Writer's Note: Writer's block is quite possibly the bane of my existence. Thank you everyone who showed me lots of support and patience. And thank you to my amazing beta who really cleaned this chapter up!
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Poisoned Veins
The fluorescent lights in the hallway cast garish shadows as Cloud led the way out of the elevator and down the hall. They trooped as quietly as a hopping moogle and two booted soldiers could, Cloud reading name marker after name marker, looking for anything promising. He doubted he would find much; most of this section was comprised of dark offices and filing rooms, many that probably hadn't been touched in years as Shinra's experiments became less and less publically-acceptable.
They reached a four-way intersection within the first minute, and Reno stepped out first in case someone spotted him. As a Turk he was less likely to be questioned. "No one around," he confirmed at a glance.
"It's late, so the upper floors should be quiet," Cait Sith explained in a loud whisper. It carried down the corridor, making Cloud's hair stand on end more than usual. Reno's mouth opened to harshly chastise the robot but Cloud interrupted because he was counting seconds in his head and they only had ten minutes to pull this off. Less, if they had to make excuses to someone who overheard them. "I'm heading left. Meet back at the elevators in seven."
"You're not gonna… do it now, are you?" Reno looked uneasily at Cloud after a quick glance at Cait Sith. Bu the cat didn't seem overly interested, looking instead at the directory on the wall. According to the board, main offices and research terminals were to the right, and storage units and SOLDIER supplies were to the left.
"Seven minutes," Cloud repeated, giving Reno a look to remind him he wasn't that crazy. He wasn't going to inject himself anywhere that wasn't remotely secure—not with his propensity for vivid hallucinations.
"Where're you goin'?" Reno said as Cait Sith starting bouncing off down the middle path.
"Blueprints," it answered before heading off. Cloud exchanged a nod with Reno before turning left and breaking into a jog.
The bland office walls didn't change, but large viewing windows and glass doorways started to appear as he left the office area. Most of the marked cabinets inside the rooms he passed were for generic chemical compounds and nutritional supplements—nothing dangerous or questionable on the surface, but mako had a finger in every pie of the science department. There would be some around for easy access, especially since SOLDIER injections were continuously ongoing. Cloud figured he should look for cold storage, probably something with a lock.
It was almost deathly silent as he continued down the corridors, following signs that pointed toward more actively used storage areas. The lights were dimmed and machinery popped and sputtered as automatic systems cycled, setting off his heightened senses.
He almost walked into a room occupied by a scientist working over some test tubes in a connected lab but managed to catch himself in time. The man was squeezing worms that looked like miniature Experiment No. 115s into a number of test tubes. Some smoked up in acid, others wiggled frantically before eventually ceasing to struggle, and others had no visible effect at all. After each test the scientist jotted down his results before repeating.
Timing it for when he took down his notes, Cloud ducked beneath the window and darted past the door, until he was no longer in danger of being seen. He could just hear the sound of glass tapping as one of the experiments flailed in its last moments, but the scientist remained eerily silent. If there were a few scientists still here he would need to be extra careful—and he had just five minutes left on the clock.
Two more rooms were useless but Cloud's instinct proved right when he peeked into the last room on the corridor. A woman in a lab coat was inside, and as he watched, she opened up a large refrigerator and pulled out a tray of glowing vials of mako. She counted the tubes and wrote the number down on a datapad before pulling out more trays.
When she turned to a second fridge, Cloud slipped inside the room and ducked behind one of the lab tables. He had to hold a hand over his hair to press the uncooperative stalks down so she wouldn't spot him.
Two more times she turned back to the fridge. Each time, Cloud drew closer until he was able to lock an arm around her neck and cover her mouth with his hand. Vincent had taught him this chokehold; he just had to be careful not to hold it too long. Cloud didn't like scientists, but he didn't like killing either.
As soon as she stopped kicking, he set her down gently on the ground. Her pulse was strong and steady, and she would only be out for three or four minutes before enough blood returned to her brain. That was plenty of time to get this done and get out of there still. Cloud hoped it was just the chill of the labs that was making his hair stand on end.
The fridge was still unlocked and inside were rows and rows of mako tubes glinting in the artificial light, cold air curling around them. To his relief the trays were marked with either "2nd" or "3rd" in red pen—good signs these were earmarked for SOLDIERs. Each tray had twenty-four tubes labeled in shorthand that could have denoted anything from concentrations, to dosages, to enhancement types. He didn't have time to figure it out, so he pulled out a tray sitting above eye level and took the first six tubes.
Cloud stuffed the vials into individual pockets so they wouldn't clink, imagining for just a second he could feel the mako burn even though the glass and his clothes. He had to shake away the thought as he quickly picked up the scientist's datapad and adjusted the count to reflect the ones he'd stolen before leaving the room. Someone would eventually notice the missing mako, but that would buy him time to at least get rid of it. He only had two minutes until he needed to meet the others, so he used less caution than was probably smart to reach the four-way intersection in time. He arrived to hear Reno cursing the absent Cait Sith.
"He left a note in the middle of the hallway! What if someone else had come through before us?" Reno snapped in a hiss without greeting, waving the paper at Cloud. "Also, do you have any idea what they're paying Hojo? Because it's absurd, that's what."
Cloud ignored Reno's outrage as they quietly hustled back to the elevator, Cloud's senses almost painfully sharp as he listened for any sign they'd been heard.
"Where did Cait Sith go?" Cloud asked under his breath. What was Reeve up to?
"The cat and moogle?"
Reno narrowed his eyes momentarily, before rolling them. "Guess you already knew him then. He's staying; at least that's what the note says. Swears up and down not to talk about us, blah blah blah." The elevator was still on their level, a good sign, and Reno stuffed the note in his pocket as they stepped in. "As for me, I planted the virus but had to take out some lab assistant."
Cloud's eyebrows went up at how nonchalant Reno sounded, at least until the redhead produced a depressed hypo. "Nifty Turk trick: causes ten-second amnesia, so even though she saw me she won't remember." Reno shrugged, putting the syringe away.
Cloud's eyes followed it, contemplating where he could get his own. Unclean ones could be easily found in the slums from drug addicts, but mako wasn't a guarantee against all forms of disease.
"I've got a thumbdrive of data to go through now. How'd your end go?"
The lights flickered ominously for a moment as the elevator ground to a halt and opened back onto the ground floor of Shinra HQ. Reno glanced at his watch and smirked. "We still have forty seconds until the loop ends. Solid cover period."
"Got what I came for." Cloud replied flatly as Reno reassembled the alarm system on the fire door they'd used to enter.
"Think the mess with the drugs when we were cadets was over something similar? Maybe Lazard wasn't careful and nicked some."
It was possible but Cloud couldn't be sure. He still didn't know why Lazard had injected himself with Angeal's cells, but at least straight mako wouldn't degrade him the same way.
"Either way we came in and out clean—other than the robot cat. I'd call that a successful infiltration."
Reno didn't seem to find their uncanny luck in the labs strange, but for Cloud the mako burning a cold hole in his pocket reminded him that nothing ever went as smoothly as he wanted.
Monday too went well for Cloud, and even though the hidden mako was like a palpable presence under his bunk, he felt lighter than he had in weeks. Stagnation in the face of adversity wasn't Cloud's style, but he hadn't realized exactly how much waiting around had affected him until now.
Waiting wasn't Zack's style either, and the First was quite fed up with the invisible wall Cloud was trying to build between them. Sephiroth had tried the same trick before, so Zack wasn't discouraged.
Despite being a generally boisterous person, Zack could be pretty sneaky when he wanted to be—he didn't get to be Lieutenant General because of his good looks or buster sword skills alone. He'd staked out the hallway outside the training hall waiting for Cloud, who was conveniently lost in his own world. Zack snuck up behind the blond and quickly slung an arm over Cloud's shoulders. He was ready for the elbow that tried to nail him in the gut.
"Whoa whoa, it's just me. Scared you, did I?" Zack smiled, not surprised at Cloud's reaction. Zack had surprised Sephiroth once similarly and his hair had been lopsided for a month. Good to know Cloud wasn't quite that dangerous. "I'm having a bit of a get-together tonight and you're coming. You've been way too gloomy and you've definitely been avoiding me and Seph."
"Bullshit," Zack said cheerfully. "Your captain's gonna be there, so I know you don't have squad practice. You can set aside your own training regimen for one night. And Seph is gone on a mission, so before you ask, you don't have to worry about making goo-goo eyes at him. Speaking of which, I really ought to lecture him about your fragile heart."
Cloud huffed, a bit embarrassed, but refused to whine Zack's name at the teasing. It was hard to deny the fact that even though Zack was picking fun at him, he was only doing it out of worry. Nonetheless, even with Sephiroth gone, there was no guarantee that Zack wouldn't want to talk about everything Cloud was trying to avoid.
"I'm not talking."
"You don't have to. We're watching TV."
Five minutes before eight p.m., Cloud was standing outside Zack's apartment door seriously considering just turning around and hiding out in the pool locker room again. He could hope that Zack's other guests would keep the First from coming to find him but Cloud was already feeling guilty enough. Tomorrow he had another mako injection scheduled, and he had already worked out how to ditch Zack for it. With that thought, Cloud sent one glance down the empty hallway before knocking on the door and being dragged into an automatic bear hug.
Zack's idea of a small get-together was clearly erroneous. There were about fifteen SOLDIERs, all First and Second Class, gathered together in front of his flat screen. It was possibly the most sophisticated technology in the apartment, since Planet knew Zack's fridge was at least fifteen years old.
Even though Cloud only knew some of the SOLDIERs by sight—excluding Harke, but he was Cloud's CO, which made it a bit awkward—his hope to melt into a corner and be forgotten failed. The group was full of conversation, especially during the commercials, and Zack and various others kept trying to draw Cloud in. He'd never seen the TV show they were watching—he'd really never watched TV, actually—but that didn't stop people from demanding his opinion in various debates.
"The whole drinking urine thing was done three seasons ago and now they keep beating the dead chocobo with the idea," one First complained while an egg was chased by some toilet paper on screen. A grating jingle played in the background.
This was why Cloud didn't watch TV.
"You saw the water test! That stuff isn't drinkable! So what else are you gonna drink in a crisis that's sanitary and has enough water in it? It's just common sense," argued another First. The two bickered loudly right at Cloud's feet, sitting back against the couch. Cloud was pressed up against Zack, who had managed to squish four SOLDIERs on a couch that was really only meant for two.
"It's tripe, that's what. Right, Strife?" A heavily freckled First looked up at him, and Cloud blindly nodded. "See! He doesn't even have a TV and he knows that the urine thing is so overdone."
"It's a survival show. There's only so many ways to get water if it isn't raining! And they didn't win the last challenge for the purification tablets," responded the Second next to him.
"Look, I'm willing to buy it being overdone in a wasteland, but they're in the damn tropics! Break open a coconut or something!"
The two Firsts continued to argue and they weren't alone in their outrage. The survival reality TV show had all fifteen SOLDIERs up in arms, including Zack, who was waving his arms around in some kind of visual demonstration of how to flag down a ship off the coast.
Cloud made an attempt to get up but changed his mind when Zack leaned back to emphasize some other point, putting most of his body weight on top of the blond. It was enough to stop him, and Cloud didn't think for a second Zack hadn't done it on purpose.
In fact, he wasn't allowed to escape until midnight rolled around and all the arguments had, for the moment, petered out with everyone agreeing to disagree. They'd watched another crime show after the reality one that devolved into bets over who committed the murder. (It was the lifeguard, and Zack won a fifty gil coupon to a bar.)
"Friendly group, huh?" Zack asked good-naturedly when everyone had left, some still ribbing each other in the hallway for seriously thinking the waitress could have stabbed that guy sixteen times. Cloud was sitting on one of the bar stools looking annoyed and just waiting to be roped into helping clean up.
"Why did you invite me, Zack?"
"Because socializing is good for you, and you don't scare them the way Seph did when I invited him that one time. Though they might have been terrified because that was right after that board game incident and he'd been pretty harsh with the punishments." Zack paused to remember that episode.
Cloud sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I'm leaving now. Technically it's past curfew and I've got training tomorrow."
There was a pause where Cloud was sure Zack was going to say something about his attitude, but he surprised Cloud by not mentioning the behemoth in the room. "I'll see you tomorrow at your mako exam—1000 sharp. You don't show and you can bet I'll have every First and Second looking for you. There will be search parties."
"Yeah sure," Cloud mumbled.
Zack mussed his hair up like always, leaving Cloud with a lot of doubts and self-loathing as he left the apartment.
It was with a lot of regret that Cloud showed up for his mako examination the next morning. He'd had Reno switch his time and was now one of the first to go at 0800 on the dot. Cloud spent the injection looking at the dosages on the mako tubes and the size of the syringes in order to estimate what he'd need to do it himself. It helped that he was distracting himself with those details instead of worrying about how dangerous his plan was.
Reno had sent him a brief message with a thumbs-up the morning after switching the time. At least this way, Cloud would have a chance to ride it out alone. If he could make it through the side effects of the injection by himself, then he could meet Zack in two hours and just take a long nap without spilling anything catastrophic in the throes of delirium.
Cloud divorced himself from how his deception would further taint his friendship with Zack and focused even harder on the corner of the lab room while the nurse swabbed his arm and slid the needle home.
It was with tingles running up and down his arm that Cloud walked out of the exam room minutes later. He rode the elevator down, periodically shaking out his left arm in the hopes that the sensation of mako burning in his veins would go away. He was so focused on getting to the materia practice rooms and lying down on the cool metal that he didn't have time to react to Zack waiting outside the elevator. Without the recent injection Cloud might have remembered to press the button to close the doors, but unfortunately he froze, and Zack grabbed him with an iron grip and propelled him out the door.
"I see you had an earlier booking," Zack said brightly, like they'd both planned this. "Next time, I'm gonna have to tell the nurses to hold you there since you keep trying to slip out."
That wasn't a light threat, since many of the nurses and assistants were specifically trained to deal with unruly test subjects. For each vitamin-D deprived one that injected him, there were three burly ones nearby.
The tingling up his arm was spreading into his chest, and Cloud felt rather like he was suffering heartburn throughout his torso. Except that heartburn didn't normally make the edges of his vision go fuzzy or his skin itch.
"I'm fine, Zack," he said as coherently as possible. "I don't want to- I just need to lay down."
"Right, in my apartment," Zack agreed, steering him with sure strength. The mako hadn't infused itself to his muscles yet, so Cloud didn't have the ability to fight back.
They made it to Zack's apartment, but the mako-burn was creeping up Cloud's spine and starting to really affect him. Zack's image beside Cloud steadily flickered between his rougher, leaner, post-Nibelheim self and his more boyish looks of the current time. Either way Cloud knew it was still Zack, and he had to remind himself several times where he was and which Zack he was with.
"Do you have any idea how pissed I was when I got Tseng's call?" Zack said, smile slipping off his face as the door shut behind them. Cloud was leaning on him more heavily now but he resisted going to the couch. Instead he slumped against the wall and opened and closed his mouth like he was trying to speak and had forgotten how. Zack sighed and swallowed his anger for the moment. "You itchy? How's your skin feel?"
"I'm not itchy," Cloud slurred a bit and then blinked rapidly until it was the right Zack in front of him. "I need to be alone."
"Like I said," Zack continued on, propping Cloud's hand on his shoulder to maintain the blond's balance as he tugged off Cloud's combat boots. They were steel-tipped, so it was likely more a precaution than for Cloud's comfort. "Tseng called me to say that your buddy Reno was poking around the labs' scheduling system. It was quite a surprise to hear your ten o'clock appointment—and I checked Seph's office for the original time sheet—had been moved to eight."
Zack sounded annoyed as he talked, but sometimes he also sounded forcibly cheerful like he had in the yellow truck when he talked to Cloud, and the words would change mid-sentence. Cloud had to shake his head to try and make the world stop sliding around. No, I'm not there. I'm in Zack's apartment. He's mad at me.
But even as Cloud thought it, the sentiment didn't quite reach him in the haze. People could be mad or happy, love him or hate him; it didn't matter. He'd done the right thing, even if it had destroyed Midgar and cost thousands of lives. Jenova would have taken more.
No… said a weaker voice, but the mako had left his toes burning, so it had surely reached his brain too.
Zack watched as he lost Cloud's attention entirely and wondered if Cloud realized how bad these hallucinations actually were. Didn't he know that Zack could be trusted with anything when it came to his friends?
"Hey Cloud, it's me, Zack. We're in my apartment, remember?" Awareness wasn't returning to that empty blue gaze, but mako was starting to tinge it. It was flooding Cloud's system and temporarily heightening all of his senses and abilities—and unfortunately triggering a mental reaction, it seemed.
"Come on, Cloud," Zack repeated coaxingly, standing up to hold Cloud by the shoulders and look at him squarely. The blond blinked a few times rapidly, like he was fighting for coherency. He looked almost like he'd been overexposed to mako with that vacant stare, but then his pupils contracted and for a moment Cloud seemed semi-aware.
"Yup, come on, want to take a bath? Or… wash off in the ocean?" Zack tried, remembering Cloud mumbling about that before.
"The ocean…" he repeated, looking around like he might see it here. "Where's the submarine?"
"Submarine?" Zack repeated a bit dumbfounded.
"I mean… argh," Cloud almost violently rubbed his hands down his face, like he could feel the hallucination crawling on his skin. Some SOLDIERs did react to the itchy sensation badly, rubbing their own skin raw, so Zack was quick to grab Cloud's hands before he could hurt himself.
"What are you seeing Cloud? Talk to me," Zack encouraged, trying to sound soothing. He couldn't stop the hallucination but he might be able to help if he could work Cloud through it. But the blond jerked his head away almost violently and tried to pull free of Zack's grip. The First tightened his hold on him since he was afraid Cloud would only hurt himself. "It's me, Cloud. Zack, your friend."
"Let go of me!" he snarled, and because Zack had both his hands busy he couldn't quite dodge the knee that tried to nail him in the crotch. Sidestepping didn't save his femoral artery though, and he stumbled to the ground with a groan. His thigh was going to be black and purple.
He had one of Cloud's hands in his grip still, but he felt Cloud do some kind of fancy twist and then snap.
Zack cursed out loud at the feel of the bone breaking, but he'd been in war and knew how to disassociate from the pain. His hand flopped forward unnaturally, but there wasn't time to splint it. Cloud's flailing attempt for freedom had knocked Galatine off the table and Cloud was staring at it entranced.
"Shit—fuck—damnit," Zack cursed, but in the moment it took him to stand Cloud was holding the buster sword. Zack had left it half-polished on the coffee table after morning training when Tseng had called. Damn him and his terrible timing.
"Give me the sword, Cloud," he said, suffusing as much authority into his voice as he could.
The blond ignored him and lifted the blade up and drew the buster sword level with his chest, holding it poised. That was a stance Zack hadn't taught Cloud yet because he didn't have the necessary strength for those moves—and Zack had invented that style. How did Cloud know it? "Put the sword down, Cloud."
"No." Cloud swung and Zack threw himself flat to avoid the blade. Luckily Cloud seemed to have some sense of the walls otherwise he would have eviscerated the kitchen counter, but he did gouge the ceiling on the upswing.
Zack rolled on the ground and sprang to his feet on Cloud's right side, aiming to disarm. But Cloud swung the sword down in a sharp arch, though this time his enemy was apparently standing on Zack's left, because he followed up with a straight stab into empty space.
Cloud sliced through the middle of one of the soldiers, the man collapsing to the ground face first. None of them would get near Zack, not as long as Cloud could stand. Those soldiers and Turks would not desecrate his best friend and savior lying on the ground dead.
"Get away from him!" Cloud nearly growled, thrusting with the blade straight at Zack this time, and the First had to jump to the side to avoid the sword. The blond looked almost desperately angry, fighting off a hoard of enemies only he could see. With a sickening pang in his stomach Zack thought he might know what this was about. Nonetheless, he couldn't let Cloud continue to play out the memory—if it was this ruinous to him now it might break him to relive it again.
Zack tucked his broken wrist into his chest and waited for an opening. He had to wince as the tip of the sword dragged through the arm of the couch, spilling stuffing all over the floor and cutting a neat hole in the corner of the wall. At least all his posters were in the bedroom so nothing of true value was being damaged.
After Cloud had disemboweled at least three more of his illusionary demons—and sliced two of Zack's barstools in half —he turned and seemed to 'see' Zack again. Or at least his eyes followed Zack's movements. "Cloud?" Zack asked warily. Cloud swiped the blade at him in answer. He had to dodge a few more times—sometimes narrowly because Cloud was definitely moving at a speed that could rival a Second—before he saw his opening.
He ducked the next swing that went high and lunged in to grapple, knowing from his own experience that the buster sword was nearly useless once an opponent was that close. Cloud was surprisingly quick even here, nearly head-butting the First, except Zack's strength and enhancements saved him. He twisted aside and tried to reach for Cloud's hand with his undamaged one, but the blond was fast and wily. He slithered out of Zack's hold and planted a foot firmly in Zack's stomach propelling him back six feet into the kitchen counter.
The blond was panting, and Zack seriously lamented letting Sephiroth leave on a mission before Cloud's injection. It was hard to disarm an opponent using only one hand without also hurting them, and Cloud was a lot more efficient with the buster sword than Zack had anticipated. The back of Zack's head throbbed a little, and if he were anything less than a First he'd probably have been concussed from that blow. As it was, he now sported a bruised thigh, broken wrist, and a long slice up his arm from when he'd sailed past the blade.
Cloud was still staring at him with the sword up, but he hadn't moved to attack. That was a good sign at least.
"Hey Cloud, it's over. Come on, you can put the sword down now."
Not a flicker of response.
Zack slowly raised his one good hand to show he wasn't going to attack anymore. Maybe if he pretended to surrender Cloud would stop. Since he was leaning against the counter, he slowly slid down, trying to either look like a dead enemy or a frightened one. If Cloud would just let go of the sword, this would be a lot easier.
Slowly Cloud's hand on the sword lowered until the tip almost dragged on the ground. "Zack?" he said disjointedly, and looked behind him at the floor near the wall. Zack was sure he was seeing a body of a loved one there. "I'm the proof that you existed."
Zack jerked a bit on the floor, accidentally twitching his wrist and sending a bolt of pain up his arm. "You can't live for someone else, Cloud," he said from the floor. At first he was worried Cloud might try to finish him off, but he just moved that numb expression on to Zack.
"I have to until she's gone. Otherwise it'll happen again."
"Who's gone? What will happen?"
Cloud didn't answer though, just turned back toward the invisible body and slammed the tip of the buster sword straight through the floor.
"Aw shit," Zack muttered; one more thing to fix, but he was more relieved to see Cloud let go of the hilt and look around himself. That is until they both jumped at the sound of a shout.
"What the fuck, Zack!" yelled Jax, clearly audible from downstairs.
That seemed to clear away the illusion. Cloud stared at the sword confusedly for several blinks before he transferred his gaze back to Zack, looking bewildered at the sight of him sprawled on the floor. Cloud's eyes no longer glowed.
"What happened?" he croaked, aiming for no inflection and missing by a mile. There was no way he couldn't see Zack's swollen wrist cradled against his chest or the streaks of blood on his arm.
"You were hallucinating. I think it was… someone's death."
Cloud didn't elaborate, but his eyes did flicker from the broken wrist to the cut arm and back up to Zack's face. There was anguish and fear as he looked at Zack, and then more self-loathing than the First had ever seen on his face. Zack sat up and made sure not to look at all pained about it.
"I'll be fine. Clean it up, set the bone, and it'll be healed in three days. And it's not even my dominant hand."
"I did that to you," Cloud said in an oddly dead voice. "I did that to you."
"You thought you were being attacked. You were… somehow you were using stuff I haven't shown you before."
"I thought you were…" Cloud turned his head away without explaining. He was white-faced and tight-lipped.
"Trying to take your teacher away?"
Cloud stared at the floor. He could still see Zack's body laid out riddled with bullets and the Turk that had declared him brain-dead with mako poisoning. He remembered wanting… wanting to cut them all down, to stop them erasing Zack from existence.
It wasn't real. Those were Zack's memories fighting of wave after wave before the gunfire. Cloud had been… he'd been weak and dazed; he hadn't been able to help Zack at all.
He barely registered Zack standing and reaching out slowly to touch his arm. "Cloud—"
"Let me go."
"Cloud, what did you see?" Zack asked, looking at the bare spot Cloud had been defending. "Look at me Cloud." The order worked at least, but Cloud's gaze inevitably went down to the broken wrist. "I've been training a long time and I've gotten worse. Do you think Seph hasn't done the same? That I haven't to another SOLDIER?"
Cloud didn't answer. I did that to you, he had said. His response seemed out of proportion to a common mishap between powerful fighters, but Zack had learned a few things from Sephiroth.
"You're not a monster, Cloud."
"I could be," Cloud replied, thinking of Jenova and the emptiness of the puppet he'd been, how easy it was to erase his identity over and over again.
"I hurt him."
"He's a First, he can take it."
"I broke his wrist, bruised his femoral artery, cut his arm, and wrecked his apartment. I'm dangerous and so is Jenova." Cloud was glowering at Reno's bland brown coverlet while the Turk took apart his PHS looking for bugs. He'd been quite unhappy to hear Tseng was monitoring his computer with some backdoor or bug he hadn't found yet.
"Yeah well, most SOLDIERs are too. The guy is also friends with the General, you know," the redhead said offhand. "And I can guarantee he doesn't hate you because that's the third SOLDIER who has tried to take the elevator up here. Don't those meatheads have something better to do?"
Reno pointed a finger at the fuzzy video feed from the elevator, which at a glance showed a Second stepping off looking confused. Reno had taken the old motherboard from the SOLDIER exam and repurposed it to block anyone taking the elevator to Reno's floor. No one had tried the stairs yet otherwise Cloud would have been bodily dragged to the one-on-one session with Zack he was currently skipping. Cloud was sure Zack would be here personally once he stopped checking every training and materia room on the grounds.
"Also, if he breaks down my door looking for you, I'm making you pay for that."
Cloud shook his head but didn't respond. He hadn't planned to skip the session, especially since he was already drowning in guilt after switching mako exam times and hurting Zack, but the closer the training session drew, the more detail he remembered about the hallucination. He'd broken Zack's wrist with the kind of casual cruelty he normally used on humanoid fiends. He'd kicked him into his own countertop and left a pool of red blood on it. The thought of lifting a buster sword at Zack again—even blunted in a controlled environment—made Cloud feel sick.
"Nothing," Reno said exasperatedly, throwing down the pieces of his PHS and cutting into Cloud's thoughts. "How the hell did he get into my computer then? I'm gonna have to take that apart too." Reno paused, as though sensing Cloud's incredulity. "Rude'll put it back together. I promised to help him get Dominic the Brawler."
"Dominic the Brawler. He's a hitman in the slums. Punches people's teeth out in one hit or something. I know a guy who knows a guy." Frankly, Reno thought Cloud had only been able to hurt the Lieutenant General because Zack hadn't wanted to hurt him. So he was only too happy to talk about something else.
"What did you promise Rude to get him to loop the cameras?"
Reno tossed his half-dissembled PHS to the side and really looked at Cloud. The blond looked like his usual determined self—except for his eyes, which were sunken slightly with guilt and self-loathing. "Tuesti. Rude had a feeling he was up to something."
"What is he up to, Reno?" Cloud managed to encompass why did Cait Sith stay in the labs, what is Reeve planning, and how are you involved in that one question. Reno could tell Cloud was really looking for anything else to think about other than his beat-up friend.
"Rude was in charge of monitoring this flower girl in the slums, so he knows Reeve was visiting her. I told him Tuesti was just an environmentalist, but apparently eco-terrorism is a thing, so Rude wouldn't let it go until I admitted Tuesti was poking around the system. Pretty sure Rude will just keep monitoring but won't stop him for now."
The blond didn't comment, just waited.
"Anyway, I've been trying to see if Tuesti is… amenable, that's the right word right? He's not Shinra's biggest fan but he's an exec, and he might know something about your little she-beast."
Any word about Jenova was almost guaranteed to set Cloud off, and sure enough he was more than happy to focus on that.
"If he doesn't already know what experiments were done with Jenova he'll definitely be supportive after finding out," Cloud said, glancing back at the empty elevator on the monitor. Zack would be coming soon.
"Tell me again how you know him. And his cat-moogle-thing," Reno said.
"Cait Sith was part of my team. Originally it was Reeve spying on us, but he eventually turned on Shinra and fed us information. He ran the WRO after Shinra collapsed."
"What made him switch sides?"
Cloud just shrugged one-shoulder and Reno rolled his eyes.
"Motives Cloud, motives. Lazard's is to destabilize Shinra, but he was impatient according to Tuesti. Tuesti isn't though, and he's working slowly from the inside. He might not be your Reeve, but that's pretty damn close."
"He might be able to help," Cloud admitted, "but he didn't switch sides until he'd seen for himself the things Shinra was up to through Cait Sith."
"Well it sounds like he made the switch now." Reno glanced back at his PHS half-heartedly. Two seconds later though Cloud was standing up and grabbing his stuff. "What?"
"Someone's on the stairs."
"You can't avoid him forever," Reno said, before making a comical face. He sounded like a girl at a slumber party.
Cloud was already out the door and in the elevator when a familiar First Class knocked on the door.
"He's not here," Reno drawled to Zack Fair, Lieutenant General of SOLDIER and Supreme Spiky-haired. (Reno had never told Cloud he secretly thought their hairstyles were creepily similar.)
Zack sighed and crossed his arms. One wrist splinted and wrapped in white. He had probably heard Cloud sprint for the elevator if Cloud had been able to hear him on the stairs. "I don't suppose you'd call me if he shows up again?"
"He won't," Reno said assuredly.
There was a pause as Zack seemed to think for a second before he decided on something. "Got any insight—"
"—other than Cloud's guilt complex. Right." Zack didn't push the issue. Probably because he values loyalty or something, Reno thought scathingly while ignoring his own hypocrisy.
Zack glanced around the apartment and his eyes alighted on the PHS pieces. "For the record, Shinra builds both the computers and the software that runs them, so the hole is in the system itself. PHS's are a different department in Junon though, so that's why you can scramble them," he said casually.
Reno wanted to knock his head on the doorframe. But perhaps he could give Zack something for the little piece of info he'd just received. "Cloud's got a protective streak wider than every mother chocobo on the damn planet." Reno tried to shut the door, but Zack used one hand to casually hold it open.
"And I guess revenge gets messy with a lot of collateral damage huh?" It was a leading statement, but Reno wasn't sure what Zack was getting at. How much did he know and how much did he guess? And considering Cloud's description of the destruction of Midgar, Nibelheim, and the trail of bodies left behind by a deranged Sephiroth, yeah, messy was an understatement. Reno's expression must have said as much because Zack let him close the door in his face.
The Ancient Forest south of Cosmo Canyon was almost choked with more greenery per square foot than Sephiroth could ever remember seeing. The jungles of Wutai had been teeming with color but this forest was darker, the ground covered in thick patches of moss and the trees hanging low with webs of branches and brambles.
Sephiroth had started his investigation of the three mysterious men in Cosmo Canyon and was on his way to the Golden Saucer when some gut-instinct noticed the tiny marker for the Ancient Forest on the map. It was an ideal place to hide—filled as it was with all the undergrowth and uncharted reaches—and the three silver-haired men hadn't been spotted recently.
Masamune made quick work of the beasts roaming the area as Sephiroth canvassed the edges of the forest. He just wanted to see if anything had been disturbed recently or if there were any signs of human passage. The three had not seemed to care much about secrecy, after all. If they'd come through here, there would be clues.
The General paused, turning his blade sharply at a deep shadow beside one of the massive trunks. He recognized the face at once even as he knew it wasn't him. "You're not Genesis."
"How can you tell?" it asked with that same arrogant tone, flicking its graying hair out of its eyes as it stepped out. The forest was still shadowed, but the degradation of this clone was quite noticeable.
Sephiroth didn't answer.
It sighed, rolling it eyes in almost the same way Genesis did. Sephiroth resolutely ignored the tiny pang when he thought of his friend and what the degradation had done to him. Angeal was gone, and Genesis wasn't far behind.
"I need your help," it admitted.
"Genesis needs my help."
"Pride is lost / Wings stripped away, the end is nigh," it quoted. "I wouldn't ask if I wasn't desperate."
"My friend, do you fly away now?" Sephiroth quoted back. "Except you've already flown away. Genesis and desperate don't go together."
"Everyone reaches the point. Come back with me and you can save me—Genesis. You're the answer to this whole thing. You have what I want—as always," the clone ended bitterly.
"What is Genesis doing?" Sephiroth asked, ignoring the offer. Genesis had thoroughly proven that he would plow over anything and anyone to get his way, and he'd killed a lot of SOLDIERs to do it. He'd led Angeal into this madness and now might be trying to lead Sephiroth into something much more sinister. His friend was gone; he wasn't going to help what was left.
"It's in your cells, Sephiroth—the S-cells. They're the key." When Sephiroth remained silent the clone kept going. "There wasn't a shred left in Nibelheim. Your cells are it. You're the perfect specimen!" It started to laugh, the sound more than a little hysterical. "Somehow—I don't know how—Hojo got your formula right. With your cells I could be whole again, no longer a monster caught in transformation. My friend your desire / is the bringer of life, the gift of the goddess."
There were a lot of things Sephiroth could have answered to that, but the word 'Nibelheim' stuck out in all of the rambling. There hadn't been a shred of what left in Nibelheim? Was this because of Cloud's actions there, and had the blond known this would be the result? Sephiroth pushed aside his confusion about Nibelheim for the moment to focus on the three silver-haired men, because the only person who was capable of making copies was Genesis. And if the copies were around here then they might be related.
"I'm not here to help you or fight you, clone. Not unless you've already got those S-cells you want."
"Got them? Do you think I'd be hunting you down in a forest if I had them?" It spat. Genesis had always had a short temper and degradation frayed those lines. The clone likely had no goal outside this one, and Sephiroth was being obstinate.
"The three silver-haired men in the Golden Saucer and Cosmo Canyon aren't connected to you, then?" Sephiroth asked to confirm, because it was frightening to think the three violent men who might be clones of Sephiroth on the loose. That would also mean Genesis and Hollander were not behind them—leaving just one other scientist as the culprit.
"There are three more vessels with S-cells?" the Genesis clone asked, one eyebrow going up and interest illuminating its features. Sephiroth couldn't be sure directing Genesis and his small army to the three was a good idea but it was too late now. "My offer still stands, though. I would rather not have some poor copy of you that'll degrade, Sephiroth. Your cells are the answer."
"What were you looking for in Nibelheim?"
"Jenova," the Genesis copy said, a smirk on its face. "Your mother."
"Hardly." It didn't seem put off by Sephiroth's frigid tone. Then again, Genesis never had. "Sloppy of Hojo to leave a steaming pile of rubble at the reactor, but he's only delaying. We'll get those cells and be cured and then you'll see. When the war of the beasts brings the world's end / the goddess descends from the sky."
"Three quotes in one conversation… you really must be desperate," Sephiroth remarked almost automatically because he could feel his pulse increasing. His mother, Jenova, was long dead. Genesis had to be mistaken, just like he was in thinking it was Hojo's handiwork that destroyed the Mansion and reactor… But the idea of Jenova in Nibelheim and Cloud destroying the two Shinra places located there… destroying all evidence of Sephiroth's mother and experimentation…
It always leads back to Cloud, Sephiroth couldn't help thinking, and for some reason, the familiar dilemma helped him to control his pulse and be calm.
"Pride is lost," the Genesis clone repeated, smirk getting wider on his face. "Your cells, Sephiroth?"
The back room of Aeris' church smelled strongly of mulch, fertilizer, the good earth, and a faint whiff of the flowers in the main hall. It was comforting, and Cloud hoped that would discourage some of his worst memories from appearing during the mako hallucinations.
"Two injections," Cloud said as Vincent flicked the end of one needle. Cloud looked away, determinedly staring at the bag of rich dirt beside him. His stomach felt like it wanted to rebel and he had to consciously relax his muscles.
There were possibly more secure places in the slums for getting clandestine mako injections, but Cloud didn't want to risk hurting anyone and the church was in a fairly empty area with a large room. Vincent had promised to remain out of sight and reach of Cloud while still making sure he did not leave the building. The ex-Turk had already confirmed there was no surveillance today, as well.
"Three in a week." It was a mild rebuke from Vincent. Cloud was risking a lot to do this. But seeing Zack healed today, how his squad members outstripped him in speed and strength, how quickly Cloud's endurance flagged, had simply pushed him further towards this moment. He couldn't afford the weakness. Not with so much riding on the line.
Vincent swabbed Cloud's left elbow and smoothly injected the mako serum. "Aeris is praying to the Planet," he said incongruously as he prepped the second syringe. Fire was licking up Cloud's arm alarmingly fast. The second syringe wasn't even close to full because this was the formula for Seconds, but when Cloud tried to protest the meager amount, Vincent just depressed it in response. "Mako glow in a Third class indicates high absorption rates."
Vincent didn't say that it meant a slightly less chance of suffering mako poisoning from the sudden influx of stronger mako, but it was his own attempt at comfort. Cloud had been unable to get his medical reports because the doctor had told him to ask his CO, and Harke would surely take that information straight to Zack.
His head was starting to spin as he thought of Zack, who had come by and watched Cloud's squad practice today. Cloud hadn't been able to avoid it because Harke had been warned he was skipping training and had sent two squad members at 0500 to fetch him.
Vincent stepped back and made sure to take Cloud's dagger, boots, materia, and any loose objects on him as he climbed the rafters. Cloud didn't notice him go; he was remembering Zack's face as he watched the training session, thinking that… thinking something.
The next time he remembered feeling even remotely like himself was Sunday morning.
He'd taken the two syringes of mako on Friday.
Vincent spent Friday night watching over a mumbling, incoherent Cloud, whose head did a strange and worrying ticking and twitching motion every few minutes. He made sure to check Cloud's pulse hourly, and despite Cloud's warnings the blond didn't react to any stimulus.
Much of Saturday morning was spent watching Cloud converse with ghosts, including at one point Vincent himself, regarding Jenova's second reunion. Several hours in, Cloud laid flat on the ground as he cried for someone's death—though Vincent couldn't tell who—and at one terrible point he began thrashing in the midst of a horrific nightmare, though his wrists and ankles remained firmly on the ground as though strapped to a table.
By Saturday night, Cloud was almost unconscious but finally showing the more normal, post-mako injection signs. He'd been unable to keep even water down, and had ended up lying naked in the dirt because he outright refused any clothing because his skin was so itchy. There had been one hour where Cloud had been utterly unresponsive, and Vincent had crouched over him and to check his heartbeat, breathing, and pupil dilation to be sure he hadn't succumbed to poisoning. Cloud had finally slipped into actual sleep around midnight and not until this moment had he so much as stirred.
"Zack?" Cloud said groggily, stirring under the blanket on the dirt. The fact that he was covered in dirt and surrounded by the smell of flowers was confusing, but not nearly as confusing as when Cloud pushed himself upright and nearly toppled right over.
Vincent swam into sharp focus, standing on the edge of the flower patch. Cloud's memory was starting to come back. He was in Aeris' church, sunlight streaming in, and there was Vincent. It must have worked.
"How was… what happened?"
The next time he tried to move it was almost effortless to sit up and pull himself on to a bench. Unashamedly, he started to dress, feeling amazed at how light the normally heavy boots now felt. The immediate effects of a mako treatment tended to fade within ten hours, but it was lingering now. In fact, he felt like he was starving.
"You were semi-conscious through most of it and spoke mostly when you weren't."
Cloud tightened his belt and was glad not to feel the swooping sensation he had after every other hallucination with Zack and Sephiroth. No matter what he'd said or done, it wouldn't have surprised Vincent. Semi-conscious was worrying though.
Cloud had to swallow a lump, and the short burst of happiness he'd felt when his strength hadn't faded now seemed hollow. All SOLDIERs were drilled before every mako exam that no reaction is a bad reaction—or rather, that if a SOLDIER isn't physically reacting or mentally reacting it's cause for worry. Cloud had been semi-conscious for a day. "It's Sunday, then."
Vincent nodded, his expression unreadable. "Your eyes are glowing. Your next exam results will be notable."
"I'll figure it out," Cloud answered the unspoken question. He didn't actually know how he would deal with the next mako exam or follow-up, but the pressure to live by Shinra rules had eroded significantly.
Jenova was out there, the remnants were out there, and staying off Shinra's radar was impossible with Zack and Sephiroth on him already. He'd made his choices and now nothing was going to get in his way.