Overhead the motor was whirring again. His toes scraped over the ground, digging in, fighting to gain purchase—To stop the relentless slide towards the flames. His wrists were screaming points of pain, attached by cruel metal cuffs to the grinding motor’s track on the ceiling.
The flames before him burned with an ugly blue gas light. With every inch of ground, the heat increased. He could almost feel his skin cracking and peeling away from flesh. He couldn’t scream. He was parched dry. His voice had died in his throat long ago. Was it days now? He’d lost track of time.
The motor dragging him forward cut out at last, leaving him dangling before the fire, closer than ever. He tried to calculate the distance, but he couldn’t keep his eyes focused. They were burned dry, unfocused, almost blinded. Every day it had hauled him closer, every time left him there, thinking maybe he would finally die. That maybe it was finally as bad as it could get.
He should have been glad he was alone. But if he could have screamed, he’d have been screaming for the others—For anyone to share the bright pain of the room. For anyone who could make him feel alive, even for a moment, as he roasted to death.
Cloud jerked awake from the nightmare, aware suddenly of screaming from down the hall. He was halfway out the door with his sword in hand before he was fully awake and aware of the fact that his nightmare was only that—a nightmare. He paused a moment in the doorway, long enough to hear the familiar sound of the abruptly cut-off scream, muffled by the hand of one of the other remnants. He waited, poised, in case things turned violent. He hadn’t had to intervene yet, but he’d heard scuffles break out between the brothers more than once after one of them screamed at night. He wasn’t sure if tonight’s screaming had been Yazoo or Kadaj—It was difficult to tell them apart, at least in comparison to the easily-identifiable sobbing howls of Loz’s nightmares.
Cloud calmed down slowly, listening to the hushed voices from down the hall without focusing enough to hear words. He’d stopped worrying about the nightmares being a ploy. Ever since the first time he’d slammed into their room after hearing screams to find Kadaj tearing at Loz’s comforting arms with eyes blinded by fear and absolute desperation he’d known they were real. He tried not to wonder what they were dreaming of.
He lowered his blade, stepping back and letting out a slow breath. His heart was still racing from the nightmare. If he’d been home at 7th Heaven, he would have gone downstairs and done some extra cleaning for Tifa. As it was, trapped as the warden in his own little jail, he sat on the bed with Tsurugi laying over his lap, fingering the edge of the butterfly blade on its side.
It shouldn’t have surprised him to have a nightmare. In the morning, he’d be heading to Edge alone. Even leaving the remnants in the most capable hands he knew, it still felt unsettling— like leaving a stove on intentionally. He worried at the inside of his lips with his teeth, anxious and temporarily immobilized. He only stopped when he tasted the iron tang of mako tinted blood.
They’d behaved thus far, but not out of good will Cloud was sure. Since the first barest outline of rules, the list had grown and grown. Now it was thirteen bullet-points long. The remnants still insisted they couldn’t read them, so Cloud had made certain they had them memorized. He wasn’t sure he believed their illiteracy story, but he wasn’t about to put himself in the position of playing the bad guy if they claimed ignorance after breaking his edicts.
He closed his eyes, halfway hoping for guidance from beyond. Aerith and Zack were silent. They had been for a long time. Cloud hoped it was approval and not disappointment that kept them that way. He wanted to believe that he was doing what they would, though he was certain that Zack’s good humor and Aerith’s kindness would be better suited to this task. He was sure either of them would have had the remnants tamed ages ago.
He let out a slow breath, lying back on top of his bed sheets. He slid his gaze out the window, watching the distant stars in the night sky and waiting for sunrise. He felt the familiar, warm feeling that came with thinking about outer space wash over him. They’d spent so many nights listening to the usually gruff and straight-forward Cid wax poetic about space. Cloud thought fondly of those nights spent lying on his back with Nanaki’s head pillowed on his chest and the rest of the party lying still and silent, but unmistakably awake. He remembered the red shine of meteor slowly blotting out the stars, night by night, till even on the Highwind the red light of it cut through closed doors and windows.
A part of him missed that light. Its presence had been a terrible reminder of the impending doom lying just above their planet, but it had also been a sign of purpose the likes of which he’d never known before. It was the force that had brought Avalanche together in the face of unspeakable odds.
Now, quietly lost and unspeakably lonely, Cloud stared out at the safe, calm night sky, and allowed himself to miss the disaster that had turned them all from terrorists into heroes.
With sunrise came the now-familiar sound of bickering from downstairs. Cloud blinked out of the half-asleep doze he’d fallen into, and sighed at the sound of pans slamming around downstairs. He’d given the remnants permission to cook more out of self-defense than a desire for them to pull their own weight. There were only so many knife-edged remarks on his culinary skills he could take from Yazoo. Eventually he’d decided that letting the remnant cook would require less cleanup than decapitating him.
It did, however, mean that his charges tended to have much nicer breakfasts than Cloud himself did. He’d taken to skipping the meal all together. Superiority was not something he wanted to foster in them. He took a slow breath, stretching out the stiffness that had gathered in his back and shoulders.
‘Weak.’ A darkly amused voice purred in Cloud’s mind.
Downstairs, something broke. Cloud paused for a moment. Hearing voices he was used to, but not the voice that had echoed through his mind just then. Not since the Stigma.
“First,” he said quietly to the air, standing and sliding into his sword harness. “If I’m weak, you’re weaker. And second,” he slid Tsurugi into place at his back, cracking his neck. “If you never had to stretch a sore muscle, then you were even less human than I thought.”
Cloud paused, waiting for a rebuttal, but none came. He shrugged, letting himself smirk a little. Even if his verbal sparring opponent was dead, it always felt good to have the last word.
He steeled himself with a slow breath, then walked downstairs. The remnants voices petered out as he approached, and he restrained a sigh. It was to the point that he almost wished they wanted to talk to him. But then, that would never happen.
Kadaj was straightening the turtleneck sweater he’d taken to wearing when Cloud walked in, his eyes cast to the wall. Yazoo was leaning back in the chair next to him, his challenging gaze fixed on Cloud’s face. The salve Irene had sent home to look after Kadaj’s burns sat nearby. Cloud assumed they were healing well, but ever since Kadaj had gotten his hands on better fitting clothes that would hide the uneven burns on his neck, he had worn them constantly around Cloud.
Loz risked a small smile at Cloud before going back to munching on his breakfast. Cloud was fairly sure it was an egg and spinach sandwich. It smelled delicious, and Cloud resisted the urge to glare at Yazoo in retribution for it. He did, however, glance long enough to watch the slender remnant sliding his fingers down the long scar over his cheek.
“Good morning.” Cloud said into the silence as he moved over to start some water heating.
“Sure.” Kadaj muttered, a paragon of sunshine as always.
“It’s getting cloudy.” Loz replied when Yazoo didn’t step in. They always seemed to speak in turns, Cloud had noted. Kadaj got first dibs on speaking, then Yazoo if he had a comment to offer, then Loz would input his opinion. “Not, like you kinds of Cloudy. Just the, um, overcast kind.”
“Smooth.” Yazoo drawled.
Retorts, it seemed, were fair game between Kadaj and Yazoo, depending on the mood of the room. If Kadaj was angry, he monopolized retorting privileges. Cloud took Yazoo’s snide, cold remark as a sign that the youngest remnant wasn’t angry, at least.
“It’s winter.” Cloud said blandly. “It will probably snow before too much longer.”
A beat, and Kadaj said nothing. Yazoo heaved a sigh, and Cloud glanced over to watch him lean on one arm on the table.
“I like the snow.” He purred mildly. “It’s like home. You know—”
“And by home you mean the Northern Crater, I know.” Cloud said dryly. “You’ve used that line before.”
“Shit.” Yazoo muttered under his breath.
“You’ll have to work harder to get under my skin.” Cloud chided mildly before freezing, halfway through pouring the coffee grounds into his personal filter.
Was that banter? Was he bantering with a remnant? That was not how things were supposed to go. He cleared his throat sharply, turning back to his task and trying to put the thought from his mind.
“I’m driving back to Edge today.” He said into the silence, wondering if Yazoo had been experiencing the same existential discomfort from their short exchange.
“I am not riding in that car with you again.” Kadaj snapped at once. “I’m not riding on anything that isn’t a motorcycle.”
“I’m not exactly eager to listen to your whining and belching all the way to Midgar either.” Cloud snapped in reply. “So you’re not coming.”
Silence, for a moment, and Cloud could feel their fixated attention on the back of his neck. He fought the urge to reach for his sword.
“You’re leaving us here.” Kadaj said slowly.
“Yes.” Cloud poured the hot water, waiting for it to percolate through the coffee grounds. Gods he needed the caffeine after the interrupted night.
“Alone.” Kadaj filled in.
Cloud snorted, setting the kettle back on the burner and turning to him with an arched eyebrow.
“There’s trusting you to obey the rules and protect your skins, and then there’s being an idiot.” He said dryly. “I’m not stupid enough to think you three wouldn’t manage to worm into trouble or away from me. Vincent’s going to watch you.”
“The Turk?” Kadaj demanded.
“The demon?” Yazoo supplied, his eyes narrowed.
“We don’t like him.” Loz finished the trio’s thoughts, all of their eyes fixed on Cloud, a lovely set of frustration, annoyance, and concern.
“I don’t care if you like him.” Cloud waved a hand, turning back to his coffee, waiting for the final pool of hot water to drain through the grounds. “Liking him isn’t the point. The point is, he has pretty elegantly proven that he can handle you three, and that he’s willing to do so.”
“By handle you mean—”
“That he could have a bullet through Kadaj’s skull before you two could take him out.” Cloud replied with a grim satisfaction. Imagining the remnants failing his standards and being summarily disposed of didn’t fill him with the sort of daydreamy longing that it used to, but it still held some satisfaction. Especially when it was followed by muffled, frustrated cursing from the smallest of them.
“And what will you be doing?” Asked Yazoo coldly, usurping the order as he often did when Kadaj was threatened in any way. “Cuddling with your precious family.”
“Probably.” Cloud turned, his black coffee finally held in hand. He prefered it with cream and sugar, but it looked cooler to drink it black. He assumed. “And then I’m bringing Irene back here.”
There was a moment of silence while Kadaj whipped his head back to Cloud from where he’d been glaring at Yazoo, silver hair falling into his face. The middle brother lifted an aristocratic eyebrow while Loz broke into a mild smile.
“I’m fine.” Kadaj snarled defensively.
“She was nice.” Loz reminded his brother mildly.
“Who the hell is that?” Yazoo asked, glancing between his brothers, obviously displeased to have been left out of the inside circle.
“She’s the lady who stitched you up while you were sliced to pieces.” Cloud replied mildly, lifting a hand to tap his own cheek to remind Yazoo of his mark. “And the only reason you have just a scar, instead of a pierced cheek.”
Yazoo’s revolted face was mildly satisfying.
“I don’t remember that part.” Kadaj muttered. “I had just gotten my brain fried by an idiot.”
It was Cloud’s turn to look away. He could imagine the triumph in Kadaj’s face, and had a brief, abrupt mental image of the young man high-fiving his sullen brother. If they were normal teenagers, maybe. But they were anything but normal.
“Complain all you like.” Cloud took a slow sip of gross coffee and leveled his gaze back at the three of them. “Doesn’t change reality. I’ll be back with her by this evening. I expect you three to have done your share of the chores, and to have behaved for Vincent.”
“As if we have a choice.” Yazoo muttered.
“Can we still play outside?” Loz whined.
“Do we have to do your stupid reading practice?” Kadaj sneered.
Cloud rolled his eyes skyward and prayed for patience. It arrived in the form of a knock on the door that sounded only twice—businesslike, professional, and decisive.
“Up to your babysitter.” He called over his shoulder, smirking at the disgusted sound Yazoo made at his back.
Vincent arched an eyebrow at him when Cloud opened the door, his face hidden behind his usual mantel, but his expression clear.
“Riling them up for me?” he rumbled.
“They’re always like this.” Cloud replied with a shrug. “I trust your judgement to handle them as you see fit.”
“It’s not my first circus.” Vincent replied, stepping into the house with long, slow steps, and more gravitas than Cloud had ever been able to command. “Go home, Cloud.”
“Call me if you need me.” Cloud replied, lifting a hand to give Vincent a short, two-fingered salute. “I’ll answer for you.”
Vincent’s reply was to shift his cape to the side, letting Cloud catch a glimpse of the phone strapped to his hip before he walked out of the hallway. Cloud stepped out of the house without another glance, and headed for Cid’s. He trusted Vincent completely, and now that the option was there, he couldn’t wait to be out of the house and away from his charges. Even if it was only for a little while.
He sipped his coffee while he hiked the distance to Cid’s combination home and workshop. He caught himself casting glances back at the house as he went, as though waiting for it to explode, but soon enough it vanished behind the hills.
Cid was waiting for him with the truck’s keys and a heaping helping of sarcasm. Cloud bore his snide comments and invasive questions with the ease of long practice, but he did so while climbing into the car and stowing his sword and coffee. He was ready to be on the road. He desperately wanted to get there in time to have a while with Tifa and the kids. He missed his little family, whatever it was. He knew he was doing the right thing in keeping a handle on the remnants, but that didn’t make it easy.
He drove off while Cid was still yelling at him about how frustrating he was, but it was with a smile and a wave, and he could tell that the pilot’s cursing was affectionate, because his face was just red and not the wild, vein-straining purple shade it turned when he was really angry. Then it was just him and the road, and though he wasn’t great at stickshifts, cars never bothered him so long as he was the one driving.
He turned on the radio, and turned it up till it overpowered the rumbling of the engine. It would only have been better if he’d been on his motorcycle. The freedom was heady, and warm and—
He lifted his head to the wind, closing his eyes, inhaling deeply. Freedom smelled like dusty sands overheated by the sun and the exhaust of a ratty old truck, and the clinging smell of mako that still stuck to Cloud no matter how hard he tried to get rid of it. But it was freedom, and he loved it, and for a moment he was at peace.
Cloud shook the thoughts away, catching a breath and shifting gears when he realized he’d let the truck slow down too much. Zack’s memories again. Ever since he’d stood in that room with Tseng… Was it only three weeks ago now? Cloud frowned. So recent, and yet it felt like so much time had passed. The memory of that room, and the choking smell of sweat and blood rose, and he shook it off, reminding himself that Kadaj needed no pity and no help now. He was fine.
Or as fine as he deserved to be, at least.
He breathed slow through the trip. None of this was what he was built for. He was made to fight, and though for a while he’d waited eagerly for the fighting to stop, now he found that he missed it. Maybe he could pick up some monster hunting work soon. After all, he would need a supplemental income soon enough. His savings would only last him so far. Now that he was off the WRO payroll, the mercenary life might be his best bet. It had certainly led him to interesting places the last time he tried it.
He felt his heart leap when he passed the first proper sign stretched over the deserted highway proclaiming that he was approaching Edge. He’d missed the ramshackle city. He hadn’t realized how homesick he was until he just then. In a way, until he’d left, he hadn’t realized that he thought of Edge as home.
The warm feelings froze when he recognized the helicopter sitting on the road before him, and the figure standing before it, clad in white. He stood with his legs apart, his hands crossed confidently before him, his blonde hair perfectly slicked back, one elegant strand falling into his face.
Rufus Shinra. He should have known.
For a moment, Cloud strongly considered just plowing into him. It would serve him right, standing in the middle of the road as though he owned it. Though knowing Rufus Shinra, he might actually own the road. There was no telling with his family
Cloud glanced to either side of the helicopter as he slowed the truck to a stop, popping the door open and stepping out into the street. Tseng and Elena flanked the chopper, and in the pilots seat Cloud could see Reno, drumming his fingers on the equipment panel. Cloud couldn’t spot Rude, but he was certain he was there. Probably readying a rocket launcher in the body of the chopper. Cloud grabbed his sword as he left the cab of the truck, slinging it easily into the harness on his back. Rufus’s calm, superior gaze didn’t waver even for a moment. The young president didn’t even flinch. He might have been an asshole, but Cloud couldn’t accuse him of being a coward.
“Rufus.” Cloud acknowledged, walking forward without hesitation.
“Cloud.” Rufus held still, letting Cloud approach without moving. “You look well.”
“You’ve dropped the wheelchair act, I see.” Cloud replied coldly, stopping a solid seven feet from where Rufus was standing.
“Hardly an act. It’s not as though the stigma and the explosion left me entirely unharmed.”
“I don’t care.” Cloud waved a hand between them. “Tell me what you want and get out of my way.”
“There’s no need to be hostile.” Rufus commented, one hand dropping to the side while his other stroked over his own chin lightly, halfway hiding his smirk. “We’re hardly enemies, Cloud.”
“I’d like to think I made myself perfectly clear about my stance on you the last time we talked.” Cloud said, shifting so that one foot was in front of the other, side-eyeing Rufus from a position where he could see Tseng more clearly. The Turk wasn’t looking at him, and his hands were loose at his sides. It was the perfect ‘I don’t care’ pose. Cloud didn’t trust it for a minute
“The last time we talked, I was trying to make sure you wouldn’t join with us.” Rufus said with a chuckle. “Don’t tell me you missed that.”
“If that was you trying to drive me away, you could have gone about it a lot more directly.” Cloud said blandly, lifting one hand to rest on his sword in a clear threat.
Rufus actually had the audacity to laugh. A low chuckle, paired with him tucking his chin, narrowing his bright eyes and parting his lips in a wicked grin.
“I wasn’t trying to drive you away.” Rufus chuckled. “Just to get your blood boiling. And it did work, didn’t it. In the end, you sided with us perfectly. Played right into my hand, and took up arms against the remnants.”
“I’d have done that without you.” Cloud narrowed his eyes. “Get to the point before I end our discussion more permanently.”
“Empty threats.” Rufus said with a wave of his hand.
The ex-president stepped out of his firm stance and strode forward easily. The sound of metal reached Cloud’s ears, and he glanced to Rufus’s legs, watching the stiff motion. Leg braces, he wondered, narrowing his gaze on him a moment before flicking his eyes back up to meet Rufus’s gaze. He didn’t take his hand off his sword, but he didn’t draw it either.
“I want to talk about them.” Rufus purred. “I understand why you ran off like that, Cloud. If anyone has a reason to be uneasy with torture, it’s you. It was a miscalculation to bring you in on their treatment. Not a call I would have made, but I assume Reeve had his own reasons to want you there.”
“I had my own reasons to be there.” Cloud corrected. “Reeve doesn’t approve any more than you do.”
“It’s beside the point now.” Rufus said with a wave of his hand. “You took them, and you have as much right to do so as anyone. But Cloud, I want you to see things from my perspective.”
“I don’t think it’s possible.” Cloud scowled at him as darkly as he could, shifting into a stronger stance. “I could never be as selfish as a Shinra.”
“No?” Rufus smiled in response. “What if I told you it wasn’t selfishness?”
“You would be hard pressed to prove it.”
“Look at this world, Cloud.” Rufus murmured, his voice pitched suddenly lower, suddenly intimate. The smile fell away, leaving him unusually serious. Cloud blinked, eyes narrowing suspiciously at the change. “It is alive, certainly, and that much was uncertain for a while. But what world are we leaving behind us in the wake of all this pain? There are so many children with no one to turn to, and so many of those we could have turned to died when the planet stopped meteor. How many people over forty years old have you seen since meteor fell?”
“Cut to the chase.” Cloud said grimly. He didn’t need Rufus telling him. He knew that the planet had taken the lives of older people first, as though trying to spare the children of the world. He’d have known it from Denzel’s story even if Reeve hadn’t shown him the statistics.
“We are this world’s leaders now.” Rufus took another half step forward, invading Cloud’s space just a touch, pressing him. “It’s up to us to decide what life we leave for those who come after us.”
“And this has something to do with me.” Cloud prompted, refusing to back down from the intimidating blond with his ice-blue eyes.
“You’re leaving the WRO to be a prison guard.” Rufus replied dryly. “The hero of our planet, relegated to guarding three beings who hate him more than anyone else in the world. You could be doing so much good, Cloud. I know you won’t join me, but Reeve has proven himself to you, hasn’t he? Even Vincent works for them now. I hear Barrett’s considering joining their payroll as well. It’s practically Avalanche 2.0. And yet, you hover in Rocket Town, once again stuck doing nothing.”
The worst part about talking to Rufus Shinra was that the bastard was always right. As little as Cloud wanted to listen, every word that came out of his mouth was true. He clenched his jaw, eyes narrowed, watching for the catch. For the moment that would change his mind. He didn’t let it shake him that Rufus knew they were in Rocket Town. He’d expected that. Rufus would have name dropped the house if he’d known they were there. Tseng shifted in the periphery of Cloud’s vision, and he took a slow breath, finding what he’d been waiting for.
“So you want me to give them back.” He said blandly. “Let your Turks torture them.”
“They would be reaping only what they have sown.” Rufus replied with a slow smile. “Or hasn’t Vincent told you what they did to Elena and Tseng.”
“As if Elena and Tseng themselves are guiltless.” Cloud said darkly. “I’m not interested in an eye for an eye, Rufus. And I’m not interested in your form of justice.”
“Oh?” Rufus raised an eyebrow. “And your version of justice is so much clearer?”
“I haven’t forgotten what Shinra did to my friends.” Cloud stepped forward this time. He wasn’t tall enough to loom, but he pressed Rufus’s space, and watched the other man’s eyes narrow in challenge and response. “I haven’t forgotten Scarlett trying to execute Tifa live on television. I haven’t forgotten how you tried to blame us for Meteor and Sephiroth. Your justice has nothing to do with what’s right, and everything to do with what benefits you.”
“What benefits me might benefit you, this time.” Rufus purred, not bothering to deny Cloud’s words. “Might benefit those children too. If you return them, I’d even grant you a finders fee. For your trouble, of course. I don’t want to be your enemy in this, Cloud.”
“Then don’t get in my way.” Cloud snapped.
“Not an option.” Rufus bit back. “I won’t let those monsters go free to take this world again. I’m not the man I was, Cloud. The tower’s collapse—the stigma—They changed me.”
“Assuming that you really don’t want to see your Turks get killed.” Cloud let the mako flare in his eyes, watched Rufus glare in response. “I would recommend you get into your chopper and fly away. Right now, before this escalates and someone gets hurt.”
He flicked a pointed look to Tseng and Elena. He could hear Rufus grinding his teeth. A part of him was surprised at the reaction. It was almost like the man actually cared.
“Have it your way.” Rufus said softly. “But remember that I offered you a peaceful resolution to this.”
“Trust me, Shinra.” Cloud turned his back on the other man, striding back towards his car. “You’re not fooling anyone here but yourself with the innocent act.”
“Perhaps not.” Rufus said behind him. “I’m sure we’ll meet again soon, Strife.”
Cloud jammed the truck into gear the moment he was inside, and swerved off the road instead of waiting for the chopper to take off. Elena’s wide eyes followed him every moment, and the blame in them was piercing. He tried not to think on it.
His sense of peace gone, Cloud watched the helicopter take off in the rear view mirror, and drove at last into Edge proper, heading for 7th Heaven and trying not to let Rufus’s blame gnaw too deeply at him. He forced himself to remember his reasons—Kadaj’s trembling sweat-drenched form and heart-rending pleas, Yazoo’s blood soaked body and gory scars, Loz’s broken hands and tear filled eyes. And yet the memory of Denzel’s corruption and Marlene’s fear rose in counterpoint, reminding him vividly of how deeply afraid his kids still were of the pieces of Sephiroth who had tried to take them from their home.
He parked behind the bar, and put his head in his hands, trying to breathe through it all. It was a no-win situation, and he knew it. No matter what he did from here, someone would be hurt more than he could bear.