Disclaimer: It's a fanfiction site. No one would be stupid enough to believe me if I said I owned any of the characters. -thinks- Okay, two chocobos, a few villians and a yet-to-be-determined amount of cannon fodder, but I'm only protective about the chocobos.
Warnings: Will contain m/m relationship, so if you don't like that kind of thing I suggest you hit that Back button and read something else.
Author's notes: The story takes place one year after the game, and disregards Advent Children. Loved the movie, but I'm not going to use it.
Hope you'll enjoy!
Cloud was sitting by the river, bare feet just barely dipping into the water. He had just wrapped up a training session with Yuffie, and while neither of them needed more than a few moments to catch their breath afterwards, Cloud was content to sit and simply be.
After killing Sephiroth and stopping Meteor, all he'd wanted to do was go home. But Sephiroth had burned it to the ground, and no matter how picture perfect Shinra had rebuilt the town it wasn't Nibelheim anymore. Or at least not a Nibelheim he could stand to live in.
His group of allies had scattered; Barret took Marlene back to Corel, Tifa opened a bar in Kalm, Nanaki returned to Cosmo Canyon, Vincent wanted to travel and Cid provided the transportation since didn't much care where he went as long as it was by air. Cloud would probably have been welcome or at least tolerated with any of them – Tifa had made her wishes abundantly clear – but it hadn't felt right. Instead, he'd accepted Yuffie's offer and gone to Wutai. Lord Godo had been surprised but not unwelcoming, and best of all – from Cloud's point of view – he had expected nothing from Cloud that he would not expect of any other guest. He didn't try to use Cloud's strength or reputation to further his own ambitions, wasn't pushing him to be or to act a certain way, and he wasn't in awe of the world savior. None of the Wutaians seemed to be.
Of course, having Yuffie treat him as irreverently as she possibly could – including waking him up by turning him into a frog one morning – had probably nipped any hero-worship tendencies in the bud.
One year later, Cloud felt more at peace than he had dared to hope when he'd decided to go. He had found a place in Wutai as something of the jack-of-all-trades Zack had promised they'd be. It was a comfort to know that he had succeeded in what Zack had wanted for him; freedom from Shinra, a quiet life among people he cared for and who cared for him in return. It meant that Zack's sacrifice hadn't been in vain.
He often thought of Zack when he sat like this; sun warm on his face, a breeze ruffling his hair. He could almost pretend that it was Zack's hand teasing the spikes…
He looked up at Godo, nodding to show he was listening.
"I just had a call from Midgar. A Turk, Reno he said his name was." Godo's expression clearly stated that he wasn't sure that was true. "He asked to speak with you."
"He what?" Cloud was on his feet before he even thought of moving. "Did he say why?"
"No. I told him you weren't here, just like you asked. He said he would call again in two hours – well, less than one now – and you could either talk to him or not, but either way he would not tell Shinra where you are hiding."
Well, damn. Cloud smiled slightly. Reno still knew how to push his buttons; keeping Rufus off his back was a sure way to make him at least hear Reno out.
"I'll talk to him," he said aloud, easily keeping pace with Godo as the older man started back toward the house.
"Are you sure that's wise?"
"No, but ignoring him won't solve anything." Cloud shrugged. "If it's important enough for Reno to track me down and try to guilt me into talking to him, then it's important enough for him to take a 'vacation' to Wutai and talk to me in person if I refuse. And none of us want Shinra employees here."
"True." Godo glanced at him. "You realize they will ask you for help?"
"Yes. Whether I help them or not will depend on what they're asking." Mako-bright eyes narrowed. "If it has to do with rebuilding the company, they are on their own."
Godo nodded, in agreement or acknowledgement Cloud couldn't tell.
"Yuffie says your hand-to-hand skills are improving," he said, changing the subject.
Cloud raised his eyebrows. "Really?"
"She was complaining that you are 'not half as easy to put in the dirt' as you used to be." Godo smiled. "She's pleased with your progress, even if it cuts down on her amusement."
"I'm grateful that she's teaching me. I'll always prefer a sword, but that doesn't mean I want to be dependent upon it." Cloud's eyes grew unfocused as he grappled with his fragmented memories. "Unarmed combat was not something Zack trained me in, and Shinra gave it relatively little importance."
"I remember SOLDIERs being quite proficient," Godo remarked in as close to a doubting tone as he would ever use. He had more tact that his daughter did, after all. Questioning a guest's sanity wouldn't do.
"They were. But I never passed the exams, and neither cadets nor regular troopers were expected to know more than the basics." Cloud shrugged, voice cynical. "The first mako enhancements take a while to get used to, so it's better not to confuse a fresh batch of recruits with too many drills. The hand to hand comes after you've relearned how your body works. As for the regulars, Shinra simply didn't care what our fatality rate was. There were always enough hopefuls and desperates to fill the ranks."
The silence that followed lasted until they were on the front porch of Godo's house. Cloud hesitated at the door, looking a bit sheepish.
"I'll go clean up first, so the maids won't complain at you about having such barbaric guests."
Godo chuckled. "That will be much appreciated – by them and by me."
When Cloud came back down, Godo had already accepted the call. Cloud could hear him giving polite reassurance that Cloud would join them momentarily. He felt a faint guilt for having left Godo to make conversation with the Turk, but…
You always take too much on yourself, kid. It's not healthy, memory whispered with an exasperation too sharp to be his own. He remembered the words, had heard them far too often not to, but the emotion behind them was all Zack's, and he had no right to feel it.
Cloud pushed the dual memory away. He had to stay focused on the now, or Reno might well manage to talk him into anything up to and including joining the Turks. And that wouldn't be good for anyone.
As he stepped through the doorway, Godo relaxed slightly.
"I'll turn you over to Strife now. A good day to you." The amount of sarcasm dripping off the last sentence was nothing short of amazing.
Cloud took the phone with a nod of thanks and braced himself. "It's been a while, Reno."
"And whose fault is that, holing up in Wutai like you did?" The smirk was audible. "You wouldn't believe how many times that Lockheart chit's been calling or visiting Midgar to interrogate us on your whereabouts. She just won't take 'We don't know' for an answer!"
Cloud snorted. "Perhaps she's learned something of the Turks from Vincent. Truth isn't handed out unnecessarily." He didn't bother to ask how the Turk had known where to find him. Like Tifa, most of the former Avalanche had no idea where he'd gone, but he wasn't surprised that Reno found him. For all his nonchalance, the redhead was still a Turk, and the Turks were the best at what they did. That was also why it didn't surprise him that Reno was the one to call, not Rufus. He respected Reno more than he would ever respect the President, and he wouldn't hang up on him.
And Reno, Shiva damn him, knows it.
Cloud sighed. "Just tell me what you want, Reno. You wouldn't make a social call."
"Always business with you," Reno groused, but then his tone sobered. "I assume you know that we're still digging out and organizing files from old headquarters, and trying to rebuild Shinra into something less morally questionable, so I won't go into that."
Cloud did know. If Rufus had even attempted to restart a reactor, he would have met a messy end courtesy of the Ultima Weapon.
"We found some disturbing things," Reno went on. "What's left of Hojo's files and notes suggest he had at least two, and possibly as many as five, labs scattered about the eastern continent."
"What?" Cloud snarled, just barely keeping from crushing the phone. It gave a small creak of protest and a burst of static before reception stabilized again.
"Nothing like Nibelheim! I swear, Strife, it's nothing like… like what happened to you." By the hesitance in his tone, Reno took the implied threat seriously. "None of these places involved human experiments, and some of the projects didn't concern mako at all. Mostly, the files are on artifacts that Hojo made or discovered. There's some mention of materia slots, but the science is over my head."
Cloud allowed the silence to stretch, darkly amused as he pictured Reno squirming. "So what do you want from me? I'm no more a scientist than you are."
"After Hojo, the boss isn't too keen on letting the remaining scientists have first look at whatever is in those labs, but we don't have the manpower to investigate, no matter how badly he wants to find something usable." Reno sighed. "Look, I know you and the boss don't see eye to eye, and Ifrit burn my balls off if I blame you, but he's trying to do better than his old man. He knows if you find something you think is too dangerous to keep around, you'll destroy it – might even be counting on it, for all I know. We understand if you don't want to do this, but we can't just leave it for –"
Blue eyes closed in resignation. "I'll find the labs."
"You will?" The Turk seemed thrown by that, as if he'd expected a longer argument. "That's… that's great, Strife! Will you come here and pick up the leads we have, or would you prefer if I send them to you?"
"Send it to Costa del Sol." That way the others can't use it to track me down even if they find out. "I'll leave tomorrow at the latest."
Reno laughed. "Sure don't waste any time, do you?"
Cloud's lips quirked into a small smile. "What would be the point?"
"True enough. Give me a call when you pass by Midgar, would you? You still owe me a rematch." He warmed to the subject. "Me and Rude could even teach a kid like you to drink properly, and how to get the whole bar into a free-for-all brawl!"
"… And you consider this a necessary skill?"
"Of course! A Turk who can't relax once in a while is… either Tseng or Elena, I guess, and one of each is enough. But don't you dare skip out on me, or I'll tell Lockheart where you are."
"You sure it's only one rematch?" Cloud taunted, enjoying the outraged sputtering on the other end of the line. "Take care of yourself, Reno."
"Yeah, yeah, wiseass; you too."
They hung up.