: Sudden DeathFandom
: Kingdom HeartsClaim
: [070.] TruceWord Count
: Cloud was cracking, and he didn’t know how to stop it before he shattered. Tifa’s having nothing of this.Disclaimer
: The emo-ness of this chapter forbids my brain from being witty. I own nothing. Really. In fact, I owe Disney movie club money. Take that, bitches. Author’s Note
: Blame (thank) Beatrisu. She took Riku hostage and threatened to give him to Leon.Author’s Note 2
: It seems Advent Children (as much as I love it) is as hard to write as it is to watch. I apologize for the lateness of this. I’ve also changed things around quite a bit to agree with Zack and the Kingdom Hearts storyline as I’ve detailed it within this story (and to my own personal liking). So I know it doesn’t agree. Thanks.
Despite the knowledge that he now had Geostigma, things were a mess with Zack, and Kadaj was just a maggot to Sephiroth’s fly, Cloud slept surprisingly well. Perhaps it had something to do with the peace of mind acquired by the long talk with Riku. It felt like a hurdle had been passed—as if so many bad things had happened in such a short amount of time that the karmic payback for such shitty circumstances was that things between them were finally comfortable again.
To Cloud’s misfortune, however, it was business as usual the second he woke to find Zack hovering over him. His first thought was to wonder whether the incidents from ‘The Kiss’ on were simply hallucinations (or a hellish dream) until he registered that he was still in the Sector Six Church. Cloud blinked a few times. Zack had the decency to look sheepish for a moment, but then a wide, boyish grin overcame his lips.
“I love how even after all these years it’s still a challenge to get your ass out of bed before ten.”
Cloud coughed and without even fully realizing he was doing it, covered his Geostigma-ridden arm with the blanket. Zack moved back a few steps to allow Cloud enough room to rise into a seated position. As he blinked through weary eyes and tried to adjust to the ethereal light of the church (which was a shock after staring into the back of his eyelids) Zack grabbed the pillow and took the spot Cloud’s head vacated.
“What’re you doin’ here?” said Cloud in a drowsy slur. Zack laughed.
“I’ve come to retrieve your sorry ass. You never came back and Tifa was worried you might be hurt. I mean, you just took off again, and you’d been drinking, but since you were upset she said we’d give you a day before coming after you. Don’t worry, though. She isn’t mad this time. She is, I mean, but not at you.”
Cloud rubbed his eyes with the hand on his good arm and yawned.
“You?” said Cloud.
“Yeah,” said Zack. He laughed a little, looked away, and rubbed the back of his neck. “You should have heard the ass reaming I got all day yesterday.”
“Why’s she mad at you?”
“You’ve been here less than two weeks and I’m responsible for you taking off for a night twice now.”
“You didn’t do anything.”
“Oh, come on,” said Zack, laughing again. He shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “Everyone already knows what happened, and you and I were both there, so there’s no point in lying. I acted like a drunken idiot. Actually, I acted like a pathetic drunken slut, throwing myself at you like that, but it’s all the same.”
Cloud swallowed and stared at the flower bed. He had been really hoping to avoid this conversation, and he wanted even less to be having it at this time of morning only minutes after being forcefully yanked from the sweet state of unconsciousness. He exhaled a soft sigh, closed his eyes for a moment, and felt his heart seize and sink. Zack may have thrown himself at Cloud, but Zack was hurting, too, and Cloud had acted like a jackass.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” said Cloud. “It was what it was and I overreacted.”
Zack shook his head.
“I shouldn’t have kissed you. I know you’re in a relationship, and it was immature of me to get drunk like that and spew word vomit about…you know…us. Or what us used to be. I crossed a line there. I deserved to get walked out on.”
“It’s not a big deal. Let’s just not do it again and we’ll call it even. Have your drunken sob fests with Leon or something. Shiva knows he’s got to have a lot of stuff to cry about somewhere in him if only because I drive him crazy.”
Zack dropped his head and turned his face toward the ground. He smiled for a moment, but it was a sad sort of smile that didn’t reach his eyes. It appeared forced as if even though he was smiling, he wasn’t quite sure of why he was doing it. Perhaps it was some kind of irony where something was funny even though it wasn’t really a laugh out loud kind of funny and funny in that horrible way that kind of makes you want to cry out in pain. Cloud tore his eyes away from Zack to stare at the flowers again.
“You’ve changed,” said Zack after a long silence.
Cloud swallowed again and cleared his throat. “You’ve been saying that a lot.”
Zack raised his eyebrows as if to agree, sighed, and nodded. “Yeah, I have.”
“Is it a good change?”
It was the one question Cloud had been afraid to ask. He didn’t have to inquire as to why Zack thought this so fervently; he had given enough reasons during his drunken outpour alone. He didn’t have to ask what these changes were; Zack had provided enough answers to that question as well. What did remain ambivalent was whether or not Zack thought that these changes he spoke of were any good, and with the alarming frequency of his comments, Cloud wondered if Zack thought any different about him. He wondered if maybe the changes were bad—if he had somehow lost himself, became codependent, or something else negative he was too close to the situation to see. The over analytical dissection he was performing on himself, however, was cut short as Zack formed that funny but not funny smile again and nodded.
“Well, yeah,” he said, and shrugged. “You’ve really…I don’t know. You’ve grown into yourself. You’re stronger than you were before, and I’m not talking about physically. You’re more confident. It’s a good thing. It just…depresses me, I guess. You’re not like I remember you. I mean, you are, but…You are in a totally different way, if that makes any sense.”
Cloud sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. His eyes moved from the flowers and looked everywhere except for Zack as he tried to think of how to reply to that. Nothing good came to mind. He couldn’t even think of a decent way to close this conversation in the hopes it would never arise from where it was buried again.
“How’s the weather?” Cloud asked. It was a crappy, half-assed attempt to change the subject, but Zack laughed anyway, looked up at the holes in the church roof, and gave Cloud a wry smile.
“It’s nice out today.”
Cloud bit his lip. “That’s good.”
“I see you’ve got yourself set up pretty nice here. Plan on moving in?”
Cloud smiled, shrugged, and looked to the meager amount of items he had sprawled around the pathetic bed he’d devised. His eyes roved up to meet Zack’s.
“I was thinking about it. Beats the hovel I was staying in a couple months ago before the great Hollow Bastion Restoration. The walls still have holes in them, though…”
“Eh,” said Zack. “That just means you like the fixer-uppers.”
Cloud’s face grew deadly serious; he nodded. “Oh, yeah. Makes me feel like a man.”
This time Zack actually did smile as he laughed. Cloud found he couldn’t help but smile with him. He felt the tension break. Zack snorted.
“At least something makes you feel like a man.”
Cloud laughed and shoved his shoulder against Zack. “Hey, don’t go picking on me. We both know I couldn’t use tools to save my life.”
“And yet you can lug this thing around,” said Zack. He picked up the core of First Tsurugi and gave it a swing. “How you manage to not kill yourself with it…”
“I know. It’s a mystery to many.”
“I still can’t believe you’ve learned to laugh at yourself. I’m impressed.”
“It was bound to happen eventually,” Cloud said with a shrug. “Everyone else does. And anyway, I figured if I took myself too seriously I might start acting like Leon. Moping around. Dedicating my life to the future of Hollow Bastion. Ready to bust a vein anytime something goes awry. Sucking down cigarettes while I wax poetical about my shortcomings. Waking up at five in the morning.”
“Shiva, we can’t have that.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Riku had to point this out to you, didn’t he?”
Cloud smiled despite that this was Zack and the tension could potentially return. “Of course he did. We also both know I’m not perceptive enough to figure that out on my own. I doubt if I’d smile much at all if Riku hadn’t come along. Too busy moping around and waxing poetical about my shortcomings.”
“No wonder you and Leon get along so well.”
“Yeah. We’re miserable people, and you know what they say about misery…”
“I guess you’re lucky you have Riku, then.”
“Nah. You’re lucky we have Riku to make light of misery. Makes us somewhat tolerable people to coexist with. Me, anyway. Leon’s still waking up at five in the morning.”
“But not you.”
Cloud snorted. “I wish I wasn’t. Remember what they say about misery? Leon needs his company.”
Zack laughed again and stared at a spot on the floor. “I can’t believe how—Shiva, this is going to sound retarded.”
“I can’t believe how old he’s gotten. Tall. He looks…”
“Like he’d be the queer instead of me?”
Zack frowned. “What?”
“Well…you know…the fur…”
Zack snorted. “I never looked at it that way.”
Cloud’s smile dropped and he nodded. “I know what you mean. I was shocked, too, when I first got to Traverse Town and saw him again. Couldn’t believe it really was him at first. You aren’t really a surprise because we were here together, you know? And Tifa and Yuffie were kind of a shock, but…I don’t know. Girls always seem to change less than guys. They still kind of look the same. Different, but just in that they’re older. Less awkward. More mature. So even Aerith wasn’t even that different, but Leon…Man. Last I remembered…”
“He was short,” said Zack, laughing. “I still picture him that way. Small. Thin. Baby faced. Then I remember what he looks like now and…Yeah. I still can’t believe how much older he looks. And bigger! It’s like…I don’t know if I could kick his ass anymore, you know?”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t fuck with Leon.”
“That’s another thing! Leon. What the hell is that?”
“Hey, you don’t have to tell me about that. I keep trying to tell him Leon Leonheart sounds retarded but he’s not listening to me.”
“It’s not just that,” said Zack, and he laughed. “It’s just…Squall’s such a cooler name. Who the hell actually chooses to be called Leon?”
Cloud shrugged. “I’m in no position to be judging anyone’s name.”
“What’s wrong with your name?”
Cloud stared. “Are you serious? I don’t know who named me, but I swear it was a freakin’ bohemian. All Aerith-like in their oneness with nature. Seriously. Who names a child ‘Cloud’ and why doesn’t anyone question it?”
Zack blinked. “I never looked at it that way.”
“It’s like naming your kid ‘Grass.’”
“Suppose there will never be a Cloud Junior, then.”
“Not if I get a say in it.”
“I never knew you hated your name.”
“I don’t really hate it; I just don’t get it. It’s not a real name. My parents, whoever they were, never gave me a chance. Cloud Strife? Dear Shiva, why?”
“Sadistic intentions?” said Zack.
Cloud laughed. “Maybe.”
“So…You feeling up to heading back to Tifa’s?”
Cloud rolled his eyes. “I’m never up to heading back to Tifa’s.”
“She annoys you that much?”
“Don’t get me wrong; I love Tifa. I love her like a sister, but like a sister, she drives me crazy sometimes.”
“At least Vincent’s there.”
“Oh, don’t even get me started on him. That guy has more emotional issues than Leon-Squall and me put together. The best part of being at Tifa’s is the kids, and that’s just depressing now.”
Zack took a deep inhale and nodded. “Denzel’s Geostigma. I know. Depresses me, too.”
“He’s too young for this. He had nothing to do with Sephiroth or the Jenova project.” Cloud’s hand came up to gently cover the spot where his own Geostigma marred his flesh. “It isn’t fair.”
“I know. I couldn’t believe what had happened since I died when Tifa told me about it all. This place really fell to shit for awhile, didn’t it?”
“Still isn’t much better in case you haven’t noticed.”
Zack sighed. “I’ve noticed. That’s why we’re going to go after Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo, right? Do something to make this place a little better, right?”
Cloud nodded. He thought of his Geostigma, of Riku out there helping Sora along his path, and of everyone back in Hollow Bastion trying to restore their home. There wasn’t time to be ready anymore.
“Yeah,” said Cloud, after a pause. “Right.”
Tifa didn’t mention anything about Cloud’s disappearing act until after Marlene was in bed. Upon his return Tifa merely asked him if he was hungry and both Cloud and Zack sat down to the table for lunch with her and Marlene. Vincent, he learned, was out at the moment, meeting up with Reeve in regards of something to do with the WRO and probably brooding over his miserable existence. As Marlene chattered away about everything she did yesterday and chastised Cloud for not coming home, Cloud wondered how he’d become surrounded by all the crazy drama in his life. He kept his Geostigma-ridden arm close into his body; from the way Tifa’s gaze was a little too low to be looking at his face, she noticed.
Zack retreated outside with Marlene after lunch while Tifa prepared for the bar’s evening business. Cloud took the opportunity to visit Denzel. His face was paler than Cloud remembered it being only two days ago. His eyes were duller. Cloud read to him, but Denzel was in and out of consciousness, eyes heavy lidded when they weren’t closed. He barely spoke, and his voice sounded thin when he did.
“Just rest,” Cloud said, as Denzel struggled to stay awake.
“I don’t want you...to go again...” Denzel said.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Cloud sat with him long after he was asleep. He continued to read. He stared at the stained bandages covering Denzel’s forehead. He looked at his own arm and the gravity of the situation piled on him. His chest felt tight; his eyes stung. Cloud waited, hoped, prayed for something to change. He wanted to go back; he wanted to go forward. The walls closed up on either side, caving him and Denzel in, both doomed and fated for death—Sephiroth’s last laugh, if you will, because Cloud had always suspected that he would win in the end.
He shook his head and gripped his arm, not on the Geostigma-marred spot, but just above it—close enough that it hurt, anyway. Pain shot up to his elbow, deep in his bones, and Cloud winced. He needed to stop thinking this way. He was going to fight this thing, damnit. He was going to kill Sephiroth for good, even if he went down with him. Sephiroth could give one last single-finger salute to Gaea and its inhabitants if he liked, but Cloud needed to end this here. Enough people had died and suffered already because of him, and Cloud was no better if he couldn’t push his insecurities aside long enough to stop him. Riku had been a driving force up until now, but just because Cloud didn’t have the same problems Riku did—even if being around Riku sometimes made Cloud feel like he had his shit together—that didn’t mean his issues weren’t still lurking. So he didn’t look like Ansem. So he hadn’t run around with Maleficent and fallen deeper into the darkness. Cloud felt like an idiot.
All this time it had been an ego boost of sorts, being there for Riku when he was needed. He felt like something—someone—when Riku had been going through hell and Cloud had been his sanity. Sephiroth had always been there in the back of his mind, looming over him, but Cloud had finally felt like he was pulling himself together. He vowed to finish things so he and Riku might have a chance at something very near a healthy relationship, but he hadn’t really committed. He’d allowed himself to slide, hadn’t tried to better himself, because he’d been too busy hiding behind Riku, using Riku as his driving force when what Cloud had really needed to do was focus. He had to find his own strength, his own motivation, resolve, and this time...
Cloud winced and stared hard at Denzel’s forehead. He’d be damned if he let Sephiroth tear him and the people he loved apart again. Cloud might as well just lie down and die if the next time Sephiroth laid slaughtered by his hand the nagging sensation was there and Cloud had to wait it out for the next round. He had to make peace with himself first, and then it was time for sudden death.
A long sigh escaped his lips and Cloud stared up at the ceiling. His chest pulled tight. He’d been around this block before. He’d given himself these same, tired motivational speeches countless times. Depression and darkness ebbed through his veins. Resolve would be all well and good if he could just figure out how he was supposed to do this. With his head gripped between his hands, Cloud shut his eyes and took a long breath. He was cracking, and he didn’t know how to stop before he shattered.
What was more effectual? Fighting for yourself and right to live or fighting to protect the ones you loved? Cloud couldn’t find the answer. That was how Zack found him for dinner, with his head gripped in his hands and eyes shut, sitting on Denzel’s bed and trying to make sense and sanity of it all. It seemed like forever ago, and Cloud realized it practically was—almost half of his life—that the darkness hadn’t been part of it. His breathing was heavy and ragged. He hadn’t even heard Zack come in, didn’t know he was there until Zack’s hand was on his shoulder and Cloud lunged forward, practically jumping out of his skin.
“Vincent wanted me to tell you dinner’s ready,” said Zack. He peered at Denzel and then Cloud. When he said nothing more, Cloud slowly lowered his still-raised hands, arms shaking. He looked up at Zack and suddenly felt tired. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I just...” Cloud released a weak, bitter laugh and shrugged. “I’ll be okay.”
Zack’s mouth pulled tight. He stared hard at Cloud, almost as if he were looking right through him. Cloud shifted.
“If you need to talk or something...”
“Yeah, I know.”
“It’s no good keeping it all to yourself.”
“I don’t really feel up to talking about my feelings right now if you don’t mind.”
Zack nodded. “Yeah, sure, but if you change your mind later...”
Cloud’s reply had come out a little harsher than he intended, but his heart was beating hard against his ribcage. His throat felt tight. He gave Denzel one last look, still sleeping in his bed and face taut from the pain, and swallowed. Cloud brushed past Zack and headed for the stairs.
It was once Marlene was in bed and Seventh Heaven was closed that Tifa brought up yesterday’s events.
“I heard you met with Reno and Rude yesterday,” she said and placed a glass of amber liquid in front of Cloud. She gave Zack a glass of water.
Cloud frowned. “Where did you hear that?”
“Johnny,” said Vincent.
“The guy that runs the place you met Reno and Rude,” said Tifa. “He overheard my name and made it a point to tell me what happened.”
“He’s pathetically in love with her,” said Zack, snickering. Tifa punched his shoulder. Zack winced and made an irritated whimpering sound.
“He is not. We have mutual respect for each other.”
“He loves her,” Zack hissed. Cloud almost smiled. “So...you went to see Reno and Rude?”
“We met for lunch,” said Cloud. “I wanted to know more about what was going on with Kadaj.”
Cloud shrugged. “Rufus Shinra is holding Jenova’s head hostage, Kadaj is trying to get it from him, and I’m pretty damn certain that Kadaj is the vessel Sephiroth is going to use to return. Nothing unusual considering Sephiroth is concerned.”
“That sounds just fantastic,” said Zack. “So what are we going to do about it?”
Cloud shrugged again and sighed this time. “Hell if I know. Wait for Sephiroth to return and run him through with First Tsurugi?”
“And finish it this time,” Tifa said. Cloud glared.
“Yes. And finish it this time,” said Cloud.
“Give him a break,” said Vincent. “These things take time.”
Tifa opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something, but Cloud crossed his arms, glared at the table, and she closed her mouth again. An uneasy silence spread across the table. Zack cleared his throat.
“Well, you know you have me to back you up,” Zack said.
“You have all of us,” said Tifa.
“I know,” said Cloud. “And I appreciate it, but Sephiroth is something I need to do on my own.”
“Sure, Sephiroth, but I could keep Yazoo distracted,” said Zack, smirking. “That guy really grates on my nerves.”
“Really?” said Cloud. “I found Loz the more annoying of the two.”
“Nah. I’ll just kick him, insult Jenova, and make him cry. That’s no fun. I could do that to Squally-kins.”
Tifa smirked. “Refuse to call him Leon?”
“Point blank refuse to call him Leon. His name is Squall and that’s what I’m going to call him. Or variations of Squall, but that’s beside the point.”
“I think he’d expect no less of you,” said Vincent.
“So...” said Tifa, “do you have a course of action or are you playing it by ear at this point?”
Cloud huffed and rubbed his face. “I’m waiting it out and letting Kadaj make the next move. There’s no point in trying to do anything before that. I don’t know what he’s up to, or when Sephiroth plans on showing his face, so all I can do it sit tight and respond. I thought we went through this before.” Tifa pressed her lips together, stared at his Geostigma-stained arm for a moment, and looked down at the table. Vincent glanced at her but said nothing. Cloud’s cell phone went off in his pocket and he checked the display. “It’s Riku. I have to take this.”
Tifa looked up at him briefly, eyebrows raised, face drawn and weary. She nodded. “Okay.”
Cloud rose from the table and escaped upstairs, flipping his phone open halfway there and holding it to his ear. “Hey.”
There was a short pause on the line and then Riku said, “You sound tired.”
“My life is driving me crazy. How are things on your end?”
“Eh...Okay, I guess. I saw everyone today. And I do mean everyone.”
Cloud raised his eyebrows as he shut the bedroom door and sat on his bed. “You went to see people other than Leon?”
“Yeah. Figured I should get it out of the way. It went pretty well, actually. Aerith was great about it...”
“Yeah, and Yuffie’s...Yuffie’s Yuffie.”
“So she made fun of you in a lighthearted way.”
“Something like that. Cid acted like it didn’t even matter, so yeah, it went okay. But then Sora showed up and I had to hide under a table so he didn’t see me, and...”
“Sora showed up?”
“Yeah. You should have been here, Cloud. They were like vultures. They swooped down upon him and got him to join the Restoration Committee in under five minutes. And Yuffie even managed to keep it quiet about me, so that’s good.”
“They got him to join the Restoration Committee?”
“Yeah, and the pricks gave him this Honorary Member card like he’s special or something. I didn’t get a freaking card.”
Cloud barked a laugh. “Well I guess we just aren’t special being Leon’s slave bitches and all.”
“Yeah. Cards are only for really special people that get to run out on duties and don’t have to stay with Leon because he’s lonely.”
“Eh...” Riku sighed over the line. “I kind of feel like shit. See Organization XIII showed up and taunted Sora a bit before he took off to save some world from the Heartless like a good Keyblade master. I was going to hurry my ass over to the World that Never Was ‘cause I have to help him and all, but Leon suckered me into staying the night with promises of food. I think he’s lonely.”
Cloud frowned and stared at the floor. “I guess he does get left behind on his own a lot. I know it’s been bothering him, but I didn’t think it...I don’t know. Makes me feel like shit, too, I guess.”
“Yeah, he’s so...I don’t know. Self-sufficient? Something like that. But anyway, I kind of feel like shit leaving him, but I don’t have much a choice, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. I don’t have much of a choice, either.”
“I know. So anyway, I’m still in Hollow Bastion and I’m leaving for the World that Never Was tomorrow morning, so if you don’t hear from me for a day or two that’s why.”
“How are things with you?”
Cloud sighed and stared at the ceiling. His minor breakdown in Denzel’s room came to mind and Cloud quickly pushed it away. “Uneventful,” he finally answered. “Tifa’s up my ass about Kadaj—I’m back at Tifa’s, by the way. She’s also been eyeing my arm. I think she knows—or suspects, anyway—about the Geostigma but isn’t saying anything yet. Zack and I are on good terms again. Other than that, not much has happened.”
“No news from Reno or meetings with Kadaj or anything?”
“Okay, well, I just wanted to check in, see how you were, let you know what was going on with me. That kind of thing.”
“I appreciate it. I’ll let you go and get some sleep. You’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”
“Yeah. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.” There was a long pause and Cloud closed his eyes. He did. He missed Riku more than he could express. He longed to hold him again if only for the familiarity, longed to see his face, kiss his lips, but there was nothing they could do right now but wait it out. Cloud sighed and opened his eyes again. “I love you.”
A soft laugh issued over the line, and in Cloud’s mind he could see Riku’s smile—softer than normal, a bit of sadness in his eyes—and it pulled at his heart in so many ways Cloud couldn’t even manage to list them all.
“I love you, too,” Riku said. “See you soon?”
A small, half-smile crossed Cloud’s face. “Yeah. See you soon.”
“All right. Good night.”
“Good night.” Cloud flipped his phone shut and stared at it for a moment before tossing it on the bedside table and dressing for sleep.
It was sometime after breakfast—after Cloud made sure to cover his Geostigma arm with a shoulder pad and an open sleeve with the intention of deferring Tifa’s prying eyes (though someone was sure to question his fashion choices)—that Cloud got the call from Reno. Kadaj, Loz, and Yazoo had been seen around Edge and kids with the Geostigma were being reported missing all across the city. If it were a coincidence, Reno claimed he’d abstain from alcohol for an entire year. This was something like Leon promising to stop being such a stoic bitch or Yuffie swearing to stop being so hyperactive. It was simply unheard of, but Cloud couldn’t blame him, because he’d stop obsessing over his faults if it were a coincidence, too. At the end of the call he hung up, called Zack up to their bedroom, and explained the situation.
“Still feel like backing me up?” said Cloud.
“I’m not about to quit now,” said Zack. He grinned. “So what’s the plan?”
“We’re going to meet Reno and Rude at the town center. From there it’s all reconnaissance. We need to figure out who’s missing and see if we can track them down before anyone gets hurt. Feel up to it?”
“Of course. You think I’m going to let you run around and take all the glory for yourself again?”
Cloud nodded. “Then let’s go. Reno’s impatient and the less whining I have to hear from him the better. I already have a headache. I don’t want to make it any worse than it already is.”
They gave Tifa a quick explanation of the situation before heading out for the town center on foot. Reno and Rude were already waiting by the monument in the center of Edge. From the way Reno kept checking his watch, Cloud thought it might be best to turn around and run away now, but only Shiva knew whatever Kadaj was up to now. Cloud tried to steel his patience, but controlling his mouth around Reno was a real feat most days. It was kind of ironic, being as quiet a guy as he was, but something about Reno just sparked something in him that inspired rage and carefully chosen, unkind words.
“Took you long enough, yo,” Reno muttered as Cloud and Zack approached. Rude nodded a greeting toward them both. “And you brought Fair.”
“Couldn’t let Chocobo-head play the hero all on his own,” said Zack, smirking. “He’s already the go-to guy for Sephiroth. The least I can do is split some skulls with the other Jenova freaks.”
“Have you learned any more about the situation?” Cloud asked.
Reno snorted. “Oh, yeah, I’ve had loads of time to investigate waiting here for you, yo,” said Reno. “If you wanted me to start without you ya shoulda just said so over the phone.”
“Sometimes I want to spit on you,” said Cloud.
“Now, boys, I think that’s enough,” said Zack. “So what’s up? Do you have a plan or what?”
“We split up,” said Rude. “Reno and I will take the south and west part of Edge. You two take the north and east.”
“Check in on the Sector Six Slums, too, yo,” said Reno. “They were seen hanging around there last night.”
“We should meet back here in an hour or so,” said Rude. “Does that work for you?”
“The less time I have to spend with Reno the better,” said Cloud.
“You know what, Strife...” said Reno.
“Your speech patterns make me feel my brain cells dying?”
“Sounds great,” said Zack, grabbing Cloud by his good arm and dragging him away. “In an hour.”
“This isn’t over, yo!” Reno called as Rude followed the example and dragged him in the other direction.
“Was that really necessary?” said Cloud, brushing Zack away once Reno and Rude were out of sight.
“Yes, I think it was,” was the only explanation Cloud could badger out of him.
They spent the better part of the hour wandering the north and east parts of Edge. Zack did most of the talking; Cloud was content to stand back and listen. After twenty minutes Zack demanded he stop scowling because people were too nervous to talk when Cloud was glaring at them. They left extra time to get back to the monument before Reno, but Cloud’s smirk was immediately ripped away. His headache from this morning throbbed a little harder.
“What about Sector Six, yo?” Reno asked after Zack’s report.
“I knew we were forgetting something,” said Zack.
“We’ll meet you at the church in a half hour,” Rude said, and began dragging Reno away again. “We could have used more time, anyway.”
“Wait, yo!” said Reno. He walked in an awkward, sideways step, feet moving away from the monument but his torso turned toward Cloud. “We didn’t even yell at them!”
“Come on, Reno.”
“How could we forget Sector Six?” said Zack, laughing. “You live there.”
“I don’t live there,” Cloud snapped. “I just...slept there. Once.”
“Right,” said Zack. He laughed, tossed his head, and followed Rude’s lead by grabbing Cloud’s arm.
It was such an abrupt movement Cloud hadn’t had time to prepare for the pain that shot up his arm from where Zack’s hand was closed around the Geostigma. Sharp, unforgiving pangs exploded to his fingertips; throbbing ache spread through his shoulder. He let out a yelp—a sharp, high-pitched sound that made Zack jump and release. His arm recoiled back as if bitten.
“I didn’t grab you that hard, did I?” Zack asked.
“Eh...” said Cloud, mouth open. “No, I...It’s nothing.”
Zack’s eyes narrowed. “Is that where you were bruised? Is it still there?”
“It’s nothing,” Cloud said, a little sharper this time. He brushed past Zack and headed in the direction of the Sector Six Slums remains.
He felt the tension grow tight between them when Zack hurried up to his side. Neither said anything, but Cloud was aware of the way he cradled his arm into his chest and the way Zack eyed the sleeve. Cloud sighed. It had been hurting all morning, but Cloud had become so acclimated to the pain he hardly noticed it until just then. He felt weak, too—dizzy. Cloud assumed it was a side affect with the way Denzel grew tired quickly and spent most of his time in bed. He was going to need to be more careful if he was going to hide this much longer. Crying out, cradling his arm, and focusing on headaches wasn’t going to make anyone worry less about him nor finish Sephiroth off any sooner.
The pressure Zack had put on his arm only made it worse. Walking around town already drained him, but after that sudden rush of pain Cloud felt ready to crawl into bed and stay there for a few days. He hung back farther this time and stared at the ground as Zack asked around to the few people that remained in Sector Six. It was the third person that had any information of significance. They had just seen one of them—the “big, ugly one,” the kid called him—around the Sector Six church about twenty minutes ago. Loz.
“Think he was looking for you?” said Zack.
Cloud lifted his good arm, touched his forehead with his fingertips, and blinked a few times. The truth was that he was almost sure Loz was looking for him, but the pain in his head wouldn’t let him properly put a sentence together. He settled for giving Zack a weary nod.
Zack frowned. “Headache getting worse?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’m okay. Let’s go check the church out. We’re supposed to meet Reno and Rude there soon anyway.”
Zack regarded him a few seconds longer. He worried his lower lip between his teeth, pursed his lips, and nodded. His eyes remained shifty.
Cloud’s head already felt ready to bust in two, his arm ready to spit open, when they entered the Sector Six Church. Zack’s breath hitched, and when Cloud’s eyes focused they landed on a slim figure lying on her back at the other end of the church. Cloud blinked a few times taking in the face, the hair, the apparel from this distance. He stopped breathing for a second.
“Tifa...?” Zack whispered. “Is that...?”
It was probably part frantic and part clumsy that Cloud rushed across the building, Zack on his heels. Cloud fell to his knees by her side among the flower bed. He ignored the blinding pain in his arm as he lifted her torso into his lap.
“Tifa?” said Zack, again.
“Tifa!” Cloud cried. His eyes roved over her arms, legs, and face, taking in the wounds, the blood...
“What was she doing here?!” Zack snapped. “We told her about Kadaj. We told her to stay back at the bar!”
Cloud looked up and his eyes met Zack’s. “Loz?”
Zack’s mouth set tight; his chin showed the hint of a tremble. “Looks that way. Wait...look...”
Cloud glanced down, studying Tifa’s face, and then it happened again. Her eyelids fluttered.
“Tifa? Tifa!” Cloud shouted.
“Cloud...?” Her voice was weak.
“And Zack,” said Zack, kneeling beside her. “What happened?”
“I don’t...” Tifa’s voice trailed off; her eyelids fell shut. Cloud swallowed; his arm was practically on fire, but he pulled her torso closer. He took a breath, and then Tifa’s eyes flew open. She shot into a seated position, rushed to stand. “Marlene!?”
“Marlene!?” said Zack. “What about Marlene?”
It was no use; Tifa had already passed out again. Cloud glanced around the church, eyes wide, searching. He noted the torn flowers, the wasted, battered state of the already crumbling church.
“Marlene couldn’t have been with her...” said Zack, looking around. “She just...couldn’t...”
Cloud’s breathing grew heavy. His head swirled; the church spun around him. Pain in his head hammered against his temples, the inside of his eyes, his forehead. He gasped. Tifa’s body weight pressed against his arm sent daggers through his muscle to the bone. His face twisted, contorted, and he lost grip on Tifa. Black ichor seeped through his bandages, barely visible beneath the sleeve. Zack’s voice was fuzzy, heavy, and slurred in his ears. The last thing Cloud saw before everything blinked out was the outline of Reno’s figure in the church doorway. He embraced unconsciousness.
Cloud blinked once and then twice before it occurred to him he was staring at an unfamiliar ceiling in an unfamiliar room. After the third blink he realized he wasn’t alone. He pushed himself up to a half-seated position.
“You know, you’re pretty heavy,” said Reno.
Cloud groaned. Reno and Rude stood in the bedroom doorway. Zack sat in a corner, bathed in shadows, staring (glaring?) at him. Tifa was laid out on the full-size bed next to him, eyes open, and looking up at him. Cloud avoided all gazes and stared out the large window. The view was familiar. This must have been Tifa’s and Vincent’s room.
“Marlene and Denzel are gone,” said Zack.
“Kadaj’s gang took the kids,” said Reno.
“All of the kids,” said Rude.
“I figured,” said Cloud.
“And there’s something else...” said Tifa.
Zack stood up from his chair and crossed the room. He perched on the end of the bed by Cloud’s feet and dropped a black-stained dressing cloth on his feet.
“When were you planning on explaining that?” said Zack.
Cloud sighed again but said nothing. A brief thought flitted through his head about just finding out himself, but a nagging voice that suspiciously sounded like Riku told him to grow up already. Cloud shrugged.
“What were you planning to do?” said Tifa. “Shut us all out? Hide it? Give up and die?”
“There’s no cure,” said Cloud.
“Yeah, but, that’s not stopping Denzel, is it?”
“I didn’t want to worry anyone about it,” said Cloud. He tried not to scowl, but it came out anyway. Tifa glared back. Reno cleared his throat and turned his head down. “There’s just nothing you can do,” said Cloud, lamely. “It is what it is.”
“We can fight it together,” said Tifa. “We can help each other. I know we can.”
“And even if we can’t do something, that’s just not the kind of thing you hide,” said Zack. “We’re all in this together.”
Cloud rolled his eyes to the ceiling and stared. He almost scoffed, but decided that was probably the worst thing he could do right now. He scoured his mind, searching for a reply that was both sincere and acceptable. He couldn’t just shout that they weren’t all in it together. That would just make them angry, but it was the truth. It was Cloud they were counting on, Cloud who had to find his light, and Cloud who in the end had to stop Sephiroth. They couldn’t help him with that. They couldn’t do anything for his Geostigma. Cloud had to help himself, and at the rate he was going, there was a good chance that wasn’t ever going to happen. He was weak; physically now, too, to match his equally pathetic heart. He couldn’t help Riku; he burdened Leon. All he did was crush Zack, and Tifa was perpetually ticked off at him. He couldn’t even go out and track down Kadaj today, and though he still didn’t understand what Tifa was doing in that church, he knew that instead of helping her he’d just passed out with her. If it hadn’t been for Zack, Reno, and Rude...
“Tifa, Zack...I’m not fit to help anyone,” said Cloud, his voice soft. “Not my family. Not my friends. Nobody.”
Tifa sighed. She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “Dilly-dally, shilly-shally...” Cloud frowned. He looked to Zack, but Zack was staring at Tifa as if she’d grown an extra head. Tifa huffed. “Dilly-dally, shilly-shally...”
“I think she wants you to move on, yo,” said Reno.
“Is that an Aerith pearl of wisdom?” said Zack. “Sounds like something she’d say...”
“Who’s Aerith?” said Reno. Zack frowned and waved him away.
“Listen, I know what you’re trying to do,” said Cloud, “but really...Why don’t you send Vincent or something?”
“Because Vincent is away and that’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? Kadaj? Sephiroth?! Whatever?!” said Tifa.
Cloud sighed and swallowed.
“Where are they? Did you find out?” said Cloud.
“They’re at their base,” said Reno. “The Forgotten City.”
“Go,” said Cloud. “You guys go.” Reno frowned. He looked at Rude and they both nodded. “I have to talk to Rufus.”
“Stop running!” Tifa cried. Reno and Rude stopped in the door and looked at her. Cloud sighed again. “I know...” she continued. “Even if you find the kids, you might not be able to help them. Maybe something will happen that can never unhappen. That scares you, doesn’t it? And a lot of bad things have been happening for you lately, and that only makes it worse, but you need to think about now. Really take it in.
“Look at you! You keep running off. Everything’s about Zack or Riku or your darkness or Sephiroth. You’re always brooding, always going off to anyone who will listen about how horrible you are, but everything isn’t about what happened with Zack, or what Riku did, because none of that has anything to do with you! Riku’s issues are his own! Zack’s issues are his own! And they aren’t the only people who care about you and worry for you! You think you’ve got it so damn hard. Well you hate being alone, so let people in!
“You’re so worried about everything else, but there are two kids right now that count on you, waiting for you. And you’re right. If you stay here, you aren’t fit to help anyone!”
Tifa huffed and took a breath. Cloud didn’t answer, but stared mutely ahead. Zack dropped his eyes to the floor. Reno and Rude shifted by the door and then they, too, dropped their faces toward the floor when Tifa punctuated her monologue by dropped her arms and slapping them against the mattress.
“You go,” said Reno. “The base is all yours.”
Reno and Rude both nodded in Tifa’s and then Zack’s directions and left the room.
“Well?” said Tifa once they were gone.
Zack clutched the Geostigma-stained bandage and sighed.
) for previous installments. 70/100 Complete.