"Guess what," Zack said, stepping into Sephiroth's office without knocking.
"What, Zack?" Sephiroth asked absently, not even looking up from whatever report he was reading.
Zack's preexisting grin widened. "Spiky finally agreed to let you come to one of our little get-togethers."
Sephiroth did glance up then. "So he's not ignoring you anymore?"
Zack's smile flickered into a frown for a moment before the grin reasserted itself, and he waved a hand dismissively. "He was just busy. I managed a few minutes with him from someone else's PHS."
Sephiroth frowned. "Someone else's PHS?"
Zack nodded. "A friend of mine met Cloud right when he left the company. Remember when I went to check out my hunch below the plate? I went there. Used their PHS to call him. I was going to chew Spiky out for answering other people's calls and not mine, but the first thing he said when he thought I was someone else was that he was busy and needed to call back."
Sephiroth still had a somewhat calculating gleam in his eyes, but he just scoffed quietly. "So you're saying you didn't yell at him anyway?"
Offering a weak laugh, Zack just shook his head and changed the subject. "So Cloud agreed you could come the next time he's in Midgar."
Eyes sliding back to the report on his desk, Sephiroth asked, "And what social ritual are you planning to subject me to for this meeting?"
"Don't be such a spoilsport," Zack said, throwing himself into the chair across from Sephiroth, the desk in between them. "You'll have fun. And I'll think of something for us. I know you don't like wandering around below the plate so we'll do something up top. Maybe out to eat and a movie or a play or something."
Sephiroth was eying Zack again, one eyebrow quirked. "You make it sound like it's my fault I don't like going under the plate."
Zack scoffed. "You'd be perfectly fine if you didn't make such a big deal out of it."
"The people stare and point, Zack," Sephiroth said. "Occasionally, when they don't notice me until I'm within ten feet, they scream. Sometimes they faint, the reasons varying from fear to excitement. A group of adolescents once threw rocks at me. A group of my fan club members who saw, hospitalized them. I had to arrest them. They asked for my autograph, and now the club members count the anniversary of the incident as a holiday."
Zack gawked. "I didn't realize it was that bad."
"The people are strange," Sephiroth said. "I don't think I'll ever understand why they treat me the way they do."
Zack grinned. "I'm sure you'll get it some day."
Sephiroth scoffed but didn't verbally respond.
"So I guess I'll let you know when Cloud's in the city," Zack said.
Sephiroth's expression suddenly turned grave. "You do realize that your friend is probably CS Delivery, right, Zack?"
Zack scowled. "Where's this coming from? Has Reno been whining again?"
"Reno has nothing to do with this. Strife was in Wutai alone," Sephiroth said deliberately, as though he thought Zack might not understand. "You know he was there, and information from Veld says that either Cloud Strife or CS Delivery fought with Avalanche. We've received additional information that Wutai didn't interfere, and Strife was alone in his fight against half a dozen conscripts, three basic trained troopers, and one experienced soldier. One of the reports says Strife's sword broke and he still beat them."
"But Cloud's been enhanced," Zack protested. "His mako levels are near yours. With the training he has, he'd be fast enough to take out unenhanced fighters. And you know that CS Delivery could very well be training him one-on-one." Why did everyone insist that Cloud was a terrorist? Zack didn't even want to think about it.
Sephiroth sighed. "I will allow that the proof isn't conclusive, Zack, but Reno does have a point in all his arguments about it. You must realize that there's no proof Strife isn't CS Delivery."
Zack scowled but couldn't bring himself to protest the point. There really wasn't any conclusive evidence that Cloud wasn't responsible for blowing the reactors up and stealing all that materia. "There's no point arguing about it again," Zack said petulantly. "I'm not blind. I'm just not going to jump on the let's-arrest-Spike train. The kid is one of my best friends."
Sephiroth nodded gravely. "And Genesis and Angeal were mine. Sometimes we just have to deal with the fallout of the decisions our friends make."
Zack sighed, deflating and slouching in the chair. That was so depressing. He didn't know exactly what he'd do if that were the case. He wasn't sure he'd actually dealt with Angeal's decisions.
"How did you cope with it?" Zack asked.
Sephiroth shrugged. "Perhaps I haven't." He shook his head slowly. "I tried to help without truly betraying Shinra Company. I tried to stop them. I tried to figure out why they were doing what they were doing. I still don't rightly know. With Angeal dead and Genesis still missing, I think I'm on the verge of moving past caring. Perhaps that's what happens after the grieving process," he said thoughtfully. "I think I just had to come to terms with the fact that the men I thought were my friends cared more about this ambiguous cause of theirs than whatever relationships I'd deluded myself into thinking there was."
Zack couldn't help the wave of sadness that washed through him. Sephiroth was right in a way. His friends had simply abandoned him without explanation, and the general had been left to deal with not only that, but the mess with all those deserting Soldiers and trying to come up with satisfactory explanations for the president.
The general's door swung open then, disrupting the depressing atmosphere. Zack twisted and immediately straightened on seeing Professor Hojo. A twinge of anxiety flickered through him as the scientist's gaze passed over him. Hojo always said some of the most oddly disturbing things that Zack fervently hoped were jokes, morbid though they were.
With a slimy little smile, the professor pushed his glasses up higher on his nose and addressed Sephiroth. "It's so good to see you, Sephiroth. You don't visit nearly often enough."
"I've been busy," Sephiroth said casually, a serious and attentive expression taking the place of the earlier sincerity he'd been showing Zack.
"Indeed," Hojo said, "with this terrorism nonsense no less."
"Yes," Sephiroth said.
Hojo tilted his head a bit and clasped his hands behind his back. "And how goes the investigation? I would dearly like to express my displeasure to the miscreant who desecrated my research facilities."
Zack bit down a scoff. Decimated would be a better word than desecrated.
"It's slowed down," Sephiroth said. "The culprit has seemingly gone to ground. There's been no overt activity since all the materia thefts."
Hojo chuckled, his suddenly higher pitched voice almost making it sound like cackling. "Director Lazard could be a bit incompetent for investigations like this, Sephiroth. You, as a superior creation and Soldier should do better. Don't be a disappointment," he said, voice hardening. "I want that terrorist for my experiments. Make it happen, general."
Hojo didn't wait for a response before leaving the office.
Zack scowled once the door closed and twisted in the chair to face Sephiroth again, only to see the general's expression dark, eyes narrowed at the where the professor had been standing.
"Sephiroth?" Zack asked, seeing if he could get the man's attention.
The general pushed away from his desk and jumped to his feet. "Come with me, Zack."
Zack silently followed Sephiroth, eyebrows drawn together in worried curiosity. Sephiroth's expression didn't change as they traversed the halls and took the stairs when the general was unwilling to wait for the elevators. Zack's frown deepened when they reached Sephiroth's destination floor and realized they were headed to Tuesti's office. The last time they'd visited the man, Sephiroth had asked the head of urban development to ally with him because he didn't trust the Turks or the vice president. Zack couldn't imagine a trip to talk to Tuesti without equally unsettling circumstances, though he was perfectly content to lie to himself for hope's sake for the next few minutes.
Sephiroth wasted no time once they'd sequestered themselves in Tuesti's electronics filled domain. "Reeve, we might have a problem."
"What is it?" Tuesti asked, lurching out, bleary-eyed, from behind a stack of circuit boards.
"Hojo visited my office just now. He was checking on the CS Delivery investigation."
"That's not surprising," Tuesti said, rubbing at one of his eyes. "He's rather furious over the destruction of all his experimental samples."
Sephiroth shook his head. "I've known that man for my whole life. He wasn't angry in my office, not in the slightest. He's gone to curiously amused. That means the terrorism has taken second seat to something else. Is Hojo doing anything for President Shinra right now? Does he have any new experiments? Has he caught wind of Strife's new mako enhancement? Anything, Reeve?"
Somewhat alarmed now, Tuesti said, "Nothing that I know of. A team brought in some new mutated monsters yesterday but Hojo shunted the project off to someone else."
Then Sephiroth's PHS rang, interrupting the conversation. Sephiroth held up a placating hand to Tuesti and fished out the device.
Zack busied himself by trying to flatten the frown making his face sore. Hojo finding a new mysterious project wasn't the most comforting revelation.
"General Sephiroth speaking." After a moment, Sephiroth nodded, mostly to himself, and said, "Yes, sir. Zack is with me." Then he hung up. Sephiroth pointedly eyed Tuesti, and said, "Figure out what Hojo is up to." Motioning Zack to follow, Sephiroth took off at a jog out the room and down the hall.
They both moved so quickly that Sephiroth only managed to say that the vice president had an urgent announcement before they were on another floor and entering the conference room. Reno and Vice President Shinra were the only ones in attendance.
The vice president didn't even greet them before speaking. "I've received word from Veld through Tseng that it's official. Avalanche has splintered. Fuhito took a quarter of their forces and rebelled. Elfé and Shears are still in a scramble trying to figure out what to do after their losses in Wutai, but Fuhito and company have dropped off the grid. Veld has no idea where they are and no solid contacts in the people most loyal to Fuhito."
Silence hung for several moments before Reno said, "I think, shit, pretty much sums it up."
"But isn't the group breaking up a good thing?" Zack asked, head spinning from lack of understanding how he should be reacting.
"Not without a spy in the ranks," the vice president said. "We have no idea what this new group is going to do or what their aims are. They've already attacked Strife. They might attack what's left of Avalanche, or they could go after Shinra Company themselves. Shears and Elfé were the moderate leaders. Fuhito could be comfortable with a much higher body count than they would have allowed."
"Frankly," Reno said with a sigh, "I hope your buddy Strife is that CS Delivery bastard."
Zack scowled at the lack of venom in the Turk's tone.
Reno continued, "If that bastard is good for anything, it's keeping the casualties nonexistent. If that ass Fuhito decides to start attacking people, it might tweak that bastard's delicate sensibilities and CS Delivery will beat the shit out of the splinter group."
Put that way, Zack couldn't honestly say he didn't hope someone could take out a possibly murderous terrorist group, even if it was Cloud.
"So," Yuffie said woozily, hand hovering near her mouth, "you're like a super hero in disguise?"
The little girl gagged again and Cloud grimaced. Yuffie had thrown up more than a dozen times this boat trip. She hadn't been nearly this bad between Wutai and the central continent or between the central continent and the northern continent.
"Not really," Cloud said. "Shinra Company is calling me a terrorist."
"Shinra Company people are liars," she hissed, shooting a glare, albeit a nauseous one, at Tseng on the other side of the deck, who was talking to Nanaki. "If they say you're a terrorist then you must be a hero. Besides, you're wearing your special hoody and goggles, and they don't know you're really Cloud." With that, Yuffie lurched over to the railing and puked over the side again. How such a small girl had that much to throw up, he had no idea. The only upside Cloud could find with the whole situation was that Genesis was so disgusted by all the throw up that he had hidden himself somewhere down in the hold.
Hazuki rushed up from below deck with another handful of wet cloths. She went straight to Yuffie in attempt to soothe the child's rebelling stomach. Perhaps Yuffie had eaten something bad at the mining village before they'd left the northern continent. Cloud moved away as his PHS rang.
"Yes," he said simply on answering.
"I've got most of the Gongagans already moving across the ocean to the new work site," came Dio's voice. "Will you be giving me a proper explanation for why I had to coerce them, boy?"
Cloud sighed. "I did tell you. The reactor in Gongaga is a death trap waiting to happen. Do you have a list of everyone who took the offer and moved?"
"Yes," Dio said warily. "You don't want me to read the whole thing off do you? Because that's insane, even for you."
"No, I just want you to look for one surname. Fair. Is there anyone on the list with the family name Fair?"
"Let me look," the man said grumblingly.
Cloud felt a bit jittery under the silence. He knew he had to save as many as he could from the Gongaga explosion, but he'd never be able to face Zack if his parents stayed there and were killed.
"Yep," Dio said. "Got a middle-aged, married couple by that name. The both of them are starting in basic construction, but the woman will be moving to hospitality when we've got a need and the man is going into maintenance. Why? Who are they? Are they important?"
"Not important to scheming if that's what you're asking," Cloud said dryly. "They're the parents of a friend of mine. I just wanted to check that they decided to pick up and leave." Cloud paused. "Was there anything else?"
"Just me checking that you aren't going to spring anymore small town hiring evacuations on me," Dio groused.
Cloud snorted a laugh. "No. That's it. Go get the rest of the workers wherever you feel like it."
"Bye, boy," Dio said, and hung up on Cloud.
Cloud shook his head and pocketed the PHS.
"I think we have a problem, Cloud," Vincent said, startling Cloud.
Cloud tried to hide the reaction, but there was no telling if the gunman was just being polite and ignoring it. Cloud hated how the ocean and the ship covered up so many sounds. At least wearing his goggles would prevent the other man from seeing the comic widening of his eyes.
"What is it?" Cloud asked.
Vincent merely pointed to the approaching shore. Cloud turned, narrowing his eyes at the village of Kalm, his enhanced vision giving him a decent look at the place without the need for binoculars. He grew uneasy as his focus flitted over the buildings he could see and the empty stretch of beach and grasses between them and the water.
Cloud frowned. "Where are all the people?"
Vincent nodded. "That's the pertinent question. My eyesight is probably better than yours, and I've not seen a soul in the village in the last ten minutes."
"So not the same kind of ambush as in Junon?" Cloud asked, more rhetorically than anything else.
Vincent shook his head.
"What's wrong?" Nanaki asked, the creature padding up silently on Cloud's other side. He stared for several moments before, "Ah. No people in sight. A trap waits for our landing."
Cloud glanced over his shoulder to spy Tseng hovering some behind them and within hearing range. Cloud faced the beach but fished around in one of his pockets. He pulled a worn looking letter, its edges crinkled and folded down the middle. Cloud proffered the letter to Vincent. "I think it's time you go pick her up."
Vincent took the letter carefully, as though he didn't want to disturb the already rumpled paper. "So Dio has people settling in southern Wutai?"
Cloud nodded. "The letter should explain everything, but remember—"
"Whatever means necessary," Vincent finished for him.
Cloud nodded again. "If anyone can slip around this trap, it's you."
Vincent offered one of his rare slight smiles and started for the back of the boat. Cloud watched for a few moments before glancing at Nanaki. The giant beast spared a glance toward him before turning his sharp eyes back to the rapidly approaching shore.
"Where's he going?" Tseng asked.
Cloud eyed the Turk for a moment before saying, "There's an ambush waiting for us on shore, Tseng."
Tseng frowned, but stepped up next to Cloud. "Are they being that obvious?"
Cloud huffed a laugh. "There's no one visible in the town or on the shore. It's mid-afternoon and not too hot. The town should be bustling right now. It can't get much more obvious without the troops stationed out in the open like they were in Junon."
Tseng nodded, unperturbed at the slight. After a quick glance back over the few other passengers and sailors on deck, Tseng asked, "Is Genesis still hiding from Yuffie?"
Cloud nodded. "Will you go make sure he knows no one on shore is to see him? I need to go talk to the captain and get him to hold everyone on board so we can deal with whatever's going on in town. I don't want a whole bunch of civilians stumbling into our trap."
Tseng nodded and spun on his heel.
To Nanaki, Cloud asked, "Do you think you can keep Yuffie and Hazuki from getting killed? The second we hit shore that little brat will be bouncing around like a crazed monkey again."
"Of course, Cloud. Consider it done." Nanaki paused. "You'd better go talk to the captain. The other passengers are already gathering on deck."
Cloud glanced over his shoulder to see luggage and more people than before.
"Why do I have to stay behind?" Yuffie demanded indignantly.
The captain had been more than obliging when Cloud asked him to keep everyone on board for their own safety for a while, but here Cloud was, on the beach arguing with a belligerent nine-year-old.
"You just need to wait ten minutes before following me. That's not staying behind."
Hazuki stood there hopelessly and Tseng didn't bother trying to help as he would likely start Yuffie on one of her "evil Shinra" rants. Nanaki was doing the sensible thing and eying Kalm while Cloud argued.
"That's a lie and you know it!" Yuffie snapped. "You're just trying to keep me from all the treasure you know is there."
"This isn't about a treasure hunt, Yuffie," Cloud said, praying to Gaia that the little girl would spontaneously develop reason in the next five seconds. "There's an ambush in Kalm. I'm going to take care of it before everyone follows me."
Yuffie brandished a fist at him. "I can fight, too! Those cowards won't know what hit them when they find themselves facing the Treasure Princess of Wutai!"
"They aren't cowards to be setting up an ambush. It's called tactics. You need to be outside the town so I can either fight or reason with whoever they are without distraction."
In a flash, Yuffie dug her foot into the sand and kicked a spray up into everyone's faces. Cloud closed his mouth and breathed out to keep from breathing in sand. Goggles were good for more than hiding his eyes apparently.
"Then you really are trying to keep me away from treasure!" she said, glaring mutinously.
Fighting off the desire to massage the bridge of his nose, Cloud tried, "Aren't minions supposed to take care of these things for you?"
A rather troublesome gleam lit Yuffie's eyes. "Yes," she said, drawing the word out with a manic grin. "You'll go into town, minion, and cause a raucous. While everyone is distracted, I'll slip into their houses and take all the treasures they aren't treating properly."
Cloud sighed. "I think all the townspeople are hiding in their homes right now to stay away from whoever is planning the ambush."
Tseng was brushing sand off his suit with a vaguely disgusted expression on his face. Nanaki shook himself off while Hazuki ignored it entirely.
"Don't you worry about that, minion," Yuffie said, grin stretching impossibly wider. "I'll handle the people. You just get into that town and cause my distraction." She pointed imperiously and Cloud rolled his eyes.
Cloud turned away from the group and headed into the town if for nothing else than to escape from more of Yuffie's orders. He could hear her giving directions to Hazuki. Cloud leaned his head forward and shook sand out his hair and off his hood while walking. He scowled faintly, realizing by the gritty feel that the sand had managed to get down under his shirt and he would probably have to shower to actually get all the sand off him. He really should have expected Yuffie to be able to kick sand with precision.
A hint of movement on one town roof caught Cloud's attention. He hadn't expected them to start moving around until he'd reached whatever point would spring the ambush. Movement before ambushing tended to give away the attacker's position, exactly like it had.
As he approached the edge of the town, a pair of people appeared from around a partially constructed building surrounded with scaffolding. The woman in her pale clothing with dark belt and scarf was probably Elfé, while the loosely clothed ruffian of a man with his bandana was probably Shears.
Cloud slowed to a stop as the pair clearly wanted to confront him before he entered the town. Cloud kept himself visibly relaxed, but with the speeds he was capable of, it really didn't mean anything. He would simply need to watch Elfé as she was currently enhanced as well. Though, she was only about as advanced as a Sephiroth who didn't want to destroy a city, so she probably wouldn't give him that much trouble.
The woman appeared as apathetic as her reputation said she would. Cloud knew it was only an enforced image that the bit of Zirconiade in her brought on. Elfé had no memories from before after all. Her apathy was belied by the easy grace with which she walked. He took note of the nondescript katana at her waist and wondered how many other weapons she might be hiding in her modified, khaki-green fatigues. Neither the short sleeves or the pants cut off at the knees would do much for hiding something as small as throwing stars.
The man looked even more nondescript than the woman. Cloud remembered Reno from his own time in the future drunkenly rambling about the bastard bandit more than once. Cloud was inclined to take that remark literally and believe the man would fight dirty and cheap like any other bandit. He probably had knives galore hidden in somewhere in that simple white shirt and plain, pale fatigues even though only a single semi-automatic was visible.
The two stopped a good fifteen feet from Cloud. Cloud remained silent, letting them take the lead.
Elfé slowly lifted a hand and pointed at Cloud. "You are a menace to all organizations seeking liberty from the Shinra monster."
Cloud blinked, frowning slightly. Of course, Elfé and Shears probably couldn't see the expression properly as he was still buried under his hood and goggles. Regardless, that wasn't exactly what he'd expected to hear. He hadn't thought he'd get praised for usurping Avalanche's functions as a terrorist, but he also hadn't expected to be criticized for being a detriment to groups against Shinra Company.
"Have you nothing to say in your own defense?" Elfé demanded.
"I'm not the one who attacked you in Wutai," he said dryly.
"Irrelevant," she said with a dismissive wave. "Your unplanned and purposeless acts of destruction and theft are leaving nothing but anarchy in your wake. You're systematically destroying all opposition to Shinra Company."
Cloud frowned. "Is this about Fuhito running off with a bunch of your troops?"
Elfé's jaw tightened as she pursed her lips.
Cloud said, "I wasn't trying to break up your terrorist cell. I've been removing very specific threats from within Shinra Company. At least my movements don't have Shinra blaming civilians for my actions and killing them in my place."
"You unscrupulous bastard," she ground out, drawing her sword. "You'll pay in blood for your crimes."
Cloud slowly mirrored her action, drawing his own fusion sword, the weight familiar and comfortable in his hands. "Hojo buried a piece of materia in the back of your left hand you know. It's slowly killing you. I'd remove it for you if you asked." He actually planned to take it whether she wanted him to or not, but he didn't have to say that.
Dropping into a rather dramatic stance with her sword parallel to the ground but still above her head, Elfé said, "I see reasoning with you is useless. Prepare yourself."
Cloud only had a moment to wonder when she'd tried to reason with him before she darted forward, blurring even against his enhanced vision. He moved the fusion sword ever so slightly to meet her blade. The collision let out rather faint mako sparks, leaving Cloud to wonder if the materia in her hand was reacting to what he had equipped. Elfé drew back, lips pressed together tightly, only to rush him again, this time swinging at him from the side. He whirled his blade around, catching hers, and continuing his arc in such a way that it threw her off balance as her sword tried to twist itself right out of her hands. He was actually surprised that she didn't drop the blade.
Obviously deciding to up the stakes, Elfé leapt above him, her boots actually several feet higher than he was tall, so she could bring something closer to the full force of her blade down toward his head. Instead of moving to block, he leapt sideways, bringing the fusion sword around. He swung a bit slower than usual to gauge her reaction times. She hit the ground and seemed to spin only just fast enough to catch him.
Cloud frowned. He thought she was supposed to be on par with Sephiroth. He could recall another conversation he'd had with a drunken Reno who'd read the report Sephiroth filed about the altercation the general had with Avalanche's leader.
Cloud pressed forward with a flurry of quick swings. Mako flares were a bit brighter, and Elfé didn't lose her footing or her balance again. Elfé leapt straight over the top of him this time, a thin trail of sand flying off her boots. Cloud swung fast enough to catch her before she hit the ground, so when their blades connected, he flung her toward the beach some twenty feet.
He gathered his energy, whipped the fusion sword around once, and slashed straight toward the ground, releasing a bright blue Blade Beam at the woman. Grass and earth sprayed up on either side of the Limit attack as the lower edge of energy gouged the ground.
Elfé rolled out of the way of the Limit, but not the displaced earth, and found herself littered with grass and dirt. Rather than immediately re-close the distance between them, she lifted a hand and threw a fireball at Cloud. A simple Ice spell threw her magic to naught but steam. Cloud followed up by tossing a Bolt 2 at her, just to see if she'd dodge or shield.
The woman attempted to dodge but wasn't quite fast enough. The magic caught her shoulder and sent her spinning onto the ground with a startled cry as the electricity induced convulsions for several seconds.
Cloud ignored the Cura that flew across the impromptu battlefield at Elfé. He hadn't exactly expected Shears to sit quietly by and watch Elfé battle. Elfé staggered a moment on regaining her feet, shaking off the last of the tremors from the lightning spell. Face set with determination, she ran at Cloud again, sword moving so quickly as it slashed at him that the tip whistled through the air. Cloud allowed her to close the distance, then traded lightning quick blows with her.
Cloud could see why Sephiroth might think the woman could stand her ground with him. She was remarkably fast. But Elfé didn't have the stamina. Cloud's rather heavy blows had already slowed her down. She wasn't nearly as fast now as she had been after that first strike, neither was she hitting as hard. Elfé was probably actually on par with Zack at the moment, Elfé having a bit more speed while Zack had better strength. Even then, Zack would still win in an outright fight because the Zirconiade Materia, for all its gifting of enhanced abilities, was still sapping her strength.
Cloud whipped the fusion sword around again, preparing to twist the blade to catch her with the flat when she couldn't block, when he sensed movement behind him. Abandoning the strike, he rolled sideways as Shears planted a long dagger in the ground where Cloud had been. Cloud quickly popped one of the side blades out of the fusion sword for his off-hand to meet another of Shears' daggers while Elfé whipped her sword around again to meet the remainder of Cloud's sword.
After throwing Elfé off balance, Cloud temporarily turned his attention to Shears, slamming him in the side with the flat of the main blade. One loud crack and Shears lay crumpled on the ground. Cloud was rather tired of breaking people's ribs when they refused to back down.
Quickly re-fusing the side blade to the main sword, Cloud bore down on Elfé, slamming blow after blow against her sword to drain as much energy as he could. Gunfire rang through the air as bullets began zipping past his head, and one particularly painful sting zipped across the top of his shoulder. Cloud spared a moment's attention to throw up a Wall spell before continuing to wear down Elfé. Gunfire from the beach told him Tseng was offering cover fire.
Elfé finally stumbled backward over herself, sprawling in the grass as her sword flew from her grasp. Panting for breath, she attempted to scramble out of the way. Cloud stepped on her cape, keeping her where she was as she half choked herself on her own clothing.
Face abruptly slackening as the tension drained from her muscles. "Go on then, murderer, and end my misery."
Rolling his eyes behind his goggles, Cloud said, "How about I take the materia out of your hand, and we'll call it even. You go your way, I'll go my way, and I'll never try to unintentionally splinter your precious little group of terrorists again."
A fresh rain of bullets stirred up the ground around them and slammed into Cloud's Wall spell. Fortunately, Tseng seemed intelligent enough to realize Cloud had things well in hand and didn't return fire. Or at least Cloud thought that was the case. The Turk could have been shot, after all.
Elfé held up a hand and the gunfire ceased. Not a sound floated through the air save the ocean breeze and Shears' pained moaning.
"What did you do to Shears?" Elfé demanded cautiously.
"Broke his ribs," Cloud said flatly.
"What are you going to do with me?" she asked, voice quieter.
"I just want the materia. I don't plan on doing anything with you."
Elfé closed her eyes with a resigned sigh. "My life is in your hands."
Cloud rolled his eyes skyward again. He pulled out his PHS and selected Aerith's contact information. It rang twice before the young woman picked up. Before she could get a full greeting out, Cloud asked, "Are you alone?"
"Yes," she said slowly. "Is everything alright?"
"Fine," he said. "Have you ever given any thought to how to get the bit of Zirconiade out of Elfé without having to perform surgery?"
"Uhm, a little?" she said, more question than statement in her tone. "This is a little random, even for you. Why do you ask? I thought you weren't going to worry about Zirconiade unless someone started collecting the pieces or you had nothing better to do."
"Avalanche ambushed here. I've got Elfé here thinking I'm going to kill her…and I may have broken Shears' ribs, but I'm just gonna take Zirconiade and leave."
"I see," Aerith said cheerily. "I do have one idea, but if it doesn't work you'll have to make one tiny incision."
"Whatever you're thinking about had better work. The smallest blade I have is one of the fusion sword pieces." He paused while the woman giggled at him. "What do I need to do?"
"You remember how some materia responds to being called? Like Meteor? How Sephiroth drew it to himself the other time? Or how you can feel the Master Materia and the summons?"
"That man drew Meteor to himself because he was telekinetic, not because materia moves on its own," Cloud said dryly. "And having an affinity for summons does not give them a life of their own or give them the ability to go where they please."
"Just hear me out, Cloud," she chided. "Zirconiade is different. Concentrate on it. It's still fact that poor Elfé has been hosting it for a while. She's draining. If nothing else, Zirconiade may think you'd be a better host and leave her."
"So what?" Cloud asked, a bit incredulous, "I show a broken quarter of Zirconiade that I've got lots of power, and it'll rip itself out of Elfé's arm?"
"No, you silly mountain backwoodsman," Aerith said with amusement. "Show Zirconiade power, and it will unequip itself from her."
"That makes no sense," Cloud said. "I hope you realize that. It's like saying Chaos will unequip himself from Vincent if he finds a host he likes better. The materia was surgically implanted in Elfé's hand, not equipped in a bangle or a weapon."
"Cloud," Aerith said sternly. Cloud could practically see the woman planting her hands on her hips. "Trust me. Who is the intermediary between the Voice of Planet and you? It's me. Not you. I'm still older than you even if my body is younger. Trust me, Cloud."
Cloud sighed. Aerith obviously heard because the smile returned to her voice. "Now be a good boy and call Zirconiade out of her. Call me back if you have any problems. I'll see you when you get into Midgar."
"Bye," he said, then listened as she disconnected them. He put the PHS back in his pocket and crouched down next to Elfé. She was eying him with equal parts curiosity and anxiety.
Cloud snagged the woman's left wrist and pulled her into a sitting position. "Hold still," he murmured. Cloud positioned his free hand above hers, focusing on the feel of channeling magic without actually focusing on any of his materia.
Cloud blinked in surprised when he felt an answering vibration through the air beneath his palm. Elfé actually flinched.
She asked quietly, "Is the power I rely on actually draining me?"
"Yeah," he said absently, pushing more power through, as though he were using a summon like Knights of the Round instead of just green materia.
The air between his palm and Elfé's wrist distorted as tendrils of mako-laced energy writhed lazily between them. Cloud grimaced, pushing enough power out for his Meteorain Limit, hoping he wouldn't have to drudge up everything it took to do Omnislash. The grass around them was fluttering about as though in an invisible wind and even the ground was vibrating.
Elfé's hand began glowing in the soft red that equipped summons had. Then she made a startled sound as a jagged red orb fragment seeped from her skin and floated up to Cloud's grasp. He let go of Elfé and turned his hand over. Letting his power fade, the bright color in the materia disappeared.
"That's it?" Elfé asked.
Cloud quickly pocketed the fragment and straightened. Facing the beach, he made a sweeping motion toward himself. Tseng appeared from behind what seemed to be a six inch bump in the sand and started slowly toward Cloud. Cloud sighed. There was no sign of Yuffie, Hazuki, or Nanaki. The wretched little monkey was probably pilfering the rooftops with the other two either trying to corral her or keep her from killing herself.
Elfé staggered climbing to her feet. The action seemed to have her slightly out of breath again. "You're just going to let me go after this?"
"I'm not going to kill you unless you start attacking civilians." He waved at the still deserted looking Kalm. "Putting them under house arrest isn't the same thing."
"How do you know I haven't ordered the town killed?" she demanded.
"Unless you poisoned them all, they're still alive. No scent of burned bodies, and there's no blood in the air." Cloud started over toward where Shears was still trying not to move on the ground.
Cloud stared, a bit unsure of what to do with the unenhanced terrorist. If Shears had mako in him, it would have at least put his ribs back in the right place and Cloud could have tossed a Cure at him. But Cloud didn't know if Curing him would set the bones in the wrong place. His memories of battlefield first aide weren't clear enough and Aerith, Yuffie, and Nanaki had always been the ones to patch up the rest of the group after a particularly nasty battle. He didn't even know if the latter two had any medical training at this point. All Cloud was good for was throwing around overpowered Cure spells.
"Are you going to kill him?" Elfé asked darkly from behind him.
Cloud twisted around with a scowl. "I'm not killing anyone. How many times do I have to say it?"
"Then what are you doing?" she demanded.
"Trying to decide if throwing a Cure at him is going to make his ribs heal wrong."
"Are his ribs broken?" Tseng asked, finally coming within speaking distance. Cloud noted the Turk kept a wary distance away from Elfé.
Cloud gave a short nod.
"Straighten him out so his ribs can have the most movement possible. He's not coughing up blood so I doubt his internal organs were damaged so a low powered Cure from you should set them."
Cloud motioned Elfé to come around him and follow Tseng's directions. The leader of Avalanche did, albeit with a faint scowl on her face. Shears grunted and moaned a few times, but otherwise kept quiet, a sheen of sweat plastering the bits of hair free of his bandana to his skin. Cloud used the lowest Cure he had, and didn't wait to see the results before turning to Tseng.
"Where are the others?"
"The treasure princess disappeared with her babysitter half way through your fight. Nanaki as well, so I can only assume he's supervising. I haven't seen Vincent since we landed, and your other friend seems to have found a cloak.
Brows drawing down, Cloud turned toward the ocean to see someone striding toward them wearing a crimson, hooded cloak. Cloud bit the inside of his cheeks and purposely drew his brows further down as he eyed Genesis walking toward them.
He supposed that if the former general folded that one wing rather tightly against himself it would fit under the cloak. But still…it was a bright red cloak. Cloud didn't make a sound as Genesis closed the distance between them.
Genesis' eyes were glowing with thinly veiled anger. "Dreams of the morrow hath the shattered soul." He paused. "If you laugh, I will incinerate you where you stand."
Cloud was coming dangerously close to drawing blood with how hard he was biting his cheeks now. After a steadying breath, he said, "That's a very bright red. Not very inconspicuous." There. He hadn't laughed. He hadn't even sounded amused.
"I refuse to drench myself in black," Genesis drawled, tension draining a bit.
Speaking more slowly, Cloud said, "It's very bright." He couldn't help that one side of his mouth curled up toward a smirk.
"Perhaps I should amend my declaration to include sarcasm," Genesis asked, voice turning smooth and dark. "I do believe incineration is a viable disciplinary action."
Cloud just went back to biting the insides of his cheeks. He almost wished he had a camera he was willing to risk sacrificing, as Genesis would likely try to melt it. No one who didn't see it would ever believe Genesis wore something so garishly bright.