It always happened when there was a fire, the flashbacks. Although this time the stench was mercifully absent. There was no burning flesh to accompany the musky scent of burning wood. Yet that was only natural, this was nothing more than a bonfire. He stared into the flame as everyone else energetically ran about the Junon beach. Someone asked him if he was alright. He nodded at them an forced a slight smile. They wereren't paying that close attention, distracted by the festivities of the evening. It was a relief to Cloud. He didn't enjoy being the center of attention.
Ever since the end (Or had it been the beginning?) everyone was so grateful for the chance to continue their lives that they almost too enthusiastically put all their efforts into rebuilding everything all over again. This time, with more regard for the environment. Junon was just one small example. The water had cleared considerably, and the Sister Ray had been moved back, purely as a historic piece for future generations. Mako reactors had been outlawed, and scientists were working on more natural and clean energy sources.
Most of the work had been done in Midgar, it was really the place that needed the most renovation. Cloud hadn't been there for over seven years, Not since the last time he'd been to see Tifa. She'd settled down by then, still at the same bar, with three kids of her own. She'd asked him not to come back, that it was too hard on her husband, who felt he couldn't compete with someone who'd saved the world.
It had been a messy business, the aftermath. Cloud had disappeared right after they beat Sephiroth, before Holy had protected the planet. No one had known why he left, and he didn't care to explain. He still hadn't explained, especially after he told Tifa not to bother waiting for him. He was glad that although his name was known, as well as what he'd done, there were no pictures of him so he could wander into civilization every so often without too much fuss to make sure he wasn't the only person left on the planet. Solitude was what he preferred, but the human mind wasn't equipped to deal with it for very long with out the stirrings of insanity.
It was a new generation now. Most young adults had only been old enough to barely understand what had been going on, and to have seen the meteor. But that's what happened when fifteen years had passed. Tifa's oldest daughter would be ten soon, and Marlene was nearing her mid-twenties. Cloud hadn't aged at all. Not even a day in 15 years. He hadn't seen anybody besides Vincent and Nanaki since he realized, since it started to be noticeable. Vincent had speculated that it could be the Jenova cells, or any other number of experiments that Hojo might have done. After all, he hadn't aged either. It wasn't the mako. In fact, most of the remaining soldiers were dead. A strange mako related illness had wiped them out. It was speculated to be an after effect of the Holy materia's protection of the planet. Who knew why Cloud and Vincent had somehow survived it
Cloud had often wondered if Zack would have lived this long. He had been highly resilliant against most all of the experiments that Hojo had done. An amazing accomplishment to be sure, but partially the reason Cloud had been subjected to so much, once he had been determined a more pliable subject. Cloud shuddered involuntarily. It had taken him those first five years after the Calamity to stabilize his own mental state. There had been a lot of mess in his mind and although he'd overcome most of it on his own, he didn't know what to do with his life anymore.
The prospect of living was not a comfortable one, not when he didn't even know if he could ever die of old age. Suicide was not a concept he'd ever really considered. Though he had once thrown himself in the lifestream in an unstable moment, hoping it would carry him to peace. Apparently after the first poisoning he'd become nearly immune, or it rejected him. He wasn't sure which. He'd woke up on the beach of the northern continent, realizing that he'd tried to commit suicide without even thinking about it. He was a lot more cautious of impulsive actions after that, ashamed of his weakness.
Cloud walked up the beach, past the little girl with the dolphin who was all grown up and had forgotten about him. Most places he went now it was as if he'd never existed. A treatment he'd grown used to even before he'd returned to Nebelheim with Zack and Sephiroth. If no one knew him, He wouldn't have to watch anyone die whilst for him, time refused to move.
~ * * * * * * ~
Vincent woke up suddenly. Something felt wrong. The door to the crypt rattled. He slowly pushed aside the top quietly, stopping as he had enough room to slip through. He waited a few moments to see if it would rattle again. Had one of the avalanche members forgotten the key? He shook his head. They would have called his name. He heard the creak of footsteps on the staircase, and minutes later, the closing of the wall at the top. He walked out of his room looking in the direction of the stairway. There was a cross draft through the hallway. He looked the other way and the door to the library was ajar.
He frowned. Had some kids snuck in and stumbled upon the secret door? Not likely. He'd altered the release so it was impossible to use without knowing what you were doing. Or where it was. He walked into the library. Where was the draft coming from? He didn't remember there being any way out from this room. As he walked towards the back, he noticed many books had been taken out of the bookshelf and placed on the ground. Some were missing. He frowned. There was one book left in an otherwise emptied shelf, half hanging out in a way that defied gravity. Vincent walked over to the book and pulled it out. It came off easily. He opened it and flipped through the pages. It was indeed a normal book, he wasn't sure why he had thought it would be anything else.
He looked back at the bookshelf only to see an upraised piece of wood, under which there was a switch. The book must have gotten caught. Vincent pressed it, and the motion was accompanied by a 'shckt'. He put the piece of wood back down and it covered the button perfectly, as if it was just part of the bookshelf. Not even a seam could be discerned. Vincent felt apprehensive, a dark sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He had once examined each and every wall in this room, every nook and cranny for signs of something hidden.
He opened the compartment and pressed the switch once more. The draft returned after the sound, he hadn't even notice it stop. Well that answered the question of where it was coming from. He looked up. He swore. He'd never thought of the ceiling. Those scientists always did things underneath everything, it was unexpected. He jumped up effortlessly. Genetic alteration had it's perks.
It was exactly as he'd expected. A concrete reinforced room, as small as he remembered, but big enough to conduct more 'personal' experiments. The room was covered in dust, save for the footprints that were about the room, and spots where it looked like books or paper had been . Vincent followed the trail of footsteps with his eyes, and they went finally to the computer in the north corner. There was flashing letters on the computer, he narrowed his eyes to read it better.
Backup Disc complete....
Vincent closed his eyes, counting to himself and refusing to panic. He had to get ahold of Cloud. He hopped out of the entrance and landed on the floor with a thud. He closed the room on his way out. He stopped by his room and grabbed his mantle before heading up the stairs.
He swore softly as he left.
~ * * * * * * ~
Cloud crouched down just at the edge of that final battleground. His hand resting on the handle of his buster sword, which was half thrust into the ground. He didn't move as footsteps scuffed across the rock behind him and halted just to feet away. Nor did he react when a voice spoke.
"It took me three months to find you. This was really the last place I expected you to be, but for some reason it's the second place I looked after I covered your regular spots."
"Someone took it," Cloud murmured softly "Who would have come this far or even known to do so..." He sighed as he stood up. "Something's going on Vincent. Something I don't like." He turned around to face the older man.
"What is it?" he asked sharply, knowing Vincent wouldn't come after him all the way out here for no reason.
"I had to ask Cid for a ride. I hope you don't mind." Vincent said. Cloud stood there for a moment looking at him, then walked past him, pulling up his sword and heading the long way up out of the crater.
"It doesn't really matter," he replied.
"Someone came to the Shinra mansion," Vincent started slowly. "and found something I'd long since proven to myself wasn't there." He looked sideways at Cloud. He got a quick look out of it, but Cloud kept his quick pace. Vincent had to lengthen his stride to keep up, even though he was following someone who was shorter.
"Hojo's lab, the one I was... altered in. It was there, just how I'd remembered it, " Vincent related. Cloud paused and looked at him, obviously contemplating the information. He started walking forward again, slowing down a bit for the other man.
"I don't remember much of the time..." he trailed off, but knowing Vincent would know what he was referring to he continued "But we were both always heavily sedated between tests a..." he stopped talking abruptly.
"Cloud, whoever it was took all the research information." Cloud's step faltered there, but he kept walking. They continued in silence for the duration of the trip out. Nothing attacked them. Vincent noticed on various occasions things actually skittered away.
Did Cloud come here so often that the inhabitants had learned to fear him? Why on earth would he even have a reason to visit? What was it that someone took? There was something odd about Cloud's behavior after it all ended, but he didn't really know anyone who could say they knew Cloud well. Not even Tifa knew him during that most crucial part of his life. Not when he was still... him. No one left alive had been around during those crucial years of his life. Vincent almost sighed. Cloud was a good friend but he never let anyone close. Not anyone that wasn't already part of who he was.
Vincent suspected that the only reason Cloud was even remotely as close to Vincent as he was, was because they'd both experienced similar horrors as being experiments under Hojo... and because Vincent had also been associated to Shinra. No civilian would understand the same kind of things. Military had the way of beating the civilian out of you, so much you could barely connect with regular people anymore.
Cloud stopped just before the exit came in sight.
"The Shinra Labs had an attempted break in a few months back. The suspect was caught and after questioning said he was anonymously hired to do it." he frowned. "It was a little strange, but I thought nothing of it at the time." He turned to Vincent with a serious look "What do you think the objective is?"
"I," Vincent started "I'm not sure I even want to guess, but the worse case scenario I can think of is to continue Hojo's research." he sighed. "But I can't even figure out who would want to, or who would even know where to look." Cloud nodded.
"Well for the moment, there's nothing we can do about it. But I'd like to go back to the mansion and take a look"
~ * * * * * * ~
On the Highwind, they related the situation to Cid, who listened intently, smoking at least a pack of cigarettes at the time. He added a few facts of his own that had bothered him as well.
"I was hauling a few packages up to the Icicle Inn as a favor a while back, and I heard that the Doc's house had been broken into, ya know, what's his name, Fuck. Ghast. All the equipment was just ripped straight out but no one knew who the hell took the shit." He paused to mash his cigarette in one of the abundant ash trays, and lit another as he continued. "I figured they wanted to sell the stuff, but fuck. It's really all a bit too suspicious when put together like that."
Cloud smiled at Cid as he mulled over the information. The old man, never really looked or acted older, just a hint more of grey and wrinkles around the eyes from squinting in the sun. He was probably the only one who wouldn't openly comment on Cloud's apparent age, or lack thereof. Cloud half wondered if he even noticed.
"I wish we knew who might have a fucking motive." Cid mumbled. "I hate unfinished business." He looked up, and Cloud just knew he was thinking of the space program.
"I heard they started it up again" He said softly.
"Yeah," Cid replied, without even noticing it was an entirely different subject. "Fuckers waited forever too." He took his legs off from the table, one at a time, and leaned his arm on it "It's understandable, what with all the cleanup, but hell, did they even think to include me in on the deal?" He snorted "Me, the first man in space, and they couldn't even consider coming to me." He shook his fist " I really oughtta...." He trailed off and slumped into the chair more, mumbling.
"What was missing?" Vincent asked Cloud silently. Cloud gave him a slow look, then glanced back at Cid, who was also looking at him with a bit of curiosity. He stared at the center of the table.
"His sword." He said a little dully. Vincent looked a bit confused, and oddly, it was Cid that understood right away. He gave Cloud a nod of acknowledgment.
"You really knew him well didn't you?" Cloud shook his head.
"No, not at all." He smiled halfheartedly. "But I wanted to. And I couldn't just bear for him to be forgotten like that...."
"When Aerith died." he started. "She had..." He paused, searching for the words "No one would even dream of forgetting her. Not especially after what she did," another pause "who she was too." At this point, Vincent knew exactly who Cloud was talking about.
"Sephiroth," he stated. Cloud nodded and continued.
"But he-" Cloud glanced up uncomfortably. "No one ever really knew him. Not even back then. He never let anyone close, wasn't allowed to" Cloud cocked his head and sighed. "And as for what he did, as far as most people know, he died back in Nebelheim. Anyone who knows better..." He started to place his hand behind his head in a signature Zack move, what most people had come to know as his, and stopped halfway, realizing what he was doing, then following through anyway. "Well, for them what he did is even more of a reason to hate or forget him." He looked at Vincent.
"They can't even begin to understand that he- also" He stopped with a slight look of pain and a shake of his head. "And there's no way they even could." He looked up again. Vincent had a slight frown on his face. Cid gave Vincent a knowing look. He'd heard both of their stories, and had heard all the rumors about the General.
"He was once a good man, a 'Hero' even, if a little distant and harsh" Cloud said firmly, looking strait at both of them "And he deserved to be remembered just as well as anyone else." He looked up "Maybe more..."
"Yet all I could do was offer him something that was already his...." He trailed off. "I didn't have the skill to give him something more like what he deserved.