A Host of Seraphim
Author's note: And now, for a very different sort of ShinRa mansion Christmas. It is disgusting and silly and frivolous and self-indulgent, and I'm not sorry one bit. This fic references FF7 Compilation canon only when I feel like it. Otherwise, I have made it up! I like making things up. It's sorta what this gig is about. Also, please slot in "Christmas" for "Yule" or "Holiday" or "Bahamut's Birthday" or "Midwinter" or whatever it is more likely to be called in the FF7-verse. I call it "Christmas" because anything else is glaring and sounds contrived, not because I think Jesus was born in a stable in every universe ever. (Obviously, in at least three or four universes he's a big talking Lion, so please let's give the man some props for his adaptation skills.)
"Tell me again why we're doing this," Cloud said, from the passenger seat of the jeep. He had been silent, with his boots on the dashboard and the rest of him radiating a general aura of sulkiness, for the past forty miles.
"We are doing this," Tifa said, without opening her teeth, "because we were invited, and because it's the nice thing to do."
"I don't like them," Cloud said, and there was more than a bit of petulance in his tone. "I spent a good deal of time trying to kill them."
"Maim," Tifa corrected.
"Okay, maim them," Cloud allowed. "But we're still talking about a general desire for incapacitation, here. They aren't my friends."
"You don't have any friends, remember?" Tifa reminded him, a bit too airily. "You're too much of a baddass jerk."
Cloud put his face in his knees. "I don't want to."
"Be a baddass jerk? News to me."
"I don't want to do this," Cloud clarified, sounding a little hurt. "And if someone hadn't taken the keys to my bike--"
"If you want 'em, come and get 'em." Tifa patted the front of her tight t-shirt, and her cleavage jingled slightly. "But be prepared to lose a few teeth."
Cloud sighed, certain that no hero of the world had ever been quite as put-upon and henpecked as he was.
"Don't act like such a baby," Tifa said, more cajoling now. "They like you, you know. As much as they like anybody. It'll be fun if you just relax a little."
"Tifa, I spent five years in a tube in their basement."
Tifa grit her teeth, and her gloved hands flexed on the steering wheel until it groaned in protest. "Yeah well, they killed my whole goddamn family. We've all got issues, Cloud, but at least I'm trying to do something to get over mine." She hit the brakes hard enough to throw Cloud forward into the dash, sunglasses flying off his face and landing with a clatter somewhere on the floorboard. "Now pick up that gift basket and make nice." Tifa got out of the jeep and slammed the door, sending a large sheet of piled-up snow off the vehicle roof and onto the windshield. The miniature avalanche blotted out the impassive gables of the ShinRa Mansion and the narrow, wind-bitten peak of Mount Nibel in the distance. Cloud sighed, grumbled, swore, and eventually did as he was told. Nibelheim averaged temperatures of negative ten on midwinter nights; it wasn't as though he could just wait in the car.
Tifa was by the gate, stomping snow off her boots. The mansion sidewalk was neatly shoveled, the porch draped in swags of greenery. Cloud felt his stomach twist as he looked up at the shuttered windows, though they tired to be cheery with the help of little candles each one. He tightened his grip on the cellophane-wrapped basket and trudged up the walk after Tifa. "You could at least carry this stupid thing," he said, letting out little puffs of breath to keep the basket's masses of brightly-colored curling ribbon from getting into his mouth. He was largely unsuccessful at the attempt.
Tifa batted her eyelashes at him. "Aw, you're not going to make me carry that heavy basket, are you? Since you're such a big strong guy?"
Cloud thought that Tifa, with her extremely impressive arms, had more marks in the 'big and strong' column than he did, but he knew better than to say so. The day was not so unpleasant that it couldn't be made more so by the addition of a black eye. But he already had a plan to do as little socializing as possible. He would say hello, deposit the present, and make himself scarce somewhere out of the way. Tifa could go on with her let's all make peace with the past crusade if she wanted, but all Cloud wanted from his past was that it respect the restraining order he'd placed on it.
Tifa brought down the large brass knocker on the door, and Cloud tried not to shudder as its reverberations echoed through the old manse. Even the word Nibelheim made his flesh creep; actually being there was akin to being dropped into a kiddie-pool full of spiders. So when Elena opened the door, and exclaimed in delight at the brightly-wrapped basket of wine and the cookies Marlene and Denzel had made, Cloud plopped the basket into the Turk's arms, shot a curt nod at Tseng, and marched up the stairs on pretense of finding the bathroom. If it was warm in there, and if the door lock worked, he was considering spending the whole weekend sulking in the bathtub, playing Moogle Mahjong Melee on his cell phone.
"Sorry," Tifa said, steadying Elena under the weight of the basket. "You know he's not very social. Though he is getting much better."
"It's to be expected that he would have some discomfort at being here," Tseng demurred, taking the basket from both of them, and placing it just so on the credenza. "I'm really rather pleased he came. Rufus has high hopes of engaging him in serious discussion about the future of our planet."
Tifa thought Cloud would probably rather engage in seriously having his toenails removed with a pair of hot pliers, but she graciously refrained from saying so. Instead, she commented about how nice they had made the old place look, and Elena blushed with delight at the compliment.
"That means so much, coming from you," she said. "I'd love to give you a tour, but you must be tired from your long trip."
Tifa protested that she felt fine and it would be nice to see the mansion looking lived-in, Tseng offered to have drinks ready by the time they were done, and Elena towed Tifa off to show her the plaster moldings she'd had installed, and all the new rugs, and the pretty shade of warm gray and silver she'd done the bedrooms in.
Halfway down the hall, Cloud heard their voices approaching. He was already feeling threatened, and the thought of having to maintain a show of interest in wallpaper made his fight-or-flight instinct kick in full gear. He reached for the nearest door, opened it, put himself behind it, and then realized several things in quick succession, all of them too late to do anything about.
One, the door was the door to the basement.
Two, the stairs were gone.
Three, gravity still worked.
"Was that Cloud?" Tifa asked, glancing down the hall at the sound of a slamming door. "Heading for the lab?"
"Oh, it's not quite finished yet, if it was," Elena said, in apology. "It was such a pain in the ass hauling things up those rickety stairs that we figured we needed to have them replaced first. But there's a ladder to get down there." She frowned. "If he'd waited, I could tell him what we're planning to do with the space."
"Probably he wants some time to himself," Tifa answered, without adding and he won't give a damn even if you made it a private spa down there. "Bad memories, you know."
Elena nodded, her expression troubled. "I'm really glad you came, Tifa," she said. "Both of you. I'll tell the guys to give Cloud some space, and then we can all meet up again for drinks, and maybe work a little at putting the past behind us."
Cloud's past, on the other hand, was directly underneath him, and rushing up at him with gathering speed. There was a ladder--he had learned that when his knee collided with it on the way down--but he couldn't manage to grasp any of the slippery rungs. Instead he caught a square spur of stone jutting out from the curved wall, halting his descent just a few feet from the bottom of the stairwell, leaving him dangling like a coat on a hook. The beam had once been a support for the spiral stairs, and now was only a peg in the masonry, fuzzy with lichen and dust.
Cloud hung there for a few seconds, wondering if he wanted to just drop down on the floor and then climb the ladder, or if he wanted to take the ladder from where he was, and avoid setting foot in the hated basement entirely. He hadn't decided which was better when the beam he was holding slid downwards a few inches, landing in its new socket with a carefully-engineered click, and a door opened in the wall above his head.
Cloud blinked at it in surprise. A whole section of the wall had swung inwards, leaving a jagged black hole behind. Cloud pulled on the support a few more times, but there was no further motion; it had done all it was intended to do. Presented with a third option between actually going further into the basement or turning tail and running, Cloud swung up onto the newly-opened ledge, and peered into the darkness of the hidden room.
"Hey," he said, in wary greeting. "Anyone in there?"
From the stale smell of the air, it had probably been decades since it was last opened. Cloud would have bet that even the Turks didn't know it was there. But the last time he opened such a door in the ShinRa basement, he found Vincent Valentine getting forty million winks inside a neon purple coffin, so he was taking no chances. There was no answer to his call, and he let out a little sigh of relief, and flipped out his cell phone display to get a look at his surroundings.
It was typical Hojo fare: large glass tubes, dead monitors staring blankly out of the dark, an examination table, rows of consoles with incomprehensible buttons, dusty flasks and tubes abandoned in a snarled nest.
"Cozy," Cloud said, because it was the sort of place that made you want to talk to yourself. His curiosity was getting the better of him now (did any of those log books have information about him? Or about Sephiroth? Or Zack?), and the light of his phone display only went so far. He shone the dim beam of light on the walls, looking for a light-switch, and found a toggle on the wall that looked promising. He hesitated before flipping it, and then shrugged. What was the worst that could happen?
Maybe it was good that Cloud was dealing with his issues right off, Tifa thought, putting her back to the roaring fire in the front room of the mansion. He could take some time to make some peace with the past, have some closure, and then come upstairs and drink himself under the table with Rude's excellent wassail punch. Tifa was a bartender through and through, and she greatly believed in the healing power of alcohol. She also knew that Cloud was an easier lay when he was smashed. So he could have his pity-party in the cellar, then get good and properly wasted, and everybody concerned would have a much better Christmas. Even if Cloud might not remember the better half of it, that was fine. Cloud was in general a much more well-adjusted person when he was suffering from amnesia and multiple identity disorder. Everyone said so, including Cloud himself.
Conscience assuaged, Tifa accepted another cup of punch from Rude, silently admiring the outline of his biceps in his trim black suit. The scenery in Nibelheim had certainly improved lately. She took a deep sip of her drink, and smiled. Yes, things were shaping up just fine for a nice, relaxing holiday weekend.
That was when the panicked screams started coming from the basement.
Cloud wasn't exactly sure which buttons he had hit already, in that first desperate round of smacking that started after the powering-up sequence began. (He only knew that's what it was because a computerized voice had told him so, in soothing feminine tones.) He was punching things at random in an attempt to stop whatever he had started, but they only produced new and alarming results. The empty tanks started filling up with viscous green fluid, and all the little indicator lights along their hatches sparkled in a festive display of science. The tanks hummed, and the entire lab took on a verdant glow. If Cloud had not been so busy fighting off a first-class coronary he might have enjoyed the show. But probably not. Even now, years later, that particular mako-shade of green made him feel downright queasy.
Cloud pounded on the side of the tanks, as he once had begged for release from the inside. It was a reflex of pure repressed memory, and he only stopped doing it when something inside the tank lifted its hand through the opaque murk and tapped a greeting back. Cloud yelped and fell to the floor, landing hard on his backside. Jets of exhaust steam spewed up from the tank tubing, and Cloud was blinded by a thick, luminous fog. There was a popping noise, a loud slurp of retreating liquid, and then something large and heavy and wet landed in Cloud's lap. In retrospect, Cloud felt he could hardly be blamed for screaming. The last things he had seen emerge from ShinRa's mako tanks had been half-formed monsters, piteous and horrible and murderous. They were nothing he wanted in proximity to his belt-buckle. This thing, which he still could not see, was slimy and squirmy and naked, and there seemed to be a good deal of hair coming off of it. Also, it was clinging to him in something not unlike an enthusiastic hug.
There was a clamor of footsteps from above, a splintery creak as someone (probably Tifa) threw back the door, and a lot of gasping and choking as the fog cleared. Meanwhile, Cloud's efforts to escape the thing were fruitless. It was very slippery, and it was either multi-limbed or there was more than one. He was caught by a multitude of strong, mako-reeking arms, and they grabbed at his hair and his hands and his face as though their owners were blind as well, and trying to figure out the shape of the thing they were going to kill and/or devour right there on the lab floor.
"Get it off me get it off me get it off me get it off me get it off me get it off me get it off me!"
There was a shocked pause from the audience, and as Cloud sucked in a breath to keep screaming, Reno said, "Aww, Strife, you should have told us you were expecting. I would have knitted some booties."
"Yeah," Rude grunted. "About seven pairs of 'em."
Cloud opened his eyes, having no memory of when he had closed them. The mist was gone. He was sitting in a puddle of mako, there were vivid streaks of it in his clothes and dangling in streamers from his hair. His assailants were a gaggle of children: bony, pale, bright-eyed things all fighting to cling to him, either out of cold or fear or affection. Two of them were dark-haired, including the first one, clinging to his waist. Four were silver, including one that had wrapped its possessive little arms around Cloud's neck tightly enough to hamper his oxygen flow. One standoffish thing was a redhead, but even he had curled one small hand around Cloud's pants strap. They were all somewhere between eight and twelve years of age, they were all boys, and they all sported a single white wing, all of them arched in a protective, feathery tent around Cloud. Their faces, even childish and streaked with goo, were achingly familiar.
Later, Cloud would maintain it was the tight grip around his neck that prompted it, and not the shock. You didn't go through the things Cloud Strife had gone through and get all woozy just because little slimy versions of your past came wriggling out of a test-tube at you. He'd also inhaled a lot of mako gas. But whatever the cause, the result was the same: he passed out cold.
"All I'm sayin' is we should take 'em in the bathtub and hose 'em off. And maybe get them some pants."
"No chance. They're stuck to him like glue."
"You're just not yanking on them hard enough, Rude. They'll come off if you just put your back into it." There was a sustained grunt of exertion, a sharp hiss, and Reno said something unprintable about Bahamut's reproductive organs. "That little shit bit me!"
"I'm telling you. Just leave them be until Cloud wakes up."
This conversation, taking place somewhere above Cloud's head, dispelled any lingering hopes that he might have been having a nightmare. He was lying on the table in Hojo's main lab--never a good place to wake up--and yet he felt strangely warm and comfortable. For a second he thought he was under some kind of down comforter, then, as full consciousness returned, he realized he was blanketed beneath seven little snow-white wings. The creatures from the tanks were curled all around him, and the red-headed one was grinning sharply at Reno's bleeding finger.
"They've got teeth like a baby torama," Reno was saying, shaking his hand to make the wound stop stinging. "Creepy. Can't believe Cloud fainted like that, though. Mako fumes or not, I still say he's a big girl's bl--hey! Cloud! You're awake!"
"God," Cloud said, with feeling. "I wish I wasn't. What are these... things?" Cloud freed an arm from the tangle of limbs and wings, and tried not to notice the hurt look the spiky-haired dark one shot him. It sent a pang of guilt and longing right through his chest, sharp as the blade of a black-handled sword.
"You tell us, pal, you hatched 'em." Reno stuffed his injured hand in his pocket, and gave an arch glance at the auburn-haired boy. "So they must be yours."
"I didn't hatch anything," Cloud snapped. "There was some sort of sequence that started when I came in that room. And they aren't mine."
It was no mistake, then, the expression of loss and abandonment in all those mako-bright eyes. Cloud tried looking at the ceiling, instead.
"Coulda fooled me." Rude shrugged. "Anyway. Bring 'em and come upstairs. The boss wants to see you."
The winged boys assembled in a tiny phalanx in front of Rufus' desk, serious little half-angels with too much knowledge in their childlike faces. Though some of them had draped their wings around themselves in something like modesty, otherwise they seemed indifferent to their own nudity. There was snow heaped around the windowpanes outside, their feet were bare on the hardwood floor, and Cloud knew well how cold human skin felt when mako evaporated off of it. Yet none of them were shivering, none of them moved closer to the blazing fireplace or to dig their toes into the thick fur rug under Rufus' desk. At their head was the one that looked the oldest, and whose features sent the worst ripples of memory through Cloud's mind. His hair was long, parted in the middle, and fell in an unbroken, frosty cascade around his shoulders and down to his hips. His eyes were green, green like mako, like Armageddon, and they were sliced down the middle with black, needle-sharp pupils. He used them to survey the room, and Tseng, and then Rufus. Though he only came to the middle of Cloud's chest, he had the easy bearing of a general in the field. When he spoke--the first of them ever to do so--his voice sent prickles down Cloud's spine.
"You are Rufus ShinRa." There was no question at all in his voice, he was merely confirming facts.
Rufus stood, his fingertips resting lightly on his desk blotter as he surveyed the creatures in his office. "I am," he said, as he would have answered an adult. As he would have answered him, Cloud thought.
"And you are?" Rufus continued, arching a perfect eyebrow.
"We are the Cherubim Project," the boy said.
Rufus considered this, and frowned. "I have no recollection of such a project. Explain."
"Sir." His eyes were half-lidded now, his voice flat as though he was reciting something learned under hypnosis. "The cherubim project began initial testing phases ten years ago, in conjunction with SOLDIER and the ShinRa science division, with extremely limited security clearance. We were designed as an alternate to Dr. Hojo's other SOLDIER projects, which required either suitable adult subjects or lengthy human gestation to reach full capacity. However, in the virtual trial runs, the program revealed that the Jenova cells in our genetic makeup would be made inert by the nature of our artificial creation, and would not respond to the mother colony. Hojo had not yet found a means to remedy this issue and shelved the project. In spite of this, our initiation sequence was started approximately twenty-six minutes and thirty-two seconds ago. At that time, our molecular structure was generated via a rapid assembly program. Our development will reach peak operation in approximately ten days, when we will physically match our original sources." He paused in his recitation, and his eyes opened the rest of the way. There was a fierce light in them, like pride. "I am CP#001, and my genetic code is that of Sephiroth."
Rufus did not answer for a long moment. He sat down again, and carefully laced his hands together in his lap. "You are Sephiroth?"
The boy lifted one shoulder. "I am a pure, undiluted, fully functional clone of Sephiroth. My program contained his necessary genetic data, sampled from various stages of his SOLDIER career. During my biological assembly, I drew my source's memory, personality, and skills from the trace elements remaining in the lifestream. His soul has been heavily damaged, but it was still mostly intact. My programming requires me to examine anything deemed as a critical failure in my predecessor's functionality, either mental or physical, and reject it. This especially pertains to any errors leading to the permanent decommissioning of the original unit."
"I see," Rufus said. There was a slight, uncomfortable pause. "And the rest of you?"
The Sephiroth clone answered for them. "My fellow clones are functional replicas of first-class SOLDIERS Genesis, Angeal, and Zack." He frowned slightly, the first true emotion he had shown so far, and swept the tip of his wing in the direction of the other silver-haired boys. "I'm not entirely sure where these three came from. There was an anomaly in my source's lifestream presence, and they developed simultaneously along with me."
"The remnants," Tseng murmured. To the boys, he said, "What is your purpose?"
The Sephiroth clone looked surprised. "We have been dispatched as replacements for our fallen predecessors, as per our directive," he said, as though Tseng should already know that. "We are ShinRa Military Property and await our orders."
"A redundancy program," Rufus said, thoughtful. "Hojo invested so much work and effort in the SOLDIER program, he didn't want to lose that just because one of them might die in the field."
"So he arranged to simply dial up a copy, download their existence from the lifestream, and in a few days he would have a replacement." Tseng glanced at Cloud. "Hojo took data samples of Cloud as well. And yet there's no clone of him."
Cloud shuddered. "Good thing, because I'm disturbed enough as it is."
"Was it because he wasn't officially in SOLDIER?" Rufus wondered aloud.
"Yeah, thanks for opening up that wound," Cloud snapped, annoyed that no one seemed to acknowledge his presence. "I didn't need the reminder."
The Sephiroth clone was serene. "Cloud's soul was not found in the Lifestream during the status check. Therefore, his original was still active. There was no need to replace him and his generation program did not initiate."
"Will we need to dispose of them?" Tseng asked Rufus, in a low voice. "They could pose considerable danger."
"Or considerable opportunity," Rufus mused, eyeing the clones with a mercenary gleam. "We shouldn't be too hasty, here."
The Sephiroth clone twitched his wing as though it was the tail of an impatient cat. "I understand there was some considerable malfunction with our originals. You will find our construction to be far more stable. However, our inert Jenova cells will not allow us to exert our full potential." A tiny line appeared between his eyebrows. "Dr. Hojo considered this the ultimate failure of this project. Although we have been called into service in spite of our reduced functionality, we cannot replicate or pass on our Jenova cells with the ease of our predecessors. Theoretically we can replicate our genetics in the normal, unreliable human fashion, but we cannot colonize or Reunion."
"Good thing, too," Cloud said, folding his arms and glaring out the window. "We've only just finished putting this planet back together."
"Well," Rufus said, briskly. "We'll have to consider your orders--"
"I'm sorry, sir," the Sephiroth clone said. "Perhaps I wasn't clear in my explanation. We are a SOLDIER project. Our primary orders are to obey the SOLDIER commander's directives, or those of his replacement. We will only revert to ShinRa Corporate command if there are no remaining ShinRa SOLDIER or Army personnel to command us."
"There is no SOLDIER commander anymore." Rufus was starting to sound a little annoyed. "There is no SOLDIER program anymore, there's barely a Midgar anymore. And you're talking to what's left of ShinRa. So who, exactly, do you propose to..." Rufus trailed off, not finishing his sentence, as the clones all turned expectant, glowing eyes to Cloud.
"Oh, no," Cloud said, holding out his hands as though to fend them all off. "No no no no no. I quit. Ages ago."
"Officially?" Rufus asked. "You submitted a resignation, and everything?"
"I didn't think I had to," Cloud retorted, ticking items off on his fingers. "I figured somewhere between Hojo rearranging my molecules for five years, you shits blowing up the planet, and me trying to kill you all, handing in my keycard and a nice letter thanking you for all my learning experiences would have been pretty damn redundant."
"You are listed as MIA in the Company database," the Sephiroth clone said. "But you are still on the roster. And as you are obviously not missing anymore, and as you have not officially relinquished your post--"
"Well I do now!" Cloud shouted, frayed nerves getting the better of him. That thing looked so much like Sephiroth, and the rest of them he couldn't bear to think about or examine too closely. "I quit. Rufus, consider this my retroactive two-week notice from six years ago."
"You were a soldier, Cloud, not a secretary." Rufus' smile was not very nice at all. "And as a member of the military, you cannot simply walk away from your post. Your resignation is herewith denied. Retroactively."
"Fuck you," Cloud spat. "Retroactively." He turned towards the door. "I'd like to see you try and keep me from leaving, or force me to obey any order you decide to--" He stopped, frozen in place, as a small, strong hand reached out and caught him by the wrist. Cloud found himself looking down into the bright, serious eyes of Zack Fair.
"Cloud," he said, and though it differed in timbre, it was still Zack's voice. He said nothing else, but just that was enough to root Cloud's feet to the floor, to wrap up his heart in tight, painful bands of grief and hope. Cloud opened his mouth, closed it again, and looked away. His hand, as though independent of his own will, cupped the Zack clone's shoulder. The tip of the clone's white wing fluttered tentatively to Cloud's own shoulder in mimicry of the motion, the clone smiled Zack Fair's smile, and Cloud knew when he was defeated.
"Ten days until they mature, was it?" Rufus said, with ruthless efficiency. "Well, you're welcome to extend your stay here through the New Year, Cloud, as you're doing work for the Company. They'll be in your care. Tseng, have Reno and Rude go down and see what we have in the supplies for them as far as weapons and equipment; we might need to order in some other things. Elena and Reeve can handle whatever else you'll need for them..." He eyed the clones' bare skin. "...Starting with some clothes. Luckily, there's enough food here for an army anyway, so that shouldn't be an issue." Rufus pulled a random envelope off his desk, as though the current task was done and he was moving on to the next one. "Go and get them cleaned up, Cloud, and we'll see you for dinner."
"We hadn't really talked about having kids," Tifa said, waiting in the doorway of Cloud's guest room. "Much less so many."
"They're only kids for ten days," Cloud said, walking past her with his charges in a neat, buck-naked regiment behind. "After that, they're an army, and they're not my problem."
"Reno didn't seem to think so." Tifa followed him in, through the bedroom and into the connected bath, and raised her voice as Cloud wrenched on the water in the shower. "Sounds like you're back on the payroll."
"Only when I get a paycheck," Cloud said, scrubbing the mako out of his hair and wiping his hands on the back of his pants. He waved at the clones, and then the claw-foot tub. "All right, you... whatevers. Get cleaned up."
"Is that an order?" the Sephiroth clone asked, and Cloud rolled his eyes.
"Yes, it's an order. You look like a pack of seagulls half-drowned in a in a lime parfait."
"A big one," Tifa said, picking a vivid glob of dried mako out of the Loz-clone's hair. "I'll handle this. You go down and help find them some clothes."
"And who is this, sir?" the Angeal clone said, eyeing Tifa curiously.
"Miss Lockheart is my second-in-command," Cloud said. "Do anything she tells you to do."
A sharp chorus of "Sir!" followed Cloud out of the room. Relieved to be out of the presence of the clones (and yet at the same time feeling somewhat bereft by their absence), Cloud stomped down the mansion stairs.
"We should get them little matching SOLDIER uniforms," Elena was saying to Reeve, who was putting on his snow boots in the main hall. "Wouldn't it be cute?"
"It would if they weren't going to grow out of them in the space of a week," Reeve answered, double-knotting his laces. "They're worse than real kids. But I'll go see what we've got in the storage cellar out back. I think there's some surplus back there."
Elena watched Reeve open the front door and shut it again behind him, leaving a blizzard of snowflakes on the front rug. She turned, and catching sight of Cloud lingering on the landing, gave him a shrewd, appraising glance. "You need a drink," she announced.
"God," Cloud answered, hoarsely. "That's the first sane thing I've heard all day."
"Come on down to the living room," Elena said. "I'll get you fixed up."
Cloud sat down on the deep, plush sofa, and let the dim glow of lights from the massive fir tree soothe his throbbing headache. He couldn't stand to think about the clones, or what their presence meant, or what would happen in ten days when he was presented with carbon-copy versions of his dearest friends and worst enemies--some of them embodied in the same shapes. So he stared at the sparkling orbs in the tree branches and wondered exactly where Rufus had gotten all that materia, and whose idea it had been to use it in lieu of more traditional decorations.
"Here you go. This'll fix you right up." Elena's idea of a drink involved a lot of rum and hot cider and butter, and she presented it to Cloud in a festive mug on the coffee table. Cloud, mentally wishing for something a little stronger, downed it as fast as the hot temperature would allow. It went down his throat like candy, and hit his nervous system like a velvety, caramel-filled, solid-gold freight train.
"Not bad, huh?" Elena asked, as all of Cloud's muscles came unspooled, and he sank down into the sofa until only one spike of blond hair was visible over the back. "Reno says it's just like one of Rude's deep-tissue massages, only without the bruising."
"Make me another one," Cloud groaned, lifting up his mug and adding a belated, "Please."
"Fall in, and present yourselves for inspection!" Tifa said, with a sharp little clap of her hands. She was good with kids, and whatever their messy origins, the clones were brand-new organisms with a kind of mental programming that was not unlike make-believe. She'd spent months kweh-ing at Marlene that year she was into chocobos, and knew it was often better to play by the proper rules than to throw them out the window. The clones, responding well to language they understood, lined up in their towels in front of the fireplace.
Tifa walked past them with a critical eye. The redhead (he had given his name as #003, Genesis) was immaculately scrubbed, his hair arranged with utmost care to look like he hadn't used any care at all. #002, Angeal, had been utilitarian in his cleanup, but his towel was tied and draped with the precision of a dress uniform. Tifa made a noise of approval as she walked by him, and then tsked. Zack had not rinsed all the soap out of his wing feathers, and Loz had a large glob of Mako behind one ear.
"Unacceptable," she said, displaying the green smear to the chagrined clone. "Number 001!"
Tifa had to admit to herself that it was nice having any version of Sephiroth--even a travel-sized one--step to so obediently at her command. "These three are yours, aren't they?"
The clone looked reluctant, but the silver-haired triplets looked at him with such expressions of hopeful worship that he rolled his cat-slit eyes, and nodded. "I suppose, ma'am."
"Good. Take #006 here back into the tub and make sure he does more than splash around." She took Numbers 005 and 007--Yazoo and Kadaj--and led them over to the window. "Come here, you two. Your hair needs work."
"Mine's fine," Kadaj protested, squirming.
"Nonsense," Tifa said, hauling him along as though he was nothing more than a throw-pillow. "How do you expect anyone to see your pretty face with your hair in your eyes like that?"
The Zack clone giggled, there was a splash as Sephiroth shoved Loz back in the bathtub, and Tifa dug around in her travel bag for her scissors. Angeal sat down on the rug, Genesis began rooting through the musty old books above the fireplace. None of them seemed inclined to help their struggling youngest sibling in his insubordination.
"I am a genetically engineered killing machine and I don't need bangs--ow!--ow! Quiddit!"
Sephiroth poked his head around the corner of the bathroom door and Kadaj settled into quiet sulking at his warning glare.
"That's better," Tifa said, clicking her shears, and a fine sprinkling of silver hair scattered onto the floor. "It's just a haircut, it won't hurt."
"Just a half inch off for me," Yazoo's clone said, with a speculative glance at the ends of his hair. "Mako gives you the worst split ends."
After two more mugs of Elena's concoction, Cloud found it hard to give a damn about much of anything. He was sprawled on the couch with his eyes closed, half-listening to Rude and Reno clattering around in the kitchen, lulled into a trance by the crackling fireplace and copious amounts of rum. Every breath he took sank him a little further away from consciousness, and warm weight of someone curling up beside him was not enough to make him stir. The addition of others was only more comfortable, with a heavy head on his knee and a feathery rustling around his ankles. Someone draped a banner of silver hair over his folded arms, someone tucked a small hand into his. There was a tension in Cloud Strife that could not be soothed by sleep or alcohol, stone-hard and buried deep, but there in his not-quite dreaming it began to unknot itself, loosening like a body no longer braced for pain.
When Tifa came to tell him dinner was ready, she took one look at Cloud asleep on the sofa, surrounded by a heap of sleeping one-winged angels all bathed in the green-gold light of glowing materia, and closed the door with a smile. Cloud may not have been ready to make peace with his past, but his past, it seemed, was ready to make peace with him.
It was well after midnight when Cloud woke, suddenly and with a little gasp of alarm, still on the sofa in the ShinRa Mansion. The fire was down to cold ashes, the tree still gleaming with its eerie light, and the clones lay in a heap all around him, sleeping. All of them save one.
Zack's clone sat in the window seat, his wing around him like a blanket, looking out at the snow. Reeve had found clothes for them, though the shorts and ShinRa t-shirts were too big for them now, even though Cloud could tell they were not as small as they had been. He eased Kadaj's head off his knee, and crept across the room to the window.
"I'm sorry," Zack said, before Cloud could even say anything. He wouldn't look at Cloud, tracing little meandering paths through the window-frost. "You're going to ask me how much I remember, and if I'm really him, and if I will turn out like he was, and I don't know." The dark eyebrows drew together, the clenched jaw seemed strangely bare without the little crossed scar. "I remembered lots of things at first. When the sequencing began. There was a truck and a rainy sky and your face and a sword--but it's all fading away now." He laid his palm flat against the window, and the warmth of his skin spread over the glass and melted the frost into water, blurring his handprint.
"I was going to ask if you were cold," Cloud said, sitting down across from him. "But I guess those other things are things I would ask too, if I wasn't afraid of the answers."
The clone looked at him at last. "You wish we hadn't been made," he said, matter-of-factly. "I'm sorry for that, too."
Cloud shifted his weight in the window, and didn't answer. It was an awful thing to wish you had never been, and Cloud knew that personally. Zack looked outside again. The snow had stopped, and Mt. Nibel was a great black mass against the starry sky.
"In nine days," he said, "We'll be grown. And the things our souls learned in the Lifestream will be forgotten. You can go back home, and we'll stay here and work with Rufus. I spoke with the others about it. You don't have to think about us anymore."
Something seized up in Cloud's chest, something like a cold fist around his heart. "ShinRa cost you all your lives once already," he said. "You really think I'm going to let Rufus have you?"
"We are ShinRa Property--" the clone began.
"Then I'll steal you," Cloud said, with a fierceness that surprised even him. "Hell, it's not the first thing I've stolen from ShinRa. Where'd you think I got my bike?"
"There's no way you want all of us around you," Zack said, and for the first time he sounded like Zack, not just in tone, but in words and cadence as well. "Sephiroth, the Remnants--I can tell when you look at us, how much it hurts."
"Tifa keeps saying I have to let go of the past," Cloud said, his fist curling on his knee, as though to keep and hold something instead. "But if I do that, if I let go of my memories, then I'll just--" Cloud swallowed, trying to ease a sudden ache in his throat, blinking away the burning in his eyes. "--Then I'm just losing you all over again. You, and all the others. Even Sephiroth. And... and Aerith." His eyes were hot now, and he could feel the path of the tears on his face. SOLDIERs did not cry. Cloud wasn't a SOLDIER. He was just Cloud, and Zack had leaned over to rest his head on his chest. Cloud hung on to him, and wept.
"We want to be with you, and with each other," Zack said, when Cloud's shoulders stopped shaking. "For some of us, that's the only thing we can remember. It might be all the Lifestream will let us keep. Each other, and you."
Cloud nodded into the soft spikes of black hair. He leaned back against the window frame and wiped a hand across his face, chagrined. "I won't pretend there haven't been times I've wished for a few extra boots on the ground," he said. "Or even just some extra hands. A half-dozen SOLDIERS would sure as hell come in handy."
"We're not really SOLDIERS," Zack said, and the conspiratorial grin was the exact same one that had gotten Cloud into so much trouble, so often, so long ago. "So you're still our commanding officer."
"I'm a terrible leader," Cloud admitted. "But maybe you could be like the Turks are for Rufus."
"My thought exactly."
Cloud jumped; Sephiroth's clone was standing right beside him. The others, on the sofa, were awake and watching.
"It is a considerable sacrifice on your part, Cloud," Sephiroth went on, "But we're grateful. Something tells me that Rufus' methods might not be entirely to our liking, especially for the little ones." He flicked one wing-tip in the direction of the Remnant-clones. "Those three really are just children, you know," he added, in a low voice. "Even when they're grown."
"I remember," Cloud said, thinking about Kadaj yearning for a mother, dying in his arms.
"Well, all right," Angeal said, folding his arms. "But nobody's going to take us seriously if we start calling ourselves Cloud's Cherubs."
Next to him, Genesis groaned at the very idea. "Ugh. That's appalling."
"Cherubim are little angels, and we're not staying little," Zack said. "What else should we be?"
Sephiroth stood up straighter, and he seemed to age five years by that gesture alone. "We are the Seraphim," he said, to Cloud. "And we await our orders."
"You sure you won't stay until New Year's?" Elena asked, for what must have been the tenth time.
"We really should be getting back," Tifa said, nodding her head at the truck. "If we wait any longer, we won't fit all the Seraphs in the jeep." Even after only three days, the clones had moved on to gangly teenager stage, and the old surplus SOLDIER fatigues Reeve had found for them would not be loose on them long.
Elena pressed a foil-wrapped fruitcake into Tifa's hands. "Well, take this then. It's Reno's mom's, and they'll get hungry on the way back to Midgar."
"Are you entirely sure you want to do this, Strife?" Rufus arched an eyebrow at the clones, assembled beside the jeep with the motionless readiness of an infantry unit. "that's a lot of mouths to feed."
"I already have a lot of mouths to feed," Cloud answered easily. "But if you want to send them a stipend, I wouldn't turn it down." He didn't wait for Rufus to answer, instead letting Elena give him a hug, and returning Reno's friendly obscene gesture with one of his own.
"Fall in," he said, climbing up into the jeep as Tifa revved the engine. It was snowing again, and veiled in the misty distance, even Mount Nibel looked benevolent. The seraphs clambered into the vehicle with their wings carefully tucked in; Zack was whistling a soft little tune and Angeal gave Rufus a salute that was only a little mocking.
"That's going to be trouble, you know," Tseng said to Rufus, as the jeep rumbled towards the edge of town. "Letting them just go with him like that."
"You remember Sephiroth well," Rufus answered, as though Tseng needed the reminder. "And the Remnants. Quite frankly, Cloud's welcome to them."
Tseng's lips tightened, as though he wanted to grimace but was too formal to do so. He pressed one hand to his side in the memory of a sword-wound. "Of course, sir."
"On the other hand," Rufus said, wheeling back towards the mansion, "Reno. Rude. Elena. I want you to go over that basement with a fine-toothed comb, because if there's any other super-soldiers lurking down there, I want dibs."
Reno rolled his eyes. "Man, that's just how I want to spend my new year. Cloud gets an army, and what do we get? Chores."
"Quit complaining," Rude said. "At least you got a job."
"He won't if he doesn't get a move-on," Tseng said, darkly.
"I knew we shoulda filled that basement up with cement. Jeeze." Reno thrust his hands into his pockets. "Merry Fucking Christmas."