Path of Repentance

Chapter 4: Ahead On Our Way

By Vermillion Dragoness

Disclaimer: Not mine. Everything relating to Final Fantasy VII belongs to Square-Enix

A/N: Huray! Less than a month after my last update! Sorry this took longer than I promised some people (hittocerebattosai), but I had to do some serious outlining.

–hugs- Thank you to everyone who reviewed! They were very helpful and I fixed the last chapter because of some of your comments (1wngdngl, My lumps, Yanslana, kazuhiko). To Hikaru and yumemi, don't worry ;) To My lumps, thanks! And I'll try!

Special thanks to Yanslana for helping me with all the outlining so far (we'll finish eventually ), and vampirelf for doing an awesome proofreading job (love the little comments! )

--------

Hey.

You again?

What are you lying around for?

What do you mean?

Don't you have something to do…?

Yeah…

So why are you still lying there?

Right.

Wake up.

Wait, what-

Wake Up!

-----

Cloud's whole body jerked and his eyes snapped open. He blinked sluggishly and frowned. He stared, unable to grasp why there was moss and dirt in front of his face. Lifting his head slightly, clumps of earth stuck to his cheek, cool and wet. He slowly looked around, taking in what he could see, his mind slow to understand his current condition.

He was lying sprawled out on his stomach, his sword and pack forgotten. Panic rose in his chest as he tried to remember where he was and how he'd gotten there. But his mind was a blank. He swallowed thickly and pulled himself up onto all fours. His stomach shuddered. Cloud clamped a hand over his mouth, trying to stop the involuntary spasms that wracked his body. Nausea and dizziness threatened to make him pitch forward into a little ball.

What the hell?

Curling back until he was kneeling, hunched over, his other hand dug deep furrows into the ground. He stared at the moss-covered earth. His jaw clenched so hard it hurt, trying to force his stomach into submission.

The world was spinning, his nausea threatening to overtake him. Sweat slid down his face, dripping onto the ground below.

Get a hold of yourself!

He slowed his breathing down - taking deep, calming breaths through his nose until his eyes could focus on the ground through his blue-tinted shades. The last few minutes slowly came back to him as his jaw gradually relaxed.

That voice again…

He remembered hearing it when he first woke up a few days ago. Why was he hearing it again? He'd thought he was finished with weird voices dammit! What did a piece of his past have to do with his current situation? What could've triggered it?

Sitting up from his hunched position, he slowly lowered his hand and glanced around for some clue to how he'd wound up sprawled face down on the forest floor. First Tsurugi was a little behind him to his right - the two connected swords were glinting at him in the pale morning light. He brought a hand up to reposition his glasses, wiping some gunk off the side of one lens. Looking to his left Cloud saw his pack: bits of leaves and dew clinging to its sides. He stared at it blankly for a moment, blinking slowly. Turning to look behind him he saw his footprints leading up to where he'd collapsed.

His left shoulder felt wet. Still in a slight daze Cloud looked down to see blood soaking through his vest. He watched, oddly detached, as a small rivulet of blood ran down his arm – curling around his bicep. It stopped when it reached his bandaged forearm, staining it red. His eyes widened a bit as he realized he must've landed on that shoulder when he fell.

With that realization the throbbing of his shoulder hit him full force, all his aches clearing away the last of the haze.

Yuffie!

Eyes scanned the forest, looking in every direction for a hint of the elusive Ninja. Reaching for his pack and then his sword, he used the combined Base and Hollow as a crutch to pull himself to his feet. Stumbling slightly he dug it into the ground for support.

Questions that had been flying in his head came back to him as he tried to balance himself.

Why did she suddenly run when I said her name? It's not like she was ever shy about announcing herself to everyone, whether they were listening or not. Always, "The Great Ninja Yuffie this" and, "The Great Ninja Yuffie that."

Why did she give the villagers a false name? Had she done something to get put on a wanted list?Well, she did after all like disguising herself and slipping into restricted areas…the skills she'd learned stealing materia had come in handy during their travels. Maybe she was trying to hide her fame as a hero of the Jenova Wars? Cloud snorted at the thought. Yeah right.

But no…this place, or time, was different. She'd been different. Why was she wearing those old clothes? Her self-styled ninja outfit with the long white arm guard. She'd stopped wearing it, going into a long rant that boiled down to it being "uncool" when he'd asked. And now she was wearing it again. Or maybe she'd never stopped? He resisted the urge to roughly run a hand through damp spikes. This was too confusing.

All Cloud knew about where Aerith had taken him was that Yuffie was here. Wearing clothes she hadn't worn in two years, and looking much younger than the last time he saw her.

It can't be the future if Yuffie looks like that…the past? Is time travel even possible?

But the confusion about Yuffie aside, the most pressing question on his mind was not about the enigma she presented. Or even about where or when Aerith had taken him. It was:

Why was Yuffie holding the White Materia?

And it looked like she'd found it in his sword.

What was it doing in First Tsurugi? Could Aerith have somehow put it there? But why?

He'd chased after her with everything he had for answers, but she never stopped when he shouted at her. Only increased her speed. Expertly dodging between the trees in the dense forest. And he'd been unable to keep up. Slowing down as she got farther and farther ahead. And then finally, stumbling in exhaustion, he'd collapsed.

Well, this morning, Nurse Betty had warned him about overexerting himself…

//"Your body can't take the strain. The mako poisoning is disrupting your body's normal biorhythms. If you'd just wait for it to get out of your system-"

"Look, Nurse…"

"Betty"

He'd sighed, "Look, Nurse Betty, I heal fast. You don't need to worry about me."

"I don't need-" she'd been in disbelief. "You've been on your back for over a week, you can't expect to just walk around like nothing's wrong. You'll collapse before you get anywhere. And how are you going to change your bandages…"//

He shook his head to dispel the memory. He'd just have to be more careful. He couldn't afford to push himself like this until he'd healed some more.

Right. Easier said than done. He thought, shaking his head.

There was no trace of Yuffie anywhere now, but he couldn't have been out for very long. Monsters would be drawn to the scent of his blood and he couldn't hear any signs of approach yet. He had to move now though - he couldn't take the chance that he'd be able to defeat them when they found him.

That thought didn't sit well with him. He'd have to get his hands on a Restore materia as soon as possible. You'd think he'd be used to sudden bouts of dizziness and weakness from the Geostigma, but this mako poisoning was different and he'd never enjoyed being weak in any respect.

Not knowing which way to go, Cloud decided straight ahead was as good as any direction. He used his sword for support while he walked, his breathing deep and controlled, and his senses on high alert for any noise or movement.

He kept his left arm close to his body, the light grip on his bag all he could manage. His sword sounded like a shovel, digging deep into the earth. He sent a mental apology to it, grimacing slightly at the dirt. What had Zack always said? Treat your sword with the same care you would a woman? Something like that… he couldn't remember.

He'd only been walking for five minutes when he heard noises up ahead. Shouts and whistles echoed through the still forest. The clanging of metal on metal and the ring of a bell suggested people at work. A lot of people. He picked up his pace, heartened by the sounds. Maybe he wasn't so lost after all.

And if the people were this close to where he'd collapsed in exhaustion, then it must be where Yuffie went.

Slashing his sword he cut away at the last of the branches blocking his path. Unfiltered sunlight hitting him in the face, he was finally able to see the source of the noise.

He let out a groan. Yuffie had led him in a circle! He was now near the beach, facing Mideel's port. All that running, just to wind up back where he started! Although closer to the docks.

Determination to find and catch the elusive little thief filled him and he walked out from under the cover of the dense forest. Mideel itself was to his left and farther up the hill, while the docks were down by the rocky beach. Careful of his footing on the uneven downward slope, he angled himself away from the town. He wasn't breathing as hard as before, but he still felt exhaustion fighting to bring him down.

A steady stream of people walked down the path connecting Mideel with the ocean. All walking with the purposeful strides of people who knew exactly where they needed to be and what they needed to do. He almost envied them. Their worries consisted of what to make for dinner, what mischief their children were getting into, what to say to the crush they liked. Simple worries for simple people.

But he didn't envy them, not really (that's what he told himself). He'd had the chance for a life like that. A simple life with Tifa and the others. He'd been content, happy with that life…but it couldn't last. What had started as a simple delivery of flowers from Elmyra to the crystal lake of the Forgotten City, turned into a restlessness he couldn't suppress. Traveling the world, making deliveries, remembering...regretting.

Maybe he just wasn't cut out for a simple life, always dreaming of bigger and better things. Or maybe…it was the two missing people, who'd taken more joy at the simple things in life than he'd thought possible. Two people who should've been there, to enjoy the simple life with him. If it wasn't for him they-

He shook his head to clear his wandering thoughts. This was no time for daydreaming about what should or should not have happened. He joined the crowd of people following the path down to the docks. He was here for a very important purpose, for a very important person. That alone should be enough.

There were a lot more people walking around now that it was a bit later in the day. The sun was still very low on the horizon. He was relieved that not as much time had gone by as he'd originally feared.

"WARK!" Startled, he jerked back. He'd almost stumbled right into a passing chocobo. The people around him jumped as well, and he was now at the center of many annoyed stares. The man guiding the chocobo gave him a dirty look and continued on.

What was wrong with him?

I need to rest, that's what's wrong with me.

He glanced at the people walking by, noting the looks of disgust and fear he was getting… not one stopping to ask if he needed help. Finally taking a look at himself, a real look, he couldn't say he blamed them.

He was covered in muck and grime, the odd leaf here and there, and a bloody shoulder. Not to mention the gigantic sword he was using as a crutch. He needed some new clothes, or a cloak to cover himself. Something to help him blend in.

Steeling himself, the blond man evened out his strides, keeping his eyes open for a suitable coat, and for Yuffie as he walked. It wouldn't be easy finding her in the mess of crates when he made it to the docks.

-----

The worn path soon gave way to little shops, the owners moving about setting up their wares on tables or blankets. Anything imaginable seemed to be on sale here. A group of children gathered around a table with little wooden carvings of chocobos, until the owner shooed them away. A few tables down a man shined various sizes of knives, his eyes daring anyone to try and steal from him. A man sitting on a blanket had multicolored jars for sale, the designs ranging from the simple to the bizarre.

Cloud kept his eyes open for a materia store, but after walking past 5 weapon and 4 armor shops he started to think he was wasting his time. It was the first place Yuffie would go, he hoped, because otherwise… he didn't want to think about what would happen if he didn't find her.

His strides were even, and he was no longer using First Tsurugi to hold himself up. His glasses hid his eyes, glazed with pain. The only outward indication of his exhaustion was how pale his face was. Both his shoulders were throbbing now but at least his left shoulder had finally stopped bleeding. He needed to sit down. His eyes blinked sluggishly. He needed to rest…

No! He violently shook his head. Focus!

But it was useless, he was pushing his body past its limit and he knew it. He needed something to distract his mind, some hint of Yuffie, a sign she'd been here… Something, anything!

"-The finest silk in all of Wutai!" Broke through the fog over his mind. A little ways ahead, a young woman was selling different lengths of fabric. They were all the gaudy colours he remembered seeing people dressed in before he ran into Yuffie…or rather, after she almost impaled him.

"Fresh off the boat! Come and get the latest styles! Don't be the one left behind!"

Walking up to the stall it turned out they weren't just rolls of fabric. Scarves, sashes, belts, and gloves were also on sale, almost overflowing off the sides of the table. Although curious why things from Wutai were on sale, especially if this was the past, his eyes lit up when he saw the stall next to the girl's. A man was standing behind his stall, giving the girl annoyed glances. More practical clothes for traveling were on sale like boots, gloves, slacks, and…

Perfect.

Various coats and cloaks as well. The only problem was, how to get one when he didn't have any money…

"Are these from Wutai?" He asked the lanky man.

"Huh?" narrowed eyes shifted their attention from the girl to him, assessing the grimy customer before him.

"No way!" The girl called over, "If you want the real deal come to me! What're you looking for? A gift for a girlfriend? Or if you want something more practical I've some other stuff too-"

"Hey!" He interrupted, his face going a little red, "Don't interrupt another of my sales, he asked me."

"You don't like the way I do business? Then go set up somewhere else." She said haughtily.

"It looks expensive." Cloud said to the girl, fingering a nice black cloak lying on the man's table.

"Nope! Isn't it great?" She gushed, "With all these new trade routes open, stuff from Wutai is easy to get, and better than the local crap he sells." She flicked her hand dismissively at the reddening face of the other man. "In the old days, you'd have to pay an arm and a leg to get something of this quality, but now that Wutai runs everything-"

Cloud's hand stilled on the cloak. What?

"You think things are better now!?" The man was now a violent red. He stalked over to the girl's table, "Mideel used to be free from Shin-Ra and Wutai, but now they're both interfering-"

Cloud's hand tightened on the cloak. That was too easy, all he had to do was discretely slide it off the table and walk away. But…

"So you'd rather go back to when Shin-Ra ran Mideel?" She frowned at the man, not intimidated at all.

Shin-Ra ran Mideel? This is now Wutai's territory? What's going on? His first priority was finding Yuffie and the White Materia…but he couldn't leave yet…

"Shin-Ra never-"

"Oh, right. Sorry." She said sarcastically, "I meant, when we were so insignificant Shin-Ra ignored us!"

"It's not like they send us that much more supplies now." He grumbled, loosing some of his steam.

Cloud cursed, he couldn't risk staying any longer. All the girl had to do was glance in his direction and she'd see him half turned away from the man's table, the cloak gripped in his left hand. He was being too obvious. He'd get caught.

He ducked behind a passing chocobo, using it as a shield to hide himself from the two storeowners. The chocobo spared him a glance, but didn't complain about Cloud walking so close to it. Maybe it was the hair. For once, he was glad his spikes resembled a chocobo's crown feathers.

The man holding the reins didn't even notice him.

"No, but since we're being used as a halfway point between the two……"

The girl's voice faded as he walked farther away. Adrenaline rushed through his veins until he could safely walk out of the chocobo's shadow. He could feel his heart pounding against his chest. He couldn't believe he'd gotten away with it! Was this what Yuffie felt when she 'acquired' materia from other people? His fatigue was completely wiped away. He had to hurry and find her, before his second wind wore off and he was left in worse condition than he was before.

But what had that girl meant, 'Wutai runs everything.' If this was the past, Mideel should be an insignificant town that neither Shin-Ra nor Wutai bothered with …But this was Wutai territory, there was no question in his mind about that. The clothes the locals wore, the design of the houses, and the bigger population suddenly made sense.

So Mideel was now a part of Wutai and also used as a midway point for ships traveling to and from Shin-Ra territory…for trade? …what had changed? Wutai should be a weak nation, barely in control of its own land. Had Wutai won the war? But then he wouldn't be in the past, he'd be…He scowled. Nothing made any sense. He hated this. He didn't know where he was, or when he was. And all he could do was fruitlessly think, 'What's going on?' He needed answers, more concrete answers. If only he could've stayed and listened to more of the argument…when he caught Yuffie, she would have a lot of explaining to do.

----

She stealthily ducked behind the crate, crouching low on the smooth wooden planks. A sailor ran by, his standard issue boots thunking as he ran along the dock. He was looking left and right, searching for her. But he wouldn't find her.

Anyone with half a brain could hide from this guy. She thought mockingly. No way was she gonna be caught by some lazy, worthless, low-level Shin-Ra sailor. Just who do they think I am anyway?

She shifted her grip on her large shuriken though, when he ran up to some other sailors. It never hurt to be too careful, especially with the way her luck had been going.

Speaking of luck, where'd that freakish spiky-haired guy go? The little ninja nervously glanced back the way she came. Breathing a sigh of relief when she didn't see him. It was the first time she'd looked back to see if he was there… (honest!) It's not like she'd been looking over her shoulder like - every 30 seconds. Or been ducking behind people and crates. Or anything like that. It's not like she was afraid of him…

How'd he been able to keep up with her anyway? No normal person could have, unless they'd been enhanced by Shin-Ra or…

'…Yuffie?' She shuddered. Or they were from Wutai…

But she'd found him on the beach! And half dead too. There's no way her dad could've sent him. So how had he known her real name? She'd been so careful to hide who she really was! She looked and acted nothing like a Kisaragi should. Had someone told him? Had Dr. Lee found out?

Aaarrrggg! I hate this not knowing crap! At least one thing she knew for sure, Mideel wasn't safe anymore.

It was time to head back to Junon, she'd wasted enough time waiting for spiky-hair to wake up and give her a reward. (I mean, jeez, who'd save someone for free?) For a week (a whole week!) she'd been trying to sell those stupid swords of his, and no one would take them! She'd wasted valuable materia hunting time trying to get something for the swords. And it had taken forever to get the blood out of her clothes. If she ever saw him again, he'd regret making her pay (with my own money!) to get them cleaned.

A loud horn echoed across the docks, signaling that her target was getting ready to put out to sea. She darted out from behind the crate, zigzagging her way past the local workers. Some of them noticed her and turned to grin at their friends, whispering and discretely pointing at her. The Shin-Ra sailors never detected her though, not when she jumped over the guards and swung up into the rafters of the hold, not when she landed in a crouch in one of the far corners, and not when she pulled one of the white tarps over her head – completely concealing herself from view.

"…"

The ship lurched forward and a man's voice came over the speakers, giving orders to the crew in a gruff voice. The ship rocked as it made its way into deeper and calmer waters.

At least the week wasn't a total bust, she thought to herself as she settled down for a long ride. She pulled the strange materia she'd found out of her pocket. Spiky-hair's swords may have been useless, but the bigger one had hidden this odd-coloured materia in it. It was lucky she found it, a materia was much more valuable than the gil she could have gotten for the swords. Holding it up in front of her face, she admired the swirling white and green inside the materia. It was unlike anything she'd ever seen…

I wonder what it does…

"Urk…" A hand flew to her stomach, "I think I'm gonna hurl…"

-----

"Yuu Fey? Damn right I've seen her!" One of the burly workers said, "Little brat's always lurkin' around, stickin'er nose where it don' belong. What'd she get you for?"

Cloud shrugged, readjusting his new black cloak as best he could with his sword still in his bandaged hand. It had been a little difficult, trying to figure out how to get it on properly. He still didn't think he had it right. It would've looked like a sleeveless sheet wrapped around his shoulders if it wasn't for the clasp at the neck that held it all together. When his arms were at his sides, the cloak would close completely and hide the rest of his body from view – too bad holding his sword prevented that though.

Seeing no reason to lie to the worker he replied, "My materia."

"Ha! What, she get you in the forest?" He laughed, obviously seeing through Cloud's attempts to hide the state of his clothes.

"Something like that," was all the information he was willing to give. The big man threw back his head and laughed, and Cloud scowled up at him. He didn't want to attract attention again, but it seemed just mentioning Yuffie's alias had that effect.

"Not another one!" one of the nearby loaders said, dropping the crate he'd been carrying and coming over to join them. "You're the first one in weeks!" He was dressed similarly to the man Cloud had been talking to first, all-purpose grey slacks, heavy-duty gloves, and absolutely no shirt.

"After she found these two huge swords, she stopped doin' that stuff. Instead, she's been runnin' around, tryin' to pawn them off ont'a us." He flexed, showing off his overly muscled chest.

Well, he was disproportionate in Cloud's opinion at least. Who's he trying to impress?

"She must'a finally given up! But usually it's the Shin-Ra types she goes after - tough break kid."

Kid!?

The man opened his mouth to continue, and give Cloud a hearty pat on the back, but the blond ducked to the side and cut him off. He knew the type, and he didn't have time to listen to gossip while she got away…no matter how interested he was in what she's been up to.

And I don't look like a kid.

"Have you seen her?"

"What? Oh, yeah." He said, a little put off. The sullen pout might've looked strange, on a man of his build… if Cloud hadn't known Barret, at least.

"You're too late." A third man said, striding up to join them. He wasn't dressed for hard labour, but the loose blue clothes suggested a practical mind. He scowled up at the two big men, undaunted by the good foot the two had on him in height. "What am I paying you for? This isn't teatime with the women. Get your lazy asses back to work!" The two walked off laughing, giving their employer a good-natured mockery of a salute.

"Too late?" Cloud asked. Maybe he'd finally found someone who could give him a decent idea of where she went. So far, all he'd been able to get were variations of the same conversations. Grown men gossiping about her and the many stunts she'd pulled on the Shin-Ra sailors. More people joining in until Cloud was either completely forgotten, or he left in frustration. He'd finally found someone who'd seen her…and now he was told he was too late? Too late for what!?

The man rounded on Cloud, looking him up and down - his eyes lingering on the sword Cloud couldn't quite conceal under the cloak. "She snuck onto the Shin-Ra supply ship, heading back to Junon not half an hour ago."

Cloud's heart stopped. Shit. How was he going to find her now? Shit! She'd sell the materia before he found her. Shit!!! She had no idea what she had and he was stuck on this Shiva-forsaken island!

"God dammit!" He swore, turning around and slashing his sword to relieve some of his frustration. The sailor took a step back.

"When's the next ship leaving for Junon?" He asked. He was breathing heavily, and his right arm ached like nothing else, but he couldn't bring himself to care right now.

"Not…not for another week." The man said, and Cloud couldn't ignore the irony of the sailor being fearless in front of the huge workmen, but hesitant with a man smaller than him in every way.

His shoulders slumped. That was it then. He'd have to wait a week here, and then spend another week on the ship. With a two-week head start, there was no way he would find Yuffie. No way he would find the White Materia…

No way he could keep his promise to Aerith.

She'd obviously given him the White Materia for a reason. To keep it safe? He'd failed her. Miserably. Spectacularly. Unquestionably. And he'd only just started!

"But…" The voice startled him out of his self-pitying rant. "My crew and I are heading to Fort Condor in an hour. It wouldn't be any trouble to continue inland up one of the channels. From there, it would only be a few days walk to Junon." Hope swelled in his chest, the tension in his arms relaxing. He turned to face the man, or was it the Captain? "You'd only be a few days behind her, since the Shin-Ra transport makes a quick stop in Gongaga." It still might be too late, but he at least stood a better chance than arriving in Junon two weeks after her.

But it was…incredibly kind of the Captain to offer…so what was in it for him? What did the man stand to gain by helping Cloud?

"I can't pay you, what do you want in exchange?"

The Captain regained that measuring look he'd worn earlier. "You any good with that thing?" He asked, nodding at First Tsurugi.

Cloud couldn't help the slight smirk tugging at his lips. Monster protection was it? That was easy enough. He may not have the rest of First Tsurugi (and he was disappointed the others hadn't been found with the Base and Hollow blades) but he could handle a few monsters. Even in his current condition. He nodded his head and, resting the sword against a nearby crate, he sealed the deal with a handshake.

-----

Rrring!

A phone ring echoed in the office. Loud and obnoxious.

Rrring!

It demanded attention. More forceful the longer it went unanswered.

Rrring!

Unfortunately for the man trying to sleep through it, the ring was handpicked specifically for him.

RRRING!

"Dammit, I'm off duty, call back later." He mumbled into the couch.

If only he hadn't lost that bet…

RRRRIINNGG!!

An aggravated sigh, and a hand reached up and fumbled around on the side table.

"What!" He said, not bothering to hide his annoyance with whoever was calling. A satisfyingly awkward silence hung in the air.

"Oh, it's you." He sat up, alert and all business now. "That was fast." He let the unspoken question of 'why' hang between them.

"You can't?" He said, voice gaining a dangerous edge. They needed that information, and if the moron couldn't get it out of the doctor, then that meant the boss would send one of them to that backwards town. "I didn't ask for an excuse."

His irritation vanished, "He's what? But you said…" He paused and listened intently.

"Shit, his destination?" Another pause, "You don't know!?" It was last year all over again.

"What else?" he ordered, and spent the next few minutes listening to the detailed report.

He sucked in a sharp breath. "A pale materia…"

He ordered the man to standby for further orders and hung up. Closing the flip phone with a sharp snap. He let out a long sigh and held up his hand, staring at the cursed cell phone for a moment, debating how he should break the news to his boss.

He wasn't going to be happy.

Shit, he let out a frustrated sigh, why do I always have to be the one…

Flipping the phone open with his thumb and dialing, he leaned back into the ratty couch, trying to get comfortable. A few painstakingly long rings later, the call was answered.

"Yo, Mr. President…"

--------End!

A/N: Duhn, duhn, duuuhh. ;D So, what do you think? Love it? Hate it? Needs more work? Confused? (in a good or bad way?) Please let me know!