Ummm... there might be some OOC issues with various characters. I hope not, but let me know if you feel there's a problem (e.g., if you think Sephiroth being too angsty, etc.). ::massive sweatdrop::
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (Feral-verse)
Pairing/Characters: OT4 (Aeris/Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth); Cid/Vincent; etc.
Warnings: references to foursomes, m/m, xeno-sex
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.
Summary: A new, dangerous type of predator begins to prowl the Planet as a dark secret about the true Cetra reawakens.
Cross-posted to ffvii_yaoi and acyaoi (eventually)
A/N 1: If readers are interested in learning more about the setup and plot of the Feral-verse, check out the discussion of this particular OT4-plotbunny.
A/N 2: This particular batch of OT4 plot-critters was mainly fed and inspired by:
-- icedark_elf, especially her fics "Confused" and "Ravens";
-- forgottenlover and her fic "Plans of the Dead", which gave me the perfect jumping-off point;
-- mimi_sardinia for her great ideas about Cetra viruses;
-- Princess Artemis and her fics "Venus Gospel" and "The Thief of Hell" regarding Cid;
-- ciceqi's "Anthroverse" and "Mascotverse" stories;
and many others. So many thanks, guys! ^_^
[ Lifestream ]
In the quiet meadow that was once their sanctuary, Sephiroth paced steadily, pausing only occasionally to glance over at Aeris, who sat staring off into the distance with a fiercely determined expression on her face.
Although he had picked a few tricks with the Lifestream on his own, he didn't have anything approaching Aeris's expertise. So while she focused on contacting Cloud, he searched for any trace of Zack. At this point, he was fairly certain that Zack had left the Lifestream and strongly suspected that their missing lover was now physically present somewhere on the Planet.
But as to where Zack might be, that was unclear. Sephiroth was almost certain that the other man was deliberately avoiding detection. The expression in Zack's altered eyes was too alert, too aware, to allow for any other explanation. The dark-haired man was hellbent on a mission and was not about to let anything or anyone stand in his way.
What sort of mission, and how it related to Cloud, Sephiroth didn't know. A determined Zack on the prowl was a force to be reckoned with, respected,... and yes, even feared under the right or wrong circumstances, depending on one's point of view.
And now Sephiroth had to face the very real possibility that all of Zack's formidable intelligence, courage, and resolve was being subverted to some unknown and possibly malevolent purpose. The mere idea of Zack being twisted, warped into a travesty of himself, made Sephiroth almost physically ill.
What had Zack tried to tell them? Even if Aeris succeeded in contacting Cloud in time, what sort of message or warning could she convey? Did they want Cloud to look for Zack or to look -out- for Zack? Was the threat from within, some horrible seed planted within their bodies during their long years as Hojo's prisoners, or was the threat outside from Zack himself? Or was it all of the above?
Zack's warning had been woefully incomplete, although that certainly not his fault. Considering the stress he must have been under, it was a wonder that Zack managed to say anything remotely coherent at all. He had fought hard, struggling to hold on to himself and not surrender to whatever was trying to change and/or control him....
.... whereas Sephiroth had not.
How did that old adage go? That turnabout was fair play? Had Zack and Cloud felt this same sort of frustration and helplessness when he had surrendered to Jenova's temptation and turned against them?
Sephiroth turned sharply, took a step, and nearly ran over Aeris who was standing right behind him.
"Did you...?" he said sharply.
She sighed and shook her head. Slipping her arms around his waist, she rested her cheek on his chest and said, "No. I managed to get close to him a few times during sleep, but...." She hesitated and glanced up at him, looking uneasy.
"It's like there's... I wouldn't call it 'interference' in the sense of being blocked. It's more like the contact is being... shifted somehow. Cloud senses my presence, but he's clearly not getting my warning of danger. Whenever I manage to touch him, he -relaxes-."
"It looks like your attempts to warn Cloud are somehow being subverted or sabotaged," Sephiroth said, flatly.
Her green eyes widening, Aeris paled slightly, then nodded slowly. "Maybe. I hadn't thought of it that way, but you could be right."
"Is it possible that Zack's responsible, in order to prevent us from warning Cloud?"
She paled even further, but didn't reject the possibility out of hand. But after a moment of careful consideration, she shook her head decisively.
"I have the feeling that the cause isn't external, from someone outside of Cloud, but rather internal, if that makes any sense."
Sephiroth pondered this for a moment, then said slowly, "Internal. So you think that it's not Zack, but perhaps Cloud himself who's ignoring you? Or rather, not you, but rather your warning?"
"Yes. I don't think he'd run away from the truth deliberately, not after all he's been through. But unconsciously....?" She shrugged somewhat helplessly. They both knew that although Cloud was now functioning just fine, his psyche still was and probably always would be severely damaged.
Sephiroth exhaled slowly. "It could be denial, because he doesn't want to believe that Zack could be a danger to him."
"Maybe. I just don't know."
"The fact remains that we still need to get through to him somehow and warn him about Zack."
Aeris was silent for a long moment, then quietly asked, "Do you really think that he's going to go after Cloud?"
Sephiroth hesitated, then said quietly, "Yes, I think so."
"Why?" Her expression made it clear that she believed him, but was curious about his reasoning.
"It was the expression on his face just before Zack vanished. I know that look too well, both on and off the field. When Zack gets an idea stuck in his head that something needs to be done...."
".... he doesn't let anything stand the way of doing it," she finished with a rueful smile.
"And you think that this 'thing that needs to be done' involves Cloud."
"I don't know!" he nearly shouted at her, fear and frustration finally overwhelming self-control. His jaw worked, then in a calmer voice, he said, "The only information we have is Zack's own words and behavior. All I know is that Zack truly believed there was some threat to Cloud. Where or who it's coming from, I don't know. But we need to plan for the worst scenario."
"Plan for the worst, and hope for the best?" she said with a crooked little smile.
"Hope? For what?" he retorted, a bitter edge to his voice.
"We don't -know- that Zack intends to harm Cloud," she reminded him gently.
"Zack's intentions are irrelevant. One can have the best intentions in the world and still do irreparable damage," he said in cold, flat tones, as he stared over her shoulder.
Aeris reached up, grabbed a handful of silvery hair with each hand, and tugged downward until he finally met her steady gaze.
"Seph, don't blame yourself for this."
"How can I not?" he said sharply. "If it weren't for my actions, my -weakness- at Nibelheim, Zack and Cloud would have never fallen into Hojo's hands."
"We don't know for certain if whatever's happened to Zack was caused by Hojo's experiments."
"Can you think of a more plausible explanation? Zack mentioned Nibel, obviously referring to either Nibelheim or the Nibel reactor. He said something inside him was making him change. Something -other-. Put these together and there's only one logical conclusion."
"He also said that it wasn't Jenova," she countered.
Sephiroth uttered a short harsh laugh. "That certainly doesn't exclude Hojo's involvement. He dabbled in many dubious areas of research besides Jenova. Zack probably didn't tell you this, but even before the Nibelheim mission, Hojo was already starting to display an unhealthy interest in Zack. Both of us know all too well how dangerous Hojo's interest can be. There's absolutely no limit to the things he could have done to Zack and Cloud while they were in his custody. So yes, what's happening now to Zack IS ultimately my responsibility. I practically delivered both Zack and Cloud into Hojo's filthy hands, gave him the opportunity to...."
"No," she said firmly. "You didn't 'give' Hojo anything. Stop making it sound like you handed them over like some sort of gift-wrapped present! Hojo simply took advantage of an unfortunate situation and exploited the hell out of it."
He shrugged, clearly not agreeing, but unwilling to argue the point further.
"Ignoring the issue of my responsibility, or lack thereof, whatever is going on with Zack has something to do with the events in Nibelheim, either before or after," Sephiroth said firmly. "Zack sensed what was happening to him and it -terrified- him. And for something to frighten Zack so badly...." His voice trailed away.
Aeris hesitated, then said gently, "Speaking of fear, Zack wasn't the only one afraid. I saw your face just before he disappeared. What did you see, Seph?"
Sephiroth hesitated, then quietly said, "His eyes."
She gave him an encouraging look.
"Zack's eyes... his pupils were slitted, just like mine. Just like...."
"....Kadaj and his brothers."
"Yes. Cloud's eyes occasionally took on that appearance, when I...." His throat tightened, choking off his words.
"So that's why you're tying yourself up in guilty knots, hm?" she murmured in that same gentle, but firm tone, even as she brushed a wisp of silver hair away from his face.
His silence was as good as an admission. The sight of those alien pupils in Zack's violet eyes brought back old private nightmares and fears about allowing Zack to get too close to him, of the possibility that he was endangering Zack simply to satisfy his own selfish needs. But as time passed and nothing seemed to happen, he had allowed himself to push those fears aside.
But what those worries had been fully justified? What if -he- was the true source of this alien presence in Zack, and Hojo's experiments had merely provided fertile conditions for it to grow? In that case, Cloud....
A slender hand lightly swatted his cheek. It wasn't a slap, but the contact was firm enough to refocus his attention on Aeris, who was giving him a stern, narrow-eyed stare.
"I know what you're thinking. Stop jumping to the conclusion that you're some glorified plague-carrier. And even on the itty-bitty remotest chance that you had something to do with Zack's present condition, nobody's going to blame you for it. Especially not Zack. Or Cloud."
She gripped his arms tightly. "Seph, I need you to focus on the here and now, not the past. So please don't wallow in guilt and despair over things that can't be changed, and let's concentrate on finding ways to help Zack and protect Cloud."
He stared down at her in bemusement. It was so easy to forget that under Aeris's playful, bubbly demeanor, there was a core of adamantium. In a way, she had already endured a similar, if not worse, sort of hell -- the loss of not just one, but all three of her lovers, through madness, death, and/or trauma. Aeris was absolutely right, of course, and he was a fool. Dealing with the present would require all their attention and effort.
"All right. If we can't warn Cloud directly, what do you propose?"
She gave him an exasperated look. "You're the military genius. What do the hotshot general do when he hits a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and time is critical?"
"You look for ways to go around it," he said, raising an eyebrow.
"Exactly!" She bounced up on her toes and rewarded him with a quick kiss on his nose. "If I can't reach Cloud directly, I might be able to reach someone near him."
"And the best candidate would be... Miss Lockheart?" he said, somewhat skeptically.
"Don't be silly! I'm talking about Marlene. She's always been very receptive, even while awake." Her burst of optimism subsided slightly. "But I probably still need to wait until she's asleep if I'm to get any sort of detailed message through."
Sephiroth nodded curtly. He understood the need for clarity, but they had already lost precious time in their futile attempt to contact Cloud directly. And at this point, a delay of a few hours could be critical, if not outright disastrous. Zack could be closing in on Cloud at this very moment.
[ Edge ]
Reeve waited impatiently in his office for Cloud's arrival. Fortunately, the other man had been at Tifa's place and not out on some delivery errand. As he waited, Reeve turned his attention back to the photos.
Less than a month had passed since the crisis with the trio of the silver-haired clones, which had culminated in the appearance, however brief, of Sephiroth himself. Besides the cure for Geostigma, one of the best things from those battles had been the sight of Cloud finally pulling himself out of his downward emotional spiral.
Reeve had hoped that things would go smoothly for his friend, that Cloud would have some time to relax and perhaps even learn to enjoy life again.
Unfortunately, it looked like Cloud wasn't going to receive his well deserved break.
As Cloud promised, he soon arrived at Reeve's office, accompanied by Tifa. Reeve wasn't surprised at her presence. His phone call had made it clear that something serious was going on.
He gave them a quick briefing about the mysterious monster at Mideel, then slid the folder of photos across the desk toward Cloud.
Cloud gazed silently at the first few photos, which showed the words carved into the bodies of one of the dead victims, then said in a calm, even voice, "That looks a lot like my handwriting."
Reeve gave Cloud a startled look, then snatched one of the photos back so he could take another look at it. Cloud was right. Reeve had been focused on the words' significance, he had skimmed over the actual writing. But now he actually looking for them, he could see the similarities -- the bold clear strokes of the block letters, and the way the two strokes of the capital "D" met at the bottom, for example. The resemblance to Cloud's handwriting was quite clear, even making allowance for the words being carved into human flesh instead of written on paper.
"But I haven't been down in that area of Mideel in over two weeks," Cloud added, in that same calm tone.
"You don't think that Cloud had anything to do with these killings, do you?" Tifa demanded, rising to her feet.
Reeve hastily waved her back down.
"Calm down, Tifa! I didn't even pick up on the handwriting. No, I called Cloud over because of the message, which is almost certainly directed at Cloud."
That message consisted of two simple words neatly incised with something very sharp into the torso of the victim -- "Cloud" and underneath it, "Nibelheim".
She frowned. "Okay, but what sort of message? Is it a threat? Or an invitation? Could there be other Sephiroth Remnants running around?"
"We never found out where Kadaj and his brothers came from, so it's entirely possible that there are more," Reeve said with a shrug. "But before we go assuming that, there's one more picture you need to see, Cloud."
He placed the last photo on the desktop and sat back to observe Cloud's reaction. Like the words, the complex symbol was carved into one of the Mideel victims. It consisted of the letter "A", surrounded by three straight lines in a triangular arrangement, but not quite touching each other. At one corner of where two lines converged, there was a "Z". The second corner was occupied by a "C".
However, the third corner was conspicuously blank. From the overall arrangement, it was only logical to assume that another letter belonged there. And if that gaping space at the third corner wasn't enough of a hint, the writer -- or carver, in this case -- had thoughtfully added a lightly dotted 'fill-in-the-blank' line.
But perhaps the most intriguing and yet most chilling feature was the flamboyant heart shape, drawn with two bold, swooping curves, which surrounded the arranged letters.
Under other circumstances, the heart and its enclosed letters would've been rather amusing, the type of thing that teenagers in love tended to scratch into any available surface. Except in this case, the symbol had had been carved into the flesh of a dead person who had apparently died in a particularly nasty manner, judging from the victim's fear-contorted face.
As he half-expected, the cryptic symbol meant -something- to Cloud, who couldn't seem to take his eyes off it. Reeve watched in fascination as Cloud, with just a hint of a wistful smile, put a gloved finger on the photo. He started on the "A", then moved to trace the triangular lines, first to the "Z", then to the "C". And as his finger passed over each letter, Cloud silently mouthed a word... or rather, a name.
But Cloud's hand twitched and jerked away before his finger touched the blank spot in the third corner.
"Cloud, do you know what it means?" Tifa asked curiously.
The blond said nothing and merely shook his head. But even as he did so, he continued to stare at the symbol with a confused, yet haunted expression.
Reeve abruptly realized that both Cloud and Tifa were quite unaware that Cloud had silently linked the letters with names. But Reeve had certainly noticed. If "A" was for Aeris, "Z" was for Zack, and "C" was for Cloud, who did the the blank space stand for? And why did it bother Cloud so much that he couldn't even bring himself to touch the mere image of that void?
He vaguely remembered Cloud once mentioning that Aeris had romantically involved with Zack, so in that respect, the heart made a weird sort of sense. But Cloud was in that heart as well, so did that mean that Cloud had been romantically involved with Aeris as well, and perhaps even Zack... and totally forgotten it?
And who the hell was the mysterious fourth person?
Shaking off his confusion, Cloud flicked the photograph of the carved heart and its mysterious contents back to Reeve.
"At least the words of the message are pretty clear. Someone wants to meet me in Nibelheim," Cloud said with a shrug.
"It's probably a trap," Tifa pointed out.
"Probably, but if I don't go, I'm pretty sure that whoever sent this message won't take 'no' for an answer. They'll just keep sending more messages, and kill more people in the process to get my attention."
"He's right, Tifa," Reeve said with a tired sigh.
"Fine, but if you go, you're not going alone. I'm coming with you."
"I can send some people with you. Maybe some of the SOLDIERs...."
Cloud shook his head sharply. "Weren't you telling me just a few days ago that the SOLDIERs are spread pretty thin at the moment? Besides, I'd much rather prefer to deal with this situation without a crowd of strangers watching me."
Reeve could understand Cloud's desire for privacy, to keep the painful details of his past to himself and out of the public eye.
"Okay, no strangers. But how about the company of some old friends, hm? Tifa's not about to let you go running off alone and neither am I, under the circumstances. Besides, even if you left now and took a helicopter, you wouldn't arrive in the Nibel area until well after dark. So why don't we do this? Let's spend the night in Rocket Town, then tackle Nibelheim in the morning. And if Cid and Vincent are around, they can tag along, too."
With a rueful smile, Cloud said, "All right, that works for me. I'll just pack a few things and prep Fenrir."
"Great. Cait will be waiting for you at the northern helipad."
[ Rocket Town ]
It was all that damn woman's fault. He cared about Shera and all that, but it was definitely her fault.
He might have been feeling like shit, but at least it was reasonably coherent shit until she showed up. But after he overheard her conversation on the phone, all he could think about was Vincent.
At first Cid couldn't quite remember why the hell he had left his PHS in the kitchen, instead of keeping it with him. But then with an odd sort of chill, he remembered. It had been a last ditch 'out of sight, out of mind' trick to keep himself from giving in to the almost overwhelming urge to call Vincent, just to hear that quiet deep voice.
That was three days ago, and it had worked, damn it! Until that stubborn woman had gone and spoken Vincent's name aloud and now the thought of Vincent was buried deep inside his head, screwing up his thoughts/feelings so badly that he couldn't think straight and he wanted to be with Vincent so bad and he could feel something inside him straining, twisting, clawing, fighting to tear its way out to freedom and Vincent...
Cid shuddered violently, then sagged limply back onto the sweat-dampened sheets, gasping for breath, exhausted, but at the same time blessedly lucid.
....okay. What the hell was THAT all about?
Cid had been sick before, but he had never felt as totally screwed up as this. Both his brain and his body seemed intent on stampeding off in different directions without their rightful owner, namely one Cid Highwind.
But while his body ached and felt like total, unmitigated crap, it was the stuff going on inside his head that was beginning to really freak Cid out. He just couldn't seem to keep his thoughts straight for more than a few seconds. All he could think about was Vincent and when he wasn't thinking about Vincent, all he could think of was sky and space and the wind moving across his body....
Cid felt his concentration waver and bit his lip hard, hoping the pain would keep his mind focused. It worked, but barely.
This was bad. This was seriously bad. Something was definitely off-kilter inside him. If only Vincent would....
His thoughts scattered like leaves in a gale and for the briefest instant, he almost wanted to hate Vincent for doing this to him, whatever -this- was....
Agonizing pain pierced through his skull, tore down his spine and exploded throughout his body, leaving Cid momentarily blind, mute, and paralyzed as something inside him, buried within Cid's very own cells, reacted to that particular fleeting impulse toward hatred with such violent, utter revulsion that the resulting biochemical backlash literally tore apart the neural connections that made formation of that hate-impulse possible.
For the second time in nearly as many minutes, Cid found himself staring at his bedroom ceiling, dazedly wondering what the fuck had just happened and why his head ached.
Maybe he really did need to see a doctor.
But even as that thought formed, he rejected it. The idea of some stranger poking and pawing at him made Cid feel even more nauseous than he already was. And hadn't he thrown up enough for any five people? At least Shera didn't set off the willies in his gut, although she still didn't quite feel/smell right....
Once again, Cid wondered where the hell did THAT thought come from.
Okay. Time to call the guys with the straitjacket. The Captain was finally losing it....
"Cid? Are you all right?" Shera called softly, peering through the doorway.
"I...." What was he just thinking about? Hell, his concentration was totally, utterly fucked up today. "I feel like shit. So what's new?" he grumbled petulantly.
"I brought you some more tea."
He accepted the steaming hot mug, inhaled deeply, and felt the nagging headache between his eyes begin to fade. As she headed for the door, he called out to her.
"Yes, Cid?" she said, turning in the doorway.
"Did I hear you talk to Vincent a little while ago?"
She winced guiltily, then said, "Yes, I did."
"Damn it, Shera...."
"Cid, you've been sick as a dog, and vomiting blood. And don't bother to deny it. Now, it could be just from throwing up so much over the past few days. But it could also be the sign of something much more serious. You need to see a doctor."
"We'll see about that," Shera said, her lips set in a thin, determined line. "Now go back to bed and rest until Vincent arrives."
As he watched her close the door, Cid was vaguely aware that he probably had a silly grin on his face, just like a randy teenager waiting for his first crush to show up.
Vincent was coming. Vincent would be there soon to talk to him and touch him and hold him and fuck him senseless....
Beneath the nearly unbearable bliss and anticipation coiling through Cid's mind and body, there was also an undeniable sense of terror. If just -thinking- about Vincent could scramble his brain so badly, what would being in Vincent's actual physical presence do to him?
The answer was blindingly simple -- Cid would totally and irrevocably lose his mind. There was another part of him now, a part he had no control over. This new /other/ self hungered for the madness that Vincent would trigger and was not about to allow anyone, especially not Cid himself, to interfere.
Oh, it wouldn't happen all at once, but gradually, steadily, he -would- lose chunks of his sanity, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. He couldn't run away. He couldn't warn anyone. Hell, he didn't even know whether he'd remember any of this in a minute or two!
Something else then occurred to Cid, an idea even more appalling than the threat of his own impending insanity. If he went nuts... well, big deal because truly insane people didn't know that they were insane, right? But dear god, what was this going to do to Vincent? Vincent, who -still- occasionally went all broody with guilt over the whole situation with Lucrecia, Hojo, and Sephiroth....
Cid desperately flung this thought at the /other/, hoping that there was enough of himself in that /other/ to weaken its resolve.
However, even the sickening prospect of hurting Vincent further, of laying even more guilt on the other man's already over-burdened shoulders was not enough to make the /other/ self inside his head to hesitate or reconsider. Hell, quite the opposite, in fact. To Cid's horrified disgust, this /other/ seemed to positively quiver with joy and eagerness at the prospect of dragging Vincent down into the nuttiness gutter with Cid.
So as the /other/ purred smugly to itself, all Cid could do was lie in bed -- the same bed that he and Vincent had so often shared -- and wait for his lover to unwittingly destroy him.
As she returned to the kitchen, Shera caught a metallic glimmer from the corner of her eye. Turning her head, she saw Cid's Venus Gospel sitting in its usual corner, its blade gleaming with its familiar golden iridescence. Leave it to Cid to make a makeshift umbrella stand out of an exhaust pipe and use it to store a weapon capable of slashing his entire house into two neat pieces with a single stroke.
She shrugged and turned away, but then stopped when she remembered how darkly overcast the sky had been all day. So what could possibly be making the spear shine like that?
Now curious, Shera glanced around the room, trying but failing to locate any light source that would explain the metallic glitter. Finally, she held up one of Cid's jackets and draped it around the spear.
Her hunch was right. The Venus Gospel's gleam wasn't from any outside source -- it was coming from within the weapon itself.
But that didn't make sense. That spear was an unique weapon, one of the so-called ultimate weapons. And as such, it responded to the physical and/or emotional state of its chosen wielder. On all previous occasions that she could remember when Cid being sick, exhausted, and/or badly wounded, the spear's eerie sheen had become distinctly muted and faded.
However, this time, even though Cid was obviously quite ill, the Venus Gospel's blade positively glittered, as if sprinkled in diamond dust.
Even as she pondered the strangeness of this, Cid's PHS rang.
"Shera? Where's Cid?"
It took a few seconds, but she managed to place the voice. "Reeve? Ah... the Captain's not feeling well at the moment." She paused, then added, "Actually, he's pretty sick."
"I think he came down a rather severe case of that nasty stomach virus that's been going around recently."
"He's running a high fever and vomiting for the last three days. He's even thrown up some blood."
In a clearly worried voice, Reeve said, "Has he seen a doctor?"
Shera exhaled sharply. "Of course I suggested it, but he absolutely refused. And if I called a doctor without his permission, Cid is still more than capable of throwing the doctor right out the door, if not through the window. Don't worry, Vincent's coming soon. Hopefully he can talk some sense into Cid. If not, he can at least sit on Cid long enough for a doctor to check him out."
She paused, then said, "Do you want to talk to him?"
"Ah, no. Not right now. Just let him know that Cloud, Tifa, and Cait will be in Rocket Town late tonight. There's something they'd like to discuss with him and Vincent, if Cid's feeling up to it. They'll give you a call when they get in."
"I'll let him know."
[ Edge ]
Reeve stared at his PHS before putting it away. So much for his idea for finding more backup for Cloud and Tifa. Given Rocket Town's proximity to Nibelheim, Cid and/or Vincent had been the obvious choices.
Well, it looked like Cloud, Tifa, and Cait would be on their own at the moment. It wasn't that he doubted Cloud's physical ability to handle virtually anything that came his way, but whenever Nibelheim was involved, more complicated factors came into play.
It was a bit unsettling to hear that the virus hit Cid so hard. While certainly annoying and temporarily debilitating, normal people seemed to recover without too much of a problem. And Cid -- except for his smoking, eating habits, and frequent gripes about being too old for stupid antics like saving the world -- was amazingly fit and healthy.
Hopefully the severity of the pilot's illness was just a fluke and not a sign of more sinister things to come. The last thing this world needed was yet another deadly plague sweeping through the population.
So far, there had been only a few reported fatalities from the virus, and most of them were easily explain by the victims' advanced age, pre-existing poor health, and/or impaired immune systems....
[ Healin Lodge ]
"Well, between your prior physical injuries and the Geostigma, your immune system has been rather badly compromised," the doctor said briskly, pushing up his glasses. "So it's no wonder that you contracted a somewhat severe bout of this virus, Mr. Shinra. However, I wouldn't worry too much about it. The fever should run its course in about 72 hours. The best course of action is get plenty of bedrest and drink lots of fluids. You'll get better in no time."
Rufus Shinra, looking pale, chilled, and nauseous, said nothing but curled up even more tightly under the bedcovers.
As Elena escorted the doctor out of the bedroom, Reno stood over Rufus's bed and frowned. The doc's casual assurances that this was just an ordinary stomach bug and that it would all blow over soon didn't do anything to soothe the Turk's increasing sense of uneasiness. Something was -off- with Rufus, although Reno couldn't quite put his finger on it.
"Hey. How you're doin'?"
Rufus looked up at him, then closed his eyes, clearly feeling too sick to muster even a marginally snide remark.
Reno reached his hand to check Rufus' temperature and scowled as Rufus turned his head away, avoiding the contact.
"Fine. Just be that way, damn it," Reno muttered under his breath and stalked out of the bedroom.
Before the whole Meteor crap, Rufus certainly had no qualms about Reno touching him. Hell, Reno had plenty of fond memories of casual butt sex in the office, fucks amid the paperwork, and that sort of fun shit.
But after Meteor, there had been nothing. Rufus had withdrawn into himself, avoiding physical contact with pretty much everyone. True, oozing black sores like those caused by Geostigma were hardly a turn-on, but still Reno found Rufus's sudden aversion to touching or being touched annoying as hell.
However, despite being pissed off by Rufus's unmistakable rebuff, Reno found himself repeatedly hovering around Rufus's bedside... and worrying.
[ Rocket Town ]
The first hint Cid had of his unexpected visitor was the breeze coming from his bedroom window, which had been firmly closed but was now wide open. And when he turned his head to look, he saw a young, good-looking guy dressed in what looked like charcoal grey leather casually sitting on the windowsill. The stranger's hair, dark and spiky, definitely reminded Cid of Cloud. And the guy's eyes glowed, although they were a sort of violet-grey, not bright blue.
He opened his mouth to ask his uninvited visitor what the hell he thought he was doing barging into Cid's bedroom, but instead of words, a soft growl came from Cid's throat.
The stranger didn't seem the least bit perturbed that he'd been literally snarled at and said with an apologetic grin, "Hey, sorry to drop in like this. You're Cid Highwind, right?"
Cid tried talking again and only managed to utter a decidedly suspicious hiss.
The young man gave him a sympathetic look. "Yeah, I know the Change can be one hell of a scary experience, but everything will make sense once it's over."
Before Cid could figure out how to respond -- assuming that he could figure out how to say words instead of making animal noises -- the stranger said cheerfully, "I really don't mean to poach, this being your territory and all, but I was wondering if you or your mate would be upset if something happened to the man living in that green and yellow cottage at the east end of town."
Cid managed to regain control of his voice, but instead of asking meaningful questions or warning somebody -- ANYbody -- about what was going on inside his head and the /other/, he blurted out the first thing that crossed his mind, which was, "I barely know the guy!"
"Cool! Then you won't mind if he croaks." the stranger said with a brilliant and surprisingly charming grin. "If you happen to see Spike, tell him that I'll be waiting for him at the Mansion at daybreak."
And with that, the guy was gone.
Cid simply stared and gaped at his now empty window.
Spike? Mansion? Was the guy talking about Cloud and the Shinra Mansion?
And what change? When WHAT was over? His territory? His -MATE-!?
"Okay, what the fuck just happened here!?"