"Look, I'll tell him when he gets here, OK?" Tifa said, sighing slightly and fighting the urge to roll her eyes, knowing the gesture would be wasted over the phone. "If you're really in that much of a hurry, I can try to call Cloud and...it has to be Zack? Why?" Tifa asked, suddenly narrowing her eyes, shifting the phone slightly. "Fine, whatever. Look, I'll...someone just came in," she said, tilting her head as she heard the sound of the door opening. "That's his bike, so that's Zack now. Yes. Yes. OK, I will. Good-bye," she said, and hung up in exasperation.
There was definitely something strange going on, she thought, frowning slightly. Reno hadn't sounded quite right. She shook her head and headed down the stairs.
"Well, it's about time you...Cloud? Where's Zack?" Tifa asked, her greeting dying on her lips, and stilling on the stairs slightly for the last few steps. She was sure that the motorcycle she had heard was Zack's, not Cloud's, but Zack was nowhere in sight.
"He...left," Cloud said, not meeting her eyes and instead sitting down on one of the stools looking at the bar counter as if studying the wood grain. "He...he went on to Healin."
Tifa's shoulders slumped, and she headed over to the counter to start wiping it down, just to keep herself hands busy. Judging by how Cloud wasn't meeting her eyes and Zack was just gone, even with the promise of a hot meal and a shower waiting for him, told her that however Zack and Cloud's meeting had gone, "well" was not a word that could be used to describe it.
She was honestly waiting for the day when Zack just took off. Part of her said it would never happen, because Zack wasn't that kind of person, but part of her worried.
And another part said that if Zack ever did something that stupid, she was going to track him down and kick his ass from wherever he ran off to all the way back to Midgar. She suspected that Zack, if he ever entertained the notion of trying to end the weird dance the three of them did around each other by just taking off, knew that it would probably end with his ass being kicked back to Midgar. And whatever worked, she figured, be it his own feelings, his own sense of pride, or his own sense of 'Tifa kicking my ass will hurt a lot,' it really didn't matter; what mattered was whatever kept him there kept him there.
As strange and strained as things were sometimes, they were all they had, and they all knew time was short.
"So what happened?" she said mildly. "Zack had sounded fine on the phone."
Cloud frowned slightly. "Did he call you after he called me?"
She shook her head. "The last time I spoke to him was to tell him Reno had called, wanting to talk to him about a job. Reno just called again, but I told him I had told Zack and to hold his chocobos."
Cloud's eyes narrowed. "A job for ShinRa? He didn't even mention the ShinRa part. There's got to be a connection," he muttered to himself.
Tifa was now very sure she was missing something. Between Reno being twitchier than she remembered him being, Cloud's being more cryptic than usual, and Zack not being where the food was, something big was definitely going on, and she wanted to know what. "A connection? A connection between what?"
Cloud jolted out of his thoughts. "Yeah, that's right. You don't know what happened. Zack got attacked on his way home."
"What?!" Tifa said, dropping the rag she had been using to clean the counter. "He was what?! Is he OK?"
"His bike was in much worse shape than him," Cloud said, making a face, and that alone told her that Zack had been OK. "I just had to fix up a cut on him, but that bike is completely shot up and I am going to kill whoever was playing with a Thunder spell or whatever it was around it," Cloud finished grouchily. "Some of the wiring is shot."
She shouldn't have worried, she knew, but she couldn't help it. It did explain why Cloud was on Zack's bike; Zack had probably begged, pleaded, and cajoled until Cloud gave up his keys. ...Or just asked, if the way Cloud had come in was any indication. When he looked like that, the way he was when he had first come in, it was usually because the two of them were running away from each other because things had gotten awkward.
As grateful as Tifa was to Aerith, because without whatever Aerith had done, only the gods knew what would have become of Cloud, especially with Sephiroth getting better and better at getting inside of his head, there were times when she hated Aerith for what she had unwittingly caused.
"So who attacked him and why?" she said, wrapping up the plate of food she had made for Zack.
"That's a good question. Zack had never seen them before."
"Them? How many where there?"
There was something she was missing, and it left a bad feeling in her stomach. Cloud wouldn't ordinarily look that concerned about Zack of all people being up against three people. "What aren't you telling me, Cloud?" she said as she put the plate in the small refrigerator under the back of the counter. Getting information out of him was like extracting teeth half the time, but the direct route usually worked.
Cloud's lips tightened, like he didn't want to say it but knew he had to. "Zack thinks...Zack thinks the three people that attacked him were clones of Sephiroth."
She had just reached for the rag to start wiping off the counter where the plate had been, but she immediately gave up on that idea. "I think I need to sit down," she said faintly, both hands on the counter now to keep herself steady. Dammit, it's over, she thought. It's been two years, everything is finally supposed to be over.
But she knew it wasn't, not when Cloud kept his arm covered all the time and Zack said no beach trips to the Costa del Sol for him for a while with a grin that wasn't right. And it wasn't fair, not that they were battling Geostigma and now Sephiroth again all at the same time. It just wasn't fair.
When her legs felt a little steadier, she decided sitting down for the rest of this conversation was going to be her best bet, and she made her way around the counter, the wooden floor boards creaking under her light steps, and sat down next to Cloud.
"Three Sephiroth clones?"
He nodded. "And he said they were calling him 'brother' and asking where 'Mother' was. They eventually drove off, but..." he started, then trailed off.
"But they'll probably be back," Tifa said, and Cloud nodded. She knew she shouldn't, she knew that, but she had to. "So what happened after Zack got back?"
"He told me about the clones and tried to get me to fix his bike. Other than that, I don't know what happened," Cloud said, suddenly looking confused. "I...OK, things got weird. I suddenly...nothing," he muttered, shaking his head. "But Zack seemed fine, like I--it hadn't bothered him. I went out to fix his bike, and when he came out, he was different, and things were weird enough, so I just gave him my keys," he said, and Tifa wanted to start hitting him because none of that made the slightest bit of sense even though it did and she just didn't want it to, and regardless of the uneasy feeling it left her with, it didn't tell her anything. "And if he crashes my bike, I'm gutting him with his own Buster sword," he grumbled.
"What do you mean by 'weird'?" she finally said, ignoring the last part about gutting Zack because she heard that often enough, and picking a place to try and unravel whatever it was Cloud had been trying to say.
"Which weird?" he asked, and she recognized a stalling technique when she saw it.
"Both, but let's start from the top," she said, wishing it wasn't the middle of the day, because she had the feeling she was going to need a shot or three for this conversation. "You said things got weird, and you suddenly, but Zack seemed fine," she repeated, hoping Cloud would realize on hearing his own words exactly how little sense they had made.
Cloud didn't look at her and his face started to turn red. "Just...one of those flashes. Of memory. Aerith's," he mumbled, as if a clarification was necessary. "It makes things weird sometimes."
"...I am going to ban 'weird' from your vocabulary at this rate," she said dryly, but knowing there wasn't much else she could say. A lot of things about this whole mess was 'weird,' she thought. But the problem was that the 'weird' was making a strain that she was terrified was going to break everything to pieces.
She wasn't sure if she was helping or not, but she also knew this couldn't go on, and with everything already gearing up to go down the road to the Lifestream, they might as well get this sorted out first. This had been going on for long enough, all of it, and she was getting sick of it. "Cloud, I don't really know what you mean. I just don't get it."
"You think you don't get it?" Cloud said, letting out a desperate kind of laugh. "Tifa, I don't get anything any more. I get those little flashes sometimes, yes, but I just don't remember much of anything. I try, and I can't. But I can remember some things, like...like I know I looked up to him," he said, frowning slightly, like he was pulling something out of his mind. "He took care of me when I was a stumbling wreck. And even before all of that, before whatever happened in Nibe--I know looked up to him. I don't know how I remember, but...the feeling is still there. Same as with you," he said, finally meeting her eyes as Tifa fought a flinch. Feelings...but almost no memories. Just like with her. "Only now..." He made an empty gesture then sighed, looking defeated and as if he had given up one words. "She loved him, you know. Aerith," he finally said, looking down at his hands, his fingers twisting in a nervous gesture that hadn't been his, once upon a time. "And her memories are all I've got most of the time."
Cloud looked so lost that Tifa had no idea what to do. Lost and confused, and so far from what she had dreamed he would be like when they were children.
But the past was the past, and they weren't children any more.
"And I don't know what I feel about anybody," he finally said. "You, him, anybody."
"Cloud," Tifa began, laying her hand on his arm and not knowing what to say but knowing she had to say something. "You know that..."
Cloud jerked away, shaking his head. "I'm...I need some air," he said, standing up and not meeting her eyes, looking instead towards to door; towards escape.
Tifa felt her shoulders slump, feeling like she had failed before she'd even had a chance to try and wishing she had never started this conversation at all--she should have just left things be, at least for now. But she never did, even after all this time, and Zack still chewed her out for it, saying she was trying to make Cloud into something he could never be again and maybe never had been anyway.
She'd deserve it, this time. This time, if Zack had been there to yell at her, she'd have taken it without a word in her defense; without having to bite back that maybe the one trying to make Cloud someone he wasn't wasn't just her. "All right. Call if anything happens."
Cloud nodded, a faint smile touching his lips. "I will," he said, and turned to walk out the door.
Marlene came running down the stairs right after Cloud had left. "I thought I heard Cloud," she said, turning her head one way then the other, as if Cloud would magically appear.
"He just left, sweetie. But...but if you run, maybe you can catch him," Tifa said, smiling and giving the girl a nod. Marlene lit up and ran out the door, speeding up as she heard the sound of a motorcycle firing up.
She hoped Marlene caught him. With any luck, Cloud would take Marlene with him, because right now she didn't think Cloud should be alone, but Tifa knew she couldn't be the one to be at his side.
Not right now, at least.
Sometimes, she wondered if she ever could.
Healin Lodge was definitely deserving of its name--the air was clean and there were birds, honest under the heavens birds, singing all over the place, and pretty much any day but that day, Zack would have been dragging his feet about going inside. Today, though, he couldn't get inside fast enough, because inside were answers.
He stood outside the door and sighed, hesitating. Whatever was in there, he knew it was something he wasn't going to want to hear, and he wasn't so sure that knowing was better than not knowing. But not knowing could mean the planet trying to go kaboom again, and that just wasn't going to work.
He raised his hand and banged on the door, then crossed his arms to wait for someone to let him in.
"Yeah?" a voice yelled through the door. "If you're sellin' something, cram it up your--"
"Strifair Delivery, maybe at your service but probably not!" Zack yelled through the door, and heard a laugh before the door was flung open.
"'Sup, SOLDIER boy?" Reno said, grinning his old slightly manic grin, his baton tapping against his shoulder. "You sure took your sweet time."
"I was delayed," Zack said, eyeing the baton. Reno's pose, to anyone who didn't know him, looked lazy and relaxed, but Zack did know him, and that lazy pose was actually when Reno was the most poised and ready to strike. That meant Reno was in battle mode, and that was not a good sign.
The day, Zack thought, wanting to bang his head against something hard, seemed to be full of those.
"Oh yeah?" Reno said, raising an eyebrow, still tapping his baton slightly against his shoulder.
"Yeah," Zack said, his own stance growing tighter, more wary. "I was on my way home to a nice shower and maybe some food when some grey-haired nuts showed up," he said, watching Reno to see how he reacted.
Reno didn't disappoint him--his back went straighter and the baton slowed for just long enough to let Zack know something was definitely going on and that Reno definitely knew what.
"Man, that blows," Reno said, his voice neutral. "You kill 'em an' dump 'em by the side of the road, or what?"
"They rode off into the sunset and what did you call me for?" Zack said, crossing his arms and already tired of the run around before it had even started. "What is it you want?"
"It wasn't Reno that wants something," a voice that anyone who had ever worked for the ShinRa Company knew said softly from the doorway, the sound of a small motor and wheels catching Zack's attention before the voice, causing him to turn his head as a man in a motorized wheelchair, completely covered in a blanket, even most of his face covered or in shadow, rolled in, followed closely behind by Rude, watching Zack closely behind his sunglasses.
It was, Zack thought as his jaw fell open and his arms dropped in shock to his side and just sort of hung there, a day full of nothing but bad signs. And people coming back from the dead. Sephiroth through his freaky little clones and now Rufus Shinra.
"But you're dead!" he finally said.
Even from the shadow the blanket provided, Zack could see Rufus Shinra's faint smile. "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," he said with a soft, rather grim chuckle.
"Man, you're like a cockroach," Zack said, shaking his head and ignoring the way Rude frowned up at that. "How did you survive the ShinRa Building exploding?"
"Luck and little more," Rufus said, making a depreciating gesture with his hand. "Right before the building collapsed, I managed to--" he began, and Zack shook his head, suddenly really not wanting to hear it.
"Save it," he said, sighing. It had been too long of a day already, and there were still way too many hours in it to go. "It doesn't matter anyway. You managed to get out. I get that."
It didn't really matter, after all--all that mattered was that he was still alive. They'd all suffered; it just looked like Rufus' was a bit more physical than other's. But he was still alive, and not everyone had had that kind of 'luck'.
"Just tell me what it is you want," Zack said, crossings his arms again. Rufus Shinra was still alive and still had his Turks--at least two of them--so he couldn't even begin to wonder just what it was the man wanted with him.
Well, couldn't begin aside from the obvious, which was this having something to do with the Sephiroth copies. And if he knew Shinra--and ShinRa--then there was no way anyone was going to come out and say what was going on; they'd just toss him out blind to a pride of bandersnatches and tell him the steak sauce they'd doused him first was just to keep the Wutai mosquitoes away and everything was perfectly safe.
"Or better yet," Zack said, narrowing his eyes, "tell me about the two guys that attacked me on my way home. One big grey-haired bruiser with an EMP'd that put those little sticks to shame," he said, pointing vaguely in the direction of Reno's baton but never uncrossing his arms, "and one long-haired kid with a big-ass gunblade."
He deliberately didn't mention the third one. He wanted to see just how much he'd be able to trust Rufus Shinra, if he was going to tell him about the little one with the frickin' sword.
"Loz and Yazoo," Rufus said, nodding faintly.
"So you do know them," Zack said, his voice flat.
"Yes. They're why we called you," Rufus, said, raising a hand to his face, Geostigma, and a pretty bad case of it, mottling the back. "The ShinRa Company owes the world a large debt. We are the ones who are responsible for the current sad state of things. We are the ones who must shoulder the burden of setting things right."
"Yeah, no kidding," Zack muttered under his breath. "And I'm listening," he said, a faint smile that held very little humor on his face. A Shinra was a Shinra, it seemed, and there always had to be a speech.
"As a first step, we began to investigate whatever effects Sephiroth might have left behind."
"We went out to the Northern Crater, yo," Reno said, tapping his baton against his shoulder again. "And you know what we found out there, man?"
Zack was almost afraid to ask. And he was also pretty damned sure that whatever the answer was, it wasn't going to be what they told him. "What'd you find?"
"We found nothing," Rufus said, and Reno tapped his baton again like a slow, steady metronome. "So you have nothing to worry about there, at least." Rufus leaned back, as if tired. "But something occurred that we hadn't foreseen."
"That doesn't sound good," Zack said, definitely not liking where this was going or the way Reno kept tapping his baton against his shoulder. Cissnei had told him long ago, once, that Reno's baton was like a cat's tail, showing Reno's agitation as well as a warning that he was still on high alert and would attack at the slightest provocation. Rude had stony-faced bastard down and Rufus had benevolent, repentant cripple down decently well, but it was that tapping baton that gave everything away.
"It wasn't good. The same ones that attacked you got in our way. It seems that their intention is to halt what we are trying to do," Rufus said, his exposed hand tapping as catlike as Reno's baton on the end of the armrest of his wheelchair. "I have no idea at all why they're doing this."
"Oh really," Zack said, his voice completely flat. "I'm sure it's got nothing to do with them being little Sephiroth copies. And here I'd thought Genesis was the only one who could do that."
Reno went ramrod straight, and Rude's hand settled on his own baton, and that told Zack plenty right there.
"Sephiroth never had that ability and they are not Sephiroth copies. All that they are are dangerous, violent hooligans who--" Rufus began.
"No," Zack interrupted, holding up his hand and giving Rufus a disgusted look. "Just stop. I don't want to hear anymore, not when you can't be straight with me even now. So just stop. I saw their eyes, Rufus, and they asked me about 'Mother.' I've been down this route to crazytown, more than once, and no, thank you."
There was a time, Zack thought, when he would have stood there and helped them put the steak sauce on him and pointed out places they had missed. That time was long since gone, gone after too many betrayals, too many deaths, and too many lost years. "I'm not helping you," he said, shaking his head. "Do your own dirty work," he said, looking at Reno and Rude before glaring at Rufus. "You've still got your Turks, and they were better at that crap. So you don't need a SOLDIER," he finished, then turned on his heel and walked out the door.
He slammed the door shut, hard, the sound of it so loud it silenced the birds and reverberated in the stillness.
Zack knew enough. Whatever was happening, he wanted no part of it. He knew that was a fool's wish, that he was in it up to his eyebrows, and he was going to have to be the one cleaning up the mess ShinRa had made, but he'd be damned if he was going to be ShinRa's puppet doing it.
And he'd be doubly damned if he let anyone die this time.
Next section: If this doesn't work, Rufus thought, then I will probably die here today.