The night the screaming started in Midgar, Cloud was away doing a favor for Reeve. Seventh Heaven was bustling as usual when a young man – wild eyed and pale – stumbled in the door shouting for quiet. In the sudden silence a distant, eerie wailing became frighteningly clear, rising to a painful crescendo before falling silent, only to begin again a few minutes later. Customers drained glasses held in shaky hands, then called for additional liquid courage even as they tried to argue that it was nothing more than the wind whipping through the ruins of the abandoned city. Such platitudes fell flat: the evening was clear and still, and there was an all too real and human element in the far off cries. Finishing their meals and drinks to the accompaniment of uneasy whispers, the bar patrons trickled away in nervous clumps, the horrific sound seeming to grow louder as each departure reduced the ambient noise. After the last couple slipped away, Tifa decided to close the bar: additional customers were unlikely, and she herself would feel just a bit more secure with locked doors between her family and whatever was causing... that.
Leaving Seventh Heaven dark and empty, Tifa climbed the stairs to find that Denzel and Marlene had sought comfort in the bed she and Cloud had come to share, burrowing under the covers and watching Midgar's ruins through the window. She joined them after a quick shower, turning the radio on to drown out the screams, and settling between them with an arm around each, trying to reassure them with her presence that everything was alright. Unfortunately, both children had seen that – while she could hold her own against drunks, street thugs, and thieves – Tifa wasn't always proof against the sort of nightmares spawned by Shin-Ra.
And this terror emanated from what was once Shin-Ra's primary playground. Nearly three weeks ago a team of investigators and reporters had opened up yet another previously sealed lab, and then disappeared. What new horrors had they possibly discovered?
"I wish Cloud were here," Denzel mumbled, then blushed and hastily tried to take the words back. Marlene's answering whisper from Tifa's other side stopped him.
"I do too."
Tifa kept silent, but internally echoed their wish. It didn't bother her that the kids felt Cloud was synonymous with safety, for she did too. Cloud was a protector – it was a large part of his identity, and one of the main ways he showed affection. Monsters that went bump in the night were practically his specialty. He also had a knack for knowing when his help was necessary and would be appreciated, and when it wasn't. Without needing to discuss it, he let her know he respected her abilities, while still making her feel safe, protected, and feminine.
As another scream rose and was abruptly cut off, she reached for the phone on the night stand. Cloud's cell number was on speed dial: his phone began ringing before the children even realized she was making a call. As had become his habit in the past year, he answered after the second ring instead of letting the service pick up.
"Tifa?" His calm voice was instantly reassuring. "I'm almost finished here. Can I call you back when I get to the inn?" Faintly, she could hear Fenrir's idling, and knew he'd pulled over when the phone rang.
Tifa opened her mouth, then hesitated, unsure what she should say. Cloud, Midgar is screaming. Please come home.
"Tifa?" Cloud's tone was questioning, the rumble of Fenrir's engine cutting off as he gave their conversation his full attention.
"Cloud..." still unsure, she turned her head to meet first Marlene's frightened gaze, then Denzel's worried one. "Can you come home tonight?" The words came out in a rush, her voice trembling just the slightest bit, enough to convey this wasn't a simple case of missing him.
"Yes." He didn't ask why, or for any explanations, just agreed immediately. "It'll take some time, though... at least five or six hours."
"That's fine. Just... come home." Soon. Tifa swallowed, striving to sound her normal cheerful self. "Avoid Midgar if you can. And if you can't... be careful."
A considering pause, and then his voice came over the line, composed as ever. "Alright. I'll be there as soon as I can." There was a muted roar as he restarted the motorcycle. "Try to get some sleep. Tell the kids I'll see them in the morning."
Tifa sighed as she hung up the phone. Such a few short sentences to engender such a feeling of relief. "He's on his way," she told the patiently waiting duo, and felt them relax fractionally as well. "We should get some sleep, and it'll make it seem like he made it here that much faster." Marlene opened her mouth to protest and Tifa shook her head. "He said to tell you he'd see you in the morning."
The little girl smiled, and the boy nodded in satisfaction. "That's as good as a promise."
Nevertheless, there was no suggestion of the kids heading back to their own beds. All three curled together under the blankets and fell into fitful sleep, startling awake at any motion from their companions, or when the music on the radio went soft.
Cloud arrived home around three in the morning. The source of Tifa's unease had been apparent for the last half hour of the drive, enhanced hearing clearly discerning human voices and abject terror in the rising screams. He had very little information to give Reeve concerning his errand in Junon, but he was fairly certain the twelve hundred missing people had something to do with whatever was happening in Midgar.
He'd have to see what he could find out once the sun was up.
For now, he wanted to check on Tifa and the kids, take a shower, and get some sleep.
He was not surprised to find all three curled in the bed together. Particularly loud thunderstorms – those reminiscent of the atmosphere and noise of Sephiroth's dark lifestream – were far less nerve wracking than the tortured screams echoing from the ruined city, yet often resulted in a similar tangle of bodies. Usually with him somewhere on the bottom. He'd tried explaining that piling on top of him was counter-productive – it was impossible to chase off monsters or burglars or whatever if he was pinned down – but Tifa had just laughed and said he was missing the point.
Satisfied they were safe, he grabbed a change of clothes and headed to the shower. Ten minutes later he exited the bathroom – hair still damp, wearing sweats and a t-shirt – to find Marlene sitting up in bed, warily watching the bathroom door.
"Cloud!" Although whispered, his name carried volumes of relief. Slipping out of the bed, she bolted across the room to throw her arms around his waist in a hug before just as quickly releasing him and ducking into the bathroom. "Wait for me!" she ordered as the door clicked shut, and he felt his mouth curve in amusement.
Marlene was not normally afraid of the dark. Sometimes, though – after a scary movie or an evening listening to Denzel's stories of living in Midgar after Meteor – she was hit by a spell of abject fright, characterized by the unwavering fear that monsters lurked in the shadows. This was not the first time he'd stood unnecessary guard duty before tucking her back into bed.
When she exited, he swung her up in his arms, letting her stifle nervous giggles against his throat as he walked to the bed. It took a bit of maneuvering, but he managed to lift Denzel long enough to slip carefully under the covers, moving over until he brushed against Tifa's back. He stroked his hand soothingly along her side when she stirred, and she turned over to snuggle against his arm, relaxing again without waking. Marlene settled happily between them, her slight form half on top of Cloud as she used his shoulder for a pillow. Groggy, and nearly oblivious to having been moved, Denzel did the same on the other side, leaving the swordsman effectively trapped between the two children – not that he minded. Tilting his head he watched as Marlene wriggled a bit before shifting to rest her head on his chest, fisting her hand in his shirt and giving a small sigh.
She nodded, already well on her way back to sleep. "Your heartbeat sounds nice," she mumbled around a yawn. The slow, steady beat was soothing, and gave her something else to focus on so she could ignore the shrieks from outside. "G'night Cloud."
"Sweet dreams Marlene."
Tifa awoke late in the morning, the sun already well-up and the day bright. She was pressed against Marlene's back, her arm thrown over the girl and stretched out over Cloud's chest so her fingertips just brushed Denzel's arm on his other side. Her head rested on Cloud's shoulder, his arm loosely curled around her, his hand warm on her back under the covers.
Most importantly, it was blessedly quiet. The radio had been turned off at some point – most likely by Cloud – and the only sounds from outside were those normal for mid-morning in Edge.
"It stopped around dawn." His quiet words broke into her thoughts, and she tilted her head to meet his steady, bright blue gaze. "It's been quiet for hours."
"What time is it?" Tifa kept her voice equally soft, trying not to wake Denzel or Marlene.
"Around ten I think – I can't really see the clock." She could hear the bemused laughter in his voice, typical after a night where they trapped him in bed like this, using him as a security blanket.
She smiled in return. "Thanks for coming home, Cloud," she whispered, and felt lightly calloused fingers stroke her spine in response. "Did you get any sleep at all?" It was hard to tell with him; she'd never seen him exhibit any of the normal signs of a sleepless night. Ever. The only times she'd seen his eyes bloodshot were on the rare occasions he managed to get drunk (all... three of them was it now?); and only when he'd been sick with geostigma for months had the faintest of shadows appeared under his eyes. He could go days without sleep and be fine right up until the instant he collapsed without warning.
"Mm. If you three hadn't been sleeping so well I would've already been up and on the phone to Reeve."
Tifa shifted at his reminder that they needed to start the day, and frowned at his reference to the errand he'd been on for the WRO. "What did you find out?" As she spoke, she sat up and stretched, then half turned to look down at him.
"Nothing much." Cloud paused, sighed, then shared the bad news. "I think whatever was going on last night has something to do with the disappearances in Junon. Reeve has lots of contacts. I'm hoping he'll have found out something while I was away."
She nodded, brown eyes worried, then pushed the covers back and slid out of the bed. "Okay, can you give me a few minutes to get dressed before waking those two? They're going to be hungry and I need a bit of a head start before they demand breakfast."
Cloud's mouth curved in the slight gesture that passed for a broad grin on him. "Waffles?" he asked hopefully.
She shook her head at him and his love of carbohydrates, but agreed. "Waffles. Just give me... ten minutes before you release the hounds?"
That prompted a small chuckle, and she headed into the bathroom to brush her teeth and hair.
Half an hour later all four of them gathered in the kitchen to enjoy waffles and bacon, the children chattering but still somewhat subdued by the fears of the night before. When he finished, Cloud stood, ruffling Denzel's hair and giving Marlene's braid a gentle tug as he walked around the table: small, casual expressions of affection and caring that helped ease their anxiety, reminding them that he would be there if they needed him. "I'm going to make that call to Reeve now."
Tifa nodded. "We'll clean up the kitchen and then open the bar." That was the normal routine, and normality seemed important after the strange night they'd had. Cloud however paused, frowning, at her words. Accustomed to his ways, Tifa knew he was concerned and trying to decide whether or not he should say anything. "I'll close when the sun starts to set, and make sure the customers know that." Barely tensed shoulders relaxed and he gave a relieved nod before disappearing out the door. Moments later his footsteps could be heard heading up the stairs to his office.
Unfortunately, Reeve had very little information to share: only a name based on a far-fetched rumor. Another Shin-Ra project that had been forgotten when the former president and his lackeys were killed.
A secret division of SOLDIER, and another of Hojo's pet projects.
If Deepground existed and was surfacing now, it was both probable and likely that at least some of its members were augmented with mako, Jenova cells, or both. A concept that made anyone who realized it extremely nervous.
A scouting trip made during daylight hours provided Cloud with a sense of movement and activity in Midgar, but nothing concrete he could point to or report. The place just seemed more aware than it had in the past three years. It was like an anthill that sat quietly until it was disturbed, and then erupted in activity.
Making it erupt before they were ready to deal with the consequences was not something anyone was willing to risk. So Reeve stationed WRO troopers in Edge, and they waited, attempting to gather more information.
Each night, as if scheduled, the screaming resumed at dusk and continued until dawn. On the third night after the screaming started, Reeve's guards radioed to report a woman with red hair and distinctly odd clothing wandering the Midgar side of Edge. In the morning, the entire squad was found slaughtered, bearing injuries both from bullets and some sort of bladed weapon.
Which prompted Cloud to make a decision. Denzel and Marlene were nervous, showing distinct signs of stress and lack of sleep. Tifa's eyes were constantly worried, her brows pinched. They'd waited long enough.
"I think we should gather up the kids and take them somewhere safe," he told Tifa, while Denzel and Marlene were safely distracted by the television. "If adults want to stay here in the shadow of that," he gestured vaguely at the ruined city, "while things go crazy that's one thing. But we need to evacuate the children."
Tifa couldn't disagree, she'd been thinking along the same lines herself. But there were some rather large obstacles. "Where will we go? Anyplace is better than spending another night listening to those screams, but how will we know it's safe? How will we get them there – and oh, Cloud, there are so many in the shelters."
"Reeve will help." Cloud's response was confident: he'd obviously been thinking about this for awhile. "If he can supply a few vehicles, Barret and I can drive them. As for where we'll go... I'm thinking Junon. Whatever these people are after, they've already taken it from there. They have no need to go back." It was also close enough to return to Edge in only a few hours if the WRO could figure out what was going on, and wanted their help.
The evacuation was surprisingly easy to arrange, once they'd come up with a plan. The handful of children's homes accepted their proposal with relief, as did the street kids that lived in the area around Seventh Heaven. Shortly after lunch, Cloud headed out to meet up with Barret and collect the trucks Reeve had agreed to provide. As he was leaving, the bar was already starting to fill up with children and their caretakers. With luck, they'd be in Junon before the little ones' bedtime.
Rosso had enjoyed her sport with the WRO guards – in a strictly cat-and-mouse fashion – but was eager for a more challenging fight. Dear little Shelke had provided a report on Vincent Valentine and his acquaintances, which indicated that the most famous of them lived practically on Deepground's doorstep. The man who had defeated Sephiroth on three different occasions should provide more worthy entertainment, and the chance to take this Cloud Strife down was too much for Rosso's ego to resist.
Weiss wouldn't mind the field trip, as long as she didn't disrupt the greater plan; and with the frightened citizens of Edge hiding inside come sunset, the streets were deserted. There were only a few ragtag urchins to provide company as she ghosted through the town, and they scattered like rats when they saw her.
Tifa's smile was anxious as she served the evacuees soup and sandwiches for dinner, while one eye watched the clock. Cloud and Barret had been delayed on the road, and Reeve had insisted on sending a squadron of troopers and a third truck along with them. They were still expected before darkfall, but would be cutting things very close. They'd so wanted to get the kids away without subjecting them to another repeat of those horrible screams.
"Tifa!" Harper, one of the street kids in the area, and a friend of Denzel's, came panting into the bar, voice tight and scared as he called her name. "Tifa!"
Bending down she gently grasped his shoulders, spoke in calm, soothing tones. "It's alright sweetie, I'm here. What's wrong?"
His hands fisted in her apron as he pressed closer. "That woman... the one they think killed the WRO men... I saw her! She's in the city center!"
Fear spiked, but Tifa resisted the urge to panic. "Are you sure, Harper? Can you tell me what she looked like?"
The little boy nodded, still gasping air after his frantic run. "I'm sure. She has long red hair, and is wearing some sort of armor with glowy blue stripes on it. And a long red train... it looks like it's made out of fur... almost like," and he stopped to gesture behind her at a picture of Nanaki with Denzel and Marlene, "that."
Definitely not good news. She sounded bizarre if nothing else, and much like the reports they'd received from Reeve. "Alright Harper, thank you for telling me. Go find Denzel and Marlene and stay with them, okay?" He willingly did as he was told, freeing her to find Mrs. Crumple and the other shelter administrators.
Ten minutes later the bar proper was empty of everyone save Tifa. With the help of the other adults, the children had been ushered into the bedrooms above the bar, or into the mostly empty basement. The door at the base of the stairs, which they hardly ever closed, had been shut and bolted from the other side. The basement door had no lock, but was separated from the bar by the kitchen.
If this woman did show up, hopefully she wouldn't be able to tell that Tifa was not alone.
It was small comfort.
Rosso found her destination as mouse-quiet as the rest of the area, which was a bit of a disappointment. Even the vanquisher of Sephiroth felt the need to hide like a frightened child? Although, the lights were on and a woman clearly visible through the front window. Dark haired, with a strong demeanor, she was wiping down tables as if nothing unusual was happening in Edge.
That at least was curious. Strife was supposed to live with someone, a childhood friend turned more. Or he had, once: Shelke hadn't been entirely clear. Maybe this woman was she.
The door was locked, a sign displayed that stated, Sorry, We're Closed. Ignoring both, she slammed her shoulder into the wood, using her foot to break the lock at the bottom at the same time. The once sturdy plank flew open to the satisfying accompaniment of bent metal.
Tifa whirled around as the door crashed into the wall, playing the part of surprised barmaid despite the fact that she'd been aware of the woman's presence and scrutiny for some time.
"Where's Strife?" the redhead demanded in a strangely accented voice, and for a moment Tifa felt a strange sense of deja vu as she remembered Loz crashing into the church in a similar manner.
Pretend ignorance, or tell the truth? If this woman was SOLDIER, she'd be as good at reading people as Cloud. Probably better, as Cloud often let his nature contradict what his senses told him. Truth.
"He's not here."
Rosso's smile was arch. "He's not here now, or he's never here at all?"
The question made it clear, whether the woman was with Deepground or not, that she obviously had information on them. The words were pointed and snide, even though the hurt they were directed toward was a year out of date. Tifa remained silent, and let the other draw whatever conclusions she wanted.
"No matter." Unperturbed by Tifa's silence, Rosso reached for the weapon on her back, allowed the blades to unfold. "I understand he comes running whenever you're in trouble." Allowing her gaze to casually survey the bar, she walked slowly across the room. "And you are in trouble, darling."
The redhead wasn't as fast as Loz, but she was close, appearing behind Tifa with such rapidity that there was only time to turn, not to block. The blow knocked her toward the center of the room, sneakers skidding across the hardwood floor as she stubbornly fought to stay on her feet. Her attacker's gaze was amused as she once more strolled toward Tifa, her weapon whistling as she swung it in a lazy, almost dancing pattern of curves. "Oh yes, you're in quite a lot of trouble indeed."
Edge and Midgar were a distant smudge on the horizon when Cloud's PHS rang. The caller ID was for Tifa's cell, not the bar, an oddity that had warning bells sounding as he answered.
"Cloud!" Blond brows drew down in a frown as he recognized the panicked voice in his ear as Denzel's. "You have to come home, you have to come home now!"
"Denzel? What's wrong? Where's Tifa?" The WRO soldier in the truck's cab with him cast a concerned, sidelong look at Cloud as he reflexively pressed harder on the gas, speeding up.
Denzel's voice was tight with fear. "That woman, the one on the news. She's here, Cloud! Tifa made us hide but now they're fighting!" The door to the bar crashing open had made a fair amount of noise, but Denzel and Marlene had obediently stayed in the basement until the first thud – as of a body hitting the floor – shook the ceiling. Against the protests of the few adults with them, Denzel and Marlene had crept out to listen at the kitchen door. Tifa's battle cries and the redhead's crazed laughter were both audible, but Tifa's voice was getting weaker. They'd heard both furniture and glass break, and a sound oddly like Mr. Valentine's gun before Tifa had cried out in obvious pain. That's when Denzel had called Cloud.
Memories of Tifa's crumpled, beaten form – as he'd found her in the church after the last time she'd tackled someone with SOLDIER abilities – were painfully clear in Cloud's memory. Cold fear struggled to rise and he clamped it down, forcing himself to remain calm. "Alright Denzel. I need you to hold on." Pulling over, he thumbed the switch that would open the back of the truck. In the rear view mirror he could see the other two trucks in their caravan coming to a stop behind him. "You'll be driving from here on," he told his companion, voice quiet but intense. "Floor it."
Slipping out of the cab he jogged to meet Barret, who'd been driving the second truck. The large man wasted no time in demanding, "What the hell are you doing, Cloud?"
Ignoring him, Cloud once more spoke into his PHS, focusing on the scared little boy on the other end. "I'm on my way Denzel. I'm going to give Barret my phone. Keep the line open, but stay quiet and out of sight, and do whatever he tells you, understand?"
The simple instructions seemed to sooth some of Denzel's fear, and his voice was steadier as he agreed. Handing the phone to Barret, Cloud pulled his goggles on and swung a leg over Fenrir as he started the engine. "Tifa's in trouble," although the other man could hear him clearly, his words wouldn't carry over the phone, lost to the background rumble of the bike. "I'm going ahead. Follow as fast as you can." Without waiting for a reply he gunned the motorcycle, and Fenrir leapt into motion.
He was out of sight before the trucks were even moving again.
For all that Loz had asked her to play with him, this woman was the one using Tifa like a toy. The kicks weren't hard to block, but the blades were starting to take a toll, and she'd run out of energy to dodge the gunfire. Her vest was cut across the back and along one shoulder. As if to keep things even, her other shoulder bled from a trio of close-set bullet holes. The trailing end of her skirt had been sliced away, leaving thin cuts across the backs of her calves. One leg bled from another bullet wound, and her hands were both bloody, her gloves open across the knuckles. She also sported a myriad of cuts and bruises from being slammed into the floor, tables, and broken glass.
"Strife is taking his time, isn't he?" the redhead laughed, sedately seating herself at the bar and pouring a glass of red wine. She watched with mild interest as Tifa struggled to stand from the wreckage of the last table she'd crashed through.
Tifa held her tongue, and concentrated on breathing. Her last remark had resulted in a stream of bullets following her around the bar to embed in photographs, lights, and the kitchen door – a door that should have swung freely under the impact, but barely moved at all, as if someone were listening on the other side. Probably two someones, who would both get an earful later.
If she survived.
None of her wounds were critical, but the combined blood loss was starting to make her stumble. She made it to her feet only to sway unsteadily in place as she raised her fists.
"Nothing to say?" Legs crossed, Rosso calmly sipped her wine, her bow-shaped weapon resting on the counter by her elbow, its edge glistening red in the light of the few undamaged lamps. "Oh, don't bother, darling," she added, as Tifa drew breath for another rush, "you'll just hurt yourself again."
Growling, the martial artist used her anger and fear to fuel her charge. The redhead didn't even bother to stand. Rotating on her stool she swept her weapon around to block Tifa's punch inches away from her face, then lazily kicked the smaller woman in the stomach with her spiked heel. Breathless, Tifa was thrown the length of the room to crash into the wall adjacent to the open door. She blinked, her ears registering a welcome rumble as she fought against the black encroaching on her vision, but managed only to stare numbly as Rosso leveled her weapon and fired.
Then there was a screech of tires and Cloud was there, shielding her body with the bulk of Fenrir, blocking bullets with the wide blade of his main sword. He was shouting, the words indistinct but the tone obvious, and part of her was shocked: she hadn't heard him truly angry since the first time they'd fought Sephiroth. Cloud didn't really get angry. She slid down the wall to sit in the shadow of the cooling motorcycle, eyes closed, unable to do more than listen as he fought the redhead. Part of her was distantly pleased and a bit smug to hear the woman grunting with effort and frustration – how do you like it, bitch? – but even thinking was becoming difficult.
Cloud attacked in a flurry of blows, teeth gritted in anger as the two short side blades of the fusion sword struck and rebounded, parried and attacked. He'd discarded the main weapon after shielding Tifa. This woman – undoubtedly SOLDIER – was tall, her long reach increased by her odd weapon; but he was faster, more focused, and more determined. She also seemed to have expended whatever ammo she had in his first rush, forcing her to fight in close quarters. She had little room to swing her oversized weapon, and could do scarcely more than block and retreat under his assault. Slowly but surely he pressed his advantage, until finally a double blow knocked her back, and a blade beam threw her out the door. She whirled to her feet as Barret appeared at the end of the street, truck barreling toward them.
Snarling in frustration, Rosso jumped out of the way, the WRO truck squealing to a stop a moment later. Strife landed nimbly atop the vehicle as the driver's door was thrown open, and a dark man jumped out, his prosthetic hand already transforming into a gun of some sort. He started firing as Strife leapt toward her, and she executed a series of flips to avoid the bullets. Hearing WRO troops in the background, she cursed. Weiss would not be pleased at the commotion she'd created. She had been careless, had enjoyed hurting the little barmaid far too much. Despite her taunting, Strife's arrival had been unexpected. She'd been unprepared, had expended a bit too much energy torturing the dark haired woman, and now she was forced to retreat in the face of these WRO dogs. It rankled, and Strife would pay for it, sooner or later.
In the bar, her vision black and consciousness fading, Tifa registered Barret's voice yelling in the street, and knew the rest of the cavalry had arrived. The kids would be safe. Gunfire and shouted orders filtered through her fuzzy thoughts, followed by running footsteps and rapid breaths somewhere closer. Gentle fingers brushed her hair away from her face as the comforting warmth of a full cure materia cascaded through her, assuring her she was safe, too. "Cloud," she murmured, the impression of wide, frightened, mako blue eyes making its way through the haze of pain and weariness. Then the green wave of healing magic rose around her, and she knew no more.
When next she woke they were in Junon, safe and sound if still somewhat shaken by her close call. Cloud and Barret took turns reading her the riot act for everything from taking chances to scaring them half to death. Barret's bluster and worry came as no surprise, but Cloud's upset was unusual. She'd taken lots of risks when they traveled the world three years before, chasing Sephiroth, and he'd never reacted quite like this. In front of the kids his responses were expected, normal, playing down her injuries so as not to worry them further. But the speaking glances he sent her alone were filled with lingering fear and something fierce, almost primal. She'd glimpsed it once before, when he found her in the church. Just a hint of it in the clench of his jaw and the demand in his voice. Then she'd fainted, and when next they spoke it was gone, masked along with his other emotions. Now it was blatantly there for her to see, and caused her breath to catch and heart to race. She knew, once they were alone, that there would be words and more between them.
As anxious as the thought made her, she was looking forward to it.