[fic] Harrow Children: Part the First [4/4]

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--

"What do you mean, you told someone?!" Denzel yelped, his jaw dropping.

"I just told this one girl, Aiela," Jax said, frowning. "She...she was...well, you know her brother's dying, right? And she's getting worse. So I told her that somebody was making you better."

He knew that Zack was going to yell at him, and Tifa too, and maybe Cloud, but Denzel just didn't care right then. His fist came flying out and he punched Jax, hard, in the stomach. If it got out that Cloud could make the Geostigma a little better, everyone would start trying to find him, and Cloud'd try, and then he'd get sicker and sicker and maybe he'd--

Denzel's Geostigma flared suddenly, just enough to hurt, an it was all too much. Denzel bared his teeth, and threw another punch.

--

He was all alone.

His entire family was dead, and he was wandering and
alone. Tired, hungry, and alone. He sat down, his head throbbing slightly and feeling oddly damp--when he wiped at his forehead, there was a disgusting, dirty fluid that smelled faintly of ashes, and he stared at his hand, wondering when he'd gotten so dirty. He looked up, and saw a miracle.

In the midst of the destruction, there was a single building left standing--a broken down church. Everything else had been utterly destroyed, but it looked like it had only been abandoned. He wandered over to it, hoping there might be something inside he could take, and noticed a motorcycle. It was sleek and shiny and expensive, and two thoughts flared up--he wanted to touch it, and he wanted to see if there was something he could filch to sell off. He hadn't eaten in three days, and if there was something there, maybe--

The PHS dangling from where it had gotten caught by its strap made his eyes light up--it was small, it was
new, and it would be super easy to sell. He made sure no one was around, and grabbed it.

He hadn't known what whim it had been, that made not take it and run but stand there and call his home phone number. He'd called, he'd known it was stupid, that there was no chance, but he'd just hoped, just had this stupid hope, that his mother would answer and he could go
home.

Instead, all there was was a recorded voice saying, "We're sorry, all Sector Seven numbers are unavailable."

"We're sorry, all Sector Seven numbers are unavailable.

"We're sorry, all Sector Seven numbers are unavailable.

"We're sorry, all Sector Seven numbers are unavailable.

"We're sorry, all Sector Seven numbers are unavailable."

His head dropped and he hung up with a tired sigh. They were never coming back.

Everything was
gone. They were gone. His mother would never pick up the phone, his father would never put his arm around his shoulders, and he--they were gone. The stupid phone would never connect, never.

He raised the PHS and was about to slam it to the ground, but couldn't bring himself to do it. It wasn't the phone's fault he was alone. He slowly lowered his arm, and noticed a message on the screen--"1 Missed call"--and stared at it, then flipped through the call history screen.

Every call was the same number: 7th Heaven, and only a few days between each call.

Someone had been trying to reach someone. Somebody out there was still
alive.

Someone out there still cared about someone.

So he'd dialed that number just to...well, he didn't quite know what. To hear another voice, maybe. To know that he wasn't alone out here.

It rang twice before someone picked up, and he panicked and hung up.

The phone rang immediately, and he panicked.

Whoever it was on the other end, they weren't going to be asking for him, and now he had a ringing phone in his hands, and no idea what to do.

Other than, well, to answer it.

At least this way, he'd know someone else was there.

"Cloud?" a woman said on the other end, and her voice sounded so
nice. There was a faint smile in her voice at the next words. "This is a nice surprise! You almost never call! Are you OK?"

He had no idea what to say.

"Cloud?"

"No, it's not him."

"Who are you?" the woman asked, starting to sound concerned. "That's Cloud's PHS, right?"

"I don't know," he said, his throat getting tight. This was another person who didn't know him, didn't want him, was looking for someone else, and all of a sudden everything hit him at once, that there was no one left to care about him the way she did 'Cloud'.

"Who are you?" she asked again, and all he could say was "I don't know." He didn't know, he didn't know anything any more, and his mind was in a panic. A tear fell down his face, and then more and more, and the words started spilling out. He was tired of being
alone, of being scared, and he wanted someone to tell him what to do, someone to make it all better again. "I don't know what to do!"

"Are you crying?" the woman said, and her voice was so
gentle, like she cared, and all he could do was cry harder, wiping at his eyes with a dirty hand.

That was when everything went
wrong. When it felt like the world was spinning, and his hearing was full of strange noises, and it hurt. He let out a pained cry, clutching at his head and dropping the PHS. It hurt, it hurt more than anything ever had, more than he thought anything could, and his legs buckled out from under him.

"What's wrong? Are you OK?!" the woman on the other end cried out, but everything hurt too much, his head hurt, his head was pounding, throbbing, like it was trying to rip itself apart--

"Cloud! Cloud! Are you there?!" the woman yelled, and he stared at his hand, covered in that brownish black stuff from before, the color of drying blood, only now there was so much it covered his whole hand, and more was dripping down his face and splashing on the ground, like he was bleeding, only it wasn't
blood, couldn't be blood, blood wasn't that color when you were bleeding, it was wrong it was--

The world began to spin and go white, and then black.

--

"Ow! You stupid--!" Jax yelled, and then they were fighting, full on fighting, before another little boy ran up.

"You two dummies quit it!" he yelled. "I got news! There's a guy who says he can fix it! He can fix the 'Stigma!"

Denzel and Jax stopped fighting almost instantly, Jax bouncing as Denzel went cold.

"C'mooooon, we have to go!" Tyler said, grabbing both of them by an arm. Before he leaves."

Denzel allowed himself to be dragged along, having a horrible feeling that whenever they got where they were going, Cloud would be there.

It wasn't Cloud.

There was instead a truck, full of children with bandages dirtied with Geostigma, and one man with long, grey-hair who seemed to be in charge. Denzel had never seen him before.

"C'mon," Tyler said, giving Denzel a look before running over to the truck.

Denzel stood there, staring at the truck. He had no idea who they guy was or where he was taking them, but...but he had this image, of Cloud so pale he looked like a ghost, big, huge bags under his eyes like bruises and the Geostigma weeping from his arm. Cloud had tried so hard to fix him, and it was making Cloud worse, and if this guy could cure the 'Stigma, then he'd never have to ever see Cloud like that again.

He set his jaw and headed towards the truck.

--

When Zack came to, he got on the bike and said a prayer of thanks to Carbuncle that the thing just looked a little scratched and banged up, and headed straight for home as quickly as he could, pushing the last jitteriness of the Geostigma attack away and not bothering to call en route because all of this needed to be done face to face and he just wanted to go home. By now, he figured, Cloud had to have gotten Zack's bike in decent shape and was already home or could be called to get there quickly--he needed to talk to both Cloud and Tifa so they could figure out what to do, because this was bigger than he'd been afraid it was.

"How'd it go?" Tifa asked him as soon as he walked in.

He sat down heavily in a chair. "That," he said, thudding his head against a table, "went about as well as anything involving anyone from ShinRa ever will."

He didn't mention the Geostigma attack--they all knew how bad it was, the last thing he needed just then was to add one more problem to the pile, and bandages could be changed later.

"That well, huh?" Tifa asked, unwrapping the plate of food from before and setting it to reheat. "And you should eat something. You look like you need it."

"...Tifa, you are the best thing ever. Marry me and take me away from all this," he said, giving her a grateful look.

She rolled her eyes, but was smiling. "You spoke to your mother recently, didn't you?"

He groaned. "Don't remind me. She refuses to give up. You want to know why my last phone bill was so high..." He groaned again. "She's never, ever going to shut up, is she?"

"She's making up for lost time, Zack, so not until you're married with kids, no," she said with a chuckle. "And don't even look at me," she said, giving him a look.

"We've already got the kids!" he said, grinning. "Halfway to no more nagging mother! C'mon, don't you want to help lower my phone bill and save my sanity?"

"What sanity?" she said, chuckling. "When did you ever have that?"

"OK, fine, save my poor wallet! Phone bill! You saw that last phone bill!"

"Eat your food, Zack," she said, laughing and shaking her head, and Zack deflated.

"Mom's right, I'm never getting married," he said, shoulders slumping dejectedly. He perked up suddenly. "Hey, I know! Maybe I'll just ask Cloud, I'm sure he'd say yes..."

Tifa dropped the plate in front of him with a bit more force than was necessary and the smile she had had too many teeth for a split second. "Cloud would make a terrible wife. He tracks dirt in all over everything worse than you do and he would burn water, remember? You'd never have a decent meal ever again for the rest of your life."

"Shit, you're right. I'm never getting married!" he wailed and buried his face in his hands. "My mother will never stop nagging me, ever!"

"There, there," she said, patting his head. "Eat your dinner before it gets cold."

"Yes'm," he said, mock-dejectedly, and then couldn't keep a straight face any longer and grinned. "You sure you don't wanna marry me?"

"...Eat or else I take your food away from you."

"Yes'm," he said and started eating, because with Tifa, you never quite knew when she was serious with her threats, but a good bet was that she was, because she tended not to make idle ones.

"Hey, speaking of Cloud, where is he?" Zack said when he'd gotten about halfway through. "Please tell me he's on his way here."

"He went back to the church," Tifa said, but she had gotten that mouth-tightening look, and Zack could guess that things here had gone about as well as they had with him and Cloud earlier.

"You wanna call him and tell him to come back here? I need to talk to both of you about what happened in Healin," he said, putting his fork down and getting serious. He realized belatedly he should have told her that before, but he was tired, hungry, and still feeling scrambled from the Geostigma attack. Sitting down and getting some food in him--and getting a distraction by talking about something not this mess had helped a lot and now he felt like he could get down to business.

"Right," she said, nodding. "He should be coming back soon, since Marlene went with him, but..."

"Call him anyway," Zack said, nodding.

"Gotcha."

"And hey, where's Denzel?" Zack said, realizing how quiet the place was.

Tifa sighed. "Hiding from Cloud, I think. His Geostigma is getting worse."

Zack rubbed his face tiredly. Denzel couldn't hide his Geostigma, so when it started getting bad, he tended to try and hide himself to keep from accidentally setting off Cloud trying to kill himself looking for a way to heal the kid. "When he gets back, we've got to put a stop to that. Especially now. I don't want him or Marlene wandering around unsupervised. Did Cloud tell you I got attacked on the way home before?"

She nodded. "And that you thought they were clones of Sephiroth."

"I'm pretty fucking sure they are," he said, his hand tightening around his fork so hard that it bent. "I don't know how much those three Sephiroth copies know about us, but they know enough that it's dangerous."

"You don't think--" she began.

"I don't know," Zack interrupted, before she could even finish. "All I know is Sephiroth copies, 'Mother', something about the Northern Crater, and Rufus Shinra is alive and lied to my face about all of it."

"Freya bless," Tifa whispered, looking stunned.

"Yeah," Zack said, since that summed up the whole situation pretty well, and he tried to straighten out the fork. "So call Cloud, and get him here quick."

She nodded and headed up the stairs. Zack hurriedly finished eating, and had just starting washing his dishes because he had to do something that wasn't sitting there like a lump when Tifa came back down.

"No answer," she said, coming back behind the counter and leaning against it.

"Figures," Zack said, and pulled out his PHS. He dialed Cloud's number quickly and tucked the phone under his ear as he washed. The phone rang and kept on ringing before he was finally bumped over to voice mail. "Yo, Cloud. Answer your phone!" he yelled as a message, then redialed.

"Aaaaaand he's not picking up," Zack said, making a face and hanging up when he went to voice mail for the third time.

"That's Cloud for you," Tifa said, sighing. "You'd think he had no idea what a PHS was, let alone how to use it."

"One of these days," Zack said, shaking his head, "I am going to sit Cloud down--sit on him if I have to--and tell him that when the phone rings he needs to answer it. And if there's a message, he needs to call back."

"And we should revoke his silent-mode privileges," Tifa said, nodding. "That way he can't ignore the phone and say he didn't notice it."

"And put on the loudest, most obnoxious ring tone the phone company ever came up with, and turn on the 'kiddie lock' so he can't change it," Zack said, warming up to everything they could do to make Cloud start answering his phone.

"I'm thinking maybe the Iraira-man theme song," Tifa said, her eye almost twitching at the very thought of the theme song to the single most ridiculous TV show she'd ever seen and that Marlene was positively addicted to, an addiction Zack didn't help by watching it with her every Saturday morning, the two of them singing the theme song at the top of their lungs, doing the stupid poses and everything. At six AM. Cloud hated it as much as she did, if not more, and had threatened more than once to dig out a Thundaga and blast the television into the Lifestream.

"Oh, that'd be perfect. There's no way he can ignore that. He'd have to answer the phone just to make it stop ringing. I think we've got a plan," Zack said conspiratorially, holding his fist out.

"Agreed," she said, making a fist and lightly bumping his, giving him a grin in return. She sighed suddenly, as if reality had just come back. "Do you want me to go out and look for Denzel while we wait for a miracle to happen and Cloud to finally answer his phone or call back?"

Zack frowned. "We need to get that kid a PHS, too."

"So then we can have two people in the house who never answer?" Tifa said, shaking her head. "At least if Denzel doesn't have one, we can tell ourselves that he's off somewhere and he doesn't know we want to talk to him, not that he's off somewhere avoiding everyone and brooding."

"The two of them are peas in a pod," Zack said, putting his face in his hands. "I am so not surprised they found each other. The Brood Vortex or something. Anyway," he said, trying to get his train of thought back on the rails. "About Denzel," he started, when the door to the bar flew open.

"Yoo-hoo, anybody hooooome?"

"Oh, gods," Zack said, putting his face in his hands. He really didn't need this right now. "It never ends."

--

"Hey--!"

When he started to open his eyes, his breath fast and heart still racing, he saw a man running over to him, then kneeling down and stretching out a hand. "You OK?"

Everything went black again, but when he woke up this time, he was being carried--strong hands had him under his arms and he was being carried at arms length, almost gingerly. It hurt to open his eyes, it hurt to move, and he was tired. And it hurt so much. His hands were shaking, everything was shaking, and the pain just wouldn't stop. He let out a faint, pained sound, and the man froze halfway through setting him on the bike. The man sighed softly, then set him down on the bike. He wasn't there long, though--the man used the bike to settle him, then picked him up again, this time cradling him, in a way he could only just remember, the way his mother had when he was still little enough to, and he gave up trying to hold his head up and dropped it against the man's chest, and let himself shake.

The man seemed to startle slightly, tensing up, but it was only for a moment.

And then they were moving, the man's gait quick but somehow not jarring, as if he was trying to move as smoothly as possible. "Inside," he said, and it was the voice from before, asking him if he was OK. He didn't react, just closed his eyes and let the man take him where he would, just wanting someone to make it a little better, to tell him what to do and make things OK.

He let himself be carried into the church, and the blond man kept him in his arms even after they got inside and he sat down on the floor.

He could smell something, something sweet and faint and not like anything he had ever smelled before, something almost like perfume.

The man's hand covered his, stilling the shaking, and Denzel let himself drift, knowing that, at least for now, he wasn't
alone.

--

"Aww, now what kinda greeting is that?" Reno said with a mock pout.

"What do you want now?" Zack said with a groan, face still buried in his hands.

"I just came to have a couple words. See if I could persuade you a little," Reno said, sitting down at the counter as if he did it every day, and grinning. "I got some info for ya."

Zack sighed, feeling a headache coming on. "Info. Right. Are you going to tell me something useful this time? If not, just leave," Zack said, narrowing his eyes. Tifa had gone on guard, her arms crossing as she gave them a cold look Zack was mighty proud of. She didn't even completely know what had happened at Healin, but she knew enough to have his back, and he appreciated that.

"The Forgotten City, yo," Reno said, a maniac little smile on his face. "That's where the three of 'em got their base."

"The clones?" Tifa asked, raising her eyebrows and tilting her head slightly, and Reno nodded.

"Almost got it. But they ain't--" Reno began, and Zack cut him off.

"'Clones'? Figures," Zack said, rolling his eyes. He got as far as opening his mouth to ask Reno what besides that steak sauce for Zack to make bandersnatch bait of himself that Reno had for him when Marlene burst into the bar. She looked around, a huge bruise on her temple, and bee-lined past all of them straight for Tifa, who had taken one look at Marlene and had gone over the counter to get to her, her foot almost stomping on Reno's hand and as she went, his hand saved only by Reno snatching it out of the way with a sharp, "Hey, watch it, yo! I need that hand!"

They all ignored him, and Marlene burst into tears as soon as she saw Tifa, calling out Tifa's name in a long wail, and Zack just got out of both of their ways.

"Well, looks like you got your own problems right now," Reno said, standing up and looking at the crying child nervously. "Look, I got a lot of stuff to tell you, all right? I'm bein' straight here. We need your help, an' you know I wouldn't be here otherwise." He pulled out a card with a number on it. "Call, yo. When you don't got the cryin' kid thing happenin'."

"Fine, whatever," Zack said, taking the card.

"Serious, yo," Reno said softly, and Zack frowned at how serious the man had gotten. "Those three, they're real damn dangerous. It's kinda worse than you think, maybe."

"I'll call you," Zack said, nodding, because Reno was serious, and if he'd had his baton in hand Zack was damned sure it'd be tapping up and down, sure as a metronome.

Reno frowned for a second over at Marlene, who was beginning to say something incoherently to Tifa that Zack couldn't make out at all, then Reno shook his head with a faint curse that Zack hadn't heard since Wutai, and headed out.

--

Denzel raised his head from his arms and looked up, stared at the everything going past as the truck sped through the desert outside Midgar. He wondered, for a moment, who it was that was going to heal them.

...It didn't matter, really, he thought, and buried his face back in his arms. All that mattered was someone would heal him, and then he could save Cloud this time.

--

"Marlene, sweetheart, you've got to calm down," Tifa said, on one knee to be level with Marlene and trying to calm the girl. "I can't understand what you're saying if you don't."

"The--the big scary man--he, he--And then he did something and then Cloud fell and then he took Cloud away!"

Zack felt the blood draining out of his face. He had no idea what Marlene had said before that point, but 'big scary man' and 'took Cloud away', those weren't things that gave him the warm fuzzies. In fact, they kind of gave him the cold icies.

"What?" Tifa said. "Who took Cloud?"

"The big scary man!" Marlene said, fresh tears running down her face.

"Marlene, what did the big scary man look like?" Zack said, coming over and dropping down to Marlene's height.

"He was big," she said, sniffling and wiping her eyes. "And he hated the flowers. He said they were smelly." She swallowed. "And he was wearing all black."

"Did he have grey hair?" Zack said, already knowing the answer. Marlene nodded and Zack cursed. "You said he took Cloud?"

She nodded. "He...he had a weapon that made lightning," she said, her eyes wide and breath catching. "He shocked Cloud and then he took Cloud. He picked him up and took him away."

Zack jumped to his feet so fast it almost made him dizzy. "Shit. Those Sephiroth clones, they've got Cloud?!"

Tifa's face was as bloodlessly pale as he guessed his own was. "They've...they took Cloud. Sweet Shiva, they took Cloud."

"It was only one," Marlene said, blinking. "The big, scary guy."

"Only one?" Tifa said, looking shocked.

"But there are three of them. So where in Hel's name were the other two?" Zack said, not liking this at all.

"Denzel," Tifa whispered, her face growing paler. "The heavens help us, where's Denzel? Zack, they knew about you, they knew about Cloud, they knew about the church...it seems like they knew Marlene, too. What if they--?"

Zack swore, fleetingly. "Dammit, I should have been there. I should've either made Reno come here or taken Cloud with me. I knew those Sephiroth clones were out there and targeting us," he said, his hands clinching into fists. "I shouldn't have left him alone."

Tifa looked stunned, but slowly turned to look at him, her face bloodless. "You shouldn't have..." She suddenly let out a strange, choked-off laugh. "Maybe," she said, still making odd-sounding, desperate laughs, "what you should have done was taught him how to fight in the first place. You're right, Zack. This is your fault." All of a sudden the desperate hysteria she had seemed about to fall into faded, replaced with something else, with a kind of rage she turned on the only one there that she could rage at. "One of those bastards took him out because you're the one who let him get by not knowing how to fight," she said, her words getting sharper and louder, her entire body starting to tremble with a pent-up rage that had been slowly building over the last year. "He's been through as much of that SOLDIER process as you have; there's no good reason he shouldn't have been able to handle one of those clones! No other reason than you've been babying him this entire last year!"

"I've been--babying--Mimir's blessing, Tifa!" Zack yelled, not knowing where this was coming for and not caring, his own frayed nerves snapping. "Have you missed me trying to teach him how to do something besides stay in the back and throw Cures and Restores?! In case you missed it, he doesn't exactly have that fighter's instinct anymore!"

"And whose fault is that?" Tifa said, her eyes narrow and her voice ice cold.

"Don't you dare try to blame this on Aerith," Zack said in a low hiss, putting his hands on his hips and not able to believe they were having this fight now. "If it wasn't for her and whatever she did, Cloud--"

"Who said anything about Aerith, Zack?" she said, and there was something a little too sickly sweet in her voice. "I know, she's in his head and now he half thinks he's her. And I won't deny he's a healer now, better than anyone anywhere on the planet. But before he was, he was Cloud, and he used to dream about being a SOLDIER so he could protect people."

"You mean protect you," Zack said with a snort.

Tifa narrowed her eyes. "Protect the people he cared about. And he still remembers feelings even if everything else is fuzzy, so don't try to tell me that instinct isn't still there, buried somewhere deep where he's still Cloud. All it would have taken was some digging to get it to come back out. Digging you won't do and won't let me do, either. Every time I try, you block me every step of the way," she half snarled, her voice tight with anger. "Even when I just try to talk to him about home! Every time it looks like he's starting to remember something, anything, about Nibelheim, you--you fucking find some way to change the subject or distract him or me and you block me trying to get Cloud back!

"So you know what, Zack?" she said, a strange smile on her face and something about her voice deadly in the sickly-sweetness that had returned to it, "I don't really think you want him to be able to do anything but depend on you. I don't think you want him to ever go back to being Cloud. I think you want him to stay like he is. Dependent on you to protect him and just. Like. Aerith.

"So I wonder what that says about you," she finished, a small, tight smile curling her lip and her eyes narrowed.

"You--" Zack started, so angry he was seeing red now, because where did Little Miss Pushy Tifa fucking Lockheart of all people get off--didn't she get that it was dangerous for Cloud to try and remember Nibel--and what the fuck was she insinu--

"Why are you two fighting?!" Marlene suddenly yelled, her breath catching. Tears were streaming down her face and her lip was trembling as she stared at the two of them. "He took Cloud and you're fighting and what if he hurts him more and aren't you going to go save him? Why won't you go save Cloud?!" she said, her voice turning to sobs as she tried to wipe her tears away. "Why...why won't you stop fighting and go save Cloud?"

Marlene took another breath and started another torrent of words and tears, looking at them like they had just used the black materia on her world.

"Cloud tried to fix the little boy with Geostigma a girl brought him even though it makes him sicker and then the big scary man came and fought him and when I threw the materia at him he just smiled and pushed me and it hurt when I hit the pew and then he took the materia and he took Cloud and now you're fighting and I don't want you to fight! I want you to help Cloud!"

Tifa and Zack both looked at each other as what Marlene said sunk in.

"He tried to--!" Zack started.

"A little boy with--!" Tifa let out at the same time.

"That...that fucking idiot," Zack cursed under his breath. "Now, of all fucking times! Shit," he said, shaking his head. "I'm going to find Mimir's Well and dunk his gods-bedamned head in it until he's got some sense in there!"

He gave Tifa a sharp, bitter look. "Y'know, you say you think I want him to be more like Aerith, but right now his being like her is not exactly something I'm enjoying," he said, because trying to fix a kid with Geostigma even though it left him an exhausted wreck and barely did anything more than help for a few weeks at the most, that was so Aerith it made his head hurt. Aerith had had a good head on her shoulders, whenever trying to fix people wasn't involved, and when it was, her heart took over and self-preservation went flying out the window. And that was why she was dead and Cloud was with the clones of Sephir-- "Oh shit, I have got to go find Cloud," he said, his eyes getting wide.

"I'm going with you," Tifa said, setting her jaw.

"No, you're not. You're staying here," Zack said flatly, shaking his head.

"Excuse me?! What, rushing off to save your princess again?" she said, narrowing her eyes. "I hate to break it to you, but you're no hero and we don't need you to protect us. If you think I can't handle--" she yelled, her hands balling into fists.

"That's not it!" he yelled sharply, slamming a backhanded fist into the wall so hard in frustration that cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact, the noise from it so loud Marlene jumped, jolted out of her tears.

Tifa didn't even flinch.

"Look, I don't know what has set you off, but right now, we don't have time for it! I am going and you are staying here not because of whatever twisted crap you're thinking of but because we don't know who or even what exactly we're up against, and we can't risk both of us, not with those kids!" Zack yelled, pointing at Marlene, who was staring at them wide-eyed, her lower lip trembling as if she was about to start crying again. "They need at least one us here and you know that! Neither one of them can afford to lose everyone again!" he yelled, and then took a deep breath because, Ifrit's flame, the last thing he wanted to do was make Marlene start crying again. "We can't both go haring off, and you know I've got a better chance against those three. And if something goes wrong, I need someone who knows where I am and can come bring backup and a lot of it.

"Tifa, I'll bring him back," Zack said, his voice harsh. "You know I'll bring him back or die trying. This isn't about being a fucking hero, this isn't about you, this isn't about me, and this sure as Shiva isn't about Aerith. This is about Cloud and the fact that right now, only the gods know what's happening to him because those three Sephiroth freaks have him! So I need you to stay here, find Denzel, and get a hold of everyone from before so we're not in this alone because this is big. Please. You're the planner, not me. I'm the rush-in-and-break-things-er, so let me go do it and bring Cloud home," he pleaded.

"Dammit," Tifa said, looking away and swallowing thickly. "I hate when you do those puppy eyes and I hate it more when you're right," she said, blinking quickly. She rubbed her eyes, biting her lip to keep from bursting into angry, frustrated tears, because he was right and someone had to stay behind and he was right that it had to be her. "Go. Go get him. Bring him home and in one piece or I'm going to kill you myself."

"I'm on it," he said with a shaky grin, putting a hand lightly on her shoulder and squeezing, the gesture more tentative and fleeting than it would have been an hour before but still one he had to make, and he took off at a run.

The last thing he saw, as he jumped on his bike and slammed the key into the ignition, the door to the bar still swinging open because he hadn't bothered to even shut it in his mad dash out, was Marlene running back to Tifa, and Tifa dropping down to gather the girl in a tight hug.

Then the door finished its arc; swung back and latched shut, and Zack knew a sign when he saw one.

--

To be continued.
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Comments

... yep, that seems fairly epic. ^^ Go you!
Epic and brain-eating. OMG. *dies*

And to think, I had planned for August to be spent working on the next few chapters of TTYKNAP. Ahahahahahahahahaha*sob*.

...*hugs new fic project anyway*
*laughs* Well, if it's eating your brain, at least the rest of us are reaping the benefits. ;D

Thinking on it a little more, the entire premise is a very good question: what would Cloud have been like if he hadn't convinced himself he was Zack? It's something I'd only superficially thought about before, so... I'm glad you're exploring it more, hm, in-depth.
Oh, it's not just eating my brain; it attacked it like a ravenous horde of fratboys at an all-you-can-eat pizza joint and is trying to figure out ways to sneak some home for leftovers. XD

And it seems like most of the Zack-lives! AU's all just assume everything would be the exact same, just with Zack for shits, giggles, and hot manseXX0rs, but such a major part of FF7 and Cloud's crawling in his skin was the fact that he had Zackbits in his head and didn't realize it and everything he thought he knew about himself was kinda wrong...and he got those Zackbits in his head because Zack died. So no dead Zack=no Zackbits in Cloud, and yeah, that just changes everything right there.

And that was about when the plotbunny started feeling its Plotbunnicula fangs start to grow in.
Ouch, ouch ouch ouch ouch

Oh man

*worships you*
This fic is going to be one big, twisty ouch (especially part two). *bounces excitedly* Can you tell how much fun I've been having with it?

*hearts Zack*
Having fun is always good. :-)
... This hurts so good. <3 I can haz more nao? <3~
It's the best kind of hurt, the "let's try to break the characters to bits!" kind. *hugs all three*

And as for more...working on it! I've got a good twenty pages more of the fic written, and hope to get some writing time in this weekend. It's been more or less writing itself, so hopefully that trend will continue.

Thanks for reading! :D
^__________^ Yes. Yes it is.

Woo! That makes me very, very happy~.
Ohhh, this is so good. I admit that I liked Tifa and Zack tearing at each other over Cloud, because it's such a mess with him being both and neither of the two persons they loved. *hugs them all*

And I'm guiltily glad that you got conned into writing this even if it's an epic that's eating your brain and sleep hours. Uhm. Sorry?
Tifa and Zack get along so well when Cloud isn't around, and the problem is that since they're trying so hard to not show that he's the one causing them problems that they just clamp down on everything, and then, yeah. KABOOM. And it's so much worse since it's not Cloud's fault; it's Tifa and Zack's because both of them are just not completely seeing the person in front of them. Both of them are in denial, but I think Zack's in denial worse than Tifa, plus Zack's also not telling Tifa everything he's worried about (aka, SEPH being in Cloud's head, too), so Tifa's not getting the whole picture of why Zack acts the way he does. That said...Zack's also really in denial about a lot of things as is really good at convincing himself everything he's doing in regards to how he babies treats Cloud is just because he's trying to make sure the Sephbits never come out. Zack, clueless little puppy that he is, never questions himself any further than that. :D

*grin* As for getting conned into it...*snicker* this is what I get for going, "Hey, chibirisuchan! I see you've got a birthday coming up! You want a birthday fic?" She sent me a list of prompts, this one poked me, and then all of a sudden I randomly thought, "I wonder what would have happened to Cloud if Zack didn't die so he didn't have the Zackbits in his brain..." And then the plotbunny grew venomous fangs and sank said fangs right into my head and started chewing.

I still blame chibirisuchan for this.
I hadn't seen the Denzel part before! oh man, half of me wanted to cheer him on for the "nobody else goes to make Cloud turn himself into a martyr! :{" and half of me wanted to smack him upside the head for the "I'm going to get in a truck with strangers who are rounding up sick kids without telling anyone where I'm going because that'll totally make Cloud not have to worry about me!" And I can totally see that going through the head of an eight year old who wants to be Just Like The Grown Ups and is trying too hard to not be a burden on account of he can tell how stressed out they all are and he just doesn't have the life experience to recognize all the big warning signs and auuuugh *snugs him and scruffles his head all at once*

...also I am juuuuust fine with rolling around happily in a pile of blame. XD
Yeah, the Denzel part was new--I kept just forgetting about, you know, him. ^^;; And yeah, he was being a stupid, stupid kid, bless his heart. He's trying so hard to be tough and in his own sweet and yet stupid way protect Cloud.

And this icon is for you and this plotbunnicula you sicced on me. XD
Bunnicula! <333 Howliday Inn was like my favorite book EVER for about five years in grade school... ^_____^ aww the nostalgia...
Oh, man, I can't even tell you how many times I read those books as a kid. Just looking at the cover for Bunnicula to make this icon made me want to reread them, just for old time's sake. I loved Howliday Inn--it was my favorite in the series, hands down.
Late to the party, but I have to agree with Tifa. My first thought when I read Cloud realising that Zack hadn't taught Cloud how to fight, just how to hold his enemies off until Zack could rescue him was that Zack was a bastard who wanted Cloud dependent on him. Only I think it's worse than Tifa realises. Zack wants Cloud to be his damsel, because he wants to be the hero so badly, so he isn't trying to make Cloud into the Aeris she knew, a strong independent woman who was the best healer on the Planet, he's trying to make him into the helpless naive girl he first met, who didn't even think about selling her flowers until Zack suggested it.

Your theory intrigues me XD

You're the first person to really take Zack to task, and I have to admit, I enjoy seeing a perspective that's not my own--I love Zack to bits, so it's hard for me to really see him as a bastard per se, but I'm always looking for cool bits to incorporate into the characters to round them out, and nothing does that like a few good massive faults.

They way I see Zack is that he means the best--he's really paranoid about Cloud turning into a new Sephiroth, and that's why he never does the necessary things like teach Cloud to fight...or so Zack tells himself. He's kind of not being honest with himself at all, because, I love Zack dearly, but he's kind of a surface-level flake half the time, and introspection never occurs to him. He thinks, on some level, "I don't want anything to trigger Seph in Cloud", and there ya go. He's also got the problem of having taken care of Cloud when he was the stumbling wreck, and he knows Cloud better from Cloud's zombie days than he did Cloud awake. So it's gotten ingrained in him that he has to protect Cloud.

All that said? The boy is lying to himself. He doesn't see at all what he's doing, which is, as Tifa pointed out, babying Cloud. He wants to protect someone, for once, and hey, Cloud has always needed protection, so hey. And he doesn't see at all that he's sabotaging Tifa trying to get the Cloud she knew back--he sees any mention of Nibelheim as BAD BAD BAD and, as she pointed out, finds ways to shut her down, but it never occurs to him at all that he could have some other reasoning behind it.

I hadn't thought at all that maybe he was trying to get useless!Aerith back (she made my eye twitch in CC, she was so ugh), but it makes a rather fascinating amount of sense. He wants to keep the status quo, which is helpless!Cloud and useless!Aerith. I'll have to ponder this one. :D

I'm still trying to figure out just what's going on between Zack and Cloud and Tifa, I really am. Just when I think I have it figured out, the fic up and throws me a curveball. It is complex and messy like whoa.

Re: Your theory intrigues me XD

The other reason I think he doesn't want to get the 'real' Cloud back is because it was the real Cloud who ended up defeating Sephiroth the first time, even though he was weaker than Zack at the time, and at some level Zack resents that because he wanted so badly to be the hero himself. If Cloud's Zack's equal in strength then the fact that he's proven to have a stronger will than Zack had mean that Zack will have to treat him as an equal, instead of as a dependent.

I don't normally see Zack as a bastard, but the way you've written him, he's taken the role that usually makes me hate Tifa, trying to force Cloud into being what he wants, by lying to him and manipulating him.

Re: Your theory intrigues me XD

The thing is though, I don't think that Cloud is actually capable of it in this 'verse--I went with the assumption that the reason Cloud in the game was as badass as he learned to be was bits of Zack. After all, he fought the same way as Zack did, twirled the Buster sword the same, etc--he kind of absorbed the ability to fight when Zack died. In this 'verse, though, he never did, and his level is still the guy who failed at SOLDIER. Mind you, he's capable of learning to fight--the Sephiroth bits will start showing up--and he'd be able to hold his own if he needed to, but the Aerith side, the healer, is going to be what wins out, same as the ability to fight did in the game. He...kind of doesn't actually want to fight and would rather grow some plants and deal with people because people expect him to talk to them. XD

Both Tifa and Zack are trying to force Cloud into being someone that they aren't, even though it doesn't show up as much. They both very, very much need to wake up and realize what they're doing, because Cloud is the one suffering because of it. I don't think Zack is lying, just...not realizing completely what he's doing and honestly thinking he's doing the best thing. He never consciously thought that he shouldn't teach Cloud how to fight and told himself that Cloud just kinda sucked at it and plus, subconsciously, the chances of Seph freaked him out. Tifa, well, she still wants Cloud to one day be her knight in shining armor, but she's started to realize that maybe it won't actually happen. And it's making her kind of bitter. She's blaming Zack rather than seeing it's not just Zack's fault, because it's easier for her, on some level, to do that than it is to really accept that Cloud is not and never will be the person she wants him to be.

That said, Zack is shooting Cloud in the foot with his whole overprotective babying, and the next chapters are when he's going to get something of a smack in the face about how he's acting.

Also, where did it seem like Zack was lying to Cloud? I'd really like to reread over wherever that might be so I can look at it with that mindset--I always viewed their interactions as more Zack NOT thinking deeply about what he was doing even though he needed to. Like I said, other POVs are always good things. :D

Re: Your theory intrigues me XD

Sorry, but I disagree. Yes, he won't be the same sort of fighter in this 'verse, because of Aeris' influence, but he killed Sephiroth the first time, when he burned down Nibelheim without any of Zack in him at all. Unless you've decided the Last Order retcon is canon - I personally see it as how Zack reimagined the fight after his years in the lab. I think that if Zack had bothered to teach him to fight he'd have the potential to be every bit as capable as Zack. I mena if he's picked up Aeris' empathy that gives him an edge in predicting how his opponent will react. And Zack might not have lied directly, but he's clearly done everything in his power to keep Cloud from finding out the truth about himself.

Re: Your theory intrigues me XD

Oh, he did kill Seph, I won't argue that. But I mainly figure he lost a lot of who he was. He still has the instinct, yes, but it's pretty buried now. And while he did win that fight with Seph, I kind of see Zack as having that overridden in his mind by zombie!Cloud, who constantly needed to be taken care of because of the mako poisoning. Cloud's got the potential to be good, but not as good because a healer's instinct is to fix people, not bash their face in. I see Aerith's perspective as also being something that's hobbling Cloud's ability--the only thing that's aided him in fighting were the fragments of Sephiroth he had in his head; I honestly can't see the Aerith bits helping him.

And yeah, Zack is definitely doing he can to keep Cloud from becoming a fighter, that much is very true.

Re: Your theory intrigues me XD

I've thought abotu it overnight, and there's two points where we've made radically different assumptions that mean we won't be able to agree on this. this is your universe, so whatever you want goes, but I thought it might help explain where I'm coming from if I explain the differences.

1) You think Cloud failed to get into SOLDIER because he wasn't good enough; I think he failed on medical/psychiatric grounds, either because he was too young and just malnourished enough that he went into puberty later than Zack did, because he doesn't have the self-confidence bordering on arrogance Zack had, or because he had a screwy reaction to mako.

2) You think the fighting instincts and will Cloud had in-game came from Zack, as well as the skills; I think the instincts and will were all Cloud's, and if anything slightly better than Zacks, and that what Cloud got from the Zackbits was the self-confidence to believe he could get (back) into shape to face Sephiroth and the formal trainign he never had which told him how to do so.

One final thought, if it's Aeris' instincts getting in the way wouldn't it have been better for Zack to teach Cloud how to use a sword, a weapon he knows better, that he can teach Cloud proper techniques in instead of just half-guessing, and that won't be muddled up with Aeris' memories?

(Anonymous)

Koky

...Erm, whut? Where's the rest?

This is an extremely interesting piece you've got here, because it throws in a different concept of Cloud's identity confusion, and even a strained relationship between not-dead!Zack and Tifa.

At the same time, though, I'll have to admit that it's essentially a novelization of AC with only minor changes. Perhaps, in the coming chapters (if there are any; I'm not quite sure...), you could deviate a bit from the film and do something original and spectacular.

And, a hint: you could use a few commas now and then, because the story gets a bit wordy and difficult to read. I realize in some places that the rambling is purposeful, an artistic liberty that works, but in others it just hurts my head a bit.

Just some friendly concrit and praise. Here's to hoping you continue this fic. :3

~Koky

Re: Koky

Alas, there's no rest yet because I've been busy. There will be rest-of-it when I have time to sit down to work on it, because this fic takes me by the throat and takes over my sleeping, as in, I get none.

As for it being "essentially a novelization," like I said in the notes, I'm working under the butterfly effect theory--small changes that add up over time to make a very, very large change. I have well over 40 more pages written (nonlinear writing, yay!), and yeah, there are massively huge changes from AC coming in the next section. This section is the butterfly flapping its wings.

And yeah, I've been told it's a bit rambly, but it's because those are Zack-sections, and I swear, Zack has ADHD. I spent all of Crisis Core going, "You need ritalin, man." As someone who does have ADHD herself, it's pretty accurate for the unmedicated head of someone with ADHD, namely disjointed and ohh butterfly hey wait what's that oh yeah paying attention what was I doing again? XD

I'm glad you enjoyed it!
*very quietly curls up into a ball and wibbles* Zaaaaaaaaack...
*flail* Aaaaah, you're reading too soon--I'm revising all this now to make is fit ACC, and the first three sections are done, but this one is a big not-yet. *flail*

(and if you're wibbling about Zack now, mwahahahah, go back and read the new scenes in section three)
You are an evil, evil angstmonger!
Yup! :D
Ooooh I love me some expanded, revised ficcage, oh yes I do!

Also, I love me some detailed comment debates on what the charas are doing and why! I think I enjoyed your debate about Zack and Cloud as much as I enjoyed your beautiful fic, because of how deep and well-thought-out it was.

Anywho, I love it, think you've done an excellent job of revising and expanding and am eagerly anticipating the continuation when life and health permit. Particularly I anticipate more heady-trippy ouchiness of Clourith dealing with his spliced personality and also how he deals with Tifa and Zack both trying to 'help' him with those fatal good intentions.

*puuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrr*