nrgburst: (Tifa DoC)
[personal profile] nrgburst
Title: Preludes to War (August)
Fandom: FFVII Compilation
Characters: Cloud/Tifa, ensemble cast, including some from BC and DoC
Genre: Drama/Family/Action/Romance
Rating: PG-13 (Sexual situations, but non-explicit)
Word Count: about 8800
Summary: What could have happened just prior to Dirge of Cerberus. For anyone who's ever wondered where everyone else was for most of the game.

1

It was telling, perhaps, that she was the first victim.

They’d come to clean the church as usual, and Tifa hopped off and headed in with the rags and cleaning supplies as Cloud parked Fenrir. But he stilled after he turned off the engine, the hair on the back of his neck rising as he scanned the ruins all around.

There was only silence, the only movement in the heat waves that rose off the concrete and dust caught up by the occasional gust of wind.

So why did he have that creeping sensation of being watched?

“Cloud!”

The horror in her voice sent him into panic. “Tifa?”

He was armed and ready at the door an instant later, images of her collapsed on the flowerbed and inside the reactor flashing through his mind. But he lowered his sword again when he saw her, whole and unharmed, standing in the aisle.

“I thought something had happened to you. Something’s not right out here.”

“Something’s not right in here. Look at the flowers, Cloud.”

He looked past her and blanched.

The usual carpet of flowers had become a withering yellow ring.

The way the surface crackled under their feet when they walked up made the cause clear before they confirmed it with their eyes.

“But it was here just a couple of weeks ago. Why would she let it dry up?” she asked, hugging herself anxiously.

He shook his head, putting his arm around her as he stared at the empty hollow.

“I don’t know.”

2

As WRO Commissioner, Reeve needed answers. He had always had a gift for organizing people. He was in his element ordering things like healthcare, education and sanitation. All those myriad pieces worked together to better their lives, like individual members of an orchestra producing a delightful concordance of sound.

But there had been an unusual number of problems to deal with this month. First the energy crisis in Edge, then the blow of losing the healing water in Great Gospel Church. Cloud and Tifa had been most upset- as had all those waiting on the transport lists. The WRO’s official position was that the summer heat must have dried up the spring temporarily.

Reeve fervently prayed that it was the truth.

And now a whole neighborhood in Junon was suddenly empty of inhabitants- more than a thousand people missing in the course of a few hours.

What was the pattern? What couldn’t he see? He was supposed to be handling crises like worker strikes and price inflation, not mass disappearances.

The video link buzzed and he turned it on immediately.

“Report.”

“Looks like it happened while people were sleeping. Forced doors, messed up beds, signs of struggle in a few of the bedrooms. The only bodies are of civilians…” Yuffie grimaced. “Reeve, some of them have bite marks.”

“What?”

“I know- it’s been awful.” She shuddered, her eyes haunted and weary in that normally cheerful face. “Makes me think of scavengers, so we’ve got the units doing burials of the ones we could ID.”

Shalua gave her a sympathetic look before raising her chin towards the screen.

“Commissioner, we’re also bringing back a few bodies for autopsy. They may provide us with a few answers.”

He sat back and closed his eyes, nodding slowly. “That…sounds like the best thing to do. Good work. I’m sorry.”

Shalua nodded. “I saw some horrible things in my AVALANCHE days. But a first experience with a war zone can be tough,” she said, gripping Yuffie’s shoulder.

“Hey! I’m tough! I helped win the Jenova War too!” she protested, twin spots of color appearing in her cheeks.

“Disaster is one thing. People fighting people is another.”

“I dunno, Shal. We’d have noticed if somebody was building a huge army somewhere on Gaia. No tire tracks or trails either.”

She shrugged. “Which suggests aerial mobility. No monsters could have done this, bite marks or not. Too organized. Commissioner, I suggest sending a unit to Shinra headquarters.”

Yuffie scoffed. “Shinra building an army in Rocket Town without Cid finding out about it?”

Shalua frowned. “Unlikely, but it’s the most logical assumption. Shinra committed a lot of crimes in the name of research in the past. And they still have the financial clout. This new leaf may just be a façade.”

Reeve sighed, putting his face into his hands.

“Reeve?”

“What will happen when Channel Seven gets wind of this? We just dealt with that mess in Edge, and now this… How are we ever going to control the panic?”

Shalua glanced at Yuffie again. Her bleak, solemn expression was a sharp contrast from the usual.

“Well, you know what they say, Commissioner. ‘Ignorance is bliss.’”

“…True… We’ll have to hold a board meeting to discuss what we inform the public of, but the other...” He sighed, closing his eyes. After a few moments deliberation, he faced the screen squarely. “Yuffie.”

She pivoted smartly at his brisk tone of voice. “Reeve.”

“I hate to give you another assignment on the heels of this one, but unfortunately, ignorance is something we can’t afford. Despite the potential cost.”

3

Cloud always brought in the specials sign a half hour before close. He moved with the efficiency of ingrained habit, propping the door open with his foot, and picking up the sign with a quick jerk so that the boards clapped together smoothly.

But tonight, just after he’d lifted it, something made him swivel his head abruptly toward Midgar and stiffen. He listened intently, frozen and frowning as he stared towards the ruined Shinra building in the distance. Was that…?

He put down the sign, waiting for the wind to bring him the sound again.

He had probably stood there for a full minute, hackles up, before Tifa noticed. “Cloud?”

He held out a hand. And his eyes widened seconds later when he heard it again.

He moved abruptly, flipping open his phone as he headed for the First Tsurugi.

“What is it?”

“I’m calling Barret. I want long range back-up. Something’s wrong in Midgar.”

4

“The irony is astounding,” Rufus murmured, watching the WRO troops swarm through the lab, scanning the room systematically. The Turks all kept a wary eye on him.

The President rarely smiled so…manically.

Yuffie shrugged. “Yeah, yeah, how the mighty have fallen or whatever. We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but you have to admit that you guys are the prime suspects. We’ll try to be out of your pretty hair as quickly as possible- unless we discover something suspicious.”

“Which is why I agreed to this when you showed up on our doorstep. Indeed, I applaud the quick actions of the WRO in the wake of such a horrific occurrence. But this situation is absurd for reasons which you, of course, do not understand,” he said, voice strained and eyes hysterically bright.

“Miss Kisaragi!” A WRO Commander hurried over triumphantly with a stack of documents. “We’ve found some discrepancies in their financial statements. Massive expenditures that are not related to the workings of Shinra Company.” He threw a superior look at the row of Shinra suits beside her as Yuffie perused them.

“Well, well, well. You mind telling me where all this gil is going, Shinra?”

Tseng sighed. “I believe the proverbial cat may be out of the bag, sir.”

Rufus couldn’t respond. He was too busy laughing.

5

Shera hurried into the kitchen as soon as she heard the front door slam. “I thought I heard the Shera.”

“Bad business in Junon. Reeve sent out an investigative team to make sure Shinra isn’t building an army.”

She blinked with surprise. “Surely some of us would have noticed if that were the case.”

“S’what I told Reeve. But only Shinra and Dio have deep enough pockets to buy themselves that kind of manpower.”

“The WRO’s searching the Gold Saucer as well?” she gasped, aghast.

“Barret and Cait are heading teams there as we speak.”

“Isn’t that sort of extreme? What about privacy?”

“What about it? These are businesses. If they’re doin’ somethin’ they shouldn’t, then people should find out anyway!”

“But that approach is like… guilty until proven innocent.”

“Somethin’ like, yeah!” Cid let out an exasperated breath, knowing he was just being belligerent because he didn’t like it either. “He’s got no choice, woman. More’n a thousand people disappeared overnight.”

Shera clapped a hand to her chest. “What? That’s-! Why hasn’t there been anything on the news?”

“The WRO is suppressing the information so that people don’t panic.”

She frowned, hesitating. “I suppose the Commissioner authorized that too?”

“The sooner we find out who took those people and why, the sooner we can give everybody answers without starting riots. I know they’re desperate measures, Shera. But Yuffie says it was bad in Junon. Disaster bad. And after the run on power in Edge, the board decided it was best to hush it up. We’re just trying to head off another Meteor.”

She shook her head, moving to put on the kettle. “I know all of this is based on good intentions…but I hope the WRO knows when to stop.”

“We’re all decent folks on the board. We’re not harmin’ anybody.”

“Do you think the scientists feel the same way? They get enough hassle as it is just for working at Shinra. And how about all those people at the Gold Saucer expecting a good time?”

“Don’t you think I know that? But we gotta do what we think is for the greater good.”

She sighed. “I know. I’m just reminding you of the other perspective. Good people make bad choices, too. And fine lines are so easy to step over when you believe you’re in the right.”

“Well, that’s why I married you, right? Keep me on my toes so I don’t make some damn fool mistake.”

Shera smiled, blushing as he snagged her close. “I do my best.”

6

“How’s it going, Barret? The racetrack and hotel are clear.”

“Nothin’ down here but losers and sand. Battle Arena’s clean, too. We’re comin’ up the elevator in a minute.”

“I’m heading my unit to the Event Square, so why don’t your lot take Wonder Square?”

“Sure. I can check out Speed Square after that.”

Cait laughed. “Somehow I thought you’d say that…Just make sure you’re scanning for oddities and not targets for extra points.”

“Hmph! Like you won’t be perusin’ the costumes at Event Square! I’ll get the job done as efficient as I can. Cloud dragged me out ‘til early this mornin’ on some wild goose chase. Wanna get back home early. My bets are on Cid ‘n Yuffie’s team anyway.”

“Barret! We need evidence before we can make conclusions like that. So make sure you fellas are thorough.”

“I’m doin’ my job proper! Jus’ sayin’ Shinra’s the one wi’ the track record.”

“There’s a chip on your shoulder, though. Actually, it’s a good thing you’ve reminded me about Cloud. First Wednesday of the month, isn’t it?”

“Ah, $%&. Junon.”

7

For the first time in ages, Cloud slept in- which meant the rest of the household got off to a late start as well. But after a hurried breakfast, everybody was more or less ready to get started on their plans for the day.

“Hold still, Marlene! I know you want to get going, but I can’t braid straight if you squirm!” Tifa laughed, exasperated, brushing out yet another crooked attempt.

“Sorry, Tifa,” Marlene said, pushing her feet against the bar instead. “Shanti said her mom’s letting her bring her new doll out today. It’s got real hair and a purse and everything! I bet everybody’s already at the tires.”

Cloud looked up from the newspaper, frowning.

“Do any parents watch you guys in the playground?”

Marlene remembered not to turn her head as she looked over. “Nope! But Pete ‘n Julie’s house is just across the street. We can use their washroom anytime. And Mrs. Jones puts on band-aids if we get hurt.”

“Cloud, there’s never been a problem. You said you couldn’t find anything last night,” Tifa said softly.

“I just- I didn’t imagine that sound, Teef.”

She bit her lip. “Of course you didn’t. Well, I can watch them in the morning, just in case.”

Marlene frowned, but the phone started ringing before she could start asking questions. They all listened to Denzel’s feet pounding across the stairs before it cut off, and he ran down a few seconds later, his T-shirt obviously hastily pulled on.

“Cloud! Cait says he needs to talk to you.”

“Thanks, Denz. T-shirt’s backwards. Hey, Cait.”

He walked over to the table, picking up the receipts he had ready to go. “Yeah, quite a few. Do you need-“

He frowned and paused.

“What do you mean cancel them?”

They all froze, and Cloud raked a glace over their startled faces and abruptly strode upstairs.

They all listened hard until Tifa finished the braid, although it was impossible to hear anything but the low tone of his voice.

“All done! And Denz is changed, so we’re ready to go,” she said brightly.

Marlene slid off the stool, but turned to look up at her.

“Tifa, in case of what?”

She sighed. “We just want to make sure you’re safe. And it’s been awhile since I’ve seen you two play anyway. Is Lee still the best at pitching?”

Denzel tilted his head hesitantly. “Yeah… it’s ‘cause he can throw curvers. I thought you said you were going to make the wine this morning, Tifa.”

She nodded. “I did. It can wait.”

They all turned when Cloud came back down the stairs.

“I’ll watch them in the afternoon. Deliveries to Junon are postponed ‘til further notice,” he said, meeting Tifa’s eyes and jerking his head slightly.

She nodded, and smiled at the kids. “Shouldn’t you both get your toys?”

Marlene huffed at the obvious ploy to get them out of earshot, but they ran upstairs as Cloud made the notes on the delivery calendar, his lips pressed thinly together.

“What’s going on?” she murmured.

“More than a thousand people disappeared from Junon the night before last.”

She blanched. “Oh my god, Cloud. Do you think last night…?”

He shrugged, his eyes troubled. “Can’t say for sure- we couldn’t find them, remember? But I want to get the kids away from here. We can tell them we’re taking another trip while they’re still on holiday.”

“I’ll email around this morning, and we can hold a community-“

“What? No! Cait said this is classified WRO information. He doesn’t want people to panic.”

Tifa frowned. “We can’t leave everyone in the dark about this. You heard people screaming.”

“But Barret couldn’t, remember? There’s no real proof. And Cait said the WRO wants to avoid another crisis. I wouldn’t have qualified except for the deliveries to Junon today. They’re checking out possible culprits now, so we’ll get a public announcement soon anyway. Remember what Reeve said? ‘People don’t think when they’re terrified- they just react.’”

Tifa wavered. The kids were already coming back downstairs.

“It just feels wrong to keep it a secret. I know Reeve has people’s best interests at heart, but knowing this and what you heard…”

“What if I was wrong? I have been, before.”

“Oh, Cloud.”

8

“I had always suspected, but I’m sure you can understand why I had to investigate your headquarters regardless.”

“Of course. A grave situation indeed. I doubt Dio is the culprit. He enjoys collecting objects and crass entertainment, not destroying opportunities for such.”

“Agreed. But if neither of the richest men in the world are behind the problem- who else has the resources to do such a thing?”

“I can’t imagine. But perhaps I can offer the services of my Turks. They do superb investigative work.”

“I appreciate the generosity of your offer, but I think we’ve troubled you enough. My thanks, again, for backing our cause. This experience must have been disconcerting, to say the least. ”

His eyes gleamed. “No need to apologize, Commissioner. I haven’t laughed that hard in years,” he chuckled, before he looked away and shrugged elegantly. “To be frank, the work of the WRO helps me sleep better at night. Well worth the investment…But I think it would be prudent to keep it our secret. I believe many people would hesitate to use a hospital or road if they knew that Shinra paid for it. Which would render them useless.”

Reeve looked at the young man on the screen reflectively. He had once secretly funded AVALANCHE, back when he hoped to hasten his promotion to President. The sense of déjà vu was undeniable- but it seemed his goals and actions had drastically altered. He wondered what had happened to all that callous ruthlessness, that blind thirst for recognition and power.

“Of course.”

9

“From Midgar? That is suspicious- the Lifestream has been flowing erratically there recently as well. It would seem to correlate with your belief that something is wrong… But that isn’t why you’re calling.”

“No. We want to get the family out of here, Nanaki. We’re far too close for comfort. Can we come stay in Cosmo Canyon?”

“Just your family? Last I heard the population of Edge was slightly larger than that.”

“The WRO wants to prevent mass panic. You must have heard what happened when the Mako reserves disappeared.”

“So you’ll abandon the people of Edge at the mouth of the lion’s den?”

“…We don’t know that yet.”

“But you suspect.”

“…”

“There’s room in the caves for quite a few people, Cloud. You know we’ve held off attacks here before. Do you think Edge would fare so well?”

“…No. But there’s no way that we could get that many people across the ocean to Cosmo Canyon.”

“I seem to recall one other place that’s resisted multiple assaults.”

“…”

10

“Gawd, Shalua, I felt like such an idiot! Why doesn’t that robot cat geek ever tell me stuff before I go around sticking my feet in my mouth like that? I’m supposed to be in charge of intelligence!”

“Actually, I had the impression that he wasn’t sure who our benefactor was before this.”

Still. Knowing his suspicions would have helped.”

“How? You would have been circumspect and gracious instead?”

“Hey! You’re supposed to be my friend!”

“Oh come on, Yuffie! You wouldn’t be half as fun if you were circumspect and gracious. Besides, how often do you bump into him? Rufus Shinra is practically cloistered in the Shinra building.”

“I guess…”

“See? Now, can we get back to business? The autopsies are almost completed. Varying causes of death, but the victims all have one thing in common: Geostigma infections.”

“What?”

“Most of them are in the early stages- some of them don’t even have scars yet. But Jenova cells are present in all of them.”

“Why would anybody target sick people? Or kidnap healthy ones?”

“It reminds me of the kidnappings and biological experiments Shinra conducted in the past…”

“…Shalua…”

“I know they’ve been cleared of suspicion. But the autopsies show that the bites were made by human teeth, Yuffie, not monsters. Nibelheim was the site of a lot of those experiments, right? And it’s close to Rocket Town…”

“…You’re seriously obsessed, you know that?”

“And you’re only a few kilometers away. We still need answers, Officer Kisaragi.”

11

Cloud couldn’t bear to be around all the talk inside the bar. The WRO had announced that only 20 to 30 people had gone missing in Junon. So he stayed outside tinkering with Fenrir before the dinner rush started, weighing the facts against his suspicions. Nothing unusual had happened at the playground all day- and yet Tifa had postponed making the wine. What if he was fooling himself again, and leading them down the wrong path?

Reeve was good at managing people. If he wanted the people of Gaia to know only part of the truth, he had good reason to. And the search last night had been fruitless and frustrating. Barret had frowned and shrugged, unable to hear the faint sounds, which had made him wonder if it was all a figment of his imagination. He wished he’d asked Tifa for a second opinion- her hearing wasn’t affected by hours of close-range gunfire. Once they’d neared Midgar, the screams had stopped abruptly, as if someone had cut them off. They’d ended up wandering the deserted ruins in the dark, finding nothing more threatening than rats and low-level monsters until Cloud had conceded that it was pointless.

The Junon news may just be unfortunate coincidence. Surely if something threatening was within striking distance of Edge, they would have been hit first. After all, Junon was half the way down the coast. Who would want a thousand random people? Just feeding and sheltering them would be a hassle.

Maybe the townspeople had just left on a seasonal fishing trip, or evacuated to escape a bad storm. Nibelheim had always looked like a ghost town during the snowboarding championships, but that was because everybody was on the mountains. Visitors unaware of the championships were often shocked to find only empty streets and closed shops. Surely there was a similar explanation for Junon.

The door to 7th Heaven swung open, and he blinked in surprise when Tifa walked out, looking agitated as she waved the phone.

“Cloud! It’s Yuffie. They’ve called an emergency Council of the WRO tonight, and want us to attend. We’ll have to shut the bar, and Cait’s coming now to keep an eye on the-“

Both of them suddenly frowned and turned towards Midgar.

“…kids. Cloud, is that…?”

“You hear it too, then?”

As if in reply, everyone on the street stared curiously toward Midgar as the faint sound of screams drifted over again.

Cloud set down his tools. He wasn’t happy about it- but he’d needed to be sure.

12

The door chimed, but Yuffie barged in without waiting for further permission.

“Reeve! You have to look at these right away! Do you know how crazy AVALANCHE used to be? And how equally gung-ho Shinra was? We can’t find traces of recent development if all that secret army raising was done in the past, right? And look where they were based!”

Reeve raised an eyebrow when she plonked a number of files on his desk. The top one was stamped “Top Secret.”

“Where did you find these?”

She waved a hand impatiently. “Where do you find a reactor and a lab used for human experiments?”

“Nibelheim. Of course.” He skimmed through the first file, eyes widening as he progressed. No wonder Scarlet always got a hefty slice of the budget. He looked up, meeting her eyes anxiously.

“I remember mention of this project, but I wasn’t ever given any details… I’m calling another emergency Council- and I think we’d better ask Cloud and Tifa to come.”

All this time we’ve been living on top of the hornet’s nest…

13

She initiated that night, pulling off his clothes as hungrily as she had that first night.

He was just as eager. The pleasure and relief were exactly what they both needed after a long night of horrifying revelations and tense planning at WRO Headquarters.

He had their exodus in mind, too- privacy would be the price for safety in numbers.

He was stunned though, when she pulled him inside without protection.

“But…” he panted, surging forward guiltily. They’d talked about this, and it felt insanely good without that thin barrier between them. But they were going to become refugees, possibly head into battle…

“For the future, Cloud. I fight harder if I know there’s the prospect of something wonderful in the future. Don’t you want to feel like you’re running towards something and not away?”

Images flashed through the haze of arousal. He pictured spooning her in bed, their rings winking as she let him feel the baby kick; imagined a little girl that looked just like Tifa toddling through 7th Heaven behind Denzel and Marlene.

They would be back. They would make it happen.

He plunged forward again, kissing her desperately.

“Yes. Run with me?” he groaned.

“Always.”

And then there was no more need for words.

14

In a twist of fate, Meteor had made organizing the evacuation much easier. Disaster groups had already been assigned and people had practiced leaving their homes in emergency drills; fuel, food, water, first-aid and sanitation supplies had been prepared; and the WRO had established evacuation routes and meeting points. All that was left to do was start the process.

“Thank you all for coming at such short notice. The WRO has just discovered information that makes evacuating Edge vitally important. We’ll be heading for Fort Condor in 24 hours. Remember the drills: the most important thing is for everyone to move in a calm and organized manner.”

“So this isn’t just a drill? We all know Meteor’s anniversary is coming up.”

“This is no drill. We’ll be distributing evacuation maps and checklists today, and as group leaders, you will be responsible for getting this information to the others, and informing us of any problems your members may have. WRO members will be at all the meeting points if you need further assistance.”

“Why Fort Condor? It’s a fair drive from here.”

“We’re familiar with its defense, and it will be easier to protect the population there than try to organize a defense of the city. The Fort has successfully resisted attacks in the past, and our friends there are generously offering to shelter us until the threat is eliminated.”

“You’re saying you think Edge will be under attack? Because of those screams we can hear?”

“There’s no need to panic. But that possibility exists, which is why we are evacuating as a precaution.”

“But why do we have to leave? Can’t you heroes just hunt down the bad guys?”

Cloud spoke up. “Barret and I have searched and found no trace of where they are hidden. And more importantly, the WRO has determined that the risk isn’t worth it. We love our home. We want to return as soon as possible. But our priority is keeping people safe.”

Reeve nodded. “We’ll decide on the best way to deal with this threat once civilians are no longer at risk. Warfare in urban areas always leads to heavy civilian casualties.”

“How about my Aunt May? She’s in the hospital.”

“Individual concerns can be discussed with the WRO officials at the meeting points. It may reassure you to know that the Geostigma transport units have been assigned to evacuate bedridden patients. Any other general questions?”

There was a tense silence as everyone looked around,

“We need to move quickly, people. You all know what to do and time is ticking.”

15

The next blow came to an unexpected quarter, and for the second night in a row, the lights stayed on all night at WRO headquarters as they scrambled: this time, to answer the call for help from Wutai. Reeve sent the airships stationed at Headquarters with Yuffie despite their previous commitment to the evacuation- but speed had been a necessity. Yuffie had been frantic and furious in turns, annoyed that she was so far from Wutai when it was in trouble. She’d been even more annoyed when they’d arrived too late to strike a blow against Deepground: the enemy forces had quickly retreated once the reinforcements from Rocket Town had arrived, and damage in Wutai had been kept to a minimum. But she had looked relieved and proud when she made her report.

“Leave it to Wutai to hold off the bad guys! Guess my old man isn’t as much of a pushover as I’d thought. We’re pretty much finished here, so we’re heading for Rocket Town in about an hour. You sure about Edge?”

“We can’t be sure of anything- but the board has agreed that the people in Rocket Town are the new evacuation priority- and Edge has still not been attacked despite its close proximity to Midgar. Rocket Town is the next most obvious target to us: there are few fighters in the population and it’s hours from help if the fleet is committed elsewhere.”

Cid’s voice had rung with satisfaction. “Can’t have our forces all in one place when these Deepground bastards could strike anywhere. Red’s place is a lot more defensible, and I got a responsibility to these folks! I’ll be damned if they’re gettin’ my girls while I’m halfway across the world.”

Reeve continued to study the map and files after the monitors went quiet, still hoping to find some rhyme or reason to Deepground’s attack strategy. The door chimed, and he wearily buzzed permission to enter.

Shalua entered and shook her head at the sight of him. The Commissioner always took such care with his appearance and his outfit had become uncharacteristically rumpled.

“Just as I thought. You need to get some rest- the duty officer will wake you if there’s any urgent news. A few hours sleep will help more than trying to work in this state. We’ve all analyzed the intel multiple times.” She eyed him before carefully making her next statement.

“It’s too bad Yuffie can’t go back to Nibelheim as planned.”

Reeve sighed, fighting the feeling that his carefully woven plans were unraveling, the strands slipping through his fingers. Taking the hours to rest seemed like an unforgivable luxury. Doing less than his utmost might mean he would lose another thousand people. “We’re the underdog in this fight. Just when I thought we were a step ahead… But those 500 people in Edge and the intel mission will have to wait until we cover yet another weak flank.”

“Well, the autopsies are done and you don’t need a scientist for evacuation. What if I head to Nibelheim instead?”

Reeve frowned. “It might be dangerous, and I can’t spare the men for backup until we’ve finished getting everyone out of Edge.”

“Yuffie may be a trained shinobi, but I’ve got a mean left hook and I’m an excellent shot. I’ve done solo missions like this for Avalanche, Commissioner. I can handle it. If there’s more information on Deepground there, you know I’ll find it.”

“…I appreciate your initiative, and your offer comes at a desperate time… but I’d still feel more comfortable if you had someone watching your back.”

“So send Yuffie after me once she’s finished with the evacuations. I’ve checked and there’s no hint of Deepground in Nibelheim yet. We’ll have to be quick before they realize it’s the source of our intelligence.”

Reeve rubbed at his eyes, sighing. “There might be some solution to this that I’m just not seeing.” There was something odd about her sudden offer, but he just couldn’t remember...

“Well, you can’t see if you can barely keep your eyes open, can you Commissioner?”

He sighed resignedly, shaking his head. “Please inform the Duty Officer that he can wake me if anything comes up. And thank you again for volunteering. More information may help stack the odds in our favor.”

Shalua smiled with triumph as she hurried to get started on her new mission. The files in Nibelheim might also give new definition to the cold trail she’d been on for so long.

16

The evacuation convoy moved slowly but steadily. With such a huge number of vehicles kicking up dust, most monsters stayed away- with a notable exception.

Cloud, leading on Fenrir, noticed a few doglike monsters loping along with them as they passed through the wastelands. He didn’t want to break out of position to deal with them, but he couldn’t help feeling uneasy with as the number of gaping jaws and barbed tentacles grew on either side of the convoy. His phone rang a few minutes later.

“Cloud! Those don’t look like Kalm Fangs to me,” Barret shouted.

“Yeah, me neither. Something tells me they’ve got to be related to Deepground if we’re suddenly encountering them. Tell the WRO to open fire if they get too close. And let everyone know that they should get ready to slow down or stop suddenly- we want to keep accidents to a minimum if people get spooked by the gunfire.”

“$%# scavengers.”

“No- these act like pack hunters. They’ll go for the weak. We need to guard the rear at the bottleneck and make sure vehicles stay in formation like we planned.”

The number of hounds keeping pace just out of range grew steadily until they reached the mountains. Then the pack gathered at a careful distance, watching with interest as the convoy took to the narrow lanes with WRO vehicles interspersed between civilian ones.

Cloud dialed as soon as he reached the other side.

“We’re through. None of those creatures here, and we’re taking the midway break. You’re all right?”

“For now. I’m glad the kids are asleep. It’s unnerving watching those dog things eye us. Barret, do you have anything to tell Cloud?”

Cloud held the phone away from his ear as Barret’s voice blasted out again.

“If I wasn’ so busy, I’d give those salivatin’ &@# a piece of my mind!”

“Barret, don’t shout! Oh! No sweetie, we’re not there yet, you can keep sleeping.”

“Ah…sorry, Tifa.” He lowered his voice. “Yo. They’re still starin’ like they’re spoilin’ for trouble, but they been stayin’ at a distance. Guessin’ there’s about 50 of ‘em now. Anyway, we got about 20 more cars to go before we bring up the rear.”

“Keep alert and keep safe. I’ll see you soon.”

It was with more than a little relief that they joined the group on the other side of the mountains, leaving the strange new creatures on the other side.

17

Fort Condor was usually a tranquilly empty place, so the addition of most of the population of Edge made it almost unrecognizable. Besides the sounds and movement of thousands of people, there were now tarps and bags of possessions crowding the halls and rooms, outlining the meager space each family possessed. Those who had tents pitched them outside on the peak- less weatherproof, but slightly more spacious.

Marlene didn’t mind- it was all one exciting adventure, like the time she’d stayed in Kalm with Auntie Elmyra for a bit. This time Tifa was here and most of the neighborhood girls had found their way over to the tent to play. The portable toilets were smellier than the one at home, but that was all part of the experience- and Daddy said they would make a campfire tonight to roast marshmallows and hot dogs. She could hardly wait to actually try out her sleeping bag tonight.

Denzel was less thrilled with the arrangements, and his anxious expression had held ever since they started packing up to go. He’d somberly checked his emergency bag and cleaned their room yesterday, not wanting to voice his fear that they would never return. He just knew it was because of him and Marlene that they were running instead of staying and fighting.

“Denz!”

He turned and waved half-heartedly at Pete, all gangly limbs and jerky movements, his arms flailing excitedly as he trotted over.

“So this is where you guys are, huh? We’re inside by the shops and Dan’s somewhere in the basement. There’s this huge nest thing up by Taka’s, you gotta see!” he enthused, and started off, looking back expectantly. “Come on!”

“Yeah? Well…I guess I…”

He stuck his head in the tent as Pete danced from foot to foot with impatience.

“Hey, Tifa, think Cloud will be back soon?”

She looked up from the cooler and smiled reassuringly. He’d stuck close all afternoon after Cloud and Barret had left, offering an extra pair of hands as she’d helped people get settled in, although he’d been as quiet and self-conscious as when he’d first started living with them. He’d even brushed off Marlene’s invitations to play earlier, seeming to want to brood as he sat outside waiting for them to return.

“He’s just emailed and says they’re on the way back now.”

“Oh…that’s good. Hey, can I go with Pete to look at this big nest thing?”

“Oh, that old thing? Sure. You can probably guess how big the baby bird was if you look at it. It was really something,” she said, heartened when some of that boyish enthusiasm returned to his eyes again.

“Yeah?”

“Yup. The mother bird was about as big as this whole fort.”

His eyes widened. “Really?”

“Mmmhmm. Be back in an hour, ‘K? We’ll be having dinner. And call if you get lost.”

“I will! …Hey Pete! Guess what?”

Tifa smiled as she heard them race off shouting. It was a relief to see that boys could still be boys in times like these.

18

Without the civilian vehicles to worry about, they had been able to move at a much faster pace back to Midgar. But their passage yet again did not go unnoticed, and this time, the creatures -Guard Hounds according to Reeve- were bolder.

They ventured closer despite the warning rounds from the WRO vehicles, keeping pace almost mockingly and dancing away if they came under fire. They only fell off pursuit once the convoy reached the city limits, which understandably caused some anxiety.

“We’ll be movin’ slower once we got people on board, Cloud- an’ I’m not the only one wi’ the feelin’ we’re bein’ hunted,” Barret said, agitatedly checking his gun arm as they waited for the families they were evacuating to get on board.

Cloud nodded. “We’ll do a check on the performance of all the Shadowfoxes- if they attack, they’ll start with stragglers.”

“What are we, sheep? We’re waitin’ ‘til they start tryin’ to pick us off?”

Cloud frowned, eyes flashing. “Of course not. Pack tactics are predictable and we’re not some flock.”

He stopped, considering. In fact, what are we if not a pack ourselves?

His eyes slowly started gleaming as he pictured a different sort of strategy. “…Maybe we’ve been going about this the wrong way. What if we show them we bite back?”

Barret clapped him on the shoulder. “Ha! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

19

They were waiting at the outskirts in a loose half circle around the road. A red hound, slightly larger than the rest, had joined them. It stood on a hill overlooking the road, watching as the convoy neared before throwing back its head to howl.

The others all echoed the chilling sound before they charged, a ripple of heavy muscle and sharp teeth streaming over the wasteland.

Cloud smiled, drawing the First Tsurugi and holding it aloft. As one, the convoy slowed, and he disassembled it into two blades once the vehicles had ground to a halt. They waited, nervously sliding open shutters and aiming weapons according to instruction.

Drivers: stay in formation and stop when everybody else does. Stay close together. We want to present a solid wall, not individual targets. With their speed and size they MAY be able to put dents in your vehicles, but they should not be able to puncture the bodies- especially if we’re not plowing into them. We’re more likely to crash if we stay running like a flock of fleeing sheep. So keep the evacuees low at the center of the vehicle and try not to panic. We need to show them we’re not letting them hunt us. Aim for their heads. Shoot at those that are threatening the cabin first. And radio for help if you need it.”

And then, moments later, the wave broke over them.

In practice, their initial anxiety made those instructions harder to follow. Some of the troops fired without aiming as the hounds rushed in.

But even if the hits weren’t lethal, many of the hounds stumbled and fell, causing those behind to trip over their tumbling bodies. And as the troops continued to fire, emboldened by the faltering of the enemy, their hands grew steadier.

Cloud sliced his way through the thick press of snarling bodies at the front. Many of the hounds had charged straight for him, recognizing his lack of armor.

A mistake they soon paid for, as he spun to meet them. Their numbers were no match for his double bladed assault and he cleaved his way through them with unerring accuracy. He’d left a pile of bodies in his wake before the hounds started to avoid him, and then he jumped back on Fenrir, focusing on herding them into firing range of the troops.

The hail of gunfire had become sporadic as the number of fallen hounds increased, and the remaining hounds circled out of range, watching for an opening but unwilling to risk the bullets.

The leader made a series of growling barks from his perch, and the Guard hounds immediately turned and made for the open ground to the east.

They watched as the pack streaked off, anxiously seeing if they would regroup for another charge.

But they disappeared into the distance, and Cloud grinned and swung his sword in an arc as everyone cheered.

A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

20

You have 24 new messages.

Vincent’s eyebrows raised in surprise- spending time in Lucrecia’s grotto usually created a backlog of emails, but this was an unusual number- especially because not all of them were from Yuffie. He scrolled through the list, noting that almost every member of their gang had contacted him.

Odd.

Reeve had sent the final message today - and since he was headed there anyway, he quickly entered a response…although he wondered if Cloud had let it slip. No matter.

Understood.

He had a sneaking suspicion he’d be asked to help in some messy situation again, but a request from a friend couldn’t be ignored. And he could have a glass of wine and deal with the rest once he was clean and caught up on worldly events again.

21

It was a risk despite the encryption algorithm, but they had no choice but to discuss their attack plans electronically. While the video monitors were jury-rigged at Fort Condor, they still did the job as well as the professional set-ups in WRO Headquarters and Cosmo Canyon.

“I hear people are settling in smoothly at both refugee camps,” Reeve said.

People nodded on both the Cosmo Canyon and Fort Condor screens. Nanaki spoke.

“Quarters are tight, but everyone’s basic needs are provided for.”

“It’s a tight squeeze here as well, especially now that the rest of the evacuees are here, but so far people have been cooperating as well as expected,” Tifa said.

“Good. Then we can move from defense to offense knowing our civilian population is well out of harm’s way. You should have copies of the information we’ve compiled on Deepground soldier types. Cloud, Tifa, Barret: I want you to lead the ground assault. Cid, the fleet is yours to command in an air assault. Yuffie and I will take care of the second wave of reinforcements. Nanaki: are you sure you won’t join us?”

He shook his head. “I’d like to aid in the battle- but leaving the refugees here without protection would be unthinkable.”

“We will keep your cubs and elders from harm,” Dinne promised Cid solemnly.

Cloud frowned. “I’d like to leave a few experienced fighters like myself here as well, and the battle plans don’t allow for that, Reeve.”

“Our numbers may be higher, but our forces aren’t trained for war- most of their battle experience comes from keeping down monster populations. We’re a Regenesis organization, not an army. And it seems that Deepground soldiers have been constructed to be killing machines. Strong fighters and leaders will be vital to keep up morale and keep down casualties. The reports on the battle against the Guard hounds only help to underscore that.”

“I understand, but I’m not comfortable leaving the people here. Bringing the war to Midgar means just that. You’ve put stronger WRO units in most major cities, so I don’t see why the people of Edge deserve only an inexperienced unit. I’ve led even small forces to a number of victories on these battlegrounds, so it makes more sense to stay here.”

“I understand your unease- your children and neighbors are at stake. But the alternative is to wait for Deepground to attack Fort Condor. Do you think your supplies can hold out until they do so? Will diseases like dysentery remain at bay that long? People can’t live in such close quarters for extended periods of time. And what happens to the rest of the world while you’re holed up inside? Shalua has reported that they’ve taken Shinra manor, making Nibelheim their new base in the Western continent. We need to strike quickly at their stronghold while we still can. And we need you in battle at Midgar to improve our chances of winning that fight, Cloud.”

Rufus Shinra, next to Tseng and an older Turk in the Cosmo Canyon screen, cleared his throat. “If I may venture a suggestion.”

Cid slapped the table when incredulous murmurs rose. “Listen, I know they’re not the most popular people on the planet. And it looks like his old man’s the reason Deepground exists. But they got more battle experience than most. And we asked them to come because Rufus has come up with some ideas that could help us out.”

“Thank you, Captain." He looked resolutely at the suspicious faces on the other screens. "As you may be aware, I’m also familiar with the defenses of Fort Condor. I’m confident that my Turks and I can defend it effectively- if given the chance.”

“You’re only familiar with ‘em ‘cause Shinra kept attackin’ the Fort!”

Rufus met Barret’s eyes. “Exactly. I know the approaches well, we will hold the higher ground and have better weapons at our disposal than the ones your soldiers used against our forces.”

Nanaki stirred and stood. “I’ve asked some of the more senior Turks to help us defend Cosmo Canyon due to their experience in its assault. The days of Avalanche are past and I believe it would be foolish to turn away skilled allies in times of war. They wish for freedom from this threat as strongly as we do. Perhaps more.”

Rufus dipped his head, but said nothing else.

There was silence until Cloud finally spoke. “Agreed. I can trust them to defend the Fort. We’ll do a better job at the front.”

Rufus gave Cloud a slight nod, and received one in turn. Reeve let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“Then it’s decided. President Shinra- Rufus- we would appreciate your assistance greatly. How long will it take you to get to Fort Condor and set up the defense?”

“We can be in place in a day.”

Yuffie spoke up. “We also need to get the troops better prepared for battle. My aerial rescue units are used to helping people, not shooting at them. I’ve got a lot of nervous fingers on triggers right now, and that won’t win any wars. I’d actually like to get back to them as soon as possible.”

“We’re moving units to Kalm tonight as well; so let’s adjourn until tomorrow. Good luck, everyone.”

22

Target practice, hand-to-hand combat, and instruction on enemy types and attack strategies were the focus until they headed into war. Cloud wondered briefly how long it had been since he’d gone through them as a Shinra grunt. He was glad the uniforms were different, at least, even if the exercises he conducted were hauntingly familiar. Making troops fire at dummies and practice taking cover brought back some long buried memories. It was strange to be saluted rather than the other way around.

But it became easier as he settled into it. Watching Tifa instruct the close combat classes or Barret give tips in target practice was a big part of that. And while he worried that the WRO troops were unseasoned, unaccustomed to fighting against intelligent enemies, the determination in their eyes made him believe they had more than a fighting chance.

None of them were in this for the imagined glory or the Shinra paycheck. He wondered if that Tsviet knew how much resolve he’d given their forces with that vile speech.

23

Sleeping in a tent always reminded him of their journey. The lingering smell of smoke from the evening fire, the hard ground under his sleeping roll and the other resting bodies- with Barret snoring like a foghorn- just a couple of feet away.

But now her sleeping roll was aligned with his, and he had every right to slide over that crack between them and pull her against him. So he did, reviewing the battle formations and checklists as he inhaled the smell of her, wishing he could do more than rub himself against her. His natural morning state wasn’t something they could take care of in the usual way.

She stirred and smiled, wiggling against him.

“Someone’s up,” she murmured.

“I can’t help it.”

“Mmm, I know.” She turned, eyes cracking open slightly as she kissed him. “Happy birthday, Cloud.”

“You remembered.”

“Of course I did,” she chuckled, and sighed regretfully between lazy kisses. She’d looked up cake recipes just last week…

“Even I mixed it up for the longest time.”

“I know.”

“…I’m older than he was now,” he said soberly.

“And you’ve already got a wife and kids. Bet he would have teased you for that,” she said lightly.

He chuckled as he thought of him. “…Yeah. Yeah, he would’ve.”

24

“…He’s come a long way from that comatose kid Zack gave his life for.”

Tseng gave her a concerned glance. “It’s always bothered you to see Strife.”

She straightened her back.

“I’m a Turk. I can do my job.”

They watched the rest of Strife’s brief speech in silence. If he noted the way her eyes became suspiciously moist as the troops cheered, he deliberately focused on the organized movements of the men until she spoke again.

“He would have been so proud.”

Tseng raised a brow. “How do you know he isn’t?”

She paused and smiled at him before lightly hefting her shuriken. “Well, you heard the man. Time to fight for freedom.”



A/N: Comments, especially on possible canon oversights, are much appreciated. And kudos if you can figure out what the title refers to!

Date: 2008-10-12 10:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] knightlineninja.livejournal.com
Wow, what an epic for a prelude. You had me anticipating for the next part, even before I'd finished the part I was reading, I just wanted to know what was going to happen!

Awesome tension and I loved the little slices of ordinary life you slipped into it here and there because, even in war, normality exists and that's great to see - just makes it that little bit more real.

Looking forward to the next chapters!

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