Author's note: Disclaimer found below.
Before anyone says anything, no, I very much do not hate Cloud; he's only dead for plot reasons. There's a lot of death and destruction and a lack of happy endings here.
Chapter title is a lyric from the song "One".
I'm not familiar with the original artist, but there's a great cover of this song done by Filter on the X-Files movie album.
(01: One is the Loneliest Number)
The air here smelled strange.
Tifa kept her head low, peering through bangs that had grown long to hide her face. Her gauntlet-covered right hand gripped her left arm, fingers digging in nervously. She didn't want to be here.
Vincent hovered in the open airlock for a moment, then pushed off from the wall, sending himself a little ways into the hallway beyond. He caught hold of the railing with his metal-clad hand and turned back to look at her, extending his other hand toward her.
He was always there to prompt her and keep her in the present, she reflected. Nearly never left her side, now, as though he were her keeper. Perhaps he felt as responsible as she for what had happened - though she was certain that it wasn't right for him to feel that way. It had been she who had acted, she who had changed everything... It had been she who had pulled the trigger.
She pushed herself forward, out of the rocket pod, and into the orbital city. Her gloved hand took his; their gloves were ragged, fingers of them worn through, some missing.
"He won't be pleased," Vincent murmured. On the opposite side of the hall, a ragged man and two women floated down toward the pod to unload the supplies within.
"Does it matter?" She whispered back, her throat still tight despite how long she'd lived this way.
The hallway branched at the end of the jetty; there were more people here. People in rags who busied their selves making this place habitable. People who could still smile and speak freely, without gravity to weigh them down. Children who could still play safely, without fear of attack.
There was no pressing crowd, but the number of people in the hallway still made Tifa uncomfortable.
A giggling child came careening around a corner, literally bouncing off the walls, limbs outstretched to direct himself with each surface he contacted. His mother could be heard calling after him from the side hall. "Mal! Mal, you get back here right now!"
The collision was unavoidable. Tifa released Vincent's hand as the child thudded into her, his momentum pushing her backward until she bumped against the wall. She steadied herself against the railing with her left hand, instinctively hiding the boy against her chest, her massive gauntlet protectively covering him.
He squirmed, laughing, and twisted until he could look up into her face, golden curls waving gently. His expression changed a little - he reached up to touch the bright scar that trailed down from the corner of her left eye. "Ow," he exclaimed, frowning. "Hurt!"
She couldn't bring herself to smile, not even for this. "A bit," she responded quietly.
"Mal! What have I told you -" the boy's mother came around the corner, and caught hold of the archway to stop herself. Her expression darkened. "Get away from my son."
Tifa jerked her arm away, freeing the toddler to push off of her. He floated happily back toward his mother, who caught his wrist and pulled him behind her.
"It's been a long time, Shera," Vincent stated with a diplomatic nod.
Shera sighed, bowing her head, her knuckles that gripped the archway going white. "I knew one of the rockets would bring you, someday," she sighed. "Come on. I'll take you to Cid."
They followed her in silence, Vincent bringing up the rear and pushing Tifa ahead of him. Mal clung to his mother, but kept looking back at Tifa and smiling. "I know how much you like it when the rockets come, Mal," she could hear Shera whispering to him. "But you have to stay away, do you understand?"
Tifa looked away.
Shera led them through the myriad corridors until they reached the extended shaft that led to the command center. "Cid," she called, drifting toward the domed room with Mal clinging to her long coat. There was a sharp note to her voice. "You have guests."
"What, it wasn't just another refugee rocket? What does Rufus want now..."
His gruff voice cut off abruptly as his grizzled face appeared in the opening at the end of the shaft. "Shit," he muttered.
Shera hung back, arms encircling her child as she let Tifa and Vincent pass her. "Should I start the evacuation?" She asked quietly.
"Don't overreact," Vincent murmured, eyes locked on Cid.
Cid stared back, then looked at Tifa again, and his shoulders sagged. "Not yet," he sighed to Shera, casting a half-hearted glare at Tifa. "Just had to get some more blood on your hands, huh? Why did Rufus let you come up here?"
"She has no idea that I'm here," came Tifa's dull response. "We'll be gone before she catches on. Shinra's running interference, in exchange for our delivering a message."
Cid's eyes narrowed. "Which is?"
Tifa looked back at Vincent as they reached the portal into the command center. Cid pushed away, busying himself at one of the consoles.
Vincent drifted closer to him, his voice low. "He told us to tell you that the time of the new moon is at hand."
Cid's hands stilled. "He didn't have to send you here to tell me that," he growled. "Why didn't he send Reno? The second She finds out that you're here, the life of every person on this station is forfeit."
"Our coming was an accident; it was the quickest way to get us out of Her range for a while," Vincent answered, choosing his words carefully. "Reno is... recovering from an incident."
Cid's mouth twisted into a rueful smile. "Mouthed off to the Princes again, didn't he. Idiot." He sighed. "When you get back down, tell Rufus that I know perfectly well what phase the moon is in, dammit. If you get the chance."
He pushed away from the console, kicking with one foot to flip over and catch the railing at the edge of the portal and angling himself to go back down the shaft. "I'll take you to the garden, as long as you're here. Marlene'll be there."
Tifa's head snapped up. "Marlene is here?"
Cid looked back in surprise. "You didn't know?"
"Barret only ever said that she was safe," Vincent explained. "We didn't know about this place until we were already in the rocket."
The engineer snorted, turning away and propelling himself down the shaft. "Good."
Vincent moved to follow him, his metal hand clacking as he gripped the railing, hair and torn cape floating free for lack of gravity. He looked back, waiting for Tifa.
She'd made no move to follow. She was staring out of the ceiling dome, at the quarter of the planet visible above them.
Much of it was cloaked in clouds, fading into darkness, but the sun shone from behind the space station, giving dawn to the part of the planet that needed it the least. Surrounded by blue-grey ocean that looked stone still from here was a black gash in the planet's surface.
Wutai, burned and gone forever, mountains crumbled and forests razed. It had taken more than a year for the cloud of ash from that disaster to allow the sun through to the surface of the planet again.
Vincent pushed back, reaching out to take her hand again. "It's not your fault."
She closed her eyes. "Yes it is."
Cid glanced over his shoulder, only his eyes betraying sadness.
The garden was another glass-domed room, this one massive. It was thriving - looked like a jungle, even though it had only existed for four years. Without gravity, the plants grew unchecked, springing from floor and walls, crawling over the glass dome, and trying to fill all the space in between. It provided supplemental air exchange for the entire orbital city, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables.
This was why the air here smelled strange to her, Tifa reflected. It smelled alive. It didn't have the perpetual scent of ash that the planet's atmosphere now carried.
They'd barely entered the room before a girl was flying toward them, pulling herself along tree branches and vines, her face open and grinning excitedly. She was barely nine years old, brown hair held back in an oversized pink bow that stood out vibrantly against the greens and browns of the garden and her clothing. A glass vial around her neck glimmered brightly - she carried Mako with her.
Her aim was good, honed through several years' experience of living without gravity. She slammed into Tifa, laying her head against her chest and embracing her fiercely, casually reaching past her with one hand to reduce Tifa's resultant impact against the wall behind them. "Tifa, you came! Big Sister said you'd come."
Tifa went still, drifting after bumping against the wall, her lips drawing into a thin line. Uncomfortable, she reached up slowly to pat Marlene on the back - perhaps a response would encourage her to let go. "It's... good to see you, Marlene," she attempted, her voice sounding strained. "You got bigger."
"Yeah, kids do that," Cid grunted, rolling his eyes.
"How is Dad doing? All he ever tells people to tell me is that he's still kicking," Marlene asked, pouting a bit as she let go.
"He's all right," Vincent answered, eyes ranging over the vast assortment of plants as though he expected something to leap out and attack them - as something almost surely would have, planetside. "He's with Yuffie and Nanaki."
"And Cait - I mean Reeve?"
"No change," Tifa sighed. Three years before, Reeve had been attacked while using his Cait Sith puppet to protect Marlene; his neural connection had been infiltrated. He'd been in a coma ever since. After that, Barret had concentrated on keeping Marlene out of harm's way, until she had seemed to disappear entirely. Her being here explained that, at least.
"Oh," Marlene responded, the glow of joy fading a little from her face. "I'd hoped... Big Sister said that he'd get better."
Tifa bit her lip. Marlene behaved as though Aeris actually spoke to her; it had been the single flaw in her sanity ever since Aeris had been killed. It didn't mean that her enthusiastic nature was unwelcome - only that being with Marlene opened that wound again.
Aloud, Tifa softly replied, "It hasn't happened yet."
Marlene gave a solemn nod, slipping back to hold only Tifa's hand before brightening again. "Do you like the garden? I'm so happy that you could come see it! All the plants are doing really well!"
"I can see that..."
The engineer turned; he'd been hovering silently next to Vincent. Six years ago, they'd been forming a friendship. One more thing that I've ruined, thought Tifa.
The cry had come from the hallway. "What?" Cid called, looking through the archway.
"We've got another unscheduled pod on the way!" The teenage boy in the hall stopped himself at the entrance to the garden, auburn hair waving about his face. He was breathless, his face grim, becoming moreso - nearly angry - when he saw Tifa and Vincent.
Cid stiffened, drawing himself up, eyes narrowing. The rockets that Shinra launched from their new base were, overall, carefully scheduled; there was total radio silence between the planet and the orbital city, in an attempt to keep the city a secret. The only signals a rocket sent to the station were generated automatically once it came quite close, for docking, and to send the output of an automatic sensor to tell how many occupied the pod.
Marlene frowned at the boy's expression. "Denzel, it's all right -"
Cid cut her off. "How many heartbeats?"
Denzel's face was pale under that expression, Tifa realized. Her gut twisted as though she'd been stabbed. She knew what his answer would be.
There were always one, two, or four or more occupants to a pod. Always. It was the earliest and surest way of warning that they had.
Denzel answered, "Three."
There was a long moment of silence. "Fuck," Cid muttered, his own face going pale.
And then the moment passed, and he was in command again. "Start the evacuation."
Disclaimer: The Final Fantasy VII compilation (in particular, Advent Children), its story, and characters are the property, copyright and trademark of Square-Enix, and no ownership or claim on said property, copyright or trademark is made or implied by their use in the work(s) of fan fiction presented here. This fan fiction constitutes a personal comment on the aforesaid properties pursuant to doctrines of fair use and fair comment. This fan fiction is non-commercial, not for sale or profit, and may not be sold or reproduced for commercial purposes.