloud's hero, and ever since then Cloud had read books and taken trips to various places on Gaia to visit landmarks, battle sites, and various homes of the Generals and Lieutenants that had been converted into walk-in museums.
Looking around at the battlefield and breathing in the hot, buggy air, Cloud regained a bit of something that he'd lost back in Midgar. He still had no clue what his thesis would be, but Cloud had remembered something very important—why he studied at all, what he felt passionate about. He pulled his shirt over his head, stinky, damp thing that it was anyway, and scrubbed at the various stains and excrement on the plaque with it. With his foot he cleared away the leaves and debris clustered around the wooden stake sticking into the ground. Once satisfied that the plaque was clean enough, he balled his shirt up and kept it in his hand as he turned around and headed back home.
It was still hot and awful, and now the delicate, pale skin of his shoulders was beginning to burn, but Cloud found that he didn't mind as much.
The Gaian Civil War had been studied and picked apart by countless historians. It was unlikely that he, Cloud Strife, could make any sort of valuable contribution… but he'd sure as hell try.
When he got home his mom scolded him for most likely getting sunburn and ruining his shirt, but Cloud shrugged it off with a smile.
"You're all better?" she asked carefully, kissing his cheek as he left later that day.
"Getting there," he replied. He thrummed with some kind of soft, pulsing energy; he wanted to go look at his journals, go to the library, do something, get a head start.
His mom smiled at him, eyes saying something that she didn't say aloud. "I'm glad to hear it."
"Bye, momma," Cloud said, giving her a last hug and stepping out to the porch. "I'll call you later this week."
"Okay. Have a safe trip home."
Cloud got in his car, and as he began the drive back to Midgar he turned his music up extra loud, something he hadn't done in a long time. His heart felt lighter. Sure, there was still 99 percent of his project left to do—he had to find that damned topic, research the hell out of it, and then actually make some sort of contribution, but… he was getting somewhere. Cloud, in the past, had always been known for his enthusiasm about history; Rufus had even said so. He almost couldn't believe he had lost it, for a while there.
So, when Cloud got home he gingerly shut the door to his bedroom, wiggling his socked toes in anticipation. He stared for a long time at Sephiroth on the back of his door, his hero.
Sephiroth had been exceptionally young when leading the SOLDIER army in the Civil War. Only 29, he was handsome, strong, and striking—his long, silver hair was his trademark. Ignoring any moral questions about the motives for both SOLDIER and AVALANCHE, Cloud had always been drawn to the SOLDIERs—they were an interesting group. Sephiroth Crescent, Angeal Hewley, Genesis Rhapsodos and Zack Fair—they were the four in charge who led the fight against the East. Cloud had read a ton of books about each of the men, but he doubted he could ever learn enough about them.
Some of the people in Cloud's class joked that Cloud had some kind of crush on them, which made Cloud angry, but in all honesty, it was probably close to the truth. As a kid and a teenager, when Cloud started saying that history was his favorite subject, he had been pretty obsessed. Something about them just appealed to Cloud, made his heart skip, made him want to pick apart the mysteries of the world.
And a big mystery it was, too. The day after winning the war and getting the leader of AVALANCHE, Barret Wallace, to forfeit, all four were found dead in Sephiroth's camp tent. Sephiroth's famous sword, Masamune, was sticking out of his chest, right through his heart.
No one knew what had happened—no one. There were no primary accounts of any intruder, any skirmish. The only ones that had been present were those four… and those four all died.
Of course, there were a million theories flying around—from Wallace snuck in and killed them, to their men revolted and killed their leaders, to they couldn't live with the guilt of killing so many AVALANCHE forces and died by suicide.
Cloud was pretty convinced that the world would never figure out what had happened. If possible, he'd like to figure that out for his thesis—but literally millions of people had tried to answer that question, and no one had gotten anything. There was no way he would.
He'd think of something else. There were a lot of other open-ended questions in regards to this war—rumors of human experimentation, the question of what happened to Lazard Deusericus, and questions about the Turks, a mysterious third party who greatly influenced both sides.
Cloud's fingers clenched into fists. He was so ready for this; the prospect of tackling such a big project had him buzzing. He ripped his eyes away from Sephiroth's and turned to his filing cabinet tucked against the far wall. Inside were printed articles clipped together and furiously highlighted and scribbled on, various small books tucked between dividers, folders full of notes, old research papers, and lists of contacts, library numbers, and names.
He spread out his materials on the floor of his bedroom and began pouring through it all, flipping open books and writing in a notebook he had pulled out from under his bed.
It would be hard, and it would take a lot of time and tears, but he was prepared for that. That was his summer. He'd live through the Gaian Civil War, because he had to. Only then would he figure out what to do.
Eventually Cloud fell asleep, cheek resting on still-fresh ink, hands clutching a pen and a stack of papers. The poster of General Sephiroth on the back of his door looked impassively on.
"It's really hot."
"Oh, hush," Genesis muttered, gazing out the window, hands folded behind his back. "You should have grown up in Banora. This is nothing."
Zack rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair and putting his boots up on Sephiroth's desk. His heels made a dark smudge on the wood and Sephiroth, sitting in its proper seat, glanced at the mark briefly. He didn't even chastise Zack for it; he just went back to his newspaper. Like it had every day for months, the press was raving about SOLDIER-AVALANCHE relations. Will Gaia Dissolve? read today's headline. Just beneath it: Tensions between East and West Escalate.
Sephiroth looked troubled. He turned the page; there wasn't anything better on the next one.
"So," Zack said, patting his knees with his palms. "How are you and the missus doing, Seph?" He winked, all young, handsome charm. "Thinking about kids yet? This place is dull as hell. We could use some children around here."
Both Sephiroth and Genesis twitched violently, and Zack almost wished he hadn't said anything. It was a touchy subject, and he knew better than to bring it up, but it had slipped out. More and more these days, Zack had moments where he wasn't quite himself. Where he did something a little mean, for the hell of it.
He stared at his two friends as they recovered, trying to look guilty. Sephiroth tilted back his head and stared at the ceiling like he wanted lightning to strike him where he sat. Eventually, though, he sighed and raked a hand through the hair on the side of his head, pushing it over his shoulder. "I'm expected to marry Scarlet before winter comes," he answered. He spoke softly, and avoided looking at Genesis. "I'm not sure if I can keep pushing it back."
Genesis, by the window, was as stiff as a board. "…Dammit," he said. He turned and headed towards Sephiroth, his boots clicking loudly on the warn hardwood floor. His eyes were narrowed, his broad chest jutted out, his hands now in fists. "What game are you playing, Sephiroth?"
The two men stared each other down. Genesis could be so intimidating, and right now he seemed every bit as deserving of all the nicknames his enemies had given over the years.
"…Don't say that," Sephiroth eventually responded, fighting with softer emotions, and not reciprocal anger.
The venom leeched out of Genesis. First his head fell, and then his back bowed; his hands unclenched and came up to cup Sephiroth's face. His arms then slid around Sephiroth's neck and he hugged Zack's General, stooping awkwardly like that, but still squeezing Sephiroth like he could protect him from the war just like that, all by himself.
"I apologize," Genesis said. It sounded muffled as it was spoken into the thick collar of Sephiroth's trademark jacket.
Zack watched on, sucking on the inside of his cheek and tilting his head.
Sephiroth ran a hand down Genesis' back. He always looked so awkward when he was being tender, but Zack could tell Sephiroth always put his all into it. "You know I don't want to be married. It's out of my control."
"But I want you to fight," Genesis replied. That was all Genesis ever did—fight. Himself, his friends, their enemies. "It's you—and I'm me. I can't help but think there's a way, somehow, to make us work."
Genesis leant in for a few kisses that seemed very loud in the silent, stuffy room. He sighed as he withdrew, studying Sephiroth's lowered lashes. "But… I understand."
Zack whistled, smoothing out his new military coat. It looked good on him. He peered out the window, ignoring the increasingly heated rendezvous occurring on the other side of the room. From the window up here, on Sephiroth's estate at the top of the large hill across the river from Midgar, you could see an awful lot. Even in just the past few years Midgar had spread out so much… and it was the largest city on the continent, from what he understood. Someday, he thought, the city would expand so much that Sephiroth's house, now a safe and idyllic distance away, would get swallowed up. This'll be an area full of fancy materia shops, he'd told Sephiroth, who hadn't liked the idea. Zack whistled lowly again, a bad habit of his, as he spotted a steamship chugging along across the river. Technology these days. It would only be a matter of time.
It was exceptionally hot this summer, and Zack picked at the neckline of his coat, spiffy as it was. He could have sworn the paint on the walls was melting. He had grown up in Gongaga, though, which was even hotter than Banora. He'd be fine, but he knew how some of the men got, those from up North who couldn't handle the heat. Not pretty.
From behind him came the sound of a doorknob turning. Sephiroth and Genesis sprang apart, looking completely unruffled in just a matter of seconds. Genesis went back to staring out the window, much like Zack, and Sephiroth buried his nose in his journal. He had been writing in it a lot lately, Zack noticed. He wondered what about.
They didn't need to worry; it was just Angeal, much to Zack's delight.
"Angeal!" Zack greeted, getting up out of his chair. He drew the older, dark-haired man into a hug. Angeal was clearly stressed—his chest was heaving, and his eyes wild—but he took the time to return Zack's hug, giving his friend a (too warm in this weather) squeeze.
"Things are bad," he announced to all of them. "It looks like war."
"What happened?" Genesis asked, reaching for Rapier out of habit.
"AVALANCHE just blew up three of our four Mako reactors simultaneously. Within the hour. I'm surprised you haven't been informed of it already. Numbers 2, 5 and 6."
"Dammit," Zack swore, shaking his head. "We knew this was going to happen?"
"How did they do it?" Sephiroth questioned Angeal, face stony.
Angeal closed the door behind himself and sank into a stiff, upholstered chair against one of the walls with a groan. It groaned too, under his bulk. "It was an inside job. They either bought out or intimidated workers at each of the reactors. They're still gathering details. Planted explosives. Casualties are high."
Much of the city was running on Mako, a glowing green liquid extracted from the ground. AVALANCHE, a group of eco-terrorists from the eastern part of the continent rejected the idea of mako, saying its extraction harmed the planet. That was debatable, but science was not yet at the point where they could say with certainty the effects of extracting Mako from the ground.
Recently AVALANCHE's attacks were becoming more numerous and dangerous. This was on a scale they hadn't attempted yet, though. There were a total of eight regional Mako reactors: large, sprawling energy plants that powered the city of Midgar. More were scattered across the continent in various places. No one had imagined that they would be AVALANCHE's new targets. The destruction of the Mako reactors would probably plunge a large fraction of the city, and possibly the continent, into darkness for quite some time.
"President ShinRa is already preparing to declare war. AVALANCHE is on the brink of seceding as it is."
Sephiroth sighed. "I was hoping it wouldn't come to this."
"I think we all were," Genesis said, almost sadly. "The Mako reactors, of all the things…"
"Looks like you'll be putting that new uniform to good use," Angeal told Zack, lifting his arm. The amusement didn't quite reach his eyes. Zack went to his side, giving the tired man some support.
"Guess I will."
Four hours later Sephiroth stood at attention before President ShinRa himself. Angeal, Zack and Genesis stood behind him a little, also saluting. Stuffed into the small, hot room on the edges of Midgar that was standing in as the official conference room in the capitol building were various cabinet members, army leaders and political bosses. The President cleared his throat, finishing making a long-winded speech about how AVALANCHE's actions were intolerable.
It really seemed like there was going to be a Civil War in Gaia. This was unprecedented and terrifying. The East had more people backing their cause, but the West had all the resources. The East had possible help from allies, because so many others hated ShinRa, but the West had the most elite of the SOLDIERs, super fighting machines. But, then again, no one was supposed to know about that.
Sephiroth's headache was back, but he didn't let his neutral expression waver as he stared blankly at the proceedings. It had been bothering him for quite some time, and was getting worse lately. Genesis and Angeal too.
The President spoke in a huddle in the front of the room with some of his friends and advisors, and then pushed them aside. He looked at Sephiroth, a slow smile spreading across his face.
"Crescent," he said, voice booming in the small room. Sephiroth loathed him. "A glorious war is upon us. We need a man to lead us to victory." He looked around, and Sephiroth was positive the President made eye contact with Hojo, who was lurking in the back of the room. "You are that man. Your fighting ability is unparalleled, and you have proven yourself repeatedly against the toughest of foes." HE held out a hand, with a quill in it. "I desire that you lead my forces against AVALANCHE, and restore Gaia to its peaceful, united state. Will you accept?"
He strode forward, taking the quill from the President's hand. "Of course, President ShinRa. It is an honor."
Sephiroth signed the paper, posed for a very long, blurry, fuzzy photograph with a camera, something invented within the year, and left. The others followed him, and they didn't stop walking until they reached the safety of the SOLDIER headquarters, a large building on a nearby street. Sephiroth collapsed in a chair in his office and put his head in his hands. Genesis hugged his back, resting his cheek against the back of Sephiroth's skull.
"Lead us well, General," the redhead whispered. "You can do this. And if you can't, I'll pick up your slack."
Sephiroth nodded, gripping Genesis's hand.
And the next day, the war began.
When Cloud woke up that day, he realized that he had fallen asleep on the floor.
Then he realized that his cheek was stuck to his notebook.
"Ugh," he moaned, peeling it off with a sticky sound. He sat up, clutching his lower back and looked around blearily. He had really gotten into his research yesterday. A fire had burned in his veins, his heart, making him turn each page and write every word. Now he had cooled off, figuratively and literally; his skin was covered in little goosebumps. Shivering, Cloud stood up and padded to his closet to grab a robe and his moogle slippers, which he put on. In a few hours it would be boiling hot again.
Last night Cloud hadn't discovered anything fantastic or amazing, but he had re-learned a lot of little facts that he must have forgotten over the years. He had spent a while looking at a fuzzy, blurry photograph of Sephiroth posing with President Shin-Ra. That was taken on the night Sephiroth agreed to become the leader of the SOLDIER army. AVALANCHE finallys parked all-out war by bombing three reactors that day.
The guy was really so inspiring. There were rumors that he was romantically involved with General Rhapsodos, but for all Cloud knew that could be completely baseless. Sephiroth had a wife, after all, a woman named Scarlet. They were married in the middle of the war. Even though there were a lot of bad rumors surrounding General Crescent, things like he was a cannibal and he wasn't even human, he never stopped being Cloud's hero. The rumors were stupid anyway, things heaped onto a man with so much public intrigue surrounding his death. Something about Sephiroth was sad but proud, strong and mysterious. He was a natural leader, devastatingly handsome, and kind. Everyone's kind of man.
The phone ringing snapped Cloud out of his thoughts and he left his room, carefully toeing past open texbooks. He reached the kitchen, glanced at the caller ID and answered it. "Hey Tifa."
"How're you?" Cloud leant against his counter and nudged a kitchen chair back into its right place with his slippered foot.
"I'm good. Denzel misses you, though."
"Aw. I'll visit him soon. I'll take him out to lunch or something?"
"He'd like that," Tifa laughed. He could hear the clanking of glass—Tifa was probably working in her bar. No one had ever thought that Tifa would open a bar, of all things; back home in Nibelheim she had always been a perfect little daughter (except for the whole "beating all the boys up" thing). She was really successful, though, and Cloud was happy for her. Sometimes he'd sleep over on the second floor of her bar; she had a lot of guests.
"So what's up?" Cloud asked her, starting a pot of coffee.
"I was just worried about you," Tifa confessed. "I know your thesis is a lot of work…I was just checking in on you."
Cloud frowned, biting his lip as he flicked a ruined coffee filter into the trash. Was he really so down in the dumps that everyone was worrying about him? He'd have to work on that.
"I'm really okay," he reassured. "Yesterday I went back home and checked out some of the old battlefields and stuff. I feel really…excited about doing this again."
Tifa's smile was evident in her voice. "I'm glad," she told him. "If you need help with anything, or some booze when you're too stressed, come to me."
Cloud told her that he would. They chatted about other recent developments in their own as well as their friends' lives, and when Cloud ended the call he drank his coffee with a stupid little grin on his face. There was a bigger support net in place in terms of friends than Cloud had thought.
He could do this. His friends were counting on him.
Cloud returned to his room, looking at the items spread out everywhere. Sighing, he scooped up the first item, a book with post-its of all colors sticking out the sides. He stripped off his robe and fell onto his bed in his pajamas, scooting upwards until he was comfortable. He flipped through some pages, licking his now coffee-flavored teeth with his tongue, and opened to where he had made a mark last the previous night.
There was a chapter of the book devoted entirely to Zack Fair, Sephiroth's friend and Commander of the 7th Division. Cloud had always wished that he was more like Zack. All firsthand accounts of the man were nothing but positive. The guy had been happy nearly all of the time, optimistic, and a great source of courage for those who needed it.
His charge against Elfé's forces at the Battle of Mideel was legendary. Cloud had underlined a few lines of the chapter, and he smiled upon looking at them. It was Zack's first battle as Commander, and even though things had gone remarkably bad—their transport vehicles weren't able to arrive, they were short of ammo, they were cut off from the rest of the army, several SOLDIERs who fought with swords rather than guns didn't have their weapons—Zack had climbed up into a tree, commanded everyone's attention and delivered a brief speech so moving that everyone bravely went into battle despite all the difficulties.
SOLDIER had suffered only 11 casualties, whereas AVALANCHE had lost close to two hundred. Zack led the charge, brandishing his sword, the Galatine, the entire way.
They were just so damn cool. Swords! This was during a time when guns, although primitive, were aplenty, and they still chose to use swords. All of the swords were famous; Angeal's Buster Sword was especially so. It was so heavy that many couldn't even lift it, let alone wield it with any sort of skill.
Cloud exhaled, folding his arms behind his head and nestling himself deeper into his bed. He gazed across the room at Sephiroth on his door. He'd had that poster since he was fourteen. It was the most famous oil paint portrait of the man. Masamune glinted at the General's side; it was a long, thirteen-and-a-half-foot sword. Ridiculous, and yet Sephiroth's skill with a blade was unmatched.
It made Cloud wonder how those four were so damned good at everything they did. They were strong, fast, and talented—almost unbelievably so, even. That puzzled historians too. Maybe they were just exceptionally skilled. Something seemed fishy there, though. Some speculated that Barnaby Hojo, chief "scientist" of SOLDIER had something to do with it. Someone would figure it out eventually.
Again, that was something that Cloud would not be the person to solve. He would have to pick something small. Not because he didn't want to solve some huge mystery, of which there were plenty, but because he just…couldn't. He wasn't connected, he wasn't a genius, he didn't have access to super-secret museum-type archives and records…
…But who was he kidding?
If Cloud wanted to solve something huge, he could try. Right? There was nothing stopping him from attempting to figure anything out. The beauty of it was that in the process, because of all his researching and field work and inquiry, he could find something feasible on the way.
For now, however, Cloud was content to read about Zack Fair in bed, jiggling his foot to the beat of the song on his bedside radio.
Zack had been born in Gongaga. That wasn't on the map today, but it was roughly around the Mideel area. Hot, wet, and jungle-y. Not Cloud's cup of tea, but the area was obviously doing something right if it produced a man like Zack. Cloud smiled, looking at the confident one of Zack's own in the most famous portrait of the man which was shown on the next page of Cloud's book. There was a story behind that portrait—Zack kept fidgeting, wanting to get back into the action and save people so badly that Angeal had to threaten him with removing his access to showers for the next three days (and also, as it was revealed a few decades after the war, threatening to tell everyone about Zack's embarrassing nickname, which was "Puppy"). Zack had complied, standing still for an agonizing five hours as the artist painted him there in his uniform, standing tall, sword almost cockily resting point-down on the ground like a cane. It made Cloud laugh.
That was Cloud's favorite part of history. As much as he loved to read about people's famous military glories and the greatest accomplishments by the greatest of people, he liked to read about the little stories best. Things that made these untouchable figures seem human, or more human than they had before. Things like Angeal threatening Zack with a loss of food, as mean as that was.
The author of the biography Cloud was reading was clearly biased towards the SOLDIERs, which wasn't always a good thing, Cloud noted with a frown, but it was a good source of facts. Cloud made a note to himself to check her bibliography and see the sources she used for himself. He would have to really step up his research for this one; he would have to be proactive like he never had before.
He could do it.
Lounging in bed and reading until about noon, Cloud eventually noticed his clock and sighed. He had to have a life, no matter how busy he was, and Tifa's words had made him a bit uncomfortable. His old friend had been worried about his mental health. Chances were others were, too. Maybe he had to make a bit more of an effort.
So he left. Where he was going Cloud wasn't exactly sure. He got outside the building and just decided to walk, hooking a left and going down the street. Midgar was busy, especially around lunchtime. People were bustling around in and out of cafés, chasing after buses and narrowly missing hitting bicyclists with their cars. Home sweet home.
Cloud stopped in a sandwich shop where he grabbed a turkey wrap, some chips and a bottle of lemonade. He ate it as he walked, stomach growling happily as it was fed.
Much to Cloud's delight, he realized that he was close to where Firion worked. Firion was perhaps his best guy friend, ignoring Reno, who was sometimes his best friend and sometimes his best enemy.
Weaponsmaster, the shop was called. It was a one-story building in a decent part of town, and it got a lot of traffic. Today you needed permits to own weapons, but there was an affinity for swords that had existed ever since Gaia was first created. Perhaps it was Sephiroth, Angeal, Genesis and Zack's very public use in a successful war that contributed to that, Cloud mused with a bit of giddy history-nerd pride.
Cloud walked inside, a bell tinkling somewhere in the back of the shop. There was a gruff-looking man inspecting various handguns in a glass case in the corner. Cloud was more interested in the swords, though, which lined the back wall. They were clearly prized possessions.
Firion's head poked out from a back room, and after he realized it was Cloud in the shop he came out, standing on the other side of the counter and smiling at him. "Hey Cloud," he greeted. He looked happy (and maybe a bit relieved?) to see him. He tried to look busy by grabbing a rag and wiping down the glass counter that had various weapons underneath it, but it was just an act.
"Hey," Cloud greeted, smiling back. Firion was a cool guy. His hair wasn't gray, but more like a silver—not unlike Sephiroth's, Cloud noted in the back of his head—that fell a little bit lower than his ears. He usually wore a bright bandana on the top of his head, and had a thin ponytail that fell to the middle of his back.
"What brings you here?"
Cloud shrugged, strolling over to the case full of pointy lances. They had been really popular once upon a time; Cid's hero, some champion of the very first airship generation, had used one. Cid had a lance at home hidden under his bed or something. Cid was a strange man. "I just thought I'd say hi."
"'Hi,' then," Firion said playfully, abandoning the rag. He walked around the counter, nodded at the other man in the store and came to stand by Cloud, looking at what Cloud was looking at.
"That's the Morning Glory," Firion said, indicating one of the lances. "It's about a hundred and eighty years old."
"How do you know that?" Cloud muttered, shaking his head. He punched the man's arm when Firion lightly shoved him. The customer seemed to have a question and Firion abandoned him, hurrying over.
Cloud stuck his hands in his pockets and gazed up at the swords. There were long ones, thin ones, broad ones, curved ones, all neatly arranged with their own little spotlights. There was also his favorite, near the ceiling.
It was a huge broadsword, possibly bigger than Angeal's famous Buster Sword, but without a measuring tape Cloud couldn't be sure. It was at least six feet long, though, and probably a foot and a few inches wide. It was wider near the hilt and tapered to a gradual point, unlike the Buster Sword, which was the same width for most of the blade and then cut into a vicious point. Angeal could wield that heavy thing like nobody's business.
Cloud wished he knew what Tsurugi's name meant. Yuffie might know; she was fluent in Wutaian. It was an interesting-looking blade; it wasn't just straight or smooth. It looked almost like it was composed of several parts, with odd-looking gear-like things at a hinge near the hilt. Maybe you could get it apart, or store something inside.
"Still convinced that's from your precious Civil War?"
Cloud scowled over his shoulder at Firion. "Hmph. How did Tsurugi get its name?"
Firion sighed, crossing his arms. "I'm not sure. This is the only piece in our collection that we don't know much of anything about, unfortunately."
Cloud tilted his head, regarding the blade. "How did your boss get his hands on it?"
"I'm not sure about that either. I think he bought it from someone in Kalm."
"Huh." Cloud twisted his mouth, gave the sword a last look, and turned around to regard his friend. "How's your thesis coming?"
"Haha. Yeah. It's hard to find that perfect topic, you know?"
"Oh, I know," Cloud said, running a hand through his hair. "Trust me, man. I know. Do you have any ideas?"
"Mmmn." Distractedly, Firion walked around the corner and began to polish a gun that looked way too dangerous to just polish like that while distracted. Cloud took a step back. "I'm thinking I might do something with the introduction of more advanced weapons to more primitive civilizations. Or maybe, like, something about the evolution of swordfighting? Or maybe—"
"You could talk about Sephiroth!" Cloud burst.
Firion gave him a flat look. "Only you, Cloud."
"…Whatever," Cloud countered feebly.
They talked a bit more about possible thesis ideas, Firion still polishing various guns. They gossiped a bit about some of the other classmates—staying very far away from Squall, Cloud noted thankfully—and Cloud learned quite a bit about various weapons. Firion was really, really knowledgeable. It was comparable to him and the Civil War, or Reno and his trains, or Yuffie and her thieves. Everyone in Cloud's class was passionate about something…just like he was. Not everyone would reach First Class, he knew. That was hard to stomach.
What was the deciding factor, he wondered? What made one person make it in this business and another fail?
Cloud didn't want to fail.
He—and Firion too—they'd make sure they had what it took, whatever it was. First Class was their dream. They'd get there.
Cloud left eventually, after poking around a bit more. He and his friend promised to meet up at the library sometime. Cloud's heart felt lighter.
Sometimes, because of all this hard work and stress, it was a bit easier when you knew you had friends suffering through the same thing.
After walking aimlessly around town for a while, Cloud found himself in what was pretty much the center of Midgar. There was a large fountain in the middle of town. A waist-high marble ring ran around the bottom of it, which people sat on. Cloud ambled over to it, sat down and watched people stroll by, lovers, families, hurrying businesspeople.
It was nice to calm down and take a break. Tomorrow, Cloud promised himself, he'd work hard.
There was a Gil coin in his pocket; he pulled it out and ran his thumb over the surface. Then, Cloud turned somberly to the fountain. Turning the coin over in his hand, Cloud twisted his mouth, eyes trained on the water.
"I wish that I'll come up with something awesome," he breathed, feeling a bit silly, "and that I'll solve a huge historical mystery, and that I'll make First Class." He tossed the coin in and watched it sink. Was he supposed to feel different or something? He didn't.
Stretching, Cloud got to his feet. It was a long walk home—he had better get started before it got dark.
"—And I said, 'Look back! Look back! Back to the paaast!' Back then our love was so much more—"
"Oh, shut up," Cloud huffed. He smacked his alarm clock, shutting off superstar Reeve Tuesti's crooning. He couldn't take that sort of music this early in the morning.
Sagging into his mattress, Cloud blearily blinked his eyes, sighing and rubbing his nose. He felt clogged, hot and sweaty and unwell. The blond irritably kicked the sheets off his body, rolling over to a new, not as hot and damp spot. It didn't really help. Cloud sighed, closing his eyes.
It was already the first week of July. He had to get his ass in gear. Today, Cloud promised himself, would be his day to start—for real. As he got out of bed he mused that he had already had a good sign; Reeve Tuesti had been singing about going back to the past. Hah!
Eventually Cloud dragged himself out of bed and into the shower. Today he was going to work. He was going to bleed ink, breathe book-dust and think of nothing but facts.
His phone rang as he shoveled down some cereal and toast. "Hey Aerith," he greeted, nestling the phone between his ear and his shoulder.
A greeting came in the sweet voice of his friend. Aerith lived in Midgar. They had met one day when Cloud had gotten lost and ended up in a certain part of the slums at night—a dangerous thing to do, to be sure. Cloud had been peering at a faded map, eyes wide and jumping at the littlest sounds, and Aerith, a pretty brunette wearing a pink dress with a basket of flowers under her arm, had asked him if he was lost. Cloud had said yes, and Aerith spent a while talking to him and giving him directions back to his part of town. She was totally fearless, living in the slums like that—good for her. Cloud admired that a lot. They had been friends ever since.
"Picking flowers," she answered, and Cloud could clearly picture her kneeling on the floor of that run-down church and gently pulling lilies out of the soil and placing them in that basket of hers. There wasn't a whole lot of greenery in the slums, especially Sector 5, Aerith's sector. People were really willing to buy flowers. "You?"
Cloud paused, chewing and swallowing loudly. "Uh. Eating toast."
Aerith laughed. "Yummy. I called to see how you were doing with that project of yours and all."
This was the second friend of his who had called, concerned about him. Did he really seem that troubled?
"I'm fine," Cloud said softly, pouring himself a glass of orange juice, "I just…got a little stressed out for a while. I'm going to work on it today."
Aerith hummed thoughtfully. "Good for you. I hope it goes well. If you ever need a stress reliever, I hear picking flowers does wonders."
"You just don't want to do it yourself," Cloud teased.
Aerith laughed, telling Cloud he had been right. "You'd probably destroy the poor things anyway."
"Well… I won't keep you. I'm glad to hear you're doing well. Feel free to stop by any time, alright?"
"Sure," Cloud said, nodding to himself in his kitchen, "I will. See ya, Aerith."
Cloud spent a few moments jiggling his foot under the table, staring off into space. He'd have to make more of an effort to… he didn't know. Something.
The plan was to head to the library. The Midgar Public Library was a huge place. It was one of the first-built libraries on the continent—considering how Midgar used to be the capital city and all—and had done nothing but grow extensively. There were a lot of books there, better books than the ones that Cloud owned. He brought with him his favorite Sephiroth biography, some notes that he had taken last year in a class about the Civil War's military history, and then a candy bar that he had found on top of his dresser, just like that.
The library wasn't too far from where Seventh Heaven was, actually. Emerging from the dark, stinky subway half an hour later and into the sunny—but equally stinky—city was a bit disorienting, but Cloud managed to point himself in the right direction.
Midgar Library was a tall building made of dark marble. It was an impressive sight, and Cloud hurried up the stairs, heavy backpack cutting into his shoulders a little. It was pretty busy, maybe because it was cool inside and so hot outside. He entered a tall, domed lobby with shiny floors. There was an information desk but Cloud was a pro when it came to this place; he hooked a right and headed for a wing staircase, plugging his headphones into his phone as he lightly jogged up the stairs.
The third floor was his destination—the library had different volume levels for each floor. The second was the silent floor, and Cloud couldn't really deal with absolute silence. Once he had sneezed on that floor and some snooty teenager had glared at him for at least five minutes. The third floor, by contrast, was just a quiet floor—hushed talking and whispers were allowed. It was big, with huge bookshelves that reached the forty-foot ceiling and tables and desks in every direction. Cloud's kind of place.
There was one place that Cloud liked to study the most. He had tried out what felt like every table in the place, trying to find the perfect one that maximized his brainpower and whatnot. He'd tried the stiff tables, the plush chairs in the corners, the counters with the elevated stools over by the 'T-TZ' books—and had eventually found what he was looking for. It was a soft, cushy couch for two that even had a little box to rest your feet up on. There was a wooden desk top that folded out from the side of the couch, much like a desk back in high school; he could write on that.
That wasn't where Cloud was headed, though, not yet.
There were a ton of computers available throughout the library. Cloud sat at one, gently placing his backpack on the carpet beside his chair and sat down, scooting the chair in.
Cloud input his information so he could log on and clicked a little book icon on the desktop, which was the shortcut for the library catalog. It flashed up, an innocent blinking icon almost mocking him.
Exhaling, Cloud leaned back in his seat, craning his head up at the ceiling.
Now he started. Cloud's first order of business was to check out a hell of a lot of books. He'd need some serious resources before he was ready to tackle this thing. A variety of sources was required just because of the scope of the project itself—he would need internet sources, books, primary sources…looking at some of the official documents in museums (if he could) wouldn't hurt…
It, frankly, made Cloud's head spin a little bit. It was intimidating, yes. Exciting, yes. Easy, no.
But who said the best things in life were easy?
Sephiroth Crescent, Cloud typed in the database search bar. He hit the enter key and waited a few seconds—and then a list of more than two hundred and forty books popped up. Two hundred and forty. Just about Sephiroth.
Blinking, Cloud copied the huge list of results in a word document and moved onto his next query. Gaian Civil War. Over six hundred freaking results.
Alright. Cloud understood that the Civil War was a huge—huge—part of Gaian history, but why did there have to be this many books?
Cloud propped his head up with his hand, looking around the library. All around were studious-looking people. Well, maybe about half studious-looking people; Cloud had been correct earlier in guessing that some people were around just to get out of the heat. An old man sat not too far away fanning himself with a book.
There was a teenage girl liberally filling her book with colorful post-it flags. A man looking ready to rip his hair—what was left of it—out. A man, headphones in, bobbing his head as she bent over a thick stack of printed papers. A young woman across the room giving into frustration and kicking the chair next to her down with a loud bang—
Cloud got out of his seat and headed towards the short, angry female.
Yuffie was huffing, arms crossed across her chest. She spotted Cloud and her face split into a large smile; she waved him over, ignoring the small group of nearby people who were staring at her. Cloud hastily picked up the fallen chair and slid into it, scooting it forward and back into place.
"Hey, Yuf," he greeted.
"Studying hard?" she asked him, banging a hand on a binder overflowing with a papers. Yuffie's voice sounded like she knew that he hadn't been doing very well.
Cloud sighed. "Attempting to. It's a lot of work."
"Yeah, no kidding."
"It's just…daunting to start, you know?"
Yuffie fisted her hands in her dark hair, exhaling gustily and glaring at her work. "Uh-huh. There's just so much to do."
They griped about the thesis projects for a good ten minutes, and afterwards both felt a lot lighter, smiling bashfully at each other.
"So what are you working on now?" Cloud prodded, nudging one of her books with his fingertip.
"I'm gathering information about all the emperors during the Godo dynasty right now, to start. I think I might look into some of the rumors and urban legends during the time…most of 'em were about thieves and ninjas, you know? I think there might be something really important hidden in them."
"Important like what?"
"Hell if I know!"
Cloud raked a messy hand through his hair and smiled at his friend. "How do you think everyone else is doing?"
"I talked to Cissnei on the phone yesterday; she's doing alright. Cid and I had breakfast this morning; he's all pissy already."
"I saw Firion yesterday. He's really busy. Do you think anyone has their thesis topic, yet?"
"I sure don't," Yuffie said, chin on her folded forearms. "I really don't think anyone does. We're all trying really hard…but it's difficult. 'Make history…'"
"Yeah. How are we supposed to discover something all on our own?"
"I don't know," Yuffie moaned. "Go away, you're depressing me."
Patting the younger woman's arm, Cloud stood. "Alright—I'll be over there-" he jerked his thumb in the right direction, "-if you need me. Good luck, Yuf."
Cloud scrammed. Back at his workstation he narrowed his eyes at the computer screen, determined after his little chat with Yuffie.
The cursor blinked.
Next search term…? Genesis Rhapsodos.
Cloud continued to input search terms and copy the results into his word document. When satisfied, and with over a thousand five-hundred results, he printed the whole list and grabbed a pen and a highlighter. He set the stack of still warm-from-the-printer paper on the tabletop beside the keyboard and started going through the list, highlighting any books that seemed like they would be any good. Some of the results he had gotten weren't really what he wanted, like General Sephiroth Crescent's War: a Coloring Book. He scratched them all off with his pen.
Slowly but critically, Cloud worked through page after page of book titles. Some were books entirely devoted to a major player in a war or a certain battle; he highlighted those. Some were books that just mentioned somebody, even in passing, but had shown up regardless; he scribbled those out.
Eventually Cloud was left with about a hundred books, which he copied into a new document and re-printed.
Then he stared at the whole thing, looking around the library again and stretching, back making a satisfying series of cracking noises. Yuffie had changed seats but was now diligently writing away in a notebook. Some guy had fallen asleep on one of the couches.
Deciding to start at the top of his list, Cloud peered at the serial number beside the title. Zack Fair: Mystery, Martyr, Magnificent.
The sad thing was that people used libraries all the time—but rarely for reading books or checking them out. People would sit on their laptops in the relative quiet that the library provided, which was nice and good and all that, but somewhere deep down it hurt Cloud a little bit to see all these untouched books. There was so much knowledge out there that people weren't tapping into. There was so much so easily at everyone's fingertips; it really was a shame.
Avoiding getting dramatic, Cloud shut up, took a minute to orient himself and looked for his first book. As he walked further and further away from the main center of the library it felt more and more like he was entering some other world. The carpet was plusher from a lack of feet always on it, and the tall shelves blocked out some of the harsh lighting, creating a sleepy feel.
The shelves stretched up tall, more than twice his height. The wood was dark, but what kind exactly he wasn't sure, and some of the titles jumped out at him. How I Overcame my Geostigma, a novel. Postmodern Materia Synthesis Theory. So Who Really Killed Xemnas? The Day the Heartless Invaded the Island.
Interesting stuff. Cloud got distracted and found himself four pages into Jeans or Shorts: What Your Clothes Say About You before he realized what he was doing and dropped the book like his fingers had caught fire. Cloud cringed, looking around at the empty shelves almost guiltily before picking the book up and sliding it back in place.
"Focus, Strife," he murmured to himself.
He located the correct shelf eventually, far off in a corner. He found the required four-thousands eventually and dropped to his knees, crawling on the floor so he could see the bottom shelf. He felt (and probably looked) ridiculous, but he'd do what he had to do.
Cloud finally found his book, pulling it off the shelf and sitting on his bum, looking at the cover. He grabbed his sheet, pulling a pen out of his pocket and making a neat check mark beside the first title.
One down, a hell of a lot left to go.
For over an hour, Cloud walked up and down stairs, skirted around busy librarygoers and resisted the urge to be distracted by random books he came across. He ran from the third floor to the second back to the third to the first to the third to the first to the second to the first—eventually he started taking the elevator. He piled all his finds first in his backpack, and when that got full he stacked them on Yuffie's table, trying not to take up all her space.
Who knew a trip to the library could be such a good workout?
Cloud wanted to stop at 20 books—they were thick and heavy; it would probably be enough for now. Hopefully at least a few of them could help him somehow.
The last one left, eventually, was on the third floor. Dropping off another book for Yuffie, who rolled her eyes at him, Cloud slowly made his way across the room. The 500-600 books that he wanted were near the window that looked out over the river; he headed that way, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.
He traced the Ds to the DGs and slowly walked down one shelf-hallway, peering around him. Another few seconds of looking found him his book.
The problem was, it was on the top shelf. The very tall top shelf.
Well, no problem, really. Cloud turned on the spot, looking for a step stool. There wasn't one, but he moseyed to the end of the row—a few down there was one, and Cloud lugged it to his row, painfully bumping the thing against his kneecaps. Cloud located his book again, then put the step stool down, climbing on top of it. It was maybe about two feet tall.
With a scowl, Cloud realized he still couldn't reach the damn book. On his tiptoes, Cloud's fingers were still a good four inches below his book. He needed one of those rolling ladders in movies. Cloud knew he was considered short for a guy at 5'7", and he'd grown to be comfortable in his skin, but it was frustrating.
Then, thankfully, someone turned into his aisle and started walking towards him.
As they made eye contact and he got closer Cloud realized that he was a handsome guy, short blond hair, green eyes and a scar on his face that…reminded him a lot of Squall's, actually.
"Excuse me," he said easily, stepping down from the stool. The man frowned and came over.
Jerking his thumb up at the book Cloud asked, "Would you mind grabbing a book for me?"
He specified and the blond easily agreed, standing on the stool and managing to grab the book with the tips of his fingers. He handed it down, which Cloud took with a grateful smile.
"Thanks," he said.
"Sephiroth, huh?" the man said in response, getting down and sticking a hand into his pocket. "I know a guy who's a history geek."
Cloud laughed lightly, taking no offense. "That's me," he said, shaking his head and rubbing his tired eyes with one hand. The man gave him an odd look and held out his hand.
Transferring the book to his other hand, Cloud shook it. "Cloud. Thanks again for getting the book. It's a hassle being short."
"Eh." Seifer shrugged. "Being tall isn't so great."
"Must get cold up there."
Seifer grinned. Cloud smiled back and jerked the book over his shoulder. "I had better get reading. Thanks again. I'll see you around, Seifer?"
The other blond inclined his head. "Sure. See you, Cloud."
Cloud turned and split. It had been a while since he had interacted with any guys that seemed the littlest bit interested in him. Firion was straight, Reno was like a brother, Squall was…another issue entirely, and he wasn't sure about Rufus. Mysterious as always—Cloud didn't really like the older blond like that.
But it didn't really matter anyway; Cloud had no intention of getting into any sort of relationship so soon—not after how the last one had ended.
Cloud jiggled his last book, a biography, as he headed back to Yuffie's table.
"How long are you going to be here?"
"Another few hours," Yuffie replied miserably, dropping her head onto a book with a thunk. Cloud patted her head consolingly and scooped up as many books as he could carry, leaving her.
Disgruntled, Cloud noticed that there was someone sitting on half of his favorite little loveseat. Today, though, Cloud decided, he wasn't going to back down just like that.
He had this huge project to do. If he wanted to sit in his favorite spot, he'd sure as hell do it. If he wanted to, say, do all his studying naked (in the comfort of his home, of course), he'd do that too. This was about him. He had a lot to do, and it was really important, so no matter what it took for him to be in his element and do the best he could, he'd do it.
And in this case, if it meant sitting next to some stranger who was—unintentionally, he knew, but still—intruding on his secret place, he'd do that, too.
Setting his jaw and feeling quite snooty, Cloud dropped into his usual seat, ignoring the person sitting next to him. With luck they would feel awkward and leave. He really was an awful person, Cloud realized with a start—but he didn't care quite enough to do anything about it.
He maneuvered the attached wooden desktop above him and took out a notebook, a pen, and reached for his first book. Angeal Hewley, it read, A Keeper of Honor. Cloud nibbled on the end of his pen, keeping it in his mouth as he flipped to the first page.
Then, for some reason, Cloud looked to the right just as the person sitting next to him looked to the left. Cloud blinked at Squall, pen hanging out of his mouth. Squall looked back, stormy gray eyes going comically wide.
Both looked away like they had been stung, and the air between them immediately became thick with tension.
Oh shit, Cloud swore in his head, starting to sweat.
No one moved.
No one even breathed.
And then Cloud set his jaw a little more, forced himself to relax—or at least, appear to relax—and stubbornly went back to his book, ignoring Squall. Squall was still for a minute more, and then seemed to do the same; he buried his nose in the thick book he had been reading, ignoring Cloud.
The tense air didn't dissipate, and Cloud's head was spinning. There was no fucking way he was going to be able to get any work done like this, but…he couldn't just leave.
He had to make a stand, sort of, against Squall. This was his spot, and he didn't like Squall, so he wasn't going to let the brown-haired male drive him away.
So, Cloud stayed. Squall stayed too, and the two men were so focused on not paying any attention to the other that that was all they could think about; no one made a move to touch a pencil or turn a page in about twenty minutes.
Cloud's phone buzzed, snapping him out of his awkward, tense stupor. He pulled it out, noticing out of the corner of his eye the way Squall instinctively leaned away when Cloud did so. A text from Yuffie.
How's it going? So tired. I'm going to pass out in a sec, lol
Cloud typed a furious reply, blond brows furrowed: Yuffie. Somehow I'm sitting next to Squall. This is so awkward, I can't take it.
Faking coolness, Cloud slid his phone back into his pocket, eyes darting around, and he fixed his position, trying to get more comfortable.
Beside him, Squall stretched out his legs. Squall had a long, long pair of legs that he usually covered in tight jeans. Today he was wearing boots—boots that he had once accidentally stepped on Cloud's bare foot with, then spent an hour apologizing and giving Cloud's foot a clumsy massage that was more ticklish than anything. He was wearing a black t-shirt, and his ever-present necklace glittered against his neck. His soft hair obscured his face because he was leaning forward, and Cloud tore his eyes away.
It was really hard to see Squall here like this, so close and looking as good as he always had. Cloud knew he was a wreck on the inside, unsure of himself, constantly overwhelmed, getting by by the skin of his teeth.
It was kind of unfair. Squall seemed to be doing alright. He didn't have that many friends, Cloud knew—so he had felt really special, back then, like he got Squall all to himself. He had felt like Squall needed him—but now it was the opposite; sometimes Cloud thought that he needed Squall.
Stop it, he chastised himself. He wanted to crawl across the couch and say hi, or something, but that would never work—not now. They were done, no longer the best of friends, Squall didn't need him.
And that was fine.
Yuffie messaged him back. Cloud pulled out his phone again, trying to look nonchalant. Her message was entirely in capital letters.
FOR REAL? GET OUTTA THERE, STRIFE! COME SIT WITH ME, I MADE SPACE FOR YOU.
Cloud laughed quietly at that, forgetting that Squall was probably hanging off his every word. He scowled and leaned away from the brunet a bit as he typed his response.
No—it's okay. I'm making myself stay for now. We're not talking or anything though. I might move eventually.
Stupid, stubborn boys, Yuffie replied shortly a minute later. Cloud rolled his eyes and put his phone away, squinting at the first page of his book.
Calm down, Cloud, he told himself. He knew this stuff. Angeal Hewley—one of the big four. He was a handsome guy; extremely strong, wielded the Buster Sword. Had a cute goatee thing on the end of his chin. Lots of hobbies. Was best friends with Sephiroth and Genesis. Okay.
The book started with a description of Angeal's hometown, Banora. It was near modern-day Mideel, with warm weather, endless acres of farmland and, in Angeal's case, dumbapple orchards. Cloud had eaten a dumbapple once. It was pricey, but delicious. He knew Genesis's parents owned an orchard, and that Genesis invented Banoran apple juice, and that made it taste all the better.
He had just slipped into that frame of mind where he was into it, really feeling Angeal Hewley, who he was as a person, what he stood for, and what he did, when a voice broke him out of his thoughts.
"Ah—look who it is. Hey, Cloud."
He looked up, blinking disorientedly, as he had kind of forgotten he was in the library. Seifer stood there, a few books under his arm.
"Oh," Cloud said, lowering his book to his lap as he slowly remembered the man's name. "Hey…Seifer."
Beside him, something seemed wrong with Squall. Cloud wasn't looking at him—of course not, of course he wasn't—but out of the corner of his eye he could see that the man was sitting up even stiffer than he had been earlier, and he was glaring at Seifer. Like, glaring. What the hell for?
Seifer smirked at Cloud, and his eyes flicked to Squall. "Leonhart," he greeted, voice a cocky drawl. "Nice to see you."
Squall didn't say anything, but iciness poured off him in waves. Cloud was pretty familiar with that, funnily enough.
It didn't seem to faze Seifer, though, and he rocked back on his heels, one of his hands in his pockets. "I'm having some trouble figuring out how the book system works," he confessed to Cloud with a frown. "You seemed to know your way around. I was wondering if you could help me, if you're not too busy?"
"Uhh," Cloud said, shoulders rising to his ears, "Of course—yeah. Sure." He had to get away from Squall, because of both the memories he was threatening to push to the surface and because of this odd mood he seemed to be in. He stood, and Seifer grabbed his arm, leading him away from the couch.
Squall sat forward, looking like he was about to say something, but he didn't. He sat back with a hateful glance in Seifer's direction and absolutely nothing in Cloud's.
That was strange.
Seifer led him a few rows away, where Cloud shook off the other's grip.
"What are you looking for?" Cloud asked, twisting around and trying to peer at Squall through a shelf of books.
Seifer pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and held it out. From the title, it looked like a complicated physics textbook.
"Oh, that's on the second floor. C'mon," Cloud said, and started walking. Seifer walked alongside him, and Cloud glanced up at him. After seeing Squall again, he realized that his scar and Seifer's were very similar. It was a thin line that stretched from mid-forehead to beside their noses, but Squall's and Seifer's went in different directions. Huh.
"Do you know Squall?" Cloud asked curiously.
Seifer gave him a curious look. "Yeah, I know him. How do you?"
"He's in a class of mine," Cloud answered evasively. "Oh…is Squall the 'history geek' you said you knew?"
Seifer laughed. "Yeah. He used to be a neighbor of mine. We've never gotten along."
"Seems like a bit more than not getting along," Cloud remarked lightly, nodding at the older man when he held the door to the staircase open for him.
"I guess. We kind of hate each other."
"Oh." That was something to think about. In all the years he'd known Squall he hadn't mentioned a loathed neighbor.
As they headed towards the right section of the library Cloud asked Seifer some questions about himself. He was an interesting guy, studying astronomy at another university in Midgar, Balamb. Cloud was a humanities kind of kid—science made no sense to him, and he told Seifer so. The blond laughed and promised to teach him sometime.
Seifer was just a year older than him, 25. He lived in an apartment on the other side of town. He grew up in Junon, just like Squall, and said that he had lived across the street from the brunet for most of his childhood. That made Cloud laugh, picturing a little, angry Squall scowling like he did now.
The older man asked Cloud about himself, why he was studying history, if he was single—things like that.
Cloud wasn't oblivious.
He knew what Seifer was up to, but it was kind of okay with him. Whatever, right?
He had just ended a serious, emotionally-invested relationship. He wasn't about to rebound. He was better than that.
Seifer had his fun, not-so-subtle flirting, and Cloud allowed it with a tiny smile but kept enough distance for his own comfort. They found the book, which was near the bathrooms on the second floor. It was only after Cloud handed Seifer the book that he looked at the others in the man's hands.
"How'd you get those, if you don't know how the library works?" he said suspiciously.
Seifer sent a wink his way. "Maybe I do know how it works, and I just wanted to talk to you for a little while."
"Hmm." Cloud gave Seifer a long look, grinned, and then handed him the book. "I have to go work now."
"Fair enough. Thanks."
"You're welcome." He and Seifer exchanged numbers, something Cloud wasn't totally sure if he should be doing but did anyway, and Cloud headed back up to the third floor. He hoped Squall hadn't destroyed all his stuff or something.
Yuffie was conked out, sleeping with her arms splayed out on the table. Snickering, Cloud snapped a picture with his phone to thumbtack on Rufus' "Wall of Agony," a billboard on one wall of their classroom. He gently shook Yuffie's shoulder, and she woke up with a snort, her left cheek red from where it had been resting on her book.
"Yuf," Cloud whispered. "You fell asleep."
"…Oh." She blinked blearily and picked up her book again, trying to find her spot. Cloud rubbed a hand down her back; he could feel the knobbly vertebrae of her spine. "I'll be over there if you need me, alright?"
Cloud held his breath as he walked back to his spot, wondering what would happen next with Squall. It turned out he needn't have worried; the brunet was gone. Cloud's stuff sat exactly where he had left it, untouched—but everything of Squall's was missing. He had left.
Feeling disappointed for some reason Cloud couldn't quite place, he sat back down and this time stretched his legs out over the other end of the couch. It was still warm from where Squall had sat, Cloud noticed with a weird feeling in his belly. He pulled out the Angeal book again, notebook resting on his lap if he needed to take any notes.
He already felt so tired, like he had done so much…but he had just started, really. There was a lot more left to do.
Here went everything.
There was a saying in the painter's schools of Midgar: "Before all the colors of the rainbow comes green." While Midgar certainly had a lot of colors to offer a young artist—bright neon signs, various greys, countless shades of skin and hair, the browns of gunk, shit and filth clogging up drains and streets—nearly everything had a greenish glow to it.
Even things that weren't bathed in the green lights of the mako reactors tended to look green because everyone's eyes were so used to seeing it. It was like looking at a lightbulb for a moment and then looking away; the faint imprint still lingered. Green lingered, dragging blues down into somewhere near turquoise and yellows somewhere near chartreuse.
The exploded remains of Mako reactor 2 were fantastically green, both due to this odd effect as well as the raw mako spilled all over the earth, soaking into the ground and covering most of the rubble that had once made up the huge structure. It was just plain, well, green.
Looking at it made Zack's eyes water (and something primal in him shift in either fear or excitement).
"Look at that," Angeal breathed.
During the ride up to the epicenter of the explosion Zack had done nothing but look. He'd been unable to rip his eyes away from the wreck of modern engineering. In some places, Mako still spewed into the air, gurgling loudly. Now that they were here, standing on shaky legs where the front door of the reactor used to be… Zack did not want to look any longer.
It hurt. He did it anyway. Zack covered his mouth with his hand, looking sadly at the ruins.
With his enhanced vision he could see a couple charred or nearly-dissolved bodies in all that rubble. He sighed, pushing his hands into his pockets, and glanced back at the crowd a little farther away. ShinRa containment and hazmat teams had been working since the initial explosion to minimize the effect this was going to have on nearby communities (and there were a lot of them), but… raw, unfiltered mako shooting into the sky? There was only so much one could do to stop that.
"I wonder which one of 'em it was," Zack said. He gestured at the destruction and nudged a piece of metal with his boot.
Angeal confirmed, "The ones working with AVALANCHE."
"Yeah." There were more bodies trapped underneath the large piles for sure. Quite a few folks were working at the reactors no matter the hour, and the bombs had gone off in the middle of the day.
"I wonder…" Angeal took a couple steps in, looking almost comical as he leaped over a glowing puddle of mako—but Zack didn't feel much like laughing right now. "Could be any of them. We won't get more details for a while. It could have been just one worker who helped plant the explosives, or it could have been many."
That was hard to imagine—many ShinRa employees who were so sick of what the company was doing to the environment, or so sick of how the company ran things on the continent that they'd… blow up a reactor? To kill them, as well as their friends and family in the surrounding block or so who were caught in the blasts as well?
There wasn't much Zack could say to summarize the situation but he tried. "This sucks."
"…Yeah," Angeal answered after a moment. He jumped back to Zack and laid a hand on his shoulder. "This sucks. Looks like we have no choice but to go to war with AVALANCHE now."
"They're probably seceding at this very moment." Zack punched his gloved fist into his palm. "They've left us no choice but to go drag the Eastern half back by force. Wish we didn't have to—but someone's gotta, Angeal."
"Mm." Angeal's hand squeezed Zack's shoulder briefly and then he walked back in the direction they came. Each footstep was loud, metal and plaster crunching under his reinforced boot soles. The Buster glinted green at Zack. He knew Angeal hated to use it against other humans, and only to protect if he had to… but it didn't look like there was going to be much choice.
"Maybe it'll be quick."
"I hope so," Angeal answered, glum. For better or for worse the people of Gaia were largely against AVALANCHE—or at least they were for now. ShinRa had put a lot of effort into the years into convincing the public that they were doing them a lot of good, and in a lot of ways they were; Zack wasn't going to deny that. But Zack wasn't blind—he, privately perhaps, could understand why AVALANCHE was doing what they were doing. Rebelling, and all.
Doing this wasn't acceptable though, not at all. Zack turned and surveyed the reactor again. Eco-Terrorists, the newspapers had started calling AVALANCHE. Trying to spark violent rebellion and revolution everywhere.
"If we stick around any longer we're going to need the hazmat suits," Zack said. He nodded his head at the nearby cleanup crew. Some of them were ogling them, perhaps wondering why they'd decided to get so close.
Both Angeal and Zack knew they likely didn't need the hazmat suits, but that opened up more questions than they were comfortable answering. "Where are Seph and Gen?" he asked.
"Around. I think they're visiting Reactor 6 at the moment."
Angeal instructed the cleanup crew to continue with their assigned orders, and to take a break after an hour or two. They thanked him, Angeal nodded, and he and Zack left with a salute.
"Everyone really looks up to you, you know," Zack said softly, elbowing Angeal in the arm. He looked troubled. Angeal gave him a side glance, eyes unreadable.
"…Sometimes I don't understand why," Angeal muttered, "When you think about the things I make them do."
"Huh?" Zack frowned, peering at his ex-mentor.
Angeal sighed, looking uncomfortable and like he would say no more on the issue. "Let's go, Zack."
Zack fell quiet on the way back. To see Angeal questioning himself, questioning his purpose here, questioning anything at all…it really bothered Zack. He didn't like to see it, didn't like to see his best friend hurting like that.
He knew Angeal hadn't been feeling very well lately—headaches and stuff. They trooped back to a small base and once there Zack massaged the man's shoulders for him, trying to ease his pain. It seemed to work; afterward Angeal tilted his head back against a wall, sitting on the floor, and appeared to doze off for a little while.
Zack sat, knee bouncing with nervous energy.
His first war.
He was no idiot. Even though he had trained almost his whole life for this…he could die in an instant. Less than an instant. He would be dead and the war would continue without him—what was he, really? Was a whole lifetime's work worth this, leading men in a fight against their brothers?
Shakily exhaling, Zack leant forward against a table where he and Genesis had been discussing strategy the previous night. He grit his teeth against his own headache, which flared at random moments. No one knew why. Genesis kept whispering that word, he hated it—degradation. They were degrading. Fuck that!
He was Zack Fair, 26 years old. He did not degrade. He didn't even know what that especially entailed, and he didn't want to know. Hojo was working on it, he was pretty sure. It was just headaches.
When Genesis and Sephiroth entered the tiny room Angeal's eyes opened. Genesis immediately went to him, hands pressing to the man's forehead.
"You alright?" he murmured. Angeal nodded, climbing to his feet and gently grabbing the redhead's hands, moving them away from his head.
"How was it?"
"Awful," Genesis said sadly, shaking his head. "The entire northwest section of the continent is without power right now. Things are getting bad."
"Heidegger is mobilizing troops right now," said Sephiroth. "I spoke to him earlier. Everyone is in action—we should make our first move in another few weeks."
"Did he say if there will be a draft?"
"It doesn't look that way. But… there's no telling, of course."
"It shouldn't too hard to get troops," Zack reasoned, looking around. "I mean, people here are awfully loyal to ShinRa, and they need their Mako energy, right? I'm sure people would be willing to fight for that."
"One would think," Sephiroth acknowledged. "This is a lot more complicated than that, though. We'll just have to wait and see."
They all glanced at Zack. He kept his head high, looking determined. This was his first real test, and they were all sure he'd do just fine. Zack was that kind of guy.
"We wait for Lazard," Sephiroth answered, pulling up a chair. "He'll be here soon."
Zack nodded, shut one eye when the pain in his head spiked once more, and sat.
Here went everything.
Genesis was becoming more volatile of late. Angeal approached him carefully, squeezing his old friend's shoulder. He chose his words carefully, surveying the work being done before them.
"What ever happened with Scarlet?"
As expected, Genesis stiffened at the woman's name. He didn't like her (no one did, really) but she was to be Sephiroth's wife someday. That's just how things were. Genesis himself was set to marry a woman named Elmyra that he hadn't even met yet, although the word was she was an excellent politician and capable—but marriage was the last thing on any of their minds.
"Sephiroth managed to push the wedding back until winter at least," Genesis said softly. "She wasn't happy about it. But, you know, with the war…it's just not practical."
It hurt Angeal to see his two best friends so in love and unable to express it. They loved behind closed, locked doors in rooms without windows.
"How are you two doing?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I know things have been stressful…I'm just asking if—"
"We're fine," Genesis snapped angrily, taking a few rapid steps away from Angeal. He stood there, not moving, and Angeal lowered his hand, frowning.
"…I apologize," Genesis said. "I don't know what's been wrong with me lately. No, Sephiroth and I are just fine. He…worries about a lot of things, and he doesn't tell me as much as he used to, but we're still quite open with each other."
Angeal sighed and looked up at the sky. It was still hot, still sunny, still cloudless—just like many other days this summer. A lot had changed in a short amount of time though. In front of them were men carrying boxes of ammunition and emergency SOLDIER rations into trucks.
Preparation. SOLDIER was building up its forces and without a doubt AVALANCHE was too. Angeal knew deep down that this was not going to be a simple, clean war. How could it? Not when the problems were this big and the continent so large. He could only hope that Gaia would emerge unscathed.
"Kunsel." Genesis nodded at him, waiting for him to speak.
"We've just received word that Barret Wallace is going to lead the AVALANCHE army. Lazard just sent it in."
Angeal and Genesis both winced—they had gone to military school with Barrett; they knew him well. This whole situation just got worse and worse.
"And the President?" Genesis was kneading his forehead with his thumb and two fingers.
"I'm not sure yet, Sir. Lazard suspects that Elfé will be elected."
"Great," Genesis huffed. "Just great. Thank you, Kunsel—dismissed."
Kunsel left to assist with the supplies, and Angeal and Genesis hopped a motorcycle back to HQ. Both needed a Mako transfusion if they were to go out on the field for some time—neither looked forward to it, but it had to be done. Genesis had a thing for bikes and Angeal held on tight to his friend's back, thinking hard.
They could spare no time for depressing thoughts, not about their condition, not about their love lives, and not about what could be or could have been.
This was a war.
They had men to lead, to inspire, to bring out the best in. This would not be easy, and how could they expect SOLDIERs to believe in them when they couldn't even believe in themselves? They couldn't, and that's what it came down to, he decided.
"Hurry, Genesis," Angeal urged, and Genesis went harder on the throttle.
"Come on, you stupid—dumb—"
"Fuck off, R-Ren—haha—"
When Cloud left the library the previous evening, exhausted and tired from all his reading, he had bumped into Reno, also on his way out. He looked just as haggard.
"Cloud?" Reno asked, surprised, as he adjusted his backpack.
"Reno? Where were you studying?"
"First floor. Couldn't be bothered to walk up the stairs, yo."
Cloud sighed, rolling his eyes. Of course. It was dark, and thankfully not as hot outside, although it was still pretty humid. Definitely still summer. He and his redheaded friend strolled outside, Cloud squinting up at the greenish smog overhead. The Mako reactors had polluted the city like crazy over the last several decades; sometimes the paint on cars got completely stripped away during a particularly vicious rainstorm. In especially rainy areas there'd be reports of birth defects in newborn children or odd mutations in the elderly. It was messed up, but there wasn't much he could do about it.
They purchased some burgers from a cart on the corner and headed back to Reno's place—he had said that he was "uptight" from all that studying and needed to "unwind."
'Unwinding' had consisted of breaking out all of Reno's alcohol, spitting loogies over the railing on the fourth floor of the man's building onto unsuspecting people below, and complaining about their whole First Class aspirations. They had class the next morning and it sort of made sense, this impromptu sleepover.
Now they were both mildly hung over, and Reno was trying to push Cloud out of his bed.
"Move, you fuckin' heavy tub of lard-!" Reno's bony shoulder dug into Cloud's ribcage, and with a grunt the blond toppled off the bed, smacking his forehead against a book—Sephiroth: Who, Where, Why?—with a curse.
"I hate you," Cloud muttered, pulling all the blankets onto the ground on top of him petulantly.
Above him, Reno snorted. "Love ya, blondie."
"Mn. My head hurts."
Reno, who drank considerably more often than Cloud did, didn't seem too fazed and gracefully got up, giving Cloud a long, exasperated look. He heaved a put-upon sigh and disappeared, returning with a glass of water and a few aspirin.
After breakfast Cloud was feeling considerably better, and he stretched out on Reno's couch, his calves resting across Reno's lap. One of his Genesis biographies was in his lap; he wanted to get some reading done before class, which was at noon.
"…So," Reno began, knocking his knuckles against the bone of Cloud's shin, "I heard you saw Squall yesterday."
Cloud peeked over the top of his book. "How'd you find that out?"
"Yuffie," Reno confessed easily, shrugging.
"Huh." Cloud's brow furrowed, and he hid his face behind his book again. "Yeah, I saw him, for a little while. We didn't speak or anything."
Reno squeezed his knee, conveying some sort of message he didn't want to—or could not—say aloud. Then they both were silent for a while, reading their own books and waiting until they had to leave. Cloud's thoughts were a mess, though, and he didn't get far. After an hour he had only gotten fifteen pages in, much less than Reno, but he didn't stress it. This was a process, right? He'd have to take his time, and do things at his own pace.
With some grumbling they got into Reno's car and headed out towards MU; the sun was merciless, and Cloud plucked at the neck of his borrowed t-shirt, sweating already.
"I swear, yo, if goin' to this stupid class wasn't so damn important…"
Cloud felt the same way—everyone probably did, except for maybe Shelke, because she was the biggest overachiever Cloud had ever met, and he had met an awful lot of them.
Rufus was already in the room when they walked in but only a few students—the blond must have been eager for class today. Reno confidently strolled in first, and Cloud had to force back near-hysterical laughter as he saw the way Rufus' gaze slowly travelled up and down Reno's body. Rufus turned, and Cloud winked at him; Rufus rolled his eyes and pointed for Cloud to sit down.
With a chuckle Cloud did so. He pulled out his favorite notebook—it had a bright light blue cover and was filled with intense, unreadable chickenscratch. He flipped open to the right page and nibbled on the cap of his pen, stretching out his legs and waiting for the others to show up. Yuffie came in, looking tired, and she immediately headed Cloud's way, holding out her arms.
Making a low noise of concern Cloud hugged the woman when she fell into his arms, bent in half beside his desk and leaning on him. Laughing softly and patting her head he asked, "What time did you go to bed?"
"Late," Yuffie whined. "You?"
"Not sure. Got wasted."
Beside him to the left, Reno snorted, and Yuffie pushed herself to her feet, sitting in the desk on Cloud's right.
Squall came in then, Firion close behind, and Cloud swiftly looked away. It felt like everyone in the whole class knew what had happened between them. Seriously awkward.
"So!" Rufus boomed when everyone was present. "How's the research going?" He was answered with a chorus of unintelligible groans, and in Shelke's case, an "Excellently, Rufus."
Rufus ordered them to partner up—and with someone they don't usually partner with. After a few awkward seconds Cloud ended up with Cid. Reno was with Tseng, and Firion with Elena. Squall was with Shelke—not that Cloud was looking, or anything.
"Discuss," Rufus ordered, and that was that.
Cloud rested his chin on his forearms and raised his eyebrows, wiggling them at the older male across from him.
Cid tsked, pulling the unlit cigarette out of his mouth. The man chain-smoked like you wouldn't believe; he needed something in his mouth almost constantly. Cloud was nervous that someday he'd be smoking too close to some airship fumes and blow himself up.
"How's it goin'?" Cid asked, looking annoyed like he almost always did. He was a good guy, though—it was usually just an act.
"Alright, I guess," Cloud sighed. "I've been doing a lot of reading, hoping I'll come up with a topic. You?"
Cid folded his arms. "I've been travelin'. I know almost everything there is to know about airships—what's the point of doin' all that research and shit? I'm hopin' that I'll go somewhere and it'll just come to me."
Cloud tilted his head, thinking. "That…sounds nice. Good idea."
"I guess. Might be totally fucked."
Laughing, he and Cid chatted about their plans for the project and then about nothing in particular, eavesdropping on their neighbors. Rufus was sitting on his desk and texting someone. Cloud's gaze swept over the class and he caught Squall's eye—they both looked away.
When class ended Reno drove him home, dropping him off at his apartment building. "Good luck, Reno," he called, smacking his hand against the window. His friend flashed him a thumbs-up and peeled away with a squeak of his tires. Show off.
Cloud trooped inside, wearily placing his backpack, overflowing with books, on the table. A few more were still at Reno's place—he'd pick them up some other time. After some deliberation he decided to take a nap; he hadn't exactly had the most restful of sleeps, and after all this work he was stressed already, tired and tense.
Sighing, Cloud pulled his shirt over his head, balling it up and tossing it towards his hamper like a basketball. He missed but was too lazy to pick it up, choosing to let it lie there. He rolled his shoulders, idly scratching the soft, hair-dusted skin below his belly button. He changed into fuzzy pants and crawled into his bed after turning his air conditioner up a notch.
Letting his mind wander, Cloud stared at the ceiling and drummed his fingers against his hipbone. He was a mess of emotions, thinking about Squall, his project, and about Sephiroth. It was too difficult trying to focus on so many things at once; how was he to supposed to 'live in the past' and 'make history' and all that bullshit if he was focusing on his damn love life? He couldn't.
Groaning, Cloud rolled over and buried his head under his pillow. "C'mon, you guys," he implored Zack, Genesis, Sephiroth and Angeal from the past, voice muffled as he spoke into his mattress, "just give me some inspiration already, would you? Help a guy out?"
Breath held, Cloud waited. Unless some kind of divine inspiration took the form of his stomach growling, nothing happened. Cloud sighed, curling up and getting comfortable, closing his eyes.
This wasn't working.
Frustrated, Cloud let out a gust of air through his teeth, frowning at the book in front of him. It was littered with small, colorful post-it flags and highlighted passages. He capped his pen, stared at it, and then in a tiny fit of rage chucked the utensil across the room.
Big, deep breaths. That's all he needed. Right?
Closing his eyes, Cloud took in a deep one, filling his lungs and body with air and good feelings and positive energy and karma. He breathed out, the pages on his book rustling with his breath. Unfortunately, he didn't feel much better.
With a scowl Cloud returned to reading.
During the Fall of LTVII Fair enrolled in Gongaga Military Academy. Gongaga, being home to plentiful flora, fauna, and a large supply of monsters for an energetic sixteen-year-old to release his frustrations on, was an excellent location for Zackary to hone his budding skills.
The buildings of the Academy were short with flat ceilings, the whole town's structures a mixture of mud and a white powder known as Orichalcum mined by ancestors generations ago. Fair spent his days with a run through the jungle in the morning, where he would wade through the thick swamps, occasionally bringing back the skins of a TouchMe frog as a trophy to show his friends. Around mid-morning he would line up for drills on the grass outside. . .
Cloud's forehead hit the book with a thunk. He peeled it off and skimmed around for a bit.
On October 17th Zackary met Sephiroth Crescent for the first time. Crescent was in Gongaga for more of the formal military posturing Shin-Ra was so fond of blah blah blah blah blah. Zackary was instantly taken with the older man and deftly slipped a note into the man's pocket telling him to blah blah blah. The following month, blah. Blah blah blah BLAH BLAH.
It wasn't like all this stuff wasn't interesting—it was! It definitely was!
This wasn't important, though. He doubted he'd make his First Class thesis about how Zack skinned frogs and dipped his fungus-y feet in a damn swamp. Besides, he knew all this shit already. He had done a research paper a few years ago about Zack and Angeal's early lives. In a lot of ways he felt like Cid. There were all these books at his disposal and endless amounts of knowledge at his fingertips, but… he kind of knew every essential thing. These four SOLDIERs were his life. He had been studying them for years.
What else could he learn in a few weeks' time that he hadn't learned already? Sure he might learn a little fact, but…the knowledge was all in his head, he just knew it. He could do this. Just using his brain and maybe some scratch paper he could whip out an amazing First Class thesis.
Cloud threw his highlighter too, the tiny thing joining his pen on the carpet on the other side of his bedroom.
"I can't do this," Cloud said, miserably, into his living room. No one answered.
That was unacceptable. He furiously pressed buttons on his cell and held it to his ear, listening to it dial.
Tifa's cheery voice answered him. "Hello?"
"I can't do this," Cloud said again, sounding miserable and in need of attention.
"Sure you can!" Tifa said instantly. "You've been working so hard—this is just a hiccup! Take a nap and wake up ready to continue working. You'll get your thesis in no time."
The whole spiel sounded suspiciously rehearsed. "Did you know I was going to call you and say that?" Cloud asked, eyes narrowed.
Cloud laughed, leaning back against his pillows and smiling at the ceiling. "I love you, Teef."
"Haha. Is the work really not going so well?"
"I don't know," Cloud sighed. "I'm stuck."
"…Yeah. I just… I can't keep reading. I can't keep sitting here. I'm losing my mind."
"Maybe you really should have a nap," Tifa said wryly.
"Just had one."
"…Take the evening off, then," Tifa sighed. "I don't know what to tell you, Cloud. You've…gotta do what you've gotta do, even if it sucks."
"I know that," Cloud groaned, gripping his hair in frustration. "I just can't. Not right now. I feel like I need to be doing something else—something other than looking at a stupid book."
"So go do 'something else.'"
Cloud moaned in agony. "Like what?"
"Like… go to a museum or something! How should I know?"
"Aaaish. Alright alright. Thanks, Teef. I'll talk to you later."
Cloud was annoyed and Tifa knew it, but she let it slide. He wasn't annoyed at her, specifically. "Fine," she sing-songed. "Let me know how it goes, alright?"
"Will do." Cloud sighed, aggravated, and tossed his phone onto the foot of the bed.
Growling, he muttered, "Fuck. Now what?"
For the hell of it, he picked up another book, laid down, and tried to read.
That summer was to be the roughest of the entire campaign. AVALANCHE forces were growing by the day, and public support for the Western cause was poor at best. Sephiroth was plagued by frequent headaches, too, according to a letter of Lazard Deusericus' to the President—a mystery illness that was seemingly spreading to his closest friends.
A few weeks after his brief trip to Midgar Sephiroth once again took up residence in Rocket Town, just past the Nibel Mountains, where—
Cloud threw the book, and it smacked against the wall with a thud. He was throwing a lot of stuff today. He didn't really care. Standing and letting out a small shout of frustration, Cloud reached for his backpack. Inside he threw his favorite notebook, some pens and a pack of gum. After grabbing his phone and keys he was out the door, heading for—well—somewhere.
Tifa was right; his assumption had been correct. He couldn't just sit in, spend more hours at the stupid library—he needed to get out, do something, chase down his thesis like a deranged stalker, tackle it to the ground, hold it down and…
Well. That was a bit too graphic and creepy for Cloud's taste, but the idea was sound. He wasn't going to sit around anymore and hope that his idea came to him. Make history. Passivity would get him nowhere.
He decided to just walk, starting down the street. It was dinnertime and Midgar was bustling. Almost in a daze, Cloud walked with his head down, brows furrowed, bumping into random people and failing to apologize for it.
Cloud walked and walked. He strolled through town, eyes wide as he looked for something that would inspire him. He wasn't sure what he was hoping to find, though. A magical obelisk beside McMidgar's that said, "Cloud, you dummy, research THIS"? A floating ball of light by a dumpster that told him, "Cloud, you loser, why haven't you noticed THIS?" It was ridiculous!
He bought a soda someplace and found himself in the square in the middle of the city. There were a lot of people with carts set up, selling food or crafts from home, and people walked about with children, sightseeing. Exhausted, Cloud sat down on the ring around the large fountain—he vaguely remembered making a wish there before—and rooted through his pockets with shaking fingers.
He had six Gil. One, two, three, four, five, six—in they all went, the same frantic wish after another. At this point he didn't know what he was even wishing for. He felt trapped but lost, stuck inside his own head but alone in this huge city and he didn't know where to go to even startthis thing and fuck fuck FUCK!
What was he going to do?
When all his Gil was gone Cloud sucked at his now-empty drink listlessly. He didn't know what he had been thinking. He was no farther than he had been back home, pouring over books on his couch. Cid had said he was travelin'. Going where? Doing what? Cloud wanted to find the man and ask, but he didn't know how to reach him, and—was that Seifer?
The straw popped out of Cloud's mouth and he squinted. Yup, that was the man; he was buying some 'pesticide-free pears' from a toothless old woman at one of the stalls with a smile. Before he knew what he was doing Cloud was up and walking towards him. Seifer had turned and was now turning some "natural and organic!" peaches over in his hands at the next cart over, looking for imperfections.
"Seifer?" Cloud asked hesitantly from a few feet away. The blond man turned, frowned, and then smiled.
Cloud felt himself smiling back; it was so nice to see someone, anyone—it meant he wasn't torturing himself in his head any more, at least.
"I didn't know you…" Cloud trailed off, scratching his cheek. Thinking was really not his thing today; who knew where he was going with that sentence? 'Lived here?' Hadn't Seifer said where he was living, anyways? It didn't matter, because Seifer was giving him an odd look, taking his hand, and tugging him over to the fountain.
The younger man's hair stuck up at odd angles and he looked particularly tired and exhausted. Seifer held out one of his peaches. "Want one? You look like you need it, blondie."
Belatedly, Cloud realized he hadn't eaten solid food since breakfast at Reno's. Gratefully he accepted the fruit and bit into it, licking his lips. "…Thanks."
"Mm. So… what are you doing out here?"
Cloud sighed as if the world was on his shoulders. "I was walking, and sort of ended up here, I guess."
They were both silent then, and Seifer swished his hand around in the water of the fountain. The setting sun really made the water, and he himself, some pretty colors, Cloud noted absently, staring at Seifer through his hair.
Eventually Seifer looked at him, gaze sharp. "…Are you okay?"
"Not really," Cloud confessed, as much as it pained him to do it.
"Come on," Seifer sighed then, standing. He held out his hand, Cloud took it, and he pulled the slightly shorter man to his feet. They started walking, Cloud quietly finishing his fruit as Seifer gently pulled him down the sidewalk.
"So what's up?"
"…It's my stupid thesis again. I'm losing it. I…don't know what to do about it."
"I bet everyone in your class is going crazy right about now," Seifer chuckled. They crossed the street and went down another busy, traffic-stuffed road; the blond must've had a destination in mind.
"Yeah…I guess." Cloud had felt isolated, like he was miles behind everyone else and choking on their dust. Aside from Shelke, Tseng, maybe Cid and a few others, everybody else was in the same boat as him. It made Cloud feel a little bit better, and he squeezed Seifer's hand in a small show of proof that he was alive under all that angst.
Seifer squeezed back and suddenly they were crossing the street one last time and sitting down on tiny metal chairs at a cute little café. Seifer called a waiter over and ordered two drinks; Cloud wasn't really listening and instead stared miserably through his bangs at the poor man, who was getting unnerved by his creepy customer. A lemonade was set down in front of him as well as a basket of breadsticks and Cloud reached out, blinking.
"Tell me about it."
Cloud stared, and then smiled. Seifer was… a surprisingly nice guy. He swallowed a mouthful of bread and began.
"Well…I've been having trouble this whole time coming up with a topic. I've been reading book after book about stuff but…I'm not any closer than I was a few weeks ago." He swirled his ice around with his straw and glanced at his companion; Seifer had his head propped up with his hand and was looking at him with interest. "Anyway, I was talking to this one guy in my class, Cid—he's going around and traveling and stuff instead of reading more in the library and all. That sounds like a good idea to me; I've been losing it sitting inside all day reading stuff that I already know, and—"
He was getting worked up and Seifer held up a hand. Cloud stopped babbling and drank some more instead, blue eyes looking wild.
"I think I get whatcha mean. I prefer to go do field work than read a whole bunch of shit myself…hey." Seifer bit his cheek and looked Cloud up and down, nodding to himself. "If I told you to just go, would you know where to go?"
Cloud closed his eyes and thought. If he had to go for inspiration, if he had to go to figure things out for himself, if he had to go discover his thesis…where would he go? Something deep inside thrummed, and he shivered, eyes opening.
He nodded. "I think so."
Seifer smiled broadly. "Just go, then, man! Stop thinkin' about doing this or that and worrying yourself sick—go do it." He made a shooing motion with his hands and Cloud sprang up out of his seat, throwing his backpack around his shoulder. He hesitated, but Seifer continued to wave him away. "I got the bill. Here." He tossed a breadstick at him, and pushed his shoulder. "Find something awesome, alright?"
Cloud nodded, grinned widely at Seifer's laugh and ran. His sneakers pounded at the ground and he weaved in and out of people, gasping, breathless, desperate—
It felt like he was being pulled. To what, he wasn't quite sure, but he was going to find out. The stuff in his backpack bounced painfully against his back as he ran through town, but he paid it no mind. He nearly got hit by a car crossing the street but banged on the hood with his fist and kept going, leaping over a puddle of dark, smelly crud on the corner.
Through a stitch in his side and a headache, Cloud ran. He skidded into the parking lot of his apartment complex when the sun was almost completely set but went for his car instead of the building. He chucked his backpack inside, buckled himself in and gunned it.
Quickly, quickly—Midgar passed by in a sea of red-orange and flashing lights and noise. Soon he was out of the city and zooming out towards the country with only the humming of the engine for comfort. Everytime he blinked his eyes he saw it—where he had to go. Dark sky, open space; he could feel it. Cloud had to be there. It was time.
Nibelheim was an ever-growing speck of light in front of him, and he smiled in the blackness of his car, going harder on the accelerator.
The town was sleepy already, at around nine PM; nightlife didn't exist in this place. That was okay by him—he went through town and past his mom's house, honking once to startle her just in case he'd be that lucky. He turned down a dirt road, the car rattling. He had walked this way not too long ago after his mom had told him to 'go for a walk' and had eventually turned left; Cloud now went straight and continued down the road, following the wide curve of it. There were no lights out here—his car's high-beams, the stars and the rising moon were the only source of brightness.
For a short while Cloud drove, his head craning this way and that. It didn't feel right, not yet, not yet—there.
He stopped the car with a cloud of dust and a squeal of breaks that shot through the silence like a gun. He grabbed his backpack and keys, shut the car and started jogging through the knee-high grass. He stumbled and nearly lost his balance completely a few times but pressed on. This field was different but similar to the one he had been in before, but everything was totally different at night. He could hear crickets, cicadas and other bugs; the noises they made seemed amplified like this, when everything else on the entire continent was so quiet.
Farther—he wasn't there yet.
"Ow!" Cloud tripped and went down hard, rolling on the prickly grass. One of his knees was scraped but he got up and kept going—he couldn't breathe, he was so close, he could feel it, whatever this was. It scared him and excited him at the same time.
Just a bit more—he ran until his breath was coming in short, painful spurts, until it felt like the entire field, which was previously full of activity stopped and waited, silently, for something to happen. Cloud slowed down and suddenly stopped.
The moon was higher and brighter—it shone down on the open field, lined with trees and forests in the distance. It was hot. There was a breeze, slight, that gently cooled his face, which was dripping with sweat. Cloud panted, clutching his stomach, head woozy; he couldn't stand; he was dizzy; he had never felt quite like this.
Sound resumed. Bugs went back to bugging, birds in the nearby forest went back to birding, and Cloud…he collapsed to his knees, shrugging his backpack onto the ground.
He laid back, not thinking about what was under his head or digging into his skin. He was dying, surely. Pant, pant.
Then Cloud sat up straight, peering through the darkness to the left. What was…that?
Cloud didn't scream, he didn't yell, he didn't jerk away in fright—he just stared, struggling to understand. A few feet away, standing tall and proud was a man, hands in the pockets of some kind of jacket as he curiously watched Cloud.
It was—it was—it had to be—there was no other—
That hair, the face with those cheekbones. Everything was a faded, barely-there, see-through silverish white.
This was a ghost. No doubt about that.
The apparition blinked and made eye contact, looking like it was struggling to remember something from very long ago.
Then in a voice that sounded like it was coming from a greater distance than the few feet separating them, "You can…see me?"
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
In the few seconds after Sephiroth spoke the empty field rang with a deafening sort of silence. It was as if Cloud's heart, too, previously so loud and thundering in the buggy night, had silenced as well. Quiet fell, thick frightening quiet like death.
But then the eyebrows on the thing rose. It was an undeniably human gesture, especially when paired with a puzzled, almost frustrated expression. Nothing else was human or familiar, not with moonlight shining through a tall, well-formed figure and lighting it up almost from the inside. It was enough, however, to shock Cloud out of his awed stupor and scramble a few feet backward to sit on a new patch of grass a few feet back.
The man's feet did not move (and although he was standing the grass underfoot was not flattened and stood up tall into the translucent form of a pair of thick boots). He did, however, move his hands from the pockets of his coat to his pants as he studied Cloud with that critical expression.
"Yeah," Cloud breathed, "Yeah, I can see you."
The man rocked back on his heels, looking almost…nervous?
"I see," came that deep, faraway voice again. Cloud found himself leaning forward to hear it and quickly climbed to his feet. Still the man towered over him a bit—the history books hadn't exaggerated his height, then.
Shaking his head Cloud ran a hand through his messy, wind-blown hair and asked, "I—Sephiroth…is it you?"
"Sephiroth," the ghost replied (and a 'ghost' was all Cloud could think to call it). It frowned, plush, well-shaped lips turning down into a deep frown. "You said that before. …That's my name."
The ghost—Sephiroth?—seemed to then ignore Cloud entirely as it stared off into the dark depths of the field, not in the direction of town but the opposite, at large swaths of empty, largely untouched battleground. "That's my name," it said again, quietly.
Cloud waited in tense silence, watching 'Sephiroth' think. He could see right through him to the tall weeds whipping around from the breeze on his other side. The man's figure was still full of that strange moonlight; other than the moon itself and the lights of Cloud's car still idling back on the road he was the brightest thing in the field. The light was dim nonetheless; Cloud almost had to squint to see him. "Are you a…a ghost?"
For a moment Sephiroth's face contorted in confusion, then smoothed out into eerie slackness. "A what?"
"A—A, uh, a ghost," Cloud answered. "Unless I'm going crazy. You—Sephiroth Crescent—died over two hundred years ago."
"I died?" The man's hands came out of his pockets and he inspected them closely, turning them over several times. Slowly he raised one up to the moon. Cloud watched, mesmerized by the simple movement.
"I died," Sephiroth repeated slowly, like he could not believe it. Then, his hand still up in the air, his head snapped over to Cloud again. "I am very tired."
"You must be," Cloud said, mouth running on autopilot as his brain hurried to catch up. "I'm sorry, I have no idea what's going on—do you remember what happened? Or do you know what year it is? It's—"
"No," Sephiroth grimaced. "Stop talking. I am…"
Cloud stumbled forward to hear what he was saying as his voice grew quieter and quieter. Sephiroth gave Cloud a pleading look filled with something like infinite sadness. "…Tired," he finished, and his eyes closed. Then the light inside him began to lose some of that enchanting brightness.
"No no no," Cloud stammered, "No, please, Sephiroth—don't go."
His words were for naught, though, and Sephiroth faded from sight before his eyes. Nothing—there was nothing where seconds ago had been something, whatever that something was. Speechless Cloud stuck out an arm and waved it through where Sephiroth had stood. Nothing.
Abruptly Cloud became aware of how utterly alone he was. The darkness of the surrounding fields became foreboding, a void of unspeakable things of a world Cloud had never even considered before. The wind whistled through the grass louder than before, a long, pronounced whine like a wolf on the hunt or a witch cackling into the night.
Cloud scooped up his keys and backpack and ran, loud and breathless in the otherwise still night. The snagging of weeds and underbrush on his sneakers were hellhounds nipping at his heels; he nearly tripped on the uneven terrain before skidding into the side of his car, shaking and pale and sweaty with a kind of terror he could not explain.
The tires rolled uselessly on the loose dirt of the road before finding enough traction to lurch forward. He did a quick 3-point turn in the small, cramped space before speeding off in the direction of civilization. Cloud rolled up the windows and repeatedly glanced in his rearview mirror as if expecting to see something chasing the car or waiting in the backseat like in a horror movie.
It was not until he had passed his home and was almost out of Nibelheim that he realized the incessant thoughts of doom were probably due to the panic attack he was on the verge of having, as he had been sucking down deep, terrified breaths of air ever since the apparition had faded away back in the field.
He opened the windows again, comforted by the quaint lights of the small Nibelheian houses and let the cool air soothe his flushed face and neck. He still felt self-conscious and a little numb, however—physically but mentally too.
"A ghost?" Cloud asked out loud. He sounded ridiculous to his own ears.
He drowned out the screaming of his own thoughts with the radio, keeping it on until he eventually pulled into the garage of his building in Midgar. He got out, legs shaky and feeling dizzy, and went upstairs.
He slept with the lights on and his door open to avoid looking at the piercing eyes of the Sephiroth poster on the back of it.
He seriously should have seen it coming. "You look like you've seen a ghost!" Yuffie laughed upon seeing him the next morning. Cloud had arrived to class early that day as he had been largely unable to sleep the night before. His eyes were dark and bagged and he looked ill, sitting still while harshly gripping his pen and staring at the clock by the door and waiting for everyone else to arrive.
"Oh," Cloud said listlessly, offering her a humorless smile, "Heh, yeah."
Yuffie frowned but sat next to him and was blessedly quiet until the classroom began to fill up more. Shelke loudly and robotically cited all the best books she had abstracted the evening before to anyone who would listen as they waited for Rufus to show up; Cloud buried his head in his arms and focused on breathing, breathing.
Cloud's hearing muffled like he had shoved them full of cotton, but whether that was due to him intentionally ignoring everyone, dozing off or passing out onto his notebook he was unsure. He eventually roused again when Rufus' perky voice announced, "Good morning, darlings. It is good to see you all looking so fresh and excited to learn."
A few tired groans were his only response. Cloud picked his head up, blinking and disoriented. He caught Squall's concerned face from across the room; when he realized Cloud was awake and looking back he quickly turned his attention to Rufus.
"Anybody have any interesting developments? Anything for the Wall of Agony?"
"I do," Reno volunteered. He pulled out his phone and showed the class a picture of himself, shirtless, sitting on the top of a dusty—and burning hot by the looks of it—abandoned rail car. "I scraped my knee on this rusty pipe yesterday while I was poking around." He enlarged the photo and thrust it in the faces of those who were closest to reveal a thick, bloody cut on his knee. Proudly he rolled up the loose track pants he was wearing to reveal a thick swaddle of bandages, one of which looked like it badly needed to be changed. "I got stitches for it, yo!"
"Reno," Firion cried, for as much as he loved his weapons he could not handle blood or injuries. "Oh, my god—I'm going to be sick."
"How many?" Shekle asked morbidly, getting out of her seat to peer over Elena's shoulder at it.
"Ugh." Firion turned his head away and a few people laughed.
Cloud watched blandly as Rufus peered at the photo and handed it back with his lip curling. "…Lovely," he said, and handed it back. "Anybody else have anything noteworthy to share—preferably something that will not cause fainting?"
Cissnei shared a funny story about someone she encountered while doing field research, Cid shared something about being yelled at by police for a reason or another, and Yuffie thumb-tacked a printed version of the photo Cloud had sent her of herself to the Wall.
After giving them some general tips and giving a signature long speech that made everyone's eyes glaze over Rufus said, "Okay. Some of us are lagging behind—a few of you have still not scheduled conferences—so in order to scare us into getting our asses in gear we're going to sit in a circle and each of us will give an update. Peachy?"
No one moved, and Reno, always eager to give Rufus shit, groaned, "Aw, come on, Rufus! What are we, Undergrad?"
The class begrudgingly moved their desks with loud groanings of metal on wood until they were in a circle and feeling very small. Rufus gestured at Elena to begin and she said, a bit awkwardly, "Well, uh… I don't entirely have a research question yet but I was looking at this small town in Mideel that…"
Cloud tuned her out and stared blankly instead at somewhere over her head. In turn a few more members of his class went, and as they got closer and closer to Cloud, sitting between Yuffie and Firion, he began to panic. Not because he was shy or had stage fright, but because something was very, very wrong with casually updating his colleagues about his progress when—when the world was suddenly so much bigger than it used to be! But size was scary; how was he supposed to act like everything was normal when his whole universe had shifted the evening before?
What was he supposed to say? "Yeah, guys—I think I found the ghost of Sephiroth Crescent?" Tseng, on Yuffie's other side, began talking and a heavy sense of dread began creeping over Cloud's body. Holy shit, an update—Cloud took a shaky breath.
Halfway through Tseng's boring narration of a trip to a museum Cloud hurriedly stood, nearly knocking his chair over, and with a few mumbled pardon mes staggered out of the classroom and into the hallway, feeling everybody's eyes on him.
He ran for the bathroom and entered the single stall, bending over just in time to puke his meager breakfast into the bowl. He dropped to his knees and shuddered through another wave of it. Thrice more he threw up and shivered weakly, spent, forehead resting on his crooked arm. It was a small surprise when someone started rubbing his back, as he hadn't heard them enter, but then came his best friend's reassuring voice: "You okay?"
"Yeah," Cloud rasped, "'M fine."
They waited a few minutes, Cloud relaxing with his eyes closed and Reno dutifully continuing his massage until Cloud felt well enough to sit up.
"Got nervous about speaking?" Reno asked tentatively.
"Hell no," Cloud answered. He stood slowly and flushed the toilet. He did not offer anything else, though, and Reno held out his backpack.
"I grabbed your stuff. Wanna ditch?"
"Yes," Cloud said with a grateful grin. He rinsed out his mouth, splashed some cold water on his face and took his backpack. They left together, Cloud not sparing a thought as to what was going on in the classroom. The transition from stuffy old history building to the hot sun of Midgar was good for Cloud; he took a deep breath of fresh air and felt much better.
Reno stayed quiet as they hiked back to their cars, waiting for Cloud to open up, and he eventually did. "Hey, Reno…" Cloud began, gripping the straps of his backpack, "…Something weird happened yesterday."
"I was with this guy—no, not like that—just talking, right. I told him how I was having trouble with my thesis, and he told me to just…go, y'know? Wherever I felt like I had to go. So I did. I had this really compelling feeling, so I followed—I can't explain it. I ended up back home, but near one of the old battle fields." He paused, glanced at his friend, and asked quietly, "Do you believe in ghosts?"
"What, you saw a ghost out there?"
Reno's smile fell when he saw how serious Cloud was being. "For real!?"
"It was the craziest thing, Reno. I swear I am not kidding. I talked to it. It talked to me. Then it faded after a few minutes and I got the fuck out of there."
Reno whistled, long and impressed. "Well, uh, I've never believed in that sort of stuff. Are you sure it wasn't any of that haunted ghost tour shit they like to do out there?"
"I'm not stupid," Cloud snapped, "Of course it wasn't. I—" he swallowed and harshly threw his backpack into the passenger seat of his car as they arrived. "I'm not crazy, right?"
"You've always been crazy, yo," Reno joked, "But I doubt that's what's goin' on here." He shrugged. "Like I said, I don't believe in that stuff but, I mean, who knows—I never say I'm a hundred percent right about anything."
"I could have really met a ghost," Cloud said softly.
Another shrug. "I guess."
Cloud sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "Sorry, man, it's just—that messed me up a little, you know?"
"I fuckin' bet!" Reno's smile was kind and non-judging. "So what are you gonna do about it?"
"Oh…I don't know. I guess I should go back. I wasn't going to, but my inner historian is curious."
"Need me to hold your hand and bring a flashlight?"
"Just don't end up like one of the people on those stupid haunting re-enactment shows, alright?"
"Haha, will do."
They parted ways amicably and although Cloud was pretty sure Reno did not believe him their chat still did wonders to soothe his worry. Before he felt completely overwhelmed, the whole 'very small speck in a great big universe' thing, but Reno helped him put things in perspective, or at least be able to joke about it.
So, he had met what he was pretty sure was a ghost last night—and not any ghost but that of his hero. Not a big deal, right? He could handle it, right?
Who on Gaia was he kidding?
He was only halfway through dinner when he could not stand it anymore. He scooped everything left on his plate into a tupperware container and scurried to his bedroom to grab his backpack and an empty notebook, though he doubted he'd use it. Then, keys in hand, he departed for Nibelheim.
It was a horrible no-good very bad idea but he couldn't help it. All day he had been thinking about it. At first he was not even considering it, happy to chalk it all up to eating something funky the day before and hallucinating. The texts he received that afternoon solidified that resolve. Yuffie and Firion asked him if he was okay after his (admittedly overdramatic) exit from class earlier. Even Rufus sent him an email with no content but with a subject, Feeling better? It was strangely disappointing to not get anything from Squall despite not expecting anything. Regardless he had friends who cared about him—why would he want to ruin that by revisiting the thing that had made him so distressed in the first place? Ignorance was bliss, and in the case of somehow discovering what could only be a ghost that was doubly true; he could have gone without the panicked questioning of his existence, thanks.
This, however, was the so-called ghost of Sephiroth Crescent. From a young age Cloud had made involving himself in matters concerning Sephiroth Crescent his job. So at 9pm on a late summer night he rolled past his mom's house for the third time in two days and continued past it to the battlefield he had visited yesterday. Strangely enough it was not hard to find. Like the day previous he just sort of knew where to stop, eventually parking, turning off the engine and taking several deep breaths before cautiously getting out at an otherwise unremarkable section of field.
The wind was calmer today. Instead of a terrifying tempest the breeze was cool, almost refreshing. The moon was a big brighter—it would probably be full in another week and a half. Cloud slung his backpack over one shoulder and grabbed his flashlight, the one he kept around so he could piss if the power went out in his apartment. It was weak but sufficient for illuminating the ground, at least, so he would not trip again.
"Sephiroth?" Cloud hissed into the darkness, afraid to take more than a few small steps away from his car. There was no magic materializing and no answer.
This would require more effort, then. Alright. Cloud set his jaw and strode into the field with his head held high. The flashlight's beam when he waved it around revealed nothing but empty, grassy plain. It was unable to penetrate the darkness of the forest far-off to his left but he saw a few bats clustered deep in the back of the field.
"General Crescent?" Cloud whispered. Again nothing happened so he abandoned his straight trajectory and began wandering around aimlessly, sweeping his flashlight along the ground and feeling foolish. With each passing minute Cloud felt more and more self-conscious but persisted. If no one and no thing showed up, fine—he had clearly been hallucinating the night before and would move on with his happy, un-supernatural life.
But even if there was a small chance of all this being reality, he had to explore it. He had to be sure.
"General Crescent," Cloud called, his voice easily swallowed up by the battlefield, "Are you here? …General Crescent? Sephiroth?"
"Damn," Cloud cursed after a few more minutes of this and headed for his car. He turned around, squinting at what looked like a rabbit hole in the grass so he would not twist an ankle in it. He navigated around it and kept going, his vision going silver and blurry for a moment. He took another few steps before whirling around.
"G-General," Cloud stuttered, realizing what had happened. He walked right through the ghost without noticing it! There was no creepy cold spot or anything, but a quick glance at his arms confirmed he had goosebumps.
"It's you again."
"Yes," Cloud affirmed with an earnest nod, "It's me. Oh, my name is Cloud."
"Cloud," Sephiroth repeated. He seemed more alert than yesterday, though it was hard for Cloud to hold eye contact with a translucent form. "Why did you come back?"
"I wanted to talk to you again."
"Uh…because I'm a big fan of yours. Sir."
Sephiroth's face twisted and he took a step away from Cloud, or as much a step as he could without having physical feet to physically touch the ground with. Gaia. "The Silver Elite?"
"What—no!" Laughter bubbled up out of him like a shout and he gaped in disbelief. "No, not the Silver Elite—wow. I'm a historian."
The Silver elite referred to the fanclub Sephiroth had, two hundred years ago, that is. "Do you want to know what year it is?"
"Yes," Sephiroth replied after a moment of thought.
Cloud told him and Sephiroth stared blankly at him for a few seconds. "Ifrit's balls," he breathed.
Cloud had never heard such a ridiculous expression in his life. He could not help but chuckle, but it quickly died out when he saw Sephiroth's melancholy face. He was looking down at himself. He was not wearing his signature black leather coat, Cloud realized, but instead a more ceremonial outfit. The jacket was longer than what was strictly uniform, probably a personal stylistic choice, and was adorned with medals and ribbons. His pants were tight and tucked into knee-high boots and he even had a hat squashed onto his head, though Cloud could not remember whether he had it yesterday or not. The whole ensemble was familiar—this is what he wore just after the final battle ended in the official pictures. Hours before he died.
"I really died," Sephiroth murmured. His voice sounded like it was coming from underwater, slightly distorted and out of reach.
Cloud had no idea what to say. Instead he waited respectfully until Sephiroth gave him his attention again and then asked, "How long have you been here?"
"Forever, perhaps. That is what it feels like. I am here every night. Sometimes there are others, but they never see me."
He fixed Cloud with that puzzled expression again, and even though Cloud knew Sephiroth didn't know anything he still felt uncomfortably scrutinized and vulnerable.
"Do you know why I can see you?"
"I do not."
That made Cloud pause. That strange force pulling him to the battlefield, the fact that he could see and talk with a ghost—what did it mean? It had to mean something.
"…General Crescent," Cloud began softly, his voice swept away on the breeze, "Why are you here?" And then, nervously: "How did you die?"
Sephiroth clutched his head, brows furrowing in pain. He grunted and bared his teeth. "I don't know," he grunted, "It—it hurts to remember."
"It's okay," Cloud said, holding out his hands in panic. "You don't have to—are you okay?"
Sephiroth sank to one knee but let go of his head. He panted. "I apologize," he said, and his voice was quieter than before. "Come back tomorrow." He sighed and before Cloud could stop him faded from sight.
"General," Cloud called, and then yelled it for good measure. Nothing. He calmly walked back to his car with none of the terror from the day before and scrawled some notes in the first page of his empty notebook.
June 18 th
Met Sephiroth Crescent for the second time tonight. Apparently only I can see him. He disappeared after a short time again. He doesn't remember much at all.
After another glance around and a quick prayer Cloud set off for home.
The following day was supposed to be a work day, but because Cloud was currently on hold for work he made it a research day instead. The thing was today he had a different kind of research in mind. He brought his laptop to the park, the one he knew where you could leech free internet off a nearby coffee shop and sat in the shade of a tree on a blanket. The notebook he made his little observation in last night was flipped to the halfway point and primed, a pen sitting neatly on the crisp white page.
He did not really know where to start, however. Concrete history was one thing. He could read books, peer-reviewed articles and the like. But—and he hesitated saying this still even in his own mind—ghosts? What were the reputable sources on this?
Hesitantly he gave a general search: Are ghosts real?
The answers were convoluted and had him scratching his head. Yes some said, and no, said others. Obviously. He found a website that at least looked professional that told him ghosts were usually the spirits of people who died and were unable to pass on to the next life, whatever that was.
Cloud made a note.
Eventually he narrowed his search to Haunted Gaian Civil War Battlefields and got several ghost tour websites but also a few that described all the so-called ghost sightings around the continent, including (his breath caught) outside Nibelheim.
This area of the world is one of the most haunted, said a site with spooky autoplay music he muted, This is largely due to the high numbers of those who suffered and died at the hands of SOLDIER during the Civil War. Around here it is not so unusual to spot a lost warrior on the side of the road late at night!
Okay, so it was a little biased towards AVALANCHE but he could deal. Was it really that common or were they exaggerating? After some more reading he searched Sephiroth Crescent ghost sightings.
Gaia help him but there were results. A few were more ghost tours saying maybe you'll even see the spirit of the most famous SOLDIER himself – Sephiroth Crescent!
There were others, though, blog posts of everyday people swearing they had glimpsed a tall, translucent figure out of the corner of their eye on a certain stretch of land. He just stood there, watching them, hands in the pockets of his coat, Masamune nowhere to be found. Someone drew a picture and although it could have been referenced from any of the photos taken that day he died Cloud found himself desperately hoping that it was true, that he was not the only one. He wanted to believe.
Unable to move on, though… Cloud was positive it had something to do with his mysterious death and that of Zack Fair, Genesis Rhapsodos, and Angeal Hewley as well. What else could it be? It was one of history's greatest mysteries after all. Could the truth be what was keeping Sephiroth halfway here, trapped between the living and the dead?
Excitement—delighted and giddy excitement—very quickly bubbled up inside.
He was snapped out of it, though, when he realized he had an email. Not recognizing the address he curiously clicked on it.
Hey Cloud, it began, This is Seifer Almasy. Before you get the wrong idea don't freak. I checked out an article you published last year and there was a "direct any questions or comments to" at the end, so I said, why the hell not?
I just wanted to see how things went after I saw you the other day. Did you figure it out? I hope so. If you want to talk about it or need a study buddy let me know. I'm usually available.
Cloud smiled to himself as he read the rest of the email. Seifer wished him a happy rest of his week and weekend and ended with saying that the article he read had been, in fact, impressive despite Seifer knowing little about the Civil War. Seifer was a good guy. The offer of help and assistance made him pause, however. Help?
Gaia, he was in way over his head with this one. Finally solving the mystery of Sephiroth Crescent—who knew if it was actually possible? He'd never be as close to cracking it as he was now with the man's spirit on hand. He couldn't dream of a better First Class thesis.
But small steps, small steps. He could imagine Seifer already, lecturing him about the most important tools of the trade for astronomers. He knew the scientific method, or the most important steps: Question, Hypothesis, Testing.
Question? Sephiroth Crescent is a motherfucking ghost. Why?
Hypothesis? Sephiroth Crescent is a ghost because he cannot "move on" due to the unsolved mystery surrounding his death and that of his friends.
Testing? He wasn't sure yet, had no idea, in fact, of how to go about solving this one.
He did, however, have a brain, determination, and a great network of support. Cloud paused in his typing of a response to Seifer and texted his best friend, the man who he knew would stand by him in all of this.
Reno, he said, we have a situation on our hands.
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
"Mornin' street rat."
Yuffie loudly sighed as she leant back in her seat, arms crossed behind her head. "Don't you two ever give it a rest?"
"Our feud is endless," Reno quipped as he dropped into his chair. He hefted his backpack onto the desk beside him, conveniently the one Cloud was about to sit in, and the blond scowled and pushed it off. "Hey!" Reno protested, "My laptop's in there!"
"Does this face make me look like I care?"
"You're done, Strife."
Yuffie huffed with amusement as the two mock-fought. Reno slapped Cloud's arm and the blond retaliated with a punch to the shoulder, and then Reno threw his notebook. Cloud scowled and flung his pen, but Reno ducked and the three of them watched in horror as it soared through the air to hit the back of the head of one of the other three classmates in the room and the only one who was steadfastly ignoring them—Squall Leonhart.
Everyone, including Elena and Tseng, knew this was a Bad Thing and watched silently as Cloud stumbled out of his chair, hand over his mouth.
"…Oh my god," he breathed, hands held out placatingly as Squall quietly bent down to pick the pen up from where it had rolled, "I am so sorry, Squall. It was a total accident. I meant to hit Reno and—"
"Cloud," Squall muttered, running a hand through his hair and fixing where it had gotten messed up, "Don't worry about it." He held it out, still not making eye contact, and Cloud gulped because although Squall said it was fine the tenseness of his jaw and the evenness of his tone meant he was pissed.
"Sorry," Cloud apologized again and miserably returned to his seat. Reno and Yuffie winced and the six students sat in tense silence until Rufus and more of their classmates arrived.
"You're not gonna puke on us, are yeh?" Cid asked loudly when he arrived, drawing attention to Cloud's embarrassing emergency the last time they had class. Cloud flushed and said "No," while discreetly giving him the finger.
Rufus was like most days irritatingly upbeat and, also like most days, utterly unreceptive to Reno's not-so-subtle advances. Reno sulked all the way through their lecture on ethical research methods and Cloud found himself distracted, doodling in his notebook and shooting the back of Squall's head furtive looks. In all honesty Cloud was not sure how things got so bad between them. These days they could hardly look at each other, and compared to before…
Squall must have felt his gaze because he turned around and met his gaze; Cloud's slid to his notes and did not stray toward the brunet again. Class dragged on and on. Suddenly everything his classmates were doing bored him. Elena was escorted out of a museum by security after sneaking into a closed-off room for more information? Cool, but yawn—he was concerned with crazier things these days.
Eventually it did end and Cloud left with Reno after giving a cheerful goodbye to his other friends. They both waited until they were out of earshot of everyone else and then Cloud launched into an explanation of his activities the evening before: "He was less weird last night."
"Weird how? More psycho nothingness, you mean?"
"Kind of? He…" Cloud sighed, finding it difficult to put in words. "You know how he couldn't talk much at first? It was like—like every sentence was hard for him. Like he forgot how to speak. It's easier for him now. We had a real conversation last night. A long one, actually."
"You had a fuckin' conversation with the ghost of Sephiroth Crescent."
"I know. It's insane."
Reno whistled, impressed with how things were progressing after Cloud's fourth visit to that dark battlefield. "Truthfully I thought you were nuts at first, yo," he admitted. Cloud was repeatedly coming to him with reports of chats with the great General himself, however, and he'd seen the notes. "What's it like talkin' to him?"
"It was really hard at first. I couldn't believe it, haha. Plus what with him being my hero and all…"
"Yesterday I pretty much accepted that I'm not nuts and that I'm really talking to him… and it became a lot easier. It's frustrating that he doesn't remember anything, though." Cloud's mouth twisted. "And he's not much of a talker. It's a little awkward."
"Not everything you imagined it would be, meeting him?"
"I never imagined meeti—okay, okay. No, I guess not…but you know what? I don't think I can say that just yet. It feels like his personality is slowly coming back to him, you know?"
"No, of course I don't. But whatever you say, yo."
"I wonder if you'll be able to see him…"
"Woah." Reno shook his head. "I don't know if I'm ready to meet a real life ghost."
Cloud rolled his eyes and as they reached Reno's car he leant in through the window as the redhead got in. They stared at each other for a moment before Cloud sighed and reached in the car to clap Reno on the shoulder. "Thanks, man," he said, "for believing me during all of this."
That got him one of Reno's crooked little smiles. "Of course, yo. You know I'm busy with my own thesis and all but I'm here for you if ya need me."
"Alright. Get goin', you sap."
The blond watched his friend drive off as he shifted his backpack around on his shoulders. It was very strange, standing in the middle of a sweltering parking lot surrounded by the sounds of talking and cars. It was completely unremarkable. That had been overwhelming a few days ago, trying to reconcile the idea that the world could be just the same as it always was while smaller, individual experiences could be so radically changed in the blink of an eye.
The world did not stop for anybody or anything, he supposed. There was no other option but to cope and keep going.
He left the parking lot and walked toward the subway stop on the adjacent side of campus. The sun, bright and hot despite the heavy cloud cover today, made his shirt stick uncomfortably to his skin where is backpack rested. It was theoretically possible to walk to Midgar Library from campus but he had a feeling he would expire from dehydration on the way over and so opted for the train instead despite the cost.
As expected the library was reasonably full again of people escaping the heat. He couldn't blame them and had a long drink from the water fountain himself before going up to his favorite floor to sit with his laptop by a large vent in the ceiling for air-conditioning.
Today he was trying to look into Sephiroth's death. It was probably a shot in the dark because no one knew much about it but he had to try. Sephiroth, he found, did not remember much of anything about his life. The evening before they sat in the prickly grass of the field and Cloud gently grilled the man on what he could.
"It's right there," Sephiroth grunted, dropping his head to press his knuckles to his forehead, "But I cannot…"
Hesitantly Cloud brought up Scarlet, his wife. Sephiroth frowned a bit but said he could not recall her. Then Cloud mentioned Genesis just to try it—and Sephiroth's face relaxed into something like soft wonder.
"Genesis Rhapsodos," the ghost murmured (and Cloud had not offered the General's last name). "Vaguely yes… I remember him."
Cloud waited as Sephiroth closed his eyes and spent some time thinking, eyebrows drawn together in concentration. Cloud had never dealt with anyone with amnesia (though this was quite different, he was sure) and was not sure how to proceed exactly so just winged it. It seemed that knowledge jogged Sephiroth's memory bit by bit; the problem was that he got tired very easily and kept fading away after half an hour at most. He refused to be rushed as well so not much was accomplished thus far. It was still valuable time spent in Cloud's opinion—how could any length of time spent in the presence of his hero, the man to which he had dedicated such a large chunk of his academic career, be a bad thing?
Sephiroth was very two-dimensional at the moment. He flatly answered Cloud's questions and asked none in return. He was quiet and lifeless (in more ways than one, ha) and tended to stare out in the void of the field more than he looked at Cloud. Sometimes Cloud thought he got a glimpse at the man he had been when alive, however, like when he eventually opened his eyes and stared at his lap as he said in a voice so sad it hurt, "Genesis. Yes, I remember him. I don't understand how I forgot."
"What about Zack or Angeal?"
Then a smile broke over Sephiroth's face after a brief flash of surprise. It was not much, just a quirk of the lips and a softening of his eyes, but Sephiroth did not seem like a big smiler anyway. "Yes," he said warmly, "Zack Fair and Angeal Hewley. My best friends." He seemed to remember a happy memory involving those two and Cloud found himself smiling along, humbled to witness this small happiness.
Quickly after that Sephiroth faded away, exhausted after the effort of remembering his most important people, Cloud supposed. He itched to ask more about Genesis—why all that sadness?—but figured there were more important things to focus on.
It was slow going but it was something.
If getting Sephiroth to move on was endgame, however, they needed to make some advancements. (Cloud had to remind himself of what he was doing—helping himself and getting a good thesis, or assisting his hero? He hoped it could be both.)
After searching the library's online database and even the ones he could access with his MU student ID he was stumped. He learned nothing that he did not already know.
On November 14, XXXX, soon after retreating from the hubbub and fanfare surrounding the formal celebrations of winning the war to the tent in the SOLDIER camp headquarters outside Nibelheim where Sephiroth had been staying for about a week and conducting many of the military's operations, Genesis, Angeal and Zack joined him. Sephiroth emerged at one point and disappeared into the crowd of well-wishers, returning shortly after with orders not to disturb his tent. The party continued without them, and the next morning someone drunkenly stumbled inside to find all four slain on the floor and on the bed with Sephiroth collapsed right by the doorway, Masamune stained with blood and pierced through his chest.
Cloud re-read some prominent theories and then some of the more obscure crackpot ones but nothing was definitive. Frustrated he ran his hands through his hair and glared at a black-and-white picture of Sephiroth speaking with President Shin-Ra during what looked like the beginning of the evening's festivities. He did not look happy at all. To the contrary he looked sad and maybe a little ill. Sure, he was more than likely exhausted after the very long, bloody final battle that resulted in AVALANCHE's surrender but to Cloud, who had known the man's ghost for five days now, it looked like there was something else there. Did he know that by the next morning he and his closest friends would be dead?
Behind Sephiroth, just barely visible, was Barnaby Hojo. There was very little information on this man but Cloud, in his endless pouring over of documents over the years, noticed him lurking in the background of many a picture of Sephiroth or the others.
Curious, Cloud gave Hojo a search. There was not much other than the same few sentences of information: he was a scientist and a personal acquaintance of the great President himself. He died of a heart attack very shortly after the war. There was apparently a small foundation for the sciences in his name headed by descendants Weiss and Nero Hojo. He jotted their contact information down and made a note to look into it later.
There was a bad feeling in Cloud's stomach, so he packed up his stuff and wandered to a familiar shelf of the library. He had been forced to run all over the week previous when gathering all his books but many had been from the section generally about the years leading up to the war. With luck there would be something that discussed Hojo, perhaps how he became so close to the President or what he had to do with Sephiroth, at least.
To his great misfortune Cloud turned a corner to see Squall of all people squatting and peering at book titles in the back of the long row of books. Cloud's quiet footsteps made him look over and they made eye contact for a long moment before Squall resolutely returned his attention to the book spines.
Did the man ever leave the goddamned library? He'd always been a research rat but jeez, Squall… did he come straight here after class? He was a creature of habit like that.
Cloud gathered his nerves as he examined a shelf about fifteen feet away from where Squall was crouched. They were both Gaian Civil War buffs, though Squall was more military history where Cloud was more a biographer so it was not such a surprise to see him here. Nevertheless.
He could be the bigger man. "Hey, Squall," he said softly, mindful of the quiet policy of the library.
"Hello," Squall replied.
"How are you doing?"
"Fine, thanks." He pulled out a book, peered at the spine and put it back. "You?"
"Good. …What are you looking at?"
Cloud sweat anxiously as he made himself look busy and after another minute Squall left, two books under one arm. "See you around," he said without looking at him and disappeared. Cloud watched him go sadly. Squall was not actively being a total dick anymore which was good, but…
It still stung a little, yeah. He saw things that reminded him of the brunet and melancholy set in for a little while, yeah. But, as Reno always told him—that was over. No use worryin' over something you can't help, yo.
Cloud returned to his old seat without finding anything related to Hojo and cracked open his unfinished biography with a scowl. Now irritated by the sounds of shuffling and coughing he popped in his headphones and lost himself in Angeal Hewley for a few hours.
Later, groggy and nursing a headache, Cloud emerged from the library only to be alarmed as he was immediately drenched in warm summer rain. It was darker than it should have been for that hour and as he ducked and ran for the subway the entire city lit up with bright strikes of lightning, terrifically loud thunder following almost immediately after. He evidently had not noticed the beginning of the storm due to his music.
It was not until he arrived at home, sodden and aching for a warm shower that he realized belatedly that the storm was much too bad to drive in. Nibelheim always flooded when it rained, not to mention that it would be hard enough even getting out of the city on the highways with the rain as bad as it was.
Every bit of common sense told him it would be a bad idea to go see Sephiroth. He almost did it nevertheless; he put on his coat, grabbed an umbrella and was almost out the door when his phone received one of the city-wide emergency alerts he signed up for. Flash flooding and a severe thunderstorm warning in effect until the early morning.
Unhappy, Cloud hung his jacket back on the coat rack and kicked off his boots, throwing his umbrella into the corner. He was not going to visit Sephiroth. It should not have been an issue, really—the man stood in that field, if Cloud understood things correctly, for over two hundred years by himself. One night would hardly kill him.
Even so Cloud's stomach knotted with anxiety as afternoon transitioned to night and the storm grew more ferocious with loud claps of thunder that reverberated through his building and lightning that lit up his apartment for brief moments from the outside. No, it was better that he had not risked it, but was Sephiroth okay out there? True, he had no body to get wet and no feet to sink into the mud with but was he waiting for Cloud to show up? Would he be disappointed? Would he think Cloud was done with him already and that he would stand in that field forever, never able to pass on to the next world?
There was no problem with occasionally leaving a friend hanging. With a good excuse and some apologizing it was no big deal. Sephiroth was not a friend, however—he was General Sephiroth Crescent, Cloud's role model and muse. It still made him dizzy to think too long or too hard about who exactly he was interacting with. This was not the man Cloud wanted to abandon or make feel ignored. He should be tripping all over himself to attend to his every whim, not sit warm and cozy on his bed with soup while the other was out in a storm.
There was nothing to be done about it now, at any rate. To take his mind off his guilt he turned his brain away from anything related to history and watched a movie instead. He emailed back and forth with Seifer a few times and arranged lunch for the next day and even sent his mom one as well checking up on her.
When he eventually went to bed the uneasiness returned and it took a long time to quiet his restless thoughts.
At 9:30 the next morning Cloud brought his car to a quick stop in the middle of a long, empty dirt road. The road dipped down after rising in a slight incline for a while, following the dips and turns of the hills themselves. Water drainage was apparently not a priority out here because the slight dip in the road produced something like a swamp. If his car had gone another ten feet he wasn't sure he would be able to get it back out.
"Shit," Cloud sighed, letting his forehead thunk against the steering wheel. He turned his vehicle off and climbed out, sending the direction behind him an uneasy look. He was only a few minutes from his house. No one ever drove back here though so he was probably fine; he just hoped his mom would not decide to go for a walk and chance upon his car stranded in the middle of a street. He was not quite sure how to answer those inevitable questions yet.
It was a small comfort knowing that no one in their sane mind would go for a walk in this weather. It was hot and muggy again but no longer stormy—sun shone brightly on the puddles of still, festering water on the ground. There were bugs everywhere. Cloud locked his car and began trekking through the mud toward the unusual stretch of field, waving his arms around to keep away a cloud of gnats and mosquitoes.
His work boots sunk into the mud with great, heavy squishes. It was hard to get them out sometimes; the ground held on to him tightly, unwilling to let go. Still Cloud persisted, sweating and slapping at exposed skin as clever little bloodsucking bugs discovered it.
In the light of day everything was different. Gone was that mysterious energy and excitement that usually plagued him when he tumbled out of his car, breathless, ready to see Sephiroth. It was just a hot, damp, buggy field. Whether that was a good sign or bad he was unsure.
When he eventually left the road and squelched his way into the field he winced as he sank so far down into the mud it seeped over the tops of his boots and oozed down to sink into his socks and chill his ankles. Stubbornly he kept at it, however, staggering in a short distance and calling, "Sephiroth?"
"Sephiroth! General Crescent!"
He lurched in a little more and paused in his frantic itching of a few bites on his neck to cup his hands around his mouth and bellow, "Sephiroth!"
With a sigh he offered, "I'm sorry I didn't come last night—the storm was too bad."
For a few more minutes he clomped around and apologized but eventually he accepted defeat and headed back to his car, exhausted and sore. He took off his boots, which were now more mud than boot, gingerly placed them on the floor by the passenger's seat and drove home barefoot. Sephiroth did not seem like the type to pout or ignore him for not appearing the night before, so what gave? Had something happened with Cloud at home? The knot of uneasiness he felt the evening before paled in comparison to the dread he felt now.
Weekend traffic was foul on the way back so Cloud just barely had enough time to shower before leaving again to get lunch with Seifer. Rather than anyone picking the other up they agreed the evening before to meet at a small café that Seifer loved. He seemed to be king of the small cafés.
Somehow he arrived first and was seated outside, but thankfully in the shade. His hair was still slightly damp because he had not had time to dry it completely and he discreetly played with it, trying to get it to look presentable without looking like he was primping for his date.
Was this even a date? Perhaps. He did not think so, or at least it was not an explicitly named one. He wasn't even sure what he thought of Seifer, really; sure he was nice but he knew a lot of nice people. He was broken out of his musings when his maybe-date sat down across from him and flashed him a smile.
"Hey," Seifer grinned.
"Hey to you too."
"You order already?"
"Nah." Cloud had not even looked at the menu. "What's good?"
They chatted about food for a while until their orders were taken and they could relax in their seats and merely enjoy each other's company. Seifer wore a loose v-necked t-shirt and his hair was an attractively messy wreck, not slicked back and gelled like it was when they first met. A nice guy.
"So what's been up with you?" Cloud asked.
"Ehh, studying mostly. I have a test this Friday in a physics class I'm taking." He laughed at Cloud's wince of disgust. He told him a bit about his dream to go beyond airships like everyone else and go to space. Now that, space—that blew Cloud's mind. The supernatural as well as the great big black void beyond Gaia's atmosphere—both were things he had trouble grasping mentally. As he was currently dealing with the former he was happily left the latter in Seifer's capable hands.
"So what did you decide on?" Seifer asked after a big bite of his sandwich a short time later. "Did my advice help?"
"Mm, it did. I think I'm looking at the death of Sephiroth Crescent, Genesis Rhapsodos, Angeal Hewley and Zack Fair right now." A bit nervously Cloud added, "It's just a—uh, feeling I have. Like I can figure it out."
Seifer looked impressed. "I remember that from grade school. Rather gruesome deaths, weren't they?"
"Yup. All four were found dead the morning after AVALANCHE surrendered."
Seifer then asked him about his research, his class, and then finally, like Cloud suspected, "So are you friends with Squall?"
"Oh, really? It's just weird for me to picture him in a classroom, I guess. What is he like these days?"
"He seems alright. We don't talk."
"He's not a dick to you, is he? I wouldn't be surprised."
"Not really." Seifer seemed relieved by the response and Cloud decided to rip off the band-aid; it had gone on long enough.
"Look, Seifer," Cloud sighed, "In the interest of full disclosure and all I should tell you. There's a reason Squall and I don't talk—he's more than just some guy."
Seifer looked like he knew what Cloud was going to say, watching Cloud with a guarded expression.
"Squall and I dated for four years. Almost got engaged and everything. We broke up about eight months ago." He shrugged, a bit sadly. "It wasn't pretty. Things were really tense for a long time but recently it's been a lot of…nothing. We ignore each other."
Seifer quietly continued eating, saying nothing.
"There's nothing to apologize for." He frowned at Cloud. "I figured I'd ask because I got a weird vibe from you two that time at the library." Then he smiled. "Man, what did Leonhart do to get a guy like you?"
Laughter punched its way out of his lungs and Cloud nearly choked on his pasta. "Woah, cheesy much?"
"We just sorta…fell out of love, I guess. Forgot the reason why we were attracted to each other in the first place. Neither of us was brave enough to end things so we started looking for ways to justify breaking it off. We accused each other of a lot of shit and like I said, it ended badly." Cloud frowned at his plate, finding he had lost his appetite. "I don't want to talk about my ex anymore, if that's okay."
"Yeah. Yeah—of course."
Conversation then turned to simple, light stuff like hobbies when they weren't being horrible geeky nerds and funny stories they each had. Cloud found himself smiling uncontrollably, a far cry from his last few miserable months with Squall. When they finished eating the two of them took a stroll and ended up by a small fountain where people were crowding to cool off. They stuck their feet in the water and joked about discovering their passions—Seifer as a small child after watching a crappy cartoon where the main character took a ship to the moon.
The remainder of their time together was light-hearted and fun, and when they split up Cloud's mood remained good until he arrived home to see the poster of Sephiroth looking stern and almost accusatory. Memories of his time with Squall, too, were resurfacing; he sat on the couch and bent under the weight, the guilt and anxiety and confusion, of it all.
Sephiroth was probably pissed at him for failing to show up. Squall hated him. His thesis was hardly going anywhere. His life was such a mess these days—a Gaia-damned mess.
Chapter 10: Chapter 10
Gas prices were astronomical these days. Cloud, living in the city with functioning buses and a subway, did not often have to drive. Occasionally he drove out of the city to visit his mom but not regularly, especially after he broke up with Squall; he had been quite antisocial for a time.
Recently he had been driving to his hometown or back at least twice a day every 24 hours and his wallet was feeling the strain. It was magnified further by him not having his job any longer, or, well, being on 'pause.' He had not planned to go back to work until he was all done with his thesis but at this rate he would have to…
The long trip out of the city and repeated visits to the pump were worth it though, in Cloud's opinion. After all he was on a mission, solving a mystery, talking with Sephiroth—any desperate history fanboy would be honored to spend the Gil to make their meetings happen.
This time though Cloud was nervous instead of excited as he cruised through Nibelheim toward his mother's house and the reserve behind it. Yesterday morning he visited after failing to go the day before because of a bad storm. The news reported power outages in parts of Midgar and trees that fell on houses just outside it. It was wise of Cloud not to come but judging by Sephiroth's reaction the morning before he had to make things right as quickly as possible (or, rather, his lack of one. The General did not appear despite all of Cloud's yelling).
But, as Cloud theorized the day before, Sephiroth did not seem the type to sulk and pout, and he probably had the sense to chalk Cloud's lack of appearance to the massive thunderstorm overhead. Hot tendrils of worry made his stomach knot as he eventually made it to the right road by his house and quietly rolled down it. It had been nothing but sunny and offensively hot since the storm so the roads were in considerably better shape. His car would be covered in mud but it did not seem in danger of getting stuck anymore which was a relief.
Cloud stopped his car eventually at what he instinctively knew was the right place and climbed out. The full moon was just a day or two before and the area was still filled with light. The stars, too, were breathtakingly numerous out here; he felt more connected to the planet and the universe than he ever felt in Midgar.
Halfheartedly he cleared some of the mud from before off and out of his boots back at home but three steps into the field they were filthy again. "Sephiroth?" he called, his voice weak, afraid Sephiroth was angry with him.
The trees in the distance ruffled with the wind like someone affronted and Cloud sighed. He closed his eyes and took a moment to calm down, frustrated. When he opened them, however, he took a step back from the figure in front of him, hands in pockets and smiling softly at him.
"It's good to see you Cloud," Sephiroth said.
"General!" Cloud stood up straighter and had the weird urge to salute. "You're here?"
"Of course. I cannot leave."
"But where were you yesterday? Were you pissed at me for not coming the day before? I meant to but the storm was awful. You probably saw it. I really do apologize for that."
Sephiroth watched him nervously babble with a frown. He waited until the blond subsided to say, "I was with you yesterday."
"You were? I couldn't see you."
The ghost smiled, full of that strange moonlight that danced and shimmered today like he was pleased or amused. "Don't come during the daytime," he ordered in what was undeniably his military voice. Then, softer: "I walked beside you and said your name but you couldn't hear me. I cannot be seen or heard while the sun is out. I tried to calm you down… you were quite worked up."
"Oh," Cloud said, embarrassed.
"I also figured that the storm was the reason you failed to appear." Sephiroth then turned away from him and squinted at Cloud's car back on the road. "You are under no obligation to come here every day, Cloud—you do know that?"
"Of course," the blond protested, shocked that Sephiroth sounded…shy, almost, like he felt bad that he was inconveniencing Cloud. "I want to though. I want to solve this and get you home."
"Me too," Sephiroth agreed. He turned back around to eye Cloud. "Thank you, by the way. I never thanked you for the effort you've put forth thus far."
"You don't need to thank me, Sir."
Relieved that nothing in fact happened to Sephiroth and that he wasn't upset or angry (and that he was developing more and more of his personality by the day) Cloud laughed and dove into his intended task for that evening with enthusiasm. "Okay," he explained, "Today I think we should record everything you can remember so then we know what to focus on next time. You still have energy left for that?"
"Okay. Let's start with your childhood, then. Where were you born?"
As it turned out Sephiroth remembered just bits and pieces of his life, leaving gaps that Cloud had to bite his tongue not to fill. He was partly a biographer, after all—he was able to talk for hours about Sephiroth's time at the academy and his early Shin-Ra years. This was not the place, however; he forced himself to stay quiet and merely prompt Sephiroth instead as he frantically wrote.
In the long hours Sephiroth spent by himself out here he thought, he informed the blond. Usually days and years passed in an unthinking daze but since they met Sephiroth had been focusing very hard on his past and why he could not remember and gotten a few muddled memories for his efforts.
Much of the chronology of his life was forgotten but more than anything else Sephiroth seemed to remember his friends best. Despite being a bit counterproductive and wanting to move on to other things Cloud let Sephiroth talk freely about them. He first described Angeal, honorable and brave. He was Sephiroth's most trustworthy acquaintance and trusted him with any knowledge. He recounted a story of them at the academy, sneaking in to the mess hall late at night for snacks. They almost got caught but Angeal's quick strategizing got them out safe. The ghost did not mention anything else about the academy and Cloud wanted to go back and pick at it because it was important but he let it slide—there was time for it elsewhere, he supposed.
Zack was a mischievous little goofball but loyal and smart and not at all incapable of being serious. He kept Sephiroth's spirits up and often fought with him in battle. Sephiroth revealed not liking him at first, convinced he was intruding on his close friendship with Angeal and Genesis. Eventually, however, Zack won him over and he found that he had been wrong about assuming Zack was intruding at all. The man became just another wonderful part of their dynamic and soon Sephiroth could not imagine life without the younger warrior.
Genesis brought both smiles and expressions of sadness to Sephiroth's visage. Genesis and he had a fiery relationship, Sephiroth explained—they were at the same time very similar and very different. They fought a lot and at times could not stand each other but were never able to leave or function without the other. Cloud stopped trying to steer the conversation away and just listened as the man spoke about General Rhapsodos. They met when Sephiroth joined the academy and on the first day got into a fight on the courtyard that ended with Sephiroth's nose and rib broken and needing to go to the hospital.
The shifty way in which he recounted a few other stories about Genesis and described him made Cloud curious, positive the man was leaving something out. Before he got the chance to ask however Sephiroth steered the conversation to the war, which he remembered being in charge of the military operations for, a few battles, and that's it.
He did not remember at all how he, or his friends, passed away.
Cloud, recording all of this in his notebook with the help of a flashlight, nodded along and actively listened. It was mindblowing to hear these things from a personal point of view and not from a historian's.
"Wow," Cloud said to him when Sephiroth finished, the man racking his brain for anything he could remember, "That's a good start. Tomorrow night I'll bring my stuff and we can work on filling in the gaps. Sound good?"
"Yes," Sephiroth answered, and his voice was softer than it had been. Cloud glanced up and Sephiroth was paler, barely clinging to this world.
The ghost fixed him with a strange look. "Thank you again, Cloud," he said and then faded away.
"It's my pleasure, Sir," Cloud answered, unsure if Sephiroth could hear him. He headed back to his car, exhausted from standing so long and stretching out his hand which cramped from all the frantic writing. The discomfort, though, along with the tiredness he felt as he drove home with the gas needle dangerously close to empty was worth it. How could it not be when Sephiroth—Sephiroth!—fixed him with such an expression of genuine thanks and appreciation?
At 10am the next morning Cloud stared at the back of Squall's head, a familiar sight. He could not help but think of Seifer and their recent get-together and all they had talked about. The other blond had not seemed too surprised to hear that they dated—they gave off a, what was it, "weird vibe?".
It had been a lot more than dating, all right. They lived together, worked and studied together, loved each other deeply. Cloud had even gotten an engagement ring, a beautiful band masculine enough not to hurt Squall's pride, but soon after everything went to shit for no reason. Cloud cried in public when he returned it.
Squall greeted Shelke as she came in; they were friends, or as much friends as anyone could be with Shelke. Cloud diverted his attention and said hello to his own friend, Firion, as he sat down in the chair beside him. "You look tired," Cloud noted.
Firion scrubbed at his face with his hands and rolled his neck. Cloud smacked him soundly on the back a few times. "No kidding," he said. "It's really tough trying to find time to work with the Emperor going on the rampage as e is. Sales are down a bit this quarter so I'm on shift all the time."
"If you guys really need to sell some stuff I'd gladly take Tsurugi off your hands…if you knocked it down a couple thousand Gil."
"Mateus would kill you," Firion responded simply.
Cloud made an over-exaggerated pout. "That's not nice. C'mon, I'd take good care of it."
"I know—why don't you take my job and save up for it in store credit instead of getting a paycheck? That's a win for everybody."
Cloud was faring better than most of his peers in terms of stress, anxiety, and tears. The hard thing, Cloud realized, was figuring out what to say to people about his research while not giving it away that he had some extra help in the form of a ghostly spirit of the research subject himself. How was he supposed to defend his research to a panel of cutthroat academics who would call him out for suspicious acquisition of information, for that matter?
He made up some garbage about focusing on primary sources for figuring stuff out and dodged everything else in his small-group discussions with Yuffie, Firion and Cid. When class ended Cloud was a little hot and sweaty under the collar from nerves but pushed his worries away as he walked to the parking lot like usual with Reno.
"And he told me all about Genesis, Angeal and Zack," he narrated, flashing the pages and pages of scribbled notes, "Even some stuff I've never read in any book before. It's nuts, Reno."
"Damn. Think you can get him to remember?"
"I hope so. So far my prompting has helped. I really think that if I teach him enough about himself and the war he'll just…remember how he died."
"If you say so, yo."
"You're a huge help. Really motivating."
Reno shrugged. "I don't know how ghosts work, yo. It seems like a lotta luck to me is all. I'd have a backup plan just in case."
"I'm always right."
After going their separate ways Cloud got in his car and tsked to himself. It was foolish to think it would be as easy as passing along information to Sephiroth and having the man solve the mystery on his own. Lazy, too. As for what exactly would be required of him he was unsure but he had to be proactive about it.
Squall was probably at the library again, the predictable jerk, and Cloud quite honestly did not have it in him to deal with the brunet today. At home there were chores to do; he neglected things like laundry and dishes when stressed and busy. That did not sound appealing either. Instead of going to either place Cloud drove to his favorite bar with his favorite female, whom he had not visited in too long.
Seventh Heaven was a cheap, crappy hole in the wall when Tifa bought it but these days was a fine establishment. Despite being the middle of the day there was a lunch crowd in; she opened at noon a few days a week and at five p.m. other days. Cloud ducked inside and smiled widely as Tifa handed a margarita to someone and then caught sight of him over their shoulder.
"Cloud Strife," she accused, drawing a few heads, "I wondered when you would remember to pay me a visit."
"Sorry," Cloud apologized, "I've been busy!"
"Uh-huh. That's what you always say." She quickly tended to someone needing a refill and returned as Cloud slapped a few bills onto the counter.
"'Cause I'm here I guess I might as well. Can I have a—"
"I don't want your money," Tifa interrupted, handing him his money back. "I'd rather you work for it." She handed him a rag and fixed him with big brown eyes, "Want to clean that table over there for me?"
"Sheesh, alright," Cloud grumbled, but it was all in jest. He obediently went to the right table and gathered the plates. Her usual busser must not be in.
Sometimes Cloud worried about Tifa who managed Seventh Heaven with just a few staff on hand to cook and clean. She was strong and tough, however, and always proved him wrong so it was all probably for nothing. After cleaning off the table and wiping it down he returned to the counter to have Tifa drop his favorite cranberry-pomegranate concoction in front of him with a thanks.
Tifa was busy, bustling around while dealing with hungry customers. Cloud watched her quietly, proud, and he finished his drink as he waited for her to be free. Once the crowd mostly left she found the time to come over with a glass of water, which she placed carefully on the counter away from Cloud's open notebook which he was writing in.
"How goes the thesis?"
"Alright." Cloud gave Tifa a critical look, trying to decide whether he would open up to her as he did Reno about what was really going on. That had not been his intention when coming to visit, finding he missed her presence more than anything. She probably would believe him and would not judge but something held him back.
Instead of anything about Sephiroth Cloud opened his mouth and confessed, "I think I met a guy."
"Really?" Tifa waggled her eyebrows at him. After the break-up with Squall Tifa was the one who witnessed most of Cloud's anger. She understood him. "Who is it? How'd you meet?"
"His name is Seifer Almasy. We met at the library, actually."
"Great," Tifa huffed playfully, "Another nerd. Great for you then."
"Haha, he's a nice guy—hot too, I swear. It's just—he, ah…"
"He knows Squall."
Tifa winced. "How?"
"They kind of…hate each other, actually. Were neighbors as kids. We ran into Squall in the library too and I thought they were going to attack each other. Remember how Squall has that scar?" He drew it on his own face, and then a mirror image. "Seifer has one in the opposite direction. He told me they did it to each other as kids during a fight."
Tifa sighed and let her forehead rest against the countertop. "Cloud," she groaned, "Squall's evil nemesis, really? How does that even happen to you?"
Cloud laughed. "No idea. I like him though. Tell me it's a bad idea and that I shouldn't pursue anything."
"Well, I don't know about that, but… he better be damn cute if you're willing to go through all this. There are so many red flags with dating someone so connected to Squall."
"I know, I know."
Tifa sighed and then left him alone for a few minutes to check on the kitchen, and when she returned Cloud abandoned the talk of Seifer and Squall and asked her instead how she was doing. Tifa obtained a degree in business management in the last 12 months, going back to school. Seventh Heaven was doing better than ever, she recently hired another employee and she actually had a date for the upcoming weekend with a man she met at a wine tasting she attended recently looking for new products.
As kids the two of them always stuck together against the world and were known as troublemakers in their small hometown. Fondly Cloud could remember them sneaking into Nibelheim Manor, a long-abandoned mansion on the outskirts of town only to run out hand-in-hand when they thought they heard a scary sound.
Tifa's life seemed so put together these days though, and Cloud couldn't help but feel a little jealous. Tifa cupped his face with her hands and looked him evenly in the eye in her usual businesslike manner. "If you're having a hard time you can come to me—remember that, won't you?"
"Yeah. I will. Thanks."
With a kind smile Tifa clapped his cheeks gently and then handed him another damp rag. "There's two more tables that need cleaning."
As Cloud ate dinner at his kitchen table that evening he sighed in frustration after yet again failing to get anything of interest on Hojo. He found no records, no birth info, no anything! The only thing that kept resurfacing was the Hojo Science Foundation, which he had discovered a few days ago. The blond pulled out the post-it he wrote the HSF's contact info on and after some deliberation called it; why not?
"Hello, you've reached the main branch of the Hojo Science Foundation," gushed a too-happy female secretary. "How can I help you?"
Cloud could give as good as he got. He put on his patented innocent-student voice. "Hi! My name is Cloud and I'm a history student at Midgar U. I'm really interested in Barnaby Hojo—I was just wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the Foundation?"
"Oh, sure! Well, as you know Mr. Hojo was a brilliant scientist back in the day. He was close friends with the great President Shin-Ra, even. He made all sorts of advances in science that were almost lost forever! His great-great grandsons, Nero and Weiss Hojo, didn't want that to happen so they built this place in his name in order to keep Hojo's work and his passion for science alive."
"What kind of advances in science did he make?"
"I—oh, I… I don't really know." The secretary seemed puzzled. "There is a very small exhibit here on Hojo's life and works, if you would like to see it."
"Where are you guys?" She told him and Cloud wrote down the address. He then coaxed, "Do you know anything else about Hojo? It would really help me a lot."
"Huh. Well, I understand some of his experiments were controversial, although I don't know why. Nero and Weiss don't tell me these things."
"Would one of them be around?"
"Nero is still in his office, I believe, but—"
"Can I talk to him? Please?"
"…Oh, all right—you can try. I'll send you through to his line."
"Thank you so much."
"Sure. Good luck on your project, sweetie."
Cloud rolled his eyes as he quickly shoveled more food into his mouth before he had to speak again. The phone clicked and then a masculine voice said, "Yes?"
Sounded like a total asshole. "Hi," Cloud said, "My name is Cloud and I was just speaking to your receptionist, I presume—she's great by the way."
"Get on with it."
"…I'm a history student at Midgar U and I really admire Mr. Hojo but I'm having a lot of trouble finding more information on him for a paper I'm writing. I was hoping you could help me fill in some of the gaps of my research—like what exactly he did around the time of the Civil War, toward the end of his life?"
Very smoothly Nero answered, "Ah, I'm sorry, Cloud, but I can't help you there."
He did not give a reason and Cloud asked, a bit awkwardly, "Why not? If anyone knows about Hojo I would think it's you and your brother?"
"Unfortunately much of Hojo's life is a mystery, even to us."
Cloud did not buy it one bit. "Surely you can help me at least a little bit? Anything you can tell me would help with my paper."
"I cannot. Apologies." Nero's voice was dangerous and low.
Cloud clenched his jaw. "Look, man—are you hiding something? 'Cause I don't believe you at all. There is no way you don't know anything at all about the man you have a whole foundation for. I—"
"I am a busy man," Nero interrupted, "and I don't have time to assist college students with papers. I am sure you understand."
"I suggest you leave Hojo's research alone, Cloud. Trust me—it is in your best interest."
Nero hung up and Cloud gaped at his cell. Was he just threatened? "Holy shit," he breathed, and frantically scribbled a note in his notebook: Nero Hojo—hiding something.
What on Gaia was he supposed to make of that?
"Good evening," Cloud greeted Sephiroth a few hours later as he hurried across the still-muddy field to where the ghost was waiting. He had with him a cheap beach chair purchased at the corner drugstore as he didn't know if he could stand another night of standing while attempting to listen, write, and balance a flashlight so he could see all at the same time. "I brought my stuff with me today. I was thinking we could start working through biographies of your personal history and all, then move on to some literature about the war itself. It should help you a lot. I brought my favorite biography about you, actually—as far as I know mostly everything is accurate."
Cloud set up the chair and dropped into it, organizing his work and flashlight so he could do everything comfortably. He opened his Sephiroth biography to the first page; the book was dog-eared and covered in highlighted passages and notes. He looked up expectantly. Sephiroth was leaning forward with his hands on his knees, however, frowning at the book.
"Actually," he said once he had Cloud's attention, standing back up smoothly, "I was wondering if we could talk about something else instead tonight."
"Oh. Uh, yeah, of course." Cloud shut the book. "About what?"
Sephiroth nodded. "Tell me about yourself, Cloud Strife." He smiled and stuck his hands in his pants pockets. "I don't understand why you are trying so hard to help me. Who are you?" He shrugged one shoulder and looked out toward Nibelheim. "What is it like to be alive today?"
"Oh. Wow." Slightly mollified, Cloud thought as he forced his stuff back into his backpack and set it all on his lap. He turned off the flashlight partly because mosquitoes were swarming around the light but also because the moonlight was bright enough to chat under if not read and maybe because Sephiroth's question made him a little self-conscious.
"Well, my name is Cloud Strife," Cloud joked. "I'm 24. I live in Midgar. I wasn't born in Midgar. Actually the house where I grew up is about ten minutes that way." He pointed. "My mom is still there.
"As a kid I played out here a lot—saw all the monuments and plaques and stuff that told me about the Civil War battles. Your victories. About all the people who died. It really fascinated me, I guess. When I went to college I studied history." Cloud's cheeks warmed with a blush as he then severely downplayed his obsession with the man in front of him: "I was always particularly interested in you, actually."
"Why? All I did was kill people."
"That's not true," Cloud protested, "You're an inspiration! Everyone kills in war—you did what you were ordered to do."
Sephiroth did not answer but he didn't look like he believed him at all. Cloud hesitantly recounted the rest of his academic career and said that he was working on a First Class degree now. "That's me, I guess," he said nervously, trailing off into silence.
The General sat on the ground, and Cloud almost stopped him before realizing he was a ghost and couldn't get muddy. Cloud looked down at him while feeling strangely exposed—he did not want to reveal himself to his hero. He cared too much about what he thought.
"What about your friends?" Sephiroth asked softly, leaning back on his hands. "I told you about mine."
"I have a good amount," Cloud said with a smile. "My best friend is this guy named Reno." He did his best to summarize all of Reno's eccentricities and uniqueness in a few sentences and found it hard, and then told Sephiroth about Tifa who he grew up with, Aerith from Sector 5, Firion from the weapons shop and Yuffie, his study buddy. Sephiroth did not seem bored at all; he soaked up Cloud's words like a small child being read a story.
"And you're 24," he said after Cloud finished. "Are you married?"
Cloud snorted. "No." In Sephiroth's time people did marry a lot earlier, true. Arranged marriages were the norm as well, as evidenced with Scarlet. His smile faded and he added quietly, "I almost was once."
"Oh. Yeah." Cloud waved his hands like it was no big deal. "We broke up last October. It was a shame. I'm over it."
"Oh…" Cloud swallowed and glanced at Sephiroth. The ghost watched him evenly. "It was, uh…a classmate of mine, actually—it's pretty awkward. This guy named Squall." Then he hurriedly added, looking away, "It's—being gay or dating someone of the same gender—it's not like it was when you were alive. It's far more accepted these days than it was for you, so…if that grosses you out, sorry."
"You were going to marry a man?" Sephiroth asked, his eyes wide and every trace of his usual imposing self gone in his wonder and confusion.
"As of about a year ago, yeah. Not everywhere in the world but on Gaia at least."
Sephiroth studied him for a moment and then offered, "I was in a relationship with Genesis. It is a shame attitudes were what they were."
Cloud's breath caught. Sephiroth waited calmly for Cloud to say something. There were rumors, yes, rumors that Cloud had studied extensively when figuring out his own sexuality as a teen and hoping that he could relate to his role model in another way, but nothing was definitive. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or upset or like Sephiroth was betraying the historical record he was just happy for him—happy that Sephiroth was able to experience something like that with Genesis, and happy that the General felt like he could trust Cloud with that information.
"I'm sorry you guys couldn't be together. You're right—it really is a shame."
Sephiroth pursed his lips. "I want to see him, Cloud."
"You will, Sir. I swear it. We'll get you there."
"Angeal and Zack too."
Sephiroth nodded, holding him to it.
The General then wanted to know about other aspects of Cloud's life—more about why he studied history, what his classes were like, and then smaller things about his life, his home, and his relationships. Sephiroth was…was dead, and Cloud had so much life to offer—so he put the thoughts of history and solving mysteries out of his mind for the moment and concentrated his energies on letting Sephiroth live, just the littlest bit, through him instead.
Rufus and Reno's antics made the ghost smile. Stories of Cloud's mother made him admit that he never knew any mother of his own. Aerith seemed like the kind of girl Zack would have gotten along well with, Sephiroth confided. Instead of monotonously offering information they had a conversation, an easy one with no goals that ebbed and flowed naturally as conversation did with old friends.
When Sephiroth faded away a time later he glowed—with happiness, with the slow recovery of his self, and even a small spark of life.
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
June 28: Moved from early life to time at the academy. Sephiroth is hung up on something. Has a bad feeling. What happened during this period that he can't remember?
June 29: We talked a lot about Masamune. He paid for it himself.
June 30: I read him the chapter about his years 18-23 and he got so offended. There was a mention of Hojo in the biography and Sephiroth made me stop. I asked but he doesn't remember. He seemed frustrated.
July 2: Turks are important. No idea why or how.
July 3: I read him the chapter about the war with Wutai. He grew very quiet after the bit about how he got the name 'The Silver Demon.'
July 4: Still nothing on Hojo or the Turks.
Cloud smiled to himself as he flipped through his notebook on the subway. Farther back in the pages he had more detailed notes of his daily meetings with Sephiroth but he was also keeping a few-sentences long mini-diary as they went along. The progress they made in the short time they knew each other was promising but some incredible mental blocks stood in their way.
More was coming back to Sephiroth as Cloud read him articles and more of his biography. It was kind of amazing. Notably nothing at all was resurfacing about a few topics—namely Hojo and his own death. Some things were apparently buried deeper than others. Sephiroth also kept telling him that Turks were important, but much to Cloud's frustration that was all the man could tell him; he did not know how or why they were so.
It was impossible for Cloud to know how it was for Sephiroth without the man telling him so but it was utterly surreal, at least, for him, to see the subtle shifts in Sephiroth's expression and body language as his own memories came back to him again and again in succession like small waves crashing against the sand of a beach. He had a feeling that Sephiroth enjoyed the recovery and re-living of his life with the help of a book—as well as, more simply, their time together.
They made sure to just talk, too, about all kinds of things. Sephiroth was endlessly fascinated about Cloud's classes, about how he was some famous historical figure worthy of being in textbooks. Cloud was still interested in the big picture, of solving this Gaia-damned mystery and getting Sephiroth where he needed to be, but the promise and long stretch of summer made him relax and think they had all the time in the world.
Yes, there were pressing questions and Cloud was getting anxious about the prospect of defending his thesis but with the stars out and a warm breeze whistling through the overgrown grass of Nibelheim all that seemed very far away. He enjoyed listening to Sephiroth tell small, seemingly insignificant stories. He did not have it in him to rush the man along.
Cloud got off the subway at a stop far down a line he hardly ever travelled and emerged into the hot sun a bit disoriented at the new scenery. Quickly he located a street sign and figured out which way was which and then set off a few blocks toward tall, imposing skyscrapers that housed powerful businesses. This part of the city was rich but lacked any of the fun or niceties of the rest of it; there were hardly any restaurants, no parks, and few things to do—just block after block of glass and hot, hard, concrete.
He sent Seifer a picture, whom he had been texting back and forth for the past few days. The caption read: get me outta here.
After checking the crumpled post-it in his pocket to make sure he was at the right place Cloud shouldered open a pair of heavy glass double doors with gold-plated handles that looked just like any other he passed. He entered a tall, fancy lobby with shiny marble floors and bright lights that made everything glitter.
Hojo Science Foundation read a large granite wall on the back, the words engraved into the rock. In the middle of the large room was a small circular desk with a brunette sitting behind a new model desktop computer. No one else was around.
"Welcome to the HSF. Can I help you?" she asked as Cloud approached.
This was not the woman Cloud talked to on the phone that one time but the manufactured, happy tone of voice seemed to be a recurring thing. "Hi," Cloud said easily as he walked up, never one to be intimidated by glitz and glam and the meager authority a greeting receptionist had, "I spoke to someone here last week and was told about a small exhibit you have on Barnaby Hojo…?"
"Oh." The woman had to think for a moment. "Yes, we have one. It's through that door." She pointed. "No one ever asks to see it."
Cloud shrugged. "I'm not surprised. I'm a history student and even I'm not super thrilled."
His small comment helped put him on the receptionist's good side and she grinned at him, rocking back in her chair. Cloud could see she was playing solitaire on her computer. "Well, if you have any questions feel free to come back and ask. I'm bored—I'll help you out."
They talked for a few minutes about stupid stuff, being around the same age and the woman apparently relieved to have something to distract her from her boredom. Then, figuring he should accomplish what he came here to do, Cloud tapped the desk with his knuckles, smiled again and started for the bright and glossy doors she indicated. Without her pointing them out he might have missed them; they blended in well with the rest of the polished mirror-like surfaces. Working here day in and out would give him a headache.
Through the doors was a wide hallway with additional doors every dozen feet that probably went to conference rooms. At the end of it though he could see a small stand on the floor with Hojo Museum on it so he continued on, resisting the urge to look up at the ceiling where they had a long mirror punctuated by circular fluorescent lights. There were probably cameras behind it.
He did some research on the HSF before visiting and it seemed like big money. Weiss and Nero dealt with government contractors and personally knew some very rich, very powerful people—and for what? Science? Hojo, Sephiroth's Hojo—he must have been more important than people generally seemed to think for such fanfare to exist around him in the present day.
The 'museum' could hardly be called that. It was, as the first receptionist he'd spoken to said, small. Cloud entered a cramped room that was every bit as glittery as the rest of the building and critically surveyed it with a frown.
He pulled out his phone and snapped a few pictures, ignoring the 'no photography' sign near the fire alarm near the door. Against one wall was a long display case holding artifacts and along two others was some text and images; the fourth was simply blank, as if they ran out of information or just hadn't cared.
Cloud read the text first. There was a picture of a baby swaddled in a frilly linen thing—Hojo, presumably. Barnaby Eugene Hojo was born on January 12 XXXX, it said, and recounted some of his early life. To be safe Cloud got pictures of the various paragraphs of text though none of it seemed overtly important at the moment.
Hojo became fascinated with science at a young age. There was a drawing of a young boy holding a frog in one hand and looking at its skin through a magnifying glass held in the other. He went to a few schools and colleges (the text stating simply that Hojo repeatedly got his enrollment 'terminated' from each one but not saying why) but eventually graduated from a University in Junon.
It then went on and on with some bullshit about his interests, hobbies and love interest, a fellow scientist named Lucrecia (no last name given), that Cloud dutifully recorded and then finally gave a small mention of his work during the Civil War: Hojo put his passion for science to use during the Gaian Civil War, where he personally oversaw much of the medical supervision/training for SOLDIER at President Shin-Ra's invitation.
Medical 'training?' What?
That was all they had, ending with a sob story about Hojo's unfortunate heart attack after the war. Cloud shrugged and walked over to the display case. Inside were some of Hojo's personal things including a set of nasty-looking tools that came with the caption Hojo used tools like these when giving routine SOLDIER examinations or performing his personal experiments in his free time.
He snapped a quick picture of it as well as the pin containing a lock of his hair—ew—and his glasses. There was even a singular sheet of paper that seemed to be documenting some procedure of some sort. Cloud bent over the display case to peer at the tiny, cramped cursive.
Tolerance is unfortunately growing…resistance to…3.5mL…withdrawal of…Mako-related illness…
Cloud frowned and took another picture so he could analyze it further when he had more time.
"Jenn told me we had a young history student here. We don't often get visitors to our humble museum."
It took all of Cloud's willpower to not whirl around guiltily. He made himself relax from the tense pose he froze in at a familiar male voice and slowly looked over like he hadn't noticed the man there.
"We don't allow photography."
Nero was tall and wore a dark suit with a light blue tie—he had messy black hair and blood red eyes (contacts, he hoped) that were narrowed in displeasure.
"Oh, sorry—I didn't know."
They narrowed further. "You are the young man I spoke to on the phone last week, aren't you?" he asked. "Sky or something, was it?"
Cloud did not answer.
"No—Cloud?" Something in the blond's face must have confirmed it because Nero sighed and moved closer. Cloud took a small step back, wary; the man did not seem pleased. Nero draped his arm over Cloud's shoulder and tugged the shorter man to his side. Cloud shoved his phone deep in his pocket just in the case the man would try to take it.
"He's fascinating, isn't he?" Nero asked as he pulled and steered Cloud out of the room and back down the long, dizzying kaleidoscope of a hallway.
Nero's arm grew tighter and tighter with each passing step and Cloud grunted, wrapping his hand around Nero's wrist and pulling so he wouldn't get choked.
"Brother," Nero called as they emerged into the large, empty lobby. Jenn, the receptionist he had gotten along with earlier, watched them with wide eyes that grew even more so when she saw how Nero was unsubtly trying to cut off Cloud's air supply with his arm.
To Cloud's horror Weiss Hojo was leaning against a far wall, arms crossed. The man looked big in a picture he saw on the HSF homepage but in real life he was terrifying—he was taller than Nero, even, and his suit was pulled tight over his body. His white hair was even more outlandish than Nero's. He sauntered over to them like a tiger, all quiet, corded muscle, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce.
"This is Cloud," Nero introduced, coming to an abrupt stop and pulling his arm tight, nearly knocking the blond off-balance. Cloud stopped his quiet struggling and glared at Nero, his jaw set.
"It's so nice to see someone interested in our great-grandfather," Weiss said, and his voice was deep like Cloud's late grandpa's but the kind that promised pain and not comfort or whiskery kisses. He did not seem cowed by the identical glare the unafraid blond sent his way.
"Why are you doing this?" Cloud demanded.
"Doing what?" Nero asked innocently as he pulled Cloud a little closer like Reno or Firion would do but with considerably more force.
"I doubt that any other foundation around here would care so much that a grad student is looking into their namesake," Cloud deadpanned, looking Weiss in the eye, "What don't you want me to know about Hojo?"
Neither of them, it seemed, expected Cloud to be so direct. The blond had no room for bullshit at this point, however; not with Sephiroth Crescent counting on his answers. Nero's arm relaxed for a moment and Cloud slipped out of his hold. It was for naught because Weiss then grabbed him and he was stronger than his brother, pulling Cloud out of the building like he was nothing more than a slight nuisance.
"The HSF is an open book," Weiss said pleasantly, but he shoved Cloud out the front door so hard the blond fell to his knees and scraped the palms of his hands on the sidewalk. "It is a shame we don't have any more information to give you. Have a nice day." He smiled and then hissed, teeth bared like an animal, "Don't come back."
Cloud jumped to his feet and made eye contact with Jenn inside; she was covering her mouth with one hand and looked horrified. Then, slightly embarrassed, he flipped Weiss and Nero off with both hands, stuck his nose in the air and marched himself away with all the remaining dignity he could muster.
Once safely back on the subway he checked his pockets and bag to make sure he still had everything and frowned to himself as he blew on his palms to lessen the stinging. This was far beyond suspicious behavior—Nero and Weiss were definitely hiding something big about Hojo. And what was all that about Mako-related illness…?
This mystery was growing more complicated by the minute.
Only two subway stops away from where he got off for the Hojo Science Foundation headquarters was a small museum devoted to the Civil War. (It was, Cloud was sure, considerably larger than the sorry excuse for one about Hojo he had just visited.) As Midgar and the surrounding area was the site of many a battle, after all, there were many in the city to supplement the big nationally-funded ones that tourists frequented.
This one in particular Cloud had not visited in about two years and it was close, so why not? Funded by the descendants of prominent SOLDIERs the 4th Street Gaian Civil War Museum was tiny but had a really great collection of artifacts and information. Cloud walked inside and immediately went to the restroom to wash his slightly bloody palms off. He dabbed at the heels of his hands with a paper towel, wincing, and for the tenth time wondered what the hell the Hojos' problem was; there was no need to get violent.
When he emerged he gave the two-story building a quick tour, stopping for a while at a life-sized enlarged photo, now digitally colored, of Sephiroth. It was still so hard to sync the classic images in front of him with the translucent figure he saw every evening.
There was nothing on Hojo unfortunately—this museum in particular was more focused on SOLDIER. If Hojo was somehow involved with SOLDIER medically, however…where was all the info on him?
Switching gears, Cloud began hunting for anything related to the Turks. He wasn't exactly sure what they did or what they were, even; little was known about them, a special operations unit for the government at the time of the war. Whose side were they on? Did people like Sephiroth interact directly with them?
There was a dorky sandy-haired boy nervously walking around; he had a nametag and a blue collared polo shirt, some kind of employee. Cloud walked by him at least five times during his thorough look-over of the building. There were only a few other visitors and Cloud could tell the kid was fidgeting and watching him half the time.
Eventually Cloud gave a little mental sigh and walked over to him; the man stood up straight and looked a little panicked.
"Hi," Cloud said with a smile.
"H-Hi," the employee—Luxiere, going by his nametag—stuttered, "Do you have a question about the museum?"
"Kind of. I don't know if you'll be able to help me with it…"
"I can try." Luxiere was blushing, bless him—a gangly, gay (by the looks of it), history nerd. "And even if I can't I can put in an inquiry for you—we have connections to the other museums in the city! Someone is bound to know."
"Okay." Cloud smiled gently and willed the kid to calm down. "I'm working on a First Class thesis and—"
"Oh wow," Luxiere breathed.
"—and I'm looking for more information about the Turks."
Luxiere frowned. "The Turks?"
"Yep. Actually, I'm looking in to the deaths of Sephiroth, Zack Fair, Angeal Hewley and Genesis Rhapsodos and I don't want to leave anything overturned."
"That's awesome," Luxiere gushed. "Do you go to MU?"
"Yup. I'm going to be a junior in the fall. This is my summer job, haha."
"There could be worse summer jobs, I guess."
Luxiere nodded. "I don't think we have much on Turks here. To tell you the truth I'm not sure what you'll get from the other places in town either but we can try." Luxiere led him upstairs and they checked out a few of the smaller displays but still nothing. Cloud's expression must have been disappointed enough to move the younger man because Luxiere nervously glanced around and whispered to him, "Hold on a sec. I'll check in the back for you."
They went back downstairs and Cloud waited awkwardly by the life-sized Sephiroth as Luxiere disappeared into an 'employees only' room for a good ten minutes. He returned eventually shaking his head and looking apologetic. "Sorry," he said, "We've got nothing. I'll put in that request for you though, alright?"
"Okay. That sounds great. Thanks, Luxiere."
"No, uh, no problem." Luxiere looked down at his feet for a second and then fixed the blond with a determined look. "You could give me your number so I could tell you when it's in?"
Resisting the urge to smile Cloud let him down gently: "How 'bout I give you my email? It'll be easier to reach me that way, promise."
"Oh…yeah, of course."
Luxiere grabbed a piece of paper from the front desk downstairs and Cloud scribbled his name and email address down. "Thanks for your help. They're tough to track down."
"Yeah, I bet. I haven't really read a lot about them—the Turks were advisors, right? Or something?"
"Something like that. I don't even know myself."
He talked for a few more minutes, Luxiere preening under all the attention from the attractive, older man who had come to visit along with the elderly tourists in the rest of the building, and when Cloud left he had even more questions than he had upon arriving. Even museums about SOLDIER had nothing on the Turks—who were they? Why did Sephiroth keep saying they were so important? For that matter, why was there so little on Hojo if he supposedly dealt closely with SOLDIER?
He had no answers, and he was beginning to think that there were none in the entirety of Midgar.
When he told Sephiroth what happened at the HSF the man was not happy. "You shouldn't endanger yourself," he scolded, arms crossed over his chest.
"You endangered yourself all the time."
"That's different. I'm enhanced."
Sephiroth gave him a blank look. "Pardon?"
"You just said you were…enhanced?"
Sephiroth's face contorted in confusion and he shook his head. "I don't know—sorry. Are you hurt?" He stepped closer and Cloud held out his hands for inspection. Sephiroth got very close, a little too close.
"Sephiroth," Cloud asked curiously as the ghost deemed his hands okay and stepped back, "Did you need reading glasses?"
"I did," Sephiroth answered like it just occurred to him. "I see far better than average across long distances, but as a result I'm farsighted."
Cloud explained what he learned in the Hojo museum—not much—and briefly mentioned the 4th street museum he visited too, leaving out the part about flirting with an infatuated undergrad to get the information he wanted. Zilch.
"And you found nothing on the Turks?" Sephiroth clarified. Cloud said no and Sephiroth repeated himself for the umpteenth time: "They're important, Cloud."
"I know, I know." Cloud bit his lip in thought.
Sephiroth sighed, frustrated at how poorly their search was going, "What will we do?"
Cloud hung his head. He then put his hands on his lower back and looked up at the sky, then glanced at Sephiroth a few times. Sephiroth had enough of Cloud's dramatic indecisive routine and asked, "What is it?"
"It's…" Cloud scrubbed at his face with his hands. "I think I might know a guy."
Sephiroth did not ask who but trusted Cloud to follow up. Shrugging and changing the subject, he suggested that they might as well continue with the normal routine of working through his biography.
"Yeah," Cloud said, relieved, "We can do that—oh, hang on, I left it in my car." Cloud deposited the rest of his stuff on his convenient chair and beckoned for Sephiroth to follow him. "I think we're up to the time you met Genesis and the others. You feel up for it?"
Cloud trooped across the field which was now mostly dry but still muddy in a few shallow holes due to a spritz up here a few days previous that had not reached the city. The moon was waning but it was still bright enough to see without the aid of his flashlight—the stars and atmosphere provided a lovely light greenish glow over everything. His car was parked where it usually was, half on the road and half off a couple hundred feet away just in case someone happened to drive by.
Sephiroth evenly kept pace behind him, quiet as always. Instead of wobbling on the uneven terrain or needing to haul himself over fox hills or such he almost glided over the ground. Cloud, slightly out of breath as he shook a snaggly weed off his boot, was not impressed.
"I also took some pictures of the stuff at the HSF," Cloud said over his shoulder as he pulled ahead of Sephiroth, "Maybe you'll be able to make more sense out of it than I can." He reached his car, unlocked it with the button on his keys and crawled into the backseat to grab his trusty book. "Ignore the mess, I've been travelling in this thing a lot lately."
He climbed out, shut the door and turned around, expecting to see Sephiroth behind him but instead saw him about fifty feet away waiting patiently with his hands in his pockets as always.
"Sephiroth?" Cloud called.
He hurried back over. "Is something wrong?"
"I cannot go any farther."
"Huh?" Cloud looked down at the few feet of space separating them. "You can't?"
Understanding dawned slowly; he supposed Sephiroth was confined to haunt a certain space, like ghosts in movies or on TV who could not leave the house they died in. "…Okay," he admitted, "I'm curious."
They dropped the book off on Cloud's chair in the middle of the field and returned to the outside edge. Sephiroth once again stopped walking when he could go no farther and Cloud stood opposite him. "Pick a direction," Cloud said with a smile, "Let's see where you can go."
Sephiroth obediently started walking to the right and Cloud stayed parallel to him. They continued for a while until Sephiroth abruptly changed directions before they hit the forest. Cloud hurried to catch up. It was not a perfect rectangle, the area in which Sephiroth was imprisoned, but it was similar. Occasionally Sephiroth stopped to put out his hands and felt the air, sometimes pressing—the 'skin' of his hands did not flatten with pressure but he nevertheless seemed to have encountered some kind of wall. He walked sideways like this, hands out and searching, when the shape of their rectangle grew convoluted.
They eventually made it all the way around to where they started. Cloud whistled. "Wow. You haven't left this area since the day you died. What is that like?"
"I was fine with it until you came along," Sephiroth quipped. "Now it frustrates me that I cannot go with you when you leave every evening."
Cloud did not know what to say to that. He fell quiet for a minute until he had an idea. "Hey, Sephiroth? Do you mind if we do a few more experiments? I've wondered about a few things but never thought it was appropriate to ask."
"Sure. What did you have in mind?"
Cloud held up a hand, and after a beat Sephiroth did too. He splayed his fingers out and Cloud studied them for a moment—long and narrow. The outline of Sephiroth's form was hard to see depending on the light but he could see the general shape of them; he knew they were there. After shooting the man a hesitant glance he pushed their palms together.
It felt like nothing at all. Cloud retracted his hand a few inches and did it again; still nothing. Sephiroth tried to twine their fingers together—they passed right through but something about it made Cloud's breath catch regardless.
"No luck," Cloud said, a bit shakily. He removed his hand and abruptly sunk his fist into Sephiroth's middle. The ghost just stared at him.
"It was worth a shot. Can you touch anything at all? Ghosts are supposed to make pictures fall off the wall or mess with lights, right?"
Sephiroth looked around for a moment for a suitable object, found none, and then asked Cloud to pull out his phone. Cloud held it out. He showed Sephiroth briefly how they worked a few days ago. Sephiroth shuffled closer and stared very, very hard at the phone. Cloud waited.
For another half a minute Sephiroth did nothing but stare, but then he extended a single finger. The small button that unlocked his screen depressed when the ghostly fingertip touched it, and the device's previously dark screen burst into brightness.
"Wow," Cloud whispered.
Sephiroth moved his hand away and gave Cloud a smile. "That was exhausting."
"That was awesome. Can you do anything else?"
"I don't know…possess people?"
Cloud had been joking but Sephiroth's face contorted in determination again and he took two rapid steps forward. "Woah," Cloud began to protest, but he stopped talking, closed his eyes and tensed as Sephiroth's face swam out of focus.
He cracked them back open after a moment; his vision was silvery and distorted, like he was looking at the world in a fun house mirror. It took him a moment to realize he was not possessed but Sephiroth's feet were planted in the same place as Cloud's.
"What are you doing?" Cloud squawked. Sephiroth chuckled and his voice sounded like it was coming from inside his head—because it was, kind of.
"Get out of me," Cloud ordered, "This is weird."
Sephiroth took a step back, out of Cloud's space and out of his body and Cloud shuddered—he had goosebumps again. "Alright, so no possession," he muttered.
His curiosity still high Cloud got his metal jack for a flat tire and stabbed Sephiroth in the heart with it. The iron did not make him dissipate but he said it felt 'weird' so Cloud quickly got rid of it. There was a small packet of salt in his cup holder from a fast food run the day before and he sprinkled it on the ghost: nothing.
They played around with touching some more—nothing, though Sephiroth said he would try some other day when he had more energy to touch Cloud the same way he had pressed the button on his phone. Cloud found himself laughing and was pleased that Sephiroth was actually being funny today—General Crescent had a sense of humor, who knew? He was always described as being so serious.
When Cloud was at least momentarily satisfied they trooped back so Cloud could sit in his chair and Sephiroth could sit on the ground. Cloud answered yet another text from Seifer and when Sephiroth asked he worked up the nerve to confess that Seifer was a guy that he was kind-of-maybe into. Sephiroth did not seem disgusted or turned off by such a candid discussion of something so taboo when he was alive; he treated Cloud to a few small stories of Genesis.
Cloud eventually got out of his chair and joined Sephiroth in sitting on the ground—it was dry enough for it. He leant back on his hands, Sephiroth did too, and they looked off in the direction opposite the town; the planet stretched out in front of them endless and green. Even though Sephiroth was trapped in this field like this it didn't seem that way with his walls made of air. Did a goldfish think it was free too until it bumped into the glass walls of its tank?
"We almost got caught kissing by our drill sergeant," Sephiroth was telling him about his exciting time at the academy. Cloud chuckled along as he imagined a young Sephiroth and Genesis sneaking around and getting up to no good. Sephiroth's expression was calm and soft as he looked up at the sky and spoke about his beloved—his feelings were infectious and Cloud felt calm and a little bit loving as well.
He glanced over when Sephiroth said something particularly funny and became distracted by Sephiroth's hand—it rested inside his. If Sephiroth had been solid their fingers would be tightly entwined.
With a last smile Cloud let his worries about Weiss and Nero and the Turks wash away and was content to sit—even if not physically—next to his hero.
The very same brunet who Cloud had been largely avoiding ever since this class began looked up from his notebook quickly as Cloud stood in front of his desk the next morning. Reno and Yuffie were giving him laser eyes, had been ever since he abandoned their conversation a minute earlier to amble over to his ex-boyfriend on the opposite side of the room.
Squall said nothing but gave Cloud an attentive look, his usual manufactured boredness nowhere to be found. Cloud frowned and found it a lot easier to look at the man's notebook instead of his face. It was covered in notes. Very clearly and underlined twice with a red pen a third of the way down the open page were the words the Turks?
"I need your help with something," Cloud murmured, nervously tapping his fingers against the desktop. "Would you mind meeting with me after class? It won't be long."
Squall swallowed and then gave a slow nod. "Yeah," he said softly, focusing his gaze out the window, "Sure, okay."
Cloud moved back to his seat and sank down into it, avoiding his friends' probing looks. Squall was the last person he wanted to ask for help but Sephiroth was growing impatient. Gaia-damn it, but this had better be worth it.
This chapter was posted as part 6/9 of my 'Cloud's Birthday Week 2k14' challenge over on tumblr. :)
When class ended Cloud led Squall down the hall and away from the prying eyes and eavesdropping ears of their classmates. Somehow everyone in class had figured out that the two of them were meeting up to 'talk' after class ended and like a bunch of drama-starved vultures they were trying to get up in their business.
They entered an empty classroom that looked like no one had been in it since the spring semester ended; Cloud cracked open a few windows for something to do as Squall settled on the teacher's desk, backpack slung over one shoulder. Cloud got the message: make this quick, I have things to do, and I'm entertaining you only out of politeness.
Sighing, Cloud moved closer to Squall and crossed his arms, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "Look," he began, frowning at the door to the classroom as a fellow student of theirs walked by, peering in the glass 'inconspicuously' at them before moving on, "I don't want to bug you. I wouldn't be bothering you like this if I didn't really need your help with something."
Cloud gripped the straps of his own backpack and nervously pulled at the nylon straps that adjusted the tightness. It was hard to frame exactly why he needed Squall's help without sounding like a crazy person.
"It's my thesis," the blond said finally. "I'm stuck on something and it's really important." He finally made eye contact with Squall to convey the gravity of what he was saying—even Squall had rarely seen him so serious. The brunet sat a little straighter.
"I need more information on the Turks…among other things. I know you're not an expert on them in particular but I figured you could help me at least a little."
Squall did not answer and Cloud swallowed his pride. "Squall," he pleaded, "Please understand—I wouldn't ask this of you if you weren't my last option."
The brunet closed his eyes and his expression contorted like Cloud was annoying him to no end. He eventually muttered, "I guess I can help you a little." Louder, he asked, "What do you need me to do?"
"I—ah, don't know." Cloud had not thought about what Squall would need to do for him specifically, choosing instead to ask the man before he lost his nerve. The look his ex sent him made him feel awfully stupid. "It's—would you be able to meet at the library this weekend?"
"I guess. Saturday morning?"
"Ah, I can't do that." He had a lunch date with Seifer, actually, but there was no way in hell he was going to tell Squall that. "What about Sunday morning instead?"
"Okay." They both stood in awkward silence for a moment. "Well…thanks again. I'm going to need anything on the Turks you can get—and Barnaby Hojo too, if you've got it. I'll tell you more about it when we meet on Sunday. Thanks, man." Squall just nodded his head so Cloud turned and started walking out of the room. The brunet stopped him.
"I don't want you to think that anything will change between us," Squall drawled , faking his usual cool. He was visibly uncomfortable. "I'm just helping you as a colleague."
Asshole, Cloud thought. He fixed Squall with a glare. Just before they broke up Cloud had been largely unwilling to hurt Squall's feelings and so was something of a doormat until he finally snapped; no longer. He would not let Squall bully him.
"Of course not," he replied coolly. "Thanks again."
He turned on his heel and strode out of the room, the building, and off campus. It was not until he arrived home that he faced the truth—he was doing exactly what he promised himself he would never do: interact again with that jerk.
It was for his own sanity, really; doing anything more than ignoring or staring listlessly at Squall in class brought back too many memories, both good and bad. Squall, frustrated with him today, acting like he was not as angry or affected as he actually was—there had been plenty of that in their last few days and that was unsettlingly familiar, made Cloud ache with a swimmy sort of déjà vu.
Late that night a tight knot of stress simmered low in his stomach. Anger boiled softly somewhere beneath it. This was not how it was supposed to happen—damn it, his thesis was not supposed to involve Squall (or ghosts for that matter!) in any way at all. Sephiroth did not realize what Cloud was sacrificing for him, for their plan.
Still—for Sephiroth, at least, even if no one else, Cloud was prepared to do it, or at least give his best shot.
The next morning, Saturday, Cloud let himself sleep in for the first time in a long while. Ever since discovering Sephiroth out in that battlefield he was extraordinarily busy, balancing his normal life with studying, class work, and now almost daily road trips out to Nibelheim which ate up his hours and left him exhausted and on the verge of nodding off behind his steering wheel. It was a good kind of busy but, he supposed, it was good to take some time for yourself.
So, he slept in. He stayed in the shower for ages once he could lounge around in bed no longer and emerged with his skin tingly and pink, the skin of his fingertips raisined. He took the time to choose his outfit with care and relaxed on his couch after as his hair air-dried. It took some conscious effort but he did not let himself think about the Civil War, Turks, Hojo, or even Sephiroth. Then, to add to the morning of doing things selfishly for himself, he went on a date.
This time it was undoubtedly a date with Seifer; they met casually a couple of times with good results and now they were meeting for lunch at a place a little nicer than the few small cafes they visited together.
Cloud had not been on a real date, not pampered himself since he broke up with Squall. He felt he deserved it.
An hour and a half later he sat down at an intimate table at a small restaurant serving classic Icicle cuisine and smiled at Seifer who was already there and squinting his eyes at the menu like it was purposefully being difficult. They greeted each other a tad shyly and Cloud noticed that Seifer's hair was slicked back again except for a few stubborn strands near his forehead. It made him look a bit goofy, like a seventh-grader at his first dance.
"You look nice," Cloud murmured with a mischievous smile, and he stood back up out of the chair he just sat down in, leaned over the table, and mussed up Seifer's hair with one of his hands. Satisfied he sat down and wiped his hand free of product on his napkin while the other blond looked owlishly back at him.
"Thanks," he said after a beat, apparently confused.
Seifer did not ask anything about Squall thankfully. Instead they talked more about school, since it was what they had in common. Seifer was working on his Second Class degree, not First Class like Cloud, having taken a few years off from school like a sane person to work full-time. It was hard for Cloud to wrap his mind around things like space, meteorites and black holes—managing the ghost thing was putting enough strain on his poor brain.
"So a few of us are keeping track of this meteor shower that happened near Junon about seventy years ago," Seifer was saying, "but that's just the busy work Quistis is giving us, really. Have you ever heard of stop materia?"
Cloud shook his head, amused.
Seifer waxed on about supposed magic from years gone by that somehow connected to a really complicated fringe theory about physics and time-space. Eventually they moved on and between gushing about how good the unpronounceable food was they gossiped about celebrities they did not care about and their classmates (with one notable brown-haired exception).
Cloud noticed, after Seifer realized that there were intestines in the meal he'd ordered and had something of a minor freak-out before forcing himself to take a trembling, wincing bite to save face, that he and the other blond were extremely comfortable around each other; maybe even a little too much so. With most of his past boyfriends, his two girlfriends earlier on in life, and certainly Squall, he never felt such strong vibes of friendship. Of course it was necessary to be friends with anyone you dated long-term; there had to be a hell of a lot more than sexual attraction, after all. Hanging with Seifer felt a lot like hanging with a male Tifa or something though…and Cloud had no idea what that meant or if it was good or not.
When they finished eating Cloud paid the check and they moved outside. They ambled together to Cloud's car, still enjoying each other's presence, and talked while leaning against it for a few more minutes, the hot sun making their faces flushed and their upper lips bead with sweat.
Cloud had prepared for this, of course—he was showered and clean and prepared for however their afternoon went. He was due to meet Sephiroth that evening but the rest of his day was free; he'd bought condoms and a discreet bottle of lube for whoever now sat in his nightstand in the off chance that things went that way.
He let the warm sun and the feeling of the whole day, the feelings of freedom and self-indulgence, make him loose and affectionate as he crowded close to Seifer. He kept their conversation going but through a series of light touches to the man's sides and gentle herding he pushed Seifer back against the car, almost uncomfortably warm in the sun, and pressed their hips together firmly enough to cage him there but not enough to be lewd—they were in a public space, after all.
Their conversation gave way to soft murmurs and smiles as Cloud leant in. The fingers of one of Seifer's hands slid up from the nape of Cloud's neck into the soft hair above it and Cloud gave a low hum of appreciation. Their lips were almost touching, with soft, amused puffs of breath in the small space between them.
Cloud finally took the initiative and made those last few millimeters disappear. Their lips met, gentle and soft, tentative—but only for a moment.
They both drew back. They both frowned.
Seifer's eyebrows drew together, the hand in Cloud's hair twisted a bit tighter and he pulled Cloud up so they could kiss again.
Ten seconds was about all they managed before Cloud had to take a step back, out of Seifer's space. The blonds shared identical looks of utter confusion.
"What the hell?" Seifer asked.
Cloud rubbed his lips harshly with his knuckle as if trying to see if there was something wrong with them. There wasn't, but that did not explain why his kisses with Seifer were so… boring was not the word, and neither was dull, but they were close. Kissing Seifer was like kissing the back of his palm, or Aerith that one time when they were tipsy at a Yule party.
Their sexual chemistry was zero.
Seifer started laughing, partly out of amusement and partly out of embarrassment and Cloud could not help but join in. "My God," the other blond said, a palm smooshed across his cheek and mouth, mortified.
"I'll be honest. I didn't think that was going to happen."
"Me neither." Seifer crossed his arms and squinted at him. "You're hot. Why did that suck so much?"
Cloud shrugged. They looked helplessly at each other and then laughed some more, sliding out of awkwardness and back into the comfortable thing they had back during lunch. Cloud confessed, "During lunch I was actually thinking about how friendly we are—like significantly more so than anyone else I've dated."
Seifer considered that, swishing his mouth. Finally he asked, "So I guess we're just…bros?"
Laughing, Cloud gave an affirmative. "Bummer," Seifer said. He did not look disappointed for long though. "Hey, at least we gave it a shot."
After that things were easy again. They talked a few minutes more but became increasingly aware of the hot sun and that their shirts becoming stained with sweat and bade each other farewell before anyone passed out from the heat. It was a little disappointing, yeah, but strangely Cloud, like Seifer, was not upset. He still had a kickass new friend out of the whole ordeal—they were planning to hang out again soon with absolutely no romantic or physical overtones whatsoever. In retrospect they should have seen this coming; he got far more friend vibes than boyfriend ones from Seifer anyway.
As amusing as the whole situation was, and as cool with it as he was at the moment, by that evening he was pissed off. Seifer was supposed to be his first step at finally getting over Squall, at moving on and forming a healthy relationship with someone else. That was clearly not going to happen.
Frustrated at himself and the world in general he drove to Nibelheim with little of the excitement he usually did. He had not gone the evening before as Rufus had some source-related assignments due that he foolishly pushed off. Sephiroth needed updates but for the first time Cloud did not feel like facing the ghost today.
"Are you alright?" Sephiroth asked as soon as Cloud crossed that invisible barrier that the ghost couldn't cross, waiting for him as soon as the car shifted into park back on the road.
"Fine," Cloud grunted, the heavy plastic beach chair bumping against his ankles as he lugged it across the grass. He set up all his stuff in the middle of the field and sank into it, moodily fishing his lantern out of his backpack. When he looked up Sephiroth stood before him with his arms crossed, looking at the blond with a critical expression.
Cloud instantly flushed with shame. "Sorry," he said, rubbing the back of his neck and looking off to the right, "I just had a weird day. I'm kind of in a bad mood."
Sephiroth sat on the ground, ignoring all of his materials, and the look he fixed him with was laser-focused, intense, like what was bothering Cloud was far more important than solving any mystery. The blond felt doubly ashamed of his attitude and humbled in a way he couldn't explain.
"Do you remember that date I told you about the other day? With this guy named Seifer?" Sephiroth nodded. "Well, that was today. It was fun but we realized pretty definitively that we can't be anything other than friends." Cloud shrugged one shoulder. "I mean, we're fine and all—but I was kinda disappointed, I guess."
Sephiroth did not act like Cloud's worries were insignificant. He nodded sincerely, his eerie, slitted, translucent pupils still honed in on Cloud's face. The blond shifted, a bit uncomfortable and unsettled from the gaze. "Sorry," he said again, to fill the silence between them. "I'm not usually so dramatic."
"Don't worry," Sephiroth told him easily. His hands curled around the ankle area of his boots as he leant in a bit, maybe subconsciously. "I used to get angry very easily. In fact, I think I was almost always irritated about something. Genesis was even worse." A strange expression crossed his face. "As time went on everyone got worse—Angeal and Zack too." He frowned and blinked a few times as if working through a murky memory. "…Anyway—I've spent enough time here to get over a lot of it. In fact, it is hard to conjure…especially as I've forgotten most of the reasons why I was incensed in the first place."
Cloud nodded along. It made sense.
"But you're mortal. Be as angry as you want."
The blond chuckled quietly. "Okay," he said bashfully. He appreciated the attempt to cheer him up, even if it was slightly awkward.
"So you and—Seifer?—are merely 'friends' now?"
"Yup. We kissed and it was like, I don't know—kissing your mom. Totally platonic and weird."
"I find it hard to remember what kissing felt like." Sephiroth tapped his own lips. The bottom one flattened and spread under the gentle pressure of his fingers and Cloud stared—the ghost was able to touch himself, it seemed, but only anything else after considerable effort and expended energy on his part.
"It's too bad you're a ghost—I can't show you," Cloud replied absently. He stiffened as soon as he said it, his words lingering in the air. He looked up; Sephiroth was looking at him curiously, his eyes, as always, too much for Cloud to meet head-on for very long. The moment dragged on, awkward for Cloud, and eventually he coughed and moved on, thankful the night was dark and that the redness of his cheeks could not be seen. "So, I talked to the guy who will help us with the Turks. We're meeting up tomorrow."
"It's—" Cloud floundered for something to say, noticing Sephiroth was still staring weirdly, "It's not good actually."
Rubbing his forehead with his knuckles, Cloud responded, "…Our help. It's my ex."
Sephiroth said nothing, but the strange, electric, slightly amused air from earlier disappeared. "Yeah," Cloud said with a sigh. "Also part of the reason I was so mad today. He's a Civil War historian too. Out of all the people I know he's the most likely to help us get answers but…" He wrung his hands. "I just really wish it didn't have to be him."
"You don't have to consult him, Cloud."
The blond looked up, surprised. Sephiroth looked honest; he was, what, willing to delay solving the mystery for Cloud's comfort?
"No. Don't worry. It's fine."
The ghost regarded him evenly. "We can try something else if we must."
"It's really okay. I want us to solve this, Sephiroth. It—I can be professional about this. My issues with Squall won't get in the way."
"That's not what I'm worried about."
Cloud fell silent. Sephiroth continuously threw him off-kilter. They thankfully soon switched to a more comfortable topic, that of research, and Cloud read Sephiroth another chapter of his biography. Sephiroth lay down on his back with his arms pillowing his head, staring blankly at the void of stars above as Cloud did so. He was quiet today, commenting only when something was misquoted or inaccurate, but the disdainful way he did each time made Cloud smile.
Three-fourths of the way through something occurred to Cloud. He lowered the book and moved the flashlight away it, drawing with it a few pesky gnats. "Sephiroth," he said, looking down at the reclining man, "We've been talking for almost two hours."
Sephiroth merely raised an eyebrow at him.
"I mean," Cloud fumbled, "The first few times we met you lasted less than five minutes."
Sephiroth did not turn his head to look at him; he gazed at the sky as he replied candidly, "Being with you gives me energy. Every time you leave I feel stronger. I'm gaining more than just my memories."
Cloud sat still, a little numb. "Oh," he said. For some reason he could not tear his eyes away—Sephiroth lying there in his neatly pressed military suit, shimmering and glowing silvery-white in the darkness, not tangible but present all the same.
Those eyes finally met his and they stared at each other for a long moment. Then Sephiroth smiled.
The blond gave a shy one back and crept the book back up to block his view. "Alright," he said, clearing his throat, "From November to December that year…"
Going into this Cloud knew it was a bad idea, but now with Squall sitting beside him at a table at Midgar Library and making a horrific bitchface at yet another thing the blond said he knew it was a Bad Idea.
If only he could go back 16 hours and accept Sephiroth's words about not using Squall for help and finding some other way instead! Saying he would muscle through for the ghost's sake and actually doing the muscling through were apparently two very different things. Firstly Squall was unhappy to see him, looking grumpy and tired. The library was chosen because it was a nice, neutral place but Cloud had a feeling he was not the only one suddenly plagued with memories of them doing their Second Class theses here a couple years back, reading books together on the couches and kissing in a back research corner no one ever visited. It made Cloud itchy and irritated.
Secondly Cloud was doing a poor job of explaining the Turk situation. Unfortunately Squall was unwilling to be his research slave and do his bidding without sufficient background info, the nosy piece of shit (though honestly he would do the same if he was in that position). When Squall asked why Cloud wanted to know about the Turks Cloud said something vague along the lines of they seem interesting, now please shut up and read, and when Squall was displeased with that answer and asked again a few minutes later Cloud avoided it by talking about his thesis instead, about how he was investigating the deaths of Sephiroth, Angeal, Zack and Genesis. Squall saw through it and then asked what Turks had to do with any of that and Cloud ground out, "They're important, okay? I just have…a feeling."
"A feeling," Squall said flatly.
Much to the brunet's irritation Cloud was unwilling to provide more information (and Cloud was a sweaty mess as he freaked out internally about the possibility of being asked more questions). They mucked through various books, some from places Cloud had not thought to look himself. Squall even cracked open a few old articles saved to his computer that he read to himself, speaking only if he found anything good, just to be an asshole.
It was slow going, tedious work, and at the end of three hours—all they could stand—there was little to show for it. They did learn a few small things, however. A few letters written by President Shin-Ra mentioned them: "my secret services, the Turks"; "Rod, the Turk, visited me yesterday with his partner Shuriken"; and there were a few more afterthoughts, of meetings, public or private, with Turks.
"So I'll see you in class tomorrow?" Cloud asked quietly as they packed up in previously tense silence.
Wordlessly they left the library together and split up outside it—Squall, to his car and Cloud, to the subway.
Their meeting left him pissed off again and a mess of emotions, mostly negative. Still their progress, although small, fueled a small fire of determination in his belly. Now there were even more questions and a few names (Rod, Shuriken? Probably pseudonyms) and he could not wait to delve deeper into it.
…Just, not with Squall. This was proving even more stressful than he anticipated.
That night he did not see Sephiroth, working on more homework for Rufus. That first day he failed to visit he was a wreck, convinced Sephiroth would think he was abandoning him. Several times the ghost reassured him that his homework was important, however, and that an additional night on his own would hardly kill him. Increasingly Cloud found himself missing the ghost's company when he was not with him and he didn't like it at all, but the man was right—it made no sense to flunk out of the class he was putting in all this work for.
He made spaghetti for dinner and ate it cross-legged on his living room floor surrounded by his work and the seven-page paper that had to be twelve before he went to bed. He was nearing the bottom of page ten, empty dishes lying nearby, when he received a phone call.
The number was instantly recognizable despite Cloud long ago deleting the corresponding contact information. "Hello?" he answered after a thick swallow.
"Cloud," came Squall's usual drawl (and did he still have Cloud's number in his phone or had he also been unable to un-memorize it?). "There's a Turk museum."
The man certainly spared no pleasantries and got right to the point. "Seriously?"
"It's more like a small garage-type thing run by a descendant of somebody, nothing fantastic. It's a few hours away."
"What? No, I was just telling—"
"Squall," Cloud interrupted firmly, "You know more about them than I do. I need your help. I'll drive you after class. Please."
"…Okay…" The man finally agreed, sounding helpless.
"Alright. Good. Thank you."
"…Yeah." Squall sighed gustily, dramatically, but Cloud did not let himself be swayed or off-put. He no longer gave a shit if Squall was unhappy or uncomfortable. Solving this mystery was too damn important.
The next day Squall was still very clearly reluctant, sulked the whole way through class and refused to meet his eye. It was annoying. To make matters worse Reno and Yuffie kept bugging him about their class last Friday and how Cloud and his ex had that private discussion. Rufus also seemed to correctly gather, after just a quick glance at Cloud's paper, that it was written the night before. Class stretched on for ages, hot, stuffy and boring, and when it ended Cloud was in a terrible mood.
He shook off his friends and walked outside, attempting to catch up to Squall who slipped out as soon as class ended and was faster than Cloud remembered him being. Probably did not want to be seen walking across campus with him. Asshole.
He let out a grunt when he finally reached his car and spared barely a glance for the man leaning against the passenger side door. He climbed in, so did Squall, and began pulling out of the space. To his horror Reno and Yuffie were talking by Reno's car nearby—he made guilty eye contact with them through the windshield. Their jaws comically dropped and their heads followed him and Squall as he passed by, cringing and sinking down low to his steering wheel. Yikes.
As they pulled on to the main road his thigh began to vibrate, the two of them calling him, no doubt.
They were silent the entire forty-five minutes it took to get them out of the city in thick traffic. Squall had with him a printed sheet of directions, perhaps to avoid verbally telling Cloud which way to go. The brunet seemed content to fiddle with his phone and ignore him.
Once highways replaced the thick cluster of buildings and shops around them it was harder to be distracted by something other than his passenger so Cloud turned on the radio. Unthinkingly he turned it to Squall's favorite station, only realizing his mistake when the man glanced away from his device for a moment too long.
Their silence, uncomfortable on Cloud's part, dragged on. After merging onto another highway that they had to follow for the next hour and a half Cloud lasted a little longer but eventually gave up. "So," he sighed, paying very close attention to the road and not looking at his ex in the slightest, "What's up with you?"
"Anything cool or exciting happen in your life lately?"
Squall realized how frustrated his shitty answers were making Cloud and finally gave him something to work with. "I'm actually working at a new branch now in Sector 2. I co-manage it with Zell."
"Oh really? That's awesome." Cloud liked the men's fashion store Squall worked at in town to cover tuition costs but had not gone since the break-up. "How's he doing?"
"Good. His girlfriend is pregnant, actually… we found out two weeks ago."
"That's fantastic. Good for them."
On a slightly happier note the ride continued, both of them falling back to introspective quietness. The landscape outside transitioned to something like the outside edge of suburbs, peaceful but not nearly rural like Nibelheim.
"How's your thesis going?" He asked during a commercial break between songs.
"Fine, I guess. Better than Firion's, anyway."
Cloud made a noise of sympathy for his friend who nearly had a breakdown the previous weekend. "What's your topic?"
"Gunblades, actually—I got a look at one in Weaponsmaster last year. A special subunit of SOLDIER, SeeD, used them. Apparently a few Turks had interesting weapons, which is why I'm looking at them."
It took an additional hour but soon they arrived in a small town named Kalm. It was residential and didn't look like much, let alone the home of any so-called Turk museum. Squall said he was starving so they located a local pizza shop and sat across from each other as they ate, attempting conversation and royally failing. Vivid memories resurfaced of them seated at various similar pizzerias over the years, their legs hooked together under the table, making ridiculous eyes at each other and giggling at everything the other person said. Squall seemed to be just as affected as he, averting his eyes as he ate.
The elephant in the room had to be acknowledged at some point. That was not now, however.
The food took longer than expected to finish due to the owner coming over and good-naturedly asking what they were doing in town since he didn't recognize them (and Cloud was used to that kind of small-town behavior; it was the same way in Nibelheim). It took a while to exhaust talk of classes and research topics (Squall getting squinty-eyed and suspicious when Cloud talked about his own).
Eventually they managed to get on with their afternoon and took to the car again, this time driving a few blocks and parking outside of what was the 'museum.' Due to Squall's description Cloud was expecting something like a crappy garage converted into a freaky shrine to some great-great grandparent but the building was similar to other small businesses on the main street they were on; tiny, yes, but well-kept, with an apartment above the building where the owner probably lived. To the left was a pottery shop that sold Kalm 'souvenirs' and to the right was a laundromat.
The museum itself was understated with nothing but a small plaque near the door that said Unofficial Museum of the Investigation Sector of the General Affairs Department of Shin-Ra. What a mouthful.
A bell over the door jingled as they entered the small space. It was one floor and had the general layout of the other small businesses in the area, only instead of there being a kitchen or counter for ringing up purchases the floor was open to make room for clumsy handmade displays and small locked glass cases with artifacts inside. This was nothing compared even to the museum at the HSF but it was all designed with care; it spoke of someone both with an honest interest and way too much time on their hands.
A man came hurrying down from upstairs where the apartment was. He wore a cowboy hat and had his long brown hair in a ponytail and seemed overjoyed to see them.
"Howdy!" he greeted loudly, adjusting his shin-length brown coat as he came over to shake their hands. Squall looked instantly uncomfortable but shook it nonetheless, then retreated a few feet to quietly scowl at the man. "What brings y'all to my humble little exhibit?"
Cloud was a little overwhelmed himself. "Hey. We're both history students and working on our First Class Theses. I wanted to learn a little more about the Turks." He gestured around. "This seems like a great place."
"How'd you find out about it?" Irvine asked aggressively, eyes narrowing. Cloud frowned, alarmed, and looked at Squall.
The brunet shrugged. "I asked some of my old colleagues who have looked into the Turks before. Selphie Tilmitt?"
"Oh." A big, goofy smile spread on Irvine's face. "Selphie, right—how is she? She's so cute."
Cloud looked bewildered and Irvine glanced at the door before filling him in: "I try not to broadcast the fact I've got a Turk museum. There's people in the government who would shut me down. Not everyone wants their secrets to get out, y'know? So I use word-of-mouth."
"The Turks—their official name is the Shin-Ra Investigation Sector of the General Affairs Department—were something like…spies and security mixed into one. Nothing happened in Shin-Ra that they didn't know about. They were bodyguards to the President and monitored everything about him too. Shin-Ra higher-ups trusted them with everything."
"And how do you know this?" Squall asked, suspending his belief.
"My grandma's grandma's mom," Irvine said confidently. "Her name was Ellyse Kinneas—but her operative name was Shotgun. They weren't supposed to keep any records but she kept some letters under a floorboard in her room that my great-gram found after inheriting the house. Cool, huh?"
Irvine led them over to the wall near the door where he had a small poster with pictures and drawings of a bunch of people. He pointed his finger proudly at a blurry image of a woman with long brown hair a few shades lighter than his. "That's her," he said. "The other operatives I know about were Rod, Katana, Gun, Two Guns, Martial Arts, Knife and Shuriken. Their leader was a dude named Veld." He directed their attention to another fuzzy picture of Shotgun standing with her arm around a middle-aged man with reddish-brown hair and a scar on his face. They were smiling and both in that period's version of a suit.
The two visitors started at the beginning and worked their way around, Irvine happy to chatter on about the Turks. The man nervously stuttered that he preferred if Cloud did not take pictures, paranoid about the government finding out about it, so Cloud pulled out his notebook and took furious notes.
The Turks were even more involved with Shin-Ra than Cloud had thought. Shotgun's diary and kept letters from other Turks documented Turk initiatives regarding many of Shin-Ra's actions before the war, their choices to plant Mako reactors (she described in detail a hit she was assigned on an environmentalist who raised too big a ruckus about the installation of Mako Reactor 4). There was even a mention of Hojo in one, just in passing: I spent some time in Hojo's laboratory today. It makes me sick to stand guard over that man.
Irvine had a lot of information but it was by no means complete; his and Squall's heads swam with too many questions and not enough answers by the time they made their way through Irvine's entire small exhibit. The brunet was still yapping on about something about Turk uniforms but Cloud had to stop him.
"Do you have anything at all about Sephiroth? That's what I'm researching—his death."
The man frowned but then cocked his head. "Yeah," he said after a moment, "Actually—I do. It's upstairs; I didn't want to put it out. Let me go get it."
Cloud thanked him and when Irvine returned he had a single page of once-folded parchment that he held gingerly. "This is a weird one," the man said, and the other two men crowded around.
My dearest 'Shotgun,' the letter began, and it was November 15, the day Sephiroth and his friends were discovered dead, 'I write this to you in grave distress. You have probably heard the news by now. I will see you in a few days in Midgar, no doubt, once Wallace's surrender is accepted and the fighting ceases. I am now in Rocket Town, having just crossed the Nibel Mountains with 'Knife' and 'Two Guns.' Last night I was outside Nibelheim at the SOLDIER camp overseeing the festivities. Yes, I was there as it happened. You were right. You were right and it easily could have been prevented…I cannot help but feel at least partially responsible. The Turks should have stopped that man. Last night Sephiroth sought me out; it was just as we feared. I hid it as Sephiroth requested. It is such a shame Zack will never be able to use his new gift…I know they were all ecstatic about giving it to him.
I feel as if my heart is breaking. It is some small comfort to know I could do one last thing for Sephiroth and his friends before they died. They were friends to all of us.
I will tell you more when I next see you. Stay safe. Burn this after it reaches you.
Squall and Irvine seemed mildly curious but Cloud felt like the floor was moving beneath his feet. He almost staggered. "Irvine," he said breathlessly, "What does this mean? Is there any more?"
"No. Her diary doesn't have any entries after this for the next month and a half…and there aren't any more letters from Veld. What's wrong?"
Cloud was sweaty and felt a little faint. "I need this," he said firmly.
"Irvine. You don't understand—this is important."
"That's what you keep telling me," Squall interrupted, not helping him in the slightest. Cloud ignored him.
"You're positive that there isn't anything else related to Sephiroth in your collection?"
"No, man, I swear. This is it. Do you know what the hell they're talking about?"
"No," Cloud answered, pulling out his phone, "but I know someone who might." He snatched the letter out of Irvine's hand and snapped a quick picture before the man could stop him.
"Hey!" Irvine protested, grabbing it back, "Delete that—you're gonna get me caught or somethin', man!"
"I'm sorry, but I can't. We'll be in touch." He headed for the door and called over his shoulder, "Come on, Squall!" He darted for his car and got in, quickly programming his phone's GPS to give him driving directions to Nibelheim. It was a bit closer to go directly there via a different highway than to go back to Midgar and to Nibelhiem from there. He had more than enough gas to get there and back to the city later.
"Come on!" He bellowed out the window, and Squall finally got in, scowling at him and shrugging at Irvine who was pissed off in the doorway of his shop.
Cloud hit the gas and they left Kalm.
"Where are we going?" Squall demanded.
"Please, Squall," Cloud pleaded, "Just sit tight. I'm sorry this is so confusing for you but you have to trust me."
"But where are we going?"
"…Not to Midgar."
Squall fell into moody silence for a time and Cloud prayed it would continue as he sped whenever possible, slowing only if he saw a cop waiting to pull people over. There were so many questions: Veld knew that the four men were going to die it seemed—why? "It was just as we feared?" Who? Veld and Shotgun, or Veld and Sephiroth? What the hell happened that night?
After an hour Squall grew angry. The sun was getting lower and lower in the sky – it was now just after six o'clock and class just before noon that day seemed so long ago. When Cloud dodged more questions about where they were going and what they were going Squall cursed him out and demanded he pull over. Cloud saw red and screamed, "God damn it, Squall! This isn't about you!"
His anger took the man by surprise. The blond never yelled; he only raised his voice a few times during the break-up. "This is bigger than you—it's bigger than me! We have to solve this mystery Squall—just shut the fuck up and let me do this! I'll bring you home later and I won't bother you ever again if that's the issue, just be quiet!"
Somehow it worked. Squall's bitchfit subsided and he shut up, looking out the window as they took the long drive back to Cloud's hometown, not that he knew that is where they were going. When the land transformed and began to look familiar Squall sat up straight, alarmed. The sky was deep orange and pink as they passed Nibelheim manor on the outside of town.
Years ago they climbed over the outside fence with its numerous KEEP OUT – DANGER! signs and poked around the outside of the house for a while, snuggled close together because of the cold and making up ridiculous stories about how the local eyesore was haunted. Squall looked uneasy. He started freaking out again as they drove through Nibelheim's main road—certainly familiar, because of all the times Squall slept over with Cloud at his mom's for holidays or something—and when Cloud's mom's house came into view he looked seconds away from grabbing the steering wheel and turning them around himself.
"Cloud!" Squall exclaimed, and he sounded afraid.
"We're not going to my mom's," Cloud muttered. If he had told Squall two and a half hours ago back in Kalm that they were going to Nibelheim the man surely would have jumped out of the car at a red light and attempted to hitchhike home. Cloud's mom was undeniably pissed at the brunet and had been ever since Cloud hysterically broke down over the phone to her in a department store after having to return Squall's engagement ring. It was unsurprising to find the man did not want to see her.
They continued past the house and to the right, down that long, empty dirt road lined by fields. They stopped at a seemingly random swath of land and Squall stared as Cloud barreled out of the car, notebook and phone (and keys so Squall couldn't take off with his vehicle) in hand. He ran through the grass until he was sure he passed that barrier Sephiroth could not cross and he stood still, panting.
The sun was not set enough, however. Squall got out of the car and came over, hands in his pockets and looking beyond irritated. "What are you doing?" he asked flatly.
Squall snapped, throwing up his arms. "You can't just take me here without giving a good explanation!" He marched closer into Cloud's space and used his small height advantage to loom into Cloud's face, his own snarling. "I've been patient this whole time figuring you would explain but you haven't. I don't want to be in Nibelheim, and I especially don't want to be here with you!"
Cloud used both hands to shove Squall in the chest, his materials falling to the dirt. Squall's annoyance and confusion was warranted, he knew that, but he was desperate and upset that Sephiroth was not appearing yet and that Squall had been such a dick all day and he didn't want to have to explain a thing like ghosts and wanted the brunet to leave him alone for five Gaia-damn minutes.
"Back off. I'll apologize again—I'm sorry, Squall, for bringing you here without explaining. I can't, though—you'll just have to see for yourself. This is really fucking important and you'll just have to deal! It will make sense, you just have to wait."
He stormed back to the car, pushing past Squall, and grabbed his beach chair from the trunk. He dragged it back to the center of the field, grabbed his fallen stuff and sat down with it all, stubbornly watching the horizon as the sky turned purple, the sun nearly all set.
After threatening to walk off (to which Cloud replied Go for it. Say hi to my mom for me when she sees you walk by her front porch) Squall sat on the hood of Cloud's car back on the road and went back to fiddling on his phone. Cloud hoped he wasn't calling the police to report a kidnapping.
"I know you're here even if I can't see or hear you yet, Seph," he said to himself as Squall, as far away as he was, could not hear him. He waited patiently.
The sun soon set entirely and Cloud got out of his chair, walking this way and that with his head whipping back and forth. Squall took that as his cue to come back over. Irritably he asked again what was going on.
"Quiet," Cloud hissed. Then he called out, "Sephiroth! Seph!"
Squall looked at Cloud like he lost his mind. "'Sephiroth?'" he repeated incredulously.
Then, to Cloud's immense relief, the ghost materialized in front of him. He did not look happy; his eyes were narrowed. He glared at Squall.
"Sephiroth," Cloud breathed, and the ghost turned to look at him. "I've got some information for you."
"Cloud," Squall interrupted, staring uncomprehendingly at Sephiroth, or rather the general space the ghost occupied, "What the hell is that?"
The blond smiled. Finally, thankfully, something went right. "This is the ghost of Sephiroth Crescent," he said proudly. "Sephiroth, meet Squall Leonhart."