|天の龍 ~ 「俺の運が変われると思う…」 (kiraya) wrote in drops_n_ripples,|
@ 2011-12-26 20:31:00
|Entry tags:||butterfly effect|
Butterfly Effect: Chapter 50
Authors: Bard Linn and Kiraya
Pairings: Zack x Sephiroth, Reeve x Aeris, assorted past pairings
Rating (Overall): PG-13
Summary: “I feel like I need some time away.”
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all associated characters and symbols are the exclusive property of Square Enix and its associates. We’re just borrowing them for a while.
Cloud nodded at President Shinra as he entered the room. “You wanted to speak to me?”
Shinra gestured for Cloud to a take a seat. They weren’t in the executive office, but rather one of the general conference rooms on a lower floor. As much as Cloud would have preferred to stand, since it allowed him more mobility, he did as he was bidden, taking a seat on the other side of the table. “Have you given any thought to your future with our company?”
Cloud hesitated. “Honestly, sir… I feel like I need some time away.”
Shinra raised an eyebrow. “I would think that you would’ve had your fill of that for quite some time.”
“In some ways, yes, though I’d hardly call that trip to Hojo’s lab a vacation.” Cloud paused, trying to think about how to put his desire into words. “I need to… rediscover what I’m capable of. I need to rebuild my strength and fine-tune my abilities, and with all due respect, sir, that can’t happen here.” Not to mention figure out what Cetra abilities he had, if any. What had happened in Mideel had seriously freaked him out. He did not want to pass out like that again.
“Feeling smothered by your superiors?” Shinra chuckled. “I could have you assigned to Junon.”
“Actually, sir… I want to go home. At least for a bit, to talk to my family. Fight some monsters. Stretch my legs.” Cloud didn’t fidget — Vincent had trained him out of it as a child, and hanging around Sephiroth, who could sit motionless for hours, had only made that habit stronger — but he still felt the urge to do so. “Think about where things are going in my life.”
“I see. You don’t intend to return?” Shinra’s voice was mild, but Cloud knew the question was a loaded one. The man wouldn’t want one of his (potentially) best SOLDIERs running around off the leash, at least not for long.
“I doubt I won’t. But… I want to see how I feel about being here. Maybe I should go to Junon — or even try the Turks for a while.”
Shinra let out a genuine laugh at that. “Valentine’s former student or no, I’m not sure how well you’d fit in with them. Very well, then. I won’t press you. But if you want your old job back, it’ll be waiting for you.”
“I’ll probably be back in a month or so at the latest,” Cloud assured him.
Shinra nodded. “Dismissed.”
Cloud gratefully left the conference room and headed downstairs. By now Zack and Sephiroth should have been freed from the commendation ceremony — helping to kill Hojo for real had netted Zack a promotion — and on their way to party with the SOLDIERs. As if responding to his thoughts, he heard his brand new PHS beep.
“Get down here,” said the person on the other line when he answered. “I want to reintroduce you to everybody.”
“Yes, Zachary,” Cloud teased, grinning as Zack responded with his usual protest. When he arrived he managed to slip in unnoticed, probably due to the lower lighting and the crowd around what he guessed were the refreshments tables on the opposite side of the room. Locating Zack wasn’t hard; Sephiroth was nowhere to be seen, but that wasn’t a surprise. “Where do you want me?” he asked as he approached.
“Here’s fine.” Zack raised his voice. “Everybody, listen up! We found somebody you might recognize when we finally wasted Hojo. Everyone, give Cloud a big welcome back!”
There was a smattering of applause, but it was mostly drowned out by the SOLDIERs’ murmurs.
“Shit, is it really him?”
“Strife? But I thought…”
“Didn’t they have a body?”
Zack, hearing the last, raised his hand for silence. “Hojo apparently had this thing for clones, so he made a copy of our buddy here and fooled us all with it. He’s been Hojo’s unwilling guest the last three years, but we’ve got him back now and believe me, he could use some company. So let’s welcome him back, all right?”
“About time!” Paul yelled, throwing an arm into the air. “Get over here, Cloud, and we’ll get you some real food.” Scott grinned besides his partner. The pair had been aware of Cloud’s recovery, of course, so they were able to ‘accept’ him back more easily. Other SOLDIERs followed their lead as Cloud mingled with the crowd. He was well aware, however, of the emotions in some of their eyes.
Uncertainty. Hints of fear, even. And in some places, awe, as if he was some type of holy man or something.
So much for a smooth transition… Cloud bit back a sigh. He could pass on being treated like a freak or a walking miracle, really. Hopefully going away for a while would help them forget about it…
“So, rumor has it that you’re taking off again,” Reno drawled as he leaned against the door to what was officially Zack’s quarters, which Zack had insisted Cloud continue to use until he had his own back.
Cloud raised an eyebrow at his unexpected guest. His trip down to the gym this morning had only confirmed his need to get away. He had barely been able to focus on his workout with the number of people sneaking sidelong glances or even flat-out staring at him. It’s not like I’ve really come back from the dead. Honestly, what’s the big deal? To answer Reno’s question, he explained, “I need to visit my mom; telling her I’m back isn’t something I want to do over the phone. And some good old-fashioned monster-slaying would be nice. Haven’t had much of a chance lately, so I’m rusty.”
“Well, in that case…” Reno grinned. “Run me an errand or two over on the Western Continent and I’ll lend you a chocobo. What do you say?”
“…Anything that’ll get me in trouble?” Cloud didn't trust Reno farther than he could throw him. He had an incredible knack for creating chaos.
“It’s all perfectly legal. I just need to get a shipment of greens from Costa del Sol to the Saucer. Take care of it for me and you can have your choice of the birds to borrow.” Reno tossed Cloud a memory stick. “All the info’s on there.”
“No problem.” Cloud figured escort work would be pretty easy. The rarer types of greens were quite valuable, but even so they weren’t something many tried to steal.
“Thanks. Have fun,” Reno said, and with a wave he started off down the hall.
A quiet dissonance in Cloud’s mind warned him that Vincent was approaching — or, rather, that Chaos was there. He was pretty sure that was a result of his Cetra… whatever. It was also pretty funny, he had to admit. As a child, Vincent had been able to scare him half to death with his silently-appearing-from-the-dark routine; now Cloud knew when he was there ahead of time. Turning to look at him, Cloud said, “Vincent, what— you cut your hair?!” He stared in shock. Gone was the long hair and headband, the red cape, the golden claw. Instead, Vincent was dressed in a suit — an honest-to-Gaea suit!
“It was too long to be manageable.” Reno, who had apparently come back to see Cloud’s reaction, was laughing his head off. Vincent had a slight curve to his lips that indicated he too was amused.
Cloud flushed, embarrassed. Considering the suit could have been the twin to Reno’s, Vincent must have rejoined the Turks in truth. In place of the claw he wore a matched set of black leather gloves, which would certainly make him less conspicuous. Must have gotten rid of it when we got back yesterday. Cloud didn’t know the specifics of why Vincent had worn it — whether it had been a prosthesis or meant to distract from the appearance of his mangled or mutated natural hand — and… while he could admit to being curious, he respected his mentor’s privacy and wouldn’t ask. Not now, anyway, but maybe someday… Cloud shook his head. “Anyway, what’s up?”
“You’re leaving.” Vincent didn’t sound like he approved.
“I’m gonna take the ferry over to Costa del Sol, then go with Reno’s truck to the Saucer. From there I’ll take a chocobo to Nibelheim. I won’t even be alone most of the time. At 24, I think I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thanks.” Cloud glared. “And don’t even think about following me, either. I’m sure you have work to do, unless the suit’s just for show.”
“Little pup’s grown some fangs,” Reno noted, snickering as he left with a wave.
Turning to his former mentor, Cloud repeated himself, though this time he tried to make his voice calmer. “I’ll be fine. Really. I know what I’m doing." He met Vincent’s gaze firmly, trying to pour all his confidence into it.
His mentor finally nodded. “Good journey.”
Cloud smiled and went to pack.
The trip over hadn’t been difficult. A few monsters had attacked the truck with the greens, but Cloud had managed to fight them off easily enough. The trip to Reno and Rude’s stable had been… interesting. All of the birds appeared well cared for, which wasn’t terribly surprising. Reno and Rude hadn’t managed to stay Turks for as long as they had by being careless. While looking the birds over, though, Cloud had encountered a dusky-feathered young yellow that had all but thrown herself at him. The grooms had tried to separate them, as the chocobo hadn’t been trained for riding yet; the bird had been adamant and loud in its protests at these attempts, however, and so Cloud had stuck around for a week or so while they broke her to saddle.
It had been decided, Cloud found out shortly before he left, that he must remind the chocobo of its mother. He had the bad feeling he’d be hearing jokes about his hair for quite some time.
The bird, named Blondie, had been trained surprisingly quickly and turned out to be a good mount. She had done all Cloud had asked of her, performing above and beyond what he’d ever seen a yellow do. He patted the bird on the neck. “Maybe I should have checked those greens and seen what Reno’s been feeding you.” He didn’t think most yellows could have forded a fast-flowing river without complaint like Blondie did just south of the Saucer, or handled the steep terrain around Nibelheim.
You’re wasting time. Cloud took a deep breath and directed his chocobo around the edge of town, avoiding the main square. Thankfully he could reach his house without seeing anyone else. It was dark enough that most of the others shouldn’t see him, either. Carefully tethering the bird and making sure she had greens, he walked up to the door and knocked.
His mother opened it. She looked older — much older — than when he had last seen her. Her hair was almost entirely silver, and there were wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. She stared at him in shock. “…Cloud?”
“Hi, Mom.” He swallowed and gave her a smile. “I’m home.”
“But they said…” She teared up. “They said they had a body. They said—”
“I know.” Cloud stepped inside and hugged her, careful of his strength. She sobbed into his shoulder without shame. “It’s a long story. But I can stay for a while."
His mother sniffled. as she took a step back. “And you’ve gotten taller, too! I thought you had stopped growing on me.” She wiped her eyes with her hand, and Cloud snagged a box of tissues and handed one to her. “Thank you. You have a lot of explaining to do, young man. How long are you going to stay?”
“As long as you want,” Cloud promised. “Why don’t I make some tea, then I’ll tell you what happened?”
He told her the truth, though he glossed over the details. His mother didn’t need to know what he had experienced at Hojo’s hand, or that he had a less-than-benevolent other personality running around in his head. “Don’t tell anyone else what I told you, though,” Cloud warned her. ShinRa wouldn’t want it well known that they had lost one of their SOLDIERs to experimentation. “Tell them I was captured and presumed dead, and Sephiroth rescued me. That should be enough to satisfy them.”
“All right.” Elanor frowned. “But Cloud, I don’t have your bed anymore… Where will you stay?”
“I have a bedroll — I’ve been camping out under the stars on my way here. I’ll set it up down here and it’ll be fine,” Cloud replied, trying to reassure his mother, who looked unhappy at the thought — as if he’d vanish any moment if she took her eyes off of him. How many times had she awoken in the night, dreaming he had returned, only to come down and find it all to be a figment of her imagination? “I’ll be here in the morning. I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” His mother finally left Cloud to settle down, but he slept uneasily. She kept waking up in the middle of the night to come check on him. Cloud had been thinking to spend about a week here before wandering back towards the Golden Saucer, but by morning he knew he would have to stay longer than that. His mother had nearly burst into tears seeing him again over breakfast.
And so his intended week stretched out to nearly a month. Cloud spent a lot of time with his mother, helping her in her garden — thank you, Aeris, for all those tips — and wandering about the town. Most of the locals gave him a large berth, his ‘death’ and return making them uneasy. At least the innkeeper, having dealt with strangers on and off for most of his life, was willing to talk. Still, even if the villagers’ nervousness made him uncomfortable, Cloud was better able to ignore that than the looks his fellow SOLDIERs had given him. The unenhanced were always uneasy around SOLDIERs; it hurt much more to have your comrades look at you that way.
Finally, Cloud’s restlessness grew too great for him to ignore. While he wasn’t a wanderer by nature, he rarely sat around doing nothing. After his fourth day of venturing into the mountains on Blondie — who had proven surprisingly capable even at the higher elevations — to hunt dragons, his mother finally called him into the living room.
“Cloud, you’re turning into a vagabond on me.” Elanor sighed, shaking her head. “If you need to leave, go. It’s okay — just make sure to write!”
“Don’t I always?” Cloud’s response was teasing, but secretly he felt relieved, seeing his mother was much more the confident strong woman he had known growing up. She’d never be exactly the same, of course, but nightmares and mirages likely wouldn’t be an issue anymore. Though… maybe he should look into moving her to Midgar, or at least Kalm. As much as his mother loved Nibelheim, it couldn't be easy for her to be living here by herself. “Will you be okay?”
“Of course,” she affirmed. “It’s not like I’m alone, Cloud; everyone helps out. They just haven’t been doing as much since you’ve been home. I’ve taken over teaching the young children. I’m fine.” She hugged him tightly. “You really should take your money back. I’ve only spent a little of it…”
“Don’t be silly, Mom, I hardly need it. I’ll make more once I reenlist.”
“Must you?” Elanor looked wistful. “You could be a mercenary, stay closer to home…”
Cloud shook his head. As much as he enjoyed spending time with his mother, he knew Nibelheim wasn’t the place for him. “I have a lot of friends in SOLDIER, Mom. It’s where I belong.” If nothing else, coming back here had driven that point home. He gave his mother another hug. “I’ll leave tomorrow.”
Truthfully, a big part of why Cloud was leaving was that he was hearing voices.
One was Jenova. Thankfully he rarely heard her, only when he was close to the ruins of the mansion — apparently some part of her managed to survive in that basement somehow — or when he was tired to the point that he floated free from his body. It had only happened twice on this trip so far, but Cloud didn’t want to let it happen again.
The other was that piece of his mind that yearned for Jenova’s guidance and clamored to be with her, muttering things about ‘reunions’ and ‘Mother’s sons.’ It made Cloud uneasy, to say the least.
As tempted as he’d been to try to dig out the mansion’s basement to look for research about Jenova, Cloud had refrained. He didn’t have the proper equipment, and ShinRa had probably already retrieved whatever was still accessible and useful. And his mental companion seemed to like the idea… Considering his goals, Cloud had decided he’d be better off not doing anything that part of him wanted.
After leaving Nibelheim, Cloud wandered for a time looking for information on the Cetra. Legends passed down, old manuscripts speaking of incredible techniques, plants and materia known to be their weapons… Most of his leads had dead ends. He did find a manuscript that better explained the Omnislash after racking up a bunch of victories at the Golden Saucer’s Battle Square, mostly to keep himself entertained while Rude checked Blondie over. It turned out he wasn’t a yellow at all; Rude had managed to create an honest-to-goodness gold chocobo. Unfortunately, though, she seemed rather attached to Cloud — Reno was threatening to make him do some jockey work for them to pay for his ‘theft.’ Cloud had ended up learning more about chocobos than he ever wanted to know, including that they enjoyed preening his hair.
His best lead on a true Cetra technique had him chasing all over both the Eastern and Western Continents, running the occasional errand for Reno and Rude between the chocobo ranch and the Saucer along the way, until he finally managed to find some mythril to buy the damn thing (stupid hoarders and their exorbitant prices). He’d have to show it to Aeris; he could figure out the gist of it, but a lot of the complex details didn’t make too much sense to him.
All told, Cloud was gone for nearly six months before he returned to Midgar. Much to his surprise, he found himself greeted with grins and clearly restrained laughter from SOLDIERs and regulars alike as they hurried all over the compound. And I thought chocobo chicks looked stupid running around, Cloud thought as he moved out of the way of an oncoming squad headed toward the city proper. He caught up with Paul as the SOLDIER headed to an elevator in the main tower. “Hey, Moser — wait up!”
“Cloud, welcome back!” Paul held the elevator long enough for Cloud to join him. “Missed us enough to come back for more?"
“For a while, at least. What’s going on?” The chaos on the first floor of the building was far from normal.
“I’ve heard Lord Godo is gonna be visiting in a month or two — something about the alliance marriage the President arranged or whatever. I don’t know the details.” Paul shrugged. “Anyway, the President wants Midgar in the best shape possible. The MMG crew are working double and triple shifts, and they’ve been given permission to borrow personnel from other departments.”
“…SOLDIERs working as gardeners?” Cloud found that one hard to believe; SOLDIERs were a proud lot.
“More like shifting stuff from place to place and taking care of any monsters too stupid to stay away.” Paul shrugged. “I don’t mind helping out. I’ve been learning a lot about some materia that can help with plant growth, and we all know Aeris is a sweetheart. Still, things are probably gonna be crazy for a while. There’s been some unrest in some of the larger cities, too — some people, especially those who lost relatives in the war, aren’t taking this whole alliance with Wutai thing very well.”
“Change or die,” Cloud said pragmatically. “They lost even more than we did.”
“Yeah… Anyway, where are you heading? Not the General’s office, I hope — he’s swamped with protocol and guard details with the visit, last I heard. Not even Zack’s in a good mood.”
“Actually, I was hoping to talk to Aeris, but if she’s as busy as you said…” Cloud trailed off. The manuscript in his bag felt like it was a burning a hole in his side. He was pretty sure it needed to get to Aeris as soon as possible; the purification rituals in it might make all the difference in the fight against Jenova. ShinRa might be worrying about politics, but Cloud felt deep down that Jenova would be more dangerous than anything Wutai could throw at them.
“Stop by Tuesti’s office, then. I think he’s in right now — he’ll probably be happy somebody wants to get her away from work for a while. Dennett says that he’s been worried about her health.” Paul left the elevator with a wave. “Scott and I’ll treat you to dinner tonight. Give us a call!”
Cloud nodded and continued upward. Thankfully Reeve Tuesti’s office didn’t require a special keycard to access. When the MMG Project had become a company priority, he’d done the opposite of what most executives did — he moved his office down rather than up, so as to be more accessible to whoever needed him.
He nodded at the secretary as he passed. She merely buzzed him in, but did so with a smile that was rapidly becoming familiar. What in the world was going on? Cloud was beginning to feel like one of those people in a comedy show where he was the last one in on a joke.
“Ah, Cloud! Good to see you. Aeris was getting worried.” Reeve gestured for his visitor to take a seat. “What brings you to my humble office?”
“I wanted to see if I could steal Aeris away for a while. I found some things that she should look at.”
Reeve leaned forward in his seat. “You found some Cetra-related literature or artifacts?” It wasn’t really a question.
Cloud stared at him. “Does Tseng know he has competition for his job?”
Reeve chuckled. “Hardly. I’m not interested in the Turks, and he certainly isn’t interested in urban planning. We’re just sharing information these days.” His expression softened a bit. “Aeris told me about her heritage after your rescue. Knowing you went after the manuscript at the Golden Saucer made it easy to guess what you’ve been doing.”
“Uh huh.” Cloud gave him a hard look. “In that case, can you tell me why everyone is trying not to laugh when they see me?”
A crooked smile. “You can thank Reno for that one. Apparently he’s quite upset with you for charming his bird. He posted pictures of you at the Saucer with him not long ago, and people have been remarking upon the resemblance.”
“…They’re saying I’m part chocobo, aren’t they.”
“That’s one of the variations,” Reeve cheerfully admitted. “Look on the bright side: Most of them are completely ignoring the fact that you ‘died’ and are instead focusing on how cute you look with chocobo chicks climbing all over you. He did you a favor.”
“Yeah, sure.” Cloud resisted the urge to bang his head on the table; that wouldn’t help anything. “Anyway, can I run off with your fiancee?”
Reeve chuckled. “If you were anyone else, I’d be worried when you said that!” He gave Cloud directions to the garden Aeris was currently working on. When he finally arrived, Cloud avoided the security without much difficulty — he could have walked right in, but his status as an ex-employee made things awkward. I really need to reenlist. He slipped through the bushes and trees, some of them surprisingly tall for their short lives, until he found Aeris. “Hey.”
Aeris jumped. “Cloud! When did you get back?”
“A few hours ago. Can we talk? I have something you need to see.”
“When I get off in a few hours.” She turned back to her work. “Around six.”
Cloud shifted impatiently. “It’s important. Look, Reeve said you could come right now. It’s—” He glanced around and lowered his voice. “It’s about Jenova.”
Aeris worried her lower lip. “…All right. But we can’t talk here.”
“No,” Cloud agreed. “I thought maybe the church?”
Aeris nodded in agreement, and off they went, taking the same back way Cloud had used to get in. Reeve knew Aeris would be with him, so he wasn’t worried about getting her in trouble. Getting down below the Plate without being seen was a challenge, and Cloud found he enjoyed it. Maybe Zack was right — he had too much Turk in him.
Aeris relaxed as they entered the church, stopping to tend to the flowers for a moment — they were faring rather well, Cloud noticed. He wondered if they were naturally resilient or if Aeris managed to somehow attend to them as well. Shaking off his idle thoughts, he opened the bag he still carried. “When I was wandering, I found this.” He handed her the manuscript.
Curious, Aeris began to thumb through it, her eyes widening in surprise. “Where…? These are Cetra purification techniques! ‘Great Gospel, for healing and cleansing of the body and mind. Requires great strength, but can create a barrier against the Crisis and reverse Her corruption…’ Cloud, are you thinking…?”
“We may have gotten Hojo, but Jenova’s still out there.” He didn’t have to convince Aeris. Tthey both knew it, felt it in the unsettled Lifestream. “That thing we fought back in Mideel was tough, and it was only a fragment of the real thing. When we go to fight her for real, we’re going to need Zack, Sephiroth… and maybe me. And we’re all vulnerable.”
“You need me to practice this, then.” Aeris stroked the book’s old but well preserved pages carefully. “Why wouldn’t you be fighting her?”
“Jenova could corrupt Cetra, turning them against their fellows.”
Aeris nodded. “Gast — my father — mentioned it in his notes.”
“And… I think she managed to get into my head.” Cloud sighed. “So I’m not sure if it would be a good idea for me to go along.”
Aeris patted the ground beside her. “Well. Why don’t I see what I can do right now? I already know some purification spells…”
“All right.” Cloud settled down, trying to relax. He could feel Aeris’s power flowing through him, prodding at his mind. He tried to ignore it, but felt himself bracing against it.
“You’re fighting me.”
Aeris pursed her lips in thought. “Can you let your spirit go, wander a bit? If you aren’t fighting me that would help.”
Cloud hesitated. “…I’m not sure that’s a good idea. He can sometimes take control if I do.”
Aeris undid the ribbon at the base of her braid, removing a small, pale materia that she placed in her lap. “It’s okay. I know what I’m doing.” She touched the bracer on her arm. “And I have a Time materia that’s close to mastered.”
“All right.” Cloud closed his eyes and laid back among the flowers, breathing in their scent. He tried to calm his thoughts, but he wasn’t too good at doing this on command yet.
So far below the Plate, away from the busy areas, the church was much quieter than most parts of the city. It was a nice change; Cloud had been on the road so long that the noise of Midgar was still unsettling. Slowly he felt himself slide free of his body, wandering upward. His surroundings were faded, almost as if they weren’t there. Zack and Sephiroth were in the ShinRa Tower, the lights of their spirits shining bright to his perception, soothing. There was something else there, however, something he hadn’t been able to contact before. Intrigued, he reached out to the not unfamiliar presence.
::Out for a stroll?::
Doing some internal spring cleaning, Cloud replied. He blinked as Chaos appeared in his vision, overlaid on Vincent’s body. He had never seen Chaos’ natural form before.
::Hmm. You do feel a great deal like the Calamity these days, boy.::
Cloud tried not to feel insulted by the epithet; by an immortal’s standards, he was a boy. We’re trying to fix that.
::Watch out for the little Cetra girl. You’d be better off not getting her too close to that one. If she is taken, there will be no one left who can call Holy.::
::A last resort of sorts. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that — it upsets the natural rhythm of things too much.::
Huh. I thought you liked disorder.
An amused snort. ::Don’t think you can get me with that trick, child. You needn’t know anything more about it now.:: Cloud felt the brief impression of an enormous pressure, a mere fraction of Chaos’ willpower that still drove him to his metaphysical knees. ::You should go back to your body now — wandering too long isn’t good for a human.::
Cloud blinked and saw the broken church roof overhead. Chaos had hurled him all the way back here, it seemed. He rolled onto his side and looked at Aeris, who seemed tired but unharmed. “You okay?”
She nodded. “He’s not completely gone yet, but he’s contained, at least, and I think I managed to weaken him some.” Aeris rose, a bit unsteadily, and Cloud leapt to his feet to support her. “We’ll need to do this again to reinforce it.”
“Sounds good.” Aeris smiled, tucking the manuscript under her arm. She had already replaced her ribbon, and the materia was missing, presumably hidden in her hair again.
“Aeris! What were you thinking, running off like that!” Tifa came striding into the church, looking irate, and Cloud’s jaw dropped. She had cut her hair so it only brushed the top of her shoulders, and she was wearing a suit — a Turk suit. “Are you trying to get me in trouble?”
“Sorry, Tifa. Cloud and I needed to talk.”
“Welcome back, by the way,” Tifa said, sparing Cloud a cursory glance.
“Yeah.” He sighed. “The Turks, Teef? Really?”
Tifa scowled. “I don’t think you have room to talk, Mr. SOLDIER.”
Cloud winced. “Well, yeah. But the Turks…”
“Tifa is my bodyguard,” Aeris interjected. “That’s all she is.”
“And I might teach some classes once I’m through the probationary period, but that’s it. I told them upfront I wouldn’t do it if they wanted me to assassinate people.”
Cloud blinked, surprised they’d acceded to her demands. “Well,” he said after a moment, “if they ever give you hell about that, let me know and I’ll back you up.” He was a little concerned for her — his own Turk connections notwithstanding, they could be an unsavory bunch — but…
“Will do.” Tifa gave him a smile and led Aeris out, hopefully to get some rest instead of going straight back to work. She’d need it, from the looks of things.
Just then, Cloud’s PHS rang. “Strife.”
“Hey, long time no see!” Cloud could practically hear Zack’s smile on the other end of the line. “I hear Scott and Paul invited you out for dinner. I was thinking maybe we could hang out a bit before you have to leave?”
“Sure.” Cloud paused. “…Sephiroth didn’t cut his hair while I was gone, did he?”
“What?! That’s crazy! Of course not.” Zack sounded incredulous. “What’d even make you think that?”
Cloud shook his head. “Just making sure. I’ll see you soon.”
Sephiroth greeted the sight of his office door with the slightest easing of tension from his shoulders. Godo had finally left this afternoon, leaving his daughter to settle in and prepare for her wedding. The past week, marked by the first visit by foreign dignitaries Midgar had seen in years, had meant endless banquets, tours, and events, most of which Sephiroth had had to attend — unfortunately, as Wutai, it seemed, still harbored their hatred of the ‘Demon General.’ Despite weeks of practicing Wutaian etiquette, he had felt as if he was blundering around in the dark. He could only hope that he hadn’t made too much of a fool of himself.
As soon as he opened the door, Sephiroth noticed Cloud seated at Zack’s desk. “Cloud. What are you doing here?” He didn’t think Cloud had access to his office, but then again, Cloud seemed rather good at hacking his way into things he wanted…
“Paperwork.” Cloud tapped the stacks of papers before him. “These need your attention today, this pile needs to be looked at tomorrow, and the rest can wait until Zack can look at them and make sure I did them right.”
Sephiroth took the first stack from Cloud, noting the even print filling out the necessary lines. All he needed to do was sign them. “You do neat work.”
Cloud shrugged. “Figured better that than just sitting around doing nothing. Thankfully I’m not on active duty, so I couldn’t be pressed into dealing with our visitors.”
“When are you going to reenlist?” Sephiroth quickly signed the papers, placing them in Zack’s outbox.
Cloud’s eyes went far away. “As soon as I get a handle on one more thing. Aeris’s helping me with it.” He shook his head. “When is Zack due back?”
Sephiroth noticed the change in subject, but let it go. “Sometime later tonight, if he pushes the speed limits.” Zack was off in Junon, working with the SOLDIER garrison there to keep peace in the streets. A large protest had been organized in the city against the Wutaian visit, and it had nearly become a riot. As much as he wished Zack were here for support, he really needed faithful eyes and ears there. Thankfully the situation had dispersed earlier today, and with Godo’s departure, it wasn’t likely to escalate again. Not until the wedding, anyway…
Cloud capped his pen. “Well, let’s go, then.”
“Go?” Sephiroth raised his eyebrow. “I’m still on duty, Cloud.”
“You’ve been on duty nearly 24/7 since they showed up last week, Seph. You need to take a break. Why don’t we head down to the gym and work out the kinks? I promise there’s nothing left you need to do before quitting time, and it isn’t like anyone else who’s been caught up in this hoopla will be going back to work today.”
“You sound more and more like Zack all the time.” Sephiroth gestured for Cloud to precede him. He trusted Cloud’s statement that he didn’t have pressing matters to attend to, and it would be nice to loosen up after standing all day.
“Side effect of hanging around in your heads;I keep picking up your habits. I can do pretty damn good impressions of you guys nowadays.” Cloud shrugged. “It isn’t all bad. Which practice room?”
“Let’s go use the auxiliary gym. It’s big enough that we’ll be able to use our regular blades.” It also had a second-floor observation deck. Sephiroth had learned a long time ago that any time he was sparring, he might as well plan for observers, like it or not. If he didn’t, they’d only get underfoot.
“Meet you there in ten. Materia?”
Sephiroth shook his head. “Too risky.” A shame, really — Cloud was good at casting and fighting at the same time, and made a more interesting partner because of it. “Next time we get a chance, we’ll head outside Midgar.”
“Right. Just my Restore, then.”
Sephiroth stopped by his own rooms to change his formal uniform for more comfortable practice gear. He also made sure to equip his own Restore, and his Life just in case — there was no reason to take chances. Grabbing Masamune, he left his quarters, and five minutes later he showed up at the gym. Sephiroth caught some of the glances sent his way before SOLDIERs started clearing out. Cloud whistled as he came in. ”Looks like we have the floor to ourselves. Considerate of them.”
Sephiroth refrained from pointing out that this always happened when he sparred with someone as murmuring broke out on the second level. Cloud wasn’t one of his usual partners, and he could feel the crowd’s interest spike.
“Disarm — I think we both can take a few scrapes.” Cloud swung Shiranui around, settling the massive sword into a ready position.
Sephiroth didn’t bother to reply, swinging the Masamune in a wide arc. Cloud blocked it solidly, before darting towards Sephiroth to close the distance between them. Sephiroth broke contact and stepped back — letting Cloud get too close would nullify the Masamune’s advantage of reach.
Cloud leapt towards him; Sephiroth brought his own sword up and blocked his rapid advance, their blades ringing out in the near silent gym. Soon they were running, bounding off the walls to gain momentum and clashing in midair. Cloud kicked off the bleachers and then the overhang of the observation deck, hurtling down. Sephiroth blocked his slashing attack, but barely; his opponent had become incredibly strong, moreso than he remembered. Swinging the Masamune as Cloud rebounded, he scored his leg.
He advanced as Cloud fumbled his landing but still managed to block his next strike, though he started falling back towards the side of the gym. Sephiroth felt the telltale stirrings of a limit break’s energy growing and fought it. This wasn’t about fancy attacks — this was about strategy and skill. He thrust the Masamune forward in a quick strike, aiming for Cloud’s shoulder, but his opponent threw himself to the side, bringing up Shiranui to block, and pressed closer, his blade sliding down until they locked hilts. Sephiroth let him, but twisted at the last second, breaking contact.
Cloud ducked under the blade headed for his head and twisted his weapon, separating it so the main blade, in his right hand, blocked the Masamune — and the smaller one in his left blurred toward Sephiroth’s throat.
Shit. Cloud didn’t match him in strength, but he was faster than Sephiroth, who’d forgotten that sword of his was so adaptable. Sephiroth threw himself backwards and broke contact, just managing to avoid the strike; Cloud stepped back as well, adjusting his hold on his swords.
Above them there was a whisper of surprise. Cloud was doing incredibly well; Sephiroth had rarely been so challenged. He smiled a little as he raised Masamune for another attack. Cloud dropped the small blade and grasped Shiranui’s hilt with both hands, meeting the blow. Sephiroth pressed down with his greater strength, determined to force the weapon from Cloud’s hands — one of which slipped off the hilt, grabbing Sephiroth’s coat. He tensed himself for the throw to come — and realized Cloud had another small blade, not much larger than a dagger, pressed against his ribs.
Both froze. Green eyes met blue for a moment—
—and Cloud let Shiranui fall, giving Sephiroth victory. Cheers broke out from the upper level, and metallic clinks indicated gil was changing hands.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Sephiroth murmured, a touch of disapproval in his voice as Cloud collected his weapons, recombining them with the main blade.
“I don’t want to make waves more than I already have.” Cloud’s lips barely moved, his words so soft Sephiroth had to strain to hear them. While he could appreciate the thought, Sephiroth didn’t like the fact that Cloud had surrendered, giving him an unearned victory. It had still been an enjoyable duel, one of the most challenging he’d had for some time; he just wanted to beat Cloud properly.
“Again?” Cloud offered.
Sephiroth smiled and raised the Masamune in answer.
“So, I hear that I missed the most amazing duel between the two of you,” Zack drawled as entered Sephiroth’s quarters. Cloud looked up from the tactical board in front of him with relief. Sephiroth had dragged him upstairs after an hour and a half in the gym to see what he could do with large-scale tactics, and by now Cloud could cheerfully say that he sucked at them. Small groups were okay, and a group made up of specialized fighters was right up his alley… but army versus army tactics escaped him.
Cloud privately thought Sephiroth was just miffed that he had nearly been beaten twice during their sparring time.
“I’m sure you’ll have a chance to see it again.” Sephiroth paused for a moment as he moved a figure. “Though we’ll have to schedule practice time outside the city so we can have a proper match, with spellcasting too.”
“Not to mention not having to worry about banging up the gym.” Cloud stared at the board, brow furrowed in thought. He could move a unit there, but was the defensively weak spot on Sephiroth’s right flank an oversight or a trap…?
“Hey, you — maybe you’re having fun making Cloud’s eyes glaze over, but I think he could use a break.” Zack poked Sephiroth. “Let’s order some food and sit down and chill with a movie.”
“Sounds great. I surrender.” Cloud knocked his command figure over. “You win. All hail General Sephiroth.”
“You’ll never get better with that attitude,” Sephiroth chastised.
“Another day,” Cloud promised. “Let’s get pizza.”
Zack was as good as his word. Twenty minutes later the trio were settled on Sephiroth’s couch, pizza boxes on the coffee table in front of them. Zack had claimed the middle seat, insisting that Cloud sit on his right rather than taking his usual seat in a separate chair. Cloud didn’t protest much; the contact was nice, and the view was a lot better.
They chatted while the movie played and the pizza rapidly became a fond memory. Zack reported on the situation in Junon, Cloud shared a few things he’d heard above and below the Plate, and Sephiroth filled Zack in on Godo’s visit. Having already caught snippets of it, Cloud let his eyes slide shut as Sephiroth continued to speak, and Zack shifted to support him.
“I think you wore him out,” he teased, his voice soft.
“He is… extraordinary, Zack. You should see him when he’s pushing himself to his limits. I think we’ll need to look into three-way matches.”
“You’ll make me jealous if you keep talking like that.” Zack laughed, and Cloud grumbled as his pillow moved. “He is something special though, isn’t he?”
Cloud opened his eyes, looking up at Zack. “As are you, brother,” he said, and Zack’s lips curved in a sharp pleased smile as he stroked Cloud’s hair.
“She calls us. We should go soon,” Cloud murmured, his mind fuzzy. When had Zack’s eyes become green?
Sephiroth’s hand settled onto his head, tipping him into Zack’s lap. “Where is She? You can hear Her?”
“North. Far north — where the last of the Enemy had their base.” Cloud felt his limbs growing cold, as if he were losing blood to his extremities, even as he curled closer to the others’ warmth. “I can show you the way.”
“Good.” Sephiroth bent down, brushing his lips against Cloud’s cheek, and even that simple touch from Mother’s firstborn son made Cloud shiver and ache for more, turning his head to respond properly. There was a pleasant hum like Zack’s chuckle, and fingers slid under Cloud’s shirt to skim over his abdomen. Cloud’s breath caught, and he reached to remove his armor, his hand grazing his armlet first — and the materia within blazed to life. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe as Jenova’s presence slammed into him, no longer a pleasantly comfortable haze in the back of his mind but rather an insistent force to submit. He fumbled to grasp the materia, shoving his mind into one of the glowing orbs. Aeris had taught him to use plants to call upon the Planet’s power, but he was too far away from the ground for that to work. He would have to improvise—
Ice-cold power flooded into his limbs, and his fingers immediately turned red as frost spread over his flesh. Cloud ignored it, seeking a deeper connection with the Planet, and finally found it, buried deep below the spells the materia held. Seizing hold of it, he did his best to cast the purification Aeris had shown him; it was weak, but enough to shake Jenova’s hold, especially in combination with the pain. Regaining control of himself, Cloud slammed his fist into Zack’s stomach. “Wake up!”
Zack let out a breathless wheeze as he started at the hit, his head knocking into Sephiroth’s chin. There was a moment of confusion as they untangled themselves from each other, each nursing his injury. “Shit,” Zack finally managed, looking at Cloud worriedly. “She can use you as a channel.”
“Yeah.” Cloud moved to his usual chair, straightening his clothes as he put some distance between them, and pulled his knees up to his chest. “I think the three of us being alone together is a bad idea.”
“We have to do something about this,” Sephiroth declared firmly, shifting further from Zack to the opposite end of the couch. Cloud wondered whether they could feel Jenova’s echoes between them as he felt it, humming in the blood. “If she can reach us from this far away…”
“Aeris has been helping me set up defenses,” Cloud said quietly. “And… it isn’t too bad if we aren’t all together. Or with other people.”
“Or busy — I’ve never noticed anything when we’re working,” Zack pointed out. “All the same, I think I better sleep on the couch tonight, just in case.”
“But these are only temporary solutions.” Sephiroth looked grim. “As long as Jenova lives…”
“We can’t get close to her without going nuts, not when something like this can happen here.” Cloud stood, running a hand through his hair. “I'll talk to Aeris tomorrow and see what we can come up with. You two better figure out how you’re going to arrange to get away for a while; I doubt the President is going to believe this.”
“Yeah, somehow I don’t think ‘trip to kill alien bitch who’s hijacking our minds’ will go over well on the leave request form.” The words were lighthearted, but Zack’s expression was serious. “I don’t care if we have to go AWOL to do it — we can’t let this happen again. Next time we might not be so lucky.”