Author's note: Is there a point in me apologizing for how horribly delayed this chapter is, or should I just hide until everyone is feeling less homocidal?
Normally I try to answer my reviewers, particularly the ones who have questions and/or concrit for me, but as I'm sure you've all noticed I've been pretty much out of contact with the fandom, so I'll settle for a public apology for everyone. I'm really sorry!
Weasel Fu raised some very reasonable questions that I felt it best to answer here, though:
There will be no Ori in this fic. I haven't seen them, I'm not sure what they are (except the "big bad" of the later seasons), and I have no interest in them.
There will not be frequent contact with Gaia. The stargate is not a cell phone, and I won't have the planets working overtime to keep it open between galaxies.
Enough of my babbling now, and I hope you'll enjoy the chapter!
The sight that met them when they stepped into the room wasn't as bad as Jack had feared, but it was far from reassuring. One of the walls was cracked, Strife sitting with his back to the bared rock and surrounded in the same green light that had appeared in the gateroom. Yuffie crouched near him, head turned toward the door when the three entered. Jack suspected the girl had been watching over Strife before she heard the door open. The only good news was that Daniel looked unharmed, if nervous. He even offered a smile to his teammates.
"You alright, Daniel?" Jack asked, unwilling to trust appearances.
"I'm fine. They didn't do anything to me." Daniel hesitated, frowning worriedly. "I'm afraid it may have been the other way around."
"And how would that send Mallory into babbling hysterics?" Jack questioned, raising a hand to keep Sam from stepping around him to approach the Gaians. He wasn't risking her getting too close to that lightshow.
"Uhm…" Daniel's eyes darted from Jack to Yuffie and back again. "A misunderstanding?" he tried weakly.
Yuffie snorted, straightening. "Our conversation upset the planet, and Cloud needed a more direct connection to try and balance himself again. Your army boy got trigger happy, and I stopped him from shooting us."
Uh-huh. Jack didn't even try to cover his disbelief. "How did you break the wall?"
"A Demi spell." Yuffie shifted her weight from one foot to the other, glancing down at Strife before meeting Jack's eyes. "And Cloud's going to be so pissed I showed you that… You weren't supposed to know until we were sure you wouldn't turn on us."
"Turn on you?" Sam exclaimed, making Jack wince inwardly at the anger in her tone. "We let you keep those weap–"
"That's enough, Major," he interrupted, emphasizing her rank to ensure she would keep quiet. "Why did Mallory get 'trigger happy'? Was it when you took the wall apart?"
Yuffie shook her head. "When I slotted the materia." She tapped a finger against one of the green spheres in her bracelet. "I didn't have time to explain what I was doing, and I didn't have a Seal on me, so I used the only harmless spell I had." She shrugged, her expression unapologetic. "I'm sorry if he's hysterical about it, but I turned him back as soon as I'd done what I could for my brother."
"Turned him…" Jack trailed off, desperately trying not to realize what she was saying.
Teal'c, of course, had no such problem.
"You truly changed airman Mallory into a frog?" he asked.
Yuffie didn't answer, just looked at them as if daring them to contradict her.
"She did," Daniel said, uncomfortable with the silence. "I'm not sure how, but… She really did. – And she turned him back when I asked," he added as an afterthought, attention slipping toward Strife again.
"That makes me feel so much better," Jack muttered, drawing a brief smirk from Yuffie.
The door opened again, General Hammond pausing in the doorway. He looked at Jack in silent question and at the slight headshake dismissed the backup accompanying him.
"What happened in here?" Hammond asked as he stepped into the room.
"Well, sir," Jack stalled until the door was fully closed, "it seems there was a bit of a misunderstanding over Daniel's questions. Apparently, he managed to offend the planet." He grinned, suddenly seeing the irony of diplomatic, eager-to-get-along Daniel being the one to piss their guests off.
Judging by Daniel's glare, he understood the grin all too well.
A heavy sigh from Yuffie interrupted any further questioning, as the others turned to look at her.
"Honestly, I see why you're reluctant to trust us," she said. "If you'd come tumbling out the portal on Gaia, we'd have locked you up until we knew you weren't some remnant of Hojo's experiments. And we probably wouldn't have been this polite about it either. But we don't mean you any harm. If I'd had anything to say about it, I wouldn't have allowed this idiot," she glanced down at Strife, "to come help you, but what's done is done."
She looked at Sam, something dark and cold creeping into her eyes – something uncomfortably close to hatred. "We don't know you, and we have even less reason to trust you than you do us. All I know is that Cloud says the planets want us to work together, and that he's too stubborn to disappoint. But the day I hand a single materia over to your scientists," she spat the word, "will be at least a year after I die."
Jack could feel Sam's mental retreat. He didn't know where the Gaians' disgust for scientists came from – though the scene in the gateroom gave him plenty to go on – but it definitely struck his SiC hard.
Hammond wasn't fazed.
"What reason do we have to trust you?" he questioned neutrally.
Yuffie stepped to the side, allowing a better view of the damaged wall. "See that? That's a single spell. Imagine if we'd decided to turn a few dozen of them on you." She ignored any and all reactions, and kept talking. "We haven't turned a single harmful spell on you. We removed all offensive materia. We let you take our weapons. I fail to see how we earned this… distrust."
"Implying that you could kill us all isn't exactly reassuring," Jack said.
"Isn't it?" Yuffie raised her brows. "The fact that we could have and chose not to doesn't mean anything to you?"
No one knew quite what to say to that – 'no' sounded a little harsh when put that way – but the girl seemed to understand what they were thinking. Her lips pressed into a thin line as she watched them. Making eye contact with Sam, she spoke in a cool but polite tone.
"Even if I was willing to go without all my materia, and Cloud can tell you I still try to steal his occasionally, it would be irresponsible to leave it to you. Some people have talent enough to figure out how to cast without help, but you'd probably try to cast something you didn't have the energy for, and depending on the materia that can be lethal."
Though he'd never admit it out loud, Jack found that reassuring. It was like hearing another of the 'you're too young and primitive' lectures so often handed out by the Tok'ra and the Asgard. And there was always comfort in familiarity…
Hammond nodded, acknowledging Yuffie's point. "Fair enough, but there are still questions we need to ask about what you are."
"You have the results back, then?" Yuffie shrugged one shoulder, unconcerned – or at least acting it. "Cloud's enhanced, a lot of people were."
"You weren't," Hammond said. "Why not?"
The girl almost smiled. "Shinra guarded their secrets, General, as I'm sure you do yours. Wutai was their enemy, one the old bastard of a president feared. Why would any Wutaian be enhanced?"
"Is this enhancement why Cloud can speak to the planets?" Daniel cut in.
"No, that came later." Yuffie shifted her weight. "It's not my place to tell what was done to him, and I suggest you don't try to give your people the same advantages. There are far too many risks and side-effects to the process." Her eyes darkened with memories no one really wanted to probe further.
Hammond pressed forward anyway. "Can you tell me why it's so important we not find out what was done to Strife, or even how it has affected him? If we are to work together, our chief medic should be aware in case he's injured."
Yuffie's brows rose slightly, then lowered in a thoughtful frown. "We'll heal each other," she countered, "but I suppose you've earned a fair warning. First of all, getting the materials needed causes great changes in the surrounding wildlife." She scowled, lips curled in disgust. "You only need to get attacked by razor weeds once for the reactors to seem like a bad idea, and that's not even mentioning what happens to the animals. Secondly, there was a careful screening process before candidates received their enhancements, to make sure resources weren't wasted. Shinra didn't much care that some went crazy as long as they were usable, but the ones that… mutated were a bitch to get rid of quietly, and a publicity nightmare when they couldn't." Yuffie sighed. "Not everyone is strong enough to survive the treatment, and very few are suited to it."
Remembering the NID's lack of scruples, Hammond couldn't help but think it was safest for everyone to let the Gaians keep their secrets. At least this one.
"And that's all you're going to give us?" he said, changing the subject slightly. "No real explanation of what you did to airman Mallory, or how you did it, and no guarantees it won't happen again? No reason to trust you?"
"I didn't harm him, the transformation never has more side-effects than the occasional nausea or headache." Yuffie smiled, but it was without humor. "But it doesn't matter if I keep saying that until I'm blue in the face. Words can't make you trust us, because until you trust us our words are nothing to you. Old Wutaian wisdom – or maybe it was from a fortune cookie. Either way, it's still true." She paused, turning a considering look on Teal'c. "You should fight Cloud when the planet releases him."
Teal'c nodded, unaffected by the chorused exclamation of the Tau'ri. "I would be honored."
"Why?" Hammond asked, looking just a bit confused and highly suspicious.
"Strife looked very shaky after that episode in the gate room," Jack added. "What will Teal'c knocking him on his ass prove?"
Yuffie chuckled. "I promise these… deep discussions are rare, and once Cloud's stable again I doubt he will allow your planet to pull him in even if she wants to. You won't need to worry about him falling unconscious while on missions." She waved one hand negligently, as if brushing their half-spoken concern away. "He'll be perfectly lucid when he wakes up, and exercise is the best way to get used to any changes this exposure to the Lifestream might have caused."
"Why do you want him to fight Teal'c?" Hammond pressed, wary of her interest in the fight.
"It doesn't have to be him, it's just that Cloud likes him, and he's the most likely to make him work for the win." Yuffie smiled, looking more relaxed than she had since stepping through the gate. "Trust is built on understanding. I'd like to say we could get it from working together, but I don't think we have time for that. If you're any good at judging an opponent, a spar will tell you all you need to know about Cloud's character."
"What about you?" Daniel asked, surprising the others.
"I go where he goes, sometimes where he tells me to." Another quick smile. "I'll fight any one of you, but I doubt you'll find it reassuring. I don't share his morals." She looked to Hammond again. "You want guarantees? I can't say we'll always be on your side, but if you become our enemy, we will leave your planet and face you honorably. I'd prefer to stab you in the back on our way out and increase our chances of winning, but Cloud wouldn't stand for it. He's… He doesn't have the heart for betrayal."
Sam shifted her weight, drawing the others' attention. At Hammond's nod, she said, "I suggest you allow it, sir. We need to know what they're capable of, and this seems like a harmless way." She looked at Yuffie. "As long as neither of them use any of this materia."
The girl grinned. "If you're worried about getting frogged, don't be. I usually only use it for pranks – it's great fun when the victim isn't sure who cast it!"
The group stared at her.
"You do that regularly?" Jack asked slowly, a calculating gleam in his eye. The possibilities…
Hammond cleared his throat, well aware of how Jack's mind worked.
"But most of these materia are made for battle, and you're accustomed to using them as weapons?" Sam queried. At Yuffie's nod, she continued, "Wouldn't it put you at a disadvantage to remove them?"
"Possibly, but we don't rely on them." Yuffie tilted her head. "I didn't suggest the spar to find out who's better; it's so you'll understand us. And also to reassure us that you are what we assume you to be. We're taking a lot on faith, too."
"But you said you're here to fight the Goa'uld," Daniel interjected.
" 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend'," Jack added under his breath. It was unclear who it was aimed at.
Yuffie nodded, looking honestly appreciative of Jack's support. "Finding whoever is worrying the planets is our first priority, but we'll get around to the rest of those bastards eventually." The serious expression was exchanged for a grin. "And if we happen to kill off a few while searching for the Hojo-wannabe, so much the better!"
There were several blinks over the mood swing, but the group recovered quickly enough.
"Exactly who is this Hojo you keep mentioning?" Hammond asked.
Yuffie's mirth vanished as soon as it had come, and her face twisted into a mask of hatred. "If we could kill that sadistic bastard a thousand times over it would be too kind a punishment for him!" Her hands clenched, body trembling with tension. "He performed most of the experiments on Cloud, and did even worse to a friend of ours. If it hadn't been for him –"
Strife woke suddenly, eyes snapping open as the green light died. He was on his feet and by Yuffie's side before anyone really saw him move. There was nothing dazed or disoriented about him now, only a tension Hammond recognized as battle ready.
"What did they do to you?" Strife demanded. "I could feel your current change."
"It's nothing," Yuffie reassured, studying him. "You alright?" she questioned, a sudden tightness to her mouth.
"Fine," Strife said as he slowly shifted to a casual stance. "Just a bit energized." He rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck. "I think she understands well enough to keep calm until I have time for conversation."
Yuffie relaxed, leaving Hammond to wonder if she'd expected a different answer or if they'd spoken in some kind of code. There wasn't much he could do about either, though.
"She didn't hurt you, did she?" Daniel asked, clearly worried. "I didn't mean to upset her–"
Strife shook his head, the smallest of smiles tugging at his lips. "It's nothing I haven't survived before," he said wryly. His gaze shifted to Hammond and the smile turned to a frown as he took in the general's expression. "I assume the tests are done?"
"Not completely. There are a few questions left to be answered, but I'm willing to let that rest as Dr. Frasier assures me you pose no medical danger to us."
The frown deepened. "What happened while I was speaking to the planet?"
"Your sister got a little enthusiastic about protecting you," Jack drawled.
Strife fixed a glare on Yuffie.
"He was going to shoot you!" she said defensively. "All I did was frog him."
Strife's eyes widened in surprise. "Why? What in Shiva's name possessed you to do that?"
The girl was obviously taken aback. "It was the only non-offensive spell I had! Would you have preferred I used Demi?"
"Probably," Strife snapped, his tone silencing her. He turned to Hammond, urgency clear in his eyes. "I need to speak with Mallory, as soon as possible."
"Why?" the general questioned, even as he gestured for Jack to see to it. "Miss Kisaragi assured us the spell was harmless."
"Physically, it is," Strife agreed, "and if he had been injured he probably would have refused our aid and gone to your healer Frasier." His gaze settled on Yuffie. "You haven't seen what happens to people who encounter Touch Mes unprepared, but I have. The first time I was in Gongaga, a man in my squadron – can't remember his name – thought it was silly to be afraid of them and wandered off during a break. He got stuck in frog form for ten minutes at the most, but he was so terrified of it happening again that he was transferred to a desk job for the remainder of his contract. He simply couldn't go into the field without having panic attacks. I'd be surprised if he set foot outside Midgar after we got back."
Yuffie's eyes widened. "Oh. I had no idea!"
Strife's expression softened. "I know." He turned back to Hammond. "There is a shift of the mind as well as the body. You maintain rational thought, but it is a difference that can traumatize people if they don't understand what is happening to them, and your trooper had no way of doing that."
A muscle in Hammond's jaw worked, but he managed to grit out, "What are you going to do to him?"
"Apologize. Heal the damage, if there is any." Strife shrugged. "I won't know how – or even if – he is affected until I see him."
Fortunately, Hammond was saved from having to answer that by the door opening. Mallory, once he fought back the worst of the shock, had correctly assumed that he wouldn't be allowed to avoid the Gaians forever and had returned to their floor on his own. Partly in hopes of lessening the Colonel's disapproval of his failure to guard Daniel, and partly because he was feeling guilty about fleeing and leaving a man behind. The delay between Jack leaving and the two of them reentering was caused by Mallory's reluctance to face the aliens again, even though Jack insisted no one meant him any harm.
The poor man was further confused when he stepped into the room and found Strife awake again. His gaze slid to Yuffie and he swallowed audibly as he fought the urge to turn around and leave. Jack's hand on his shoulder squeezed slightly and didn't let go, giving him some reassurance that he had backup this time.
Strife stepped forward, drawing Mallory's attention to him, and bowed deeply.
"Airman Mallory," he said formally, "I offer my apologies for my sister's actions."
Mallory just gaped at him. After a moment, he glanced over at Yuffie then back at Strife's still bowed figure. "That's… That's okay, I guess." This really wasn't what he'd expected. At all.
Strife straightened, eyes intent upon him. "I am glad you were not harmed. I've seen men crack from the shock of being transformed." He looked almost approving. "It is a mark in your favor that you are willing to confront us."
Mallory nodded, feeling at a loss for words. A desperate look around the room didn't quite help, but Daniel's encouraging smile did ease his nerves a bit. At least nothing bad had happened after he left, then. "Thank you," he managed.
Strife removed his right bracer, placing it on the table. He unwound a purple silk ribbon from his wrist, letting it pool in his cupped hand, and offered it to Mallory.
Yuffie started visibly. "Cloud, you –"
"Quiet." Strife's tone was commanding enough that everyone straightened instinctively. "You acted on my behalf. Restitution is my concern, not yours."
Yuffie paled but bowed her head, hands clenching in what the others could only guess was frustration.
"I… I don't understand," Mallory said, wary of accepting anything from the man, no matter how polite he was.
"If she had caused injury, I would have offered healing. Since she caused you fear, I offer protection. As long as you wear this ribbon against your skin, you can't be frogged." Strife didn't blink and his hand didn't waver. He just waited for Mallory to accept or deny the gift.
While he was starting to feel a bit guilty about hesitating, Mallory couldn't help but ask, "Is that all it does?"
Strife's lips twitched. "It protects against what we call status changes. You can't be spelled asleep, you can't be poisoned, paralyzed, petrified, or transformed, and you can't have your emotions affected by outside sources."
There was a shocked silence, eventually broken by Hammond.
"And you're just giving it away?" he asked.
Strife shook his head, not looking away from Mallory. "It is the only protection I can give you, and to offer less would make light of Yuffie's actions and your strength. Will you accept it?"
Mallory stepped forward, reached out his hand and paused, just inches from touching the cloth. "All I need to do is wear it?" he asked.
"Against your skin," Strife confirmed.
Mallory took the ribbon, slightly surprised that it felt no different from ordinary silk, pulled up his sleeve and wound it around his wrist, just as Strife himself had worn it. He wasn't taking any chances in case the position of the ribbon mattered. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Prove that it works."
Strife nodded. "Yuffie."
The girl raised her hand and cast the spell again.
Mallory couldn't keep from flinching as the light washed over him again, but nothing happened. He blinked and sighed with relief, a knot of tension loosening as if it had never been.
Then Yuffie grinned. "Frog."
Strife half-turned at the word, but the spell caught him before he could speak.
The Tau'ri hadn't known that a frog could look so exasperated.
Laughing, Yuffie turned him back to human. "I had to prove the spell's harmless, didn't I?" she defended.
Strife just rolled his eyes.