Rating: T for violence.
Summary: FFVII Time-travel. Gen. Cloud has an accident with a Time Materia.
Author's Note: Luckily, this chapter is a rather short one, so I was able to get it out on time. No update this weekend, though - I'll be going down to the coast. So next chapter will be next wednesday.
The Fifth Act
Cloud paused at the greeting, and waited for the familiar Second Class to catch up. “Kunsel.”
“Congrats, man! I haven’t seen you since I heard the news.” He slapped the blond on the back, face stretched in a cheek-hurting grin.
The sides of his lips twitched in the faintest of smiles. “Zack and I were sent with a squad to the Corel Desert, we just got back today.”
“So I heard! Tracking some weird monster, right? Turn out to be anything dangerous?”
“A king behemoth.” Cloud shrugged, fingers fiddling with his earring just for something to do. “Unusual place for one, but not exactly a new species.”
“King behemoth, huh? Impressive. Good thing they had a First Class along, right?” He elbowed him in the ribs.
Stepping aside, Cloud remarked dryly, “Careful, you’re starting to channel Zack.”
Kunsel laughed, and then promptly started doing some squats. “I’ll make First Class next, you just wait!”
“Now it’s just getting creepy.”
Straightening, the Second rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I feel a little weirded out too.” His amusement didn’t fade. “It’s been quiet without you two around. But I have to say, that uniform suits you best.”
Cloud adjusted his collar self-consciously. It did feel good to be back in his own clothes – these fit in a way his SOLDIER uniforms never quite managed, and people had stopped giving his non-regulation shoulder guard weird looks all the time. First-Class SOLDIERs barely ever stuck to the standard black jumpsuit. Genesis wore that long red coat over his, and the only part Sephiroth had bothered to integrate from his uniform was the pants.
“It took you longer than I guessed, to be honest,” Kunsel continued. “We had all sorts of betting pools set up. Damn, Luxiere’s going to clean me out.”
“I thought…” Cloud began haltingly.
“What?” Curiosity coloured the Second’s voice.
It was a stupid insecurity. “…I don’t know. That maybe you’d be mad. I’ve been here less time than you, but already made First Class.”
Kunsel smiled, but that meant nothing. Not for the first time, Cloud wished he could see his eyes, but the shiny silver visor only reflected his own glowing gaze back at him. "I nearly didn't make SOLDIER, you know," he confided. "Barely got through on the psych test. They say they want smart people, but it's guys like Zack who have the instincts and jump into a fight without thinking, they're the ones who do the best. Guys like me tend to over-analyse things and act too late."
"Yeah," Cloud murmured in agreement. He used to have a similar problem - probably just one of the many reasons he didn't make the cut into SOLDIER. Still did, sometimes, but at some point he'd moved past it. Maybe due to part of Zack's personality lingering, or maybe it had just been trained out of him through his ordeals. Either way, he could imagine himself being a lot like Kunsel if he'd made SOLDIER the normal way. "But Sephiroth and Genesis aren't like that." Sephiroth especially could wage psychological warfare like no other. And though Genesis's temper often drove him to irrationality, when he kept a cool head his tactics would even impress a Turk.
Kunsel grinned. "Those guys are on a whole other level, though. They practically need a new category just for them. They say the General's a genius."
He knew. Not just from the memories of him poring over nigh-incomprehensible texts in a basement library, but in the casual way the man could glance at a document for five seconds and recite it flawlessly, and the way he could argue complex materia theory with Genesis and sound almost bored by it.
Reluctantly, he admitted Tseng had a point. How many people got to see that side of Sephiroth?
“Anyhow,” Kunsel continued with a lazy wave of his arm. “I can’t really be jealous. Because if a guy like you can make it – well, it gives hope to a guy like me.”
Instantly reproachful, Cloud turned his eyes on his fellow SOLDIER, practically willing the helmet to burn away under his glare. Kunsel ducked his head. “Yeah, I know. We already had this conversation. But you’re a good role model.” Embarrassed, he rubbed the back of his neck again. “It’s a bit weird saying that to someone I outranked not that long ago,” he laughed.
Quiet, Cloud turned his gaze back to floor. “I’m no role model.” The conversation with Tseng haunted him.
He still felt morbidly embarrassed over the whole ordeal. To begin with, he’d been terrified that Tseng had figured out his secrets. Then there’d been horror at the Turk’s actual conclusion, followed soon after by the sickening suspicion that he might be a little bit right. Was it Geostigma all over again, where he’d resigned himself to dying, instead of fighting to survive?
At that realisation, he’d almost been crushed by guilt. Zack had charged him with the task of surviving, hadn’t he? Had thrown the last of his hopes and dreams away to secure their freedom and spare the life of his half-comatose friend. What kind of living legacy would he be, if he threw all that away?
It didn’t matter, though. Even though he’d lost a couple of nights sleep brooding over Tseng’s words, they were just that – words. At the eleventh hour, he would drag himself to his feet and fight. No matter how much he might want to give up, some part of him always insisted on surviving. He had to survive, to make sure Meteor and Nibelheim and Sector 7 and Zack and Aeris and all those disasters didn’t happen.
An awkward silence hung between them – Cloud lost in thought, and Kunsel uncertain how to react to the suddenly dark mood. Rather than argue, the Second eventually shattered the heavy air by prodding, “So what was it like, ordering Zack around?”
Cloud shook his head. “With him, I doubt it would make a difference even if I were Rufus ShinRa.”
“Yeah, Zack probably wouldn’t listen even if you were the President himself,” Kunsel agreed with a chuckle. “He’s a good friend, though.”
Cloud made a sound of agreement, thoughts still wandering. He'd often wondered in the past if Zack would be friends with the person he became. They'd definitely been friends during his ShinRa days - he had Zack's PHS number, they'd grab a bite to eat if they came across each other off-duty, and the SOLDIER First would occasionally crash his bunk to drag him out for some extra training - but it was such a sporadic thing, he’d always doubted Zack treasured it as much as he did. Of course, going through Nibelheim and the hell after that... Cloud and Aeris were the only friends he had left by that point. Tseng and Cissnei, and even the other SOLDIERs, couldn't be trusted anymore.
“Just kidding. We’re friends, right?”
It didn't change the question. What would a Zack who hadn't gone through that think of the present him?
Apparently more or less the same thing, although the dynamic had changed. For example, Cloud could order him around. Not that it would make any difference, but he could do it.
With a blink, he turned his attention back to the Second standing next to him, hands on his hips. Kunsel shook his head with a grin. “You keep spacing out on me today. Am I that boring?”
Giving him a flat look, Cloud pointed out, “You haven’t started reciting Loveless yet. You’re still okay.”
“Price you pay, hanging around Commander Rhapsodos,” was Kunsel’s witty rejoinder. He stretched, yawning. “Going to take some time out?”
“Hn. Lazard hasn’t given me any new missions yet.” Awkwardly, he offered, “Did you want another materia session?” He figured he’d feel a little less weird about ‘training’ Kunsel now that he made First Class. Gaia, that thought still felt odd after so long. First Class. For real. He’d been wearing fake pearls around his neck for so long, he couldn’t treasure the real ones properly.
Grimacing, Kunsel replied, “I can’t. I’ve had to take over the classes of another one of the Seconds. He was part of General Sephiroth’s retinue for the Junon inspection.”
“So?” Classes held by SOLDIERs were normally in the mornings – drill sergeants took over in the afternoons.
“So I’m on chaperone duty for a training camp out in the marshes.”
Cloud remembered those training camps. He’d actually enjoyed them – being a country kid, it had been one of the few times he could hold an advantage over his spoiled city peers. “Good luck. And watch out for the hornets. They’re poisonous, and as big as your hand.”
Another wince. “Zack’s been telling you the stories too, huh?”
“They’re not stories. I’ve seen them.”
“Great, now I’m really looking forward to this,” he groaned. “I guess I should get going. See you in a couple of days!”
Cloud raised his hand in farewell as the Second walked away, and considered where to go next. An empty afternoon, no Zack or Kunsel around… back to his Training Room vigil. Who knew, today might be the day Hojo finally turned up.
His step was light as he walked the now-familiar corridors to the Training Room. He felt relaxed – the most relaxed he’d felt in a long time. It probably had something to do with Sephiroth being so far away. He couldn’t feel the eerie sense of connection, constantly lurking in the back of his mind, fuelling his paranoia.
That distraction was the only excuse he could offer for his lapse of vigilance.
Cloud swiped the card that opened the door to the Training Room. It beeped, and opened with its usual distinctive whoosh. The wasteful display of technology didn’t even faze him anymore as he stepped inside.
Cloud didn’t make it past the doorway. As soon as he crossed the threshold, stars exploded in his vision, pain blossoming at the base of his skull. What-?
Stumbling forward, he fumbled for his sword, but the world spun and colour smeared before his eyes as he struggled to remain upright. He caught a flash of a white shirt – no, a lab coat - and his breath caught in his throat. Hojo? But-
A flash of black from the corner of his eyes. Fast. He tried to duck – which way was up and which was forward? - and the blow glanced off the side of his head. He staggered sideways, and tried to grab the hilt of First Tsurugi again, but a fierce grip closed around his wrist. Panicked, Cloud struggled to drag enough concentration together to shoot off a spell. Fire. Heat blossomed somewhere to his right – or was it left? He hadn’t aimed, but just long enough to get free, draw his sword-
Another blow, right at that same throbbing spot at the base of his skull. His knees hit the cold metal floor, darkness clouding his vision. Finally he managed to lift his sword from its harness, swinging wildly. He could hear someone swearing, but it sounded like they were underwater. A smashing hit nearly crushed his fingers, but he held on to the hilt stubbornly, refusing to drop his last line of defence. If he could just shake it off, get his head clear-
His eyes rolled wildly, trying to focus. His ears strained to pick up movement. There, behind-
Too slow to avoid the fourth hit.
Cloud crumpled to the floor.
Hearing returned first. A ticking clock, somewhere in the next room. A shuffle of papers. A rhythmic, soothing beep, backed by the soft whir of computer fans.
It was the most terrifying sound in the world.
His limbs were numb, as heavy as sandbags and about as responsive. Cloud didn’t force them. Sedatives at work, almost certainly. They didn’t do much to help the dull ache in his head, throbbing in sync with the heart rate monitor. Whoever took him out hit hard enough to crack the skull of a dual horn.
Smell returned next. The sharp, clean tang of antiseptic lingered in his nostrils. And when he breathed in, he could detect just a trace of something else – an odd mix of rotten eggs and earth and acid. Mako.
The beeping became frantic, and the machine let out a shrill warning.
He’d been given away. Cloud’s eyes shot open and rolled frantically from side to side, trying to take everything in during the few seconds he’d have before Hojo turned up. White walls. Steel table. Arms and legs strapped down. No mako tanks – this wasn’t Nibelheim. It didn’t help. He was in a lab.
His breath came in short, sharp gasps – he couldn’t seem to get enough air into his lungs. “Hey. Hey! Strife! Calm down! No one’s going to hurt you!”
That voice again. Baritone, city accent, no-nonsense. He recognised it.
“Angeal?” he croaked, rolling his head to the side. Black hair, thick arms, Buster sword on his back. How had he missed him? He pulled against his restraints, feeling the coarse straps rub uncomfortably against his skin. His gloves were missing.
“Sorry about this. But I was worried you might freak out when you woke up,” Angeal apologised. He did sound genuinely contrite.
Closing his eyes and taking another deep breath, Cloud requested, “Undo these for me.” Just the infirmary, then? But why would Angeal be worried he’d freak out? And why was he restrained?
“If you promise to sit quietly and cooperate.”
Wary now, Cloud eyed the other First and asked, “…What happened?”
Angeal wouldn’t meet his eyes. “I wouldn’t have done it if I thought I could convince you to come along peacefully. I don’t have a lot of time – this was the quickest way.”
Relief washed away under a rising tide of dread. “…What do you want?” His fingers slowly curled into fists.
“Hollander says you might be able to help.”
Summoned by his name, the portly scientist stuck his head in front the doorway. “I’ll just be another second!” He disappeared again briefly, returning a moment later wheeling a small metal tray lined with syringes and test tubes. It rattled noisily along the tiled floor. For an instant, the portly man was replaced with a stooped form, long dark hair tied back in a lank ponytail, glasses almost hanging off the end of a hooked nose.
The heart rate monitor began to speed up again.
“Calm down,” Angeal chided, then to Hollander, “Do you really need all that?”
“Probably not all of it,” he agreed. “But I’ll need a decent sample of blood. And then there’ll be the bone marrow, and the tissue samples-”
“Let me go!” Cloud demanded, unable to shake the waver from his voice.
“Don’t be so selfish, boy. You could hold the key to reversing degradation!” Hollander berated, even as he sorted through the syringes.
The words barely registered. All Cloud could see was the light glinting off the sharp metal tips of the needles. Needles, which had at one point scarred his arms so badly he had to wear gloves – more to hide the evidence of his torture at the hands of Hojo from himself than from anyone else. He began to thrash in place, arms straining against his bonds.
“Strife, stop it, you’ll-”
The restraint on his right arm ripped. Leather. Hojo used metal.
Wildly, he threw a punch. Angeal caught his wrist, and pinned it back to the cold metal table. He tore his other one free, but the black-haired First caught that one too. Flexing his fingers and jerking his arms, Cloud fought to break his vice-like hold. Too heavy, too large, but damn if he wasn’t going fight with all he had!
“Hollander, do something! He’s going mad! I can’t hold him down much longer!” Angeal yelled.
“I’ve got the sedative – just keep him still!”
“Let me go!” Cloud snarled. He wrenched in place, trying to throw the SOLDIER off. “Let me go!” Wild eyes tracked the professor’s hands as he tried to shy away from the syringe. The needle pierced the tender flesh of his elbow. Slowly, his struggles grew weaker, and drowsiness began to kick in. His words dropped to a slurred whisper. “…Let me go…”
As consciousness began to slip away from him, he found his head rolling to the side, searching for a second person who wasn’t there.
Darkness fell, and nobody answered.