However, I'm going to go ahead and post this part 'as-is' because if I don't, I'll keep working on it instead of doing some very necessary stuff at work. So I'm telling you guys in advance that this part will probably be substantially reworked when I get some free time. -_-
Naturally, any comments and suggestions would be deeply appreciated.
For those Zack-wibblers out there -- myself included, damn you, Squeenix! for tearing our guts out! -- I'm sorry about the lack of Zack in this part. But never fear. You'll see much more of him in the next few parts. ^_-
Go. Take it away. I'm exhausted, my brain hurts, and I've got too much damn Real Life(tm) stuff to do in the next 48 hours. x_x
Title: Contagion 4/?
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.
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 suggestion what could have happened to Aeris' body;
and many others. So many thanks, guys! ^_^
[ Nibelheim ]
Cloud took a deep breath, then said, "We need to talk to Aeris directly. Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to have enough time to return to Midgar and figure out a way to do it."
"Why? What's the big rush?" Tifa asked.
"Don't you remember what Zack said? He's headed up to the Forgotten City at this very moment to retrieve Aeris's body."
Cloud took one last look over his shoulder toward the north. Zack was still visible in the sky, a dark speck just barely to his enhanced eyesight, and moving fast -- much faster than any normal flying creature. Then again, Cloud expected nothing less. Of course Zack would be as superb at flying as he was at so many other things. Turning away, he silently walked past Tifa and Cait to retrieve his phone.
"We're going after him," Tifa said. It was a statement, not a question.
Cloud nodded shortly. But as they left the grounds of the Shinra Mansion, he finally said, "We won't beat him there. The best we can only hope for to catch up with him before he finds Aeris."
"What do you mean?" Tifa said, looking a little surprised. "If we head out right now...."
Cloud gave her a slightly sour smile. "Why do you think he picked Nibelheim for our chat, of all places? Well, aside from the obvious personal reasons, of course. He did it because it's an easy way of ensuring himself a good headstart. The roads around here are lousy, and the footpaths are worse. Even by air, getting around these mountains is no easy task. And Zack, bless his sneaky little brain, knows it perfectly well."
"But then won't Zack have problems, too? Between the winds and the monsters...."
"Zack will have no trouble making a straight line right over the Nibel range, not with the way I saw him flying. And any monsters stupid enough to mess with him are as good as dead."
As they returned to the town square where Fenrir waited, Cait asked, "Cloud, I'm curious. The way he moved... has Zack always been that fast?"
"Zack's always been in the top tier pretty much across the board for SOLDIERs. Only Sephiroth was clearly faster." Cloud paused, then turned to look down at Cait. "But to answer your question... No, he wasn't that fast back then. So yes, he's gotten much faster."
"How much of a headstart do you think he has?" Tifa said.
"Hard to say. Getting out of the mountains will take time and then we'd have to take a pretty significant detour to make any decent speed, even with Fenrir."
"Too bad the chocobos are back at the Ranch," Cait muttered.
"I know. But while the golds can certainly handle the terrain, they don't have the foot speed to keep up with Zack in flight. So even though it's a definite detour, we'll probably save both time and energy by returning to Rocket Town and flying out of there. We'll still have to take a a somewhat roundabout route. Tifa's right about the winds and monsters in this area. Any sensible pilot will want to steer clear the Nibel range."
"What about Cid and the Shera?" Tifa said.
"Good idea, but Shera said something to me about taking the opportunity to do an engine overhaul on the airship, with Cid being sick and all that," replied Cait.
"Right. Then I guess it's back to the helicopter."
"Don't worry. I'll let the flight crew know we're on the way and we should be able to leave as soon as we get back to Rocket Town," Cait said soothingly.
Cloud mounted Fenrir first. As the others clambered on, he revved the powerful engine and said, "Hang on tight. The ride down's going to be a bit rough."
And with that warning, Fenrir tore out of Nibelheim with a growling roar.
Personally, Tifa thought that 'a bit rough' was a serious understatement. And if anyone except Cloud had been at the controls of Fenrir, she would have called their journey down the steep winding mountain roads downright suicidal.
She gritted her teeth -- mainly to keep from accidentally biting her tongue -- and tightened her grip on Cloud's waist. She could feel Cait Sith doing the same around her own waist. But despite the seemingly reckless pace and shortcuts Cloud took, she was confident that he knew exactly what he was doing and that he was in perfect control of the motorcycle. Like his swords, Cloud handled the powerful machine like it was merely an extension of his own body.
No, the limiting factor on this ride wasn't Cloud or Fenrir, but rather their human passengers. Or make that 'human passenger' in the singular, given that Cait was a robot and a pretty durable one, to boot. If she hadn't been there, she was certain that the ride down from Nibelheim would've been even more hair-raising and bone-jarring.
It was in times like this, much more than in actual combat, that she fully appreciated just how strong Cloud was. It had to be hard to constantly hold himself back and forced to make allowances for the lesser strength of others. No wonder Cloud felt so lonely and isolated.
The other surviving SOLDIERs would probably understand his feelings, but she knew that Cloud never quite felt comfortable around them. She had previously thought that it was because he felt like an impostor or a cheat, that he was somehow convinced that he hadn't earned the right to stand among them. But now she realized that most likely reason Cloud avoided hanging around with the other SOLDIERs was because they reminded him too much of Zack -- Zack, who wasn't merely Cloud's best friend, but also his lover, and who had sacrificed so much so Cloud could survive.
And now Zack was back, with no explanations for his apparently miraculous resurrection and WAY too much interest in Cloud for Tifa's comfort.
She tightened her hold on Cloud's waist a bit more.
No, she didn't like the current situation. She didn't like it at all.
Then Tifa remembered the bite, and something inside her knotted in dread.
[ Rocket Town ]
Unfortunately, it looked like all of Cloud's efforts would be wasted as they approached the helipad just outside Rocket Town. Instead of a ready, waiting helicopter, they found an exposed engine and the flight crew busy at work.
Cloud parked Fenrir and approached the helicopter. Then, for no apparent reason, he stopped dead and frowned.
"What's going on?" Tifa demanded.
Wiping the grime off his hands, one of the crewmen turned to them and replied, "After you called, we started up the engine. But it suddenly crapped out on us. And when we checked, we found out...."
"...that it was no accident," Cloud interrupted. When everyone turned to stare at him, he shrugged, then said, "Zack's been here." He tipped his head slightly. "I bet he snuck back into town sometime last night for a little bit of sabotage."
"Well, that's just wonderful!" Tifa snapped irritably.
The crewman waved a hand to get their attention and said, "Um, whoever did this didn't damage anything. He only stole some parts, and we've already located replacements. Lucky for us that this happened in Rocket Town, of all places. If we'd been stuck in another small town, it could've taken days to get the parts shipped in. It'll probably take us an hour, two hours tops, to get everything back together in working order."
Cait Sith propped his paws on his hips and said in half exasperated, half admiring tones, "That clever, sneaky son-of-a-bitch!"
Cloud sighed. "Yeah, that's pretty much sums it up."
"What?" Tifa demanded, looking at them.
"The way Zack's maneuvering us along. He buys a good headstart by luring Cloud up to Nibelheim, then he sabotages the helicopter just right." When Tifa still looked a little confused, Cait said, "Don't you see? He could've easily grounded the chopper permanently if he wanted to, but he didn't. And even with an hour or two delay, we're still better off waiting for repairs and flying than traveling overland. Ergo, Zack doesn't mind us following him by air. He just doesn't want it to happen right away."
"And you're saying that Zack thought this all out?" Tifa looked a little skeptical.
Cloud gave her a steady, level stare. "Zack's not just good looks and muscles, Tifa. The outside's -nothing- compared to what's inside. Anyone who can handle Sephiroth and finagle him into doing things outside his comfort zone is definitely not lacking in either the brains or guts department."
"Finagle? Sephiroth?" Cait murmured in fascinated tones.
"Uh-huh," Cloud replied absently. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff I've seen Zack pull with the General...."
"Cloud...." Tifa paused, her voice unusually tentative. Then again, she had to know that she was approaching a very touchy subject. "Look, if you're right about all this being deliberate on Zack's part, then maybe we should really be thinking hard about why Zack wants you to follow him. Nibelheim turned out to be a trap, of sorts. Who's to say that the Forgotten City won't be the same, or perhaps worse?"
"I'm perfectly aware of that possibility, Tifa." Cloud's voice was curt, almost harsh. "And yes, I've also considered the possibility that Zack is luring me up to the Forgotten City because he needs me there for some unknown and possibly nefarious reason. How can I not, considering that whole fiasco with the Black Materia two years ago?"
But Cloud interrupted her. "But what options do I have? I can't just walk away and ignore what Zack said about Aeris -and- Jenova. Don't you understand? Zack is going to do whatever he's going to do. Sure, it probably would be nice for him if he had my support and help, but my mere absence certainly isn't going to do a damn thing to stop him. Delay him, maybe. But stop Zack? No way."
"I'm not saying you should ignore what's going on. I'm just suggesting that perhaps it would be better if you keep your distance from Zack, at least for now. Remember Aeris's warning? If there's something wrong with him.... Look, if he's so fixated on you, maybe it'll be better if someone else goes up north to investigate and find out what's going on. Vincent, or maybe even some SOLDIERs...."
"They won't be able to handle him. Not the way he is now."
"What?" Tifa said, startled.
"The Zack we met today definitely the real Zack. But he's also... more... than he was before. Faster and stronger, among other things." Cloud looked away briefly, then continued, almost reluctantly. "And while Zack can be amazingly laidback and tolerant about a lot of things, there are also certain times when he can be equally ruthless and dangerous."
"And this is one of these times, right?" Cait said, with a wry twitch of his whiskers.
"And you don't think Zack will take kindly to someone else snooping around while he goes looking for Aeris's body, much less trying to stop him from doing whatever he thinks needs to be done."
"I know he won't. I certainly wouldn't," Cloud replied bluntly.
"And that's part of the reason you don't want to send others up to the Forgotten City."
"Yeah, part of it."
Cait sighed and scratched his head. "I figured as much. This isn't the sort of situation that you can delegate." The cat turned to the flight crew. "You said that the repairs will take an hour or two?"
"That's right. Closer to an hour, barring any nasty surprises," the pilot said, leaning out a cockpit window.
"If we've got an hour to burn, then there's something I want to check out here in Rocket Town," Cloud said.
"Like what?" Tifa said curiously.
"Zack said he killed three people on his way to Nibelheim -- two in Mideel and one in Rocket Town. I want to see for myself."
"See if he was telling the truth about it?" she asked him.
"No. I know Zack's telling the truth. I just want to see which of those fucking bastards died," Cloud said in a chillingly nonchalant tone.
Tifa gave Cait a startled look, then said, "I'll go with...."
"No need. I'll be fine, Tifa."
She could have ignored the unexpectedly firm rebuff and insisted, but to Cait's relief, she didn't push the issue.
"All right. We'll meet back here in... say, an hour," she said, shrugging.
"Fine. See you then."
However, Cloud did not head directly into town as they expected. Instead, he first circled the helipad area at a deliberate pace, occasionally turning head from side to side as if scanning for something. What exactly, Tifa couldn't tell. Only after completing this circuit did Cloud head into Rocket Town itself.
"What was that all about, Cait?" Tifa asked the toy cat.
"I'm not entirely sure, but if I had to make a wild guess, I'd say he was sniffing around for Zack's scent."
"His scent!? You make him sound like some sort of wild animal," Tifa said with a slightly strained laugh.
Cait blinked at her. "Surely you've noticed by now that Cloud's senses are much more acute than a normal human's."
"Well, of course I've noticed that his eyesight and hearing are extremely good, but... well, it never occurred to me that -all- his senses were like that."
"And I bet he never mentioned anything about it to you, either."
"No, he didn't."
Tifa sounded a little frustrated, which was understandable. But Cait also noticed there was an odd tension both in her voice and posture.
"I'm betting that's how he knew about Zack's visit to Cid, as well as who was responsible for sabotaging the chopper," Cait added, even as he eyed Tifa curiously.
"So you're telling that's how he's going to find the guy Zack killed? By simply sniffing him out?"
"Hey, it beat having to check every building in the town." Cait Sith noticed Tifa's mysterious anxiety was now visible in her expression. "What's wrong?"
She said nothing for a moment as they both strolled over to the far edge of the helipad, away from the helicopter and its crew. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Tifa said, "Reeve, are you familiar with the legend of the werewolf?"
"Werewolf? Not really, other than I think it has something to do with a human who can change into a wolf. But that's about it."
She smiled tightly. "I'm surprised you know that much. The legend is pretty limited to this area. A piece of quaint local folklore concocted by eccentric and over-imaginative mountain people."
Cait snapped his fingers. "Wait, didn't Cloud say something about werewolves after Zack pounced on him?"
"Yes he did. Every kid in Nibelheim grew up listening to that story."
"Makes perfect sense then, considering we saw Zack change from a wolf and back again."
"Yes, but there's a lot more to the legend than being able to change oneself into a wolf -- stuff I think Cloud's conveniently forgotten about."
"Like what, Tifa?"
"Like the part about werewolves creating other werewolves through a bite."
Cait stared at her for a long moment, then said in a slow, careful voice, "Are you suggesting what I think you're suggesting?"
Tifa started pacing agitatedly. "Yeah, I know it sounds crazy and all that, but... just -think- about it for a moment. Don't they say that most myths have some basis in fact? I mean, Zack shows up out of nowhere and what's practically the first thing he does? He lures Cloud in, then bites him hard enough to draw blood. Now, doesn't that sound damn suspicious to you?"
As Cait continued to stare at her, Tifa hastily added, "What if whatever changed Zack into a shapeshifter is contagious? I know all about a SOLDIER's enhanced immune system and all that, but if it was strong enough to affect a SOLDIER, First Class, like Zack, then it's probably strong enough to affect Cloud, too!"
"I... suppose it's a possibility." Cait Sith held up his paw before Tifa could say anything, and added, "Okay, let's assume the worst case scenario and that you're right about all this. What do you propose to do about it?"
"Well, tell Cloud about it, of course!"
"Then what? What do you expect Cloud to do once you tell him?" And when she didn't immediately answer, Cait continued quietly, "Do you expect Cloud to turn against Zack? Are you hoping that this will be enough to drive some sort of wedge between them?"
"I wasn't...." Her eyes were wide, startled.
"Because if you are, whether you realize it or not, it's not going to work."
Cait sighed, then continued in the same quiet voice, "Tifa, I know you're worried about Cloud, worried about what you think is Cloud's uncharacteristic behavior around Zack. But you've got to remember something. Zack and Cloud suffered through five years of the worst hell imaginable together. That alone would be enough to forge an incredibly strong bond between them. Add in the fact that the two of them were deeply emotionally involved even before everything went to hell and the fact that Zack stuck by Cloud when he could've easily escaped on his own and ultimately died to protect Cloud...."
"I know all that! That's exactly the point! You heard Cloud back there. He believes that he owes Zack everything -- his life, his freedom, his very sanity. And because of that, because he feels he owes Zack so much, there's a good chance that Cloud's going to allow Zack to get away with doing practically anything."
"And that's where I think you're wrong, Tifa. Yes, Cloud might be willing to let Zack do pretty much anything to -him-. But allow Zack to run roughshod over everyone else, as you're implying? I don't think so."
"Reeve, Zack -bit- Cloud," she repeated with exaggerated patience.
"I hate to point this out, but none of us really know enough about Cloud and Zack's prior relationship to say if that's significant or not."
"Are you trying to tell me that biting someone hard enough to draw blood can be considered a 'normal' sign of love and affection?"
"Normal, maybe not. But a sign of love and affection, who knows? You'd be surprised, Tifa, at the sort of ways lovers express their feelings. My point is that the mere act of biting Cloud isn't clear evidence of hostile intent. I think Cloud's reaction, or rather the lack thereof, makes it pretty clear that he certainly doesn't think so. And even if you're right about this contagious bite thing, it still doesn't mean that Zack's trying to harm Cloud."
"So you wouldn't consider an attempt to turn a person into some sort of monster as harmful?" Tifa asked incredulously.
"It's not what I think that matters, but rather what Cloud thinks. And shapeshifting by itself hardly makes one a monster. If you haven't noticed, Vincent does it on a pretty regular basis."
Tifa has the grace to look a little stricken with embarrassment as she sank down on the edge of the helipad. "You're right. I wasn't thinking.... Sorry, I got totally caught up in...."
She took a deep breath and tried again. "I just don't want Cloud to get hurt again. You don't know what it's like to see someone you care about drown in depression, to watch helplessly as they slip away from you. What I'm trying to say is that I don't want Cloud to get his hopes up, only to have them shatter if this whole thing with Zack goes bad somehow."
Cait patted her on the knee. "I understand how you feel. But after everything Cloud's been through, I think he's learned -- perhaps too well -- not to expect miracles or 'happily ever after' endings. He knows he can't take the things Zack says or does at face value, no matter how much he may want to. He knows it and it hurts. It hurts because he still loves Zack and wants to trust him, even though common sense tells him he probably shouldn't. He doesn't need to be constantly reminded."
"What you're really saying is that if I push too hard on the subject, I could end up pushing him away."
"I'm just saying that we should keep an open mind and not jump to conclusions. Yes, I won't deny that Zack's sudden reappearance is damn suspicious. On the other hand, if he's telling us the truth about Aeris and her powers, we may finally have a way to get rid of Jenova once and for all."
They sat together in silence for a few minutes, then Tifa said, "I still want to warn him about the bite."
When Cait hesitated, she gave him a sharp look and said angrily, "He needs to know about the possibility, at least!"
Cait sighed, then said, "Fine, for all the good it's going to do. Okay, let's suppose you tell Cloud. Then what?"
"Then maybe we can do something about it."
"Do something about it, huh? You mean, run batteries of medical tests and stuff like that?"
Cait uttered a sour laugh, then said, "Are you seriously suggesting that we ask Cloud to check himself into a medical facility and allow himself to get poked and prodded by a bunch of strangers in labcoats?"
"I know Cloud doesn't like being around doctors and all that. On the other hand, I'm sure Cloud will realize that it's the logical, sensible thing to do."
"Logic and sense doesn't have anything to do with it, Tifa."
"Then what IS the problem? You don't think we can convince him?"
"Intellectually, I'm sure we could. But as for the chances of actually getting Cloud to cooperate with anything more than the most superficial medical exam? I'd say pretty much close to zero, even with the best of intentions on both sides. And as for the sort of intensive testing that the scientists would need to determine if he's infected with anything or not, forget it. It ain't going to happen."
She shook her head irritably and said, "Look, I must be missing something here. Cloud doesn't like doctors, but he's not phobic about them, either."
"It has nothing as simple as a mere phobia, Tifa. You've worked in bars where military people hang out, right? Haven't you seen some guys, particularly combat veterans, zone out or maybe even snap for no apparent reason?"
She nodded slowly. "Yeah, I've seen it a couple of times. Someone told me it was shellshock, traumatic stress, or something like that."
"The clinical term is 'post-traumatic stress disorder' or PTSD."
"And you think Cloud has it?"
"While I don't pretend to be any sort of expert, but from my personal observations? Yeah."
"You seem to know an awful lot about this PTSD stuff," Tifa commented, her eyes narrowing slightly.
"I did a little research on it." Cait Sith cocked his head. "You weren't the only one to worry about Cloud's mental state, you know."
"Sorry. I didn't mean to make it sound like I'm the only one who cares about him."
Cait waved his paw dismissively. "But back to the point. People who have experienced extreme psychological trauma can suffer from uncontrollable flashbacks and a whole slew of other issues. From what I read, the trigger doesn't have to be much. Even small things -- a phrase, an image, the wrong sort of smell -- can do it. It's bad enough when a normal guy freaks out or goes berserk, but with someone like Cloud...." Cait winced and shrugged expressively. "It can be a very, very big problem."
Tifa sat up suddenly. "Wait a minute. This doesn't sound like you're just talking about a 'what-if' scenerio here. Don't tell me that something like this has actually happened before!"
Cait hunched his shoulders and muttered, "Well... yeah, a little less than a year ago. Cloud went to see a doctor and something apparently set him off. Luckily, two other SOLDIERs were nearby, recognized the symptoms, and managed to hustle him out of the area before things got messy."
"Why didn't anyone tell me about it!?" Tifa demanded, starting to rise to her feet.
"I hate to say it, but if Cloud wanted you to know, he would've told you himself."
"Oh," Tifa muttered resignedly as she sat back down on the heliport platform. "Another of his secrets, just like his Geostigma."
She frowned suddenly and looked sharply at Cait. "Wait a minute. Cloud wouldn't have gone to see just any ordinary doctor. He would've gone to see a specialist, right? Someone in a large medical facility, a place used to dealing with SOLDIERs. Some sort of Shinra military hospital."
Cait nodded. "That's how I heard about it. No one actually got hurt, but things apparently got fairly tense for a while. I'm not sure why he went there in the first place, but it had to be pretty damn serious for him to even consider going."
Tifa looked somber. "Probably the Geostigma. That's just about the time Cloud really started pulling away from us, when he started going off by himself so much." She exhaled deeply, then said, "Now I see what you mean. If just being in that sort of clinical environment -- examination rooms, laboratories, people in labcoats, that sort of thing -- could make him lose control like that...."
"It's hardly his fault, of course. Hell, I'll still amazed that Cloud manages to cope so well on the whole. When you consider what happened to him at Nibelheim, it speaks volumes about Cloud's self-control that he doesn't attack medical and scientific personnel on sight."
Tifa laughed darkly. "Just hearing about Hojo's experiments is enough to give me the urge to do that." She sighed, then said, "So you think I shouldn't say anything about the bite."
"I don't really see what good it would do, besides making Cloud second-guess himself even more. Besides, it's all pure speculation at this point, isn't it?"
"I suppose you're right." She stared up at the clear blue sky. "And yes, maybe I am jumping a bit to conclusions. But I can't help feeling there's something strange about Zack -- something dangerous."
"He was, and I suppose technically still is, a SOLDIER, First Class. By definition, they're dangerous people."
"I don't mean 'dangerous' in a combat sense. It's the way he looked at Cloud. Possessive, almost hungry. He certainly wasn't like that when I met him that first time in Nibelheim."
Cait made a noncommittal shrug. While Tifa's observation was certainly valid, Zack wasn't the only person around here showing possessive tendencies.
They both started slightly when Tifa's PHS rang. She reached for it, only to realize that it was still in Cait's possession. After the cat hastily handed the phone over, Tifa replied, "Hello? Oh, it's you, Marlene." She exchanged a quick look at Cait, before saying, "Yes, Cloud's fine. Don't worry, I gave him your warning about Zack. Marlene, I need to know -exactly- what Aeris told in your dream...."
As Cloud moved through the outskirts of Rocket Town, he wrestled with a discomfort that felt unpleasantly like betrayal. But his friends deserved fair warning of what they would be up against if they confronted Zack. He definitely owed them that much honesty, considering all the things that he -wasn't- telling them.
The shapeshifting Zack they had encountered this morning was not only faster, but powerful than ever before. And there was a good chance that maybe -- just maybe -- Zack was now as strong as, or perhaps even stronger than Sephiroth in his pre-madness days.
Cloud knew that he should have found the prospect troubling, unsettling. The knowledge that someone else could match or even surpass Sephiroth should have sent an ominous chill down his spine. It should have, but it didn't. It felt strangely right for Zack to have that sort of strength, although for the life of him, Cloud couldn't explain why.
As for the other changes he noticed in Zack -- the wolf-form, the emotional intensity, the unmistakable wildness, and more -- they felt equally natural, almost inevitable in a strange way, as if those aspects in Zack had always been there, just dormant and waiting for just the right moment and spark to fully emerge. Not so much as alteration, but rather an evolution.
How he knew this, like so much about this new Zack, he couldn't explain. And as for trying to tell his friends, Cloud knew that he wouldn't be able to find the right words.
Shoving the matter aside for the moment, Cloud concentrated on locating Zack's third victim. He could have simply walked around the small town, alert for the subtle signs of blood and violence that would lead him to the dead body. However, there was a much more efficient way to do things. Zack had visited Cid before their arrival, so the pilot's house was the obvious starting place to pick up trail. As Cloud took a left turn down a side road that ran near the rear of Cid's house, he reminded himself to ask Reeve for pictures of the other two bodies from Mideel. Not because he doubted Zack's words, but as he told Cait and Tifa, he wanted to see their faces.
Sure enough, almost as soon as he stepped onto the quiet back street, he picked up traces of Zack's presence. As he followed the trail toward Cid's house, he couldn't help wondering whether the recent encounter with Zack has somehow sensitized his sense of smell to Zack's unique scent. He certainly didn't have any problems distinguishing it from the myriad of other odors that permeated any human community.
As he approached the back side of Cid's home, the bedroom window suddenly swung open and Cid, still in his pajamas, leaned out the window with a steaming mug in hand.
The pilot propped an elbow on the windowsill and said, "You're back in one piece, unscuffed and unscratched, so I assume that the meeting went okay?"
"And I assume dark-and-spiky's got a fucking name, right?"
"Zack. Zack Fair."
"Zack, huh? Wasn't he that SOLDIER buddy of yours during that whole Nibelheim mess? The guy whose identity you kinda 'borrowed' when your head was still scrambled?"
"Yes. That's him," Cloud said with a wry grin.
Cid looked thoughtful, then said, "If I recall correctly, didn't he die before before you showed up in Midgar?"
"Yes, he did."
"He certainly didn't look dead to me last night," Cid observed casually.
"He said that he got better." And Cloud couldn't keep the affectionate exasperation out of his voice.
Cid lifted an eyebrow, then scowled down at him. "Shit, has this guy Zack -always- been that much of a dork?"
Caught in mid-swig, the pilot choked on his tea, then uttered a loud bark of laughter.
Cloud grinned back. He couldn't help it. With a helpless shrug, he said, "What can I say? That's just the way he is. Zack once told me that when he was new in SOLDIER, some of the senior guys insisted on calling him 'the puppy'."
Cid snorted again. "Oh yeah, I totally can see that. And it doesn't seem like he's entirely grown out of it." He took another swig of scalding hot tea, then said in the same casual tone he had used early, "Well, no matter how much of a flamin' ditz he might be at times, I'm willing to bet Zack can rip ass like nobody's business when he puts his mind to it."
Cloud's smile evaporated. In a somber voice, he said, "He was a SOLDIER, First Class. One of the very best."
Cloud looked around at the small back yard and absently wondered who did the gardening. Probably a concerned neighbor, because he couldn't quite picture Cid puttering around in the dirt with trowel in hand. Aeris, on the other hand, could do it for hours....
....Zack sprawled on his back amid the flowers, happily dozing in the shaft of sunlight that somehow managed to make its way through the upper Plate as Aeris separated a clump of dirt-encrusted plant bulbs, then replanted them.... another time, she might have flicked a clump of soil at Zack to tease him, but not this time.... even SOLDIERs needed their rest....
"You sound like you're happy to see him again."
Cid's voice jerked him from that old-new memory.
"....yeah, I am." Cloud hesitated. Happy? That was a gross understatement. With Zack's reappearance, it was as if the huge weight that had been pressing down on his entire being had suddenly vanished, leaving him with an immense feeling of... relief? No, not merely relief. More like a sense of profound liberation unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Zack's mere presence somehow made the impossible seem so very possible. The chance to once again be with the people he loved and thought forever lost was intoxicating....
....and dangerous, Cloud sternly reminded himself.
With a sharp shake of his head, Cloud said, "But I can't help wondering why Zack came back. He should be peacefully resting in the Lifestream with Aeris."
Cid raised an eyebrow. "With Aeris?"
Cloud shrugged a shoulder. "Don't ask me how I know. I just do."
"Hey, I've got no problem with that. Like we haven't all seen much weirder shit."
"The main point is that instead of being in the Lifestream, he's here and I don't know why! Why did he leave? How did he even -do- it without her help?"
"Whoa, whoa. I don't quite follow."
"It's sort of complicated, but basically, this is what happened. Zack died but instead of simply dissipating into the Lifestream, he somehow retained his identity, probably with Aeris's help. Something brought him back, and I don't think it was Aeris!"
"Why not? Maybe she's trying to help you?"
"Because Aeris just sent me a message about Zack, warning me to be careful because there's something -wrong- with him."
Cid exhaled slowly. "Okay, I can see how that would look pretty damn suspicious."
"Suspicious?" Cloud laughed hollowly. "Yes, you could put it that way."
"And what's Zack's side of the story?"
Cloud shrugged. "He really didn't say much of anything. Only that he knew that his actions upset Aeris, but also that he had a good reason for it."
"And what do YOU think?"
"At this point, I don't know what to think."
Cid jabbed a finger at him and said bluntly, "Bullshit. What do your -guts- tell you about this situation, and about Zack?"
The answer to that question was effortless and almost too easy. "That this Zack is the real Zack. And that he only wants what he's always wanted -- the best for the ones he loves."
"And you're one of those special people, huh?"
Cloud silently nodded.
"Well, that wasn't so hard, was it?"
"Not more of this 'but' and 'what if' birdcrap! I swear, between you and Vincent both, I've never seen two guys more prone to overthinking stuff!" Cid massaged the bridge of his nose with his free hand, then said, "Yeah, relying on common sense and caution are all well and good, but instinct has got its place, too. Do you know what one of your big problems is?"
"No, but I'm sure you're going to tell me."
"Damn right I'm going to tell you, because it looks like no one else will." Cid raked his hand through his hair, exhaled, and said firmly, "Look, what I'm basically trying to say is that you gotta stop being so fucking scared of yourself!"
"Scared of myself?" Cloud blurted in surprise.
"Uh-huh. You're afraid to dream, afraid to want things for yourself." Cid smiled sourly. "Vincent's the same way. Once burned, twice shy, and all that crap."
Cloud said nothing for a while, turning Cid's words over in his head. Finally he quietly asked, "And what if I don't know what I really want?"
The pilot gave him a sardonic grin. "You know what you want. You're just scared to admit it."
"And what if the things I want endanger others?"
"Well, then you need to decide what's most important to you," Cid said simply. "And act accordingly."
"Easier said than done."
"Actually, once you decide on your priorities, it's not so hard."
Cloud glanced up at Cid, wonderingly. In some ways, it seemed arrogant and selfish to put one's own needs and desires above the welfare of everyone else. But at the same time, Cloud understood exactly what Cid was saying, because he had done the very same thing once before. Years ago, before the events of Nibelheim, he had decided on what -- or rather who -- would be the most important to him.
Zack, Aeris, and the beloved third one that he could not remember.
Cid was also right about things becoming easier once that choice was made, because compared to those three, everything and everyone else had become secondary. And despite all the pain and misery that followed, Cloud found that he didn't regret the decision his younger self had made at all. The love they had shared -- and which he was only now remembering -- had been totally worth it.
What would he do to regain even a portion of that feeling again? After everything that had happened, all his failures, did he even have the -right- to even think of such a thing?
But almost as if he had heard that last unspoken question, Cid put his mug down and again jabbed his finger at Cloud.
"Suffering through shit in order to protect what's important to you, that's one thing. But doing it just because guilt or because you feel you don't deserve any better, now that's just a big load of behemoth crap."
Cid finished his tea with a slurp and got up from the windowsill. "Think about it, huh?"
"So if I really want something, go for it and screw the consequences?" Cloud said, rather sarcastically.
"As long as you can live with them, why not? Just remember this -- you can't babysit everyone. Sometimes, you've gotta let others take care of themselves."
"Is this what you've been telling Vincent?"
"Yeah, more or less. Him and Shera both."
"And how did they take it?"
Cid snorted. "Shera caught on quick," he said, ruefully rubbing the side of his head. "Now Vincent's way more stubborn. Then again, he's had a lot time to get use to brooding and wallowing. It took a while, but I think it's finally sinking in," Cid said with a smug grin. "Although he's still got the annoying tendency to backslide at times. I swear, it can be a hell of a grind pounding sense into a guy like that."
Cloud cocked his head slightly. "Then why do you keep trying?"
"Because he's worth it. And because I'm a stubborn bastard who hates to give up on what I want." Cid chuckled. "You know, I was sorta annoyed at the way this Zack guy popped up in my house without an invitation, but if he's chasing after you, I'm starting to feel a bit sorry for him."
"Don't be," Cloud muttered. "I'm the one who might need the sympathy. Zack is...." He shook his head ruefully.
"That bad, huh? You know, I'm really starting to like this guy more and more."
"I wouldn't be surprised. You two actually have a lot in common." And when Cid raised an skeptical eyebrow, Cloud continued, "No, I'm not talking about personalities. Good thing, too. I don't think the Planet could stand having more than one Zack bouncing around. I was referring to persistence and sincerity, two qualities that form a formidable and sometimes scary combination, and which that the both of you have an extraordinary amount of."
Cid shook his head and gruffly said, "Get your ass outta here and let me get back to sleep."
"By the way, Cid. Did Zack mention anything else besides that message about Nibelheim? Did he ask about anything or anyone?"
Halfway back to his bed, Cid paused and turned back around. "Now that you mention it, yeah, he did. Something about a guy living in a green and yellow cottage at the east end of town."
Cid waved a dismissive hand and sauntered out of sight, presumably in pursuit of a fresh batch of tea.
Cloud had only moved several houses down the road when he abruptly stopped. Something had been nagging at him ever since Cid had showed up at the window, but it had taken him this long to pinpoint what it was.
Cid's scent had subtly changed. And just like in Zack's situation, it was a matter of intensity and depth, rather than any radical alteration in nature.
And it wasn't just Cid, either. Although Vincent had been absent during their discussion, the gunman's scent permeated Cid's bedroom. It too had developed that inexplicable added complexity, although the change was even more subtle than with Cid.
No, that wasn't entirely correct, either. Vincent's dark scent had always had more depth and dimension than most people's. Cloud had simply not really noticed it before.
Cloud again wondered if contact with Zack had somehow enhanced his sense of smell, allowing him to pick up things he had previously missed. And now that he was thinking about the subject, there was yet another odor-related anomaly that had been subconsciously bothering him ever since he, Tifa, and Cait had left Nibelheim.
Tifa had smelt somehow... off. Not in an obviously offensive sort of way, but her scent had seemed almost annoyingly... shallow?
[ Northern Continent ]
In his winged wolf form, Zack hovered in mid-air as flaming chunks of monster tumbled toward the sea far below. The creature -- some sort of bizarre hybrid creature that reeked of Jenova -- never saw what hit it, which was exactly the way he wanted it. The less the bitch knew of his movements, the better.
Resuming his flight northward, Zack once again briefly thought about the radical increase in his strength, to say nothing of the array of other new and/or enhanced abilities he had awoken with. But while he was perfectly aware of how unusual and perhaps even freakish those abilities might be, he didn't worry too much about them. He would gladly use anything he had -- weird powers included -- as long as they enabled him to protect Cloud, Aeris, and Sephiroth.
Sighting the coastline, he tucked his wings and began an easy swoop toward the edge of the Sleeping Forest. As soon as his paws touched dirt, the wings melted back into his body and he set off at an easy, ground-devouring lope. He could have easily flown directly to the City of the Ancients, but traveling by foot made it easier to detect the presence of enemies, human or otherwise.
Zack's nose soon picked up a faint, but unmistakable scent trail -- Cloud and his motorcycle Fenrir. And yes, there also was a trio of almost-familiar scents. But the scents, rather like the Clones themselves, were merely flawed imitations of the real Sephiroth.
As he ran, Zack didn't detect any signs of Jenova-tainted monsters, either old or recent. Unfortunately, only a search of the Forgotten City's lake would determine if the absence of Jenova's minions was either a lucky break or the sign of a serious complication. As for the natural wildlife in the area, they wisely stayed well clear of his path as he silently raced through the pale white trees.
Following Cloud and the Clones' trail, he passed by the wreckage of their fierce battle. Here, Zack caught the faded trace of Vincent Valentine's dark broody scent and grinned. It complimented Cid's crisp, tart scent perfectly. They would definitely make quite the mated pair.
Upon reaching his destination, Zack padded to the edge of the lake and peered downward into its crystalline depths as he thought about how to proceed. His wolf-form, while great on land, wasn't exactly suited for extensive aquatic exploration. But as soon as he dipped his paw into the water, it changed, flattening out in shape, even as the fur covering it turning dense, short, and sleek.
He laughed and took the plunge, diving headfirst into the cool water. A few seconds later, he resurfaced with a splash in a new streamlined form that reminded him of the sea lions he had once seen along the rocky shores north of Junon.
"Hey, cool deal!" he chortled, rolling onto his back to admire his new flippers. Then, with a lithe twist, he went under deep into the cool clear water to search for Aeris.
[ Healin Lodge ]
Reno took one look at the empty bed, then at the open glass door to the balcony, and swore eloquently. After one final glance around the bedroom for any meaningful clues, he stepped out onto the balcony. Something on the railing caught his attention, and a quick peek over the edge only seemed to confirm his suspicions.
"Rufus is gone," Reno said curtly to Tseng as he stalked into the parlor that had become the Turks's unofficial ready room.
Tseng immediately rose to his feet and said, "What do you mean?"
"Gone, as in not in his damn bed. And yeah, I checked the bathroom and everywhere I can think of. He's not here in the Lodge."
"That's the weird thing. I'm not sure. The balcony door was open, but the room wasn't disturbed in any way as far as I can tell. Even if the boss was sick, you'd think that he'd be able to put up some sort of fight. If I didn't know better, I'd say that he just got up to take a leak. And then there's the marks I found."
"Go on," Tseng said curtly.
"A bare footprint and a handprint in the dew on the railing, as if someone scrambled over the edge. Leaving the Lodge, not entering. And there's a area of crushed grass just below the balcony where someone would land and footprints leading away into the woods. Trouble is that there's only a single set of footprints spaced close together."
"Meaning that the person who made them was not running."
"Yeah. And they're not moving straight, but kinda weavy, like the walker wasn't sure where he was going."
Tseng frowned. "And that's why you think Rufus may have wandered off by himself?"
"Well, he's been running a pretty nasty fever. Maybe he suddenly got delirious," Reno said. "I know the doctor claims that the boss merely caught the same damn virus that everyone else has been getting, but something's been...." The Turk stopped and made a frustrated shrug.
"Reno, you follow those tracks while they're still fresh. I'll contact Rude, Vandal, and the others. We need to find Rufus as quickly as possible. Although we've secured the Lodge grounds, there are still wild animals roaming around the general area. If Rufus is wandering around in a confused state of mind, he'll be easy prey for a hungry predator, to say nothing about the environmental hazards."
"Yeah, the Turks will never live it down if we allowed our boss to walk off a damn cliff or something."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm on it."
A few minutes later, Reno found himself jogging on one of the paths leading away from Healin Lodge. He was a city guy and definitely no expert at wilderness tracking, but the clearly visible bare footprints in the dirt told him that he was still on Rufus's trail. Interestingly, despite repeatedly meandering on and off the unpaved path, Rufus had still managed to cover a surprising amount of ground since Reno had last seen him earlier that morning. Good thing that Rufus had decided to conduct his little walkabout during the day and not at night.
And where the fuck did Rufus think he was going?
Finally, Reno caught a glimpse of a familiar blond-haired figure dressed in white pajamas standing several hundred yards away through the trees. The Turk redoubled his pace, only slowing down as he approached Rufus. He was relieved to see that the former president was apparently unharmed.
"Yo, boss, where the hell do you think you're going?", he drawled, reaching for Rufus's arm. To his relief, Rufus didn't try to pull away. However, the other man didn't reply to his question, either.
He tried again and got a similar lack of response. Growing increasingly uneasy, Reno finally gave up on the questions. Stepping in front of Rufus, he grabbed the other man's shoulders and gave him a good shake.
Rufus's fever-bright eyes flicked briefly in Reno's direction, then returned to scanning the wood around them. For what, Reno didn't have a clue. What had previously been mere irritation and worry was now quickly transforming into serious anxiety, and although Reno hated to admit it, perhaps even a touch of fear. Rufus's behavior didn't look like any sort of feverish delirium he had ever seen, and it wasn't as if Rufus was sleep-walking, either.
"C'mon, boss, you've had enough exercise for today. Time to get back to bed and get some rest," Reno said briskly. Screw the polite approach and trying to coax Rufus back to the Lodge. The Turk immediately bent down and heaved Rufus over his right shoulder so he could head back to the Lodge as quickly as he could. At the same time, Reno pulled out his phone and called Tseng.
"Not so good. Physically, he looks okay."
"Physically." There was a brief pause on Tseng's end. "And mentally?"
"He's really, really out of it. Ordinary stomach bug, my ass! Get that fucking quack of a doctor back here ASAP!"
"Where are you?"
"North of the Lodge, about a mile or so. I'm heading back right now."
"Tasha and Mac will meet you halfway."
During the entire conversation, Rufus had not objected to being so rudely manhandled, which only added to Reno's concern about the other's condition.
But Reno had barely taken a few steps down the path when he heard a low snarling growl behind him. It might not have been a particularly loud sound, but the sheer viciousness and hostility in it more than made up for any mere lack of volume.
Okay, he did -not- need this, not when he had a whacked out Rufus slung over his shoulder like a fuckin' sack of potatoes. Readying his shockstick and tightening his grip on Rufus's legs, he spun around, expecting to see something toothy and hungry.
But there was nothing behind him. No animal, no monster. And still the low growl continued unabated behind his back, only worse. Not louder, but its tone had shifted in a way that made the hairs on Reno's neck stand on end. There was no mistaking the hatred and loathing in that growl, and Reno knew that the current situation had just escalated into a whole new level of 'oh shit'. Whatever was making that noise was no dumb animal looking for a quick bite to eat.It wanted -blood-.
He whirled around again. And still saw nothing.
It was the subtle vibration against his right shoulder and arm that finally told Reno where that growl was coming from. And for once, Reno could not think of a suitable expletive or curse.
The chilling, ominous growl was coming from none other than Rufus Shinra himself.