Off Course: The Delivery Boy Saga Off Course: The Delivery Boy Saga

Disclaimer: I don't own FFVII! Argh, I hate repeating that. Also because I haven't played Crisis Core (Gotta get a fucking PSP first), Genesis and Angeal will not be appearing at all because I don't know their stories well enough to insert them. Thus this story is not FFVII: CC compliant. Let us all be sad because of my college induced poverty...

IMPORTANT: The beginning is going to be almost exactly like "Delivery Boy in Shangri-la" but without the insertion of Saiyuki. There will be small additions in the beginning as well. Then it'll radically change after that. There'll be an upsetting lack of humor too.

I shouldn't even be starting this but once I finished The Delivery Boy's Errand this popped up. Damn it, I just consciously added to my hectic workload...

Prologue: The Last Man

Dark feathers, black as midnight, littered the halls. They blazed a trail almost invisible in the flickering lights. Spidery cracks along the way added to the gloomy atmosphere as did the crumbling ceiling. There were no doors save for the one at the beginning of the hall and at the end. Light streamed out from the bottom of the end door. A hand reached out and pushed the door open. And the light, blinding and cold, burst out.

And the screams that were once silent now ehoed with all of the rage of the Planet.

000

Cloud Strife jacknifed up in his bed. Sweat dribbled down his temples and the sides of his face. His pupils were dilated into vertical slits. His eye color flucuated between Mako blue and Lifestream green. The blond shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut in a pained expression.

"Get out," he hissed. "Damn you, Gaia, get out of my head!' Cloud curled into himself. He clutched at his head with desperate fingers. "GET OUT!" he screamed. "I won't listen! Not anymore! Solve your own problems!"

And the echoes of the Planet's screams disappeared from his mind.

"Why?" he cried. "Hasn't my entire existence so far been enough for you? Six hundred years I have fought your battles! Damn you!" He clawed at his face and made himself bleed. But the mako concontion in his blood healed the wounds with minimal effort. It was like Hojo and the Planet both desired him alive and for different reasons. Hojo because he was a sick fuck without an ounce of humanity; the Planet because she was too much of a coward to let her protector go.

"Please…" Cloud reached out blindly. "Please…"

There was no one to answer his plea. It seemed that even the gods had abandoned him.

000

Cloud tiredly put together First Tsurugi. Even his spiky blond hair drooped in an expression of exhaustion. Heavy bags hung under his eyes. Once again no one answered his pleas for relief. After all, everyone was dead, even Vincent. The stress of Chaos and the other three beasts in his body had led him to madness. And so Cloud, in a violent act of mercy, killed the gunman. Even to this day Vincent's words of gratitude rang in his ears. Those words had been painfully sincere. Since then, he couldn't even hear Aeris' gentle murmurings or Zack's jovial words.

The Planet had deadened him to everything but his own pain and her screams of fear and pain. Now her screams were getting louder and louder. Her fear was so tangible that the forests were shivering and the mountains were buckling.

The apocalypse was coming, that much was certain. And with no Omega Weapon to lead the energy of the Lifestream away to a new world, the souls of the world would be sucked into the void of space. Cloud briefly thought of his friends' souls then shrugged his shoulders. It would've been most likely that they would have been reincarnated as trees considering how things were now with the Planet's paranoia. They had been powerful after all and Gaia foolishly feared them. But she clung desperately to Cloud because of his forced immortality. He was her savior, wasn't he? Wasn't he?

The immortal swordsman shrugged away the Planet's grasping fingers and walked out of his hut. He went to Fenrir and smiled wanly. He checked its solar power levels. "Quite a bit," he muttered. He hopped on and revved the engine. He drove to nowhere.

He was a nowhere man in a nowhere land.

000

Cloud stared out from the cliffs of Midgar to behold the ruins of the city. The city of lights was covered in green in a poor attempt by Gaia to heal the wound caused by Shin-ra's ambitions. But he could see that the edges, including the ruins of Edge, were quickly dying now. There was no hope of rebirth in this place.

Gaia was too drained from the reactors and too much like a panicked child. He had been forced to watch as she killed her own inhabitants to absorb their souls into the Lifestream. Disease, drought, and famine ravaged the world during those first two hundred years after Kadaj and his brothers. Earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis wiped out anyone else that hadn't been killed off by the first wave of disasters. Hell, Cloud had been surprised when Nanaki had come to visit with his cubs one hundred years ago. Unfortunately they had died on their way back to Cosmo Canyon. The small group barely made it eighty meters away for his hut. He had stared in horror when the ground had literally swallowed them whole. He had raged against the Planet for weeks to no avail. She hadn't given them back.

All that Cloud possessed were his swords, his motorcycle, and the screaming voices in his head. His sanity's presence was disturbingly questionable.

000

The last man on Gaia dropped his sack of barely edible greens onto the floor of his hut. He couldn't even hunt because there was no wildlife to eat. Hell, he would have even eaten a monster just for some meat. Now he had been reduced to an herbivore that relied on nuts and soy for protein. Cloud wanted beef really bad. Chocobo sounded delicious too and he had lovingly raised Chocobos for several decades. Chocobo wings, thighs, legs, breasts, gizzards...

"Good grief..." Cloud muttered. "I could eat a whole flock right now." He didn't feel like eating his vegetables that he had gathered. He had to eat though even if he did want to starve himself just to spite the Planet. However, knowing Gaia, she would forcibly keep him alive on just air and brief shots of Lifestream. It did not sound pleasant. Kind of like Hojo back when Cloud was in his lab and the slimy bastard was still alive. The blond grimaced and paced the pathetic length of his hut.

How had he been reduced to this? Living like some primitive hunter-gatherer without the hunting bit? He had gone from an apartment with running water and electricity to a hut in the grasslands beyond Midgar. He was forced to bath in a cold, shallow stream and to see by firelight after sunset. He had no companions, nothing.

Once upon a time Cloud had wanted to lead a simple life and for everyone to just leave him alone. Now life was too simple to the point where he might as well live in a cave. He was so lonely that he could scream if he thought doing so would help. So far he hadn't made an imaginary companion out of sticks and rocks but he was finally getting to that point.

The ground rumbled and Gaia screamed in agony.

Cloud scrambled out of his hut with only First Tsurugi on his back. He stared heartbroken as his hut and Fenrir were swallowed into the ground. Then he grabbed at his head and fell to his knees. Gaia's wails were reaching epic proportions now. He screamed right along with her. Then a bright, warm green light surrounded him.

"Hang on..." a sweet and achingly familiar voice whispered soothingly.

Cloud knew no more.

000

Chapter One: Familiar Faces

The pool of Mako swirled and a gloved hand shot out of the center to grasp at the edge of the natural pool. Soon another hand and a head soaked with Lifestream followed, along with shoulders and a masculine upper body.

Cloud Strife, a reluctantly immortal warrior, dragged himself out the familiar pool. He coughed out green, glowing fluid and rapidly blinked his eyes to clear them. He pulled himself the rest of the way out and ignored the faint burning sensation of Mako-on-skin contact. He was used to it anyway. He pushed himself up to his hands and knees. Cloud heaved at the nausea that the movement induced. He felt weak, drained. His golden hair dripped glowing Mako. The weight of First Tsurugi on his back was the only comforting thing in the entire situation.

"Hell no..." Cloud gasped, finally recognizing just where he was. "No, no, no!" He staggered to his feet.

A faint whisper from Gaia entered his mind. –Save me? Save me?- she begged. Her voice seemed younger somehow. It was strange...

"Will you save the future, Cloud?" that same voice from before he blacked out said.

The blond swayed and barely managed to jerk around. Instantly he was surrounded by the illusion of a field lush with white and yellow flowers, painfully familiar flowers. "Aeris?" he croaked out. A pretty girl with braided, chestnut brown hair in a pink dress smiled at him. Her bright green eyes crinkled with that familiar smile. "Aeris, what? What's going on?" Cloud took a stumbling step and fell to his knees. Brown boots straight from the past stepped into his vision and he looked up. "Aeris?" he sobbed.

Aeris Gainsborough knelt and threw her arms around Cloud. "Oh Cloud, don't cry," she said. "It's me, I swear." The blond man grasped desperately at her and held her tight. "Ah! Too tight!"

"Sorry!" Cloud gasped. He quickly let go. But Aeris didn't let go of him, just simply pulled back to look him in the eye. "What's going on?" he repeated.

"The apocalypse had happened. Gaia was in so much pain that it was up to me to direct the rest of the Lifestream for one last desperate try to stop this entire mess. I'm sorry I left you alone for so long, Cloud, but I needed my strength to pull this off without Gaia knowing," she said. "I'm using the last of it to give you a message. Then I'll disappear and another Aeris will exist."

Cloud looked confused. "Another? I don't understand," he said. "What's going on?" Again that question sprung from his lips. "Aeris, answer me!"

"What I did was a rewind of the world. Usually only Gaia has the authority and power to pull it off." Aeris shook her head. "But she had gone mad from the pain and you were her only anchor. I had no choice but to do it myself. The others helped me, even Sephiroth." Cloud stiffened but the dead Cetra shushed him. "The sane, Jenova-free Sephiroth helped, not the madman from the past. The Sephiroth we fought and you killed in the Northern Cave was all Jenova, using his face. The last time was Jenova and Kadaj taking on his guise. The real Sephiroth died a long time ago, long before the fiascos with Meteor and Geostigma." The pretty brunette sighed. "He wanted a second chance as much as anyone else."

"Alright," Cloud acquiesced. Aeris never lied to him and this was not a figment of his imagination. "So, what do I do?"

"What you feel is right, Cloud," Aeris answered. "But you must be careful. Everything must change and quickly."

A purpose-filled calm blanketed him. "I will be the catalyst then?" he asked.

"Yes, it's up to you."

Cloud grinned, using his Zack influenced sense of humor mixed with his own humor. "Isn't it always nowadays?" he said. He stood on steady legs. "Goodbye Aeris." It felt good to actually say a farewell to the one person he had never gotten to say goodbye.

Aeris looked up at him with tear-blurred eyes and a wide smile of gratitude. "Goodbye Cloud," she said. She and the field of flowers faded.

You came for me and that was all that mattered...

Cloud nodded. He finally understood.

We're friends, aren't we?

He reflexively touched the pommel of First Tsurugi and smiled a little.

I was frozen in time, but I feel as if my time is just beginning...

"You're right, Vincent," Cloud said. "It is just beginning." He walked out of the caves of the Nibel Mountains. He had work to do.

But first... a bath because he hated dripping Mako everywhere.

000

It was pretty inconsiderate of that dragon to bleed and die all over Cloud and First Tsurugi after he had just cleaned himself of Mako. The blond man scrubbed at the blood on his hands, scowling. His eyes flashed green in irritation but he pushed down the anger. The dragon was dead after all, no need to beat a dead horse...er dragon over it. He shook his head and sighed. That had been all Zack right there, seriously. But he also grinned to himself. Zack was always good for a bad pun and a great joke.

Cloud laughed and shook his hands free of excess water. He had washed his sword first then himself so he was free to go as it were. Finally he jogged out of the caves, following familiar paths back to Nibelheim. He stopped at the sight of the unstable bridge that was part of the final path to the village. Something about this bridge didn't sit well with him. He knew that it had a tendency to collapse, specifically at the two dates that he remembered. He froze when he saw the distant, tiny speck of blue and dark brown.

Tifa...

"NO!" he bellowed. He dashed across the violently swaying bridge. He knew he would survive the fall if it broke. However Cloud had no desire to have the younger Tifa fall into a coma. He barely registered his younger self as he stepped onto the other side and grabbed the little girl. "Do not cross this bridge!"

The small girl struggled. "No! No! I have to see Mama!" she wailed. Cloud stared at the frightened form of his younger self. "Mama, Mama!" She stopped struggling as the bridge let out a loud groan and collapsed. Tifa let out a choked gasp and another wail.

"I tried to stop her, honest!" little Cloud, who would be called Kid in adult Cloud's head, said with frustration clear on his face. "Thanks mister."

Cloud ignored Tifa's hard but tiny fists and howls easily. He was tougher than Sephiroth after all, even after a constant diet of just greens and soy. "Let's just get you two home, alright?" he said. Kid nodded and led the way. Tifa had collapsed in exhaustion and was reduced to just sniffling. Great, just great. His first day back and he had to deal with crying children.

000

Devron Lockhart, mayor of Nibelheim, didn't know whether to sock this stranger who looked like the Strife boy for making his girl cry or to thank him for saving his stubborn daughter's life. God help him if he had lost Tifa so soon after losing his wife. So maybe he would thank him. He stared at the stranger who was standing in front of his house. Tifa had locked herself in her room and the Strife boy was at home probably clinging to his mama's skirts. Others of the village were watching the exchange warily.

"What's your name?" Lockhart asked gruffly.

The stranger had the nerve to cock his head to the side, his Chocobo-like hair swaying a little with the movement. "Valentine," he answered with an out of place expression of amusement.

"That it?"

"Rufus Valentine," the stranger replied to the rude demand. He seemed to be getting a kick out of the whole thing. The mayor grunted at him. "You're welcome." The blond man whirled away and began to leave the village. Devron Lockhart glared for all he was worth and entered his house, slamming the door behind him. The crowd of villagers dispersed quickly afterward.

000

Cloud snickered to himself. Rufus Valentine, what a riot. Just as he was about to exit the village proper a voice called out to him, a voice he had not heard since he was a boy. He felt his heart skip a beat from the shock. Damn it...

"Wait please!" Mama Strife called out. Cloud reluctantly turned around to see Kid and his mother. He tried not to have a panic attack. Mother... Mother... It was his mother for god's sake. "Please, my name is Alya Strife and I would like to thank you for saving my son Cloud!" She pulled forward Kid. "He's the only person I have left in the world. Thank you, Mister..."

"Valentine," Cloud replied roughly. He cleared his throat and barely made eye contact with her. "It's Valentine."

"Well, thank you Mr. Valentine for saving my boy and little Miss Tifa."

"Thanks Mr. Valentine," Kid said as well. He still looked frustrated with his own inability to stop Tifa. And was that envy in the boy's eyes? Probably because to him the older man looked strong and capable, especially in the face of his own failure. Cloud understood all too well.

The blond man shifted uncomfortably. "You're welcome," he said, this time sincerely. He may have enjoyed being rude back to Mayor Lockhart but he didn't have the balls or the inclination to be rude to his mother. Old habits, even after her death, were hard to break. His mother had never tolerated rudeness of any kind, deserved or not. "If you'll excuse me, I must be on my way." He tried to leave again only to be stopped by her voice once more.

"Please allow me to at least feed you supper and a bed to sleep in, Mr. Valentine, free of charge," Mama Strife offered. Her genuine expression made Cloud want to vomit in shame. How could he do something like that? Walk into his house with his formerly dead mother and his younger self that was no longer even him anymore?

"I'm sorry but I really have to go. Take care," Cloud said as he bowed. He hurried out of the village despite Mama Strife's calls to come back. He couldn't do it. One night in her house and he would have confessed everything and then be sent off to the loony bin. He died a little inside.

000

Cloud wished that it had been the calm high summer of the mountains. Currently he was huddled by a lone tree in the plains that lay south of Nibelheim. With no fire. He could have crossed into the Corel Range from the Nibel Range without having to worry about the spring or autumn winds. With that route he could have cut his traveling in half. But it was spring and the winds made the mountain borders between Nibelheim and North Corel extremely treacherous even for one such as him. Besides he had grown up in those hills, vales, and mountains. He knew well enough how bad the weather could turn. Those fearsome memories were untainted by Jenova's meddling and held no doubts.

In the south lied the red cliffs and canyons of the Cosmo region. Cloud would have to cross there to get to the spring swelled river crossing that led to the Gongaga jungles and plains. He wondered briefly if Zack was still there or had already entered Midgar into the SOLDIER cadet program. The blond cleared his head of that line of thinking. He had to mentally map out his route first before confronting those particular issues.

Anyway, from the Gongaga region he would have to trudge through another river crossing toward the coast without having to go to North Corel and crossing the Corel Mountains. All the while he would avoid the desert area around the Golden Saucer. Cloud hated sandstorms and had no patience to deal with them. Then his final destination in the Western Continent was Costa del Sol. From there he would sneak onto a boat and think up his next route on the way without getting too motion sick.

"This is looking to be like an extremely long, tedious trip... on foot," Cloud groaned. The stars twinkled coldly down on him. Obviously they didn't give a rat's ass.

000

Zackary Fair was anxious. Here he was, a handsome, growing thirteen-year-old, stuck in the middle of his jungle village with only dismal possibilities for the future. Farmer, logger, or Touch-Me hunter... it was not exactly a bright future for a boy like him. He wanted something more. He wanted to be awesome. Something cool. Something...

A newspaper ad caught his eye from the kitchen table. He glanced over at his humming mother who was working at the stove. He knew his father was out logging. Zack looked down and preceded to read.

Do you want a bright future? To be strong? Join SOLDIER and achieve your dreams of a better life. Shin-ra Electric Company, making dreams come true at Midgar.

A picture with a well-muscled man that had an impossibly large sword strapped to his back stared up at him from the ad under the words.

The teen grinned. He snatched the add and stuffed it into his back pocket for later. "I'm going out to tend the vegetables!" he called to his mother. Zack didn't wait for his mother's reply and bounded out of the house in glee. Maybe he could be awesome. All he would have to do is get to the Eastern Continent and he'll be free. Now how to get to Costa del Sol...

000

Cloud carefully eyed the stairs and consequently the guard that led the way into the cliff-side buildings of Cosmo Canyon. He stood in the shadows just beyond the first steps up next to a boulder. He wondered if it was worth trying to get past the guard in order to rest and eat; above all he wanted to eat.

The former mercenary hadn't eaten since he had arrived in the rewound past twelve days ago. For once he was grateful for the Mako enhancements that made his body unnaturally durable. Cloud had survived only on water for nearly two weeks but his enhancements came with a high price in the end. The more days he went without food the higher his metabolism shot up and the hungrier he became. He could ignore it, especially in the beginning. But now after twelve days water wasn't enough anymore for the bare minimum.

With his enhanced blood clamoring for food, Cloud's body could even handle raw meat without getting sick like normal humans. So... would he beg for enough food to feed six grown men or go hunting on his own and keep going? Meat of any kind sounded great and Cloud was no beggar no matter how hungry. He narrowed his glowing eyes and decided. He would wait for sunset then begin his hunt. He grinned and vanished from the stairs of Cosmo Canyon. The monsters in the area instinctively hid themselves though the other normal, local fauna like the small herds of cliff goats wouldn't stand a chance.

000

The two-day walk to Gongaga had gone smoothly for Cloud. After gorging himself, the Mako enhanced swordsman kept his guard up and made sure his two Ribbons were tied tightly on his biceps. It was paranoia at its extreme and the only two accessories that made it through with him along with First Tsurugi were the Ribbons back from his adventuring days during his first chase with Sephiroth. He was not having some freaky frog turn him into a fellow amphibian. Still, he kept his limbs loose and ready and his senses alert for any kind of surprise. And he made sure to stay away from the logging sights throughout the jungle.

Cloud finally reached the clearing that held Gongaga Village and raised his eyebrows. The difference between pre-reactor and post-reactor was startlingly. It was a lot like Nibelheim though more cheerful. Hell, a lot of places were more cheerful than his old home village except for Midgar. That place was slightly more depressing than old, backwards Nibelheim. Still, the people of Gongaga were plain but smiling. Their smiles made Cloud grateful that Aeris had managed to rewind the Planet.

"Excuse me, are you alright sir?" a little voice said from behind a short, blue picket fence. Cloud looked over at the nearest house at the little girl dressed in pink. She had black hair and eyes the color of the sky. But something about her innocence reminded Cloud of Marlene when she had been small. "Sir?"

"I'm fine. Does this place have an inn?" Cloud asked.

The tiny girl, she had to be at least four-years-old, pointed farther into the village. "There's one by Grammy Rose's Tea Shop," she answered. She smiled, showing off a gap where her baby incisor had been. "She makes yummy cookies."

"Thanks." Cloud waved goodbye and walked toward where she had pointed.

000

Thanks to his impromptu monster hunting in which the monster dropped gil like no tomorrow, Cloud could afford a week at the inn to rest, eat, and re-socialize himself. He had disliked the fact that he had felt like he had no manners whatsoever after being confronted by the gentile Alya Strife at Nibelheim. The last time he had talked to anyone was a century ago to him. The last time he had even talked to a human was over two hundred years ago with Vincent. Depressing to be sure was the thought in his head.

"Here's your key, Mr. Valentine," the chipper old woman, Grammy Rose herself who owned the teashop and inn, handed over the old-fashioned iron key. "You get your rest, you hear, young man?"

Cloud wanted to laugh since he was technically over five centuries older than her. He just smiled instead. "Yes ma'am," he said dutifully. He pocketed the key. "Does your tea shop serve lunch, Miss Rose?"

The old woman fluttered her fake eyelashes in playful flirtation. "Why yes we do, Mr. Valentine. Lunch right around the corner, isn't it? I bet a strong, virile young man like you has a big appetite... for many things." She giggled at her joke.

"Something like that," Cloud said. His smile became boyishly charming. As a result it made him look even more youthful despite his immortality, from physically twenty-one to sixteen. Cloud enjoyed the blush that painted Grammy Rose's cheeks. "I'm sure your food is fantastic, Miss Rose, among other things."

"Ohoho, you are naughty, Mr. Valentine!" Grammy Rose exclaimed in delight. "I'll fix you a hearty lunch, then you can explore our wonderful village!"

"Yes, I would love to."

000

A few hours later, late in the afternoon, Cloud calmly and slowly walked the three streets that made up Gongaga Village. Several of the teenaged village girls giggled at him before getting back to their chores. Small children laughed and played in the vehicle free streets, some playing tag or a simple game of kicking a ball. A few dogs, obviously pets given free range, wrestled playfully with several other children. This place was idealistic, simple. Cloud had to find a way to prevent the disaster of the failed reactor. Places like this were few and far.

So many things to remember to do.

But Cloud needed a week with real people at least and, compared to the majority of Nibelheim and the strange people at the tightly guarded Cosmo Canyon, this was a real as he was going to get. He had no idea the state of North Corel or Costa del Sol. Well he did believe, considering the timeline, that North Corel was still in tact. Barrett was probably still young and Marlene still a twinkle in her biological father's eye. Nevertheless the blond felt a little off-kilter at the moment and needed time to adjust accordingly while staying on a somewhat tight schedule. He needed to keep his pace and keep it fast.

000

Six days later Cloud finally ran into the young Zack Fair. Or rather Zack ran into him. He nearly had a stroke when the boy tackled him and started babbling. The blond man blinked his glowing eyes at him. "Whoa, whoa, hold on. Who are you?" Cloud forced himself to ask while really asking what the fuck the kid was doing.

"You're a SOLDIER, right?" the boy asked, waving an ad under Cloud's nose. "You look just like the dude in the picture, sword and everything!"

Cloud's eyes crossed as he stared at the wrinkled ad. Then he felt on 'oh shit' moment happen upon him. "What's your name?" he asked again. Intervention number two.

"I'm the super awesome Zack Fair!" the boy crowed. He grinned so wide that Cloud had the amusing idea that the top of his face would fall right off. "Could you take me to Midgar? Huh? Huh?"

"Listen Puppy boy-"

"IT'S ZACK!" the teen shrieked.

"I'm not taking you to Midgar. Go home," Cloud continued as if Zack had never interrupted him. "Seriously, you're just a kid and you have no place in Midgar." Secretly he was egging him on to see how stubborn this teenaged Zack was in this new life.

"I don't think you understand, dude," Zack said in such a startlingly serious about-face that Cloud almost smirked. "Gongaga's nice and all but I can't stay here. It's cool but dead-end for ambitious kids like me. And yes, I know what that word means. Just 'cause I'm hyper doesn't mean I'm dumb."

"I don't believe you." The blond swordsman purposely looked up and down Zack's scrawny body and sneered. "You don't have what it takes, kid."

Zack's eyes flashed like the violet lightning of the autumn storms at Mount Nibel. "I do too! I'll be so strong that I'll be the best!" he declared. "I want a better life and I'm gonna get it no matter what you say!"

"Oh yeah?"

"YEAH!"

"Then you better talk to your parents and tell them goodbye. It's going to be a long, hard road, kid, just getting to Costa del Sol."

Zackary Fair grinned and dashed off. Cloud tried to feel bad about the fact that he was taking him from his parents. But his gut and Aeris' words about doing what he felt was right nagged at him. His other self would need Zack in the coming days.

000

Cloud hated having staring contests. Hell, he felt twitchy when people gave him more than a three-second glance. But he had no intention of being out done by Harney Fair's cold violet gaze. Once upon a time he had seen this man at his worst and couldn't even look him in the eye from the shame of it. But now Cloud had the guts to stare him down and guarantee his son a better future. Because he was Cloud Strife, dammit, and that was what he was sent back to do.

"He'll have a better future, you say?" Mr. Fair said. His shoulders slumped. "That boy is just too ambitious. It's going to get him killed."

"Not on my watch," Cloud said vehemently. "Never."

Fair looked surprised then pleased. "Thank you," he replied. He looked at his son who was standing by the blond stranger that called himself Rufus Valentine. "At least try to write once in a while. For your mother's sake at least."

Maggie Fair sniffed and hugged Zack. "Be a good boy, Zacky. We'll watch the newspapers for you too," she said.

Cloud and Zack left.

000

Zack twitched at the sounds of the night. He stared at his new mentor with wary eyes. It was disconcerting that the blond man's electric blue eyes were literally glowing in the dark. He wanted to ask why but was surprisingly nervous about doing so. Never mind that he had had no qualms tackling him and demanding to be taken to Midgar. Zack had a feeling, however, that Mr. Valentine's glowing eyes were a sore subject to him. He struggled for something to say as they sat at the campfire.

"Fidgeting is going to get you nowhere," Mr. Valentine said.

The thirteen-year-old forced a grin on his face. "Sorry, I'm always like this," he said. Though not to this degree. "Um, how are we going to get to Costa del Sol?"

"The river crossing south of the Corel Mountains."

"Sorry to say but the spring waters are at their highest this time of year," Zack pointed out.

"I know. It was the same at the Cosmo-Nibel crossing. I still went." Valentine eyed his tag-along. "Though I suppose you can't do something like that yet considering how scrawny you are. It would probably sweep you away."

Zack knew that Mr. Valentine spoke the truth and he accepted it. "Guess we have to go to the long way," he said.

000

Fuck, Cloud had forgotten that Zack was still a kid lacking Mako enhancements. He didn't have the height or strength to make it across the flooded shallows of the river crossing. It looked like they would have to go through Corel after all. He really, really didn't feel like it. Zack was lacking a proper weapon after all. That meant that for every single monster attack he would be fighting alone.

"Mr. Valentine?" Zack called.

"Yeah?" Cloud was getting used to being called by his pseudonym. Actually he kind of liked it and it would prevent confusion from when this time's Cloud Strife would come to Midgar and join Shin-ra. He would still refer to himself as Cloud in his head but would answer to Rufus Valentine for now.

"We have to go through North Corel and the Corel Mountains, huh?"

"Why ask questions you know the answers to?" Cloud replied. He smirked at the pout on the boy's face. "Anyway, how old are you?"

"Thirteen," Zack answered.

Cloud shook his head. "You're going to have to wait another whole year to be able to qualify to enter the cadet program," he said. He didn't like how Zack drooped. "That's good actually."

"Huh?"

"Think about it, kid. A year with me training to prepare for entering the cadet program means you'll be a year ahead of the other boys."

"Hey wow, you're right!" Zack grinned. "That'll be my edge! You are so made of awesome Mr. Valentine!"

"Eh? I try." Cloud smiled to himself and stared up at the stars.

000

TO BE CONTINUED