A/N: FF7 and everything related belongs to various people who are not me. Fair warning: this is a Zack fix-it fic, therefore AU, and may shade into weirdness. (Though with Vincent in the game… define weird!) 'Cause I can't believe Aeris spent five years alone without trying something.
Where are you, Zack?
Perched in the upper level of the abandoned church, Aeris leaned back against stone wings and let colored sun fall over her face. Years. Not a word. Not a sign. Zack's mission to the Nibelheim Reactor might as well have evaporated; SOLDIERs, General, troopers and all.
It didn't make sense. If the mission had failed, Shinra would have sent more troops to handle the mess, and she would have heard something from Zack's SOLDIER friends. If the mission had succeeded, but Zack had died - again, someone would have told her.
Zack wasn't dead. He was missing. She could feel it.
Sephiroth… Sephiroth might be dead. Zack loved him, and that was enough for her to sense the silver-haired General's heart through the blur of alien when he was close. But so far away, ever since that horrible night she'd woken from dreams of fire and betrayal - she couldn't feel him. At all.
But Zack is alive.
Alive, and… absent. Somewhere she couldn't - quite - reach. Like stumbling in a darkened room, unable to find one dropped gil on the floor, when it'd be so obvious if she could just put her hand on the light switch….
Aeris let out a frustrated breath. This was not helping. She'd spent years looking for Zack, like an ordinary girl, and looking, like someone who wasn't an ordinary girl at all. None of it had gotten her more than empty echoes.
Time to try something else.
Sephiroth, Zack - they were both bright. Larger than life. If she couldn't feel them, something was hiding them. And she didn't know how to even start peeling that block away.
But if you can't find a big thing… sometimes people forget to hide a small one.
Which was why she was up here, in the sun, perched in the highest, most precarious spot she could find.
"Regular troopers, they want to brood, they head for a bar," the voice of memory chuckled. "Cloud can't drink and he knows it. He heads for high places. The higher the better."
One of the few things Zack had had the chance to tell her about the little blond shadow he'd picked up. Yet another hopeful who hadn't made it into SOLDIER, who'd still somehow drawn Zack's eye.
"He tries so hard, babe. And he's good. Better than he thinks. He just needs some time to grow into it. And out of being shy. You should meet him…."
Only she hadn't had the chance. Not before Nibelheim.
And now she was going to try to find him with a hope and a hunch. "Which makes me a big silly, doesn't it?" Aeris said lightly, looking up at a fanged snarl. More warning than threatening, for all the demonic creature's carved menace. This is my Place, narrowed stone glared. Bring evil here at your own risk.
"Oh, Zack would love you," Aeris exclaimed, delighted, stroking the demon's sun-warmed mane. "Why haven't I found you before?"
So. This was the right place to look from. Leaning against the arch of strong wings, Aeris closed her eyes and reached… out.
Won't let go. Can't let go. He's still fighting, and I can't let him down, not again….
…Can't let the kid down, a subtler, familiar voice whispered. Stubborn, saved us all; Seph couldn't kill him, damned if I'll let Hojo….
The shock of that name flung Aeris back, clutching stone talons like the last hold over the abyss.
Which… they almost had been. Aeris swallowed, and leaned back away from the edge.
But she'd been right. Where Zack was just a flicker in the Lifestream, violet awash in green, the stubborn little light that was Cloud still burned.
Because he's fighting, Aeris thought dizzily. He's fighting so hard to stay himself….
SOLDIERs didn't do that, as far as she could tell. The process was secret, of course, and Zack had never dropped more than hints, besides mako and Hojo - and Hojo was enough to warn anyone they might not want to know. But she knew what she'd felt from Zack, and Turks, and other SOLDIERs. When mako touched them, they - well, it wasn't so much surrender as strategic retreat. Someone taking in mako of their own will gripped the core of themselves, the parts they would not let alien memories and magic change, and let the process do what it would to the rest.
Cloud - was trapped. Confused. Fighting to protect everything. And losing.
But it doesn't make sense, the part of her that had always leaned on Elmyra's stubborn logic protested. If Cloud went into SOLDIER-
Someone would have told me? The part that believed in ghostly voices and visions observed dryly. The way they told me what happened to Zack?
No. Something was wrong. So very wrong.
Tell me something I don't know, Elmyra-logic quipped. So I know something's wrong. That still doesn't tell me how to find them, how to protect them-
…Protect? Carved stone murmured.
Aeris blinked at the ghostly echo, suddenly picking out that thistle-seed specks of green and violet in gray were not sparkles from stained glass. Sparkles didn't sing.
In rock? Materia formed in lumps, yes; sometimes, rarely, even in massive crystals. It was never dispersed in stone, like bits of Lifestream in a living body-
Aeris caught her breath, and felt at the frozen shape, searching for any spark of life.
Amusement seemed to radiate from the statue like stored sunlight, wind blowing a cool mist of regret. Forgotten… by you as well….
Not life. Just a ghost of essence, drawn to what might have been life, untold years before. "Who were you?" she asked softly.
A long silence, as thin threads of memory were drawn to her from lives past. Protectors of protectors.
Cetra, she felt in that, and friend-to-Cetra, other. Yet another thing Ifalna had never had the chance to tell her. Or had she even known? Who can save the ones who want to save you? Oh, Zack….
Like breezes before a storm, the Voices hushed.
Something moved through the silence. Aeris held her breath, sensing a stalk deliberate and deadly as a dragon, as Tseng on a mission. These. A rumble, like far-off thunder. Yours, Elders' child?
"Yes," she said, not hesitating. Zack was hers, he had her heart; and any friend of Zack's, she was sure she'd love as well.
…We will try.
Aeris blinked in a stripe of violet sunshine, hearing the other Voices creep back like dawn tide. What just happened?
But that strange remnant was gone, sudden as phoenix wings.
Pickling in mako, Zack had discovered a while back, made it damn hard to scratch an itch.
Not that he should be itching, based on past experience. Burning from the bones out, or swimming in a sea of memories that weren't his, or even just smashed into a tight ball of this-is-me inside his own skull while mako tried to fit in places it really, really shouldn't. But not itching.
Meaning this was probably Hojo's fault.
Zack would have said definitely, but the way the bastard had terrorized the lab staff the last two or three times he'd come through, all was not right in the World According to Hojo. Listening through the slosh of liquid, the SOLDIER had made out worrying fragments like contaminants, additional filtration, and possible idiosyncratic substrate reaction to long-term exposure.
None of which sounded good. But all it seemed to add up to was a sparkly scatter of mica-thin flecks floating in the tanks with them. And a nagging, all-over itch.
Gods, please don't let this be what happened to those poor bastards in the reactor.
No. He would have noticed materia-flecks in with Hojo's monsters. He hoped.
Then again, he had the sinking feeling that the itch came from absorbing the little flecks. In which case it was probably just a matter of time before he and Cloud were screwed but good.
Not that Cloud would notice if they were, worse luck for him. Kid was just floating, eyes mako-bright, oblivious now to even the hair-thin lines scratched into glass, too fine for the lab attendants to see without a magnifying glass.
Oh yeah. That's why I was worried.
Fingernails couldn't do that to mako tanks. Not even SOLDIER fingernails.
He really, really didn't want to know what had happened that theirs could.
Got to get out of here… but has it been long enough?
Before Cloud had gone under for good, he'd confirmed what Zack had finally put together; there was a pattern to Hojo's visits. They couldn't keep track of it dead-on; mako and the whispering Voices and the pain blurred time into a jumbled stack of now. But there was a pattern. Hojo, a shorter time, Hojo, a longer time, Hojo….
Had been here. Not too long ago. Maybe a week. Meaning they should be into a stretch of time when Hojo was gone, with all his extra security with him.
And… right on cue, here came the indifferent bastard saddled with making sure they got morning rations. Such as they were.
Time to complain to the cook.
Green. So much green. Gods, he was sick of green….
But there were shades in the green now. Light, and dark, and grayish shapes that almost looked like tree roots.
Tripped like tree roots, too.
"Aw, damn it-"
A hard grip kept him from falling. Something pricked at his arm, like a startled cat mistaking him for curtains.
"Sorry, Cloud. Still not used to this."
Cloud. Cloud is… me.
Like a magnet dropped into nails, bits of memory snapped together. Cloud Strife. Trooper. Hojo's personal lab rat, along with-
"By the time we get through here, you're going to need a new set of sleeves." A shoulder-shaking laugh. "Know somebody who'll be happy about that. My girl loves to fix things." A pause. "Just hope she can fix us."
"Then again, she might think they're cute."
"Well, they are. Kind of. On kittens. Guess we're a little big for kittens. I am, anyway…."
Kittens, Zack? Chocobos weren't bad enough? And he didn't want to complain, but what Zack wasn't saying was giving him a very bad feeling. Almost as bad as the shifting shades of green. Green meant mako meant the lab, but this didn't look like the lab. Didn't smell like it either, mako's crushed-leaf and electrical-snap overlaid by stirred dirt, pine sap, and a rush of mountain wind.
He wanted that wind.
But it was all green, which meant mako, which meant… he was hallucinating again. Damn it.
At least it was a quiet hallucination. Just rocks, trees, and Zack hauling his stumbling boots along with one arm wrapped around him, claws a matte gleam against the charcoal-green knit of his turtleneck. Much, much nicer than the ones with Hojo, and Sephiroth, and the burning scalpels.
But even if it was a hallucination, Zack was dragging him along, and that… wasn't fair. Really.
Not that he could do anything about hallucinations being fair. Even one that seemed as quiet, and predictable, and… oddly sane, as this one.
Maybe it's not…?
Hope hurt. Even when - no, especially when - he knew it was ridiculous. Hojo was- was- Cloud didn't want to say brilliant. Brilliant was like stars, or diamonds; it meant strength, and focus, and purity of purpose.
Like Sephiroth, before-
But when it came to… unruly specimens… Hojo had a sick cunning Cloud had never seen anywhere else. Not even in mutated dragons. He couldn't have gotten away from the man. It wasn't possible.
Not that Cloud had stopped trying. Maybe there was no way he could make it, but if he was just quick enough, observant enough, distracting enough-
Then maybe Zack could.
What if he did? What if he's gone, and I'm just imagining myself with him to stay sane?
Which would, of course, be crazy. Right.
He really, really didn't want to be crazy. Not after what he'd seen. What he'd lived through. What so many others hadn't.
Stop thinking about it! We're here, we're walking; and even if we're - I'm - hallucinating, it's got to be better than there.
Given that he was trying to talk, or take a step, or even groan at Zack's stray teasing, and getting exactly nowhere… yeah. Hallucination. Had to be.
Okay. So if he'd gone a little bit crazy, and it looked like he had, then the thing to do was not go crazier. Triage, right?
The hallucinations wouldn't last forever. Sooner or later Hojo would get bored with them not screaming and try something else. So even though it couldn't be real, Cloud would treat it like it was, and see what happened. If nothing else, it would piss Hojo off.
Worth it. Definitely.
So if this was real, and they were really out of the lab-
Escaping, oh gods, if any of this is true, please let Zack get away….
If it were real, he'd be trying to help Zack. Which definitely did not mean letting the man drag him along like a sack of potatoes late to KP.
One foot in front of the other. Just try.
It was sluggish and burning, like thrashing in the tank. Probably was thrashing in the tank.
But Zack's shoulders hitched, and Cloud could have sworn he'd heard a laugh.
Must not knock pencil-neck's head into wall, Lieutenant Fletcher told himself firmly as he stared down Dr. Teague. Now he was beginning to get why his superior officers had given him such a look of regret handing him the Shinra Mansion assignment. You're a SOLDIER. First Class. You will be civil, courteous, and professional. Like the General would have been.
Like the General might still be, for all anybody knew. The last place he'd been reported was the reactor near here, almost five years ago… and then, nobody knew what happened. Nobody who'd talk, anyway.
The good doctor in charge stared back through a haze of coffee steam. Rumor had it that when Hojo was here, the man was no more than a glorified flunky. The amount of sheer prickliness the man radiated hinted rumor was right. "Are you certain they didn't just wander off?"
We're not lab rats, Fletcher almost bit out. No matter how often Hojo might treat human beings that way. Trained SOLDIERs don't just wander off. He drew in a breath-
One of the lesser flunkies - Peters, Fletcher thought, another recent import from Midgar - stuck his head into Teague's office. "Hey. Anybody seen Howard today?" He glanced at the lieutenant, gave the SOLDIER a polite nod. "We've got dietary supplement sitting in the mess. You want it back in the fridge, or what?"
"Indolent imbecile," Teague sniffed. "I'm not answering to the Professor if his lack of attention to the specimens disrupts the research."
The same specimens the missing Roberts and Saez were supposed to be guarding, if Fletcher had read the current duty roster right. He was starting to get a very bad feeling about this.
Not that anyone had ever quantified SOLDIER hunches. Or even officially decided they really existed. Thought there was some speculation about background magic related to a Preemptive materia, and others who thought the hunches might really be a "bottom of the barrel" sense; the mind adding up subliminal input from enhanced senses to give an intangible certainty of danger.
Whether it existed or not, it was tacitly accepted that SOLDIERs, especially First Class, had a pretty good idea of when something was about to bite them in the ass. And something about this setup felt like teeth.
"Research," Peters muttered. "Right…."
"If the Professor wishes to test a specimen to destruction, that is his prerogative." Teague's eyes narrowed. "Or would you care to dispute that?"
Peters' mouth opened, but he obviously thought better of whatever he'd been about to say. "I'll just see where Howard is."
"You do that," Teague snorted. "Since you'll obviously need the benefit of his previous experience in what is likely to be your new specialty." He eyed Fletcher. "Anything else?"
"I believe I may accompany Dr. Peters," Fletcher said neutrally. "In case Mr. Howard needs some… persuasion… to extricate himself from whatever may be distracting him."
"Overkill," Teague muttered, turning back to the stack of papers on his desk; but there was a certain sly quirk to his lips that hinted he'd be quite happy to see overkill wreaked on someone.
"Not to offend, Lieutenant," Peters said warily once they were safely out of normal earshot, heading deeper into the mansion's bowels. "But he has a point-"
Fletcher held up a hand. "Do you know what Mr. Howard was assigned to, Dr. Peters?"
"…Not really. I haven't been in the lower levels yet."
With a nervous glance that said he didn't want to change that anytime soon. Smarter than the average Shinra scientist. "Neither do I," Fletcher said frankly. "What I do know is that my predecessor in this post…" And where, oh where, had Lieutenant Coole gone? He'd relieved a sergeant here. "An observation was made that while Professor Hojo's research had taken its toll on the subjects, they were still considered dangerous enough as of a year ago for Third Class SOLDIERs to be considered a minimum necessary security measure."
Hand on the hidden door's activation switch, Peters hesitated.
Fletcher gave him a thin smile. "Why don't I go first."
The door opened, switching on the ultrasonic hum that would keep the giant bats out of their hair. Most of them, anyway. Except for the ones lying in bloody pieces all over the stairs.
Fletcher's hand went for his broadsword. "Stay behind me."
Sword work, Fletcher recognized, picking his way downstairs. Saez and Roberts were armed with guns….
Which was about when his nose caught the unmistakable stench of early decay, and his eyes picked out the first flattened lead round on the floor.
He went into the lab fast and hard, though he heard no sign of lingering enemies. Rumors said Wutai or the Turks might have figured out ways around SOLDIER hearing, and there were plenty of monsters that didn't need to make noise until just before they killed.
No monsters. Just scattered rounds, dead bodies, and silence.
Fletcher didn't even glance behind him. "Out."
Since when did somebody in Hojo's department say mako with the kind of horror most people reserved for Bio3? "Go!"
"But- you- I'll alert security." Peters fled.
I can do that any time, Fletcher thought sourly. I want to see this, first.
Howard's death was easy to put together. He'd apparently been down here with yesterday's food trays when someone or something had hit him very fast, very hard.
Haste-fast, Fletcher thought grimly. Which means for him to have landed over here, he would have started out-
Right in front of one of the empty mako tanks. Oh, he had a really bad feeling about this.
Saez and Roberts were harder to look at. Though judging by the amount of ammo and bullet holes scattered around the lab, they'd tried to put up a fight.
But something was too fast for them; damn, Roberts got splattered with his own gun. And after they were dead, something… took their clothes and boots?
Which argued for a someone, not a something. Suspicion gnawing at his gut, Fletcher did a fast sweep of the lab.
First aid kit's gone. All the places techs stashed snacks in here - cleaned out. And who knew what else was missing. But most telling of all, there was a set of dents in one corner; a deep one in the carpet, and several of varying depths in the shelves of a particularly sturdy bookcase. As if something long, metal, and heavy had been leaning in that corner, just yesterday.
Steeling himself, Fletcher approached the mako tubes. And stared. "Sif's stolen hair…."
Lets get out of here, was scratched into the glass of one. From the inside.
Feeding time, glinted the other. That's our chance!
The lieutenant swallowed dryly, hand flexing on the comforting grip of his sword. He'd heard rumors of Hojo experimenting on humans. Who hadn't? But to see it-
No. Not just humans. No ordinary human carried a sword like the one that had dented that bookcase… and carved a bloody swath through the guardian bats.
SOLDIERs were in here. And they broke out. They didn't even give my men a chance to negotiate. Why-?
Because they were the specimens, you dumbass, a more alert part of his mind pointed out. And Roberts and Saez have been in rotation for this duty for over a year. Like half the rest of the guys assigned up here.
The ones who wouldn't talk to him. Why did he not think this was a coincidence?
Focus. You've got two armed and dangerous escapees to deal with; they may have been SOLDIERs once, but who knows what Hojo's done to them. Doesn't look like there's another way out of here, and the bats sure imply they went out the way you came in….
Which meant - what? They'd killed the guards here, and just left?
You could do it, Fletcher realized, going over what he knew of the facility's schedule as he raced up the stairs. Hit the first floor early enough in the morning, before the science geeks get moving - careful guys could sneak right out.
Careful and smart guys, who valued the time they'd gain before being missed more than any shot at revenge. Smart guys, who'd apparently been in Hojo's loving hands for who knew how long already. Guys being "tested to destruction".
I think we can safely assume they're pissed off.
So, Fletcher ticked off in his head, brushing past Teague's indignant bluster toward his grim men. He had fleeing, smart, careful, pissed-off ex-SOLDIERs, class unknown. A terse summary of the situation had his men pairing up to search the village, just in case their quarry had tried to pull off hiding greens behind the chocobo's crest. Class doesn't really matter, he decided darkly. Nothing's more dangerous than men with nothing to lose. "And after we clear the village, we'll head out into the surrounding terrain-"
"Might want to check the skies first, sir," Sergeant Waller said in the carefully polite tone sergeants reserved for damn fool officers who didn't know any better. "There's a thundersnow coming."
"Keep piling," Zack muttered under his breath, tossing armful after armful into the shelter's dark opening. "Doesn't matter if the leaves are wet - you just try to get more of those on the outside, and the dryer ones inside. Just keep piling."
One long young trunk for ridgepole and branches for ribbing had been the first up. He'd taken advantage of one of the Nibel forest's monster fallen trees, making that tangle of roots the back wall. Brush and all kinds of other debris - pine branches, dead ferns, whatever, long as it was reasonably fluffy - had gone on next in massive heaps, covered by another dressing of light branches to hold it down, and a scattering of ground litter to break up any betraying regularity of human construction. Now he was racing the oncoming clouds to stuff the inside with the driest, warmest leaves he could find. All the while hoping he hadn't forgotten any of the important parts of Cloud's long-ago lab lecture on What To Do If You Are a Lost Idiot Near Nibelheim.
It'd started out just one more way to try and beat the torture, before Hojo had started leaving them in the tanks for keeps. Even after, in those few minutes they were free of mako every morning. Just talking. Tactics, motorcycle engines, the mosquitoes from the Marshes you could mistake for airships… anything and everything that didn't have a scalpel attached.
After they'd figured out they were still in Nibelheim, though, the pattern of Cloud's stories had changed. With reason. Trooper Cloud Strife had not, to say the least, been exactly impressed by the training, equipment, or mission briefing given to non-SOLDIERs before they'd wound up in what drunk locals referred to as Skadi's playground (when it was just beer) or Hel's summer cottage (when the hard stuff had come out, and nobody cared what Shinra's goons thought). "Run into too many dragons, won't matter if you have Fire Materia," Zack had overheard Cloud muttering at one point, "you won't have the magic to cast anyway."
Which was what ethers were for, he'd playfully reminded the kid. Who'd rolled those blue eyes, and sighed, and grumbled something about showing him how to do it the hard way, one of these days….
Cloud hadn't gotten the chance to show him, but he'd done his best to paint a picture with words. Oh, the kid had done a pretty good job of disguising it as Stupid Things I Did Before I Joined Shinra. But if you listened - and hell, trapped in Hojo's clutches, wasn't much to do but listen-
Cloud had given him a Nibelheim survival manual.
He never stopped hoping we'd get out. Or I'd get out, anyway-
A rumble froze Zack mid-toss. He made himself throw those leaves in, then turned to face the oncoming snow clouds.
The fast, dark, lightning-laced snow clouds.
"Loki's teats," Zack breathed. "Cloud? Have I mentioned that sometimes I hate it when you're right?"
But he was already stooping and picking the kid up to shove him into the shelter, then scrambled in himself, makeshift pack and all. He'd thought the shrieking feeling of get to shelter, now was just one of Nibelheim's infamous spring blizzards heading their way, and calculated that the risk of stopping and maybe getting caught was a lot less than the risk of two mako-sick guys getting even sicker from exposure. But this-
This was what Cloud called a thundersnow, and not even the craziest Turk would be flying today.
Darkness fell as Zack squirmed deeper into the bedding, sword off to one side so the metal wouldn't suck heat out of him. Lightning flashed and crackled, thunder oddly muffled by the snow whipping down on icy winds.
One bolt slashed down close enough to prickle the hairs on Zack's neck. A flash, a boom loud enough to make him wonder if he'd underestimated some Turk's insanity-
Creak. Creaaaak… riiip….
The impact of a heavy trunk about, oh, way-too-close that way rattled his teeth together. And that's why Cloud said to pick a spot away from the middle of the woods, Zack belatedly remembered. Oops.
But the tree hadn't come down on them, and if their makeshift nest was a little musty and prickly, it was also surprisingly warm. Especially once he got out the emergency blanket from the first aid kit and wriggled it under them both to cut the chill of the ground. Man, he could almost go to sleep right now….
Ah well. He could nap, anyway. And Cloud could sleep. Hopefully. If the kid wasn't as flat-out petrified as Zack was by random strikes of lightning with no materia to ward it off.
Maybe I can do something about that. "All right, I admit it," Zack sighed. "I owe you ten gil." He tucked Cloud's head against his shoulder, feeling the soft, regular breaths. "I thought Gongaga weather was bad. Hell, I knew Gongaga weather was bad. But for hands-down, no holds barred, only Hel could love it nasty - Nibelheim wins."
Maybe it was his imagination, but Zack thought he felt a pause in Cloud's breaths. Almost like a laugh.
She'd just sold a flower to a nervous clerk trying to woo a hotdog vendor when a landslide clocked her upside the head.
Aeris caught her basket as it slipped out of her hand, and gave the clerk a smile before she walked away. His joy was tinsel-light behind her, glimmering contrast to the heavy shadows hanging over her mind.
A shadow of wings.
That suddenly, she recognized the touch, and drew in a breath to give the ancient spirit a piece of her mind. It might be made out of stone, but she wasn't, and it'd been over two years-
Yes, they'd established that, she was Ifalna's daughter as much as Elmyra's, and that wasn't getting a hunk of rock out of a lecture.
Aeris stopped. Blinked. Listen? To what?
Wings soared away from her mind's touch.
Fist on her hip, Aeris sighed, eyes going almost Turk-squinty as she weighed the merits of trying to kick some spirit tail. But… the gargoyle had said it would try to help. Not the spirit's fault it thought in stone-time instead of human time. Oh, Zack….
Something glimmered on the edge of her heart, and Aeris found herself weak-kneed in a café chair with no clue how she'd gotten there. She caught her breath, and reached out. Zack?
Wind-wild, and ragged in spots with mako. But the core of that far-off brightness….
Tears were slipping down her face. She didn't try to stop them. All these years, all the ache of waiting - and he was alive. Alive, and seeking her.
You're coming to Midgar? But it's too dangerous. It's got to be. Shinra tried to hide that you even existed, Zack, why-?
But Zack was Zack, meaning he wouldn't be coming into the heart of his enemies' power without a good reason. Closing her eyes, Aeris reached farther.
Wind. Clear as mountains'; stubborn and prone to doubling on its own tracks as any gust that survived Midgar. A young, hurt breeze, burned almost to the core, but still hanging on….
It was, and it wasn't. The core was still that small, bright light she'd tracked down so long ago; though even that glow had shifted, burning blue much as Zack blazed violet. But outside the core - that sense of wind and wild had just brushed Zack, a wash of shadow that made all his colors brighter. Cloud was all light and shadows; a starry sky over Midgar's wasteland, with only a few stubborn twigs of life defying the night.
But he's alive, Aeris told herself fiercely. He's alive, and he can heal. He just needs time, and love, and-
There was a darkness in the wasteland, gathering itself like a snake of black ice. A thunder of wings swooped down to meet it, blazing fire, and the two were attacking each other-
Stop! You've got to stop! Aeris pleaded. One of those tenacious shrubs was already shriveling, wasteland crumbling away beneath it. If you don't stop, you'll both die!
Mine! Darkness hissed. Was/ is/ will be/ will not escape!
The Enemy is here, thunder growled in turn. It will not be allowed the chance to strike you….
Pushy spirits. As if she couldn't look after herself. You're part of him now, Aeris insisted. Can't you wait? Please? I can help you, I know I can-
Darkness struck at her, fangs glittering; thunder took the blow in her place, shoving her away-
Aeris blinked the physical world back into focus, settling on the dark, sober gaze of the blue-suited man sitting down across from her.
"Even for someone with as much local good will as you have," Tseng observed calmly, "this is not the place to take a… midday nap."
Which was as close as the Turk leader would come to admitting that strangeness sometimes followed her around like a cheeping chocobo chick. And that if he knew too much about it, he might not be able to put Hojo and Shinra off any longer.
"If one of your people had been lost for a long time," Aeris said impulsively, "and you'd just found out he was hurt, and coming home - you'd help him. You're loyal to each other. You're family." The only family a Turk really had, once they put on those blue suits. It was a bloody, chilling way to make a family… but even flowers weren't as innocent as they seemed. Most people who bought her wares never dreamed that bright colors held traces of poisons, so bees and butterflies would take only so much, and no more.
The Turks could be the people who are after Zack; what am I thinking? Darn Voices. Darn mystic impulses she didn't understand. Mother, why did you have to die? I don't know what to do.
And… Tseng was giving her a very considering look, as if she'd handed him a Wutain puzzle-chain. "I would."
Aeris gifted him with a brilliant smile. "So you don't mind watching while I take another nap? I won't be long." Not waiting for an answer, she closed her eyes, and reached again. Not for that desperate, doomed struggle, but near it. Zack? Zack, Cloud needs you. You've got to-
Waking up to a feverish body curled next to him was not on Zack's list of top ten favorite things ever.
He disentangled himself from the kid long enough to poke his head out the shelter door. White, white, and white. Though the slightly less chill air and general leafy bud-ness of nearby trees hinted the snow might be gone by tomorrow. At least we're camouflaged. For now.
Zack crawled back in and shifted Cloud a little sideways, so the faint light from the opening lit him. No point wasting one of the kit's glowsticks when enhanced vision could do the work. He rolled the kid onto his side, pressed gently along his upper back-
Cloud didn't flinch. For all Zack knew, Cloud couldn't flinch. But that was definitely where the fever-heat burned hottest. Damn you, Hojo. After we get out of this, I'm going to find some way to make your life miserable. Just you watch.
"You were right about this place, you know," Zack said conversationally, stripping off Cloud's armor pauldrons. "First aid kit stocked up and ready for everything up to and including getting buried alive in an avalanche. Not that I'm going to go looking for avalanches," he added hastily, recalling some of the hairier situations he'd dragged Cloud into. Honestly, the kid tried so hard, and knew so well how to work around his own limits, even if he didn't know he knew - it was hard to remember, sometimes, that he wasn't a SOLDIER.
Avalanche first aid kit. Something about that nagged at him….
Worry about it later.
Hand at the bottom of Cloud's charcoal turtleneck, Zack paused. "Okay. Let me tell you what's going on here. After I hauled you out of the tank, I thought I saw a little bruising on your back. Didn't think much about it then. Lab, cuts and bruises - kind of a fact of life. But now you're running a fever. So I'm going to take a look, okay?" He waited for any twitch of a reply.
Nothing. Damn it. Sighing, Zack pulled the shirt up.
Breathing under control, Zack pulled the shirt all the way off. "I'm not going to lie to you, Cloud," he stated with tight calm. "This really doesn't look good." Infected, was what it looked like; two long, bubbly blisters with all kinds of gunk in them, and gods, what had Hojo come up with that could infect somebody with mako-laced immune systems?
"I'm going to have to clean this out," Zack said, forcing himself to turn away to the first aid kit. "I know it's cold out there, but I think we'd better do it outside, where we can let it drain. Then I can warm you up and clean you up back in here." Mountain survival might not be his thing, but he did know field first aid, with or without materia. He was going to be opening up a hell of a lot of skin, and Cloud was going to need every bit of warmth they could suck up before they started running again.
Zack stared at the various drugs in the kit, and regretfully left those vials where they were. "Sorry, kid. I can't dose you. Most of this stuff probably wouldn't work on us at three times the dose, and even if it did, I don't know what you've got in your system already. So brace yourself. It's going to hurt." Sterile knife, disposable gloves - careful you don't tear through those - sanitary wipes… let's do this.
At least the storm seemed to have warmed things up a little; it was only chilly, not biting cold. Zack brushed snow away from a handy spot on the fallen trunk, propped Cloud up, and made one long, arcing cut.
Blister-dead skin peeled back, releasing fluid, less pus than he'd thought, and-
Holy flaming mother of-!
Something long and black and twitchy oozed out, drooping against Cloud's back like wilted greens.
Twenty feet away with his mini-knife raised in ludicrous defense, Zack told his heart to slow down, damn it. Whatever it was, it'd stopped moving. It wasn't trying to bite him, spray acid at him, or anything else weird and monster-like.
And the longer they were out from under cover, the more dangerous it was for both of them.
Warily, he crept back, reaching a gloved hand out to poke. If I didn't know better, I'd say it's… attached. And it's got bones in it.
Very, very carefully, he picked up a solid edge, and pulled it taut.
"Unreal," Zack breathed, staring at the lethal tripartite claw at what looked like the main joint, opposing a fingerlike splay of fine bones, all connected by wet black membranes. A wing. Cloud has a-
He looked at the other, almost symmetrical blister. Looked at his knife. Took a deep breath, and cut again.
…Cloud has wings.
Which, oddly enough, knocked half the panic out of Zack in one relieved gasp. Angeal, Genesis - they'd been asymmetrical. Out of balance, in both body and mind. This - this felt okay. Safe.
Your buddy has wings and you feel safe. There is something seriously wrong with your head, Fair.
Like he didn't know that already. Absently he tongued one of his fangs, then peeled off his left glove, flexing that set of claws to compare it to Cloud's. Think his are a little thicker, when you take into account he's got smaller hands. His fangs are definitely longer. And- Zack felt at his own back to be sure. Wings, I don't got. So, wild guess here, whatever hit me, hit Cloud harder.
Like the mako. Man, the kid had no luck at all.
Okay. So neither of them were exactly normal anymore. As long as they didn't feel like setting villages on fire or eating small children, Zack was going to give them both the benefit of the doubt and assume they were still human. Mostly.
Aeris. We need to get to Aeris.
Out of the mountains, over all kinds of nasty terrain, across a couple oceans, and right into the dragon's lair of Midgar itself. Oh yeah. This was going to be so much fun.
And… he couldn't stop grinning, hand pressed against the fine new skin on Cloud's back.
The fever was broken.
"Hang in there, Cloud. We're going home."
DIE HOJO BASTARD.
"Um." Clutching a battered black scientific backpack and bundled up in cold weather gear so only the tip of his nose poked out, Peters swallowed dryly. Took a step back, as if the letters carved into the debarked side of a gigantic fallen tree could reach out and bite him. "Well. I'd say that's pretty… diagnostic… that you're on the right track, Lieutenant…."
Sergeant Waller rolled his eyes. Fletcher let it slide, stepping sideways so the light was at a slightly different angle. He could have almost sworn he'd seen-
In case you hadn't noticed, Hojo's down two lab subjects, finer scratches read, invisible to anyone without enhanced eyesight. I were you, I'd start thinking about getting clear before he decides you'll do for new stock. Shinra let him have us. You wouldn't even blip their radar.
Zack Fair, SOLDIER First Class.
Trooper Cloud Strife.
A half-step back, and the scratches were all but invisible again. Fletcher caught his breath, hoping his eyes weren't as wide and wild as they felt. If that was… but it couldn't be…
"Found the beacon, sir!" one of his men called out.
Fletcher grimaced at the two halves of the first aid kit's metal case. Sheer luck that irritated sword-blow hadn't cut through the emergency locator they'd remote-activated, meant to lead rescuers to survivors buried under an avalanche of snow….
Or no luck at all, a wary side of him pointed out. Fair left that message to be found.
He shouldn't assume that was Fair. He really shouldn't. Fair was a legend, like the General, who'd disappeared years ago. Anyone could claim to be Fair.
Disappeared here. And the way he broke out….
The bats, the dents in the bookcase - both of those would fit a Buster Sword. Easily.
Okay. Assume his worst nightmares were true, and a hero turned lab experiment had… left them a message. Why?
Confuse and demoralize your enemy. Break up pursuit any way possible.
Of course. Just a tactic. Which… wasn't going to work. Really. He had a duty, after all. Two of his men were dead, and someone had to answer for that.
Though it couldn't hurt to steer clear of Professor Hojo. Which shouldn't be a problem for at least the next few months; Hojo had plenty of work to do in Midgar, and nobody was arrogant enough to blow off what the President ordered done-
And… was that a helicopter heading this way?
Shinra logo on the side, and blue suits in the front seats. Damn.
Still a few minutes out, and it'd take them a bit to get here from the nearest landing spot after that. Mouth set in a grim line, Fletcher ordered his men to keep searching. If this was Fair… there might be more than one message.
"Someone," an oily, arch voice carried over the fading rotor whine, "had better have a very good explanation."
Well. Looked like someone was willing to blow off President Shinra after all.
For a pencil-pushing lab tech, Peters was doing a fair job of taking advantage of available cover. Too bad for him Sergeant Waller was all too willing to step out of Hojo's way.
Pale, Peters backed up against the gashed trunk. "Professor Hojo." He had to swallow. "Dr. Teague didn't tell us you were coming…."
"Yes; Teague has been less than informative all around, hasn't he?" Hojo's smile made a Levrikon look cuddly. The eyes that turned on Fletcher were slick ice. "Your superiors wouldn't have sent an incompetent to hold this post. So. The head of security for my personal lab has forsaken the dubious civilization of Nibelheim for the middle of a gods-forsaken wilderness because…?"
Professional. Be professional. "Approximately forty-eight hours ago, two of your experimental subjects broke out, killed a lab assistant, two guards, and possibly two dozen black bats," Fletcher reported.
"Housekeeping hasn't given us a final tally yet."
"Mm." Hojo nudged up his glasses. "And yet you're here, and not in immediate pursuit."
"As you said, Dr. Teague has been less than forthcoming," Fletcher stated neutrally. He nodded toward the slashed first aid case. "We followed the beacon here. Past this point, it'll be old-fashioned tracking. My men are trained in such techniques." So their jackets claimed, anyway, and he was a fair tracker even if no one else was. "But trailing the subjects from physical sign alone won't allow us to get ahead of them. To anticipate them."
Hojo's smirk deepened. "So you're asking for classified information to make your job easier? Tisk. I would have expected better of a SOLDIER."
"No, sir," Fletcher said levelly, noting how Sergeant Waller almost stirred, but kept silent. "I'm asking because your safety may be at risk." Stepping back, he put a firm hand on Peters' shoulder, and carefully steered the pale junior scientist away from gouged wood.
Hojo regarded the visible message, and didn't twitch. "Specimen Z. It does have a rather quixotic sense of humor."
Specimen Z. Fletcher tried not to react.
"There were two," Peters dared. "How do you know which one it was?"
"Because Specimen C has been catatonic for several months now," Hojo said dismissively. "A disappointment. Physically it still tolerated the mako as well as always, but… it won't be regaining consciousness any time soon. If ever." He gave Fletcher an amused smile. "Concern for my safety in this situation is unnecessary. The specimens have been conditioned to fear me, and they are rather tightly pair-bonded. I would go so far as to say unnaturally tightly. You'd know all about that, wouldn't you, Peters?" Hojo gestured toward the brush shelter. "They may lair up somewhere, as they did here. But I sincerely doubt they'll be laying in wait for me, or for your men." One greasy brow lifted. "Is there anything else, Lieutenant? My time is valuable."
"Some sort of physical description would be useful," Fletcher observed. Felt Waller's gaze on him, and pressed on anyway. "I'm told none of my people has ever been close enough for a good look."
"If they had, they'd have been torn limb from limb," Hojo chuckled. "The Turks will provide you with the information necessary to identify the bodies."
"Bodies?" Peters got out.
"The experiment is contaminated, and a failure," Hojo shrugged. "I'd considered terminating it earlier, but the apparently spontaneous formation of materia grains was intriguing in and of itself-"
"They have materia?" Fletcher cut him off.
Dark eyes narrowed behind glass. "Of course not. Really, don't any of you people listen? Apparently an idiosyncratic substrate reaction- Oh, never mind, you wouldn't understand anyway." Turning his back on them, Hojo started back toward the helicopter. "Take Peters with you, Lieutenant. He may prove of some use." A sly chuckle. "If only as bait."
Being jolted along slung over Zack's shoulder, Cloud decided, was definitely a new twist on the usual hallucinations.
"Dragons," Zack was muttering somewhere in the haze of green, breathing a little ragged. "Twin Brains. Sonic Speeds. And who knows what that sharp pointy tentacle thing was. This place is a deathtrap even without Shinra."
It's not that bad… um, Zack? Do you hear that?
Soft, fast paws in brush. Snarling breaths. Lots of them.
"And of course, we've got these jokers," Zack grumbled. "What do you think, about five of 'em?"
Zack, if you can hear five, there's probably fifteen. Or more.
"Don't worry. I remember what you told me about outrunning them."
Cloud's head was already banging against Zack's shoulder. Saved him a lot of trouble. No, you pointy-haired idiot! I told you that in the long run a human can outrun a wolf. As in, two or three days. When you're chasing them. I know SOLDIERs are faster, but right now they're chasing us, and - damn it, Zack, find a good spot and make like a dragon with a hangover. Nibel Wolves are smart. If we're not setting off "prey - chase", they'll figure out we're not worth it.
And… you're not hearing a word I say.
This was not good. This was so not good. Even worse, he had no clue where they were; if Zack was going to act like a deer on two legs, they might have had a chance if he could steer for-
Cloud drew in a breath that tasted of wet leaves, melting ice, and stone. River. That's river air, Zack. And it sounds big.
"That better be the Mardol, or we're more lost than I thought," Zack muttered. "Hang on!"
Thought crossed my mind, Zack. Though he halfway expected to float off any minute now. Heavy, hazy green everywhere, and everything was numb.
And more numb, as wet chill splashed over them both. Mako?
No. Mako made you numb and dizzy and burning. This… this burned too, but a cold burn, that he knew they couldn't stand long.
The Mardol's half snowmelt, Zack! I know you're a furnace, but are you insane?
"Relax," Zack gasped as he swam, tugging Cloud along through the tumbling currents. "You know how tough we are. Little cold water's nothing."
I'll remember that when I'm dying of hypothermia. Damn it, Zack, you know I'm not a SOLDIER. And if those wolves are hungry enough to chase us, a "little cold water" sure won't stop them.
No, not quite right. There was one spot on the Mardol where it would. Whether or not Zack remembered that little bit of info, though….
Hard slipperiness under his boots. Rocks?
Too soon. We can't be across already. Unless-
"Heyrdahl's Island, right?" Zack pulled them behind the first rank of trees, out of the killing wind. "Your wolf demilitarized zone."
Cloud tried to smile; felt it faint and impossible as tickling a star. This hallucination did look like the monster hunters' seasonal base, complete with the always-too-early red-and-orange tent of a lowland hunter who didn't know how bad the weather could turn. Or the tattered remnants of one, anyway, before it had been well and truly fried by a lightning strike.
And five feet away from it were the half-skeletal remains of a fried hunter, under the snarling muzzle of a gaunt, one-eyed wolf.
In one move, Zack let Cloud slide down, spun, and swung.
The headless body collapsed, ever-present green muddying red to sickening brown. "So. We need a rug?"
Hopeless, Cloud sighed. Strangest, longest hallucination I've ever had… what's Hojo using?
Because no matter how the cold and green blurred things, Zack took way too long before stripping his clothes off in the scanty shelter of the seared tent. Long enough that he should have frozen solid.
Zack would've been fine, of course. But he wasn't Zack.
"So… way that guy was torn up, he was an omega wolf, right? From the pack on the other side of the river. Low enough on the totem pole of who gets to eat, he's willing to risk jumping into no wolf's land when he smells fried meat." Zack tucked the emergency blanket around Cloud's shoulders, wrapped a bit of maybe-purple cloth around himself as he stalked through the ravaged camp.
Right. But packs keep track of their omegas too, Zack.
"The rest of his guys are going to come looking for him, and given the pack they hate chased us all the way here… we don't move fast, we're going to be in the middle of a wolf gang war." Something went over with a crash. "Kind of reminds me of Friday night in Sector Seven… hello."
What? Cloud tried to sit up. Felt his head twitch a little.
Grinning, Zack dangled a set of boat keys.
The green stuttered a little; Cloud was not-too-cold, then chilly, then very cold but near lovely, almost red-hot warmth….
There was a motor grumbling in his ears, and wind sneaking under a covering tarp to finger his hair.
"Sorry to cut it so close," Zack said ruefully, hugging him near with one arm as the other handled the boat wheel easily as a bike. "Had to figure out a good way to rig up the camp stove in here without burning everything down."
We've got a camp stove?
"Think we've got some trail rations the raccoons didn't get to. Not that I mind living off the land, but given your horror stories about mushrooms…." Foil rustled. "Huh. Guy had weird tastes. Wutai soba in cheddar sauce? With tuna?"
Okay, weird dead guy… clothes, Zack?
"Know it's a bit chilly, but we'll get dressed after things dry out. You don't mind, right?"
Mind? Cloud had lost count of how many times they'd seen each other naked in the lab. So long as this didn't turn into one of the acid-dripping-scalpels with Nibelheim's bullies visions, a little nudity never hurt anybody.
"Besides," Zack's voice turned oddly hesitant, "I kind of figure you got a little cramped, bunched up under that shirt. Got to sort out something later." His hand shifted, from around ribs to back up near Cloud's shoulder-blade. "Let me see if I can get some of the knots out."
What knots- oh. Oooh, don't stop….
Warmth and Zack's magic fingers sucked him under.
"Limp noodle," Zack chuckled under his breath as he tucked another of the boat's blankets around the sleeping blond. Shook his head, thinking of that sound Cloud had made as Zack worked out muscle-knots; a faint, almost kitten-purr of a sigh.
Fits with the fur. I didn't realize he'd be fuzzy.
Dry now, Cloud's wings were definitely furry, not a dragon's naked skin. Fine black hairs that glimmered with hints of raven-shine, materia-shine; ruby, gold, blue, violet, green.
Like those flecks. Something Hojo didn't plan on.
Which had to be good, no matter how weird it was. What Hojo hadn't planned for, he couldn't anticipate. And they needed every edge over that bastard they could get.
But none of that held a candle to the fact that Cloud had reacted. Even just a little.
He's still in there. He's not giving up.
Not that he thought Cloud would, as long as the kid had someone else to worry about. Which was probably the biggest reason Cloud hadn't made SOLDIER; strong as he was for other people, he couldn't quite seem to figure out when to worry about himself.
Well, that and the fact he used to cringe even when somebody gave him a friendly pat, Zack thought ruefully. Hate to say it, but if Se- someone hadn't beaten me to it, I'd have been tempted to burn that village down.
He'd barely met Mrs. Strife, but what he'd seen reminded him way too much of Old Lady Wilson back in Gongaga; proud and lonely and enduring every sneer her neighbors could throw at her, just because she'd once been married to a man from Wutai. Before Shinra had discovered mako power and decided to conquer the world.
Blond, blue-eyed, and pale as Mount Nibel, Cloud definitely wasn't from Wutai. But he'd been a kid without a father around, surrounded by a village full of people that didn't look anything like him. Heck, Zack blended in more than Cloud did. Add small, quiet, and smart enough to know he was smarter than most- yeah. Nibelheim would have been one long series of disasters. Joining up had probably been the best thing that'd ever happened to Cloud.
Especially given that weird comment Cloud's Mom had made, just before Zack had left.
"You're his friend, right?" Blue eyes, older but so familiar, had looked fearlessly into SOLDIER violet. "He's been in the field? He can shoot?" He can kill? that sober gaze had asked.
Which was not something most moms wanted to know about their darling baby boys. But Zack was no more immune to her eyes than Cloud's; he'd stammered, then assured her that yes, Cloud could shoot. Had shot, and would shoot; and maybe he was better with a sword than a gun, but he still beat most troopers with twice his experience, hands down.
"Good," Mrs. Strife had said, eyes straying toward the Lockhart house. "My aim isn't what it used to be."
And she hadn't said one word after that, no matter how Zack turned on the charm. He'd left shaken and more than a little disturbed, wondering if Cloud's hiding under his helmet was less embarrassment than honest appreciation for a very real threat. Combine that with what Cloud had said in the labs later, even if he had been drugged out of his mind….
But at the time, he'd set worry about Cloud aside for worry about Sephiroth. And look how that had turned out.
"Depression," Zack said dramatically, echoing a long-ago instructor, "is counter-survival. Focus on what you can do."
He'd have to search this hunk of steel for a map later, but if he remembered his geography right, this river ought to bring them down to the coast, heading past the Gold Saucer area. Somewhere further down the coast than that was a chocobo racing track, across the strait from a sister track on the main continent. And sister tracks meant competition, which meant shipping birds back and forth to see who had final bragging rights. Which meant possibilities-
Violet eyes narrowed, Zack throttled back the engine, and focused on the present. Shinra might be chasing their own beacon, or they might not, but they could wait. Nibelheim wasn't done trying to kill them yet.
Okay. So instead of two pissed-off SOLDIERs, we've got one, with an injured companion, Fletcher thought, absently tapping his local map. Hours into the pursuit, here they were, and here they'd been, and the faint trail seemed to be heading this way… hmm.
In the background he could hear Sergeant Waller ordering men to switch off forward-searcher and rearguard positions, as everybody got a few minutes to catch a bite and a breath in the relative safety of an armed group. Nibelheim had far too many monsters for even a five-man team plus one to be absolutely safe; Fletcher could hear wolves padding out of sight even now, smart enough to know this many humans together weren't worth the risk.
And one guy carrying somebody got through here. Fletcher shook his head. It did fit what he'd seen, in the lab and on the stairs. Still. Z had to know what he was up against. Anyone would realize their odds had to be better if they weren't hauling around a man-sized piece of deadweight.
Pair-bonding, Hojo said…. "Peters, what in Hel's Hall is so interesting about that hunk of wood?"
Still catching his breath, the scientist didn't look up from the small bit of tree trunk he'd asked Fletcher's men to hack loose for him. Glove pulled off for the moment, he swabbed the wood, then carefully snapped a plastic cover over the cotton. Other bits and splinters had already found their way into the kit Peters had kept stashed in his pack, tucked in with little vials of chemicals, packets of feather-down, and at least one fairly large steel box marked biohazard. "You mean besides whatever was scratched into it that normal eyes can't see?"
Fletcher tried not to blink. "Er…."
"I didn't want to be assigned up here, you know. Didn't see a point to it. I'm a parazoological behaviorist, not a - a vivisectionist." Peters was packing up with short, choppy motions; took a breath, and made himself slow down, storing items carefully back into place.
The guy actually knows how to pack, Fletcher realized. And while he might be breathing hard just trying to keep up with a SOLDIER's careful - thus easy - pace, they hadn't had to carry him. Yet. "You study monster behavior."
"My thesis was on the effects of mutation on pair-bonding in desert griffins." Peters chafed his arms. "Cold, I'm used to. Snow, not so much."
"You study monster sex?" Waller snickered, yards away.
Peters sighed. "I admit I've heard the Midgar dating scene can make facing down Hell Houses look tame, but believe me, when most creatures are looking into sharing living space, the act of sex itself is not one of the primary considerations."
"But you do study monster sex," Fletcher put in, amused despite himself.
Peters closed his eyes and shook his head. Sighed again. "If you have to put it that way… among other behaviors, yes."
"And pair-bonding would be one of these behaviors?" Fletcher went on, studying the scientist's blush as he would an unfamiliar monster.
"I don't see how that's relevant-"
"Neither do I," Fletcher admitted. "Can we have a layman's explanation? Never know when knowing something about griffins might come in handy."
Peters eyed him in turn as if the man were wondering where he'd hidden a firecracker ambush; looked away, resigned. "First off, pair-bonding - and a better term is social bonding, it's not just pairs - is not primarily about sex. It's not even mostly about sex."
Somebody sniggered. Fletcher let an eye roam that direction until the noise died down. "So what's it about?"
Fletcher hid a grin as the lewd whispers stopped cold. Yep. Now you've got their attention. Shinra didn't talk about it, but SOLDIERs craved the chase almost as much as the wolves he could hear lurking out of sight. Missions and training handled most of it, but once in a while… well, that was what impromptu games of tag were for. That, and the President's statue. The Turks never did seem to figure out a way to keep it from being stolen. "So griffins are looking for someone they can hunt with?"
"Chocobos form a large part of their diet, especially when they're raising young," Peters nodded. "As you can imagine, group tactics are a lot more effective than lone hunts. So much more so, sometimes a youngster from a previous breeding will remain as part of the family unit. Or a pair of siblings might hold a territory together, even after outside mates are brought in. In all of these cases, you can see social bonding behavior. Which includes," Peters ticked them off on his fingers, "friendly vocalizations, preening of companions, solicitations of preening, flight displays, food offerings, and no small amount of just plain showing off."
"Sounds like the barracks," Waller almost smiled.
It did at that. Not that Fletcher thought a First Class like Fair would have been spending time with an ordinary trooper… at least, not while he had other options. But no, Peters was shaking his head. "What?"
"Well, no, you're right," Peters stated. "But that's why it doesn't fit. Tactile contact, physical reinforcement of the social bond, is essential. And the - the subjects we're discussing, wouldn't have been able to touch. At all."
Which made sense. But there was something Peters wasn't telling them. Fletcher could feel it. "So how come we haven't heard of this before? Can't imagine the SOLDIERs with you thought it was that classified."
"We didn't have any SOLDIERs with us."
Fletcher eyed him.
Peters bit his lip, but squared his shoulders. "I told you, I don't agree with vivisection. Professor Hojo doesn't arrange for armed escorts for graduate students who don't plan to bring in specimens for him. We were after social behavior, environmental observations, and baseline biochemical and metabolic measurements. There were just the five of us and one graduate adviser, Dr. Culbreth. Tough old lady," Peters smiled.
"In a desert full of griffins," Fletcher pointed out. "How many of you came out?"
"All of us." Peters' voice dropped, inaudible to normal ears. "Even though Devereaux was an idiot."
Fletcher filed away that name to ask about later; that was the kind of tone his master sergeant during training had used about a cadet who'd managed to drop a live grenade, and he didn't even want to think about what it meant combined with geeks and griffins.
"Mind if we ask how?" Sergeant Waller said dryly.
"Professor Hojo never did." Peters watched Waller warily, flicked a glance at Fletcher.
To a regular human, it was probably moderately subtle. Fletcher didn't laugh. He's got an ace. Something he doesn't want Hojo to know about. He gave the scientist an encouraging nod.
Reluctantly, Peters pulled out the biohazard box. Thumbed its lock to a particular combination, and opened it into two foam-padded halves. One side held ranks of odd cartridges with ablative plastic tips, wrapped with warning labels like lethal Yule ribbons. The other side…. "Dart gun," Fletcher stated.
"Looks almost Turk," Waller agreed, voice flat.
"I wouldn't know." Not meeting their gaze, Peters opened a side pocket and took out a wristband, slipping it on under his glove. The outside held a slotted green materia; the inside, directly against the skin-
"Phoenix down?" Waller asked sharply.
"If I had an accident, it might keep me alive long enough to cast Esuna." Peters' smile had a wry edge. "Tranks. Dr. Culbreth says they'll make a Midgar Zolom think twice about whether you're edible. I don't know about that, but they will drop a griffin at thirty yards."
"And a person?" Fletcher said evenly.
"If the needle's bare? Has about two seconds to say, 'Oh, shit.'" Peters' gaze was sober. "The grad student who came up with these thinks they'd put a SOLDIER down for about eight hours. I wouldn't want to count on it."
Sergeant Waller raised an eyebrow. "Are those even legal?"
Peters gave him a wide-eyed look of innocence. "They're a university science project. Important biochemical research. An ongoing avenue of study."
Translation, they probably wouldn't be, if they were official, Fletcher thought, darkly amused. Though he did have one very crucial question. "Peters…."
"How's your aim?"
When the green thinned this time, something was tugging at his hair. Didn't seem like an unfriendly tug; just a 'hi, how are you, don't you want this bit of hair going this way instead of that'….
"Wark!" a high warble answered back.
Zack, I'm going to kill you.
Not having heard what she considered sufficient protest to stop, the green chocobo hen bent back to preening Cloud's head. Her blue chick flapped tiny wings and tried to help, vigorously plucking at his pants leg.
Zack-cutlets. I swear.
Though really he ought to be blaming Hojo for this, not Zack. Since this was a hallucination.
Funny. Numb and blurry and green as everything still was, the situation didn't feel like a hallucination at all. Like one of Zack's pranks gone horribly wrong, yeah, it felt like that. Sort of. Who else would leave him tucked into the bedding of a mother chocobo in one of the quieter stalls of a busy stable, counting on his infamous resemblance to set off all her chick-protect instincts, thus leaving him effectively safe even when he couldn't so much as blink-
Shadow. And green again.
Did I just blink?
"Hello, lovely lady!" Zack opened the stall door, handful of greens held out as a peace offering. "Can we trade?"
The chocobo's eyes half-closed, as she regarded the greens gravely. Ruffled her feathers, and went back to grooming blond hair.
If he'd been able to, Cloud would have snickered. Got you pegged as a soft touch already, huh? She knows you'll give them up, and she's having too much fun to give me up. If it weren't so embarrassing, it'd be funny.
"Wark?" The chick had worked its way up past his knee next to his hand, taste-testing along the way to see if there were greens, grasshoppers, or any other yummy treats hiding out in cloth.
Yeah, you're too cute for words. He'd always loved chocobos. So maybe this was one of the nicer dreams. Which meant it couldn't hurt if he tried to….
Like slipping through cold molasses, his fingers curved into downy feathers.
Zack sucked in a quick breath, and slipped deeper into the stall. Inched near one slow step at a time, so he didn't startle the chick. "Cloud?"
You see anybody else here? His fingers curved again; and yes, everything was still green, still unreal, but-
He could swear he felt feathers.
"Hey…." Zack eased down beside them in the straw, cupping his own hand over feather-laced fingers. "Try that again."
"Oh gods. I knew you were still in there, I knew it!"
Zack? You're going to scare the chick. And that will make Mommy very unhappy with us. Cloud could hear her stalking closer, stiff-legged.
Zack scrubbed at his eyes, glanced up at the green hen. "S'okay. Just saying hi to my partner here." One arm wrapped around Cloud's shoulder, hugged tight. "Oh gods, kid, you had me so worried…."
Zack was worried? About him? Zack didn't get worried.
Except - sometimes he did. When things were really hairy. And if any of this were real - which he knew it couldn't be - well, you couldn't get more hairy than being chased by all of Shinra.
He wanted to hug Zack back. To tell him he was fine, even if this wasn't real at least his mind was out of the lab, and that helped-
Nothing would move. Not even his fingers. His eyes burned, shamed. Helpless. Just like always.
"Hey." Zack's voice was soft again, one finger wiping something warm and wet from Cloud's cheek. "Listen to me. I know you're in there. I know you're trying. You've got mako poisoning, Cloud. Worst I've ever seen. Getting back even this far on your own - you've got nothing to be ashamed of."
But… you made it out okay, Zack.
"I can't hear you, but I'm gonna guess you're beating yourself up right now anyway. Cloud, I had my full set of shots before Hojo ever messed with us. Kind of like snakebite. Build up a little dose of venom at a time, after a while a cobra can sink its teeth in and all you'll be is cranky. You got the full load, straight up. The fact that you're still breathing makes you tougher than half the SOLDIERs I know."
But I'm not, Zack. We both know it. No matter how much I wanted….
"You're a lot better now than when I got us out of the lab. Maybe it doesn't feel like it to you, but you are. So I'm telling you to hold onto that, and keep trying. Your head got messed with big-time. It's just going to take a while to get over it."
It was too much to hope for. But Zack sounded so sure.
I won't let you down, Cloud tried to promise, seeing the hen settle down with her chick and Zack's forgotten greens. But-
"Now let's see if I put the holes in this thing right."
Zack was already lifting one of his arms at a time, easing off a tattered plaid shirt Cloud vaguely recalled from a boat left powerless on a river shore echoing with the crash of waves. Must not have been a good fit; he felt an urge to stretch as soon as fabric loosened, easing odd cramps.
"Whoa," Zack chuckled. "You could put an eye out with those."
Okay, now Cloud was really confused.
But the charcoal turtleneck Zack was slipping on him felt nice, and smelled nicer; clean and freshly-dried, with a hint of feathers clinging to it as if Zack had just snuck off to… of course. Dirty clothes would attract all the wrong kinds of attention, if someone caught a glimpse of them. And there was always a laundry near chocobo stables, for blankets and jockey gear and what have you, predictably empty at odd hours when honest stable-hands were out cold. He should know; Cloud had ended up doing enough of his own laundry in the army stables when someone had pulled a particularly nasty prank.
Bet he used the gil-on-a-string trick, too… wait a second. That's not my arm he's pulling on.
Zack's motions were quick and matter-of-fact as if it was, though; folding, gently tugging, and settling cloth as he worked his way around Cloud's back. A repeat, slightly farther over, and then he was getting Cloud's left arm in, and zipping the shirt up with a breath of relief. "Gotcha." Zack tilted his head, studying the effect. "Huh. Even blends in pretty good."
Cloud managed another exhausting blink, trying to sort through feelings that didn't seem… well, they seemed right, but not familiar. Which made no sense at all.
He wasn't cold. He could feel his sleeves. But at the same time he could feel a stray draft tickle across… what was that?
Gloves pulled off, Zack reached behind Cloud's shoulder and stroked. "Aeris is going to love you to pieces."
What- what did you just do…?
It was as if Zack had ghosted a gentle touch over the fine webs of skin between Cloud's fingers. Only much, much bigger. It tickled.
So help me, Zack, if you keep that up, I'll… oh, no fair. Not the magic fingers….
With a sigh, Cloud put aside thoughts of prank revenge for later. Much, much later. After Zack had gotten out all the cramps.
Though, just before sleep sucked him under again, he couldn't help but wonder. What had he been doing, to get cramps back there?
"Fuzzy and ticklish," Zack grinned, stroking loose fuzz from Cloud's wings. "Aeris is going to squeak like a basketful of kittens."
Carefully - he hadn't been joking about the eye-poke, the wing-claws were sharp - Zack pulled Cloud's right wing out for a better look. Almost as long as the kid's arm, now. Definitely longer than two days ago.
He was not snooping, no matter how much curiosity was bubbling in his veins. Just checking up on a friend who couldn't yet check for himself, in one of the first real breathing spaces they'd had in the past few weeks. Between almost wrecking the boat multiple times, nearly getting eaten by a half-dozen monsters including a so young it was still soft-shelled hammerclaw in the estuary, sneaking down coasts that had way too many people on them, and finally stowing away on the ferry that had come across the straits here - there'd barely been time to breathe, much less check on Cloud's very odd growth spurt.
He wasn't sure, but he thought the kitten-fuzz had started shedding about four or five days back. Longer, slightly rougher fur was growing in to replace it, while the membranes themselves had gone from petal-delicate to something a lot closer to fine leather. Might be stronger than that, Zack hadn't tried poking too hard. Cloud might have really loose connections between his brain and his body right now, but the wing-nerves seemed to be better wired in than most.
Which kind of made sense. Given it was the mako that had messed Cloud up, and given his wings were growing out now, outside the mako - he was no doc, but it seemed reasonable that those nerves might be in better shape than the rest of the kid.
And if those work better… maybe that's why he could move his hands. Even just a little. Zack picked up Cloud's left hand, frowning at the claws' ragged edges. That didn't look right. Problem was how to fix it. He'd tried trimming his own claws with a knife, with rather mixed results. As in nicking and bending the knife mixed. Which really shouldn't have startled him as much as it did; mako-tube glass was stronger than steel, and they'd already seen what won that face-off, hadn't they?
Ah, heck. I've seen cats and chocobos pull it off. How hard can it be?
Accepting a gil for a particularly ruffled white and pink daffodil, Aeris stifled yet another giggle. She wasn't sure just what Elmyra had added to the peach tapioca, the recipe had been an experiment to begin with, but they had to do it again. She needed more fun dreams like last night's.
Kitten-Zack with his claws all tangled in a ball of yarn, trying to chew his way out.
She'd laughed, all right. Who could have resisted? Especially with those violet eyes glowing balefully back, black fur fluffed up in all directions, and only his tail free to thrash his indignation.
But eventually she'd tamed the laughter to stray giggles, and gently pushed the ball over so Zack was upright. One claw at a time, she helped him pluck himself free; held him even after that, helping uncoordinated young teeth preen, flaking off the first rough outer layer of sheath to expose sharp new claws.
Spiky black had cuddled against her then, purring with a distinctly smug air as it rubbed a blissful face all over the bosom of her dress.
You're Zack, all right.
Then the Zack-kitten had jumped down, leading her across the dreamscape behind a knot of protective thornbushes. Mountain bluethorns, she thought, and didn't wonder how she knew their names when she'd never seen them before. It was a dream, after all.
And huddled under the thorns was a shivering gold kitten.
Too young, Aeris thought, and picked it up to cradle it in warm arms. Which wouldn't have made sense in the real world. Obviously, these two were brothers - and there was no way one kitten from a litter would be tumbling through the world hell-bent to explore, while its sibling still shivered with sealed eyes, seeking blindly for warmth.
But dreams didn't have to make sense.
She summoned heat and life from within herself, stroked it into pale fur. "It's all right," she murmured, cuddling gold against fearless black. "Be patient. You'll get there."
Fine gold whiskers had turned toward her, then, and she'd heard a weak, outraged squall that said he didn't want to be patient anymore….
And Aeris smiled, remembering that first glimpse of materia-blue eyes.
"Ah, there you are, Miss Gainsborough!"
"Mr. Ingulf." Aeris curtseyed to the elderly weapons seller, a little surprised. She hadn't seen him more than in passing in years, since her last attempts to find Zack a normal way, through his friends and contacts. Zack had respected Ingulf as much or more than any weapons dealer above the Plate, even dipping down into Sector Seven every once in a while just to chat swords with the man. "Were you looking for me?"
"Yes, that nice young Wutainese gentleman said you'd be here about this time… your receipt." He presented her with neatly-lettered sheets of paper, discreetly stapled in the upper left corner. "Just let me know a final address for delivery. The gentleman had a few suggestions, but as the order is yours, it will ship at your discretion."
"Mine?" Aeris ventured, scanning the inventory list. But this was… it couldn't be….
"As next of kin." Mr. Ingulf gave her a sympathetic look. "Really, if I'd known that, I would have offered this years ago. But there were… complications…." His eyes slid away from hers.
Complications, as in the person who had originally made this order wasn't officially dead. Aeris turned a page, and felt her eyebrows twitch. "This looks newer."
"It's all been properly paid for," Ingulf assured her. "The gentleman explained everything."
If the gentleman was who Aeris thought he was, she doubted that.
"So if you had a preferred location and time for delivery…?"
She signed various places, and walked off with her copy in her sleeve, thinking hard. What are you up to, Tseng? It's been years, Mr. Ingulf should have sold that stock a long time ago - unless you made sure he didn't.
Which… implied Tseng had known Zack was alive. All along.
She wasn't going to get angry about how much Tseng hadn't told her. She wasn't. Getting mad now wouldn't help Zack or Cloud. This order - Tseng was trying to help. Even if he was doing it in a way that couldn't be traced back to him, just like a typical Turk….
He is after Zack.
And Tseng being Tseng, he couldn't not be after Zack just because it would hurt her. He was a Turk.
But technically he was after her, too. And she hadn't been caught yet.
Pursing her lips, Aeris shook her head. Assuming too much about what Tseng would and wouldn't do would just hurt both of them. She'd just take the gift as she found it, and be grateful. Even if the implications of some of the items scared the heck out of her.
Heal materia. Dream powder. Elixirs.
Tseng was expecting them to be hurt. And very possibly, dangerous to her.
Which was just ridiculous. Zack and Cloud would no more hurt her than they would burn down Gongaga.
But she couldn't blame Tseng for worrying, really. They were different now; she could feel it, even if she didn't know how. And Tseng couldn't touch their hearts to know that everything important was still the same.
Well. She'd just have to prove he had nothing to worry about, wouldn't she?
Lighthearted, Aeris skipped into the crowd.
"Hox genes," Simon Peters nodded, perched on one of the two beds, tapping on his laptop with the look of a man snapping a key puzzle piece into place.
Watching Waller watch Stolfi, Handel, and Rothaar in deep discussion about the pros and cons of instant popcorn as impromptu distraction devices, Fletcher leaned back against the wall of the hotel room. Ordinarily his team would have been invited to bunk in Kettle Village's local barracks. But given how fast their targets were moving, Fletcher didn't want to bother with the hassle of checking in and out of somebody else's security. And if his men didn't get a shower and a night in a decent bed sometime soon, the crushed morale he'd been building up these past several weeks since Fate had gotten them out of glorified guard duty would get a serious crimp in its style. Especially given that all his guys had pay burning holes in their pockets. So. Hotel and pizzas it was. "I'm going to take a flying leap of logic here and guess you're not talking about the latest fashions above the Plate."
A few weeks back that would have made the scientist flinch. These days Peters only rolled his eyes, apparently convinced against his better judgment that these SOLDIERs weren't nearly as thick as they looked.
Not a bad job, if I do say so myself, Fletcher thought modestly. Sure, Peters might tend to overuse the dictionary, and he'd be in serious hurt if it ever came down to hand-to-hand. But so far they hadn't gotten within half a mile of their targets, Peters' animal behavior stuff had turned out all kinds of useful when they'd landed smack in the middle of that wolf gang war-
And under stress, the guy was a surprisingly good shot.
No sharpshooter, that was for sure. But good enough to know when he shouldn't shoot. Fletcher wouldn't go so far as to say his men liked the scientist, but at least he'd gotten them to the point where they weren't likely to duct-tape the poor geek to a closet door and forget about him.
It helped that Peters didn't complain much. Up at the crack of dawn? "Argh." All-day hike? "Sigh." Trail rations? "Garlic salt. Mine."
Of course, the day they'd run out of coffee hadn't been pretty for anybody.
Peters still used way too much jargon, but the guy had warmed up considerably on finding out that A) nobody was going to call him on his little toy, especially after seeing it take down a wolf mid-lunge, and B) at least one of them at any given time was actually going to try and listen to what he did for a living. Or, if Fletcher had understood the bits of scientist-ese Peters had been tossing back and forth by computer and PHS these past few days right, what somebody else did for a living.
"Hox genes help organize how a body's put together," Peters was explaining now. "This is really more than just Hox genes, it's got a whole associated complex… the point is, they're very highly conserved."
Fletcher gave him an arched eyebrow.
"They tend to be parts of DNA that don't change very fast," Peters clarified. "You need them for very basic stuff, so any alterations can be like knocking a hole in the bottom of your boat."
Something his men now had distinct and lasting visuals for, after that insane down-river chase from Heyrdahl's Island. Z had to have Loki's own luck to have gotten past some of those rapids.
That, and First Class reflexes.
Think about his record later, Fletcher told himself firmly. "I'm guessing you did find a change."
"Dr. Sewell did," Peters nodded, turning his laptop around to point out odd colored patterns on his screen. "It's close, but not quite a SOLDIER's Hox. And oddly enough, there are some similarities to griffin-"
"Back up," Sergeant Waller said sharply. "What do you mean, a SOLDIER's Hox?"
Fletcher blinked, surprised he'd missed that. Peters tended to say what he meant and mean what he said; if he'd meant human, he would have said that. Which meant-
Five pairs of glowing eyes on him, Peters froze.
"Breathe," Fletcher ordered. Come to think of it, hadn't he heard somewhere…. "I know they do a little more tampering with us than just mako. Didn't know people outside Professor Hojo's division knew that, though." Much less people outside Shinra, if he was reading Peters right.
"It's not like academics talk about it if they do know," Peters said warily. "Nobody wants a visit from Hojo."
"So the guy's got rumor-slime behind him a mile long," comm specialist Handel grumped. "If you don't work for the company, he can't touch you."
Peters wasn't the only one giving Handel a look of pure disbelief. "Guy has Turks on loan," Stolfi pointed out, the same quiet way he'd set up a shaped charge. "He doesn't have to touch anybody."
But he did. Fletcher would bet on it. Conditioned to fear me, he'd said.
Not something he wanted his men thinking about too hard. Not while they had a mission to complete. "So how are we different from, say, a guy like you?"
"Genetics isn't my field," Peters started. Stopped, as Fletcher raised the other eyebrow.
Yep, the man is trainable.
"I don't know the details," Peters shrugged, "and I'm definitely not up on current research. But basically," one finger went up. "You're a lot more resilient, overall. Nerves, bones, muscle, everything." A second finger. "You're a lot more tolerant of mako exposure."
"That's it?" Rothaar said skeptically.
"What, that isn't enough?" Peters shook his head. "Our targets' Hox complex is even a little more different than that. Dr. Sewell's best guess is that they could probably tolerate a mako dose that would send a First Class over the edge."
"We knew that already," Fletcher pointed out. Though if they're so tough, why is one of them still out of it? still didn't rate asking. You could kill a man with water if you forced enough of it down his throat, and test to destruction was pretty damn explicit.
From the stumbling footprints they'd found on the beach across the straits from here, though, C was getting better. Which was yet another argument for catching up as quick as they could. Facing off with one First Class was dangerous enough. A First Class plus whatever the hell Cloud Strife might be now - all things considered, he'd rather call in an air strike.
"I know, but now we know why," Peters shrugged. "And we also know there's a similarity to some of the griffin samples I took years back. I just don't know if it means anything yet."
Not to us, Fletcher thought. But given everybody knows Hojo does mess with DNA… you're thinking maybe that's why you got tagged for the mansion lab.
And if that was all Hojo had wanted Peters for - well, maybe the guy would get punted back to Midgar after all this was over. Or maybe even knocked out of Shinra entirely, sent off to rusticate in some scientific backwater.
Which might be for the best, all things considered. Hojo obviously scared the hell out of Peters, and competent as he might be in the field, the behaviorist was not a people person. Even just constantly interacting with the men on Fletcher's team was wearing on the guy, coffee or no coffee.
Which was one of the other reasons for separate hotel rooms, tonight.
A waft of cheese and spicy tomato sauce had his guys grinning, Handel opening the door before the hapless delivery-boy could free an arm to knock. "Okay," came the box-muffled complaint, "who's the wise guy who ordered twelve pizzas-"
Hands suddenly empty, the teenager regarded toothy grins. "Um…"
Taking pity on the poor guy, Fletcher shoved him away from the ravening hordes, paid, and sent him on his way with a hefty tip. From the corner of his eye he noted Peters sorting his half-pizza and salad out of the pile, almost as fearlessly as he might dig in to the lab's cafeteria. "Think you'll survive the night without us, Doc?"
"If there's a Zolom in the drainpipes, I'll call you." Arms full of food and laptop, Peters bumped his way out the door. "Not that you wouldn't hear me screaming anyway…."
True enough. The soundproofing in this place sucked.
Fletcher listened to the scientist trudge down the hall, waiting for Peters' lock to click before digging in to his own pizzas. Mmm, bacon….
Two boxes and several discarded napkins later, Fletcher cast a glance over his crust-nibbling men. Okay. Now they looked rested enough for a coherent discussion. "So. What do we know?"
"Nocturnal," Rothaar said firmly. "Or at least crepuscular."
Fletcher nodded. "Preference or tactical?"
"Preference," the in-country specialist stated. "Z's moving whenever the timing's good, but C's tracks indicate he's most coherent around sunset, with another spike around dawn. Noon would definitely be the time to hit them."
If they had to. "How coherent is C?"
Waller shook his head. "Hard to say. Z's been good at hiding their tracks. No way of knowing if he can move on his own." He gave Fletcher a questioning look.
A week ago Fletcher wouldn't have been sure enough of his men to nod. But they were good men, underneath all the acid and anger from standing guard over Hojo's sadists. They deserved every fact he could give them. "Okay, people. Hypothetically-"
"Ooo, somebody's been hanging out with the Doc too long," Handel snickered.
"Hypothetically," Fletcher went on, resisting the urge to roll his eyes, "Sergeant Waller might have a pair of personnel files on his PHS. Which you jokers might want to read and commit to memory, 'cause they're going to evaporate after." He met every pair of eyes in turn. "You never saw any of this, you never heard any of this - we're after specimens Z and C, and that's all we know. Clear?"
Sober nods all around. Three heads bent over Waller's PHS.
Already familiar with the files, Fletcher backed off, beckoning Waller over to join him. "Well?" he murmured, pitching it low enough not to carry to the younger men.
Waller's gaze was bland. "Well, what, sir?"
Right. The man hadn't gotten his rank by jumping in without looking. "Ever think about what it might be like to know your mission is utterly screwed, and the best thing you can do for what's left of your people is make sure none of you come back?"
"Hard to imagine," Waller said neutrally. "One of those one in a million scenarios. The kind you see in a movie theater, not real life."
"Usually," Fletcher agreed. "But?"
Waller shrugged. "If I were going to think about a worst-case scenario like that… I might want to pre-position some assets. For a strategic retreat."
Not a yes. Not an I'll follow your lead, sir. But not a no, either. It'd have to do.
Turning his attention back to the rest of the team, Fletcher leaned back and waited.
Ah, Rothaar had such a way with words. "Don't forget to read the other one," Fletcher said mildly.
Stolfi arched a brow. "No offense, sir, but next to a combat specialist, a trooper who couldn't make SOLDIER-"
"Still survived every mission he went on with Fair," Waller said flatly. "Including the last one."
"The only trooper to survive that last one," Fletcher stated. Waller hadn't looked for this particular bit of information. Some risks, you couldn't ask your men to take for you. "Of all the people who went up to Nibelheim five years ago, three aren't listed as dead." He held up one finger at a time. "General Sephiroth. Lieutenant Zack Fair. Trooper Cloud Strife."
"The General-" Handel started. Cut himself off at Waller's warning glance.
"I think it's safe to say we're not chasing him," Fletcher said wryly. "Given Fair's the only person on record to ever get Sephiroth to crack a smile, if he were in this mess, Hojo would be digging a hole and pulling it in after him."
That got a wry laugh from his men.
"No, we got lucky," Fletcher went on. "Instead of the General, we get one of the only guys who could try and keep up with him, sword to sword."
Silence. Yeah. He didn't think that was funny either. "And if Strife does come around - forget the SOLDIER test. Little bird back at HQ says those combat ratings in his file are real, people. Sword ranking included."
"Little bird's right," Waller said matter-of-factly. "Not that many people Fair went out of his way to teach Buster Sword to." A wry curl of lips. "Some of the older guys thought it was funny - the puppy picking up a cub of his own."
"Puppy?" Fletcher said, incredulous.
Oh, joy. An optimist.
Then again, given how far the man had gotten - was it still optimism when you could make the universe break your way?
"He picked out a trooper?" Handel said, disbelieving.
"Kid had potential." Waller met his gaze straight on. "Saw a few of their bouts."
"Anything you'd like to share?" Fletcher said neutrally.
"Fair's just as dangerous as you think," Waller obliged. "And if it comes down to it, we'll have to kill Strife to stop him."
"No trooper's that good," Stolfi stated.
"Didn't say good. Stubborn." Waller shook his head. "Gutsy little backwoods kid."
"From Nibelheim," Rothaar groaned, looking at the file.
Meaning Fair heading straight for the one spot in the area he could score shelter, food, and transport probably wasn't an accident. Right.
"Would've helped to know this before we went chasing them all over the gods-damned mountains," Stolfi groused.
Would at that. "At a guess," Fletcher said off-handedly, "I'd say the good professor may not trust our ability to be professional."
We're SOLDIERs. We follow orders.
Unless we've got a damn good reason not to.
"So," Fletcher observed, nodding toward the PHS. "Given what we knew before tonight, and what we know now, what's wrong about us being here?"
"If he's got a native guide, why isn't he still in the gods-damned mountains?" Rothaar jumped in. "He could lead us around by our noses for years."
"He's got somewhere else to be?" Handel said wryly.
"After five years?"
Head-smacking ensued. Fletcher traded a long-suffering glance with Waller, and cleared his throat. "You might say so. Except, why did he come here, instead of heading southeast?"
The three younger SOLDIERs gave him an odd look, obviously thinking. Waller cursed under his breath. "Mideel."
"There were boats heading that way just across the strait where we were," Fletcher nodded. "And Fair didn't take any of them."
"Still not getting you, sir," Handel admitted.
No, they probably weren't, Fletcher realized. The SOLDIER program had been up and running long enough now that most of the kinks had been worked out. Not like ten years ago, or even five.
"Mideel's got specialists in treating mako poisoning," Sergeant Waller filled them in. "Much as anyone can, anyway."
"Guarantee you Fair knows that," Fletcher said soberly. "Which I'd say is a pretty clear hint that there's something wrong with them Mideel can't fix."
Hojo, was the thought written across everybody's face.
The younger three looked at each other, and Rothaar nodded. "Our orders are to identify the bodies, Lieutenant?"
"As of this point in time, yes." Which they all knew. But that wasn't really what Rothaar had been asking. "Five years, Rothaar. We know what Hojo does to animals. I'm not sure anybody could come out of that sane. Dead may be the only option."
Waller tensed. "Roberts and Saez."
"Fair owes us for that," Fletcher agreed soberly. "If he's cracked, we put him down." No question. Fair would want it that way.
"And if he's not?" Stolfi said neutrally.
"If we can do it without anybody getting hurt, I want to talk to him." Fletcher spread empty hands as Waller's eyes narrowed. "He's dangerous. No question. I don't want anybody taking any unnecessary risks. But. He hasn't killed anybody since he got out of the mansion. And it sure as hell hasn't been for lack of opportunity."
The sergeant blew out a sharp, angry breath. Deliberately relaxed clenched fists, and looked up. "You think he was serious."
"On the tree?" Fletcher grimaced. We're good SOLDIERs. We do our jobs. The company wouldn't do that to us-
And yet. Every bit of trail they'd found pointed to a man who was sane and sober as any SOLDIER he'd ever worked with.
"Let's just say, I'd like a chance to judge for myself how much of a liar he is." 'Cause if he isn't lying….
If he wasn't - Odin's lost eye, what did they do then?
His PHS rang. "Fletcher."
"Put Peters on."
Fletcher frowned. Peters had his own PHS. And this wasn't any of the sometimes-absentminded voices the behaviorist had been talking to over the past few weeks. The odds of this being a forgetful fellow scientist were slim. "And you are?"
"Dr. Maccus Devereaux."
The idiot, Peters had called him, and wouldn't say much more than that. Fletcher had dug deeper, just as he'd dug for background on all his men. Apparently scientists didn't get helpful personnel jackets the way soldiers did, but he'd still found enough to raise a few eyebrows. Peters seemed to have been a quiet, steady guy before Shinra had hired him; publishing papers and deeply involved with Dr. Culbreth's little-known desert ecology team. Devereaux, on the other hand, had had a meteoric rise through the molecular biology department, capped off by some kind of closed-doors episode their shared university wasn't talking about, but which had ended with Hojo hiring Devereaux and Culbreth's funding slashed by a third.
Don't have to be an academic to guess these guys don't like each other, Fletcher thought. "Dr. Peters is working on some evidence we found. Can I help you?"
"Pecking away like a good little bird," Devereaux said dryly. "No. I'll see him in the morning. It wouldn't be fair to make him explain over an open line. And some things just require a… personal touch."
The line was dead.
Handel shook his head. "Could almost feel sorry for the Doc."
"Huh." Fletcher closed his PHS. Wonder what that's about. It didn't sound good….
They're scientists. What are they going to do, stab each other with number 2 pencils?
Right. Back to the problem at hand. "Okay, people. Here's my plan…."
Blowing a last bit of concrete dust off Cloud's fingers, Zack eyed the marks they'd left in one of the racing arena's subterranean pillars, and grinned. "Home team one, reinforced concrete - zero." He wriggled his own fingers, still amazed how much better that felt. Not just the absence of rough nails catching against skin, but a warm burn in his fingertips, like stretching underused muscles.
Make that, never used, Zack thought wryly, flexing translucent claws. Reminded him of some griffins he'd seen once; not quite cat-retractable, but not as fixed as eagle talons. They pulled in enough so they didn't catch more than short nails, but stretch or clench, and he had a fistful of needles.
"Good thing we like wearing gloves," Zack muttered, pulling his own on before tugging Cloud's back into place. The predawn hour meant this underground parking garage was empty - and if that wasn't testament to human contrariness, having a parking garage under an arena where people raced some of the fastest chocobos on the planet, he didn't know what was - but that'd be changing soon. "I think-"
Hunch bit. Quiet.
Lifting Cloud back to his shoulder, Zack listened.
Echoes down here made listening tricky. Which was half the reason he'd picked the garage as another place to rest. They were being followed, he could feel it - and if those hunting him knew anything at all, they'd know what kind of terrain a SOLDIER would favor.
A stench-laden, echo-riddled, lousy line-of-sight garage was not favored terrain.
So either they got lucky, or the guy in charge is bright enough to try to figure me out, Zack concluded, fading them both back into the shadows as he listened to soft footfalls ease down the main ramp into this level. Okay, think. What can they hear? What can they smell?
Cloud matching him step for quiet step, Zack eased them between parked roadsters and horn-decked pickup trucks, tracking the noise of ventilation fans to move through areas scent would pool and linger, not waft across the underground level. Sooner or later the three guys searching would run across a scent-trace, but that couldn't be helped.
Three guys. Zack ducked them behind a red pickup cab as steady feet passed a row away. Cover was thinner here near the north end of the garage, but that couldn't be helped either; elevator, stairs, air ducts - most of the exits he wanted were over here. Sure, he could bring down a wall; this place had nothing on reactor construction. But it'd be noisy. At least four in a strike team, and these guys are smart enough they wouldn't split off one guy on his lonesome, so… at least two more. Not down here, so - right. The emergency stairwell. Which would have been his next option for a way out. Damn. Somebody trained these guys good, they know how to look for a fugitive-
His mind seized on that thought. Turned it upside down, and shook it hard. Fugitives. They were looking for fugitives. Prey.
Footsteps, near the pillar he'd marked with two sets of claws. "Holy-"
Grinning, Zack sauntered over and hit the up elevator button.
"Handel, what?" One of the other guys murmured, voice carrying clear to enhanced ears.
"Oh, you've got to see this-"
Doors pinged, and Zack walked them both inside.
You didn't work as many missions as he had with Turks without picking up a few tricks. Ignoring the stamping boots racing their way, Zack yanked off part of the control panel, crossed a few wires-
Doors closed, and they were yanked upward. None too soon, from the rumbling booms under their feet; the floor smoked and shuddered. Comet2, Zack calculated. "Aww. You'd think they didn't like us."
Now to get them both out of this box….
"Well," Lieutenant Fletcher's wry tones came over the PHS, "the good news is, we know they can't walk through walls."
Simon Peters nodded, wondering absently if a SOLDIER really could hear that over the line. Or would the limitations of the pickup mike interfere? He'd never really thought much about the implications of the enhancements before getting thrown in with the Lieutenant's team, it'd been too painful, but after weeks of watching them react to sights and sounds he missed, just as the griffins did- "Um. Is that something sparking?"
"They cut their way out of the top of the elevator, took off on one of the upper floors, set off the sprinkler system, and cross-wired the fire alarms to… I'll spare you the grisly details."
"Oh, long gone," Fletcher sighed. "You have any idea how many trucks big enough to carry two hitchhikers leave the arena within an hour?"
"I'm going to guess a lot."
"Yeah. We've got a few leads, but it'll take some time to sort them. And we picked up a few samples for you."
Simon couldn't hold back a sigh. "I'm a-"
"Behaviorist, not a geneticist," Fletcher finished for him. "I know. But I think you'll like this. Might scare you silly, but it's definitely up your alley."
"Better get ready to answer your door, Doc."
Eyeing his PHS doubtfully, Simon put it down open on the bedstand. Shivered - was there a draft in here? - and walked over to the hotel door to look through the peephole.
And saw stars.
Hard hands sat him down on the bed, and a familiar snicker walked through the doorway. "Simon, Simon… clumsy as always."
"Maccus." Simon managed not to spit it; his head was ringing, and the room swaying in a manner that boded ill for staying upright. And that didn't even get into the chill clawing at his soul - a cold that should have warned him, even before he'd opened the door.
I wasn't listening. I was - the team may be rough, but they're safe. Gods, I'm such an idiot….
Then again, even if he had been trying to listen, he might not have had any warning. It wasn't as if these… feelings, were reliable. Not like science. And- Later. He could kick himself later. Maccus was here, now; a gaping whirlpool of need and rage where a person should have been. If he didn't want to drown, he had to keep his head. "Long time." And not nearly long enough. "What's the occasion?"
Maccus' lip curled. "I'd forgotten you thought you had a sense of humor."
Not an answer. Definitely not a question. Simon glanced at the anonymous dark-haired man in Turk blue holding his shoulder, while his equally nondescript partner went to work on Simon's laptop, and kept his mouth shut. No lust for pain, surprisingly enough. But… there wasn't a glimmer of mercy, either.
Ice. They're pure ice.
"What? No outrage? No indignation? No protestations of innocence?"
Simon tried not to roll his eyes. "The world isn't out to get you, Maccus. It hasn't got that much good taste." Uh-oh. Note to self, head blows bad for verbal censor- "Ow!"
The Turk's level tone chilled him more than all of Maccus' smirks put together. Simon sat very, very still.
Maccus stalked the room, obviously noting and dismissing every seedy, below-the-Plate aspect of its furnishings. "Misuse of company property, improper disclosure of sensitive data, absence from your lab-"
The whirlpool was sucking at the edges of him, hungry and dark. Digging deep in Great-Ell's lessons, Simon pulled in as much of his self as he could manage. Rock. Think like a rock. Desert sandstone, pure and clean.
It worked, mostly. Everything shut down. He could see and hear and fear the men in his room, but not feel them.
Simon worked moisture into his mouth, tried to keep his voice steady. "I was assigned to work with Lieutenant Fletcher."
"And I'm sure your family's so proud."
That was Devereaux, all right. Never just kick a man when you could stomp on his ribs, too.
"And you were assigned to get results. Surely even you could manage that?" Maccus turned on him slowly, obviously trying to mimic someone dramatic.
Hojo, probably, Simon thought. Levrikons of a feather, and all that… focus. Devereaux's an idiot. He's a dangerous idiot. "I don't know what to tell you. I was assigned to provide information to assist Lieutenant Fletcher, and that's what I've been doing. What-"
"Quiet." The Turk on his computer - wasn't, anymore, eyeing the PHS like a sacrificial lamb.
"Cute." Maccus' tone could have cut glass. "Running tales to your scientific colleagues won't help you this time." Stalking across the room, he closed the PHS in one angry snap.
So much for the cavalry. Simon tried not to feel bereft. It wasn't as if the lieutenant would have been riding to his rescue anyway. Not with fugitives to track. Oh, sure, the team was friendly enough; at least, they didn't go out of their way to sabotage any of his important equipment. And they'd protect him from monsters. But at the end of the day he was a civilian, and they were SOLDIERs, and the two… really didn't mix well. Or at least, he didn't mix well.
Should have learned that with Dale….
But that way lay too many old wounds. Past was past, and Maccus was now, and - technically, there wasn't anything here Fletcher could rescue him from, even if he wanted to. The Turks worked for Shinra, and Maccus worked for Shinra, and - gods, he was so screwed….
That's what happens when you catch a cheat. They never get over it. Simon swallowed dryly, and tried to look away from lethal blue. "If you're going to slap a reprimand in my personnel file, I'd really like to know what for."
Maccus' smile had a certain oily familiarity. "Who said anything about a reprimand?"
Oh shit. Is Hojo catching?
"After all, I'm sure you believed you were just doing the right thing. And you have the documentation to back it up. You always do." A fake-casual shrug. "We'll just have to see which information you provided to who. And take steps."
But I didn't… oh gods, they wouldn't-
Maccus shrugged again, taking out a lab thermos. "No, we're just here to correct a certain oversight in your medical file."
Simon blinked, trying to make sense out of the words. He'd had a company physical just five months ago, and he was definitely up to date on all his vaccinations. Maybe he'd been pulled into labwork, but there was always the chance of a week or two in the field on his own time, and there was no way he'd miss that because he was behind on a critical monster-carried virus shot-
The lid came off with a cold green light, and Simon bolted.
Muscle and bone twisted, slamming him back onto the mattress. "Try that again," the dark-haired Turk said matter-of-factly, cold steel of a Magrod lying against Simon's neck, "and I break your jaw."
"Like - nngh! - like I care! Get that thing away from me!"
"I think he's serious," the Turk hacker noted, surprised.
"Oh, probably," Maccus said dismissively, tapping the syringe to be sure its contents were free of bubbles. "The family managed to bury most of the documentation, but look back a few generations, and poor Simon here comes from Cosmo Canyon. With all those superstitious hang-ups about mako… the blood of the planet, and all that rot."
Gaea's blood, and the souls of the dead, Simon couldn't help but think, frozen with fear. He barely felt one of the Turks rolling up his left sleeve. Rage had become lust for pain, lust for death, and not even sandstone chilled with dawn was strong enough to keep that oily slickness away from his soul. His family hadn't really been religious for decades, but no one could grow up in his father's house and walk away without an inner voice that said some things should not be messed with. Especially after what had happened to-
"Maccus, please." Simon's voice shook; he'd be ashamed of that, later, but for now nothing mattered but avoiding that sterile steel point. "I'm not in the labs, I don't work with mako-"
Maccus kept coming, smirking.
"Damn it, I've got a medical not to go near the stuff!" I don't want to die, I don't-
"That true?" the hacker inquired, mildly interested.
"Oh yes. That's what makes it so intriguing." Devereaux's voice was almost amused. "So many test subjects, and we still can't tell for certain who will adapt, and who won't. Of course, the odd are only one in four that this one shares the unfortunate genetic constellation… I really should take a sample prior to exposure."
Rod at his ear and hard hands bearing down, Simon did his best to bite.
Sparks and swearing and a cold prick of death-
"Look, I don't care if you're upper management with a note from Odin," the hotel manager yammered. "We run a decent place here, and do not disturb means do not disturb-"
Gentle as he would an eggshell, Sergeant Waller fisted a hand in the manager's shirt, lifted, and set him aside.
Listening to the panicked breathing inside, Fletcher resisted the urge to kick the door down, and reached for the knob instead. Peters wouldn't have locked them out-
Panicked breaths jerked to a halt. Fear wafted out.
Hells with this. Gripping steel, Fletcher yanked.
Huh. Hinges are weaker than the locks on these places- Ifrit's hellfires!
Crushed-leaf and electrical-snap. You couldn't mistake that scent for anything else. "Where are they?"
Wrapped in all the bed's blankets and still shivering, Peters blinked at him out of one eye. The other was already swelling. "…You're here."
Ten minutes. Took us just ten minutes to get here. Fletcher was already yanking materia out of slots, tucking it away so none would come into skin contact with the man he was about to pat down. Gun oil, disinfectant - at least two Turks, and that bastard Devereaux. "Peters. Simon. Did they say where they were going?"
Mute, Peters shook his head.
A rush of air heralded Rothaar's appearance; the hell with acting normal so as not to scare the locals. "Handel and Stolfi saw them pulling out. Turks, all right. Want us to-"
"No point," Peters whispered, head bowed. "Don't… get in trouble for a dead man."
Checking over the injection site, Fletcher sniffed, and grimaced. More than a test shot, that's for sure. "You're not dead, Doc."
"Wait five minutes." Peters' eyes slid closed.
Oh hells, no. "Doc." Fletcher gripped the man's jaw, shook lightly. "Simon, look at me. You are not dead. You are not going to die. That's an order."
Peters snorted weakly. "Sorry, Lieutenant. Only brother who wanted to be a SOLDIER… already dead…."
Brother? There's nothing in his file about- "Simon, breathe, damn it!"
Shock jerked the man's gaze back up to him. Sweat stank of fear, sickness, giving up-
No way in hell. Not on my watch. "Look at me," Fletcher said firmly. "Stop thinking, Doc - magic pulls on emotions, and you're scaring yourself to death. Just look at me, and breathe. One. Two. Three - c'mon, that's it…."
"Get a description, and get packed," Waller ordered in the background. "We're clearing out of here."
Good idea, Fletcher thought. "Eyes on me, that's right…."
"Clear - Sarge, shouldn't we call a hospital?" Rothaar muttered, keeping it too low for normal ears. "I mean, I've never seen-"
"I have," Waller said grimly. "And there's damn-all a doctor could do for him. Least a local one. He'd need somebody in Mideel or Midgar - and there's no way we could get him there in time."
Too true. "You can't keel over yet, Simon," Fletcher said, almost casual, "we've got a puzzle for you." He flipped open his PHS, displaying a shot of a scarred concrete pillar, with his own hand splayed alongside for scale. "What do you make of this?"
"You know me better than that. What've we got?"
Fletcher gave him a raised brow. "You're kidding."
Peters managed a weak glare. "Dying. Do I look like I'm kidding?"
"You're not dying until you explain why our targets need a scratching post." Outside of the obvious. Which was crazy.
"They've got claws."
…Or maybe not so crazy. "You're serious."
"What'd you think carved that tree?"
"You've known they had claws since then?" Damn it, he thought he'd gotten more of the scientist's trust than that.
"Didn't know," Peters panted. "Just - hunch. Griffin-like Hox, scratches on glass, on wood… no evidence. 'Til now."
"They," Fletcher stated. Keep him talking. Keep him thinking, about everything but what just happened. Just a few more minutes, if we can keep him from panicking…. You could scare yourself to death with mako, even on the standard test dose. Wasn't common, but it happened. This wasn't the test dose, and Peters wasn't scared. The man was flat-out terrified.
You and me are going to have a long talk about that, later.
"Two widths of marks." Peters frowned at the image; Fletcher leaned in and magnified it. "Overlapping. That's… friendly."
Fear-scent was dying down a little, diluted with curiosity. Good. "Social bonding?"
"Reinforcement of a preexisting bond. Griffins overlap with family. Non-family tries it, you're going to see blood."
Snarky and thinking. Thank gods. "So why do this in the bottom level of a parking garage?"
Fletcher eyed him. "Thought the shredding-stuff was what they used to mark territory."
Peters shook his head; winced. "That'd be easy to spot. This is just practical. Sharpening."
"Don't think anybody's ever shot up a griffin with mako."
Point. Fletcher gave him a slight grin. "I notice you're still breathing."
Peters stared at him.
"Come on." Arm around the scientist's shoulders, Fletcher got them both up and headed for the shower. No way were they heading out for a day-long march with the stink of fear clinging to Peters' skin. "Let's wash that bastard out of your teeth."
Rock pressed into his cheek, against gripping fingers and boots, sun-warm and gritty. Wind ruffled his hair, plucking absently at sleeves, tickling through fur. The sun was green and bright and a heaviness in his bones, and enough was enough already.
Digging his fingers in a bit deeper, Cloud snuggled against stone and fell asleep.
"Well," Zack panted as he climbed back along the ancient caldera wall to his waiting partner, "they're never going to believe we came this way. I don't believe we came this way."
Anybody with sense, after all, would've tried to hop a boat across the river and down the coast to Junon Harbor. But given they were obviously being followed by guys who expected him to have loads of sense, he'd ditched the Kettle Village feed truck almost as soon as they were out of town, and headed upriver instead. If you didn't mind it being a little cold and mountain-y, you could head all the way up to the headwaters of the river, a caldera big enough to drop all of Midgar into, and never have to go near Junon at all.
"Not a bad plan if I do say so myself," Zack grinned. It'd taken over a week to get this far, but heck, wasn't as if they had anywhere to be. And the time and roughing it were worth it, to feel that sense of being hunted drop away.
Sooner or later those guys would probably catch up again. He just hoped it was later.
"Hanging in there?" Zack asked, worry dropping away as he saw Cloud still face-down against the rock wall where he'd left him. Sure, this was as close as the local rocks came to horizontal, and Cloud was good at hanging on, but if the kid had suddenly woken up and started… it was a long way down.
But no, Cloud was quiet and still, leaning into a crevice of dark rock, black wings spread to make him one more sun-seeking shadow on the caldera wall. Even the claws biting into stone might be just a few more lighter streaks in the metamorphic landscape.
"Found a better grip, huh?" Zack worked his way over to Cloud's side, fighting a yawn. Climb must have taken a little more out of him than he'd realized. "Well, you're going to have to turn loose, now. Found a flatter spot ahead, we can finally get some…."
The soft rhythm of Cloud's breathing finally penetrated, and Zack stared. Looked at the bare bits of outthrust rock under Cloud's boots, that didn't even deserve to be called a ledge. Looked at the claws dug into rock, the wings flattened out across back and shoulders to brace as much of Cloud's weight as possible against the slight slope. Looked at the very long drop to the river's headwaters in the caldera's depths.
Reached out, and tapped his partner on the nose.
Pale gold eyebrows scrunched up a little, smoothed back out. Cloud's breathing didn't change at all.
Zack picked his jaw up off the rocks, and shook his head. "Okay, Spike. You have officially broken the SOLDIER record for Awkward Places I Fell Asleep In. I think the last top contestant was Se- some guy on top of the Junon Cannon, after some of Scarlet's wacky prototypes had to be put down the hard way. And there may have been crazy glue and alcohol involved."
Ah, heck. Wasn't like the cover here was any worse than at the spot he'd picked out. And he really didn't feel like trying to pry Cloud's fingers loose.
Scrambling into the bare crevice next to his partner, Zack fit himself so they were both braced against stone. Huh. Wouldn't think rock would be this comfy….
Soaking in sunlight, he drifted off.
Sunset came in a flutter of wings and a quiet yawn beside him. Zack glanced over quickly, just in case-
No. Blue eyes were wide and unseeing as ever. Though they looked a little more rested now.
Zack sighed, shook his head, and inched out and away for a good look. That last waft of breeze had carried a comforting scent of fur, which kind of implied… yeah. Well, will you look at that.
Slow and jerky, black fur was settling over Cloud's pauldrons. Knife-wicked thumb-claws fumbled against each other in front of Cloud's turtleneck before linking with a click like slotted materia. Furred skin ruffled a little, then laid mostly flat, clinging to him like a short cloak.
"Huh." Zack craned his head out a little to take in every possible angle. He couldn't put his finger on why, but Cloud's wings still didn't look grown yet, even though full-spread they'd probably be almost as long as the blond was tall. But they were starting to look a little more… well, finished was the word that sprang to mind. Two odd, armoring spikes where each wing sank into skin, an almost-feathering of fringe along the leading edges, wing-finger bones whose proportions reminded him of a dragon whelp a few weeks from leaving the nest for the first time-
Zack blinked. Backtracked that thought. Turned it over from all angles, gingerly as a hot coal. The size Cloud's wings were, the size he wasn't, and the size Zack had the feeling they were going to get….
How the hells do you hide someone who can fly?
Later. He'd think about that later. A lot later. For now, they had climbing to do. Which should be a lot easier with Cloud's wings harnessed up like that.
If they can fold up like that, how come he had 'em spread out in the sun all day? Fur doesn't keep you from-
Almost kicking himself, Zack looked down at his bare arms.
Bare, not at all sunburned arms.
Which would have been hard enough to explain even with the tan he'd gotten back since their escape, but Cloud-
Cloud was still almost as pale as Mt. Nibel. And he wasn't sunburned. At all.
Which made no sense. Or about as much sense as the odd feeling Zack had woken up with: rested, peppy, and ready to go as if he'd had a stack of breakfast. Which he definitely hadn't.
"You know, if Hojo shot us up with plant DNA, I am seriously gonna have to strangle him with a daisy-chain. Or toss him to a Malboro. Or both."
On the other hand, if he had, Aeris probably would be able to figure out what was wrong with them.
Though Zack didn't think it was anything to do with plants. Cactuars and Malboros might be enough to turn the wackiest vegetarian pure carnivore out of self-preservation, but he'd never run into a plant with claws. Let alone wings.
Claws, fangs, wings - weren't for the fur, I would think dragon. Don't know how dragons can live up in the mountains without fur anyway. Basking in the sun can't possibly warm them up enough… wait a minute.
"You know," Zack said to listening ears, "think I read some weird science rag once saying there was no way dragons could get enough fuel from what they ate, or they'd strip whole mountains bare. Nothing really serious in it, all kinds of wild theories… but one of those wild ideas they threw out was that maybe they've got such big wings not just for flying, but as some kind of magic solar collectors." He shook his head. "Energy from sunlight instead of mako. Wouldn't that be one in the eye for Shinra." He glanced at his partner. "Yeah, I know. Totally weird tangent. But think about it. Once we shake these guys for good, we're going to have to do something to get by. And whatever it is, it'd probably better be away from Shinra. So we should think about where they're not."
Zack let that thought settle, and grinned wryly. "You once told me you could climb mountains in your sleep. Never thought you'd have to prove it." He rested one hand on top of Cloud's. "Ready?"
Under his fingers, Cloud's flexed free.
"Eric," the Shinra warehouse clerk on the other end of the line said, "you're a good guy. And once somebody else's mess chases your fiasco with the Hell House and the pack of Blood Tastes out of the rumor mill-"
"One dress, Anna," Fletcher muttered into his PHS. "She lost one dress. How does that possibly compare to not getting eaten?"
"-I might go out for coffee with you again," Anna kept going. "But jerking chains in the Science Department? I like you, but I like breathing." She paused. "And I think you underestimate the attachment of a lady for a shimmery, sheer silk dress. We maim for those things, you know."
"She's Heidegger's assistant secretary. I know he's got a whole flock of 'em, but they don't exactly have small salaries-"
"Don't I know it," Anna sighed.
"-She can buy a dozen slinky dresses." Fletcher rubbed at an impending headache. "And why didn't she just get it dry-cleaned?"
"Because no lady is going to toss her man-catcher in with you SOLDIER-boys' laundry, and no other above-the-Plate dry cleaner knows how to handle ichor," Anna chuckled. "So how's camping out treating you guys?"
"Oh, hiking, bugs, monsters… same old, same old." Looking toward the smallest tent in their night camp, Fletcher checked his watch. About an hour and a half since Peters had dropped off, which meant he probably had another twenty minutes to spare. "Anna. You're not really in trouble, are you?" The thought alone gave him a bad feeling. He hadn't wanted to ask a friend to poke around for him, but given official inquiries had run into a stone wall of you'd have to talk to Professor Hojo about that….
Talking to Hojo was the last thing he wanted to do.
"Nope," the clerk said matter-of-factly. "All I had to do was look at some of his equipment requisitions, and I didn't have to ask any more questions. He's in you-know-who's Midgar lab, Eric. Not somebody to mess with."
"Even when he tries to kill a guy with mako."
"The guy's in Science, right?" Fletcher could hear her uneasy shrug. "Professional hazard."
"Anna, he had a medical not to go near the stuff."
"…Yeah. You said that."
That didn't sound good. "What don't I know?"
A sigh. "Look, it's none of my business, you have to work with the guy, even if he is slimy-"
Anna paused. "It's not like I know anything," she said at last. "Nobody knows anything, okay?"
"Okay," Fletcher agreed warily. "So what don't I know?"
"Well…." She sighed. "The people that guy hires usually have three things in common. They're sharp, they get results - and you wouldn't dare leave them alone with a puppy. Got me?"
Fit Devereaux to a T, all right. "Usually?"
"Rumor says some of them start out all right. But most of those… get weird. I mean really, really weird."
"And the rest?"
A long pause. "I did some looking. Because it was you. But I'm not looking any more, all right? I've got family depending on me, I need this job-"
"I know," Fletcher said swiftly. "Anna, if you want to hang up right now, do it." He knew enough; it wasn't worth losing a good coffee partner over. And sure, he'd hoped for more than that. But he'd been still trying to salvage his relationship with Marla, who'd started out saying she was okay with his line of work and ended up freaking at First Class green eyes, while Anna had still been disentangling herself from a computer programmer with a nasty tendency toward stalking… it'd never been the right time.
Shaky breaths on the other end of the line. "Eric, I heard that a couple of times, some of those people… just fell off the payroll. And - sometimes, there's a big, unscheduled supply requisition right after. Or right before."
Fletcher let out a low hiss. "I owe you one."
"You owe me chocolate." But Anna sounded a little calmer now. "Be careful, all right? I know you guys are tough, but…."
"Definitely careful," Fletcher assured her. "Don't work too late."
"Hey, this shift pays extra. 'Night."
"Night," he echoed, and listened to the line click closed. Put his PHS away, and dragged his fingers through unruly hair. "Damn."
Across the camp on watch, Stolfi shook his head. "If I were the Doc, I might just quit. Send in the papers by computer and then lose the PHS, know what I mean?" A shift of harness, barely audible even to enhanced ears. "Any minute now."
More like five minutes. But there were the quiet whimpers, the choked-off pleading, the strangled "No-!"
A waking gasp. Rustling sleeping bag. Quiet footfalls; at least quiet for ordinary ears.
Without even looking, Fletcher held out an aluminum mug of instant lemonade.
"Gnrgh." Peters sat down heavily, managing not to spill a drop. "Mmph. Coffee?"
"Hells, no. You need sleep." Now Fletcher looked at him. "One more night like this, and Handel's putting you down with a Sleep spell."
Peters flinched. "Don't. Please."
"You need sleep, Doc. Tired people make mistakes. Tired people chasing armed and dangerous fugitives can't afford to make mistakes. Tired people messing with what you keep in your bag of tricks is asking for somebody to get killed."
"…Not like I'm going to be messing with it, until you give my Heal back."
"Later. When it's safe for you to handle materia again." It probably was already, but given how fast Peters had proved he could freak out - better to have this nightmare out of the way first. "I heard somewhere that it helps if you talk about it."
Sipping lemon, Peters stopped, and gave him a look of sheer disbelief.
And sometimes, nice just doesn't cut it. "Talk, and I give you two more nights to work this out. Don't…." He trailed off deliberately, eyes narrowed.
Peters winced. Looked down.
Leaning back, Fletcher waited.
"…It's an old one. Thought I got over it years ago." Peters' fingers flexed on his cup. "It's dark, and I'm there, but not really there. Just watching. Like a movie."
"Yeah." And those were sometimes the worst. When you could see, but not do anything.
"The dark… twists. And pulls. And there's two snakes. One's black, with silver eyes. Only not snake eyes. Faceted. Like a fly's."
"The other - it's green, and fire. And you'd think it'd be safer, but that's wrong - it doesn't hate you, you're too small, but you don't matter, it'll kill you just because you're there…." Peters gulped lemon, shaking slightly. "And the snakes… try to swallow each other."
Fletcher nodded. "Sounds bad."
"That's not the bad part." Peters shuddered. "They keep eating each other, and the coil keeps getting tighter and tighter - and all of a sudden, I can see what's in the middle of it. And it's Dale. Scared. Confused. Being - crushed…."
Peters stopped, breathing hard. Fletcher waited.
"And - it all implodes. All of it. There's nothing left but pyreflies."
"Bad," Fletcher agreed.
"Your brother Dale." Fletcher raised an eyebrow. "You know, records say you don't have a brother."
"Half brother," Peters sighed. "He was five when our mother married my father, and I don't think he ever forgave either of them. He definitely rubbed my father the wrong way, and - we never really got along either, I guess. No kid wants his six-years-younger brother tagging along. But he put up with me. At least until he was eighteen and left for Midgar. And SOLDIER. And then…." The scientist shook his head. "Between that and me ending up in the hospital at the same time, my parents went through a real rough patch. When I ended up with Shinra, too - my father's still not speaking to me."
Fletcher frowned. "You were in the hospital when your brother died?"
"Yeah," Peters admitted. "Day before we got the news. Some kind of idiosyncratic singular seizure event. Which is doctor-speak for they haven't got a clue, but they don't think it'll happen again. Probably," he added wryly. "That's the only time it ever popped up while I was awake. Since then, it's just been a nightmare. One I thought was long gone."
Fletcher tried not to stare.
Green fire. Mako. And a nightmare with your eyes open. And you don't think that's a little strange? Spell-like, was what it sounded to him; and given Peters would have said if there was materia involved…. "Anything weird happen after that?" It didn't always take physical damage to set off a Limit, after all; get the circumstances right, and emotional trauma could set it off just as sure.
Peters gaped. "How did you…?"
Fletcher gave him a knowing look. "That's why I'm a Lieutenant." And you'd better not snicker any louder, Stolfi. He's mostly normal, he's not deaf.
Peters let a breath sigh out. "When… when I came out of sedation…. I told them Dale was dead. Because - he wasn't there anymore. I couldn't feel him." He shook his head, mouth twisted in a self-deprecating smile. "Crazy, huh? Halfway across the world, and I thought I could still find him, the way I always had. Only… I wasn't wrong…." Peters stared into his empty mug, shoulders slumped. "Sometimes I really, really hate being right."
Makes two of us, Fletcher agreed silently. Didn't sound like any Limit he'd ever heard of. But it didn't sound ordinary, either.
"So," Peters sighed. "That's why I thought I was dead. It killed Dale, and he was… well, like you guys. Athletic, good with weapons, good with people. And I'm - well, not."
"You never know," Fletcher shrugged. "Sometimes people you'd swear were perfect can't handle even the test shot. And this was what, twenty-odd years ago? Doses were a lot more iffy back then." And you got a lot more than that. You are one lucky geek, Simon. "He and your father really didn't get along, hmm? 'Cause I went looking, but I couldn't find any record of a Dale Peters applying for SOLDIER."
Peters shook his head. "No. He went under his father's name. Dale…."
Aha. Wondered when this gil was going to drop.
"…I can't remember."
"Happens," Fletcher said easily.
Peters looked up, a little wild around the eyes. "It happens? Lieutenant, I can't remember my brother's last name-"
"When's your birthday?"
"October nineteenth, what does that have to do with-"
Peters stared at him, white-faced. "Oh gods."
Fletcher didn't let him look away. "What's in your darts?"
"Scopolamine, taxine, tetrodotoxin, malborine," Peters said in a rush. "Ninety percent saline carrier by volume, other compounds five, one point two-five, one, point seven-five, with the last two percent papain enzyme or similar protein-lysing substitute, to get through parazoological muscle tissue into the bloodstream."
"See?" Fletcher patted him on the shoulder. "The important stuff's still there."
"Important? I don't remember my brother's name!"
"Dale," Fletcher said firmly. "That's what was important. That's what you held onto, when the mako hit." He gave the man a wry smile. "Nothing's free, Simon. We've all lost bits of who we used to be. Had to, to be what we are. You did it right. You hung onto you, and staying alive, when the Voices were trying to shred you into little bits that didn't even know they used to be a human. Not everybody can manage that. And when somebody can't… that gets ugly."
Now Peters raised an eyebrow.
"Death, total catatonia, going crazy and mutating into something that's got to be put down 'cause it's not human anymore…." Fletcher shrugged.
"And you went through three rounds of this?"
"Four, technically," Fletcher pointed out. "If you count the test shot. Which doesn't usually strip anything important out. Though I've known some cadets to claim they forgot upcoming exams."
Peters' jaw worked, and he shook his head. "You're insane."
"The Gaealing knows too much, Supreme Leader," Stolfi's ominous monotone floated across the camp. "Should we terminate it, and retreat to warn the invasion forces?"
"You, not helping," Peters grumbled.
"Seriously. This is real life, not some Costa del Sol light-and-materia special effects extravaganza," the scientist said soberly. "What could possibly be worth losing who you are?"
"We lose bits. We don't lose who we are. As for being worth it…." Fletcher held out Peters' wristband. "Equip that, and you tell me."
Right, Simon thought wryly. You keep everyone away from me like I've got the plague because they've got to carry equipped materia, and now you expect me to just slip a Heal back on?
Not that he minded everyone keeping their distance. Since the shot, feeling had been raw, sharp; obsidian, fractured into fragile blades. He could catch every acid lash of annoyance, every rainbow snicker as the team traded inside jokes he couldn't hear. He'd tried every image and meditation he knew; sandstone at dawn, still water - even drowning every other-feeling in the remembered fury of a wailing sandstorm. None of it helped. The team was there, achingly there, and-
He was not going to go crazy. He wasn't. He would not let Maccus win. So, distance. Distance was good. More distance was better.
Especially distance from Fletcher, who seemed to alternate between crystal-clear concern, and all but wrapping him in rough warmth, like a wolf-fur jacket.
I have to stay away. He's just here for the mission. When it's over….
The worst of it was, Fletcher didn't mean to hurt him. There wasn't any malice in the glowing green looking at him. Not even a challenge, besides, are you ready for this, or not?
What the heck. He'd already cheated Hel once. Some might say he owed her a second shot. Eyes screwed shut, he clasped the wristband on.
Green. Clear. Poison fading to snowmelt. Alkaloids and neurotoxins a diamond whirl of atoms, glittering with emerald fire at the best points to strike, and break-
Shut it out. All of it. Water and stillness and not feeling-
A hand, touching his shoulder. "You okay?"
"Is it always that alive?" Simon managed.
"The younger ones, not so much. You must be pretty familiar with this one." Fingers squeezed in reassurance. "Just let it settle."
Easy for you to say. But he could breathe, and his heart wasn't racing anymore, and the song was just… sinking into the background. He knew it was there, he could reach for it, but that weight of power seemed content to rest.
Fletcher was giving him a wry look when Simon opened his eyes. "You keep materia equipped for days at a time, and you thought mako would kill you?"
"You can swim in oil, if you have to," Simon said dryly. "If somebody injected a needle of it into your veins - well, you might live through it."
"Point." Fletcher tilted his head, silent question.
Posture. It's just body language, you read that off griffins all the time. Don't reach. Don't feel. "I'm okay." I think. It was just… weird. "Wait. You said the test shot doesn't take memories…."
Fletcher shifted, uncomfortable. "I hate to ask, Doc - but do you know why that bastard tried to kill you? I mean, what'd you do, keep him from kicking a puppy?"
Maccus tried to kill me. It was a lurch in his gut, a chill coiling down his spine. Sure, he'd thought it before, but to have someone else actually believe it…. "I caught him fudging the statistics in a paper on immune boosting by experimental viral bioengineering."
Must not hit SOLDIER over head with genetics textbook, Simon told himself firmly. He's trying to understand. Really. "Lieutenant, what would you do if-" he bit his lip, searching for something that would make sense. "If somebody switched out all your squad's materia for glass, right before a fight?"
Fletcher's eyes narrowed. "It's that serious."
Simon hesitated, trying to piece together the right words. "Science depends," he said at last, "on replication of results. On the fact that any scientist, anywhere, can do exactly what you did, and see exactly the same outcomes." And feelings weren't replicable. Weren't quantifiable. They were walking blind on ice, and praying it would hold. He didn't want to feel. "If someone assumes, based on fake results, that genetic therapy which really ought to be considered iffy is ready for human trials…."
"Somebody could get hurt."
"Oh, way more than hurt," Simon muttered. "Try fudging the statistics by reporting subjects suffered no adverse effects when at least five percent of the rats' offspring were coming up missing a few things. Like toes. Working eyes. Parts of the brain."
At least those hadn't screamed at him. They were just… empty. Which, in its own way, was worse.
Physics. I should've been in physics.
But you had to love the hard precision of numbers, the orbits of planets and atoms, to get anywhere in physics. And his love had always been for the where and why of life, even under what seemed the harshest of conditions.
Didn't hurt that nobody else, outside of a few geologists and biologists, wanted to be in deserts. He could go days without accidentally feeling anybody.
Not like these past weeks. Not like it at all.
Fletcher looked slightly green. "Still. Just five percent-"
"Might be acceptable combat losses, I get that," Simon got out, before he could lose his nerve. "But SOLDIERs know what they're getting into when they fight, right? This was going to be used medically. On people. How would you look parents in the eye and tell them the treatment that kept them from dying of anguillian blood poisoning is the reason their child is deformed? Or blind? Or not even a person, just something that blinks and lives because of a feeding tube?"
"Ugh." Fletcher shook all over, like a wolf shedding rain. "Um. Anguillian?"
"Ever gone swimming in a desert mineral spring?"
"Good. Don't." Simon spread his arms, about five feet wide. "Think a cross between a lamprey and a walking catfish, with lobster claws, and all the smarts and mean of a junkyard dog."
"Most species are native to deep-sea abysses," Simon went on. "But the ocean must have been a lot higher sometime a few million years back, because these things are the top predators in a lot of alkaline desert springs. And they carry a species of bacteria you don't usually see at surface pressure. Very nasty. Unless somebody really knows what they're doing with materia and antibiotics…." The scientist shook his head.
His neck prickled; Simon cast the man a wary glance. "What?"
"You go into places like that on purpose?"
Simon ducked his head, though he knew it was futile; the bright green looking at him would have no problem making out a blush even in starlight. "The desert's not any worse than… well, Midgar. It's just different. And I had a good teacher." Thanks, Great-Ell. Though it was Dr. Culbreth in the field, or anywhere else that wasn't private and family. Ellie Culbreth didn't like administrators hyperventilating about sending a woman in her nineties out into blistering deserts, and never mind that she could probably out-hike all of them put together. Better not to remind them she was old enough to be anybody's great-aunt, much less his.
"Still. Sounds like a place I'd steer clear of if I had anything less than a clear head."
Simon snorted. "That's what you'd think. If I were sick, or concussed, or even plain hung over, I'd rather be in a desert. I know what's going to try to eat me there."
Thoughtful silence. "Even with somebody like Hojo after you?" Stolfi asked.
"Especially if," Simon nodded. "What does he know about deserts? Or anywhere that's not the middle of a lab? Besides, if you really know what you're doing, you can find places the local heat shadows and wildlife can hide you so well, not even a Sense can find you-" He stopped, feeling a sudden crackle of anticipation in the air. "What?"
"Strife's from Nibelheim," Stolfi swore.
"And Fair obviously got mountain survival tips from somewhere," Fletcher agreed.
Strife. Fair. They know their names? And they didn't- Simon squashed feelings of disappointment. "You mean, we're looking in the wrong place?"
"Little late to get things moving tonight, especially with our mission supposed to be low-key," Fletcher observed. "Stolfi, when you switch off with Rothaar, ask him where he'd head if he knew mountains. Handel can start making calls when he takes watch in the morning, find out what our options are for transport." He crooked beckoning fingers. "Doc. Since you can't sleep anyway and you're still pretending to be normal, let me show you a few things that don't exist."
Simon stiffened. "I'm not pretending to be anything!"
Swifter than Simon could see, a gloved hand grabbed his jaw. Simon flinched, but didn't pull away, all too aware those fingers could shatter bone like warm ice.
"Simon." Fletcher's voice was quiet. Almost too quiet. "You can hear me. You can feel your Heal singing. And if you take a mirror and look deep enough in those nice brown eyes of yours - and I know you can - you can see amber glinting. You're not normal anymore." He let go. "And when you show me you can live with that, and move on… then I'll believe you're fine."
Lift right hand, and grip. Lift left hand, and grip. Find footing. Repeat.
There was a little variation, some scrambling over sheer areas or sideways to take advantage of a natural chimney, but outside of that… it was almost too repetitive to be a hallucination.
Except that rocks had an odd tendency to crumble like hard clay when he gripped them, and everything was over-dyed with green.
He desperately wanted it not to be a dream. Aching muscles, rock bruises, scraped arms and knees and everything else - he'd take it all, if this could only be real. And why would he be hallucinating about these mountains - the thick ridges between the coast and Midgar? Nobody came this way. Nobody had any reason to.
But then, Zack never did what anyone expected.
Lift right hand. Lift left hand. Find footing….
He hadn't been lying when he'd told Zack he could climb mountains in his sleep. Not that he'd advise that to anyone, but… between the green and the mind-numbing repetition, he couldn't quite stay here….
Green faded and strengthened, blooming into a field of… flowers?
A young woman's voice. A voice he… knew?
I didn't expect you to look for me here.
A warm voice. And kind. Why couldn't he remember it?
And why was he so sure that if he just looked, he'd see shafts of rainbow light, and pink laced through auburn hair….
Don't you dare, Cloud Strife. Fierce and warm, like a lioness. Zack's worried enough about you already. He doesn't need you wandering loose from your body on top of that.
He didn't mean to make Zack worry. Honest.
I know you don't. Gentler now. And it's all right for you to stay. For a little while. But when I say go-
He almost snapped off a salute. Forget drill sergeants. This woman was scary.
Am I really? She sounded gleeful. Zack was right. I am going to love you.
Er - ah - she couldn't really mean-
Oh, Cloud. Fond exasperation. Of course I mean it. I've been wanting to meet you for years!
Years? He knew they'd been with Hojo a long time, but… years?
You've lost a lot. Sad and proud at once, like his mother had been when he'd left for Midgar. But you're still here. You're beating him.
But they hadn't stopped him. Just like they hadn't been able to stop the other one, before-
Hands rested on top of his, filled with light. You're hurting.
He swallowed, feeling tears prickle his eyes. And maybe it was too risky, but- he reached back, just a little farther. My mother's dead.
My town's dead. Tifa - I tried, but I don't know…. It hurt. So much.
Oh, Cloud. Sunlight kissed his cheek. Be strong. Just a little longer.
Well, yeah. He tried to shake his head, surprised and irritated. Was it wrong to be irritated with one of the first kind voices he'd met in years? Zack's being an idiot and not leaving me, so - so I've got to keep trying. Even if - I can't do very much….
He is not going to leave you!
Cloud flinched from that sudden blaze, even if it wasn't quite aimed at him. But - he'd have a better chance without me. He should-
Now you listen to me, Cloud. She gave him a shake he felt all the way to his boots. Zack loves you. And I love you. And we will not let you go, so get used to it. If you try to up and die on us, we're going to hunt you down, drag you back, and smother you in chocolate. Understand?
He could swear he heard someone's foot tapping, indignant frustration. But then the beat slowed, and a rustle of fabric - a dress? - swished nearer. Just hang on, Cloud, brushed softly over him. I know you need to cry. You should cry. But not yet. Wait until you find me. Until you get to Midgar.
Midgar? Was she serious? Of all the crazy places in the world to even think of going - maybe this was a hallucination after all. Who'd get away from Hojo just to go to Midgar?
Fingers combed through his hair; like Zack's, only smaller. Trust me. You'll get here. And then you can cry on one of my shoulders, and Zack can cry on the other, and I'm going to hold you both so tight….
Zack cries? He couldn't imagine it.
Sometimes. When he's lost someone. And you've both lost so many…. The sense of her faded; strengthened for just an instant, as she shoved him firmly back. Midgar, Cloud! You and I have a Zack-kitten to tickle, so you'd better get him here!
Flowers were gone. The voice was gone. And green-tinted rock was crumbling under his-
…A Zack-kitten to tickle….
"Hey." Pebbles sifted down as Zack hitched himself over. "Sun's not that high yet. I know you're not stopping to sleep- Cloud?"
Moving through water, Cloud flexed clawed fingers. Those… looked an awful lot like Zack's had, back when the hallucination had swirled around Nibelheim. Which made this an awfully consistent hallucination.
"Huh." Zack chuckled ruefully. "So the good news is, you're waking up. Bad news is, you just woke up enough to freak out-"
It was like shoving against packed snow, but… he thought he shook his head. We both know what you should do, Zack. But if you're not going to do it - and I believe her, how crazy is that? - I won't slow you down. I won't.
Even if this is really, really weird.
He reached for the next handhold-
Something didn't look right. Didn't smell right.
"Damn. Where's an Ice when you need it… duck!"
"They were here?" Handel said skeptically.
Standing on top of the caldera rim, Fletcher squinted at the faint trail below, and shook his head. "Unless you can think of anything else human-sized that can break its own handholds out of rock, yeah."
"Definitely here," Peters said, distracted, kneeling to collect a small crescent of something pale and translucent. "Looks like at least one of them wanted fresh edges after that climb."
"That's-" Rothaar swallowed, hard.
"A claw flake, yes." Peters pressed the point of it lightly against a fingertip; winced a little. "Tough."
Off to one side on monster lookout, Stolfi shifted in place. "Do you have to do that?"
"As a matter of fact," Peters sighed, "I do." Flake still in hand, he glanced up. "This is tough, all right, but I'd say the keratin isn't much stronger than a griffin's claw. Maybe a small dragon's." He pointed over the side. "Which means whatever's letting them tear up the mountainside, it's not so much physical hardness, as the same kind of energy field that lets you guys get knocked through walls. Or tear walls down," he added, half to himself. "Like in Wutai."
"What do you know about Wutai?" Waller said sharply.
Poking around for any other traces, Peters shrugged. "Just what everybody else does, I guess. But when you've seen vids of General Sephiroth tearing steel apart with his bare hands - that's not just strength. Regular muscle and skin just can't do that."
"Your point?" Watching Peters store his samples away, Rothaar edged back. "Damn it, Doc, why doesn't that bother you?"
Peters looked up, one eyebrow lifted; stood, dusting off his knees. "Call me curious. Exactly what part of this situation do you think should bother me?"
Okay, Fletcher thought dryly, geekiness only gets you so much wiggle room. "Simon. That's part of a claw." From what had used to be a human being. A reasonably decent one, on top of that, if their records were right. Damn it, why couldn't Hojo have been experimenting on condemned psychopaths, or something? It'd be so much easier to track down what had been human and kill it….
Peters blinked at him. Frowned. "Okay, tell me if I've got this right. You think what I've picked up is part of Hojo's experiment. Proof that he's a psychopath. Nothing else."
"And what else is it supposed to be?" Handel blazed. "All you white coats are-"
"That's enough," Fletcher said firmly.
"Hell it is! That bastard made monsters out of two of our people, and he just thinks it's an interesting problem!"
Peters paled. "That's not true," he got out. "You don't understand!"
"Damn right I don't, you little-"
"Stand down, soldier," Waller growled.
Handel glared, and stalked off. "Fuck this."
Fletcher let out a frustrated breath. At least Handel was taking up monster-watch on the other side of the team from Stolfi. Gave him something useful to do until he cooled down enough to appreciate having his ass chewed. Much as he hated the prospect of actually doing the chewing. Granted, Peters wasn't responsible for this whole mess, but the scientist could show a little more respect for what had been a pair of decent soldiers. "And what's that flake to you, Doc?"
Peters was staring at him, brows knotted in confusion. "You… don't think they're human, anymore."
Okay, even for the geek, that's random. "Hello? Claws?"
"You've known about that for over a week."
Yeah. But that wasn't here and now. Not like- Wait a minute. Are you saying, you know they have claws and you still think…? No way. That's crazy. "Answer my question, Doc."
The scientist gave him a long, considering look. Shifted his shoulders, obviously working up to something. "It's a fingernail, Lieutenant. Heavily modified, yes. But it was shed by a person. Not a monster."
Fletcher shook his head slowly. "You don't know that."
Peters bit his lip. Glanced aside. "Actually…." He stiffened. "Handel, stop! There's something hungry-"
The mountainside erupted.
Leather, rock - acid? Broadsword in hand, Fletcher sorted through the sudden rush of scents, trying to figure out how a patch of rocks had suddenly clamped up around Handel like murderous pastry.
Only it wasn't rock, he realized, as blades and spells cut into a carpet of leathery flesh, trying to slash the muscles grinding Handel to pieces without cutting the man himself apart. Ice froze half the stony folds; Rothaar hit the other half with a Slow and hauled a seared Handel free. Man clear, Fletcher and Waller shredded the thing into a confetti of acid gullet and rocky hide, absently listening to Stolfi's curses as he kept out of the fight and on watch, ready for any other monsters that might be drawn to the fray-
The rocky mass stopped twitching. Mostly. "The hell was that?" Handel wheezed, as Rothaar flushed his eyes out with water and Peters moved in with a green flash of Esuna to stop the acid.
Stayed out of the line of fire. Thank gods, Fletcher thought. Handel was going to need a couple of Cures, if that wheeze of breath didn't lie; cracked ribs, at the very least. Meaning a regular guy like Peters would have been paste. How did he know?
"Never seen anything like it," Waller admitted, shaken. "Rothaar?"
"Some kind of amoeba? No clue," the in-country specialist shook his head. Shot a suspicious glance at Peters. "You knew it was there."
"Frigga's sweet- We didn't see it, we didn't smell it, and it sure as Garm's teeth wasn't making any noise! But you knew it was there!"
Fletcher stepped subtly between them; back down. He looked at Peters. "Simon?"
Spellcasting finished, Peters let his hands fall to his sides. Shivered. "I knew something was there. Something hungry. Which - was part of the problem, all it was was hunger, and even that wasn't really - awake - until Handel got near it, and it smelled… tasted… meat…." Eyes on him, he stopped. Swallowed dryly, and looked Fletcher in the eye. "You asked me to stop pretending to be normal."
Fletcher stared right back, sure he'd been handed most of the pieces, but utterly clueless as to how they might fit together. "You knew it was there because it was… hungry." Right. Ignoring how that makes no sense whatsoever. "How?"
"Good question," Peters said dryly. "Usually something has to at least have a spine before I can pick it up." He shrugged, not even near casual; like a secretary commandeered to haul Turk paperwork, desperately trying to keep it together long enough to get clear of the guns. "Then again, since the hotel, I haven't been able to stop picking things up. Not for more than a few minutes at a time."
Has to have a spine…. "You knew that thing was there," Fletcher said slowly. "You have regular reflexes - or you did - but you've been ready to shoot every monster almost as fast as we were. Or not shoot it, when you knew it was just passing through. You knew when your brother died; you knew enough to panic even before Devereaux hauled out the big guns. And when Hojo showed up-" You damn near went out cold on the spot. From sheer fright. And if it was worse since the hotel - mako bumped up senses and magical ability. "Okay, Doc. Hand over the materia. Whatever it is." Probably some kind of aberrant Sense, or an odd purple materia that wasn't quite mastered. And if Peters had kept it on him after a mako shot, he was going to kick the man's ass.
"Oh, I wish it was a materia," Peters said numbly, eyes tired. "You know what materia I've got, Lieutenant. One Heal. One Restore in my kit. That's it."
Fletcher saw his team trading wary glances. "Doc," Stolfi said carefully, "empaths are science fiction."
"Fifty years ago, people who could bench-press chocobos were science fiction." Peters flung out empty hands. "I don't know how I do it! Do you have any idea what that's like for a scientist, knowing there's something you don't know, can't test, can't explain? It's like - like sometimes fire decides to be wet, and you don't know why!"
Fletcher was not going to laugh at the sight of his men edging back from a scientist they could break like a toothpick. Really.
But Peters was deflating now, brief burst of fury burning out into resignation. "All I know is, for as long as I can remember, sometimes I've been able to feel what animals are feeling. What other people are feeling. Whether I want to or not." He rubbed the back of his neck, kneading a headache. "And believe me, most of the time, I'd really rather not."
What animals are- "That's how you knew Devereaux was faking his data."
Peters sighed, nodded. "It's what started me looking. Don't know if you've ever been in a university bio department, but behavior and genetics usually aren't even in the same building. Genetics needs all kinds of sealed-lab protocols; behaviorists, you can shove in anywhere. Usually the draftier offices. But I got tapped to bring up some paperwork from the department head, and-" He shrugged. "You wouldn't believe the kinds of excuses I had to come up with to get to the data. I had to be able to prove it."
I think I'd believe it, Fletcher thought. He might not ever be a front-line fighter, but damned if Simon didn't have guts. "And this… talent of yours, is why you don't think we're chasing monsters."
"I know we're not." Peters met his gaze. "People… leave traces behind. Especially when they leave parts of themselves behind. Like hair. Or blood."
"Or fingernails?" Fletcher guessed.
A shadow of a smile. "Yeah." Peters glanced aside. "They've killed. I know that. But whatever Hojo was trying to do to them - damn it, he missed."
Fletcher nodded. "And you've known that ever since you asked us to carve out a piece of tree trunk."
Peters reddened. "Well-"
"You weren't sure," Fletcher finished for him.
"There wasn't much more than a whisper left on it," the scientist defended himself. "The tissue samples were more help. Besides. That message was left for you guys. I didn't think leaving it intact afterward would be a good idea."
Point. Good point, at that; not something he would have expected out of the average geek. But somehow, not so surprising anymore. Not from Peters. "Take it you're getting a lot more than whispers now."
Peters shuddered. "Like walking into a block party. Everything's just too loud. And when it was just a whisper, well - I've been wrong before. When I only had one… imprint to work from. And even if the tree felt like they were okay then, we didn't have any idea what Hojo had done to them. Not then. It could have been something that destroyed their minds in stages, or worse." A shiver. "But the genetic samples my colleagues have analyzed, the tracks you've found, the behavior I've observed - everything I can measure says they're stable. And what I can't measure…." His hands fisted by his sides; deliberately relaxed. "They feel human. Angry, tired, worried, but human."
I believe him, Fletcher realized. It's crazy, and impossible, and… gods, who knows. But I believe him. And from the odd, startled looks on his team's faces - they might just believe him, too.
"Still," Rothaar muttered, "that's a hell of a lot of mako."
Too true. "They sure didn't lose survival skills," Fletcher pointed out.
"Or Makobusters 14," Waller muttered, almost smirking.
"Mako what?" Peters asked warily. Stolfi and Rothaar looked almost as confused, while Handel stifled a snort of laughter.
Ha! Fletcher thought. Knew his ears were getting better. Probably not good enough to blindfold the man and let him walk by sound, but at least he didn't have to worry anymore about Peters missing conversations he was supposed to hear. "I don't suppose scientists have unofficial newsletters?"
The behaviorist arched an eyebrow. "Remind me to transmit you a copy of Dr. Jane's Pyroclastic Remains, or Biochemists and Ethanol; Shaken, not Stirred."
The team gave him a look askance.
Peters raised both eyebrows. "You've never seen a physics department celebrate a retirement by making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, have you?"
"Er…." Handel managed. "Isn't that the stuff that, you know…."
Peters nodded, almost smirking. "How about finding yourself in the same room with a bunch of drunk organic chemists experimenting with C-4 recipes? Marine biologists playing Truth or Dare with blue-ringed octopi? Botanists mixing absinthe with Malboro toxin?"
Fletcher shook his head, not sure whether to laugh or pound his head against a handy rock. "Every time I think we've got nothing in common…. Take that from a SOLDIER perspective, and you've pretty much got Makobusters. What was in 14?"
"Oh, just an interesting bit on cross-wiring executive-level intercoms so the entire HQ got treated to President Shinra's latest shower opera," Waller said casually. "Anonymous had to hotwire an elevator to get there, too."
Stolfi blew out a breath. "Just like-"
"So," Fletcher said thoughtfully. "They're sane, they remember, and they're ticked off. So where the hell are they going?"
Thoughtful silence. Fletcher rested his gaze on Peters. Who blinked, almost innocently.
Don't give me that. Fletcher tilted his head, not quite tapping his foot. I know you know something.
The scientist sighed. "I know where I'm going, the minute you don't need me anymore. But I'm not a soldier."
"Where you're going?" Waller said pointedly.
What he said, Fletcher thought, stunned. Doc, you can't seriously be thinking-
Peters gave the sergeant a bleak look. "I'm not dead. Devereaux is going to want to know why. He's a psychopath. On a good day, he gives me vertigo. If I go near him now-" Peters shrugged.
"Wait, wait, wait," Handel jumped in. "You knew he was a psychopath?"
"It's not like it's illegal," Peters said dryly.
But what he did to you… wasn't, either, according to management. And it should have been. Fletcher eyed him. "You're going to rabbit."
The behaviorist didn't blink. "Last I knew, you didn't have any orders about me."
"Run, and he'll know something's up with you," Fletcher pointed out.
"No. He'll just think something's up. He won't have any proof. And maybe he can haul out the Turks to test an 'interesting datapoint' for Hojo, but since I didn't die, I'm not in that intriguing little slice of 'mako equals lethal', am I? The good professor won't be interested, and Devereaux's always been the loyal little lackey for anybody scarier than he is." Peters wet his lips. "Besides, if I don't run… sooner or later I'll wind up in the same building with Hojo. You're good at plotting scenarios, Lieutenant. Plot that one."
Fletcher winced. "You get near him, your talent kicks in, you go down."
"Unconscious if I'm lucky," Peters said flatly. "Screaming if I'm not. And oh, wouldn't he be curious after that." Sun-high meant the mountains were only cool, not cold; Peters chafed his arms as if locked in a blizzard. "I'm not like you. I'm not brave. So if I can… get clear… I'm just one more egghead who couldn't handle the pressure of working outside academia. Happens all the time." He bowed his head.
"But that's not what you want to do, is it?" Waller's voice was surprisingly quiet. "You want to stop him."
"What does want have to do with anything?" Peters' voice was painfully tired. "I deal with facts, Sergeant. I'm a scientist, not a fighter. I have a family - even if a lot of them aren't talking to me. Pain terrifies me. Needles terrify me. Hojo- gods, let's not even go there." He drew in a weary breath. "Break it down. Logically. If I were going to stop him, I'd have to get past the guards, the Turks, the security systems, and whatever else he might have stewing in the Midgar labs. Oh, and try to stay conscious during all of that, when every last one of his test subjects is going to be screaming in my head." Sarcasm burned in the scientist's tone. "Do I look suicidal? I'm not brave. And… I'm not enough of an idealistic idiot as to think I'm capable of something like that."
Not brave. Not a fighter. Not capable of…. Fletcher found his gaze swinging to Waller. Who looked like he'd just been hit with an I-beam. "Fair," Waller blurted.
"Yeah," Fletcher agreed shakily.
"No way," Stolfi breathed.
"Damn," Rothaar muttered.
"Is he nuts?" Handel exclaimed.
"He used to spar with Sephiroth," Waller pointed out. "You tell me."
Peters listened to them all with widening eyes. "…They're going to Midgar?"
Rubbing a flake of dried monster blood off Cloud's claws, Zack shook his head, and slipped the younger man's gloves back on. "All that, and I still don't know if you're really awake."
Shadowed by sunset, fingers clenched on his. Glowing blue was trying to focus, he could swear it. Lips parted, just a bare hint of something that wasn't a breath-
And yeah, maybe Cloud couldn't get the question out, but Zack was pretty sure he knew what it was. Zack, what in Hel's frozen Hall were those things?
"I've got no clue, partner," Zack admitted. "Some kind of bird… bug… mosquito kind of thing. Maybe some idiot dumped a ton of mako in the Marshes? Sure swarmed like mosquitoes." Lucky for the two of them, he knew how to deal with being swarmed. The Buster made a heck of a flyswatter.
Still, fighting on a cliff had not been his idea of fun. It'd slowed him down enough that three of the bat-sized bloodsuckers had gotten through to Cloud. And while, wonder of wonders, the kid had cudgeled his misbehaving nervous system into shredding the one that tried for his neck, he'd still lost some blood. Not a lot - at least, not a lot for a SOLDIER - but enough to turn firm steps back into a stumble, and glaze blue eyes all over again.
Rest, don't rest. Zack weighed the pros and cons of each, and sighed. "I think we're about four days out from Midgar. And since we don't know what those things were, how far they roam, or even if we got 'em all - I hate to say it, but I think we'd better keep going." He got his arm under Cloud's, and stood. Started walking.
Definitely wobbly. Damn.
But shaky or not, Cloud wasn't stopping, and Zack had to bite his lip at a rush of fierce pride. Mako made you stronger. Weapons you could learn. But that dyed-in-the-wool stubborn - that was Cloud to the core, and even the worst Hojo had done hadn't killed it.
Just don't let them find us today, Zack prayed, to whatever might be watching over a pair of SOLDIERs running on the bare edges of their luck. Give us a few more days of quiet, even a few hours if that's all you can-
Wind shifted, bringing scents of humans and mako. Familiar scents.
Dark. Too dark to really see. Or it should have been. Simon glanced up at too-bright stars in fading twilight, and felt his heart hurt at the play of color in darkening blue. Like bits of opal… focus. If Fletcher's right, they can't be too far.
Sight and sound gave no clue, but he felt the sudden presence. Like Fletcher. Like a tired and cranky griffin, only sticking around out of pure curiosity. Simon swallowed, and held his hands away from his sides. "I'm not armed."
Someone snorted. "Yeah, you are," a Gongaga drawl rolled out of the darkness. "You just don't know it yet."
Violet eyes were suddenly there, glowing under spiky dark hair. The SOLDIER was gripping his chin gently, like Fletcher had, looking deep-
And Fair smiled ruefully - gods, was that a flash of fangs? - and stepped back. "Nice setup."
"Thought you'd think so," Fletcher's voice floated out of concealment.
"Nasty, though," Fair commented. "And a little risky. You've got no idea what could happen."
"I know it'd be aimed at you," the lieutenant said pointedly. "You killed Roberts and Saez. I'm not inclined to be polite."
"What?" Simon stuck in. "What would be aimed at him?" Outside of the team's various weapons, but that… didn't feel like what they were talking about. Somehow.
"If you're asking for sorry, I'm not." Fair didn't look at all concerned that the team was spread out beyond normal sight, ready to pounce. "Cloud and I spent five years in hell. I'd go through all of Shinra to get us out."
"I don't doubt it," Fletcher stated. "Where is Strife?"
Fair gave the darkness an arch look. "You're kidding, right?"
"Would someone like to explain why you say I'm armed when all I've got is a pocketknife?" Simon ground out. When they'd planned this meeting, Fletcher had assured him the situation could be turned to a trap if Fair turned out to be irrational after all, but he'd been notably vague on how.
"Yeah, you probably wouldn't know," Fair shrugged. "Eye-glint like that? You're near your Limit."
Simon stared at him.
"Probably would have hit it already if you hadn't clamped down on it hard," Fair went on. "I'm guessing 'cause your subconscious knew somebody you gave a damn about was in the line of fire, and letting loose would be bad. But here you are, out on your lonesome, one good knock on the head from making somebody's life real painful. And I'm the only somebody in range." The grin was real, if sharp-edged. "Like I said. Nice setup."
Simon couldn't find his voice. When the team had agreed to try setting up a meeting, to see if their targets were even willing to talk, he'd been worried - all right, terrified - to be standing in the open, unarmed. Even if Waller's argument about Fair knowing Turk-style weapons was a good one. But under all the reasons and logic had been an undercurrent he hadn't understood, acid-sharp with anticipation and the hunger for violence, when Fletcher assured him that if Fair did make a wrong move, he'd be hurting for it….
I'm the trap?
"So." Zack cracked his knuckles, smiling all the time. "Now that we've got the macho posturing out of the way… what's so important you're talking, instead of trying to fill me full of all kinds of holes?"
"Where's General Sephiroth?"
Fair sighed. "Yeah. You would ask the hard ones." Black hair shook. "What, Shinra didn't even come up with a cover story?"
"Detached duty," Fletcher bit out. "Anything else is need-to-know. And apparently Heidegger's the only one who needs to know."
"Heidegger's in charge? Go figure. And it's almost the truth." Zack's smile went wry. "Can't get more detached than dead."
Simon winced at the shock of in-drawn breaths. "The General's dead?" Fletcher demanded.
"And I'm guessing your next questions are, who could have taken down Sephiroth, and why wasn't Nibelheim a smoking hole in the ground afterward?" Zack shrugged. "On the second, I've got no clue, unless Shinra just rebuilt the whole place as part of the cover-up. Seph burned that town to the ground. We saw it."
"And the first?" Fletcher said coolly.
Zack stared into the darkness. "You heard me."
"He finally lost it." Waller's voice was bleak.
"Yeah, well, he had help." Anger burned in violet eyes. "Hojo… hells, for all I know the bastard dipped the pages of those damn reports Seph was reading in psychedelics. I know he set the whole mission up, for sure. He got there in time to be taking notes while Cloud and I were bleeding out on the reactor floor." Gloved fists clenched. "Long story short. Cloud and I got lucky. If you can call it that. We were bunked at the Inn, and Seph burned down the other side of town first. We followed him out to the reactor… you haven't been in that cesspool, have you? Hojo still brewing up his monsters in mako pods up there?"
"The Professor's doing what?" Simon croaked.
Fair looked him straight in the eye. "Like I said. Cloud and I got lucky. Things we saw in those pods… I'm guessing a lot of SOLDIERs people thought went AWOL, didn't. Poor bastards."
"You do realize how crazy this sounds," Fletcher said neutrally.
"Hey, I lived it." Zack's shoulders fell. "And part of me still wants to wake up tomorrow and find out this is all a bad dream."
Simon felt more than heard Fletcher's wry snort. "I was thinking more about the odds of you and a trooper being able to take down the General in the first place. You're good, Fair. But no First Class was that good."
Fair's smile was crooked, and not at all pleasant. "How the hell do you think I know he was insane? You don't burn somebody's village down and leave them alive behind you. Sephiroth didn't make those kinds of tactical errors." He took a step back. "And if you think I'm sticking around until your reinforcements show up-"
A rush of air, and violet vanished.
Simon blinked, automatically reaching out- "He's gone."
"And how," Handel muttered. "Gods! You ever see anything move that fast?"
"I have," Fletcher breathed.
"Sephiroth," Waller said heavily. "Freya's own luck… gods, we just dodged a bullet."
"Yeah." Fletcher still sounded stunned as he walked out to stand by Simon, head tilted to listen eastward. "Lucky we caught him in a good mood."
Simon did a double-take, feeling real fear roll off the man. Not panic, but the sober realization of a man walking through mist, to see it clear just before a cliff's edge. "Actually, we didn't. He was still pretty cranky." Simon stepped closer. "And worried, and a little sad. Kind of like you were, back when-" He froze, conclusions tumbling into place.
A warm hand rested on his shoulder. "Talk to me, Simon."
"He was bluffing." Eyes closed, Simon let the shreds of feeling flutter through his mind, willing them to sift into order. He didn't want to trust them, he didn't - but the team was afraid, and Fletcher was afraid, and that was just wrong. "He's worried, and a little scared, and angry, just like you were…." He blinked. "I think Strife's still sick. I don't know how sick, but…." At least you don't have two of them, he almost said.
Right. Like he was going to tell a SOLDIER everything was going to be fine?
But it will be. We're okay, I'm okay - and we got what you wanted, right? Answers. Answers that led to just as many unnerving questions, true….
Unease flickered against him. "Um, Doc?"
Simon blinked again, feeling Fletcher's fingers release their grip, ready to be snatched away at any moment. No, don't. I want you here.
"Mind telling me just what you're doing?"
Doing? Simon almost said. I'm not doing anything. But it wasn't true. He could feel something shifting, as if the ground under him had decided to tilt, and the only way to keep his feet was to lean on friendly, worried warmth-
Tactics and calculation hit like storm-blown spray; Fletcher stepped sideways and stared at the sky, the team tensing with him. "Damn. Fair was right." The lieutenant traded a glance with Waller. "Helicopters."
Zack? Chilled, still short of breath from blood loss, Cloud did his best not to stumble over lumps of green. Zack, talk to me. What's going on? Why are we hurrying? Why do you smell like… like those SOLDIERs who almost got us in the parking garage? And how, in all the gods' names, did he know what other people smelled like? People-smells were your mother's hugs. Your girlfriend's hair, if you were lucky enough to have one. Or - or your best friend's hand and armor, when he was ruffling up your hair to be even more spiky than usual. You didn't go around deliberately smelling people.
But he could all but taste those SOLDIERs lingering on Zack's clothes and hair; ghosts of scent, just a touch of wind and living breath. Not nearly as present as the scents of mako and sword oil trying to sneak through the woods behind them. Scents that should have shouted predator, except something in him only sniffed, and smirked, and sharpened its claws-
And he missed a step, darn it, what was Zack thinking, to walk him right into a root of glowing green?
"Whoops," Zack said, almost sincere. "My bad."
Darn right, your- oh no. Oh no, I know that voice. Oh gods help me, you've got a Plan….
"I want to let you rest, but it seems like we don't have time for that."
And the night and trees were alive with idiots.
…I will never, ever get tired of watching this.
One moment Zack was still, like the breath between lightning and thunder. The next, steel blurred through green. Bodies fell. Earth shredded.
Twirling his Buster, Zack harnessed it again with a grin, and bent to lift him back to his feet. "Like an average soldier can take me on."
Yeah, you're great, and you know it. Cloud wished he could roll his eyes. Or shake his head. Or anything. Just wish I weren't slowing you down-
"There they are!"
And they were running again, through gunfire this time, one round slamming against steel as Zack muttered something about persistent guys….
Um, Zack? I know this is a hallucination, but that looks an awful lot like a-
He jumped with Zack. There was no way in the world he could have not jumped with Zack. And crazy as it seemed, the wind whipping around them felt good.
On the other hand, the brambles at the bottom of the bluff were a whole new level of ow.
But shots were zinging yards wide of them now, aimed at some other loud crackling of the scrubby brush, and Zack was rolling them both to their feet with a stifled laugh.
They kept running, and Cloud heard shouts and curses heading down the hill after them- No. After the noise, which wasn't them at all. Humans didn't screech like that. Ah, Zack. Was that a-?
"Heh. Land worm." Zack's snicker had a distinctly vicious edge. "Must be closer to Midgar than I thought."
Before Nibelheim, Cloud would have wanted to stop. It would have been his duty to stop. Maybe he couldn't make it in SOLDIER, but troopers handled almost as many monsters, and being friends with Zack had taught him what was really important. Not a lonely kid's dream of power and glory, but just being there when people needed you, and doing what you could with what you had. So maybe he'd never be a hero. Zack didn't need a hero. Just a friend who could back him up, no matter how crazy things got.
And as Zack's friend, he was not going to stop.
He could hear the crunches. The gunfire. The screams. The wet shredding of flesh from bone… land worms weren't smart enough to run from a fight they couldn't win, and a lot of those men were going to die.
And he was not going to stop.
Helping the guys with the guns would end in just one of two ways; with them dead, or back with Hojo. Even in a hallucination, he wouldn't do that to Zack.
And… damn it all… he wasn't going to do that to himself, either.
"Whoa. Watch your footing, partner."
Wasn't the ground, Zack. But stumbling over a decision just sounded stupid. Even if that was exactly what he'd done.
I want to live. I want to be free.
Not to spite Hojo, or the people who'd laughed at his dreams. Not even because it would make Zack sad if he didn't. Because he wanted it.
His mouth was dry; his stomach was in free-fall, like the bluff all over again. But he wasn't going to take it back. Not now. Not ever.
One foot in front of the other. Trust Zack's sense of direction, and the auburn-haired dream-within-a-dream that said Midgar.
I want to live.
Coffee. Tseng stared at the bane of his existence, hid a grimace, and drank it anyway. Tea would be preferable. Tea was always preferable. But the small rituals of preparing that drink always calmed him, no matter how much caffeine was in the cup, and the last thing he needed now was to be calm.
The shell game he'd set into motion around their original targets was dangerous enough. Couple that with the report he'd had from Lowry and Michizane, along with the data that had resulted from Devereaux's sadistic tendencies….
He wanted a cup of tea. Badly.
Turk programmers were good, thank the gods; very, very good. Devereaux's sample data had been trapped even as it was analyzed. Trapped, contained, and a false report sent on to Hojo, even as the real analysis ended up in Tseng's unwilling hands.
Hands that were now massaging a headache, reevaluating plans and strategies fast as the originals had collapsed. To find one of those, here… Fair must attract the damn genotype. It's the only possible explanation.
At least Peters had never set out to apply for security work, much less SOLDIER. Tseng would never have been able to hide this then.
Does the man even know?
Likely not. At least, not what Tseng knew. Though from the pattern of his account withdrawals after the Kettle Village incident, Peters certainly knew something was amiss. And didn't plan to stick around long enough for Devereaux to determine what.
He did try to be subtle, Tseng admitted, eyeing his PHS. It hadn't taken much, just a call or two, to bury an amateur's attempt under a layer of professional invisibility. One that could, of course, be peeled back if they were ordered to investigate the man.
If they were so ordered.
He had his arguments prepared if that were the case, of course. Arguments for Rufus, at the least; President Shinra would never listen to the cold logic of trying to preserve a sane scientist's life, in case the rest of the biology department fell victim to one of Hojo's whims.
His PHS vibrated; Tseng flicked it open. "Report."
"It's as you suspected," Michizane's neutral tones came over the line. "But there is a complication."
Perhaps it was just one too many mugs of coffee, unsettling his gut. But then… his Turks did not use complication lightly. "Yes?"
"Lowry believes he's riding."
Riding a Limit Break? Tseng took a moment to be glad his mug was empty. The leader of the Turks did not spit coffee all over his papers. It wasn't done. "Withdraw. Immediately."
"Understood." Though the slight undertone of confusion in Michizane's voice as he hung up said he didn't truly understand. Turks had seen Limit Breaks before.
Tseng didn't worry about enlightening his subordinate. Either nothing would happen, and his Turks could explain away their absence to Devereaux later….
Or Michizane and Lowry were about to get all the explanation anyone needed. Firsthand.
"Targets confirmed!" Rude's voice came over another line, one Tseng had left open to monitor the other half of this nightmare. "Targets confirmed! Currently at point 137-"
When I find out who ordered this week, Fletcher thought dazedly, I'm going to smack them over the head, tie them to an anchor, and go trolling for mutated sharks.
Not quite as much of an ow as the ringing in his head and blood in his eyes, though given how many bullets had suddenly flown his way, getting grazed by just one wasn't that bad. Especially given- yeah.
Scratch the anchor. First I'm force-feeding a bastard a Sleep materia.
Between the Sleep and the purple smoke of some weird kind of tranquilizing gas, the younger guys were out for the count. Waller was still on his hands and knees, swearing-
A burst of lead cut him down.
Fletcher bit back a snarl as the score of troopers moved in, playing dead. Or at least unconscious. Which he would have been, if not for the man now shivering just behind him. One breath of sickly-sweet, and Peters had been casting Esuna through his coughs, throwing off magic and gas both.
We get out of this, I'm getting you an All.
Gods, how had things gone so wrong so fast? He'd thought Devereaux and his borrowed grunts were just here to take over the trail and the credit, until the bastard had stepped back and smirked at them….
One All, and a pair of Turk brains, fricasseed, Fletcher thought darkly. No way did Devereaux come up with this plan.
"Going to kill me, too?" Peters' voice shook; he pressed up against Fletcher, hand fumbling against gloved hand as if to feel a pulse-
Leaving something small and feathery behind.
Phoenix down. If I can get it to Waller….
"That might be up to you," Devereaux mused. "Most of the Professor's subjects try to commit suicide at some point. Sometimes they even succeed."
Five years of hell, Fair had said. Chilled, Fletcher finally believed him.
My people are not going down this way. No matter what it takes.
"Don't try anything," Devereaux snapped, as Peters' hand crept toward his gun. "They're valuable samples. You, are expendable."
Head bowed, Peters got to his feet, and stepped away. Unarmed. Helpless.
As far as they knew.
"Simon," Fletcher murmured under his breath. "Trust me?"
"You damn idiot," Peters whispered back.
That'd do. "Grab the bastard, and panic."
"What?" Peters blurted.
Devereaux's head snapped up. "Shoot-"
Fletcher spun off the ground one-handed, flinging his broadsword. Down dropped on Waller in a copper-red sparkle of light, even as steel impaled the trooper with the Sleep and Fletcher spun through more bullets to snatch Handel's sword.
And then there weren't any more bullets.
Rage. Fear. Ice-cold will to survive, the scorpion's sting striking home-
Wind slashed at his sleeves, shrieking like a wild thing. Surrounded by green forest, Fletcher could smell nothing but sand.
He gulped air through parched lips, and charged. Dusty survivors broke and ran, two still trying to fire, unable to comprehend why their guns were suddenly well and truly jammed.
"Surprise," Fletcher muttered grimly, cleaning off Handel's sword on a dead man's gritty sleeve. Sand was still sifting out of fallen weapons; tan and desert-pink and like nothing he'd ever seen on this continent. Five or six got away, we've got to get moving before they call in backup-
He turned to look at his men, and thoughts of backup flew out of his head. "Holy…."
More sand dusted the ground in a wide cone, narrowing as it led back toward Peters. The rise and fall of the scientist's chest was about the only thing telling him the man was still alive, if out cold.
Lucky for him, Fletcher thought, wide-eyed. The farther bodies had coughed out sand and run, or choked on blood and died on Handel's sword. The nearer bodies were contorted and lifeless, skin and lungs shredded by knives of wind. And the nearest-
Carefully latching onto Simon's shoulder, Fletcher rolled him back and away from Devereaux's fleshless skull.
Coughing out a gobbet of blood and lead, Waller lurched over to them, breathing deep. "Now that," he said raggedly, "is a Limit Break."
You think? Fletcher almost snarked, before shaking sense back into his head and reaching for a Restore. "Hold still."
The worst of his wounds handled, Waller took Simon's Heal and went to wake the others. Fletcher yanked his broadsword out of a ribcage, stepped back to check the scientist's pulse. Just to be sure. Smiled wryly, and picked the man up to move farther away from the carnage. Don't do anything by halves, do you?
Which wasn't surprising, given who it was, but… Ifrit's hellfires, there weren't that many people out there who could do this much damage with one Limit Break. First Class SOLDIERs, sure; maybe one or two of the legendary martial arts instructors who wandered the planet, like the master of Zangan-Ryu. Not too many others.
What the hell are you, Doc?
Footsteps nearby. Trained, quiet footsteps.
"Our orders are to let you pass."
Setting Simon down, Fletcher turned to face the Turks. Description matches, and the scents… this is the pair from Kettle Village. Professional and calm as any he'd seen, but a little white around the eyes, even so. Heh. "Really."
"Michizane," the slighter one identified himself. Held out an empty hand. "I have sealed orders in my pocket. I'm going to reach for them now."
Fletcher raised an eyebrow. "Since when do SOLDIERs take orders from Turks?"
"You don't." Moving carefully, Michizane retrieved a plain white envelope from his blue jacket, and crossed half the distance between them.
Vice-President Shinra's seal, Fletcher noted, accepting the envelope. This week just keeps getting better and better. "And just where are you going?"
"Our orders were to escort Dr. Devereaux while he executed Professor Hojo's usual protocols," the stockier Turk spoke up, not turning around. "I don't think he needs an escort anymore. Do you?"
Waller growled under his breath. Fletcher held up a halting hand. "It's not worth it."
"Those were the ones who-"
"I know. But they're leaving. And if they're telling the truth, they're not after us." Fletcher eyed the bodies. "The army will be."
Waller sighed, conceding the point.
"Whoa," Handel breathed, swaying to his feet. "What the…."
Stolfi stared. "How did-?"
Rothaar looked over the bodies, then at the man Fletcher was slinging over his shoulder. "Guess we don't get to tease the Doc about griffin courting rituals anymore, huh?"
Waller chuckled. Fletcher rolled his eyes, and waved his groggy team back into a semblance of marching order. "Come on. I want to put some ground between us before I read these."
"And those are, Sir?" Stolfi nodded toward the envelope.
"Call it a hunch… but I think we've just been ordered to go AWOL."
In her dreams, Aeris danced with bullets.
"We're in each other's line of fire! We're shooting each other!"
If it had been real, she would have been violently ill; seeing bullets and blood fly, smashing spines with a kick, throwing punches that shattered helmets and the skulls inside them in one stone-crushing blow.
But it was a dream, and all she felt was the drive to survive. To live, and protect Cloud.
"So this is the strength of a SOLDIER…."
This isn't me.
And Zack burned like a flame in the night, never still, always ten moves ahead. Even if the most wrenching of those moves was to leave Cloud behind-
It'll be okay, Aeris promised. Closed her eyes, and parted herself from him.
It spun her about; darkened the dreamscape, from almost sun-bright back to the black that was all ordinary eyes could see. But she held on to the vision, willing herself to walk through the night-dark ruins of a dead city outside Midgar, toward the familiar heft of a Buster Sword embedded in the earth itself-
And behind it, a blue glow that whispered Cloud.
Formless, Aeris brushed dream-fingers through spiky hair. Hang on, she tried to murmur in his ear. Zack's got a plan, you know he does.
…That's what worries me, whispered faintly back.
Grinning, Aeris reached out to the wasteland around them, willing in shadows, concealment, being overlooked….
It took everything she had, and she still couldn't distract all of the troops. But the two who did see Cloud didn't seem to notice that none of their fellow troopers were coming to help them move the blade.
As the last shreds of strength slipped through her fingers, she heard Zack revving a bike.
"Sand, sand, and more sand," Handel sighed, tipping his head back to gaze at the Golden Saucer in the distance.
"Is that glitter-dome wearing rank, soldier?" Waller growled.
"No, Sarge." Executing a perfect salute, Handel moved out with the rest of the team.
Skulking along the other side of the port with a shaky scientist, Fletcher let out a relieved breath, watching the crowd's eyes follow what looked like a regular foursome of SOLDIERs on ordinary monster patrol. "Okay, Simon. Let's move."
"Moving. Yeah." Trudging along, Simon kept up with his easy stroll down the road, though the dark rings under his eyes shouted to the world he'd rather crawl right back into his bunk. Assuming he could make it back to the ship in the first place. "Just… tired."
"That's normal." Though pushing the edges of it, to be this tired this long. If Simon hadn't been certain the people they were going to meet had good first aid skills, Fletcher would have hauled the man into a clinic, laying low or not. "You really pulled on a lot of-"
"I don't want to think about it."
Fletcher shot him a look.
"…Sorry. It's just-" Simon swallowed. "It was bad. Really bad."
"You did what you had to do," Fletcher said firmly.
"Less thinking, more walking."
The scientist nodded, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Coastal scrub turned into dry brush and sand; Fletcher looked back, judged there were enough hills between them and prying eyes, and raised a hand to bring the team in. "Truck coming?"
"Looks like a rattletrap, but it sounds like somebody's got a good mechanic," Rothaar nodded. "Lots of supplies, but still enough room for all of us."
"If it stops," Waller said pointedly.
"It'll stop." Simon smiled tiredly. "They might stop even if they didn't know anything about you; they're always looking for a little extra help on these trips."
"What kind of help?" Stolfi wondered.
The scientist gave him an innocent look. "Well, it involves shovels, and dead bodies."
Fletcher looked at him.
Tired as he was, Simon still had to bite back a grin.
"You're going to explain that."
"Oh, don't worry," Simon nodded at the slowing pickup truck. "They will."
"Hey, guys!" A grinning, freckled brunette stuck her head out the driver's window, nose white with sunblock. "Can you dig- whoa!"
"It's all right, Melissa." An older woman's voice, alive with a wry humor that belied the white hair under the antique straw hat on the passenger's side. "These are the young gentlemen I mentioned, who'd like to visit our sites."
"Okay," Melissa said numbly. "Um… hi?"
The older woman chuckled, getting out. "Lieutenant Fletcher?" She held out a work-worn hand. "Dr. Ellie Culbreth."
The tough old bird herself. Fletcher shook it, wondering why the set of her features seemed oddly familiar, in a way that made him just a little bit nervous. "Nice to meet you, ma'am." Wait a minute… nah. Couldn't be.
Dr. Culbreth nodded, and stepped over to ruffle a shy behaviorist's hair. "You," she said bluntly, "need the air conditioning far more than I do."
Simon looked down, shook his head. "You don't know-"
"Tch. I don't know?" Both her hands cupped his face now, and her eyes were sad. "It'll get easier. In time." She gripped his arm, and gently but firmly shoved him toward the truck. "In you go."
"You have a full medkit where we're going, ma'am?" Waller asked as they arranged themselves in the back with bottles of water, burlap-wrapped groceries, and bags of what Fletcher realized were plaster powder, of all things. "He's been a little out of it."
"Give him another day for his energies to balance out. He'll snap out of it," Dr. Culbreth said confidently. "He's tougher than he looks. Runs in the family."
Fletcher blinked as the truck started off again, realizing his odd thought - might not be, after all. "You're-"
"Simon's father is my idiot nephew, yes." Dr. Culbreth dimpled at him, warm as his own grandmother. "We don't talk about it much at work; the university frowns on nepotism, as it should. But base camp is fairly informal, and you'd hear about it eventually."
"Idiot nephew?" Stolfi raised his eyebrows.
"Long story," she waved it off. "In short, I'd sum it up as… hmm. Do you SOLDIERs use the phrase involving posteriors, maps, and compasses, or is that still only the regular army?"
Fletcher choked on a laugh. Haven't heard that one in a while. Which, together with the hat and how she'd said SOLDIERs, led to an even odder thought. "No offense, ma'am, but just how old are you?"
"None taken. Though I'd have to check my records to be certain. Well past eighty, at least."
He'd have pegged her as sixty. Fletcher took a closer look at warm eyes.
Brown, shot with amber.
"You don't look surprised." She raised white brows. "Did Simon lose that to the mako, too?"
"Take it your family doesn't worry too much about birthdays," Fletcher observed.
"Not until we keel over, no. Which tends to take a good long while. I've heard that's predicted for your treatments, as well?"
So they'd heard. Though given SOLDIER was still barely thirty years old, no one knew for certain how long that might be.
"So… do you have a Limit, too?" Handel asked warily.
Dr. Culbreth smiled wryly. "I have been known to wreak unholy havoc on stray monsters, once or twice. It certainly impresses the students into studying." She glanced at the cab in front of them, and made sure the small window in the back was closed. "How bad was it?"
"Hope you're not going to miss Devereaux," Rothaar shrugged.
Her smile gained a definite edge. "Thank you for the warning. Now I can look appropriately upset when Simon mentions it, instead of dancing on the bastard's grave."
Okay…. "What'd he do to you?" Fletcher wondered.
"Not me. My students." Dr. Culbreth shook her head. "His biochemistry might have been top-notch, but his survival skills were nonexistent. Which wouldn't have mattered so much if he'd only listened." She sighed. "Devereaux managed to get not only himself, but three of my advisees lost, with a sirocco rising. If Simon hadn't used some problematic means to locate them, all we'd have found later would have been polished bones."
Explained why his Limit had taken that form, at least. Nothing like life-and-death messes to shape your inner magic.
"Problematic?" Handel spoke up. "You mean his em-"
Glaring, Fletcher mimed zipped lips.
"He must trust you a great deal," Dr. Culbreth said neutrally. "You do understand that talent is not a matter for casual conversation."
"Why not?" Rothaar gave her a challenging look. "Can't you just pass it off as a bit of weird magic?"
"In my grandparents' time, I'm told that worked," she admitted. "These days, with materia science as advanced as it is… it's too likely someone will ask questions that can't be answered."
Waller gave her a cool look. "You're saying this is hereditary?"
"Not always. Witness my idiot nephew." Dr. Culbreth looked Fletcher over again. "I have to admit, I'm dying to pester you with questions as long as you're with us. After Dale died, I didn't think Simon would ever trust anyone again. Certainly not enough to let them be an anchor."
"A what?" Fletcher said warily.
Dr. Culbreth let out a slow breath, picking her words like berries out of brambles. "We're… vulnerable, if we reach too far. Things can be very - noisy. Painfully so. But if there's a steady presence, someone we're familiar with… they can serve as a buffer. A rock in the storm. An anchor."
Simon's using me as a noise shield. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, it wasn't as if Simon was actively hurting anybody. On the other - okay, what the hell, it was weird. But not any weirder than having someone with a nasty Limit under his command, right? And he'd done that before. "Two-edged sword, huh?"
"Very." Leaning back, she opened the cab window. "We'll have to move up our next trip into town for supplies, Melissa. But I suspect if your team asks nicely, these gentlemen might be willing to lend a hand with some of the extra shovels."
"I'm not exactly into grave-digging," Stolfi muttered.
Dr. Culbreth tried, very hard, not to laugh. "Simon? What have you been telling them?"
"They're not burying anyone," Dr. Culbreth managed, a few snickers escaping. "Or anything. Digging things up, on the other hand…."
"We bone women! Rawr!" Melissa chortled. "You should see the outcrop we've got going! Oh, so juicy… yesterday, we found an entire archaeodrake skull, stirrup and all!"
"Stirrup?" Rothaar echoed, just as confused as the rest of them. What did chocobos have to do with skulls?
Simon chuckled. "She means one of the inner ear bones. Paleontology team, right?"
"And geology. Rock on!"
"Bodies and shovels, Doc?" Waller said pointedly.
"Better stick to Peters or Simon, Sergeant, or you'll have half the camp turning around when you yell," Simon said matter-of-factly. "And they are bodies. Just a couple of million years old, that's all."
Fletcher wasn't the only one groaning.
"The ecology team ranges out a lot farther, but we usually share base camps," Simon went on. "Makes it easier for both groups to know where to head for a medic, in case somebody gets in trouble a Restore can't fix."
"Anguillian bites?" Fletcher asked.
"I doubt you'll be with us long enough into the season to risk those," Dr. Culbreth said briskly.
"The situation's a little complicated," Fletcher said judiciously.
Culbreth's gaze went distant, amber-bright. "In a few months, it won't be."
"Oh?" She regarded him blandly. "Did I say something?"
"She does that," Simon and Melissa chorused.
"Get old enough, I guess you've seen enough to be right about things most of the time," Simon added.
"Old, is it?" Dr. Culbreth snorted. "We've got a long walk tomorrow, young man."
"Sorry, Great-Ell, not going to scare me with that one," Simon said cheerfully. "These guys have been walking me into the ground for weeks."
Wedging himself in a little more comfortably between a water-can and a bundle of plaster, Fletcher listened to the ongoing banter. So this is what Simon sounds like happy. Not all that different from when the man was picking apart an interesting sample. Though there was a little less jargon. Possibly due to Great-Ell's influence; the woman didn't avoid scientific terms, but she never used halophillic where salt-loving would do.
"You think that was…?" Walker muttered, too low for ordinary, or even civilian-with-mako, ears to hear.
"Some kind of weird not-a-Limit talent? Yeah," Fletcher murmured back.
"I'd love to think we're not going to have to stay low forever, Lieutenant. But for this kind of mess to get straightened out in just a few months-"
"He's going to Midgar."
Waller was quiet. "You know, anybody else, I'd say it was impossible," he said at last. "The kind of security around the guy we're talking about… think it'd be easier to take out Shinra himself. You couldn't do it. I know I couldn't do it."
"But Zack Fair?"
"If he gets to Midgar? Anything's possible."
"First he's got to make it there," Handel pointed out. "You know those guys of Devereaux's called reinforcements."
Turks. Troopers. SOLDIERs. Yeah, Fletcher could see it.
Stay smart, Fair. Stay lucky.
And if you can't… get that kid of yours somewhere safe.
His own voice still ringing in his ears, Zack guided them both up the dusty hill, ignoring the burn of a bullet-graze across his ribs. The first drops of rain were cooling them both anyway, it wasn't that big a deal….
It should have been a lung shot. Would have been a lung shot, if Cloud hadn't-
If he weren't so focused on running, Zack would either be high-fiving Cloud or giving the kid the worst chewing-out of his life. He'd known Cloud's wings were tough, but not that tough. He'd jumped to cover Cloud, felt warm wings snap tight around him, covering what the Buster Sword didn't-
And a round that should have punched large, bloody chunks out of both of them had gone through skin like an armor vest instead. Gods only knew how it'd missed bone.
Damn it, kid, I was trying to protect you….
But Cloud wasn't a kid. Hadn't been for years. He was a trooper, and if he chose to take a shot for his partner - damn it, that was his right.
So long as he didn't get himself killed, anyway.
And he chose to take it, Zack realized, scanning the terrain for any kind of cover. None. Damn. Tough a time as he's had even twitching, he had to start moving before I yelled. Which means-
Oh, Shiva on a popsicle stick.
Cloud had seen it coming. Had felt it coming.
He'd known that some of the things Hojo had used on Cloud were the same as what usually got shot into SOLDIERs. And there'd been enough mako over the past years for a whole company of Shinra's finest.
All that, and it'd never occurred to him-
Midgar was spread out in front of them, a mass of steel and glass and reactor haze. All that stood in their way was a few more miles of wasteland leading into the slums… and a several hundred foot drop.
Damn. Cloud, I'm sorry.
But they weren't dead yet. Zack sucked in a breath, and bent to slip Cloud off his shoulder. If he could just take out the troops he could hear coming up the bluff….
Halfway down, Cloud's fingers closed on his arm.
"Don't do this," Zack muttered. "I've got to go, Cloud. We can't let them get up here." Sure, he had a bad feeling about it, but who wouldn't with that sniper-
If he'd had time, he would have kicked himself. The sniper. Angle the man had been shooting at, he was probably in position to cover the troops heading up here.
Idiot! And here I'd thought high noon just made Cloud groggy.
Evidently not. Even with adrenaline running half-and-half with blood in his veins, part of him desperately wanted to just sleep.
"Can't go back that way," Zack said, half to himself. "Can't stay here - if that sniper's got half a brain, he's moving to get this bluff in range. Can't go down; claws don't cut it as mountain gear." Or, well, they would, if one of them wasn't way too out of it to use them. After sunset, he'd have scrambled right over the edge; the kid could handle mountains at night, one cliff wouldn't stop him. But sun-high meant Cloud was fighting just to stay upright. "They'd pick us right off the cliff anyway. Damn it, what we really need is a parachute-"
Words died in his throat. No way. Wouldn't work. Couldn't work. It was crazy - and he was the undisputed master of crazy ideas, from spray-painting the President's statue pink all the way up to taking on Sephiroth single-handed.
And… Cloud had helped him pull those off, too.
Crazy or not, they were running out of time.
Eyes intent on dazed blue, Zack gripped trembling fingers. "Cloud. We can do this. You've just got to listen to me…."
I'm trying, Zack. I'm just so tired…. Rain was pattering down on them both, now, but he could feel how high the sun was. His muscles were stiff. His bones were lead. Even the throbbing pain somewhere above his back was distant and far away. All he wanted to do was curl up and sleep.
They're coming. They're coming, and they want to kill us. Or worse, not kill us.
The thought of winding up back in Hojo's hands was the only thing keeping him conscious. Even Zack's voice was a faded blur. But the wind was clear. He could almost reach out and touch….
Pain twinged - but it was worth it, he could feel the wind like silken veils, spangled with drops as cool as Zack's hands were warm. And… Zack was laughing.
Snickering, really, like he'd just pranked the barracks in a way nobody would be able to pin on him. And wrapping strong arms around him. "Ready, Cloud?"
Yeah, sure - wait a minute. Zack! Jumping off hills is one thing. This is a cliff-!
But they were already running, and storm-clouds called like ghostly lovers.
"One more time," Hojo said dispassionately, raising a scalpel that no longer glittered. Only glistened, where air had not yet dried red to flaking brown. "Where are my specimens?"
No longer sane, his subject's eyes rolled wildly. "They flew away!"
"You won't get anything else out of him," Tseng stated from the lab doorway, avoiding Hojo's startled look. It was best not to meet the professor's gaze when he was in one of these moods. He became… less than predictable. "There were traces of an aberrant materia used at the site. Some variant on Confuse, apparently. None of the eyewitness testimony will be reliable." All of which was true. Even if he'd had to arrange it himself. "The sniper hit Fair in the lung. Significant blood trail leads up to and off the cliff. And my men report encountering some rather well-fed Zoloms."
Hojo snorted, but lowered the blade. "Before turning tail and running, I'm sure."
"A Midgar Zolom can reduce a million-gil helicopter to a hundred-gil pile of wreckage in under two minutes," Tseng observed, ignoring the whimpers from the experimental chair. "That would be a waste of company resources. To say nothing of the time and expense needed to replace three highly trained Turks." He let one dark brow arch slightly. "As it is, even your department's budget will be… strained, by the losses incurred."
He did hope Fletcher would be as intelligent as his record promised, and keep his men lying low for as long as possible. Rufus could use intelligent SOLDIERs.
"Stop throwing the company's money away, is it?" Hojo's eyes narrowed behind glass. "Profit. That's all you people think about. One of these days…."
One day, Tseng acknowledged, walking away from blood and sadism. But not today.
Soon, though. He didn't need a SOLDIER's hunches to feel that. Fletcher, Fair, Strife, Miss Gainsborough - sooner or later bad luck or sheer coincidence would bring them back to Shinra's attention. And his odds of escaping that untouched would be low.
Still, low promised to be infinitely better than his chances against the burning insanity Tseng saw flickering in Hojo's eyes. Just embers, for now, but with the right fuel to the blaze….
"Yo." Reno stopped pretending to be part of the corridor wall, fell in behind his boss as they walked toward open air and a waiting helicopter.
"Don't ever come to these labs alone again."
"Boss?" the lanky redhead said warily. Somebody I should kill now, or what? that tone asked.
With an effort, Tseng thawed some of the chill from his voice. "He's unraveling." No need to say who he was.
"He ain't exactly been raveled for years."
"This is worse." As if the Nibelheim escape had knocked loose some key hidden support, and now the scientist was slipping inexorably over the edge. "No one is to be left alone with the man. SOLDIER or Turk. Get creative if you have to."
Reno grinned at that.
And just as suddenly sobered. There were words people usually didn't want to use when addressing Reno. Creative was one of them. You serious, Boss? his quick glance asked.
Getting into the helicopter, Tseng inclined his head.
"Well. Don't that beat all." Reno's smile was warm and fey as a forest fire. "Got to get you something nice for Yuletide, Boss."
"Yourself, alive, preferably without a bow on top," Tseng said dryly.
Reno snickered all the way back to Midgar.
Sunset. Another day of selling flowers, spreading smiles and a little hope through the raw heart of Midgar.
Another day alone.
Sighing, Aeris pushed through the creaky doors of the abandoned church, listening to the sleepy song of her little flowers. There were the fading notes of morning glories, the soothing hum of tulips, the spritely chirp of night-blooming vines she'd planted for moths and bats-
And a flash of green that wasn't leaves at all, as a familiar heart invoked Cure.
Her basket rattled over the wooden floor behind her. She didn't care, flinging herself into strong arms, burying her head in spiky hair, drinking in the scent that was mako and Zack and a wildness of mountain wind.
"Hey." Fingers swiped at the tears running down her cheeks; familiar rough callus, with a kitten-pat of hard points. "Hey…."
"What took you so long?" Her knees wouldn't hold; Aeris sank to the floor, holding on as he followed her down. I'm not complaining, really I'm not, she wanted to say. But oh, I was so worried, and it's been so lonely….
"We kind of had to go the long way," Zack shrugged, violet gaze dropping to their entwined fingers. "And… um… there were a few complications."
Aeris looked down as well, weaving her fingers in with those lethal, gentle claws. So pretty. Like Zack's monster of a sword, and yet as safe. Always. "I don't see any complications."
He laughed, uncertain. "You sure about that? Aeris, love, I don't even know what Hojo-"
Kissing someone with fangs, Aeris discovered, was very, very interesting.
Warm sharpness against her tongue. Spicy wildness from stray black hairs tickling her nose. An odd, purring growl rising in his throat, vibrating lips and teeth and jaw.
"Oh…." Zack broke the kiss gently, leaning his forehead against hers. "Not that I want to stop, babe, but you need to meet somebody." He nudged her shoulder, nodded toward the fuzzy black-and-gold curl beside him. "Aeris, this is Cloud."
Aeris smiled at the young SOLDIER sleeping under obsidian wings. "Hello." She combed her fingers through pale gold hair. The kitten was darker. "He doesn't know what he looks like yet, does he?"
"I'm not sure he's really woken up since we broke out," Zack admitted. "There's times when he's almost there, but…."
"He hasn't stopped trying," Aeris assured him, resting her hand on Cloud's cheek. "There's just an awful lot of static in the way." She closed her eyes, focusing in and out.
There wasn't all that much left to fix. Just sparks of misplaced energies like scattered lint, pulling loose with a rub of her hands. Aeris stayed alert even so, searching for-
You! A hiss of black. Enemy/ failing guardian/ die-
Aeris pounced. You, she declared, summoning all the light and life within her, need a hug.
Well, a hug and a bit of pounding over the head. Aeris visualized her staff in her hands, and proceeded to kick some icy black ass.
Sweating, Aeris gathered cowed fragments of other up. Stroked the acid and venom out of each, smoothing rough edges into driftglass before fitting it into the solid core that was Cloud. Just one more, and one more, and one….
She leaned into Zack's arms, grinning tiredly. "He's a little threadbare in places, but it's nothing some time and love won't mend." She poked his ribs, right at the ticklish spot. "Well? What are you waiting for?"
"Cloud?" Something was prodding at his shoulder. "Hey, Spike, wake up."
"Gnrgh… go 'way, Zack…."
A strangely relieved chuckle. "Ah, don't be like that. I need backup here, partner. You've got to give her the cute look."
"I'm serious." Relief was easing out of Zack's voice, leaving only laughter behind. "You know. The wet chocobo look. Up an' at 'em. We've got to talk Aeris into cooking us breakfast. Well, dinner. Whatever time it is."
Aeris… breakfast… what? Cloud blinked, and sat up.
Or, mostly. It was a little more complicated than he'd anticipated. There was a leathery rustle, an odd swing of muscle and bone, a feel of fur and skin sliding against each other, and-
Claws. Flexing with his fingers. He could feel them.
And the green was gone.
Not a hallucination. "Um… Zack?"
Cloud tried not to laugh hysterically. "Define okay."
A dark brow quirked up, lit by a grin. "Away from mako tubes and scalpels?"
"…Good point." Oh gods, what should he say? What should he do? They were out; they were really, impossibly, out of the labs - he could smell Midgar, even through the flowers, you never forgot what it was like under the Plate - and his heart didn't know whether to soar or drop into his boots, still too stunned to really believe-
Aeris eyed both of them, shook her head, and knelt down by him. "Come here."
Oh, she's not going to- she can't want to-
Aeris didn't hug like his mom at all.
And she didn't flinch when black fur wrapped around her like a ribbed shawl; just smiled wider, and combed her fingers through his hair, the way Zack did. Like it was okay. Even - more than okay.
"Hey." Zack tapped his shoulder from the other side, grinning. "Don't I get a hug, too?"
Cloud blushed. Tried to think. To argue. Zack, I have claws. And fangs. And wings. Shouldn't there be some screaming going on here? At least, "Oh gods, get it away"?
But this was Zack. Who wouldn't ask if he didn't want a hug.
It took a few fluttering false starts, but he finally managed to lift one wing clear long enough for Zack to slide in by Aeris. Which meant he was hugging and getting hugged from both sides, and it was-
Zack's scent and the familiar feel of strong muscles against him, breathing in a rhythm he'd know in his sleep. New smells of flowers and shampoo and growing green, touched with Zack's scent; softer, breaths lighter, sliding in with the life beside it into a certainty of mine. Home. Safe.
His arms tightened, and Aeris squeaked. Cloud let her go, suddenly aware of how oddly fragile she felt. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
"It's okay." She sounded a little breathless, but not hurt. "Zack had to figure out how breakable the rest of the world was when he moved up to First Class, too."
"One shock at a time, babe." Zack flashed a smile. "Now, how about that breakfast?"
Sooner or later, Zack thought ruefully, helping Cloud finish off the last of a truly impressive cold brunch, I'm going to have to ask my girl a few interesting questions. In detail.
Among other things, just how she'd known they were coming. People left Aeris' church alone, sure, but even she didn't leave this much pantry food stashed around the place on a normal day. And that didn't get into the very extensive cache of emergency supplies she'd had in their usual spot. He'd expected the first aid kit, sure, but a Restore materia and a Heal? Elixirs? Sleep powder?
Not to mention the other supplies boxed and wrapped in corners of this small room off the main chapel; a room Aeris had obviously, a bit at a time, been getting ready for somebody to hide out in.
As in them. As in she'd known, the way Aeris just sometimes knew things….
He'd promised her a long time ago he wouldn't ask for what she didn't want to tell him. But he was going to ask. In case she did want to tell him.
After he'd dealt with the other shy violet in the room.
I knew he could do it, Zack thought proudly, watching Cloud out of the corner of his eye, registering each quick flinch from too-loud sounds, each wary jump at a new taste. Or tastes that would be new, unfamiliar to a changed body as the reflexes that kept outrunning thought, turning motions that should be sure hesitant and too quick at once.
He'd seen it all before. He'd just never hoped to see it in Cloud.
Clawed fingers closed just a hair too tight, and a jam jar shattered, raspberry splorching across Cloud's plate. The kid froze. "I'm-"
"Takes at least a week before you stop breaking things," Zack said matter-of-factly, running over the sorry he knew was coming. "Just try not to grip too hard." He raised an eyebrow to head off the blond's panic before it could edge into desperation. "And stop feeling so damn guilty, Spike; you're going to break things for a while. I know it, Aeris knows it, and it's not your fault. There's a reason we move new SOLDIERs out of the trooper barracks, you know."
Cloud went still. "I'm not-"
"Hell of a way to get in," Zack admitted. "But I'd say you made it."
"Not funny, Zack."
"I don't think any of us are laughing," Aeris said plainly, handing over a dishcloth. Grinned, and reached across the worn table to ruffle blond hair. "Besides, we're going to have to explain those pretty blue eyes of yours somehow. I don't think I fell into the Lifestream by accident is going to cut it."
Zack could practically hear the panicked thoughts racing through Cloud's head. Pretty? Me?
Which made Zack want to knock heads together in Nibelheim all over again. Granted, Cloud had been a lot smaller and scrawnier when he'd left at fourteen. But even with the wings - heck, especially with the wings - he was sunlight and snow-shadow, eyes mako-blue with just a slight crease hinting of Wutai somewhere way back in the family tree.
And outside the pretty, Cloud was grit and muscle and never-say-die, packed into a light, compact frame that would have idiots charging in and experienced opponents charging out, deciding a strategic retreat was in order. Granted Cloud didn't have a swordsman's grace now - but he'd had it before the labs, and Zack knew he'd find it again. With a little help. "She's right," Zack nodded. "With your training, nobody's going to believe anything else." Pushing back from the table to pick up a long cloth bundle from one corner of the piled stores, he held up a hand to stop any protest. "I know you don't like lying, but we're low on options. We lost those bastards, but that won't do us any good if we stick out. Two ex-SOLDIERs partnered up - that's not common, but nobody's going to ask too many questions. But one ex-SOLDIER and a guy who says he isn't…."
"Okay," Cloud said quietly.
Zack tried not to roll his eyes. He spoke pretty fluent Cloud by this time. Translation, Okay, Zack, you've got a point, but there's one big hole in your plan-
"But what happens if I have to fight?"
Grinning, Zack pulled the cloth off two practice swords.
"…I am so dead."
"Not in the church," Aeris said hard on his heels, tapping her foot as she glanced between the two of them. "Flowers are tougher than they look, but they don't need you two trampling them." She shooed them off with a wave of her hands. "Go! Go play outside."
"Yes, ma'am," Zack said humbly.
"Play?" Cloud said under his breath, eyes even wider.
Heading out into the main church, Zack winked at him.
"…I'm going to die…."
"What'cha watching, Boss?"
"Hush." Tseng turned his attention back to the monitor, where feed from a hidden spycam brought the glint and crash of Buster Swords.
Shamelessly peering over his shoulder, Reno blinked. "Hey. Isn't that-"
"No names." Tseng slid a cool glance toward the redhead. "This is entirely fictional. A bit of creative video creation, perhaps."
"…Right." Propping an elbow on the black leather back of Tseng's chair, Reno watched avidly.
It was, Tseng had to admit, quite a show. The camera couldn't catch everything; his stock of bugs a SOLDIER would not easily detect was limited, and he'd had to spread them widely, in the most likely places Fair would choose for practice grounds. But it caught enough.
"Um." Reno fidgeted. "You watching this on fast forward, Boss?"
Wings of steel whirled and smashed. Black and blond glared at each other over locked metal, before one kicked and the other hopped over it, boots and fists and blades flying-
"Was that an I-beam?"
"Was," Tseng observed dryly.
"I'm going on record as hating you now, yo. Avoid the rush."
Tseng arched an eyebrow.
"Well, of course this is just a little creative vid-cutting," Reno said wryly. "Just a coincidence it looks like a certain guy we knew from that mess back in Sector Eight 'way back, getting himself back into fighting shape. A guy who's just an absolute dork for some little flower girl, an' used to play big brother for some shy little backwoods blond shrimp. A shrimp, by the by, who you never want to corner, 'cause once he gets set on these-guys-gotta-go-down, he goes Ragnarok on people's ass." Red hair shook. "An' the guy's teaching the shrimp his moves." Still watching, Reno frowned. "Or… maybe just blowin' the dust off his, too. When'd the kid get that good?"
"Are you interested in asking the man we believe likely to be responsible?"
Reno gave him a you've got to be insane, Boss, look, and gestured at his own eyes. "This is all the mako I want to mess with, yo."
"Wise. I think-" Fair struck a blow that flung Strife up and back, and Tseng's eyes jerked back to the screen.
Strife's black cloak - was not a cloak at all.
"Holy mother of-" Reno shook his head, trying to erase the impossible image of black wings snapping out to slow Strife in mid-air. "Boss?"
"You, uh, knew about this, right?"
"'Kay. Now I really hate you."
"…Demon…." All the forgotten nightmares of his childhood were rising from shadowed graves: whispers of the Ancients' inhuman protectors, who'd gone mad and feasted on human flesh, before perishing in ice and flames.
Reno raised a scarlet brow, and waved a hand between him and the monitor. "Wutai bogeyman. Got it. But think, Boss. If that was really a demon - would she let it anywhere near civilians?"
"No," Tseng managed, forcing specters back into myth where they belonged. "She would seek out aid. Somehow." Even if it meant her capture, or death. Aeris would never risk innocent lives for her own.
"An' we know Hojo messes with DNA, big-time."
Tseng frowned. Granted, this was Turk headquarters, and if there had been any real risk they were being spied on, he'd never have been watching this. Even so….
Unrepentant, Reno mimed zipping his lips. Frowned, and peered at the monitor. "Didn't Blondie used to be a righty?"
Curiosity banishing shreds of nightmare, Tseng watched more carefully. "He did." Trust the left-handed redhead to see what he himself might not have noticed until it was too late. While Strife preferred to strike right-handed, as Fair did, the young man seemed to use either hand equally well.
"Something really screwy happened to that kid," Reno summed up.
As if the wings weren't evidence enough.
"We're going to have to work on that," Zack observed, as both of them stretched after the bout, cooling down. "If we're not in public, sure; if it's do or die, definitely. But if we've got to fight in plain view, you're going to have to keep them down. People won't buy it as a Limit Break if they notice it doesn't go away."
Cloud nodded, quiet. "So Limit Breaks… usually go away."
That didn't sound sure. Didn't sound at all sure. "You don't remember?" 'Cause Cloud had seen his Limit Breaks when missions got hairy. His and a few of Sephiroth's.
Okay. Zack tried to ignore the sinking feeling in his gut. Threadbare, Aeris had called his partner. And sure, that'd been a lot of mako, and he'd noticed a few blank spots of his own - mostly stuff in the lab, thank the merciful gods - but still…. "Guess you're missing a few pieces, huh?"
Cloud bit his lip, but lifted blue eyes to Zack's anyway. "I think it's more than a few."
Don't know if he needs to sit down for this, but I sure do. Zack perched on one of the longer sections of decapitated I-beam and waited for Cloud to sit next to him. "What do you remember?"
Flattering, but more than a little worrisome. "Start at the end, and work backwards."
"You and Aeris waking me up?"
"Good a spot as any," Zack nodded.
Cloud looked down, frowning. "I remember pieces of getting here. But they're kind of jumbled. There was… the forest near Nibelheim. A lot of snow. And everything was green. I was trying to stay with you, but it kept sucking me under…."
Piece by piece, Cloud retraced patches of their journey. Zack listened, determined to stay calm, even while he imagined drop-kicking Hojo into low planetary orbit. He'd known Cloud had been out of it, but - gods. Cloud had been out of it, sealed off from the world by mako-green glass; and hallucinating on top of that. Talking to Aeris, outside his own body? When she'd been halfway across the continent in Midgar?
Then again… he wasn't quite ready to write that off as a hallucination. Not when he'd sworn he'd felt her touch in his dreams. Especially not after Aeris had taken him aside and warned him that Cloud needed to move, spar, handle physical things as much as possible.
"The mako tried to pull him out of his body into the Lifestream," Aeris had told him. "He fought to stay, but… some of the links that hold his spirit in are gone, Zack. He's not going to be able to build them back up in a hurry. It's going to take months. Maybe even years.
"Keep him out of mako. I mean it. I don't think it'd kill him, he's as tough as you are - but if he gets pulled out too far, too long, he might not be able to come back…."
"So… what happened before we got out?" Zack asked now, carefully.
"You mean," Cloud had to stop, and take a shaky breath, "before the green… drowned everything?" He swallowed. "It's patchy. I remember… pain. A lot of screaming." Blue glanced up. "Who's Hojo, Zack? I know he hurt you. That I'm afraid of him." A shiver of wings. "But part of me really, really wants to rip his head off and wrap it up in a bow."
Well. And was he a bad person for thinking that sounded like the best Yuletide present ever? "Hojo's the bastard who experimented on us. And he's usually got enough Turks around to make head-ripping a little tricky. We're going to have to plan that real carefully." Zack forced a smile. "And I think we'd better start with Shinra background, so you know what we're up against." Time to turn the conversation a little less dangerous. "Do you remember before the labs?"
Gloved fists clenched. "Nibelheim burned. We were there. We tried to stop it, to stop-" Cloud gulped. "Sephiroth."
"We did stop him."
"He killed my mom," Cloud whispered.
"I was - I was useless. Just crying…."
"She died in your arms," Zack said bluntly. "Hells, yes, you were crying. But you pulled it together, you put her down, and you followed me."
Zack touched that pale cheek, let Cloud lean into his hand. "You don't remember?"
A shudder of wing-cloaked shoulders. "It's… all pieces. Like too many sets of eyes, all screaming…."
Zack blinked, and tried not to swear. Mako. We were in mako. In Nibelheim. In Lifestream from every damn one of the people Sephiroth killed.
And Cloud would have been the only thing the ghosts could have recognized. Gods. No wonder he'd been shredded. It was a miracle the kid wasn't insane. Not that many people went around accusing SOLDIERs of sanity in the first place. "Okay. And before that?"
"I was in the army. We had missions together… I think you dragged me into some really weird pranks…."
Zack chuckled, ruffling blond hair. "Well, I'd say it looks like the important things stuck."
"I'm kind of worried that you think sneaking past security to wire President Shinra's shower for sound is important, Zack."
"Never know when you might have to do it twice," Zack winked. Sobered slightly. "I'm not holding back, you know. Maybe I'm not at the top of my game yet, we're both going to need a few more weeks for that - but I'm not holding back."
Materia-blue stared at him. "You mean, it could actually work?"
"Just two ex-SOLDIERs turned mercenary, that's us," Zack grinned. Treated his partner to an arched eyebrow. "Notice you're not freaking out about trying to walk around in public without civilians running for the hills."
"I thought I'd save that for when you told me the plan."
Zack tried to look innocent. "What plan?"
"You always have a plan, Zack." Cloud shook his head. "And I'm always afraid to find out what it is. Because it's always worse than I think."
"Don't even try the eyes, Zack."
He gave Cloud his best chocobo-chick cute eyes anyway. "But it's not even my plan."
"And you're not getting me into another- it's not?"
Here, fishie, fishie…. "Absolutely. I asked Aeris."
"Aeris?" Cloud brightened.
Zack nodded piously. "She said she had a great idea."
"Yep!" Hook, line, and sinker. Patting Cloud on the shoulder, Zack rose. "Why don't we go see what she came up with?"
Heading out, Zack hid a grin. Aeris with a plan. Cloud would never know what hit him.
There were worse things in life, Cloud decided, than being able to hug someone all over.
Not that he planned to be hugging people any time soon, he thought, tilting his head to catch a little more of the light streaming through stained glass. He'd never really been good with people, even with two years in the army and Zack's warm friendship to teach him that there were actually people on the planet he could meet without fists ready to fight and feet ready to run. People who had no interest in blaming him for everything that went wrong in their lives.
People probably wouldn't be blaming him for their problems now, either. Running and screaming, maybe….
Well. That wasn't quite fair. Zack and Aeris weren't screaming.
Then again, Zack wouldn't scream if he were surrounded by dragons. And Aeris would be right behind him, cheering. When she wasn't bashing dragons on the nose.
Cloud grinned despite himself, spreading out to catch more light. He was almost - almost - getting used to the odd shadows he cast like this; translucent gray, with hints of opal-flash, like light shining through a thousand tiny sparkles of materia.
Which was exactly what they were, Aeris had earnestly and all too cheerfully explained. Tiny bits of forgotten lives, drawn to him while he'd been trapped in mako. Knowledge and useful habits and pure, uncomplicated instincts for how to be what he was; something vanished from Gaea so long, not even its name had been left behind.
"You're Cloud, silly," Aeris said when he asked, usually with a playful ruffle of spiky blond hair. "You're family."
"I'd go with guardian demon, myself," was Zack's grinning contribution. "It's always the quiet ones."
Which led to him blushing, and… other things Cloud wasn't sure he wanted to think about too hard. Aeris was Zack's girlfriend. And Zack was Aeris' boyfriend. None of which seemed to weigh anything at all against the instinct that said these were his people, his… he didn't even know what to call it. Just that it was warmth and belonging and the diamond-bright knowledge that anything that wanted Aeris or Zack would have to go through him first.
Literally. Cloud shivered, glancing at a stretch of furred black membrane. There wasn't even a trace of white to mark a scar, now. Not that he'd complain if there were. Not that he'd complain about anything, when that desperate move had worked, and Zack was still breathing….
Quiet footsteps, and a swish of dress. "Are you awake up there?"
Cloud nodded, getting to his feet to look for the best holds for a climb. "Just give me a few minutes, I'll be down-"
Aeris tilted her head up. "It's not too far to jump. Even I know that."
Not too far for a SOLDIER, sure. Being able to do it himself… that was still a little startling. "I don't want to land on your flowers."
She smiled, bright and warm as sunlight. "So don't."
Um. Well. It was possible, yeah, but-
"Honestly! Sometimes Zack doesn't think at all, and you think too much." Aeris' smile softened. "It's safe here. No one will see. And don't you think you should practice a little now, instead of in the middle of a fight when you need it? Just try."
As if anyone could say no to Aeris. Don't think too much, Cloud reminded himself. Just try to reach out, feel the wind….
Weightlessness, a rush of air, a panicked moment of realizing his feet needed to do something just slightly off from a parachutist hitting the ground-
"But you missed the flowers," Aeris pointed out with a chuckle, bending down to wink at him.
"Guess I did." Settling his wings back down, Cloud brushed off dusty knees; caught a familiar scent, and rolled his eyes. "You can come out now."
"Hey, is it my fault I know you're shy?" Zack stalked out of the shadows, grinning. "Not bad."
"It's just weird."
"A little odd," Zack allowed. "Weird would be a perfectly good mercenary not being able to find work. Which I have, by the way. Guy needs a shipment escorted across a few Sectors. Work's just for one right now, but if this works out, I think we'll both have something to do for awhile."
"Until you think you're ready to go after Hojo." Aeris bit her lip. "Zack…."
"It's not about revenge, love. It's about doing what's right. For us. For all the other poor bastards who fell into his hands." Zack hesitated. "And for Seph."
"He killed all those people, Zack," Cloud said quietly. He killed my mom. But when he reached back to those shattered memories, he couldn't find hate. Just the broken-glass agony of betrayal, and a gaping chasm of grief.
"I'm not saying forgive him." Violet eyes were uncharacteristically sad. "I was there, too. But… whatever happened, I know Hojo was behind it. Somehow. He was right there in the reactor, and… damn it, Seph was my friend. He wouldn't have… he couldn't have…."
Sharing a glance with Aeris, Cloud stepped forward with her.
"Mmm. Three-way hug." A shadow of a smile touched Zack's face. "I could get used to this."
"Hedonist," Aeris teased.
"Mm-hmm. Greedy, too. Want to keep you both all to myself."
"We'll do it, Zack." Cloud leaned his head against dark hair. "But we've got to plan it first. Like they say, to go far, go slowly."
"Oh?" Dark brows jumped up, interested. "Is that what they say in Nibelheim?"
Cloud reddened. "I guess. That and, woe to the thief who is seen."
"Point." Zack pulled back a little, and smiled at Aeris. "We'll be careful. Promise."
"I know you will," Aeris smiled back ruefully, eyes bright. "Just don't take five years to keep this one."
"We won't," Cloud promised.
"'Course not," Zack agreed cheerily. "We've already been through monsters, mad scientists, Turks, and half the whole Shinra army. What else could they possibly throw at us?"
Cloud shot an incredulous look at Aeris. She glanced back, green eyes all but glowing with resigned amusement.
As one, they pounced.
"Ack! Not the hair. Not the hair!"
Thorns and stings
And those such things
Just make stronger
Our angel wings. -by Emme Woodhull-Bäche
Notes: This fic was inspired by a bit of fanart at
Esuna - Poison antidote spell.
And yes, this is a slight Gargoyles crossover. ;)