Writer's Note: It's been a long time. A looooooooooooong time. Let me try to refresh your memory a bit on recent events in GD: 1) Cloud time traveled. 2) Reno and Vincent both know. Reno is skeptical but willing to help. Vincent has already investigated Icicle Inn and Modeoheim for signs of Jenova and two SOLDIER Firsts are dead there. 3) We've met the three remnants in Nibelheim with Cloud's mother. It's still a mystery what happened to her. 4) What happened to Genesis? Dan met him during the exam and he found the destroyed reactor. What about Dan? Both are mysteries. 5) Zack and Sephiroth know Cloud wasn't trained by Angeal, but then by who? Both are still very suspicious. 6) Cloud's first mako injection didn't go well. The hallucinations have further increased Zack and Sephiroth's suspicions. It's only a matter of time until they reach the breaking point. 7) Cloud knows Lazard has left Shinra early. Ripple effects in the timeline are evident. 8) Sephiroth knows Hojo is not his biological father. 9) Reeve has secretly been meeting with Aeris. 10) Most important perhaps: Cloud destroyed the Mt. Nibel reactor and the Shinra Mansion but Jenova wasn't there. Cue the music. Dun dun dun.
I'm trying to slip back into FFVII fandom (if you come back Birddi let me know!) and Tumblr has been a big help. So if you blog about FFVII or want to see updates on my progress or just want to bother me to write, which is extremely helpful, you can find info about my blog on my profile. I hope this chapter is up to the old quality given that it's been… a really long time.
Chapter Thirty-Four: An Uneven Balancing Act
Zack's hair was a little longer than now, the strands dangling in front of his face swaying with the motion of the pick-up truck. There was the faint yellow of the old paintjob on the edges of his vision and the true-blue sky, but all Cloud could see was Zack, looking off into the distance, a half-smile on his face, arm thrown over the edge of the truck.
Then the dream cuts and distorts and when it refocuses Zack's position has changed slightly and he's looking straight at Cloud. "We're friends right? M-… Cloud, that's what you an' me are gonna be." The words blur, and Cloud can barely make out what Zack is saying. "Understand Cloud?"
The images fade before Cloud can.
A scratching sound starts, but Cloud can't tell where it's coming from. The air suddenly becomes too thick and Cloud thrashes, but he's struggling to even move, trying to come up for air. There's nothing to hold on to, and his hands scrabble at the glass in front of him as he recognizes this claustrophobia. He knows exactly where he is and the fear becomes unbearable when his eyes open and all he sees is green.
Cloud Strife sat hunched over his breakfast Tuesday morning, feeling sick and angry. It had been awhile since he'd dreamed so vividly, and it left a sour taste in his mouth. All the good feelings leftover from the training trip to the Aldanna Mountains with Zack and Sephiroth had vanished overnight. Dreaming of the tanks, the desperation as he and Zack floated in pure mako, the nauseating terror… it was a reminder of why he was here, what he had gone through, and who he once was.
He had been a warrior. A fighter. He always did what he thought was best for the people he wanted to protect, the people he cared about. Being in his own past though and reliving these memories had caused him to go astray, to lose himself in what he had long given up ever having. He'd lost that edge he'd always had after Nibelheim.
Distracted from the mission, a little voice in his head said. He was… emotionally attached to Zack and Sephiroth on an entirely different level than anyone else—not even the members of AVALANCHE could quite compare. He was constantly thinking about the two SOLDIERs, worrying over how much they knew about him, how much his actions affected them. What it would do to them if they found out the truth.
He still felt it was for the better if they never knew, but he'd realized in the grey dawn when he'd woken, panting and sweating with that feverish burn of mako all over his skin, that he was almost obsessed with hiding it. Every day he spent with them only made it more stressful to keep the secret. He'd told himself early on, just days after getting here, that even if Zack and Sephiroth never knew him or hated him or never spoke to him again, he would do what he had to: destroy Jenova and Hojo before it could destroy them.
Cloud knew where he'd gone wrong. He'd let his emotions get the better of him, something he'd tried his hardest not to let happen before. Even with Aeris he'd stayed on mission. He hadn't let the grief, the anger, the helplessness of what happened to her stop him—he'd channeled it. But here, he let the joy of being with Zack, making SOLDIER and even tentatively befriending Sephiroth overwhelm his better sensibilities. And now, four months in he had nothing to show for it except the knowledge that Jenova was AWOL and a highly suspicious SOLDIER General and Lieutenant General on his back.
Last night's nightmare had reminded him in a startling way of darker days, of all that hung in the balance. Zack's confession after his first mako injection that Cloud had scared him had initially shamed the blond, made him regret hurting his friend. But that person, the one who had been ruthless in a fight, the one who couldn't let emotion weaken him, was the one who survived, and the one who would save Zack from a future Cloud had seen.
Cloud was chewing slowly on his cereal as he ruminated on what had happened in the past four months and what he still needed to do when the new PHS in his pocket started to ring. He jerked and stabbed his fork into his sausage before he realized it was just the phone. All the new Thirds had been given them this morning in anticipation of them joining their squadrons. He didn't even know how own number yet, how did anyone else?
"I know you're up, Cloud," said Reno in a surly voice on the other side when he answered the call.
"How do you have my number?"
"The hell else am I gonna do on patrol?" Reno snapped. There was no time difference between Midgar and Junon, and yet Reno was already bored enough to go hacking into Shinra files? Probably while using a computer he wasn't allowed?
"Is there anything happening in Junon?" Cloud asked, mentally reviewing any details he could recall from around this time. The attack should be soon, but it was up in the air when, and there were no guarantees. Time travel made everything he knew would happen iffy.
"No." Reno said flatly. "But can you believe we're still doing paperwork out here?" Reno asked rhetorically, uncaring if Cloud was even listening, "Tseng made me make fifty copies of the T-3489-A form yesterday. And they only have one damn copy machine out here and of course it was broken, so I had to push the button to do it fifty times because it refused to do multiples."
Cloud could just make out the sound of Reno pacing, but every time the redhead started on another rant about Tseng Cloud's attention vanished. Instead the blond stared hard into his soggy cereal trying to think of where Lazard might go since the scientist was still locked up. Would he join up with Genesis? Would they attempt to free Hollander, or was Lazard more interested in Zack? Why had he been interested in Zack?
"…And then I brought them all back to him an hour later, and the man takes one look and goes 'Reno, these are the T-3489-A forms. I said to make fifty copies of the T-3498-B forms.' T-3498-B this asshole!" Reno kicked something and immediately grunted in pain.
"Shut up, Rude!" he snapped at his silent partner. Cloud was still wondering if Zack knew Lazard through Angeal and if there was some connection there he might be able to learn about. "That utter bastard," Reno continued on fiercely, "I had to get up at six this morning just to find the damn form and make them all."
Reno continued to mutter vitriol, as Cloud started to stand up to leave for his first meeting with his platoon, thinking about getting a spare PHS for Vincent the next time he saw him. The ex-Turk might know places to look for a missing SOLDIER director…
"Oh, hey Cloud," Reno said, recovering from his Tseng-related fit, "I was just going through results from the exam—you know, see what else was going on. Thought you might want to know that Dan never came in. His record says 'MIA: possible defection'."
Cloud's hands stiffened on the tray, thoughts of Zack and Lazard wiped away in an instant. His mind had strayed to the other cadet several times since becoming a SOLDIER, but he had been so busy with Zack, Sephiroth and the new training, not to mention preoccupied with the mako examinations, that he had just assumed Dan had failed and been shuffled into the regular army. If Dan hadn't come in and no one had found him, then either something had gotten him in the forest or…
"He probably just took the wrong path and ended up in Corel or something," Reno said, sounding deceptively casual. Cloud could tell that Reno wasn't being offhand about this however, and that some part of the boy had grown to like Dan. Dan's disappearance was disconcerting to him. Both of them knew Dan was not the type to defect, and if he'd gotten lost then the soldiers, both regulation army and SOLDIER, should have found him when they searched the area for the stragglers.
"Let me know if you hear anything," Cloud managed to say. He was torn between wanting to think about the cadet who had stuck by him, and the emotional ties he felt were hindering him. Dan hadn't been part of Cloud's future. In fact, Cloud could just remember that flash of Dan's partially burned face in death overlapping his lively one in the barracks. He still couldn't remember the circumstances behind that, but if Dan truly had defected then it was unlikely it would happen again.
"Sure, sure," Reno replied. "Ah shit, I gotta go. Damn patrol movements," Reno complained before cutting off the call. The blond shook off the gruesome image, firmly put away thoughts of Dan, emotional ties, and his own shortcomings, and tried to think about his upcoming meeting with his squadron.
After trekking from Icicle Inn to Modeoheim, Vincent had made Banora, a tiny village on the Mideel continent, his next destination. The lead he'd found in Modeoheim pointed straight at Hollander's interference with Jenova, and Banora was an old base of his.
Unfortunately, getting from the Northern Continent to Mideel was never a straight shot, and Vincent hoped to avoid Midgar and Junon where Shinra presence would be strong if he could help it. That meant taking a more roundabout way by going through the Western continent and down to the Gongaga area where he could catch a small boat to Mideel.
From Modeoheim, the ex-Turk made his way back past Costa del Sol, skirting patrols and Shinra personnel, and over the foothills of the mountains on his way towards the Golden Saucer. He spent much of the trip mulling over the Jenova situation, Cloud's potential future plans from Midgar, and on a smaller scale what he had found in Icicle Inn. It was only a matter of time before everything came to a head, but at the moment there were a lot of hanging threads: Jenova's disappearance was the greatest one, particularly because Cloud had been convinced she wouldn't move for another five years.
There was also the matter of Hojo himself and Cloud's mako examinations, which might create a sticky situation. Vincent and Cloud both couldn't know for sure, but the blond had been determined to go forward with it, and Vincent hadn't been about to argue. While he loathed being chained to the demons the advantages in battle were without match. Vincent could take on a First Class SOLDIER now, especially if he transformed, and if Cloud's recollections were anything to go by, it had taken the blond, him, and a small group of strong, dedicated fighters to take down Jenova. Cloud would all the help he could get, especially if he refused to bring his First Class SOLDIER friend into it.
Vincent agreed to leave Sephiroth out of this, and not just for personal reasons. Cloud was adamant that Sephiroth and Jenova's meeting was the trigger for the catastrophe the future became and should be avoided at all costs. Cloud hadn't detailed much, but the blond made it clear the General was quite suspicious of him too, which would mean if Cloud wanted a shot at Jenova it would likely require Sephiroth to be otherwise engaged. Tricky, but not impossible.
As Vincent considered the situation and how best to take the General out of equation without alerting him over the days of travel, he reached the outskirts of the Golden Saucer. While the Golden Saucer itself was essentially a city within a casino, there was a rudimentary town outside it that catered to those who couldn't afford the pricey life inside. Vincent found a small inn tucked away that was perfect for a hot meal, a shower, and an early start the next morning, not to mention a little town gossip.
As he was finishing his dinner some of the local men took seats around the room. Vincent could hear their vague curiosity about him, but he ignored the group and worked to finish his meal. Just a few minutes after the men's entrance though, the innkeeper, a kind, curvaceous older woman, interrupted him by refilling his cup and hooking her thumb over her shoulder.
"Those men over there wanted to know if you passed through Costa del Sol. There's not many soldiers 'round here, but up there there's plenty." She rather sassily put her hand on her hip and shot a look at some of the men in one of the corners. Vincent hid any amusement that the men had been too intimidated to speak to him but the innkeeper hadn't.
"I did go through Costa del Sol."
"Hmph, well, any trouble? We had a right mess here couple days ago caused by some real hooligans. Couldn't get them out of the Saucer fast enough. Thought they may have headed in that direction." Vincent shook his head, and the men across the room went back to their talking. The ex-Turk hadn't seen anything on the road that was suspicious, but he wasn't sure if this was something to look into.
"Were they mercenaries?" He asked, probing for a just a little more information to be sure. It helped that the innkeeper was more interested in talking than serving the warming pitcher of beer on the bar.
"If they weren't before they sure could be. Caused some big fighting and a real scene. People are thinking they're Shinra defectors, you know? The three of them cleaned right through security like they were children."
Vincent put down his utensils and gave the woman more of his attention. While the Golden Saucer security wasn't exactly SOLDIER, the casino had a large number of security personnel due to the nature of its business, not to mention some of its shadier dealings. He was interested in hearing about people capable of taking on those kinds of numbers.
"What were they after?"
"Looking for someone I heard." She shrugged before glancing back over at the men in the corner and cursing softly when she spied the beer still sitting on the counter. She walked away without so much as a goodbye, and Vincent finished up his food and went upstairs.
He waited about half an hour until he was sure things were quiet and night had fallen before leaving through the window of his room, heading for the casino. The flashing and dancing lights of all the tacky advertisements outside the Golden Saucer were almost painfully bright in the dark. Vincent's red and black outfit stuck out from the vibrant neon colors and gaudy clothes of the Golden Saucer's patrons and workers, but luckily he was more interested in speed tonight. The guard booth was laughably easy to break into, and with two swift strikes to the back of the neck the guards were out cold. Even twenty-five years out of tune with technology, the ex-Turk was able to access the flagged videotapes from two nights before without much trouble.
On the screen were a series of grainy images of three men in black outfits, one with a katana across his back, one with two guns, and the other with some contraption on his right forearm. Vincent watched them argue with the guard before the smallest one with the katana struck out with a fist and punched the man so hard his neck snapped back, very obviously broken. Security piled in and Vincent watched the way the three men, all with bright silver hair, decimated the guards, using both weapons and raw strength that went clearly beyond a human level.
He downloaded the video on to a spare flashdrive in the office, wiped the footage of him entering, and left without a trace. Vincent had a feeling he knew who these three men were, and if he was right Cloud needed to know immediately.
Cloud jogged over to the SOLDIER gyms, feeling somewhat disconnected from the nerves he should be feeling at his first introduction to his squadron. He was the only new recruit to be assigned to this team because only one member had been elevated to Second Class. The blond wasn't sure of Aaron's or John's placements yet, but he knew the heavy armor teams were usually the ones with the most open spots. Members there were more likely to die in the field or be taken off active duty if they didn't get promoted, according to Zack.
In each squad there was a total of eight Thirds and the squadron leader, a Second. Cloud didn't know anything about his team other than they were a light-armor squadron. The blond resolutely ignored the niggling of annoyance in the back of his head at this. His activity as a SOLDIER was secondary to everything else, he reminded himself firmly, and he didn't need to be in a squad that saw a lot of action. In fact, this might even work in his favor.
Light armor troops were built more for speed and agility, and typically were more geared towards guerrilla warfare tactics. They acted primarily as scouts when on missions, but were also second response teams following the initial heavy-armor waves. Stationed in Midgar, this team probably worked on keeping the gangs in check and checking up on monster sightings in the area surrounding Midgar.
The members would likely specialize in smaller weapons like knives and daggers, hand-to-hand combat and ranged weapons. The Buster sword wasn't made for light-armor combat, but with Cloud's build and a broadsword it wasn't a bad fit. Most importantly it would be low-key work that would let him focus on other things.
As Cloud approached the gyms he saw a Second Class SOLDIER waiting outside one of the doors. "Cloud Strife," the man greeted, "I'm Captain Kyle Harke, squad leader of Midgar's stationed Third Class light armor team. Lieutenant General Zack Fair speaks very highly of you. We're looking forward to having you on the team." He offered Cloud his hand.
Captain Harke was a dark-haired man with a neatly trimmed goatee probably in his late thirties. His grip was firm and warm, and he had a clear military persona that Cloud could appreciate.
Harke opened the door to one of the smaller gyms where an assortment of guys were talking and warming up. They paused as the captain introduced Cloud and they came over to say hello. Many seemed to already be aware that Cloud had been training under Zack.
"Nice to meet you Strife, heard about you from a Second class buddy of mine. My name's Youta, looking forward to seeing what you can do." He was the co-captain, who would lead the team if the Captain Harke were called out on Second Class duty. He was also the member most likely to be elevated to Second Class in the next wave of promotions. All the greetings were variations along the same line, and Cloud shook everyone's hands before Harke told them to lay off and start warm ups.
The practice session went smoothly, all told, and Cloud was able to let go of some of his concerns for the time and lose himself in the physical activity. Squadrons practiced together three days a week. The rest of the time SOLDIERs had either individual training schedules geared to their strengths and interests or missions. Today Harke led them through a series of simple, team-building activities to help Cloud mesh with the group.
While Cloud knew the men expected him to be handy with a sword courtesy of his training with Zack, what he actually impressed them with was parkour. They were doing a pretty standard obstacle course that required a partner to complete. Cloud was paired with Xolis, a relatively thin SOLDIER but with quick reflexes and impressive strength for his build. The blond could see striking tattoos on Xolis' arms where he had rolled up his sleeves. There was an image of a woman, an ornate pattern of flowers working up to his elbow, and Wutain characters among the colors.
Together the two scaled walls and navigated a complicated rope net and a tire trap before the final stretch that had two paths: one was curving but relatively clear, the other was shorter but required weaving around a variety of objects. Xolis opted for the longer route that had fewer obstacles to clamber around but could be sprinted through, while Cloud would take the other.
At the heart of parkour is using momentum and the landscape to maintain speed, thus getting from point A to point B in the most efficient way. Instead of going around objects and reducing precious time and energy, parkour emphasized going over or under, using both hands and feet to propel the body. It took focus, strength, and good hand-eye-foot coordination, and even without a lot of practice Reno's lessons seemed to have done the trick.
Cloud took off, hurdling over low bars, vaulting from a pommel horse, and doing one-handed push offs to grab bars in one smooth move, always maintaining forward momentum. Fortunately the course was short and predictable without too many objects he had to actually go around, so he made it to the end almost at the same time as Xolis. Marking the finish of the whole course was a high wall that would force his partner to help him up.
Cloud was moving quickly enough from his sprint that he ran straight at the wall instead of slowing to use the short rope Xolis was readying. At his speed, he was able to get two steps up and jump to catch the top of the wall. Before a surprised Xolis could even move to help him up, Cloud had hauled himself over the wall with his upper body strength alone. His partner just gaped at him before finally giving him a quirky grin.
"Guess you didn't need my help after all."
Cloud shook his head and winced a bit as he walked back to the team. "If you've got a bandage, I think I banged my knee when I scaled that wall." Looking down there was a nasty bruise forming on his kneecap from where he'd hit the wall.
"I'll one-up that." Xolis pulled out a Cure materia and cast a low-level Cure spell on Cloud, who immediately felt some of the aching of his muscles and joints melt away, along with the twinge in his knee from where he knocked it.
Xolis just laughed. "Next time get Hyler to heal you. He's a hell of a lot better at it than I am." He slapped Cloud on the back and moved off to get water as the blond rejoined the group where he was immediately asked about the parkour. After fending off questions and explaining that Zack didn't teach him, he had picked it up from another cadet out of boredom—only half true—Cloud walked away from that first meeting with the squad feeling good about it. If only the same could be said for everything else.
Busy didn't even begin to cover Tseng's life at the moment.
With Veld's abrupt departure he'd been thrust into the role as the head of the Turks without much idea of what it entailed. Half of Veld's files were so encrypted it would take weeks to decode, and some pertained to active missions that Tseng hadn't even known about.
He'd barely had a week to figure out the gist of how Veld had run the department before Heidegger announced—without telling Tseng first—the trip to Junon. And the executive didn't just want a Turk bodyguard contingent; he wanted three-quarters of the department to go with him.
Tseng had argued, but the older man had the ear of the president and the power to make things difficult for Tseng, and he already had a pile of crap to go through as it was. Rufus had offered to step in, but Tseng had refused on principle because this was his department for the moment. The vice president of Shinra hadn't been much more thrilled with Heidegger's insistence on this excursion, but the president had effectively rubberstamped it. The curl of Rufus' lip and short look at Tseng had been enough to convey his utter disdain of his father.
Patience… Tseng reminded himself. All in good time.
Heidegger was going out to Junon for some promotional stunt with the canon, and wanted the Turk presence because there were vague threats AVALANCHE would try to attack and disrupt or destroy the weapon. It sounded more like he wanted the ego boost of a department at his back but he was too frightened to try and bully the General into it.
So most of the Turks went to Junon and started patrols without any clear idea of why. Heidegger tended to treat Tseng's men like assistants or prostitutes—it didn't always depend on the gender—and he continually had them changing patrol schedules, who they were supposed to wire tap, and giving them miscellaneous objectives to fill the time. It was, in short, driving Tseng mad.
He wasn't the only one fidgeting through the morning announcements Heidegger insisted upon. Tseng's gaze zeroed in on Reno, who looked bored of his mind. Rude undoubtedly felt similarly, but he'd never show it. It was like Reno's exaggerated gestures counted for the both of them.
"Team 3: shore patrol. Team 4: outer wall of the north side. Team 5: southern deck…"
Reno rubbed the end of his ponytail between two fingers as he listened to yet another patrol change for the Turks. He and Rude had been shuffled around to five different routes in two weeks and no one quite knew why Heidegger insisted on changing them. Tseng looked stressed though, which made the annoyances a little more bearable.
"…And Team 9: stationary guard at base." Reno groaned; standing upright for a six-hour shift was brutal. Rude never complained, but then again he showed about as much emotion as a statue. Reno on the other hand…
"Aw man, why we gotta be stationary guards again, yo? That's what we did last week," he groused as Rude led them out of the conference room and down the hall to the military base security room where they would be assigned to a specific corridor or entrance. The only upside had been access to a computer, which is how he'd found out Cloud had been assigned a PHS. "C'mon Rude, you've been a Turk longer than most. Can't you pull some strings or somethin'?"
Rude ignored him as usual, and Reno didn't mind it. That was just how Rude was. Still, the redhead complained almost all the way to the southern entrance to the base headquarters they would be guarding until he spotted someone waiting by the door. "Oh come on!" Reno cursed at the sight of Tseng standing there.
"This is a happy coincidence," their boss said, and to hell it was Reno thought, "but to clarify your objectives, keep a sharp eye out for anything out of the ordinary. There has been rumor of an impending AVALANCHE attack in the area. It's public information that Dr. Hollander is being kept here, and there may be some connection between him and them."
Tseng's eyes flicked to Reno, who was a doing an admirable job of maintaining his surly expression. Fortunately for Tseng, he was naturally suspicious, and Reno was pinging on his radar.
"Any comments or questions, Reno? Rude?"
"…" Reno scuffed the ground but mimicked his partner.
"Nothing from your old connections, Reno?" Tseng added a bit slyly. He'd dismissed Reno's old gang connections and other than tagging Cloud Strife's file he'd left the blond to the tender mercies of the General, but it didn't mean he wasn't happy to poke at the redhead.
"Not everyone's in bed with AVALANCHE you know," he snapped. "Even folks down-below think they're extreme."
Half-truths and dodging the question. Typical Reno. Tseng had neither the time nor the inclination to interrogate him though, so it would have to wait. Heidegger and his stupid campaign unfortunately came first.
Cosmo Canyon received a fair number of tourists all year round. The attraction of the physical landscape coupled with the visitors interested in the Planet and the history meant it drew a somewhat eclectic sort of people. The three boys who had come by late last evening though, were of a completely different sort.
The innkeeper's daughter of the Shildra Inn was quite surprised when three silver-haired men walked in the door, all dressed in dark, tight-fitting clothing. The bell above the door jangled loudly as she swallowed uncomfortably. Nervously she stood waiting behind the counter as the one with hair as long as a woman's approached.
"Excuse me," he said politely, even as he looked down his nose at her, his expression barely hiding disdain, "Do you know of Jenova?"
The girl mutely shook her hair. She'd never heard of anything called Jenova.
"Hm," he said disinterestedly, glancing back at the other two standing just a few short feet away. "No, I don't think she's here."
"We were closer back near that waterfall," said the largest of them petulantly. It was a strange thing to see such a powerful man wearing the expression of a child.
"Idiot," snapped the youngest. He was obviously the most volatile by his attitude, his fine silver hair a curtain over one eye. "There was nothing there, we checked a hundred times."
The one directly before her spoke again, his voice deceptively smooth. "Perhaps we should try a…bigger city." The way his strange green eyes slid to hers indicated he was insulting her home.
The youngest one growled, the noise startling her slightly. "We already did, and it was a waste of time." When the biggest one snorted and picked a photograph of her father off the mantel to look at, she felt offended. Puffing up a bit she swallowed her nervousness and said, "If you want help, you can try Elder Bugenhagen."
The longhaired one looked back to face her directly, his fine aristocratic mouth turned up in a sneer. She might have thought him quite handsome if he didn't frighten her so much. "Hmph, we'll see what your elder knows." With a sharp pivot, he and his brothers left, and the girl let out a relieved sigh. Whoever they were, she hoped they never came back.
Loz outside immediately began to question the townspeople about where they could speak to this Bugenhagen. Several women ran off because of him, but finally one young man stutteringly directed them up to the observatory at the top of the mountain. When they reached the bottom level of the tower they found what appeared to be the kitchen and living room of a small home. On the opposite side of the table in the center of the room was an older man, hunched over studying a star chart of some kind. "Can I help you gentlemen?"
"We're looking for our mother," Kadaj said impatiently, "and your Elder might know where she is."
"Oh, hm," the man said, rubbing the top of his bald head. He had little hair left, and what was left mostly made up his large, graying mustache and impressive beard. "I don't believe he can help. He mostly studies the Planet, and no one has come through looking for children."
Loz started to sniffle as he realized Mother wasn't here either, but Yazoo's scornful look stopped him before he really started to cry.
"Your mother, hm?" The old man asked; his hands clasped in front of his dark purple jacket. "And what might her name be?"
"Jenova," Kadaj said instantly, voice proud.
"Ho ho hooo, there's no Jenova here," the man said, and Kadaj barked for them to leave before turning around and nearly stomping out.
The other two followed him out, and Bugenhagen's worried expression lingered. Those boys were bad news, looking for Jenova. And their resemblance to General Sephiroth was uncanny.
Back on the edge of mountain, Loz depressingly stared into the distance, as Kadaj seemed to gather his anger inwards. "Where is she!?" he cried out, and Yazoo glanced over at their most volatile brother. "Where is Mother?" he repeated, looking more upset than ever. Loz's sniffling started anew, and Yazoo felt a mixture of scorn and sympathy. "We've searched all over, and found nothing. Someone must be keeping her, hiding her from us!"
This was the theory they'd been bouncing around for some time, but had yet to find anything concrete. They'd spent weeks trying to figure out where they kept feeling Mother, discovering they could sense her often in mako. Traveling south from the crater they'd awoken in, they had initially gone to where the Ancients had lived, since some townsfolk in the frigid town of Icicle Inn had thought Jenova was some mythical deity related to them. They'd found nothing in that crystallized forest but a shell shaped building and ruins.
From there it had been erratic travel and a lot of dead ends. Loz was incomprehensible, sometimes sobbing like a baby, other times brutally violent. Yazoo liked to think he was the most mature of the group, and definitely the most stable, but Kadaj's mercurial moods meant it was better to appease him than to argue. He was just as likely to strike a brother as he was to hold one.
The frigidly cold mountains had seemed really promising, but in the end all they were hearing were echoes. Mother was calling to them through the mako, but she wasn't there. There had been such hope with that woman they'd met in the cave, but she'd been no help after all. The deep pool of water southeast of the mountains with the waterfall was the most confusing, and they'd spent almost a month there trying to understand why they could hear Mother's call stronger than before. Kadaj had been even angrier than usual, frustrated when they found nothing. In the end they'd left, heading south for another Ancient's site, when they'd ended up passing through here.
"I hate these humans," Kadaj said vehemently, voice roiling with rage. "They don't know of Mother's wonder, can't know. We'll find her, and Mother will make the ones who hid her pay. And then she'll love us more than any other. She will conquer this Planet and have her revenge!"
Kadaj spoke with such fervor that Yazoo smiled, thinking of something he knew would help curb both his brothers' anger for a while. "Brother, what say we show them a little of Mother's wrath?" Kadaj's slow smile was full of anticipation.
Cloud's second mako injection was scheduled for 0900. He sat in the waiting room with three of his peers, one leg bouncing slightly before he caught himself. The room was lined with plastic chairs without anything to look at on the walls. There weren't even magazines to read, and none of his fellow newly minted SOLDIERs were much in the mood for talk. Mako injections were not fun for anyone.
The first injection had not gone nearly as smoothly as Cloud had hoped, and he was very worried about this one. He still distinctly remembered when Zack had told him he'd said Sephiroth was dead, and the sensation of the bottom of his stomach dropping out. He was only thankful neither Zack nor Sephiroth seemed to have taken too much stock in it, but if the hallucinations continued they might.
The blond had tried to see if he could avoid the mess of spilling secrets by hiding the scheduled time of the appointment, but Zack had found out from the General when the injection was and promised to pick Cloud up again. The dread of not just the injection but what his reaction might be was making his palms sweaty. His leg started to bounce again before he consciously clamped down on it.
A nurse came in, wearing a white lab coat and carrying a standard clipboard with the Shinra logo emblazoned on the back. "Cloud Strife?"
Cloud stood up quickly, and nervously made his way over. She led the way from the waiting room to one of the identical exam rooms lining the hallway. He took a seat on the loose paper covering the examination table as she took his vitals.
"A doctor will be here momentarily," she said, before leaving and soundly shutting the door behind her.
The room felt small and overly sterile as Cloud tried to take deep breaths and stop kicking his legs like a child. There was little to look at, and all the sounds from outside the room seemed amplified. He could hear another SOLDIER being escorted out, and then two more sets of footsteps passing by the room. Finally, after the minutes dragged on listening to every little noise, someone's steps outside stopped and shuffled the paperwork in the folder next to the door.
Two nurses again came in, followed by an unfamiliar scientist in a lab coat. They called them doctors here, but Cloud cynically referred to them all as scientists because they did not focus nearly as much on healing as they did on experiments.
No one spoke as one nurse prepped him and the scientist prepared the syringe with the mako in it. Cloud's eyes were automatically drawn to the bright liquid, and he felt a knot in his stomach form. Please let this reaction be better.
The scientist didn't even tap his arm, just swiftly stabbed the needle in. Cloud stifled the flinch, even as he wanted to cringe at the sensation of the sluggish mako in his veins. The needle was removed and disposed of, and the two nurses helped him off the table and out the door. Zack wasn't in the waiting room, and Cloud wondered if maybe he had gotten lucky and the First had forgotten.
He made it out the door and almost to the elevator when Zack appeared. "Spike! You're out already? You should've waited in the waiting room for me, I don't want you to get sick or anything on your way back."
Zack put an arm around his shoulders before he could protest and pulled Cloud back into the elevator. "Feel okay? Still recognize me?"
"I'm fine, Zack," the blond said, feeling a little annoyed at the coddling, and a little hot from the warmth of his clothes. If he had a solely physical reaction to this mako injection, Cloud would happily retch up everything he'd eaten for a week.
"That's what you said last time, buddy."
Zack kept talking, punctuating his comments constantly with questions about Cloud's lucidity until Cloud finally interrupted. "I feel fine, Zack! A little warm, a little itchy, but I just need a bath and a nap."
Zack put his hands up in a show of surrender, but the genuine worry on his face wasn't enough to put off Cloud's peevishness.
They arrived at Zack's apartment without any trouble until Cloud saw who was sitting on the First's couch.
"Zack, I don't need both of you here. I'm just going to sleep, and everything will be fine." Cloud managed to shove Zack's arm off his shoulder, but he did it harder than intended and caused his friend to stumble. The blond looked wide-eyed at him, surprised by his own strength.
"I think he's starting to feel it, Seph," said Zack to the General sitting on the couch watching Cloud. "He's been awfully talky."
"The bath is already drawn, Cloud."
Most worrisome, the blond narrowed his eyes and frowned at Sephiroth, something definitely out of character for him. "I don't need a mother, Tifa," he said, before abruptly freezing.
"Tifa?" Zack asked, and Cloud's eyes snapped to him before he suddenly turned and marched over to the bathroom. "Leave the door cracked, Cloud," Zack called, before sharing a concerned look with Sephiroth.
Cloud stripped off his clothes, tossing them haphazardly away, thankful for the respite from their itchiness. He didn't know what Shinra made those out of, but it felt like raw wool. He briefly covered his face, giving into to mild horror of accidentally calling Sephiroth Tifa. Zack was right when he said the mako was getting to him. Vowing not to say another word, Cloud sank into the hot bath water.
As the water soothed the irritation of his skin, his mind was able to drift, floating calmly, reminding him of laying on his back in the water…somewhere. He couldn't quite remember.
He kept drifting, almost sleeping, until he felt someone touch his left shoulder, trying to shake him. He flinched, looking down at the hand touching just above the pink ribbon he'd tied over his Geostigma.
He shot the person a cold look. "Don't touch me," he said, before pushing their hand away and standing up from where he'd been sitting and looking out at the distant ocean. He was on top of one of the tall rubble heaps of old Midgar that still had some of the best views. "You shouldn't be here. There are monsters about."
"Cloud?" The man asked, but Cloud brushed him off and started to walk away. He needed a drive on Fenrir, something fast and hard. If someone wanted to be out here where the big monsters were, then he wasn't going to save them from their own stupidity. He reached for his goggles, but couldn't find them on top of his head. Maybe he'd left them by the motorcycle.
Another man stood in front of him, taller than the other one, and now Cloud stopped walking. Was someone really stupid enough to attack him? He didn't have any swords on him, but he had more mako in him than any living person, and it was child's play for him to kill a man with his bare hands.
"Walk away and I won't hurt you." That was the only warning they were going to get.
"Cloud," a deep, smooth voice said. The way his name rolled off the man's tongue was familiar. Too familiar.
"Who are you?" Cloud demanded. Was there another Remnant? Cloud had known there were more, but he thought most of them had been destroyed in the Northern Crater, and the rest were all but comatose. Who was this?
"It's me, Sephiroth," it said, and the baritone matched Cloud's memories, but there was no way this was him. Sephiroth would have struck first and saved the mind games for when he had Cloud dangling by the end of the sword. That's usually how it went. Cloud knew what this was.
"You're not Sephiroth. You're not real." He pushed past the apparition, frustrated and angry that after two years the images had faded but never gone away.
"Cloud," said the first voice, and Cloud realized he knew this one too.
"Both of you, just leave me alone," he said, feeling more tired than angry, but still annoyed enough to show it. "I don't want to talk to the dead."
That usually did the trick. To acknowledge them as dead, as gone and done with, usually sent them away. Cloud had numbed himself to the pain of these reminders, even though his mind wouldn't stop haunting him. This time the first man disappeared, but not the second, not Sephiroth.
"No. You're just a memory," he said firmly, and walked away.
When Cloud woke up he was laying on Zack's bed in a clean set of boxers. His first thought was of his grumbling stomach, and he wondered if he'd thrown up. He felt a little out of sorts, but that was a normal reaction. He couldn't remember anything after the bath, but he realized after a second Zack must have moved him and even dressed him. And Sephiroth…!
Cloud flushed before he could help himself, before consciously trying to shake the embarrassment off. He was a grown man, and it didn't matter anyway.
The blond swung his legs to the side of the bed, looking around a bit. He'd been in here before, but usually just to meet Zack for practice. The room was pretty messy, as expected of the First, with a couple old posters on the wall that the man hadn't quite grown out of, and clothing thrown all over. There was a cactuar figurine on the bedside table, and a clock that had long stopped ticking and Zack had been too lazy to throw out. The room, especially the sheets, smelled slightly of his cologne and a bit of uniquely Zack, which Cloud was too proud to admit he liked.
He was just looking for a shirt to put on when Zack opened the door, the smell of pancakes and hash browns following him in. Cloud froze, since he was only in his boxers, but the SOLDIER just shook his head with a half smile and pointed at a messy pile of clothing on a table in the corner. "That's for you. When you're ready come out. Seph just came by and I'm making eggs too."
Something about Zack's less enthusiastic manner put Cloud on guard. He swiftly dressed and stepped out, reading the atmosphere and knowing with dread that something had happened. Did he have another delusion? A violent one? He could barely remember the first, but this time he remembered nothing at all. He was almost afraid to ask what other memories had surfaced.
Sephiroth was standing by the kitchen counter, just looking at him. There was something about his posture that put the blond ill at ease.
"Cloud." The way he said it was familiar, but Cloud pushed away the odd déjà vu and sat down on the couch. He looked down at the carpet and took a breath.
Zack came out of the kitchen with a plate of scrambled eggs, the only kind of eggs he knew how to make, and sat down opposite Cloud. Sephiroth didn't move from where he stood. "You had another delusion. This one more…coherent than the first."
Cloud swallowed with a little more difficulty than normal. He wasn't quite able to make eye contact with either of the other SOLDIERs, the tension in the room too high.
"You didn't recognize us," Zack started, not eating his eggs. "You told us to walk away, and pushed us both away." Cloud's eyes were fixed on the carpet, so he missed the look Zack sent Sephiroth over his head.
Sephiroth picked it up, his voice solemn. "You told me I was not real, and that you did not wish to talk to the dead. That I was just a memory."
Cloud took a deep breath at Sephiroth's last words, the moments when the General said those words playing behind his closed eyes. Crowned by the storm, his beautiful face etched with shadow, he said he would never be a memory as a promise. And he wasn't one. The blond opened his eyes, able to see Sephiroth's boots, but almost afraid to look higher.
"Do you know what you were talking about, Cloud?" Zack asked.
Cloud took a deep breath. "I do, but I can't tell you."
Zack sighed, and there was a clink as he put the untouched plate on the coffee table. "Cloud, this isn't about just you anymore. You looked Sephiroth directly in the face and said you didn't want to talk to the dead. That whoever you thought you were talking to was a memory. Do you…" Zack seemed unable to get the words out, and the blond looked briefly over at him. "Do you…see these people?"
Cloud's eyes flicked between Zack and Sephiroth, both their faces deadly serious, and Zack's tinged with worry.
"No," Cloud said, and he was able to look away from the floor. "It was a… reaction to the experiments. They're gone now," and he murmured so softly Sephiroth barely caught it, "another life."
"Cloud…" Zack said softly, voice laced with compassion.
"I don't want to talk about it." Cloud said, and after a moment added more quietly, "I'm sorry if I scared you." Then the blond looked up, making eye contact with both of them. "I think it's better if I deal with these alone."
Then he got up and left.
"If I gotta stand here for another goddamn hour I'm deserting. Think Tseng's got enough men free to hunt me down?"
Reno sighed, leaning over the railing of one of the towers alongside the cannon compound. He and Rude had been shuffled all over this complex, and got stuck with yet another stationary position, this time overlooking the major square outside the compound. Reno's gaze flicked over to the heavily fortified building where Hollander was locked up. He had fantasized about sneaking in there to ask the scientist a few questions for Cloud, but that would just land him in a cell next door.
Reno turned his eyes downward again and picked at flyaway strings on his suit jacket, eyeing the masses below with disinterest. He followed the swift weaving of a dark-haired man in a blood red cloak and… were those gold shoes? before eventually the guy walked away and he grew bored again. Too bad Shinra-issued PHSs didn't have any games on them and had restricted internet access.
"Yah think if I say 'ain't nothing happening in this town' enough I can jinx it?" he called back over his shoulder.
Not expecting a response, Reno jumped when he heard Rude say loudly (for him) "Reno!"
Reno whipped around and immediately shouted, "What the hell?!" as he saw a guy with big black wings fluttering over the rooftop. The angel-thing hadn't spotted Reno or Rude yet, but he was dodging bullets from somebody. "He's got wings!"
Their radios started to spew out orders and a lot of shouting, enough that obviously they weren't the only ones seeing this. Reno did a quick survey of the rest of the towers and saw a number of other angel-guys spread out and picking fights. Most of the Turks on duty were busy fending them off. Reno and Rude glanced at each other and as one made for the flat part of the deck to help with the fight.
They rounded the corner to find two other Turks engaging a winged guy, but he was fast and he had a wicked sword in his hand. Reno drew his gun and started to fire, and between the four Turks they managed to clip his wing, and once he was on the ground Rude made sure it was lights out for the guy.
"Who the hell is he?" Reno asked a bit breathlessly as he approached, gun still drawn. Angel-dude had light-brown hair and a standard uniform on so he didn't look much different than the average grunt, except for those two splayed black wings. The redhead had an idea though, especially as he recalled the group of winged attackers near Hollander's jail.
Reno looked up at his partner, who was studying the very-dead angel's face. "You recognize him?" he asked, sounding uncharacteristically serious. Reno would rather believe Cloud time-traveled than think the blond had anything to do with these monstrous experiments, and it looked like he'd called the attack on Junon.
"Looks like Genesis."