He had no idea where they were taking him, but Cloud was grateful for at least one, small thing--he was walking, and not staring upside down at Loz's ass.
At this point, he would take what he could get.
When they got to some strange remnants of what seemed to have been a temple on a small bit of earth surrounded by water, Cloud had the strangest feeling he knew this place, somehow; that it was familiar in half-waking kind of way.
He was distracted from the odd, unsettling déjà vu by someone calling out his name. He jolted his head over to where he'd heard the voice, hoping very much that he had heard wrong.
"Denzel?!" Cloud felt as if someone had just sat off a Blizzaga in his stomach. "Where in Hel's name did you come from?"
Denzel swallowed thickly from across the water. "The...we just got...he said he could...They said they could fix it!" Denzel stopped and looked around wildly.
"Fix it? Fix what? Never mind--Bring him here. Now!" Cloud snapped sharply, and Loz looked startled and blinked.
"Um, Kadaj?" Loz started uncertainly.
Cloud turned his glare on Kadaj, who responded to it with a strange, indulgent little smile. "You'll be together soon enough. All of us will be," he said, then gave Loz a sharp look and shook his head no. Loz lost the uncertain look and glared at Cloud, then Denzel.
Denzel balled his hands into fists, looking as if he were about to try and cross. He had gotten as far as a step closer, when the other fragment, Yazoo, put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. "All of you must wait here for now," he said, his voice low. "And he's right, we will all be together soon."
Denzel bit his lip and looked over at Cloud.
Cloud shook his head once, sharply, then turned to Kadaj, cursing the fact that there were a good three meters plus Loz and the grip Loz had on his arm between him and the materia--Loz had unequipped his bracer at some point, and given the power Kadaj had shown with that Thundaga he had sent off, trying anything unequipped would have ended as embarrassingly badly as the fight in the church with Loz. "Let him go," he said tightly.
Kadaj gave him a wide-eyed look. "He came of his own will, brother. How can I let him go when he chose to come here?"
"Chose to come here for what?"
"An end to the pain. An end to all our pain. Reunion," he said with a beatific smile, and spread his arms. "Reunion."
"Reunion?" Cloud said, narrowing his eyes and trying to figure out what under the Heavens Kadaj could be talking about--he'd said 'reunion' over and over again, but not once had he said what exactly that was.
"Our little big brother doesn't know?" Loz said, sounding slightly confused.
"No, your 'little big brother' doesn't know," Cloud snapped in irritation. "And I'm not your brother. What in Hel's name are you all planning?!"
Kadaj ignored him, his focus now on the children who were milling almost uncertainly on the other side of the water. Yazoo had finished getting the children in place for whatever insanity it was Kadaj had planned and was slowly wading over towards them, and Cloud realized that he was about to get his answer; that he was about to find out right now just what it was they were doing. A frenetic tension had begun to run through Kadaj like an electric circuit in an almost palpable way and it drew the eyes of all the children, even Denzel's, to him.
Cloud could understand why; all of Kadaj's jitteriness had been focused into an almost fevered pitched, and something--that something that had been scratching at the back of his brain, that he had been trying to ignore even as if left him feeling more and more unsettled--reacted.
It was obvious the instant Kadaj decided to speak. From what little Cloud remembered of Sephiroth--both vague flashes from before but mainly from after--for all Sephiroth had been the kind of person people would listen to, for all he had some kind of pull, it had never been anything like this. Sephiroth had used the sheer force of his presence to make others follow him; Kadaj had shades of that same presence but all of it focused into something Sephiroth himself had never used like this. Sephiroth, in his way, had always been reserved.
Kadaj was not. And when he spoke, it was as if something within him came alive, and that sheer desperate force of his will coming out through his words drew all attention.
"Mother gave us a special power," he said, raising his arms and spreading them out wide, and looking upwards to the sky as he spoke, almost as if he were looking for guidance. "The power to hurt humans," he said, and suddenly realigned himself, from the sky to the children who were seemingly hung on every word. "And the power to fight the planet."
The way those words hit Cloud was almost like a physical blow. He'd figured that Jenova played a part in this somehow, but knowing that it wasn't over--that it truly wasn't over, that she had managed to find a way back to try and destroy the planet--left Cloud with a vague feeling of weariness. It was supposed to all be over, they were all supposed to be trying to find ways to move on with their lives, but instead, they were back in this again, and the last year--and the five years he had lost--had only been a holding pattern.
Kadaj continued on speaking, and Cloud shook himself out of his moment of bitterness to pay attention again. "The truth is, everyone has that power," Kadaj said, nodding once and pointing out at the children.
'Everyone'? What in Hel's name is he talking about?
"That's right. All of us are brothers."
Cloud was beginning to think that if he heard the word "brother" again, he was going to start banging his head against something hard and solid.
Kadaj turned and began a frenetic pacing as he spoke, and that didn't seem like a good thing. Kadaj was even worse at staying still than Zack was, but he was also far, far twitchier, as if he was on a constant hair trigger. There was something almost frantic about him now, mixed in with the strange fervor, making him seem more dangerous. "She may have melted away into the Lifestream, but we inherited Mother's legacy. We are brothers; the chosen ones!" he said, spreading his arms again wide, and he gave Cloud a sharp glare before his demeanor changed; as his hands clinched into fists and the rage that was always just below the surface began to show.
Cloud kept his face neutral even as his thoughts were whirling around. Kadaj wasn't making any sense at all. Why he insisted Cloud was his "brother," that made a strange sort of twisted sense--he was a failed clone and they were fragments of Sephiroth--but just what Denzel and the other children had to do with it made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Likewise, this "power" Kadaj was talking about--a power from Jenova? How did any of them have that?
"But," he spat out at Cloud, then whirled back around towards the children, "the planet has gotten in all of our ways and tried to stop our growth. And that is why your bodies are in pain and your hearts are faltering!"
The Geostigma, Cloud realized with a sinking feeling. It was the planet reacting to Jenova--it was why mainly children were infected...the children were the sons and daughters of SOLDIERs and ShinRa workers. The children of those who had been experimented on and "improved" by ShinRa. They all had parts of Jenova in them--they had 'inherited' Jenova's legacy in almost the truest sense of the word, with parts of Jenova written into their very DNA. He knew it was Jenova and had from the beginning, but...but he didn't have a clue how to root it out, or even calm the reaction to it. It felt like his biggest failure every time he tried, because he was close, he knew he was close, and yet.
Something in Kadaj drew back, settled, and Cloud went on edge--it was coming. Whatever it was, it was coming, and there was something almost anticipatory in the back of Cloud's mind. "But I'll heal you."
And then the world began to glitch, to spark and flare, in bright, fragments of other that lasted only a split second, but were enough, were too much, too much like the Geostigma but not. It was the trigger, and the space around Kadaj began to flicker and warp, as if he were surrounded by heat. And it coalesced around him, Jenova's power taking a form like a scratching, glitching flame that only grew as Kadaj's words and rapture grew to a fever pitch.
"I will heal you, and then, we'll go to Mother. We will gather our power as a family and then we will take revenge on the planet!"
It never ended. Jenova was determined to win her eternal fight with the planet, even after she was dead. What more do we have to do? Cloud thought. What else is she going to do?
He got his answer with Kadaj's "Follow me" and the way the children were all staring at Kadaj as if mesmerized.
Only just barely did he catch Kadaj's next words, spoken not to the children and lacking the strange pull of before, his words now childlike and to himself, spoken as if he was unable to keep them inside, his smile not the manic, beatific one of before, but one of pride; of a child waiting to be praised.
"Look, Mother! Look how many brothers we have now! So until I can meet You, I'm not alone."
"You have your 'brothers', isn't that enough?" Cloud snapped, feeling unsettled. "Do you even know what your 'Mother' is? Or what she did?"
"Enough?" Kadaj asked in a shocked, disbelieving tone of voice, turning to look at Cloud, his eyes far too bright within that warped, glitching space. "What She did? You...you're a traitor," Kadaj spat out, and there was something in him that was stung by that, even through Cloud had no idea why. "You and our other big brother. Zack. You ignore Mother and have turned against all of us!" he said.
He smiled again, a predatory smile that had more of Sephiroth than anything Kadaj had shown until then. "But not for long." Kadaj turned back to the children, and walked slowly into the water--and from each step, that warping coalesced, became real, became a dark energy that spread out of him and into the water, changing it to something dark; the water itself turned black and the air filled with a scent that felt like destruction. At it wasn't just the air; the water reeked, a stench of crematory ash and brimstone arising from it.
No one seemed to notice it, not the way Cloud did--not even the children standing in the middle of it seemed to notice how strong it was even though Cloud, from several feet away, felt like it was gagging him.
But what disturbed him on some level was how something in him reacted to that crematory smell, growing more excited and trying to rise up, reaching for it even as something else recoiled away.
Kadaj reached down and cupped some of it in his hands, and took a long, slow drink and spread his arms. And then, one by one, the children, as if completely oblivious to the water's foulness, did as well. Denzel was last, hesitant and his eyes never leaving Cloud before he squared his shoulders back, cupped the water in his hands and drank.
The glitching that made his vision swim made Cloud want to rip his own head apart, and the something that was inside him was growing excited, growing eager, and was calculating.
Kadaj turned to face them and gave a Cloud sudden, almost gleeful smile, one that made his entire face light up, softening the harshness and making of him a boy, something oddly and disturbingly pure. "You hide it, but sometimes it comes out, that you're like us. Why are you fighting us, brother? Don't you feel him?"
"N-no," Cloud said through gritted teeth, and his words were a lie--he didn't want what Kadaj was saying to be true, he didn't want to give a name to the murky, unsettled, familiar feeling waking and stirring within him.
Kadaj's eyes narrowed into tight slits and they never left Cloud's. And as he began his deliberate steps out of the water, towards Cloud, his eyes gleamed.
"So what do you think, partner?" Rude said softly.
Reno shrugged and knocked back a shot--they were still on duty since Elena and Tseng hadn't been found yet, but they were now back in Midgar and in the half-rebuilt ruins of the ShinRa building. Rufus had ordered them to stay in Midgar, then to leave him alone for awhile, so when Reno pulled out the Costan tequila and started doing shots, Rude hadn't said anything.
Reno knew his limits and Rude didn't question him.
"What do I think? I think we're boned," Reno said, and tilted the bottle towards Rude. "You?"
Rude frowned faintly. "I think you're right," he said solemnly, and then reached for the tequila.
Kadaj stopped, still waist-high in the water. "Bring him here," he said lightly. Loz almost instantly started walking Cloud over, and Cloud started trying to get free--even from this distance, he could tell something had happened to the children, and the closer he got, the more his heart pounded.
He got close enough to see the eyes of the children the furthest into the water, and that was more than enough to let him know it was time to get free and time to get free now. He didn't know how under the heavens Kadaj had done whatever it was he did, but being confronted with slit-pupiled eyes staring blankly at him let him know that near that water was not where he wanted to be.
As if the stench of it wasn't enough.
"Be still!" Loz said in irritation at Cloud's trying to work his arm free, and Cloud started trying to get his arm free more.
Hit hard at the solar plexus--there! something in him said suddenly, and his body reacted almost before it really registered, twisting to throw a sharp jab to Loz's midsection with his left elbow when Loz was mid-step. It startled Loz, knocking him off his stride, and it was enough for Cloud to jerk himself free, then into a sweeping roundhouse that knocked Loz off his feet. The uppercut Cloud threw to Loz's jaw before Loz could try to catch himself sent him crashing to the ground, and Cloud was almost--
He pulled back, sharply, and went still as he found himself with Yazoo's gunblade against his back, right in between his shoulder blades.
Shit. I forgot about him.
"You're a traitor," Kadaj said again, his eyes narrowed to fine slits.
"No, I am not," Cloud spat out angrily. "I was never on your side to begin with, and I don't want any part of your fucked up revenge-on-the-planet scheme," he snapped. "I kind of like the Planet, thanks."
"But the Planet hates you," Kadaj said, his eyes never wavering. "You suffer from the Planet's anger as much as my brothers and sisters do," Kadaj said, sweeping out with his hand to indicate the children. "You're on our side just because of that! The planet is fighting Mother, so she's fighting you, as well. Or are you not in pain and being killed slowly by the Planet's anger?" Kadaj said wildly, but his eyes were bright, expectant.
Cloud flinched slightly, but his expression never changed.
"Stop crying, Loz," Yazoo's low voice said from behind Cloud, and Cloud flicked his eyes over, briefly, to see that Loz was still on the ground, sitting there quietly, and slow tears were falling down his cheeks.
They're all just children, Cloud thought again, vaguely horrified. Why they had gone after children made more sense; it wasn't just that they children all had Jenova cells, it was that they were on the same level.
"The Planet is protecting itself. That's all," Cloud said flatly. "Maybe when we're all gone, when there's nothing left of Jenova to threaten it, it will be over."
"So you want to die? You think it's fair?!" Kadaj said disbelievingly.
"No. I don't want to die," Cloud said, his voice just as flat as before." But 'fair' doesn't mean anything. Nothing about any of this has ever been fair and what I want has never meant anything, and it's not like I, or anyone, will live if Jenova gets her way. But what do you want, Kadaj? Why are you doing this?"
Kadaj faltered slightly. "To make Mother happy," he said.
"And how are you going to do that, by destroying the world?" Cloud said disbelievingly. "Even if it means you die, too?"
"That doesn't matter. And I wouldn't be here long anyway," Kadaj said in light tones.
Cloud stared at him blankly.
"When Reunion is complete, he'll come back," Kadaj finally said.
"Who'll come back?" Cloud said, blinking.
"You know," Kadaj said with a chiding smile.
"No, I--no," Cloud said as the realization hit him. "How?!"
"This is like some nightmare that won't end," Cloud muttered under his breath. Things were going from bad to worse--they were going to try to somehow resurrect Sephiroth?
Given everything he'd seen already that day, what he would have declared "impossible" yesterday was looking more and more "very possible" today.
"As long as the Planet exists, defying Mother and him, no," Kadaj said lightly. "But I'm going to end it by bringing him back and doing Mother's will through Reunion."
"Never," Cloud said, gritting his teeth.
Kadaj flinched suddenly, as if he was in pain.
"K-Kadaj? Is it him?" Loz asked, worriedly, and Kadaj nodded.
What is going on? Cloud thought.
"Corrupted...you're corrupted," Kadaj said slowly, his eyes focused inwards, as if he were listening to a voice inside his head. "Tainted. And he's so angry, brother."
Cloud had a very, very bad feeling about this. "Who is 'he'?"
"Sephiroth," Kadaj said, and hearing it, having that last bit of proof, was like a blow. "He's so angry. I can feel it, you know. He's always angry, but now he's really angry. At you."
"Sephiroth is dead," Cloud said flatly.
"For now," Kadaj said, his voice strangely light, as it had been a few times before.
"And if you manage your hare-brained scheme of bringing him back, he'll be dead again soon enough," Cloud said, narrowing his eyes. "I've helped kill him twice now, once more won't be so hard."
Kadaj let out a sharp, surprised laugh. "Maybe, huh? So maybe I should do something he never managed," Kadaj said in that same, strange, light tone of voice, aside from the moment of anger that had flared brightly on the spat-out 'he'. "...Brother.
"You have to be purified," Kadaj said, and Cloud didn't like that anymore than he had liked anything Kadaj had been saying all night. "You have to become one of us. Bring him here."
Oh, Hel's Realm.
Yazoo poked him sharply with the tip of the gunblade. "Do not try what you did with Loz. It will not end well," he said softly. He moved slowly towards the water's edge, then stopped, and didn't move even when Yazoo's gunblade prodded him.
"No," Cloud said, shaking his head, and squared his jaw.
Kadaj laughed, and made a slight gesture with one hand.
"Are you sure?" Yazoo asked softly, and Kadaj nodded. The pressure of the tip of the gunblade between his shoulder blades was gone, but Cloud didn't have time to relax because he immediately found himself with Kadaj's double-bladed sword pointed at his neck.
And faintly, oh so faintly, Cloud could hear the sound of a motorcycle, one he had repaired often enough that the sound of it was as familiar as a voice.
Zack was coming.
And Cloud needed to stall them until Zack got there. And that meant he was going to have to talk.
Think, Strife. Think. There has to be a way to get Kadaj talking. He seems to like the sound of his own voice, just get him started on something...preferably something that won't end with him stabbing me through the throat.
They were fragments, pieces of Sephiroth, and one thing Cloud got loud and clear, even if he didn't understand why, was that they were lonely. It didn't make a damned bit of sense, but Cloud had to admit that he could understand all too well what it felt like to be incomplete. His own head was shades and shadows of someone else's memory, and that urge for completeness was something he got.
Maybe they think "Reunion" will make them whole, he thought, the inner voice that was usually laughing now serious. Bring everything broken together by bringing everything with Jenova cells stapled in will 'fix' them.
It's a stupid theory but it's all I've got, he thought back. No one thinking straight would think like that, but I don't think these three would know how to think straight. The way they think curves so much the only thing in front of them is their own asses.
Now, didn't I say to be nice? that voice said, laughing again now instead of the pensive seriousness, and Cloud rolled his eyes at it. Deny it, he shot back, and got a faint chuckle in response, and Cloud figured it was probably a good thing that at least he amused himself and at least some part of him could find humor in this insane situation.
And I'm talking to myself. In my own head. By the gods. Focus, Strife, focus.
"You say you want Reunion, and to do what 'Mother' wants, but what is Reunion going to bring you? You asked me if I wanted to die...isn't that what Reunion will do? If Jenova gets her way, there won't be anything left of the planet or anyone on it. Why do you think she'll spare you? And if she does...if you think you're alone now, how will you be then? On an empty shell of a planet with only Jenova? If you're here because she willed it, what happens when she doesn't need you any more? And if you bring back Sephiroth, then what?"
Kadaj's sword faltered--not a lot, but enough, and there was something in his eyes that looked so lost and so young. "Mother--" he began, and Cloud cut him off.
"All Jenova does is destroy, even the ones she 'loves'." Cloud said. "What makes you think she spare you when she doesn't need you any more? Think she'll need you if she gets Sephiroth back?"
"If you think you're alone, it's only because you're listening to her and setting yourself against the world for someone else's crazy quest. You don't have to follow Jenova and you don't have to be alone," Cloud said, and ignored the sword at his neck to reach out his hand. Please gods, let this work, otherwise I am a dead man, he thought.
And then, with a strange, needy look on his face, Kadaj lowered the sword and reached out.
Reached out, and took his hand.
And then the lost look changed to a smile, a smile that was all teeth, and Kadaj's eyes almost glittered with what looked like happiness. "You're right. I don't have to be alone. Because I'll have all my brothers with me," he said with a smile, and pulled Cloud into the water.
And the last thing Cloud thought before he hit the water was, "Well, shit."
Marlene was on the sofa in the living room--the downstairs was the bar, but the upper floors was where they all lived, cramped though it was--curled around one of her stuffed animals and watching something on the view screen.
Tifa sat down next to her. "You OK?" she said softly, and Marlene nodded, but didn't look at her. She'd sent Marlene upstairs when Reno and Rude had come back, figuring Marlene didn't need to be there for whatever they had to say. It was going to make this harder, though.
"What did they say about Denzel?" Marlene asked, still staring at the screen, but biting her lip.
Part of her knew she should lie--tell Marlene something to not worry her anymore--but she wondered if things were too far beyond that. "Well...he's...Denzel's..." she began, and wished with all her heart she could have been the one motoring out after the Sephiroth clones instead of Zack, and him being left here for this. "He's with the same people who have Cloud," she finally said. "But Zack is going to get them back."
"Oh," Marlene said, and her voice was small.
"We...we just have to wait," Tifa said, forcing a smile on her face, even though Marlene wasn't looking at her.
"I hate waiting," Marlene said, her eyebrows turning in, and Tifa let out a faint laugh.
"Same here, sweetheart. I hate it, too."
Marlene sat up. "Can't we do anything?" she said, and swallowed.
"We have to stay here," Tifa said, trying to keep her expression mild even as her stomach clinched. She hated this, hated that there was nothing she could do, that she and Marlene were alone--
But they weren't alone, she realized suddenly. They'd all be running around, like they were in this alone, like it was only them against the world and Sephiroth, but...but even when they'd been against the real Sephiroth...they hadn't been alone.
She may not have been able to be active, to be out by Zack's side fighting to get back the people she loved, but that didn't mean there wasn't anything she could do. Support from behind, push things they way they needed to be, shoring everything up from behind even if no one saw you doing it.
"We have to stay here," she said again. "But we're not alone. There is something we can do," she said, and stood up.
Marlene looked up at her.
"We can call for backup," Tifa said, and held out her hand. "C'mon, we've got calls to make," she said, and the smile now didn't feel fake at all.
Marlene stood up and took her hand, and nodded, giving a sharp little nod.
They weren't alone.
The world was water and water was the world; there was nothing but him and nothing but the sound of the water in his ears and the taste of water in his mouth, and the weight of hands pushing him down, deeper, into the water of ash, and he was choking, swallowing, he was--
There was something almost horrifyingly familiar about the pressure, the way his consciousness felt attacked, forced to expand, to accept, to be reshaped and lose his self; to disintegrate, join, and be obliterated, to be empty, to become a vessel--
The last thing he felt was the Limit Break he had been holding back hitting, exploding; flowing out, flowing into the water, and the faint scent of lilies.
And the last thing he heard, before everything shattered, was the sound of Kadaj screaming.
Next section: Even within the void, voices