The call cut across the almost-empty bar, prompting the couple of patrons in the far corner to look up from their card game. The barmaid put a glass to dry on the rack and turned to face the door, smiling. "Denzel, hey. I was getting a little worried..."
The expression on Denzel's face brought Tifa short. Earlier in the day, Marlene had used her patented 'I know a secret and it's making me depressed' sigh-slump until Tifa felt duty-bound to grill her. After hearing the girl's story, Tifa had assumed she knew what she would be dealing with... But there was no trace of the sullen misery Tifa would have expected Denzel to show after getting dumped. The teenager was tense, alert -- worried, even.
"Is there a problem?" she asked, voice dropping, as she quickly moved to the end of the bar to meet him. Denzel's expression didn't lighten up any, and her fingers clenched on the counter.
He checked that the few regulars were out of earshot before he answered. "Maybe."
"I met this guy by accident, and we chatted a bit, and he was alright, you know? Kinda annoying but -- well, not violent or anything." Denzel's low voice dropped to a whisper. "And then he goes and drops Cloud's name out of the blue, like he knew I knew Cloud from the moment I stepped in. And I've never seen him in my life. And if you tell me Cloud shows off pictures of me and Marlene at rest stops--"
Tifa frowned. At first glance, that didn't sound like anything to fret over, but Denzel looked wigged enough, and being careful didn't cost much. "So -- he knew that you knew Cloud? Maybe there's an innocent explanation... But you're right, that sounds a little suspicious," she added as Denzel made an offended noise. She picked up the phone and dialed the garage extension.
"A little! Did I mention he was buck naked?"
Tifa stopped in her tracks, eyes widening. "--He was what?"
"... Tifa, mind explaining why you're calling me in the middle of a conversation about naked men?"
She groaned and closed her eyes. "Sorry, Cloud. It's just, Denzel met someone and he might be ... suspicious."
"The naked kind of suspicious?"
Tifa's cheeks reddened at his dry comment. She could imagine the raised eyebrow accompanying it. "Cloud! Just -- come to the bar, please. I don't know if it's anything urgent, but Denzel thinks it's weird and he usually has good instincts."
The boy puffed up with pride, and then, as he noticed his lapse, went on to gaze at the rest of the bar with haughty indifference. Ahh, teenagers. The dial tone prompted Tifa to put down the phone, and she picked up another just-washed glass to dry, to give her hands something to do. So far the couple of regulars in the far corner hadn't really paid any attention, beyond a few casual glances; she didn't want them to start now.
Cloud was there a minute later, solid and calm. He had grease smudged on his hands and cheek, and his grey t-shirt wasn't much cleaner.
"What is this about?" he asked, looking first at her, and then at Denzel.
Denzel's expression immediately went back to its serious, concerned look. "I was at the old church, you know..."
Cloud's expression tightened a little, bracing for impact.
"There was a guy there and his clothes and his girlfriend's clothes had disappeared, I'm not too sure how, and he asked if I could find him stuff to wear, and -- well sure it's already weird and all, but..."
Denzel licked his lips nervously. Cloud watched him steadily, waiting, even though his shoulders were tensing up. Tifa put aside the towel to free her hands, seized by a prickle of foreboding.
"Could have been a joke, you know, hazing maybe, but then he said like 'Cloud's stuff would do, we're the same size', and the funny thing is, I never said anything about you."
Tifa and Denzel stared at the blond man together, waiting for a reaction. Even accounting for Cloud's usual faint reluctance to speak, it came a little too late to be casual.
"What did he look like?"
"Dunno, it was dark." Denzel frowned and stared at the floor, eyes unfocused. "Under forty for sure, probably less, not a fat guy at all. White or Wutainese -- prolly white. Brown or black hair, I think, and kinda longish, but it was all wet and plastered to his neck so I can't really tell. Not a crew cut though. And I didn't see the girlfriend at all, but she didn't sound like she's a chain-smoking old hag."
Tifa tried to recall anyone she knew who was roughly Cloud's size and fit the description. There were Vincent, Reeve, Tseng, and Ferguson from the used parts shop, but Denzel knew them. There were a couple of Cloud's employers and her own suppliers, but they didn't know Denzel -- Cloud always went to meet his employers instead of asking them to come, and the bar's suppliers usually dropped by when Denzel was either still in bed or already at school. No one amongst Cloud's acquaintances should have recognized her adopted son on sight. As for the bar regulars, if they hung around often enough to learn Cloud's name, then they hung around enough for Denzel to learn theirs.
Cloud's eyes dropped to the floor, pensive. "You're right. That's suspicious."
Denzel straightened up proudly at the acknowledgement.
"They're still waiting at the church?"
"Yeah. Unless they learn to fly, I don't see them crossing the old Sector Five anytime soon. Got no shoes."
Cloud nodded thoughtfully and turned away. "Tifa, can you get some clothes and shoes for the woman?"
She nodded quickly and stepped toward the door to follow Cloud. "Denzel, please mind the bar, I'll be right back."
Upstairs, Tifa quickly found clean sweatpants with a drawstring waistband and sandals. She hoped she'd get them back; out of the five pairs of footwear she owned, they were the only one that didn't qualify as being sensible -- or in other words, ugly. She chose a large t-shirt at random, and added a shawl, just in case, and then went to find Cloud in his room. He was strapping a sword harness on his back, and her heart clenched.
"Do you need help?"
He shook his head without looking at her. "Can you pack the clothes on my bed with yours?"
She wrapped everything in the shawl without looking at her hands, watching him as he selected a sword from the rack on the wall and sheathed it. She took some comfort from the fact that it wasn't one of the Materia-covered ones. Every single one of Cloud's swords was razor-edged and battle-ready, though, so the comfort was minimal. "Do you really think this is another enemy?"
Cloud didn't answer for a few seconds, but eventually he turned to face her, eyes soft. "If it is, it can't be too bad of one. He let Denzel go."
"... Right. You're right," she replied, and tried to pretend that she was convinced. They'd had a few people coming after Cloud in the last three years -- oh, none quite as powerful and scary as the trio of clones, but a couple had been bad enough.
"Mmh. As introductions go, it's awkward, but not all that threatening."
Tifa didn't say anything. Cloud sounded about as convinced as she did.
"At least Marlene is with Barret..." He paused, then looked up suddenly, jaw tightening.
Tifa shuddered. Barret had left with Marlene in the afternoon; he hadn't called in yet. Depending on how fast Barret drove, they might not be in Kalm yet, and they didn't touch base for every single trip anyway... "I'll call them."
Cloud stepped closer to pick up the clothes; Tifa reached for his sleeve and tugged gently, unable to look up.
"You... Be safe, okay?" she whispered.
Cloud inclined his head toward her, and rested a hand over hers briefly. "I'll be careful," he promised gravely.
And then he was leaving, with a sword across his back and a bundle of clothes under his arm, and she was alone in his bedroom with a hundred worries.
Paranoid. He really was paranoid. Getting ready for war just because one strange but apparently harmless man had mentioned that he knew Cloud...
(They were at the church.)
... True, he didn't have a great track record with strange people he had mysterious past connections with.
(Why were they at the church?)
Enemies didn't need to match his SOLDIER-level strength to be dangerous -- Cloud wasn't stupid and he knew to watch his back, but he would need to be psychic to make sure he would never walk blindly into an ambush. No one could be on their guard every second of the day, not without going insane. Beside, as the latest assailant to date had proved, SOLDIER vulnerabilities weren't secret enough that no one could find out, with enough digging around. The possibilities were endless. There were disgruntled ex-Shinra troopers. Unemployed scientists. Fanatical Sephiroth-worshippers.
(Black-haired guy. Same size.)
...Gangs with designs on Edge, even -- he'd humiliated quite a few, and they tended to have more pride and vindictiveness than common sense.
(But they wouldn't bring their naked girlfriend.)
(He'd jumped to stupid conclusions before, but this was a jump that could have cleared Bahamut.)
He stared up at the church's huge wooden doors, gave a cursory look at the rubble all around. His spine prickled, as if someone were watching him back. If there was, even his mako-enhanced eyesight couldn't pick them up.
The inside of the church was even darker, though the missing portion of the roof let in the faint glow of Edge's streetlamps, a dozen blocks away. Enough for him to know that there wasn't anyone sitting in the broken pews, or by the pool where the flowers had been, or anywhere on the ground floor.
He placed a hand on the hilt of his sword, slid a few inches of steel out of the scabbard. Planks creaked overhead, and Cloud moved lightly along the wall, avoiding the holes in the roof. He could hear someone moving along with him -- the steps were light, controlled, even though no real effort was made to hide them. They would be arriving to the staircase at the same time he would, five steps, four, three...
And then there was a loud crack of breaking wood. A body jumped at him feet first, and he didn't stop to think; he just reacted. The sword was in his hand before he could reconsider, and swinging just as he realized, from the lack of follow-up, that this might not have been an attack after all.
Even sprawled awkwardly on the steps, the man managed to kick up into the flat of Cloud's blade, deviating its course. Cloud had been ready to still it at the man's throat, but the counterattack startled him. A gust of cold air blasted the staircase as the Materia on his armband flashed green.
The ice never materialized.
The green light gave Zack's skin a sickly tint, and carved strange shadows on his face, but the wild black spikes and the glowing purple-gray eyes were unmistakable. And the line of the jaw, and the high cheekbones, and the quirk of his eyebrows.
Cloud stared down at his dead best friend, and cursed himself for being unable to take the safest course of action -- bring down the sword and end it before his memories were raped once again.
There was a chance, Cloud wanted to think. There was a chance. But he'd barely survived through enough precedents to know that there really wasn't.
"Mind not freezing my balls off? I'm kinda attached..."
He'd been expecting casual friendliness -- that was Zack's default mode. He'd been expecting teasing. He'd been expecting smugness. They would have sounded true enough.
That quiet, almost gentle awkwardness felt truer.
Slowly, Cloud lifted his sword, took a step back, then another. The man-who-might-be-Zack waited, wincing, and only sat up gingerly when Cloud had taken himself out of reach of a surprise kick.
Cloud waited, the tip of his sword brushing the floor as he held the hilt in a firm two-handed grip.
Zack -- the creature that looked like Zack -- laughed dryly. "I must say, it went better than I feared."
"You assumed it would go worse?" Cloud asked, his voice wiped clean of all emotion. It was easier than dealing with the myriads of them trying to get through together.
"Eh, I had a couple scenarios. One of them had a dozen summons flattening the church from afar and Shinra ready to move in and pick up the pieces... It would have kind of sucked. I knew not to count too much on the tearful flying-tackle of love." Zack grinned. "You're a bit paranoid, you know."
Cloud stood still, watching the man who sat there on the old wooden steps, with his ankles crossed casually and his arms loosely draped on his lap, and the pained, rueful hints that colored the easy smile.
"... So, that spell..."
The Materia light winked off. The dark blinded Cloud; he closed his eyes, since he wouldn't be seeing anything anyway. He closed his eyes and told himself he was getting played. Zack was dead, dead and gone and that was it.
"You know," he commented quietly, eyes slitting open, "I could expect Sephiroth. I could expect more of his clones. I could even expect Aeris. Even discounting Jenova's help, their bodies at least went in the Lifestream. Yours went to feed the worms."
Zack's voice tightened briefly. "Yeah. It did."
Cloud had to pause at that. "...That's it? No convenient 'Hojo did it'?"
He might even have believed that, however suspiciously coincidental it sounded. It would have been likely enough, anyway -- the creep always turned up in strange places, and he liked to recycle his playthings.
There was a short, frustrated sigh. "No. No convenient 'Hojo did it'. Went through the whole cycle of vultures, rats, worms, and assorted putrefaction and decay."
Cloud gritted his teeth. He didn't want to think about Zack's remains rotting on the ground because Cloud had left him behind and forgotten him there. And the flippant reluctance to answer was getting annoying. "So explain how you can come back from that," he said tightly.
"Did you ever meet Aron Bergsten?"
That hadn't come from Zack. The new voice from the top of the staircase was light, musical, undeniably feminine. Cloud's body went utterly rigid once again.
"He was in SOLDIER," the light voice continued. "First Class Captain, I think he was. He was one of the clones who reached the Northern Crater before you did."
Small, white feet first, and then frail ankles, and long white legs, pale skin glowing ghostlike in the dark -- except that the planks creaked under her weight.
His Materia lit up again. And there she was, standing a few steps over Zack with her summer-green eyes and her warm smile, and her long unbound hair twisting into unruly coils, the ends tickling her thighs.
Another tidal wave of feelings rose in his throat, choked him -- longing and loss and mourning and betrayal ... and hope. Surely Jenova could not touch her. Not her. She had never been infected with Jenova cells.
Had she? If he remembered right, she'd been in Hojo's lab as a toddler before her birth mother broke them both out -- but that was too far back to count, surely it would have manifested long before, surely she would have flushed it all out. No, Sephiroth wouldn't have killed her if she had been under their control.
"This was Aron Bergsten's body," she continued softly, waving at Zack, who grimaced an unconvincing smile in answer. "His soul joined with the Lifestream, some time ago. And I didn't want to leave Zack behind. So... there you have it."
Cloud shook his head, more in bewilderment than denial. The body looked like Zack's, exactly like Zack's.
But Kadaj's body had looked like Sephiroth's, when Sephiroth possessed him, down to the width of his shoulders and the shape of his hands, and that was precedent enough.
... Surely, if you could make a body look like the spirit inhabiting it, there was a way to make it look like anyone -- even look like Zack when it wasn't him at all possessing that corpse. But Aeris... He couldn't accept that someone had stolen her likeness. She was above that. Surely she would have known, she would have warned him. She would have done something... Right?
Even then he couldn't make himself believe it. He just couldn't. They hadn't given him any proof, and he was tired of the knife being twisted in the wound every time he thought he was finally healed.
She smiled, fingers of both hands laced over her stomach, just the barest hint of impishness behind the warm compassion. "I'm naked, yes."
"--That wasn't what I meant."
Zack chortled; Cloud glared briefly at him, disguising his relief at having a good reason to stop staring at her. Because of course, now that Aeris had pointed out how nude she was, he could see nothing else.
She wasn't making any effort to cover herself, her interlaced fingers highlighting the soft curve of her belly more than they masked any of it. He could see goosebumps in an interesting variety of places, a small patch of brown hair... If it was intended as a distraction, it was ridiculous. He wasn't that prudish, or that hormonal.
His gut was still twisting and twisting around with 'they're real' and 'they can't be' and all assorted feelings -- loss and grief, astonishment and desperate denial. Because if he accepted it, and then it turned out to be a trap...
... If it was a trap...
He didn't know.
"You... Wouldn't go? I thought." Cloud frowned, steeled himself. Emotions could wait. She'd been gone a while. He'd mourned and -- moved on. "I assumed you were dead."
"You could have come back from that anytime," he continued softly. The bile rising in his throat tasted like betrayal.
"Oh, Cloud --"
He took a step back when she stepped forward, and she halted. The light from his Materia wavered. Maintaining it at the very edge of a spell was getting difficult.
"... You could have come back any time. You didn't."
Zack growled, tensing as if he wanted to get up and get in his face. "Do you think she liked being there?"
"Why not? It's her Promised Land."
He'd gone too far, he realized that a fraction of second before hurt flashed in Aeris's eyes.
"It was nice, being with my mother and all the other Cetras," she acknowledged quietly. "But it's nothing like this world. And actually, no, I couldn't have come back any time. When I died, I thought that was it, too."
She hadn't sacrificed herself thinking it meant nothing much. Cloud flinched, feeling bad for even contemplating it.
"There was no safe and easy way out of the Lifestream. There wasn't even any way deeper in; I couldn't even rest. I stayed awake because Jenova wasn't entirely gone, and then I stayed because someone had to guide the Planet when it healed itself. The other Cetras wouldn't, and they were the only other one who would have known how to."
"Why wouldn't they?" he asked when she fell silent. He tried not to sound apologetic; he failed, and then she smiled at him and he failed to regret his lapse.
And it was stupid of him to believe that she was real, that Zack was real. It was extremely stupid. But he couldn't keep lying to himself; he believed anyway.
"They're one with the Planet now. It's hard to still care about the details when you're part of an all-encompassing whole," she added with a smile and a little shrug.
Zack mock-shuddered. "Yeah, it was like 'What's the problem with killing a few hundred people ahead of their time? What's a few years anyway? They would die eventually. Sooner is better. Why wouldn't you want to come back to the Planet? And blahblahblah eternity of peace and unity' ... Urgh. It was creepy."
Cloud stared at Zack, and then back up at Aeris. "Killing?"
She moved down a few steps, arms wrapped around her middle, pensive and a little sad. "The Planet has different views on those things. It had to redistribute the Lifestream -- sometimes that meant it had to take away the life force in some other places, causing droughts, or the crops to die, or even people wasting away for no reason... And is that a shirt I see?"
He leaned down and picked up the bundle of clothes he'd dropped when Zack fell, offered them without a word. The teasing lilt in her voice, the crooked, rueful smirk on Zack's face -- they rang too true. If it was a lie, if it was a trap, it was too late; he'd swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
And then Aeris bypassed the clothes entirely and moved into his arms. He stood there like a statue as she hugged him, her arms around his neck, her chin tilted up to rest on his shoulder. From the staircase, Zack watched, serious and soft, tender.
Cloud did something stupid, once again. He closed his eyes, let his sword rest against the wall, and hugged her back.
He might have held on a little too tight; she didn't say anything.
The staircase creaked a bit, and then Zack's bare feet brushed against the floor. Cloud wasn't surprised to feel a hand on his shoulder. If they wanted to kill him, it would be now or never. He shuddered, once, when instead Zack flung his arms around them both and ruffled Cloud's hair teasingly.
"Mm, toasty warm."
"Idiot," Cloud managed to croak out. "You haven't grown up any."
It was just like Zack to break the mood. At least now Cloud wasn't crying. That would have been embarrassing.
The wetness Aeris kissed off his cheek was only -- it must have been raining.
They stood together in silence for a while, and would have stood longer, but even with his body heat to share he could still feel Aeris shivering. He glanced down, and couldn't miss the way she burrowed in his arms, between his chest and Zack's side.
It would be pretty ridiculous if they came back from the afterlife just to die of the common cold. He loosened his hold, stepped back.
"Get dressed. I'll bring you home." He managed a smile. "Tifa will be..." Astonished. Awed. Deeply moved. "...Happy."
He still was; he couldn't get rid of the awe, the need to cry.
Aeris smiled widely. "I've missed her too. Is she well? Is everyone?"
Cloud nodded, and averted his eyes politely as she accepted the shirt from Zack's hands and pulled it over her head.
When he saw Zack shimmy into Tifa's sweatpants and Aeris wind the shawl around her hips like a sarong, though, he blinked. "There's another pair of pants right here, Zack. I'm pretty sure it would fit you better than Tifa's."
"Whatever do you mean? This is so much more fashionable." Zack grinned at him, tugging up the sweatpants to show off how much of his calves stuck out from the pants legs.
He didn't look Cloud in the eye.
"And besides, I doubt he'd fit into Tifa's pants half as well as I do." Zack grimaced awkwardly, though it had probably been intended as a smile. "Even if it would probably make his ass look fabulous."
Cloud dashed past them both, snatched up his sword and climbed the stairs four by four, with a Fire spell tingling down his hand, only awaiting a target.
The second floor of the old church had worsened since Cloud had lived there three years ago. The wood was swelled with humidity, and the repairs he'd made to the roof weren't holding up too well. Most of the blinds had been nailed shut to prevent the few intact windows from getting broken, though a few slats were missing, slashing the darkness with lines of faraway streetlamp lights. Loose bricks and mortar were strewn around the place, and a few abandoned beer bottles caught and reflected the green glow of his Materia.
None of them gleamed as green as the eyes of the ghostly-pale man standing against the wall, watching him.
<[Prologue]< - >[Chapter 2]>