Rating: PG this section
A/N: This is just the first part, there are at least two more coming depending on how much text I can fit into each post. I hope to have the whole thing posted within the week. *crosses fingers*
This story is going to jump back and forth through time a decent amount (so if it doesn't all make sense to begin with, that's the general idea). You can expect every other segment to be a flashback, but the flashbacks aren't exactly in order since the narrator himself doesn't really know the correct order of things all the time. Just a head's up.
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?
They were blood brothers.
Two souls willing bound to each other through for as long as they both lived and longer. Their fates had been tied with the same thread – two lives joined as one through every hardship and happiness. Cloud belonged to Zack and Zack belonged to Cloud and there wasn’t a being, living, dead or otherwise, who could gainsay that.
It was more than just the bond that connected them, of course. Blood bonding was a strong, ancient magic, begun in love and strengthened in faith, with roots that ran deeper than family, race or kin. Only a pair who had already committed their hearts to each other could ever expect the magic to do the same to their souls.
Cloud would’ve followed Zack to the ends of the earth even without the bond – already had, in point of fact, the day he’d run away from home at barely six years old to stumble after the Gyptan caravan that had stopped in his village the fortnight before, chasing the bright-eyed little boy who’d befriended him as easily as breathing. Zack had been delighted to see him, Cloud remembered, rushing up to catch him as he stumbled into the firelight, worn, tired and hungry after five or more days in the wilderness. Zack had fought for him too, arguing hotly with the elders of the caravan when they’d wanted to send Cloud back. They’d allowed him to stay eventually, but only after Zack had sworn to leave with Cloud if they made him go.
They slept side by side that first night, and every night thereafter, curled up together on Zack’s narrow bunk with their knees touching and heads pillowed comfortably on each other’s shoulders. As the years passed, it became a common joke around the caravan that you could always know where one of them was by looking for the other – they were always together, as inseparable as if they’d been bound together at the wrists. Even their affinities balanced, Cloud’s air and iron for Zack’s iron and earth, and you would’ve had to be worse than a fool not to see the rightness between the pair of them. The Gyptans, wiser than most when it came such matters, simply smiled and left them to it, watching tolerantly as the pair of them grew side-by-side, learning to sing and dance and hunt and fight as a team, two sides of the same coin.
The blood bonding had come as a surprise to no one, even though Cloud had been barely thirteen at the time. Blood bonding was destined from birth, after all, and there was never any doubt that a blood pair was meant to be together, no matter how young they were when they found each other. Zack and Cloud’s bond marks appeared on their palms – a symbol of strength and solidarity – and the whole caravan helped them celebrate when they staggered back home that evening, tired but triumphant.
And if they’d become even closer afterwards – never more than an arm’s length apart at any time of the day or night – the rest of the caravan just made sure there were always two seats left together for them around the campfire and carried on as ever.
Cloud was fifteen when they left the caravan; Zack waving a cheery goodbye to the only life he’d ever known and Cloud trying to decide whether he ought to be feeling sadder than he was at going. He knew it was because blood pairs rarely formed lingering attachments to other people – they were too codependent to need to. Even the members of the caravan, who’d been his family all these years, couldn’t offer him anything he would be all that sorry to leave behind – not when Zack was coming with him.
Not that Cloud really minded, nor Zack for that matter – as long as they had each other, Zack had said that first morning, two hours down a nameless road with the caravan nothing more than a long-faded trundle of wheels behind them, they could take on anything.
And he had been right, or very nearly. Which is why Cloud hadn’t hesitated when Shinra’s mages had offered him a chance at making things right again, after everything had gone wrong.
“It will affect you,” one mage had warned, over the rims of his spectacles. “We can’t even be sure it will work when you’re both so –”
“I don’t care,” Cloud snapped, bloody and exhausted. The wound on his hand was throbbing. “Do whatever you can.”
“It’s going to scramble you brain,” another mage told him bluntly. “I wouldn’t be surprised if your whole personality changed.”
“Your memories too,” the first chimed in, with a worried, if professional, headshake. “There’s not enough room in your head for all of you and all of him at the same time.”
That gave Cloud pause. “What will I forget?” he asked.
A nervous glance between the pair of them. “Hypothetically?” the first said. “Everything.”
“Will I recover?”
Two helpless shrugs. “…We don’t know.”
Worrying. Cloud looked past them, at the drying pool of blood spreading over the floor. At Zack, lying still and cold as death on the stone bier they’d excavated from the rubble.
His jaw clenched.
As long as they were alive, there was hope. Zack had always said so and Cloud had always believed in Zack. He clung tightly to that thought as they laid him down on the bier next to Zack, trying to ignore the deathly pallor to his brother’s face, the wet, rasping whistle as Zack tried to breathe through blood-filled lungs. This was the only way. He would fix things, Cloud swore, as mage-light flared around him and his consciousness slipped, Zack’s face the last thing he saw. Even if he forgot everything, he’d remember eventually. He was sure of it.
He just never suspected it would take him five years to do so.
Rain hissed across the plains, sheeting down in torrents that blocked out the sky and turned the path to slick, clinging mud underfoot. Cloud marched through the storm in dark, stoic silence, eyes roving ceaselessly over low hillocks and sparse-limbed trees. The gleam of torchlight was a faint, indistinct smear in the distance, more like fox-fire than flame. Cloud’s sword harness clinked in time with his footfalls, the rain-slicked metal painfully chill even through the thick weave of his cloak. Cloud ignored the discomfort, gloved hands loose and ready at his sides.
There were eyes in the dark, far enough off that they could almost be his imagination, but Cloud had spent too many years living by his own instincts to start doubting them now. Those eyes didn’t see him, not yet, but the malice tingling at the base of his skull gave him no doubt that it was him they were looking for. Closer now than they’d been in the past, true, but Cloud wasn’t about to hang back and let them catch up to him now. Not for anything.
Ahead of him the vague shadows of the village began to slink out of the gloom, firming into roofs and chimneys and fences that wavered indistinctly in the pounding rain. Beyond them would be the bulk of the mountains, Cloud knew, the natural boundary between Cetra and Wutai, all but invisible in the rain. Cloud didn’t care. It was this tiny village he’d come to find, not the border crossing three days further on. If this lead didn’t pan out he’d likely head back the way he’d come, following the main trade route towards the coast, then bartering for passage on a ship bound for Shinra. It had been some months since he’d last been to Midgar and he liked to check in every now and then, with Tseng and Aeris. Maybe one of them would help him find a new place to look.
Water dripped off the hood of his cloak, falling in his face and soaking the collar of his shirt. Cloud brushed at it absently, listening to the steady hiss of the rain all around him and feeling like the only person in the world.
Not that the rest of the world mattered much. Without Zack, he was always alone.
People scattered as Cloud strode through the mage-lit halls of the Shinra keep, murder in his eyes and a scowl on his face that would have sent most members of the First Knights scrambling for cover. He brushed wordlessly past the liveried retainers stationed along the walls, ignoring their weak-hearted protests without slowing. Every few hallways someone would make as if to stop him, some soldier’s feebly raised pike shaking along with his hands, though their fellow retainers were always quick to prevent that kind of heroic idiocy before someone got killed. He wasn’t known as The Strife for nothing, after all.
Cloud plowed on relentlessly, a grim smile curling his lip as he traced a half-remembered path through the twisting maze of the keep without even a token resistance to his intrusion. Perhaps there was something to be said for having a reputation.
The door to Rufus’ outer audience chamber was barred by the time he reached it, a thick bar of solid iron and a trio of decidedly nervous guards blocking the way. Cloud eyed them darkly, expression deliberately menacing as he shifted his stance wide and reached up over his shoulder for the hilt of his sword, his movements slow and threatening.
Three pairs of eyes widened, the rasp of metal against metal scraping through the air as they quivered in their armour. A sandy-haired youth of perhaps seventeen was the first to break – his pike hit the floor with a clatter and he went tearing off down the hall away from him, terror scrawled heavily across his face.
Cloud watched him go for a silent moment, then raised a curious eyebrow at the other two.
Ten seconds later he was alone in the hallway, hoisting the heavy bar free from its supports with the same strength he used to wield his sword. He let the thing fall to the ground with a ringing crash, stepping carelessly over it as he yanked the door nearly off its hinges and strode inside.
A petty lordling idling within the outer room squeaked and whirled as Cloud entered, pallid face contrasting poorly with his florid robe.
“Y-you there!” the man declared, glaring while his knees quivered. He held his ground as Cloud strode closer, though it was a near thing. “What do you think you’re doing? You haven’t got the authority to be h-ack!”
Cloud hit him in the nose and kept walking, ignoring the man’s shriek as he hit the floor with a meaty splat.
“You…you fiend!” the lordling squawked, voice thick with blood and outrage. He stumbled to his feet, yelling insults after him as Cloud’s hands pressed flat against the door to Rufus’ private study. “I’ll see you hanged for this!”
A single push and the doors slammed open, striking the walls on each side with a with enough force that Cloud heard the crunch as the handles buried themselves into the stone. He didn’t bother trying to pull them free, all of his attention on the pale man sat unconcernedly behind the large slate desk against the far wall.
“Where is he?” Cloud demanded, patience fraying all at once. He strode angrily across the floor. “Rufus!”
Lord Rufus of Shinra didn’t bother looking up from the scroll he was reading. “Do shut the door after you,” he ordered idly, waving a dismissive hand. “The draft is unpleasant.”
Cloud slammed his hands down on the desk hard enough to make Rufus’ quill rattle in the inkwell. "Answer me!”
“Do you mind?” Rufus demanded with a touch of asperity, eyes flicking towards the parchments crinkling beneath Cloud’s fingers. “Those are important.”
“I know you have him,” Cloud insisted, leaning in close. “Give. Him. Back.”
“I suppose this means you have your own name back,” Rufus remarked casually. He marked his place on the scroll and sat back, fingers steepling before him. “A shame. You made a good Strife.”
Cloud growled loud in throat. “Rufus…”
“I must admit I’d rather hoped it would have improved your temper somewhat to be yourself again.” A sly eyebrow quirked. “Assuming, of course, that you do remember everything?”
“Rufus.” Cloud’s voice was like ice cracking underfoot. “What have you done with him?”
Rufus smiled thinly.
"Ah," he murmured. "Not quite I’d say. How difficult it must be for you – not even able to remember that you're the one who handed him over to us in the first place."
Cloud’s hand fisted in Rufus’ robe and yanked, the inkwell shattering across the floor as the table shook and he hauled Rufus bodily out of his chair. Cloud bared his teeth in the face of Rufus’ almost bored smile. “Don’t try my patience Rufus,” he warned. “You’ll find I don’t have much to spare for you right now.”
Boots clattered on the stones behind him and Cloud half-turned to face the threat, Rufus’ heels skittering across the table with a dragging squeak.
“Better give up now Strife,” a voice ordered, warning inherent in its low tone. “Before we have to hurt you.”
Cloud sneered, reaching automatically for his sword. “I’d like to see you try.”
“Stand down!” Rufus ordered his men, gesturing sharply over Cloud’s shoulder. “It’s all under control.”
“Don’t look like it to me, yo,” a second voice muttered, but neither man made any move to attack.
Rufus turned his attention back to Cloud.
“Your brother’s safe,” he said, still calm even while dangling a good foot off the floor. “Prove you can act like a civil human being for once and I’ll bring you to him, alright Strife?”
“I’m not your Strife anymore,” Cloud snarled, through gritted teeth, though he could feel his anger draining away despite himself. He lowered Rufus carefully back to the floor, doing his best to look intimidating. “Take me to him. Now.”
Rufus casually straightened his robe. “All this and you still don’t see the merit in asking? No wonder your brother always did the most of the talking. Reno, Rude,” he said, looking towards the two by the door and paying no attention to the angry stiffening of Cloud’s spine. “Cloud and I are going to visit his brother. You two will provide an escort.”
The slighter of the two, Reno, shrugged carelessly. “Whatever you say, lordship,” he said, attention still on Cloud.
“Of course.” Rufus’ eyes cut Cloud’s way. “Well?
Cloud glared at him. “I don’t trust you,” he accused. “Why are you giving in so easily?”
Rufus’ expression went haughtily amused. “Who said I was giving in?”
White cloth rippled as Rufus swept past him towards the door, his Turks falling into step behind. The smirk he threw over his shoulder was sharp as knives. “Just don’t be too surprised if you find you don’t want him back quite as soon as you expected.”
“Here you are,” the innkeeper declared, thumping down a full flagon and an overloaded plate on the scarred tabletop. “Hot from the kitchen.”
“My thanks,” Cloud answered with a short nod, shrugging back his dripping cloak as he reached for the tankard.
The innkeeper idled nearby, a dirty rag fished out of one pocket to scrub nonchalantly at the clean surface of the next table over.
“Don’t get many strangers round here in the rainy season,” he observed, nothing but small-town curiosity in the friendly smile he flicked at Cloud over one shoulder. “You on your way to the border crossing at Tilfaner, son?”
Cloud swallowed and forced himself to offer a small smile in return. “No,” he denied. “I’m looking for someone.”
Dark eyes traveled frankly over the muscles in Cloud’s bare arms, the hilt of the massive sword leaning against the back of his chair. “Should this someone be worried about you finding them?” the innkeeper asked neutrally.
Reminding himself that some people really didn’t mean anything other than what they said – especially in small towns – Cloud managed a mostly harmless shake of his head. “Just have a few questions I’m hoping he’ll be able to answer,” he answered honestly. He leaned back in his chair, eyes intent on the innkeeper’s face. “He’s an aeronaut – used to be known as The Highwind.”
“Highwind?” the innkeeper repeated, an uncertain expression on his face. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard tell of anyone with that – ”
“Well if that don’t beat all,” a loud, whiskey-rough voice interrupted, and Cloud twisted round to see a weather-beaten face glaring at him over the top of a tankard, deeply shadowed eyes eagle-sharp as they lingered on the insignia stitched into the dark fabric over Cloud’s heart. “Never figured Lord Shinra would send one of his lapdogs all the way out here just to deal with a runaway aeronaut.”
“Cid?” The innkeeper blinked, shocked. “You know this boy?”
The man named Cid snorted dismissively. “I know whose colours he’s wearing. Who he is doesn’t much matter.”
“You’re The Highwind?” Cloud asked, keeping his seat by sheer force of will.
Blue eyes shifted up to Cloud’s face, derision plain in their even regard. “Not anymore. You can tell your lord to look elsewhere for his dupes in the future.”
“I’m not here because of Rufus.” Cloud turned in his chair to face Cid, ignoring the innkeeper’s pole-axed expression completely. “I need your help.”
“Tough luck kid. I make it my business not to get involved in other people’s business.” Cid slammed his empty glass down hard, glaring at him. “Especially when they’re fool enough to let some petty lord ruin their lives for them.”
Cid stood with a decidedly final snort, snagging a worn cloak off the back of his chair and stomping off towards the door.
“Wait!” Cloud’s chair clattered to the floor as he surged to his feet, stumbling after him, his arm looping automatically through his sword harness. “Please, Highwind… Cid, hear me out…!”
“Nope,” Cid shot back without turning. “Whatever Shinra wants, he can ask someone else.”
“This isn’t about Shinra!” Shifting his sword hurriedly onto his back, Cloud tugged at the smooth leather of his right glove with his teeth. “Juft…mph…stopft, dammit!”
Cid’s hand closed on the door handle and Cloud moved, surging across the floor with a burst of speed that sent chairs bouncing out of his way and probably left indents in the floorboards. His left hand smacked hard against the door besides Cid’s head, the harness of his sword ringing with the impact.
Cid froze, a fighter’s alertness thrumming through ever line of his rigid stance, and Cloud drew his hand back shakily. “Sorry,” he muttered, as Cid scowled furiously at him from scant inches away. His brought his other hand up, palm forward. “Just… please.”
There was a breathless silence in the shocked common room and Cloud watched emotions he couldn’t even name flicker through Cid’s eyes as he stared at the bond mark in Cloud’s hand; the jagged scar that marred it.
“Kronin’s balls,” Cid declared succinctly. His mouth twisted ruefully as he shifted his attention to Cloud’s face. “You’d better come talk to Vin.”
It was the early spring of Cloud’s fifteenth year when he and Zack left the caravan for good, a few meager possessions bundled in Zack’s pack and the coppers they’d saved for the trip jingling in Cloud’s pocket.
They’d been in Cetra at the time, not far from the southern coast, and they’d wandered through the countryside without any real sense of direction, reveling in the simple joy of being completely at their own command. The roads in Cetra were wide and relatively safe in those days, leaving them without any real need to settle down in any of the towns or small hamlets they passed through. They’d been raised as Gyptans, after all, and an open road was far more appealing to them than any stationary four-walled house could ever be.
Zack and Cloud spent the better part of the spring and early summer drifting aimlessly from one town to the next, setting off for new destinations every day and sleeping side by side under the scrawling stars every night. They hunted and did odd jobs to keep from going hungry – Cetra’s harvest was good that year and most folks were more than willing to share the fruits of their labour for a few hours of hard work or several of Zack’s stories told over dinner.
The summer solstice found them in Lilia – Cetra’s largest freewater port – booking passage to Shinra on a cargo ship that needed a few extra hands. Going to Shinra had been Zack’s idea, once they’d both realized that the summer was winding down and they’d need to see about finding work and proper lodgings before the chill of winter arrived.
“We’ll go to Midgar,” Zack declared brightly, his dreams as big as the sky peering down at them. “I hear the Merce guild is always looking for new members to help with the jobs the lord’s army can’t deal with.” He propped himself up on one elbow, grinning down at Cloud. “We’ll have a house in the city but we’ll be able to travel all over the place. We’ll spend all our time finding strange things and taking on all sorts of neat jobs.”
“So we’re basically going to be vagabonds?” Cloud asked back, the half smile quirking his lips taking away even the mild sting of the words.
Zack laughed. “Yeah, but this way we’ll get paid to loiter around. We could always join the First Knights instead, I guess,” he reflected. “But I’m not really sure it’s the best place for us.” His rueful smile flashed in the dark as he reached out to tug Cloud closer. “Long periods of inactivity punctuated by panic-filled crises doesn’t sound like much fun to me. Especially if we have to live in Midgar all year long.”
“Probably not,” Cloud agreed, ducking under Zack’s arm and letting himself be reeled for a kiss.
And that, as far as either of them were concerned, was that. Their ship left on the first tide the next morning and they leaned over the back railing as it left the harbour, watching Cetra slip away into the distance behind them. It never occurred to either of them to miss it.
They spent two weeks at sea, learning how to sail and read the stars, how to scrub decks and gamble, finding their own place amid the well-ordered chaos the whole ship ran under. Cloud discovered that the rolling of the waves did not agree overmuch with his stomach and spent much of his off-duty time leaning green-faced over the side of the ship, trying without much success to tell a hovering Zack not to worry so much.
The port at Junon was a welcome sight for both of them by the time it finally crested over the horizon, Cloud for the chance to stand upright without the world reeling underneath him and Zack for the chance to drag Cloud off by the scruff of the neck and get some real food into the both of them. They bid a quick goodbye to the crew, turned down an offer to join them for the return trip, and disappeared into the bustling swirl of Shinra’s rowdiest city, ready for a new adventure.
They spent a fortnight in Junon, doing odds jobs and learning more about how to get into the Merces’ Guild. It was Cloud who found the metalsmith’s – a solid brick building tucked into a dingy side street off the main drag – and he all but hauled Zack inside to take a look, eyes bright as he lingered reverently over daggers and swords and knives.
The metalsmith had looked askance at the pair of them for coming in without parents or patrons, but neither Cloud nor Zack had any interest in causing the trouble shopkeepers expected from boys their age. The man’s eyebrows climbed right up to his hairline when Cloud finally settled on a weapon – a sword, near as tall as he was and heavy enough for a grown man to have trouble lifting – but Zack had just grinned and scruffed a fond hand through Cloud’s hair as Cloud asked the smith how much he was asking for it, and how long would it take to make another?
It took most of their savings to afford both swords, but neither Zack nor Cloud regretted it a moment; when they set out for Midgar at last it was with a spring in their steps and new weapons on their backs, the twin blades identical down to the last rivet and crease.
“We’ll need them as Merces,” Cloud reckoned innocently, new sword harness creaking as he walked. “And they certainly look impressive.”
“Yeah,” Zack grinned. “Now let’s just hope we look as impressive fighting with them as we do wearing them. I think we’re going to need a lot of practice between here and Midgar.”
“That’s alright,” Cloud grinned back. “We can do anything together, remember?”
A fond smile. “Absolutely.”
And so passed their first summer away from the caravan.
The house Cid led him to was a good fifteen minutes walk from the bar, and far enough beyond the border of the city proper that Cloud started flicking glances into the pooling shadows, wary of a trap. The rain hissed down all around them, a perfect cover for any assailants that might be lying in wait in the dark. He would know – he’d been a shadow in the dark himself more times than he cared to count.
Cloud’s gloved fingers twitched, restless.
Cid glanced over at him, a stray flicker of torchlight illuminating the white flash of the man’s teeth as he grinned.
“No need to get your panties in a bunch there, Shinra boy,” Cid told him with a chuckle. “You’re about the scariest thing to come through here in the last six months and the local boys aren’t exactly the type to go looking for your brand of trouble.”
“Hnn.” Cloud fisted his hands to stop the twitching, though he didn’t stop eyeing the darkness as though it might bite. There was no such thing as being too careful. Especially for him.
There was a single candle shining in the front window of the house that Cid finally stopped in front of.
Cid rolled his eyes. “I told that idiot not to wait up. Come on,” he ordered, stumping up to the door like the nine guardians of Terrok were waiting for him on the other side and he had a thing or three to say to them. “Let’s get this over with.”
Cloud wasn’t quite sure what to expect as he followed Cid into the house, ducking slightly to let the hilt of his sword clear the doorway. The abandoned tools and scraps of metal stacked unevenly in corners weren’t particularly surprising when Cid had been an aeronaut, nor was the seven foot spear leaning jauntily against the wall beside the front door. A pair of thigh-high boots far too thin for Cid sat neatly to one side of the hall, though Cloud could see no other sign of the house’s second occupant. A part of him wondered if that was really as odd as he thought it was.
Cid shucked off his dripping cloak and tossed it towards an empty peg on the wall. “Vin?” he called, wandering down the hall and leaving muddy prints on the floor. “What in the seven hells are you still doin’ up?”
“Reading,” a voice responded, low and quietly amused, and Cid leaned into one of the doorways on the left with an expression somewhere between irritated and fond.
“Crazy nocturnal bastard,” the man groused, leaning against the doorjamb and crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m gonna drag you down there with me one of these days – see if I don’t.”
The person in the room made a small, noncommittal noise and Cloud pulled off his rain-slicked cloak, hanging it on the peg next to Cid’s. Then he made his way cautiously forward, wincing at the squeak of wood under his wet boots.
“Absolutely hopeless,” Cid was saying, with a roll of his eyes. “Well I’ve got a puzzle for you tonight, anyway.” He jerked a finger over one shoulder as Cloud came closer. “Found ‘im at the bar.”
“And since when have you started letting people follow you– oh.” The man sitting at the low table stared in surprise as Cloud appeared behind Cid. “Oh, I see.”
Cloud lingered awkwardly in the door for a long moment, self-conscious in a way he hadn’t since before Zack had gone. The dark haired man held his gaze unblinkingly, making Cloud feel oddly like he was being judged from the inside out. His eyes were red, Cloud noticed, sooty and dark, gleaming with an inner fire that was nothing like the mage-light in Cloud’s own.
“Goddamn,” Cid sighed without heat, and Cloud started as he realized that he’d been stood there for several minutes, staring blankly back into that steady red. “And here I thought Vin was bad enough on his own. You sit down,” he ordered Cloud. “And you,” he added, unfolding from his slouch and frowning at the man at the table. “Put that fucking book down and act like a normal human being for once.”
“Mm hmm. While you do what, exactly?”
“I am going to make some fucking tea.” Cid spared a glare for the pair of them. “And I expect to hear actual talking by the time I get back, got it?”
A dark eyebrow quirked. “Yes Cid,” the man said blandly.
Cid made a rude gesture and stalked off down the hallway, muttering to himself as he went.
“You may as well sit,” the man told Cloud calmly and Cloud turned to find himself being observed with a look that might have been amusement. “You can call me Vincent.”
Chaos something in his mind corrected, midnight red and glinting steel skittering rapidly behind his eyes, but Cloud ignored it. He knew better than most that the only names that really mattered were the ones you chose for yourself, so if it was Vincent the man wanted, then Vincent it would be.
“Cloud,” he introduced himself, taking the chair closest to the door. “Cid said you might be able to help me.”
Vincent nodded. “I can see why he’d bring you here. You have two souls.”
Cloud’s breath caught sharply.
Dark hair fell across a pale cheek as Vincent’s head cocked curiously. “So you’re aware of it,” he murmured, as casual as if he were talking about the storm outside. “Or one of you is, at least.”
Cloud’s throat felt tight. “How do you… what can you see?” he corrected himself, watching that ember-bright flicker in Vincent’s dark eyes.
Vincent’s lips quirked into what could almost have passed for a smile. “Far more than I want to, most days. Whose soul is it that you carry?”
“It’s Zack’s,” Cloud answered, then cursed himself as a fool at the blank look on Vincent’s face. “My blood brother,” he clarified, tugging off his glove to show Vincent the bond mark there.
“I see.” Vincent eyed him thoughtfully. “And why are you risking both of your souls by carrying his within you?”
Cloud stiffened. “I had no choice,” he said, defensive and cold. “It was the only way to save him.”
Vincent’s eyes bored into his. “And yet you have come here looking for help.”
“You have all the subtlety of a fist to face sometimes Vin,” Cid voice spoke up from the doorway, and Cloud twisted to see the aeronaut coming into the room with three steaming mugs cradled in his wide hands. “Ignore this idiot,” Cid added to Cloud. “He doesn’t get out much.”
A mug introduced itself into the space by Cloud’s hand and Cid plunked himself down in the chair on Cloud’s right. “Now why don’t you start from the beginning?” he suggested, sliding Vincent’s mug over to him with his free hand. “We’ll stop you if you lose us.”
“Right.” Cloud pulled off his other glove almost absently, wrapping his hands around the earthenware mug and feeling the heat tingle against his palms. “Zack is my blood brother,” he said again, for Cid’s benefit this time. He stared down at the ugly scar on his palm, trying to remember what his hand looked like without it. “I’m carrying his soul for him until I can find someone to help us.”
Cid nodded. “I figured it had to be something like that.” He uncurled a finger towards Cloud’s open hand. “Don’t often see one of those marks without a matching one close by. Kinda surprised you’re not dead, actually,” he admitted candidly. “Seein’ as I’ve never met a blood pair who could stand to be apart for more than a couple of hours at a time without getting sick.”
“It’s…an unusual circumstance,” Cloud admitted, ignoring the knife-sharp twist of loneliness in his gut at the reminder. He paused for a moment, struggling to draw together the tattered threads of his memory. “We’re – we used to be Merces for Shinra,” he explained.
“Used to?” Cid asked and Cloud’s brow furrowed as he thought.
“There was a mission,” he said slowly. “Somewhere in Jenova. We accepted it because there was-” silver hair and a quiet almost-smile “-someone who needed our help.” His throat felt tight. “But it was a trap.”
It was Vincent who spoke next, quiet even in the still room. “Where in Jenova were you?”
“Erm…not near the capital?” Cloud guessed. “Zack was complaining about the walk so it can’t have been that easy to get to.”
Cid and Vincent traded a look.
“You don’t know?” Cid asked finally, something cautious in his tone.
Cloud shrugged helplessly. “Not really? I know there was some kind of disaster-” following Zack through the flames up to the “-in the city while we were there and they waited for us to get close and then…” His voice trailed off, frustration balling tight in his chest. Cid and Vincent were silent, waiting.
Cloud took a deep breath. “Zack got cursed,” he said in a rush, knowing that part was true even if nothing else made sense. “So they transferred his soul into me so that the curse couldn’t, couldn’t… do whatever it was supposed to do.” He met their eyes as steadily as he could manage. “And now I’m looking for a way to break the curse.”
“It’s true that a curse can’t take shape without access to both body and soul,” Vincent agreed slowly. “But the body isn’t meant to house two souls-” a twinge of something strange in Vincent’s eyes, there and gone again before Cloud could quantify it, “-and it can hurt the soul you already have to force that kind of overcrowding.”
“Tell me about it,” Cloud said wryly, then hid a start when he realized what he’d just said. He carried on hurriedly. “But uh, they only tried in the first place because of our blood bond – we’re already so closely joined that it isn’t as dangerous as it could be to house our souls together.” He shrugged. “And if I can break the curse, things should improve – or at least not get any worse than they already are.”
“So you’ve been, what?” Cid took a noisy slurp of tea. The expression in his eyes was far sharper than his casual tone of voice suggested. “Trolling around looking for someone to break a curse you don’t remember before it does something undetermined to this Zack who’s living as a vegetable somewhere? You’ve got your work cut out for you. Whaddaya think Vin?” he added, before Cloud’s face could decide whether to flush or blanch at the man’s bluntness. “Can you help?”
“…No,” Vincent admitted slowly. “I can’t.”
Cloud flinched despite himself. “I see,” he said, forcing his tone to remain level. He started to stand. “I’ll leave you alone then.”
“I know someone else who might be able to, though,” Vincent remarked, and Cloud’s head shot up so fast that the hilt of his sword jabbed him in the back of his skull.
“Really?” he demanded, too open, too vulnerable for him to disguise.
“He helped me once,” Vincent continued, politely indifferent to Cloud’s sudden change in demeanor. “When I was battling my own monsters. If he can’t do anything for you, I don’t know anyone else who could.”
“Thank you,” Cloud said, fiercely sincere. “How do I find him?”
Vincent turned a thoughtful look towards Cid, who scowled roundly at him.
“Figured you were going to say that,” the aeronaut groused. He flicked a look at Cloud. “You’re not an earth affinite are you?” he demanded abruptly.
Cloud blinked. “Air and iron,” he answered honestly. “Why?”
Cid’s grin sharpened. “Only one way to get where we’re going, and that’s by aeroship – earth affinites don’t tend to fly well is all.”
Cloud swallowed hard, wondering if it was too late to start walking instead.
Underground. Zack was being kept underground.
Cloud could feel sweat beading on his brow by the time they approached the third turn of the staircase, the sensation of earth crowding in on all sides getting steadily more unpleasant the further down they went. It made sense – there was no place safer to keep an earth affinite like Zack – but Cloud wasn’t nearly so well suited to the depths; they drained his strength and made him wish for fresh air and the sight of the endless sky overhead.
He caught the telltale flicker of amusement in Rufus’ eyes as they rounded the spiral again and had to grit his teeth at the double sensation of nausea and ire. Just because Rufus was aware of his discomfort didn’t mean he intended to let the man take any more enjoyment out of it than absolutely necessary.
Rude was at his back, heavy footsteps echoing in the cramped stairwell, and Cloud didn’t have to look to know the big man was as energized by the depths as Cloud was stifled by them. Reno, up in front and chattering just to irritate, wasn’t affected either way; his affinity was fire and water – which certainly explained his mercurial nature – so there wasn’t much that could bother him. Cloud was mostly just pleased to see that Elena hadn’t come with them; as a water air affinite she’d have been suffering even more than he was.
The stairway kept curving, down and down into the earth and Cloud lost track of how many turns of the tower they walked before the discordant clatter of steps turned into the strike of shoes against flat stone, the narrow stairwell widening into a large subterranean room that echoed ponderously in the dark.
Rude was a steady presence at his side as Cloud took a few deep, fortifying breaths to centre himself and Cloud appreciated the gesture even as he wondered whether the big man expected trouble out of him after what had happened in Rufus’ study.
“Enjoy the trip?” Rufus asked lightly.
Cloud gave him a narrow look.
“Wonderful,” Rufus smiled, not fazed in the slightest. “Shall we continue?” He swept across the floor towards a large iron door set in the far wall. He tilted his head at Reno. “Open it.”
Reno saluted lazily. “Sure thing, lordship.”
The door rippled as Reno approached, swirls of shifting blue pulsing through the metal in response to his presence. Water runes, Cloud realized, and wondered why Rufus hadn’t opened the door himself in that case. The door swung open at the press of Reno’s hands, revealing a long, dark corridor flanked with torches. They flared to life as Cloud watched, mage-fire racing ahead of them through the dark and sending the metal panels spaced along the walls to gleaming in the dim.
Rufus turned to look at Cloud. “Well? Go on.”
Cloud started forward at once, not caring how overeager it made him seem. He darted rapidly down the corridor, the ache of all that earth receding slightly thanks to the heavy slabs of iron all around him. Whoever had commissioned this space had certainly known what they were doing – between the depth and the metal paneling Zack could probably have done cartwheels on the ceiling in this place if he’d been awake.
There was a glass wall in front of him. Resisting the impulse to tear straight through it, Cloud slowed his pace, creeping almost hesitantly up to peer through.
A iron bier stood on the other side. There was a body lying across it.
The others walked up behind him but Cloud barely noticed, something like panic building at the back of his throat.
This couldn’t be Zack. He’d never seen Zack so still in his entire life.
“We were able to mend his body, as you can see,” Rufus spoke up when Cloud was silent too long. He shrugged, sounding remarkably offhand. “Unfortunately, without a soul the body’s not much more than an empty shell.”
It was the same face, handsome and open, though without the ever-present grin that had always made it shine. Cloud’s eyes traced the familiar contours of shoulders and arms, lingered on the wide, competent hands clasped peacefully across an unmarked chest. Zack’s hair was shaggy and overlong, dangling over the sides of the bier, stark against the unnatural pallor of his skin. Zack’s eyes were closed, like sleep, and Cloud found himself wishing they would open, that Zack would sit up and grin at him, like always. Seeing Zack like this, quiet and empty and broken, was painfully wrong.
His face hurt. Cloud realized that he had it pressed to the glass, his cheeks hot against the cool surface. The room was very quiet. Cloud blinked and backed rapidly away, retreating several steps until he could no longer make out Zack’s strangely lax expression for the glare of light on the glass. He was breathing hard.
He could feel Rufus’ eyes on him.
“We’ll move him if you want to,” the man offered. “Though I doubt I have to tell you that he’s better off here for now.”
“How…” It came out rough, his throat unnaturally tight. Cloud coughed and tried again. “How do I wake him up?”
“Oh, that’s easy.” Rufus came up next to him, tall boots clicking on the stone floor. He flicked a careless glance towards Cloud’s right hand. “We just reverse the process that pushed his soul into your body and put it back where it belongs. Nice and tidy.” He paused just long enough to let that sink in, then added, “Of course, once his soul returns the curse will be free to finish what it started.”
Cloud’s jaw clenched. “So what do I do?”
“Break the curse first, yo.” That was Reno, his ever-present smirk hovering somewhere between amused and sympathetic. Cloud gave him a look and he shrugged bonelessly. “Course, if it was that easy, we woulda done it years ago.”
“Tseng has a few leads,” Rude offered, deep voice resonating in the dark. “Nothing conclusive though – curse breakers are notoriously hard people to track down.”
“It’s better than nothing.” Cloud shifted his attention over to Rufus, who was watching him with a mild half-smile. “I can’t imagine that you’re just going to let me go,” he said. It wasn’t much of a question.
A decidedly wolfish smirk answered him. “Oh, so you’re beginning to play by the rules, are you? How refreshing.”
“What do you want?” Cloud bit out, flint sharp and ruthlessly controlled.
“Your negotiating skills could use work though,” Rufus remarked absently. “I’ll let you go,” he said, bluntly. “Let you give up being Strife and go live your life however you see fit. You can go anywhere you like, work for whomever you like. Dedicate yourself to finding a way to break the curse, if that’s what you want. I’ll keep your precious brother here, safe within these wards and protected by the same magics that defend my keep.” A flicking glance over his shoulder through the glass. “He’ll stay just the way you see him now – trapped in soulless suspension so that the curse can’t do him any further damage. And, of course, if you manage to break the curse, my people will restore his soul.”
Cloud eyed him evenly. “And what do you expect me to give you in return?”
“I want your oath,” Rufus said, his pale eyes glittering with an implacable kind of urgency. “Made in blood and bound with your word that you and your brother will remain loyal to Shinra for the rest of your days. You’ll be mine to command and direct against any enemy that doesn’t threaten the bond you share with each other.”
Cloud stared at him, shocked.
Reno whistled lowly. “Damn, lordship. That’s one hell of an oath.”
Rude cuffed his partner lightly. “Shut up, Reno.”
Rufus ignored the pair of them, fair hair gleaming in the dim. “Well, Strife?”
“I can’t swear for both of us,” Cloud stalled, mind reeling at the enormity of what Rufus was demanding. “No one can swear the life of another – not even the blood bonded. And Zack won’t need to swear to you – the curse will already be gone by the time he’s able to.”
“Ah,” Rufus smirked, smug satisfaction glittering sharply in his smile. “But what need will have I of his cooperation once I have yours? Your oath will be more than sufficient to bind the both of you to my clan for as long as I have need of you.”
Cloud frowned, grudgingly impressed by how well Rufus had thought this through.
A slender eyebrow arched with a knowing quirk. “Do you concede to my terms?” Rufus asked.
In the end, there wasn’t really any choice to make.
“I do,” Cloud agreed, and if Rufus’ expression was irritatingly smug, at least it was no worse than usual.
Rufus nodded shortly. “Good. I’ll inform Tseng of your change in status and have him see to it that your current target gets reassigned. You’re welcome to leave or stay at your discretion once you’ve sworn the oath, though you might want to start your search for a curse-breaker sooner rather than later.” A sharp-edged smile. “We wouldn’t want the condition of your soul to deteriorate any further in the meantime, now would we?”
He turned back towards the door, his Turks falling in behind him without a word. Their footfalls echoed dully across the floor, an odd sort of disjointed harmony between them. Cloud hung back for a moment longer, lifting one hand to the glass in a silent farewell while resisting the urge to look through it again. That wasn’t how he wanted to remember Zack.
“I’ll fix things,” he told him, hardly more than a whisper in the quiet. “I promise.”
The door groaned unsubtly and Cloud let his hand fall, turning with all the dignity he could muster to follow after his impatient lord.
Rufus had paused just beyond the door, watching with a faint frown as Cloud drew close. “You may come visit if you like,” he offered unexpectedly. “Any of my Turks can let you into the tower.”
“Why…” Cloud started, then shook his head. “Thank you,” he said instead. “We’re both deeply indebted to you.”
“I know,” Rufus agreed, without a trace of malice. He turned back to the stairs then, every inch the proud lord as he added, “Now, if you’re quite done, I have better things to do with my time today.” His tone went slyly amused. “And I have no doubt that you’ll be well served to get back to the surface soon. Being this far underground can’t be good for you.”
There wasn’t much Cloud could say to that, so he simply shrugged and followed as they started back up the stairs again.
Going up was marginally better than going down had been, though they were deep enough that it was long time before Cloud could feel the pressure of all that earth starting to recede. His sword felt heavy on his back, though whether that was from being so long underground or a reaction to leaving Zack alone down there in the dark, Cloud wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
It was a quiet climb back up to the surface, even Reno mostly silent for once, and Cloud allowed himself a small sigh of relief when the stairs finally leveled off into the flat landing they’d started from, deep in the heart of the Shinra keep.
Rufus spared him a quick glance. “See to it that Tseng fills you in on the information we’ve been able to gather,” he commanded. His gaze went to his Turks. “Rude. Reno.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Reno told him, with characteristic disregard for anything even remotely resembling propriety. “Right behind you, lordship.” He paused on his way to the door, green eyes skittered meaningfully from Rude to Cloud and back again. Rude nodded gravely in response and Reno grinned, his usual insolent self as he slouched out the door with a backhanded wave and a cheery ‘don’t get killed, yo’ thrown over one shoulder.
Rude didn’t sigh, more than used to his incorrigible partner. He turned to Cloud.
“You ought to go see Oracle before you leave,” Rude said, a suggestion in only the loosest possible sense of the word. “There are things you ought to know before you leave.”
Cloud blinked but Rude was already gone, the door falling shut behind him with a soft, muffled thump.
“Great,” Cloud sighed to himself. A visit to The Oracle. As if this day hadn’t been bad enough already.
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