UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2010: Now with slightly improved Japanese!

Long time reader, first time poster. I'll make this part quick. This is a parody, but it's got a fair bit of seriousness.

Notes: I use "ShinRa" to refer to the company and "Shinra" as the president's last name. Italics are thoughts, and also memories. Memories are usually set in separate paragraphs. You'll see what I mean.

Disclaimer: Everything below that is not the product of my twisted mind belongs to the gods of SquareEnix.

Rating: M for language, sexual naughtiness and Jenova-related insanity. Also occasional references to other Final Fantasys, but you don't need to know them to read the story.

With sincere apologies to Thomas Harris.

Chapter 1

The quiet, dusty bluff overlooking the ruins of Midgar had grown more barren over the last two years. Even the small shoots of hardy green and weeds had dried up and withered, as though Zack's memory were choking the life from the piece of land. Nothing could thrive here in this static place. Only the sword was living, the relic of a dead man.

Kadaj kicked it over irritably. Despite the fact that he now had on a fashionable and flattering leather ensemble, he was still pissed off about the Black Rider outfits he and his brothers had been forced to wear two years ago. And although he had the least ridiculous name of the three remaining clones, Kadaj's dearest ambition was to change it - and himself - drastically.

Cloud Strife was the key to realizing this dream, Kadaj was sure of it. Wherever Cloud went, drama was not far behind.


To be fair, Cloud never asked to be such an angst-magnet. He had been cheerful enough as a child, daydreaming about becoming a hero like Sephiroth. But ever since a less-than-perfect psychological evaluation had barred him from entering the SOLDIER program (something about being prone to multiple personality disorder, they had really called that one), everything had gone wrong. ShinRa turned out to be an intensely corrupt corporation that was almost Republican in its mistreatment of the planet, Hojo had been using SOLDIER for his own twisted and inhumane experiments, and Zack - who Cloud had threatened to kill many times - died a heroic death that he was still boasting about from beyond the grave. But most of the problems came from Sephiroth himself.

As a friend of Zack's, Cloud had gotten to know Sephiroth pretty well during his days at ShinRa, and his worshipped image of an all-knowing hero had quickly evaporated. Sephiroth was cold, inhuman and the ultimate warrior, yes, but he was also insane, fond of sexual harassment, and almost bi-polar in his mood swings. Two years ago, after Cloud defeated several versions of Sephiroth and Omnislashed the last, the one-winged angel had calmly dropped his Freudian sword and said, "All right, we'll call it a draw." With one last nostalgic grab at Cloud's ass, Sephiroth had willingly given himself up to the ShinRa guards who'd arrived to take him into custody. A special prison was built in what remained of ShinRa Headquarters in Midgar, and there the Nightmare remained.

The whole business made Cloud uneasy. No prison could hold Sephiroth, so what was he up to?

Every day, Cloud expected to receive word that Sephiroth escaped, but his ignored phone only stored up the usual messages - Tifa's expressions of concern, Vincent's increasingly emo ramblings about the blackness in his heart and the cold void of his eternal guilt, and Cid's cheerful anecdotes about the enormous knockers on the hooker he picked up last night. Occasionally Barret called as well, but Cloud avoided even his messages, because there's just something inherently alarming about a huge black man screaming at you in Japanese.

The last message, however, was from Tifa. For a brief moment Cloud was afraid he'd be asked to baby-sit Marlene and that new kid, whatever his name was, but after the last time, Tifa had relieved Cloud of duty and concluded that he just wasn't good with kids. Cloud didn't think that was particularly fair. After all, he hadn't even known Reno and Rude were in the bar that day; there was no way he could have predicted the kids finding the two Turks drunkenly going at it in the bathroom.

The message instructed Cloud to meet Reno in Healin. Cloud wanted to argue that he didn't remember that town existing, but to do that he would have had to return Tifa's call, so he sheathed his remarkably thick sword and got on his way...thinking, in all fairness, that he was hardly in a position to giggle about the phallic implications of Sephiroth's weaponry.


As it turned out, Healin did exist, though it appeared to consist only of a single motel. It reminded Cloud of the "double dates" Cid had dragged him on a few disastrous times, which usually culminated in the drunk pilot ignoring the hooker and trying to have sex with Cloud instead. Cloud was in a testy mood already, and the memory of nearly being forced into a schoolgirl outfit put him even closer to the edge.

Rather than cut Reno's head off, Cloud graciously locked him out of the room. Rude came in, unselfconsciously pulling up his pants, and nodded to Cloud.

"Did I interrupt something?"

"Yes, and I thank you for that." Rufus Shinra's even voice preceded him, and his body followed, hidden beneath folds of gray silk and sitting slightly hunched in a wheelchair. "Sometimes I wonder if ShinRa has ever had a straight employee."

For a moment, Cloud considered raising his hand indignantly, but considering the weird aversion he had to Tifa's boobs, it didn't seem honest.

"Look, Shinra, I'm not having a good day. I'm being haunted by a guy who used to stalk me and his ex-girlfriend, I was attacked on the way over here by leather-fetish weirdos with Oedipal complexes, and dammit I'm tired of being groped by everyone within a fifty-mile radius, so you'd better just tell me what you want from me."

Rude, who had approached Cloud and been about to grope him, regretfully backed away and returned to Rufus's side. Rufus looked like he really wanted to ask for details, but merely cleared his throat and nodded.

"Very well. This is about the leather-fetish weirdos. Kadaj and his gang."

"Kadaj? What the hell does that mean?"


"Yes, what does it mean," Cloud repeated impatiently. "My name is a reflection of my weak and changeable character, yours is descriptive of your hair color, Rude is...well, Rude, and Reno is a compulsive gambler. All of our names have meaning, so what does Kadaj mean?"

"Er...Kadaj's group is young and violent. As dangerous as they come."

"...Aerith's name is an anagram of 'I Earth'," Cloud continued, ignoring Rufus, "Sephiroth is some weird Kabbalah thing..."

"Focus, Strife! We've got a crisis here."

"Why should I care?" Cloud said coolly. "ShinRa's crises usually end with me floating in a giant test tube, or minus a best friend slash stalker."

"Ha!" Reno called from outside. "Slash! I told you Zack was hittin' that!"

Cloud kicked the door in response, which had no effect on Reno, but made Cloud feel slightly better...until Rufus spoke again.

"Sephiroth has been asking for you."

A sudden cold descended over Cloud. "He wants to see me?"

"Yes. Well, actually, first he asked us to hit you with a tranquilizer dart, remove your clothes and deposit you inside his cell, but when we explained the logistical problems of that, he suggested you simply visit him."

"It wouldn't have been so hard, Boss!" Reno called through the door. "I've got one of those darts right here."

"So that's what you needed to talk to me about?" Cloud said, scowling. "You want me to visit Sephiroth?"

"Think about it, Strife," Rufus said reasonably. "Kadaj and his gang are Sephiroth clones. He may be able to tell us what they're plotting and how to stop them. But Sephiroth won't speak to us. Only to you."

"I'm not with ShinRa anymore. I have no obligation to you."

"What about the world? Did you suffer so much to save it, only to watch it be terrorized by a handful of remnants?"

Cloud frowned. "The back-lighting is very dramatic, Rufus, but your politician speeches only work on those who haven't been repeatedly fucked by ShinRa."

"So what's one more time, then?" Reno called cheerfully. "C'mon, Strife, take one for the team! It's Sephiroth! Fuck, I'd do it!"

Rufus shook his head and groaned. "Ignore him. That's not what we're asking, Cloud, I promise. I may not have been president very long, but I know that Sephiroth is as dangerous psychologically as he is physically. Only someone who knows the way his mind works has any hope of getting the answers we need. For the sake of the planet, and all the people who could be hurt."

Cloud still looked uncertain, but he was listening, at least. "I don't know if you're aware of this, Shinra, but I failed to get into SOLDIER because I scored so low on the psych. test."

"Oh, I am aware. Rude has a copy of the results here. Rude?"

The gruff Turk unfolded a sheet of paper and read aloud: "'Strife's response to intense stress indicates a possibility of personality disintegration. Has difficulty keeping focus under pressure and appears easy to manipulate. Please don't give this kid a weapon.'"

"It was totally unfair, Zack was behind the instructor the whole time, making rude gestures and distracting me." Cloud looked suddenly suspicious. "Hey, aren't those kind of reports supposed to be confidential?"

Rude quickly tore the paper into bits and swallowed them. "What report?"

"Whatever. I'm clearly not the best person for the job."

"Oh, but you are!" Rufus insisted. "Sephiroth has consistently underestimated you in the past, and you've beaten him more than once. Most importantly, Sephiroth believes he can still manipulate you."

"But he can't?"

"Let's say no. Come on, Cloud. After all you've done, you can handle a little plot-advancing, can't you?"

"Fine. But if he attacks me with that zodiac-thing again, I'm retiring."

Muttering irritably, Cloud unlocked the door and headed back to Fenrir, confiscating Reno's tranquilizer dart as he went.


Cloud's first thought upon waking was: And Tifa says I'm not good with kids. At least I've never let Marlene get kidnapped.

His second thought was that Tifa's boobs were most definitely fake. This made them less frightening, but only by a bit.

Thought number three was more of a feeling - an unpleasant certainty that there was at least one Turk in the room, staring at his ass.

"Reno?" he guessed.

"And Rude," a gruff voice corrected.

Turning to face them, Cloud said, "For your sake, you better not have molested me in my sleep."

Reno scowled at Rude. "Damn it, I told you we forgot something!"

Rude shifted uncomfortably. "Er...weren't there...some kids living with you?"

"Yes, two. Marlene and...uh, another one."

"What other one?"

Cloud frowned and tilted his head downward, gazing at the floor with the most forlorn expression he could manage. If he could convince them he was busy having a flashback, maybe they would change the subject.

It didn't work.

"You don't know the other one's name," Rude concluded, with no change of tone or expression. "You don't care?"

"It takes me awhile to learn people's names, okay?" Cloud said.

"For the fiftieth time, it's Denzel," a female voice groaned from behind him.

"Denzel," Cloud grumbled. "Right. What does that mean?"

"It means you're busted. Wait, where are the kids?"

"Kadaj's gang took them," Reno said cheerfully. "They're at their base now. The Forgotten City."

Unwelcome memories flashed through Cloud's mind. Sephiroth's voice. Kill the Cetra girl, my puppet. A dream of Aerith, of meeting her beneath the eerie trees of the Sleeping Forest. Cloud,what's the worst that could happen? Sephiroth kills me and I spend a few years haunting you? Like that would ever happen! Thoughts of Aerith led to Zack, and his kind face hovering over Cloud with concern. Uh, Spiky, Seph didn't mean that, but you might not want to turn your back to him, just in case. Aerith again, looking peacefully at him as she prayed for Holy, which made Cloud a bit uncomfortable, as he was not religious. Sephiroth, falling from nowhere, impaling her on Masamune and smiling as he did it. See, Puppet? This is what happens to the competition. This is what will always happen, to those you love and those who love you.

Reno was waving his hand in front of Cloud's face. "I think he's really having one this time. Ah, there you are. Welcome back, Hot Stuff."

"Cloud?" Tifa said worriedly. "Aren't you going to save Marlene and Denzel?"

This is what will always happen...

"Tifa," he said quietly, painfully, "I'm not fit to help anyone. Not my family, not my friends, not even what's-his-name, the newbie. Nobody."

"That's why you stay away from us, isn't it? You think you can't protect the people you care about, so you try not to care about anyone. It's not going to work, Cloud. We're your friends."

"I'm not," Rude said bluntly.

"We're a team," Tifa continued. "Remember how scared you were when you realized Sephiroth could manipulate you? You said you thought you should quit, because you were a danger to the people around you, but you didn't. You kept going, and we won. We won because we were together."

Cloud endured all this with a neutral expression, as he usually did Tifa's inspirational friendship speeches. As she finished, however, he scowled.

"And yet you want me to go save the day alone."

Tifa shrugged. "Okay, fair enough. Let's consider some other options. They could go with you," she said, gesturing to the Turks.

Reno grinned lasciviously. Rude wiggled his fingers in anticipation.

"Or I could go instead," Tifa continued, "and you can run the bar tonight and deal with all the drunk, grabby patrons. A lot of truckers have been asking about you."

Cloud shuddered, remembering the attention he always received from Tifa's large, tipsy regulars, all of it unwanted. He had never liked bars anyway. Except...there was that time Zack had dragged him out to a tavern in Midgar, despite Cloud's protesting and his being underage. Everyone had stared then too, but it wasn't as frightening, because Zack had put his arm around Cloud as they walked in and kept it there all night. The other customers had assumed the two young men were a couple and kept their distance, fearful of the enormous sword the taller of them carried, but really it was just Zack being protective. He had always been that way, from the beginning of their friendship.

Don't worry, Spiky. No one's allowed to stalk you but me.

Cloud smiled, but the expression was as sad as a frown. Tifa looked at him pleadingly, waiting for him to come back.

"Which is it? A memory or us?"

Aerith's ethereal voice whispered from within Cloud, from all around him, also pleading. Zack, it's my turn! Stop being a Cloud-hog!

I let you die, Cloud thought mournfully, remembering the light reflecting in her green eyes, the shimmer of White Materia bouncing down the columns that served as steps, delivering Aerith's prayer to the planet. And Zack.

There was nothing you could have done. Cloud, we love you. Even if you are sort of a jinx.

Tifa, waiting for an answer. Cloud cleared his throat.

"That depends. Which memory?"

Glaring, Tifa pointed to the door.

"Yes, ma'am," Cloud grumbled, careful not to expose his back to the Turks as he edged past them.


Rufus Shinra, though young to hold a position of power, was considered by his employees to be unshakeable. Two years of holding together and rebuilding a crumbling business empire had mellowed him from the fiery and arrogant kid he had been into the calm and collected president he had become. Rufus remembered his first meeting with Cloud (who had immediately looked familiar) and his band of merry environmental activists, how they had been disgusted by the way Rufus claimed his father's vacated position before the old man's body was cold. They couldn't have known how frustrating it had been to grow up smarter than the elder Shinra, eager to prove himself, and always looked down on as a spoiled boy whose only asset was his name. Rufus had cared for his father, just not enough to mourn his death.

Rufus's first goal was to rule the world through fear - admittedly a lofty aspiration for an untried leader barely out of his teens, but it had been sincere. So what had caused the dramatic change in young President Shinra? What had made him this fair-minded, peaceful figure determined to mend the wounded world? The Turks wondered this constantly, and often quietly debated the question amongst themselves. Reno insisted it had been the explosion following Sister Ray's attack on Weapon, and though he couldn't know it, he was absolutely right.

Rufus was not much of a fighter. He never had been, he had never needed to be. The ShinRa Guard had always taken the brunt of attacks, leaving Rufus free to concentrate on other matters at hand. The explosion had been the only time, therefore, that he had come so near to death that he could hear the voices of the Lifestream, the shadows of the past, calling out to him. His mother's voice crying, Rufus, I had such hopes for you... His father, urgently yelling, Don't give Dr. Hojo any more funding!

He had kept his mother's words with him while he recovered here in Healin, and in time realized what she had meant - she had wanted Rufus to be more than a frustrated shadow of his power-hungry father. But it was not even this understanding that made Rufus a changed man. It was what he saw beyond the Lifestream, beyond the barrier that separated life and death, matter and spirit, this world and another one.

For it was another world (or worlds) he saw, or otherwise perceived, in an instantaneous eternity of flashes. Rufus saw himself as a blurry, pixelated sort of figure, with orange hair and no mouth, on glass screens of varying size and type. He saw young people dressed up to resemble Cloud and the Ancient girl gathering together and bragging about levels and Chocobo stats. He saw young people like this scribbling imagined stories about Sephiroth impregnating Cloud and Reno working as a prostitute...which Rufus suspected was the way Reno managed to pay off all his gambling debts. Most disconcerting of all, Rufus glimpsed rooms full of technology Hojo and Gast had never dreamed of, where humanoid beings called up the images of people on screens and gave them life and history. He saw these cunning gods paint the sea and the land, and move himself and everyone he knew like puppets on strings, toward a destiny that was kept from their sight.

They must be gods, and the strange, mechanical world must be their realm, where the lives of men are created and sent forth for some purpose. Here, many worlds seem to touch at a single point, and the past and future were being manufactured on the many smooth glass screens. Rufus saw on one of them the devastation that would be caused by the destruction of Meteor, and when he came to, lying on a bed being dosed with potions, he promised himself that if the horror he witnessed did come to pass, he would do everything he could to make it right again. Whenever he lost sight of this goal, he would look out to the eastern horizon and imagine the world of the gods beyond it, and steel himself with the belief that they would forgive the sins of ShinRa if Rufus did enough to repair the damage the company had caused.

One way he planned to accomplish this was, of course, keeping Sephiroth contained. At first, after Sephiroth's imprisonment, there had been a great outcry from the general public, demanding he be executed as a war criminal. It had taken time and the rather unwilling testimony of Cloud to explain how difficult, perhaps impossible, it would be to kill this particular prisoner. Both the press conference and the discussion came to a memorable end when Cloud yelled, "You want him dead? Get someone else!", Omnislashed Rufus's podium and stormed out. Reno, with his particular talent for summing up, had remarked, "It's always the pretty ones who are batshit crazy, huh, Boss?" Looking at Cloud and Sephiroth, it was hard to argue that.

With Hojo missing and presumed dead (thank Gaia), the ShinRa Science Department was all but defunct, but still, Rufus was determined to get some use out of Sephiroth, some justification for his incarceration. He had sent Dr. Kimura, ShinRa's resident psychiatrist, to try to probe Sephiroth's mind and get some insight into his behavior, but the doctor had emerged after only an hour, looking disturbed and grumbling that he could get nothing of use out of the caged Nightmare.

"Nothing, Doctor?" Rufus had asked, disappointed.

"Nothing fit for young ears to hear, certainly," Kimura had clarified, patting Rufus's head. He had known the president as a small child, and would not explain any further.

Rufus had gone himself, naturally, and Sephiroth had been strangely courteous to him. But beyond "Good day" and "How are you?", Sephiroth would say nothing but vague threats and requests for Cloud. When asked about the clones, Sephiroth would only laugh, which was creepy in itself. Before Rufus had left, he was offered one of Sephiroth's drawings, which he politely accepted. It was of Cloud making a rather imaginative use of Masamune, and Rufus planned to keep it for the next time he needed to bribe Reno.

Truthfully, Rufus had not liked asking Cloud to visit Sephiroth - it was risky to Cloud's mental health, and it wouldn't be a good thing to have Cloud out of commission when there was fighting that needed to be done. As much as Cloud hated ShinRa, it and he had lately found themselves on the same side. But it was imperative they learn what the clones were plotting, and Sephiroth would talk to no one else. The uncertainty of it all weighed heavily on the young president's mind.

Not quite so heavily, though, as his memory of the gods. They were not Gaia, not Jenova, not the Cetra, nothing like the Summon Monsters; but ever since that near-fatal glimpse, Rufus would swear he could sense their hands moving the people of this world like pieces on a chessboard. Were they kind? Were they just? Did they care for their people, or only for the story they were endeavoring to tell?

Rufus maneuvered his chair to the window that faced the east, and bowed in the direction of SquareEnix.


In the two years since Aerith's death, not a day had gone by that Cloud had not remembered her with fondness and guilt. He often thought of the sense of peace she seemed to bring with her everywhere she went, her unfailing hope, the way she used to look at Cloud as if she could see inside of him and saw only goodness. It was easy, now, to see why Zack had liked her. Aerith seemed able to bring out the innocence in people and smooth away the faults. Even a battle-hardened fighter like Zack could forget war and pain in her presence.

Cait Sith had said once that Cloud and Aerith were perfectly compatible, destined for a blissful relationship. Had she only lived, Cloud thought it might have perhaps turned out that way. Maybe he could have given Aerith what he could not make himself feel for Tifa. She had seemed to have feelings for him, and Cloud had begun to like her...and Sephiroth, as he smiled at Cloud over Aerith's dying body, had realized this. Sephiroth could not have known that killing Aerith only strengthened the hold she had on Cloud. Alive she had been a potential girlfriend; dead, she had become a saint, a symbol all at once of Cloud's failings, responsibilities and the pure part of himself he had thought lost forever.

"Love" was a word Cloud did not use - the power of it frightened him. It was not a word he could toss off as often as "Hello" and "Goodbye", as Yuffie did, and not one he could say easily and sincerely, as Zack had. Cloud could only hope that his friends knew he did love them, and that he avoided them only for fear of hurting anyone else. And he loved Aerith too, though not the way Cait Sith had prophecied. Her appearances kept him going on days when nothing else could...though she didn't always have the best timing.


Her voice broke the silence of the Sleeping Forest so suddenly that Cloud nearly crashed Fenrir into a tree. Fortunately, his enhanced reflexes allowed him to pull the bike over in a safer spot before the white flash came, and he found himself in a field of flowers that seemed to be made of light. He could feel Aerith standing behind him, and she laughed nervously.

Sorry about that.

"It's okay..."

It's a good sign that you came when I called. Even though you're about to break, aren't you? So...why did you come?

"I think...I want to be - "

Groped! a mischievous voice rang out, and a hand that was definitely not female clamped securely onto Cloud's behind, squeezing one of the cheeks.

Cloud broke free and turned around, and his eyes teared up instantly to see Zack grinning at him. Aerith was a few feet away, having been pushed aside, and looking ruffled. Zack looked closely at Cloud's eyes and made a clucking noise, stepping forward to gather the boy into his arms.

None of that, Spiky. Your eyes are even prettier when you cry and it's far too tempting.

Cloud wanted to pull away and run, it hurt too much to know that this was an illusion, that Zack was gone...but he couldn't bear to refuse this. He hid his face against Zack's shirt and wept quietly.

I really am here, kiddo. Just in a different form. I won't give up this life and rejoin the Lifestream until Seph is stopped and I know you'll be okay.

"I'm sorry, Zack, I'm so sorry," Cloud whispered.

I'm not. I got to save you and die like a hero. I hated having to leave you and Aerith, but that's the only thing I regret. You're gonna live for both of us, remember?

Hellooo? Aerith put her hands on her hips and pouted. Does anyone care that I'm here?

Just give me a minute with him, okay? Zack drew back a little and took Cloud's face into his hands, resting his forehead against Cloud's. You really dodged a bullet, Spiky. It could be you stuck listening to her whining instead of me.


Cloud laughed through his tears, and Zack smiled. You've got to go back, Spiky. People are counting on you.

"I hate that. You should have lived...you were good at taking care of people," Cloud murmured, grabbing hold of Zack for a last hug before the vision could end.

You're good at that, too...just look how strong you've become. I knew you would.


Zack squeezed him as the flower field and white sky began to fade. His hand slid below Cloud's back and brushed up and down over the seat of his pants, but the touch was oddly comforting. In an instant, the Sleeping Forest had returned, and Cloud was seated on Fenrir, struggling not to cry at the sudden emptiness he felt. A look of stern determination crossed his face at last, and he began to speed through the trees once more.

Zack's right, they're counting on me. I have to save Marlene...and the other one.


As far as Marlene was concerned, Cloud couldn't arrive too soon. She knew he would come, because Daddy said Cloud was the best fighter he knew and that he knew he could trust Cloud with his daughter, no matter what Tifa said. Cloud was also Marlene's favorite honorary uncle, even though he wasn't around often and didn't talk much. Uncle Vincent's stories were always full of monsters and sad people, and Uncle Cid didn't pay much attention to Marlene at all, except to say, "Talk to me again when you get some hooters, kid." Uncle Cloud had hit him for that. Marlene thought she might like Cait Sith more than Cloud, but Cait Sith was a kitty and kitties couldn't be uncles - at least Marlene didn't think so.

The men with silver hair said Cloud was their brother, but Marlene wouldn't believe them, because that would make them also her uncles and she didn't like them at all. Besides, they were mean, and they were probably only saying that about Cloud to be meaner...even if their eyes were bright and sparkly like Uncle Cloud's. Also, when Denzel came to live with them and Marlene was happy to finally have a brother, she had asked Cloud if he had brothers or sisters, and he had said no.

"Cloud is my uncle, not your brother," Marlene said angrily to Loz and Yazoo. "You can't have him."

"Oh, but we will," Yazoo said, smiling in a way Marlene didn't like. "Well, Sephiroth will."

He and Loz laughed. Marlene was worried now. She had heard Daddy and his friends mention someone named Sephiroth a few times, and they made it sound like he was very bad. But -

"Sephiroth is in jail," she said triumphantly. "My daddy said so."

"As if bars could contain Great Sephiroth," Yazoo sighed, shaking his head. "He will come to us when we prove ourselves worthy. Loz, I don't think what Kadaj is doing is the way."

"Do you have a better idea?" Loz asked with a deep, unintelligent voice.

"No, but - "

"I want to go home!" Marlene interrupted, stomping her little feet. "I don't like you and I don't like Kadaj!"

"Little girl, think of it this way," Yazoo said, rolling his eyes. "It could be worse. You could be related to him."

"We just want to be with Mother and Sephiroth," Loz said. "This was all Kadaj's idea."

"And we don't have the heart - "

"Or balls."

" - or balls to tell him it's unlikely to work," Yazoo finished. "But you know Kadaj, Loz, if he's going to do anything - "

"He's got to have an audience."

Kadaj emerged just then, dramatically, from the nearest building, a sort of squat white hut, wearing his 58th change of clothes. This time it was a slinky silver evening gown, high heels of the same color and a tiara adorned with jeweled flowers.

"Well, what do you think?" he cried in a giggly voice.

The other children, Denzel included, had long ago lost interest in the bizarre fashion show, and were now cheerfully playing in the nearby pool of strangely shimmering water. Kadaj turned from them in a huff and came to stand near his brothers.


"It is the best so far," Yazoo admitted.

"I liked the yellow sundress," said Loz.

"What do you think, girl?"

"You're a boy. Boys aren't supposed to wear dresses."

Truthfully, Marlene thought it looked quite pretty, but she didn't want to say anything nice to the mean man. She had asked Daddy once if boys could be pretty. Daddy had looked over at Uncle Cloud and quietly said, "Yeah, they can be, but they usually ain't happy about it." Marlene understood. She had heard a lot of people call Uncle Cloud pretty, and he never seemed to like hearing it.

Upon hearing Marlene's blunt response, Kadaj's chin quivered, and he quickly turned away and began rapidly fanning himself with both hands, saying, "Find your happy place, Kadaj, find your happy place..."

Once he had collected himself, he turned to face them again and crossed his arms defiantly. "Maybe if I hurt one of the other children, you'll be more polite, hmm?"

"Okay, okay!" Marlene wailed. "It looks pretty. Can we go home now?"

"Ha, I knew it!"

"Kadaj, why do we need the children here?" Yazoo asked. "They're not Mother's."

"Because children are more honest. Thanks to the girl, I've decided. This style of gown it is...don't you think it's flattering to my figure?"

"I think we should ask Great Sephiroth before you go any further with this plan," Yazoo said earnestly. "We don't know if he approves."

"If he doesn't, he can come and tell me so," Kadaj sniffed. "He should have come to us long ago...but when I reach my goal, he won't be able to ignore me any longer!"

"So can I go home now?" Marlene asked again.

"I still have one more outfit to show you," Kadaj sang, skipping back to the hut he had adopted as a dressing room.

"Why is he doing this?" Marlene asked the remaining two, sadly. "What is he trying to do?"

Yazoo shuddered. "Believe me, little girl, you don't want to know. If my mako-enhanced body would allow it, I would cast a permanent Confusion on myself to forget about it."

Loz nodded. "I tried banging my head against the wall."

"But all that did was make him dimmer than before, and we didn't think that was possible."

Marlene didn't quite know what to say, so she repeated what she had learned from the adults in her life. "Mako is bad. Extracting it hurt the planet."

"It isn't good for people either," Yazoo said quietly.

"Don't say that, brother. We are superior to them," Loz argued.

"Loz, look at us. We dress alike, stalk Cloud and worship Sephiroth. We're - "

"Fanboys," an annoyed voice said from behind them. Marlene and the clones turned to see Cloud dismounting Fenrir and standing in quite a heroic pose.


"It's okay, Marlene, I'm gonna take you home."

Kadaj chose that moment to stumble out of the white hut and point his sword violently in Cloud's direction. Strangely, he smiled with obvious pleasure.

"You came, brother. I'm surprised we didn't hear you."

"Perhaps because your dress is so loud."

Yazoo snickered. True, the final selection in Kadaj's fashion show was a truly hideous minidress, bright violet with turquoise and yellow flowers. Yellow high heels and a violet hair ribbon served to further undercut the young clone's menace.

Kadaj's eyes narrowed and he growled softly, but he reminded himself to find his happy place and took a deep breath.

"Your opinion is noted, brother."

"Don't call me that."

"But it is what we are. Mother's children, destined to aid her and Great Sephiroth in conquering the world. Join us, and be among your own kind at last."

"No thanks. I'm emo, not insane."

A familiar madness, one Cloud remembered seeing in Sephiroth, rose up in Kadaj's eyes. "Get him!" he shrieked.

"What, you're not going to help?" Yazoo grumbled.

"Of course not."

"Because, as the leader of our gang, you can't fight the protagonist until the climax, otherwise the dramatic tension would be thwarted?"

"No, because I can barely walk in these heels!"

"Fine, fine."

"Not man enough to fight me yourself?" Cloud taunted.

Kadaj smiled at him regretfully. "I am. That is precisely the problem."

Yazoo and Loz shoved Marlene aside and sprang at Cloud, Yazoo with a short gunblade and Loz with what looked like a wrist-mounted Super Soaker. Cloud had unsheathed the Ultima Weapon, however, and was ready for them. The battle was fast-paced and a terrific demonstration of skill, frequently ascending into the high branches of the strange white trees. Cloud was a better fighter but distracted, and Loz and Yazoo were two but trying to subdue Cloud without damaging him, so the fight was a close one, but Cloud seemed to be winning.

Marlene and the remaining clone watched with interest from the ground, Marlene breathlessly clapping her hands for Cloud.

"Um, Mr. Kadaj? What happened to gravity?"

Kadaj looked down from the airborne battle to regard her with disdain. "Ha. Gravity is for Nintendo players."

Cloud chose that moment - if one can choose these things - to fall in a near-unconscious heap onto the hard ground. He heard a familiar voice remark, "Well, there goes the product placement," and then all went black.


He woke to the sight of the white, softly luminescent tree branches overhead and the sound of silence all around. There was rarely ever any wind in the Sleeping Forest, yet he could remember a blood-red cape whipping through the air...

"Vincent," he said by way of greeting. "Thank you."

"I come here often. I've seen what Kadaj is doing."

"Terrifying, isn't it?"

"Even to a monster such as I."

Cloud sat up slowly, noting that he had taken no injury of any consequence. Vincent was leaning statue-still against a large tree close by, his face half-concealed behind a red muffler.

"Do you know why he's doing it? What he's trying to accomplish?"

"Alas, no. My mind is occupied by the past and leaves little space for the present. I walk in darkness, for she took the light with her when she passed from this world."

Cloud resisted the impulse to roll his eyes. "Her name wasn't Annabel Lee, was it?"

"No, she was Lucrecia, though I do not willingly profane her sacred name with my unworthy tongue."

"Uh, right."

A rustle in the tall bushes drew their attention, and Cloud prepared himself for a rematch. It was only Marlene, however, who crashed through the brush and threw herself into Cloud's arms.


"Cloud! I don't like that man! He kept putting on dresses and asking us how he looked."

Cloud briefly considering relating to her the tale of his own foray into drag, then decided that Tifa probably wouldn't approve. It was surprising that Marlene didn't know of it already, as Cid was so fond of hearing the story over and over. And over.

"It's okay now, Marlene."

"But Tifa! One of the men hurt Tifa - "

"Tifa is fine, I promise."

"I want to talk to her!"

Cloud reached automatically for his PHS, but the spot it always occupied on his belt was empty.

"It fell into the water when you were knocked unconscious," Vincent informed him gravely.

"Uncle Vincent, do you have a phone I could use?"

"I fear not, little one. I seldom have need to speak to the living."

"Vincent," Cloud began, "could you take Marlene to Tifa? I need to talk to Rufus, and by 'talk to' I mean Omnislash."

"Cloud, I'm brooding here."

Damn it, the one person I can't bribe with a grope.

"You're always brooding. Can't you take a break?"

"There is no escape from the great void in my heart, no reprieve from the darkness that is my just reward."

"Forget it, Cloud!" Marlene shouted, looking up at him with a hurt expression. "Why don't you ever pay any attention to us?"

She ran to Vincent and hid under his fluttering cape. Vincent seemed to accept this with resignation, as he did everything.

"Marlene, please. Tifa is in one of her inspirational-friendship-speech moods and I don't think I can handle another one just yet. Anyway, the theme is supposed to be life, or maybe death, or possibly something environmental. But not friendship. Understand?"

"No, I don't!"

"Cloud," Vincent said quietly, "are you sure it's Tifa you don't want to talk to?"

Cloud looked away, realizing that Vincent was right.

"You are only...a puppet...Bring me the Black Materia, my puppet...Kill the Cetra girl..."

"Cloud, you were confused then. You didn't know who you were. You know now. You are strong. You belong to no one."

"Except us!" Marlene chimed in from beneath the red cape.

Cloud smiled very slightly at Vincent. "Is that the theme, then? Belonging to no one but ourselves?"

Vincent looked meaningfully at his metal claw, and at Cloud's mako-bright eyes. "Perhaps it should be."

"Okay, okay. Marlene, let's go."

With a cheerful shout, the six-year-old ran to Cloud and grabbed his hand. She tugged at it until he bent down, and whispered in his ear, "Cloud, I like Uncle Vincent, but his cape doesn't smell good."

Straightening up, Cloud said, "Hey, Vincent, is that cape...you know...washable?"

"I've never tried," he said simply, and vanished in a whirl of red.

Cloud raised his eyebrows at Marlene, who giggled.

"Cloud, the bad men were talking about Sephiroth. Are you gonna have to fight him again?"

Frowning, Cloud made her repeat everything the clones had said.

"What does it mean, Cloud? Are they gonna do more bad things?"

"I don't know yet."

"Are you gonna find out?"

"Yes," Cloud said with a sigh. "As soon as I get you home, I will find out. Don't worry."

He began to walk, but they had only gone a few steps when Marlene tugged at him again, urgently this time.

"Oh no! Denzel! What about Denzel?"

Cloud considered his response carefully. He was genuinely very fond of Marlene; he had been since the beginning of their acquaintance, when he had given her a flower and she had called him stupid for not realizing Aerith liked him. How, now, to set her mind at ease?

"Fuck Denzel," Cloud said at last. "He's only a noob."

And Tifa said he wasn't good with kids.

End of Chapter 1

A noob is "aka-noobie (newbie). Someone who is new to a game, or website, online game, or something."

To be continued!