"What in Hel's name is going on?" Zack said, his hand falling in shock. He dropped down so he was sitting next to Cloud and put his arm around him, pulling Cloud against him as if just by being close enough he could somehow bring Cloud back, somehow undo whatever the Sephiroth clones had done. "What are those three?! How can they do something like this? Is this why you told me to stay out of the water?"
Vincent nodded. "I don't know how, but it was the water that did this," he said. "And all of those who were in it, other than the three parts of Sephiroth, are infected with Geostigma. The same as you," Vincent added quietly. "It wasn't worth the risk."
Zack dug his hands into his hair, then looked around. "All the kids woke up, though. Is Cloud--?"
"I don't know what's wrong," Vincent said, shaking his head, and Zack swallowed, hard. "But it does have something to do with the Geostigma. All of the children, and Cloud, have it."
"Right. From what I've been able to gather, Geostigma is caused by an overreaction of the system that removes abnormalities which have taken root. Even within our bodies, there is a flow, similar to the Lifestream. Geostigma is the fight with the evil substances with have invaded it."
"...Hunh?" Zack said, looking completely confused. "Vin, I'm not that smart. Small words? Please?" he said, raising his free hand into a supplicating gesture and looking desperate. "Flow like the Lifestream? Abnormalities? Evil substance? What?"
Vincent looked like he wanted to rub his temples, but just look upwards briefly before he sighed. "Evil substances. Atoms of Sephiroth. Genetic memories of Jenova. Call them what you will."
Zack gave him a blank look.
Vincent sighed again and rubbed the bridge of his nose briefly before he continued. "Geostigma is caused by the parts of Jenova still within you. Which is why whatever happened impacted the children, Cloud, and those three."
"Oh," Zack said, nodding quickly, his eyes getting wide. "That's why you told me to stay out of the water! 'Cause it might hit me?"
Vincent nodded his head.
"Did you see what happened? Any idea how to fix this? The long-haired one said Cloud did it."
"Cloud?" Vincent said, frowning slightly. "I got there only a little before you did today. I was nearby."
"You were nearby?" Zack said, blinking, and tightening his grip on Cloud's shoulders. That was it, he was getting Vincent a cell phone even if he had to strap it to the man--the gods knew Vincent had enough straps and buckles that Zack wouldn't have a hard time finding a place to put it. If he'd known for a second Vincent was out here and had been able to contact him... "Wait, why?" Zack said, looking confused. "Why would you be out here? Yeah, sure, OK, you're not exactly the most sociable person and so it's not like you're gonna be living in a city or anything and I'm glad you were here, but--"
"I'm often in this area, so I noticed when they came," Vincent said flatly, cutting Zack off.
Zack gave Vincent a sharp look. "Because she's here, right? Lucrecia?"
Vincent looked away, and Zack sighed faintly. "Vin, I'm really glad you were here, but, uh...you know that's not healthy, right?
Vincent gave him a sharp, narrow-eyed look, his eyes flicking from Zack to Cloud and then back, and the look faded into his normal, blandly expressionless one. "You're not really one to talk," he said softly, and Zack blinked in utter bafflement, not quite sure how to take that or what in Hel's name Vincent was getting at.
"...Yeeeeeeeeeeeeah, so, anyway," Zack said, dismissing Vincent's cryptic remark as 'typical Vinnie,' "what about those three clones?"
"Fragments," Vincent said, his voice low. "They're not clones."
Zack blinked. "What? What does that mean? Fragments?"
"They are fragments of Sephiroth, shaped by Jenova."
"...Vincent, how do you know all this? Seriously, how do you know that?" Zack said, staring at him with his jaw hanging open.
Vincent smiled, faintly. "Once a Turk," he said, and Zack rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You have your freaky Turk ways. Anyway. They're fragments of Sephiroth? How is Jenova going to do anything with pieces? I don't get it."
"Perhaps 'fragments' isn't the right way to think of them. They're closer to...larvae."
"...Ew," Zack said, making a face. "I think I liked 'fragments' better. No mental images that way."
Vincent got the tired look he seemed to get all the time when Zack was talking to him. "Fragments. And what they're after is Jenova. Or rather, Jenova's head."
"What," Zack said, his voice flat, then he shook his head vehemently. "No, no, no, no, no, we killed her, remember? We got rid of Jenova! Her and Sephiroth!"
"Just as Sephiroth is not gone forever, neither is his abominable mother," Vincent said, turning to stare over at the truck, and the children huddled together in the back. "And they are looking for her head. For what, I don't know, nor do I want to contemplate what they will do should they attain it. But make no mistake, they will go to any extreme to do so." Vincent's eyes narrowed, and he continued staring at the children. "Tseng and Elena found the head."
"What?" Zack said, tightening his arm around Cloud's shoulder. Cloud didn't move or respond, but right then, Zack needed something to hold on to.
"They brought them here, tortured half to death," Vincent said softly. "I was able to help them, but...I don't know."
"Torture? And they found her--fuck, that was why Rufus tried to enlist me," he said bitterly. "That bastard. Trying to send me out to the bandersnatches coated in barbecue sauce again," he said, nearly snarling.
"If the fragments are able to get Jenova's head, it could be enough."
"To make them whole vessels instead of simply fragments of one."
"Stop talking in riddles, Vince," Zack said, swallowing. "I think I know what you're saying, but I don't want what I'm thinking to be right. So prove me an idiot, please."
"Despite the majority of the time, about this, I fear you are not an idiot."
"...They wanna bring Sephiroth back. They wanna destroy the world."
Vincent nodded. "That's what it seems."
Zack shut his eyes and dropped his head on top of Cloud's. "Shit. Just...shit, Vincent. Seph was nearly able to take over Cloud, even after Aerith...and if they managed to hollow him out again--" he said, and his words ran dry. He began digging at his hair with his free hand, his thoughts beginning to spin wildly.
"Zack. Take care of him," Vincent said softly, nodding at Cloud and trying to cut off Zack's panic before it began. "Unlike before, Cloud did this, you said so yourself. He did something to one of them, and the backlash got him as well, so this is not the same," he said sharply, and Zack appreciated Vincent's attempts--but he knew better; he'd seen this before.
And more than anything else...he'd seen Cloud's eyes. Mako-green and cat-eyed, and by all the gods, he knew what that meant, and even worse, what it might mean.
"Take care of him until he come back. And I'll take the children back to Midgar," Vincent said, nodding once.
"Thanks. I owe you," Zack said, the words on auto-pilot and thoughts swirling around the clones--fragments--trying to bring Sephiroth back with Jenova's head, and Cloud's Sephiroth eyes. "Tifa is gonna kill me."
It was a brainless non sequitur and he knew it. But it took the edge off the panic battering him.
And as quickly as he could joke, he sobered. "Vin," Zack started, frowning up slightly. "There's...I gotta make a phone call," he said, his arm tightening around Cloud without him realizing he had done it.
Vincent frowned for a second, then nodded suddenly. "Tifa," he said, and it wasn't a question.
Zack nodded. "Yeah. I have to call her. She needs to...I should tell her...I need to warn her," he finally settled on.
Vincent nodded again, and Zack carefully leaned Cloud against one of the odd trees that made up the forest--he'd been holding on to Cloud so much Cloud was slumped over against him, and his head was lolling on Zack's shoulder. He tried to make Cloud comfortable, and Vincent watched him doing this with a look on his face that Zack couldn't interpret--not that he could usually figure out what the third member of the Brood Vortex was ever thinking, and not that he really cared just then. As he stood up, he patted Cloud's head softly. "Be back soon, kid. Feel free to wake up if you miss me," he said, trying for a grin and hoping it worked.
He walked just far enough away to still be close enough to keep an eye on Cloud, but out of earshot of Denzel and Vincent. This wasn't going to be an easy call, and the last thing he wanted was an audience. And he knew it was stupid, being so determined to keep Cloud in sight, but he figured better safe than sorry--he'd already fucked up once by not keeping Cloud close enough, and he wasn't making that mistake again.
And dragging his feet like this wasn't doing him any good, he thought, and pulled out his PHS. The home number was on speed-dial, and judging by how quickly she picked up Tifa must have been waiting by the phone.
"Hello?" she said quickly, and he had a pretty good idea what kind of death grip she had to have had on the phone.
"Hey, you miss me?" he said, his mouth quirking up in a grin even though she couldn't see it, and knowing that was going to be about the only brevity in the conversation.
"Zack! Oh, thank the gods!" she said, and the relief in her voice made what Zack was going to have to say all the harder.
"I got them," he said. "Cloud and Denzel. Vincent is going to bring Denzel and all the other kids those nuts took back," Zack said, shifting his grip on the phone and looking over at Denzel who had gone over and was now crouching by Cloud, his arms wrapped around his knees and doing that stoic thing that Zack didn't think any kid that young should be so good at. "When he gets there, he can fill you in about the Sephiroth...clones, fragments, whatever. If you can, get a hold of everyone else."
"Already done," she said. "I was calling people all night. Even Yuffie's on her way from Wutai. The only one I couldn't get was Vincent, and that's because he doesn't have a phone, but it sounds like he found you."
"Yeah, and thank the gods he was here."
There was a long silence, before Tifa swallowed thickly. "What about Cloud?"
Zack's shoulder's slumped. "He's...I got him, but...I don't know what they did to him, Tifa. There's no mako around here, anywhere, he shouldn't be...but he's--"
"Bring him home," Tifa said suddenly.
"I'm going to take him by the church," Zack said, shaking his head. Tifa'd been in terrible shape the first time she saw Cloud when he was mako-poisoned, and she'd sometimes looked ready to cry when she looked at him, until he woke up again. This was ripping him up enough, no need to put anyone else through this. "He always...before, he always seemed closer to coming out of it there, so..."
"Bring him home, Zack!" Tifa yelled. "Don't take him to the church, don't stay out there in the...in the fucking woods; I want you to bring him home!"
"It's not safe, Tifa!" Zack yelled back, his nerves frayed. "His eyes, Tifa, oh gods, his eyes--" he said, and the words cut off. He swallowed hard, trying to think of how to even phrase it in a way that wouldn't send either one of them off the deep end. "Like Sephiroth's," he finally said tightly. "But blown out and. it's just not safe yet! But the church, maybe--" he said, and trailed off, feeling desperate. If there was anywhere, anywhere, where they had a chance of Cloud pulling through whatever the Sephiroth clone had done, it had to be there, where Aerith had been and maybe still was, somehow. Cloud always went there to get himself together, and Zack couldn't think of anything else. "It was Aerith's place," he said softly. "And if there's anyone who could help him now--" he started, then trailed off.
Tifa had sucked in a harsh breath as soon as Zack had said 'Sephiroth,' and there was only a long, painful silence now. She finally took a deep breath. When she spoke, her voice wobbled a bit before going steady. "Y--you know tomorrow's Saturday, right? Marlene's going to be mad if you miss Iraira-man. It won't be Saturday morning unless the two of you are jumping around singing the theme song in your pajamas with...with Cloud threatening to blow up the TV and yelling at you to put on some pants. So...so you and Cloud had better be here tomorrow morning," she said, and Zack smiled a little. It felt fragile and wrong, but it was all he had right then, and this was all either of them had--this tiny bit of normalcy. She hadn't said it outright, there was no way she could have, but he knew Tifa well enough to know what she was saying--not to bring back Cloud, but to bring back Cloud.
"On it," he said. "After all, I can't miss the big season finale coming up! Tomorrow's the first of a two parter!"
Tifa's laugh wasn't quite right, but he was damned glad to hear it. "The heavens forbid," she said. He heard her swallowing, and he sort of wished he could give her a hug.
Odin knew he sort of felt like he could do with one himself right then.
And from the fragments, from the sparks: memory.
The place is familiar; he feels like he has been here before, but--
Of course it's familiar; it's home. But he left here, long ago,
To become something better
The place is familiar; on some level, he knows that he is home. But he...he does not want to be here. There is something about the place that sets him at unease, but--
--he ran away, that was it; went all the way to Midgar
--find your Promised Land--
to become something more, to become a
but he has failed, hasn't become what he intended; he does not want to be here. The place feels, somehow, like failure.
But he is here, and it is so familiar.
And he wants to go home, to his mother.
But his mother is--
died in childbirth
killed by ShinRa
My mother is...
And my father...
This place is so familiar.
He wanted to go home. He wanted to go home and for everything to be like it was.
Denzel leaned against the glass of the window, staring at the forest as it thinned out as they drove towards Midgar. He tightened his jaw and just stared out and felt tears burning at his eyes, and blinked to try and stop them. He was a boy and too old to cry. Boys weren't supposed to cry, but it didn't stop the ones that were starting to drip out despite his best efforts.
The man in red--Vincent--didn't say anything, and he was glad for that.
It is home, and he has found her, found his mother. But...but she has been betrayed, she's gone, and there is only the smell of ash and a crumpled body--
--frozen in mako, experimented on and made into a monster, she was--
--an organism that was apparently dead was found in a 2000 year old geological stratum. Professor Gast named that organism Je--
--confirmed to be an Ancient---X Year, X Month, X Day. Jenova Project approved. The use of Mako Reactor 1 approved for use.
My mother's name is
the -- Project.
Is this just a coincidence?
father, they killed my father--
--Why didn't you tell me anything? Why did you die?
Why did the traitors kill you, Mother?
Everything is burning, and he has to get to ShinRa Manor, to find out the truth and to have his revenge.
Nibelheim--home--is burning, and there will be nothing left of the place that has always caused him so much pain. But he has to stop it, somehow, he and Zack...
But Zack is a traitor--
--No, Zack would never--
"Cloud! Why did you kill the villagers? Why did you hurt Tifa? Answer me, Cloud!"
Villagers...wait, no, that didn't...why would he kill...and Tifa, he wouldn't hurt her; he had promised to protect--
You killed them, you killed them all, and Tifa...I promised I'd protect her, so we will stop you, Se--
"Mother, finally, we'll meet," he said, but suddenly there was the image of his mother, outside of her burning home, but no, mother, he was talking to Mother, she was in the tank, but..no, it...
"Cloud, what's gotten into you? I trusted, you!" Zack yelled, and it hurts, it feels like a punch, like a betrayal
and he reacts before he can think, drawing Masamune and attacking--
--no, stop, why would I attack Zack? I wouldn't--
He blasts Zack into the lower floors of the reactor and follows, to finish the job and kill--
--the traitor. And Zack is only human, only a SOLDIER 1st class, but he is different. Zack had said so himself and opened Cloud's eyes. And if Zack had trusted Cloud, well, Zack had betrayed that trust first, and that anger gets him through, almost silences the part saying this wrong, that in flashes sees through different eyes.
Zack will pay for the betrayal, pay for being human--and pay he does; Cloud blasts Angeal's sword out of his hands and delivers a final blast, enough to knock Zack out, if not kill him. And the trooper--
Zack! No! No, I'm not going to let him get away with this!
--is nothing. What is more important now is Mother, and he turns to see her, sleeping in Hojo's pod--
That's not my mother, Mom's is...she...he killed her!
And I can't let him do this, I can't let him!
He rushes for Zack's sword and sneaks towards him, knowing this is his only chance, because he's only a trooper, and Cl--Seph--he has already beaten Zack. And then it is a rush, and the feel of the buster sword cutting through flesh--
Sh--he looks down, to see Zack's sword cutting through him, and it hurts--
--and it hurts, how did this happen, how did he--I--he--?
Tifa, I have to check on Tifa, he thinks, and rushes out.
It hurts, it somehow hurts, and he's furious; how could that trooper have managed to do this to him? But no matter, he'll pay as well, like all the humans...
He goes after him, because this isn't over, not yet. "Someone like you--!" he yells, furious.
"Cloud, finish Sephiroth!" he hears Zack yell, and it must be a joke.
He attacks, but can't land a blow, and it's only to be expected, because there's no way a trooper could hope to hold his own against him.
"Don't get overconfident," he says, and ends this farce now. Masamune--the Buster sword--Masamune is firm within his hands, and he attacks. Masamune cleaves through the trooper's flesh easily, and this is the end.
No, I won't let this end now, he'll pay--
--all of the humans will pay--
And it's impossible, the trooper is pulling himself forward, towards him, and now they are face to face and--
Turns to look back, as best as is possible, to see who did this, and--
--looks into his own eyes, at his own face, and the world begins to glitch.
He cradled Cloud against him as he rode back, slower than he wanted but not daring to go much faster, not with Cloud passed out like he still was. So he had Cloud side-straddle on the bike, Cloud's head nodding against his chest as Zack kept one arm around him and the other steering home, and for all he knew it was stupid, he kept up a steady stream of babble and kept looking down whenever they hit a clear patch of road, hoping to see Cloud blinking awake or something.
But no, every time he looked down, it was the same, Cloud's eyes still shut and his face unnaturally pale in the moonlight, like he was a ghost or something, and when Zack had that realization he damned near drove them off the road. And stupid as it was, he pulled over and stopped, shutting off the engine and everything, just to make sure Cloud was breathing.
Zack felt a kind of relief at Cloud's still-aliveness that almost made him ashamed of having been so paranoid. Almost, but not quite, because Cloud was too still, not sleeping but something else. It was the preternatural stillness of mako-poisoning, only it wasn't, it was different, it was something else, and some part of Zack was thrown. "Off to rescue my princess, eh?" Zack said, Tifa's angry words coming back to him because all he could think of was one of the old tales his father used to tell him, of the Stolen Maiden who was encased in a castle of ice, pale and frozen until the spell was broken. In the moonlight, under the strange lights of the forest, Cloud seemed like he was three-fourths taken by the Snow Woman, skin washed white as the glowing white trees. "I wish it'd be as easy to wake you up as it is in the old tales, kid," he said, then sighed, and touched his forehead against Cloud's. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice mournful and full of self-reproach. "I knew those three were out there and they were coming after us. I shouldn't have left you alone. I'm so sorry."
And the memories fell apart in sharp flashes of static and white, the static coming faster and faster as the fragments didn't fit, didn't--
he would never, it didn't make sense--it--
--it hurt; the shards and sparks of memory made his head feel as if it would explode; there was too much that jarred, that clashed, that wasn't right--
He struggled against it, and for the barest moment, he could feel both the feel of a book in his gloved hands and the feel of something--someone--against his cheek, something warm against his forehead and soft words in a voice that was familiar but too far away to be anything but a murmur like water. But it was enough, it was almost enough, and he opened his eyes to a blue the same blue as the sky, the sky he had never seen--but I have, I have, the sky is so blue, at home, it's--but could never fear. "Zack...?" he managed, and then he sank back again, the memories becoming stronger and taking over; a fragment of Zack's voice, "--you're diffe--," and the smell of the flames dragging him back in.
"...Zack...?" Cloud whispered, so faintly that had the bike still been on or Zack not so close, he would have missed it.
"Cloud? You awake? Cloud?" he said, startling. And briefly, Cloud's eyes slid open, just enough for Zack to see a faintly mako-tinged blue, startlingly blue in his colorless face, and unfocused round pupils.
Pupils that blew back out into those green, cat-slitted eyes before Cloud went limp again, eyes closing as he slid back into whatever null space he had been in just as Zack gritted his teeth at the crappy timing of his Geostigma deciding to have a mini-flare up.
"Keep fighting it, kid," Zack whispered hoarsely, when he got his breath back, touching his head against Cloud's again and shutting his eyes, pulling Cloud into a tight hug, ignoring how much it hurt to have Cloud pressed against where his Geostigma was manifesting. "Keep fighting and come back. We need you here a whole lot more than wherever you are does."
He stayed like that, for a moment, wishing he could pass some of his own will to Cloud, hoping just being there would help because it was all he could do. "I need you here," he said softly, the words coming out a soft, low, and bitter laugh, and he hated how helpless he felt and how fragile Cloud seemed. "So please. Don't do this to me."
Cloud didn't stir, and Zack sighed and finally raised his head, settling Cloud against him again as he restarted the bike. "You have to wake up. You wouldn't leave me to face Tifa alone, would you? That'd just be cruel!" he said, trying to make a joke. He suddenly felt tired, and it just wasn't worth the effort any more. He rested his cheek against the top of Cloud's head in a moment of weakness, breathing in the faint the smell of burnt wood and lilies that somehow seemed to have worked itself into Cloud's hair and the underlying mako-tinged scent that was Cloud before he straightened and set them back off towards Midgar; off towards home.
Next section: Now that's enough of that.