"I can hear them."
"I think we all can."
Cloud was sure of what Tifa and Aerith were whispering about; the thick jungle their camp was situated in for the night was full of the croaking of Touch Mes, unusual amphibians who could turn their victims small and green as well. Nighttime in the Gongaga region was far from quiet, and as a result not proving very restful yet.
"Stupid frogs," Cloud muttered to himself, rolling onto his side to twitch the fabric of the tent flaps and make sure they were closed. He had already done this several times, without really keeping track, and this time Aerith burst into laughter. "I'm keeping them out," he said firmly. What was so funny about that?
"Of course, of course, hee hee. Are you scared of the frogs, Cloud?"
"…Terrified of how loud you'll shriek if they get in here." It occurred to him just after the words were out that he was egging her on, an undoubtedly poor idea if he wanted to get to sleep soon. It was second nature though. Part of him liked the banter.
"Oh it just surprised me the first time. I think they're rather cute. So were you."
…She was not bringing that back up.
Tifa laughed, but then thankfully tugged lightly on one of Aerith's wispy curls as if to rein the other woman in. "You're going a little loopy. Come on, shhh."
"But you thought he was cute too, right?"
"I suppose..." Cloud narrowed his eyes as Tifa looked over her shoulder; he wasn't sure how well she could see him in the darkness of the hour, but she had to know she was about to pick a side here, and the smart side was hi— "The ribbiting was funny."
Great. "See what happens the next time either of you get shrunk," he huffed, ready to end this before he got ganged up on more. He'd initially been pleased that they got along so well after some awkward moments in Midgar (which he didn't really understand, or try to, figuring it was some women thing) and…all right, it was still nice most of the time, even though it wasn't that big a deal, since their warm natures made it seem like a foregone conclusion in hindsight. Though, he hadn't anticipated the shared sense of humor that resulted in him getting tag-teamed. "Now come on, let's sleep. I thought you'd be more tired, Aerith..."
The outline of his main teaser's head turned away sharply, and Cloud had the feeling he'd overstepped himself. But her voice was still light: "Why? I wasn't the one hopping around everywhere."
Whatever he did next was going to be wrong. If he brought back up everything bad that had happened long before the Touch Mes, Aerith would be annoyed he wasn't dropping the matter. If he left things alone, she'd have needed to talk about it. He muddled: "...Kind of a rough day..."
Understatement. They'd walked into Shinra, twice, and the Turks had gotten everyone riled up over the possibility of a traitor, ridiculous as that was. But that hadn't been enough, and they'd had one more random encounter, this time with the parents of Aerith's old boyfriend. It had ended with her walking out of the conversation, just shy of a run.
If Aerith wanted to talk about Zack, he'd listen, but he was really starting to dislike the guy. No wonder Elmyra had shooed him away from her daughter. The SOLDIER First Class with zero class had done a real number on Aerith; after five years, she still got upset over him.
The longer the silence stretched with no response from Aerith, the more Cloud realized that even if he was willing to listen, he didn't have the first idea what to say. It had been five years, after all. She was being… sensitive. Unless—
He shook that thought away. "We'll be up early to meet with Barret and the others," he said, breaking the uneasy silence. "So we've got to rest now. All of us." He glanced down to Tifa at those last words, remembering she had been a little funny and evasive in the village as well. But she would have told him if she knew Zack, right?
Ugh. At this rate, he just wanted to forget about the guy. Cloud laid back and stared up at the slope of the tent's canvas before his eyes closed. As he slowly drifted to sleep, the humid air of Gongaga's jungle began to let down rain.
It was drizzling when he next became aware of anything, but it was hard to focus on the pitter-patter of raindrops with Aerith staring him down where he sat. "We have to go back."
"What?" Was she kidding? Not from the look in her eyes.
"We should tell Zack's parents what happened to him. Are you forgetting again?"
The accusation hurt in spite of how lightly it was said; Aerith didn't make digs like that. Cloud felt even worse as he remembered. Of course it was a big deal for her, she'd cared about the missing SOLDIER. "Sorry. I didn't mean to…"
The moss green of her eyes softened as she nodded. "I know. What you mean to happen and what actually happens are two separate things."
Didn't exactly make him feel better. He looked to Tifa, but didn't catch her eyes before she slipped out of the tent. The ex-SOLDIER took a deep breath, but for some reason, he just couldn't find his cool. Still, he had to do this. "Let's go."
It was the right thing to do-they'd found out something about Zack, and Aerith was desperate to tell his parents. He couldn't fault her eagerness. Cloud wanted to tell Zack's parents, too. It wasn't that they had happy news to give. But it was still important news. Needed news.
The thought of how the parents might react made the trek back to the village blur together: at first interminably long, and yet it seemed like no time had passed when AVALANCHE came to an abrupt halt, finding that Rude and Reno were blocking the way again. Still shadowing them, and filling out their time with wasteful talk too. Cloud gestured for Aerith to get back and ready her materia, Barret and Tifa to come forward, Yuffie- hang on. What were they all traveling together for? They were supposed to be split up.
"Not your best move," said a high, clear voice. Elena must have gotten herself sacked already, because the dark-suited woman approaching them had wavy red hair instead of straight blonde, though Cloud couldn't quite make out anything else about her features. He reached for the Buster sword...
...It wasn't there on his back. Not his best move at all, and suddenly it was like he was helpless. "Cloud, get back!" Tifa hooked arms under his shoulders, moving him bodily behind a tree for cover. He wanted to jerk out of the hold, tell her she was being stupid-even if he didn't have her finesse at hand-to-hand he could still crack a Turk's skull with sheer force, he wasn't useless-except he was. His legs refused to move for him, and the only sound coming out of his mouth was a stuttered pant, and his mind kept whirling back to the futile question of where his sword was—back at the campsite? Impossible.
Seeming unaware of just how absurd this situation had become, Tifa smiled reassuringly for him before running off to rejoin the others.
He wanted to yell at her. At all of them. At himself, because all too soon he could see Reno pulling back from the farce of a Turk-AVALANCHE skirmish to make a hand signal, and then there were Shinra "peacekeeping" troops flooding out of the woodwork of the Gongaga jungle to surround the fight.
But his voice was gone.
Rude and the female Turk pulled safely back, melting into the ring of Shinra uniforms. Every gun was pointed at Aerith and Tifa and Yuffie and Barret and Red and Cait Sith who had made a loose circle themselves, covering each other's backs as if it would do them any good. Even now they were trying to protect each other; none of them could be the spy. Who had led them into the ambush?
"You ignorant traitor," came the breath of a chilling voice, and Cloud's heart froze as he realized, he was the one who'd led them... he was the only one who was safe right now...
The rifles readied in a chorus, despite Cait Sith trying to cajole everyone to take it easy; Tifa and Aerith clasped hands and looked back at him, pleading for the protection he'd promised. Barret was too proud to ask anything and stayed turned away, shoulders ramrod straight, and Yuffie was screeching threats slurred together by unshed tears. Red at last broke the circle, leaping for one final attack, that split second before the beast and the rest of the world exploded into a much more vivid red with the report of gunfire. It seemed like some time before stunned mako eyes could focus again-taking in the desolate, anguishing vision of a blood-splattered world.
Ah. There was his voice. But it was no longer connected to him, he no longer controlled it. Comrades' names simply tumbled out into the air in a manner turning keen with grief as Cloud marshaled arms and legs to finally move so he could reach them.
Not that there was anything he could do for them now.
His voice didn't seem to understand that. "Barret? Yuffie? Wake up. Aerith...Aerith." Green eyes now glassy, the breast of her bolero stained a darker red-why hadn't the Turks kept her alive? Wasn't she supposed to be precious to Shinra? But they'd killed even her...everyone...
...He was going to kill every last one of them. He'd hunt them down-tear them limb from limb, it was the only thing he could think as his insides curled and warped with chilled-black sadness and white-hot anger.
Because if the power of SOLDIER wasn't to protect, it must surely be to destroy. Sephiroth had shown him that well enough.
"Cloud? Cloud." A woman's voice again, lower this time but it had to be the female Turk. She shook his shoulder roughly, callous to the fallen bodies around them. He snarled-did she really think she could kill him, when he was this angry?-and lunged upward into the darkness of the tent with a punch the woman barely dodged. "Cloud, wake up!"
"Stop, it's all right!" and the third voice came as another woman (was that Elena? She seemed too small, it didn't matter, she was Shinra as well) wrapped her arms around his torso, bodily stopping him from once more moving to attack Tifa.
...His 'enemy' was Tifa. The grip of nightmares and sleep was loosening, and Cloud could just see, thanks to his enhanced eyes, her curtain of long hair and the frame it fell around, then a glint of her pearl earring. Tifa was alive, okay, and to her credit, she let out an only slightly shaky sigh. "Back with us?"
"Y, yeah. Sorry. ...Aerith-" The slight woman had practically bear-hugged him to slow him from going after Tifa in the disoriented rage, and at her friend's relieved sigh she'd relaxed and shifted to rub his back soothingly. But Cloud was already frowning and moving to disentangle their limbs, uneasy at the contact and the realization of just what she'd done. "You shouldn't do that."
"Seems like you could use it."
The hug? Cloud shook his head; he might not be comfortable with it, but neither was it the problem. "Don't get close to me. When I'm like that... I could have hurt you." He looked toward Tifa now, hoping they would both take the warning seriously. Martial arts training had made his childhood friend nimble, and certainly nimbler than him half-asleep, but if he had caught her with the punch, it could have done serious damage. "It's too easy with a SOLDIER's strength."
Aerith pulled back, but only a bit, still kneeling by his side. This close in the darkness, her eyes almost seemed to reflect the mako-green glow of his own when they met. "You were crying out for us. Bad dream?"
Shame burned his cheeks, and he broke eye contact even though she could hardly see him as it was. A nightmare, only because he'd done exactly nothing. Only because his head liked to play tricks. "It's over now." Sweat was still clinging to him, but he'd blame that on the heat of the Gongaga region. They couldn't be gone soon enough.
"...You know..." Funny. He'd seen Tifa bite her lip enough to tell when she was doing it by ear, registering the slight scrape of teeth against a chapped bottom lip. "You can talk to us if something's bothering you."
He hated the way he could imagine them looking at him. Kindly, but with pity for this moment of weakness. He wasn't- "It was just a dream," he insisted. "Everything's fine." He'd never be caught without his sword in reality. His limbs wouldn't simply fail him. He was a SOLDIER, and...they deserved better than that.
They deserved better than this too, having to share a tent with a loose cannon. What was wrong with his head tonight? He rose to his feet, cursing as he hit the roof of the tent with his head. Not smooth. Get it together.
"I'm not in the mood to go back to sleep right now," he told Tifa. Both of them, really. It was a sure bet that Aerith was still watching him. "I'll be outside."
He didn't have to say not to follow him; he doubted they'd be eager to.
It was still raining. He didn't care, leaving his makeshift bedding behind to stagger out to the dampened remains of the evening's campfire and the fallen log they'd dragged over. He sat down and toyed with his PHS, wondering if he should check on Barret's group before remembering they would have called if there were problems. Entertaining as it might be to think of how pissed off Barret would get to be woken up at this hour, and Cloud well out of reach for punching, a check-in was unnecessary.
Despite that brief amusement, Cloud wanted to punch something himself. The nightmare had him way too wound up if he was actually worrying about the others. Barret would be laughing that he wasn't such a cool guy after all, fretting when they could take care of themselves. They were getting clear of the area, and there wasn't a thing in the world that could make him change his mind into heading back. Even the reason his subconscious had cooked up seemed laughably flimsy. They had so many more important things to worry about than…whatever Aerith had wanted to tell Zack's parents. Hah. He actually huffed out a laugh at that, irritated as it was. Figured his imagination was too lazy to fill in something that important, the whole reason he'd lead his team into such obvious danger.
But it really had felt like there'd been something. …Had he misplaced it because of what had happened later in the dream? Pale lips pinched into a frown. It had been important news. It—it felt like something he should know. But he couldn't grasp onto anything firmer than that maddening feeling of should know, should know, are you forgetting again?
Didn't matter. He hadn't even known the guy; he really needed to stop thinking about this.
Somehow he must have managed to distract himself; Cloud woke up in the gray of early morning with a foggy head. The air had turned cool with the rain, which had slowed to only a fine mist. It still seemed enough to be giving Tifa trouble with starting a fire for cooking breakfast. And though his back was to Aerith, the woman was very audible in wrestling tent rods into submission, especially as she started to scold the inanimate objects. They'd let him sleep through the typical morning task of packing up, apparently taking his word on not waking him up a step too far—he didn't remember any nightmares after he'd fallen back asleep. Or dreams at all. He didn't have many. But then, why would either of them want to chance it after he'd swung at Tifa?
It should have been good they were taking him seriously and using caution, but instead he felt a sting of dismay. "Aerith, wait a sec… I'll help," he said, rising from the log. His blanket slipped from off his shoulders to the ground, and he stopped to pick it up. Might as well pack it away now, rather than leaving it about.
"I've got it, I've got it! And good morning."
"Did you sleep okay?" Tifa asked.
Yeah, since they'd left him alone to take care of packing themselves. He didn't say that, simply grunting as he folded the blanket over an arm.
…Wait. The blanket?
He hadn't taken it out with him. Which meant, even though they'd let him sleep, one of the girls had wrapped it around him, had still come close. And he looked at both of them, but soon realized it would be impossible to tell: it was a small gesture that either Tifa or Aerith would have done.
Aerith spoke first, though. "What is it?"
Was it her? He held up the arm still draped by cloth. "The blanket…I didn't really need it."
She looked to Tifa and Cloud's gaze followed—so it was her?—just in time for him to see Tifa roll her eyes and feel mildly affronted. Especially since he was sure Aerith had mirrored the action on her end. "What?"
"You're welcome," Tifa said pointedly.
"Thanks." Not that he was sure who he was thanking. …But then, when he thought about it, they probably both deserved it.
Author's Note: The plot is a bit loose since these are episodic. A couple of these chapters had me playing around with favorite ideas a lot, and I certainly do like thinking about Cloud's subconscious memories and his conscious thoughts about Zack (really, Zack-as-Cloud-hears-about-him-from-Aerith).