Chapter Two

     "So that's all of it, Yuffie?", Cloud asked, his handsome
features contorted with worry as he listened to the last of the
Materia Hunter's report over the PHS, the mid-morning sun shining
down on top of him and casting a long shadow to the west.

     "That's it, fearless leader.", Yuffie replied, her voice
scratchy and filled with static distortion from the mountains out
of which she was broadcasting.  "A Shinra attack squad sunk my boat
and -sszzzzzzz-ly had me too.  I made it to Wutai, but if you want
-szzzzzzzzz- come in I need a ride.  Copy?"

     "Vincent was attacked yesterday night as well.", Cloud
replied, trying to keep the worry from his voice.  "He's on his way
here right now.  I'm not sure if this ties in with what happened to
you, but we can't rule out the possibility of somebody gunning for
one or all of us."

     "Think somebody's pissed we tore up Sephiroth?", Yuffie asked,
a strong burst of static accompanying her words.

     "Can't be sure of anything right now.", Cloud responded.
"Hang tight, Yuffie, and stay in Wutai.  We'll be there to pick you
up by this afternoon."

     "Got it.", Yuffie replied.  "See you then."  A burst of static
finished the transmission as she hung up.

     "This is not good.", Red commented from his side, his one good
eye glancing upwards at Cloud cautiously.  He had chosen to stay
with Tifa and Cloud in Kalm after they had destroyed Sephiroth, for
reasons that Cloud wasn't completely sure off.  Perhaps he merely
wanted to spend some more time with his new friends. 
Unfortunately, Cloud thought it was probably more than that.  Red's
mentor and grandfather, Bugenhagen, had died only a few days before
their final confrontation with Sephiroth, deep in the interior of
the Planet.  Perhaps Cosmo Canyon still held too many painful
memories for him, and so he chose to stay with them in Kalm. 
Regardless, Cloud was glad for his company.  It gave him someone
else to defer too when his relationship with Tifa became too

     Dammit, why couldn't he just let Aeris go?  He knew she'd want
him to be happy, not pining over her for weeks after she died.  But
he couldn't let her go.  Sephiroth had controlled his mind during
their quest to destroy him, and through the other's manipulation he
had done many things for which he could never forgive himself.  He
had almost killed Aeris himself.  It was only when he had fought
Sephiroth's grim commands to a standstill that the evil warrior had
fallen from the sky and taken Aeris' life.  But he hadn't been able
to save her.  That guilt clung to him, dragging him down when he
was alone at night, when Sephiroth's eyes burned into him with
their taunts and threats.  He had let her die.  It was almost worse
than if he had killed her.

     "What did Yuffie say?", Tifa asked as she walked up beside
him, having completed her sweep of the town.  Her face was calm,
which meant that she had not found any immediate threats anywhere
nearby.  Cloud wasn't sure whether that relieved or worried him.

     "She was attacked yesterday night by a Shinra Commando Squad,
just like Vincent.", Cloud replied grimly.  "They killed her crew
and burned her ship, but she managed to kill them all and get

     Tifa grimaced prettily, worry clouding her features.  "First
Vincent, now Yuffie.  What about Barret and Cid?  Have you heard
from them?"

     "I'm calling them right now.", Cloud said.  "We need to pick
up Yuffie at Wutai, anyways, so we'll need the Highwind."  He
flipped open the PHS and punched a quick sequence of numbers into
it.  It rang, twice, before he heard Barret pick up on the other

     "What up?", Barret asked calmly.

     "Barret, this is Cloud.", Cloud responded.

     "Whaddya want, you spiky-haired freak?", Barret asked, a touch
of humor in his voice.

     "You may be in danger, Barret.", Cloud responded calmly, not
wanting to worry Barret more than necessary.  "Vincent and Yuffie
were both attacked yesterday night by Shinra Commandos.  We haven't
been attacked, but there's a chance they could come after you too."

     "Shiiiiiit...", Barret cursed on the other end of the line,
his voice quickly turning cold.  "Too late for the warning, Spike. 
We've already had our own visit from them Shinra bastards."

     "You alright?", Cloud asked quickly, his worry increasing.
Barret, Cid, Yuffie and Vincent.  Why would Shinra be after them? 
They weren't even an organized corporation anymore, with most of
their command hierarchy dead or jailed.  Reeve was running things
in what was left of Midgar, but Cloud didn't think that Shinra
still had any influence beyond that.  Perhaps he shouldn't have
been so quick to assume that Shinra would go down with Sephiroth.

     "Was anyone hurt?", he continued, concerned.  "How many were

     "Three of the bastards.", Barret responded, acid in his tone.
"They came after Marlene.  Woulda killed her, too, if me and Cid
hadn't flattened their sorry asses."

     "My god...", Tifa said softly from beside him.  "What kind of
a man would order his soldiers to attack children?"

     "We need to talk, Barret, in person.", Cloud said, sudden
steel in his voice.  No one came after his friends without
answering for it.  Someone was going to pay for these attacks.  "I
need you and Cid to get the Highwind over here on the double."

     "Alright, soldier boy.", Barret responded grimly.  "I'm
bringin' Marlene too.  I don't feel comfortable leaving her here by

     "Roger that.", Cloud answered.  "See you when you get here."

     "Later, Spike.", Barret responded, and then the line went

     "Barret too.", Red commented.  "Strange they haven't come
after you, Cloud.  If someone has it out for the people that took
down Sephiroth, seems they'd come after the leader first."

     "I know.", Cloud answered, frowning.  "It doesn't make sense.
Why would they attack the others and leave us alone?"

     "To break your spirits.", a strong voice said from beside him.
He spun, surprise quickly giving way to recognition.

     "Vincent!", he exclaimed.  The other's cloak was torn up
pretty badly, but he appeared not to have suffered any permanent
injuries.  Fatigue showed in his eyes.  "Glad you made it in.  How
are your wounds?"

     "Healing.", Vincent said with a nod.

     "I'll fix that.", Tifa said quickly, laying her hands on his
chest and bowing her head.

     "Fullcure.", she murmured.  She flashed, brightly, her
curative magic flaring up all about her and enveloping her body and
Vincent's, attracting the attention of several people standing
nearby, who turned to watch the display in amazement.  The magic
faded, and Vincent looked considerably rested.

     "Thank you.", he said curtly to Tifa, and then turned back to
Cloud.  "I've been thinking about this on my way here.  Who else
has been attacked?"

     "Yuffie, Barret and Cid.", Cloud responded darkly.  "And
Marlene.  Barret says that the three Commandos who came after him
went after her first."

     "Sever the family ties, and you hurt the whole.", Vincent
murmured thoughtfully.  "I doubt that the Commandos who came after
Barret and Cid were sent after them at all.  It doesn't make sense
to only send three after the two of them, since a full attack squad
was sent after Yuffie and myself."

     "What are you saying, Vincent?", Tifa asked, not liking his

     "Those Commandos were most likely sent to kill Marlene.",
Vincent said tonelessly.  "Think about it, Cloud.  How would you
feel if you woke up and found that your daughter had been killed
during the night, as you slept unaware in your bed?  Angered,
saddened, but most of all guilty.  Guilty that you had not been
there to save her."

     Cloud nodded slowly, Vincent's words all to easy to

     "Then that's why they came after you and Yuffie, and didn't
attack us.", Red continued slowly, blinking once, his tail
twitching.  "With Marlene dead, and the two of you as well, they
hurt us emotionally before they come after us in full force.  This
would imply considerable hatred of our party in addition to a
desire of revenge."

     "My god...", Tifa whispered.  "Could they do that, Cloud?  How
could anyone be so... horrible?"

     Cloud shook his head, unable to answer her.  Instead, he
turned back to the other two.  "I am glad I do not think like the
two of you, for I have troubles enough already.", he said, nodding
to Vincent and Red.  "But I believe you may be right.  The thought
of losing any of you sickens me, and that may have been the purpose
of these attacks.  Assuming whoever is behind them did wish to
strike at me, exclusively."

     "I think that we can't doubt that.", Vincent warned.  "It's
the only thing that makes sense from this whole mess.  You led us
throughout our entire quest to take down Sephiroth.  You are the
person most directly responsible for his downfall."

     "But he helped save the world!", Tifa protested, growing
angry.  "How could anyone hate him for that?"

     "Humans are notoriously hard to understand regarding such
matters.", Red commented, then winced.  "Present company excluded,
of course."

     "And how is Shinra tied in?", Tifa asked.  "Reeve is leading
it now.  Why would he have any reason to try and destroy us?"

     "Do not forget his first betrayal.", Red said darkly.  "His
actions were almost the first in the chain of events which led to
Meteor descending towards our planet.  Do any of us know him as
well as we think?  He fought with us to destroy Sephiroth, albeit
it in the form of a puppet, and was responsible for saving a large
number of the people of Midgar by moving them into the slums before
Meteor hit.  But Sephiroth had hurt Shinra too.  They had a vested
interest in seeing him fall.  With him out of the picture, they may
be trying to expand their influence once more."

     "I can't see Reeve being involved.", Cloud protested.  "He was
devoted to Shinra, maybe even a bit shady in his business dealings,
but I don't believe he's capable of murder.  Heideggar or Scarlet
I'd believe, but not Reeve.  He seemed to be the only one of their
original corporate body with anything approaching morality."

     "People change.", Red said simply.  "Sephiroth was not always
the despotic tyrant that he was when we started our quest against

     Red's words rang true.  Cloud remembered how betrayed he had
felt when his one-time idol had gone insane after his terrifying
discovery in the Shinra mansion.  Even to this day he was sure that
the story of his unnatural birth had been the catalyst that had
twisted Sephiroth from a ruthless but fair General into the evil,
soulless monster that he had become with his burning of Nibleheim. 

     "I own you.", those eyes said, coming again to the forefront
of his mind.  Cloud pushed his nightmares away, as they had no
place appearing during the day.  

     "Very well.", Cloud said after a brief second's thought.
"After we join up with Barret and Cid and pick up Yuffie, we'll
head to Midgar.  Even if Reeve isn't involved in this, he's sure to
know something about it."

     "Do you really think Reeve would try to kill us, Cloud?", Tifa
asked, her tone betraying her disbelief.

     "I don't think he would have done it.", Cloud admitted.  "But
I've been wrong before.  Regardless, Midgar gives us a starting
point.  I'm not going to rest until we find out who is behind these
attacks.  Waging war on children--only Sephiroth was so cold."

     A large shadow fell over them momentarily, as the whine of jet
engines roared through the square.  

     "They got here quick.", Cloud commented, as the Highwind, Mark
III, descended to the ground, disappeared behind a line of
buildings as it landed just outside the town.  "We'd best get
moving, then.  Are all of you ready to go?"

     The others nodded, saying nothing.  It was time to move out.
Cloud took one last look around the quite town of Kalm, wondering
when he would see it again.  Then he turned and headed for the
gate, the others following behind him.  So it was starting again. 
A new enemy had emerged to threaten him.  Who would it take from
him this time?  Sephiroth had taken his life, his town, his mother
and one of his best friends.  As the Highwind came into sight with
their exit of the town, Cloud silently vowed that no one else would
die under his command, not this time.  He would die himself before
he would let any of his friends come to harm again.  Not only
because they were his responsibility, but also because he didn't
think he could live with any more guilt for their deaths.  He was
barely staying afloat as it was.  A hyper at the beginning of the
week had seemed to cure his melancholy mood, but it's affects were
already wearing off, and soon he faced the choice of taking another
or sinking into depression once more.  Still, maybe having
something to do, something positive to devote his energies too,
would keep his mind off his troubled past for a few more days.  He
hoped so.  His mind needed to be on the job at hand, not the past.

     "I own you.", the eyes said, clutching at the edge of his

     "You... do... not.", Cloud thought angrily.  "You're dead,
Sephiroth.  And I killed you."

     "It does not matter.", the eyes hissed, taunting.  "You will
never be rid of me, boy.  One by one I will take the people you
love.  And then I will come for you and end your life, slowly and
painfully.  You will die knowing that you have failed."

     "That's... not... true!", Cloud managed, his vision fading to
red.  Numbly, he felt himself falling forward, as somebody at his
side said something he couldn't understand.

     "Die, boy.", the voice whispered, angrily.  "Die for the pain
you have caused me!"

     Cloud couldn't respond.  His world was a red haze, and he had
no sense of self any longer.  He thought he could feel hands
holding his arms, and almost heard voices of some sort, but it was
all hazy.  His consciousness was fading...

"Shiiiit, not again.", Barret cursed as he and Cid ran up to the party, kneeling over Cloud's prone form, curled into a ball at their center. Concern was in the eyes of Tifa and Red, but Barret couldn't read Vincent's expression. The man had always been an enigma to him, and being a former Turk, Barret might have felt some measure of hostility towards him. Still, Vincent had proven a loyal ally, and besides, Barret had already taken one former Shinra soldier into his trust. Another couldn't cause any more damage. "What's going on?", Cid asked angrily, the cigarette in his mouth flashing hotly as he took a deep breath and exhaled. "Cloud go wonky again?" "I don't know!", Tifa exclaimed, frustrated. "Cloud!", she said, trying to take hold of one of his arms. He thrashed, throwing her back. She got to her feet, unrebuffed and calm. "Cloud, can you hear me?" Suddenly, without warning, the blond-haired warrior jumped to his feet, unsheathing his massive sword. Somehow, Barret knew what he intended to do. "Cid, get 'is weapon!", Barret yelled, as he pushed Tifa roughly out of the way, tackling Cloud about the waist. Cloud's sword came up as they fell, his eyes blank and filled with glowing red, and then Cid's pike swung into the Ultima weapon, neatly knocking it from Cloud's hands. The two of them crashed to the ground, and Barret easily pinned the smaller man, as Cloud thrashed in his grip. "Damn, he's strong!", Barret cursed, as Cloud began to break free, burning with strength that seemed far greater than normal. Something to do with the red in his eyes, maybe. Then Cid and Vincent were there as well, and together the three of them held Cloud down until the red faded from his eyes and his thrashing subsided. He coughed, suddenly, and blood trickled onto his lower lip. "What did you do to him, Barret?", Tifa asked angrily, having recovered enough to come to his side. "I didn't do nothing, sides save your hide.", Barret spit, turning to Tifa. "Whatever caused 'em to jump up like that musta hurt him somehow too. You ever seen anything like that, Tifa? His eyes were glowing. Glowing red." Tifa shook her head slowly, almost on the verge of tears. For a moment, Barret didn't understand why she would be so upset, but when he thought about it, the man she loved HAD just tried to kill her. He was glad Marlene had stayed in the Airship with Cid's crew. If he had brought her out here, and Cloud had ended up killing her--he didn't want to think about it. Cloud was his friend, regardless of whatever was wrong with him now. He'd seen a lot of heavy shit since his quest to destroy Shinra had been expanded into a quest to save the Planet, and although he didn't understand what it took to control a man's mind, he knew that Sephiroth had done it to Cloud. And now it was happening again. "Let him up.", Red said, his calm voice cutting through the silence. "The sickness has been abated, for now. He needs medical attention." Tifa stepped forward, but Red shook his head in a negative. "Magic cannot cure this ailment, Tifa. We must find other means." "What is wrong with him?", Tifa asked, betrayed and confused. "I do not know for sure.", Red answered after a second. "But I have an idea. Barret, let him up. Your weight is suffocating him." "You sure, Red?", Barret said, trying to shift his weight around to keep Cloud pinned while giving the other some more room to breath. "He looked pretty hostile a second ago." "Let him up.", Red said again. The dog never seemed to be wrong, blast his mangy hide. Grudgingly, Barret moved off of Cloud, preparing to knock him back down if it looked like he was gonna go crazy again. The blond- haired warrior lay where he was, coughing up some more blood, but not making any further movements. Tifa crouched at his side, cradling his head in her lap. "It'll be okay...", she murmured, barely loud enough for Barret to hear. Damn, the spiky-haired freak tries to kill her, and now she's all cozy with him again? Barret would never understand women. "We must get him to Cosmo Canyon.", Red said, motioning to Cid and Barret. "The two of you, help him up. Yuffie will have to wait. Helping Cloud is more important." "Got it.", Cid said, kneeling near Cloud and Tifa and gently touching her shoulder in a surprising gesture of compassion, very rare with his usually bitter disposition. "We'll get 'em. We gotta help 'im to the Airship, Tifa." She nodded, collected herself, and draped Cloud's arm over her shoulder, giving the other arm to Cid as they lifted him to his feet together. Barret moved forward to help, but realized the two of them had him well in hand. "Aeris...", Cloud murmured, his voice barely intelligible. "Got... to save... Aeris..." Barret could see how much his words hurt Tifa, even though she hid it so well. He'd never understand Cloud's taste in women, either. Aeris had been nice enough, but she was dead, as cold as that sounded. Tifa was a wonderful woman. Why couldn't Cloud wizen up and love her the way she loved him? He was certainly no expert on relationships, but he knew a good match when he saw it. Cloud was stupid not to see what was waiting for him, if he'd just let Aeris go. "Quickly, we must move.", Red ordered, taking command in the absence of Cloud's leadership. The dog had grown a lot since they had first rescued him from the Shinra building, where Hojo had been performing all manner of unpleasant experiments on him. "We must get him to the Airship and reach Cosmo Canyon as quickly as possible. His life may depend on us." Together with the rest of the party, Cid and Tifa lugged Cloud to the airship, and then several crewmen emerged to assist their Captain. Barret was the last in, about to shut the door behind him, when he suddenly remembered something. "Damn!", he said. "Did anyone grab Cloud's sword?" "Didn't see where it landed.", Cid responded, shaking his head. "I'll get it. Don't want to piss off Cloud by losing his best weapon." Cid disappeared back outside, and Barret waited a full minute before moving outside to join him. "Find it?", he called. Cid turned to him, took a drag of his cigarette, and shook his head angrily. "Don't know where it went!", he exclaimed. "It couldn't have flown more than a few feet from where we were. That thing is pretty damn heavy. But it ain't here." Barret joined Cid in the search, but a quick look at the ground surrounding where Cloud had fallen turned up nothing. "Damn.", he growled. "Whaddya suppose happened to it?" "I saw it fly out of Cloud's grip and land a few feet off.", Cid said, closing his eyes in recollection. "I know it was here! Maybe one of the others grabbed it and we didn't notice." "I'd notice someone lugging that thing around.", Barret said, his tone low. He thought back to the quick trip to the Airship. Red leading, Cid and Tifa supporting Cloud, him and Vincent in the rear. Vincent. Had he grabbed it? "Vincent musta got it.", Barret concluded. "Boy moves pretty quietly when you ain't lookin' at him." "Guess so.", said Cid, unsure. "Well, like Red said, we gotta' get goin'. Head on back?" "Yup.", Barret agreed. The two of them turned around and headed back to the Airship. As he closed the door, Barret noticed Vincent walking towards him. "What's wrong?", the man asked. "You get Cloud's sword?", Barret asked conversationally, as Cid walked past him and closed the door. "I thought you got it.", Vincent answered. "Why, is it missing?" Barret regarded the former Turk thoughtfully. What reason would Vincent have to take Cloud's sword? He couldn't think of any. Still, he didn't know the man very well, despite the fact that they had fought side by side many times. "Not sure what happened to it.", Barret said. "One of the others must have grabbed it." Vincent closed his eyes as Cid had done, seeming to replay the entirety of the last few minutes back in his head. Evidently, he did so with more clarity. "No one grabbed it, not from our group.", he said grimly. "Cid knocked it out of his hands. It fell five feet four inches to the southwest of Red." He paused, clearly concentrating. "My attention was drawn away by Cloud..." His eyes opened. "It's gone.", he stated calmly. "I remember seeing the area out of the corner of my eye. The sword was gone after you tackled Cloud." "You can remember all that?", Cid asked in disbelief. Vincent merely nodded. The sound of the Highwind's engines powering up ended their speculation. "It's just a sword.", Barret said uncertainly. "It's not like Cloud'll miss it. He's got plenty more." "I'd love to stay and look for it, but we have no time.", Vincent said, turning around and starting down the hall towards the bridge of the Airship. "Cloud's condition is serious. It's only a weapon. We can come back and find out what happened to it after we help him." "The Highwind's security cameras should have gotten some footage of the area.", Cid said, as he and Barret fell into step behind Vincent. "We were close enough. We can watch that later and figure out what happened to the blasted thing." "Sure.", Barret agreed, putting the matter out of his mind. It was stupid to worry about lost weapons when Cloud's life was at stake.

As the being called Nanaki led the party into the town called Cosmo Canyon, he glanced around curiously, evaluating the emotions that this place was arousing inside him. He had a good number of happy memories here. To his right was the large bonfire, kept blazing even during the day, around which he and others had sat so many times and listened to Bugenhagen relate his many stories of knowledge. Bugenhagen. His mentor, his grandfather. He had passed on, but Nanaki did not feel sad. Bugenhagen had not said he was going to die. He had merely said that he was 'moving on', going to a place where he had always wanted to go, where one of his age was destined to finally reach. Nanaki knew that he would join him there someday, in some time hundreds of years hence, when it came his time to leave the Planet at last. Until that time, he would be content with the role that his mentor had charged him--not to guard Cosmo Canyon, but to safeguard the entire planet. It was a large responsibility, but Nanaki shouldered it without question. His kind lived to protect. It was what they did. That was why he looked up to Cloud so much. Even with his pitifully short human lifespan, the man was more concerned about the continued existence of the Planet than his own well being. All of the humans that he kept company with were, which marked them as a group set apart. Most of their kind, from Red's experience, were concerned only with short-term gains of wealth and power. A large corporation of humans had nearly destroyed their planet with their wasteful burning of the Lifestream, steadily destroying it to fuel their furnaces and offices. He was glad that the Mako reactors which were still functional before Meteor had arrived had been destroyed by the Lifestream. Despite the best efforts of a large number of surviving Shinra technicians, the reactors refused to activate again. The humans had abused their access to the Lifestream, and so it had been cut off. It was fitting. Nanaki did not envy Reeve and the other surviving Shinra operatives the task of trying to rebuild Midgar without power to run it's operations. He knew their efforts would fail, but they did not listen to him. He would let them find out for themselves. He ceased his contemplation of the past, concentrating on the present. Already he was leading the party up the steps towards Bugenhagen's observatory, his paws silent on the rockhewn steps, his tail twisting back and forth behind him, it's flame burning softly. Inside, he knew, was the information that could help Cloud. He did not know for sure what illness had afflicted his leader, but as he had said, he had an idea. Just as Sephiroth had done, someone appeared to be assaulting Cloud's mind with their own, destroying his psyche for a purpose that only they could know. Red did not think that it was Sephiroth. He knew for a fact that the evil human had died in the depths of the Planet when he and Cloud and the rest had confronted him for the final time. But if not Sephiroth, then who? Who was powerful enough to twist Cloud's mind around so thoroughly? Whoever was behind Cloud's suffering now, they were surely an enemy that would require caution to destroy. "We are here.", Nanaki announced as they reached the door of the observatory. He pushed the door open with his snout, stepping inside and motioning for the others to follow. "Lay him here.", he ordered. Cid and Tifa complied, laying Cloud's limp body down onto the soft leather of a couch just inside the door. The young human was sweating profusely, his forehead hot with fever, twisting and turning in his sleep and coughing every few seconds. "Remain with him for a few minutes.", Nanaki said. The rest complied, Tifa and Barret gathering around Cloud as Cid and Vincent, exchanging a quick look, left to take up defensive positions outside the house. Their caution was good. Nanaki did not believe they were completely safe anywhere, with an enemy as powerful as this one on the loose. He trotted up the ladder to the upper floor, padding past the couch where Bugenhagen had lain when he had spoken his last words and given Red his final gift. He passed the spot without pausing, reaching the cabinets set against the wall and rummaging through them quickly. Withdrawing a jar of several green herbs along with an almost luminescent yellow powder, Nanaki headed back downstairs with the material clasped gently in his jaws. He quickly started water pouring from the sink, and withdrew two of the leaves from the jar. Working efficiently, he filled an empty jar a third of the way with water, and then crushed the two leaves over it, dropping their bits into the mix. The water colored a deep purple, immediately, as the sap from the interior of the leaves reacted with it's substance. Nanaki then sprinkled several pawfuls of the yellow powder into the mix, and stirred it for a few minutes as Tifa and Barret looked on, curious as to what he was about. Finally, satisfied the mix was complete, he turned off the faucet and capped the jar, carrying it in his jaws over to where the two of them sat beside Cloud. "Give him this.", Nanaki said through clenched teeth, his words coming out garbled. Tifa understood, however, taking the jar from his mouth and uncapping it. "All of it?", she asked uncertainly, eyeing the purplish liquid cautiously. "All of it.", Nanaki assured her. Worry in her dark black eyes, Tifa did as instructed. Cloud spit the first swallow up immediately, but seemed to relax as some of the liquid took hold of him, numbing his mouth and letting the rest trickle down his throat. Soon, the mixture was gone, and Cloud lay peacefully, his chest rising and falling slowly. "Is he better?", Tifa asked, handing the jar back to Nanaki. He grabbed it in his jaws and set it to the side. "Not yet.", Nanaki answered. "But he will sleep peacefully. The mix has put him to sleep and numbed his muscles, and should help to counteract the poison coursing through his veins. He should be fine until we find a way to help him." "You mean he's gonna stay like this?", Barret asked, confused. "I thought you were gonna' help him when we got here?" "I cannot help him, not with what I have here.", Nanaki answered sadly. "His ailment is beyond help by normal means, and I curse myself for not seeing it sooner. Someone has obviously been poisoning him, slowly, one of the people who insisted on providing his food in Kalm. Whatever poison they have been feeding him has weakened his mind as well as his body, leaving him vulnerable to whatever intelligence is attempting to take hold of him now. It was magic that caused his eyes to glow, when he leaped upwards to strike you, Tifa. Not as strong as Sephiroth's magic, I think, but strong enough. Surely Sephiroth weakened his resistance to mental control when he originally took hold of his mind." "Someone in Kalm been poisoning him?", Barret asked in anger. "Then let's go back and pound the sonuvabitch!" "Wallace.", Tifa said suddenly, realization in her eyes. "What?", Barret asked irritably. "Not you.", Tifa expanded quickly. "Wallace Rains. He was one of the people who insisted on treating us like royalty after we saved the world. He took it upon himself to be the sole caretaker for Cloud, cooking all of his food for him. Cloud was hesitant to accept his hospitality, but didn't want to be rude. None of us did." "You think that loser is the one been poisonin' Cloud?", Barret asked. "He's the only one I can think of.", Tifa said grimly. "I never did like him, myself. Seemed too shifty-eyed to be completely on the level." "You'd best go back to Kalm and have a talk with Mr. Rains.", Nanaki suggested. "If he has had anything to do with Cloud's relapse, he may be able to give us some information about whoever we are up against." "The Messiah.", Barret said suddenly. "What?", Tifa and Nanaki asked simultaneously. "That's what that last Commando who attacked me said, right before he 'lectrocuted himself.", Barret explained. "Me and Cid captured him and tried to get him to tell us why he was there, but he just said 'For the Messiah' and then zapped 'emself." "The Messiah.", Nanaki said thoughtfully. "Doesn't ring a bell, offhand. Still, perhaps that name is a hint as to who is behind this." "Don't got a clue.", Barret growled. "I hate this not- knowing-who-the-enemy-is stuff. I wish if somebody had a grudge with us they'd just come at us head-on like a man. Instead they go around doin' all this shady behind the back stuff. Poisonin' people and attacking children." He spit angrily to express his opinion of their unknown enemy. "I don't like this any more than you do.", Nanaki agreed. "But we must make due with what we are given. I would say your first order of business is to head back to Kalm and talk with Mr. Rains, then on over to Midgar to talk with Reeve. Hopefully one of these men will yield some clue as to the identity of our opponent." "Can't argue with you when you start talkin' all professor- like.", Barret responded. "But what do you mean 'our first order of business'? Aren't you comin'?" Nanaki shook his head negatively. "I will stay here with Cloud.", he answered. "He is in no shape to move, and it would be folly to leave him here by himself when we still do not know the full extent of our enemy's plans. Besides, it may be necessary to render him more aid if his fever flares up again, and I am the only one of this party who knows enough to do so successfully. So far the enemy has only expressed interest in indirectly harming Cloud, but that could change if he is left unprotected. The rest of you should continue this investigation, along with Yuffie." "You'll be okay here by yourself, Red?", Tifa asked, obviously reluctant to leave Cloud behind. "I will be fine.", Nanaki said confidently. "We will be fine. I have lived here most of my life. I do not plan to die here as well." "That's it, then.", Barret agreed. "We'd best get a move on. Yuffie's probly gettin' impatient waitin' for us. We'll swing by to pick her up and then head to Kalm. Let's go, Tifa." "Go on ahead.", Tifa said, glancing again at Cloud and Nanaki. "I'll be there in a second." "'Lright.", Barret nodded agreeably, seeing that she wished to be alone with Cloud for a second. "Be quick, though." His massive form headed out, barely fitting through the door frame, as he shut the door behind him. Tifa turned to Cloud's still form, stroking his sweat-soaked hair away from his forehead and caressing his face softly. She looked at him for another few seconds, and then turned to Nanaki. "Take care of him for me, alright Red?", she asked. "I will guard him with my life, as he would for me.", Nanaki said solemnly. "He will not come to harm under my care." "I know.", said Tifa with a half smile, as she reached over to scratch him behind his ears. He growled with pleasure. "We'll be back after we figure out what the hell is goin' on. Just tell me one thing, Red. Do you know how to cure him for good?" Nanaki shook his head slowly, but seeing Tifa's saddening expression, he amended his answer. "I do not know for sure, yet, of any item that can end his ailment. However, it makes sense that if whoever is doing this to him is taken out of the picture, his recovery will be much easier." "The Messiah.", Tifa said with a nod. "If that's his name. We take him out, and Cloud gets better, right?" "That's what I'm surmising.", Nanaki answered, blinking his good eye once. "Good luck, Tifa." "Good luck to you too, Red.", Tifa said with another smile. "We'll be back." She rose without another word, and walked out of the observatory, joining the rest of the group. Nanaki had no doubt that they would get to the bottom of this whole mess and deal with whoever was responsible. They were strong, these human friends of his. Cloud moaned, softly, rolling closer to the back of the couch. "Aeris...", his weak voice whispered. "Don't... take her... Sephiroth!" The name was stronger, and for a second Nanaki feared that Cloud was coming back to consciousness, but after a few seconds he faded back out, his body relaxing on the couch. The fever in him was stronger than Nanaki had originally thought, but he was confident that Bugenhagen's medicine would keep him subdued until it ran it's course. Calmly, he laid down at the foot of the couch and rested his head on his forepaws, his tail twisting back and forth idly. Nothing to do now but wait. Wait, and watch.

"He's gone.", Yuffie concluded as they finished their sweep of the town of Kalm. "I couldn't find him anywhere." "Same here.", Tifa responded. "He must have cut and run as soon as we left here. Must have known that we'd find out about the poison he was feeding Cloud. That is, unless any of the others had better luck." "I doubt it.", Yuffie said scornfully. "If neither of us could find him, I doubt that those hulking men did. You can see Barret coming from a mile away, and Cid doesn't exactly blend either. As for Vincent, I dunno. Maybe he lucked out." Tifa frowned prettily but didn't answer. They met the others at the center of the town, Barret and Cid reporting the same results. Vincent, however, was nowhere to be found. They waited almost an hour and he still hadn't shown. Tifa began to worry. "You suppose something happened to him?", she asked the others. "Vincent?", Barret scoffed. "That boy can take care o' himself." He frowned, shaking his head. "Don't know why'd he'd cut out on us like that, though." "We gotta' keep movin', Tifa.", Cid said, puffing away busily on yet another cigarette. He never seemed to run out of those things. "The longer we wait on talkin' to Reeve, the more troubles gonna' come of it." "I know.", Tifa said, thinking hard. "But we can't just leave Vincent here, not until we know why he's missing." "Split up.", Barret said immediately. "You and Yuffie stay here and wait for Vincent, wherever he's gotten his fool ass off too. Me and Cid 'ill go to Midgar and have a chat with Reeve." He cracked his knuckles for emphasis, implying that if things went bad he and Reeve would have far more than a chat. "We don't even know if he's involved yet, Barret.", Tifa warned. "I ain't gonna' hurt 'em.", Barret clarified. "Not unless he gives me reason too." "I'm not sure I want to divide our forces any further.", Tifa said uncertainly. "We've already split up enough. With Cloud and Red in Cosmo Canyon, the five, er, four of us splitting up would weaken us even further. That may be just what this Messiah wants. Just like he sent attack squads after each of us individually, hoping to take us out one by one before we could get together and defend ourselves." "She's got a point.", Cid agreed. "I know that.", Barret said irritably. "But we can't start gettin' paranoid. This Messiah character can't be everywhere. How's he ta know we've split up again? Yuffie there took out a whole squad of them Shinra goons by herself." Yuffie beamed at the admission. "The two of you can take care of yourselves, can't ya?" "You bet!", Yuffie exclaimed. Tifa, more reserved, was not so sure. Still, Barret was right. Caution was best, but if she was overly cautious they might not move fast enough to stop this Messiah. Perhaps not fast enough to save Cloud's life. "Alright.", she agreed, finally. "You and Cid take the Highwind over to Midgar and see if Reeve knows anything about this. We'll join you once Vincent shows up." "It's almost a day's walk from here to Midgar.", Barret said. "Sure you don't want to wait here for us to pick you up?" "We'll take Chocobos.", Tifa said simply. "Cid, drop off Goldie, Zander and Sally before you leave. They should cut the time from here to Midgar to about a fourth of a day, which is about as long as I'm willing to wait for Vincent. I'm worried about him, but if he went off by himself, he obviously had good reason, and we'll just have to trust him to find us when he's done with whatever he's doing." "Will do.", Cid said agreeably. "Well, we're off." "Take care of yourself, girl.", Barret said as he left. Then, he leaned closer and whispered softly. "Don't be too quick to trust none of these people, either.", he said, glancing around quickly as if afraid someone would overhear. "Rains may not be the only one of 'em in league with this Messiah character." Tifa nodded, then punched him playfully in the arm. "You take care of yourself too, Barret." "Shit woman, you tryin' ta kill me?", Barret said, rubbing his arm with a grimace. Then he grinned. "See you in Midgar." Tifa nodded, and the Barret hurried after Cid, who was already halfway to the gate. "Well, what now, fearless leader?", Yuffie asked with a yawn, stretching her lithe body as if just waking from a long sleep. "Well, what haven't we done here?", Tifa asked speculatively. "We've talked to the mayor and the innkeeper. Neither of 'em can tell us anything about Rains besides the fact that he's been living here for about a year, with no immediate family." "That means he was here before that whole mess with Sephiroth started.", Yuffie said, thinking out loud. "So if he is working with this Messiah character, that would mean that Messiah was moving around before Sephiroth went into action." "Or he was pressed into The Messiah's service by magic.", Tifa pointed out. "If he can mess with Cloud's mind that much, he could probably twist the mind of a weaker man without much effort, make him into a slave. Remember those poor, wasted humans in the black cloaks that were following Sephiroth around everywhere?" "Do I.", Yuffie answered, wrinkling her nose in disgust. "Those poor things could barely speak, let alone move. They just dragged about on the ground, chanting 'Sephiroth, Sephiroth'. Made me sick." Tifa shuddered as she remembered. What if Cloud ended up like that? The thought was too horrible to contemplate. "Not like that could happen to Cloud.", Yuffie continued suddenly, as if reading Tifa's mind. "He's too stubborn to go out like that." "Yeah.", Tifa replied, trying to push her worries away. They had searched the town from top to bottom and turned up nothing. What else could they do? "What about the other people who were waiting on you while you were here?", Yuffie asked suddenly. "Weren't there others? Did you talk to them?" "There were two other people helping, yes. Some guy named Yullie and a woman named Darla.", Tifa said, taking a moment to remember their names. "Neither of them had anything to do with Cloud's food, however. Darla was the one who was cooking my food, and Yullie just did the laundry." "Sounds like they were treatin' you like royalty.", Yuffie said with a low whistle. "We didn't ask for it.", Tifa said defensively. "We just didn't know how to refuse, that's all." "Uh huh.", Yuffie said with a grin. "Well, have you talked to those other two? Maybe they know something." "I talked with Yullie, but he didn't have much to say.", Tifa answered. "He's retarded. As for Darla, she's out of town on business. Had been for about a week before this all started." "Hmm...", Yuffie murmured. "Say, you don't suppose you could have been poisoned too, do ya?" Tifa shook her head. "I remember Cloud was having nightmares and was depressed a lot." Yuffie raised an eyebrow, and she winced. "Don't tell anyone else that." Yuffie nodded and grinned. "But now that I think about it, although he was pretty quiet and contemplative for the first couple of weeks or so after we took down Sephiroth, he didn't seem depressed or anything. The depression really started setting in after we settled down here in Kalm. Maybe that poison had something to do with it?" "Who knows.", Yuffie said with a shrug. "But you haven't had nightmares or mood swings, right?" "Nope.", Tifa said with a shake of her head. "Hmm...", Yuffie said again. "Well, shucks. I'm out of ideas. What do you say we get something to eat? I'm starving." Tifa realized that she was hungry as well. "Alright.", she agreed. Together, they headed into the dark tunnel that led into Kalm's Tavern and got themselves a table. Yuffie ordered a Turkey dinner and a pitcher of ale, digging into each hungrily, as Tifa contented herself with a salad. She just wasn't in the mood to eat, right now. They ate in silence for the ten minutes it took Yuffie to finish her meal, remarkably fast considering it's large size. Finally, wiping her mouth with the tablecloth, Yuffie relaxed and leaned her chair back, glancing around the busy tavern curiously. "Ain't even crowded yet.", she commented. "It's sure to fill up later on when everyone gets back from work and starts getting drunk. And by that time, we'll be on the Chocobos and ridin' for Midgar." Tifa nodded, but didn't have anything to add. "You're so quiet, all the sudden.", Yuffie said curiously. "You worried about Cloud? He'll be fine. Red knows what he's doing. And I can't think of anyplace much safer than Cosmo Canyon." "I know.", Tifa said, but she didn't sound as sure as Yuffie would like. "How are you and him gettin' along, anyways?", she asked with a sidelong glance. "Not that it's any of my business, regardless.", she added quickly. "I'm just curious. I've been out materia hunting since almost right after we got back from fighting Sephiroth, so I haven't been keeping up." "We're... friends.", Tifa said, slightly exasperated that she wasn't able to say anything beyond that." "Just friends, huh?", Yuffie said with an indignant snort. "Somethin's wrong with that boy, then. What's his problem with you, anyways?" "Nothing.", Tifa said quickly. "We've been friends since we were kids. I... I don't know how he feels about me now." Somehow, it felt good to open up to someone, even Yuffie. Keeping her worries bottled up inside was hurting her, and she knew that too much worry was unhealthy. "He'll come around.", Yuffie said suddenly with a dismissive grin. "Cheer up! Moping over men is no way to spend the day, 'specially when there's ale readily available." "You're talking like Barret.", Tifa said, a slow grin tugging at the corner of her mouth. "What?", Yuffie asked in mock exasperation. "That big lug? I'd still be drinking when he was passed out on the floor! Ain't nobody in this world that can out drink Yuffie Kisaragi!" Tifa had to smile at that. Yuffie was right. Cloud was in good hands at Cosmo Canyon with Red. She tried to shake her melancholy mood off. She ordered herself a cup of ale and tried to relax. Vincent had another couple of hours to show up, anyways. She could relax for that long. It was growing dark when they rose to leave, having given up on Vincent coming back. Yuffie was a bit tipsy, but remarkably calm in comparison to the way she normally was with alcohol in her system, which was a relief. She didn't need her companion tearing up any men that tried to make a drunken pass at her. That would only complicate things, and they had enough complications as it was. Predictably waiting for the last possible second, Vincent appeared beside them just as they were saddling the Chocobos for the ride to Midgar. "Vincent!", Tifa exclaimed, worry and anger in her voice. "Where have you been?" "Sorry I skipped out on you guys.", Vincent said calmly, his eyes betraying nothing. "But I think you'll agree it was necessary. You see, I picked up the trail of one Wallace Rains, heading out of here in a hurry. It took me a couple of hours to track him down and lug him back, but I got him." "Good work, Vincent!", Yuffie exclaimed effusively. Vincent glanced at her guardedly and turned to Tifa. "Is she drunk again?", he asked. "I am not drunk!", Yuffie exclaimed indignantly. "Right.", Vincent said diplomatically. "Care to follow me, ladies? I stashed him in the back of the inn and came to find you, but the tavern owner told me you'd just left, so I hurried out here to catch up with you before you took off." "Lead the way, Vincent.", Tifa said, patting Zander on the back to calm him, as he chirped once, anxious to be on the move. His blue-tinted feathers shimmered in the rapidly waning sun, as one webbed foot shifted forward nervously. "I take it we're joining the others via Chocobo?", Vincent asked as he led them back into the town, Yuffie trailing a bit behind. "Unless you wanna' walk!", she said loudly, grinning a bit too wide. "Cid and Barret went on ahead to Midgar.", Tifa volunteered. "We stayed here to wait for you." "I would have come to tell you what I was doing, but I was afraid I'd lose the trail if I didn't follow it immediately.", Vincent explained, though his voice did not sound apologetic. "I figured if you left I'd just find Rains, stash him in the inn, and track you down to tell you." "How is he, anyways?", Tifa commented suddenly. "What do you mean?", Vincent asked, looking at her curiously. "You mean physically? I had to knock him out and lug his unconscious body back here, but I didn't rough him up." "I mean mentally.", Tifa said. "I mean, is he..." "Is he like those Sephiroth zombies that we were always running into?", Yuffie clarified from behind them. "Mind controlled and stuff?" Vincent shrugged. "I don't believe so, though we didn't exactly converse much after I found him. He noticed me when I got within ten feet of him and started running, so I knocked him out. That's about all I can tell you." "Where was he going?", Tifa asked. "Southeast, towards the swamp, maybe the Mythril Mines.", Vincent answered as they walked. "I don't know how he planned to get past the Midgar Zolom. The only other place that he could have been heading is the Chocobo Ranch, but that makes absolutely no sense. Assuming there isn't something else over in that area that we don't know about. "Swamp and mountains.", Tifa answered. "That's it as far as I know. Mostly wilderness. Maybe he was going to rent a Chocobo from Billy to get him to wherever he's going." "That's conceivable.", Vincent agreed. "Well, we're here." They stopped in front of the nondescript inn, and Vincent opened the door and headed inside. "You can ask him yourself." They followed Vincent past the desk, nodding to the innkeeper, who knew them all well enough to know that they weren't going to start any trouble, and also that he didn't have a chance in hell of stopping them regardless. They headed for the first guest room, and Vincent produced a key from a pocket in his cloak and turned it in the lock. He opened the door and stepping inside, casting about on the wall for the light switch. He hit it, and as the room suddenly flooded with illumination, Tifa gasped in horror. "Wow...", was all Yuffie could say. The form of Wallace Rains lay still on the bed, his hands and ankles bound with thick rope, his eyes nearly pushed out of his skull, his face twisted in horror and his mouth wide open in shock. He was dead, that was sure. The stink of charred flesh suddenly assaulted their nostrils. "Well.", Vincent managed, somehow maintaining his calm. "Looks like I shouldn't have left him in here by himself."

Copyright November 1997

by Eric 'StarFury' Bakutis

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