"I think the flowers are thirsty," Marlene said, crouching next to Cloud and wrapping her arms around her knees. He looked up from Zack's bike and nodded.
"Oh? They might be. You know where the watering can is, right?"
"OK. Go fill it and we'll give the flowers some water," he said, wiping his hands off on an oily rag. Marlene nodded again and ran off into the back of the church. Zack's bike was almost back to the way it had been before Zack had gone off and gotten it shot full of holes, but he was going to need a few more parts. He had plenty of spare parts on hand at the church, but there were a few he didn't have. He knew a good place in the old slums, though, and figured he'd head down there once he'd finished everything he could with what he had here.
If nothing else, he wanted a receipt, because Zack was definitely paying for this. Ifrit's flame, he was probably going to make the bastard pay for labor, too, and maybe that way it would sink in that he should actively try to not let his bike get chewed on by multifanged monsters or shot full of bullet holes, because Sephiroth clones or not, this was ridiculous. It seemed like every single time the man went out on a delivery, he came back needing so many repairs most of the fees got eaten in replacement parts.
The door to the church opened and Cloud looked up, not knowing who it could be and instinctively reaching for the bracer he'd taken off while working on the bike. His hand dropped away once he saw a girl, around Denzel's age, poke her head through. The little girl's nervous-looking eyes fell on him, and she took a deep breath and came in, a smaller boy draped over her back and walking slowly and hesitantly towards Cloud, the weight of the little boy seeming to be almost too much for her.
"Um..." she started, clutching a stuffed Moogle tightly to her chest as she spoke. "I...I heard the man who can cure Geostigma was here," she said, her voice soft. "Can you fix him? Please?"
Her voice sounded desperate, and Cloud's eyes went wide in startlement. "I'm sorry," Cloud said, shaking his head. There was a rumor that--?! "I...I can't cure it."
"But...but he said!" the little girl started, clutching her stuffed Moogle closer and looking like she was a few seconds from bursting into tears. She took a deep breath and pressed on. "Everyone says that one little boy keeps getting better, for a while, and it was because of the man in the church, he said! Aren't you the man in the church? Can't you fix him, too? Please!"
"I can't cure it," Cloud said, looking down at the bike and his grimed hands. He picked up a wrench, going back to working on something he actually could fix and not looking at them.
"But can't you make it better, even a little?" she said, her voice pleading. "He's...he's all I have," she whispered. "My little brother, he--, and I don't...I--" she began, and then started sniffling, biting her lip to try and stop, slow tears running down her cheeks.
"I..." he started, his hand tightening against the wrench before he dropped it and stood up. "I'll see what I can do," he said, knowing that it was stupid, that he shouldn't try to fix anyone with Geostigma now of all times, not when it made his own react so badly; knew that he shouldn't feed the rumors that were apparently starting.
He knew that, and yet he was still walking over to them, kneeling by her and taking the boy out of her arms.
He blamed Aerith for this.
He frowned tightly at the boy--he was in advanced stages of Geostigma, probably only a few hours--if that--away from death, and he understood the girl's desperation. All of the places where the Geostigma was expressed were weeping, blackish fluid oozing from his skin, and the boy was pale and clammy, his breath rattling in his chest and shaking from the pain of it, and the only thing keeping him from crying out, Cloud was sure, was the fact that he was only semi-conscious. He cursed under his breath--the boy might be too far to be helped. He probably was--usually at this point, all anyone could do was wait. But--but he had to try.
If nothing else, he might be able to make the boy a little more comfortable. More than that would be a miracle he just couldn't perform--that he just wasn't enough to.
But he had to try. So he closed his eyes to shut everything out, and tried to listen.
Whenever he tried to fix things, he could hear the sounds of his own blood pounding in his ears. That was the first step, somehow. But for some reason it was always different with the Geostigma, more like the sound of water hitting the shore. He listened, because he knew if he did, he'd be able to hear what it was he was supposed to do, but it was always too faint.
He could almost always, sort of, hear the planet whispering, especially in the church, and while that had been weird at first he'd gotten used to it, knowing it was only a shadow of what Aerith had been able to do, and knowing that was how he could fix things. But the Geostigma...the planet didn't seem to want it to be healed, and all he could ever hear was the sound not of the planet but of water, blocking out the whispers. No matter how hard he tried to hear past the water to hear the whispers he knew were behind it, it never worked.
It was getting really fucking annoying.
From the first he had gotten an image, one that stayed with him because there seemed to be something there even if he didn't quite know what yet, of the Geostigma being burned away--of it burning through the skin and disappearing like smoke, and that was why it made a sick sort of sense to him that there was always that water blocking him from figuring out how exactly to burn it away. So when he tried to fix the boy's Geostigma, he focused on that idea of heat, of fire; having that in his mind, trying to boil away the water, trying to get to the whispers...
The boy let out a sharp gasp as some of the Geostigma faded--not burning out like it was supposed to, but fading back, deeper into the flesh, Cloud fighting it back from the critical stages bit by bit and into what he knew was only a false kind of remission. Something was wrong, he was doing something wrong, and he pushed it more, more, just a bit more, he had to burn it out just a little bit more, and--
"I'm really sick of these lies," Kadaj said, smiling faintly, stepping over where Rude was struggling to pull himself up, and walking around the room like an impatient, half-tamed animal.
"Very well, then," Rufus said, voice calm and not looking over. He didn't have to; he didn't need to see Kadaj pacing the room, heading towards him, to know how dangerous the man was. Rufus cursed himself, having sent Reno out after Zack. But it had seemed the most prudent course; Zack Fair would never listen to anything he had to say. But the chances were better that he would listen to Reno; if for no other reason than he had been friends with Cissnei and had worked with Tseng, Reno, and Rude in the past.
"Boss, let me talk to him, yo," Reno had said, shaking his head and staring at the door ex-Lt. Fair had slammed shut behind him. "He ain't gonna buy nothin' ShinRa is sellin', y'know? You gotta be straight with that one, 'cause he ain't gonna buy anythin' you try an' tell him now. But he knows me, yo. And he knows Tseng, and he's still a SOLDIER boy, y'know? And is gonna want to rush in an' play the hero to get his team's back."
"I doubt very much that he sees us as being on the same team right now, Reno," Rufus had said tiredly.
Reno rolled his eyes. "Right now, boss, it's us against the three little Sephs That Couldn't, an' Fair may look dumb, but he ain't. OK, scratch that, he is, but he ain't that dumb."
"'The enemy of my enemy is my friend', is that what you're saying, then, Reno?" Rufus said, looking over.
"Yeah, something like that. But right now, he just sees us as the enemy, yo. So we need to, y'know, toss back a couple beers, crack a couple jokes, tell 'em our people get jacked up an' we want 'em back. He'll get that. He may not trust you so much, but he knows us Turks don't leave our own," Reno said, eyes glittering. "Not even when we ain't got no choice. If nothin' else, Cissnei an' everything she did for him taught him that."
Rufus had realized, then, that he had gone about this the wrong way, and nodded, ordering Reno to go after Zack and that he was authorized to tell him whatever he needed to to get him to agree to assist them in cleaning up the last of the untidy mess that had been left behind, but not anything too sensitive. For better or for worse, they needed Zack's help, but letting too much slip could be costly.
So Reno'd given Zack time to get a good head start, and then had headed out. Rude had stayed behind, saying it was too dangerous for Rufus to be left alone, something that had been proven true not that long after Reno had decided Zack'd had enough cooling off time and had left. It seemed that not ten minutes had passed after Reno drove off before there was a strange black mist seeping in through the doors, a mist Rufus had seen before, and things rapidly deteriorated.
He could only hope that Reno would be successful, and, above all else, quick. Rufus could stall, and nothing more, and hope it would be enough.
"I apologize for earlier, and will attempt to be more straightforward with you now," he said, voice still calm. "When we were fleeing the three of you earlier, it fell out. It was sheer carelessness."
"Oh, is that so?" Kadaj said, back to Rufus, having gone still as Rufus spoke. Only now, as he questioned Rufus on this, did he begin to turn his head, almost enough for Rufus to see at least Kadaj's profile.
If this doesn't work , Rufus thought, then I will probably die here today. And I can not allow that.
"I swear it," Rufus said, nodding even though he knew Kadaj couldn't see him.
"Then here," Kadaj said, suddenly holding two cards of some sort aloft, "swear it on these." Without looking, Kadaj flipped the cards over his shoulder and they landed directly in front of Rufus, and a kind of cold fear detonated in his stomach at the same time as a cold rage.
Two ShinRa Personnel ID cards, stained in dried blood, only the names and photos of the faces clear save for a few blood splatters.
His people .
"What are you planning?" Rufus said, his words now cold and sharp, with none of their earlier well-practiced cool congeniality.
"I need Mother's power. For the Reunion, you see," Kadaj said, and finally turned, and something was burning bright and insane behind his unnatural eyes.
"'Reunion'?" Rufus asked, pushing for information, pushing for time.
Kadaj began pacing the room again, more erratically than he had before, and more dangerous. His gestures were bolder, and he began to look alive, as if he were burning within. As if he had a mission.
"Yeah. Everyone who got Mother's cells, we're all going to get together," Kadaj said, his face lighting up with a kind of almost ecstatic glee. "And then, we're going to have our revenge on this planet," he said, throwing out his arms and an almost childlike laugh escaping from him.
"We've been getting things ready," he said, dropping his arms suddenly, the ecstatic, almost religious fervor vanishing from his voice, and off to the side, Rude tried to raising himself from the floor, panting from the effort. "But someone's gone and hidden Mother away from us."
"Getting things ready?"
It only took a small push to get Kadaj to talk, and Rufus prayed Rude was catching every word, because while Rufus was almost beginning to resign himself to perhaps dying here at the hands of a madman, there was the chance that Rude would be able to get out; get to Reno and to Zack or even Cloud Strife, and give them the information Kadaj was so freely giving away.
It was a small chance, he knew--it was far more likely that the madman was only telling them because he intended to kill them both. And if so, so be it; the room was under surveillance and was capturing every word said. The end would be the same, but Rufus refused to go down easily; he would do what he could to stall for time and to perhaps save them, somehow. He had no intention of telling Kadaj where it was, but if need be, he would make it clear that he was the only one who knew where it was.
Kadaj turned back to look at him, and his eyes were oddly childlike. "The 'Stigma," he said, fastening his eyes on Rufus' exposed hand, mottled with Geostigma. "But then, you know all about that, don't you, Mr. President?"
There was something highly disturbing about how young Kadaj sounded, how the tone was one that was disturbingly innocent. There had been nothing sarcastic, nothing biting, in his words, even in his address of Rufus as 'Mr. President.' It was like before, at the top of the tower, when Kadaj's voice had gone softer, younger, as soon as he mentioned 'Mother.'
It was a weak point, a place to push--but an unstable and dangerous one, and therefore a last resort.
But a weak point nonetheless.
"It's thanks to the legacy fragments of Mother within the Lifestream which are fighting so hard," Kadaj said, the moment of paradoxically innocence fading back into his mad ravings. "And despite that, despite how hard Mother's working, we...we don't know where She is," he said, and all of a sudden he was back to the inexplicable youth, looking almost horribly desperate, and only the faint twitching of Rufus' hand displayed the unsettled feeling running through Rufus as Kadaj paced. Reason wouldn't work, gambits wouldn't work, perhaps not even the truth would work, he realized with a sinking feeling. Kadaj was too unstable, too far gone, far more than Rufus had originally thought, and the normal rules simply didn't apply.
Make him talk , he thought. It will either calm him or make things worse. Either way, I need to know what is going on. Somehow, I've got to find out as much as I can, whether it's so I can tell Fair myself or have enough on the security tapes to warn Reno, and Fair and his band, before Kadaj kills Rude and I here, and I carry the knowledge of where that sample is with us to the Lifestream.
"But...but as pathetic as it is, there's nothing we can do!" Kadaj said, once again going from childlike and needy to dangerously unstable. "Because all we are," he said, focusing on Rufus, "are just fragments of thoughts. And until we get her cells," he said, walking towards Rufus, voice and posture settling into the same deadly state he had been in before he had begun talking about 'Mother,' "we can't go back to what we were. And the 'Stigma and fragments just aren't enough! Not for a true Reunion," he said, and the frightening smile was not one that was safe--and not frightening because of that, but because it was almost sane.
"What are you talking about?" Rufus said, his voice steady, knowing that, with as close as Kadaj was, this was probably his last gambit; his last attempt for the information he had a terrible suspicion of and had for far too long, from the first reports of the loss of his people in the crater to men with silver hair, to Zack's talk of 'Sephiroth clones', to the gleaming cat-pupiled green eyes of the madman before him. But he needed proof, needed to know.
The frighteningly sane smile was back. "Mr. President...you already know, don't you?" he said, and walked deliberately towards Rufus. And then he knelt, head bowed and both fists pressed against the floor, and the surprise of it was enough for Rufus to lean forward, just slightly.
And when Kadaj looked up, Rufus' Geostigma flared and his hearing glitched as everything in his sight become staticky and twofold, Kadaj's face being superimposed over by someone else, by Sephiroth...Rufus knew.
--and his Geostigma flared, intense and sharp, so much at made his breath catch, the sound of glitches and static and a strange, familiar, and mocking snort of laughter that was soon lost in the glitches filling his ears, and Cloud clutched his arm tightly, feeling the sickening dampness of the Geostigma weeping out from his skin. He clutched at his arm tightly, hoping the bandages held and that the girl, flenching and biting her lip herself, wouldn't notice.
Having a Geostigma attack while riding a bike was not something Zack particularly enjoyed. He was almost back to Edge when it hit, close enough that if he'd grit his teeth and bore it, he might have been able to make it back.
But this wasn't a normal attack--he realized that when the world went blindingly white and his eyes started hurting--like they were trying to change shape. He let out a sharp cry of pain before the bike spun out of his control. He had eased up on the gas the when it attack hit because this wasn't the first time, but the bike still spun out one way and he went the other. He let out another sharp, pained cry when he hit the ground on his side, where the Geostigma was flaring, and the world flared white then greyed around the edges. And before Zack passed out, in the midst of the sound of glitches and feedback, he heard a voice he knew far, far too well--the mocking voice of a dead man.
"And here I thought you were made of sterner stuff. But in the end, you're still just a little puppy.
"You're a puppy...and he's just a puppet."
The world was going slightly out of focus, sound turning into strange glitches and catches, and Cloud struggled to keep his face steady.
The little girl clutched her moogle tightly, her fingers white and breathing harder. She bit her lip, then straightened her spine, as if trying to regain the pride she might have lost at being seen weak--or like one used to hiding their own pain. "Is he--are you OK?" she asked, wide-eyed.
"I will be," he said, not bothering to lie and say he was; he knew perfectly well he wasn't and suspected she did as well. He pushed it away and looked down at the little boy, her brother, who no longer looked like he was on the verge of death.
She looked down and her face lit up when her brother let out a small noise and opened his eyes.
"Aiela?" he said softly, as if waking from sleep, and sat up slowly.
Her lip trembled and she hugged him tightly. "You're OK...You're really OK!"
They held on to each other, and she looked up at Cloud, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "You did it, you really did it! You really can make the Geostigma better!"
"Don't you tell anyone!" Marlene suddenly yelled, dropping the watering tin, the water spilling out at her feet. She set her jaw and balled her hands into tight fists, and Cloud thought to himself that she was almost like a little Tifa in training, and maybe he should talk to Tifa about teaching the girl how to fight, because judging by the way Marlene's eyes were blazing, she had the instinct for it.
Then she glared at him, and he knew she wasn't like a little Tifa in training, she was a little Tifa in training. "You're not supposed to do that, Cloud! It makes you sicker!" she said, and Cloud decided not to bring up Tifa teaching the girl to fight because while one Tifa was fine, was great even, two Tifas threatening him would be more than any one man could be expected to take.
The little girl's eyes got wide, and she noticed at last the diseased weeping from Cloud's arm, spilling out from his sleeve. "Oh--I...I'm sorry," she said, her eyes growing watery. "I didn't...I didn't mean...I'm sorry. We won't tell anybody," she said, biting her lip again, looking at her brother then back up at Cloud. "I'm sorry! But--!"
"It's all right," he said, hoping the words didn't sound as strained as they felt. And they obviously did, since the fresh tears that had been threatening finally spilled out from the child's eyes, one slow tear after another and her little brother looked around uncertainly. She looked over at Marlene, still glaring angrily at her, and she pulled her brother to his feet, and ran for the door, him clutching the stuffed Moogle and stumbling behind her, looking back at Cloud and his mouth moving as if he was trying to say something, but had no idea what.
The door opened just as she was getting to it and she ran straight into someone, and her brother stumbled. "I'm sorry!" she wailed, and pulled her brother up then took off past the man she had run into, dragging her brother behind. He watched the two go and made a disgusted sound, then walked into the church.
Cloud took one look at him and reached for his bracer again, because this was not someone seeking rumors of a cure, that much was painfully obvious, with that black leather and grey hair. He cursed because the bracer was all he had in reach--he had his full metal staff there but it was by the materia, completely out of reach unless he took the battle over there--and the bracer wasn't equipped to be of much good in a fight; not with only three slots, and those slots being a Libra, a Curaga, and a Thundaga, and Libra telling him pretty quickly that Thundaga was useless against this one.
He had the sinking feeling, as the man stopped and made a disgusted face at the flowers and let out a sharp, "Ugh! This place reeks!", that he had just been found by one of the Sephiroth clones.
"Who are you?" Cloud asked, standing up despite the way it made his head swim and shifting Marlene behind him, to put himself in between her and the man.
"Cloud," she began, clutching the back of his shirt tightly. "C'mon. You should go home and rest."
"Let's play," the man said, and Cloud narrowed his eyes.
"I asked who you are," Cloud said, refusing to budge. "I'm not 'playing' with anyone I don't know."
"But I know you," the man said, lip sticking out in a pout. "You're our big brother. But you're not very big," he said, frowning slightly and sounding a little confused. Then he shrugged. "Let's play!"
"I said who are you," Cloud said, narrowing his eyes.
"Man, you're stubborn," the man said, pouting more. "Don't you want to play?"
Cloud just glared at him.
The man heaved an annoyed-sounding sigh. "I'm Loz. You're big brother Cloud. And you know where Mother is. Where is she?"
"Marlene, run," Cloud said softly, not taking his eyes off of Loz for an instant.
"Cloud..." she began, and he shook his head.
She dropped her grip on his shirt and ran, not leaving the church but crouching by the half-empty box of materia and his staff by a collapsed pillar, and Cloud cursed to himself--there was no way he could work the fight over in that direction now. This was a battle he couldn't win, he knew that, not when he was for all practical purposes completely unarmed and still shaken from the Geostigma attack, but he had to try. And if nothing else, give Marlene time to actually run if things went as bad as he knew they were going to go.
"Where's Mother?" Loz said again, ignoring Marlene and staring at Cloud.
"There's no one here, but us," Cloud said sharply.
"Then let's play," he said, and the grin he gave as Cloud went into a fighting stance wasn't the good kind of grin. "This is gonna be fun!"
'Fun' was not the word Cloud was thinking for how this was going to be at all.
Loz attacked first, and the first drive was so scarily like Sephiroth that it was almost funny, in a sick, gallows-humor kind of way. If Sephiroth had been trained to fight without Masamune, Cloud was pretty damned sure this was how he would have fought.
For some reason, part of that nagged at the back of Cloud's mind; there was something almost eerily familiar about this in a way he couldn't place. This wasn't the time to focus on it, but he trusted the odd feeling at the back of his mind when it warned him the next blow was going to be coming in from Loz's stronger armed left side.
He had no idea how it was he was keeping this even at all, other than sheer dumb luck and the odd feeling at the base of his skull. He should have, he knew, been at a disadvantage even if he hadn't had the Geostigma attack of only a few minutes prior, just because of the clone being left-handed, but for some reason, it wasn't; he was countering the left-handed blows as easily as if they were right-handed.
"Cloud!" Marlene yelled, and Cloud took his eyes away from Loz just long enough to see that the girl had grabbed the staff and hurled it as best she could in his general direction. He dove, grabbing it with his left hand and coming up on one knee, raising the staff in a block against Loz's weapon, then threw himself into another rolling dive, coming up on his feet and whirling to face Loz before Loz could strike him in the back.
He had sparred a lot with Zack over the last year. But the problem was that it really hadn't been sparring per se--it was almost always Zack attacking and Cloud on defense. Cloud could block pretty much anything that Zack threw at him now, and that was about as far as it went--even the materia he equipped tended to all be defensive, as it was now, with nothing offensive save the useless Thundaga. During the whole mess with Sephiroth, Zack had always instinctively put himself between whatever might be coming for Cloud, attacking for him and trusting Cloud to keep away anything coming at them until Zack could take care of them.
Zack had taught Cloud to defend himself, not to fight, and neither one of them had realized it, because they'd both had the same unconscious assumption--that if Cloud was in a position where things were attacking him, Zack would either be there or be on his way, and Cloud had only to fend them off until Zack came.
But right now, Cloud was on his own, Zack wasn't coming, and he had to fight.
"This is boring," Loz said, his lower lip sticking out slightly. "The other big brother was a lot more fun. He played harder."
"Sorry I'm not Zack," Cloud said, and whirled, one leg snaking out to knock Loz off balance while he raised the staff, swinging in a roundhouse aimed at the right side of Loz's face, all the while feeling like something was off, like his familiar grip was wrong; like he wasn't supposed to be fighting with one of the staves he had always used; that this was supposed to be a swo--
Cloud didn't see Loz move until it was too late, distracted by the buzzing incongruous feeling of something being wrong, so he hadn't been expecting the electric shock--or for it to hurt so much.
A PHS ring tone, one of the older style ones, went off, and the man answered it while Cloud tried to move, to gather himself enough to at least cast Curaga on himself so he could get up. It didn't work so well, and the strain of it caused Cloud's Geostigma to flare again, the entire world cracking sharp and staticky.
"Mother's not here, but I've got one of our brothers," the man said into his PHS. "The little big brother. And are you sure he's a big brother, Yazoo? He's the same size as Kadaj, and Kadaj isn't a big brother..."
For some reason, as the man burst into tears, right before the world crackled out and went black, Cloud had the oddest urge to tell him not to cry.
Last section: 'Yoo-hoo, anybody hooooome?'