Notes: Thanks to Lisa for all her plot help, and to 1wngdngl for reminding me that I needed to get this done!
Reno walked down the street in determination, a destination already in mind. Behind him he could hear Yuffie indignantly demanding to know where they were going, but he did not pay attention. She would find out soon enough.
It was a new day, he had experienced a deep, though uncomfortable, sleep, and he had a new perspective. He had given up too easily with Rude. He supposed he had just been so shocked at the other's sudden memory loss, and the cold, uncaring way that he had been brushed aside. Rude had intensely pained him, and it still hurt, but now he was irritated at himself for losing his temper. That would not help. If anything, it had probably made it worse. He was determined to get Rude's memory back, and maybe, with Yuffie present to give a second witness, the other man would be more willing to listen.
Up ahead, he could see the building where Rude had been working the previous night. As he approached and stopped, he heard Yuffie give an indignant cry.
"A bar?! It's still the morning, we've gotta find people, and you want to get a drink?!"
He ignored her. He had seen Rude going out a side door, his broad shoulders slumping down as a sign of exhaustion. The place was open all night, and by all appearances, Rude had labored during that time and was just now ending his shift. Maybe the weariness would help to make him more willing to listen to his friend, and then again, maybe it would make it more difficult.
Reno took a deep breath. "Well, here goes everything," he said to himself.
"Hey, Rude!" he called as he sauntered over to the older man.
Rude started and looked up, frowning. "You've got a lot of nerve, to come here again after last night," he snapped. He had not expected that he would ever see this insane redhead again. After he had told his boss about the other's conduct, Reno had officially been fired. And Rude had been perfectly content with it.
"If you're hoping to get your job back, it won't work," Rude grunted now. "No one was impressed with you."
"Nah," Reno replied, "I wanna talk to you."
Rude glowered. "I don't have time for your nonsense." After being hard at work for so many hours, and having to take on Reno's part of the job as well, all he wanted was to get home and sleep. He did not need this, especially now.
Undaunted, Reno clapped a hand on Rude's shoulder, the other starting violently at the action. "Yeah, I know," said the red-haired man. "But I've got someone who'll back up what I'm saying. Can't you give us five minutes, while you're walking home? You won't lose any time."
Rude looked around the bluish-green-eyed man to where a raven-haired girl was leaning on crutches. She sighed wearily, but then tried to smile and give a half-wave without falling, when she caught Rude's gaze. She seemed a strange choice for an accomplice, if Reno was not telling the truth. And even if he honestly believed he was, would someone else support him in such madness? Of course, he could not possibly know the correct order of things, but Rude decided that it would not hurt to humor him . . . this time. Maybe he would even go away afterwards and not come back.
"Fine," he said at last. "But only until we get to my home."
Reno shrugged. "Fair enough," he grinned, and motioned for the girl to come with them. "This is Yuffie Kisaragi. You used to know her too, but right now you don't."
Rude merely grunted. He wondered if he would regret this experience later. Actually, he was regretting it now. As Reno talked, with Yuffie interjecting now and then, it seemed almost . . . familiar, he supposed. Well, maybe not the girl's presence. But the redhead's easy-going nature and manner of speech, and them simply proceeding down the street, was like something that had happened before, many times.
Of course it was ridiculous. It would have to be that as Reno continued to try convincing Rude of the truth of his words, that Rude was imagining it all and being influenced. Nothing else made the slightest bit of sense. Though, he seemed sincere, and the girl was confirming his statements. It did not seem as though this was an elaborate joke. But there was not any way that these things could be true.
Sephiroth again leaned forward on the couch, his long hair sweeping around him as he gazed at the floor. He still did not recall everything, but over the past few hours, bits and pieces had been coming back to him. Most of it was negative---some of the torture he had experienced as the scientists had tested his endurance and strength, more details of the calamities he had brought about, and his dark feelings that had developed towards Shinra, Cloud, even Zack, after he had lost his mind.
In his former madness, Sephiroth had believed that he had been betrayed by his comrade. Now, he knew that he had been the one to do the betraying. How could he even face Zack, after what he had done? He wished that Zack could have managed to kill him that night in the reactor room. If he had been fully aware of what he had been doing that night, that was what he would have wanted. Though, Zack had probably known it. And it seemed like he blamed himself for Sephiroth's insanity, which was ridiculous.
"Seph . . ."
He glanced over at the other, who was still beside him on the couch. Zack leaned down to see into the green eyes, smiling sadly.
"Hey . . . there's good stuff to remember, too," he said in a quiet tone. Even though he knew this was for the best, it was still hard, to see his friend so stricken. Part of him worried that Sephiroth could go mad again from all the memories being thrust upon him, but he shoved those thoughts aside. Perhaps regaining his memories would actually ensure that he would stay sane, as Aerith had told Zack earlier. It would be extremely painful, she had said, but it might give him the determination he needed to ensure that it would never happen again, that he would nevermore commit such abominable acts.
Sephiroth shook his head numbly. Anything good paled in comparison with the bad.
"Cloud . . . he doesn't remember anything yet, does he."
Zack sighed, shaking his head. "Nope." He knew what the other was thinking. When the blond did finally recall things, it was not going to be pretty. And Sephiroth had a heavy weight tied around his heart, knowing that they were, indeed, mortal enemies. It was going to be a rude awakening for Cloud. Zack had a very bad feeling about it. And, from stuff Aerith had said, she felt the same.
Both of them looked up when the door opened. Sephiroth felt himself tense as Cloud walked in, undoing his tie and shutting the door in a nonchalant way. It would be impossible to ever look at the younger man in the same way again. They were not business partners, they were not friends. They were arch-rivals. After everything that Sephiroth now remembered had happened, it could never be different. Cloud would feel the same, or much moreso, once he also recalled the past.
Feeling eyes upon him, Cloud glanced over and shook his head. "It doesn't look like the rest did you much good," he commented.
Sephiroth grunted. He wondered if Cloud was going to say anything about Zack, but then again, probably only he could see the brunet right now. And that was naturally best.
"You, on the other hand, look as though you've had a good day." For now, Sephiroth could not bring himself to tell Cloud what he now knew. The blond would probably only think he was insane anyway, or that the lack of sleep was doing it. Sephiroth wished that was the explanation. He doubted that he would be able to conceal the truth for long. Even if Cloud did not gain his own memories right away, Sephiroth did not think that he could bear being around the other, not when he himself remembered. He would not be able to lie that way to Cloud to or himself.
Cloud nodded. "Yeah . . . I met a nice girl who runs one of the buildings we own," he said, heading for the stairs. "A martial arts dojo. I'm going to take her to dinner."
"Oooh," Zack remarked, and smirked a bit. "He and Tifa found each other. This is going to be interesting."
Sephiroth slumped back into the plush softness of the couch, watching Cloud begin to ascend the steps. "I hope it goes well," he replied truthfully. He wished that the other would quickly arrive at the top and go to his room, or anywhere, anywhere that was not here. He could not keep up this charade.
Cloud nodded. "Me too." He reached the top step and then leaned over the railing, looking down at the other. "You should probably try to get some more sleep or something," he remarked. "Have you tried a pill?"
"Maybe you should." He started to turn away again. "I'm picking her up at seven."
Sephiroth nodded. "Fine." He placed a hand over his eyes tiredly, listening as the blond walked down the hallway and into a room. The door closed behind him firmly, the sound being magnified in the large house. Then silence reigned.
". . . Wow."
Sephiroth sighed, hearing Zack's voice. "That . . . was horrible," he muttered pointedly.
He could sense Zack was nodding as well. "I'm sorry, Seph. . . ." He was not certain what Zack was apologizing for, but he suspected that it was the fact that Zack had appeared to prompt the conscious return of so many of his old friend's memories.
The silver-haired man shook his head wearily. "No . . . you're right. I need to know. It couldn't be helped."
Now Zack was quiet for a time. "I was actually kinda surprised to see you and Cloud getting along so well, like you have been," he admitted. "Well . . . I dunno . . . if you two could maybe put the past behind you . . ."
"Cloud wouldn't be able to. And I don't blame him. What I did . . ." Sephiroth took his hand away from his eyes, glaring up at the ceiling. "What I did is unforgivable." He had the feeling that it had not fully hit him yet. It all seemed too much like an unreal dream, something he could still wake up from. He felt numb. It was so hard . . . so sickening . . . to realize that the insane man from his nightmares truly was him. He could not comprehend it, yet he knew it was true. For now he was locking the truth behind a wall of ice. But ice would shatter all too easily.
"Hey . . . I forgive you, pal."
Sephiroth sat up straight, looking over at the other. Zack's expression was completely serious now, no trace of mirth in his sincere eyes.
"And I know . . . it probably doesn't mean much right now," he continued, "but I've gotta be grateful that you lost your mind when you did those things. I mean . . . it's not like you deliberately decided to go out and do what you did." He slowly laid a hand on Sephiroth's shoulder.
Sephiroth watched him. Zack was right---it was not much of a comfort. Even though he had not wanted to kill all those people, he had still done it. And he had to wonder, Jenova had influenced his thoughts and had driven him mad, but she must have started with some seed of an idea that was in his own mind and heart. She must have taken it---in this case, probably his fear that he was not human---and twisted it, poisoned it, until he had not known truth from fiction. And he hated that he had not been able to recognize that he was being manipulated.
"I'm weak. . . ." He looked away, glowering at the wall.
Zack sighed sympathetically. "The way Jenova works, she makes you think that what she wants is what you want," he said, though he was certain that Sephiroth knew that all too well now. His friend's own instability had sent him over the edge once Jenova had started her wicked games.
Sephiroth was silent. "I can't stay here," he muttered then.
Zack watched him quietly, sadly. "Where will you go?" he asked.
"I don't know. . . . Maybe back to the company. . . ." It sounded hollow. What would there even be for him to do at the company building? He was not a businessman. Anything he could try to accomplish there would now seem so pointless. His heart would not be in it. But he had to do something. There was not any other life for him on this planet.
Zack nodded slowly, continuing to observe the other. Sephiroth did not try to get up, as if he was too weary and burned out to even attempt that much. It made the brunet's heart twist. And on the other hand, he was grateful to see this side of his friend, instead of the crazed monster. Still, he had to wish that he was not only a spirit. He wanted to be able to offer more comfort, to pull his friend close in a hug. Sephiroth was not fond at all of physical contact, but he had allowed it every now and then from Zack. He had the feeling that Sephiroth would allow it now.
The two strangers had arrived in the small town several hours ago, and already they were making themselves at home. As soon as they had exited the bus, they had crossed to the monument in the town square. Townspeople, curious to know who these visitors were and what they had to say, had started to flock around them. Then, the one who seemed to be the leader had begun to preach.
That was really the only word for it, the mayor decided with a shake of his head, as he peered outside through the slats of his office's venetian blind. The boy spoke with fervor about someone who had the ability to solve everyone's problems, someone who deserved all of these good citizens' loyalty, someone who was ready and waiting to lead them all to victory. It was either a religion or a cult. Or a fraud, he supposed, but the speaker sounded so absolutely sincere. But maybe he was honestly a believer, and the person he worked under was secretly a fake.
He really was only a boy, decided the middle-aged man. And yet there was something about him that gave off a distinct sensation of having seen much more than most did in their lifetimes. But he also sounded unstable. The longer he talked, the louder and more passionate his voice became, and the more captivated his audience became. Maybe it was time to put a stop to this. The last thing these people needed was to become involved in some sort of damaging cult.
Quickly he crossed the room to his door and opened it, stepping out onto the street. The various cries and cheers of the spectators met his ears, and he shivered slightly. Some of them were yelling that they wanted to know more, that they wanted to meet the "Mother" of whom the silver-haired teenager was telling. Others were jeering, saying that he was a fool and ordering him to step down.
To these, the boy brandished the most bizarre sword the mayor had ever seen. It looked like a katana, and yet it had two separate blades! And the look in his green eyes was as two daggers.
The older man with him, sporting the same color of silver in his hair, would also step forward when the opposition got to be too much. He glared as well, but also occasionally yelled odd things that were apparently supposed to be insults, such as "You meanies!" That only produced a chorus of laughter from the contenders. But when the man demonstrated his powerful physical strength, and punched the foremost heckler several feet back into those behind him, suddenly no one was laughing any longer.
"What's going on here?" the mayor frowned as he approached.
"These people are harassing us," announced the teenager, turning to look at him.
The man studied the uproar before looking back to the boy. "It doesn't look like you and your brother are helping the situation along," he commented, eyeing the drawn katana and the other's clenched fists.
"We have to defend ourselves," replied the youth, "and Mother's honor." He studied the mayor intensely, the pupils of his eyes narrowing to cat's slits. It was as if he was examining every inch of the man's soul, memorizing each aspect of his personality, every thought, both good and ill, and deciding what he thought. Suddenly, he was both judge and jury.
The mayor took a step back. This was actually intimidating. He should be the one in charge, and yet it felt like this stranger had everything under his control. But . . . that was absurd! He must be falling into the other's hypnotic spell. There was not another logical explanation. He narrowed his eyes. No one can be hypnotized without their permission, and he will not give his.
"Mother will solve all of this world's problems," the boy said soothingly. "She'll even help stop the crime going on here."
. . . She would? Somebody certainly needed to do something. He was at his wit's end. The thought of having help was definitely welcome.
"There won't be any more robberies, or murders, or other bad things. Mother will create a peaceful world, where everyone's happy. All she wants is the support of everyone who also wants to see this happen."
He certainly did want to see it happen! If somebody was ready and willing to do it, then they definitely had his respect. Maybe this boy really did have the answers. He should listen to what was being said.
Kadaj straightened up, smiling with pleasure at his victory. It was much too easy to brainwash the skeptics into accepting Mother. That was part of the power she had given him. And now this town was falling under her control. It would not be long before the entire world followed suit!
Denzel could not have been more excited when Tifa returned with the news that she had met Cloud and he had invited them to dinner.
Ever since they had ended up in this place, he had been trying to find Cloud. After all, it stood to reason that if they were there, Cloud would be, too! And then, one night the television had been on while Tifa had been cleaning the table from dinner, and Denzel had seen a press conference for Jenova Corp.
The name had always been suspicious to him, ever since he had first learned that they owned the dojo. But he had wanted to stay as far away from them as possible, as he had assumed that some old enemy of theirs must be running it. And he was partially correct. Then, to see Cloud---Cloud!---go up on the platform and discuss the company's plans for the coming year, had been . . . well, to say it was a shock would be saying too little. Cloud and Sephiroth were working together?! Something was obviously very wrong. And Sephiroth had not seemed crazy. The only solution Denzel had been able to reach was that they had both lost their memories, as Tifa and Marlene had.
He had tried to get into Jenova Corp to talk to Cloud. He had tried several times, but he had always been turned away by either security or the receptionist. Actually, he had been going to call and attempt to make an appointment, but then he had learned that Tifa needed to go there because of the threats being made to throw them out. If Tifa could see Cloud, maybe it would help restore all of their memories!
She did seem a bit weird when she came back, as if being around Cloud was bringing something back that she could not understand, and Denzel was glad to see it. Now that they were going to have dinner too, and he would be there, maybe he could figure out something to say that could trigger Cloud's memories. It had not worked with Tifa, when he had tried before, but now things might be different.
Cloud was right on time too. There was a knock at the door exactly at seven. Denzel leaped up to answer it. "Tifa, he's here!" he called down the hall.
Tifa was completely prepared. She took a deep breath, studying herself in the bathroom mirror. It was ridiculous, for her to make such a fuss over it. After all, it was just a polite gesture from a stranger. Though she could not deny that she had felt something strange when she had been there. And when she had got home, she recalled all of Denzel's talk about someone named Cloud.
She had worried over the boy when he had started making such outrageous claims. They came from another planet, he said, and Cloud had lived with them. And they had needed to save the world from Sephiroth in the past, before Denzel had come to live with them. Then there was a bizarre trio of silver-haired boys who had started kidnapping all the kids. . . . All of the tales were so extremely detailed, yet fanciful. After all, they could not be real! There was not any way. Still, there was that feeling . . .
She frowned, shaking her head as she pushed the thoughts away. It was just her imagination.
She had to smile slightly in amusement when she came into the main room and found Marlene and Denzel clamoring around a slightly overwhelmed Cloud. Marlene was plying him with questions, asking him what it was like to run a big company, and Denzel was . . . well, hopefully he was not telling Cloud his stories. She had not thought to warn him about that.
"Okay, guys," she said as she walked over, "let's give Mr. Strife a break."
The chatter stopped, and Cloud relaxed noticeably. "No, that's okay," he said anyway. "I like kids."
She could see it was true, too. And apparently the feeling was mutual. But even so, she knew all too well that it could get dizzying sometimes.
She held out her hand. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Strife," she apologized.
He smiled, shaking it. "No problem," he replied. "We're just getting acquainted." He nodded toward the door. "Shall we?"
She nodded, smiling again as Marlene ran happily to the doorway and looked out. "Wow!" the girl squealed. "Do we get to ride in that?" She pointed outside, and as the others came over, Tifa could see that she was indicating the limousine parked by the curb.
Cloud smiled as he stepped out into the sidewalk. "That's right," he said.
Marlene beamed, hurrying over to the shiny black vehicle.
Denzel was pleased himself. Things were off to a great start.
The dinner was, overall, a pleasant experience. Marlene was thrilled to be eating at an expensive restaurant, and she seemed to have quickly become attached to Cloud, as well. Tifa and Cloud mostly made small talk, gradually getting acquainted in between Marlene's interested questions. Denzel was watching everything with interest, but to Tifa's relief, he had said nothing about his strange stories.
"Hey, Cloud," he said at one point, when there was a lull in the conversation, "what's Sephiroth like?"
Cloud blinked in surprise, glancing over at him. "He's a good guy," he answered. "He knows how to run a business, but he hasn't lost himself in the process. He's not ruthless, like a lot of business people are."
"And you really like working with him?" Denzel pressed.
"Denzel," Tifa admonished quietly. Maybe she had decided too soon that he was not going to say anything awkward. What if he brought up his ideas about Cloud and Sephiroth being mortal enemies?
"No, it's okay," Cloud reassured her, leaning back. "Yeah, I really do," he said to Denzel.
The boy swallowed hard, nodding as he looked down at his food. It would have to be like he had decided, and neither one of them remembered. Nothing else made sense. But what would happen when they came to recollect everything? Would Sephiroth try to destroy this world? Would Cloud hate him and be furious? It was going to be a mess.
"Cloud," Marlene chirped suddenly, "can I ride with you on your motorcycle sometime?"
Cloud looked to her in gentle amusement. "If Ms. Lockhart says you can, then sure."
Marlene immediately looked to Tifa, her brown eyes wide and hopeful. "Can I, Tifa?" she pleaded.
Tifa could not help but be moved by how the little girl had so quickly bonded with Cloud. But the thought of her riding on a motorcycle seemed unsettling. For all she would know, Cloud could be a very reckless driver.
She looked down at her food, hiding a smile. "Well . . . I'll think about it," she promised.
Marlene grinned. "Yay!" she cheered.
After dinner, Cloud treated the kids to ice cream, which they---especially Marlene---were delighted about. Denzel did not ask any more odd things about Sephiroth, and the ride home was enjoyable for all.
Tifa leaned back in the seat, her thoughts wandering. It seemed strange, how everything tonight felt so right, as if after a long absence, an important part of her life had come back. Cloud and the kids were getting along so well, and she had been able to easily converse with him without feeling that things were moving too fast. Still, as she had decided before, it was too cheesy, too cliché. It was ridiculous, how it felt like they were a family.
. . . Could Denzel be right?
She snapped back to the present at Marlene's voice.
"We're here!" The little girl undid her seat belt, looking to Cloud hopefully. "You're gonna come see us again, won't you?" she exclaimed.
Cloud looked amused, if not slightly put on the spot. "Well . . ." He glanced awkwardly to Tifa, and in spite of herself, she found herself quietly smiling.
"I'd like that," she said. "And the kids would too, as you can see."
Cloud smiled too. "Then I'll be around again," he said.
Marlene hugged him happily before scampering out the open door.
Tifa glanced back to him before following. "Thanks for dinner," she said, as she began to climb out. "I really enjoyed it. And I haven't seen Marlene and Denzel this happy in a while."
Cloud nodded. "I should be thanking you and them," he answered. "It's been a while since I've been able to take a break from the workload."
Tifa nodded as well. "Goodnight, then," she said.
"Goodbye, Cloud!" Marlene called, waving from the sidewalk.
He smiled, waving back.
He started. Denzel had not gotten out yet. Instead the boy was watching him seriously, his blue-green eyes filled with concern.
"You really like Tifa, don't you?"
Cloud stared at him. What was he doing, trying to play matchmaker? "Well . . . we just met today," he said slowly. The truth was that he did like her, and he wanted to see her again. He had felt a certain amount of relief when she had expressed the same desire. He had wanted to ask about another date, but had wondered if she would think it too pretentious or forward.
Denzel nodded, looking satisfied. "Just . . . don't let anything bad happen to her, okay?" he said quietly as he climbed out. Pushing the door shut after him, he stood on the sidewalk and waved as the limo drove off.
"What were you saying to him, Denzel?" Marlene asked curiously.
He shrugged. Tifa would not like it if she found out. "Oh . . . I just wanted to make sure he'd be coming back soon," he answered.
Marlene blinked up at him. "Did he say he would?"
Denzel nodded, heading for the dojo. "Yeah," he called over his shoulder. Well, it was not exactly a lie. He was sure that Cloud would, indeed, come back soon. He could not help smiling as he went inside.
Cloud slumped back in the seat. It was ridiculous, but Denzel's request would not get out of his mind. Just don't let anything bad happen to her, okay? It repeated over and over, intertwining with memories that were trying to form, and then flitting away again before anything concrete could be gleaned from them. . . .
Don't let anything bad happen . . .
He was running through a field of flowers. . . . Tifa was laying there, motionless . . . dead? No . . . she was unconscious . . . badly beaten. . . . He knelt down, gently taking her into his arms, shaking, his insides twisting. Why . . . why had she come there? No . . . he knew why. She had been looking for him, of course. But . . . but what had happened to her?! Who could have done this?!
Weakly she opened her eyes, hazily focusing on his face. "You're late," she choked out.
You're late. . . . Too late . . . always too late. . . .
They were kids, off on some adventure. . . . Tifa fell, striking her head. She was seriously hurt. . . . It was his fault. . . .
Nibelheim was in flames. . . . Tifa's father was dead. . . . So was Cloud's mother. . . . Tifa was wounded again. . . . Zack was, too. . . . Sephiroth had lost his mind. It was Cloud's fault. . . .
Zack was laying, gasping for breath, on the hill overlooking Midgar. Blood was coming from his mouth, and from the wounds in his chest. He was dying . . . to protect Cloud. It was his fault. . . .
Too late, too late. . . .
Aerith was kneeling in the Forgotten City, her hands clasped in prayer. Sephiroth was descending from above, his sword held high. He plunged it into her body. Her eyes widened in shock and pain, blinking once, twice. . . . Cloud could only stand by helplessly and watch. It was his fault. . . .
No! No, it was not his fault! It was Sephiroth's fault! Sephiroth! He was the reason they were here in the first place, wasn't he? He had done something, he had sent them all here! He had made them lose their memories!
But he still had his, didn't he? Of course! He had kept Cloud close to him, finding it all a joke that his arch-nemesis looked up to him again, that he did not remember how Sephiroth had betrayed him! Sephiroth had never changed. He had only pretended to be good and kind. This was all a scheme of his!
"Hey, Cloud," Denzel said, "what's Sephiroth like?"
Cloud blinked in surprise, glancing over at him. "He's a good guy," he answered. "He knows how to run a business, but he hasn't lost himself in the process. He's not ruthless, like a lot of business people are."
"And you really like working with him?" Denzel pressed.
"Yeah, I really do," he said.
Cloud clenched his fists tightly, the physical pain ignored in the face of the indescribable mental turmoil. Sephiroth was not his friend. Sephiroth had betrayed him years ago, at Nibelheim. And now he had done it once more. This was Nibelheim all over again. Cloud hated him. He hated him so much!
"Driver," he barked, "step on it!"
He would go back home. He would confront Sephiroth about this. Sephiroth would not deny it. He would smirk cruelly, pleased that Cloud had finally figured it out. And Cloud would not be a puppet any longer!
The blood dripped over his palms, unnoticed.
Unseen and unheard by him, Aerith sat at his side, her green eyes filled with a growing worry and horror. It was as she had feared. If he was not able to be stopped, Cloud would fall into his darkness.