Tobi: To (hopefully) soothe any doubts, IM is full steam ahead! Chapters are being planned out and things are underway. There won't be any more year-long waits again; that was ridiculous, and I'm grateful for each and every one of you who stuck with the story and are reading my babble right now. Thanks, Shinigami-Chan, Momonster, wanderingmusician, Icsifil and Crayonbox for reviews 1650 through 1850. Thank you so much everybody. CM and I can't thank you guys enough for all the continued interest and support.
CM: Please direct all complaints to Tobi. Blame her.
Tobi: Coughhh. /sweatdrop. Enjoy this chapter, it has a lot of action and a lot of Cloud being a weirdo. We all love it. ;)
The entire atmosphere had changed. Gone were the screams, the shouts, and the cries. Gone, too, was the negativity that was almost a tangible thing, seeping through the cracks in the floors and threatening to choke him here, in his resting place.
It was...curious. Everything felt calmer. There was still tension, still fear—yes, still much of that—but not nearly as intense as before. What had happened? What was going on? It was interesting, and he was interested.
But it wasn't any of his business. The dealings of those above him were trivial and would pass, eventually. He would be here forever; he wouldn't age. Everything would pass. Those who had sinned as he had no place in the world of the living, not any longer. No more.
His fingertips twitched, reaching for his gun lying across his chest. It was comforting, but he had to let it go. Let it go. And go back to sleep, to rest, because he couldn't afford to become invested in this world. Not again.
Cloud slept badly. This was unsurprising; he honestly hadn't expected any better. He had stayed up late into the night, pouring over his clipouts and memorabilia of Sephiroth, General Sephiroth, and SOLDIER, and—
—What was that?
Blue eyes flew open and dazedly focused on the big, warm thing on his chest. Cloud blinked a few times, then cautiously rubbed his eye crud away. Then he saw, quite clearly, the raccoon asleep on top of him.
It was Bandit. Again. He had seen the raccoon here and there, and a few times he had woken up to see the little guy resting on his bed or close nearby.
This time Bandit was curled up with his little humanlike paws beside his face. He looked harmless. Cloud almost threw the animal off. He decided against it, though; Bandit wasn't hurting anyone, and, to be honest, the little guy was pretty cute when he wasn't screaming and hissing. The blond twisted his mouth but relaxed, closing his eyes. That wasn't just it. He didn't have the energy to be running around this early in the morning. He didn't want to cause a stir. He wanted to be quiet, up here in his room, where it was safe, and where he was alone. Bandit could stay.
Today would be tricky. Last night he knew he should have gone downstairs and said something to his ghosts, but he hadn't. He couldn't. He was confused, hurt, excited and angry, even, and—
Again Bandit interrupted his thoughts. The raccoon shuffled up a little and clamped his little mouth tight around Cloud's earlobe. There were no teeth, so it didn't hurt, but it was a very odd feeling. Hadn't he done that before?
"Uhh," Cloud whispered hesitantly as Bandit's right front paw landed on the tip of his chin. No response. Bandit went back to sleep, and Cloud sighed, petting the animal's back. It was like having a furry, affectionate scarf.
Anyway... he didn't know what to do. This situation was a doozy. Calling Aerith might have been a good idea. Did he really want to bother the poor girl with this, though?
This was his battle.
He had been at war with these guys. These—gulp—SOLDIERs. He had bled and been bruised and had fought back with everything he had, with rolling pins and paintballs and flyswatters and pillows. This was nothing. Talking to them? Getting to know them, even though he knew they were keeping secrets from him? Even though he knew, now, who they were? That they were his heroes?
This was nothing compared to that. He could do it. He had done a lot more, that was for sure.
After a time Cloud knew he had to get up. He whispered sorry to his raccoon companion before gently untangling himself. The little guy didn't move. Cloud gave a soft smile and drew the blankets up higher, covering Bandit's lower half with them.
He got dressed, face grim with determination. He wasn't sure how they'd take it. What was he supposed to even say? 'Nice to meet you Sirs, let's play scrabble?' No. Cloud may not have been very smart, but he was no idiot, despite what Cid said. His ghosts were not ghosts. He just knew it. After reading Mako, that sick book written by Hojo, he was sure of it. Almost positive. Did they really think he'd believe they were the ghosts of the kidnapped SOLDIERs? Maybe they did. Maybe they didn't.
Right now he couldn't argue with them about it. The fine line they were all walking could disappear at any time. Cloud really didn't want to see Sebastian hanging from his ceiling fan ever again. For now he would be civil. He'd be polite, accepting, and he wouldn't outwardly question what they were telling him.
So, it was Sephiroth. So, it was two Commanders and a First. So? So? Nothing. Nothing would change. Not now, anyway.
Cloud left his room, shutting the door with a soft click. He paused, then opened it again in case Bandit wanted out later. The house was quiet. He didn't hear any voices or the television. Cloud looked around as he made his way through the second floor. Butterflies flitted around in his stomach; he felt sick.
He pressed on. The banister of the left main staircase was chilly; the whole mansion was. (Cloud alternated which staircase he went down each morning. He'd hate to see one be perfect while the other was all run down from footsteps. That would look silly.)
He opened the front door and got his mail. It was cold—fall was in full swing. It was almost winter, and Cloud was dreading it. Midgar was pretty warm year-round. He'd heard about the snowstorms out in the Nibel mountains. The trees were gorgeous this time of year, though. He could see mountain after mountain here, and Cloud spent a minute by his front door, just looking out. Now calm, he went back inside, mail in hand.
There was a floating spatula by the stove, and it was scrambling some eggs. Toast shot out of the toaster, stopped in midair, and drifted over to a small stack sitting on a plate. Cloud swallowed. "G-Good morning," he said softly as he entered the kitchen. The spatula didn't pause. The ghost must have known he was there. It was so strange. It could have been watching him, and he would have no idea.
"Good morning to you as well," came a voice.
Cloud bit his lip, trying to match the voice to the names he had heard the previous night. "Um... Angeal?" he asked hesitantly, feeling awkward.
The voice responded, a tad warmer, "Yes. Good memory. How did you sleep?"
Bobby, then. He always made breakfast. Cloud walked in a little more, relieved. "Okay. I didn't fall asleep until really late."
Angeal didn't comment on exactly why Cloud had trouble falling asleep, and neither did he. He stuck his head in the fridge, looking for orange juice and asked, "Where are the, um, others?"
"Zack is in the basement, and Genesis and Sephiroth are out back. I'm not sure what they're doing though."
It was jarring, hearing all those names. Cloud poured himself a glass. "Ah—thanks."
He didn't know what to say. Bo—Angeal was nice, but... what? What?
Cloud inched out of the kitchen, and Angeal called after him as he left. "I'll get you when breakfast is ready."
"Thank you," Cloud said back, giving a jerky little bow as he did so. He grimaced, turned and fled. There wasn't much else for him to do, so Cloud went down to the basement. Out of all of them, Frien—Zack was the one he liked best at this point. He wasn't as intimidating.
Music was blaring, and the pull-down bar was moving up and down by itself. Except not, right? Right.
Cloud descended the stairs. The workout equipment down here was intense. There was a big, tall metal contraption that looked like a jungle gym, except it was laden with different stacks of black, metal weights that were used for a variety of stations. There was a spot to work on your calf muscles, lats, biceps, triceps, abdominals—it had it all. There were a bunch of single weights on a rack by the wall, and a big green exercise ball in the corner. Cloud's eyes instantly zeroed in on the bookcase where he had moved a book and been transported to the coffin room. He shivered, thinking about the coffin with his name on it. The bar stopped moving and Zack panted, sounding out of breath, "Hey."
"Hey," Cloud answered, fidgeting and curling his fingers around his glass. Zack went back to lifting, and Cloud flopped down on a small loveseat against the wall with the bookcase.
"What's—up?" Grunt, grunt, up, down.
"Uh, not much. Just chilling until breakfast is ready. How long have you been—holy shit!" Cloud's eyes bugged out and and he pointed at Zack, or where he was pretty sure Zack was, sitting on a small padded surface beneath the pull-down bar.
Cloud set his glass on a table and scurried over. Zack was lifting an insane amount of weight...
"Seven hundred and thirty pounds?" Cloud gasped, looking at the huge stack of weights on the pulley the bar Zack was using was connected to. That had to be custom-made; he didn't think you could buy these personal gym things with quite that much weight. And now that he looked, all the stations had comparable weights connected to them.
"Heh," Zack chuckled, "Yeah. We're—er, we were—SOLDIERs. Super strength, you know?"
"Shit," Cloud said, stupefied.
Zack laughed and the bar raised to the top, maybe eight feet in the air, resting underneath the metal frame keeping it there. "You try."
Cloud looked at the bar, then at where he thought Zack was standing. "Really?"
"Go for it."
If he was being presented with an opportunity to bond with one of his ghosts, he'd go for it. He was grateful; talking with Friendl—Zack wasn't hard at all. He stood with each leg on either side of the padded seat. He reached up, gripped the bar and pulled down. Nothing. Zack snickered.
"Shut up," Cloud bickered and scrunched his face up, pulling down with all his might. Still nothing. He lifted his feet and dangled in the air, pouting. Zack laughed loudly when Cloud wrapped both legs around the bar and hung from it upside-down like a sloth.
"How are you so strong?" Cloud huffed as all the blood in his body rushed to his head.
He heard soft footsteps on the thick carpet. "Shin-Ra secret," Zack teased, right by him. Cloud flailed as he began to move downwards, and realized Zack was easily moving the bar up and down—with him on it, even!
"Not fair," Cloud muttered, dropping to his feet and scuttling back to his seat.
Zack moved on to a new exercise. "I'll—have you—lifting two hundred—in no time!" he puffed in between reps.
Cloud smiled. There really wasn't any awkwardness here. Friendly was given his name for a reason. Cloud stayed there as Zack worked out for a short while. It was nuts—he doubted he'd ever get used to the invisible thing. They chatted a little about Nibelheim and the mansion, nothing too touchy.
This was going better than expected.
Zack stood up after a time and said, "C'mon."
"Angeal just called us."
"Oh." Cloud stood. "I didn't hear him at all."
"Well of course not," Zack said like it was the most obvious thing in the world. He bounded up the stairs, full of energy even after all that lifting. Cloud frowned and followed at a slower pace, suddenly nervous again. The other two ghosts were upstairs... the two that frightened him the most, to be honest. Genesis... and Sephiroth.
He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and hesitated before entering the kitchen. They were all sitting at the small table (Cloud realized they didn't often use the long table in the dining room, and probably for good reason). There was a seat open, and Cloud slid into it, feeling everyone's eyes on him.
"Good morning," he said while looking down at his food, because there was nothing else to look at.
After a pause in conversation Zack said from across the table, "Hey Cloud." Cloud flashed a brief, nervous smile in what was hopefully Zack's direction and picked up his fork.
"What were you two doing outside?" Angeal asked.
From his left, "I adjusted the temperature of the hot tub. Sephiroth vanished into the woods."
"A monster got far too close," Sephiroth said quietly. Cloud gulped; he had it figured that Genesis sat to his left, Sephiroth to his right, Angeal across from him, and Zack between Angeal and Genesis.
"A strong one?" Zack.
Sephiroth raised a forkful of egg to his mouth and Cloud watched, fascinated, as the small poof of yellow abruptly disappeared. "It was very low leveled. Still..." he paused, and Cloud got the feeling he had just been glanced at, and that they were silently communicating. "I felt I should get rid of it, just in case."
Bobby—er, Angeal—said, "Good thinking. Thank you."
"It was nothing."
The table then fell silent, except for the sounds of silverware on plates. Cloud swallowed a bite of toast and decided to go for it. "Hey." Then came silence, but he was sure he had everyone's attention. He sat straighter in his chair, not sure where to look.
"I'm sorry for..." he stopped—he hadn't thought this out. "I'm sorry for being so weird last night. I shouldn't have just left like that. It doesn't matter to me who you are—uh, were." He cast his gaze around the table, hoping he was managing to look them in the eye. He had to make them understand. "I'm glad I was finally, uh, introduced to you all. I'm... I'm Cloud Strife. But—but you knew that." He cringed a little and ducked his head, shoveling food into his mouth.
There was a soft touch to his arm, and Cloud turned to Genesis. "We are the ones who should be apologizing. We should have told you much earlier." Something in the ghost's tone was much more somber than the situation called for. They were apologizing for a lot more than the name thing.
"I... yeah. It's okay."
"It's not," Genesis said, sounding exasperated, "but that's good enough for now." Cloud didn't know how to respond and said nothing, quietly chewing a triangle of toast.
Conversation tentatively resumed. They started talking about everyone's favorite seasons, which was the first thing Zack could think of. Angeal said he preferred spring because he liked to garden. Genesis said fall, because he found the trees beautiful at that time of year.
"What about you, Cloudy?"
Cloud lightly blushed into his plate. "Um, winter. I always thought Midgar was gross during the summer. Too hot. And it never was too cold in the winter there."
"Winter here is cool," Zack answered. "Gongaga never got any snow. All it does is snow here though."
"Do you guys get bad blizzards and stuff?"
"Like you wouldn't believe."
"Hm. Maybe I should change my favorite season to fall..."
"Good plan." Genesis clapped him on the shoulder. Cloud, not expecting it, jumped a little. He smiled sheepishly in the ghost's direction.
This... wasn't so bad.
Cloud asked them questions about Nibelheim. Apparently many of the residents disliked Shin-Ra because of the mako reactor not too far away. He felt very snooty about that for a second, since he was related to the President and all, but he stopped to think about it. He couldn't really blame them. Shin-Ra did an awful lot of shit in the name of clean, usable energy.
When everyone was finished eating Sephiroth shooed everyone out, insisting it was his turn to do the dishes. Cloud watched the floating plates by the sink for a moment before leaving. General Sephiroth cleaning bacon grease off Cloud Strife's plate, huh? It would take a while for him to wrap his head around this.
The mansion he inherited from Uncle Hojo was inhabited by the ghosts of Zack Fair, Genesis Rhapsodos, Angeal Hewley and Sephiroth. They were no longer nameless forces but friendly men. He didn't totally trust them yet, but something had changed. Hopefully for the better.
What to do now? That question applied to both him right now, awkwardly standing in the entranceway to the kitchen and probably creeping Sephiroth out, and to a whole lot more.
He had solved his mystery. Mostly. He knew who they were now, and how many there were. There wouldn't be a need for another war, another session with Aerith and the Ouija board—nothing like that. It was all very anticlimactic.
If he thought about it, though, that wasn't the case at all. There was a whole lot to do. He still had to solve the newer mystery about Hojo and experimentation and whatnot. Plus, he still had to do what he originally came to Nibelheim to do—relax, chill out, get away from Midgar in both body and mind. A better question was 'What to do first?'
Clean, Cloud decided. He finally strolled away, not quite sure if he felt Sephiroth's eyes on him or not and wandered into the hardly-used dining room. The house was a mess, and cleaning had always helped him think.
He found some chemical cleaner and a rag and set to cleaning up the house. It wasn't so bad. Most of it was his random stuff lying around; the ghosts seemed pretty neat (not to mention unwilling to clean up his messes). Cloud scrubbed and dusted and organized, and as he did he thought about his time as an almost-maybe-Shin-Ra employee, back when he thought Sephiroth was 'the shit' and his parents were still alive. As he did so, he heard Angeal talking to Zack a few rooms over, and he heard the clacking of silverware in the kitchen.
A lot had changed since way back then, heh.
Cloud, super cleaning machine that he was, rapidly moved from room to room. He trotted into a small parlor with a few dainty-looking chairs, a couch that looked untouched, a coffee table with a tea set on top and a television, which was on. Not thinking, Cloud walked by, pressing the power button as he did so. He crawled under the small glass table, reaching for a muddy pair of sneakers of his lying underneath.
"...Ah, I was watching that."
"Ow!" Cloud cracked his head against the underside of the table and scooted backwards, squinting at the couch. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—ow—" His wrist was given a surprisingly strong tug and Cloud found himself sitting on the couch and fingers feeling the back of his head.
"Are you okay?" Genesis sounded alarmed.
"...Fine," Cloud murmured, embarrassed. He batted Genesis' fingers away. "Sorry for turning it off, that was stupid of me."
There was a long moment where Genesis didn't speak, and then he grunted, "Hnn. It's fine. Sit down."
Cloud was already sitting, but he didn't point that out. He nervously edged further onto the cushion, rubbing his skull. Ouch, that was a real doozy of a hit.
Genesis turned the TV back on with the remote. It was a documentary about Banoran apples or something.
"So, Cloud," said the ghost. Cloud frowned, staring blankly at the opposite wall. It was strange, seeming like you were the only one in the room, and yet you weren't. There was a ghost right next to him.
Cloud asked, squirming, "So what?" Genesis made him feel uncomfortable, not at all like Zack. He couldn't pinpoint why.
"So," he repeated, pausing afterwards. Cloud's eyes narrowed, and he continued. "Tell me what you're thinking."
"You tell me. Anything."
"I'm thinking you ask cryptic questions," Cloud muttered. Genesis laughed, a deep, quiet chuckle, and Cloud scowled. "I guess... I'm glad things seem to be working out, uh, pretty okay."
"Hmm. So am I."
That's all Genesis had to say, apparently. Cloud shook his head and tried to learn something about the apple industry.
Cloud asked some time later, "Where's Banora?"
Genesis's voice was thoughtful. "It's not far from Mideel. It's my hometown. Angeal's too."
"It's a pretty place."
"Thank you. That's my parents' farm right there. This was filmed a while ago; we've grown since then."
His ghosts—if he could even call them that—had pasts, hometowns, families, friends... Cloud was curious. He wanted to know, but that could wait. He didn't have to know now.
His immediate craving for information was satisfied. Genesis told him what Banora was like and how popular dumbapples were around the world. He even went into great detail about the process by which you got apple juice, applesauce, apple pie and things like that. Out of politeness Cloud let Genesis go, but honestly he wasn't such a big apple fan. It would be his secret.
"Do you miss Banora?"
"Sometimes, a bit. Largely, no—Angeal and I were so excited to leave and come to Midgar for SOLDIER."
Cloud sensed that was all he was going to get out of the ghost and stood up. "Thanks for talking to me. I'm going to go grocery shopping. Do you want anything?"
"No thank you," came the soft response. Cloud frowned, grabbed his sneakers and left.
"Uh—hey!" Cloud called from the bottom of one of the two main staircases—hopefully anyone downstairs or upstairs could hear him, wherever they were. "I'm going shopping! Does anyone want any food?"
"No!" Zack sounded very far away. He might have been in the basement again.
Angeal said from his left, probably exiting the library, "One minute Cloud." The blond nodded, rocking on his heels as he waited for Angeal to write a small list down. He watched the pen move, fascinated.
"Here." The ghost handed him the list which Cloud pocketed. "Thanks. We'll give you Gil when you get back; you don't have to pay for us."
"It's fine. Tseng pays for food and my bills and stuff."
"...In that case, never mind."
Cloud grinned, lifting a hand to wave goodbye. "See you soon."
Fenrir was eager to see him. Cloud straddled the bike, running his hands across the glittering metal. "Hey, you big boy," he crooned, whispering to Fenrir's handlebars, "Happy to see Daddy?" Fenrir's engine was extra loud as Cloud took off down the path. He was a motorcycle-obsessed freak, but darn, it felt good.
The people of Nibelheim who were out and about looked his way as he thundered into town. He waved hello to Helga and Olga who were mailing something at the collection bins outside the post office. They waved back and Cloud got off Fenrir in the dingy parking lot which a smile. Nibelheim was a cute town, even if most of the people sort of sucked—like that guy over there, scowling at Cloud's skinny jeans and bright hair. Whatever.
He grabbed essential stuff like bread, milk, eggs and sour gummy worms, then pulled Angeal's list out of his pocket. He didn't know people even made ground chocobo. He found it though and added it to his cart. He decided not to ask Angeal what was for dinner from now on. He grabbed a few apples for Genesis; hopefully he'd like them even if they weren't dumbapples.
The old lady behind the counter seemed charmed by him and gave him the store's club discount even though he wasn't a member. Of course, it didn't matter, because Tseng was paying—but it was a nice gesture that Cloud appreciated.
Somehow all the bags managed to fit in Fenrir's many compartments (Firion once joked that Cloud could fit a whole bunch of his swords in there). Cloud got on the bike but stopped. There were a few girls a few blocks away outside the library selling Chocobo Scout cookies. He couldn't resist. It was for a good cause, he rationalized, plus Cookie—Sephiroth—would thank him.
He headed their way, looking through his pockets for some actual cash. In his distraction he missed the figure hidden in the alley he passed by—in a matter of seconds a hand clapped over Cloud's mouth and he was roughly pulled away from the main road.
"Mmph!" Cloud thrashed, panicked, but stopped when a familiar voice hissed, "Cloud! Stop!"
Reno had him restrained, but gently, and when Cloud calmed down he cautiously let go. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Cloud snapped, shaken. "Reno-"
"What's in that house Cloud?" Reno's face was deadly serious. "You're in danger."
"I'm fine," he repeated. He backed up but Reno grabbed his waist and kept him still.
"Please, Cloud." Reno sounded tired. "Listen to me. I can't let you go back there. It could be a monster for all you know!"
"Reno!" Cloud shouted, exasperated. "You listen to me! There's nothing bad in that house. Now leave me alone!" He kneed Reno in the gut, surprising even himself and bolted back for Fenrir, Chocobo Scout cookies forgotten.
He gunned it out of town—it was like Fenrir felt his panic too. It hurt so bad seeing Reno. Why was he still in town? What did he want?
He drove off his driveway and into the grass so he could park Fenrir behind the mansion. The bike would be safer back here. Cloud had a feeling he'd be seeing more of Reno. Cloud grabbed as many bags as he could and darted around the front of the house. He barged in and ran to the kitchen, pale and wide-eyed.
"Cloud? What happened?"
The blond ignored whoever had spoken and ran back out of the house and to Fenrir again. "Thanks buddy," he whispered, patting the seat and squeezing the right handlebar for good luck. He hefted what was left and sprinted back to the front door. The whole place seemed sinister, like the long driveway to his house was going to suddenly burst into flames. He half-carried, half-dragged the food inside, locked the door, then staggered into the kitchen. He dropped the bags and pitched forward, landing on the tile on his belly, trying to breathe. It crossed his mind that the ghosts were probably confused and thinking he was a weirdo. He just needed a minute.
Someone rolled him onto his back and patted his cheeks. "Cloud! Talk to me."
"No," Cloud huffed, scowling when he felt hands pat down his heaving chest.
"He's not hurt," Zack addressed the others. "What happened Cloud?"
Cloud finally got over his dramatic episode and sat up. "Reno got me," he panted. "I got away and ran back."
Sephiroth began to put the food away with a sigh. "What did he want?"
"He asked me what was in the house... and said he wouldn't let me come back here because I'm in danger." No one spoke, and Cloud laughed a little, mindless and still sprawled out on his kitchen floor, "I have one of those stalker exes, I guess."
"Reno's your ex-boyfriend, huh?" Zack sounded amused.
Cloud instantly sobered. "Um," he said awkwardly, "...Yeah." He figured that his ghosts had assumed he and Reno were, since they had seen them kissing and all that, but he hadn't come out and explicitly said it. He hoped they wouldn't have an issue with it...
"Well then," Genesis said, clapping his hands twice. "We'll be on the lookout for him then."
"Thanks," murmured Cloud. "Sorry..."
Zack ruffled his hair, grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet, chuckling at Cloud's wide-eyed reaction. "Eh. Don't worry about it. Turks."
No one would let him help put the food away. Angeal told him to "go chill." Cloud did just that; he stumbled to the theater, cranked up the air conditioning and collapsed on one of the chairs.
The jokes in the random movie he watched didn't make him laugh; Cloud was not in the mood. However, he was able to relax and think about things a bit more objectively. Reno thought there was some evil thing in the house with him. Cloud couldn't blame him. The guy had been quite literally thrown from the porch, after all.
Reno really cared about him, still, after all this time and after everything that had happened. It was hard.
Said man sprang out of his seat. Someone was yelling for him. He ran out of the theater. "I'm right here!" he called, not knowing where to go.
"There you are," came Zack's voice from very close by. He sounded relieved. "Follow me." The ghost grabbed Cloud's hand, since the blond would have quite a bit of trouble following an invisible man. Zack brought Cloud to the kitchen.
Sephiroth filled him in. "We just heard a loud noise coming from upstairs."
"I'll investigate," Genesis volunteered solemnly.
"Be careful," Cloud warned. He wasn't quite sure how he'd feel, but he'd probably be very sad if one of his ghosts...er, died. Again. If that was possible. Genesis' footsteps quickly faded away.
"It might just be that weird raccoon or the wind knocking something over, but we can't be too careful." Zack guided Cloud to sit at one of the chairs by the table.
The four of them made awkward small talk while waiting for Genesis to return. After a few minutes Zack murmured, "Gen's takin' a while."
"Patience," Angeal answered. "Just a little bit longer."
They waited some more but the sassy ghost didn't return. "You two—watch Cloud," Zack ordered. "I'm going up there."
"I don't need to be watched," Cloud protested, hearing Zack leave the kitchen.
"No," Sephiroth said softly from somewhere to Cloud's left, "You do." One of the kitchen knives slid out of its wooden sheath on the counter. Cloud eyed it and swallowed.
"If it's Reno... please don't hurt him."
"And if it isn't?"
"G-Go for it."
They heard heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. Zack was coughing.
"Guys!" he croaked, wheezing. "Genesis is unconscious! Some kind of—" he gagged and spat onto the floor, "—gas. I couldn't go in. The window in one of the—hah—guest bedrooms is broken. Someone's in here."
Sephiroth's voice was extra deep and sinister; Cloud's eyes went wide and he was very glad he was on their side this time. "Zackary, sit until you can breathe. Angeal, guard Cloud."
"Affirmative. You're coming with me, Strife."
Cloud squawked as he was hoisted onto Angeal's back. He was floating! Cloud's arms flailed until they wrapped around the ghost's neck. Angeal carried him from the kitchen, Cloud squirming the entire way.
"Where are we going?" he asked. He closed his eyes and was jarred by how real his ghost felt. There were his shoulders, and his arms and hands holding Cloud's thighs up. His cheek was even pressed into the ghost's hair—he could tell it was longish, probably brushing the tops of his shoulders at its longest point. Like this, it was as if he was clinging to any old person—like Rufus or Cid. Cloud opened his eyes, saw nothing, and was disoriented all over again. It was so fucking strange.
Angeal hustled up the staircase, head turning in every direction. "Your room. There's a lock on the door."
They made it to the room without incident. Angeal stepped inside and turned, about to shut the door.
Cloud's ears started ringing. He blinked but that was all. Angeal, however, staggered and let go of one of Cloud's legs to clutch his head with a groan.
"Angeal?" Cloud asked loudly, gripping on to the ghost. The ringing got worse. To Cloud, it sounded like a dog whistle, or that obnoxious mosquito ringtone—Angeal collapsed with a shout, unintentionally throwing Cloud off to the ground.
"Angeal!" Cloud didn't know what was going on or even where to look. "Are you alright?"
"A-Argh—don't move Cloud," the ghost grunted. Cloud blinked as the man protectively covered Cloud with his body. He was heavy and Cloud could clearly see the ceiling above, but he was totally pinned down. Angeal went still. Cloud, shaking his head to get rid of the ringing, knew that his ghost had just fallen unconscious.
"Reno!" Cloud wheezed.
The redhead darted inside and locked the door. "What are you doing?" Cloud hissed.
The ringing noise must have been coming from Reno. He set a small device on Cloud's dresser, pressed a button and the ringing stopped. Reno, looking frazzled, reached down so he could help Cloud to his feet. His hand bumped into what could only be Angeal's back, about a foot above Cloud's tummy.
Reno blinked, then pressed both hands flat. It was like Cloud was lying under glass; he saw the underside of his ex-boyfriend's palms turn a few shades lighter when pressure was applied. It was so... bizarre.
"Woah! What are you—"
The Turk brought back his foot and kicked the air directly above Cloud as hard as he could. Angeal was too knocked out to make a sound—Reno kicked again, Cloud heard a crack, and Angeal must have been pushed totally to the side because Cloud didn't feel his weight anymore.
"What the hell!"
Reno pulled Cloud to his feet. "Wow, that actually worked," he said in amazement. "Enhanced hearing, huh? The Commander was right!"
Cloud fought to get out of his grip. "Reno," he growled, "Look at me. What. Are. You. DOING?"
"You're in danger," snapped Reno, "I'm getting you out of here after I find something important."
"Classified, babe. Turk business."
Cloud tried to clock Reno upside the head, but the man seemed to have been expecting it. He easily caught Cloud's fist and gently pushed him back to the bed, pinning him with his weight much like Angeal had. "Argh—Reno, I can't believe you. They're nice, honestly. You didn't have to hurt him!"
"'Him?'" Reno repeated with a puff of disbelief. "Nice? It threw me out, babe—"
"Stop calling me that!"
Reno scowled. "Look Cloud. I love you, but I'm on a mission. You are leaving with me whether you like it or not. I'm bringing you somewhere safe. Are you gonna cooperate?"
"No! Get off me!"
"It's for your own good," Reno sighed. He leaned forward and gave Cloud a kiss. The blond went still, gaze shooting to the corner as he hesitated. He broke away with a gasp and held up his hands, which were now sporting a gleaming pair of handcuffs.
"Sorry," Reno apologized, pressing a few kisses to Cloud's cheek, "I've gotta make sure you're not gonna get yourself hurt."
Cloud planted his foot in Reno's chest and pushed as hard as he could. Reno flew backwards, but only a few feet; Cloud had no hope of ever defeating a trained Turk.
"Stop it!" Cloud barked, lying on his back and watching with wary eyes as Reno approached again. "You don't understand. I don't need to be saved or whatever—why won't you just believe me?"
"The Turks are gonna blow this place to pieces, Cloud, along with whatever the hell's on the floor over there. You're not safe here, don't you-"
Cloud tried to kick Reno again, but the redhead caught his foot, batting away. He tried again but with the same result. Reno sighed, visibly pissed off, and started rooting through Cloud's dresser.
"What are you doing?" Cloud asked, clumsily getting to his feet. Reno pushed him back down on the bed again, and before Cloud could do anything about it Reno bound his ankles together with two of Cloud's belts. One of his wrists was released, he was pushed onto his side, and Reno yanked both of Cloud's arms behind his back, handcuffing him again in this new, painful position.
Struggling at this point was useless and they both knew it. Cloud turned his head as best as he could and stared at Reno, speechless.
"I'm so sorry," Reno muttered, leaning over Cloud and speaking into his neck. He managed to turn Cloud and scoot him up the bed until he was comfortable (or as comfortable as he could be). "I'll come back for you once I find what I'm looking for. I'm sorry—I had to do it."
"Reno-" Cloud began desperately. "They're just ghosts. Honestly, they wouldn't hurt me."
The Turk gave him a flat look and tugged up his pant leg, revealing a long, dripping cut.
"Wouldn't hurt you, huh?" He grabbed that ringing device and set it on the bed. "They won't be able to get close. Stay here."
With that Reno was gone, but not before adjusting his uniform. Cloud got an eyeful of all kinds of things on his belt—a handgun, a few smokebombs, a few dark objects that looked like real bombs—Reno had come prepared. He had planned this.
This was a whole new kind of war. Reno wasn't a marshmallow; he wasn't armed with balloons and toys but real weapons. This was totally out of his league, Cloud realized.
Cloud tried to squirm out of the belts holding his legs together, but it was useless. Reno was a Turk, of course it wouldn't work. He was fucked. Sephiroth and Zack probably wouldn't come this way; Angeal was guarding him, after all, and they probably didn't think anything could best the ghost.
That stupid thing was still ringing. Cloud was getting an awful headache, but it was nothing to what Angeal had felt. Enhanced hearing... all SOLDIERs had it, he knew, especially the First Classes. They were like super heroes to him when he was younger. Cloud had shitty hearing anyway (too much loud music) and couldn't totally pick up on the stupid thing's frequency. This was a weapon—a weapon against SOLDIERs. Tseng had told Reno to bring it? Figured. As long as it was on Angeal wouldn't wake up. Rolling around on the bed didn't help anything—he couldn't reach it.
He had faith in Zack and Sephiroth (and Genesis too, if he was awake yet). They would be able to stop Reno... but it would be hard with all the stuff he had. Cloud had the ringing thing, at least.
If Reno destroyed his house, Cloud would kill him himself!
He had just resigned himself to waiting out the whole thing (which Cloud had dubbed 'The Second War of Nibelheim Manor') when something tugged on his shirt. Cloud yelped and flailed, jostling his sore shoulders, and came face to face with a raccoon.
"Bandit," Cloud greeted weakly. "I'd wave, but I can't use my arms. Were you hiding under the bed? It's not safe..."
The raccoon hissed at the small contraption on the bed and crawled over Cloud to pick it up with his paws. He let out that Gaia-awful scream and dropped it over the side of the bed. It didn't do anything, but Bandit looked pleased nonetheless.
"Thanks," Cloud said miserably. He could hear shouting from downstairs. He let out a frustrated grunt and kicked a bit.
Bandit's little humanlike paws landed on Cloud's socked feet. Cloud, instinctively jerking them away because he was ticklish, curiously peered down his body.
"Hey," Cloud began when Bandit began tugging at the belts, "That's not going to work..."
Bandit bared his little teeth and began gnawing at one of the belts. Cloud stared, then began laughing hysterically, nearly smothering himself with his pillow.
"Goooooo Bandit!" he cried, feeling Bandit break through a strip of leather. Cloud laid as still as possible and nearly burst into tears when the belts fell away. Bandit, alarmed, crawled up Cloud's body and tried to attack the handcuffs.
"That's really not going to work, buddy," sniffled Cloud.
Bandit abandoned the cuffs after a few minutes and curled up on Cloud's chest, placing a paw on his chin much like he had that morning.
Cloud couldn't help but laugh. "Thanks a million." Bandit nipped his earlobe in response.
"Alright!" Cloud sat up after some maneuvering. Bandit laid down on the bed with his belly up, like he wanted to be petted. "Next time, I promise." Cloud shakily stood and stomped on the tiny black box—the ringing stopped.
"Angeal?" Cloud asked. No response. So, Cloud dropped to his knees and putted around like that until he bumped into what had to be his ghost. "Angeal!" he hissed.
Cloud turned himself around and tried to feel with his hands which were awkwardly jutting out behind his back. He couldn't move his arms much because it hurt and the handcuffs were beginning to dig into his wrists, but he sucked it up.
Angeal was breathing. Everything felt fine... Cloud paused and dabbed a spot with his fingers. Blood!
Cloud twisted around and saw nothing, not even on his hands, even though he could definitely feel a wet, slighly sticky substance. Holy Gaia!
"Bandit," Cloud grunted, getting to his feet. "Guard Angeal. Keep him safe, okay?" He pointed with his foot, and Bandit obediently crawled onto Angeal's stomach. Cloud paused, looking at the hovering animal, then shook his head.
"I'll be back. Thanks!" He somehow managed to open the door, doing an awkward half-dance to do so, then sprinted out into the hallway.
His house was chaos. Smoke covered the entire first floor and was rapidly rising to the second. Parts of the carpet were scorched. Where to go?
Just after I cleaned the whole place, too...
Cloud ran to the other side of the house, eyes peeled for Reno or 'floating' objects. Nothing. He heard someone yell something downstairs and began heading that way. He stopped, though, and let out a loud groan.
He ran into one of the guest bedrooms. "Tifa!" he roared. He bit his lip, leaned back and put his foot through the window, inhaling sharply at the rush of stinging pain.
Tifa was walking up his driveway, food basket in hand. This was definitely not the time for a picnic. She heard Cloud and stopped, looking around.
"Tifa! Up here!"
She spotted him and jogged closer. "Cloud?" she hollered back.
"I'm sorry, but you need to go away!"
"It's not safe!" Cloud desperately cried. "You're in danger!"
An explosion rocked the first floor; the glass windows to the far right of the house exploded and smoke and flames shot out. "No," Cloud moaned, "Not the living room! Get out of here Tifa!"
Tifa didn't need to be told twice. She dropped the picnic basket and sprinted away. Cloud exhaled and hopped away from the window on his good foot. It was a good thing he had moved his precious Fen-Fen; that bike would have been toasted by now.
The seige continued.
...What the hell was going on up there? This was worse than the first time...
Downstairs, Cloud was limping through the kitchen when he was grabbed. "What are you doing?"
"Genesis!" Cloud cried, looking around, forgetting that was useless. "You're alright!"
"Reno knocked him out with this sound thing. He's bleeding. I think one of his ribs is broken."
Genesis cursed, then let go of Cloud's shoulders. Cloud tried to twist around but couldn't quite see what Genesis was doing. He gripped Cloud's hands and pulled—and just like that the chain between his wrists broke. Cloud gasped; Genesis had pulled his handcuffs apart with his bare hands!
"Go," Genesis commanded. "Be careful."
Cloud nodded and ran one way, hearing the ghost run the other. He turned into the dining room and immediately slammed onto the floor, falling on his ass. Everything was coated in a thin layer of ice. ...Materia? His beautiful chandelier was in pieces all over the floor.
"Reno, you're fucking dead!"
He decided to peek into the basement just in case. The light was off and everything was still. Cloud reached the bottom, scanned the place and almost ran back upstairs but stopped. There was a door down here, one that Cloud had always seen closed. It was open, the keypad to the right in pieces and shooting sparks.
Cloud quietly tiptoed up the stairs, his right foot leaving droplets of blood every time he put it down. He booked it to the foyer and screamed, "He's in the basement!" Then he took off, bounding back to the door and quietly darting down the steps.
He wasn't sure what to expect upon entering the mysterious room, but it wasn't a fucking laboratory. That's what this was—there were creepy tanks, tables and cabinets, all stainless steel. All this was underground. Wow. There seemed to be a second upper level, which he supposed cut into his first floor somewhere, but it was much smaller than the sprawling lower one.
"Woah..." He inched inside, avoiding the tanks and suspicious instruments.
Reno wasn't hard to find. He was a good distance in, flipping through a small booklet. Other sheets of paper, manuals and notebooks were scattered all around the counter.
In less than a second Reno drew his gun and cocked it. Cloud flinched, peering at the Turk from under his arm, and Reno lowered the gun.
"What the-!" Reno exclaimed, shoving the booklet into his pocket. "What're you doing, yo?"
"Reno," Cloud said again, dropping his head. "Why did you do this?"
The redhead came to him, gathering Cloud in his arms. Cloud squeezed back, sadly resting his head on the other man's shoulder.
"I was told to come here and get something. It's my mission—I have to, I'm a Turk. You know that." He sighed. "And I can't just leave you here. What kind of—friend would I be?"
Cloud stood on his tiptoes and kissed Reno's cheek. The man seemed sufficiently surprised—so much so he fell like a sack of bricks when Cloud tripped them both.
They wrestled on the ground, Reno trying to pin Cloud down without hurting him, and Cloud trying to stall for time.
"I told you a hundred times," Cloud gasped, managing to roll Reno into a clinical refrigerator probably full of bloody body parts, "I'm fine! My ghosts wouldn't hurt me!"
Reno seemed to have had enough. He flipped Cloud over, pressed his head into the chilly concrete floor and bent his arm behind his back. "Listen to yourself, yo! Ghosts? Yeah right. These are monst—"
The Turk flew off him. The ghosts descended in milliseconds, immobilizing him and grabbing his hands. Cloud squinted, rubbing his arm—by his feet was whatever Reno had been trying to take, crumpled in a ball. The blond stuffed it into his pocket.
"You alright Cloudy?" Zack sounded like he was having the time of his life. "Great job!"
Someone knocked Reno out—the redhead's eyes rolled and he went slack. Cloud crawled closer.
They took a minute to breathe, flopping onto the floor. Sudden beeping shattered the silence, jarring everyone. It was Reno's phone.
Someone got the phone from his pocket. Cloud watched it float upwards.
"Were you successful?" The voice was quiet, but even through the speaker Cloud could tell it was Tseng.
Sephiroth answered. "Tseng," he greeted, voice dripping with hate, "This is Sephiroth. We've detained Reno."
The sound of the dial tone was the only response. Zack cackled. "Tseng is probably shitting his pants right now."
"You guys didn't hurt Reno too much, did you?"
"He's fine. We should heal him though, to be safe. There's a Cure materia in the first-aid kit in the bathroom by the nursery."
"I'll get it," Cloud volunteered.
"Are you sure? Is your foot alright?" Cloud's foot was lifted, and Cloud pictured Genesis peering at the bottom, where his blood had soaked completely through the soft cotton. He was leaving bloody footprints all over the place.
"I'm fine. I'll be right back."
Cloud took off, unfolding the paper as he did so. He ascended the steps to the second floor, sidestepping patches of ice. His house was so destroyed. He reached the right bathroom and rooted around for the materia. It was a green orb about the size of his fist. He had never held one before; Cloud spent a moment admiring the colors.
He sat on the lip of the tub, peering at the top of the first page. He frowned.
Pain Tolerance Experiment B Section 6.5.3f
Experimentors: Hojo, Barnaby; Tseng
Was this...? It was. Cloud flattened it out over his thigh and started skimming.
"Objective: Build tolerance for pain and blood loss.
Tolerance to pain can and will be built. The four specimens used in this project, hereafter referred to as A, G, S, and Z, are high quality Homo sapiens trained as SOLDIER. As such each specimen is more tolerant of extreme conditions than other creatures of the same species.
The specimen will be stored in a three meter by three meter electrically charged iron environment. Attempts to escape will result in the electric alarm delivering a shock large enough to bring the specimen to unconsciousness.
Misbehavior will not be tolerated. Each specimen has shown a great concern for the others. Punishment for misbehavior will include bodily harm to others as well as bodily harm to the specimen itself. If this proves to be ineffective, physical restraints and chemical tranquilizers will be required.
The process will begin with nerve conductors. Settings will begin with a minimal setting of 100millivolts and will be steadily increase to 1000millivolts. Indications of pain and tolerance will be recorded."
Cloud felt fucking sick. He shakily swallowed, flipping forward to the back few pages. He was no idiot; he recognized those letters.
"Specimens are now tolerant of 675mV of nerve conduction.
Specimen A is unresponsive to bodily harm. It often becomes violent in its attempts to protect the other specimens. In order to maintain control of its behavior, it is often forced to watch the other specimens' experimentation and punishment.
Specimen G is particularly rebellious. However, it quickly becomes docile when Specimen Z is threatened. Specimen G refuses to cry out toward any physical harm. Pain tolerance becomes difficult to measure; therefore, muscle tenseness is recorded for further indication.
Specimen S is particularly adaptive and successful. This is unsurprising. It is at 800mV and may even surpass the parameters set for this experiment. Specimen S's tolerance will be brought to 1500mV. It has been noted that specimen S is most promising among the test subjects. In order to keep its authority in check, measures similar to those of Specimen A have been taken. Furthermore, Specimen S is intelligent. Its thought process needs control. Flunitrazepam is constantly administered to keep its judgment impaired.
Specimen Z is quick to adapt. However, further, more intense, sessions will be required in order to bring it to the same level as the other specimens. Specimen Z is mentally confident and this may be what has allowed it to survive beyond expectations. Of the four specimen, Specimen Z has the highest heart rate at 48 bpm. It is doubtful whether or not specimen Z will be useful for the ultimate Mako enhancement. This subject will be useful in the upcoming Mako tests. It is imperative that its pain tolerance be brought up."
Cloud thought about Mako, which was currently underneath his bed.
This... proved it, didn't it? He was right?
Cloud shook himself, gripping the materia and running out of the bathroom. He would ponder it later—there were more important things to worry about, like Angeal's injury, his foot, and Reno. Solving his mystery could wait.