These past few months I've been learning what college is like when it decides to cackle and drain your brain of all will to live or think. I think I mentioned something about this chapter focusing on Avalanche in my last author's notes. I, uh, lied. Oops.
When Rufus Shinra was twelve, men from an early rebel faction had tried to murder him in his bed, hoping to weaken Shinra by cutting out the heir. They hadn't counted on President Shinra not giving a rat's ass, or on the twelve year old fighting back. One letter opener through an eye later and Rufus had killed his first man; Tseng's bullets took care of the other three. Tseng had responded to this very simply: he bought Rufus a gun and a dog. The gun Rufus hadn't bothered to name, but the dog had been enthusiastically dubbed Dark Nation and set to tearing out throats when he wasn't accompanying Rufus on morning jogs.
Dark Nation's death had been a minor blow, all in all, but Rufus was still rather sullen about it. The bed was cold and Tseng wouldn't allow him to go out running in the morning without one hundred and fifty pounds of canine as accompaniment. Besides, what was a man supposed to do with a cookie jar full of dog biscuits and no animal to give them to? (And, well, maybe he'd gotten just a bit used to unwavering loyalty and getting slobbered on.)
None of this meant he'd expected to come into his office one morning to see Tseng holding a puppy. Tseng looked acutely uncomfortable cradling a small, wriggling animal, as if he fully expected it to explode at any moment. Tseng wasn't a dog person, and he wasn't a cat person; Rufus thought the fish might belong to him, it being one of those gorgeous fighting ones that ate any other fish that came too close. The Turks kept the fish in their office, and Reno had named it The Masticator.
Rufus canted his head to the side. "Can I ask about the dog or is this one of those 'Reno did it' things that makes me want half a bottle of aspirin?"
Tseng set the puppy down on the ground and it streaked toward Rufus as if it had special powers that could sense humans who knew what the hell to do with a small furry animal.
"Dark Nation's replacement," Tseng explained. "You were right when you said we're facing threats from two sides. You need a constant bodyguard, and this sort is the least likely to kill you while you're sleeping."
The dog's oversized paws and ears promised that it would grow up huge, perhaps larger than Dark Nation, and its black fur was thick and shaggy. Rufus didn't foresee it being much of a bodyguard now, but with the right training and care it could very easily be his first warning system and line of defense. Very few things in nature were more refined than a predator's teeth. Rufus bent down to scratch it approvingly behind the ears.
"And I'll be able to go jogging again without giving you an aneurysm?"
He honestly couldn't tell if Tseng was smiling at him or not.
"Bloody Horizon," Rufus declared suddenly, scooping the dog into his arms. "A good name for the times."
Shera greeted Avalanche at the door as if it wasn't odd for them to be showing up all of a sudden, looking collectively confused and sullen. She didn't note Cloud's conspicuous absence or ask any difficult questions, just ushered them inside with a distracted glaze to her eyes and turned back to the pile of mechanical bits that had taken over the kitchen table. Cid wandered over to poke at it, making disapproving noises in the back of his throat.
"And you bitch when I make a mess. What the hell is this supposed to be?"
"The water purifier's broken again," Shera explained, "Somebody's gotta fix it; you know the well's tainted with mako."
Cid snorted. "And you think you can? Fuck, woman, you can't even fix the coffee pot half the time."
Shera dipped her head, staring at her work. "Someone has to, since you're not here. Captain."
"Just don't fuck it up."
"Oh man, I am just filled to the brim with the warm fuzzies, really." Yuffie elbowed her way to the table. "You two have a really magical relationship, you know that? Promise me you'll let me be the maid of honor at your wedding!"
Cid and Shera's shared look indicated that they'd finally banded together on something - their mutual assurance that Yuffie was absolutely insane.
"The Captain is -"
"We've got a fucking emergency," Cid interrupted Shera's explanation of whatever it was 'the Captain is'.
"And not in the 'oh no, the toaster broke' sort of way, either," Yuffie added.
Shera wiped grease stained hands off on the front of her slacks. "What's wrong? Does it have to do with why Mr. Strife isn't here as well?"
Barret took this as his personal comment cue. "Fuck him!"
Shera backed up a step, and so did Yuffie. The force of Barret's anger was enough to drive any sane person five feet away, but the relatively small and definitely packed kitchen didn't leave much room for retreat. Yuffie could only hope that her ninja skills would save her if he'd remembered to reload his gunarm and felt like taking the past few days out on poor innocent...everythings.
"I'll take that as a yes, then," Shera said.
"You don't need to know the fucking details." Cid grabbed her arm and steered her toward the living room. "I'll give you the condensed version if you promise not to yap about it too much."
"Don't ya just wanna cuddle Cid?" Yuffie asked the rest of the room at large. "He's so cuddly."
Vincent cuffed her across the back of the head, but she knew he was amused, deep down inside.
Freed from their obligation to stand around looking awkward while Cid and Shera oozed their dysfunction to the world, Barret and Tifa sank into chairs. Barret's chair expressed the opinion that it was not built to withstand 200 pounds of muscle, but Barret definitely wasn't taking shit from furniture today and the chair obeyed his whims. Vincent tucked himself into a corner. Red dropped to the floor in front of the oven, his expression suggesting, in a decidedly feline way, that humans were all very confusing and mentally unstable. Yuffie could just feel the happy vibes radiating from the group. It was a good thing Cait Sith had been left outside, powered down and silent, or she might have been absolutely overwhelmed by the collective joy.
"Don't see why we agreed to work with Shinra," Barret growled.
Tifa sighed and buried her head in her hands. "Because they're the only option we have right now. I know you hate them, Barret; so do I. But...I just have to keep reminding myself that I love Cloud more than I hate them, and that makes it worth going forward. We can't do this on our own, we just can't."
"We can do more than you think. We could - "
"Our small group has very little power," Vincent interrupted. "Especially now." Now that they were down two members, he very sensitively didn't add. "We are aligning with the devil we know to face the devil we don't."
Red sighed. "The decision is made, and we'll abide by it."
Yuffie, for once in her life, kept her mouth shut. Agreeing with Barret would just rile him up again, and right now the opinion was four to two. Democracy never worked, Yuffie decided firmly, because the majority was stupid.
Sephiroth might have found it disconcerting or at least incongruous, staring at his own body inhabited by something that was irrefutably Not Him. He couldn't find anything about Mother strange, though, and sometimes it suited her to be in a human body and have the freedom of human dexterity. Sephiroth, his true form still penned up in crystallized mako, understood how she felt. He hated the feeling that surrounded him when he was forced to send his consciousness back to his own body; imprisoned, helpless, caught.
If it pleased Jenova to borrow the clone body while he was out elsewhere, he would hardly begrudge her. She was the only reason he existed, after all, the only reason the clones were allowed their pathetic half-lives. Sephiroth would rather travel about in the clone bodies – they were more stable, stronger – but anyone with even a trace of Jenova's cells would do for swift 'visits'. More Soldiers had deserted than Sephiroth had ever realized, but now he was putting their impudence to good use. Unfortunately, their level of Jenova cells was so low that they generally couldn't put up with him.
As he walked into the cave, in fact, this body's functions were undergoing that inconvenient process of liquidation. Sephiroth could feel the blood and bile leaking out of the corners of its mouth, and something fastidious in him wanted a towel and perhaps some soap. In lieu of toiletries, he simply yanked his consciousness out of the Soldier-puppet and nestled it back into the mind of his clone, who put up much less resistance.
The Soldier-puppet gave a horrified croak, suddenly yanked back into his own existence, an existence which now consisted mostly of excruciating pain. He crumpled at the mouth of the cave, but Sephiroth paid him no mind. The predators would drag him off, once he finally got done dying.
Jenova gently uncurled herself from the clone's mind, but did not leave entirely. It was one of his mother's many talents that she could be more than one place at a time, skipping from body to body as easily as one changed clothing. Sephiroth felt the fissures on the clone's face close up as Jenova's considerable force mostly abandoned it, decreasing the pressure on the body. Sephiroth's vision cleared, and he was fully in a familiar body once again.
He spared a glance toward Cloud Strife, tangled up in Jenova's many limbs. The child still looked weak, in Sephiroth's opinion, too small in both body and power. Still, mother found him beautiful –
'Pretty' she called him. Sephiroth snorted. Jenova sent a gentle tug of chastisement down their mental link.
His power is of use to me. I won't see him harmed.
"He's human," Sephiroth said, unable to keep the note of scorn out of his voice. Mother herself had taught him that humans were pathetic, weak, unable to do anything useful at all.
Even humans can be tools, Jenova explained soothingly. He is nowhere near you, my son, but he is unique. You've seen for yourself.
That, at least, Sephiroth could agree with. He had no idea what set Strife apart from the rest of the fools scuttling over the surface of mother's planet, but something did indeed set him apart. Who else could hold in their body a separate soul, without being utterly destroyed? Even the clones were stupid, weak things who barely had a thought of their own beyond their worship for him. Strife was more or less intact.
More or less.
His damage makes him better for me. One of Jenova's limbs slid almost gently across Strife's cheek. So beautiful, with the cracks in his mind and his deep, deep confusion. He only wants a mother. So lonely, without his mother.
Sephiroth tried to tamp down on the flair of jealousy. "He doesn't deserve you as a mother."
No, no. Only you deserve me, my most beloved son. But most sons do not deserve their mothers. You will always be heir, but it is good to have second sons, the ones that serve the firsts.
"As long as I get what's been promised to me," Sephiroth said. He didn't often make ultimatums with his mother – who was he, to negotiate with someone as great and beautiful as she? – but this was one argument he had not let end without getting something out of it.
You will have your gift. Even after this warrior has lived past his usefulness, you will have your strong one.
Sephiroth allowed himself a small smile. "Thank you mother. You are generous and kind."
You flatter me, my son. Now, rest. We will have much to do, after he wakes.
"Call me crazy, but something is telling me that this is a bad idea."
"You're going to fall over the railing," Elena said, completely ignoring Reno's portent of doom.
Reno scowled at her and stubbed his cigarette out on the railing he was leaning on, his torso dangling dangerous out over open air. Reno was scared of very few things, and chalked this up to hitting his head one too many times in his youth. As long as it helped him along in his job, he didn't give a shit if he had permanent brain damage.
"Look, I'm being serious."
Elena stared at him incredulously. "What?"
Reno scowled. "I'm – being – serious," he enunciated slowly. "Something about this is giving me the heebies. Like someone just told me to go pet the rabid doggy."
"I have no idea why super villains with mind control would make you feel uneasy, Reno."
Reno wished Rude had been able to come with him on Escort the Terrorists duty, but Tseng had wanted his muscle in Shinra Tower – 'just in case'. That left Elena. Reno didn't dislike Elena; she was a sweet girl and a good Turk all at the same time, which pointed to some sort of special insanity that Reno could appreciate. But Elena's sweetness was mixed in with a healthy dose of feminine superiority and teasing, and she just didn't trust him the way Rude did.
Very few people trusted Reno the way Rude did. It was generally considered better for their health.
"Before it was bad enough," he continued, deciding to ignore her sarcasm. She did it to him often enough. "But I didn't feel like I was doing something completely fucking stupid. Things were going to shit, before. This has 'End of the Fucking World' written all over it."
"It'll be alright." Elena gripped the railing and stared into the horizon, soft blonde hair blowing gently into her face. She looked like some heroine stepped straight out of a romance novel, except instead of a low cut gown she was sporting a smartly tailored blue suit.
"How do you know?"
"Have you ever met something that Shinra couldn't blow up or run over?" she asked, favoring Reno with a smile.
"You're just hoping Tseng'll finally give you that comet materia."
"Oh, hell yes."
Tifa had thought that facing pilots from Shinra would be bad enough, just knowing that they were somehow tainted by the company. She hadn't been expecting the two blue suited devils that swung down off the ladder of the giant airship. She certainly hadn't steeled herself for Reno, fully healed and grinning cockily and looking not at all like someone who had cheerfully executed hundreds with one push of the button. He looked a bit like he needed a bath, actually.
"Look, it's all my favorite people!" Reno exclaimed, opening his arms wide as if he expected some sort of heartfelt group hug. "I love you guys. Have I ever told you guys that I just love you?"
"Reno, stop being an idiot," Elena said, coming up behind him.
Elena was smiling at Avalanche warmly, almost benevolently; like someone who was coming to help clear up an unfortunate difficulty with the taxes.
"I think," Reno continued, undaunted, "that when people put you into the hospital with three broken ribs, you form this special bond."
Tifa clenched her hands at her sides and tried to take a deep cleansing breath. She supposed it was a good thing Barret was still inside, or Reno might have gotten a bullet right in the brain. She was having a hard time keeping her own temper under control, staring at Reno's eerily serene eyes. Despite all of his talking and all of his violence, there was an unnatural stillness to his eyes and expression, an acceptance of what was.
That was the sort of thing that allowed you to kill hundreds of people, Tifa decided. The most dangerous sort of acceptance in the world.
"What are you doing here?" She asked, and managed to keep her voice level.
"Things are getting a bit complicated, Miss Lockheart," Elena said. "President Shinra just wanted to make sure you all arrive in one piece."
"Safe and sound." Reno shoved his hands in his pockets and grinned, all feral teeth. "I swear you'll be safe as babes in a cradle."
Tifa nodded. "I'll get the others."
Cid was at the door, eyeing the Highwind. When Tifa walked past him into the house, he stepped out toward the airship. He looked about as happy as Tifa had ever seen him, which meant he wasn't cursing up, down and sideways about something. Hell, he was practically approaching misty-eyed.
It was, perhaps, a tad disturbing.
"Barret," she said, walking into the cluttered kitchen, "we're leaving now."
She swept her gaze over the room to accompany Vincent, Yuffie, and Red XIII as well. Tifa didn't know if Reeve would leave Cait Sith 'parked' outside, powered down and empty, and quite frankly she didn't care. She wasn't going out of her way to make sure that man had all of his insidious toys handy.
"Sounded like they got the airship," Barret said, pushing himself up out of his chair. "At least we won't be squishing into no helicopter."
"The Turks are here."
She tensed for an outburst, but Barret just sighed and shook his head.
"Shoulda known," he grumbled. "I swear, fate's just laughing at us. She's a bitch."
"They're probably under orders not to kill us." Vincent pushed himself away from the wall he'd settled against. He was strangely unfinished without his cloak; exposed. "I doubt we're in any immediate danger, but remain on your guard."
As if any of them had any plans to drop it.
Yuffie raised her hand. "I just want everyone to know I think this is the stupidest damn thing we've done so far. And we've done a lot of stupid things. I mean, this might be the stupidest thing I've ever done and I think I kind of win in the 'oh look, stupid things to do!' department." She took a deep breath and then squared her shoulders. "You know. Just saying."
"Your opinions are noted," Red remarked dryly.
"Good. Now I can say 'I told you so' when we all die terrible deaths."
Tifa put a hand on Yuffie's arm and gave her a slight smile. "Don't worry. We'll get through this just fine."
Yuffie rolled her eyes. "Ya, I'll believe it when I see it."
It was a good thing Tifa still remembered quite clearly what it was like being a teenager. At sixteen, she wouldn't have been fighting in this at all, much less spewing out portents of doom and stupidity.
They all shuffled out of the kitchen. Tifa called out a soft goodbye to Shera, who was cloistered in the mechanical workroom with some something-or-other Cid had set her to working on. Shera's reply was muffled, as if she had something in her mouth (probably a penlight), but it sounded encouraging enough.
Cid was nowhere to be seen when they got outside, and Tifa guessed that he was already in the airship. Probably scaring the hell out of whatever poor sap had been put in charge in the captain's absence, if Tifa had learned anything about Cid. Barret, Yuffie, and Red seemed to be setting up a combined glaring effort against the two Turks, but Vincent just nodded at them as he walked past.
"Hey," Reno whispered, almost too low for Tifa to hear, and nudged Elena in the side. "Vincent Valentine. Checked his file, remember?"
Elena whistled, obviously impressed. Tifa shook her head and chalked it up to yet another of Vincent's little mysteries. If they were lucky, they might never have to ask the man about his quite blatantly complicated past.
"After you, ma'am," Reno said to her, waggling his eyebrow suggestively as he tugged on the rope ladder that led up to the deck.
Tifa glared at him and swung up on the ladder, knowing she was giving him an eyeful and not giving a damn at all. If he tried anything, she'd kick him in the face and send him down to breaking a couple more ribs.
Zack had kind of gotten used to being dead. It wasn't as if he really had a choice in the matter, so he hadn't argued the point. He probably wasn't even supposed to be around to consider arguing. Despite the fact that his existence was little more than a wisp of something in a whole hell of a lot of nothing, he was still there. He still existed.
And maybe 'nothing' was a misnomer. He was surrounded by a whole hell of a lot of Cloud Strife, who had a sickening amount of nothing hanging around him. Cloud was a bucket with a slow leak that was growing swifter, and no matter how much Zack tried to fill Cloud's mind back up he knew that he was fighting a losing battle. Still, he'd never been one to give up.
It was touch and go, whether or not he could connect with the bits of something in Cloud to pass on some words, a memory. That one time in – Junon, maybe? – he managed a full few sentences, muddled and mostly incoherent, but sentences. Unfortunately, he was fairly sure he'd only succeeded in confusing Cloud more than he was already confused.
Zack thought Aeris had been around, had felt that light of hers once or twice, her power and presence reaching out for him in soothing green. But Aeris was of the lifestream, the place where he was supposed to be and the thing that wanted to take them there, and he had to shrink back from her. He loved Aeris to the bone and deeper, but she wasn't the one who needed him now.
Cloud needed him now.
Cloud, however, had gone somewhere Zack couldn't reach him. Considering Zack was effectively in Cloud, that was more than mildly vexing. Either something was actively blocking him from the rest of Cloud or Cloud was too damn muddled for anything to connect properly. Neither option was one Zack particularly liked.
And then – something. Definitely something. Something slick, twined green and purple like a spreading, painful bruise. Something, two somethings, both familiar but in different ways. One touch was alien, discomforting, nearly painful. The second…the second Zack would know anywhere, on his body, in his mind, anywhere. Even if he was crazy and lost and strained, Zack would know Sephiroth out of millions.
One more person to take care of, it seemed. And Zack would do whatever it took, dead man or not.