But That Was In Another Country
Foreword, by Yuffie Kisaragi
Squall Leonhart is a gigantic gaping asshole. They have his picture next to 'gigantic gaping asshole' in the dictionary.
When she asks me 'what happened?' it's a dumb question, because a. there's too much to cover and b. I don't know. It's also a case of me trying to swallow the whole damn thing inside me like it was an organ I'd misplaced, or something, something red and internal - I mean, just look at Cid, he took to comfort food so quick when we got to Traverse Town you could hardly say fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches are not for eating!. I mean it. He started stuffing. I mean, I know he was trying to quit smoking, but boy did he ever jump All Aboard The Grease Train in the attempt. I think that his first option was to smoke himself dead but his lungs were already ninety-nine percent tar and absorbed arsenic to breathe, and then it was liquor but he knows that he's the meanest damn drunk Omni ever put breath into, so I think after that it was hot sex or food. Since nobody with a brain cell would ever sleep with Cid Highwind, he started on the bacon sandwiches and lard in his tea. (Well, not the lard, though Aerith kept on suggesting it, so he could be like that butterball Palmer.)
Okay. Okay. I'm already going off topic. I know it's hard being as charmingly ebullient as I am. (Ebullient is a great word, isn't it. I think it's my favourite word now. Ebullient ebullient ebullient. Ebullient ebullient ebullient. I think the charm is wearing off ebullient ebullient ebullient.)
I mean, she asks me that, and I'm kind of surprised, because if anyone should know what went on I thought it would be Aerith Gainsborough. One degree of separation from angels, that kind of shit. Previously expired. Ex-dead. Nearer my god to thee, you know the drill. The first time I started all falteringly going on about Sephiroth, ten million years of my young life lost fighting Tonberries in the Northern Crater, the long stupid laundry list of who died and who didn't, she bopped me on the nose very gently with one finger and said she knew all that stuff already. Which meant she wanted to know the other stuff, which just all-out sucked because I wasn't quite over that stuff yet and had hoped it'd been covered under the broad parasol of her omnipotence. I don't think I'll ever be quite over it. I don't think I'm ready.
Well, that was basically it, wasn't it? I wasn't ready to tell her. I ummed and awwed until I claimed I needed to go pee, and then I escaped out the window and went to find Leon who'd be out patrolling town and killing Heartless and re-tousling his hair or something, and she didn't say a word about it. Not once. Not ever. No pressure. Everything coming up roses.
So, of course, I got guiltier and guiltier and guiltier and guiltier about it, and I've been sitting in the Red Room drumming my heels on the wall and thinking about how to say it, and scribbling little bits of things on pieces of paper. You kind of have to approach it in a ninja way to think about it; you rush it head-on, it grabs you around the head in a headlock and you weep on the floor like a baby. You have to edge up behind it and sit on it before it can run away, really prep yourself, because it's like fires and knives and whippings. Squall, he tortures himself with it; he ties himself to the bed with no safeword and flays himself with it.
Me? I pretend it never went down.
Which is basically sticking my finger in their eyes. We all tried so hard and it was so unfair, we'd already done it once, we were ready to do it twice and we couldn't. I don't know if we lead charmed lives or what: maybe we got fat, maybe we got tired, maybe we got lazy. I don't know what we got but we got it. I'm sorry, Tifa. I'm sorry, Barret. I'm sorry, Marlene. I'm sorry, Reeve. I'm sorry, Dad, you horrible senile jerkwad. I light incense for you, if it makes you feel better, they got this kind of church thing here though I still can't see Huey, Duey and Luey without wanting to shit myself laughing, I offer wine and Vinnie, I'm so so so damn sorry you can have all my materia every single bit if it makes it all better -
And I -
I, I just -
Here's what happened.
i. and when the sun descended and the night arose
Cloud was basically crazy, so when he first apparently started talking about killing the dark things I put it down to him being a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty and kind of made the cuckoo-cuckoo spinny motion around my ear. I mean, you had to face the fact that he was a few branches short of a tree and only Tifa could make any sense out of him, so unless he was plotting Reunion and growing his hair out I didn't see why we had to worry. He'd been that way ever since he had a proper sit-down to realize that basically everything in his life was a lie and his One True Flowergirl was dead and he was filled with bits of a dead alien, and he was always going to be that way, so no panicking needed. So he's crazy! Awesome! I can ask him for money! What's the problem!
Then he started seeing things out of the corners of his eyes. Tifa wrote in her letters to me: Cloud's seeing shadows, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist (why do they use that term, anyway? Shera wouldn't know crap from crap if it didn't have engines attached) to translate that as Cloud is bugfuck and will soon need adult diapers. I didn't pack my crap up and kick my dad goodbye because I was worried about Cloud's creepy-crazy shadows; I went to give Tifa a hand because he was impossible to handle by himself. She wouldn't have asked it. Tifa was Tifa. But what with the bar and Marlene having vengeance on the local Kalm school bully by breaking his arm (look, the kid wanted self-defence, me and Cid didn't think that if we taught her a couple moves she'd go busting the body of the lunch boy) and everything along with Cloud being a clod, I hop-skipped it over.
(It had totally nothing to do with the fact that Godo the Tardnificent and I had one of our legendary screaming matches again and I had been disowned for the third time that year. My dad and I could have argued about monkey livers. Or shoes.)
It was winter. I remember the winter. I still hate winter now. I caught the first snowflakes on my tongue all the way to Eighth Heaven, three scarves and a bustling bar with blasting fan heaters, Tifa Lockhart's hair scraped all chocolate-dark over her sweaty forehead as she bit her lip and stirred martinis. I remember slamming the door with a clatter to keep the heat in, shaking snow off myself, and the bartender turning to give me the sort of lit-up smile that launched a thousand submarines. Women beautiful like Tifa don't come too often. When they do all you want to do is look at them, over and over again, which may account for the reason as to why she sold a shitload of drinks.
I was immediately almost squashed to death by Barret, who had been alerted by Tifa's cry, who pulled me into him and crushed my vertebrae with his gun-arm and noogied me with the other. There are pros and cons about being buds with a burly black man. Tifa vaulted over the bar and, rather than saving me from the gunner's painful love display, doubleteamed me from behind in the kind of hug where you all just kind of press close and rock from side to side like morons.
"How'd you make it through this storm?" the martial artist scolded me. "You should have PHSed us, I would have told you to stay put - "
"So why did you think I didn't PHS you? Duh."
"Jes' look at you," Barret rumbled, messing my hair about more in a way that rocked my skull and destroyed my brain tissue. I attempted to headbutt his fingers. "You're goddamn growed."
"I'm not, I'm still a b-cup - gawd, Barret, STOP that, I'm getting a skull fracture here." (He let go. I rearranged my destroyed hair, elbowing both judiciously in the process until they moved slightly away from our erotic cuddling sandwich.) "So you guys happy to see me or what? Where's Marls? I'm freezing, where's the booze?" ("At the bar when you can prove to me you're eighteen," said Tifa.) "Where's Cloud?"
They gave each other a Look over my head that could have been anything, from Cloud is frothing merrily in his bedroom or Cloud mistook the milkman for Sephiroth again. Barret sucked in a breath and then turned it into a disgusted snort, even as Tifa pursed her lips and shook her head. "Barret, don't start - "
"In his room again. Sleepin'." (Not the milkman, then.) "All he ever goddamn does, when he's not pullin' himself around kickin' corners. That jackass. Me, I'm gonna shake him till his teeth rattle in his damn-fool head."
"Barret, please - "
"Makes me so fuckin' furious!" He illustrated this by slamming his arm down on the nearest table, making the coasters on it clink alarmingly in the aftershock, coalblack eyes gleaming from the swinging lamps overhead. "Tiff, stop coverin' up for that lazy selfish streak'a bullshit - "
"Not today. Please. Not with Yuffie here and everything."
"It's cool! I like dysfunction."
" - wall-eyed, stuck-up, shit-fer-brains - "
" - whinin', mewlin', pukin' bitch - "
"Barret," she said. "I miss him too, you idiot."
It stopped him mid-invective; the big man sort of slumped, the anger seeping away, eyes closing as if he was suddenly very tired and old. Barret was big and solid and indestructible, dark-gleaming, the powerhouse: to see him old always made parts of me jolt in deep disquiet. He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something else, but promptly shut it when he thought better. I was slightly disappointed because I had been learning new words, but I made an attempt at charm by punching his arm.
"Let it lie, dude," I said. "The man's gaga, it's not like Tiffers doesn't know that most of all of us."
"Thanks tons being the voice of sweetness and sensitivity, Miss Kisaragi," she said dryly, but she took me in her arms again and pressed her cheek to mine and held me as though I might break. She smelled like sweat and soap, like perfume, like chalk and resin and alcohol. "You sit down and warm up and I'll get you something to drink, okay?"
She gave me a long, appraising look. "Grape knee-high."
Barret guffawed appreciatively as he flopped back into his chair. I sulked. Being sixteen just totally sucked.
You had to watch Cloud hard to ascertain that he was crazy. You had to watch Cloud hard to ascertain that he was there. If he wasn't sleeping in his bed - still, stiff like a corpse, above the blankets, usually in all of his clothes - he would sit by the window, close to the wall, curtains barely twitching as he stared out into the wasteland for something that I couldn't quite comprehend. He'd just stare. He wouldn't move. He'd sit still as if moving meant something worse than death - as if not moving was part of some plan, part of some penance, not discipline so much as code. If he sat very still something would happen. Or something wouldn't happen. I never could tell. He moved like there were nails through his eyelids and fingernails, through his mouth, like life was some big razorblade. The same slow deliberation a Tonberry came at you, like - oh, well, hell, he was just nuts nuts nuts, not frothing but simmering. If he was lucid, it was total accident, like the marble rolling in one of those cheap bump games where you have to get it into a hollow the depth of a frog pore. The marble rolled in, the marble teetered, the marble rolled the hell out.
A man's not crazy-go-nuts if he just sits in a chair and looks out a window. He's crazy-go-nuts if he can sit there for three hours at a time without twitching. I cannot sit still for five minutes. (This is how you can tell I am sane.)
He wasn't sleeping; Cloud was by the window, in a chair that looked like it had been welded to a certain angle by the wall, with that sort of rumpled and unshaven look you get when you roll out of bed. He looked like he'd never stopped just rolling out of bed. It was not so much sexy just got out of bed wanna go back so much as just got out of bed and my clothes are becoming part of my skin. I wanted to cartwheel in, sit on the bed and shriek like a pony: instead, I crept down by him, and put my chin on the windowsill, and watched his knuckles as he stared out into the snow.
"Cloud," I said.
He said nothing.
He said nothing. The weather was like a radio with bad reception; fluffy snow, so that you couldn't see much, just flakes drifting in the deepening dusk and lengthening the shadows to dye them blue. I squinted; people were inside and they sure as hell didn't want to come out. The lights of Kalm burnt sulfurous yellow squares on the cloudy cobbles.
"There's not much out there, Cloud."
It came out so much like a sigh, lungs-expelling, that I just about jumped out of my skin: there was silence in that room. It would eat your shoes. "The alleyway. Left of the generator. Eight o'clock."
I eyeballed it. The alleyway was hung about with blue shadows, the same like the rest of Kalm, empty and black and still. There was nothing malevolent. There was only the dark. I liked the dark. I had always liked the dark. I'm a sunshine kind of girl, but I'm a ninja, and you can't fear what butters your bread. It was just the dark, it was just the shadows, it was just the gloaming: it was nothing.
"Yeah, I hate those killer alleyways. I hear they're a big problem here, Spike. I could go take it out for you."
"You can't see it." It was statement, not question.
"Sure I can see it. It's an alleyway."
He looked at me - which involved moving his head, which was always a good sign - as if he hadn't really thought of me before; something cleared in the shifting turmoil of his mako-eyes, and it was greeting. Some kind of greeting, anyway. I would have preferred it if he'd gotten pissed with me. Even Vincent would have gotten po-faced by now. "Were there monsters on the road?"
"It's pissing snow. Not as many as usual. I just had to worry about my pretty face freezing off."
He went back to looking. His sword was beside him, I noticed: still and sharp and cool, just another prop in the bizarre tableau. "I thought so. They're afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"Afraid of the darkness."
I poked his hip. The blonde seemed lean, bonier than usual, but still as alert: too much alert, too much coffee, and all he did when I poked him was to close his eyes a little. "We are totally here for you if you have a loco weed problem. There's a twelve-step program and everything. Hospices. Burly nurses. You just have to admit you have a problem."
"A problem? Probably."
I never expected much from him, but getting more than silence was always nice. It was still a pretty dumb conversation. "I think your problem is you're crazy."
"Yeah," Cloud agreed simply, eyes still on the alleyway; his voice was a dry husk that sounded like it knew words but wasn't really on friendly terms with them, and wouldn't invite them out on a date or anything. His whole life, his whole sightline, was between the dark strip of those two buildings. "But not blind."
I bounced to my feet, knees elastic, rocking back and forth on my heels. "You should take a shower, you know. Or brush your hair. Or change into fresh clothes. Or clean your teeth. Or shave. All of these things are good starts."
All he did was keep staring out the window. The answer to me was clear: he did not want to start, there was nothing to begin.
"You could come to dinner. That would be awesome. You do that."
"Tell Tifa I'm not hungry." Sexy ninjas had piqued his interest all the pique-ing they were going to do; it was pure dismissal, and I began to really see why Tifa would sit in the kitchen with her head buried in her hands as Barret awkwardly tried to rub her back.
"You could do a striptease." Silence. He'd said his goodbyes; I walked backwards out the room, everything all still again, that horrible unreal stillness like he was in a picture and the picture was a picture. I was suddenly furious. Tifa was frying chicken; Tifa's fried chicken could be smelled from a mile off. Only creepy people and Cloud Strife would not come down for fried chicken. Dead people could be hungry for her cooking. (Proof: Vincent Valentine would stop wallowing for her potato salad.) "You could - you could - gawd, I dunno, you could die, Cloud Strife. I don't think anyone would notice."
I don't think he even heard me. I should have given him a dead arm. It was so much more than fried chicken.
Here's the secret. Don't tell anyone. It's a downright biggie: but I loved my father, I loved him from his toes to his receding hairline, I loved him so hard I could have done a totally retarded stomping dance to try to demonstrate it. I mean, yeah, we had our differences, his brain was slowly shrinking and he was way senile, but I loved him.
We'd never really been family, though. I mean, yeah, he was my Dad, he was Godo, not much could change that except a time machine and ostensibly some pretty quick talking to my mother. But he hadn't brought me up. Nobody brought me up. I brought me up. My ten dozen cats brought me up. The mountains of Da Chao brought me up. I had no ties, I had no knit: and then AVALANCHE came along, and that was that. I fit right into a slot that had always been ready for Cloud to come across me in that forest, all cocked eyebrows and beating the shit out of me (I let them). There I was. Thief. Little sister. The loud one. The baby.
They all taught me. We all taught each other. I taught Cid how to tie cherry stems in two with his tongue. (And totally wished I hadn't.) Tifa taught me how to not make noodles, or, if I made noodles, how not to make them taste like how my noodles had previously tasted. She also taught me how to break somebody's neck cleaner, as my technique was kinda off. (Vincent, to the side, suddenly and very quietly recommended a thing you did with your two fingers.) I taught Cloud how to make a hamster's eyes fall out, if he ever got a hold of a hamster, and just for me at the Gold Saucer (okay, more for Aerith, who was standing admiring with clasped hands right beside him) he scored ten thousand points on the racing game and obediently gave me a tub of goo from the prize rack. That was pretty good goo.
Aerith taught me how to pluck my eyebrows. Then she showed me how to spit peach pits so you could hit a can with them. It just goes to show, I think.
But yeah, I remember - I will always remember - sitting in Tifa Lockheart's steamed-up kitchen, around her little table, Barret a crowd all by himself with her cooking fried chicken and everything close and home. It was home. They were home. Marlene with her fat short pigtails up top on her head: she drummed her palms on the table, very serious at five years old. Then again, she knew more than other five year olds, and always had, like how to mix a good martini.
"Yo!" she cried out. "Yuffie, Yuffie, we did painting in school today and - "
"Mar-lene," her father thundered. "What're you thinkin', usin' language like that? What're you gonna do when you git somewhere?"
"Sorry, Papa," she said, immediately contrite.
"That's my girl." Barret ruffled her pigtails until her hair stood up and she looked like she had a mutant mohawk. "Yo! Tifa! You need any help there - "
I pulled my chair around and pressed myself up against the back of it, half-listening as the little girl told me in tones of deep import about painting chicobos or whatever the hell it was she had painted, Tifa's old t-shirt (my stuff was in the wash) all soft worn cotton on my skin. Baggy soft worn cotton, since Tifa had attributes I hadn't got and never would, except with the help of plastic surgery or stuffing. Barret had bigger man-boobs than I did.
Marlene said something; I swung my head around in distraction so that my lengthening hair whipped at my cheeks. "Yeah? No, no, I never had to do the alphabet in Wutai. We don't do the alphabet. We learn how to beat people up. And we don't have to do arithmetic."
Her big dark eyes grew huge as she thought that sucker over. "But you gotta do 'rithmetic."
"So you can maths up bar tabs."
"And what are bar tabs?" Tifa asked triumphantly as she set down the platter of fried chicken, smacking my hand with her oven mitt as I attempted to relieve the closest piece of its skin. Her low husky alto joined in with Marlene's piping soprano as they both yelled at each other: "'Bar tabs are an excuse for bumming drinks!'"
"What you gone and tole my daughter?" Barret growled, smacking his gun arm on the table for emphasis until the soup rattled for punctuation. It sounded like a long-rehearsed, family-incomprehensible exchange.
"Momma Tifa tells me about life," his adopted daughter argued importantly.
She just drew herself up to her full height, all mock-disdain, taking on a fair approximation of the darkskinned man's lilt as she grabbed the tongs. "I teach her thangs a momma needs to teach a Marlene, Barret Wallace."
"You sure are good at it fer an itty-bitty girl with a butt like a butterbean," the gunner said, and it was tenderness, all husky and low and unbearably warm and I looked at Tifa's laughing eyes and thought for the first time: ooooh, shit.
She broke the spell, gave me a bowl, and shook her rapidly disassembling ponytail over her shoulder to glance in my direction. Tifa even looked hot with her hair exploded. It was so desperately unfair. "Did you go up and see him, Yuff?"
The Him had an unseen capital H on it, smack dab in front just from the saying. I grabbed a fork and pressed my sock feet to the floor, so that I could feel the thrum of the dehumidifyer fighting with the heater as we all breathed in wet heat. "Yeah. Does he do the 'in the alleyway sleeps an evil' routine on you? Jeez, I had half a mind to grab my materia and cast Bolt on him until it shook him back to Sanity Road."
Tifa had to deftly put a drumstick on Barret's plate before he opened his mouth to deliver another blistering rant on the subject. "We know about the alleyway. Honestly. I mean, him and I, we went down there together yesterday morning, crunched in the snow for a whole hour and there was nothing there. Not a thing. He gets agitated about it. Really worried. It's serious this time. He woke me up at three in the morning yesterday and told me to get Premium Heart ready. It's just - nothing like this has happened before."
"It's a cat," Barret said, vitriol made indistinct via a mouthful of fried chicken. "S'a goddamned cat."
"It's not a cat. He's Cloud, damn it. He can tell the difference between a cat and what he thinks is a threat."
"Don't say yer defendin' him - "
"I'm saying he's seeing things. I'm saying that's worse." Thin-lipped, she spooned out salad. "Reeve has a doctor in Junon he wants Cloud to see, but that's the last thing he needs. No more pills. No more bad medicine. No weird therapy. All he needs is - is us."
It was a kind way of saying all he needs is me which was probably the real scenario, because Tifa damn near wiped his ass, and even so she was the only one who probably really treated him like a human being. She was saint. It wasn't all altruistic: we are all atoning, like Vin would've said, but she loved him and that was real. I really thought that all he needed was to be beat up until candy came out.
Barret gave a grunt. (It was only later I learnt that Barret was the one who spent every waking moment with him that Tifa couldn't, that Barret was the one who punched him around the head when Cloud was going through bad moments, the hulking orderly to Tifa's nurse.) "I'm gonna go up and sit with him tonight. Hell, I'll shoot up that f... friggin' alleyway if it'll make Spike happy. Neighbours call ag'in, I'll tell 'em it went off accidental-like. Askin'! Damn! Fools, back in Midgar when someone let loose a couple rounds into plain ol' brick wall, you jest shut up'n didn't ask."
"They like their brick walls here," the brunette said tiredly, and she passed Marlene the teapot so that the five-year-old could deftly and solemnly pour us all hot sweet tea. "They have a thing about them. They worry more about whether we shovel snow than about you putting a couple of rounds into them."
"That's 'cause they don't know what's good for 'em!"
"Your domestic life is totally fascinating," I said, sucking crispy chicken skin down my greedy gullet. "And by fascinating I mean way frightening."
"I gotta have a new coat," Marlene announced, apparently finding this a good interval to need a new coat.
Her father was still glaring at the salt cellar like he could explode it with Power from his Eyes, which I was pretty sure he could if he just tried a little harder. The world is so full of miracles. "Eat yer greens. What happened to the ol' coat?"
"It gotta big hole, Papa," she replied, a trifle evasively.
"Huh! My girl gotta have a new coat, then!" There was about twenty seconds' worth of gladsome crunching from all concerned, me trying to bite my chicken down to the bone as I only half-noticed that Tifa was only really eating the salad, before Barret wiped his mouth ("Use a napkin, Barret!" "Woman, I ain't saved the world jes' to use a damn napkin" "I haven't saved it either to watch you spot up my table!") and eyed the five-year-old a little more suspiciously. "Now, where dat big hole come from?"
"Rho Harpe's head. I was trying to snooch him and he wouldn't die."
Well, from then on, it was dinner theater. It was better than sports. Enraptured, I watched both Barret and Tifa bear down on Marlene like a freight train as she hotly protested the undying and ferocious evil force that was Rho Harpe, which left me time to sneak bits of chicken from the tray and eat them before anyone could protest. The final exhausted consensus ten minutes later was that if you were going to snooch someone, which you weren't going to anyway because violence was wrong, you would snooch someone with your two bare hands rather than waste a coat, not that you should ever raise a fist to anyone ever but why waste clothing with wear and tear left in it? Fightin' was wrong, Marlene's father contested, and anyone who said otherwise could come see him so's he could smack their fool head around. That sadly derailed the argument because it caused Tifa to put her head in her hands and laugh until she ached and she claimed that she could very well throw up if they continued talking, so that was that.
I was (almost) sorry I'd eaten so much chicken; Tifa brought out a still-warm lemon sugar pie as yellow as Command materia and so sweet it made my eyes roll back up into my head, and Barret and I somehow found room to consume ginormous wedges of it and sit back groaning. I was full and warm and totally contented, in a good mood with the world, and so happy I was just about to volunteer to do the dishes. (Doing dishes is always best when you don't have to do them. Also, have you ever seen Barret trying to do dishes? I figured I would have to do it for the good of the city. Saint Yuffie the Awesome.)
Except just as I was totally about to, really, Tifa's dark head shot up so that the ponytail gave up the ghost and her hair shivered down her back in glossy chocolate-black waves. The night was quiet and the snow muffled all the sound: except for one, two parts the loud teeth-clenching tin of metal scraped on brick, most parts Tifa's Strifedar as she rose to her feet and disappeared from the kitchen to run to the back door. There was a pause; and then there was her pulling on her shoes and her coat, and of our chairs scraping as Barret'n me rose to our feet - Marls was such a good girl, she didn't even need to be told to stay put - as we chased after her.
(Tifa always knew; a sort of invisible cord connected him and her, or maybe just her to him, which meant she could hear the Buster Sword before he'd even taken that two-ton monster in both hands. Also Cloud's boots were gone and generally that meant Cloud was in them which kinda makes for a no-brainer.)
We crunched out into the snow, me sticking my hand through the wrong arm in my jacket and Barret not even bothering to put one on: the noise grew louder, unmistakeably a swordfight. I don't know what the hell I expected. Cloud vs. White-Haired Hobo, maybe. Cloud vs. The Alleyway. I didn't know why Tifa stopped in the mouth of it, dead still, as if frozen: but then I did, then I looked over her shoulder, and it was there. I never expected that.
It was so dark that you only thought he was fighting eight pairs of moving, idiotically staring yellow eyes, hot and gold, froglike and blank. It was so dark - almost unnaturally dark - that Cloud was all you could see, face half-covered with his scarf, Buster Sword a whisper-soft gleam as he decapitated one. There were no hot parts to roll into the snow; it was sort of like a bubble bursting, a melting, an explosion-implosion. They were horrible. They moved like - like groping insects, like flightless jumping-bees. Ants. All those hive minds. Feelers. They were searching for something, and Cloud was their prey: it was only later that I learned they wanted his hot, angry heart. One. Two. He cut down three - and then another - and then Tifa shifted forward to punt one who moved too close wholesale, like a ball, it squirming all the way until Cloud cleaved it in midair. Again, the dark swampy pop, and then there was nobody in the alleyway. Just Cloud. And me. And Tifa. And Barret. And the dead guy behind Cloud that they'd gotten to first, still quietly dissolving into black black goo with his chest clean open. Five.
"Everyone inside," he said, and he pulled his scarf down around his neck, frighteningly lucid and mako eyes ablaze. "Everyone inside with every light on in the house. Pack. Take only what we need to survive. Get your weapons. No chocobos. The less warm blood we carry the better. We have to go now."
And those were my first Heartless.
I won't say that they struck fear into my poor ickle ninja heart. They didn't. I stood there gaping, just like Tifa and Barret were gaping, more at first at Wow! Cloud's not fighting a postbox he mistook for Sephiroth! than the Things. My first thought was in fact that they looked pretty retarded. They had short, pudgy little bodies, and round heads, and gleaming little golden-button eyes. They had curly feelers. They had long awkward claws on the ends of their ungainly hands. They were like toddlers, basically blind, making you want to sit on them just to see if they'd squish.
And then, when I was packing back all my stuff (ninety-nine throwing stars stuffed in my bag, ninety-nine throwing stars stuffed: you take one down, pass it around, ninety-eight throwing stars still left to pack) into my knapsack as everybody argued in the corridors with handheld torches and dented cans of food, I thought: they had short, pudgy little bodies, and round heads, and gleaming little golden-button eyes, and curly feelers, and little nubby claws, and they were clawing and grasping and launching themselves at Cloud like he was a spiky blonde buffet. They were consumers. They were mindless predators. The little shits could jump like frogs. And there were so many, and they fought as if they were used to many, they fought as if they were used to more. It didn't matter that they had big stupid-looking feet. And they moved in that liquid darkness as if it was the sea, as if it was the sky, as if it was the last encroaching thing that would ever matter.
So I wasn't afraid then.
But later I realized I sure as shit should have been.