The sudden, bright, glitching pain almost blocked out the sound of screaming.
"Screaming" was not a sound Zack particularly liked hearing, especially when he couldn't do anything about it--and right then, he couldn't. There was flaring pain over his ribs and his left thigh, like he was being attacked from the inside. He braked quickly and gritted his teeth against it, until the world went back to normal. And when he could breathe again, when the pain no loner made the world go white, he stomped down on the pain and gunned his motorcycle towards where the screaming had come from.
He wasn't quite sure what he had been expecting when he got there, but beyond a shadow of a doubt, "chaos" was not it. Chaos and crying children.
Some of them on the bank were crying; the ones in the water.
"Shit!" Zack let out quickly, skidding to a stop and jumping off the bike as soon as he could. The kids in the water were all, well, he was pretty sure they were alive, but to keep it that way, they needed to be gotten out, and fast, since they were all very obviously unconscious.
He was about to dive in when there was a sharp, "Don't."
He looked around, shocked. "Vincent? Where did you--"
"Later," Vincent said, his voice terse. "But you need to stay away from the water. Trust me. I'll get them out," he said, and vanished into a swirl of red.
"When did you learn that?! And why can't I help?!" Zack yelled, but remained at the side, pacing and all but twitching with the urge to move; to help. But he figured if Vincent had warned him, there had to have been some kind of reason for it. He dug his hands into his hair and watched as Vincent transported himself from one kid to another and transporting back to drop the kid off by Zack. Having to do something, he started yelling directions at Vincent.
Then his voice died because he recognized that blond hair, on the opposite side in the water. "Shit. Shit, no. Cloud!" he yelled. He unholstered his sword and threw it down--Vincent's warning could be damned by the gods; he was getting Cloud. "Cloud! Are you OK? Hold on, I'm coming!"
The only answer he got was one of the Sephiroth clones raising his gun and shooting at him, the bullet whizzing right past his head. The long-haired one gestured sharply at the bruiser clone and then the water, and then he vanished in a black swirl, almost eerily similar to Vincent's red.
"Where under the Heavens did you learn that?! And how come everybody can do that but me?" Zack yelped, then didn't have time to do anything else before he was being attacked by the clone who had materialized behind him.
"Vincent, dammit, get Cloud! Get him and get him now!" Zack yelled, dodging and diving into a roll. He grabbed his sword from the ground as he came out of the roll and went into a crouch, and then yelled, "I do not have time for this!" and attacked.
Sometimes Zack felt like the only time he really knew what he was doing was when he was fighting. Fighting was simple--it was you versus a clear opponent, and the only options were winning and losing. Fighting itself wasn't complicated. Things leading up to the fight, feelings in a fight, all those could be a mess, but fighting itself...it was easy to lose yourself in it, to reduce everything at that time to you and your opponent.
He couldn't let himself be distracted; had to let everything else go, in this instant, to him and the Sephiroth clone. "What do you want?!" he yelled.
"What did he do?" the long-haired clone said back, sounding almost calm, but as if there were a hairline fracture in the calm.
Warning bells went off in Zack's head--he knew that tone of voice; it was a terrifying flashback to Nibelheim, to Sephiroth right before he broke, to right before Zack's "You mean you're different?" That one instant was one that haunted him, that had come back to reverberate in his head in the weeks and months when they chased after Sephiroth, one that haunted him even in nightmares. Zack had never been that great at reading people, but that was something that had constantly hounded him and he had constantly questioned himself on, wondering how he had missed it and had blundered his way into setting off Sephiroth's breakdown. With as much as he'd replayed it in his head all these years, hearing that same tone of voice, from someone who looked so much like Sephiroth, nearly floored him.
"What did who do?" Zack asked back, swinging his sword to block another bullet. On the cusp of a breakdown or not, that put the guy at three bullets now; the first bullet, the second when he landed behind Zack, and now this, and Zack needed him to shoot off those the three he had left more before he'd have to reload or resort to only blade attacks. The short length of the gunblade would give Zack the advantage if he could get distance between them once it was out of bullets--it was the weakness of the gunblade as a weapon. It worked only for long distances and very short distances. If once the long distance element was gone when the bullets ran out and Zack could get into the middle distance gap that the gunblade couldn't cover but the Buster sword did, the game was over.
The long-haired one came in close in a sudden, furious attack, and Zack raised the Buster sword up quickly, blocking right before the gun blade could connect, and now their faces were only inches apart, separated by the swords. "What did he do? How did he do it?" the long-haired clone hissed angrily, trying to press forward.
"Who?" Zack yelled, pushing back and pushing him off, then feigning a swing right--Sephiroth's weak side, and so he figured it was worth a shot, and then trying to thrust the sword into an exposed area. The long-haired one was distracted, that much was painfully obvious--he was leaving his side exposed and making careless mistakes--and it really was like Nibelheim all over again. That time, Zack shouldn't have been able to hold back Sephiroth at all, and there was no way Cloud should have been able to nearly finish the job. This time, Zack figured the advantage was his, even if numbers weren't--if he could finish this off now, while all three of the clones were distracted, that'd be one less problem.
There was a flare of pain in his side and in his leg, one that made his vision swim, and Zack realized he didn't have as much of an advantage as he thought; not with as far as his Geostigma had advanced. It had flared up right before he'd gotten there, but he hadn't had time to recover from it and was feeling that now.
He gritted his teeth and pressed on--he'd end this and end this fast while he still could, because he had bigger worries than his own body failing him, and thankful that the clone had been too distracted to take advantage of Zack's own weakness. He had to get Cloud away from them, and do it now--
Wait, whoa, there are three of them. Where's the other one? he thought suddenly, his eyes going wide.
He chanced a quick glance over to the other side, and saw the other clone, the bruiser, struggling with what looked like a wet body on the bank, and shaking it.
The other clone.
Ifrit in a rainstorm, what happened?
Fragments, shatterings, sparks of light, of memory, within the darkness. Everything was sharp and broken; fragments of light, and there was silence.
And there was nothing, only a vague and desperate impulse to not fade into the ashen darkness, into the voices crying out for him to join, become one, to be refilled; Reunion--
and into then, the void.
and into then, memory.
and into then, the vessel.
The only reason Denzel trusted the strange man in red was because he had heard Zack yelling directions at him. But as it was, as soon as the strange man, as pale as the three other men, had Cloud on the shore, Denzel was running over, ignoring the way Zack was fighting with one of the three men, and feeling a terrible kind of fear in his stomach.
He's not dead, he can't be dead. It's Cloud, and Cloud's not...he's not dead, he's just not! Denzel thought frantically.
"Cloud! Cloud!" he yelled, skidding to his knees by Cloud and grabbing Cloud's arm. He started shaking it frantically. "Cloud! Can you hear me? What happened? Cloud!" he said, and felt his breath hitching. Cloud was limp and not reacting, and--
"You know him?" the man in red said sharply, and Denzel looked over quickly and nodded. "Then you stay with him and watch him. We have to get out of here. Are you from Midgar?" the man asked, and Denzel wondered why he was asking stupid questions when Cloud was--when Cloud--
He nodded quickly.
"All of you?"
Denzel nodded again, then started shaking Cloud.
"Midgar. how was it that they brought you all here?" the man said sharply.
"Truck," Denzel said, and pointed.
"Stay with him," the man said, and vanished in a swirl of tattered red cloak before Denzel could say anything.
"Cloud. are you OK? Are you OK?" Denzel said, his voice high-pitched. Cloud wasn't moving. He was breathing, but he wasn't moving, and he wasn't waking up, no matter how hard Denzel shook him. "Cloud, c'mon, you have to wake up. Please!" Denzel said, and started shaking Cloud's shoulder. He only stopped to wipe at his eyes, then went back to shaking him.
He was startled by the hand on his shoulder. Especially since it was made of metal and really pointy.
"We have to go. Now," the man said, his voice low but urgent. Denzel nodded, then looked over frantically at Zack.
"He'll come soon. We have to go now while we can," the man repeated again, then crouched down and picked up Cloud.
"I'm staying with him!" Denzel said sharply, tilting up his jaw.
The man in red nodded. "You two in the front, then. And hurry," the man said, his voice just as low and urgent, and shifted Cloud onto his shoulder. He wrapped Denzel in his cloak, and Denzel let out a sharp gasp as the world dissolved.
Two more bullets, Zack thought, taking a quick glance around--he didn't know what Vincent was doing, but the place was clearing slowly of kids. Vin, you better have a plan, Zack thought, and took the fight into the trees, to get some distance between them and whatever it was Vincent was doing. The long-haired Sephiroth clone launched himself at Zack, and Zack braced himself quickly and used his sword to block the incoming attack, one hand on the hilt and the other bracing the flat of the blade.
"How did Cloud do it, defy Mother's will?" the long-haired one said, in that same hairline-fracture calm way, and Zack's draw dropped.
"No idea, but way to go, Cloud!" he let out in a whoop and pushed forward with both hands, pushing the clone off. The clone's eyes narrowed into fine, angry slits, and he turned mid-air and fired his last two bullets in a rush, followed by two quick empty clicks. Ahh ha ha, gotcha, Zack thought with a grin, and launched himself forward, ignoring the pain in his side and now his leg. Zack didn't know what Cloud had done or what had happened, but whatever it had done had KO'd one clone and knocked the other two off their feet.
And KO'd the kids and Cloud himself, but he pushed that out before he could think about it.
There was the sound of a truck starting up from nearby, and he glanced over to see a truck speeding off, all the kids in the back and what had to be Vincent with all that red driving it off.
The water was clear and the only two people on the other side were the clones, so it was time for Zack to make his exit--right now his priority was Cloud, not the clone having a nervous breakdown, and if Cloud wasn't in that truck Zack was ripping Vincent's broody brains out.
It was time to get to out of there.
With a whoop, he attacked in a furious rush, then dove out of the air; down straight towards for his bike.
Denzel stared out the front window, Cloud between him and the man in red, and his arm around Cloud.
Cloud still hadn't woken up.
Denzel kept staring out, out at the strange trees shimmering in the dark, and remembered, faint as it was in his mind, the way he had felt when Cloud had picked him up the day they met. It had felt so warm, in a way that reminded him so much of his mother that it had almost made his chest hurt. He hadn't thought he'd ever feel that warmth again. So it had been so easy to just trust Cloud; to finally let a grown-up take over.
And he remembered, the way the church had always smelled like lilies, and how whenever he smelled it, it felt safe. That smell just felt safe.
He remembered waking up that first day, surrounded in the smell of what he had thought was perfume, with his head resting on Cloud's chest. He didn't feel as tired as he had before--he'd actually felt OK, for the first time in a long, long time. It had been a long time since he'd felt safe, since he'd been able to sleep without being on edge, but...but it had felt like more than that.
He'd sighed then looked up, and saw the brightest blue eyes he'd ever seen. Bright blue eyes in a strangely pale face. "You awake now?" the man said, and Denzel had nodded.
He knew now, looking back, why Cloud had been so pale and why he'd felt better, but at the time, he hadn't known. He only knew that he felt better, and that he hoped, oh by the gods, how he'd hoped, that things would finally be okay.
"When you're ready," the man had said and his voice was both gentle and straightforward, "We'll go."
"Go where?" Denzel had said, and bit his lip.
"Home," the man had said as if it were normal and expected, and Denzel had sagged against him, against the man's warmth, shutting his eyes and starting to cry.
He leaned against Cloud's arm now, and faintly, so faintly, was the scent of lilies.
His face crumpled and he held onto Cloud, as tight as he could, and hoped maybe a little of his warmth would bring Cloud home the same way as Cloud had done for him
And there were voices, so many voices.
Even within the void.
What are you looking at?
--the general name for the experiment. The experiment that used--
--How are you so sure? I'm trying, but...but it seems like he'll never wake u--
--end of the world is brought by the dueling of the beasts.
The Goddess shall fall from the darkest sky--
--oth's mother's name is Jeno--
This is...a monst--
How can you be so sure?
Never lose your--
Can you even hear me?
No, Cloud, no, don't! Aer--
Even within the void, voices.
So many voices.
Zack followed after the truck Vincent had gotten from somewhere, all the while making sure the crazy clones weren't following him. It seemed like they had bigger problems right then than him, and that would have been a relief, only whatever their problem had been, it was Zack's as well.
Cloud, you'd better be OK, he thought, something tight in his chest. You better be OK, or I swear on Odin's eye, I'm gonna kick your ass from here to the Lifestream.
He parked quickly, noticing that by then, all the kids in the back seemed to be awake. That seemed like a good sign, but he wasn't going to relax until he saw Cloud and Denzel with his own two eyes.
There was something strange about seeing Vincent talking to a truck full of small kids. Even from behind, Vincent looked like he wanted to be somewhere else, and without thinking, Zack blurted out, "Vin, how did you get a truck? I mean, this was lucky and all, but..."
Vincent turned around and gave him a level look. "I have the ability to teleport and I used to be a Turk. I hot-wired their truck while they were distracted. Thank you for keeping that one busy."
Zack stared at him with his jaw hanging open for a long before he broke out into a grin. "Vincent, swear on Odin's eye, right now, I could kiss you."
"Are you trying to get me to leave?" the other man said, giving Zack a look.
"Love you too, Vinnie," Zack said, flashing a grin before his attention went back to the kids.
"You guys OK?" he said, scanning over them, and not seeing Denzel or Cloud felt like a punch. He covered it quickly. "Any of you hurt? What happened?"
They all shook their heads, but no one said anything. Finally, one little boy said, "They said they could fix us."
"Fix you? FIx what? How?"
"The 'stigma," he said, and looked down at the floor of the truck.
"What in Hel's name..." he began, then turned to Vincent. "Where's Cloud? And another kid, a little boy. Named Denzel. Vincent, where are they? They were--" Zack began, and Vincent motioned with his hand.
"In the front," he said, and there was something about the way he said it that made that strange, tight feeling slam back into Zack's chest.
"Don't scare me, Vin," he said, giving a wane smile, but Vincent didn't reply back. And while that wasn't unusual in and of itself, given the situation, it made something cold join the tight feeling in Zack's chest.
He followed Vincent to the front of the truck, and at first, it looked like Cloud was just sleeping--but that didn't make any sense, and if it was just that, Vincent wouldn't have that look on his face.
"Zack!" Denzel yelled, dropping his arm from around Cloud's shoulder and sliding out. Denzel's face looked pale, but Zack couldn't tell if it was, or if it was a trick of the strange lights of the forest. "Cloud--he won't--I can't get him to--" Denzel said, swallowing, and his cheeks were wet.
He put his hand on Denzel's shoulder and squeezed it, half to reassure Denzel, and half to reassure himself, and leaned in.
Cloud...was definitely not 'asleep', and Zack swallowed thickly.
Not again, I can't do this again--
He carefully took Cloud out of the truck, biting back a wince at a sharp pain from the Geostigma on his chest. He gritted his teeth, then backed out with Cloud, making sure not to let on just how much pain he was in. Right then, it didn't matter, and given how upset Denzel was, the last thing the kid needed was to see Zack crapping out.
He set Cloud down carefully against a tree so he could see him in the light, Denzel dogging his every step. Zack crouched next to Cloud and shook Cloud's shoulder, already knowing it would be useless but hoping that for once, one of the gods would be merciful. "Hey...hey, Cloud. C'mon, kid. Can you hear me?" he said, then shut his eyes. This was way, way too much like when Cloud had been mako poisoned, but this was different. There was something very, very wrong about this, and Zack had no idea why, other than the fact that Cloud hadn't been anywhere near mako and so there was no good reason for him, therefore, to have been mako poisoned again.
"Is Cloud going to be all right?" Denzel asked, his hands balling into fists.
"Yeah," Zack said, because there was nothing else he could say. He opened his eyes and turned to give Denzel a smile, one he hoped would be reassuring. "He's gonna be fine. He just...he just needs to rest."
Denzel just stared at him, frowning. "I promise. He'll be OK," Zack said firmly, nodding once, sharply.
"OK," Denzel said, nodding back.
"Denzel, I need you do so something for me," Zack said, his voice serious. "I need you to go and keep an eye on everybody. Find out their names and where they live, because we gotta take everyone home, OK?"
Denzel nodded again.
"And tell Vincent to come over here, 'cause I need to talk to him."
"You mean the weird guy in red?"
Zack let out a surprised laugh, then nodded. "Yeah, that's Vinnie."
"OK," Denzel said, jerking his head into a stiff nod, then running off for the others. Zack waited until Denzel was out of range, then turned his attention to Cloud.
"Cloud, kid, you gotta wake up," he said. Cloud hadn't been hit with Sleep or anything like this--for all this wasn't a natural sleep, it wasn't a spell, that much was obvious. What it was was something Zack had seen before and knew all too well, but prayed to whatever god would listen that he was wrong.
Taking a deep breath, he raised one of Cloud's eyelids, to see if Cloud's eyes had that mako-poisoned look to them, then let out a harsh, stunned profanity, because what he saw was not what he was expecting--it was worse, it was something far, far worse. Cloud's pupils were wide and blown out, but there was no mistaking the fact that they were slit pupils.
Or that they were green.
Voices, so many voices.
And from within the voices, he began to find his own.
I've never seen the sky.
I feel as though I know it.
Ever since I was a child--
I'll be waiting.
--I could feel it.
I don't remember. Nothing since Ni--
--confirmed to be an Ancient--
Normal SOLDIERs are humans--
Am I even human?
--who have been bathed in mako--
You're different from--
If only I was--
How could someone like you--
I've never seen you use that sword before.
--a SOLDIER, too.
Only a puppet.
I don't have a hometown of my--
--own so I wouldn't know--
Talk to the Planet--
Was I also created the same way?
--and find your Promised Land
I finally got through to you!
Don't get over confident.
Are you trying to confuse me with everything you've just said?
My mother's name is--
One day run away from--
Mom, I'm not a--
I'll protect you,--
--Let's find go to your the--
And from within the void, from within the cacophony of voices, came unity; and from the unity within, came fragments and sparks.
Next section: Vin, I'm not that smart. Small words? Please?