Warning: This fic contains less-than-pristine language, violence, and non-explicit adult themes.

All But Blood

Chapter 4

by Krista Perry


Aeris's house was tucked into a small corner of the Sector 5 slums that almost qualified as being cozy. She lived right near the reservoir that served as the water supply for lower Midgar, and so, amidst the rusted pipes and the constant, distant rumble of pumping machinery, an almost natural-looking waterfall tumbled from a nearby spillway to a man-made lake behind her house. The house itself was right at the edge of the shadow of the upper city plate, so it would occasionally catch a rare beam of real sunshine amidst the smog. And of course, there were flowers. Inexplicable, bright yellow flowers that somehow flourished near her home, just like they did in the church. As if her presence alone was enough to make them grow.

The area surrounding Aeris's house was easily the most beautiful place in Midgar. And in spite of the amazement I always felt as I noted the marked contrast between this place, and the grimy, claustrophobic Sector 5 market that I had just left behind... I couldn't stifle a twinge of trepidation as I knocked on Aeris's front door.

I came bearing bad news, for both of us.

Aeris's mother answered, looking the very picture of domestic bliss. A cooking apron was draped over her worn dress, and in one hand, she held a long wooden spoon that was on the verge of dripping batter. The smell of sizzling pancakes and hot maple syrup wafted from the open doorway.

"Zack," she said, a pleased expression lighting her face. "You're here early."

I smiled, hoping that it might somehow cover my inner turmoil. "Good morning, Mrs. Gainsborough. I hope you don't mind."

"Of course I don't mind. I don't think Aeris is ready yet, but you're welcome to come in and wait for her. Would you like some breakfast? I'm making pancakes and sausage."

It smelled delicious, and I could feel my mouth water involuntarily, but I didn't have time. "Thank you, ma'am, but actually..."

"Actually, I'm ready now," said Aeris, as she came down the stairs behind her mother. She was wearing her favorite pink dress, and her long golden-brown hair was tied up into a pony tail with the pink ribbon that I had given to her a few weeks before.

She looked at me and smiled... and her sad eyes told me that, somehow, she already knew what I wanted to tell her.

There were times when it seemed that Aeris knew what I was going to say before the words even had a chance to leave my mouth. Maybe it was because she could so easily read my expression. Or maybe all she had to do was look at me with those beautiful green eyes of hers to see into the deepest parts of my soul with a mere glance. Maybe - and I was beginning to suspect this more and more - maybe she didn't even have to look at me at all to just... know.

Usually, this uncanny ability of hers didn't bother me. It was a part of her; a part I loved, along with everything else about her. But at the moment it made me feel worse than ever. I could see the disappointment behind her smile, and it mingled with my own, leaving a sharp, bitter taste in my mouth.

As the swift non-verbal understanding passed between us, I still felt it wasn't enough. I wanted to say something out loud, apologize to her. But she must have understood that intent as well, because before I could even say anything, she swept past her mother and snagged my arm with hers. "Mom, Zack and I are going for a little walk, okay?"

I cast Aeris a grateful look. Her mother liked me well enough now, but she probably wouldn't approve of this. It was Shinra business, after all.

"But what about breakfast?" her mother protested, as Aeris and I walked arm in arm down the dirt path that led to a small rise where the yellow flowers grew in abundance.

"Don't worry," Aeris called back. "I'll be back for breakfast."

I glanced back in time to see her mother shake her head as she gave us a fond look. "Don't be too long, you two, or the food will get cold," she said, before going back into the house.

A moment after the door closed and I felt assured of our privacy, I met Aeris's gaze. "So I guess you know," I said. I didn't ask how she knew. She could never really explain it anyway.

She nodded. "You have to cancel our picnic outing," she said. There was no accusation in her voice; only a sad resignation.

I sighed. We had both been looking forward to getting out of Midgar for a whole day together. The outing had been planned for weeks, and now... "Not cancel," I said. "Just... postpone for a bit."

"For how long?"

I shrugged, feeling a sudden wave of despondency wash over me. I hated doing this to her. She deserved so much more than to be left hanging like this. "Three weeks," I said. "Maybe three and a half. A month at the most." But I knew my time estimate was extremely optimistic.

"A whole month," she said, startled. "Where are you going?"

"To the East Continent." I ran my free hand through my hair and sighed again. "There's a reactor in the mountains near Nibelheim that's malfunctioning. The raw Mako is apparently producing monsters, according to the locals. Sephiroth and I are being sent to investigate, and protect the townspeople."

"It sounds exciting," Aeris said, but her tone was worried.

"I expect it will be," I replied, and then I smiled ruefully. "But the timing really stinks."

She nodded. "So, when are you leaving?"

I blew my breath out through pursed lips. "Well, the helicopter leaves for Junon at eleven hundred hours, and then we're sailing for the East Continent this afternoon."

Her eyes widened in dismay. "So soon?"

"I haven't even packed yet," I said, nodding regretfully. "I wanted to come and tell you first."

Aeris's hands tightened almost imperceptibly around my arm. "Can't they send someone else? Why does it have to be you?"

I shrugged helplessly. "It's my job."

"I know, but..." And she trailed off and looked away, but not before I saw a hint of wetness shimmering in her eyes.

My heart plummeted. I knew she would be disappointed, but I didn't think she would be so upset over it that it would bring her to tears. "Aeris, I'm sorry." I gently wrapped my arms around her, and she leaned her head against my shoulder. I pressed my cheek against her soft hair. "I'll make it up to you somehow, I promise."

"Zack..."

"I mean it. Shinra is going to owe me big time for this last-minute job, so when I get back, I'll take all my leave and spend it with you. We'll get out of Midgar and picnic every day for a week, if you'd like."

"No, Zack, I mean..." She looked up at me again, and for the first time, I saw the fear in her face; the dread lurking in the tears that glistened in her eyes. "Do you really have to go?"

I suddenly realized that there was much more to her reaction than just being disappointed over a canceled picnic outing. "Aeris, what's wrong?"

She looked at me for a long moment, a ripple of emotions playing across her face, then looked down and gave a small, watery laugh. "No... never mind. It's nothing."

"It's not nothing if it upsets you this much," I said.

But she just shook her head, and wouldn't meet my gaze. "I just... have a bad feeling, that's all."

"A bad feeling," I repeated. "About... me leaving?"

She nodded without looking up, and wiped at her eyes with her fingers.

I absorbed that silently.

"I know, it's silly," she said, struggling to compose herself. She looked up at me again and gave me a small smile. "Maybe it's just me, my own selfishness, wanting to keep you here and have you all to myself."

But I knew it was more than that. Aeris was in tune with... with something, and I knew better than to take her intuition lightly. "It's not silly," I said seriously. "If you say you've got a bad feeling... well then, I expect that this assignment is going to be trouble."

Her smile faded, and I could see that, in spite of her denials, she thought so as well. "But... you're still going."

I shook my head. "I'm sorry. I have to. I don't have a choice in this, but even if I could talk my way out of it... would it really be fair to push that trouble off on someone else? Someone who might not be as prepared to deal with it as I am?"

Aeris sighed forlornly. "No," she said. "I suppose not. But that doesn't mean I have to like that you're the one who might be..."

Her voice trailed off, and we stood together in silence amidst the flowers. And as I held her in my arms, I struggled to think of something to say that might make her feel better about me going off into apparent danger. My thoughts tumbled over the early morning briefing and the events that followed, trying to find a positive spin to the situation, and I found just the thing.

"Hey, Aeris," I said, breaking into the melancholy quiet. "Do you remember that kid I've been telling you about?"

She tilted her head up at me thoughtfully. "The shy one? The one you're trying to help get into SOLDIER?"

I smiled. "That's the one. Nibelheim is his hometown, and so I got him assigned to the team. I had to talk him into it, though. He's doing well in the enlisted army so far, and is on the verge of being promoted to Private 1st Class, but... well, it seems that he's afraid of disappointing his friends and family at home." I shook my head ruefully. "The kid's got so much talent, but he lacks faith in himself. He's had a ton of bad experiences at Shinra that have managed to shoot his self esteem all to hell, so I'm hoping that this assignment will help him out a bit."

"Mm," Aeris said, and I could hear from that monosyllable sigh that her mood had lightened slightly. "Well, from what you've told me about him, he sounds like a nice boy. I'm glad he has a friend like you. And it's nice that you'll be there to support him when he returns home." She sighed. "I just wish..."

I reached out and gently lifted her chin so that she would look me in the eye. "Aeris, trust me. I will keep your warning in mind, and I will be careful." I grinned. "And if you're worried about the monster rumors, don't be. Think about it. Sephiroth is coming with me, and he's so powerful, not even the Midgar Zolom can hurt him. Trust me, if anything comes along that I can't handle, Sephiroth will take care of it, no problem."

"I trust you, Zack," she said, and she leaned against me again, and sighed. "But before you leave... just hold me. For a little while."

A request I was all too happy to oblige. I drew her close and held her, and felt her heart beat against mine as I ran my fingers through her long, silken tresses. The minutes ticked by all too quickly. I wanted to stay there forever, holding her in my arms, feeling her warmth and love...

"I have to go," I said. Somehow I managed to force the words from my throat.

She looked up and smiled bravely, but again tears filled her eyes. This time, she made no attempt to brush them away. A moment passed, and once more she rested her head on my shoulder. Her hands clung to me as if, by her will alone, she could keep me safe from whatever terrible premonition was haunting her.

"Promise me," she whispered. Her breath was warm against my neck. "Please promise that you'll come back to me."

I held her close. Aeris... I thought. My heart was full of nothing but her; full to overflowing. How could I not come back to you? But I knew, as she looked up at me with those luminous eyes, that she wanted a simple answer.

Promise me.

I leaned forward and she closed her eyes, tears spilling down her cheeks as I whispered my vow against her soft petal lips.

"I promise..."


I promise...

I wake in darkness with tears burning my eyes, and a searing ache in my throat.

Oh, how I've come to hate that dream. Memory. Whatever it is that flits through my mind with such painful clarity in this living nightmare.

At first, it was a comfort. A reminder. Now, it's nothing but a torture far worse than anything Hojo has ever inflicted on me.

Aeris... Is she still waiting for me to keep my promise, already five years broken? Or has she moved on with her life? Forgotten me?

Either thought is too painful to bear.

And so, as usual, I push the memory from me, even though doing so feels like a betrayal. I push it from me and turn to look at Cloud. My best friend who, like Aeris, I have also failed.

He is awake. Or at least, his eyes are open. But lately, that doesn't mean much. Hojo, who isn't even bothering to pretend to experiment on me anymore, has been giving him Jenova injections almost every day for over a week. And with each injection, Cloud has grown less and less responsive to my efforts to keep him with me; to keep him from succumbing to the thrall of the soul-devouring monster within him.

"Hey, Cloud," I say. "You there?"

No response. And though it makes me feel sick with grief, I'm not surprised.

"Well," I say. "I hope you don't mind me talking anyway. Just in case you're in there somewhere. You know, listening."

Silence.

"Funny thing is, I'm pretty lousy at holding one-sided conversations. Though it's not really funny. I mean, none of this is... And see, here I am, pointing out the blindingly obvious, which only goes to show how bad I am at talking out loud, without someone to talk back. I'm just not that type of person, you know? I've always liked to be around people, see; I like getting to know them... and that usually requires some sort of dialog exchange."

Cloud remains motionless, his glowing Mako-blue eyes staring blankly at nothing.

I sigh. "You know, it would really help me out here if you could give me some sort of sign that you can hear me. It doesn't have to be anything big. Just maybe... blink or something. I mean, how can you stare like that for so long, and not blink? It's unnerving, you know? I mean... is Jenova somehow keeping your eyes from drying out? Because otherwise..."

Nothing. Not even the flicker of an eyelid. And suddenly, I feel terribly, desperately alone. More alone than I've ever felt before.

"Come on, Cloud," I whisper. "You promised me you'd fight it. You..."

Huh. But how can I, the master of broken promises, hold him to his? He wouldn't have even had to make such a promise if I hadn't failed him first.

Wearily, I lean my forehead against the glass of my cylinder. "Is this how you felt, Cloud? Utterly useless? Like you had let down everyone you had ever cared about?" A burning lump fills my throat and I swallow hard. "Man... how did you bear it?"

No answer is forthcoming from my silent companion. And so I turn away and close my eyes, unable to bear seeing him so... lifeless. "Cloud... you know how Hojo is always saying you're the weak one... well, he's lying, you know. He always lies." A thin chuckle escapes my lips. "Because I think back, and if this is how you felt all that time... you kept going in spite of it all. And me, right now... I can almost feel myself breaking inside. If I'm not already broken, because right now, I sound crazy to my own ears. I mean, how messed up is that?"

"... stars..."

The muffled whisper takes me by surprise, and I lift my head to stare at Cloud, who doesn't look like he's moved an inch.

"Cloud?" My voice is hesitant. Maybe I was hearing things. I am going crazy, after all, so it wouldn't be unusual.

But no, his lips are moving again. Anxiously, a wild surge of hope spiking through me, I lean forward, straining to hear his faint, hoarse words though the glass of our prisons.

"... bleeding..."

Stars bleeding? Okay, that's creepy, but at least he's talking. He's responding, and the relief I feel is so sharp, I don't care if he makes sense or not. I have to keep him talking. "What do you mean, Cloud?"

"... she's bleeding..." And for the first time in days, Cloud's expressionless face flickers with grief and anxiety.

"Who?" I ask. This expression of emotion... any emotion... it's a good thing. It means Cloud is still in there, for real. It means there's still a chance. "Who's bleeding, Cloud?"

"... don't... die..."

"No one's going to die," I say, though I suddenly get the horrible suspicion that he's not talking to me. He seems like he's caught in a dream. And I can see tears forming in his eyes.

"... please... Tifa... don't..."

My eyes widen with understanding. Oh. Oh, that. He's remembering that. My stomach sinks, and I suddenly wonder if trying to get a response out of Cloud was such a good thing after all. I mean, I'm glad to know he's still in there somewhere, still fighting it... but for him to relive that terrible moment...

And just as that thought crosses my mind, I hear footsteps coming from down the long stone corridor that leads to the outside.

Panic fills me. "Oh, shit," I whisper. "Cloud, Hojo's coming." Who knows what that bastard will do if he finds Cloud talking again.

"... blood..." Cloud moans. "Tifa..."

This is so not good. "Cloud," I whisper urgently, as loudly as I dare. "I know I was trying to get you to talk to me, but if you can hear me at all, please listen to me and shut up before Hojo catches you!"

The footsteps approach, then pause just on the other side of the door. I hold my breath. If Hojo heard... if Cloud says anything more...

But to my immense relief, Cloud is silent again. Whether it's because he heard my warning, or the nightmare simply ran its course, I'm not sure. And a moment later, it doesn't matter because the door opens and Hojo steps through.

Shit. I think he heard something, because he looks at Cloud suspiciously over the rims of his dark glasses. But Cloud is once again expressionless and unmoving. After a long, scrutinizing moment, Hojo glances at me.

"Talking to yourself, Specimen A?" he asks coldly.

I shrug. "No one else to talk to. Gotta entertain myself somehow."

He glares at me briefly before turning his attention back to Cloud. Eyes narrowed, he walks right up to the cylinder, hands clasped behind his back as he peers intently into Cloud's unblinking, faintly glowing eyes.

"Hello," he says. And to my surprise, his voice is... disturbingly cordial. "Can you hear me?"

And realization touches me, like a cold finger on my spine. He's not talking to Cloud.

"If you can hear me," Hojo says, and I can hear a slight strain in his voice, "please, answer. Please... show me that my work has not been in vain."

But the moments pass in silence. Except that I can hear my heartbeat thudding loudly in my ears.

As the moments stretch into minutes without a response in spite of Hojo heartfelt appeal, his hands fall to his sides and slowly clench into fists. "Why?" he asks in a low voice. "Why do you remain silent, even now?" Slowly, his voice begins to rise in pitch and volume as his agitation grows. "Have I not prepared you a perfect vessel? A strong, Mako-enhanced body, whose will has been completely suppressed? Why do you not assert control? What have I done wrong? Tell me!"

Cloud stares back at him blankly. And suddenly, my greatest, most terrible fear is that he will open his mouth and speak... with words not his own.

Like Sephiroth...

This is what it's all about, is that it, Hojo? Sephiroth is dead. Cloud killed him... and so you've tried to turn him into Sephiroth's replacement? But I suppose it makes sense, in a sick sort of way. Who better to replace Sephiroth, the most powerful warrior who ever lived, than the man who somehow managed to destroy him?

But... Cloud remains silent. For some reason, Jenova isn't taking over. The experiments of the past five years have succeeded in pushing Cloud's consciousness so deep within himself that he can barely even function... but with nothing to take his place.

A puppet without strings. Without a puppet master.

Hojo's breath comes in short, sharp gasps of anger and frustration. "Why?" he asks again, hoarsely.

In my relief... or panic, or insanity, I'm not sure which... I decide to shatter the tableau. "Tough luck, Hojo," I say. "Looks like Jenova doesn't like you either. Maybe if you weren't such an asshole..."

He turns on me furiously, and I blink, surprised at seeing him so vehement. My insults have never managed to get a rise out of him before. "If there is failure in an experiment conducted with a perfect science," he snaps, "the failure is likely due to an unworthy specimen. Your pathetic friend is obviously unfit for Jenova!"

I glare right back, in spite of my self-preservation instincts screaming at me to drop it. "You know, you're talking a hell of a lot more like some whacked-out religious fanatic than a scientist, Hojo. And if Cloud is so obviously unfit, how come it took you five damn years to figure that out?"

I can see a vein pulsing on Hojo's forehead, and for a moment, I think he's actually going to lose it.

But then, a sudden, disturbing spark lights his dark eyes, and he turns away from me quickly.

"I see," he mutters, almost to himself. "Yes... I didn't take that into consideration. Such interference could be a factor..."

I blink. Interference?

Oh, shit, he doesn't mean what I think he means.

But Hojo looks at me again, and the calculating smile on his face confirms my fear. "Easily dealt with," he says, walking over to a large cabinet against the wall. "Yes, and then the experiment might yet be salvageable." Opening a long, thin drawer, he reaches in and pulls out a small, faintly glowing green sphere.

Materia. Oh, shit. Zack, you idiot, why couldn't you just keep your mouth shut? You just had to provoke him, didn't you? But even now, as Hojo walks up to my cylinder, I can't seem to keep quiet. "Hojo, what the hell do you think you're do-"

Hojo mutters a word under his breath, and the spell rips through me without preamble... but to my surprise, there is no pain. No searing fire, freezing ice, or even violent shock. And then it's over.

I shake my head, feeling slightly groggy. "What-" I say, or try to say, because no sound emerges from my throat... and understanding hits me like a ton of bricks. Furiously, I glare at Hojo, who is almost smirking at me. Hojo, you son-of-a-bitch, I yell, but all I can hear is the force of my breath. No voice. I've been Silenced.

And Hojo's attention has already refocused on Cloud. Effectively dealt with, I am now nothing more than a nuisance best forgotten. "Now then," he mutters, "let's see how a complete lack of outside communication effects Specimen B. Without any human interference to draw him out, it should make a significant difference. Don't you think?" He looks directly into Cloud's vacant eyes. A small smile twitches his thin lips. "Yes... yes, I should think it will. And then... perhaps you will finally speak to me."

His critical gaze takes in Cloud with a final sweep of his eyes. Then, without another word, he turns on his heel and walks out the door, closing it solidly behind him.

Immediately, I turn to my friend. Cloud, I say... or mouth silently. My hand instinctively strays to my throat in frustration at the lack of sound it's producing.

And slowly, the horrible realization of what Hojo has done with a simple spell settles on me like a shroud. I can't speak. I can't reach Cloud at all now. Is Hojo right? Will his mind fade away completely without my voice to pull him back?

And as for me... without even my own voice for company, the heavy silence presses in on me, broken only by my own ragged breathing.

The moments of silence stretch into minutes. The minutes into hours. Hours into days, days into years. Ages of silence, with me alone. My friend next to me, alive, but empty. A living shell.

At some point, I realize that there are tears streaking my face. But it doesn't matter.

There is nothing left... absolutely nothing, to keep the terrible specters of memory from haunting me without mercy...


The truck rumbled to a shuddering, creaking stop. I sat up, blinking sleep from my eyes, and rubbing the back of my neck to ease the crick I'd earned from trying to sleep sitting upright on a crate. Stifling a yawn, I looked over at Sephiroth. "We there already?"

The silver-haired man nodded as he stood. "We're just outside the gates. I thought it would be better if we made our entrance to the town on foot, since it would be less obtrusive. The reports have said that, with the Mako reactor malfunctioning, anti-Shinra sentiments are rather high. They're expecting us, but still, a low profile seems best."

I nodded. "Good idea." I knew that, anti-Shinra sentiments or no, Sephiroth's very presence alone could be intimidating. I don't think there was a person on the Planet who hadn't heard of his power, intelligence, and cold ferociousness in battle. But what most people didn't realize is that Sephiroth wasn't the greatest general in history just because of his war victories. The reason he inspired so much hero-worship and loyalty in his troops was because of his fair-mindedness, and even temper. And I would be a liar if I didn't admit that my admiration of him was one of the main reasons I became a SOLDIER myself.

I waited for Sephiroth to open the back doors of the truck and step outside before getting to my feet. The open door brought a welcome gust of crisp mountain air, smelling of pine trees and the recent rain, into the stuffy confines of the Shinra vehicle. That woke up Marlow, who had somehow made himself comfortable lying down across three lumpy boxes, and he immediately stumbled out of the back and followed after Sephiroth. Strapping my Buster Sword to my back, I looked over at Cloud, who was still sitting hunched over on his crate. "Hey," I said, nudging his boot with my foot. "You alive?"

He glared up at me, and I winced. Motion sickness had definitely taken its toll on the poor kid. The shadows under his eyes made me wonder if he'd managed to catch any sleep the entire truck ride. I reached out a hand, which he took silently, and hauled him to his feet. "Rejoice, my friend," I said, grinning. "For behold, we have reached the end of our turbulent journey, and solid ground awaits your feet."

But he was obviously in no mood for my too-cheerful disposition. "Shut up, Zack," he moaned, rubbing one hand across his face. His spiky blond hair looked even more un-comb-able than usual. I just chuckled, much to his annoyance. But, after stepping out of the truck and actually standing for a few moments on motionless dirt, he seemed to get his bearings again. Stretching out his kinked muscles, he then looked down and futilely smoothed at the creased wrinkles in his blue Shinra uniform for a second, before giving it up as a lost cause. "Okay," he said after taking a few deep, cleansing breaths. I could almost see the sickly tinge to his skin fade. "I think I feel more human now."

"And not a moment too soon," I said. "Sephiroth wants us to head into town now. We're going in by foot so we're not too intimidating."

Cloud blinked. "Uh... by foot?"

"Yeah." I raised an eyebrow. "Is there something wrong with that? If there's some local custom or something that we should know about..."

"No... nothing like that." Cloud looked at the surrounding forest. The thatched cottage roofs of Nibelheim rose above the trees a short ways up the steep dirt road. Looming in the distance just beyond the town were the dark, jagged peaks of Nibel mountain range. He sighed. "It's... just been a long time, I guess."

"Two years, right?"

He nodded distractedly. "From here, though, it looks like nothing at all has changed."

"Well then, let's get going. If anything is different, it will probably be in town, right?"

"I guess."

We started hiking up the dirt road towards the town gates. Cloud looked around at everything, as if trying to note two years worth of difference in the forest. "So," I said. "Who are you going to visit first? Tifa, or your mom?"

Cloud looked at me, startled. "T... Tifa? I... I can't visit Tifa."

I grinned. "Why not? I thought you liked her."

"I do! I mean..." He gave me a flustered, angry frown. "Look, I just can't. She... she probably doesn't even remember me. It's not like we were all that close before I left. I just had a crush on her, that's all."

"Have a crush," I corrected. "Have, as in present tense." I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. "Look, kid, you can't fool me. I've seen you looking at her picture. I've seen that starry-eyed expression you get when you're thinking about her. You've got it bad."

He scowled at me, but his ears were turning pink.

"So you should go visit her," I said. "I mean, jeeze, what harm could it do?"

"You have no idea," he muttered darkly.

"Whatever." I shrugged. "Fine, don't visit her. I think you'll be missing out on a great opportunity. But all I ask at this point is that, before you take off to visit all your old haunts, you point me the direction of some decent food. 'Cause man, I'm starving."

As we walked farther up the path, the wrought iron gates framing the entrance of Nibelheim slowly came into view. Sephiroth and Marlow were already standing there waiting for us. Just outside the gate in the shadow of a brick building was an old broken-down, rusted-out farming truck that looked like it had been sitting there for a good decade or so. Cloud's soft exclamation of recognition when he saw it confirmed my guess. He snorted softly. "I guess they're never gonna move that truck," he muttered.

I laughed. And then, looking beyond the gates in the center of the rustic town square... I saw a girl sitting slouched against an old wooden water tower.

"Hey," I said in surprise, nudging Cloud with my elbow. "Hey, look, isn't that Tifa?" I recognized her from the photo that Cloud always carried around with him. I couldn't see her face, because she was looking at the ground, but not many girls had such long, rich brown hair.

Cloud froze in his tracks, a horrified expression on his face as he looked at her. "Is that... oh, crap, it is!" He looked at me, and I blinked at the sudden, stark terror in his eyes. "You can't let her see me, Zack! Please, don't let her know I'm here!" And before I could say another word, he turned and ran at breakneck speed for the Shinra truck. A few moments later, he came running back, his Shinra uniform helmet tucked under one arm. When he reached me, he shoved the helmet on his head and frantically began tucking stray spikes of blond hair out of sight.

I gave him a flat, impatient look. "Cloud, what the hell are you doing?"

"Please, Zack," he said, and I caught a glimpse of desperate eyes right before he moved his mask and goggles into place, effectively covering his entire face. "Tifa... she thinks I'm in SOLDIER. She doesn't know I didn't make it. I don't think I could stand it if she..."

I blinked. "Is that what this is all about? You think she won't like you because you're not a SOLDIER?"

"It's not just that," he protested weakly. "Come on, Zack. As a friend... please. Just... don't let her know that I'm here, okay?"

I shook my head and sighed. "Look, if that's the way you want to do it, fine. But for the record, I think you're making a mistake."

"But you'll do it." Even with the mask, I could tell how relieved he was.

I started walking again, and Cloud fell into step along side me. "Just remember," I said in a low voice as we approached Sephiroth. "We're going to be here for a while. I know damn well how uncomfortable that mask is, and this town doesn't seem to be that big. It's going to be hard for you to avoid her the whole time."

"I know, I know," Cloud whispered back.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow - the only indication of any impatience he had over our late arrival. Glancing behind him, I could see Tifa still sitting against the well. As I walked up to the gate with Cloud, she looked up and noticed us. An excited expression lit her face as she quickly got to her feet, and she took a few hasty steps towards the gate. Her eyes were wide and searching as she examined the four of us standing there.

It was obvious she was looking for someone. Someone she thought might be coming to Nibelheim, with the Shinra SOLDIER representatives. Someone she thought she would easily recognize. Because when she didn't immediately find who she was looking for, her expression crumpled. She took a couple of hesitant steps backward, before turning and running into a nearby house.

I stifled the urge to rub a hand over my face in exasperation as I suddenly wondered what the hell kind of soap opera I had gotten myself into.

"So," said Sephiroth, turning to Cloud. If he noticed the whole silent debacle that had taken place behind him, he made no sign. "It's your first time back to your hometown in a while, right? So how does it feel?"

As always, when Sephiroth addressed him directly, Cloud froze as he fought to respond through the instinctive awe that gripped him. Apparently unable to form an appropriate verbal response, he shrugged stiffly.

"I wouldn't know," Sephiroth continued. "I don't have a hometown."

I blinked. That... was kind of odd. Sephiroth had never really mentioned anything about his past before. To just bring it up out of the blue... well, maybe he sensed Cloud's discomfort, and was trying to set him at ease.

Cloud was just as taken aback as me, apparently, because he somehow unfroze his vocal cords. "Ummm," he managed. "How about your parents?"

Sephiroth looked at him, and then his gaze grew distant for a moment. "My mother," he said slowly, "is Jenova. She died right after she gave birth to me. My father..." He trailed off, then laughed. It was a low, bitter sound, and he waved off the question. "Well, what does it matter?"

He turned to look at us, and seemed to only then notice that we were all staring at him wide-eyed. He seemed to expect it, though. The corner of his mouth turned up in a small, amused smile.

"All right," he said, turning away. "Let's go."

And, as Cloud and I cast surprised, uneasy glances at each other, we followed Sephiroth through the iron gates of Nibelheim.