Conflicts of Interest Part 3
Fire & Blood
By Madam Hydra
Last modification date: 10/09/98
All rights and privileges to Final Fantasy VII and its characters belong to Square Co., Ltd. The characters of this series are used without permission for the purpose of entertainment only. This work of fiction is not meant for sale or profit.
All original characters are the creation of the author. All copyright privileges to these characters are reserved for the author.
WARNING: Violence, Adult language and subject matter.
This is a CONTINUATION - ALTERNATE REALITY Final Fantasy VII fanfic. It contains major SPOILERS for the game.
( ) are character thoughts
/ / and // // are mental dialogue
[ ] are miscellaneous images or sound effects
Part 3a: Bloody Trails Again
Outside North Corel, Barret waited impatiently out in an open field for the Highwind II to land. Far in the distance, they could all see a dark plume of smoke snaking its way to the sky. Climbing onboard, Barret received a warm but subdued greeting from his friends. Cloud was just as glad as everyone else to see Barret, but his attention kept wandering to the thin trail of smoke.
Barret muttered softly to Cid, "What's with Spike?" as he jerked his thumb in Cloud's direction.
The pilot pulled him aside and said, "It's been one thing after another. Reeve told you about the WEAPONS?"
"Well, the shit's really hit the fan." Cid went on to explain Cloud's little accident and the discoveries related to the ESSARUF facility. When he finished there was a short silence, then Barret exploded.
"WHAT!? You trying to tell me that a chunk of that bastard Sephiroth is still floating around, that someTHING's looking for it, and that Cloud took it but can't remember where he fuckin' well put it!?"
Tifa laid a calming hand on her old friend's arm. "Barret, Cloud's memories of that time period are spotty at best. Besides, we're pretty sure it was his friend Zack who actually took the sample. And he's dead."
Barret scowled. "Are we sure about that?"
"Sure about what?" Tifa looked confused.
"Are we sure that fellow Zack's actually dead? I mean, wasn't he some hotshot SOLDIER? With those weird Mako treatments those guys had, couldn't he still be alive?"
Cloud turned pale, then slowly shook his head.
"Zack is very, very dead."
[ ....dark blood dripping.... ]
"No one could have survived his injuries."
[ ....guts steaming in the cool evening air.... ]
"Not even a SOLDIER, First Class."
[ ....bone and tendons palely glistening.... ]
As his friends watched at him with various expressions of concern and worry on their faces, Red rumbled softly, "Cloud, do you... remember what happened?"
He stared out to the horizon. Toward Nibelheim. "Not really. I remember feelings more than facts.... It was chilly, rainy... my hands were slick with all the blood that kept pouring out of those huge, gaping wounds.... I tried to stop.... I wanted to...."
His voice trailed off to a whisper as Cloud stared down at his hands as he clutched the railing with a white-knuckled grip.
"I remember my head hurting,... And someone was screaming... god knows what. Then everything slowly went cold and very, very quiet...."
Cloud looked up at his companions. "The next thing I recall is vague flashes of Midgar. I've got no idea how long I was in the city before I ran into Tifa." He give her a wistful grin. "And you pretty much know what happened after that."
Tifa managed to return Cloud's smile, but she silently wondered, (What happened between Zack's death and our meeting, Cloud? Why can't you remember? When I saw you sitting at the train station, you didn't have any blood on you. You looked clean and decently fed so you weren't living on the streets. So where were you staying? Why can't you remember any of this?)
Cloud walked over to Barret and stared up into the big man's dark face. "I can't tell you when he died... or where he died. I can't even tell you HOW he died. All I know is that I was right there with Zack when it happened."
The ex-Avalanche leader couldn't meet Cloud's eyes. He shuffled his feet awkwardly and mumbled, "Aw man, I was just tryin' to be sure. With all this crap with the WEAPONS, Jenova, and Sephiroth, a guy's gotta wonder."
Cloud managed a slight grin.
Cid said, "Yeah. We've barely started working on this mess and look what's already happened. The WEAPONS are back. Hojo and Jenova might be back. And with a piece of Sephiroth still around, it's not impossible that HE might come back.... Man, no one ever seems to stay dead...," he abruptly stopped. He shook his head and started over. "What I mean is that none of the BAD guys ever seem to stay dead."
They all chuckled weakly but each of them desperately hoped that Cid was wrong.
As the others went below, Cid remained on deck and stared out at the tall plume of smoke in the distance. Things were quiet for a while, then from inside the airship, the pilot heard an infuriated roar that could have only come from Barret.
(They've probably just told him about Reno and the Turks.)
The arguing continued nonstop for a while, then gradually began to fade in volume. A few moments later, Red stepped out on deck, shaking his head.
"Heh. A hell of a racket, huh?"
Red rubbed his left ear ruefully. "My ears are still ringing. Vincent did the wise thing and disappeared as soon as Barret started shouting."
"About the Turks, huh?"
"Well, he's got plenty of reasons to hate them. From what I heard, he lost a lot of friends when Reno brought down that Sector 7 plate."
"Yes. But Reeve has a valid position, also. Despite what they've done in the past, I believe that the Turks are quite trustworthy when their professional honor is at stake. Perhaps not particularly likable, but we can definitely use all the competent help we can get."
"I'm sure Barret didn't see it that way."
"No, but thankfully Tifa managed to keep him from shooting up the bridge...."
Cid dropped his cigarette and yelped, "He WHAT!?"
Red chuckled, "Don't worry. I think he's calmed down by now. Barret is quite stubborn but he's not stupid. He may not be at all happy about it, but he's willing to put the matter aside. For now."
"Well, that's a big relief." After lighting up a new cigarette, Cid said, "Hey, Red."
"Did Cloud say anything during the argument?"
"Let me guess. He was busy staring out the window while all this was going on."
Cid heaved a sigh.
If it had been anyone else, the pilot would have shrugged away the question. But since it was Red, Cid answered, "I was just thinking. The way this mess is shaping up,.... And now coming back to Nibelheim.... I'm not so worried about Tifa but I've gotta wonder just how much more this shit Cloud can take. Sometimes I wonder what keeps him together...."
"He's a tough guy," Barret grumbled as he stomped out onto the deck. He was still scowling angrily.
"I know that," snapped Cid. "If it was any other sort of situation, I wouldn't be worrying about him at all. But he's got a real big weak spot where his past's concerned. Weak spot,... hell, it's like a gaping, bottomless pit. No telling what kind of crap's hiding in there. And with all this shit about Sephiroth and Jenova again,.... Guys, it's just that I've got a bad feeling about this."
"You mean that you don't trust him," said Red. He cocked his head as he watched his two companions.
Cid snapped, "That's not it! I like the kid, okay? I'm just saying that we need to keep a close eye on him. For his sake as well as our own."
"Yeah, you got a point." Barret didn't look at all happy at the prospect.
Red sighed quietly. "Agreed."
Cloud stood at the bottom of the stairs leading to the Highwind II' top deck, but he could clearly hear the conversation going on overhead. While not quite as sensitive as Vincent's, his hearing was better than the average person's.
As he silently listened, his lips quirked upward into a faint, but sad smile. Another person might have been angry or offended at his friends' concerns, but he was both glad and relieved. He'd been wondering if and how he should bring up the very topic. It seemed that his friends were already one step ahead of him....
He turned and walked back toward the bridge.
(I'm depending on you guys....)
Barret had been right. Nibelheim was burning. Again.
Even though hours had passed since the first signs of smoke, the fires were still going strong when the Highwind II arrived.
Standing on the deck, Tifa looked down at the inferno still raging below and shuddered. Only one thing made the scene remotely bearable -- this time around, the people in Nibelheim were complete strangers. But it didn't take away any of the horror. It didn't matter that the new inhabitants were only actors hired by Shinra. They were still human beings.
But however bad it was for her, it had to be that much worse for Cloud. Tifa never really experienced the destruction of the town up close and in person. The brief glimpses she had gotten through Cloud's memories and Sephiroth's illusions in the Whirlwind Maze had been more than enough. But he had been right there in the middle of the carnage....
She glanced at him. Tifa desperately wished that Cloud would react -- yell, cry, curse, whatever -- anything except this blank, emotionless calm.
Or maybe he had already gone numb.
In some distant, secretive hiding place, something watched the fiery destruction of Nibelheim....
The air was blistering hot and filled with a thick, smoky haze. As Cloud led his companions into Nibelheim, he avoided looking too closely at the burning houses. Instead, he chose to focus on their ultimate destination -- the Shinra Mansion. But as they picked their way through the burning wreckage, they soon noticed the unnerving lack of bodies -- or to be more correct, the lack of intact bodies. The few corpses lying around were literally in pieces, savagely ripped limb from limb by some unknown assailant.
Nibelheim was quite a small town but it still contained well over a hundred people. Adults, the elderly, and children... Shinra had done an extremely thorough job of recreating the town, down to the last detail. In the years since Sephiroth's initial massacre, the little town had become home to many of the actors. When the need for the Nibelheim cover-up had ended, many of them had chosen to continue living in the sleepy little town.
Cid warily scanned the area. (With all this blood on the ground, most of these poor bastards have got to be dead. So where was everyone?) He squinted as he tried to peer into some of the fires but could see no traces of the missing bodies.
Cloud suddenly stopped in the middle of the town square, near a burning column of flame that used to be the water tower. His friends saw a growing look of confusion and uncertainty appear in his eyes as his gaze rapidly skipped from one burning building to another.
Tifa was too busy with her own emotional turmoil to notice Cloud's unusual behavior. She didn't want to be here. She didn't want to see this. And despite the fierce heat, she couldn't stop shivering.
"Hey, Cloud! What's up?" Cid had to yell to make himself heard over the fires.
"I.... It's not... right...." He put his hand to his forehead as he continued to scan the fiery ruins, his confusion obviously intensifying. Suddenly his eyes narrowed. Everyone jumped as without any warning, Cloud abruptly whipped out his broadsword and got ready for attack.
"Where the hell...?" Barret bellowed.
"Incoming!" Cloud shouted. Through the flames, they could now see lean, shadowy shapes skittering and jumping toward them.
Cloud lunged forward and sliced the lead attackers in half with his usual deadly efficiency. The pieces of the creatures -- a stomach-churning mixture of insect and reptile -- landed at his feet in a splatter of greenish ooze. Behind him, he could hear the familiar sounds of Barret's and Vincent's guns.
While there were a large number of the gruesome creatures, the monsters were surprisingly weak -- more of an annoyance than anything else -- and didn't seemed armed with anything more menacing than slightly oversized claws and mandibles. They weren't nearly as dangerous as the large, serpentine whip-cat or the flying poison sacs they'd encountered at the ESSARUF facility. And with all eight of them there, the entire fight barely lasted two minutes.
As Yuffie slashed a last insectoid into chunks, she muttered, "Is that it? What a puny bunch of losers! I didn't even break a sweat!"
Red carefully examined the dead creatures. "She's right. These creatures couldn't have possibly caused all this damage and bloodshed. And they wouldn't have given the Turks much trouble, even with the element of surprise."
Barret said, "Yo, Cloud! How did you know that they were out there?"
Their leader bent down and took a very close look at a dead insectoid, but said nothing. Red recognized the now familiar gesture as Cloud held his hand close to the body. Cloud didn't say anything, but his tense expression told the beast everything he needed to know.
(Jenova cells, again.)
Without saying a word, Cloud stood up, sheathed his sword, and started walking. Through the smoky, heat-distorted air, they watched him climb the short flight of stairs separating the Shinra Mansion from the town below. His friends exchanged worried looks, then hastily followed.
He was waiting for them not far from the Mansion's wrought iron gates. In an eerie replay of the fire six years ago, the building was again left untouched by the fire devouring Nibelheim. They saw the moving trucks parked in the Mansion's courtyard... but again, there were no bodies. There were only several ominous dark stains on the paving stones. Red sniffed briefly and confirmed their worst suspicions.
"It's human blood."
"Oh man...," Yuffie whispered.
Cloud continued to ignore his friends' questions as he stood staring at the dark smears that led from the courtyard to the Mansion's entrance. As soon as his friends caught up with him, he simply turned and followed the bloody trail to the front door. He put his hand on the door latch, hesitated an instant, then abruptly flung the doors wide open. The first thing they noticed was a massive dark patch in the middle of the ground floor lobby -- a blood-soaked area easily twenty feet in diameter. Away from the smoke in the town, the metallic reek of blood was all too noticeable.
"What the hell did that!?" muttered Barret.
Red murmured, "Judging from the amount of blood needed to make such a huge stain, I would guess that the attackers gathered many of the wounded and the dead in one big pile and left them there for some period of time."
"Fucking tidy bastards," snarled Cid.
Yuffie looked around. "So where are the bodies now?"
Red could only shrug.
Cloud said nothing and continued to stare blankly at the gruesome stain on the floor. In the meantime, Tifa's composure finally cracked. She ran off to a corner and buried her face in her hands. Cait Sith padded after her. At a loss for what to do, the little cat settled for patting her on the back and making vague, reassuring noises.
"There, there Tifa. Take it easy...."
"I'm sorry. This is so stupid. I didn't even KNOW any of the people living here!" Tifa tried to choke back a sniffle. "It's just that... I can't help thinking... I can't help picturing my relatives, my friends,... everyone I grew up with! I can just see them lying out there in the town... burning.... And now this!"
"Don't be so hard on yourself, okay? You've got plenty of reason to get upset." Cait Sith glanced helplessly at the others.
Cid took a deep breath and glanced quickly at Cloud. The young man had turned his back on the gruesome scene and was propping himself against the wall with his hands.
When it became apparent that Cloud was not going say anything, Cid shrugged. "Okay, guys. I guess we should break into teams and take a look around. We'll save the basement for last. Vincent, Cait Sith, and Barret? Why don't you take upstairs while the rest of us look around on this floor."
Red said, "I'll stay here with Cloud and Tifa." He glanced worriedly at his two young friends.
"Good idea. Let's go, guys."
His friends had assumed that Cloud was trying to deal with the destruction outside and his traumatic memories of six years ago. He was struggling with his memories of Nibelheim, that much was true -- but not in the way that they imagined.
The inferno outside had brought back memories... memories that were horribly askew. It was if he saw the same tragedy through two completely different sets of eyes and interpreting the events in two very different ways. What made matters even worse was that both sets of memories -- and the emotions associated with each set of memories -- felt totally real to him.
Which was reality and which was the illusion?
One set of memories recalled the grief of losing his mother but that emotion was almost buried under an overwhelming sense of fear, rage, hatred,... and shame.
The dominant emotions associated with the other set of memories were intense sorrow, loss, and anguish... but not despair. Instead, the feelings were tempered by quiet determination and a firm resolve to do.... To do what?
Cloud felt his thinking hit a blank wall -- literally. It was like his mind utterly refused to pursue his current train of thought any further.
It was just like his dreams.
What -- or who -- had he forgotten?
Part 3b: Mucking Around
The ground floor of the Mansion was clear.
Yuffie muttered in disgust, "Well, this was a big waste of time. So far, we've come up with a big fat zero!" With the resiliency of youth, she had perked up as soon as she was away from the bloodstained lobby.
Cid scowled thoughtfully. "Reeve's techs probably cleared out this area first and worked their way down. If there are any bodies, they'd probably be in the basement."
"Do you think anyone survived?"
"Nope. I don't expect to find any of these Shinra guys alive."
As she carelessly pushed around some broken pots, she said, "What about the Turks?"
"What about them?"
"Do you think that they managed to get away?"
Cid smirked. "Why do ya wanna know? Don't tell me you've got a crush on Reno. Or is it Rude?"
Yuffie turned bright red with fury and screeched, "That's NOT it! I was just wondering, okay!?"
"Sheesh! No need to get so worked up about it. I was just kidding...."
"That's not the least bit funny!"
"Man, you're touchy today. Have you got your...."
Yuffie pointed Conformer at the pilot and snapped, "DON'T-YOU-DARE, Cid Highwind. Or ELSE."
He shrugged, singularly unimpressed by her threats. "Anyway, about the Turks.... I think they might've ended up like all the others."
"What do you mean? Come on! You know those guys. They're always running off at the slightest sign of trouble...."
Cid shook his head irritably. In a serious voice, he said, "Listen here. The Turks are pros. They won't have just bolted."
"Hey! What about that fight in the tunnels when we were trying to stop Hojo and that stupid Mako cannon? They ran off...."
"Hell, that's totally different. Remember, we saved Elena's pretty little butt -- or have you forgotten that bit with Don Corneo?"
Yuffie turned beet red. "Yeah, yeah...."
"The Turks backed off for two very good reasons. First, they owed us for Elena. If there's one good thing about Reno and his gang, it's that they stick together. Second, both Cloud and Reno figured that there was no real point in getting into a big fight, not with Rufus Shinra blasted to kingdom-come by Diamond Weapon AND with the Planet about to be pulverized by Meteor.
"But this situation's different. Reeve paid good money for the Turks to do a job. If something big went down, they should have -- would have -- reported the problem to him. Besides, Reno knows that Reeve's a hell of a lot more understanding than their old boss Heidegger. There'd no reason for the Turks to run off without a word. The very least they would have done was give Reeve a 'Gee, sorry, no can do' phone call."
Cid chomped on his cigarette. "The fact that we haven't heard a peep outta them...."
Yuffie blinked, then muttered, "Oh shit. You're probably right."
After several more minutes of fruitless searching, Yuffie spoke up again. However, this time, her voice was nearly a whisper. "You know, for a second out there in the town, I thought Cloud had lost it again. I mean.... He was looking a bit weird there."
Cid replied just as quietly, "Well, you weren't the only one."
"And seeing this place going up in smoke again couldn't be easy for either him or Tifa. She's all shook up."
"Poor kid. But I think she's way better off than Cloud."
"But he seems to be keeping his cool. Sort of."
"I know that! But hell, he's way overdoing it. When people shut down like that, it's a real bad sign. It usually means that they can't -- or won't -- deal with what's happened."
Yuffie gave him a sidelong glance. "You mean like Vincent?"
Cid heaved a sigh. "Yeah. Kinda like Vincent."
As for Vincent, he was carefully examining one of the second story bedrooms -- the bedroom containing the entrance to the spiral basement staircase. The section of wall that served as the stairway's door now lay in pieces all over the floor along with a dead body -- also in pieces.
"They broke in here...." He stopped abruptly, took a harder look at the debris and said, "No, they broke OUT of the staircase. So the point of entry must be...."
He peered both up and down into the stairwell.
"See anything?" said Barret.
"What!?" Barret gritted his teeth. (Vincent's a good guy. But god, trying to get him to tell you anything...!)
"The roof of the stairwell's gone. Ripped open. Debris at the bottom of the shaft. No bodies, though."
The cat sitting on the Mog said, "Well, unless they all climbed up the wall, a good number of these monsters must have been able to fly."
Barret adjusted his gunhand and said, "Come on!"
Cait Sith said, "I think it'll be better if we all went together. There's no telling what's down there."
While he felt like hitting something in frustration, Cloud knew that it wasn't going to do him any good. He wouldn't find any answers to his questions and he'd only upset his friends.
(Let's just focus on finding the Turks and that information about... me and Zack. I want to get the hell outta here as soon as possible....)
By the time the two search parties returned to the lobby, both Cloud and Tifa had regained their composures. Shoving the unanswerable questions to the back of his mind, Cloud said, "Did you guys find anything?"
Barret said, "We found where we think the monsters broke in. Looks like they tore the roof off the stairwell." No one needed to ask which stairwell.
Cid muttered, "That sounds like the same M.O. as the creatures used to break into that ESSARUF place. That time, they used one of the elevator shafts."
Cait Sith added, "And we didn't find any traces of Reno or the other Turks."
"That leaves only the basement. Shit! That place gives me the creeps! But I guess we've got no choice," Yuffie grumbled.
Vincent said, "Just one more thing. The bloodstains in the Mansion and courtyard are at least a couple of hours older than the ones in the town."
"Several hours older, huh?" Cloud paced back and forth a bit as he tried to make sense of Vincent's information. "So,.. it looks like they hit the Mansion first... hit it so hard and fast that even the Turks didn't get off a warning. The town was destroyed later. But why?"
No one had answers.
As they cautiously made their way down into the basement, they ran across plenty of bloodstains, scraps of torn clothes, the occasional new bullet hole... but no bodies. And no Turks.
Suddenly, Vincent held up his clawed hand for silence. He carefully edged up to a doorway, readied his gun, and patiently waited. There was a soft squishing sound. Off to the side, Barret also got ready.
A wet, muck-covered Elena stepped warily through the doorway, looking both exhausted and incredibly skittish. As soon as she sensed their presence, she spun and lifted her weapon. Vincent and Elena faced off for a long moment, his finger on the trigger and Reno's Nightstick crackling in her hands. For an instant, from her tense, wild-eyed expression, it looked as if she was actually going to take a swing at Vincent.
"Whoa! Hold it! Chill out, girl! It's us!" yelled Cid.
Finally, as their identity gradually sank in, she slowly shut down the Nightstick and sagged limply against the wall in relief.
Cait Sith bounced forward. "Elena, what the hell happened!?"
As she sank down onto the floor, she muttered, "Have you... have you seen Reno? Or Rude?"
"Damn it!" She slammed her fist against the wall in frustration. Elena then wrapped her arms around her knees and started to shake with a mixture of anxiety and relief. While Cloud and his friends were not her favorite people in the world, she would take what she could get. At least she wasn't alone in this slaughterhouse anymore....
"What happened?" said Cloud.
It took Elena a minute to get her voice under control. A bit incoherently, she said, "I'm not sure! Rude and I got dumped in a trash pit by some stupid, asshole tech. While we were stuck down there, something attacked the place. I heard Reno's voice, fighting, and a lot of screaming that seemed to go on forever! Rude and I tried climbing out of the pit but it just got too slick. We finally found a sewer side tunnel and started crawling."
"In the tunnels, we got attacked by some god-awful sewer snakes... worms... whatever. Part of the pipe collapsed into a cistern. He was swept away before I could do anything."
Tifa bent down to get a better look at Elena. "You hurt?"
"No, no... I managed to keep myself healed up. I'm just... really tired. I've been crawling around those fucking sewers for hours."
Cait Sith's Mog crouched down beside the Turk. "Elena, we haven't seen Reno's body so far. He probably managed to get away."
"Yeah, yeah.... But the basement was the first place I checked when I got out of the sewers. I found Reno's Nightstick, his jacket, and a lot of blood. I'm not sure if the blood on the jacket is his or not. But I only came across one body." She looked like she wanted to throw up. "It was in this weird room with all these caskets. This guy... somebody really did a job on him...."
"Who was it?"
"I... couldn't recognize him. All I found was a labcoat near the body. The name tag said, 'Dr. L. Stephen'."
Cloud gasped in shock. He and Cait Sith stared at each other.
Elena heaved a sigh and visibly collected herself. "What the hell are you guys doing here, anyway?"
Tifa said, "It's a long story...."
Part 3c: Agony & Ecstasy
As Cloud and Cait Sith led the way to the casket room where they had first encountered Vincent, Tifa and Elena stayed behind in the hallway. Tifa told the Turk about the attack on the ESSARUF facility and their purpose for returning to Nibelheim. Nearby, Yuffie paced angrily after Cloud had flatly told the ninja girl that she was not coming with them.
Elena glanced in Cloud's direction and quietly murmured, "So you're telling me that he doesn't remember anything?"
"All I know is that whatever happened here was pretty traumatic." Tifa gestured vaguely.
"Zack. Hmmm. That name sounds sorta familiar. What did he look like?"
"Zack? Well,...." Tifa frowned. "He was tall, just a bit shorter than Sephiroth. Dark, spiky hair, rather like Cloud's but longer in the back. Lean, powerful build. A bit more muscular-looking than Sephiroth. Good-looking, but not as scarily handsome as you-know-who."
Elena frowned, then snapped her fingers. "Hey, I think I know who you're talking about. I mean, I've seen his picture more than once."
Tifa eagerly said, "Where?"
"When the Turks were sent after Sephiroth, they gave us a detailed briefing. In a lot of the casual photos of Sephiroth, there was usually a dark-haired guy standing nearby in the background. And that guy carted around a huge broadsword just like Cloud."
"That's got to be him!"
The blond Turk nodded. "But I don't know anything about the guy."
Tifa's expression turned a bit wistful. "I only knew him for a very short time -- probably less than 24 hours in total -- but I remember that he seemed to be a pretty nice guy. Considerate, easy to talk to, a good listener... you know the sort?"
Elena grinned slightly. "You noticed a lot about the guy in that 'very short time'."
Tifa sputtered, "Hey. It's just that... After Cloud left town.... I mean, I was sort of curious about SOLDIERs. And it wasn't like I could just chat up the great Sephiroth!" She shivered. "He gave me the chills even then."
She sighed, "So the only person I could really talk to was Zack. I had no idea that Cloud had been right there in front of me all along. Those trooper masks hide pretty much everything. And Zack probably saved my life when the bridge to the Reactor broke. You know, it's hard to imagine a nice guy like that hanging around Sephiroth."
"He was before my time. Although, Reno...," Elena's voice wavered slightly, "...probably bumped into him once or twice."
Yuffie had been steadily eavesdropping during their conversation. Now she nudged Elena with an elbow and said, "Awww. I think Elena's worried about ole carrot-top."
Tifa glared at Yuffie. "That's not funny! Listen, Reno's far from being my favorite person in the world, but he can be in real serious trouble!" She turned to Elena who had suddenly gone pale. Grabbing her hand, Tifa said urgently, "We'll find him. And Rude. Don't worry. No matter what's happened in the past, we're working together now. And we won't give up."
Elena flushed and looked away. "It's not like I... I mean, naturally I'm worried about a colleague...." Her voice trailed off indecisively just as Barret and Cid suddenly bolted from the casket room with decidedly nauseated looks on their faces.
The women took a few steps forward.
"Cid, Barret! What's wrong!?"
Barret hastily blocked the door with his body and blurted out, "No way. You do NOT want to go in there!"
The casket room stank of agony and terror. A lump of raw, abused flesh that had once been a human being lay sprawled on a casket while miscellaneous bits of the body were scattered around the room like grotesque confetti.
After a long look, Barret and Cid collided in the doorway in their rush to get some fresh air. Red stood his ground, but he looked away, his lips curling in disgust. Cait Sith did an excellent imitation of passing out cold atop the Mog's head while back in Midgar, Reeve grabbed for a nearby trashcan. Even Vincent looked visibly disturbed by the sight.
After the first quick look, Cloud turned away and concentrated on the labcoat, the name tag, the walls,... anything except the body. His eyes finally focused on an object lying close to the wall. He bent and gingerly picked it up.
In a low, furious growl, Red said, "Who's responsible for this atrocity?"
Cloud whispered, "I don't know. But I'm pretty sure who it was done to."
Cid, who had just staggered back into the room, muttered, "Who?"
"Dr. L. Stephen."
"How do you fucking know!?"
Cloud turned around. To their shock, they saw that he was holding a severed human hand. In an eerily calm voice, he said, "I'd recognize this hand anywhere. It's Stephen's."
Cait Sith sat up and whispered, "Cloud...."
"And that arm." He jerked his head toward the body. The upper right arm, hanging from the torso by a shred of skin, had a conspicuous tattoo of a heart surrounded by thorny vines. It was quite the unexpected thing to see on a 'serious' scientist. Just above the heart tattoo was a ribbon bearing the name 'Orienne'.
"It's Stephen," Cloud repeated.
His friends stared at him wordlessly. Despite his earlier reluctance to look at the body, Cloud now seemed intent on committing every little detail to memory. While he stared at the body, everyone else jumped when Cid's phone suddenly broke the heavy silence with a subdued chirp.
The pilot fumbled open his phone and snarled, "Jeez! What the hell is it?"
"Sir! Good news!"
"We fucking well need it. What's up?"
A tired male voice snapped, "Yo, Highwind, you find any traces of Reno or Elena?"
"Rude!? Is that you!?" Cid sputtered.
"Yeah. Well? Have you?"
"Uh,... Elena's okay, just a bit shaky."
"What about Reno?" Rude's voice was harsh with worry.
Cid took a deep breath. "Sorry. No trace of him."
Still absently holding the dismembered hand, Cloud checked his watch. "It's getting late. I don't think it's a good idea to hang around here after dark. Let's finish up a quick sweep for Reno. If we don't find anything, we'll spend the night at North Corel. We've been going nonstop since sunrise and all of us need rest, especially Tifa and Elena. We're certainly not going to get any rest around here. We'll come back tomorrow and do a more thorough search when we're in better shape."
Red looked a bit startled at the brisk decisiveness in Cloud's voice, but merely said, "Definitely sounds like a good plan."
Cid said, "Right. Rude, we'll be joining you in about an hour, so sit tight." He hung up, then turned to the others. "Guys, let's hurry up so we can blow this sick joint!"
"But what about the fires. And the townspeople?" Cait Sith said.
Cloud said, "We can't really can't do anything about the fires except to let them burn themselves out."
Red added, "The only thing that might work are the SHIVA or LEVIATHAN summonings... and those spells would probably level what remained of the town and obliterate whatever clues there might be."
"As for the townspeople...." Cloud sighed quietly. "I'm sorry to say but I think it's probably too late to do anything for those poor people. The sad fact is that we still have no idea who's responsible or where they might be."
Red sadly swished his tail as he rose to his feet. "You're probably right." Glancing at the mutilated body, the beast added, "And what about Dr. Stephen here?"
"Him?" The sadness in Cloud's expression abruptly vanished. With an indifferent shrug, he coolly said, "He got what he deserved."
Red blinked in a mixture of shock and surprise.
Cloud casually tossed Dr. Stephen's severed hand on top of the corpse as he headed out of the room. When he realized that his friends weren't following, he glanced curiously at them and said, "Come on, guys. What are you waiting for?" before continuing out the door.
Vincent gave Dr. Stephen's body a brief look, then silently followed Cloud out of the room.
Red, Cait Sith, and Cid stared at the door, then at each other. As they heard Cloud telling Elena the good news about Rude out in the hallway, Cid muttered, "Whoa...."
In the hall, Barret glanced back toward the casket room only to see Red, Cid, and Cait Sith peering around the door at Cloud's back. They all had rather strange looks on their faces. Barret walked over. Still looking a bit ill, he said, "What gives?"
Cid and the others hastily exited the casket room and slammed the door shut. The pilot muttered very quietly, "I'm not sure. I'll tell you about it later."
Cloud turned and gave the pilot a worried look. "Cid? Are you feeling all right?"
(You're asking me!?) But the pilot simply shrugged. "I just want to get the hell out of here."
"Right. Let's move out, guys!"
They made a quick but thorough search of the Mansion's basement, but failed to turn up any traces of Reno or any more nasty surprises. Finally, the weary crew trudged out of the Mansion, through the dying flames of the town, and back to the safety and security of the Highwind II. A hidden spy -- nothing more than a flying eyeball with wings -- observed their departure as the airship headed for the more hospitable surroundings of North Corel.
Through the spy's eye, Hojo watched them leave, then ordered the spy to follow them at a discrete distance. For the moment, he was content to sit back and observe. He still had things to do, preparations to make,.... He wasn't ready for Cloud just yet.
In the reddish light from the setting sun, Hojo smiled malevolently down at his involuntary 'hostess'.
"Scarlet. How nice to see you again. And how kind of you to allow me to 'borrow' your private weapon facility AND your secret little Mako reactor for my new project. Science will thank you."
"Screw you, Hojo!"
Part 3d: Negotiations & Bargains
On board the Highwind II, Elena cheered up a bit when she saw her fellow Turk.
"Rude! Are you okay?"
Rude merely grunted an affirmative, but it was obvious that he was glad to see his fellow Turk.
Her next question made him scowl. "Did you see any trace of Reno?"
"Nope. How about you?"
"We've been all over the Mansion and no sign of him." Elena shook her head slowly, then told her colleague about her adventures and the gruesome discoveries of the day. She finished by swallowing heavily, then said, "Almost all the bodies are missing."
"The only bodies we found were ones that were extremely... damaged. Like, in pieces. Most of the townspeople, the Shinra crew, and Reno... all gone."
"And it gets worse, Rude."
"How can it possibly get worse!?"
She glanced uneasily at Cloud, who took a deep breath and said, "We ran to some monsters in Nibelheim. They had Jenova cells."
"How the hell do you know?"
Cloud said in a firm voice. "I just do. There's mounting evidence that Hojo may still be alive."
Red said, "Or that some of Hojo's scientific colleagues may be continuing his work."
Rude glared at Cloud and the others. "Hold it! Didn't you guys kill that crackpot?"
"We thought we did. But it's possible that he's somehow managed to regenerate himself."
"Before we fought at the Sister Ray, he gave himself a massive dose of Jenova cells and Mako. It turned him into a monster. Physically, that is." Cloud looked away. "Hojo's always been a monster in the inside."
Cid took up the slack in the conversation and told Rude about their experiences at the ESSARUF facility. "Since the creatures that we ran into there also had Jenova cells, somebody's up to no fucking good."
"No wonder Reeve was so anxious to secure the stuff in the Mansion."
Cait Sith said, "Actually, I sent you even before I knew about the ESSARUF theft."
"So... what do the attackers want with Reno and those bodies?" Elena said.
"Man, I do NOT wanna even think about it," muttered Barret.
Cloud said quietly, "I don't know whether to hope that Reno's still alive or whether to hope that he's dead."
"How can you say that!?" snarled Elena.
Cloud stared her right in the eye and said, "Because I know what Hojo and his sort are capable of."
Elena blinked at the intensity of Cloud's gaze, then she suddenly got a sick look on her face. "You don't think Hojo's going to... DO something... to him?" Horrific visions of distorted, monstrous bodies danced through her head. "Oh my god...."
"He damn well better not!" Rude scowled fiercely. "We'll teach him what it means to mess with the Turks."
"So, what are we going to do? How are we going to find Hojo or whoever?"
Red said, "We have no idea what Dr. Stephen said to his torturer before he died. And there's no telling if Dr. Roissy is going to recover enough to talk. At this point in time, our best hope is to dig up more information on Zack and Cloud. If we backtrack their escape route, we might be able to zero in on a search area."
Yuffie added, "Well, if Cloud was pretty much out of it the whole time, then Zack would have been running the show. Maybe there was a close friend he might have contacted? Relatives? Aside from his parents in Gongaga, of course." They all looked at Cloud who shrugged.
Cait Sith said, "Actually, I'm already looking into it. It'll take a while to locate the right files. After all, Cloud and Zack were 'officially' listed as dead over 6 years ago."
Turning to Rude and Elena, Tifa said, "We'll be spending the night in North Corel. Tomorrow, we're planning on going back to Nibelheim to look for more clues. You're welcome to join us."
"Or you can come back to Midgar and help me with the research end of things. I could really use the help digging through all the records," Cait Sith added.
Elena sighed. "I'll... think about it tonight." She glanced at Rude who nodded affirmatively.
Turning to Cid, Elena said, "Now that our immediate plans are settled, I need hot water. Lots and lots of hot water!"
"Sure, in the crew quarters."
Rude glanced at Elena's muck-covered clothes and said, "Uh, Elena. Maybe you should rinse yourself off on deck first. I don't think Cid's going to appreciate you stinking up his ship and dribbling little bits of crap all over the decks."
She brushed self-consciously at her filthy clothes.
After chasing the guys away from the rear deck of the Highwind, Tifa and Yuffie helped Elena strip off all her dirty clothes. After a quick rinse with a few buckets of lukewarm water, she was now draped in a sheet. She had nothing else to wear after Yuffie had carelessly kicked Elena's clothes overboard.
"Chill out, Tifa. They were a total loss anyway."
"Maybe, but you could've asked first," muttered Tifa.
Alone on the bridge of the Highwind, Cid turned to Cait Sith and said, "Okay, Reeve. Talk!"
"I saw that look between you and Cloud when Elena first brought up Dr. Stephen's name."
The little cat sighed. "Stephen was the doctor who treated Cloud after we rescued him last night."
"So? That doesn't explain...."
"Stephen was also very heavily involved in Hojo's Nibelheim experiments. Cloud wasn't too clear on details but I got the impression is that it was Dr. Stephen who did a lot of the actual... 'hands-on'... experimentation."
"Exactly. And while Cloud doesn't say much about it, I'm sure you've already guessed that it was a pretty hellish experience. Now given that the good Dr. Stephen was probably directly responsible for a lot of it...."
Cid exhaled very slowly. "Well, now I'm beginning to understand Cloud's reaction. Hell, if things were THAT bad, I'd think I'd be doing a goddamn victory dance."
Cloud was standing on the bow of the Highwind. Considering where they had just been and what they had seen, he was a bit startled to realize that he was in a surprisingly good mood.
As the women rounded the deckhouse and headed for the stairs, Elena said, "Don't worry about the clothes, Tifa. It's no big deal. I'm just glad to be alive and out of that hellhole! But I'm not going to feel clean until I take a good hot shower!"
Barret, who had been lurking in the shadow of the deckhouse, loudly muttered, "But ain't nothing's going to get rid of the smell of Turks...." as he stomped away.
Elena flushed in anger. "Why you...."
Shaken out of his pleasant mood, Cloud quickly rejoined the others and murmured, "Tifa...." She nodded quickly and went after Barret.
In the meantime, Rude grabbed Elena's arm and whispered, "Cool it."
"We need their help to find Reno, okay?"
"Because they're probably the only guys around who know a damn thing about all this Jenova shit."
"You buy that story of theirs?"
"Yeah. And I know you believe it too. So let's try to work with these people, okay?"
Cloud turned to Elena and said, "Sorry about that. I'll show you down to the showers."
Elena shrugged and said irritably, "Fine."
Just outside the crew quarters, Elena turned to Cloud and said, "I... appreciate your willingness to help us find Reno." She smiled sourly. "Considering what's gone on before...."
Cloud shrugged. "What's past is past. And no matter what Reno's done, he certainly doesn't deserve to be in Hojo's hands." He hesitated slightly. "Tifa seems to agree with me, but you might want to steer clear of Barret if you can. I think he's willing to put certain things aside for now, but...."
Elena blinked, then nodded. "Oh, right. Sector 7." She looked a bit uncomfortable. "I've got to say that it was probably the wrong sort of thing to do, but.... I'm not sure I would have refused to do it myself if President Shinra had ordered it. You probably don't understand how it is...."
Cloud looked away. He said softly, "But I do understand. When you have a job that you're very good at, you take a lot of pride in your competence and skill. You want to be the best. And when you focus so much on being professional and accomplishing the job, it's so easy to forget to ask whether you should be doing that job at all. Right and wrong,... morals,... fairness,... justice,... all those things get pushed aside. And the longer it goes, the easier it becomes." He shrugged. "You tell yourself that it's not your responsibility because you're just following orders or doing your job."
"That's... exactly right." Her shoulders sagged a bit. "I started out with the Midgar cops, then transferred to the Shinra military because I was always looking for better prospects,... then I finally got picked for the Turks. And along the way, I just quit asking questions. If it hadn't been for Reno, I probably would have continued to just blindly follow orders. I would have stood and fought you guys in the tunnels down to the bitter end."
Cloud looked at her. "Then there would have plenty of casualties on both sides, and probably some fatalities." It wasn't a boast but a bald statement of fact.
"Yeah. When Reno backed down, I was so damn mad.... Tseng was dead and.... I thought that Reno had lost his nerve. But when I sat back and thought about it afterward, I began to realize that he was right. The whole fight would have been pretty much pointless and meaningless."
"I wouldn't say that. Reno's decision that day could have changed... everything. If we had been forced to fight you guys, you could have put a good number of us out of commission. And if that had happened, we might have been too weak to stop Hojo. He would have fired the Sister Ray one more time and turned Midgar into nothing more than a smoking crater. And with no one left to stop Sephiroth, this Planet would now be nothing more than a few lifeless chunks of rock floating in space. So in an indirect way, I guess you could say that Reno did his own bit to save the Planet."
Elena sighed. "Well, he acted like he was just fed up with fighting with you guys. But sometimes I think that that Sector 7 incident shook him up more than he let on."
Cloud said quietly, "Developing a conscience can be one of the hardest things in the world. But there sometimes comes a point when you have to do what you think is right, no matter the cost or the pain."
He abruptly shook his head. "Listen, I didn't mean to go on rambling like that. And you... uh, you might catch a cold standing around in nothing more than a wet bedsheet." A good humored grin appeared on his face.
Elena glanced down. She was mortified to notice that the sheet she was wearing was indeed wet. It was also becoming translucent and clinging to her body. Blushing furiously, she peeked inside the bathroom to make sure it was empty, then zipped inside.
Cloud shook his head and chuckled softly. He walked down the hall and nearly ran into Barret. For a man of his size, Barret could be amazingly quiet when he really wanted to be. He was leaning against the wall, apparently waiting for Cloud.
"Heard you talking to Elena."
He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. "About Reno?"
Cloud glanced up at his friend who still looked angry, but also rather thoughtful.
"Spike, you seem pretty willing to go easy on that Reno guy, considering that he was responsible for blowing up the support pillar and crushing god knows how many people in Sector 7," Barret growled.
Cloud gave the large man a hard stare. "Reno may have pushed the button, but he wasn't the only person responsible for that whole tragedy. If you really want to, there's plenty of blame to spread around. Myself for being too slow to stop Reno from pushing that button. President Shinra for coming up with the damn idea in the first place. Everyone in Avalanche who pissed Shinra off by blowing up the Mako reactors. Reeve for knowing but not doing anything about it. How far do you want to push it? What's done is done. Vengeance on Reno isn't going to bring the dead back to life."
Barret scowled thunderously but remained calm. "Is that it? You want me to forget about what that damn Turk's done? Let him get away scot free?"
"No. And I think you're wrong in assuming that Reno escaped totally unscathed from what happened with Sector 7."
"Why are you telling me all this, Cloud?"
The blond man didn't misunderstand the question. "Because I want you to get over the past."
Barret opened his mouth but Cloud held up his hand to stop him from speaking. "I know. Considering MY past, I'm the last person who should be talking. But it's because of that very past that I don't want you to get stuck brooding about what can't be changed. Misery doesn't always like company."
Cloud turned away and said quietly. "I can't escape my past because it's woven into my very flesh and bones. It haunts me every time I see my eyes in a mirror. I feel it every time I fight or do things that no normal human can do. You should know what I'm talking about." He glanced at Barret's gunhand.
The large man rubbed his arm just above his gunhand. The weapon was a constant reminder of what Shinra had done to him, his family, and his hometown. He grunted, "Yeah...."
"You with your gun hand... Red with his tattoo... Vincent and I with our whole bodies. We all carry chunks of our individual pasts in permanent and indelible ways. Maybe you can never forget what happened at North Corel. Maybe you don't want to. And like I said, there are some things you can't put aside, things that make and define the person you are,... things you can never leave behind or escape from. But the tragedy at Sector 7 isn't one of them." Cloud rubbed his forehead. "There I go again. Listen, Barret. Just think about it, okay?"
Cloud left Barret staring thoughtfully at the floor, still rubbing his gunhand. He climbed up the stairs only to find Vincent silently waiting for him.
"Our entire bodies...," Vincent said softly, echoing Cloud's own words. His metal claw twitched slightly.
"Oh, good grief." Cloud realized that with his abnormally acute hearing, Vincent probably overheard his entire conversation with Barret. He wondered if he'd said anything to make Vincent angry. But the dark man didn't seem annoyed. He cocked his head slightly.
"You... understand." Vincent looked down at his metal claw.
Cloud blinked and said, "Yes. I do."
In the crew showers, Elena took a look in the mirrors. It was worse than she'd thought. Cloud had understated things considerably.
She could practically see her own nipples through the wet bedsheet. But curiously, that hadn't seemed to faze Cloud in the slightest. He had played it cool. Elena was grateful for that.
As she scrubbed at her hair, she thought, (He really seemed to know what he was talking about. All that stuff about not asking questions... that sounded like it all came from personal experience. I wonder... did he go through the very same thing when he was in SOLDIER?)
"Cloud! Did Barret find you?" Tifa had a worried expression on her face.
"Yeah. I bumped into him downstairs."
"We talked. I hope he thinks about what I said."
"Well, I can't blame him for being angry and bitter. Sector 7... it was a monstrous thing for Reno to do. On the other hand, Elena doesn't seem too bad as Turks go. But she's got a mean temper."
"I know. She's really proud of being a Turk. It means a lot to her. Oh, by the way, can you find something for her to wear?"
"Thanks for reminding me. With all that stuff with Barret, I nearly forgot. But she'll have to settle for a crewman's outfit for now."
Cloud walked past her, then stopped. "Uh, Tifa...?"
"Yes." She turned to look at him.
"Are you really feeling all right?"
Tifa seemed a bit startled, then said ruefully, "I think that's usually my question."
He shrugged. "I think I'm doing okay. For now, at least. Although, if I think about Nibelheim too much...."
She shivered slightly and looked away. "I know what you mean."
"Lots of questions and no answers. I don't know. I guess I'm just staying busy to keep myself from brooding about things I can't do much about."
"Same thing here. Oh, I meant to ask you. Was it really Stephen down there in the basement? The doctor from Midgar?"
"Was... was it really that bad?"
Cloud nodded. "It was a slow, agonizing death. I can just imagine what he went through. The memories are going to stay with me for a long, long time."
"I'm... I'm sorry."
"Huh? For what?"
"You don't need any more bad memories, Cloud."
He looked a bit surprised, then he gave her a resigned shrug. "I'm afraid it's the story of my life. Maybe it's just my fate. I'll just have to deal with it." He shrugged, then headed down the corridor. With his back toward her, Tifa couldn't see the quick, odd little smile that appeared momentarily on Cloud's face.
Cloud found Cid on the bridge of the Highwind, just as he expected. The pilot glanced at him and said, "We're nearly at North Corel." He yawned and stretched until his bones creaked. "Man, sometimes I think I'm getting too old for all this."
On a more serious note, Cid looked at his companion and said, "Reeve told me about Dr. Stephen."
"Oh. I see. Did he tell you... everything?"
"I'm not sure what the hell you mean by 'everything'." Cid looked at Cloud a bit uneasily.
"About Dr. Stephen's involvement with Nibelheim and Hojo's experiments."
Cloud glanced at Cid. The pilot looked acutely uncomfortable. It was if Cid desperately wanted to ask some questions but didn't know how to go about it. Cloud found the sight of the notoriously blunt pilot trying to be tactful rather funny.
"Come on, Cid. Just spit it out. If I can give you a honest answer, I will."
Cloud's encouragement only seemed to fluster Cid more. Finally, the pilot said, "I guess it was... pretty bad."
"Yes. It was." He glanced at his friend, then he pulled off a glove and held up his wrist. "Tell me, Cid. What do you see?"
"Huh?" From Cloud's expression, he knew it wasn't a trivial question. He took a hard look at Cloud's wrist but couldn't see anything unusual. It was strong and muscular as one might expect from an expert swordsman and a bit pale because it was usually protected from the sun.
The pilot shrugged and said, "Nothing special."
"I told you that I couldn't remember much, right?"
"But I do remember some things. I remember hurting so bad, I wanted to die. But locked inside a glass cage, there's not much you can do. No way to hang yourself. Nothing sharp." He glanced down at the strong, unscarred wrist. "So I used the only thing I had. I tore open my wrist with my bare teeth. Just like a wild animal caught in a trap." He shrugged. "It didn't work. Even though I got the artery, it stopped bleeding in less than a minute. People with Jenova-enhanced bodies don't die that easily. Certainly not from such minor injuries. It takes a hell of a lot worse to put SOLDIERs out of commission." Cloud gave Cid a level stare. "You might want to keep that in mind for future reference."
Cid stiffened, then said slowly, "You heard us when I was talking to Red and Barret on deck earlier."
"Cloud, I...." Cid stopped when he saw a rueful smile on Cloud's face.
"What, Cid? Do you expect me to be upset?"
"Well, actually...." The pilot nervously rubbed the back of his neck.
"Come on. With my track record, I'm just surprised that you guys are even willing to have me hanging around, much less as your leader."
Cid snapped. "Give me a fucking break, Cloud! Even with your whacked out memory and other problems, you're probably better at leading this group of jokers than anybody else! And all of us know it!"
Cloud grinned faintly, then he abruptly sobered. "Oh, right! I did a great job. Last time, I led you guys right to the Black Materia and to Sephiroth. And see how that ended up. Aeris died, Sephiroth came damn close to becoming a god, and Meteor nearly demolished the entire Planet!"
"Yeah. But the operative terms here are 'damn close' and 'nearly'. In short, Cloud, those things DIDN'T happen. And why? Because you managed to talk us into actually doing something about the end of the world instead of just sitting around and moaning about it!"
"He's right. Urp...."
Cloud spun around to see Yuffie leaning up against the wall, looking her usual shade of sickly green. Behind her was Cait Sith and Red. In fact, all his friends AND the Turks were on the bridge looking at him.
"Uh...." He glanced uneasily at Cid, who gave him a slight shake of the head. He felt shamefully relieved that the others had only heard the last few bits of conversation and not the earlier part about his futile suicide attempt.
"You guys.... One would think that you'd know better by now."
Tifa said, "Listen, Cloud. We're not stupid. We're not blindly following you. We know you've got problems. But we still trust you to do what's right."
"Maybe you shouldn't."
Cait Sith said airily, "It's our decision, right? You're not forcing us to do anything. It's our choice."
Red added, "Cloud, we're trusting you to do the right thing. Please trust US to do what's right, also. For you and for everyone else."
Cloud gave them all, particularly Cid and Red, a very serious look.
"Is that a promise?"
The pilot and the beast exchanged long, solemn stares before looking at Cloud. They silently nodded.
Cloud took a deep breath. "Believe me, I'm holding you to that."
"Yeah! Friends watch out for each other," said Barret.
Everyone then turned and looked at the Turks.
Rude shrugged. "Hell, I didn't catch the finer points in all this, but you seem to know what you're doing. It's cool."
Elena said simply, "You're our best shot for finding what the hell's happened to Reno. Or for finding who's responsible."
Cloud shook his head ruefully. "All right, all right! You got your point across." He glanced out the window and saw North Corel fast approaching.
"All right, the first order of business is for everyone to grab something to eat and get some rest. Tomorrow, we go back to Nibelheim and take that place apart. Brick by brick, if we have to."
Part 3e: A Brief Respite
It was a short walk from the Highwind's mooring site to North Corel. Over the last year, the town was slowly being rebuilt. Instead of shabby tents, most of the people were now living in sturdy houses. On the porch of one of the newer houses, a little girl waved wildly, hopping up and down with impatience. Finally, she dashed forward and wrapped her arms around Tifa's legs.
"You're here! You're here!"
Tifa ruffled Marlene's hair. "Come on! I was here just a few weeks ago."
The little girl pouted. "But it's boring when you're not here!"
"Hey! You saying your old man is boring?" Barret bellowed in mock anger.
Marlene giggled and demanded a ride on her father's shoulders.
Cid snorted. "Man, you're gonna spoil her rotten."
"Like you don't?" Yuffie teased.
"So, where are we going to stay?" Cloud glanced at his friends. Counting the Turks and himself, that was ten people. There was no way they were all going to fit into Barret's charming but modestly sized house.
Cid shrugged, "I'll stay on the Highwind. Plenty of room there. How about the rest of you?"
Vincent said quietly, "I'll spend the night on board."
Yuffie turned green at the mere thought. "NO! No way! Not me!"
The pilot said acidly, "How the hell can you get motion sick if the damned ship isn't even moving!?"
"Yes, it is! It's swaying in the wind...."
Cid rolled his eyes and said, "You're so pathetic."
Yuffie yelled, "I can't help it if these things make me sick, you jerk!" She turned and said, "Right, Cloud?"
Engrossed in his conversation with Barret, Cloud absently replied, "Sorry, but I've never been motion sick."
"Huh!?" Yuffie looked flabbergasted. "EXCUSE ME!?" However, no one seemed to be playing much attention to the ninja girl's antics.
Cloud turned to the others. "Guys, Barret says that there's a house just a few doors down where we can stay."
"Yeah. It's a big place but Jake's the only guy staying there at the moment. And he said that he's willing to spend the night with some friends so we can have the place to ourselves."
"Great!" Tifa's stomach growled loudly.
"I heard that, Tifa." Elmyra, Aeris' adoptive mother emerged onto the porch. Aeris' death had visibly aged her, leaving new lines on her face. But taking care of Marlene seemed to have given the older woman some measure of contentment.
"Oh dear. I wasn't expecting such a large crowd for dinner, but I'll manage something."
Tifa said, "Let me help you."
"Thanks, dear. What about the rest of you ladies?"
Yuffie gave Cloud one last bewildered look, then shrugged. "Sure."
Elena looked embarrassed as she hastily blurted out, "Sorry. I'd just get in your way."
Rude chuckled, "Elena's idea of cooking is to stuff something into a microwave...."
The blond Turk blushed furiously and turned on her companion. "You jerk!"
Rude wasn't really paying attention to her. In a thoughtful voice, he added, "Now Reno... He's one hell of a gourmet cook."
Cloud looked startled. "Really? This I've got to see for myself."
Rude smiled grimly. "With luck, you will."
After a simple but excellent meal, everyone scattered to either grab some sleep or simply chat. Cid and Vincent headed back to the Highwind, accompanied by Rude. Barret picked a yawning Marlene and carried her back to his own house.
Cait Sith found Elena working on a cigarette in the backyard.
"I didn't know you smoked."
The blond Turk muttered, "I quit. But I need every little bit of relaxation I can get right now."
"Have you thought about my suggestion?"
"What? Oh, helping you at Midgar? I don't know. I was never much into the paper-pushing... sorry, the research side of things. Reno, Rude and I... we're more 'hands-on' sort of people. Now Tseng was different. He was a lot more into the intellectual side of things." She sighed sadly.
"You really miss him."
"Yes. I... liked him a lot." Even though she knew that she was actually talking to Reeve, there was something about that silly little cat robot that made it really easy to confide in. It was like whispering secrets to a stuffed toy.
Back at the Highwind II, Cid was enjoying the cool night air when Vincent suddenly spoke up behind him and nearly made him swallow his cigarette.
"So the matter's settled. For now."
"Shit! Vince, don't sneak up on a guy like that! And what do you mean?"
"Oh that. Yeah. Well, we all pretty much put our cards on the table. Now maybe we can get down to business instead of pussyfooting around." Cid looked grim. "I wish I could say that Cloud was just being paranoid. But I can't. We all know what happened last time."
Rude stepped out on deck. "Yeah. Tell me what happened 'last time'."
"Why the hell do you wanna know?" Cid muttered.
"Listen. We're coming along for the ride. I want to know what Elena and I are getting into. Are there any problems that we should know about?"
Cid stared at the Turk thoughtfully, then glanced at Vincent. The dark man nodded silently.
The pilot ran his hand through his hair in exasperation. "All right. I'll explain the situation about Cloud. But this fucking well better not go any further. Is that clear?"
Rude scowled, "Listen, we Turks have got professional ethics, okay?"
"Fine. Just make sure Elena keeps her mouth shut, too."
The Turk nodded.
Cid took a long drag at his cigarette and said, "Cloud's scared that someone or something might start mucking with his mind."
Cid went on to give Rude a quick summary of the momentous events of a year ago -- the pursuit of Sephiroth, Hojo's experiments, the Black Materia, Meteor,... all of it. He didn't go too deeply into details, but told Rude just enough to give him an idea of what they were facing with respect to Hojo and Jenova... and the potential complications involving Cloud.
Five cigarettes later, Cid finished by saying, "So that's how things stand at the moment."
Rude looked a bit stunned. "Shit.... I don't know whether you guys are incredibly brave or incredibly stupid."
"Heh. Probably both."
"And given what you've just told me about Cloud, you guys are still willing to follow him?"
"Yup." Cid gave Rude a mocking look. "Got a problem with that? You know, you don't need to come with us. I'm sure Reeve could use you back in Midgar."
Rude muttered, "Like hell." The Turk then frowned. "So,... if something does goes wrong with Cloud, what are YOU going to do about it?"
Cid smiled grimly, "What I fucking well have to. Red and I, we made a promise to Cloud. He's trusting us to do whatever is necessary."
"Even kill him?" Rude looked rather skeptical.
"I sure as hell hope that we won't have to. But if it comes to that.... Damn it, Rude! I'd be glad to risk my neck to save a good friend. That's my business and my choice. I'm sure as hell not going to give up on Cloud or abandon him at the first sign of trouble. But I also know that given a choice between saving innocent lives and his own, I fucking well know which one Cloud would choose."
Vincent spoke up for the first time. "And you may want to consider this. What's worse? Being dead or existing as someone else's puppet? You'd better think about that question carefully because there's no telling what the enemy might be doing to Reno."
Something poked Reno hard in the side.
"Go away," he mumbled. For some reason, he REALLY did not want to wake up.
He got poked again. Harder. He curled up and tried to ignore it.
Something grabbed him by the throat and hauled him into the air.
That definitely woke him up.
Opening his bleary eyes, he saw... Hojo? Except this Hojo was green, had all these fucking tentacles, and incredibly ugly bug eyes.... The memories of yesterday hit Reno with a thud.
"Hello, Reno...." Hojo leaned uncomfortably close to the Turk and smiled, exposing a mouthful packed full with small, needle-like teeth.
Reno had always prided himself on keeping his cool no matter the situation, but this was too much even for him....
(Oh... my... god....)
After wandering around and casually talking to all his friends, Cloud ended alone on the porch.
(Reeve's shut down Cait Sith for the night. Tifa, Yuffie, and Elena are sharing a room. Barret's back home with Marlene. Rude went with Cid and Vincent back to the Highwind. Red's curled up on the living room rug.)
He stared up at the starry sky and let his thoughts drift.
(Well, the troops seem settled in for the night. I hope they'll be ready for a lot of hard, unpleasant work tomorrow....)
He stiffened. Checking up on his friends and the Turks,... assessing each person's mood.... It had the feel of a familiar routine.
// But it's something you've simply got to do,
// especially if you're trying to deal with
// a bunch of highly talented but eccentric
// individuals. //
It had once been his job to make sure all the individuals in the troop worked together smoothly, leaving his superior officer free to concentrate on strategy and tactics. Now it was his job again.
Cloud rubbed his forehead and frowned.
(I've done this lots of times before, but when....?)
Part 3f: Reeve's Interlude - Cloud on the Horizon
"That's the last of the boxes, sir."
Back in Midgar, Reeve eyed the towering stack of documents with distaste. "Well, there goes my evening." Turning to the security guard, he said, "Thanks, Beddoes. Just dump them over by the table. That'll be all tonight."
As the security guard turned to leave, his eye was drawn to the file photo clipped to a folder recently dumped on Reeve's desk by his personal assistant Max. Beddoes' expression turned ugly as he swore under his breath.
Reeve glanced up in surprise. "What was that?"
"Uh, sorry, sir. Didn't mean to snoop."
Now curious, Reeve walked over and said, "What's wrong?"
"Just noticed the picture, sir."
Reeve had almost forgotten about his request for Cloud's file. He picked up the folder and took a casual look at the picture. It was definitely a younger Cloud. The spiky blond hair and the face was unmistakable. The only noticeable difference was that in this photo, the blue eyes didn't have that familiar Mako glow.
Glancing at Beddoes, Reeve said, "You know Cloud?"
"Cloud?" The security guard looked confused.
"Oh! Yeah, I knew Strife." Under his breath, he muttered, "The little bastard."
"What's the problem?"
"Uh...." Beddoes shuffled his feet uneasily. "Excuse me for asking but... do you have business with this guy?"
Reeve blinked and said, "You... could say that."
"If you don't mind a little advice, sir.... I really think I should warn you. Whatever you do, never take your eyes off the backstabbing little prick."
Reeve inhaled sharply and bit back an instinctive urge to defend his friend. He merely said, "'Backstabbing' sounds a bit... harsh."
"No, it ain't." Under the stress of emotion, Beddoes' language was slipping. "I've got a four inch long scar just above my left kidney to prove it."
"Funny, I didn't think he'd have the guts do anything like that...."
"You know, there are some guys who are doers and there are some guys who are just talkers. I had the jerk pinned as a talker. You know, a guy who says a lot but never carries it through? He was always talking big about how he was going be some bigshot SOLDIER and how the girls were going to be all over him... that sort of crap. Well, it didn't take a genius to figure out that there was no way that this stupid, cowardly little runt was going to make it into the program. And when he did get officially bounced,... well, I ragged him pretty hard about it."
Reeve looked both stunned and fascinated. "So what happened?"
"He got really pissed off. Like I said, I didn't expect him to have the guts to do anything about it. Boy, I was wrong. I was alone in an alleyway a few days later. He was waiting for me. Slashed me a good one with a knife and probably would have done worse if he'd gotten the chance."
"Why didn't you report it?"
"Well, it... that is...," Beddoes stammered.
Reeve's eyes narrowed. "Let me guess, you had some unauthorized business going on. What was it? Drugs? Blackmarket? Sex?"
"Hey! It wasn't anything like that! It was just that...."
"Listen, I'm not interested in what you were doing. Keep going."
"Well, yeah. Let's just say that I was sort of in a bad position myself so I told the cops that it was a mugger. Strife and I, we both kept our mouths shut and we both watched our backs until Strife transferred to another unit. And good riddance."
Reeve stared blankly at Beddoes for a long moment. He managed to get his wits together and said, "Are you sure we're talking about the same guy? Cloud Strife?"
"Sure. Not that many people with that sort of freaky yellow hair. Does he still raise bloody hell if you don't call him by his last name?"
"You mean 'Strife'?"
"Yeah. Man, you wouldn't believe what a pain in the butt he could be about it. I guess it made him feel mean and scary. So... what's the runt been up to in the last couple of years?"
Reeve dazedly thought, (Saving the world from destruction and Sephiroth but nothing really important....)
"Uh,... listen, sir. You look like you don't believe me."
"It's... it's not that...."
"Hey, you don't have to take my word for it. Just ask anyone who served with the little asshole for any period of time. I'll bet a week's pay that they could tell you some pretty interesting stories about the guy...."
"Really...." At this point, Reeve was feeling as if someone had just clobbered him on the head with a two ton anvil.
"I got to say that he wasn't bad at the military stuff. But troopers are supposed to be team players, you know? We're supposed to work together. Buddies and all that. But he was always a loner. Like he was too good to hang around with the rest of us."
Reeve again picked up the folder. But as he took a closer look at Cloud's photo, he could see more striking differences besides the lack of Mako eyes. Working in the cutthroat world of Shinra management for so many years, Reeve had become quite good at reading people... and what he saw in the picture disturbed him.
There was a sullenness and hostility in the young Cloud's gaze, mixed with what Reeve considered an unhealthy amount of bitterness.... The Cloud of six years ago was an angry teenager with one hell of a chip on his shoulder. Without even looking inside the file, the Shinra exec had an unhappy suspicion about what he would find.
Almost in a trance, he shuffled through the papers on his desk and pulled out a recent picture of Cloud. The young man in the photo looked just a bit startled, but had a hint of a grin on his face. Reeve remembered that moment quite well. It had been a combination housewarming party for Barret and surprise birthday party for Elmyra. Cait Sith had snuck around that entire day, ambushing his friends and taking pictures.
Even though he was smiling in this recent photo, Cloud's eyes were still haunted by sadness and old grief,... by past tragedies and losses. That was only to be expected, considering what his friend had gone through. But the corrosive hostility and bitterness that was so obvious in Cloud's earlier picture was totally absent.
(If there was a person who had cause for bitterness and anger -- between what Sephiroth and Hojo did to him,.... and Aeris' death -- it would be Cloud. But....)
Instead, Reeve saw a quiet but fierce determination that spoke of terrible trials endured and unspeakable ordeals survived. This was the Cloud he knew. The man he had chosen to follow....
The recent photo and the old file photo were both of Cloud. That was indisputable. But the difference between the likable yet haunted young man of today and the angry teenager of over six years ago could not be explained in terms of mere physical maturity....
Reeve put down the folder, poured a cup of coffee, handed it to the security guard, and said, "Tell me more...."
After talking to Beddoes for over an hour, Reeve leaned back into his chair and sighed.
(It doesn't fit. It just doesn't fit.)
Beddoes had painted a picture that simply did not match the Cloud Strife he knew... the man who had led all of them through the worst that Sephiroth and JENOVA could throw at them.
Reeve wasn't fool enough to take just Beddoes' word. It was just possible that the man held a grudge against Cloud for all these years. However, Reeve was fairly sure the man was telling the truth as he knew it. As he skimmed through Cloud's personnel file, Reeve's expression became steadily grimmer as an ugly picture began to emerge.
Beddoes was right. It wasn't that the young Cloud had lacked the raw ability to be a good soldier. His scores in physical activities were actually quite good, given that Cloud was on the small side.
It was the attitude... and the young Cloud's attitude had stunk. It hadn't been too bad in the beginning, but even Reeve's lack of military experience didn't keep him from easily seeing the pattern as time went on -- the worsening performance ratings, the lack of promotions, the increasing number of demerits,... the record is littered with disciplinary problems.
Immediately after Cloud's rejection from the SOLDIER program -- just about six months before Sephiroth's mission to Nibelheim -- there were a whole slew of reprimands and punishment details... and not for just minor infractions of regulations. However, after Cloud's second official warning about his performance and a transfer into another unit, he had apparently settled down. Cloud certainly hadn't become a model trooper, but he stopped making waves and did his job. That was the only thing important to Shinra.
Reeve suddenly choked on his coffee as his eye caught a minor two-line notation.
"DAY Q, MONTH R, YEAR S: Complaint by prostitute for rape and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Details only partially verifiable. Complaint subsequently dropped."
Reeve stared blankly at the page, then suddenly grabbed a pad of paper. He quickly went back through the file, scribbling down a list of names -- Cloud's fellow troopers, drill sergeants, training instructors, superior officers,.... Just as Beddoes had suggested, he would talk to anyone who had had worked with Cloud during those years... and he'd have plenty of questions to ask.
Setting that list aside, he eyed the attached computer disk which had security flags stamped all over it... Cloud's assessment as a candidate for the SOLDIER program. He took one look at the number of files on the disk and yanked it from his computer. He rubbed his burning eyes.
(Oh god, I can't deal any more tonight. Tomorrow morning....)
There was another folder on his desk, a fat one with even more security labels tacked all over it. Attached to the cover was a photo of a smiling young man with dark, spiky hair. His brown eyes had a bright green-gold Mako glow. The name on the folder read, "Zackary Faelan, Major, SOLDIER First Class".
"So this is Zack...." Reeve blinked. The man looked familiar. Suddenly, Reeve smacked his forehead and muttered, "I'm such an idiot! Of course I've seen this guy before!"
Reeve had had little involvement with Shinra's military branch. But occasionally, the higher ranking officers would be called into board meetings for various reasons. He recalled seeing Sephiroth a few times... a tall, exceptionally handsome man with icy green eyes that seemed to burn right through a person. Sephiroth had such a domineering presence that everyone else just seemed to fade into the background... like a certain dark-haired SOLDIER who usually accompanied Sephiroth.
That SOLDIER had been Zack.
Despite his weariness, Reeve's curiosity got the better of him. He opened Zack's file and started reading.
Part 3g: Truths in the Night
....dreams... memories... whatever....
"Are the troops ready?"
"Maddock and Curtis. They've gotten into an argument over a native woman."
His superior officer was visibly annoyed. "Were they fighting over her?"
"Not actually fighting, but it was close. She was deliberately egging them on."
"I see. Do you think she's an enemy agent?"
"Probably. She was too cool about the whole thing."
His superior officer turned his attention back to the maps. "Will there be a problem getting rid of her?"
"No. It's just hormones on the men's part. Now if they were in love with her," he shrugged, "that would be an entirely different problem...."
His boss snorted in contempt.
"I sent Maddock on an errand back to the supply depot. Curtis is scheduled to go on recon this morning. I'll dispose of her after he leaves. All they'll know is that she took the opportunity to escape back to her people."
"Good. Tonight, we're going to pay a surprise visit to the enemy arsenal. Lord Godo is about to kiss most of his weapon stockpile good-bye."
He grinned. "Yes, sir."
Cloud's lips quirked upward in his sleep.
....more dreams... more memories... more whatever....
He was sitting in a small confined space enclosed by clear walls. Hojo was pacing back and forth outside, talking... always talking.
"I don't understand it at all! How did you do it? How did someone like you managed to kill Sephiroth... my masterpiece!"
Anger and pain simmered in his soul, but he hid the emotions with long practice. He yawned ostentatiously and said in a bored voice, "I already told how it happened. I've been telling you the same thing for the last two years. I managed to knock him over the edge of the catwalk. It's as simple as that."
"Oh, I don't think it's nearly that simple. Those broken bones, the internal injuries, that wound through your abdomen.... You're not telling me everything."
He glared at Hojo. "Oh, now isn't that a big surprise?"
"It had to be you, unlikely as it seems. The other one...." Hojo snorted with contempt. "There's no way he could have managed to destroy Sephiroth. And that only leaves you."
"Wow. What a masterpiece of deductive reasoning," he shot back sarcastically.
The scientist stopped pacing and stared at him. Even after all this time, he had not given an inch... surrendered nothing. He refused to give Hojo the satisfaction.
Hojo resumed pacing. "I need to know everything about Sephiroth!"
He smiled. "So, no success in your projects so far, Hojo?"
Hojo glared at him. "But I'm close! You'll see." In a distracted voice he muttered, "They'll all see."
The scientist stopped pacing again. Hojo leaned forward toward the glass and said softly, "I want to know. Just what was between you and Sephiroth?"
"That's none of your damn business," was the cool reply.
"Oh, it's very much my business."
"You've got one hell of a dirty mind, Hojo."
Cloud awoke with a start. He stared up at the plastered ceiling, struggling to remember his dream. But it was useless. The images and sounds slipped away from his memory, back into that bottomless pit of his subconscious.
During the night, Yuffie slipped out of the bedroom she was sharing with Tifa and Elena. Both women were exhausted and didn't hear her leave. She made her way outside, ducked behind a shed, and called her father.
A woman answered. Yuffie grimaced as she recognized the voice of her least favorite of her father's concubines.
"Minmei, I want to talk to my father."
"He's sleeping," came the snooty reply.
"Then wake him up," Yuffie said in an remarkably even voice.
"What an outrageous request! I certainly will not! He gets so grumpy if he doesn't get his rest."
"Minmei, I'm not asking, nor is this a request. This is business. Now get my father on the phone."
Flustered by the soft menace in Yuffie's voice, Minmei muttered, "Oh, very well."
"Oh, and Minmei...."
"Don't you EVER try to block my access to my father again. I don't care if he's screwing another one of his concubines. If I want to talk to him, you WILL put me through. Is that clear? Because if you don't, you and I will have a long, painful talk. Got it?"
"Good. Remember this. I'm the next Lady of Wutai. Don't piss me off."
A few minutes later, a grumpy male voice muttered, "Yah...."
"Yuffie, what the hell do you want? Do you realize what time it is?"
"I need to know something. You encountered Sephiroth during the war, didn't you?"
"Well, not in person. People who got too close to Sephiroth usually ended up dead."
"But you saw him on several occasions."
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"Do you remember if there was a dark-haired SOLDIER that hung around him?"
"Hmmmm. No... wait. Yes, there was."
"One that carted around a huge two-handed broadsword?"
"Yes. In fact the only other person I've seen recently who's capable of really using that sort of weapon is that blond-haired man...."
"Cloud. Yeah, I know. Do you remember anything else about that dark-haired SOLDIER beside the sword."
"Hmph. Well, if I recall correctly, he was quite good. Surprisingly fast, even with that huge weapon. A very dangerous opponent, he was. Cut quite a swathe of death through our men. Hmmm."
"What is it?"
"They had a nickname for him. What was it?" Yuffie's father muttered to himself for a few minutes.
"Well?" she said impatiently.
"Ah yes. I believe the other Shinra SOLDIERs often referred to him as... ah, 'Sephiroth's shadow'. It seemed to be some sort of in-joke...."
Yuffie inhaled sharply and her knuckles whitened on the phone.
"....Probably because he always seemed to follow Sephiroth around. Have you heard it before?" her father asked.
"I've... heard the phrase before. But it wasn't exactly as a joke."
Lord Godo sighed wearily. "Did you wake me up from a good night's sleep just to pick my brains about the Wutai war?"
In a distracted voice, she said, "Thanks, Dad. Talk to you later."
Yuffie hung up and slowly pocketed the phone. She whispered, "Sephiroth's shadow...." It was so strange that the very same phrase could be a compliment for one person and an threat to another....
Part 3h: Reeve's Interlude - The Other Player
The sky was becoming light by the time Reeve finished going through Zack's personnel file. It was fascinating reading. Several things had jumped out at him.
First, Zack was good,... very, VERY good. The mere fact that Zack had been Sephiroth's right hand man for nearly four years made THAT point abundantly clear. Sephiroth would have never tolerated anything less than absolute excellence.
Second, Zack appeared to get along well with people and was in turn well liked. That was obvious from all the recommendations and glowing evaluation reports in the file. Besides, anyone who could deal with someone as arrogant and demanding as Sephiroth on a day-to-day basis had to have a remarkably easy-going personality or the patience of a saint.
But Zack was definitely no saint. From the reports in the file, Reeve knew that the SOLDIER had carried out his missions with calm, ruthless determination. It was probably that same ruthless efficiency that had probably attracted Sephiroth's attention in the first place. Zackary Faelan was a killer, probably one of the finest that Shinra's SOLDIER program had ever produced,... excluding Sephiroth, of course. But Sephiroth didn't count. Hojo's son had been in a class entirely of his own.
But there was a subtle pattern here that he was missing.... Some instinct told him that there had been more going on than revealed by the dry, factual reports and data in the file. But what was it?
Reeve made another note -- to find any SOLDIERS who had served with Zack -- then he crawled off to grab a few hours of sleep.
(end of Part 3)
In part 4-5,
- Back to glorious, gory old Nibelheim
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