The Midgar number one Mako reactor exploded in a fireball that could be seen for miles around. A bright, pale green halo of Mako rose around it, expanded to the horizon, and was gone.
Nearby, Cloud Strife and the members of AVALANCHE huddled in a section of hallway. The ceiling had collapsed before and behind them, walling them in. It was perfectly dark except for the blue-tinted light from Biggs' flashlight and the digital read-out of a device Jessie was working with. It booped and beeped as she keyed in a rapid succession of numbers. Barret paced the small area, but compared to his manic, angry energy of earlier, he seemed calm and satisfied.
"That should keep the planet going," he said. "At least a little longer."
"Yeah," Wedge agreed solemnly.
Jessie stood and covered her ears. "Okay. Now everyone get back."
They did so as much as they could in the small space. The flash of the explosive nearly blinded them, and set part of the rubble around them on fire, but they emerged into a back alleyway. Wedge beat out his pants, which were smoldering.
"Alright, now let's get out of here," Barret said "Split up! We rendezvous on the train at the Sector 8 station!"
They ran, all except Cloud. Barret watched them and turned to go himself, but Cloud yelled after him.
Barret looked back, expressionless, his face flickering in the flames.
"If it's about your money, save it 'til we're back at the hideout."
Cloud nodded, and the two split. Cloud wandered alone through the cobbled streets and found himself in the theatre district. Midgar was the largest city in the world, the home of the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. The latter mostly lived below the plate, but even the upper city was starting to look dingy and unloved. No one bothered to pick up trash. Crashed vehicles were pushed to the side of the road and forgotten. He strolled calmly, not wanting to attract attention, but many were running to flee the vicinity of the reactor. A couple of these buffeted a young woman standing on a corner beneath a huge poster for Loveless. As Cloud passed her, she touched his arm.
"Excuse me," she said. "Do you know what happened?"
"Nothing," Cloud answered, and he was going to continue that she should probably get out of here, but the basket she was holding made him pause. It was filled with yellow and white flowers, some sort of lilies. There was no vegetation for miles for miles around Midgar. Cloud hadn't seen flowers since… no, no need to think about that. He drew his eyes up to her face. She looked back, puzzled.
"Hey… you don't see many flowers around here," said Cloud, slightly stupidly.
"Oh!" she said. "Do you like them? They're only a gil each."
"That's not very much."
"No. It's not." She gave him a small, mysterious smile that lit up her eyes, greener than Cloud had ever seen.
Cloud reached in his pocket and gave her the coin.
"Oh, thank you!" She smiled again, handed him a white flower, and turned to walk calmly into Sector 8. Cloud watched her as she went. A truck drove by and ruffled the hem of her pink dress.
Cloud held the flower for a moment, a little awestruck. It was real, slightly moist and sweet-smelling. He tucked it into his belt and went on his way by a plaza with a fountain at the center. A power line buzzed and crackled overhead. The area was empty except for a pair of men loudly exchanging theories on the reactor explosion. That it was an accident, that an operator had fallen asleep at his post, that it was sabotage from a Shinra employee. The graffiti on the wall behind them read "Don't be fooled by Shinra! Mako energy doesn't last forever! Mako is the planet's lifesource! The end is in sight! –Protectors of the Planet: AVALANCHE" Cloud snorted. Soon someone would guess the truth.
As he passed through an alleyway, Cloud noticed he was being followed. He glanced behind him. A pair of blue-uniformed MPs gave chase.
"Hey, give it up!" one shouted. "We know who you are!"
Cloud turned. He had unfairly favored the bolt spell tonight. Now was the time to use his other materia. Cloud stretched his hands, the familiar green glow encircling him. This spell was not as flashy as the lightening spell, but equally effective. A frigid wind blew toward his attackers. As it touched the guards, they froze, literally, and frost began to encrust them.
When it was clear his opponents were dispatched, Cloud ran. The station wasn't far from here, and the quicker he left the upper city the less likely he was to run into more trouble. But as he entered the main street two more pairs of MPs approached from either side. He pulled back into the alleyway, but more were closing on him from behind, passing the frozen pair. He didn't have time to fight them all and make it to the train station on time, and getting shot wasn't any fun anyway. Cloud surveyed the area, gritted his teeth, then walked into the main street with his hands up in a gesture of surrender.
"That's him!" one of the MPs shouted.
"That's as far as you go!" said another.
Cloud heard a train whistle, which had been his hope. The MPs had him surrounded on three sides, but on the fourth side was a drop off where the train track exited a tunnel. He backed slowly in that direction.
"I don't have time to be messin' around with you guys." He grinned, and his electric blue eyes caught the lamplight.
A couple of the MPs laughed. One said "Enough babbling! Grab him!"
The guards advanced. Cloud felt the rumble of the train passing beneath his feet. He turned, vaulted over a concrete guard rail and landed lightly on top of a passenger car.
The wind flew at his face, stinging his eyes. He knelt to keep from falling as the train accelerated, then turned to wave at his would-be captors. After a moment of surprise they opened fire on him, but it was too late, the train had already passed into the tunnel through the plate, out of reach and out of sight.
"Cloud never came," Wedge said sadly. He swayed slightly with the rhythm of the train.
"Yeah," Biggs said, moving from his perch on a crate to lean against a wall. He staggered slightly as the train accelerated. "Wonder if he was killed."
"There's no way!" said Barret. "You saw him fight!"
"Cloud…" Jessie whispered down at her now bare feet.
"Say… Do you think Cloud's going to stay with us?" Biggs stretched and tried to sound off-hand. "Fight to the end for AVALANCHE?"
"The hell would I know!?" yelled Barret. "Do I look like a mind reader?" He banged his fist on a crate, making the other three wince. "If ya'll weren't such screw-ups, I wouldn't have hired him anyway!"
There was a moment of silence, then Barret banged his fist on the crate again. Everyone turn to look at him.
"Uh… nothin,' sorry."
It came from the direction of the boxcar door. The four glanced up, but as one decided it was nothing.
Biggs jumped up and slid it open cautiously. Cloud somersaulted in from atop the train and landed lightly on his feet.
"Cloud!" Biggs, Jessie, and Wedge exclaimed together.
"Looks like I'm a little late," Cloud commented casually as he stood.
"You damn right you're late!" Barret fumed. "Come waltzin' in here! Makin' a big scene!"
Cloud began to beat the soot off his clothing. "No big deal, just what I always do."
"Shit. Havin' everyone wonder about you like that—you don't give a damn 'bout no one but yourself!"
Cloud stopped shaking out his pants and looked up into Barret's coal black eyes, incredulous. "You were worried about me!"
"Wha? I'm takin' that outta your money, hot stuff." He looked around at the other AVALANCHE members watching this bit of theater. "Wake up! No need for us to stay in here! We're movin' out! Follow me!"
Wedge followed him and grasped Cloud's shoulder as he passed. "You were great back there, man."
Biggs grinned at him as well. "We'll do even better next time!" He too left the car.
Cloud and Jessie were the only ones left. The wind from the open door ruffled her short, mousy brown hair. She slid it closed then turned to Cloud, smiling shyly.
"Oh, Cloud! Your face is pitch black." She pulled out a handkerchief. Cloud tensed as she moved it toward his face, making the touch awkward. "There you go." She drew breath to speak again, but thought better of it and turned to leave. Cloud followed her. As she reached the door she turned to him again. "Say, thanks for helping me back there, in the reactor." Cloud nodded, and the two entered the passenger car together.
The car was sparsely populated besides the members of AVALANCHE, but Barret was a crowd all by himself, reclining, legs crossed and foot tapping, both good arm and gun arm spread on the top of the green vinyl seats beside him. Two passengers near the front of the car looked nervously from Barret to each other. As Cloud watched, one gestured toward the door. The other nodded in agreement and the two left. Barret took no notice. Guess he gets that response a lot.
A pleasant, antiseptic female voice announced: "You are on the last train from Sector 8 Station. This train's last stop is Sector 7, Train Graveyard. Expected time of arrival is 12:23 a.m., Midgar Standard Time."
"Hey, Cloud, you might want to have a look at this." Jessie headed toward the front of the car and Cloud followed. She gestured to a monitor to the left. Cloud looked puzzled. "Oh, you might not care," Jessie laughed. "But I like this kind of stuff, bombs and monitors, you know, flashy stuff. It's a complete map of the city," and so it was, computer generated and in great detail. The city was shaped like a wheel, with the space between spokes being each numbered sector. At the end of each spoke was a mako reactor, and at their hub was Shinra headquarters. A series of green dots marked their train's progress into the slums. They circled downward around the pillar that was the main support for the upper city.
"Each town below the plate used to have a name," Jessie said. "But nobody remembers them. Now they're just called by the numbered sectors. That's the kind of place this is. Faceless. The train will pass through a few checkpoints on our way down. They check the background and identity of each passenger on board." Jessie whispered once more. "Obviously we're suspicious, so we're using fake IDs."
The lights on the train dimmed, leaving only the red-tinted emergency lights. "Speak of the devil. We're passing through one now." She grinned. "When the lights go out, you never know what kind of creeps will come out. We're almost home, now, though. That's a relief." Cloud had to agree.
He walked towards the center of the car, somewhat restless. He took one of the handholds hanging from the ceiling near Barret, who looked over his shoulder out the window. The wedge shaped slums could be seen over the walls dividing each sector. "You can see the ground now… This city don't have no day or night." The statement came in a low growl, the closest the man got to pensive. "If that plate weren't there we could see the sky."
Cloud leaned to better take in the view. The city below consisted mostly of plywood, sheet metal, and graffiti, with only a few real buildings, all a dingy sort of brown. What light there was echoed off the iron ceiling of the plate above, making everything seem close and claustrophobic.
"A floating city… pretty unsettling scenery."
Barret turned to look at him. "Huh. Never expect to hear that outta someone like you. You jes' full of surprises." He looked back out the window. "A city on a plate, yeah. It's cuz of that fuckin' pizza that people underneath are sufferin'. And the city below fills with the pollution from up above. No wind ta blow it out. On top a that, the reactors keep drainin' up all the energy."
"Then why doesn't everyone move onto the plate?" He asked the question mainly to get Barret's goat, but Barret surprised him by sighing. His breath made a little cloud on the plate glass, covering the reflection of his close cropped beard.
"Dunno. Probably because they ain't got no money. And maybe… 'cause they love their land, no matter how polluted it gets."
"I know." Cloud responded sadly. "No one lives in the slums because they want to. It's like this train. It can't run anywhere except where its rails take it." He continued his stare out the window. The view disappeared behind the sector walls as they neared the ground and rolled into the station.
Barret rallied them together as they stepped onto the platform, and led them a little ways between a pair of abandoned steam engines in the train graveyard across the walk.
"This mission was a success, but we can't get lazy now!" He beat his gun arm in his fist. "Don't ya'll be scared of that explosion, 'cause the next one's going to be even bigger than that! Meet back at the hideout, move out!"
Barret ran and the AVALANCHE members followed him. Cloud fell behind. He left the station and passed by heaps of trash and a pair of guards that stood in the gap in the wall between sectors 6 and 7. Slum dwellers were not allowed transit past curfew, and it was well after midnight now. Shinra had originally intended to allow no transit between sectors at all, but now there were strategically located holes blasted in the tall concrete walls between sectors. The guards were chatting and did not glance up at Cloud. The trash piles transitioned almost gradually into makeshift homes, and then into makeshift shops. At the end of the beaten dirt path that passed as a street was the only real building, made of unpainted wood with real glass windows holding lurid neon signs advertising beer and liquor. The sign over the door read, in flickering yellow, gothic script, "7th Heaven." The bar was a fitting hideout for AVALANCHE, protectors of the planet. A gaggle of barflies, one staggering slightly, were flowing out after last call, shooed out by a very familiar barmaid. Cloud picked up the pace a little bit.
Cloud passed Barret, who was standing guard on the porch. As soon as he opened the door something small and pink collided with his knees. It was a little girl with short brown pigtails. Cloud guessed she was about five years old. She looked up at him with big brown eyes. Cloud looked down at her. She ran to hide behind the bar.
"Marlene! Aren't you going to say hi to Cloud?" asked the barmaid. She shook her head at the little girl, swishing her long, dark hair, then scooted past her out from behind the bar.
"Tifa," Cloud nodded at her.
"Welcome home, Cloud. I saw the explosion on the news, and everyone is back now, so it must have went well. Did you fight with Barret?"
"Yeah," Cloud admitted.
"I thought you might. He's a little hard to take, and you've been in fights ever since we were kids." She gave him a small, experimental smile. "I was worried about you guys, but I guess it worked out alright." She looked Cloud up and down as if to check for any injuries, and noticed the lily tucked in his belt. "A flower! Cloud, you shouldn't have! Where did you get it?"
Cloud was slightly taken aback. He hadn't really intended to give it to her, wasn't entirely sure why he had bought it at all, but he was trapped now. He took the flower from his belt and offered it. "I only paid a gil for it," He warned.
Tifa narrowed her mahogany eyes, disbelieving, but took the offered gift. She filled a highball glass from the sink behind the bar; she had never had any use for a vase until now. As she did, Cloud removed the harness that fixed his giant sword to his back and leaned the length of metal against the bar. "Maybe I should fill the whole shop with flowers," Tifa said. "Then people would come from all over to see them."
They come from all over to see you, Cloud thought, but he said "It would just make people sneeze."
Cloud had known Tifa for a very long time, so it was not the first thing he thought of when he saw her, but Tifa was gorgeous. She was curvy and long-legged, and had always had a doe-eyed, girl next door sort of prettiness. Her martial arts training had added a confidence and a hint of danger to her bearing which she had not had when Cloud had been close to her, and which only added to her appeal. Tifa seemed entirely unaware of it, but Cloud imagined the main reason 7th Heaven did such a good trade in the middle of the slums was that when Tifa came to ask sweetly whether her patrons wanted another, most men and probably quite a few women found it difficult to say no to her.
Maybe Tifa was not entirely unaware. She wore a small, strapless black dress which left little to the imagination. Cloud resisted the urge to admire the view as she leaned on the bar, admiring her flower. Good thing, too, because she looked up to suggest gently "Go sit with the others, Barret will start the meeting when he's sure nobody is watching."
Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie were sitting at a table near the door, drinking beer and chatting. The bar was small but tidy and presented a far cheerier atmosphere than most of the slums. A jukebox in the corner played a jazzy tune. Cloud sat by Jessie, who blushed, but did not speak to him.
Barret came storming through the door. "Where's my baby girl? Where's my Marls?" He roared amicably.
"Papa!" Marlene squealed and ran from behind the bar with the enthusiasm native to the very young. She held up her arms to be picked up.
"Hold on a sec, honeychild." Barret flicked a couple of catches on the gun attached to his arm, twisted it off and thunked it down on a table, leaving just a metal cap on the nub of his right forearm. He then scooped her up with bear roar and noogied her affectionately. Marlene squirmed and giggled. As he watched them Cloud wondered what trick of chance or genetics had landed Barret with a white daughter. Marlene seemed to be the only thing that broke Barret's angry, prickly brutishness. It was a good thing something did, at least for Barret, or he would already be dead of an aneurism.
Barret sat Marlene atop his shoulders and called to the table "Come on, fools, let's have this meeting!" He walked to a pinball machine in the corner and stomped his foot. The machine and the section of floor he was standing on lowered themselves with the sound of turning gears. Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie followed him down a ladder, then the pinball machine rose back up to its original position.
"I guess they didn't want you to come, too," Tifa said. "Would you like something to drink instead?"
"Yeah, I'd appreciate it. Something hard." He moved to sit at the bar.
Tifa smiled and pulled down a bottle of Mideelian whiskey. "I sometimes think the others joined AVALANCHE just for the free drinks," she said as she poured him a shot. "You know, I'm really relieved that you made it back safely."
"You shouldn't have worried. That wasn't even a tough job." Cloud said dismissively. He swirled the alcohol in the glass once then knocked it back. It was pretty horrible. Tifa wasn't one to give her best to anyone for free. Aalcohol was more plentiful than many things in the Midgar slums, but even it didn't come cheap.
"I guess not. You were in SOLDIER." Tifa pulled out a damp rag and began wiping down the bar. "Make sure you get your pay from Barret. Do you want another drink?"
"No. I'd better go get it now. I want to get out of here."
Tifa shot him a look, half hurt and half anger, but Cloud didn't notice as he turned toward the pinball machine.
"Cloud… are you feeling alright?"
"Yeah," Cloud spun around to look at her. "Why?"
Tifa shook her head. "No reason." She looked at him briefly as if she was trying to see through him, then looked down at the bar. "You just look tired I guess."
The basement hideout was a square room the same size as the bar above. Biggs and Wedge sat at a table examining a set of diagrams. Jessie sat at a computer monitor, armor gone now, tongue between
her teeth in concentration. Marlene sat on the floor with a coloring book. Barret was in a corner, working on a punching bag with his good arm. Cloud watched him critically as the pinball machine lowered itself to the floor. Fortunately Barret specialized in ranged weapons. He had a powerful swing, but any opponent worth a damn would be able to see it coming for a mile.
"Yo, Strife! Somethin' I wanna ask you." He gave the bag one last punch and then turned to face him. "Was there anyone from SOLDIER fighting us today?"
"None. I'm positive."
Barret frowned down at him. "You sound pretty sure."
Cloud snorted. "If there was anyone from SOLDIER you wouldn't be standing here now."
"Don't go thinkin' you're so bad just 'cause you were in SOLDIER," Barret said as he advanced on him. "Yeah, you're strong, probably all them guys in SOLDIER are," he allowed, but then poked Cloud in the chest. "Don't forget, your skinny ass is workin' for AVALANCHE now! Don't get no ideas 'bout hangin' on to Shinra!"
Barret and Cloud were less than a foot from each other now. The position was more than awkward. Barret had probably expected Cloud to back up. Barret led mostly by intimidation, and that probably worked okay with the others, but Cloud had faced down opponents far more frightening and formidable than Barret Wallace. Up until now Cloud had been irritated but not angry with the man. Now he was trying to intimidate him and that pissed him off. When he spoke it was low and dangerous.
"Stayin' with Shinra? You asked me a question and I answered it. I don't belong to your terrorist organization. I don't have to put up with this. I'm going upstairs. I want to talk about my money." But when Cloud turned to the pinball machine, there was Tifa blocking his way.
"Let him go, Tifa. Looks like he still misses the Shinra!"
"Shut up!" he said, his cool now lost. "I have no love for Shinra or SOLDIER." He pushed past Tifa and stomped the board to make the elevator rise. The gears whirred into motion. "But don't get me wrong. I don't care about AVALANCHE. Or the planet, either."
When he had risen about two feet, Tifa jumped onto the elevator with him. The thought of pushing her off entered his mind, but he banished it and glared at her instead. He went to gather his sword as soon as the elevator reached the top.
President Shinra's voice came from the Television behind the bar "Tonight the Midgar number one reactor was bombed. The terrorist group AVALANCHE has claimed responsibility. AVALANCHE is expected to continue its reign of terror, but citizens of Midgar, there is no need to fear. I have mobilized SOLDIER to protect our citizenry from this senseless…"
Cloud strapped on his back sheath. Tifa was not far behind him. "Listen, Cloud, I'm asking you: Please join us."
"The planet is dying. Slowly but surely it's dying. Someone has to do something."
"So let Barret and his buddies do it." He sheathed his blade and went for the door. "It's got nothin' to do with me."
"You're really leaving!? You're just going to walk away and ignore me? You're going to forget your promise?"
Cloud's hand stopped on the doorknob. He spun to look at her. "What?"
"So you have forgotten."
"What promise, Tifa?" His weirdly bright eyes bored into her.
"Look, it was at the well."
Cloud looked like she had hit him in the face with a board. He did remember, but he hadn't thought it had been important.
"Yeah…" He looked into Tifa's eyes. "I told you to meet me one night. I didn't think you were going to come."
"But I did."
"And I told you I was leaving Nibelheim."
"And that you wanted to be a hero like Sephiroth and that you were going to join SOLDIER. I was afraid you weren't ever coming back, and I made you promise." She was near tears now. "That when you got famous, and if I was ever in a bind…"
"I'd come and rescue you." He finished and looked away. "Tifa… I was fourteen when I said that. I'm not famous and I'm not a hero. I can't keep that promise."
"But you got your childhood dream, didn't you? You became a SOLDIER."
Barret emerged out of the hole in the basement, saving Cloud from having to answer.
"A promise is a promise, big-time SOLDIER. Here!" He tossed a small pouch at him. Cloud dumped out the coins inside and counted them.
"Fifteen hundred gil? Don't make me laugh."
"What, then you're leaving—" Tifa started desperately, but Cloud was looking at Barret.
"You got the next mission lined up, right? I'll do it for three thousand."
"Someone's got to take care of you jokers."
Barret looked like he would have liked to throw Cloud out a window, but Tifa grabbed Barret's arm and stood on tiptoe to whisper in his ear. Barret looked disgruntled, then whispered something back. He grimaced at Cloud. Tifa looked between them nervously.
Cloud nodded in agreement and Barret turned back to the basement.
Tifa gave Cloud a smile like the sun emerging from behind, well, a cloud. "Thank you so much, Cloud"
Though he already knew he was going to regret his decision, Cloud couldn't quite resist the urge to smile back.