(Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and VIII are copyrighted to Square-Enix. I don't own any of their characters, but the original characters do belong to me. This disclaimer applies to all chapters of this story.)
He noticed the smell first. Instead of the light woody fragrance of his office, the air he inhaled had a metallic tang: cold, unpleasant and clinical. The second thing he noticed was that he had a blinding headache.
"Subject successfully transferred," said a male voice.
Sensing other people around him, he pulled himself into a sitting position, inwardly cursing the weakness of his limbs.
He was in a laboratory. No doubt about it: the gleaming white surfaces, the intricate pieces of machinery, the cold, straight edges and the hardness of the floor said it all. He caught his breath as familiar memories swept over him. Blurred, terrible memories, of pain and confusion, of losing the sense of his own identity...
He pushed the memories away and tried to concentrate on the present. There were three men in the room: two who looked to be scientists of some kind and a third dressed in a suit.
"Subject appears to be disoriented," said one of the scientists.
"Hardly surprising," replied the one in the suit.
His hands scrabbled on the floor as he tried to stand up, and found the hilt of his sword. He grasped it, feeling relieved that he wasn't unarmed, and got to his feet.
"Who are you? Where am I?"
The man in the suit smiled. "All shall be explained in due course. Welcome, Cloud."
Cloud's voice trembled. "How do you know my name?"
"Subject's heart rate is increasing. Suggest immediate sedative."
At this, the other scientist stepped forward, holding a syringe. Cloud stumbled backwards and almost tripped over a step.
"No! Don't touch me!"
"You need to calm down, Cloud." The man was still smiling. He didn't seem at all perturbed by Cloud's reaction.
The scientist hesitated. "Should I sedate him, sir?"
"No. He's dangerous in this state. Keep away."
The scientist gladly scurried back behind his superior.
Cloud had stumbled onto a circular dais, a raised area with an arch in the middle. He was disturbed to find the metal arch humming slightly. Numerous wires attached to nodes in the arch led to complicated-looking machines. One of the scientists stood watching a screen, clipboard in hand.
He didn't understand what was going on – he had been in his office only a couple of minutes ago. He looked around wildly, hoping to catch a glimpse of a familiar street or building outside a window, but there was nothing. The bile rose in his throat and he swallowed, grimacing at the acidic taste.
"All I want is for you to listen to me for a few minutes," the dark-suited man said. "Please don't do anything foolish. As you may have guessed, we brought you here."
"Where is here? Is this a Shinra building?"
"No. In fact, this isn't your world at all. That device you're standing on is a portal. It allowed us to transport you from your world to ours."
Cloud heard, but he could hardly take it in. The room seemed to spin around him; he maintained his balance with difficulty.
"You are now in the country of Galbadia," the man went on. "I am a member of the Galbadian government. You may call me Kelling. These are my assistants, Holt and Kyme."
"But why did you bring me here? What do you want with me? I shouldn't be here, I should be at home!" The volume of his voice increased with every word. He ought to be with the kids now. It had been getting late; he had almost finished his office work and he'd been about to help make them dinner. He imagined Marlene and Denzel calling for him, at last timidly entering his office but finding no one... They would think he had left them again. And Tifa wasn't there to look after them – she was running late on some errand or other. They'd be on their own.
"Subject's stress levels are rising," one of the scientists, Kyme, noted.
"You bet they're rising! You better have a damn good reason for bringing me here."
"Please, calm down," said Kelling. "I'm afraid we need you. We've been watching you for some time. We have a task for you."
"Whatever it is, forget it! I want to go back."
Kelling raised his eyebrows. "Once you have done as we ask, you may return. You have my word."
Cloud raised his sword unsteadily. His arms trembled and he coughed, but he kept the huge blade pointed at the dark-suited man. "Why should I do anything for you? Let me go back if you want to live."
Kelling laughed. Not a good sign. "Go ahead, kill us. Then you'll be stuck here forever. We're the only ones who know how to operate the machine."
Cloud coughed again and was forced to lean on his blade to support his shaking legs. "Why do I feel like crap?"
Kyme looked up from his clipboard. "Nausea. Induced by the temporal-spatial disturbance. Only to be expected."
"The after-effects will wear off soon," said Kelling. "Now listen. I propose a deal, Cloud. You do a favour for us; we'll do one for you. We'll let you go home."
Cloud considered this, but his head was spinning and he found it hard to think straight.
"What do you want me to do?"
Kelling's hand slid to his jacket pocket and he pulled out a photo. He stretched out his arm to give the picture to Cloud, at the same time making sure to keep his distance. Cloud took it. The picture showed a young, dark-haired woman, dressed in blue. Her smile reminded him of Tifa.
"The girl's name is Rinoa," said Kelling. "We want you to kill her."
The vidphone in his office rang yet again. Squall sighed. All this new telecommunication technology was a wonderful thing, but it didn't exactly allow for privacy. He pressed a button and watched the screen flicker into life.
"Hey, Squall! Glad you're here, I've been trying to contact you for days. Didn't you get my message?"
He had, but he'd deleted it, figuring if it was that important, Laguna would have marked it as urgent.
"I'm busy right now," he said. "Is this business, or not?"
Laguna chuckled. "You never take any time out, do you, son?"
Squall folded his arms, but didn't reply.
"This is business," said Laguna in a more sombre tone. "We've just received news that one of our spies in Galbadia has been imprisoned. We want to negotiate a release."
"How many SeeDs do you want?"
"Two or three should be enough. This isn't a fighting contract. But the way things are going now, anyone I send into Galbadia gets locked up. SeeDs are neutral agents. And your people know Galbadian territory better than mine."
Squall nodded. "I'll let Quistis handle this one. I'll put you in touch and you can leave the details to her."
"Too busy to even ask what the mission involves?" Laguna smiled. Upon closer inspection, his face looked rather strained, the smile forced. The lines on his forehead told the true story. As President of Esthar, Laguna had a lot of responsibilities, probably more than his son. But it was always Laguna who tried to contact Squall just to chat, or to arrange an informal meeting.
"Do I need to know?"
"I guess not."
"Goodbye." Squall reached forward to press the button that would terminate the call, but Laguna stopped him.
"No, wait a minute!" His father ran a hand through his dark hair, which was streaked with grey. "I wanted to congratulate you on your engagement! Rinoa's a great girl. When's the wedding?" He gave a lopsided grin. "I hope you didn't forget to put my name on the invitations."
"We haven't fixed a date yet. I'll let you know."
"Okay. Give Rinoa my best wishes and say hi to Selphie for me!"
Squall nodded and terminated the connection. The screen went blank. He tapped the keyboard and brought up the SeeD database. Every SeeD had their own profile, and the list showed their SeeD level, location and current mission. He clicked on Quistis' name and sent her a brief message.
Then he sat back and drummed his fingers on the desk. He had too many things to think about. Talking to Laguna always threw him off-balance. He didn't like the man. Why should he, when his father had abandoned him? They had to maintain a professional relationship, that was all. Laguna had tried, a little, to reconcile their differences. But not enough. And Squall had other matters to worry about.
Sometimes he wondered why Garden still existed. He thought about retiring. Disbanding SeeD. They'd all discussed it. Squall hadn't contributed much to that particular conversation but he understood the opinions voiced. It was Irvine, surprisingly enough, who had hit on the core problem.
"If we quit being SeeDs, what will we do then?"
That was why Squall stayed as Commander of the Garden, taking over from Cid who had officially retired as Headmaster. Because he didn't know how to do anything else. And nor did the others. Fighting was all they knew. Even though the final battle was over, that future still lay ahead, and someone had to prepare the world for what was coming.
It might as well be him.
"This is one sick joke," said Cloud.
"Oh, but it's not a joke," said Kelling. "You will see that very soon."
He stared at the photo again. "Kill her... why?"
"She may not look it, but she is possibly the most dangerous person in existence right now."
He tried to laugh but gave a hacking cough instead. "This girl? You've got to be kidding me."
"We're not," said Kelling grimly. "Rinoa is a Sorceress. She's young, so she is still developing her powers, but in a few more years she'll become a formidable evil. She needs to be eliminated before it's too late."
Cloud tossed the photo away. The other men watched the piece of paper as it floated down to land at Kelling's feet. Cloud cleared his throat and moved into a defensive stance, with his sword raised. He could feel his strength returning.
"Forget it," he said. "I'm not doing your dirty work for you."
"You're a mercenary, aren't you?"
"Not any more!" He leapt off the dais and in a flash he landed next to Kelling, grabbed him by his hair and let his sword hover over the man's exposed throat. Kelling gasped and choked. The scientists backed away, fear in their eyes.
"Subject appears to be, er, recovering," said Kyme shakily. He dropped his pen, which rolled across the gleaming floor and came to rest near the discarded photo, but he obviously didn't dare to come near Cloud and pick it up.
"Take me back, or I'll kill him," Cloud snarled.
Kyme hesitated, looking to Kelling for a signal.
"I'm warning you," he growled. "First Kelling... then that scumbag over there – don't move!" he added as Holt began to sidestep towards a computer. The white-coated scientist froze.
"Wait," Kelling rasped.
Cloud looked down in disgust. Kelling's face was soaked with sweat. But his arm was beginning to feel the strain of holding his sword level, and the other arm that restrained Kelling was twisted in an awkward position. He shifted his body, causing a gasp of terror from his hostage. Now he was behind Kelling, in what might have looked like an embrace if it weren't for the huge sword which cut across the front of Kelling's neck.
"I... I told you not to be hasty, Cloud," Kelling gasped. Cloud's eyes darted around. He twisted his head to look behind him, afraid that Kelling might be stalling for time. But nobody else appeared, no soldiers. The scientists weren't even armed as far as he could see. "Holt... show him..."
"What?" said Cloud sharply. His hold on Kelling tightened and the man choked.
Holt leaned over the panel of a machine and pressed a button. Cloud expected alarms to go off. He expected soldiers to burst in and shoot him in the back. What he didn't expect was for a blank screen on the wall behind the dais to activate. What he didn't expect was for it to show him... Tifa. She lay unconscious on the floor of a dark cell. He couldn't bear to see her like that. With her eyes closed and her face smooth in repose, she looked so vulnerable.
"Tifa... what have you done to her?" he whispered. His limbs suddenly felt weak again.
"Release Kelling," said Holt. His voice was shaking – it was clear the men were still afraid of Cloud, but they had the upper hand now and they knew it. Cloud lowered his sword and flung Kelling away from him. Kelling lurched against one of the panels. He caught himself and stood panting for a few seconds, massaging his neck.
"It was wise of you not to kill me," he said at last, regaining his composure. "It would have been her death."
"You bastard, what have you done with her?"
"I would have preferred not to," said Kelling. He took a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his face with it. "But I suspected that you might be... difficult. Imprisoning Tifa was a regrettable but necessary precaution."
"She is alive," Holt added. "She suffered the same process as you, but she will recover."
So he lied, thought Cloud. He probably intended to use her as a hostage all along…
"That's enough," said Kelling. "All you need to know is that she is safe in our hands. Whether she will remain safe is up to you. If you attempt to harm any of us again, Tifa will pay the price. Once you have completed your mission, we'll return both of you to your own world."
Cloud looked down at the floor. That was it, then. He had no choice. He would have been prepared to risk his own life, but not Tifa's. Whatever kind of game these men were playing with their talk of other worlds, he would have to play along.
"Where is she?" he asked.
Kelling smiled. "Not in this building, so don't waste your time looking. She is far away. You won't be able to find her; only we know where she is. Now, do we have an understanding?"
He scowled. "I guess we do." He sheathed his sword on his back and folded his arms.
"Very good. Let me explain the details of this mission to you. Your target, Rinoa Heartilly, is currently residing in Balamb Garden. Balamb Garden is a mobile institute designed for military training, and it's hovering just outside this city as we speak. We will provide you with temporary accommodation at the edge of the city to allow easier access to Garden. You must infiltrate Garden, kill Rinoa and return to your secret location with proof of her death before Garden leaves. That gives you a week to complete the mission."
"So this Balamb Garden's like a military academy? That means it'll be full of soldiers in training, right? How am I supposed to get in?"
"You're partly right. Balamb Garden is most famous for its elite mercenary force, SeeD. They will be your toughest opponents if you have to fight your way out. As for getting in, you'll get the details later on."
"SeeD…" An odd name, Cloud mused. They sounded a bit like SOLDIER, specialist fighters, but… "If SeeD are a mercenary force, why don't you just hire one of them to kill Rinoa for you? Why do you want me?"
Kelling smiled crookedly. "Ideally, we would. But there's a slight problem. The commander of SeeD is Rinoa's fiancé."
"Oh." Damn, this was just getting worse and worse. "And if he gets in my way?"
"Kill him," said Kelling without hesitation. "Fulfilling your mission comes first, whatever the body count. If you have to kill the whole Garden to get to Rinoa, then do it. Remember, Tifa's life is at stake here too."
Cloud's face darkened. He didn't like what he was being made to do at all. He decided privately that he would try to do this without killing anybody else. Taking one innocent life was bad enough. He could do without the guilt of killing an entire academy of military students.
"You're a coward," he spat. "If you're a member of the Galbadian government, why don't you get some Galbadian soldiers to take her out? Or doesn't this country have an army?"
"Trust me, we thought of all the available options before summoning you. Galbadia has suffered under the rule of a Sorceress. We are currently searching the country to find potential Sorceresses, and eliminating them. Rinoa is still alive only by a lucky chance."
"Her father is the ruler of Galbadia."
Cloud let out his breath. He didn't think this could get worse, but it had. "So you're ordering me to kill the daughter of your president?"
"General. Galbadia is under military rule. The General is currently refusing to act against his daughter."
"I see. You thought you'd take matters into your own hands." He had a potential weapon here. These Galbadians were traitors.
"Reveal anything of this and Tifa will die," said Kelling, anticipating the train of Cloud's thought.
Only the thought of Tifa kept him from running the man straight through with his sword. He took a deep breath. "Fine. Anything else I should know?"
"Garden only accepts students below the age of twenty one. You're too old. You can gain access as a visitor, but you'll be supervised throughout and you'll only see a few public areas."
"So? You want me to bust in there?"
"No. You need to become familiar with the geography of Garden. You also need to get close enough to Rinoa without causing havoc. If you bust in there, as you so eloquently put it, she will in all likelihood leave Garden before you get anywhere near her."
Cloud didn't say anything. They had brought him here; if they couldn't come up with a plan, he sure as hell wasn't going to help them.
"That's why you will need an accomplice," Kelling went on.
"You have someone in Garden working for you?"
This time Holt spoke. "No. But right now, if my calculations are correct, a suitable accomplice has just entered your house."
Cloud's eyes widened. "You don't mean…" Damn. On the one hand, having a friend accompany him in this strange world was a comfort, especially knowing they would back him up in a fight. On the other, it was bad enough that Tifa had been dragged into this mess. "I don't want," he started to say, but Kelling cut him off.
"Begin the transportation procedure."
Holt and Kyme scurried to the machine and began entering codes. Cloud watched, hoping to get an idea of how to work the device, but he was still completely clueless. Numbers flashed on the screen in apparently random orders. The faint humming coming from the metal arch on the dais escalated into a busy whirring.
"Keep away from the arch," Kelling warned him. "The portal is one way only."
The noise from the arch increased in pitch. It cut like a knife through Cloud's head, a jagged bolt of sound. He clapped his hands over his ears. Kelling had done the same, but the scientists worked on, showing no reaction. Abruptly, the frequency passed beyond his hearing as a shimmering bubble of energy appeared around the dais. It was transparent; he could see it only because of a faint reflection, but he could feel it more than anything else – it radiated raw power.
"Temperature increasing," said Kyme. "Force field active. Adjusting spatial-temporal alignment."
"Don't go near the field," Holt warned them as he finished entering the codes. "The radiation will fry you."
"Impressive, isn't it?" said Kelling conversationally.
Cloud refused to answer. He didn't want to have a civil conversation with the man who was effectively blackmailing him into killing someone.
Kyme was pressing buttons furiously. He kept watching a small screen in front of him. Cloud stared at the screen; it showed a tiny white dot moving about, and a transparent square, made up of black lines, which followed the white dot. Every time the square centred on the white dot, the camera zoomed in. The blob of white enlarged until it filled almost the whole screen.
"Gotcha!" said Kyme, and he pressed another button.
The arch made a noise like metal being torn apart. The energy bubble surrounding it glowed, and then, with not even a flash of light or puff of smoke or bang to announce her arrival, a girl stumbled out of the arch. The machinery stopped whirring. The energy dissipated. Cloud felt a wave of heat hit him in the face and blow back his hair like a gust of wind.
The girl lay still. He couldn't even tell if she was breathing.
"Revive her," Kelling ordered.
"Yes, sir." Holt stepped onto the dais and injected the girl's arm with a clear fluid. He moved away hurriedly as she began to stir.
"Subject successfully transferred," said Kyme.
"Yes, we know," said Kelling impatiently. "Take your notes in silence."
Kyme shot him an aggrieved look.
"Ah…" said the girl. "Did I trip over?
The girl rolled onto her side and pulled herself up, then stared around the room in utter astonishment. Cloud hurried over to her.
"It's all right," he said, lifting her up. He knew from his own experience that she would be feeling sick and woozy. Hell, he still had a headache. It would probably take a good night's sleep for them to recover completely.
"Cloud," she said. "I was looking for you. Where are we? Did I hit my head? 'Cause this sure ain't your home."
"I'll explain later," said Cloud. He glared at Kelling as he helped his friend stand up. "You shouldn't have brought her!"
Kelling raised his eyebrows. "I don't think your opinion matters in this. You and Yuffie are allies. I know you'll help each other. It's getting late. I think it's time we began. You'll be escorted to your private accommodation. I have a few ground rules to tell you while you enjoy our hospitality. First of all, you must not leave the house at all until it is time for the mission. All your needs will be provided for. Secondly, be aware that all your actions will be monitored. I have spies watching the house. We'll know if you leave without permission. Thirdly, you are to stay quiet. Nobody must know of your presence. Is that clear?"
"Yes," said Cloud.
"Huh?" said Yuffie. "I'm feeling kinda sick, I don't think I wanna stay in a hotel. It's nice of you to offer us a vacation an' all…"
"Subject is confused," noted Kyme, before a look from Kelling intimidated him into silence again.
"Just be quiet and stick with me, Yuffie," said Cloud. "I promise I'll explain what's going on, but it'll have to wait until you feel better, okay?"
"Sure," said Yuffie. Her face turned green. "Ugh… I think I'm gonna be sick."
Cloud managed to keep Yuffie's face turned away from him so she vomited onto the floor instead of his clothes. Kelling ordered Kyme to clean up the mess, which Kyme did with much grimacing and reluctance.
"Now, just one moment," said Kelling. "Biggs! Wedge!"
Cloud flinched. Holt gave him an odd look, and he wondered if any of them knew what those names meant to him.
A door at the other end of the lab slid open and two soldiers hurried in. One of them wore a blue uniform and carried a sword. The other wore dark red and was more heavily armoured.
"Reporting, sir!" said the one in the blue uniform.
"Escort these two to the secret location," Kelling ordered.
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Go with them," said Kelling. "Remember, I will be monitoring all your actions."
Cloud half-carried, half-dragged Yuffie across the floor. The one in the blue uniform, who introduced himself as Wedge, led them out of the laboratory, down a corridor, a set of stairs and into a dark basement which turned out to be an underground station. Biggs followed them. He kept his machine gun trained on them throughout the journey. Evidently, Kelling still didn't trust them. Still, Cloud thought he could have taken both soldiers easily if he didn't have Tifa and Yuffie to worry about.
A train with a single carriage awaited them in the station. The journey was short and dark. Even if he'd tried to see anything out of the grimy windows, it was all black because they were underground. Cloud realised that once they were taken to this safe house, he would have very little idea of where to find the laboratory again. Kelling was making sure that he didn't betray them; he would have to return and rely on Kelling's men to take them back, otherwise he would never get home.
I can only hope the bastard keeps his word, he thought.