Title: Blood Brothers 4/5
Fandom/Pairing: Final Fantasy VII - Zack/Cloud
Rating: PG this section
Summary: Fantasy AU. Zack and Cloud are blood brothers - two souls bonded by one fate. But what happens when one brother is lost and the other has to sacrifice everything he is to try and save him?
Cloud woke up flat on his back in the middle of Bugenhagen’s star gazing room, tears streaming unchecked down his cheeks and the sound of Zack’s screams still ringing in his ears.
“I would ask how you feel,” Bugenhagen’s voice spoke up from somewhere on his left, sounding unusually subdued. “But I rather expect it’s a moot point at the moment.”
Cloud sat up slowly, body twitching with the phantom pain of a hundred long-ago wounds. He stared down at his gloved hand, remembering the tacky slickness of blood drying between his fingers. “Did that help?” he asked, beyond caring about the hoarse, broken rasp of his voice.
“I certainly expect it shall.” There was a pause and when Bugenhagen spoke again it was in a painfully gentle tone that made Cloud want to flinch. “Your room has been prepared, if you feel the need to rest.”
Cloud didn’t answer, staring at the floor.
“Ah,” Bugenhagen murmured. Cloud could hear the sad smile in his voice. “Perhaps a walk then?”
Nodding jerkily, Cloud stumbled to his feet and staggered for the door, dashing the back of one hand across his eyes as he went. Bugenhagen said nothing, apologetically silent, and Cloud paused at the door, not quite turning.
“Thank you,” he murmured softly, needing to say that if nothing else. Then he fled.
Cloud kept his head down as he hurried through the busy afternoon streets, desperate to get away. His rapid, frantic footsteps carried him far past the edge of the town, into the scant collection of hillocks that marked the valley’s shift into the massive sprawl of the mountains of Cosmo. It was there – alone among the faceless cliffs – that he finally slumped down, sprawling across a mostly flat rock with his arms and legs spread wide. His sword dug uncomfortably into his back but he couldn’t bring himself to care, chest heaving as he stared up at the drifting clouds and waited for his heartbeat to settle.
He lay there for a long time, fresh-again memories replaying endlessly in his mind’s eye. The mountain wind whistled softly in his ears, mournful and hushed in the quiet. Dusk crept across the world, and Cloud watched the sun dip down to the horizon, its red-gold glow turning the sky to bronze and shivering a deep, burnished crimson across the mountains.
Eventually, Cloud roused himself enough to strip off his gloves, tossing them carelessly to the ground beside him. He lifted his right hand almost curiously to his face, staring at the jagged red scar and thinking about how close that mage had come to taking him and Zack away from each other forever. His palm was puffy and swollen, nearly as tender as it had been on that day, but Cloud could still make out the whorls and lines of his bond mark beneath the scar, not gone despite it all.
“I’m not gone either,” he whispered to the sky, soft but certain. “And neither is Zack. Not as long as I have anything to say about it.” His mouth pressed into a grim line. “So that mage had better watch out.”
“Well now,” a voice drawled suddenly behind him, startling and close. “Look what I’ve found.”
Cloud jerked and whirled, the edge of his sword sparking against the rock. “Show yourself!” he commanded, reaching up over his shoulder for the hilt.
The voice chuckled smoothly and a lanky figure stepped out from behind an outcropping in a swirl of silver and black leather.
Cloud’s blood turned abruptly to ice.
“Cloud,” the man who looked like Sephiroth said, voice rich with satisfaction. “Well met, brother.”
“Who are you?” Cloud demanded sharply, cursing himself as a fool for letting his guard down. He’d known his fight on the aeroship would lead the Jenovites right to him – why hadn’t he expected them to catch up so fast?
The man seemed rather put out, pouting at him through the shining fall of his bangs. “You don’t know?” he demanded, almost petulant. “I’m hurt, brother.”
Cloud’s jaw clenched. “I am not your brother.”
“Ah, now that’s where you’re wrong.” The stranger cocked his head, a parody of kindness in his smile. “You and Zack are our brothers. It’s because of you that we exist.”
“You’re just another construct,” Cloud retorted, with as much certainty as he could muster.
“Hmm, wrong again.” A quick flick of slender fingers sent a sudden gust of wind skittering Cloud’s way, ruffling his cloak with a decidedly malicious twinge. Green eyes glittered at the naked surprise on Cloud’s face. “You see, just because we’re part Sephiroth, doesn’t mean we’re not part you and Zack as well. I’m the most like you,” he admitted, as if his affinity for air hadn’t already made that abundantly clear. “And my brothers balance out with the others.” He smiled. “We’re quite well-matched, the three of us.”
Cloud eyed him warily. “Who are you?” he asked again, slow and cautious.
The stranger looked amused.
“You can call me Yazoo,” he offered, not much of an answer. Silver hair glittered as he cocked his head curiously to the side. “Unless you prefer ‘brother’?”
“I only have one brother,” Cloud snapped before he could help himself.
Yazoo shook his head regretfully. “So stubborn. And after we’ve been looking for you for so long.” He voice dropped into a whisper, beguiling as honey over glass. “He told us you were dead, but we knew better, oh yes. We felt you and we came to find you. And now we’re going to take you back where you belong.”
Cloud scoffed, ignoring the warning chill shivering through his veins. “Like I’m going anywhere with you.”
“No?” Yazoo demanded. His smile melted. “Where will you go then? You can’t run forever.” A pale eyebrow arched slyly. “Or are you looking for somewhere specific?”
“Where?” Cloud spat back, fear tightening his throat. For the Jenovites to find out about Zack…
He let his lips curl downwards, lying with the truth. “There’s nowhere I belong without Zack.”
“You belong with us,” Yazoo corrected. “We’ll make you happy again.” He slunk closer, black cloak whispering over the ground.
Cloud tensed and tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. “Don’t take another step,” he warned from between clenched teeth.
Yazoo paused with an unhappy huff.
“Why are you fighting?” he demanded, irritation snapping in his eyes. “There’s nothing for you out there except us. Aren’t you tired of being alone?”
“I’d still be alone, even if I went with you,” Cloud said, fighting not to wince at how weary he sounded.
A disappointed headshake. “Three times wrong, brother. I told you.” Yazoo pulled off one glove with a blithe smile. “You already have all the brothers you could want.” He tilted his bare palm out and the fading sunlight highlighted the intricate swirls of the bond mark etched there.
It looked just like Cloud’s.
Cloud stared, dumbstruck.
Yazoo’s smile widened. “Surprised? I suppose I can understand that. You really shouldn’t be though – you’re the one who showed him how useful a blood bond can be.” A poisonous smile. “So he gave us one too. Now we’re just like you.”
The steely hiss of honed metal keened through the air as Cloud blurred to his feet, glaring at Yazoo across the length of his raised sword. “Leave,” he ordered coldly. “I don’t want any more brothers.”
“Oh, but Cloud. We want you.” Yazoo’s smile widened, careless of the sharp blade trained on his heart. “And now we’ve found you.”
“We, we, we.” Cloud’s heart was pounding. He let a deliberately goading smirk tilt his mouth, hitting where he knew he could hurt. “You keeping talking about them, but you’re all alone. Where are your brothers, Yazoo?”
Yazoo stiffened. “My brothers and I are one,” he grated, the words short and clipped. “Just because they’re not here now doesn’t mean anything.”
“No?” Cloud demanded, pressing his advantage despite the self-loathing curling in his chest. “I could cut you down here and they wouldn’t be able to stop me. How about it, Yazoo?” he demanded, as Yazoo glared at him with white-hot fury. “Care to see how you do against me on your own? I have to warn you though,” he cautioned, with a slightly evil Zack smirk. “I’ve had a lot of time to get used to taking care of myself.”
They glared at each other for a long moment before Yazoo shifted abruptly back, the threat melting bonelessly out of his rigid shoulders between one breath and the next.
“Perhaps I’m being a little hasty,” he remarked, with deceptive calm. “I wouldn’t want my brothers to miss out on the experience of taking you back where you belong.”
Which was a tacit surrender if Cloud had ever heard one, but he wasn’t about to argue. His sword arm didn’t waver as Yazoo started walking backwards, green eyes never leaving Cloud’s face.
“We’ll be back for you brother,” Yazoo promised, a blot of black and silver against the crimson rocks. “You can count on it.”
“I’m not,” Cloud started but Yazoo was gone, vanishing into the rocky landscape as silently as he’d come.
Cloud let out an explosive breath, sword point dropping. He was shaking again, he realized, and not just out of worry.
“This just keeps getting better,” he muttered to himself, re-sheathing his sword. “Who’s going to show up next? Rufus?”
Evening was fast approaching, the sun nearly set. Cloud got up and started back to the village, moving carefully through the heavy shadows clinging to jagged rocks. He was further out than he’d realized, deep among the jutting peaks, and he strained his ears to catch the murmur of the river to tell him he was heading the right way.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when he came across Cid leaning casually against a large boulder not far away, arms crossed casually across his chest and spear propped against one shoulder.
Cloud’s steps faltered, stumbling into silence, and Cid glanced over at him with an arched brow. “Popular, ain’t ya?”
Cloud frowned. “Apparently.” He started walking again, not surprised when Cid fell in step beside him.
Cid jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Not a friend of yours, I take it?”
“Didn’t think so.” Cid chewed thoughtfully on the butt of an unlit cigarette. “I’m guessing guys like him are why you don’t like using your magic, eh?”
“Mostly,” Cloud agreed shortly, and then, because there was no point in being stubborn about it, “Aeri-, er, The Oracle warned me that the Jenovites would send people after me – they’ve been following me for years.” His lips quirked into a rueful almost-smile. “Though I have to admit, I didn’t expect a look-alike. Especially one that’s part me.”
“Huh,” Cid grunted thoughtfully. “Glad I don’t live your life, buddy.”
The sound of the water was growing louder, mingling with the inarticulate murmur of voices on the evening air. Cloud tried briefly to sense out where Yazoo had gone – one of the last things he wanted was to get ambushed in the middle of the night by the construct and his ‘brothers’ – but gave it up after a moment’s effort. Yazoo’s presence had vanished. Cloud just hoped that he and his unnamed brothers weren’t bold enough to take on the whole village to get to him.
“Nanaki’s got food waiting,” Cid spoke up suddenly, as though nothing had changed. Cloud found himself feeling absurdly grateful for that. “Bugenhagen’s gone all mystical bullshit on us but he promised to let us know when he’s figured out what that curse was.”
“Thanks,” Cloud sighed, feeling suddenly weary. Another thing to try not to worry about.
The look Cid gave him could almost have been called concerned if you took the gruff out of it. “You spend too much damn time being morose,” the aeronaut declared. “There’s no use worrying about what’s already happened.”
Cloud gave him a wan smile. “Would you believe I’m actually worrying about the future for once?”
Cid snorted. “After all the shit you’ve already lived through? What a waste of effort.”
A shrug. “Someone’s got to though. Especially if Yazoo comes back.”
“He really bonded to you?” Cid asked, not quite calmly enough to be convincing.
Cloud shook his head firmly. “No,” he answered, very sure. “I’d have known it.” A thought tugged at him, whispering in the dark, and he sighed pityingly. “And he’s not as connected with his other ‘brothers’ as he thinks. He’d never have been able to come here alone if they were truly bonded.”
“Good to know.” A spark flared at the end of Cid’s cigarette, glinting in the whites of his eyes as they flicked his way. “You gonna be okay?”
“I’ll do my best,” Cloud answered, with honest gratitude. “Thanks for asking.”
“Don’t mention it. Now come on,” Cid cocked his head imperiously. “That’s enough standing around in the dark – time we were getting back. I get the feeling tomorrow’s gonna be one hell of a day.”
There were, they eventually discovered, some definite drawbacks to having a blood bond.
“Whoops!” Zack laughed as one of the smugglers hared suddenly away from the group, vanishing into a crowded side street. Zack’s heels skidded on the slick cobblestones as he altered course, tossing a broad, vaguely apologetic grin over one shoulder as he went. “You go ahead!” he ordered Cloud. “I’ve got this one!”
Cloud nodded. “Got it!”
People ducked and screeched as Cloud wove through the busy streets, boots sliding on cobblestones and the puddled water left over after the morning’s heavy rainfall. He could just make out the half dozen smugglers in the crowd ahead of him, scrambling hurriedly past houses and storefronts through the confusing muddle of streets. Cloud kept doggedly on their trail, refusing to give up.
His chest was aching. Cloud pressed an absent hand over his heart and kept running, not about to let a little fatigue stop him now.
The roads started getting narrower, the crowds thinning as they left the centre of town, and Cloud growled a curse when he realized what that meant. He put on an extra burst of speed, chest heaving as he rounded a dilapidated fishing hut and stumbled into the rolling fields that marked the end of the village proper. Three dark shadows were easily visible against the grass, several hundred paces away and pelting headlong towards the riverbank. Cloud started forward again and doubled over in pained shock as a sudden jolt of agony screamed through his body. He hissed, fighting to keep his breathing even while invisible hands seemed to have taken hold of his spine and were trying to pull it backwards out of his body.
“Zack,” he gasped, almost without thinking, but Zack had his own problem to deal with right now, and Cloud would be damned if he let these lowlifes escape on his watch.
“Come on, Cloud,” he muttered to himself, gritting his teeth against the pain as he forced his protesting body into motion. “Get it together.” He stumbled over the grass, heading towards the dart blot of the smuggler’s ship against the riverbank.
The smugglers had their sails hoisted by the time Cloud staggered up, breathing hard and practically stumbling over his own feet.
“H-hold it!” he ordered them, stuttering on the words. He drew his sword, wobbling with the effort of holding it up.
One of the smugglers laughed. “Nice try, kid,” he jeered, casting off the lines. “Maybe next time they’ll send a man to do the job.” The wind caught the sails and the boat started to drift with the current, rocking on the water.
Cloud’s jaw clenched. He lifted his sword in shaking hands, calling on the magic that he’d only recently learned how to use. “I said –” A huge wave surged up out of the swollen river, towering a full ten spans above white sails and suddenly terrified smugglers. He gritted his teeth and brought the blade down. “Hold it!”
The wave crashed down on the boat, planks snapping as the vessel tipped, spilling smugglers and cargo alike into the river. Cloud moved to fish out the flailing smugglers and the effort put him on his knees, the white-knuckled grip he had on his sword the only thing keeping him upright beneath the wrenching, pulling pain in his chest. He panted hard through the sweat rolling down his face, black spots swimming in front of his eyes.
The smugglers’ cries went frantic, urgent amid the crashing of the waves, and Cloud forced his arm up with an effort, vision blurring as he sent ice skittering rapidly across the surging water. Waves froze mid crest and the smugglers started swearing colourfully, squirming as the frozen water dragged at their limbs, trapping them and the pitiful remains of their boat in solid ice.
Once he was sure that they wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon Cloud let himself collapse, curling up tightly and gasping for breath while his captives’ cries slacked off into sullen, frigid mumblings.
Cloud didn’t know how much time passed before he found himself suddenly able to breathe again, the bands around his chest loosening just enough to let him puff out a breath. “Mneth,” he swore, panting. “Wha–?”
Levering himself carefully into a sitting position, Cloud dug his fingers into the dirt, feeling the pull ease even though his body continued to twitch unhappily. Deciding against moving for the time being, Cloud waited while the minutes passed and the pain grew steadily fainter until nothing remained but a lingering ache above his heart. He was unsurprised when Zack appeared on the grassy slope above him, wayward smuggler in tow and a haggard expression on his sweat-soaked face.
On his feet in an instant, Cloud stumbled up the hill as Zack hurried down, flinging himself into Zack’s desperate embrace. They clung to each other for a long moment and Cloud sighed in shaky relief as the last of the pain melted away at his brother’s touch, gone as though it had never been. Zack was shaking against him, Cloud realized, his hands fisted in Cloud’s shirt just as urgently as Cloud’s were in his.
Eventually Zack drew a deep breath and shifted back, smiling wanly. “Right,” he said, with a fair imitation of his usual good humour. “Let’s not do that again.”
Cloud’s laugh was breathless and sharp with still-fading panic. “Good plan,” he agreed, gripping Zack tightly. It was another long moment before they managed to release each other, Zack’s fingers finding Cloud’s and twining tight.
“Guess we’re going to have to find out just how far apart is too far,” Zack remarked in a more normal tone, bending down to gather up his captive and heading towards the riverbank at Cloud’s side. “We can’t always be together if an assignment goes wrong and passing out from brother-withdrawal doesn’t really sound like a good habit to get into.”
“Probably not.” Cloud eyed his numb-looking smugglers clinically, trying to decide the best way to get them out of all that ice. “It’s kind of ridiculous though,” he remarked after a moment.
Cloud smiled up at his brother. “To think that this is the first time since we bonded that we’ve been far enough apart to suffer for it.” He shook his head, not nearly as rueful as he ought to have been. “We must be insane.”
Zack nudged his arm playfully. “You had any doubt? Now come on,” he invited. “Let’s get these smugglers of yours back on land before they all freeze to death.”
Cloud’s sleep that night was fitful at best; a nauseating mix of good memories and bad swirling through his head until he couldn’t tell what was real and what was his subconscious playing tricks on him. The image of Zack lying still as death across a blood-splattered floor finally chased him into consciousness shortly before dawn, leaving him pale-faced and shaking amid sweat-soaked sheets.
Vincent was already up by the time Cloud made his listless way to the outdoor terrace, a book in his hands and a cup of tea at his elbow. Cloud hesitated only briefly before going over and Vincent’s eyes flicked calmly at him over the top of the book.
“Good morning,” the man murmured, in the quiet, hushed voice people often used in the very early morning. “Did you sleep?”
Cloud shrugged, taking a seat. “More or less.”
Pottery clinked as Vincent reached for his tea cup. “Bugenhagen has been in his star room all night,” he remarked, sipping casually. “I doubt we’ll hear from him for several hours yet. You should eat, if you think you can.”
Cloud’s stomach twisted at the thought. “No thanks,” he refused and Vincent nodded, unsurprised. He returned his cup and turned back to his book. Not in the mood for conversation, Cloud gladly left him to it.
They sat together in silence for a long while; Vincent reading and Cloud alternating between watching the sun come up and drawing absent patterns on the table with his finger. It was a calm, companionable sort of quiet, appropriate for the early hour and the heavy pallor dragging at Cloud’s thoughts.
Nanaki joined them as sun’s slim fingers began snaking over the jagged horizon, Cid following not much later with a sour expression and a command for tea. He and Nanaki immediately got into a petty, habitual sort of argument, insults and rebuttals flying with the smooth facility of long familiarity. Vincent joined in occasionally, his dry wit a perfect counterpoint to Cid’s rather more abrasive humour. Cloud contented himself with listening, enjoying the illusion of closeness.
The sun was nearing the apex of its climb when Nanaki fell suddenly silent mid-sentence, sharp ears cocking attentively.
“What is it?” Vincent asked, setting his book aside.
“Grandfather’s waiting downstairs,” Nanaki said. His shaggy head swung towards Cloud. “Are you ready?”
Cloud nodded, his stomach tying itself in knots. “Let’s go.”
Cid and Vincent finished their tea and Cloud let Nanaki lead the way back into the house.
“Watch your step,” Bugenhagen’s voice drifted up from below as Nanaki nosed past the hanging drape. “Things are a bit disorganized right now, I’m afraid.”
Cloud followed Nanaki down the stairs into a whirlwind of paper; uneven stacks of books and scrolls and parchments were littered across the previously immaculate floor, slumping awkwardly against the shelves.
Bugenhagen was crouched over by the door, a book in one hand and a busily moving piece of chalk in the other. “Sit yourself wherever you can find some space,” he told them absently, not looking up from the sigil he was tracing. “I’ll be just a moment.”
“You’ve learned something then, Grandfather?” Nanaki inquired, pushing papers out of the way with one blunt paw.
“Mmm. A great deal, I must say. Though little of it pleasant.” He chalked a final seal and let his hand fall, turning towards them with a weary but determined smile. “Please sit,” he invited. “This is not the sort of information one ought to receive standing up.”
They all did so and silence fell thick across the room. The overhead sun shone down brightly on their shoulders, glinting brightly off the scattered papers.
“Well?” Cid demanded finally, when Cloud did nothing but stare at the floor, hands clenching rhythmically in the fabric of his trousers. “What are we dealing with here, Bugenhagen?”
“A very dark kind of magic.” Bugenhagen’s eyes shifted towards Cloud. “And a powerful user. It takes a strong and ruthless mage to command curse magic like that.”
“W-what was it?” Cloud asked, tongue tripping woodenly over the words.
Bugenhagen folded his hands in his lap, his expression disapproving. “A binding summons.”
Cid frowned. “Which is?”
“It’s a high-level curse that is designed to bind a victim’s entire life and being to the caster’s whim,” Bugenhagen explained, his tone thick with distaste.
“Like what happened to his friend, Sephiroth?” Nanaki guessed.
Bugenhagen shook his head. “Not quite. What happened to Sephiroth was likely a spell designed to suppress his psyche rather than alter it. It would have dulled his perception to the point that the spell caster could command him, rather like putting the mind to sleep and controlling the body. Such magics are theoretically reversible if performed by a skilled mage, though the process is attempted only rarely.”
Cloud’s expression went grim.
“A binding summons, on the other hand,” Bugenhagen carried on. “Has a far more long-lasting effect. It destroys large portions of the victim’s soul and sews together the remaining pieces to create a diminished – though still technically complete – person. Without the self-prepossession required to dictate his or her own actions, the victim becomes completely dependant on the commands of the caster.” A frown creased his brow. “It’s a crude comparison, but the effects are rather like being controlled by a puppeteer – the victim can think for himself but becomes unable to act on those thoughts unless the caster pulls the appropriate strings.”
“Sweet Marela,” Cid swore, scowling darkly. “You can do that to someone?”
Bugenhagen shrugged helplessly. “No curse is without malice. I must admit this one is rather more lethal than most, though.”
“Lethal?” Cloud managed, in a small voice. “So he was trying to kill Zack?”
A frown crossed Bugenhagen’s face. “A poor choice of words perhaps – though death might have been a kinder alternative.”
Cloud frowned in turn. “Explain.”
“This curse isn’t designed to kill its victim, but to turn him or her into a tool – a being that can only act according to the whim of the curse caster.” Bugenhagen spread his hands wide. “A skilled sword mage like your brother would have been an invaluable weapon for Jenova. I highly doubt they would have wanted him dead after going to such lengths to capture him.”
“But…” Cloud floundered, confused. “Those wounds, the screaming… all that blood…?”
“Part of the spell process I’m afraid – having your soul torn apart is a painful process on its own, but this type of curse is physically written into the victim’s skin, changing the body along with the mind. The wounds would have healed as the curse rewrote your brother’s soul, the scars left behind creating a physical link to the internal changes.” Bugenhagen’s eyes smiled at him, gently encouraging. “It’s painful to consider, but the fact that the wounds were still there after you destroyed the magic circle means that you stopped the curse before it could do permanent damage to his mind.”
Cloud sat stunned, mind flatly refusing to comprehend. Vincent stirred slightly.
“You feel fairly certain that the curse did no damage outside of the physical?” the dark haired man asked.
Bugenhagen’s expression went depreciating. “I can’t know for sure without examining him myself, but it seems unlikely that the curse will have done any serious damage.” He paused, thinking. “Of course, part of that will depend on how deeply the curse was meant to penetrate.”
“Penetrate?” Cloud roused himself to ask, dreading the answer even before he asked. “What do you mean?”
Bugenhagen sighed. “A binding summons is designed to create a fully functional servant, one that’s more effective than a construct or a suppressed person but is still inextricably tied to the mage’s whims. However, it’s still well within the curse’s capability to wipe out the victim’s entire awareness, leaving him or her as an empty shell incapable of performing in any way until explicitly directed to.”
Cloud’s jaw dropped in horror. Bugenhagen’s expression gentled. “I rather doubt that is the case in this instance,” he reassured. “That mage seemed intent on capturing you both more or less intact.”
I’ll have to take care not to break you too much, the mage’s voice hissed in Cloud’s ear, the oily whisper shuddering down his spine. You could prove to be quite useful in the future.
“Right.” Cid glanced at Bugenhagen. “So, now that we know what we’re dealing with, what do we do to fix it?”
“Not much I’m afraid.” Bugenhagen’s gaze shifted in Cloud’s direction. “Though there may be one chance.”
“Tell me,” Cloud demanded, closer to begging than ordering. “How can I help Zack?”
“Calmly please. The difficulty in reversing curses lies with the fact that, because they’re designed to act on specific individuals, other people can’t affect them. It is theoretically possible for cursed persons to overcome their own curses,” he added, and Cloud felt a certain pregnant silence from where Vincent sat on Cid’s other side, “Though, like your brother, they’re often in no condition to attempt such a thing.”
Cloud clenched his fists. “So what do we do?”
“It’s an unusual circumstance,” Bugenhagen admitted, the non sequitor worrying at Cloud’s patience. “But I believe that you may be able to overcome the curse on your brother’s behalf.” His sharp gaze lingered on Cloud’s hand. “Neither of you is wholly separate from the other thanks to your blood bond. Even now you hold his soul and remain yourself where, by rights, you should have lost your minds long ago.” He shrugged. “There’s no guarantee, but I certainly have high hopes that it would work.” A pause. “Provided that you’re willing to fight?”
“Of course, I...” Cloud paused suddenly. “What do you mean, fight?”
“Bugenhagen can give curses physical form,” Vincent spoke up suddenly, the calm in his voice forced and stilted. “So when he says ‘fight,’ he means it literally.”
“It won’t be easy,” Bugenhagen cautioned as Cloud’s head swiveled back to him. “The more powerful the curse, the more dangerous a monster it will manifest as.”
Cloud’s jaw firmed. “I’ll do whatever it takes to save Zack.”
Bugenhagen nodded sagely. “In that case I will begin my preparations.” He glanced up into the crisply blue sky overhead, considering. “It will take several days to clear the space and set up the sigils. And I need to take some time to examine the curse in more detail.” He gave them all a wry smile. “Curse-molding isn’t a talent I have need to call upon that often. I don’t wish to leave any margin for error.”
“I’d appreciate it if you all stay close to the village until this is over,” he added, his eyes serious. “We can’t be sure whether the Jenovites will attempt to interfere.”
Cloud thought of Yazoo and shuddered.
Bugenhagen glanced around. “Are we settled then?” Heads nodded and Bugenhagen smiled. “Good. Oh, and Cloud…”
Bugenhagen turned to him with a look both understanding and cautioning. “Please take some time to think about the test you’re about to face. I know you’ve been waiting for this chance a long time, but I need you to consider how far you’re willing to go to help your brother. Don’t answer now,” he urged, holding up a hand to forestall the exclamation hovering on Cloud’s tongue. “Just think about it.”
It had been a small thing that brought him back, in the end.
“Strife,” Tifa greeted him, nodding from behind the bar as he strode into her tavern. “Good to see you again.”
“What can you tell me about him?” Strife demanded without preamble, tossing a handful of parchment onto the dark-stained bar.
Tifa rolled her eyes. “Hello to you too,” she sighed, though she was reaching for the sheets even as she spoke. It was more than common knowledge that The Strife didn’t make nice with anyone, after all, and she hadn’t got to be the best informant in Midgar by ignoring the facts.
“Let’s see…” Her dark eyes skimmed the spidery missive as Strife took a seat at the bar, shrugging his sword more comfortably on his back while he waited.
“Barret,” she read musingly. “Highway bandit and suspected leader of an anti-Shinra rebel faction in the mountains of…” One slender eyebrow arched at him over the top of the parchment. “You’re being sent after The Avalanche?”
He shrugged. “Looks like it.”
“Are you sure you ought to take this one? He’s supposed to be pretty dangerous.”
Strife sighed impatiently. “Are you going to tell me what I need to know or am I just wasting my time?”
“Fine,” Tifa retorted, curt and professional. “Sorry I mentioned it.”
The not-quite smooth creak of the door heralded the arrival of a cluster of men dressed in the sober browns of hired labourers. They were laughing and joking like fools as they pushed their way inside and Strife eyed them darkly for a long moment, on guard for any sign of a threat.
It was unfortunate, but he didn’t think he the amount of noise they were making counted as something worth killing them over.
“Tifa!” the man leading the way greeted, with a wave and a cheery grin that put a strange trip in Strife’s pulse. “My favourite lady!”
“Flattery won’t get you free drinks,” Tifa shot back candidly, the smile in her voice underscored with the steel that made her so good at both of her jobs.
The man clutched his chest, his well-worn cap shadowing everything of his face except his smile. “So cruel to your admirers!”
“Only when they deserve it. I take it you’re having your usual?” Tifa’s hands were already moving, lining up three tumblers on the bar with the clink of cheap glass against wood. “Better come over here and get ‘em then.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” one of the other men declared happily, and the three of them staggered together to the bar, slumping down in the empty space on Strife’s right amidst more laughter and good-natured ribaldry.
“There,” Tifa declared, plunking full glasses down in front of all of them and sending slips of alcohol sloshing over the brims. “Now drink up and don’t cause any trouble. Sorry,” she added, turning back to Strife. “You’re later in the day than usual – it’ll about time for the evening crowd to start coming in.”
Strife made an absent gesture, restless for no reason he could name. “You’d better get on with it then.”
Another eye roll and Tifa started talking, words like ‘Avalanche’ and ‘agitator’ spoken in a low, steady tone that no one with any sense would try to overhear. Strife listened with only half an ear, a surprising amount of his attention on the group beside him. Or not the group, really, but the man closest, the one with the smile. Which was odd, because The Strife wasn’t interested in anybody, whatever the reason. The man’s arm was too close, brushing intermittently against Strife’s, warm and solid. Strife wondered why that didn’t make him want to move.
“-he’s normally in and out of Junon on a fairly regular basis. If you ask after him around the docks you shouldn’t have too much trouble – Strife? Are you listening?”
Strife didn’t answer, busy struggling against the strange sense of rightness that hit him when the man laughed suddenly, wide shoulders shaking with unfeigned mirth. His hair was dark, Strife noticed almost dazedly, longer than Strife’s own, and it fell across a broad back in erratic spikes as he waved an enthusiastic arm at someone walking in.
Strife’s hand moved without asking him about it first, gripping the man’s arm in a way that felt eerily familiar.
The man turned, a stranger’s face blinking at Strife from beneath swept-back bangs. “Yes?” he asked.
Strife stiffened, drawing his hand back abruptly. “My mistake,” he said curtly, turning hurriedly to the bar. He could sense the man’s obvious confusion, but didn’t dare look back.
Tifa was watching him with wary eyes. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you touch someone else before,” she observed, something strange in her expression.
“Whatever,” Strife dismissed brusquely, rubbing absently against his right palm. It hurt, for some reason. “What were you saying about The Avalanche?”
“…He’s an agitator,” Tifa said after a moment, with a sigh that made it clear she wasn’t fond of repeating herself. “Stirring up trouble among the dock workers and shipping crews. It’s not clear if he’s a foreign instigator or a disgruntled Shinrite.”
“Mmm.” Strife tugged absently at his gloves as he listened. “So I can find him here in Midgar?”
“Usually in Junon,” Tifa corrected. “He’s only here occasionally so you’re going to have to look along the docks.” A pause. “Is your hand alright?”
Strife glared. “What?”
Tifa shrugged in a rare display of nervousness. “Your hand. You keep rubbing it. And there’s a red mark –” She reached out as if to touch, fingers stilling hesitantly in the air between them. “Is that a tattoo?”
“What?” Strife glanced down distractedly at his palm. “No, I-”
“Perfect!” the dark-haired boy at his side declared, fingers spread wide as he smiled at the mark etched into his hand. Whorls and lines scrawled across the breadth of his palm, red and puffy in the light. “I can’t wait to show everyone!”
“You think they’ll be mad?” he asked hesitantly, his own hand hanging heavy and tender at his side. “Maybe we should’ve asked your mam first.”
“Nah,” the boy dismissed. “Cause then we’d have got in trouble for ignoring her if she said no. And besides,” he tilted his head with a grin, fond and bright. “They all know we’ve always been connected. This just makes it official, right Cloud?”
Cloud smiled. “Yeah Zack,” he agreed, reaching out his hand and not wincing as their marked palms pressed tight. “You’re stuck with me forever now.”
“Huh?” Cloud jerked, eyes wide as he met Tifa’s surprisingly concerned look. “What?”
“Are you okay? You completely blanked on me just then.”
Cloud stared at her, the memory of a hand in his so strong he could almost feel it. “I-…”
Tifa huffed dramatically. “Do you want this information or not, Strife?”
“Cloud,” he corrected automatically, hardly more than a whisper.
A confused expression crossed Tifa’s face. “What?”
“I’m not The Strife,” he said, louder. His chair skittered across the floor as he stood, sudden and sure. “I have to go.”
“What? Go where? Strife!” Tifa yelled across the common room and Cloud paused at the door to look at her.
“My name is Cloud,” he told her simply. “And I have to go find Zack.”
go to next part