He was in Wutai again. Impenetrable green tangles all around, knee-deep in bodies. His men. Wutaian men. Warriors, all dead. Camp whores with ink-black hair (often also warriors, just more sneakily so.) He kept patiently turning the corpses over, looking for his mother. None of them had any face left.
He wasn't sure how he would recognize her even if they did.
He turned over corpses. This one was Sergeant Darger and that one First Class Ulweiss. That one was the canteen lady. This one a Wutaian ninja.
And that one was a Wutaian archer, but contrary to all rules and expectations of a hundred and hundred of jungle battlefields he was still alive, and even attempting to sit up. Sephiroth paused to properly consider that flagrant flaunting of the rules. Huh.
A swing with the flat of his blade knocked him out for good. Or broke his skull, either or. Buster swords weren't exactly known for precision and while Sephiroth could fake competency he had never bothered trying for complete mastery. The skill-set ran opposite of the one the Masamune demanded just often enough to foul his reflexes.
This one fit surprisingly well in his hand. Huh.
Another archer. A fire-colored beast leaping, fitting no monster classification for this continent he had ever read.
The city behind him (them), the pagodas and the screaming crowd and the fire. The forest down below, beyond the wall under their feet, they weren't on the ground anymore, they were high up...
But he'd been at Yunnan (or maybe Kunming or Shilin), not inside any city walls, much less the capital. The capital came later, after he'd lost all the troopers he'd been entrusted with, told to watch over, when he started losing his own SOLDIERs. His Firsts.
Later they would send in fresh replacements for him to train, green almost to uselessness and a few bright ones to keep (some he would lose anyway) but they wouldn't be enough to pile up so high. It didn't fit. Irritating.
The dragon rising out of the wave didn't fit either, but it was magnificent.
... Alright, that was more than enough of that. He turned away, pulled free. The archers were out of place and he had dead bodies to check. He was looking for Mother.
He didn't know what he'd do once he found her, but that didn't mean he could just stop looking.
His new second in command would be fine. He had proven himself (would prove himself this wasn't Kunming yet) reliable. Even though Sephiroth didn't want to know what convoluted reason the man had found to bleach his hair bright blond.
"-- hasn't woken up, no... It's nothing -- ahh, okay, okay. It's--"
"He'll have to go to the bathroom soonish."
A sigh; a low, tired man's laugh. "Yeah, what she said. Not trying to badger you into changing your mind. You asked, is all. I'll just put adult diapers on the shopping list. Problem solved."
The female voice was nearby, perhaps looking at him. The male voice was familiar but didn't sound that close, and its owner was likely standing. Sephiroth kept his eyes closed. The male voice...
One of his SOLDIERs. The newest batch.
A third, faraway voice. Phone call. One of his too, that third person. Only...
"Anyway, don't worry about us, the situation here will keep. You just think about Tifa."
"That's what I was calling about," the faraway voice said. "Poison's slow-acting, but it's resilient to materia healing. We were -- hell, never mind, it's a mess. Aeris , can you help?"
Cloth rustled at his side.
"I'm not sure," said the woman, and then he remembered her. She was an Ancient (he was not) and his second in command had a bond with her that divided his loyalties. They insisted they wanted the same things anyway but he didn't see how that could work.
She was also puzzlingly light-hearted, but not today, apparently.
"If it resists magic, I don't know. I've never even heard of things like that. I'm afraid the way my Limits work might count."
"Actually," said Zack (his name was just back in Sephiroth's mind all of a sudden, his name and his wild grins when he rushed into battle,) "I think I was hit by that thing -- a lot of us were. But all I remember about the field treatment is that it hurt like a bitch."
"Fuck." A long, frustrated sigh rang through the phone. "...But it worked?"
"I'm here," Zack said simply.
"The traditional healers are just giving basic advice and a handful of plants. Keep her asleep and hydrated, it'll pass. " Bitter. "Thanks for nothing."
"Wait. It'll pass?"
"Yeah. The nerve damage won't."
"Yeah. You really don't remember?" A rhetorical question, all three seemed to know it. "Guess there's no choice then. Could you...?"
"Yeah," said Zack, commiserating. "I'll--"
"I'm awake," said Sephiroth before he could come and check.
The next silence was deeply dismayed.
He opened his eyes on a slanted wooden ceiling and (the Ancient's) Miss Gainsborough's startled face. He had a moment of satisfaction over it -- but getting one past her wasn't as satisfying when she was distracted by worry. The very fact that such a thing would distract her cheapened the challenge itself, trivialized it.
Zack stood farther in the room, only visible once he sat up. Sephiroth held out his hand for the phone, received it after a second's pause, without a comment. It was small and sleek, the volume turned up so Miss Gainsborough could hear it.
"Strife," he said, and tried not to think about that time floating at the edge of waking when he had not known him.
'My apologies for waking out of turn', he almost purred, knowing exactly how on edge Strife would be. Almost, because with Fair in front of him the memory of his Firsts lost in fever and pain came up easily.
"The goal was for us to kill our own men trying to fix them," he said instead, dismissing the impulse to be spiteful. The bare truth would do damage enough. "The poison was especially tailored to worsen with each materia use. How many times did you try?"
A short pause, during which he had the strange idea that Strife might be licking dry lips.
"Only once. ...She screamed."
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow. "That's lucky." He'd known commanders who'd been unwilling to admit it wouldn't work until their men's legs were dead for good, even until their lungs shut down. He'd been that commander, just once, because they couldn't afford not to make sure, because they couldn't afford to haul around dead weights -- they only hindered their comrades and got them sniped, and often ended up in need of a mercy killing anyway. "As the healers advised, letting things run their course might work out to leave her with a negligible amount of nerve damage, probably only in her extremities."
"She's a martial artist. A negligible whatever is not acceptable."
He conceded the point with a little 'hm'. "The field treatment, then?"
Strife sounded so firm, defiantly so; Sephiroth smiled to himself, obscurely amused. "Let it run its course."
"You son of a--"
"Then when the poison is flushed out, but before it sets in her body memory, hit her with Bio. Mid-strength on a mastered materia might work, though for thoroughness' sake I suggest you give it your all."
Zack looked queasy, but not disbelieving. Like he could tell that was exactly what Sephiroth had done.
Like he trusted it had been entirely necessary. Sephiroth looked away.
"It works, Strife," he growled back, and then forced his very real moment of irritation into mockery. "So long as you don't forget to heal her right afterwards. Preferably before the decomposition sets in."
There was another pregnant pause.
"Window of time?"
"Depending on metabolism, roughly a half hour after the poison stops acting -- keep monitoring it. Sense is a passive materia, it won't trigger another fit. Between Bio and Restore, six to eight seconds."
A sucked-in breath. "...Doable," Strife decide. "Several casters okay?"
Sephiroth pulled the PHS away from his ear to hand back to Zack.
Sephiroth stopped, and slowly brought the PHS back to his ear. He could guess Strife had only used his rank so he wouldn't use his name where it could be overheard, but it seemed one pulled his attention just as well as the other, from that voice.
Strange, that moment of -- irritation -- because Strife would never mean it.
"You staying, then?"
"It looks like," he said dryly, ignoring how it galled, how much he didn't want to. 'Want' was irrelevant, when it disregarded all consequences. (It's a god's prerogative, might have said Hojo. Then again he had more often said, Cease your childish tantrum. You have more discipline than that. He did.)
"There's a bathroom with shower one floor down."
"I don't need a reward for good behavior, Strife."
"No, but by now you've got to need a chamberpot."
Only Zack's quickly choked-down snicker convinced him of what he'd heard. Not the words so much as the tone -- wry, edging into sarcastic, but without hostility. Just... Reserve, maybe.
"...I also figure you won't have another chance to clean up, once I bring them back."
It was annoying, that Strife would know it would have bothered him to be judged in his dirty, disheveled state. He shouldn't care what they thought, but he did anyway.
"But once you're done, go back to sleep."
Moment over. "Very well." He terminated the call and handed the PHS back to Zack, and tried not to look forward to his bath.
"I think that's it," Cloud said cautiously, and stopped casting. Cid wiped his forehead and leaned against the wall. Nanaki dropped on his stomach right there on the spot.
On her bed, Tifa still lay motionless, but her skin wasn't flushed with fever anymore. Cloud lay a hand on her forehead. "Temperature seems normal." A Sense revealed no hidden problems.
"Shouldn't she wake up now?" Denzel asked from the connecting door to Cloud's bedroom. Barret had pulled him out in the corridor before, only for the boy to go straight to the hidden door. Cloud had told Barret to drop it. Denzel would only imagine worse than was actually happening if he was forbidden to see it.
"Hopefully she will in a minute," he said, matter of fact as much as he could. "But if she doesn't, that's normal too. She needs real sleep now."
He cracked the corridor door open. Barret was standing by the door with his arms crossed forbiddingly, towering over a Wutainese doctor. Reeve must have gone to do some kind of political maneuvering. Vincent of course was nowhere in sight.
Cloud gave the patiently waiting doctor a curt nod. "Thanks, we're good now. Barret," he said, gesturing him in. He closed the door behind Barret.
It was highly unlikely the doctor would have been of any help, even if they still needed him. None of the doctors and healers had offered more than a couple of palliatives and cryptic remarks. The only real help they'd gotten had been from one of Yuffie's ninjas, dropping by with herbs to make her sweat out the poison faster, before it reached her spine.
Cloud didn't have a lot of patience for politics even usually, but when one of his people was the point they were making, or the leverage -- well.
A knock at the door and Reeve walked in. He quickly took the room in, and relaxed on seeing their faces.
Nanaki pushed himself into a sitting position and sniffed at her hand. "The poison at least is gone," he informed them.
The bedroom was crowded, only Vincent and Yuffie missing to complete the set. (And Aeris, but not as much as she had been, not as irrevocably, and that pulled his spine straighter, erased much of the frown.) Cloud waved Denzel closer; the boy weaved his way between Cid and Barret, stepped over Nanaki, and sat at the head of the bed, between Tifa and Cloud, where Cloud could drop a hand on his shoulder.
"The last archer died in custody -- suicide, apparently."
"The hell!" Cid growled.
Cloud didn't disbelieve it exactly but...
"Yes," said Reeve tiredly. "For the man to succeed in killing himself while under guard, someone else had to be inclined to let him."
"Or someone else killed him, same problem," Cid said. "How the hell did they even get to him? Who was guarding him?"
Reeve sighed. "I asked around but even my usual contacts wouldn't tell me anything. This is, I quote, a problem internal to Wutai, and will be treated as such."
"Tifa got hurt," Denzel started angrily. "She's not from Wutai."
"And they're very grateful, and wish her a prompt recovery, and--"
"Bullshit!" Barret hit the wall he was leaning on, making the hanging scrolls and the ceiling light bounce. He would have paced if there was enough space.
"Barret, calm down," Cloud said. "Reeve, any idea who backed the archers?"
"The only clue we have is the type of poison -- something they came up with to use against Shinra. It might be that this is a message, a judgment of Yuffie and her bonds with ... something they see as Shinra-like."
Like, say, an organization led by a previous member of their Board of Directors, as his tired, guilty expression seemed to say.
"Might just be that they know she uses materia," Cloud replied. "Then again they would have just used a faster kind if they really wanted her dead. Using this one, they weren't sure she'd die, so..."
"Yes," said Reeve. "The timing, also, was especially meaningful -- after Godo's reign was ritually over, but before Yuffie was confirmed. This was a warning, or a sign of disapproval. The traditionalists, then."
"Or people trying to get 'em blamed... Argh! I hate this kind of intrigue." Barret lifted his fist to hit the wall again, but at the last second stopped himself. Cid nudged his arm with an elbow, sympathetic.
Cloud sighed and ran a hand through his hair. The discussion wasn't going to go any further without new information. He leaned past Denzel to touch Tifa's forehead. Still no fever, and she even moved a little bit.
"I'm going to make a phone call."
"To your friend?" Nanaki asked, moving aside to let him pass.
Cloud paused to look at him, not sure how to interpret that tone. "...Yeah. He wanted to know how it went, with Tifa."
Well, Aeris and Zack did. He was pretty sure Sephiroth didn't.
"Useful guy, by the way," Cid said, and he sounded a little surprised that Cloud had made a friend they didn't know. "Wutai veteran?"
God but Cloud hated lying to them, even if only by omission. He made a sort of affirmative noise and quickly slipped through the door to his bedroom, closing it behind him.
"Seventh Heaven, where all your drinking dreams come true!"
"Hey, Aeris," he said, smiling. He couldn't help it.
She must have heard it in his voice, because she let out a long, slightly shaking breath. "Tifa."
"Yeah, she's -- I don't want to say 'fine', because she hasn't woken up yet, but it looks like it worked."
"Oh, thank you," she breathed out. Cloud had the feeling she wasn't talking to him. Maybe to the Planet.
"You bartending?" he asked, suspicious -- she sounded like she'd picked up on the landline, nothing like the crisp clarity of the PHS network, and the landline was on the ground floor.
"I wish, it sounds like so much fun. No, I'm... Well. I'm washing dishes."
Not suspicious at all. "...Aeris."
"...In the bar. But the blinds are closed."
Thank god. The last thing they needed right now was someone who'd known her walking by and seeing her through the windows. "Do I want to know why you're doing dishes there and not in the kitchen?"
"I'm sure you must. It's a fascinating mystery. " A giggle. "Alright, not really. Zack made a bit of a mess yesterday. I think he'll need more training before he can be allowed behind the bar again."
Cloud felt a pang of homesickness for a home he had never really known; bad timing, bad luck -- never complete. He wanted to grab Tifa and Denzel and fly straight back and -- just be home.
"Soon, Cloud," she said, soothing. "We'll be waiting."
Cloud closed his eyes and made himself relax. "Yeah." Zack and Aeris, alive, waiting. Messing around behind the bar, in their kitchen. Sleeping in his bedroom. He smiled a little. "Yeah, okay."
Tifa might wake soon, and he needed to figure out a way to contact Yuffie, pool their resources. He switched tracks.
Aeris didn't need to ask who. "Yes." A pause. "He's been dreaming a lot."
Huh. You weren't supposed to dream at all, when under a spell. Sometimes you'd even wake without realizing you'd lost time.
Then again this was twice now that he'd broken free, once from Cloud's casting and once from Aeris's. That plan to make Sephiroth harmless had been half-assed from the start, no matter how Cloud wanted to tell himself it wasn't (anything short of killing him again and salting the ashes would be half-assed), and was now proving ridiculously ineffective; if even Aeris couldn't keep him down against his wishes, Cloud didn't know anyone who could.
The only thing that kept him from hyperventilating, that made the plan workable, was that Sephiroth was still there, willing to wait. Even willing to offer his unasked-for cooperation.
Watching Bio spread through Tifa's body, eating through her flesh as it went, watching her skin go mottled greenish-brown as rot crawled under her skin -- it had been awful, almost unbearable, even for that short handful of seconds. If she could hold her hands steady when she woke, feel what she ought with her fingertips...
He might owe a debt there. Not a big enough one to balance the things Sephiroth had done, but...
"I'll call you tomorrow," he said. He hesitated, his finger on the disconnect button. "... Be safe."
"You too," she said with quiet gravity, and she ended the call first.
When he went back to Tifa's bedroom, Nanaki was staring at him, the big triangles of his ears angled straight ahead, prickled up. He swiveled them backward and cocked them at a doubtful, wary angle as Cloud stared back.
"Furball? Spike?" Cid asked, eyes narrowed as he stared back and forth between them.
And shit again.
Reeve and Barret turned to them as the silence lasted. Shit and fuck.
He didn't want to lie to them again. But.
"... Not here." He gave the door and window a meaningful look.
"How bad is it, really?" demanded Cid. "Because I'm starting to get some really bad fucking vibes from you here."
Aw, fuck. "Not all bad, there's -- good news too. But. Some parts of it are pretty..." He sighed, shook his head. "Not talking about it here, it really isn't the right place."
"Here as in the room or here as in the town? Because now Tifa's better nothing stops us from going up to the ship."
"Here as in the continent, feels like," Cloud said, and sighed again. "It's not urgent."
"It's not like anything urgent is happening here either," Cid countered. "What's wrong with being prepared?"
"It'll distract you."
"You sound very sure about that," Reeve mused from his corner, fingers smoothing down his goatee as he stared at him like Cloud was a strange new piece of machinery to take apart.
Cloud crossed the room and sat at Denzel's side on the bed. "I am. I can guarantee it."
Cid's eyes narrowed some more. "Nanaki?"
The beast shook his head slowly. "I likely misheard."
He likely hadn't. Come to think of it, hadn't he looked at him strange when asking about Cloud's friend, before Cloud even called back? Cloud couldn't be sure. Either way the cat was out of the bag now.
He was just very glad Nanaki was willing to trust him a little longer.
There were ways to break a long, heavy, brooding silence, but likely none as good as a previously invisible trap in the ceiling suddenly bursting open and a small thief somersaulting through. She landed awkwardly at the end of the mattress, and went bouncing at an angle into Barret, who caught her by reflex before she could slide to the ground.
Everyone blinked at his armful of upside-down Yuffie, clean of makeup and free of stiff, embroidered layers. At first glance it was like nothing had happened.
At second glance her grin was a little brittle. But she obviously didn't want it noticed.
"Hi guys! How's it going? Sorry it took me so long to drop by, people kept nagging me--"
This time it was toward the head of the bed that everyone turned.
Barret and Reeve went for water at the same time. Cloud was only aware of them peripherally. Tifa's eyes were open.
"How do you feel?" he and Denzel asked together. She smiled tiredly.
"Tingly. Thirsty." Her fingers twitched on the blanket. Cloud wondered if it was confusion or nerve damage. "Yuffie?"
"Tifa!" Yuffie bounced out of Barret's arms and knelt at the other side of the bed. Her enthusiasm faltered there, and for a long second she seemed more lost than anything. "... Are you sure you're okay?"
"Are you okay?" Tifa's voice was weak, but determined. She struggled to push herself up. Cloud helped her lift her head so that Denzel could slide a pillow underneath. Barret helped her drink, smiling the same fond, soft-eyed way he smiled at Marlene.
Yuffie grinned. "Oh, sure. I just had to listen to a dozen old goats telling me I should 'lessen my workload' and let them handle stuff because they care so much -- more like they wanted to take over but shyeah right. As if Da-- as if no one warned me 'bout that trick."
Reeve relaxed visibly. "That's what I wanted to talk with you about ..." Cid cleared his throat meaningfully; Reeve coughed in his fist. "I'm sure it can wait, though. How are you doing?"
"Good, good, I'm--"
"Good?" Denzel suggested, an eyebrow up. Yuffie stuck out her tongue at him.
"We are very glad to see you," Nanaki said diplomatically.
As they bickered, Cloud took Tifa's hand and flexed her fingers, and asked her to grip. "Tingling still?"
Her grip didn't seem to have weakened much. He couldn't feel his own fingers in very short order.
"A bit. It's passing."
"Yeah, I'd say so," he replied dryly, shaking blood back into them.
Yuffie turned back to them and ran her fingers down Tifa's sleeve. She was only in the black under-kimono by now, rumpled and belt undone. "Sucks that it got all dirty," Yuffie said. "You looked pretty nice."
So she had seen them after all, Cloud thought.
"You too," Tifa started to say, but Yuffie had already turned to the rest of the gang, who hadn't changed out of theirs yet, a bit too quick like she didn't want to hear it.
"The rest of you guys, sorry, you just look weird. Hm, no, Cloud's kinda hot with that haori. All warlordy. And Denzel's cute."
Denzel reddened a little and grumbled that he so wasn't.
"I think she's insultin' us, Barret," Cid commented, since Reeve wore a Midgar-style suit and Nanaki, of course, wore nothing but his bangles and mane ornaments. Barret drew himself up and gave her a fake threatening look.
"I bet it's nothing on Vince, though!" she immediately replied, even as she started a quick retreat to the other end of the room. "Haha. I mean, it's a good thing he didn't bother -- him wearing white, he woulda imploded."
"I didn't," Vincent said, opening the corridor door.
He'd changed into his own mourning kimono, long dark hair combed smooth and tied in a low tail between his shoulder blades. His claw was hidden, tucked in the kimono's front like a sling, the sleeve hanging empty.
"I would have changed earlier," he said quietly, "but it's harder to fight in these."
She stared at him, speechless. He stopped in front of her and bowed his head.
"I am sorry for your loss."
Yuffie burst into tears.
They traded Yuffie around for a bit after she had let a stoically enduring Vincent and his soggy kimono go. Cid and Barret ruffling her hair and looking embarrassed and sorry in about equal measures, Reeve rubbing her back, Nanaki nuzzling her hand until she rested it on his head and scritched him; she ended up on the bed hugging Tifa for all she was worth, Tifa hugging back as tight as she could as Denzel awkwardly patted her shoulder.
Cloud put his hand on her head and waited for her sobs to die down, as the rest of Avalanche found places to sit on the queen-sized mattress, or, like Vincent, perched on the footboard, just barely out of reach.
Yuffie turned in Tifa's arms and scrunched her eyebrows at Nanaki, last to still stand on the floor, and patted the bed.
"I fear I would finish it," Nanaki said, eyeing the sagging frame under Barret.
"Shaddap and come here," Yuffie ordered, voice rough with recent tears. Nanaki leaped on without another comment, landing with as much care as he could across Tifa's legs. The bed groaned.
He awkwardly attempted to find a position that wouldn't lean his weight on her. Yuffie felt blindly for his ruff and pulled him closer, making him flop on his flank across Tifa's and Cloud's laps.
"You're not too heavy like that," Cloud said, smiling faintly as Denzel sneaked in a caress to his red fur past Yuffie's strangling attempt.
"I am not a stuffed toy," Nanaki complained quietly, but made no move to free himself.
"Aww." Cid grinned. "Think we should hurry and take a picture."
The bed resisted Yuffie and Nanaki's attempts to swat at him -- fouling each other's movements, they didn't go far.
Then Barret did it for them, his hand cuffing the back of Cid's head, and with a quiet whimper of abused steel, the bedframe sank to the floor.
"So what's that big secret you've got?" Cait Sith asked the next day from his perch on Denzel's shoulder, as the group paused in the middle of the Da Chao paths to watch the scenery unfolding below. They'd pretended the walk was for Tifa's benefit, a need to get some air and exercise after her ordeal, though the second they were out of sight of the town Cloud and Cid had to play human crutches.
Cloud was carrying her now. Tifa looked grim and weary and it wasn't all because of the poison. He took the time to sit her comfortably on a rock, then took a couple of slow steps away, distancing himself. He didn't want her caught in the crossfire; in the end it had been his decision.
Yuffie had been whisked away by the ninjas tailing her to sleep in some undisclosed location; Vincent vanished soon after, no doubt to track her down. The rest of Avalanche were present, if not all physically so. He placed himself so the jagged rocks would block line of sight no matter how good the binoculars, and flicked Nanaki a look; Nanaki lifted his nose to the breeze, sniffed, and then nodded. "We weren't followed."
Alright. They were as alone as they could possibly get. And Reeve would know not to review Cait Sith's gathered info in public.
He nodded to himself. It would have to do.
"Aeris came back to life."
He could see the uncomprehending confusion on their faces at first -- a good person, coming back to them after being taken too soon, too brutally? It couldn't be right, life wasn't that fair, they must have misunderstood -- then the blooming astonishment as they realized they hadn't.
He didn't want them to start asking questions now, or at his next revelation; he wanted to get it all out, all at once. There would be screaming afterwards but there would be screaming no matter how he said it, and at least he wouldn't have to scream over them.
At least he wouldn't have to watch them start to feel happy -- the fall to 'betrayed' would only hurt more. He finished his concise announcement before any of them could start smiling.
"She brought Sephiroth along." And before they could reel back from the whiplash, "I'm going back with the first ship. We need to decide who's coming with."