The Cetra had faded so far into the planet's history as to become demi-gods. Scraps of fable, tales passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, painted them as incorruptible, their nomadic civilization near-utopian. In legend they were pure and perfect, valiantly striving to protect Gaia from the creature who would later be known as Jenova.
When they faded, dispersed and hidden among their human cousins, so too did many truths.
Even the Cetra knew greed and hatred. Even the Cetra could be seduced by questions and mysteries and untapped power. Science was anathema, yet how easy it was to fall when the planet herself gave you the answers you sought.
How foolish to think Jenova was the only threat the Cetra ever faced. Even moreso to believe a man like President Shinra could have hit upon mako energy without outside help.
Tifa remembered old Mrs. Groveby's homemade blackberry cordial, and an oddly gritty taste in her mouth. She remembered talking to Cloud on the phone, after he'd said goodnight to the children, and looking forward to the second, similar call he promised to make later. She remembered smiling at a vaguely familiar face as she sipped at her spritzer, before the face changed and the world tilted and her body was flooded with a distant sense of alarm – as if the fear and outrage belonged to someone else entirely. A foreign impulse blanketed her fight-or-flight response with unwanted calm, leaving her screaming silently as her mind struggled and her limbs capitulated.
She'd been drugged. The concept was clear and bright when it came, rising unbidden from the morass of her thoughts to grant her some semblance of order. It was bizarrely comforting to know that her inability to control her muscles and the vagueness of her thoughts was due to an outside influence. Shortly thereafter she managed to orient herself enough to know she reclined, boneless, on some sort of cot; but it took her staring eyes registering a checkerboard linoleum floor before the realization that she'd been kidnaped began filtering through her stupor. Worry for Denzel and Marlene struggled futilely to rise and was suppressed by the soporific in her veins.
"What's wrong with her?" the voice behind the demand was gruff, the tone angry and a bit frightened.
"It's just the Sand," came the cool response, "in some, it causes a reaction similar to mako poisoning. Disorientation, trouble thinking, loss of motor control. She'll get over it in a day or so." The new speaker managed to sound clinically detached and avidly fascinated at the same time.
It reminded Tifa of Hojo, sparking another failed rush of adrenalin. Her efforts to move resulted in a single flailing clench of her fingers.
"You never said anything about mako poisoning, Gethin!"
"Yes, well... I never said you could keep her, either, yet you assumed that would be the case." Cool fingers stroked her hair away from her face, the touch soothing and reminding her of nothing so much as Aerith, yet the comfort was subtly wrong. Somehow... greedy. Stingy. "You're perfectly safe, my dear," the detached voice assured her, "I need you whole if he's to cooperate."
Briefly she wondered if 'he' referred to the gruff voice, but the thought wouldn't hold. "Cloud," she whispered, knowing she was right even before the soft, humorless laugh rang out.
"Very good. Now go to sleep," he instructed, as his long, spidery fingers stroked over her eyelids, closing them, "you'll feel better when you wake up." He chuckled again, the sound cold, lacking even Hojo's mad passion. "Well, probably." A shift in the air marked his movements as he turned to the other man. "Your services will no longer be necessary, Nate," the words were lazy yet commanding. Dismissive.
"Spare me your protests, you've already been paid." In the face of Nate's anger, Gethin's was flatly uninterested. Bored. "Get out."
There was a pause, and Tifa waited for the violence she sensed in the room to peak and erupt. Instead, Nate cursed, and then stalked across the room.
"As much as he hates Strife," Gethin confided, after the echoes of Nate's footsteps had faded, and a distant door had slammed, "he hates me more. Strife ignores him, but I used him." Another soft, coldly amused chuckle sounded. "He'll make sure Strife knows where to find me, and then the real work can begin."
Her own thoughts were far too tangled to make sense of his, but one fact Tifa grasped firmly: she was bait. "Bastard," she managed, flinching at the way it escaped no more vehemently than a sigh.
"Yes, yes indeed," Gethin responded, unperturbed. "But my parentage is of no import. Go to sleep, Miss Lockhart. If you're lucky, your hero will be here when you wake."
As if that foreign impulse in her system took his words as an order, weariness rose in a black wall around her thoughts and collapsed upon her, forcing her into dreams.
Cloud sat on his bed in the inn in Kalm, fresh from the shower and free of mud for the first time since he'd left home. He'd called to tell the kids goodnight a few hours before, briefly speaking with Tifa afterward and promising to call again once he was settled. Pressing the speed dial, he listened to the distant ringing and waited expectantly for her to pick up. After the fifth ring he cancelled the call, and then tried again – although why, when the memory feature couldn't mis-dial, he wasn't sure. Reflex, he supposed. Again the bar phone rang repeatedly without answer. Frowning, he glanced at the clock. It was later than she usually closed, but it was possible the cleaning up had taken more time tonight. It happened on occasion. Maybe she was in the shower; he'd wait thirty minutes and try again.
But thirty minutes later the phone still rang without response. Growing worried, he tried the line in his office, letting it ring a dozen times before hanging up. Standing, he began to pace, telling himself he was getting anxious over nothing. Ever since Tifa had been hurt so badly in the fight with Deepground, he'd found himself pondering worst-case scenarios anytime he couldn't get in touch with her. It was embarrassing, especially since she liked to tease him about it. He shook his head, as if the motion could rid him of his unease. Tifa and the kids were probably just asleep. If they were exhausted enough, Denzel and Marlene could sleep through Barret and Yuffie arguing at high volume. Never mind that Tifa was a light sleeper, and had sounded wide awake when they spoke before.
Such platitudes allowed him to hold off calling again for a full five minutes. The bar phone once more went unanswered, but someone picked up after the eighth ring when he tried his office a second time.
"Strife deliv'ry service," Denzel mumbled, pausing to yawn halfway through.
Cloud relaxed, sorry to have woken the little boy, but relieved to hear his voice, just the same. "I'm sorry I woke you, Denzel," he said, interrupting the confused spiel the boy was reciting by rote, "I was trying to reach Tifa."
"Cloud!" as usual, Denzel perked up at the sound of his hero-cum-father's voice, sounding slightly more awake. "I think she's still downstairs," he answered, "the lights are on." He broke into another face-cracking yawn, giving Cloud time to assimilate what he'd said. "Want me to get her?"
Something was decidedly unusual, and the last thing he wanted was Denzel or Marlene blundering into trouble. "No, that's alright, Denzel," Cloud responded, keeping his tone light and unworried. "Just go back to bed. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
Still mostly asleep, the boy agreed willingly. "G'night, Cloud."
The instant the call disconnected, Cloud was punching in a new number. "Reeve? I need you to send someone around to Seventh Heaven." He paused to let the other man speak, still pacing, his motions increasingly more agitated and purposeful. "Maybe nothing. The kids are fine, but Tifa's not answering, and Denzel doesn't know where she is." One hand went to the back of his neck, rubbed to release tension. "Things were fine a few hours ago, and she was expecting my call. Can you just... thanks."
The WRO had a peace-keeping office in Edge; it shouldn't take long for someone to stop over at the bar. With luck, it would be something silly – like the time the kids managed to lock her out before going to bed, and he found her sound asleep on the porch. Forcing himself to relax, he pulled out the docket of deliveries and scheduled pick-ups he would have to attend to tomorrow. Heavy rains – of a type unseen for the last eight to ten years – had turned the roads around Midgar to mud, making travel difficult. The right kind of chocobo could travel the mud slides as if they were stable asphalt, but any man-made vehicle bigger than Fenrir was liable to get stuck. As a result, he had at least twenty small parcels to deliver, and an equally large number of return shipments to Edge.
Paperwork distracted him for twenty minutes, pacing occupied the next twenty-five. When his phone rang, he answered before the first trilling peal had completed. "Reeve?"
In his office in the WRO headquarters, Reeve sighed, reluctant to tell the younger man what his officers had found. Cloud was protective of all his friends, but with his family, he took every injury almost personally. It was probably best to be blunt. "Tifa is missing, Cloud."
"Missing?" Cloud stilled, voice and body tight.
"My men found the door unlocked, and the lights on, but Tifa wasn't there. No real signs of a fight, although there's a spilled drink on the counter and a bus box knocked over on the floor." When the information was greeted with silence, Reeve continued, "Both Denzel and Marlene are still in bed asleep, and seem fine. I've called Barret to come keep an eye on things until you can get back."
"That's good," came the response, the younger man's voice sounding distracted.
"Give me a minute, Reeve." Eyes closed, Cloud was running over his last conversation with Tifa, trying to remember every detail she'd mentioned, and to focus on the ambient sounds that had carried over the phone. "The bar was almost empty when I spoke to her earlier," he explained, as he searched his memories, "her only customers were a young couple on their first date – or so she thought – and a construction worker." He sought for a name, knowing he'd recognized the voice: deep, gruff, and vaguely disgruntled. "Nate. He's not a regular, exactly, but he's got a crush on Tifa that won't quit." Even in the midst of his worry, Cloud's annoyance was blatant, and Reeve felt his lips twitch with humor. "On the nights he stops by, Nate generally stays until closing. He might have seen something."
"I'll see if I can find him. Anything else?"
Tifa had been disappointed in the last bottle of blackberry cordial Mrs. Groveby had traded her. Something about the taste being rich, but grainy. Like the poor dear forgot to strain it, she'd said. Cloud cursed. "Look for a mostly full bottle of liqueur on the counter, Reeve," he said. "It should be small and rather ornate, the kind old-fashioned home brewers use. Test it and the spilled drink for Sand."
Sand was a new drug, one that had only become popular in the last few months. After an initial rush of disorientation – spells typically lasting no more than five minutes – users would experience lucid dreams in which they could speak and interact with the deceased. For a few hours, people could believe their lost loved ones were still with them. After geostigma and the wholesale massacres carried out by Deepground, there were a large number of people who wanted that kind of relief. The chance to say 'goodbye' or 'I love you' one more time.
For some, however, the initial disorientation didn't fade, but increased. The drug tended to hold those individuals in its grip for far longer, and the effects gradually worsened until the user became almost catatonic. The symptoms were nearly indistinguishable from mako poisoning. No one had yet died from using Sand, but those who fell ill often needed medical care to fully recover.
Either way, if someone had managed to slip Sand into Tifa's drink, it would have incapacitated her long enough to make kidnaping ridiculously easy.
"Shelke will see to it personally," Reeve promised, his deep voice suddenly tight with anxiety. Adverse reactions to Sand were more common in those who had experience with materia, or had been exposed to the lifestream. Tifa fell into both categories. "When will you be ready for pickup?" Cid was already prepping the Shera.
"Now," Cloud answered, his tone wry, "but I'll wait until Cid can get here."
As the call had progressed, Cloud had made his way around the room, gathering the few sparse belongings he'd removed from his pack. Folding his phone closed he pulled on a clean shirt, stuffed his feet into his boots, and was out the door. Taking a seat in the lobby where he could watch the sky out the window, he began calling the contact numbers on his docket, ignoring the lateness of the hour. Each disgruntled client was given the same message: an emergency situation had arisen, and if they wanted their package delivered or picked up, they'd best meet him before his ride made an appearance.
Tifa would have shaken her head at his brusque approach, but it was effective. Delivery Boy was neither an impressive nor illustrious career choice, but despite his unassuming demeanor and job preference, people knew who he was. If Cloud Strife said it was an emergency, nobody wanted to be the one to delay him. It was far too likely to be a crisis of the life-or-death variety.
When the Shera's running lights brightened the sky, Cloud had disposed of all twenty parcels he'd arrived with, and picked up another ten to deliver in Edge – delivery date unspecified and definitely not guaranteed. He met Cid on the outskirts of town, the cargo hold open and waiting when he drove up. The pilot's voice echoed over the onboard intercom as Cloud killed Fenrir's engine.
Nodding, Cloud raised his voice as a crewman obligingly slapped the button on the intercom. "Tifa's waiting. Let's mosey."