Warning - spoilers for FFVIII and FFX.

THE SILENCE OF THE CHOCOBOS
Chapter 6

"Strategy guide?" Rufus repeated, emphasizing each syllable. "What is a strategy guide?"

"No idea," Kadaj said, adjusting his yellow barettes. "But whatever it is, it won't help any of you now. There's no one here who can stop Bahamut Sin!"

"Sin? Oh, no," Rufus muttered to himself. "Auron decided to send his drunk friend after me after all. Where's Cloud when we need him?"

The clone laughed coldly. "Sorry, Mr. President, I don't see him. All I can see is a crowd of people about to be eaten and what looks like a chocobo headed this way on a motorcycle. Oh, fuck."

Rufus smiled.

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Cloud sped through the streets of Edge, unable to go at Fenrir's top speed as he had to continually weave his way through the panicked people...all of whom appeared to be looking for something rather than taking cover or evacuating. Cloud could see already that the fiend appeared to be a summon, probably one of Bahamut's many siblings, and it was ripping great clawfuls out of buildings and stomping on those unfortunate enough to get caught underfoot. It reminded him of the old monster movies Barret was fond of watching.

Ooh, I remember those! Seph and I used to watch 'em late at night, and Seph would be like, "I hope Hojo never sees this, it'll just give him ideas", and I'd be like, "I think I saw something like that in a test tube at the lab", and -

"That's great, Zack, but this isn't a good time. I've got to contact the others and form a party."

Don't you need your PHS for that?

"Damn. Well, I can at least call Tifa." Cloud stopped Fenrir, dismounted and grabbed hold of the first guy who ran screaming past him. "Hey! Let me borrow your phone."

"Okay, okay, here!" The young man produced a cell phone and nervously fumbled it into the spiky-haired stranger's hand. "Hey, don't I know you?"

"I don't think so."

"Yeah, Cloud Strife, right? It's me, Phil! Remember, from the Guard?"

"Oh!" Cloud said awkwardly. "Right. It's been a long time."

"You've been busy saving the world, I hear. Who would've thought, huh? Is Zack still stalking you or did you finally get that restraining order?"

Hey!

"Uh, no, he's still around. We're closer than ever, in fact."

Phil laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "Yeah, I kinda figured it would happen eventually. Way to go."

"I didn't mean - "

"So what are you up to now?"

"Eh, you know. Saving the world. You?"

"Running for my life. Speaking of which, I gotta get back to that, but we should hang out sometime."

"Yeah, sure."

Heh heh heh heh...

"Shut up, Zack." Cloud quickly dialed Tifa's number; she picked up before the first ring had ended. "Tifa, it's me. How close are you to Edge?"

"Cloud! Are you okay?"

"Yes. How close?"

Tifa put the phone down for a few seconds and spoke to someone over the noise of loud meowing and Cid throwing something. "We're minutes away. How bad is it?"

"Remember Weapon?"

"Which one?"

"Any of them."

"Uh-oh."

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"Highwind!" Reno yelled, vaulting over Yuffie to get to the ship's controls. "Please tell me this thing's got torpedos or something!"

"I've been meanin' to install those, really. Something just keeps coming up."

"I can guess what!"

"Like you can talk!"

"The president's down there and he's in no condition to do any fighting!" Reno shrieked, waving a cattle prod. "We've got to do something!"

"Well, until I can find a safe place to land, I don't see what we can do."

"Too bad you guys don't carry around parachutes, like me," Yuffie said cheerfully. She was sitting on one of the railings that led up to the main control station and casually swinging her feet over the floor.

Rude seemed interested, for the first time, in something she said. "You have parachutes?"

"Well, one. All Wutai ninjas carry them. We used to carry bazookas, but they were heavy, you know? And there are a lot of high places in Wutai, and you don't want to get stuck on a cliff or the top of a statue with stolen...er, borrowed materia and no way to get down."

"Gimme!" Reno yelled, flying at her.

"Hi-yah!" Yuffie poked him in the eye and slid down the railing, out of reach.

"Ow, that hurt!"

"My parachute, not yours!"

"But I need to get down there!"

"We all do," Tifa reminded him. "But a single parachute would only hold one of us."

"Too bad Heidegger isn't here," Reno grumbled. "We could make parachutes for all of us just out of his underwear."

"I think I'd rather jump unaided, in that case," Rude said with a grimace.

"If that ever happens, I'll be ready with the Phoenix Down," Reno promised, laying his head against Rude's shoulder. "Would you rather use my underwear?"

"You know I would."

Tifa interrupted, relieved to have an excuse for doing so. "That's it!"

"We're using Reno's underwear?" Yuffie asked, confused but not necessarily against the idea.

"No - "

"Good," said Rude. "He's not wearing any anyway."

" - we jump without the parachutes, from the lowest height Cid can get us to," Tifa explained. "You two and me. Yuffie will follow, using the parachute, and revive us with Phoenix Down and X-Potions. I brought plenty."

"You really think you can trust her with somethin' that important?" Cid said, looking doubtful.

"Hey! I can do it! You can count on me."

The pilot shook his head. "Whatever, as long as I get to stay here. I'll get y'all as low as I can."

"Faith, I be unsure that ye could sink much lower, laddie," Cait Sith laughed heartily.

Cid grabbed the animatronic cat and heaved it at the nearest wall. Again.

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"Excuse me! Can I have your attention!?" Cloud was barely able to make himself heard over the noise of panicking civilians. Even waving the intimidating Ultima Weapon wasn't slowing anyone down. "Damn it, don't you people know how to take cover?"

"Hey, kid, we're trying to help, you know?" a middle-aged man said angrily, as he heaved a large rock through the window of a bookstore.

It happened to be the same bookstore that always had Loveless in stock, so Cloud didn't much feel like reprimanding this behavior. But there were children within sight of this vandalism, and Tifa was always nagging Cloud about how heroes should set a good example. One day, he told himself, he would remind her about her affiliation with a certain eco-terrorist group known for causing giant explosions.

One day.

"How does looting help anything?"

"I'm not looting!" the man said indignantly. "We're trying to find the strategy guide. No one remembers where we last had it."

"The who what?" Cloud asked, but the stranger was gone, hurrying toward the back of the store.

The summon had caught sight of the one tiny human who was not only not running in fear, but also armed. Apparently eager for a fight, Bahamut Sin dropped the car it had been shaking like a rattle and headed Cloud's way.

Uh, Spiky? I really don't think you should be facing this thing alone.

"You and me both, Zack," Cloud whispered, holding his fighting stance with a defiant expression. The summon was close now, ready to attack -

"Sore wa nan da?" (1)

"Some sort of Bahamut, I think. Wait...Barret?"

"And Vincent."

His two old comrades (opposites in personality, but equally welcome) hurried to Cloud's sides, Barret armed with Missing Score and Vincent reloading Death Penalty. Cloud felt himself smiling, and not just with relief; it was like old times. Not that the fighting they'd all done together pre-Meteorfall had been a happy, stress-free experience, but it had always felt good to work as part of a team of people he cared about. Maybe because, even before Cloud's memories had begun to return, fighting reminded him of training with someone whose attention and encouragement had gotten him to this level.

Show me what you learned, Spiky.

"Do either of you have a Bahamut?"

"Zero," Vincent replied.

"It's worth a shot."

Unfortunately, perhaps due to some sort of nepotism, Bahamut Zero didn't take a single point from the improved version of itself. Cloud couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw the two summons high-five each other and roll their huge eyes as if to say, "You know how it goes, they call, we come. It's nothing personal."

"Either of you have Sense materia?"

"Alas, no."

"Okay...who's got Mime?"

Barret yelled something that sounded affirmative.

"Be ready with it! Vincent, Ramuh!"

Willingly, Vincent faded from their sight, and in his place the figure of an old man appeared, brandishing a staff and calling upon the element of Lightning.

"NO!" A voice came from behind Cloud, and was quickly close enough for its owner to grab his shoulder. "Not Lightning!"

"Reno, do not touch me while I'm armed."

"You hot, emo moron, I'm trying to help!" Reno had what looked like a glossy-covered book opened to its last page and was waving it around erratically. "Look, it absorbs Lightning!"

Cloud looked back as Ramuh finished his attack and disappeared, and saw that Reno was correct. The summon, far from helping, would have restored their opponent to full health had it not been there already. Vincent cursed softly and began to fire with Death Penalty. Barret joined in, and while they covered him Cloud was able to turn his attention away from the battle for a moment.

"How did you know?"

Impatiently, Reno waved the book again, and Cloud caught a gimpse of the words 'strategy' and 'guide' on its spine.

"Never mind, just tell me what to do!"

Reno grinned. "Heh, I hoped you would say that. How bad do you want to know?"

"You can't be serious."

"Hey, don't point that thing at me! You can't kill me anyway, how else will you know what to use against Bahamut Sin?"

"Did you say Sin?"

"Demi!" Barret thundered by way of suggestion, preparing to cast.

"NO! Shit, how did you fuckers ever save the world?" Reno shouted, shaking his head. "Demi's not reliable against airbornes! Hell, forget it, Strife, we'll just say you owe me. You want to hit it with anything strong and non-elemental except other Bahamuts, also Poison, and Knights of the Round if you've got it."

"Thank you."

"You want to thank me, help the president!" Reno called as he sprinted away.

"Okay, anyone got Bio?"

In answer, Vincent sprang lightly into the wind Bahamut's movements were generating, leaving the ground far behind as he dodged the claws that grabbed for him. Elegantly as a bird in flight, Vincent somersaulted out of reach, curled his body like a whip around the monster's hideous face, and returned to the ground and his fighting stance with the grace of a dancer. Bahamut Sin's head was now tinted with a sickly green, and his movements were awkward and sluggish.

Barret paused his rapid fire, and his expression relfected Cloud's confusion. "Wakarimasen," he grumbled to himself. (2)

"Me neither. Vincent, what was that?"

It was hard to be sure with the cape and muffler leaving so little of the ex-Turk visible, but they thought they could see the faintest touch of pink on the ghostly white cheeks.

"The cape is not washable," Vincent said softly, with a rare trace of humor.

As Barret made an "ugh" noise and turned away to cast Ultima, the two former lab specimens shared a faint smile.

"You're never gonna get your own game if you keep clinging to the odors of the past, Vincent."

"At least I have theme music."

Cloud grinned. "I've got Knights of the Round. Barret, get ready to Mime."

"We will cover you, Cloud."

"As long as it's not with your cape."

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"Boss! Boss!"

Reno ran at top speed up the nineteen flights of stairs to reach to reach the top floor. Rude was keeping up, though panting too hard to form the words of caution he wanted to say. It wasn't exertion so much as it was a discomfort with high places that sped up his breathing. Reno suspected it was this fear that made Rude such a distracted climber. He didn't even like being in the helicopter, and only endured it because his partner liked it so much.

Reno felt a rush of love for his gruff other half, but quickly reminded himself that this was neither the time nor the place. Still, his resolve was challenged for an instant, as they barreled past an unfinished bathroom and into the floor's main room.

"Boss!"

Rufus and Kadaj were there, looking out into the open space where the room's fourth wall was supposed to be. Reno snickered for a moment - Hey, Boss really did knock it down - then sprang forward, only to be held back by Rude as Kadaj pointed his short blade at his captive's head.

Kadaj looked at the Turks critically, as though he'd never seen them before. "Why is it," he began, "that the sight of you makes me want to replace my bathroom fixtures?"

"You should ask Sephiroth," Rude said coolly.

"Forget Sephiroth! He won't be able to ignore me anymore!"

Reno looked at Rufus, who was gesturing that he should keep talking. "Sir, the other clones have been taken into custody. Cid Highwind has them under guard on the 'Shera'."

Kadaj looked shaken, but recovered himself quickly. "That doesn't matter. They only got in my way, anyway."

"Very good," the president said. With Kadaj's eyes still on the Turks, Rufus gestured to his lap, then smiled. He indicated the ground below the ledge, and made with his fingers the signs for Tseng and Elena. "Reno, Rude, perhaps you should lend Cloud and his friends a hand with that aeon down there."

Reno frowned at the unfamiliar word, but he understood, and obviously Rufus wanted them to keep talking, perhaps as a diversion. He gave the president a look, as if to say, "No way am I gonna just stand here and chat." Rufus removed a piece of sketch paper from his robe, unfolded it and displayed it with a patient expression. Reno recognized Cloud and Masamune, and grinned.

Yes, sir!

"They've got it under control, Boss. I knew this thing would come in handy," he said, holding up the strategy guide.

"Ah, so you knew what they were talking about?"

"Knew?" Reno laughed. "I wrote this thing! It's got survival tips, monster stats, a materia guide, you name it. Every town and village has at least one copy. How else did you think I paid off my gambling debts?"

"Well, to be honest - "

"ENOUGH!" Kadaj shrieked. "Tell me where Mother is now, or face the wrath of my fashionable materia!"

The clone was slowly forgetting about Rufus, who seemed to be no threat with his wheelchair and tired, half-hidden face. Kadaj stepped closer to the Turks, who kept their expressions from changing as the president quietly stood up.

Reno smirked. "You want Jenova, huh? Well, I haven't seen her around. But I could give you her 900-number."

Kadaj screamed like a child having a tantrum, and a blast of Comet2 threw Reno and Rude into the far wall and brought large chunks of the roof down on them. Even as they began the grueling process of freeing themselves, Reno could be heard snickering.

"Is that all you got, Mini-Sephy? I've taken harder hits from Elena!"

Kadaj growled, but turned away, satisfied that the president's watchdogs would be occupied for at least a few minutes. He stopped short, though, when he saw Rufus Shinra standing unaided, and triumphantly ripping off his gray robe and hood and tossing them into the wind.

"Wh-what..." the clone stammered.

"I know, I know," Rufus said glumly. "Tseng said I would look good as a blond. That's the last time I listen to him."

"B-but the wheelchair!" Kadaj cried. "I thought you were crippled or had a terminal illness or something!"

Rufus smiled smugly. "Nope, just Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I'm fine as long as I don't overexert - "

His eyes fluttered and began to roll back into his head. Just as President Shinra stumbled backward and slipped over the edge of the floor, Kadaj noticed the box he held in one hand, and its contents called to the identical cells in Kadaj's body and made his eyes flash a fiery, enraged green.

"MOTHER!"

Time seemed to slow, and every detail of every object became sharp and bright. Reno and Rude redoubled their efforts to get free of the rubble surrounding them, shouting for the president though they knew it was too late. Several blocks away, Cloud had mounted Fenrir again -

Lucky Fenrir.

Shut up, Zack. - and was speeding their way, unconsciously following the pull of his own Jenova cells to the spot on the ground where the box was headed. Tifa, busy passing out Potions to the wounded, paused to laugh with joy and relief as a little boy ran to her and accepted her hug.

On board the Shera, Cid was cheerfully regaling Loz and Yazoo with the story of his efforts to bang a woman named Celes. Cait Sith, with whom he'd made a grudging truce, was in charge of the bridge, singing orders in an accent that the poor flight crew couldn't decipher. In the center of Edge, beside the smashed Meteorfall monument, Yuffie and Vincent were watching Barret finish off Bahamut Sin. He had grown sick of Miming and was now only firing off bullets from his frequently-malfunctioning gun and insults that made the weakening summon roar.

"Uh, what's he saying?"

Vincent was flipping thoughtfully through a thick phrase-book. "My guess would be disparaging remarks regarding the chastity and temperament of Bahamut's mother. Is he using polite forms?"

"Heh, definitely not," Yuffie giggled.

In these agonizingly slow moments, the unconscious form of Rufus Shinra continued to plummet toward the street below, followed closely behind by Kadaj. Two long, hammock-like nets shot out across their path only ten feet from the ground, fired by Tseng and Elena, who had been stationed nearby. One of them caught Rufus, but the box slipped from his limp hand. Kadaj snatched it out of the air and landed on his feet, easily, quickly smoothing his dress back into place.

The roar of a motorcycle intruded upon his moment of victory. Cloud was approaching fast, and from the part of him that was linked to Sephiroth, Kadaj knew that the look of determination on Other Brother's face was a very bad thing. Fortunately, a motorcycle had been abandoned nearby in the furor following Bahamut's attack. Clutching Mother's cells protectively, Kadaj commandeered the bike and made his escape, with Cloud following relentlessly behind.

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Rufus was aware of nothing that happened after he had begun to fall. In his weakened state and in the absence of enough rest, unconsciousness came all too easily, and with it, flashes of the other worlds he had seen before. First, everything was hazy and overbright, the sky blue and sunny over a beach strewn with large boulders. The sound of urgent voices came on the wind from far away, but they were unclear. From where he lay on the sand, Rufus could hear a voice from much nearer, one he knew well and had been dreading.

"That's the last time I trust you with the gateway between worlds. You're as irresponsible as your father."

Rufus frowned and would have protested indignantly had he been able to speak, but another voice - young, male, and extremely impatient - answered, and Rufus realized Auron hadn't been talking to him.

"Hey, it was an accident! You think I was trying to let Sin out?"

"I think you'd do anything to avoid facing Jecht. Cry-baby."

"Creepy old man."

"Shut up, Tight-Ass."

"Ooh, like I haven't heard that one before!"

Two figures were above now, standing on either side of him. The bright sunlight made them as dark as shadows, but the one Rufus didn't know peered down at him curiously. It was a teenaged boy Rufus vaguely recalled from previous visions, blond and blue-eyed like Cloud but clearly his polar opposite in personality.

"Who's this, Auron? Not that I expect you to actually tell me anything."

"Just another son of a friend that I stupidly agreed to look after." The warrior monk frowned at Rufus and shook his head. "You shouldn't be here. You're disrupting the continuity of our worlds."

Rufus still couldn't speak to give a reply to this, but no matter, the sky and the figures faded, and the next thing he knew he was in a bright and cheerful office. The scene beyond the opposite windows was what appeared to be a technologically advanced city made of strange metals and colored glass. It brought to Rufus's mind the world of people and places brought to life on screens, but there was only one person in the room, sitting behind a desk, and he was definitely not a god. He appeared to be having trouble working a stapler.

The man looked up at Rufus with an open, good-natured face, and frowned, more bemused than alarmed. He pressed a button in front of him and said into a small intercom, "Kiros, I think there's a ghost in my office."

"No more late-night horror movies, Laguna," a deep voice answered him.

The man the voice called Laguna pouted slightly at the intruder, but when he spoke again he seemed to be addressing someone who was not there. "Ellone, is this your doing? Do I have more kids I need to know about?"

As this vision faded out and the next began, Rufus came to a decision. The gods definitely hate me. That's the only explanation for this.

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Kadaj had not been heading anywhere in particular, his only objectives being to escape Cloud and not lose the prize he'd taken from Rufus. Even so, he followed the most direct route from Edge to the remains of Midgar, and sped to the old Sector 5 slum as though an invisible chain were pulling him there. In fact, it was a powerful, loving female voice that was guiding him to the abandoned church, and in Kadaj's desperate longing to be close to his mother, he could only believe it was her.

Aerith does a great Jenova impression, huh, Spiky? She's been working on it.

Kadaj got inside the old structure about two minutes ahead of his pursuer. He knew Cloud couldn't be far behind, but now that he had in his possession the means to reach his lofty goal, Kadaj couldn't wait a moment longer. He skidded over the creaking floor, bringing the motorcycle to rest in the center of a bed of oddly glowing flowers, and eagerly turned the black box over in his hands, looking for the opening. Mother's cells were whispering to him, calling on him to liberate her, to be one with her in a way precious Sephiroth had never dreamed of...

His fingers found a clasp and tore at it, Jenova's cage sprang open...and into Kadaj's glove spilled a handful of shimmering silver hair, very like his own but much longer. Dumbfounded, Kadaj looked into the box, turned it upside down and shook it violently, but there was nothing else in it.

He turned his focus quickly back to the silky hair, as he could hear Other Brother approaching and time slipping away. He pressed the silver strands to his face, to his bare skin, and felt the powerful presence of Mother in them. But these were not her cells, this was not her! Even as Kadaj desperately tried to chew and swallow some of the hair, he knew he could not absorb the cells that had already been processed by another body.

The only other contents of the box was a slip of paper, which had fluttered out of the darkness into Kadaj's lap. It read:

I, Sephiroth, former general of the ShinRa military force known as SOLDIER, do hereby agree to provide President Rufus Shinra with a Jenova sample that will be of no use to my clones, in exchange for President Shinra's promise that he will do whatever it takes to convince Cloud Strife to visit me here in this prison, preferably of Puppet's own free will. Beneath was scrawled Rufus Shinra's name, alongside Sephiroth's elegant signature.

"NOOOOOO! MOOOTHERRR!" Kadaj howled, dropping the empty box, beating his fists against the handlebars of the bike, now and then pausing to spit out strands of hair while he kept the rest in his grip. Once he would've revered this relic of his greatest brother. Now it seemed that Sephiroth was mocking him, reminding him that no one could be dearer to Mother than himself.

Cloud was not at all surprised at the sight of the young clone throwing a tantrum, though he was perplexed for a moment to see Kadaj coughing up what looked like a hairball. Only for a moment, however. He sensed whose hair that was as easily as Kadaj did, and smiled, knowing Sephiroth well enough to guess what he had done. Rufus's precaution had been Sephiroth's as well, and though Cloud knew his old adversary had his own reasons for thwarting Kadaj's plan, it was just as easy to suppose that Sephiroth might have done it for him.

"You!" Kadaj shouted, leaping off his motorcycle in a tearful rage and rushing at Cloud with his blade unsheathed, though his dress was really too short to run in. "It's all your fault! Everything!"

"Me? Hojo made you what you are, Rufus and Sephiroth are the ones who tricked you. All I've been trying to do is protect the planet!"

"You wouldn't understand," Kadaj wailed, attacking with a swing that Cloud easily avoided. "Everyone loves you! Even Great Sephiroth! All I have are Loz and Yazoo and they betrayed me! They never understood me!"

Aw, Aerith said sadly. Poor thing. He's all alone.

"I j-just wanted to be Mother so she could never leave me," Kadaj sniffled, raising his sword to charge and instead letting it fall to his side. "Everyone leaves. I didn't l-like Dr. Hojo but he was b-better than being alone."

Cloud sheathed the Ultima Weapon and stared at the young clone with more than his usual sadness. How miserable would someone have to be, he asked himself, to wish for even Hojo's company? Cloud, he knew now, had been lucky by comparison. Before and during the years of being a guinea pig he had had Zack watching over him, and now he had living friends too, who loved him so much that they wouldn't let him pull away from them. "Where has that famous compassion gone, Puppet?" Sephiroth had asked him, and in truth it hadn't gone anywhere. He wanted very badly to help Kadaj, but he had no idea how to do it.

Kadaj.

The teenager looked up hopefully, recognizing the voice. It wasn't Mother, he quickly realized, but it was loving and gentle.

Would you like to come to the Lifestream? Jenova can't torment you there, and I promise you'll never be alone again.

Kadaj smiled. For the first time, in this moment of peace, he didn't look like a young Sephiroth. He resembled no one Cloud knew, and yet the bond between them could be felt for the first time without the enmity of adversaries. Here was a stranger, but someone who had been hurt and changed in the same way Cloud had, by the same man and the same calamity. Remove Jenova from the equation and Kadaj was more innocent than Sephiroth. He deserved peace and forgiveness no less.

Aerith, I can't kill him.

Don't worry, leave it to me. Stand clear, Cloud.

Cloud moved away from the center of the room and waited, wondering what she was going to do. From the soft luminescence of the flower bed, a spout of oddly glimmering water began to form and rise. When it ascended halfway to the cathedral-height ceiling, the top of the gleaming pillar began to expand, thinning itself out until it resembled a thick sheet of living glass. As Cloud and Kadaj stared in awe at the remarkable sight, the water began to fall in heavy drops, quickly filling up the gaps in the wooden floor. Kadaj put out his hands to catch the rain, and closed his eyes as the water dissolved him like smoke in the wind. As his body melted away, his spirit broke free and soared into the sky, returning to the Lifestream, escaping Hojo's madness and Jenova's ambition at last.

So, Aerith...your new limit break is acid rain?

Apparently so, she giggled.

Uh, is that safe to use around materia?

Definitely not, why?

The explosion shook the entire church, answering before she could.

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Touch was the first sense to return to Cloud. The arms cradling him were ones he knew, and his confused mind wondered for a moment if he'd been injured in training again. It was just like Zack to be clingy and protective like this, whether over a skull fracture or a sprained ankle. Beyond his eyelids the light suggested white surroundings, like a hospital, but the air was still, with little movement around to stir it. Cloud felt no pain or wound anywhere on his body, and when he heard Aerith's voice as well as Zack's, he remembered everything, and realized he was in the place between the planet and the Lifestream where Aerith sometimes brought him.

Zack, I know how you feel, she was saying gently from somewhere nearby.

He's been through enough. Tifa and the others can take over, let him stay here. Please. Zack hugged Cloud closer to his chest and turned his upper body away from Aerith's voice.

She didn't sound any happier about what she was saying. He has to go back. He's alive.

No, he isn't, Zack insisted stubbornly. He picked up Cloud's arm by the wrist and let it drop back into his lap. See, he's not moving at all. Completely limp. SOLDIER's honor.

Very slowly, remaining as still as possible, Cloud found Zack's hand and squeezed it to let him know, and not Aerith, that he was awake. Zack squeezed back, nearly tight enough to elicit a whimper.

I see what's going on here, Aerith said in a high, haughty tone. I'm not enough for you! Am I?

Aw, hell, Zack muttered into Cloud's hair.

...been so understanding all this time, you know, even though I was probably only a replacement for Cloud, and I bet you were thinking of him when we -

I guess I really shouldn't be subjecting you to this, huh, Spiky? Zack whispered into his ear.

Cloud squeezed his hand again, not really meaning to say either yes or no. All he knew was how safe and warm he felt here against Zack's heartbeat (or maybe it was only the memory of his heart beating) and that no matter what Aerith believed or how annoyed she was, she would never force him to go back if he begged to stay. The Lifestream was so near, and he could be there with Zack and Aerith, and his mother.

Aer, c'mon, you know I love you too.

Yes, I know, she said, sounding somewhat mollified. But what about Sephiroth?

Cloud stiffened. Zack felt it and tightened his grip around Cloud's middle.

I still care about him too, even though he's a psychotic mama's boy now.

A sharp smack was heard, followed by a low groan. You know what I mean! He's still a danger to the planet.

So let someone else handle it.

Zack, you know better than that. No one else can.

Cloud slowly opened his eyes. Aerith was looking right at him now, and she didn't seem at all surprised to find him conscious.

"Zack...she's right."

Regretfully, Cloud sat up and, regretfully, Zack let him. They looked at each other, eyes bright with both mako and tears. Cloud knew Zack would still be with him as he'd been all this time, that nothing would change, but somehow it was the bluff overlooking Midgar all over again. The passing of the Buster Sword, the haze of mako poisoning lifting, Zack's blood running out with the rain...

Fighting to hold onto his courage, Cloud threw his arms around Zack. Zack returned the hug, nearly lifting him off his knees.

I know she's right, Spiky.

"I have to keep my promise, don't I? To live for both of us?" Cloud asked. "And...maybe I can help Sephiroth. Maybe I can get him back to the way he used to be."

You mean your other stalker?

"He's a good man, you told me once. I have to try."

You try, then. And we'll be with you. Right, Aer?

Of course. She came up behind Cloud and put her slender arms around both of them.

Cloud smiled, feeling the emotion behind the expression with more certainty than he had in a long time. In that moment, from nowhere and everywhere, a beautiful music came and encircled them, as palpable as the greenish tendrils of the Lifestream. He had never heard it before, but it sounded familiar, like something out of his own thoughts or dreams...could it be...

"Is that - "

Theme music! Zack pretended to wipe away a tear. You hear that, Aer? Our baby's all grown up.

The white was beginning to fade. Cloud closed his eyes against Zack's shoulder and resigned himself to returning to his life. A hand brushed downward from the small of his back, and he laughed softly.

"Fine, Zack, just this once."

Who said it was Zack? Aerith giggled.

Hey! Gaia, no one respects dibs anymore, I swear!

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Again, touch was the first to return, a feeling of floating in lukewarm water, but the other senses followed quickly. The church was all around him, and many people, and the blue sky overhead was visible through a hole in the ceiling - maybe the one he had once crashed through himself, or Zack before him. A relieved murmur passed through the crowd of observers as Cloud opened his eyes, and several pairs of small hands were tugging at him.

"Tifa," he said, knowing she would be there, "why are there children touching me?"

"They were worried."

"Yeah, that was Zack's favorite excuse. He used to worry a lot about my - "

"Cloud!"

"I know, I know, not good with kids."

The children moved back as Cloud stood up. He looked at them one by one and couldn't remember meeting any of them, but they were all grinning at him with awe or excitement. No doubt they knew him by reputation and the stories of his adventures, the way he had first come to know Sephiroth. His eyes fell last on a girl with pigtails who was clutching a stuffed chocobo. He tensed at first notice of the toy, then saw a collar around its neck, and a nametag that read 'Cloud'. He smiled again, and the music continued.

"It's like she said," the little girl told him. "Wait here and Cloud will come back."

"Hi, Uncle Cloud!"

He turned toward the sound of Marlene's voice, and there she was, holding onto Barret with one hand, squeezing Cait Sith and the Moogle with the other arm.

"I'm back."

"Duh," Rude said calmly. He and Reno were holding up an unconscious Rufus between them; Reno picked up one of the president's wrists and made him wave. Tseng and Elena stood behind them, both casting a disapproving look on their red-haired colleague.

Cid was behind Cait Sith, raising a half-empty bottle in Cloud's direction. Beside him, Vincent nodded gravely, saying everything he felt with the gentle gaze of his blood-red eyes. Yuffie was using his shoulder as leverage to bounce up and down, waving as though in fear that she might go unnoticed. A furry creature walked on all fours around her to the front of the group, holding himself with the strange nobility he always did, and greeted Cloud with a vaguely canine smile.

"Nanaki! I thought you were traveling with Bugenhagen. What are you doing here?"

"Saying this line, and nothing else."

Cloud's eyes fell on Tifa last, and she stared back with a sort of proud smirk, her way of saying, "I never doubted for a second that you could do it." He gave her a slightly embarassed smile, and she stepped aside and nudged someone forward.

"Look who I found."

"Denzel! You're okay!"

The boy looked surprised. "You remembered my name," he said, sounding pleased.

"Denzel, why don't you tell Cloud why you didn't come home?"

"'Cause...'cause I'm tired of being called a noob. I felt like you didn't want me around."

Cloud thought for a moment, then put out his hand. "Come here."

Shrugging, Denzel stepped into the pool that had formed around the flower bed and waded out to Cloud. Cloud cupped his hands together and dipped them below the surface, letting the water fill them before lifting them up.

"Sono mizu o nonde wa ikemasen yo!" Barret called out in alarm. (3)

"No one's gonna drink it, Barret."

Denzel looked apprehensive, and watched Cloud's hands as they hovered over his upturned face. He blinked and sputtered a bit as the water poured onto him, then looked at Cloud - not quite cheerfully - for an explanation.

"Uh," the hero said uncertainly, "it's, er, symbolic. You are hereby an official member of the family, and no longer just a noob."

A grin spread over Denzel's face, pushing the annoyance out of it, and he jumped up and down, hitting the bright water with his hands and splashing everyone nearby. "I'm canon! Didja hear that, everybody? I'm canon!"

Applause broke out all around the room, even from the nameless townspeople who had no idea what they were doing there or what cannons had to do with it. Still, everyone seemed to sense, in this poignant moment, the will of the gods in the shape of the past and present, and the intentions of these all-knowing creators moving them toward an exciting future. In his oblivious sleep, Rufus smiled. The gods knew what they were doing after all.

"Don't think this will be a big change," Cloud cautioned Denzel. "Only the eye candy get storylines and dialogue."

The little girl with the stuffed chocobo tugged Cloud's arm and pointed at the open doors behind the crowd. "Ooh, then how come he's not saying anything?"

Cloud looked across the church and smiled. "I don't know. This is the quietest I've ever known him to be."

From the ethereal light that filled the doorway, Zack pouted at him playfully. Beside him, Aerith watched with the affectionate peace Cloud remembered, the faith in the planet and the people she loved that she had carried with her, so selflessly, into death. She seemed more alive now than she ever had before Sephiroth's sword tried to prevent her prayer for Holy, and she was smiling at Cloud not because she felt the ghost of Zack in him, but because she saw Cloud for who he was. She always had.

You see? Everything will be all right.

Aerith's eyes were green. Not the toxic green of Jenova working her terrible will, but a gentle green, the color of life the way it's meant to be. The trees of Nibelheim in spring. The grassy fields where chocobos run. The Lifestream itself, where everything has its ending and beginning.

"I know," Cloud said. And he did.

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EPILOGUE

Seventh Heaven was livelier than ever that night, with a celebratory afterparty that lasted till dawn. It wasn't long before Marlene and Denzel were sent to bed and Tifa ordered everyone to keep the noise to a minimum, but even quietly, the triumphant, cheerful atmosphere prevailed. Friends and grateful townspeople dropped in and out for hours, many sticking around to watch the amusing spectacle of President Shinra presiding over a corner table and getting steadily drunker. Unsurprisingly, Cid was right there with his usual whiskey, egging him on.

"Otto! Another round of Degenerators for my friend here!"

"Uh, are you sure? He looks ready to pass out."

"Aw, he's just gettin' started, aren't ya, Prez?" Laughing, Cid clapped Rufus on the back, which pushed his upper body onto the table where his arms formed a pillow beneath his head. "Hey, buddy! Weren't ya tellin' me you figured out the plot?"

"No infringement has been intended," Rufus mumbled half-consciously, "on the property of SquareEnix."

"You got a square penis?" Cid asked, spraying whiskey and saliva as he cackled. "No way! That I gotta see to believe."

"...like to thank reviewers," Rufus went on sleepily, his voice muffled by a mouthful of sleeve. "AyakoAki, Ardwynna Morriqu, Kotoba, ladyaffirmed, Dark Queen Come To Krynn, Jade003..."

"Wha's that? You hafta pee? I'm comin' with you then, 'cause I think you're pullin' my leg."

"...seasnake.756, misty200229, Uchina, Kitsune Kit, Chaos-sama9, Stoic-Genius..."

"Otto! More fit genie pants, whatever that is!" Cid yelled unsteadily.

Tifa brushed past Barret on her way down the stairs, as he was on his way up to say good-night to the kids, and she took over behind the bar for Otto, who went to check the recipe books for the drink Cid had called for. Cloud was at the bar talking to Reno and Rude, and he smiled at Tifa as she approached.

"So, Reno, you think you'll keep updating that strategy guide? It's a pretty useful thing, I've got to admit."

"Eh, I don't know. It takes time away from my Turk duties, and from my chocolate love bear here. He gets so jealous."

Cloud made an 'ugh' face. "Chocolate love bear?"

"I melt in his mouth," Rude said matter-of-factly.

"Uh, nice."

"And sometimes in his hand. But most frequently in - "

"Tifa, I need alcohol. Now."

"You can try my very latest invention, then." She had it already prepared, and presented to Cloud a tall, slender glass filled with bright blue liquid and topped with a layer of foam. "I call it a Cloud Nine."

He laughed. "What kind of alcohol is in it?"

"Every kind we've got."

"I love you."

Tifa flushed pink and nudged him roughly. "I know. We all know."

"Excuse me, Strife?"

Cloud turned around to find Dr. Kimura, looking very solemn. "Are you looking for Rufus? He's over there, but I doubt you'll get anything coherent out of him tonight."

"That's fine, I can give him my report tomorrow. But I thought you should know, right away, that Sephiroth has escaped."

"Hmm."

The doctor frowned suspiciously. "You don't seem surprised."

"No. I didn't help him break out, if that's what you're implying. I think he just...accomplished what he stayed for."

"And that would be?"

Cloud drummed his fingertips against the bar and said nothing.

"The president will probably insist you be guarded, as he will be himself."

"I need more time with the Turks like I need another round of mako poisoning," Cloud scoffed, half-expecting to hear Reno protest, but Reno and Rude had disappeared (no doubt in the direction of the nearest bathroom). "I don't think Sephiroth will come after me directly, that's not his style. If he threatens the planet or my friends again, I'll stop him. But I won't hunt him down, and I definitely won't hide from him."

Dr. Kimura smiled ruefully. "Perhaps I was too hasty in my conclusions about you all those years ago. I think you would have made a fine SOLDIER, Strife. I wish you'd gotten the chance to re-test."

"I thought that wasn't allowed."

"It isn't, except on the unheard-of occasions in which the general himself intervenes, which he was doing in your case at the time of the Nibelheim mission. By the way, I spoke to a Dr. Lange at the Mideel Clinic. He confirmed that the patient who gave the name Jay Enova was an unstable, silver-haired young man who applied to the clinic for gender reassignment. So it seems Sephiroth's information was genuine."

Cloud smiled faintly. "I couldn't have stopped the clones without his help."

"He left this for you," Kimura said, handing over an envelope with the blond's name written on it. As the doctor excused himself, Cloud opened it and unfolded the letter with more eagerness than he would've admitted to.

Puppet, it began, I have a few things I must attend to before our next fight to the temporary death. In the meantime, give my regards to Zack and keep yourself ready for my return. For I will be back, make no mistake about that. Don't think I've cut your strings or that I will ever do so. Our story will never be finished, and I know, dear Puppet, you await the next chapter with anticipation, as I do. My will is stronger and shall triumph in the end, but I so enjoy the fight you give me. Sephiroth. P.S. You will tell me, won't you, when the chocobos stop screaming? I will never be so far away that I cannot hear your answer.

"Cloud?" Tifa said anxiously. "Is something wrong?"

"No. Everything will be all right."

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"...and so the planet is safe again, for now. The work of Hojo's madness has been defeated once more. Cloud continues to atone for his supposed sins. And perhaps Sephiroth, wherever he is, will find a peace of his own."

The cave's only light came from the glassy prison that encased the form of a young woman, but it was enough to make every feature of her face clear. She was lovely and unchanged by the passing of long years, but there was almost nothing left in her of the cheerful, ambitious doctor Vincent had once been assigned to guard. Only now and then her voice would come to him faintly, as though from far away.

I'm so sorry...

Vincent looked at her, concealing his sadness and helplessness behind a neutral expression. He wanted to tell Lucrecia there was no need to apologize, that he loved her still enough to forgive her, but he knew she was not speaking only to him. A glittering tear streamed down her cheek when Sephiroth's name was mentioned, the son she had betrayed and would never forgive herself for. Vincent could not insist she absolve herself any more than Tifa could make that demand of Cloud. Time would end her suffering if anything could, and time Hojo had given them, perhaps eternity in the bodies he had altered and tortured.

Vincent turned to leave, and spotted a shape on the floor of the cave, in the same spot where he had once found Death Penalty. He picked up the bottle and examined it, then looked at his lost love with disbelief.

"You cannot be serious."

Another tear fell from her eye, the only sign she had heard his objection.

"Very well."

Grumbling, Vincent removed his tattered red cloak and began to spray it with the Febreze.

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"I thought Great Sephiroth would be here," Loz said dejectedly, looking around the cell that was their new home. "I guess he really doesn't like us."

"It's okay, Loz. I'm sure he just had things to do. He'll come back, you'll see." Yazoo stood up and stretched. "Besides, it's not so bad here. Other Brother and his friends promised to visit, and that new doctor is nicer than Hojo, right?"

"I guess so," the larger clone said, plopping down onto the floor to pick up his Reno and Rude dolls.

A familiar set of footsteps approached, and the prisoners cheerfully looked up. They were already very fond of Barney, who brought them anything within reason that they asked for and told them stories about Sephiroth, with whom he'd become friendly over two years of guarding him. Barney was carrying a box wrapped in brown paper, which he handed into the cell through the glass door.

"A package for you, Loz. The scans say it's safe, so here you go."

Loz accepted it excitedly and tore off the wrapping in small pieces, making a mess of paper that Yazoo patiently cleaned up. Both he and Barney watched with interest as the other clone ripped the box open and made a squeal of delight. From the neat folds of tissue paper and styrofoam peanuts, Loz retrieved an action figure with long silver hair, a black cape and an enormous, slender sword.

"My Great Sephiroth doll!" Loz shouted, hugging it to his chest. "I thought I lost you forever!"

"But...how? Who sent it?"

There was a note at the bottom of the box. Loz, who was not very literate, passed it carelessly to his brother and continued to squeeze his old favorite toy.

"'I found this among Hojo's files and equipment, and thought you might like it back. Sephiroth.'" Yazoo beamed at Loz. "I told you he likes us."

Loz hardly seemed to hear. He was walking the Sephiroth doll into the miniature bathroom playset and threatening the Turk dolls in his calmest, smoothest voice.

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The humans of this world are so weak, Sephiroth said to himself as he stood in the shadows of rows of thick curtains. It had taken great restraint on his part not to laugh at the security who tried to prevent his entering this restricted area; there had been no need to unsheathe Masamune when bare hands would do the job with less fuss. Their bodies were stacked neatly in a storage closet, along with the body of a nosy stagehand who had been foolish enough to spot Sephiroth and make a comment the ex-general hadn't understood.

"Amazing costume!" he had exclaimed. "Is this some sort of SquareEnix publicity stunt?"

"If you value your life, puny human, you will forget you ever saw me here."

"No need to be a jerk just because Cloud kicked your ass."

Clearly, the idiot human hadn't valued his life.

Now Sephiroth had a clear view of the stage, and could see his target beneath the bright lights overhead, seated at a piano. To his knowledge, Genesis had had no interest in music during their days together at ShinRa, but by the sound of it, he'd done a lot of practicing to develop this talent. Whatever name he went by now, Genesis seemed to be happily absorbed in the music and the adoring cheers of the crowd, and did not sense his old rival lurking in the wings, eager for revenge. He was facing away from his observer, and the sight of a paperback book in his back pocket filled Sephiroth's eyes with an insane fury.

Genesis waited for the applause to die down and addressed the audience in, coincidentally, one of the two official languages used by ShinRa. "This next song is a new one, inspired by a story that's very special to me."

Sephiroth's nails dug into his palms deep enough to draw blood.

"I'd like to dedicate it to an old friend I haven't seen for many years. Wherever you are, Seph, no hard feelings."

I am here, old friend, the Nightmare thought with a cold smile. And you will soon be feeling something hard - namely the ground rushing up to break your fall.

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In his sleep, Cloud vaguely felt Sephiroth's satisfied mood and smiled, unaware of its source. As he drifted to the depth of slumber where dreams begin, the young hero was aware only of Zack's soft snoring and Aerith's occasional laughter. She was always awake and was usually the one who gently woke Cloud when the nightmares came. They would not come tonight, but she kept watch anyway, humming a song that evoked images of a white flower field and a planet at rest.

When Cloud's dreams arrived at last, they were of life only, not death. Zack was dragging him gleefully through the halls of a ShinRa building while Sephiroth followed behind, his eyes fixed and shining silver. Tifa was gazing up at the stars, asking Cloud to promise to save her if she should ever need help. Aerith was leading him onto a gondola in the Golden Saucer as fireworks lit up the night sky. Hojo was being eaten alive by fire ants, but that was more a fantasy than a memory.

The peace would not last forever, it never would, but for now there was no screaming and no one he was unable to save. As the planet he helped to protect continued to turn and breathe, Cloud was able to live in the silence of the chocobos.

At least, until he met Cid's next "girlfriend".

The End!

Translations:
(1) "What is that?"
(2) "I don't understand."
(3) "You mustn't drink that water!"

Thank you to all who read and reviewed. Blue ribbon to Dark Queen Come To Krynn for correctly guessing that Genesis's new identity is, in fact, Gackt. No offense intended to Gackt, who I actually like very much. No infringement intended upon the makers of Febreze, which I am very fond of. Apologies to Cid fans for that last line and fans of good taste in general. Since Zack didn't get any in this story and Sephy did, I shall give him the last word.

Zack: "Hey!"
Cloud: "I agree with Ardwynna. I'm tired of being everyone's butt-monkey."
Me: "Sorry, sweetie, that's never gonna change."
Sephy-Pants: "Stop calling me Sephy-Pants."
Me: "Happy Holidays to all! And I've typed my fingers numb to get this last part out quickly, so thank me with reviews! Good night!"
Zack: "I was supposed to have the last word. Next time, I'm calling dibs."