Also, I'm really not used to writing Cid/Vincent, so let me know if they're acting horribly OOC, under the circumstances. ^_^;;;
Beta: none, very rough draft
Fandom: FF7 AU (Feral-verse)
Pairing/Characters: OT4 (Aeris/Cloud/Zack/Sephiroth); Cid/Vincent; Rufus/Turks
Warnings: hints of future (and past) foursomes, m/m, xeno-sex
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related prequels and sequels belong to Square-Enix.
Summary: A new and dangerous type of super-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: If readers are interested in more details on the setup and plot of the Feral-verse, check out the discussion of this particular OT4-plotbunny.
CREDITS: 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 Cid-centric fics "Venus Gospel" and "The Thief of Hell";
-- ciceqi's "Anthroverse", "Mascotverse" stories, and her lovely Cid/Vincent xeno-fic Wanting";
-- ladynero's Crack!Fic series, especially the stuff about O4 symbolic tattoos and a possible fate of Aeris' body;
and many others. So many thanks, guys! ^_^
[ Edge ]
After Cloud and Tifa's departure for Nibelheim, Reeve continued to examine the photograph of the mysteriously incomplete emblem carved into the skin of one of the Mideel victims.
Zack, Cloud, Aeris, and... who?
Somehow, he couldn't quite picture some ordinary guy or woman off the street as being part of that foursome. First of all, because most regular people had problems coping with being part of a twosome, much less getting involved in a foursome. Because a foursome it had to be. The structure and symmetry of the emblem practically demanded it.
A SOLDIER, First Class, probably one of the finest that Shinra ever produced... a seemingly ordinary teenager who possessed the courage and resolve to not only challenge but actually stop an insane Sephiroth in his tracks... the very last of the Cetra....
Three extraordinary people. Three extraordinary souls.
Reeve instinctively knew that the fourth would have been just as extraordinary, just as bright and special. For that particular bonding to work, nothing less would do.
But again, who? Reeve had always had a knack for puzzles and this one profoundly intrigued him. Three people surrounding and guarding a fourth. So what sort of person would have possessed not only the warrior's spirit, but also the heart needed to complete that protective ring around Aeris, its center?
From the symmetry of the triangular arrangement, he strongly suspected that the mysterious unknown fourth was male, just like Zack and Cloud. The most likely possibility Reeve could think of was someone in the military, most likely another SOLDIER, or if he really wanted to go out on a limb, maybe even a Turk.
Reeve suddenly frowned. No, he was trying to solve the problem the wrong way. The key was Cloud, the one of the four he knew best. He should be asking himself this question -- of all the people that Cloud could have possibly met during his time in Midgar and Shinra's military, who were the people who had the greatest emotional impact on Cloud?
Zack and Aeris, obviously. The fact they were indeed two of the three other members of the foursome only served to confirm that Reeve was on the right trail.
On the surface, Tifa would appear to be a good prospect, because Cloud definitely felt something for her. But Tifa failed on one critical criteria -- she was never in Midgar during the critical period before the Nibelheim massacre.
But who else? Who was the person, living or dead, who elicited the strongest emotional response, positive or negative, from Cloud? Unfortunately, when he framed the question that way, Reeve could only come up with two possible answers, and both of them made his skin crawl.
The first prospect was Hojo. Uh-uh. Not a chance. There was no way in hell that Hojo could harbor protective feelings for another living being. And the idea of intelligent people like Zack and Aeris having the slightest smidgen of affection for the slimy creep was ludicrous beyond belief.
Which left the second possibility -- none other than Sephiroth.
At first, the prospect of Sephiroth being in a loving relationship with just one person, much less -three- people seemed just as ludicrous as with Hojo. But the more Reeve thought about it, the less outlandish the idea got. After all, the man hadn't always been a mad, sadistic murderer. And while Sephiroth was generally aloof and cold, he seemed to deal well enough with the SOLDIERs under his command... which included Zack, of course.
Reeve nearly smacked himself on the head for not considering Sephiroth earlier. Or rather, he had been thinking only about the insane Sephiroth of the Meteor Crisis. He should have been thinking about the pre-Nibelheim Sephiroth, Shinra's famous and brilliant General. Once he did that, the connections became so glaringly obvious. Zack knew and worked closely with Sephiroth. Zack knew and was good friends with Cloud. And if he remembered correctly, Zack not only knew but actually dated Aeris. So it was quite plausible that the other three -- Cloud, Aeris, and Sephiroth -- has met each other through Zack. Not only met, but had fallen in love.
If that fourth person really was Sephiroth, that would explain... a lot... about Cloud's reactions, both past and present.
God, what a unholy mess.
His phone rang, and still caught up in his ponderings, Reeve absently answered it.
As he listened to Vincent's terse words, Reeve's face went pale.
"Are you sure? Yes, of course I'll have my people check on it ASAP, but.... Wait a minute! What about...!?" he sputtered, but all he got was a dial tone as Vincent hung up on him.
Reeve stared at his PHS with a sinking sensation in his stomach. First, unsettling new revelations about Cloud's past, and now the possible appearance of a highly dangerous mutated virus strain?
"Damn it! What next!? Jenova rearing her ugly head again!?"
[ Rocket Town ]
Cid Highwind was at war with himself... and losing badly.
And as if to add insult to injury, there was the undeniable realization that the prospect of losing his sanity didn't really bother him nearly as much as he knew it should.
He knew that the idea of going crazy should be considered a damn scary thing and one to be avoided at all costs. And when he initially figured out what was happening to him, Cid had suffered a perfectly appropriate fit of panic. Not that it did any good, but at least that reaction made sense under the circumstances. Unfortunately, the feeling of being scared shitless was already fading into resignation and perhaps even a fair bit of curiosity.
Like, what -would- it feel like to go batshit crazy?
Cid was reminded of a question one of his flight instructors had put on a final exam, the one about being stuck on a crashing airship with no question you're going down -- namely, when faced with the inevitable, what the fuck do you do about it?
Assuming that it was a given that he was going to go nuts, the 64,000 gil question became whether he wanted to go down hard or easy. Do you fight your fall every inch of the way and to hell with the consequences or collateral damage? Or do you try to go with the flow and concentrate on keeping as much of yourself intact as possible under the circumstances?
If Cid had sensed the slightest whiff of menace or malice toward Vincent or any of his friends in the /other/, his choice would've been easy and immediate -- go down fighting, no matter what it cost him. But weirdly, he felt only a growing certainty that harming Vincent was the furthest thing from the /other/'s mind....
....after all, the last thing he would want to do is to hurt his mate, right?
Cid shook his head sharply. Damn it! None of this 'mate' crap had crossed his mind before, not until a certain spiky-haired asshole of a mysterious stranger had popped into his bedroom and started casually chatting about the subject. Unfortunately, the /other/ had happily glommed onto that phrase like a damn leech and now Cid was finding it almost impossible to NOT think of Vincent in those terms.
Okay, he and Vincent were friends, partners, and now lovers. Yes, the sex was great. No, the attraction was not just physical. And yes, emotions were majorly involved on both sides. To be brutally honest with himself, he was stupidly and totally in love with Vincent at this point. He suspected that Vincent felt something similar, although neither of them had ever talked about anything as mushy and maudlin as 'love'. Call it a guy thing.
But now all this shit about mates was more than a little bit creepy because it sounded a whole lot like marriage, only much deeper and way more intense....
....and so very -right-.
It was that damn inescapable, overwhelming sense of 'rightness' that kept screwing him up so badly. Because no matter how disturbing the concept of a 'mate' was on a purely intellectual level, on an emotional and instinctual level, he really, REALLY wanted Vincent to belong to him, just as he wanted to belong to Vincent in return. And in the face of that intense desire, that -hunger-, Cid found it increasingly hard to muster up the willpower to resist the seductive urge to relax and accept the inevitable.
Maybe his uninvited visitor had known exactly what he was talking about, because the more Cid thought about his current situation, the more sense it started to make. Well, it made sense to -him-, which wasn't saying a whole hell of a lot, considering the questionable state of his sanity.
Because when he thought carefully about it, his feelings about Vincent hadn't so much changed as gotten fucking damn stronger. What if the emotions that scared him so much had always been there, just buried deep inside some obscure corner of his brain? And what if this weirdness had merely pulled those feelings to the surface?
So while he might be going crazy, Cid found it somewhat comforting to realize that his thoughts and feelings seemed to be pretty much still his own.
On the other hand, he could be totally deluding himself.
How strange that barely an hour ago, things seemed so clear-cut -- Cid vs. the /other/. And now, in that short span of time, the /other/ in his head no longer felt nearly as threatening. The /other/ wasn't so much an alien enemy trying to take over his body, but more like a mildly kooky relative who takes up residence in one's house and whom you couldn't figure out a way to get rid of -- occasionally annoying, but nothing really scary. If things continued to progress at their current rate, Cid suspected that the boundaries between him and the /other/ would quickly begin to blur beyond the point of recognition.
That idea didn't bother Cid nearly as much as it probably should have.
Shera looked up with a start when she heard the front door open, then relaxed when she caught a glimpse of Vincent striding past the kitchen doorway. He gave her the very briefest nod of acknowledgment before he continued on to Cid's bedroom. Given the silent way Vincent normally moved, Shera knew that the noise had been purely for her benefit. At times, the gunman could be surprisingly considerate, although he might not look it.
But she felt a twitch of unease when she glanced at the clock. Vincent was early by a good half hour. While it was most likely that Vincent had just made good travel time, there was a strangely intense air -- more than usual, anyway -- about the gunman that unsettled her. Because the more she thought about it, the more she couldn't help feeling that there had been a genuine sense of urgency in Vincent's movements. And if so, why?
Not to be insulting to Vincent, but he and Cid, both independent and stubborn people, weren't the type of clingy lovers who lived in each other's pockets. And while the severity of Cid's illness was certainly worrisome, it hardly qualified as an immediate emergency....
....unless there was something about this virus outbreak that she didn't know about.
With a deceptive calm, Vincent opened the bedroom door to find Cid sitting up in bed and staring out the open bedroom window with a vaguely disgruntled expression. That was hardly surprising, given that Cid was never the best of patients when ill.
But as soon as the pilot heard the door opening, he turned toward Vincent and gave him that familiar lazy, appreciative grin -- the one that rarely, if ever, left the privacy of the bedroom, and which never failed to leave a curious knot of warmth in Vincent.
All things considered, Cid looked remarkably... relaxed, bordering on downright mellow.
Vincent managed to keep his face impassive. He was relieved to see no signs of abnormal agitation or aggression in Cid. But he couldn't relax, not just yet.
Galian and Chaos were both reacting oddly to Cid's presence.
Under the circumstances, that was -not- a good sign.
[ Edge ]
Reeve frowned grimly as Dr. Clement, the current head of Edge's health services finished her preliminary report and hurried from his office. The woman looked badly worried, an expression he knew that he shared.
Vincent had been correct in his suspicions -- something was turning normal humans into vicious, near mindless animals. Even worse, the mysterious degenerative brain condition was somehow linked to the seemingly innocuous stomach virus that seemed to be running rampant through the human population.
The medical establishment had assumed that the recent post-Geostigma disease outbreak was a relatively straightforward gastrointestinal virus -- annoying and somewhat incapacitating in the short term, but like the common cold, one with no serious long-term consequences.
The doctors were wrong.
Most people recovered just fine from the virus, but as Vincent discovered by chance, a small percentage did not. In that unfortunate percentage of victims, after the initial infection, the virus spontaneously mutated from a relatively harmless strain into something more like rabies, moving into the central nervous system and eventually to the brain. Once there, the mutated virus caused radical changes in behavior.
Those changes typically started with increasingly irrational anxiety and confusion, with a frighteningly rapid progression to outright paranoia and eventually overwhelming fear and/or aggression. The afflicted patients had become uncontrollably violent, indiscriminately attacking medical staff, and even friends and family. However, there was one major difference between the mutated virus strain and rabies -- unlike with rabies, the unfortunate victims did not die, at least not from the virus itself.
Complicating the situation was the way the mutation appeared to be highly unpredictable and random, which was why most local doctors had failed to realize that their lone case wasn't merely a unfortunate fluke -- bad reactions and catastrophic complications could happen with even the most harmless of diseases -- but was actually part of a much more ominous pattern scattered all over the Planet.
But now that Dr. Clement knew what to look for, that pattern was becoming all too apparent to her experienced eyes.
Damn it! A new incurable disease was NOT what the people of this Planet needed, especially one that left its victims alive and physically healthy, but hopelessly insane. Unfortunately, all medical evidence so far indicated that the neurological damage caused by the mutated virus was permanent and incurable. Even the healing waters from Aeris' church had no effect, which seemed to rule out the possibility of the virus and its mutation being somehow Jenova-related.
He still wasn't entirely clear on how Vincent figured out the connection. The gunman had only mentioned something about 'the others' noticing something odd with certain infected individuals. By 'the others', Reeve assumed Vincent was referring to the Galian Beast and Chaos.
A sharp chill struck Reeve as he recalled his recent conversation with Shera. Cid was sick with the very same stomach virus that was linked to over thirty cases of virus-linked insanity. No wonder Vincent's report had been curt to the point of rudeness.
And could the mysterious invitation directed at Cloud be somehow linked to this mutated disease? After considering the possibility, Reeve didn't think so. All reports indicated that the affected individuals appeared to lose most of their higher cognitive abilities, such as the ability to read, write, or in the most severe cases, to even speak. It was extremely unlikely that a person with that sort of brain damage could leave such a clear and concise message for Cloud.
Should he tell Cloud and Tifa about this ominous new development? No, perhaps he should wait until he had more information. Besides, Vincent would be arriving at Rocket Town at any moment and knew exactly what sort of symptoms to look for.
[ Rocket Town ]
Yes, Galian Beast and Chaos were reacting to Cid's presence, but not in the way Vincent had expected or half-feared. They were frighteningly intent on Cid. But instead of being hostile-intent or even worried-intent, they were interested-intent. They had always been interested in Cid, but now that interest bordered on obsessive fascination.
As Vincent walked further into the bedroom and tossed his cape onto the usual chair, Cid continued to watch him and his grin developed a faintly provocative edge. In the back of his mind, Vincent felt the others' interest sharpen and shift to aroused-intent. He forced them back down with considerably more effort than it usually took and calmly asked, "How are you feeling?"
Cid flopped back down on the pillows with a snort.
"Pretty much like crap. No big surprise there. But I'm getting better."
The tension that had been steadily building in Vincent ever since Shera's call gradually began to ease. He was still wasn't quite sure what to make of the others' unnerving reaction, but Cid seemed to behaving quite normally -- cranky, grumpy, and generally pissed off at being sick. In other words, typical Cid.
Vincent put his right hand on Cid's forehead to check his temperature. Cid was still a little feverish, but the sweat on the pilot's skin told Vincent that the fever was already breaking.
"Hey, what did I tell you?" Cid said, with a lopsided grin. "I'm feeling a hell of a lot better than I was only a few hours ago. Don't worry, I'll be fine."
Cid was merely stating the truth. He would be fine. What he said to Vincent about feeling like crap had been a bit of an exaggeration. At the moment, he was feeling pretty damn good and it was all because Vincent was there.
He was vaguely aware that there was something that he had forgotten, something rather important that he needed to tell Vincent, to warn him about....
On the other hand, it was something that would upset Vincent greatly and Cid really didn't want to do that. It wasn't right to upset his mate when one could avoid it....
....wha? His mate? Shit, not again!
But that brief flicker of uneasiness was just that, a flicker that almost immediately overshadowed by the good-right feelings seeping into every corner of his brain. It was impossible to pay attention to that frantic little bit of himself when all Cid's instincts were telling him -- roaring it, actually -- that everything that he was experiencing was exactly as they should be.
God, at this moment, he -SO- wanted to wrap himself around Vincent and purr-growl madly. The only thing stopping him was the certainty that suddenly pouncing on Vincent and ripping his clothes off would thoroughly freak out his poor oblivious mate and was therefore not a very good idea at the moment.
Cid hadn't missed the tension and anxiety that Vincent had tried so hard to conceal when he first arrived. He wasn't entirely sure what all that was about, but it was probably best if he restrained himself and acted normally. For now, at least. He really didn't want to stress out Vincent any more than necessary. With the possible exception of Cloud, Cid had never met anyone more prone to tying himself up in emotional knots and going all broody as Vincent.
Vincent found Cid's protests of improving health plausible enough as Cid half-heartedly batted his hand away from the pilot's forehead. He didn't doubt that Cid had been quite sick, because Shera wasn't the sort to exaggerate. If she had been genuinely worried about Cid's condition, she must have had good reason. However, the pilot seemed to be getting over the virus with impressive speed. That was not entirely unexpected for Cid, given that the man usually had the constitution of a Behemoth.
Cid scooted over on the bed, leaving a vacant spot beside him.
"Talking about someone not feeling so hot, you look a bit frazzled yourself. What the hell have you been doing these last couple of days?"
Vincent raised an eyebrow at being characterized as 'frazzled', but accepted the silent invitation, sitting down on the bed beside Cid and leaning back against the headboard.
"Investigating some disturbing developments."
But before he could elaborate, Shera walked into the bedroom, carrying Cid's phone. She blinked a little to see the two men seated so cozily together, but aside from that, she didn't let it faze her.
"By the way, your friend Reeve wanted me to tell you that Cloud, Tifa, and Cait Sith will be arriving in town sometime late tonight. He said that they'd give you a call when they arrived because there's something they needed to discuss with you and Vincent, if you feel up to it" She paused, then added, "It sounded pretty important."
Cid exhaled slowly, then said, "Sure, no problem."
Shera eyed the two of them, not snuggling or even touching, but sitting so comfortably beside each other, then said in a wry voice, "Now that Vincent's here, I guess I don't need to stick around to play mother chocobo, right?"
Vincent replied drily, "I think I can manage. Thanks for taking the trouble to check up on him."
"Yeah, yeah. Thanks for everything." Cid waved his hand in a shooing motion. "So scoot and take care of yourself, unless you actually want to get sick."
She laughed, dropped Cid's phone on the bedside table, then left them alone.
But as Shera gathered her jacket and prepared to leave the house, she took one last look at the Venus Gospel. Its blade still had that eerie inner glow, although more subdued than before.
Back in Cid's bedroom, Vincent caught the pilot again staring at the open bedroom window.
"Well, I guess that makes it two for two," Cid muttered under his breath.
The pilot shrugged carelessly, then said, "I'll explain when Cloud shows up." And with those words, Cid yawned hugely and curled up on the bed so his head ended up resting on Vincent's leg. And with that, he fell asleep almost instantly.
After his long, hectic travels of the last few days, Vincent would have appreciated some rest himself. However, he quite didn't dare, not with the restless stirrings of the others inside him. While Cid accepted the thankfully rare appearance of Galian or Chaos in his bed with unnerving nonchalance, Vincent always abhorred it when he lost control of his others like that.
So instead of sleeping, Vincent merely turned off the bedside lamp, leaned back, and silently watched as Cid softly snored in his lap.
[ unknown location ]
In the depths of the cold, dank stone cavern system, ominously shaped things stirred.
The center of the main chamber was occupied by a huge webby mass with no clear core. Around the mass stood several tall ovoid shapes. As one, the shapes shuddered and began to peel apart, revealing skinny naked humanoid bodies. They wove sinuously from side to side in perfect synchronization as if directed by a single mind. And so they were.
The command of that single mind, when it came, was brutally simple.
And as one, the bodies began to shuffle-slither toward the chamber's exit on their way up to the Planet's surface.
[ Rocket Town ]
Through the open window of Cid's bedroom, Vincent heard the faint sounds of a helicopter. A few minutes later, Vincent's PHS, lying next to Cid's, vibrated on the nightstand. He reached out and answered it.
"Cait Sith?" he said quietly.
"Vincent? How's Cid?"
"He's coherent and his fever's nearly gone."
"Good, good," the robot cat said, relief evident in its voice.
Cid stirred, opened sleepy eyes, and muttered, "Izat Cloud?"
The pilot sat up, indulged in a slow bone-cracking stretch, then casually pulled the phone from Vincent's grasp.
"Hey, you guys. Get your asses over here. Shera said you needed to talk."
"Cid?" Cait squeaked in surprise.
"Yeah? Who the hell else did you expect?" Cid ran his hand through his short hair, and grimaced. "On the other hand, gimme ten minutes for a quick shower."
"Ummm... okay. We'll be right there."
Cid snapped the phone closed and tossed it back to Vincent as he crawled out of bed.
Vincent watched the other man with a faintly confused expression as the pilot grabbed some clean clothes and plodded off to the bathroom, still yawning. Yes, Cid had a very resilient constitution, but this time, his recuperation was almost ridiculously rapid.
Behind the closed door of the bathroom, Cid watched in bemusement as much of his facial stubble sort of... fell off as he wiped his face with a damp towel. And in the shower, he noticed yet another oddity -- he seemed to be shedding an unusual amount of body hair down the drain. Not all of it at once, which was good because Vincent would have been sure to notice. He tugged experimentally on his damp head hair and was relieved to discover that it seemed firmly attached to his scalp.
Hurrah. At least he wasn't going bald.
He frowned slightly and peered more closely at himself. His skin had looked just fine before the shower, but now that his skin was wet.... Hell, maybe he was imagining things, but he could swear that certain patches of skin seemed to shimmer and gleam. And it wasn't just from the water, either. It was more like the sheen one got off of a metal or crystal surface. He ran his fingers over the spots, rubbing and pinching, but his skin -felt- perfectly normal.
Okay, so it wasn't just his head going all weird, but now his body?
Cid waited for a moment, just to see if the fear and anxiety he knew he should be experiencing would come.
And when they didn't, he shrugged and briskly continued his shower.
Vincent was waiting for them at the front door.
"How is he?" asked Cloud, looking concerned.
"Cid seems to be well on the way to recovery," the gunman replied.
"Already?" Tifa said, surprised and perhaps a bit envious. She had caught the stomach virus early on -- one of the perils of running a popular business -- and it had taken her a full five days after her fever broke before she felt well enough to pull a full shift at her bar. Most normal people took at least twice as long to recover.
Vincent simply shrugged and led them down the hallway to Cid's bedroom. The bed had been hastily made and the pilot was half-sitting, half-lying on the bedcovers, clearly waiting for them. But just as Tifa was about to enter the room, she came to a screeching halt as Cloud stopped dead in the doorway right in front of her.
"Cloud? What's wrong?" she asked, startled.
Paying no attention to her or Cid, Cloud's eyes quickly scanned the room, searching for... what?
Tifa opened her mouth to ask again when Cait Sith raised its paw for silence. They watched with increasing tension as Cloud continued his search... all of them, except for Cid, who seemed oddly relaxed, given the situation.
She caught Vincent giving the pilot a suspicious look, even as Cloud slowly began to prowl the room. That was the only way she could describe that slow, stalking stride. He circled the end of the bed and made his way over to the open bedroom window... and -sniffed-.
Cloud stiffened immediately, then whirled around to stare hard at Cid. The sheer intensity in those blue eyes was enough to make Tifa twitch and even Vincent shift restlessly.
However, the pilot seemed quite unfazed. Cid gave Cloud a wry grin and said, "Good-looking, charming wiseass? Spiky dark hair? Glowing violet-grayish eyes? Sound vaguely familiar?"
Cloud's own glowing eyes had widened in shock at the first two details, but at the third, he closed them briefly, as if he'd just felt a sharp stab of pain.
"Familiar? Oh yeah," he said softly.
The description sounded familiar to Tifa as well, but at the moment, she couldn't quite connect the description with a name.
"He left a message for you. 'Tell Spike that I'll be waiting for him at the Mansion at daybreak.'"
Cloud twitched, although it wasn't clear whether his reaction was caused by the reference to the place where he'd spent so many hellish years, or the casual use of his nickname.
As Cloud turned to leave, Cid said, "You sure you want to go charging up to Nibelheim right now just to hang around in a ghost town for hours until the damn sun rises?"
Tifa watched as Cloud reached out his right hand and rested it against the windowsill, obviously thinking. But of what, Tifa didn't have a clue. Eventually, he nodded and said, "In the morning, then."
Vincent gave Cid another sharp look, then said to Cloud, "Do you want me to come with you?"
"No. I hope you don't mind, but... I'd rather not."
Vincent nodded, accepting the other man's decision.
Tifa, finally realizing that no one else in the room was going to ask the obvious question, demanded, "Cloud, who is this guy!?"
When he said nothing, but continued to gaze out into the darkness and the looming shadow of the Nibel Mountains, she looked around the room, hoping the others would answer her question. However, Cid merely shrugged, Cait managed to look totally clueless, and Vincent had lapsed into brooding silence.
She glared at all four men with growing impatience. It was blatantly clear that Cloud recognized Cid's visitor. So why was he so reluctant to identify the person by name?
"What was the thing that you needed to discuss with us, anyway?" Cid said, breaking the increasingly uncomfortable silence.
Cait Sith was the one who hastily spoke up, explaining about the appearance of the mysterious monster around Mideel, the resulting murders, and the unmistakable invitation to Nibelheim carved into the skin of the victims' bodies.
Cid whistled softly, then said, "A large, wolf-like beast?"
The robot cat nodded. "That's what the witnesses said. Not that they ever got a really good look at it."
"And how many people did it kill in Mideel?" the gunman asked.
"Two. No one else was even injured."
"Whatever it is, it's certainly no ordinary monster, to be capable of leaving such a clear and concise written message," Vincent said.
"In a darn good imitation of Cloud's handwriting, no less," Cait said, obviously worried.
"The creature could be under the control of someone else. For example, your mysterious visitor, Cid," Tifa suggested.
"Could be," Cid said, noncommittally.
"Do you think he could be a new Sephiroth Clone?" Tifa said, looking at Cloud, who had grown visibly tense at Tifa's last comment.
He remained silent. Then, with obvious reluctance, he said, "Maybe."
"Well, it looks like the only way we're going to find out is to go to Nibelheim and meet this mysterious stranger," Cait said, absently nibbling on its claws.
Cloud pushed away from the window, glanced at Cid, and said quietly, "Is there anything else important that I need to know?"
"Important? Nope, not really," Cid said. But as Cloud and the others turned to leave, he called out, "Oh, and when you see Mr. Smartass, give him this message. The next time I run into him, I'm going to give his admittedly fine ass a good chew or two."
Cloud gave Cid a rueful little smile. "Much easier said than done. You've got to catch him first."
"Maybe, but like hell I'm going to let him get away with barging into my house so easily," Cid retorted grumpily.
After Cloud and the others left Cid's house to return to the inn, Vincent returned to the bedroom to find Cid sprawled on the bed, his eyes closed.
"You pissed off that I didn't mention the guy to you earlier?" the pilot asked, without opening his eyes.
Vincent moved to stand beside the bed.
"Somewhat concerned, perhaps."
"No particular reason to be. He just showed up, asked a question or two, left his message, and disappeared, No harm, no foul. I waited until Cloud showed up because there wasn't much point in bringing it up earlier. He was long gone before you arrived."
Cid opened his eyes to look up at Vincent standing over him.
"He knew exactly who I was, Vince. He knew that we were good buddies with Cloud. And since I wasn't exactly in shape to stop him, he could've attacked me and Shera, in order to leave Cloud one hell of a bloody message, if he wanted to. He didn't. So it looks to me that my visitor seems interested in keeping things moderately friendly, at least for now."
Vincent raised a dark eyebrow and said rather sardonically, "Leaving an invitation carved into the dead bodies of two innocent victims hardly seems like a friendly act."
The pilot said nothing for a moment, but when he did, his response was unexpected, to say the least.
"Hey, Vince. When you were a Turk, did you ever kill someone merely to convey a message?"
Vincent stiffened slightly, then finally replied in an even voice.
"Thought so. But the fact you did something like that doesn't make you into a nefarious, untrustworthy bad guy and all that crap."
Vincent's lips twitched slightly. "I know plenty of people who might argue the point."
"Assholes," Cid said succinctly. He sat up and scooted around to face Vincent. "What I'm getting at is that my smartass visitor probably had his reasons for killing those two people, just as you had your reasons for killing those guys back when you were a Turk. So being a murderer doesn't necessarily mean he's out to get Cloud."
Vincent frowned thoughtfully. As a Turk, he had killed and even tortured on various occasions -- not for self-defense or from necessity, but simply because it was the most expeditious way of achieving a particular end. And even now, he knew he was prepared to do the same thing, if necessary. But at the same time, he cared about Cid, more deeply than he'd cared about anyone for a very long time.
Eventually, with considerable reluctance, Vincent said, "I suppose you might have a valid point."
"Gee, thanks," Cid muttered. "Look, if you want me to give you concrete evidence of this guy's intentions toward Cloud, I can't. And yeah, given all the recent shit with the Sephiroth Clones, I'd normally be as suspicious as hell about some total stranger barging into my room rambling about Cloud. But there's just something about that guy...." The pilot shrugged. "I just wasn't getting any nasty vibes off him."
"But who is he? Cloud obviously recognized him from your description."
"Well, duh. Of course he knows. I assume that it's someone from that fucked up past of his. Someone really close, given the way he shut down on us."
Cid paused, then added, "Considering all the shit that Cloud's had dumped on him, it's no surprise that he's bracing himself for the worst case scenario. But who knows? Maybe this time at least, something good will come from all this."
"When did you become such an optimist?" Vincent said drily. "Now I'm starting to wonder if you're delirious or an impostor."
Cid grabbed the nearest pillow and smacked him with it, grumbling, "Screw you!"
It sounded almost like an invitation.
Galian and Chaos certainly thought so, because when Vincent sternly reminded himself that Cid was still recovering from the stomach virus, the ensuing mental roars of frustrated disappointment from his others were enough to make him wince.
Harming Cloud was the very last thing on Mr. Dark-and-Spiky's mind, although Cid couldn't tell Vincent that. At least, not yet. Vincent wouldn't understand.
But he was certain that Galian Beast and Chaos did. They surely sensed the same unmistakable signs that he had the moment that Cloud had walked into his bedroom.
Cloud and Cid's visitor were mated. They -belonged- to each other.
And god help anything or anyone who got in the way.
At the edge of Rocket Town, Cloud stood alone, staring up toward the high jagged peaks of the Nibel Mountains, and wondered what the hell was going on.
For Cloud, the familiar scent in Cid's bedroom had been unmistakable and instantly recognizable. It was the same scent that had helped anchor him to a fragile semblance of reality throughout the agony and madness of Hojo's experiments. That scent, along with the voice, had been his clearest memories of their escape from the labs.
And it was that same scent, nearly overwhelmed by the metallic reek of freshly spilt blood, which still haunted him in so many of his dreams.
Cid's description has been almost superfluous, merely confirming of what his own enhanced senses already told him, no matter how much he wanted to deny it.
Zack was back. In the flesh, at least.
While some people might be glad to see their loved ones resurrected, Cloud was definitely not one of them. Regardless of the pain he felt from Zack's death and absence, he -never- would have been so selfish as to wish for Zack's return, not when he knew that Zack's soul was safe and content with Aeris within the Lifestream.
The last time Cloud had seen Zack had been only a few weeks ago, as a spirit in Aeris's church. Hopefully, Zack's essence was still within the Lifestream. If it was only Zack's physical body, whether the original or a clone, being manipulated by some unknown force, he could deal with that. Because while it might look like Zack, it wouldn't -be- Zack.
But what if it wasn't merely a matter of a body? What if Zack's spirit had somehow been forcibly torn from the security of the Lifestream? What then?
Shall I give you despair?
Cloud shuddered and clenched his fists. So, having failed with Kadaj and his brothers, was this Jenova's and Sephiroth's new scheme? Hojo's experiments had transformed Cloud essentially into a Sephiroth Clone. He had assumed, from the reports found in Nibelheim, that those treatments had failed to work on Zack.
What if both Cloud and Hojo had been wrong? What if the experiments had worked well enough to allow Sephiroth to manipulate Zack? What if...?
Shall I give you despair?
In a few hours, he would talk to Cid's mysterious visitor, the one with Zack's scent. Then, he would know whether he was dealing with a mere puppet of flesh, or something infinitely worse.
Back at Rocket Town's inn, Tifa and Cait Sith were also having a sleepless night. On the way back from Cid's house, Tifa had tried once again to ask Cloud about the identity of Cid's visitor. And again, Cloud had not answered her.
Cloud was somewhere out there in the night, thinking and no doubt brooding about the confrontation to come. She suspected that he would have preferred to head off to Nibelheim alone, but he hadn't asked her or Cait to stay behind, probably because he knew what their answer would be.
As she waited for morning, Tifa wrestled with that nagging sense of familiarity from Cid's description. Suddenly, her thoughts drifted back to the mysterious emblem carved into one of the Mideel victims. And when she remembered one of the letters in that emblem, she nearly hit herself for her own denseness.
She turned to Cait Sith, who was sitting on her bed, rhythmically swinging its feet back and forth.
"It's Zack, isn't it?"
Cait Sith started, almost guiltily.
She frowned at the robot and said accusingly, "You knew right away, didn't you?"
"What?" Cait said, looking innocent.
She planted her fists on her hips. "It took me a while to put it together, but I finally remembered. The other guy at Nibelheim. Cloud's friend. A charming, friendly guy with dark spiky hair and the glowing eyes of a SOLDIER. He fits Cid's description perfectly."
"So he does," Cait muttered.
Tifa began pacing around the room. "That symbol with those letters. The letter 'Z' stands for Zack, right?"
"Then the 'C' obviously stands for Cloud. And the 'A'. That would be... Aeris?"
She frowned, "But the arrangement of those letters don't seem to make any sense. And what about that blank spot?"
Cait Sith looked her in the eye and without batting an artificial eyelash, lied.
"Haven't got a clue, Tifa."
[ to Nibelheim ]
Even before the sun appeared above the horizon, Cloud, Tifa, and Cait Sith were on Fenrir, headed up toward Nibelheim.
The trip was surprisingly uneventful, compared to their previous visits. Usually, the narrow winding road to Nibelheim was crawling with aggressive monsters. However, this time, there were almost none, and what few monsters they saw looked skittish and almost desperately eager to stay out their way.
They soon roared under the old familiar iron arch into the town's square. As Cloud shut down Fenrir's engine, a heavy silence settled over the area. For all extents and purposes, Nibelheim was now deserted. The actors placed there by Shinra in an effort to cover up the massacre of seven years ago were gone, having relocated to more hospitable places.
Without a word, Cloud dismounted, assembled the components of First Tsurugi, and slid it into its new sheath on his back. And yes, there was materia. For this encounter, he was not taking any chances.
Cait Sith and Tifa also made their own preparations. As Tifa adjusted her gloves, she scanned the area, doing her best to treat her hometown as just another potential battleground.
Once they were ready, they all headed up the hill toward the decaying hulk of the Shinra Mansion. The heavy gates that formerly barred the entrance now lay broken and rusting on the ground. Stepping around the mangled metal, they moved into the courtyard.
As it turned out, they didn't have to take a single step inside the building.
There, lounging on the ridgeline of the Shinra Mansion's roof, was a large, wolf-like creature with thick dark fur, just as the witnesses in Mideel had described.
It rose to its feet. But instead of snarling ferociously at the intruders, it pricked up its ears and well... -grinned- at them, tongue lolling and long bushy tail wagging enthusiastically.
"Call me crazy, but it look awfully happy to see us," Cait Sith said. "And I don't mean in a hungry sort of way."
Cloud stared at the wolf.
"....its eyes," he murmured under his breath.
"What about its eyes?" Tifa said, sounding worried. Did the creature have some sort of gaze weapon?
"They're violet. And glowing," Cait explained softly.
Even as Tifa processed this information, the wolf jumped off the top of the multi-story Shinra Mansion and landed effortlessly on the stone courtyard.
Now that it was closer, Tifa had a much better look at the creature. But while the monster was similiar in form and size to the Nibel wolves that roamed the mountains, it was the eyes that clearly distinguished it from ordinary monsters.
There was an almost human intelligence in those unexpectedly beautiful violet mako eyes.
Tifa wasn't sure what happened next. One instant, the wolf was calmly standing on the opposite end of the courtyard. The next instant, Cloud was flat on his back with the wolf sitting on him, its tail still madly wagging like a furry metronome, tick-tock tick-tock.
For a horrified second, she thought that it was tearing at Cloud's throat. She took a step, preparing to charge, when Cait Sith halted her with an outstretched paw.
No, the wolf wasn't attacking Cloud. Well, maybe it was, if frantic nuzzling, licking, and damp wolfy kisses constituted an attack.
As for Cloud, he looked both stunned and hopelessly confused, as if he couldn't decide whether he should curse or laugh.
If the situation wasn't weird enough already, it moved into the outright surreal as the wolf sat up, still on Cloud, and the outline of its body began to ripple and flow.
In the space of a mere heartbeat, wolf became man. A familiar-looking man dressed in skin-tight charcoal gray leather pants and tanktop. A man with spiky dark hair, the glowing eyes of a SOLDIER, and a dazzling smile.
He stared down at the blond underneath him and grinned with such genuine happiness that Tifa blinked as if slightly blinded.
"It's been a while, Cloud."
"You're... you're -dead-!"
"Yeah, but I got better!" Zack replied cheerfully in his best Gongaga drawl.
"It's been a while, Cloud."
Sephiroth has used those exact same words only a few weeks ago. But Zack's unmistakable sincerity, so different from Sephiroth's purr of malicious amusement, took away any urge to flinch.
"You're... you're -dead-!"
Probably not the most brilliant thing he could've said, but Zack's enthusiastic greeting in wolf-form and then in human-form had knocked Cloud's brain totally off-kilter. He had braced himself for a tense, hostile confrontation and perhaps mortal combat.
Instead, he got pounced on and... snuggled.
"Yeah, but I got better!" Zack replied cheerfully in his best Gongaga drawl.
Oh yes. No question about it. Zack was all here, both in body and spirit.
Normally, Cloud hated being sat upon, hated being held down. It brought back too many unpleasant memories, both of childhood and... other places. And with his enhanced strength, it would have been easy to heave Zack off of him. Tossing aside a few hundred pounds was nothing.
But this was Zack and that made all the difference in the world. Never mind that Cloud was dangerously vulnerable on his back, or that Zack was in the perfect position to rip his throat out or break his neck if he wanted to.
Cloud simply couldn't bring himself to shove Zack away. Not after what Zack had done for him -- talking to him, rescuing him, caring for him, loving him, saving him, -dying- for him....
If anyone had the right to hold Cloud's life in his hands or the right to take it, surely it was Zack.
But it wasn't merely a sense of indebtedness that kept Cloud from moving. Something about this situation, of feeling the heat of Zack's warm body against his, stirred memories inside Cloud -- hopelessly muddled memories of hunger and desire, of passion and excitement, of happiness and joy.
It was so achingly, tantalizingly familiar....
Gods, he had missed this -so- much.