Disclaimer: Sadly, they aren't mine. I really wish they were but you know how it is. Please don't sue. Then I can't buy Advent Children!
Many thanks to zalia and kiraya for betaing this chapter too! sends love to both
Cloud started at the image before him, not quiet believing what he saw. A hand crept up to touch his face and the figure in the mirror mimicked the motion. The warrior shuddered, unfamiliar eyes peering back at him. How was this possible? It looked like he was in Zack's body, but how could that be? Zack's body had long ago fallen to dust outside of Midgar.
Then again, he appeared to be in Midgar, or at least a ShinRa building, yet another unbelievable thing. The only possible explanation was time travel, which Cloud knew was impossible. Franklin, among others, had given them both lectures on that little topic.
Trying to organize his thoughts, the blond stumbled upon a rather important question. If he was in Zack's body, where was Zack?
Luckily Cloud was saved from having to answer the question by the doctor's appearance. It was possibly the only time he had ever been grateful to see a figure clad in a lab coat. Which, considering his history, wasn't very surprising. After a series of tests the doctor gave his prognosis to the SOLDIER. "He's well enough to return to duty, Commander Jackson. I don't see anything to cause memory loss, though some of his brain activity has altered. I'll have to check with my colleagues." He turned to Cloud. "I want you back here in two weeks for a recheck. Contact me immediately if your memory begins to return."
The SOLDIER – Jackson – nodded. "Michael, see to it that Sinclair is resettled into your unit and fill him in on the details. You'll receive his file as well. I'm charging you with his safety until this matter is resolved."
"Yes sir," Michael replied, looking rather irritated by the order. He turned to Cloud. "Move it, Sinclair."
Sinclair…Cloud remember now, that had been Zack's last name. As he followed Michael out he tried to recall more about his friend. It was difficult, as he had to watch exactly where he was stepping, this unfamiliar body feeling horribly clumsy and likely to fall flat on his face at any moment. Silently the youth considered the situation. He didn't have many choices at the moment. These people truly thought he was Zack, so he had better act accordingly. The truth would hardly be believable. "Hi, I'm a time traveler from I-forget-how-many-millions-of-years in the future and I'm currently possessing one of your SOLDIERs. Nice to meet you!" Except Zack wasn't a SOLDIER. Not yet, anyway. The eyes in the mirror had lacked that telltale glow.
It was odd to think of Zack as anything other than the strong officer he had been when Cloud had met him. Still, in light of recent occurrences it was comparatively undisturbing, so Cloud let it pass over him without much thought.
The warrior focused inwardly, dragging up his memories from long ago, trying to remember how Zack had acted. The friendly grin, confident walk, self-assured aura. They were quintessential Zack and extremely familiar. Had Cloud not worn them once before? Like a well-worn cloak Cloud allowed the motions to fall over him. It was sad, but even after all of these years he could still easily slip on the mask of Zack. "Sorry about what happened back there. Reflex, you know." Michael stared at him, a look of shock on his face, then headed off down the hall as quickly as possible without running. Cloud frowned and followed him.
The trooper barracks matched Cloud's memory, though considering the accommodations Cloud had been hoping otherwise. (And why wasn't Zack in a SOLDIER candidate group anyway?) What was different was the way the rest of the troops acted around him. When Cloud had been a trooper he'd basically faded into the woodwork, completely ignored by his companions. Here, the animosity prevalent in the air nearly made him flinch. Eyes landed on him and then slid away. Backs were presented instead of smiles, and glares heavy with anger and tainted with fear were shot his way when people thought he couldn't see.
What the hell was going on? This group acted nothing like what Cloud had observed when he watched Zack interact with people.
"Well, well, well. Looks like the deceased has returned to the world of the living. Maybe we should send you back to the morgue."
Cloud glanced over his shoulder to look at the teen who had spoken. The youth was standing in an undeniably menacing fashion. Zack wasn't small, but this youth somehow managed to tower over Cloud and was practically bulging with muscles. Cloud didn't get a chance to protest before the teen lashed out, fist solidly connecting with the arm Cloud had instinctively raised. He winced, surprised by the pain. 'Damn, that hurt.' Zack's body obviously wasn't in the shape he was used to, which could cause all sorts of problems. Cloud didn't know what this body could handle, but he'd best find out, and quickly. "Look, I don't know what your problem is- "
"Ha! That's a laugh." The teen smirked then lashed out again. Cloud blocked two punches and a kick before Michael finally spoke up.
"He's not lying, Armstrong." The private gave Cloud a dirty look. "He has total amnesia."
"You're shitting me," Armstrong growled. Cloud ducked another attack, careful not to let Armstrong get a hold of him. He might just end up dead, then, and he hardly wanted that to happen. 'Cloud Strife, killed by regular ShinRa regular' just didn't seem quite right, even if he had only been a private himself when he managed to kill Sephiroth the first time.
"No," Michael replied. "We're supposed to reacquaint him with the system."
"Yeah right. That bastard? I've had enough of him in my life." Armstrong took another step forward. Cloud quickly found himself running out of room in the cramped quarters as he dashed backwards.
"Look, Armstrong, I don't like Sinclair any more than you do, but taking him apart here will only get us all in trouble. Lay off."
The teen glared at Cloud and Michael for a long moment then moved to the opposite side of the room. Cloud mentally sighed in relief then turned to Michael. "Who was that?"
"Tomas Armstrong. He doesn't like you."
"I noticed. Any reason why?"
"Cause you're a country hick from the middle of nowhere who acts like you're better than everyone else here. Stealing his girlfriend and getting her pregnant probably didn't help either, especially since the girl didn't survive the pregnancy."
Cloud felt the blood rush from his – er, Zack's – face. "Miscarriage?" He finally managed to ask.
"Hell no. At least, I've never heard of a case where miscarriage involved getting a knife in your heart." Michael smirked, taking no small joy in Cloud's expression. "No one ever managed to successfully pin it on you, but Armstrong always believed you did it. Guess we'll never know now, huh?"
Cloud nodded weakly, unable to think of anything to say.
Cloud quickly found out first hand exactly how much his squad hated him. Over the next few days he found himself the victim of several pranks of the more serious nature. His bed was saturated with a potion that ate away at his skin. Itching powder was rubbed into all of his uniforms. People tried to trip him in the hallway, and went through his supplies before duty, trying to make him unprepared. He quickly learned to keep his most valuable possessions on his person or else he'd lose them permanently.
His superior officers did nothing, even when some of these pranks happened right in front on them, willfully ignoring the bullying.
But for Cloud there was something even more important bothering him. Michael had taken to gleefully describing "his" old life, detailing Zack's exploits. The tales made Cloud's stomach twist in revulsion. He had seen a lot of bad things in his long life, some far more horrifying than what he was hearing, but these stories were about the man who had been his best friend. Suddenly the warrior was forced to reevaluate everything he had ever though about Zack. How could the kind, gentle, fun-loving man who had looked out for him when he had been in ShinRa have done these things?
The training area quickly became Cloud's lone refuge. He spent every free minute he had there, trying to get Zack's body into shape so he could defend himself. His squad mates wouldn't bother him here; everyone knew the gym was not a place for horse-hockey. People had been banned from the army entirely for pulling stunts there.
Instructors overseeing the place had noted Cloud's dedication and had reacted accordingly, teaching him beyond his squad mates. Cloud responded with yet even more effort, gaining his teachers' praises. (Some had even mentioned it might be a good idea to send more of the problem students into near death-comas if this was the result.) Slowly the pranks tapered off wherever one of the instructors would be able to see, giving Cloud a bit more breathing room.
Cloud's two week check-up came and went without any significant discoveries. The doctor, whose name Cloud had finally learned was Kyle Mendak, said nothing, but asked Cloud to return a month later. Finally, seven months after Cloud first arrived in Zack's body, something happened that finally gave Cloud some answers – and more questions.
Cloud didn't understand the necessity of these monthly check-ups, but he went without complaint. Dr. Mendak's tests were nothing like the ones Hojo had used, which was a mild comfort. He didn't like it, but Cloud knew how to deal with it. Mendak had mentioned Zack had taken permanent brain damage, but Cloud wondered if that was the entire truth. Surely if he'd had brain damage he would have needed therapy?
"I trust you have not been able to remember anything?"
"No," Cloud replied, sitting on his temper. Must Mendak ask the same question every time? It was getting more than a little annoying.
"Hm…" Mendak frowned at the screen in front of him, examining an image mapping Cloud's brain activity. Cloud sat up as he heard the door open.
A young nurse walked in, carrying a thick folder. "Doctor, we have- " She paused, her eyes landing on Cloud. "You- that's not possible, you're dead!"
Cloud stared at the woman, slightly perturbed. "Nurse Alexander, please." Mendak frowned at her. "There is no need to alarm my patient-"
"I saw him die!" Alexander continued, her eyes widening. "I marked it down on the records myself! He was clinically dead for over fifteen minutes!"
"Nurse Talia Alexander, this is not the place for this discussion." Mendak frowned and glanced over at Commander Johnson, who had been accompanying Cloud on these visits. The SOLDIER nodded and the trio went to the next room. Cloud frowned, watching them. Luckily for him, they had chosen a room with a window in the door. It was sound proof, but Cloud could see Mendak perfectly.
And while Zackary Sinclair might not know how to read lips, Cloud Strife most certainly did.
"What exactly is going on here, Doctor?" Jackson asked, pinning the man with a sharp look.
"I told you Sinclair's brain patterns had altered substantially." Jackson nodded in confirmation. "I thought I had seen similar patterns before. It took me a while to find them, but I did manage to get my hands on them. In conjunction with Sinclair's recent increase in abilities, I managed to formulate a hypothesis. Sadly I have not been able to confirm it one way or another."
"Cut to the chase, Mendak," Jackson growled.
The doctor merely glared at the officer. "I'm sure you're aware that the SOLDIER program wasn't the only attempt to create enhanced warriors. Some of the others included different drugs, even materia. One of these dealt with trying to fuse summons with human beings. There were very few successes and I use that term lightly. Most went insane or instantly died. A few fused with lesser summons survived, but generally lost most of their memory or personality, both that of the human and that of the summon. Indeed, they became a new person. Sinclair's readings are consistent with that type of result."
Jackson stared at the doctor. "You're telling me some entity from the beyond went and possessed Sinclair?"
"Not possessed. As Nurse Alexander mentioned, Sinclair was dead for over fifteen minutes.Assuming his soul somehow managed to re-enter the body, I think it is obvious from the boy's actions that it is not same personality as before. If Sinclair were still around at the time the spirit took over, I believe it is safe to say he was completely destroyed."
"And this sort of thing just happens by accident."
"Sinclair was attacked in the main materia storage area," the doctor pointed out. "If I recall correctly there were more than a few of the stones on the floor when your men found him."
The SOLDIER continued to look doubtful. "Still, resurrecting a dead body? Especially one dead for that long?"
Mendak smiled; Jackson shivered, recognizing the look that often graced Professor Hojo's face. "That was considered one of the most effect methods." The doctor turned to his nurse. "Do not mention this to anyone." Talia nodded and said nothing. She wasn't stupid; she knew that to mess in ShinRa's secrets could easily mean death. "Now, whatever else that boy is, he is physically human, or close enough that the differences don't appear on any of our instruments. However, it is rather obvious that he will be an extraordinary warrior."
"Indeed," Jackson replied, understanding Mendak's implication. "I believe Sinclair will be receiving an invitation to take the SOLDIER exams soon."
"It would be a shame to overlook such an opportunity, would it not?"
Cloud made certain that his face only showed mild irritation and curiosity when the group emerged from the nearby room, even though his head was spinning. He nodded at the doctor and offered Jackson a textbook-perfect salute after being dismissed before wandered out into the hallway. He could barely make sense of the thoughts crowding his mind.
Okay, point one: Mendak thought he was really a summon inhabiting someone else's body, which wasn't actually too far off from the truth, in a way. Cloud wasn't sure if he qualified as a summon, but he did recall Franklin mentioning both his and Sephiroth's souls had significant differences from that of the average human, as did Cloud's. Still, the main question was how did he end up getting here in the first place?
Silently, Cloud wished the man was here; Franklin always did have a knack for figuring things like this out.
Point two: Cloud inhabited the body of Zackary Sinclair, who apparently wasn't a very nice guy. This did not match up with what Cloud knew of the man who had been his mentor and friend from his days in the ShinRa army. Perhaps more disturbing than the question of how Cloud had gotten here was the question of where Zack had gone. If he really was dead as Mendak believed, then who had Cloud known?
Point three: Cloud could expect a chance to take the SOLDIER exams soon. He didn't know exactly how to feel about that. On one hand, he had failed the exams before but he certainly should be able to pass them now if he tried. On the other, it hardly seemed fair for him to pass the exam for someone else. But history said Zackary Sinclair was a SOLDIER. Which lead to the next important fact.
Point four: Cloud was currently stranded in the past, despite everything he had heard about that being impossible. So far he had been merely trying to stay in once piece, but as his abilities continued to improve, the rest of his squad had taken to leaving him alone. Armstrong was the only one who tormented him on a regular basis anymore and even he was wary of what Cloud could do. So now that he wasn't watching for death threats every two minutes, he had to ask himself a critical question: what should he do next? Should he try to change the future?
Cloud shook his head, long black locks flying about. He was in way over his head.
"Sinclair. You look like someone died."
Cloud glanced at Michael. The only person in his entire unit who would even work with him at all, Jean Michael had ended up being his sparring partner in practice. Michael had quickly seen Cloud's improving skills and stuck to his fellow regular's side even after Jackson told him Cloud wasn't his responsibility anymore, willing to gather up any scraps of knowledge Cloud dropped. It was purely a business relationship. Michael didn't like Cloud and Cloud wasn't overly fond of Michael, but both knew it and that made life all right. Cloud needed a sparring partner anyway. "Just have a lot on my mind."
The pair headed towards the gym, each lost in his own thoughts. Cloud found himself having a hard time hearing as a low buzz began to ring in his head. He walked over to the practice equipment and suited up, all the while trying to figure out what in the world was bothering him. This felt familiar, but he couldn't place the buzzing.
Michael had taken his place on the practice mat, but he wasn't looking at Cloud. His eyes were fixed on a point far beyond the regular, starting at something Cloud couldn't see. Cloud turned slowly, the buzzing becoming almost painful in pitch, making him want to clap his hands over his ears, if only to shut out the noise. Blinking tears out of his eyes the warrior squinted then felt his jaw drop. "Sephiroth…."
Lots of B5 name references in here. ducks assorted weapons Okay, don't kill me! hides from Zack!Fans It'll be okay, honest! dashes for the hills