This chapter has been rewritten since the original submission of Bandages!
Disclaimer: The worlds of Final Fantasy VII and VIII do not belong to me, and I am seeking no profit. I'm just playing in someone else's sandbox, because my kindergarten teacher always taught me that sharing is caring.
Warnings: Language, violence, crossovers, homosexuality, heterosexuality, psychological mucking about, rated R/M
Canon Timeline: Bandages began before Advent Children was released, and is based entirely off of game canon. A few bits and pieces - Cloud's motorcycle, for instance - have been borrowed from the compilation, as little filler pieces, but nothing else is taken into consideration. Also takes places after the end of FFVIII, but there's no sequels there to muck about with things.
The air was thick with the smell of old smog and new construction, the hum of the living drifting over from the sectors that were finally fit for human occupation. Cloud sat on an indefinable lump of steel, his sword stuck in the ground beside him, and gnawed doggedly on an energy bar. It escaped him utterly why the one constant in life was the inability of protein bars to taste like anything other than reconstituted lumps of clay.
He was doing a favor to Reeve, cleaning up the parts of Midgar that were still choked with monsters. No one could rebuild until it was safe, and Cloud was the most reliable exterminator in these circumstances. It was tiring and somewhat monotonous work, but he was glad to do it. It gave him a sense of purpose, of a sort. Today had been made slightly more exciting than usual with Vincent's presence – as far as Vincent could be defined as 'exciting'. But Cloud was grateful for both the help and the company.
It was also nice to know that Vincent was still alive and well, considering his tendency to disappear for weeks on end.
"Where will you be staying?" Cloud asked, around his last bite of energy bar.
"Cid ran a supply delivery into the city this morning; he's agreed to pick me up on the way home." Vincent canted his head to the side slightly. "Do you need a lift?"
Vincent was perched with his usual queer grace on a piece of steel that jutted out from a half twisted structure. In concession to the summer heat he'd scrapped his hair up into a high ponytail, a gesture which seemed futile considering he was still wearing his cape.
"No, I've got Fenrir," Cloud said.
He enjoyed the rides to and from Kalm immensely, a relaxing break from his work. It was the only time he allowed himself to relax. He lived above Tifa's restaurant in Kalm, and sitting still made him restless. Usually, he ended up waiting tables or helping out in the kitchen to keep his hands and mind occupied. Tifa wished he would allow himself some rest, he knew, but if he left his mind alone too long it had a tendency to get up and wander away.
"Cid's asked me to come up to Rocket Town," Cloud continued, "so if you stick around for a few days you'll see me then."
Vincent nodded. "I'll look forward to it."
Cloud ran his fingers down the steel underneath him, the grime and the grit coming off onto his already dirty skin. "Do you think we'll ever get this done?"
"Cleaning up this city? The apocalypse has already come and gone, and it's time for the world to rise again."
That was optimistic, in a Vincent Valentine sort of way. Cloud nodded his agreement and summoned up a smile for Vincent.
"I'm going to start cleaning out Sector Five next week."
Vincent turned his attention toward the horizon. "You've left it for last."
"I don't really –"
He didn't want to look, to see if her church still stood among the wreckage of the sector. He didn't want to know if her flowers still bloomed, tiny little white and yellow miracles among fire and poison. There was a part of him that still loved her, deeply and almost desperately. Awhile ago, he'd come to terms with the fact that those feelings were probably because of Zack; it didn't mean he felt them any less.
It was hard not to love her, something informed him, almost wistfully.
Cloud had come to terms with the fact that that was probably Zack, as well. Other people might have been more worried about dead people showing up to give a running mental commentary, but it was the least of the strange things Cloud had encountered. Zack-in-his-head wasn't trying to convince him to hurt himself or others, and was in fact quite encouraging. Cloud didn't mind having him.
"I could take care of it for you," Vincent offered, his voice soft.
Cloud shook his head. "No, no it's alright. I think I need to do it myself."
The best thing was, he did, fully and completely. Cloud counted himself lucky that he was surrounded by people capable of understanding. It was a support structure he might have self destructed without, from boredom if not from insanity.
Cloud's cell phone rang, and he slipped it out of his pocket. Cid would probably kill Cloud if he ever figured out that his ring tone was a cheerful little pop ditty that Marlene had put on there, and replaced every time Cloud tried to change it. When that day came, Cloud knew he would not be above putting the blame on the ten year old; Cid would have mercy on her.
Flipping the phone open, Cloud tucked it against his shoulder. "Hello?"
"You got Vincent with you?"
"Looking right at him."
Vincent raised an inquisitive eyebrow, and Cloud mouthed 'Cid'. Vincent flipped his hand in a 'go on' gesture.
"Tell him I'll be flying over soon. I'm late, but Shinra hasn't magically developed a sense of 'on time' since I last dealt with the bastards."
Cloud knew what he meant; Reeve could be counted on to answer his phone and make his appointments, but with everyone else it was hit and miss. Even if you did want to talk to the Turks, for some reason, you were better off sending up smoke signals than trying to get Reno to pick up his phone.
"The builders appreciate the supplies," Cloud said, instead of backing up Cid's tirade.
"They're rude mother fuckers too. It's like they never heard that you need money to buy things. I blow their fucking minds because I can count."
"I'm hanging up now."
"What the hell are –"
Cloud flipped his phone shut and tucked it back into his pocket. "He'll be here soon."
Vincent may or may not have smiled, then surprised Cloud by inviting a new topic of conversation.
"How are things in Kalm?"
"Quiet," Cloud said, considering his words almost too carefully. "Peaceful. That place lives up to its name."
"And yet, you're not happy?"
"I'm content," Cloud hedged. "Tifa takes good care of me."
Content wasn't the same thing as happy. Vincent knew it, Tifa knew it. She did everything in her power to make sure that he had a place to stay, a person to talk to, and a job to do, but she knew there was something a little bit off inside of him that she couldn't fix. It was entirely probable that no one could fix it. Cloud wanted to be whole for her, he really did, and it drove the both of them mad at times.
Cloud considered himself lucky that she hadn't delivered a swift and literal kick to his head yet. He felt he deserved one.
"Give it time," Vincent said. "Maybe that's all anyone needs, a little time."
Cloud refrained from asking Vincent how much time he needed. A rumble from overhead cut off the need for further deep soul searching.
"That's the Highwind," Cloud said, rather unnecessarily. "I'll see you guys in a few days."
Vincent stood up on his steel bar and inclined his head just slightly toward Cloud, the most austere goodbye anyone could manage. Cloud gave a little two fingered salute and left him watching the sky.
Fenrir was parked at the edge of the rubble, far enough away from the ravaged city that it was unlikely that any stray bits and pieces were going to fall on her. Cloud had nearly lost a good gas tank to careless parking once, and that had taught him his lesson. A helmet provided no protection his own skull didn't, but he wore goggles to keep the dirt out of his eyes.
It was a fairly long drive from Midgar to Kalm, but the faded, barren dirt giving away to lush grassland was a relief and as close to a spiritual uplift as Cloud ever got. He slowed down once he entered town, and parked in the back of Final Heaven, Tifa's restaurant. She greeted him at the backdoor with a bottle of water, her braided hair and stained apron declaring that she was on chef's duty today. Tifa could, and did, do anything in the restaurant that was called for.
"How was it today?"
"Better," Cloud answered once he was done greedily gulping back the water. "We're almost done. I think Sector Five is going to be pretty bad, though."
Tifa had been just as close to Aeris as Cloud had.
"I'd appreciate it."
She rewarded him with a smile that made him feel guilty for reasons he couldn't quite pinpoint.
"Don't think it's for free. Vanozza called in sick and I need an extra waiter for the dinner shift. You can take a nap first and I'll feed you for free."
"You always feed me for free," Cloud pointed out. "But I'll do it anyway."
He didn't really know what 'happy' meant anyway. Who needed it?
Customer service was not Cloud's forte. People left him feeling drained, exhausted, and confused, even when he had a written script to follow. Inevitably, one of the customers decided they didn't want to peacefully follow the predictable lines of human interaction, and Cloud had to figure out just how one was supposed to respond. It was a favor for Tifa, though, so he put up with it without pointing out to anyone that he could kill them with one hand.
They usually shut up once they saw the mako glow in his eyes, but that just left him feeling even worse.
He flipped the last chair up onto the last table, and nodded politely to Becky as she mopped the floor. Tifa employed good people, and they'd gotten used to Cloud coming and going. Considering he lived upstairs, they had to.
"Reeve called," Tifa said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel as she walked out of the kitchen. "He wanted to remind you about the meeting in Junon in a few days."
Cloud tried not to look like he'd rather impale himself on a chair leg than go to the damn meeting. Reeve was thoroughly capable of being a great guy, but he was also Shinra in his bones, and certain business practices made Cloud's skin crawl. The skeleton of the company was the only way the world was going to get energy and order back, however, so they allowed Reeve some free reign.
Reeve knew what was in for him the minute he stepped out of line, after all. The rubble of the former Shinra Tower was a warning hard to ignore.
"I remember it."
"I'll pack a bag." She held up a hand when Cloud opened his mouth to object. "I'm going with you, and that's the end of it."
"Tifa," he managed.
He'd been looking forward to a long trip alone, the time to think. Others said it made him melancholy, but it cleared his mind. Spending too much time in the company of others made him feel all muddled.
You always did need your days off.
"Who's going to look after the restaurant?" Cloud asked, trying not to cross his arms over his chest.
"Becky can," Tifa said. "She knows everything that needs to be done."
Becky, still mopping, very studiously ignored them.
"Fine." Cloud tugged on his bangs in exasperation. "You can ride on the back of Fenrir. Get your bag packed."
He didn't give her time to reply before he spun on his heel and slid past Tifa into the kitchen and toward the stairs that led to his apartment. He closed the stair door behind him, a clear and respected signal that he wanted to be left alone; that, at least, she saw and understood.
His room looked like it belonged to no one in particular. Tifa had picked out the furniture to be affordable and functional, and the only personal touches Cloud had added were the clothes in the wardrobe and the weapons on the wall. He could have moved all of things out in under an hour. Something incomprehensible held him back from making the small, comfortable apartment really his.
Going through the motions of packing and tidying up his bedroom calmed his irritation somewhat, and he'd be able to face Tifa without frustration in the morning. He filled the duffel bag with a few changes of clothes and an extra cure materia, then kicked it into a corner and stripped down for bed.
If he was going to go a few extra days without any real time for himself, he wouldn't skimp on sleep. It would just make him irritable. The sheets were soft and clean, and he was nearly asleep by the time he situated himself.
No dreams tonight, Zack said. Especially not bad ones.
"So, did the kid look a little bit off to you too?"
Vincent looked up from reassembling the Death Penalty, not expecting the question that broke the companionable silence. It wasn't often that he got Cid to sit down and shut up, so he'd been enjoying it while it lasted. Not that he didn't like Cid talking; it was just nice to know that even the nefariously verbal Captain Highwind had an off switch.
"It's hard to read Cloud's moods," Vincent hedged, somewhat curious as to where Cid was going.
Cid snorted. "The hell it is. He's either happy, droopy, or completely batshit."
"Droopy," Cid said, making a vague hand gesture.
"You're a big fuck-ton of help, you know that?"
Cid was seated backward in one of the chairs in the Highwind's 'conference room', tinkering idly with what might have been a personal computer once upon a time. The hard drive and its casing were on the table in front of him, but some of the guts had been thrown clear across the room. Vincent didn't even pretend to know if they had been vital computer guts or not.
"I'm simply saying that we may not know him well enough to gauge." Vincent clicked the last part into place and examined his gun. "We've never really known him outside of a crisis."
"You're trying to tell me that his natural state of being is staring off into space like an asstard?"
At least being around Cid this much got Vincent used to all of the quaint modern colloquialisms, even the ones he strongly suspected Cid had just made up on the spot. 'Asstard' was definitely going into the file of things Vincent knew he'd never hear anyone but Cid Highwind say.
"He does seem a little distracted," Vincent allowed.
"The last time I delivered supplies to Kalm I had to yell in his ear for five minutes before he even realized I was standing close enough to knee him in the junk."
Vincent's head shot up and he regarded Cid with no minor amount of incredulity.
"I wouldn't have kneed the kid in the junk," Cid snapped. "But it's the principle of the thing. A lot of good super soldier voodoo reflexes do his stupid ass when he's standing around like a cow chewing cud and looking about as intelligent."
"You're worried about him."
Cid sighed and slumped over slightly, elbows on the table. "A bit, ya. There's a lot of wacky people out there, and not everybody hears 'Cloud Strife' and thinks about how much they'd love to kiss his ass. Unless we handcuff him to Tifa or something, he's going to get a knife to the back one of these days."
"And people accuse me of being cynical," Vincent said.
"'Cause you are. You're just cynical on a fucking grand scale."
"I aim high," Vincent drawled. "Look, just take it up with Cloud when he comes to Rocket Town. If he's as distracted as he seems, he'll be in no condition to lie to anyone. If all else fails we can give Barret a call; Cloud's usually honest with him."
Cid grunted. He and Barret didn't generally get along – too much explosive temper and alpha male ego in the same room – but Cid knew very well that Cloud and Barret were part of the same bizarre extended family. It was telling that Marlene knew Cloud as her uncle, and Barret wouldn't mind terribly scaring some sense into anyone he saw as his blood.
"Maybe Cloud just needs a good fuck," Cid mused.
Vincent declined to comment.
Honestly, Cloud had no idea what Reeve was going on about. It involved hydroelectricity and windmills and solar panels, which Cloud could follow on a surface level. When he started into refining oil for energy plants, Cloud only spoke up to add in his opinion about how dangerous drawing something from the Planet sounded, considering the problems mako extraction had caused. Reeve was an engineer, Cloud was not; it was that simple.
Cloud, and in extension Tifa, was there to soothe the fears of the public. From what little the world knew of the story, the name Cloud Strife added a sort of legitimacy to the rebuilding of Shinra. It mattered little that most of the planet didn't know what he looked like.
The remaining Turks were in attendance, mostly to look intimidating and communicate to the new scientists that doing immoral Hojo-esque things would result in an inconvenient kneecapping. Only Elena was making an attempt to pay attention, though most of her awareness was kept on Reno. She glared at him over her coffee cup with that look that promised pain. Reno was completely unmoved.
"It's going to be difficult to meet the energy demands, especially for the rebuilding of Midgar," Reeve said, shuffling through a stack of papers.
One of the scientists hesitantly raised his hand, as if he wasn't sure he'd actually left primary school. Reeve stared at him, unsure of the proper response. Rude took care of the problem.
"They can do without," he said.
The scientist's hand dropped back down to the table. Reno snickered.
Cloud fidgeted with irritation. Tifa dropped a hand to his thigh in a reassuring gesture, but he scooted his chair away from the human contact. Her look was half bemusement, half hurt; Cloud was more or less usually okay with touch, light contact and hugs, unless he was in a weird, indrawn mood. Right now, he just didn't want to be…anchored, reminded of his presence inside this annoying, weird little meeting.
Maybe that was a feeling to be a little more worried about.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the people in the meeting room, Tifa was giving Cloud a look that made him want to crawl under the table and hide. It was that 'you need to talk to me' look that she'd perfected over the year they'd been living in relatively close quarters. It meant that she'd finally reached the limits of her patience and was going to start prying 'for his own good'.
Cloud didn't himself didn't know the cause for his restlessness lately, his disconnection from his surroundings. His mind had been wandering off lately, and even Marlene had been able to sneak up on him once or twice in the past few months. When a ten year old got the better of a mako enhanced pseudo-Soldier, something was definitely a bit off. Cloud was resolutely ignoring the whole thing.
You should talk to Tifa about it. She might be able to help.
Certainly, the last time Cloud had been lost in his own head Tifa had been there to yank him out, but he didn't think this was a problem on quite the same scale. He wasn't ready to take an accidental dip in the lifestream and mentally self destruct, he was just distracted.
She loves you.
He knew that; he wasn't so emotionally deficient that he hadn't picked up on the signals she was sending. Mostly, he'd also responded to that by ignoring it. If no one acknowledged it, neither of them would have to talk about it. He loved Tifa – with the fond, protective affection of a brother. The last thing he wanted was to hurt her, especially because of something he couldn't control.
"Strife!" Elena snapped, her cheerful demeanor well and truly eroded. "Pay attention!"
Everyone was looking him in that expectant way that meant he'd been asked a question and was supposed to have a coherent answer. Elena did not look in the mood to repeat anything.
"Yes," he tried, banking on a fifty-fifty chance. He was met with blank stares. "No?"
Elena dropped her forehead to her palm. "It wasn't a yes or no question."
Cloud shrugged, too far from caring to pretend that he was actually contrite. Elena lifted her head to glower at him, looking very much like she wanted to leap across the table and throttle him to death. The other Turks would probably help her out, out of a sense of solidarity.
Thankfully, Reeve was feeling diplomatic. "I think we're all a little tired," he said. "And Mr. Strife and Miss Lockheart have done their part here, and have other jobs to get on to."
Tifa was smiling in gracious agreement. "Thank you, Reeve."
Cloud knew that any attempts on his part to look gracious would fail miserably, so he just clamped down on the urge to cheer. He even left the room at a fairly sedate pace.
Hours and a few dimensions away, Squall Leonhart was handling his own dreadfully boring board meeting with something approaching decorum and patience. Years of training for stake-outs and months of personal exercise kept him awake and the expression on his face relatively mild. The man he'd been a year or two ago would have walked out by now, completely unconcerned with how it would look.
Social consciousness had come with a few irritating rules.
Zell wasn't socially stunted, but he was marvelously oblivious. He wasn't even making an attempt to look as if he was paying attention to Headmaster Cid and the budget reports; instead, he'd taken a kitten interest in the ceiling fan, and could not be deterred from kicking his chair around in a circle in an attempt to follow the blades. Everyone had an entertaining five minutes either trying to get his attention or making mental bets on how long it would take him to get sick to his stomach, but Quistis brought it to an abrupt halt by grabbing the back of his chair and glaring him into submission.
The monotony, slightly miffed at being interrupted, started up again with a vengeance and looked to settle in for the next hour or two, at least.
Selphie and Irvine had joined forces in an attempt to make the longest paperclip chain in the universe, and kept summoning them from places unknown. Squall strongly suspected he'd find his own office curiously devoid of paperclips, later, and made a note of where he could hunt them down.
The meeting had already covered some backwater province's request for monetary aid (denied, as Garden was not a charity organization in the least), Trabia Garden's polite demand for instructors (readily given, as Balamb had extra staff anyway), and Timber's latest declaration of independence (Squall wondered how long this one would last, considering the record was two months). The only thing Squall could say for the whole process was that the bureaucracy had been cut out and most of the decisions were left up to Headmaster Cid and 'Commander Leonhart'. Squall delegated to his companions a lot, especially Quistis, because he trusted them almost unconditionally.
"I think that the last order of business would be the recent attacks on Galbadia," Cid said, and waited a moment for everyone's newly roused attention to return to him. "No one has any idea where these attacks are originating from, but the invading force is uncompromising and unmerciful."
"SeeDs?" Squall asked, unable to think of any other force in the rather decimated country that could fit the description 'uncompromising'. Galbadia Garden could be lashing out, or some of the mercenaries could have gone rogue – it had happened before, and been dealt with swiftly and decisively.
Cid shook his head. "No one has reported any deserters, and these attacks go beyond the capabilities of even a SeeD. I'm loathe to use the phrase 'superhuman', but that's what the few survivors are saying."
"Few survivors?" Quistis echoed.
"A few women and children, oddly enough they're mostly mothers with sons. We can't figure out a pattern to it, all we know is they escaped the mass slaughter that's been hitting the small towns in southern Galbadia."
"What do they say's doing it?" Irvine asked, his curiosity finally piqued.
"One man." Cid shrugged almost helplessly in the face of their disbelieving gazes. "I thought it was a bit far fetched myself, but…well, we're in no position to tell the survivors that. I don't want them anymore upset than they already are, and understandably."
"Do we have a description?" Squall asked.
"We do," Cid said, and then hesitated for a long moment. "We do, but I don't think it'll be much help. They all described, without variation, a very tall man, with long silver hair and glowing green eyes. And they all stressed 'glowing' in the literal sense, especially the ones that came out of the night attack alive."
Irvine scoffed. "Sounds like a hallucination to me."
"But for people to have the same hallucination under different circumstances, at different times and different places – the chances of that are nearly astronomical."
Trust Quistis to be the voice of slightly disconcerting reason.
"Might be magic," Squall suggested. "A Guardian Force or a spell we haven't catalogued before now."
Maybe he was just a bit paranoid when it came to magic in its entirety, but he could safely blame that on having to fight the sorceress. Nobody wanted the world mired in that problem again, especially not so soon afterward. If it were someone mucking around with unfamiliar spells, Squall would go out and handle it himself.
"Not as far as we can tell," Cid said. "But it may very well be. No official police or military forces have seen this attacker, and thus no one's had the chance to run a scan on him, magical or otherwise."
Squall considered things for a moment. "Has anyone filed an official report for Balamb Garden's aid?"
"No. I just want you to be aware of it if the problem spreads."
"If it spreads, we'll look into it further. It's Galbadia Garden's problem, right now."
That was a hard decision to make, but Balamb Garden wasn't so well off that they could send SeeDs chasing off after invisible killer phantoms. Something with that much destructive power would probably call for only the best team, and as things stood Squall wasn't prepared to send that team – his team – beyond his reach when he might need them. A few reconstructed governments had seen beyond the shine of SeeDs saving the world, and were beginning to question the mercenary force's continued existence. There was enough to handle over here without picking up Galbadia's slack.
Cid nodded toward Squall. "If that's your decision, I have nothing else to say. No other reports have come in, and the students haven't blown anything important up in at least a month."
Squall didn't envy Cid his position as Headmaster and lead diplomatic go-between, but he wasn't about to volunteer to take up either job. Twelve year olds and politicians existed on about the same plane of annoying irritation in Squall's reckoning of things.
"Dismissed," Squall said, waving his hand slightly.
He stayed behind in his seat for a moment to avoid the inevitable lunge toward the door, and Irvine and Zell's minor slap fight as they tried to be the first one out of the meeting room. Quistis met Squall's gaze and rolled her eyes, but her smile was affectionate and he managed and approximation of the same in return.
When Squall finally gathered up his Very Important Paperwork and left the room, Rinoa was waiting for him. She took the papers out of his possession and tucked them under one arm, lacing the fingers of her free hand through Squall's.
"I got a call from Zone and Watts today," she said, without any other preamble. "They really think this declaration is going to stick. Some of the mistakes made in the last one have been ironed out."
Squall didn't quite manage not to think anything disparaging. "That's good," he said, instead of voicing those thoughts.
"It would really help if they had a little more money," Rinoa pointed out, ostensibly for no particular reason, but Squall knew better.
"We don't have the extra funds."
"Headmaster Cid said –"
"Cid doesn't control the treasury." Squall tried very, very hard to keep his voice out of the territory of 'icy'.
Rinoa sighed, and then switched tactics. "I was wondering, then, if you could ask your father –"
Squall briefly considered pulling his hand away from Rinoa's. "I'm not asking Laguna for any favors."
"I don't want to argue about this." He squeezed her fingers gently instead. "We'll discuss it later."
He would very conveniently forget to pencil that discussion into his social calendar.