Disclaimer: This story occurs post Dirge of Cerberus and makes references to it, as well as Crisis Core, the original Final Fantasy VII, Advent Children Complete, and Before Crisis-a game released on cellphones only in Japan. I of course, do not own Final Fantasy VII or any of the compilation. That pleasure belongs to Square-Enix. As well, I've chosen to use the fan names (according to the Final Fantasy wiki) for Cloud's various swords, since they don't have official names and 'Tsurugi' is Japanese for 'sword'. I've supplied a link in my profile as to which swords are named what from how I understand it-as the swords are not labeled which is which on the wiki.
Cloud's eyes opened slowly with a heavy groan. Ohh, his head was throbbing. Had he drank too much last night? As the world came into focus, he blinked several times and then slowly moved to sit up.
This isn't Seventh Heaven...
Looking around himself slowly, Cloud became even more disturbed as he realized that not only was this not Seventh Heaven, but that he wasn't even indoors. A huge expanse of flat land stretched out before him covered with a thick coating of snow, the only break was to his left, which were towering, mountainous walls.
Cloud looked up at the solid grey sky, a few of the snowflakes touching down on his cheeks, and wondered how long he'd been there. He certainly didn't feel cold, but given that he was enhanced that wasn't very telling. After a few moments of silent speculation, during which he climbed to his feet, he realized where he was.
"Why...am I at the Northern Crater?" He wondered aloud, his voice muffled by the white expanse surrounding him.
"Why do you think, Cloud?" A spectral voice answered him, low, amused and silky.
Cloud spun around, half-reaching for Merciless out of habit before he realized that of course the weapon wasn't there. "Who is that? Show yourself!"
He heard a low chuckle that seemed to come from behind him, making him spin around once again and throwing up snow. "Really, Cloud. Can you honestly say that you don't know?"
Cloud's blood ran cold and he straightened up as the muscles in his back tensed, realizing now that he was hearing the voice inside his own head. "...Sephiroth."
"Very good, Cloud. I told you. You're nothing but a puppet."
"No!" Cloud grabbed his head and fell to his knees, shivering-not from cold, but stark fear. "I'm not your puppet, I'm not anyone's puppet! I'm-"
"And yet here you are. I called, and you came."
For that Cloud had no answer and Sephiroth chuckled softly, but then surprisingly his presence faded from Cloud's throbbing mind. He was still there though, inside his head and Cloud knew it would only get worse. He sensed on an instinctive level that Sephiroth was weak right now, but he would get stronger and then...
Cloud looked up at the walls of the Northern Crater and shivered. He had the Planet's enemy in his head...and soon enough would become the Planet's enemy himself. Would Sephiroth make his mocking words true and make Cloud his puppet? Or would he find a way to do as he had done with Kadaj and make himself live again, this time through Cloud?
If that's true...there would be no one who could stop him...
Tifa sighed softly to herself as she wiped down the bar counter for the fourth time. Cloud had been missing for over a month now and her concern had grown into real worry. She had done about all she could do herself, and now all she could do was wait.
She looked up when the chime above the door rang and was confronted with bright red eyes staring out of a pale face curtained by long, ebony black hair barely held at bay by a red bandana. She forced a smile for the intimidating figure and then turned away to arrange the dishes behind her.
"I almost didn't think you were going to come." She said lightly.
"I said I would, did I not?" Vincent responded, stepping over to seat himself at the bar. "Though I find myself having to question why you asked me to come here first."
Tifa made a face Vincent couldn't see and mentally told her stomach to stop knotting up. Vincent shouldn't affect her this way. Red XIII was far more intimidating, but only Vincent could make her feel like a rabbit shadowed by a hungry hawk, especially with them alone like this. "You're like a ghost, Vincent." She told him, letting none of the nervousness she felt creep into her voice. "I wanted to make sure you were doing alright."
"I have always answered my phone when you have called."
"That's not the same thing." Tifa forced herself to turn around and look at him, only to find she couldn't meet his eyes. She was however, a stubborn woman and she forced herself to. Sephiroth had been far more terrifying, but she'd found it easier to face him than one of her own friends who didn't even deserve it! Still, she found it a relief when he responded to her challenge by dropping his own gaze. "I haven't brought you out of your way, have I?"
"No." Vincent said in a mild tone that made Tifa want to swear. He began to idly trace a nonsense pattern on the metal countertop with his right hand while he quietly slipped his gauntlet off the bar to rest on his lap instead. "As I had told you, I was...visiting old memories."
Somehow, seeing Vincent do something so...human as to trace a pattern on the bar relieved some of Tifa's tension and allowed for some curiosity. "Old memories?" She gently prompted. Vincent talking about his past-or anything about himself really-was like finding a nugget of gold in a river. Vincent was silent for so long however that she began to worry that the moment had already passed. She began to grow uncomfortable before he finally spoke.
"Junon, and my old home therein." He said almost too softly for her to make out his words. "I found myself somewhat surprised that it was still mostly intact, especially after the damage that the WEAPON and Meteor had caused. I was also surprised that no one had since occupied the home. I would have thought it would have been cleared out long before."
"By Shinra, or vandals..." Vincent exhaled softly. "It doesn't matter. It was...nice to see my old home again. Kinder memories that won't haunt my dreams."
As long as Vincent kept his eyes down, Tifa could think of him as the tortured man that he was rather than being confronted by the monsters that lived within him. Bolstered by this she dared to move forward and place her hand gently over his, stopping its idle tracing. He jerked in surprise and looked up at her, and she forced herself not to flinch.
"You still have nightmares?" She asked him gently, showing him only concern and kindness in her expression rather than the animalistic fear his monsters invoked in her-or at least, so she hoped.
She must not have been entirely successful however, because he looked away from her and pulled his hand out from under hers. "I'll begin looking for Cloud." He told her in a brusque tone, moving to stand.
Frustrated by what she felt was irrational fear, Tifa's hand shot out to grab his arm. "...I'm sorry, Vincent." She told him sincerely and with some heat, though her anger was self-directed. "It's not your fault...and I shouldn't react this way."
Vincent looked back at her and she glared back in defiance. After a few seconds of the staring contest, Vincent tugged himself free of her and glided back out of reach.
"Don't force yourself for my sake, Tifa." He said softly, this time not breaking his gaze from hers. "I know what I am, and you are right to be afraid."
"You, Vincent Valentine, are a human being." Tifa responded with annoyance that was now definitely directed at him. "What you have are some unfortunate residents, and that's not you, that's them."
Vincent closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly. His lips quirked up in a slight smile, but it was a cold expression. "I won't bother arguing semantics with you Tifa, but you're wrong. I am they and they are me. Only Chaos is the 'unfortunate resident', and I suspect it may be it that you see when you look at my eyes." He turned away with a flourish of his cloak. "Now please excuse me, I have our leader to track down."
He was out the door before Tifa could find a way to call him back and after a few moments, she sagged against the back counter and put a hand to her face.
"I didn't even get to compliment him on his nice new boots." She muttered to herself in a bitter, self-loathing tone. I bet the others don't react like this to him, Yuffie definitely doesn't with her jumping him every chance she gets...
"Shera! Goddamnit woman, quit your fussing!"
"I'll fuss if I want." Shera responded calmly to her husband, continuing to lean over the crib and arrange the toys within to her liking. "And please stop yelling, Cid. You'll wake Kyle."
Cid huffed and puffed indignantly for several moments, but he didn't say anything more until Shera finished her task and straightened up again.
"You shouldn't be fussing about like a goddamn hen!" Cid groused at her, though at a more tolerable level. "You wanna be popping out the baby early?"
"Oh, that would almost be a blessed relief." Shera rubbed her swollen belly, smiling down at it in motherly benevolence as if she could see the fetus within. "Considering Kyle was nearly a month late, it would be nice if this one would come early."
"Haw." Cid stepped over to put a hand lightly to his wife's stomach, only to be rewarded for it with a strong kick. "Little shit." He told her belly fondly before looking into his wife's face. "Well, one brat's sleeping and the other's wide awake. Maybe if you'd rest a little goddamn more, so would the kid."
To that, Shera gave an exasperated sigh. "If only I could get any." She lamented. "This little one keeps me running to the bathroom every five minutes, it seems. Not to mention kicking me at the most unfortunate times."
"Well, our little three year old is sleeping, so go on and try for some rest right now." Cid made shooing motions toward the door.
Shera laughed softly and gave a fond smile to her husband. "Shouldn't you be looking for Cloud rather than fussing about here worrying for me? I've done this before after all, and the baby isn't due for another few weeks."
"I'll fuss if I want." He threw her words back at her. "Besides, the kid can take care of himself. Tifa's getting in a tizzy over nothing. It's not like this is the first goddamn time he's gone missing and left his phone off."
"Alright then." Shera said, though there was a note of doubt in her voice. Though she didn't know most of Cid's friends well, Tifa hadn't struck her as the kind of person to get worked up over something without a good reason. Still, Cid knew better than she did in this matter, so she let it go and waddled off on swollen feet to the bedroom to try and catch some rest before one child or the other demanded something.
Cid watched his wife leave the baby room and sighed softly to himself. The truth of the matter was he was a bit worried for Cloud, but he felt Shera needed him at home more. Nothing was threatening the Planet at the moment, so he was gonna stay tight at home with his family unless or until he was forced to take some kind of action. He looked up toward the ceiling and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops.
Hope you're doing okay, kiddo. My wife needs me here, but I'm sure one of the others'll find your spiky ass.
Cloud sighed softly as he stared off at the mako lake that had long ago swallowed Mideel. He hoped that the residents had moved out before the town had been completely engulfed, but somehow he doubted it. Normally he wouldn't even have come near the scene, but Sephiroth's presence seemed less oppressive here for some reason and it gave him at least the illusion of control.
He had been camped at the shore of the lake for almost two weeks, but he knew he couldn't stay much longer. Even though Sephiroth didn't haunt his mind as he'd been doing until Cloud had arrived at Mideel, Cloud was succumbing to a different kind of effect. Though the water diluted the smell of the mako, it was still there and Cloud had found he had been getting sluggish of thought and action. It seemed that even though he had been keeping well back from the shore, it was still close enough to affect him and if he had a relapse into mako poisoning, what then? Monsters roamed through the area, many likely created by having drank from the mako lake in their search for water. He'd already had to drive several away from him over the past two days, but if he got much slower one could well kill him before he even knew it was there.
At least Sephiroth wouldn't be able to use me then. He thought morosely. Suicide had crossed his mind early on, but he had dismissed it almost immediately. Perhaps it was pride, but he had fought too damn hard for the Planet and his life to give up now. Somewhere there was a solution and he would find it.
With a heavy sigh, Cloud heaved himself to his feet from where he'd been sitting against Fenrir and moved to circle the lake. He'd found a Bio the first time he'd done this-which had been out of sheer boredom-and a Regen the second time-which had been purposeful searching. This would be the last time he would take the hour walk around the mako lake, he promised himself. Then he would leave and find a new sanctuary to puzzle out a solution to his problem.
He had walked for nearly the full hour when he spotted something strange by the shore. He eyed it as he approached, for it didn't look like a materia. He edged towards it carefully-the shore was unstable in parts and he had no intention of falling in-and finally was able to pick it up. Retreating from the edge, he then took the time to examine his find.
Turning it over in his hands a few times, Cloud puzzled at it. It was a grayish white and looked like a miniature building, with construction that reminded him of the pagoda in Wutai, but also had elements similar to the way they built in Gongaga. It even had a tiny little door.
Must be a shrine of some sort. Cloud mused and moved to continue his walk, holding the relic in his hand. He didn't find any materia, but as he came back around to approach Fenrir he abruptly realized something. The fog that had come to blanket his mind had cleared. This revelation was enough to startle the blond into stopping mid-step and after a moment to process the clarity, he brought the shrine up to look at it. It didn't seem to be any different from the last time he had looked at it, but somehow he knew that it and his mind clearing were connected.
"Huh..." Cloud continued on his trek to his bike and packed his newest acquisition away in a saddlebag, then he climbed astride and pulled his driving goggles over his eyes before he turned on the powerful engine and peeled out, leaving the mako lake behind.
Navigating World Regenesis Headquarters, Vincent found himself growing increasingly annoyed. Everyone he came across-especially if he took them by surprise-would jump and make some noise or other, followed by a stammered 'M-Mr. Valentine!' before hurriedly backing out of his way. He'd opted to take the stairs up to Reeve's office floor as a result of the first of these reactions, and by the time he reached the desk of Reeve's secretary he was just about ready to shoot someone.
"Excuse me." He said politely to the woman sitting at the desk. "Is Reeve available?"
The secretary looked up at Vincent and her eyes widened before she hurriedly ducked her head and reached with a shaking hand for her phone. "I'll just...check for you, Mr. Valentine." She told him in a soft voice.
"...Thank you." Vincent turned away and stared intently at a painting on the wall depicting a forest. Tifa's behavior towards him he had taken as a matter of course, but everyone being jumpy? No, that was unusual. That meant something was wrong, something with him. He lifted his gauntlet hand and looked at it. I don't feel any different. True, he was a bit annoyed at everyone jumping as if he was a feral animal set loose, but that was really all.
"Um...Mr. Valentine? Mr. Tuesti will see you now..."
"Thank you." Vincent turned away from the painting and swept on to Reeve's office. He normally wouldn't have been so abrupt to the woman, but his temper had grown rather frayed. He only hoped Reeve didn't react as strongly as everyone else he'd come across that day had or he'd have to leave town in a hurry and go Galian on some monsters to work off his aggression.
"Hello Vincent!" Cait Sith waved to him cheerfully from where he was perched on Reeve's desk beside several small bobblehead versions of him. "Yae're quite the sight for sore eyes!" The robot tilted his head. "Yae've got a scary look on yaer face there. Did something happen?"
Vincent merely arched a brow at Cait and looked beyond him to Reeve himself. "Well," He commented to Reeve, who was quite readily making eye contact with him and didn't seem to be worried for his health as everyone else he'd dealt with that day had seemed to be. "this is the most cheerful greeting I've had in a while."
Reeve chuckled softly. "Well, you know how Cait is." He responded with a shrug before becoming serious. "He's right though, Vincent. You do look to be in a rather bad humor. I'm almost afraid to ask what news you've brought with you."
"It isn't the news I have brought, but the way everyone I've come across has been reacting to me." Vincent moved to sit on one of the chairs in the room, hoping that sitting on something would make him at least appear to be a little more harmless. "You and Cait have actually reacted the least severely...though I wouldn't expect the talking stuffed toy to be afraid of anything."
"Ae'm nawt afraid of yae, that's for sure!" Cait retorted while Reeve chuckled softly in amusement. "Oooh!" He shadowboxed in movements similar to Yuffie. "Ae'll knock yae flat, yae jackaroe!"
"Hm...is it just me, or does his accent get worse when he's riled?" Vincent commented dryly.
Reeve chuckled again. "Oh, it definitely gets worse." He shook his head. "So, what brings you here today, Vincent?"
"...Tifa." Vincent shifted against the chair's plush back. "She called me earlier to ask me to look for Cloud...though she asked me to go to Seventh Heaven first." He shook his head slightly. "You obviously have better resources at your disposal, so I thought it couldn't hurt to come to you."
"Hmm." Reeve steepled his fingers and shared a glance with his creation when Cait looked back at him. "Tifa also called me for the same reason. She isn't prone to be excitable, so I've chosen to humor her concern...however, it seems that she is more worried than she originally made it appear. She also called Rufus and asked for his help."
Both of Vincent's eyebrows rose to vanish under his bandana. "Rufus?" He echoed, and then frowned. "Why would she ask him for help...?"
"I've been wondering the same thing." Reeve sat back in his chair. "The only thing that comes to mind has to do with when Tifa and Cloud fell into the Lifestream at Mideel. It's possible that the experience left some kind of connection between them, and she senses that he is in danger."
"Mm...I suppose." Vincent tilted his head slightly. "So then, what came of her harassing Rufus?"
"The Turks is what came of it. Rufus called me about the call he had received from Tifa and once he had confirmed that I too had gotten a similar call, he all but forced his Turks upon my poor WRO." Reeve sighed softly, but then he focused fully on Vincent. "Actually Vincent, I'm glad you're here. I want someone to accompany the Turks when they set out to look for Cloud, and I would greatly appreciate if you would be that someone."
"...Because I am a former Turk, or is there some other reason?" Vincent's tone was very carefully neutral.
"Because they know how tae turn mae off." Cait spoke up. "And nae one else knows how the Turks operate." He pointed at Vincent. "Yae'd be just about perfect. Yae know how they work, and yae're nae fool tae be intimidated by them either."
"...Just about what he said." Reeve added on, arching a brow at Cait, who ignored him. "But beyond that Vincent, you're someone I know I can trust. Rufus must have his own agenda here, and maybe you can find out what it is."
Vincent sighed heavily. "...Very well." He said with some reluctance. "Though quite honestly Reeve, I can't promise much. Tseng and Rude are tolerable, but Elena and Reno rub me the wrong way."
"Just try not to eat anyone." Reeve responded dryly, only to quickly shoot his hands up when Vincent gave him a dark look. "Only kidding, Vincent. But really, you do look rather intimidating today. In fact, I haven't seen you this bad since you had the Protomateria stolen."
"The Protomateria..." Vincent brought up his right hand to place on his chest over where it rested. He barely gave it a thought most days, but brought to his attention now he could feel its pulse out of tune with the beating of his heart and behind that... Chaos is restless. He frowned deeply. This was not good. It had been about six months since he had defeated Omega and since that time, he had done all he could to dredge up any and all information on the proto-WEAPON-or rather, had asked Shelke to do so as she had access to far more information than he could easily get a hold of on his own. Some of the things he had learned had been disturbing, but it had also helped him to understand and therefore control Chaos. That the monster was becoming so active now...
"Mr. Tuesti?" Reeve's secretary's voice crackled through the com abruptly.
Reeve immediately depressed a button on the receiver. "Yes, Katarine?"
"Tseng of the Turks is here and requesting to speak with you."
"Ah..." Reeve glanced at Vincent, who sighed softly and shrugged. "Yes, let him in." Reeve released the button and sat back again.
A few moments later, Reeve's office door opened and Tseng entered. He paused briefly when he noticed Vincent, but then turned his attention to Reeve. "I was going to ask if you had decided on someone to accompany us, but I see there may be no need."
"That is correct." Reeve replied with a nod. "Vincent will be going with you. If you have no complaints, of course."
"Complaining would avail me nothing." Tseng said seriously, folding his arms behind his back. "The President directed us to treat your orders-with some exceptions-as if they were coming from him himself."
"Hm. I see." Reeve glanced at Vincent. "Well then, I hope this arrangement works out. I wouldn't want to hinder your work, but you do understand the precautions I must take to protect my own interests."
"Of course." Tseng looked at Vincent then and arched a brow. Though Vincent was not exactly fond of any of the Turks, he found himself glad that Tseng didn't act as if there was anything at all strange about him. After a few moments in which the two men stared at one another, Tseng looked back at Reeve again.
"We'll take our leave then." At Reeve's nod of assent, he turned to go. He gave a glance to Vincent and then opened the door to leave again. Vincent exhaled softly and stood to follow. This was starting to grate on him already.
Tseng was quiet as he led the taller man to the elevator and remained so until the car arrived to take them to the roof, it seemed. Only once the doors had closed and the elevator began its ascent did Tseng choose to break the silence.
"There may be certain situations that we come across in which I will require your immediate and unquestioning obedience." He began, looking at Vincent from the corner of his eyes. "Though we are allies at this time, you must understand that the safety of those under my command comes first and foremost. Compromise the safety of my team, and I will take the appropriate steps to deal with it."
Vincent arched a brow. "You are preaching to the choir, Tseng. Though I am no longer a Turk, I still believe I understand the rules that need to be followed...for the most part." He tilted his head slightly and seemed about to say more, but the elevator reached its destination then and Tseng swept out as soon as the doors opened, leaving Vincent to follow in his wake towards the waiting Shinra helicopter.
"Aw, hell no!" Reno groaned as soon as he spotted them-or more specifically, Vincent. "Director, you can't be serious!"
"Is there a problem, Reno?" Tseng asked, his tone cold enough to chill the air around him.
"...No, sir." Reno responded grudgingly. He sighed heavily and then rapped on the side of the helicopter-which he had been leaning against. "Hup to, team! Time to meet the babysitter!"
Babysitter? Vincent thought with annoyance that he didn't allow to show on his face. If that's what they considered him to be, then things were going to be even more chafing than he had first thought.
Rude emerged from the copter first, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses as always, but the woman who followed him out made Vincent arch a brow. She looked like Elena, but...
Tseng evidently noticed his confusion. "Vincent, this is Thessa. She's Elena's older sister and will be working with us on this assignment."
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance." Thessa had a more pleasing voice than Elena did, Vincent noted. He nodded back to her, silently pleased again that none of the Turks seemed to be reacting in the least to Chaos' unusual activity-though with Rude's sunglasses, it was harder to tell with him.
"Where is Elena?" Vincent asked, looking at Tseng and arching a brow. While he wasn't fond of the young woman, it seemed more than a little strange to him that an older sibling of hers had spontaneously materialized.
"Elena is taking a paid leave to take care of certain issues." Tseng responded smoothly. When Vincent's expression turned dubious, he frowned and then sighed softly.
"You're wondering why you've never seen Thessa before, I suppose?" He queried. At a slight nod from Vincent, he sighed softly again and motioned for the Turks to board the copter. Once they had done so, Tseng turned fully to Vincent and tucked his arms behind his back.
"She has been in hiding for several years thanks to her part in aiding our former leader Veld recover the four support materia to save his daughter's life." He informed Vincent in a simple and no-nonsense way. "Is that enough to satisfy you, Vincent?"
"..." Vincent crossed his arms. "If she has been in hiding, then why is she back now?"
"The President sent out a formal pardon to all Turks who had participated in the defection and gone into hiding." Tseng glanced over at the helicopter, then looked back at Vincent. "Thanks to Elena, we were able to locate Thessa...but the others are still unaccounted for. I am sure they are alive however, and they either have not received the news or they do not believe the truth of it."
"I wouldn't blame them." Vincent responded and moved to board the craft without another word. After a moment, Tseng followed him and took a seat to buckle himself into. Reno and Rude were already in the cockpit and Thessa had already strapped herself in.
"Our first objective is Icicle Inn." Tseng informed Vincent while Vincent was taking the time to shut the copter door. "Cloud was apparently sighted in the area, and though the information is sadly quite old, it is as good a place to begin our search as any."
"Mm." Vincent nodded slightly and took a seat himself as the engines came to life and he mentally prepared himself for the long flight, for it was likely to be extremely boring and headache-inducing.
At around the time that the Turks arrived at their destination, Cloud arrived at his. Staring up at the Shinra manor from astride his motorcycle with the late evening sun setting behind the mountains, he sighed heavily and rubbed his head.
"How did I end up here?" He muttered, though he had a sneaking suspicion he knew. With another heavy sigh, he shut off Fenrir and dropped his riding goggles around his neck. "Are you going to burn it all to the ground again, Sephiroth?" He asked with a weary tone, looking back at his rebuilt hometown.
After several moments during which he didn't receive an answer, he turned to his saddlebags to dig out some provisions and his sleeping bag as well as the relic. He didn't really know why, but he wanted to keep it close to him and he turned to head into the mansion. If Nibelheim was still standing by the morning, perhaps he'd even do some shopping to restock his supply.
The floor was filthy and had grass growing out of it from where the roof had collapsed. Rusted machine parts lay broken under the stairs and the stairs themselves creaked ominously and threatened to give out under Cloud's carefully placed feet. The second floor didn't offer much more stability and Cloud began to reason that unless he wanted to stay in the inn, he was probably safer either on the main floor...or in the basement. He had already discarded the inn. There were too many memories already and with Sephiroth in his head the whole situation seemed like history ready to repeat itself. The first floor was disgusting and though he hadn't checked the other rooms, he guessed they were probably just as bad, especially with the front doors having been rotted away to let in the elements as well as the roof. That left the basement.
Creeping warily along the creaking boards, Cloud made his way toward the basement entrance, muttering to himself about the idiot who'd designed the way to the basement on the second floor. Upon reaching the basement entrance, he then had to creep down with his back against the wall, distrusting the wooden boards that led the way down. Just when he was starting to think it was becoming more effort than it was worth however, he reached the basement.
Now on solid ground, Cloud headed determinedly toward his destination and soon was setting his things down...in the room where he had first met Vincent. It was small, it was clean and considering his current state of mind, it seemed suiting to spend the night there. Unrolling his sleeping bag, he sat down on it and set about putting out dinner for himself.
While he ate, he thought about the last few hours. He'd found the relic and the mako-induced fog had lifted, only for another fog to take its place. He hadn't lost time precisely-not like he had when he'd woken up in the shadow of the Northern Crater with no recollection of having traveled there-but it had been hazy and...directed. It was almost as if he had been guided to his hometown, and he knew not why.
His food abruptly tasted like ashes in his mouth. He packed it away and picked up the relic almost unconsciously, then he stood up and paced out of the coffin room. Feeling pensive, he circled the basement and finally dared to enter Hojo's old lab. It had fallen to ruin, of course. The specimen tubes were broken and rusted, the experiment table and its immediate surroundings had broken glass and to Cloud's surprise, bullet casings. Crouching to examine them, he picked one up and turned it over.
Oh, that's right. He suddenly remembered. Vincent had encountered Deepground here, these must be from his gun...or possibly theirs.
He stood up again, letting the casing fall back to the floor. He didn't know why Vincent would have ventured into the basement, nor why he would have entered this room in particular, but now he was curious about what other evidence he would find regarding Deepground's presence in Nibelheim half a year ago. Still carrying the relic without seeming to be fully aware of doing so, Cloud moved on into the library. Here he found more signs of battle and several of the books had bullet holes in them. One of the bookcases had even been toppled over.
"...Jenova isn't your mother, you know." Cloud said suddenly, recalling the memory that wasn't his of being in this room while Sephiroth read out what he had found on Jenova. Why did the Zack memories still seem so vivid anyway? "That was a woman named Lucrecia."
"Lately I dream of Sephiroth...my dear, dear child."
Cloud blinked, suddenly finding himself trapped in the memory of standing with Vincent and the others within the Crystal Cave listening to Lucrecia. There again was the brunette woman with her face in her hands, mourning for the child she birthed.
"Ever since he was born I never got to hold him, even once..."
Is he...rifling through my memories? Cloud felt himself go cold, even as he remained trapped in reliving the memory as if it was happening again before his eyes. If Sephiroth could touch his memories, then he could likely alter them too...
"Not even once! You can't call me his mother...that...is my sin..."
And then the memory faded from behind Cloud's eyes. He shook his head out violently and growled in irritation. "You see!" He thought angrily at Sephiroth. "She gave birth to you, not some alien stuck in a tube!"
"And yet by her own admission, she cannot be called my mother." Sephiroth replied with his usual silky calm. "Not once did she ever speak to me, give me guidance or behave in any manner the way I imagine a parent should."
"Oh, and because Jenova told you to destroy the world that makes her a better mother?" Cloud's mental response was caustic. "You really are insane if you call that good parenting."
Sephiroth laughed. "If I am insane, then why are you addressing me as though you assume me to be rational?" He laughed again. "Poor deluded Cloud. You don't even know what you're fighting for."
"At the moment," Cloud hissed aloud. "I'm fighting against you." He moved to leave the library and re-enter Hojo's former lab.
"But this is a battle you will lose, and you know it." Cloud's fist clenched, the other hand tightening around the relic he still did not seem to be fully aware he was carrying. "Nothing but a puppet. A poor broken doll, still pretending he exists."
"Funny." Cloud was back to arguing aloud. "For 'not existing' I did a pretty good job of taking you out-what was it...three times?"
He shortly discovered another way Sephiroth could affect him when pain shot through his skull with such intensity he collapsed, gasping like the breath had been knocked out of him. He whimpered, his head feeling like it was on fire. Frantic with the primal need to escape the agony, Cloud somehow staggered blindly to his feet. He jerked about, unable to see for the agony but trying to get out of the room as if that would somehow end the pain. He missed his mark however and slammed hard against a wall, only for it to give out under him and he fell hard on his side into heavy dust. Somehow, needing to cough eased the pain somewhat and he was able to push himself up again, hacking and wheezing. Still unable to see very well, blood vessels having burst in his eyes, Cloud staggered back to his feet and squinted into the gloom ahead of himself. The pain was slowly receding further and Cloud sincerely hoped Sephiroth couldn't inflict pain on him too often, as Cloud had no doubt that Sephiroth would choose a potentially fatal time to inflict the agony on him next.
Slowly, step by step Cloud inched forward. His vision was thankfully recovering quickly-a happy side effect of being essentially a SOLDIER-and he saw a small light ahead that when he reached it turned out to be a keypad of sorts.
A secret room? Cloud tilted his head slightly, though his stomach turned over sickly. A hidden room attached to Hojo's lab probably meant horrors were on the other side. Still, maybe there would be something worth discovering inside and Cloud stared at the keypad before punching in some random numbers. The light above the keypad flashed red of course, but Cloud leaned down slightly and peered more closely before he lightly brushed the dust off and looked again. Four numbers were slightly more worn than the rest, so that was the code. The key was figuring out the order.
It took seven tries, but finally the light flashed green and there was a click when the door unlocked. Warily, Cloud lifted his hand to open the door-pausing briefly when he finally noticed what he had been carrying all that time-before pushing on into the room. How long have I been carrying this? He wondered before looking up at his find.
He found himself in a room that was surprisingly lit, though dimly. Immediately in front of him was a double row of specimen tubes. The nearest ones were empty, but ones further back in the room seemed to be filled with a thick green liquid-stagnant mako. As Cloud inched in through the ankle-high dust to investigate, he found to his horror that the tubes with the mako in fact had more than mako.
Cloud backed up quickly into the tube behind himself, staring in silent terror at what was within the tube he was facing...himself.
"H-How..." He whispered, starting to tremble. If he was inside of that tube, then was he really Cloud Strife or had what Sephiroth had taunted him with been true? Was he really just a clone with false memories?
"M-My memories are real..." He whimpered softly to himself, still staring. "Tifa c-conf-firmed them...I'm real..." But was he really? Maybe the memories were true, but which one was the real Cloud?
So caught up was he in his terror that he didn't notice that the relic had begun to glow until it became too hot for him to hold it and he dropped it in surprise. Finally, he tore his eyes away from the doppleganger to stare at the relic, which had landed upright on the floor and was still glowing with a bright white light that was almost too painful to look at.
A thud rattled the tube behind him and he jumped and spun around, pupils dilating sharply as something even more frightening presented itself. The body facing across from Cloud's doppleganger had come to life and was trying to break its way free.