Tseng was annoyed. He was almost certain that if Zack Fair had made it back to Midgar, this would be the first place he would go. However, extra cameras and staying up nearly all night proved to be futile in locating the former over-enthusiastic SOLDIER. Impatiently, he rubbed his eyes. He should've gotten someone else to watch the church while he kept his eyes on the President.
Slowly, he raised his head and watched the flower girl at work, a pleasant scent reaching far to the outskirts of the clearing in which the church stood. The contrast that her exuberant humming made with his usual line of work sometimes made it difficult to adjust. Yet the years of routine visits made the situation fit oddly into place, giving him just that little bit of room where he could become a living, human being again.
Asides from the benefits, it was quite satisfying to go against orders from the loathsome man. Hiding away the last Cetra right under Hojo's nose always left a twitch at the corner of his mouth.
As he silently picked up his belongings from his hiding place, there was a rustle from behind. Light, trudging footsteps, paced too slow and laid-back to be an assailant but sharp and precise nonetheless. Tseng knew the man like the back of his hand – however, as much as Tseng trusted the back of his hand, it was not capable of causing him near-constant migraines and premature wrinkles.
The red-head flashed him a grin before casually plopping down to sit next to the Wutaian.
"Damn, I thought Fair would surely be here by now." With his trademark smirk never leaving his face, he took out his phone and started to tapping around its buttons. "How's the girlie?"
"..." Tseng regarded the younger man with a questioning gaze, his expression revealing nothing unless seen by a trained eye. Reno did have such an eye, though the man chose to ignore it most of the time.
"You're too tight sometimes, boss. Shouldn't you let it off once in a while? Why is the department so dull these days…?" Contrary to popular beliefs, Tseng did get annoyed with the red-head when he prevaricated beyond necessity - the only one who could tolerate his rants for extended periods of time was Rude. Regardless, Tseng turned towards suited man with an expectant look. Reno was one of the best he had, and a Turk did not slack off in the middle of assignments to have an idle chat with their boss.
"The mission. What have you got?"
Reno hummed at his question before flashing him his phone screen with a clear photo of a rugged bag containing pauldrons, Shinra-issued pants and a miscellaneous range of objects.
"From Cissnei. It seems like those two are still alive, yo."
"Can't say. They were in Wall Market, so maybe Sector 5 or 6 - 7 at most. Rude's already headed there." Putting his phone away, the Turk plopped his hands on his knees before launching himself to his feet yet again. "Well, I'm here to watch the girlie. You gotta go, right?"
The Wutaian gave him a brief nod before turning around and taking off towards the Shinra Building. "Reno, get back to me in two hours via the phone."
"Roger that, boss."
"I don't think anyone will come." A young woman with loose white top and black shorts shook her head, letting her long black hair bob from side to side. Her attire stood out in stark contrast in the dim light; the table groaned as she leaned her hands on it.
"Shouldn't we still wait, Tifa? This is our first big-scale assault, after all - we need as much help as we can get." A black haired man in cargo pants spoke, tapping his army boots against the floor and biting his lip. There was a momentary silence in the air and eventually, an extremely large, bulked man slammed the table with his left arm and stood up.
"Dammit, Biggs, we ain't waiting any longer. We're goin' in tonight and that's it. It's time those Shinra bastards learned their lesson!" The table strained against the pressure, now permanently leaning towards Barret's gigantic figure.
"He's right. We've prepared this for months. I'm sure we'll make it."
"You sure, Wedge? The reactor will be swarming with the Shinra army and their robots, if not SOLDIERs." Biggs deadpanned and there was silence once more until a brunette with a red headband all but jumped off from the makeshift elevator the small bar had.
"Good news, guys! Apparently Shinra had some massive losses in men a few days ago. They don't have enough personnel guarding the reactor!" The declaration immediately brightened the atmosphere, a slow grin replacing each member's features, followed by a brief period of disbelief.
"Jessie! Are you sure?" Tifa leaned forward, eyes brightening.
"You're not doubting my intel, are you? I was just listening in on the bug we slipped on that drunken infantry a while ago - apparently an entire battalion got wiped out on a mission somewhere in the wastelands. They've mobilized their troops closer to the Shinra headquarters for extra security – away from the reactors. It's our chance!"
"Right! You'd better have those bombs ready - we're taking the 9pm train."
"You're late – not what I would have expected," the blond man in a smooth white suit hummed, eyes fixed on the window overlooking the iron-clad city, which glowed faintly with soft murmurs of the Lifestream spreading its dim, intangible light.
"My apologies, sir. There was a… disruption in my schedule." The dark suited man with long black hair stepped into the room, taking purposeful strides before stopping before the wide, rectangular desk. The room was spotlessly clean, and every miscellaneous object was arranged in a set pattern, exactly like how it was a few days ago.
"Don't like the view?" said the blond man, still watching the twisted sculpture of machineries down below.
"If you are asking for my opinion, it is an ideal spot to be assassinated." The Wutaian remarked, his tone and the facial expression no different than before.
"So it is." The man turned around and piercing sapphire met dark brown. "The report?"
The Wutaian only gave a brief, contemplative pause before providing the answer.
"The President lost confidence in Palmer, although Heidegger and Scarlet remain highly influential in the company. However, I do not think they will be a problem due to their rivalry – if you have enough carrots for them to chase around."
"Regardless, I will need them all. The company will revolt with the sudden shift in presidency, even if I am the next in line." The blond's brows furrowed as if trying to figure out his next move in an imaginary chess game. "What about the science department? I can't have that rat of a scientist ruining the plan."
The raven shook his head.
"He was not interested in the extra funds we offered." Sometimes, it was near impossible to please that man, his only interest being his mad research. Tseng grimaced as he thought about the people who got on the doctor's bad side. If need be, the man was as cunning as a Turk, but without professionalism to keep him in check. Once, Tseng had thought about how revolting the man's research was but had quickly dismissed the thought. He was a Turk – thinking about morals, let alone being a judge of such matters, was almost laughable. Breaking out of his musings, Tseng turned towards the blond, his expression impassive.
At this, the blond man closed his eyes and fell silent for a fleeting moment before opening them again with a frown. "The flower girl."
The Wutaian's lips parted, about to say something, before he stopped himself, regarding his superior with a guarded wariness.
"We'll offer him custody of the Ancient until the official succession is finalized." There was a silence – one that the blond knew would end in his favour. The raven met the vice-president's gaze with tired eyes.
The door closed with a click, and once again, silence filled the room.
"So… I have a bomb inside me somewhere?" Zack frowned, carefully peaking inside his shirt to see the botched bandages. The Buster Sword was already nestled up comfortably behind Zack's back and Cloud felt oddly bare - naked, almost – at being without a weapon.
"Yeah, I had to get you some help fast and I didn't… sorry," he said, swatting off thick dust that latched onto his clothes while sleeping in the tunnel. Although what he was wearing was tattered and unfit for battles, he supposed he couldn't complain. He had left the bag at the inn and with it, his normal clothes and gear. He just thanked Gaia for having a handful of gil on him at the time. Just as he turned around to check the surroundings again, he felt a sharp pull on the back of his head and snapped around, just in time to see the raven's outstretched hands from where they had tugged on his hair seconds before. Cloud yelped, rubbing the offended area fiercely with irritation.
The raven watched him with disapproving eyes, head cocked to the side with a frown. "You know, Cloud," said Zack, folding his arms in front of him. "The next time you say sorry for saving my life, I'm going to smack your head."
"You already pulled…!"
"So what if I'm a little late? I'm sure Aerith won't mind – at least, it's better for me to be alive and late than in little pieces on time, right? We have two SOLDIERs on the job – this'll be a breeze!"
Dumbfounded, Cloud opened and closed his mouth a few times before ducking his head away. Zack always did have a tendency to make him feel like a child, despite how bouncy the man appeared to be. Cloud gave him a small smile, but decided that he should correct the man.
"…Zack, I never made SOLDIER."
"Nope! But you sneaked into Midgar with me to drag around! Those Shinra bastards would've had to have been blind to not get their hands on you!" Dumping his arm around Cloud's shoulders, Zack gave him a happy grin. Cloud squirmed in a feeble attempt to get the larger man off his back but soon realized that the ex-SOLDIER was using his taller height as advantage, crushing him with the weight of the Buster Sword. He inaudibly mumbled something about unguarded walls and trains but doubted the raven could hear him at all. Zack turned quiet, his arms only resting on his shoulders instead of trying to keep him in place. Cloud took the opportunity to escape and sat down on a broken, wayward dining table nearby.
"Not going to be easy sneaking into Shinra – even if it's just a reactor," Zack said, now more talking to himself rather than Cloud. Cloud briefly contemplated on how his friend was taking all this in. How did he feel like for the past year, running from the company that he once looked up to? What was he going to do once he realized that the future was far bigger than Shinra or himself? He would ask later, Cloud decided, when they both had more time. Right now, he needed to focus on what task they had in hand.
"Do you think you can get in?" Cloud asked. In the past, it was Jessie and Biggs that hacked the security systems and he did not pay attention to such small details back then. Thinking back, the reactor was rather heavily guarded by walls and checkpoints. It would have been undoubtedly difficult if they had triggered the security system before they set the bomb.
"Hmm, no. SOLDIERs don't really go near reactors unless there are difficult monsters inside. It's usually when there's a security breach or when they've spotted an intruder that they send us there. Besides, I don't have my keycard anymore. I don't have the authority," Zack said, his expression thoughtful. The next moment, he looked up, meeting Cloud's eyes with a curious look. "How about you, Cloud? The regular armies have patrols there all the time, right? Anything you remember about the place?"
"I…" Cloud stiffened before dipping his head down to the side to avoid giving away his blank look. "I don't remember much. Sorry." Whether or not Zack caught onto his discomfort, the raven did not mention it.
"Well, I guess we can't help it but barge in through the front door. You up for it, Spike?" Taking the Buster Sword off his back and giving it a casual swing, the raven flashed him a genuine, excited grin. Being a mercenary with Zack... If things had gone differently, Cloud realized, it wouldn't have been so bad after all. Looking up, he gave the other a small smile.
The paths surrounding the Midgar slums were filled with junk and dirt, oil soiling the ground where drops from the upper plates occasionally fell, smudging the place with swabs of black until they disappeared along with messes of metal twisting away, conjoining with the surrounding architecture of loose wires and concrete. Cloud silently wondered if the security had always been so low around these regions – although riddled with security cameras and occasional outposts, the reactor seemed almost unguarded. Next to him, Zack pried open a small metal lid on the ground and they both grimaced.
"This is making me reconsider not going in through the front gate." The raven cautiously prodded at the slimy muck surrounding the outer rim of the entrance and shuddered, taking a step back from the abomination. Cloud gave him a dry smile, patting around his belt to check he had everything he needed.
"You aren't afraid of some mud, are you?" the blond said, while clicking his newly purchased sword behind his waist. "I thought you were from Gongaga."
Zack gave him a pointed look, almost indignant, before lowering himself into the hole, supporting himself with his arms as he gave Cloud his piece of mind. "I dunno, buddy. I somehow don't think there's any actual mud involved in this sludge."
With that, the raven disappeared from view, landing with a loud plop. Silently Cloud agreed with his friend and lowered himself, reminding himself not to speak. Opening one's mouth in the sewers wasn't a good idea. As soon as he entered, the putrid smell intensified threefold, making him nauseous as the scent ruthlessly assaulted his enhanced senses. Funny, he thought he was never going to crawl around sewers again. He was about to grimace when Zack grabbed his arm from the side, pulling him as the raven quickly started off.
Surprisingly, Zack navigated his way through the labyrinth quite efficiently, making Cloud wonder if Zack knew about the sewers in reactors. Trying to shake away the disorientation, Cloud gripped his sword handle with his free hand, carefully remembering the twists and turns in case they needed to use the same route. After some time, the sludge eventually became clearer, giving Cloud some space to breathe. With another turn, Cloud finally saw a dim artificial light and quickened his pace. In front of him, Zack repositioned himself and unbuckled his sword. Busting out of the drain with a violent slash at the bar blocking the exit, they both gasped for air for some time, sprawled on the floor as they attempted to get sludge off their faces. The clearing had drains lining every inch of the floor, liquid pouring from the large pipes protruding from the walls. Free from the rancid air, Cloud stared at the taller man, quite confused.
"H-how did you do that?" said Cloud, still panting a little from trying to clear the sewer from his system. Next to him, Zack gave him a quick smirk.
"Gongaga, remember? It's kinda like finding yourself inside the jungle. You follow the direction of the wind, the smell, the light… You okay, buddy?"
Cloud frowned at the comment before realizing what was wrong.
Somehow, he felt dizzier than he should, actually losing bearings for a few short seconds. It…almost seemed like the motion sickness he had had such a long time ago, making him sway and clench his teeth to keep the contents of his stomach down. Come to think of it, was the sludge a little green…? Next to him, Zack got up, his expression sharp as he immediately grabbed Cloud by his arms, hoisting him up, alarm and concern plastered on his face.
"Cloud!" The raven was now gently sitting him up and Cloud felt ridiculous. He wasn't sick! Gulping down the last of his dizziness and giving himself a moment to regain his bearings, he softly pushed Zack's arms away, frowning at his wide-eyed friend.
"Just a little nausea. I'm fine, Zack." Still not liking how his voice croaked, Cloud got up, albeit a little unsteadily before leaning on the metal walls, gazing at Zack who was now looking like a lost child. Slowly, Zack frowned, eyes narrowing and scrutinizing Cloud for a good minute. Cloud stared back, his face a perfect example of plain blankness – perhaps more so than he would have liked. After a moment, Cloud broke the silence, turning away from the piercing gaze. Avoiding, more like. "We should get going."
Zack didn't argue with that.
The metallic coils of the reactor core roared as the Lifestream poured out of its rumbling epicenter, flooding the walls with an emerald-green hue that threatened to erase the traces of metal peeking out between the green. It shimmered and sent ripples underneath the narrow bridge, shifting ever so slightly with each steady movement of the pump. Cloud and Zack stuck close to the walls, sheltering themselves in the little shadows the thick metal provided.
"Room 330… What was the last one numbered?" the raven asked, trying to wipe off the last bit of grease on the Buster Sword from the latest security robot that they had encountered. Gingerly, Cloud looked down at his own sword that he'd acquired from the weapons shop and shifted his grip. So far, he hadn't had to use it extensively, what with Zack brandishing his Buster the moment something popped out. However, it was enough for Cloud to notice the differences – slight changes in his intended trajectory, little stumbles at the edge of his balance, the way that the air constricted around his throat and lungs with each swing. It tired him much quicker than it should, blurring his vision and slowing him down as they went closer to the reactor core. In the edge of his foggy consciousness, Cloud tried to remember where he'd felt these symptoms before.
"…Cloud?" There. A blur. Black with navy uniform churning together and coming towards two glowing blue points. He blinked.
"Just… tell me if you are not okay, because I know you aren't and I don't know what I'm gonna do if you aren't and…" Zack paused, eyes widening as if a realization just hit him in the back of the head. "I'm an idiot! Stupid, stupid idiot!"
Cloud, now free from the dizziness, frowned at the ex-SOLDIER who was pulling at his hair with a force that had to be unhealthy for his scalp. Just as he was about to restrain his friend, the man clasped his hands on Cloud's shoulders, head bowed and trembling.
"We're getting out of here," the raven whispered in a low voice, tinted with resignation.
"Yeah, Zack. Let's find the room quick and…" Zack shook his head vehemently, his hands clenching and unclenching as if he was consciously trying to stop the motion but unable to do so.
"No. Now. We're getting out."
"What? What are you talking about?" Shrugging Zack off, Cloud glanced nervously at the corners of the platform to see if their raised voices had alerted any guards.
"No! Don't you see?" Zack hissed, his face flushed with fervent anger and panic, pacing and shaking his arms as if to stop himself from slamming them down on the railing. "You – you are sick! Again! And I brought you here – into the reactor –" His voice was low but rising. Dimly, Cloud registered what was wrong with him. In the corners of his mind, he thought he could hear some red-headed Turk going on about how 'Cloud Strife should know the symptoms of mako poisoning by now, considering how many times he's plunged himself in the stuff.'
Cloud made a small hum of acknowledgement, eyes lowered in concentration. Why was he sick? He had been to the reactor last time and it didn't affect him. Vaguely, he could feel Zack trying to grab his arms, pulling him toward one of the windows, presumably to avoid the sewers that could possibly have been near raw mako. Shaking himself out of his reverie, Cloud stopped and tugged at Zack's arms, causing the raven to flicker a worried glance back at him.
"No. We're not going back." Anger and hurt flashed in Zack's eyes at the same time and Cloud nearly flinched at the sight. However, he quickly caught himself, knowing that Zack would soon all but explode at him. "It's nothing. The last room was 305. We just need to go in a little deeper."
At this, Zack tightened his grip on Cloud's arms one last time and let go.
"I should have done this alone. I shouldn't have brought you here - but I couldn't just leave - and damn it, Cloud! I never, ever want to see you like that again. Once is enough."
And I don't want to see you dead, Cloud thought.
"We'll go in, and get out of here as soon as possible. I promise, Zack. It'll be fine."
With mako poisoning, he was going to be fine as long as he didn't lose himself in the whispers that grew with every step he took. In front of him, Zack looked like a lost child again but this time, he gave Cloud a grim nod.
"We'll get in and get out," he said, making a decisive swipe in the air.
Trying not to do anything that would change Zack's mind, Cloud gave a quick nod, and followed the winding path towards the lower levels.
"So, set the bomb like this?" Tifa glanced around nervously before re-examining the explosive at the reactor core.
"I dunno – didn't Jessie tell you this stuff?" Barret swung his gun arm, brandishing it like a red flag at a rodeo, gaining a disapproving glance from the young martial artist when the machinery hit the railings, sending a loud clang reverberating throughout the chamber walls.
"Stop that! What if the guards hear us!"
"W-well, we'll get at out double the speed! Just hurry, Tifa!" Red from embarrassment, the giant retorted, meekly checking to see if any guards did hear and were about to charge in.
"Okay, okay! Just give me a –"
"That wasn' what I thin' it was, eh?"
The martial artist managed to stay calm, but once the loud, high-pitched noise assaulted her ears, she cursed under her breath. Under her foot, was a small device glowed in sharp, red light, sensors screeching in alarm.
Behind Barret, a gigantic security robot ascended on an extension platform over the railings, looming over the AVALANCHE members with its guns ready to fire. The two rebels gulped, getting into their fighting stance.
In the back of her mind, Tifa couldn't shake the thought of how much Barret would taunt her about this incident despite the situation.
"We're wasting time! Couldn't he have been more specific? This place is huge!" Zack muttered, heaving another heap of junk to the side to rummage through the boxes underneath. The storeroom turned out to be far bigger than they'd thought, with piles of metal boxes stacked up haphazardly against the walls, each looking identical to the next. The two mercenaries spent a good ten minutes digging through the array of boxes and crates and uneasiness was beginning to creep up on them.
"Zack, I think I found it," Cloud called out from the corner of the room. He rubbed away the dust on the box with his gloves, revealing a faint paint mark: RMS6. Cautiously, Cloud picked it up and handed it over to Zack who carefully put it in his duffle bag.
"Alright! Now we can get out of this depressing building. Ugh, I really should have talked to the guy who designed this place before I left Shinra. Where are warm orange lights and pictures on the wall?"
Cloud chuckled, before opening the door, thinking of what Reeve would say to such a comment.
"So we take this to the guy in a few days and all's good! Aerith, here we come!" Cloud let his thoughts wander at the mention of the enigmatic Cetra, along with the guilt and a stab of pain that accompanied his memories whenever he thought about Aerith.
Even after all those years, the feeling of not being able to move as the sword plunged through her abdomen made him sick in the stomach. The fact that it was possible for such things to happen again made him feel worse. He felt despondency creeping into his consciousness as he gazed at the green pool beneath the platform. It felt strangely close, almost near enough to touch –
"Still trying so hard?"
His blood froze. The voice, cold and mocking, had a feminine touch - a cruel goddess whispering inside his ears. Comforting, like a siren's call, and sickly sweet. His whipped his head around to the corners of the gigantic chamber, not entirely sure what he was looking for but panic driven to do so nonetheless. Fear consumed him like a wildfire and he bit the inside of his mouth to stop himself from shaking like a leaf. When his eyes settled upon his friend, he flinched instinctively and stepped backwards, hitting the rusted guardrail with the small of his back. He tried to take a deep breath only to realize he had been hyperventilating.
"It – I, I…" Cloud stammered, trying to formulate anything other than a blank page in his mind. Air was coming in short, sharp gasps and Cloud tried to think if the headache he was getting was from lack of oxygen or some other source. All the while, he tried to avoid making eye contact.
He dreaded what colour it was going to be.
Vaguely, he registered Zack moving towards him when the platform the blond was standing on broke off with a lurch that shook the very core of the chamber. Stunned, he could only watch as Zack jumped towards the falling piece of metal and threw him back up to solid safety. He landed with a loud clang and he scrambled desperately to reach out his hand as realization hit him like a hammer. Everything felt slow – almost stagnant - and like the terrible weight that sank in his stomach, Zack fell towards the reactor core and into the darkness.
Back from a rather long holiday - it's good to be back and writing again XD
HEAPS and HEAPS of thanks goes to 'Genesis R' for this chapter as it was quite rushed and riddled with errors.
For all of you who have waited so patiently for this chapter - my apologies and my utmost thanks.
See you next time '~' /