Fandom: FF7 (Advent Children AU)
Word count: 30,000, give or take
Status: 3/5 (prologue, three parts, epilogue)
Summary: The line between the quick and the dead is thin and blurred, and some fragments of memories live on past death.
Prompt: Zack lives!Advent Children AU.
A/N: Blame chibirisuchan for this plotbunnicula. *hearts* Also sorry for the massive delay; blame it on me being pretty sick for most of 2009. I also apologize for any extreme goofiness with punctuation; I had to switch word processing programs, and there have been...issues.
If you haven't read the first part of this, this isn't going to make a lot of sense--this starts right where the first part left off, no recap or anything. ^^;; Also, if you haven't read the revised version--which takes into account new scenes from Advent Children Complete, go read that! It's much longer and more detailed! :D
Just as a warning, there's a couple of scenes that have bits of dialogue from Crisis Core and Final Fantasy 7. Unfortunately, yeah, I didn't use the official English translations for them. So they may not be exact, but the gist should be there. ^^;;
I also kind of recommend reading a short fic I did a while back, Shevirat ha-kelim, since some of the imagery I use in sections of this is based on that--or rather, based on the same Jewish mysticism I used in it (which gets explained in the the A/N section). It's one of the Ein Sof fics (a series I really need to get back to, oh god, I need more time). You don't need to read it, of course, but it'll add an extra layer of understanding to some things. ^^;;
And as for this chapter itself. yeah, this is, um, long. I kinda broke NeoOffice's stupid limit for "web view" while I was working on it (which led to me snapping and moving over to Bean. ARGH, but is it too much to ask for bloody Draft View? *stabbity*) It's, yeah. A wee bit lengthy.
And remember how I said in the author's notes to Part the First that this was all butterfly effect? Here is where it begins to deviate wildly! :D
Part the First
It was nightfall when Cloud woke. His head was pounding and his arm felt disgusting, the bandages in desperate need of changing damp and heavy against his skin, and he was jittery and disoriented on top of all of that. But for some reason, for all he felt physically uncomfortable with something jammed into his stomach and blood rushing in his ears, it was oddly familiar, and on some level almost comforting.
And then came the realization that he was slung rather unceremoniously over someone's shoulder and was staring upside-down straight at that someone's leather-clad ass.
This...was not the way he wanted to wake up.
"Put me down," Cloud snapped, not knowing if it would work and not caring. He didn't know where he was or what was going on, but he'd already had enough.
"Oh. You're awake," a low voice said somewhat slowly, and the pieces started coming back together. He had no idea where he was yet, but at least he knew whose leather-clad ass it was he was stuck staring at, sort of. He raised his head to try and figure out where it was, and the instant he saw the trees, it was almost painfully clear. Crystalline trees like that only grew one place, after all.
He considered trying to get free, maybe kicking the guy or something, and decided quickly that it would be a bad idea. Assuming the huge guy carrying him even felt it, Cloud knew he wouldn't get far. He was barely at even twenty percent--between the two Geostigma attacks, trying to heal that dying boy, and the fight, he was in no shape to do anything but his best imitation of a sack of potatoes.
That, and stare upside-down at this guy's leather-clad ass.
...This was not shaping up to be his day.
"If you won't put me down, at least tell me who in Hel's realm you are," Cloud said grumpily.
"But I told you already. At the church. Loz. I'm Loz."
Everything came slamming back when he heard the name again, so at least he knew how he got to be staring a leather-clad ass as well as whose leather-clad ass it was: some guy named Loz. Some Sephiroth-clone named Loz.
This was really not a way he ever wanted to wake up.
"Are you going to put me down?" he asked shortly.
"No," Loz said. "No, no, yes. But, no. Not yet. No, then yes."
Cloud blinked. And Hojo called me and Zack failed clones, he thought, making a face. They were scraping the bottom of the barrel this time.
Be nice, am amused voice said in his head, and he rolled his eyes. He'd be 'nice' when he was no longer upside down and with his head level with Loz's ass.
"Is our big brother awake?" a softer voice said, one that instantly put Cloud on edge. It was familiar, but not--one he had never heard before and yet somehow knew in a way he couldn't place.
"He's awake, but he's not very big. Are you sure he's a big brother?" Loz said, and Cloud felt the strangest urge to at least try and kick him. He knew better, of course, but at least consoled himself with the fleeting image of his boot in Loz's stomach.
"Bring him here," the softer, younger voice said, and Cloud really found himself wishing he could see what the guy looked like--it had to, after all, beat the view of Loz's leather-clad ass.
If I don't stop focusing on his ass, I'm going to kill myself, Cloud thought. OK, this is not the worst ass I could be stuck staring out and I guess it's a nice ass. It's pretty toned, and the leather works and all to really show off the shape and...oh, by the gods, I am losing my fucking mind. "Put me down, Loz!" he snapped again, using the tone of voice that always worked well with Denzel and Marlene.
Loz startled and let out an uncertain, "Ah--Oh-OK," and Cloud found himself dumped rather unceremoniously next to the half-filled box of materia that had been with him at the church.
And a teenager, one who looked about fifteen or sixteen at the most, holding a bluish materia that looked uncomfortably like a Mastered Thundaga in his hands, looked down at him with a faint smile. "You hid these. You and our other brother."
Well, now he knew whose voice that had been before. "I'm not your brother. Neither is Zack," Cloud finally said.
The clone shook his hair out of his face and his faint smile widened, and that more than anything else told Cloud exactly how dangerous he was. That was Sephiroth's smile, pure and simple, only there was something slightly less grounded, something more desperate and wild about it. Sephiroth had been insane, but this...this was something wholly different, something more unstable than Sephiroth had ever been.
When Sephiroth smiled, you always knew what it meant--that Sephiroth figured he had you right where he wanted you--but this didn't seem to have that cunning, deadly strategy behind it. This was more unfocused threat, and by the sheer nature of how unfocused it was, more dangerous. It was random violence compared to carefully planned-out menace.
And something about it resonated--something inside Cloud wanted to coil up and wrap around the jittery menace; find the clone's weak points and press them until they fractured and then reshape and focus that potential into something deadly, make of it a weapon, and Cloud recoiled away from that inexplicable urge.
"Yes," the clone said, with his mad little smile, tilting his head sharply to move the hair out of his eyes. Green eyes, familiar, materia green and slit-pupiled. "You are. And you tried to keep these from us. These little presents from the Lifestream."
"Seeing as they're not yours and we had to work our asses off to Master them, yes. We did try to keep them out of your hands," Cloud said shortly. "Whoever you are," he tacked on, keeping his voice annoyed.
There was something wrong. There was something very, very wrong, and it wasn't just with the situation, and Cloud felt something in him almost desperately grasp at keeping himself separate. Sarcasm and aloofness had long ago grown to be something protective and a way of coping with the desperate insanity going on around him and the polar unbalance inside him, and he grasped for it now; a cool exterior to cover how something inside of him was panicking at the way something about the clone needled him, needled something that had been sleeping and far from the surface, but now wanted to wake.
The clone laughed. "Oh, yes, introductions! Since we're all family, I just forgot. I know you, after all," he said, moving around suddenly in quick, fluid and yet somehow almost disjointed movements, as if being still were too much for him but fluidity was not natural and had been trained into him. His movements were loose and controlled but unfocused, much like the boy's thoughts seemed to be.
He is not sane, Cloud thought, staring at the him. I have a dead Ancient in my head and I swear the damn flowers in the church try to talk to me, and I'm more sane than him. This is not good. It is not good when I am the least crazy person in the area.
And all the while, another part of him was watching, analyzing, and it put him at unease.
"I'm Kadaj," the clone said, still holding the materia, then somehow, amazingly and somewhat terrifyingly, sliding the materia into his arm. His little smile grew satisfied as there was a flair of blue through his arm. "And thank you for your gift, brother. We'll put it to good use."
"...You owe me 500,000 gil for that," Cloud said flatly. "So pay up or give it back."
Kadaj threw his head back and laughed, and that somehow disturbed Cloud even more than the crazy smile. That laugh disturbed him not because it was insane--it was that it was young. It was so young it was out of place; everything about Kadaj's sudden, full-body amusement was, and that combined with how Loz had reacted...there was something that wasn't right, something that didn't add up, and whatever that missing piece was, it seemed like it was the key to understanding everything.
What is wrong with them? he wondered. There's something...not all there, but not in just a crazy way. None of the clones were like this, ever. So what in Hel's realm--a degradation of Hojo's 'samples' or something? A new process?
No, a small voice whispered, his voice but not. The voice that was always separate but never apart; slightly outside but integrally a part of him, something that both felt like it had always been apart of him and yet never had been at all. It followed the trail of his thoughts, followed the bits and pieces and had of information, and talked its way through understanding them and putting them together. They're...they're not clones, not like Hojo tried with you and Zack, and not like all the SOLDIERs who became clones. They're...they're more like fragments, really. They're so incomplete and broken, and are just parts that can't be whole. Can't you feel it?
He nodded imperceptibly to himself, as that suddenly clicked into place, as so much that was unsettling about them made sense. Why they seemed not all there--because they weren't.
But that didn't explain--didn't begin to explain--why something in him stirred, reacted, wanted to seek out more information from them, something that seemed as much a part of him and always had been as the rest of him--it was something like the way he reacted to the church, to the garden there, something separate and yet comfortable, and now it was stirring--
He pushed it down and away--later. Later. Whatever it was, whatever was moving the same way as something moved when he was in the church, now was not the time for it or introspection or figuring out his fragmented head, because now was the time for focusing on not getting killed.
"We don't have 500,000 gil, Kadaj," Loz said, sounding slightly worried, and Cloud frowned faintly, distracted from the second strands of thought. Saying something like that...it was almost as if...
"It's a joke, Loz," Kadaj said, shaking his head. "Our brother would never keep anything from us, would he?" Kadaj said, and suddenly, like a switch had been flipped, Kadaj was back to being dangerous.
"You forgot to introduce the other, uh, one, wherever he is. I heard there were three of you," Cloud said mildly, crossing his arms and drumming the fingers of his left hand on his bicep, hoping that would derail Kadaj's crazy train before it left the station. The strangeness from before was fading; the sleeping thing inside him settling back into a silence that was easier to ignore. He remembered, vaguely, in a hazy, fading nightmarish way, when Sephiroth had tried to take him over before, and found himself wondering if Kadaj had some of those same abilities as Sephiroth, only far more nascent and undeveloped. It would explain, he thought, why something had reacted, at first. Sephiroth himself hadn't been able to completely take over Cloud, but there had to be...remnants of the attempts, and maybe that, Cloud thought, was what had reacted.
It made as much sense as anything, as anything could, and he left it at that. Whatever that feeling had been, it was fading, and that was enough.
"Yazoo," Kadaj said faintly. "And don't worry, he's coming."
"Did Mother leave these for us? Is that why our little big brother is giving them to us?" Loz said, breaking in impatiently.
Cloud felt his eye twitch. It was oddly comforting, that annoyance, and, more importantly, oddly settling.
"Of course," Kadaj said nodding, and Loz crouched down to go through the materia more enthusiastically. Then Loz stopped short.
"Is he hiding Mother, too?" he said, shooting Cloud a venomous look, and Cloud was instantly reminded of just how dangerous Loz was as well. He had somehow managed to forget, in the brief exchange when he woke up and the moments since, that Loz had beaten him without so much as breaking a sweat, and was obviously just as hair-trigger as Kadaj. Loz may have seemed childlike, but his 'playing' was deadly.
"No," Kadaj said, still looking at his hand surrounded by blue magic as if caught mid-cast, and it was painfully obvious that "mid-cast" would give away to "cast" sooner rather than later.
Cloud did not want to be the one in the way when that change happened. He went tense, ready to move at the slightest hint of Kadaj turning his way. "It's that company."
Kadaj dropped his arm, the palpable energy in the air of the uncast spell fading, but none of it made Cloud feel any better. Kadaj's mood had shifted, gone into an almost palpable anger, for all his voice stayed level. "The ShinRa Company has always liked hiding Mother."
"Oh, so we should check out every place that's got anything to do with them from top to bottom and one right after the other, huh?" Loz asked, sounding oddly happy to have thought of that as he poked around the materia. Loz was completely entranced in the materia, picking up one and staring at it carefully before going to another, almost like a little kid.
Little children, Cloud thought suddenly, and it was a realization terrible in its clarity. The two of them, maybe even all three--were just children. Fumbling little children with no idea what they're doing and thinking Jenova is going to tell them.
Was that what Sephiroth had really been inside?
He had no intention of being here long enough to find out. He kept a sharp eye on both of them, but began surreptitiously reaching for his PHS. By now, someone had to notice he was gone--and if there were any gods who would listen Marlene had gotten out--and if he could call Zack or Tifa.
"Um-hmm," Kadaj said to Loz, nodding faintly. He seemed calmer, less angry, but Cloud stayed on edge, watching and waiting--he managed to get his PHS out, but held it hidden in his hand--he doubted they'd leave him alone, but all he needed was to get it open and to hit one of the speed dial numbers. "There will be a lot more of us, soon."
"This is gonna be fun!" Loz said, almost wistfully as he stood, smiling happily at the materia in his hands, examining it in the strange, white lights of the trees. Neither one of those statements boded well, even though Cloud couldn't begin to fathom how there could be more--Sephiroth had seen to that, going through everyone--nearly everyone--who had been given Jenova cells. Were there more fragments? Or a way to make more? And how in Hel's name had these three been created in the first place?
"But before that," Kadaj said, starting to walk around, "I've got a few words for our other big brother. For him acting like he's not a part of this," he said, raising his hand and the materia inside his arm flaring again with the power of a spell not yet cast, and Cloud's hand tightened more, trying to hide the PHS. "And you," he said, his voice a snarl. "Do you know how alone we are? How alone we have been?" he said, shaking with rage, and whirled on Cloud, the spell flaring and shooting out, aimed with a sharp precision just as Cloud hit one of the speed dial buttons.
Cloud let out a sharp, pained hiss as electricity ran through him. His spasming hand twitched, and the sparking PHS dropped to the ground.
"Well," Kadaj said, looking sharp-eyed at Cloud over his shoulder. "Do you?"
When the phone rang, Zack had been hoping against hope that it was Cloud.
"They've got Denzel," was what he heard Tifa say instead, with no preamble or preface, and Zack's stomach sank. "When Reno left, he went looking for information, since apparently Reno had been able to understand Marlene through all that crying. He said they took a whole bunch of children off with them. And one of them had Cloud."
Zack let out a long string of curses.
"And according to Rude, they're heading towards the Forgotten City," Tifa said when Zack finished.
"That figures," Zack said, sighing. Then he frowned. "...Uh, how did they know that?"
"They're Turks, Zack."
"Yeah, OK, that was a dumb question," he said said with a grin. One that fell off his face quickly as he turned his bike definitively towards Ajit. He knew a shorter way there than the trail he had been following, and he hoped that it would give him--and Cloud--a little more breathing room. "I'm heading out there now. I'll call you as soon as I know anything, OK? And...tell Marlene I'm sorry and I'll bring Cloud and Denzel back."
"Just Marlene?" Tifa said after a long silence.
"I'll bring them back," Zack said stiffly, and Tifa hung up before he could.
Kadaj gave him a smirk and Loz picked up the PHS as Cloud shook his head to try and clear it and started massaging his shocked hand. I did not need that, he thought, feeling jittery. What I do need now is a Curaga.
He'd taken too many hits already today, used up too much energy--he could feel the current of a Limit Break running under his skin, all of the magical energy from exhaustion twitching just under the surface. He held it back, knowing whatever it was, if he was going to try and let his body cast a Limit Break, he'd be a lot better served waiting until he was at least able to focus it--the last thing he needed was to accidentally throw Cures around at end up needing a Phoenix Down while Kadaj bounced around on a Cure high. So he tamped down on it and waited.
"Get rid of that," Kadaj said lightly. "He won't really need it any more. You won't really need any of them any more," and there was something poisonous in how he said 'them.'
Loz picked up the PHS and threw it as hard as he could, and there came the sound of it falling into water with a splash.
Kadaj gave him a strangely disappointed look and Cloud shrugged. "It was worth a shot," he said flatly, and Kadaj, oddly enough, laughed.
Cloud stared at him, blinking, then shook his head. Trying to figure out Kadaj's mental shifts was beginning to give him a headache. Enough of this, he thought. "Why did you bring me here? What do you want?" he said, his voice flat.
"To make Mother happy. To not be alone," Kadaj said simply, as if that answered everything perfectly, and Cloud had no idea what to make of either response.
"Alone?" Cloud said, narrowing his eyes slightly. Kadaj had said that before, right before hitting Cloud with a Thunder. There were three of them--Kadaj, Loz, and the other one--so what exactly did Kadaj mean by that?
Kadaj dropped his hand." We've been alone for so long. But not for much longer," he said, straightening and turning his back to Cloud." Soon, there will be so many of us, that none of us will be lonely while we wait for Mother."
"What does that mean?" Cloud said, honestly perplexed. As far as he knew, everyone who had the ability to be turned into a Sephiroth clone--everyone aside from him and Zack--was dead. The only thing Cloud could think of was that Kadaj knew a way to make more fragments of Sephiroth, but even then, that had to be a finite number. He glanced at Loz who had gone back to cheerfully pawing through the materia, and made a face. It was obvious that there was something of a diminishing return happening, so making more 'fragments' probably wouldn't work out too well.
Be nice, the laughing voice in his head said again, and he ignored it with rolled eyes the same as he had before. Oh, come on, he thought back. Bottom of the barrel.
The more unsettling prospect was that he and Zack were the only clones left of Sephiroth left on the planet, and the Sephiroth fragments were obviously wanting to make "Mother" happy, and that very well might mean trying to bring Sephiroth back and so had found a new way to do it.
His head was finally his own--sort of--and the prospect of having control wrested away from him and turned into someone else, again, set the Limit Break energy inside of him crackling again under the surface, morphing slightly into a different kind of attack.
It wouldn't be much of a fight, but he was not going to go down easy.
Kadaj suddenly went stiff, like a dog catching a scent, or as if he had caught a faint sound on the wind." Yazoo is coming. Bring him," he said, turning and gesturing at Cloud.
"Is that the other one?" Cloud asked as Loz grabbed him by the arm--and it had to be the Geostigma arm, Cloud thought as a white-hot flare of pain went through him, making the Limit Break under his skin flare almost to the point where it would have burst out--and pulled him up.
"Our other brother, yes," Kadaj said, his eyes bright. "He's bringing the rest of us! For our Reunion," Kadaj said, and his face lit up in a way wholly different from before. This was almost ecstatic, as suddenly everything unfocused and jittering in Kadaj focused to a laser-like point.
That, Cloud decided, was not a good at all. He'd wanted answers, and he had the feeling he was going to get them...whether he really wanted them or not.
Tifa stared at the phone after she hung it up, and put both her hands on the counter to steady them. She had no idea how it was that everything, in a span of less than twelve hours, had gone so topsy-turvy.
Denzel and Cloud were gone, Marlene was a wreck, she was a mess herself, and Zack.
She let out a slow breath. Zack was right about one thing, if nothing else--they should not have exploded like that in front of Marlene. It may have needed to have been said--the gods all knew that and a lot more needed to be said--but it hadn't been the time, and in front of poor Marlene had definitely not been the place.
She hated this. She hated being left behind; she hated being the one stuck at home and left only to wait. She'd always been active, always wanted to be out there impacting things instead of waiting. She hated waiting, she hated not knowing what was going on, and she hated having to blindly wait for others to do things, with no way to impact them at all. She'd gotten used to standing in the background and trying to push people forward--as a child, her mother had often told her to be more ladylike, let the menfolk do the adventuring because they had to to find themselves, but be there at their back to make sure they went the right way and to support them and that it was just as important, and her father used to tell her to enjoy her play now, because when she was older she'd be a wife and a mother and out adventuring was no place for a woman--but she'd had her world and everything she'd been told and raised to believe turned upside down.
How could she be at Cloud's back, trying to push him in the right way because everything she'd learned growing up told her it wasn't her place to do it herself, when there hadn't been anything left? How could she support him, when there hadn't been anything to support? When he'd needed protecting the way she'd always dreamed she would be--thanks to the old tales and the romantic stories she'd so blindly ingested and the way everything seemed to tell her was The Way Things Were, the man leading the way and his beloved a step behind, him protecting her from the threats without and her protecting him from the threats within--and there being no one to protect her but herself? She'd had to be so strong for so long, and realize childhood dreams and imaginings were nothing like the real world; had to help forge the way and be the protector of the threats from without, because there was nothing left within.
Her world had been destroyed--not just Nibelheim, not just Midgar, not just Gaia, but the entire bedrock of what she'd believed and been taught. And she'd had to be out there, slogging along right there with Zack in all their fights, having to prove she could keep up; that she wasn't a burden and could be trusted to protect Cloud or to have Zack's back so he could when he would have sooner left them all behind. No one could have protected her but herself, and expecting someone else to had been disastrous.
And now here she was, stuck so many kilometers way, sitting in a darkened room with only a phone and a terrified child for company, waiting, and she realized how much of a lie everything her mother had told her was...and how true it was. Being left behind was so much worse than being in the front, and she was beginning to feel like it took more strength than she had within her.
She hated this--the helplessness, the waiting, and the being so alone.
But she wasn't alone. She took a deep breath. She wasn't alone, there was still someone she had to protect--protect from the dangers within. "Marlene!" she yelled, not sure yet if she was ready for all this, but knowing she didn't have much choice. "Are you awake?"
Marlene's voice was muffled, and still thick and clogged. "I'm awake," she said from upstairs, and Tifa took a deep breath, and headed up the stairs.
Next section: Look, Mother! Look how many brothers we have now!