"Mister? Hey mister! Are you alright?" a voice – young, male on the cusp of puberty – called.
Cloud groaned, bringing a hand up to his face to keep out the first glimmers of painful light and to cradle his poor pounding cranium. What had happened? There had been a delivery job, he'd completed it and been on his way back to Edge. A monster attack, a... what was that thing? It had probably been bathing in mako for a while to get that mutated, whatever it had been.
"Mister?" the voice asked again. "I turned off your bike, since I figured you probably didn't want it still running while it was on its side like that."
Cloud tentatively opened his eyes beneath his hand and parted his fingers slightly. What he saw made him want to pinch himself, except that he already hurt too much all over for this to be a dream. Only his dreams of his time in Hojo's lab hurt this much, and that was definitely sky above him. Not a lab dream, ergo, awake.
"Kid," Cloud rasped. "Do you know what the date is?" he asked.
"The date?" the kid repeated. "It's the fourteenth of January."
Cloud nodded carefully. "What's your name kid?" he asked, as if he didn't already know. "How old are you? You look a bit young to be out on your own, wherever we are."
The kid frowned. "I'm fifteen," the kid said, all pouting and indignation. "My name's Cloud Strife, and for your information it's only a few miles to Midgar."
Fourteen, Cloud mentally corrected, recalling that he'd started practising that lie before he'd reached the city where he was going to become a Soldier. "You see my sword anywhere kid?" he asked, making a first effort at last to pull himself into a seated position. "Or my materia?"
"Which one's yours?" the kid asked. "There's five of 'em, all around, and there's glowing balls all over the place too, if that's the materia you're talking about."
Five? His sword only had four blades to it, what was that extra one? Never mind. "Yeah, that's materia. Can you grab those for me? One or two of them will fix me up like new, so I'll need them before I take a look at the swords or my bike," he said.
"Sure thing mister," the kid agreed, and scampered out of Cloud's view. The sound of materia clinking together – distinct from glass or stone doing the same – was soon ringing sharply in Cloud's ears, made louder by the thumping that was still going on in his skull.
It didn't take long for the kid to collect a lot more materia than Cloud generally carried and dump it all in the man's lap, and Cloud sorted through them all carefully until he found a Cure and a Restore. Without equipping them – because frankly he could not currently be stuffed to find something to equip them in right now, even if using a non-equipped materia was harder than when it was properly installed – he used them both to fix himself up, and then he properly looked around.
There was Fenrir, lying on her side and probably with her paint scratched. He almost whimpered at the sight of her like that. There was the first blade, the second, the third, and the fourth blade of his sword. The fifth blade was a much older buster sword, a solid but sharp wedge of high quality steel. But that didn't make sense. Zack, no, Angeal should still have that sword.
Never mind. He'd take it with him anyway. Since the kid was... well, no point in erecting a monument to people who hadn't died yet really.
Cloud carefully arranged all the gently glowing baubles and stood up, careful not to drop any even if it wouldn't damage them. Gently, he opened one of the compartments along Fenrir's side and deposited the collection. He'd sort through and equip them properly later. Next, he hauled his baby up onto her wheels and brought down the kickstand so he could inspect her properly.
The paint was scratched. The metal wasn't dented though, and it didn't look like the engine had sustained any damage either. Cloud breathed out a sigh of relief. Only cosmetic damage. Bad enough, since Fenrir was his baby, but nothing that he couldn't easily fix in half an hour with an air-brush and black paint.
Last, but not least, Cloud collected up the blades that were scattered around. He checked that they were all still in the same excellent condition they had been when he'd checked them that morning, or what had been that morning to him anyway, and slotted the familiar blades into their places in the storage space of Fenrir.
"They're all yours, mister?" the kid asked, awed.
"Yeah," Cloud answered softly, turning his gaze to the last sword. They were all his, except for that one. He reached down to pick up the handle anyway. The handle that he'd kind of always thought was too slim for such a big sword. Now, where was he going to put this?
"Hey mister, are you a Soldier?" the kid asked.
"No," Cloud answered shortly.
"But you got Soldier eyes," the kid insisted. "Everybody knows Soldier's got glow-y eyes."
"I'm not Soldier," Cloud repeated, finally figuring out space for the large buster sword and slotting it into Fenrir along with all the other blades.
"How'd you lift that one really big sword so easy then?" the kid asked. "Only Soldiers is that strong."
Cloud shook his head silently. "That sword has been around since long before the Soldier program was ever thought of," he answered at last, recalling a conversation he'd had once with Emperor Godo. Swords like the buster sword had been designed by Wutaian warriors to cut down the enemy and the horse they were riding at the same time. Wutai was so fortunate as to have very few monster problems, on the other hand, however, they had lots of civil wars.
There was also the history of that particular sword. It had been handed down in Angeal's family for generations before he'd given it to Zack. Definitely been around longer than the Soldier program. That had only come into being a little after the ShinRa company was created after all, and Rufus' father was the man who built it from the ground up. The fat slime ball was somewhere between sixty and seventy when he was killed by his son, though Rufus had come along a few years after Hojo...
Gah. Numbers. Not worth thinking about if it wasn't figuring out how much gil he had, how much gil he needed, how long a certain amount of gil would have to last him, or how much gil change he'd have.
Speaking of gil, Cloud finally searched his own person for his things. Wallet, left rear trouser pocket. Good. PHS that he never answered and had a lot of numbers that wouldn't work for people he shouldn't know, in his left front trouser pocket. ID, which would need to be replaced. Gil that, due to serial numbers, it would probably be wise to launder. Incriminating pictures of people as they would be in a number of years and kids who hadn't been born yet that he would have to turn into ash. He actually didn't mind that last one though, since he wasn't actually all that interested in carrying around pictures of people.
He might hold onto the one of Vincent though. It was probably the only picture that wasn't totally incriminating in some way, and the man had given good advice, sometimes, in his round about way that ultimately had you giving yourself the good advice and then thanking Vincent for it.
"You gonna be alright mister?" the kid asked.
Cloud looked up. He'd forgotten about the kid for a moment. "Yeah," he answered. "I'll be fine."
The kid nodded. "I gotta get going," the kid said. "I gotta get to Midgar before they close the city gates for the night."
Cloud nodded in understanding, and watched as the boy that he'd once been picked up an ugly maroon dufflebag and started walking towards the city that was so close it couldn't properly be seen – due to the walls around it.
The first stop for that Strife would be the train station that would take him up to the Plate so he could apply to join the Soldier program. The first stop for Cloud would be Reno's back-door dealings for a new ID. Even as a Turk, Reno still did shady dealings on the side for gil to supplement his vices. For the right amount of gil – and the presentation of a very sharp blade to something he held valuable, like his neck or his crotch – Reno could even be persuaded to completely forget about the transaction to the point of drugging himself into forgetfulness and not telling anybody, even his boss, about the job.
So Cloud kicked Fenrir into gear and rolled into the slums of Midgar. He had a red-head to find.
"This is legit yo?" Reno asked, holding up Cloud's ID between finger and thumb.
Cloud nodded solemnly.
Reno whistled, clearly impressed. Then he set the piece of plastic down on his desk and, resting his hands over his keyboard, looked up at the blond. "Right yo. How far am I taking this? New birthday, obviously. You're what? Twenty-four? Twenty-five?"
"Twenty-six," Cloud corrected with a self-depreciating smirk. Damn being short and all that mako for keeping him so young-looking. Nah, it wasn't that bad these days really, and Reno had only been off by a little bit.
"August eleven, 1974," Reno announced as he typed, quickly doing the math.
"Make it August nineteen," Cloud said. "Minnie-me came to Midgar today as well. Two people born on August eleven may not be a big deal, but I'll avoid the coincidence if I can."
Reno nodded and corrected the date. "Still want that motorcycle licence yo?" he asked.
Cloud levelled a glare at the red-head.
"Right," Reno agreed. "Dumb question. Course you do. Medical history? Blood-type?"
"Like hell I'm lying about my blood-type," Cloud answered. "I may wonder if I don't have more mako than blood sometimes, but when I do need blood, I damn well want it to be the right flavour."
Reno nodded. "What about the rest?"
"Broken rib when I was younger," Cloud said. "Got all my shots and I've had the chickenpox. If there are going to be needles involved I'll do it myself or I will react badly. Some mild depression in the past."
Reno typed fast, and he typed silently. "Qualifications?" he asked next.
"Bachelor in biochemistry, medicine and physical science," Cloud answered. He'd never attended a university in his life, not really, but all the books he'd read – credible ones with legitimate references, not that garbage Hojo used to justify his crazy – and of course all the time spent under the tender mercies of the mad scientist, Cloud knew more than just a thing or two. Trying to find a cure for Geostigma had seen his medical knowledge expand as well.
"Where?" Reno asked.
"Kalm," Cloud answered with a shrug, he'd made enough deliveries there for it to be vaguely appropriate. "I have equivalent knowledge, but I wasn't actually ever a student, so don't give me any stand-out marks."
Reno nodded at this and entered the relevant details, scattering passes, credits and the odd distinction around. Those sorts of marks would only be important if Cloud wanted to go further, and Reno got the feeling he didn't much care. Still, legitimacy. "Lucky that Bachelor's never get published," Reno said. "Masters get published, that would be a hole I'd have to fill in if you wanted that. Anything else?"
"Mechanical engineer. Kalm Technical College. If it's got moving parts I pretty much know how it works," Cloud answered.
"Hometown," Reno said once he'd finished entering all that. "And what are the names of your new folks yo?"
"It had better Nibelheim," Cloud answered uncomfortably. "My accent comes back sometimes. Can't explain that away any other way."
Reno accepted this.
"Father can be a ShinRa lackey who died in the construction of the reactor," Cloud said, and never before had he thought that he would be grateful that Nibelhiem was one of the first places to have a reactor. "Just as long as you don't put the Turk that went missing. Mother was..." Cloud paused to think of an older Nibelheim name that he could actually live with. After all, soon he wouldn't be Cloud Strife. That was the fourteen-year-old who was signing up at the cadet recruitment booth right now. "Phyllis Brier, dead in eighty-six."
"And will you be keeping 'Cloud'?" Reno asked with a smirk. "It's the last detail yo."
Cloud snorted. "Given the chance to pick my own name, no, I'm not going to stick with 'Cloud'."
"Didn't think so yo," Reno agreed. "So, what'll it be?"
Cloud smirked. "Do you think it would be too much to have been named Sephiroth?" he asked, only half joking. After all, if someone called 'Sephiroth', Cloud would react.
"Well, you are claiming superior years," Reno answered reasonably. "So you'll be Sephiroth Brier? You think you can answer to that?"
Cloud shook his head. "Any kid who's dad wasn't around in Nibelhiem gets called Strife, regardless of if their mum has a name of her own or not. Well known fact up there. No questions asked." It would also save him from questions about not reacting to a different name.
"Sephrioth Strife from Nibelheim," Reno confirmed and printed out the documents while another machine made the plastic ID.
Once all the papers were in a brown envelope and Cloud had swapped in the new plastic card, he dropped a wad of gil on Reno's desk and shifted his stance just slightly so that Reno knew Cloud would be able to pull the big-arse sword on his back in seconds.
"And I don't remember anything," Reno agreed, taking out a syringe from one of the drawers on his desk.
Cloud watched him erase the file-making process from his own computer (though not from the places he'd planted the new information of course), and then slip the super-fine needle into the crook of his elbow. When the glowing-pink forgetfulness potion was completely in Reno's veins, he took the piece out again and set it in his rubbish bin just before he slumped over in his chair. Once Cloud had removed all other traces of himself in the room – such as taking the old ID back – he left.
Cloud decided to get himself a job working at ShinRa. He should be able to swing that without too much hassle. Really it was just a matter of deciding which department he wanted to work in. He had the qualifications to be anything from a cleaner to a scientist to an engineer to, of course, a Soldier.
Cleaning was extremely low pay but he would only have to be in the building between five and seven in the evenings. Secretarial work was within his capabilities but not his physique, as ShinRa secretaries were all female, and usually quite curvy ones at that. He also really didn't want to be an office drone. Cloud was quite sure that a part of him would just die if he had to do the nine-to-five in a white cubicle behind a desk filling out forms. He could be a cook in the Soldier or army mess hall, for that matter he could probably get a place in the cafeterias that served the higher-ups if he wanted. He didn't want. Bad enough he could remember what eating that stuff tasted like, he didn't want to know what went into it as well!
Weapons Development Department under Scarlet. No. Scarlet was an unmitigated bitch who didn't give a damn about people except what they could do for her. Also, Cloud would just as soon not be involved in the building of the Sister Ray, or any of the others. Thank you.
Urban Development Department. Well, Reeve was a good guy, Cloud knew. Under-funded and not taken seriously enough considering what was covered within his jurisdiction though. Cloud decided against subjecting himself to feeling quite that helpless. Reeve probably couldn't afford to hire anybody anyway, his budget was so small.
There was the Public Safety Maintenance Department, which ran and administered the regular army, the Soldiers and the Turks. All perfectly viable options that Cloud was eminently suited for – except that there was already a Sephiroth and a Strife in the program, and Cloud wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea of killing on Shinra's orders. He sure as hell wasn't interested in doing it on Heidegger's.
Space Exploration Department and Palmer. It would be a chance to work with Cid, but the work would have an expiry date, and Cloud knew it. The rocket wouldn't launch because of Shera (Cid still hadn't completely forgiven her for that, even so many years later), the funding would be pulled, and they'd all be out of work.
Science Department. Well, since Gast has well and truly cleared out by this time that means Hojo would be in charge, and Hollander would probably still be there too. It was a golden opportunity to kill the bastards if nothing else. Sabotage experiments, free (or give mercy-killings to) 'specimens', find a way to destroy Jenova before she gets a chance to really get going, unearth DeepGround or prevent its creation, depending... Of course, there was the issue of how to get rid of Hojo without getting caught or drawing any attention to himself, but Cloud was quite sure he could figure something out. It just might take him a while. Plenty of time to discredit the man first.
Hojo didn't do the hiring for his department. He delegated that task to one of the lesser scientists under him. Not Hollander of course, that would give his 'rival' too much power. Just an underling who understood administrative procedures.
In fact, the process was handled by the department's equivalent of a secretary. Except that the Science Department didn't have secretaries. Anybody else filling in their paperwork would get it wrong, apparently. She was a brunet and wore her hair in a tight bun at the base of her skull, was slightly curvy under her white lab coat, and her name was Essa.
"Considering your qualifications," she said, looking over the resume that Cloud had built up and the photocopies he'd made of the qualifications Reno had falsified for him, "we'll start you off as maintenance and assist. You'll make sure that all the equipment is working and in perfect order when the professors need it. If they want a hand with something, you provide it. You keep your head down and do as you're told. Here's your contract," she said, returning Cloud's resume with another, thicker, stack of papers on top. "Read it, sign it, hand it in to the department's front desk on your way out. You start Monday."
It was Thursday.
Cloud nodded in acceptance and settled back in his chair to read through the contract he'd been handed.
He had two days off a week, Wednesday and Friday, and he needed somewhere to train for a while on those days. There was obviously the many practice courts, gyms and training areas that were used by the Soldiers, regular army, and cadets, but there was no way he'd go unnoticed if he did that. There were the Turk facilities, but that was just asking for trouble, and like hell he'd use the physical testing area in Hojo's lab, even if it was the one he had easiest access to. Hojo was still breathing after all, and if he got spotted by the man then he'd be on the slab. Again. The problem was that there wasn't anywhere else unless he wanted to find somewhere below the plate or leave Midgar. Always an option of course, but regularly doing either of those activities was asking for even more trouble than working out in the Turk space or Hojo's lab.
With a sigh, and just knowing he was inevitably going to attract attention of some kind, Cloud had gone down to where the men (and boys) in the Soldier program, as well as the regular army grunts, trained. He wore his faded navy top, the knitted one with no sleeves and a zip up the front, his once-black-but-now-kinda-faded cargo trousers, and his gloves. His single shoulder-guard with the Nibel wolf on it, and the large black leather apron he wore over one leg, and the matching single sleeve, he left in his ShinRa-supplied apartment.
All of his regular blades – that is to say, all but the one that should still be in the hands of Zack's mentor Angeal – were in their place in the harness he wore at his back as he walked the halls, looking for an unoccupied training room or a way out to the field, which he could hope was empty.
Just his luck, a troop of green looking cadets were stumbling out of a room under the eye of the Second Class who was stuck with minding them.
"Excuse me," Cloud called softly, walking up to the man. "How long until someone has this room again?" He was glad, not for the first time, that only the cadet classes and regimented group training were booked times, anybody wanting to train on their own would just have to find an empty room. The only exception was the VR rooms, which always had to be booked.
"One hour," the man answered with an easy shrug. "All yours 'til then."
"Thanks," Cloud said, ducking into the room as the man hustled off the sick looking cadets. Clearly, the man had been training them hard. Or they were new. Possibly both. There was no sign of blond hair in the group, which was only about ten strong, so Cloud felt safe in assuming that his fourteen-year-old self was in a different squad of cadets.
Cloud shut the door behind him and moved out to the centre of the floor. Stretches were first, then some basic sword forms, followed by more advanced sword forms, followed by combos. Then Cloud changed blades and repeated. Another set, and another, then he moved up to having two blades in his hands at once, and started again with the simple before working up to the advanced forms and the combos.
Applause sounded from the door when he halted his last form, his arms out at his sides, holding his two swords up, steady and level, parallel to the ground. Cloud straightened and, putting one sword then the other back into the harness absently, turned to see who his audience was.
Well shit. If it wasn't the puppy himself. Zack Fair. No buster sword. His mentor must still have it then.
"I'm impressed," Zack said with a grin. "I didn't know we had someone in the program who could do all that. I mean, apart from the Generals of course, but even they each only use one sword at a time."
Cloud just shrugged, deciding it might be better not to correct the man's assumption just now.
"What's your name?" Zack asked.
Cloud did smirk then. "Sephiroth Strife," he answered. "Yes I'm serious, no I wasn't named after the Silver General. I am in fact three years older than him," he added before Zack could form words in his hanging jaw. "Excuse me," he said politely. "I'm done now and I'd like to hit the showers."
Zack nodded, still a little shell-shocked, and stepped away from the door for Cloud to pass through.
Cloud wondered how long it would take Zack to connect him with the little Cloud Strife, or if the two had even met yet.
Probably not actually. Cloud remembered that he was a grunt in the regular army when he met Zack, so he would have failed his first attempt at the Soldier exam before anything interesting happened, and the Soldier exam was still some ways off.
"Mix this," Hollander ordered him, shoving a paper at him. "I don't have time today to give Project G his maintenance personally. You can mix this, right? It's just his usual mako treatment."
Cloud nodded. "Yes Professor," he answered, scanning the paper as he accepted it. "Which lab will the maintenance take place?" he asked, using his most impersonal scientist-speak. He really, really hated it, but if he didn't talk like this, they wouldn't give him this kind of job.
"Lab two, and if he asks why he's being given his maintenance by you instead of me, and he's dramatic and proud enough that he would, the answer is budget meetings," Hollander answered.
An hour later, Cloud had corrected the recipe the man had shoved at him, and was waiting in lab number two with the cure to the degeneration that Genesis and Angeal hopefully weren't beginning to feel too strongly yet. And no, Jenova was in no way a part of that cure.
The best thing about this fix, to Cloud's thinking, was that it would continue to keep the red general fixed even with Hollander continuing his 'usual maintenance'.
It was important that Genesis get his problems sorted out first. He was key. The man was explosive in all his manners. If he was upset, he sulked publicly. If he was happy, he crowed from the rooftops. If he was angry, he blew shit up. If he was angsting about his inhumanity, he dragged his friends down with him until they were doing the same.
"Amazing," Genesis remarked, raising an eyebrow. "For the first time after a mako shot I don't feel tired and ill. Did Hollander change the recipe?"
Cloud snorted before he could stop himself.
Genesis had Cloud's chin in his red-gloved grip before the blonde could turn away. "Explain yourself, science peon. Why do you scoff at the good doctor?" Genesis purred dangerously.
"Because Hollander, and Hojo, know jack-shit about what they're doing," Cloud answered.
"I want a better answer than that," Genesis insisted quietly.
"Hollander doesn't get results because he believes Hojo knows what he's doing and is trying to copy him and better him at the same time, while staying within the rules about how scientific experiments are conducted. Hojo gets results because he has long forgotten how to be scientifically objective, and crushed his moral compass under foot if he ever had one, and experiments willy-nilly without any real regard to scientific method," Cloud explained quickly.
"So what did you give me?" Genesis asked, almost sweetly.
"My answer to that question depends on your understanding of medicine," Cloud answered. "Do you know how the body fights disease?"
Genesis blinked. "No," he admitted.
"When a child gets the chickenpox their bodies generate anti-bodies in the bloodstream to fight against and destroy the bacteria. Because of the type of disease it is, the chickenpox doesn't ever change at all, and the child never gets this disease again. By contrast, the common cold is an evolving virus. It is always changing, and so the anti-bodies the body produced the first time the child caught a cold don't work as well the next time, so they take medicine to help their bodies develop the new anti-bodies faster to drive out the virus. Hollander was injecting you with a chickenpox type of disease that he actually believed was a cold-type. It doesn't actually change, but it appears to change, and it causes changes. Key among the changes it causes is preventing your body from developing anti-bodies against it," Cloud expounded. "Which supported his idea that it was an evolving virus."
"As unpleasant as all that is," Genesis allowed, "what does that have to do with what you did?"
"A disease like the chickenpox can be combated more quickly by giving the person suffering from the disease an injection of anti-bodies that were generated by somebody else. I have access to such anti-bodies and supplied them to you. The mako in your usual injections, while laced with the disease, will help boost the assimilation and reproduction of these anti-bodies. Now that your body has something that knows how to combat the foreign microscopic entity, it can copy that, make more, and you won't ever have to worry about the disease Hollander has been pumping into you," Cloud answered.
Genesis narrowed his eyes at the blonde. "You are fortunate that I have somewhere else to be," he declared at last. "Or I would demand a great deal more answers from you."
"Hollander and Hojo are both pumping the same disease into Generals Hewley and Sephiroth," Cloud said quickly. "I can deliver the immunisation shots to you or them at any time if you want me to, but me getting this opportunity isn't likely to come again, and Hojo takes sadistic pleasure in preparing all his own concoctions and doing the injecting himself." Cloud offered the red general a slip of paper with his PHS number on it – and the days he had off.
Genesis nodded, eyes still narrowed at the blond even as he took the paper, and then he left the lab.
Cloud nearly sagged with relief. That had gone both better and worse than he'd expected.
It was six in the morning on a Wednesday when Cloud's PHS rang from where it was sitting on his bedside table, plugged in and charging. He didn't bother to unplug it, just answered it. It would ensure that he wouldn't have to worry about the battery giving out in the middle of the phone call.
"You're free today to give me answers, and I made sure that I had time to get them. You will report to the fifty-sixth floor of the ShinRa building at oh-eight-hundred, and you will bring your 'immunisations' with you," Genesis' voice, slightly digitised by the PHS, informed him.
"Yes Sir," Cloud answered. "But if it's alright with you, I'll leave the evil white coat behind."
A snort was his answer. "You do that, science peon. You do that."
Cloud rolled over on his bed as the PHS sounded the tone that meant he'd been hung up on, glared at the ceiling a moment, groaned, and prepared to start his day. He'd need a big breakfast, as he was sure it was going to be a long day, and probably a long time until lunch as well.