Shadows of the Mind @lord22
Shapeshifters

Chapter Sixteen: Shapeshifters

Snow and Cloud were given a week off after that.

It was a week that revealed the extent of the damage done by Barret in one afternoon. News rang with stories of all the troops who were killed. They called for vengeance on Wutai and demanded the world strike back.

Oddly enough, Lightning's involvement was underplayed and overplayed at once. On the one hand, she was being treated as a mastermind—one who did immense damage overnight through her brilliant tactics. Barret was hardly mentioned. On the other, the news media were making excuses for her. Ass if she was being controlled or blackmailed.

As if being blackmailed excused murdering thousands of your own countrymen. It would be more tolerable if they were at least consistent. However, they couldn't decide and kept changing up the narrative. Probably based on focus groups or something. One minute, Lightning was a sexy dark action girl who killed for fun and loved it. The next, she was a tragic woobie with no control over her actions.

You couldn't have things both ways.

"I don't get what the media is doing," said Cloud, looking at the TV. "Can't they keep a story straight?"

"My guess," said Snow. "They have a lot of different programs written about Lightning, all in advance. Obituaries, heroic victories, that kind of thing, all based on the situation.

"What she pulled probably threw them for a loop, and now they're trying to compensate. They don't have an agreed-upon narrative, so it's all over the place."

"But she's a mass murderer!" said Cloud. "I mean... Barret and Jessie are fighting a war! They are supposed to kill us! But Lightning betrayed her men and helped them do it!

"Why are they defending her?"

Snow shrugged. "Maybe they think she's hot."

Cloud gave up at that point. "Well, at least we got mentioned for our heroics. Right below, Genesis. Why is Genesis getting this kind of publicity? All he did was show up, spout some poetry, and achieve nothing!"

For what little credit was due. This entire situation was his fault anyway.

The entire base was filled with wounded people. Ammunition was in short supply. There were rumors of Wutai forces snatching men from their beds in the night came in. Other news spoke of alternative supply lines being established across a ford. But even with them, things were going badly.

Cloud was sure to make Snow and him some explosives like Jessie taught him to. They made him feel more secure.

And, at last, Cloud and Snow were given orders from Lazard. When they got to the command tent, they found him speaking with Angeal quietly. Genesis was nowhere to be found, having been dispatched to a Mako lab in the south by train. Apparently, it had come under threat by terrorists, and lot of reserves had been sent that way.

"Get the wounded to the lab," said Lazard. "We need as many troops ready as possible for when we start our offensive." Then he looked. "Ah, Cloud Strife and Snow Villiers. The men of the hour."

"Yes, sir," said Cloud, feeling on edge. What was the significance of the Mako lab? There had to be a reason Lazard was dispatching them there. And it couldn't just be a lack of medical supplies. Those could just as easily be shipped here from the lab.

He'd gotten a physical; the hospital was intact.

"Pleasure to serve," said Snow.

Lazard clasped his hands. "You'll be happy to know that your success has been noted. Without you, Lightning would have done far more damage than she already did. As things stand-"

"Lightning?" asked Cloud, blinking.

Lazard looked at him and seemed to misinterpret his confusion for a broken pedestal. "Yes, I realize she was something of a hero. Her betrayal has hit many of us. As things stand, the entire garrison under her command has disappeared. And with it went a large number of transport trucks.

"We're attempting to ascertain her motives and next move now."

Cloud had had enough of this. The media was portraying Lightning as a tragic villain for the sake of the narrative. But now it seemed like Lazard himself thought she was in charge. "But, sir, Lightning isn't in charge. Barret Wallace is."

Lazard clasped his hands and eyed him suspiciously. "I find that unlikely. Lightning is a professional supersoldier with years of combat experience. Barret Wallace seems to be a common terrorist with an axe to grind.

"Though I gather, you have firsthand experience with him. Why do you believe this?"

"When I was forced to work for Barret near Fort Condor, I saw him take and hide those guns," said Cloud. "I recognized some of the graffiti on them. I also saw that Barret was a pretty good leader. But Lightning has been here since during that time.

"There's no way she had the pull to approach Barret, get him transportation, and move the guns into place. It's much more likely that Barret figured out how to transport the guns using smugglers in Junon. From there, he probably just sent a message to Wutai and asked where to use them.

"Wutai, then directed him here."

"But then how did they arrange for Lightning's defection?" asked Lazard, voice tense. Why was he tense? Did he actually care, or was Cloud on dangerous ground here.

"...I think that Wutai definitely has someone on the inside," said Cloud, not wanting to point any fingers. One of them might be pointed at Lazard. "Barret completely changed the plan on them in the middle of the operation. Lightning made some threatening gestures, but he just shut her down. Also, one of Barret's subordinates, Jessie, was handling another part of the operation. She's an explosives expert and a very good one.

"I think that Lightning is just a middleman. Someone who acts as a go-between for Barret and whoever is really pulling strings."

"Would it not be a go-between for Wutai and this hypothetical mastermind?" asked Angeal.

"I doubt it," said Cloud. "Barret didn't mention any contacts in Wutai. And I traveled with him for weeks. He took me for a common rebel.

"My guess is that Barret came up with the plan on his own and asked Wutai about it. Then the King of Wutai just pointed out where he thought it would do the most damage. This person, whoever we're talking about, wanted to wipe out the reinforcements. My guess is that he wanted to make sure that you couldn't win the war.

"I don't think he wanted SOLDIER wiped out though, just discredited. Barret screwed up the whole plan when he ordered his men to fire on your troops."

Lazard frowned. "And why do you believe someone in Shinra would want to sabotage the war?"

"I have no idea," said Cloud. "Maybe they hate you on a personal level or want the war to go on. Maybe they want Wutai to stay in power for some reason."

Lazard and Angeal shared a look, and Cloud tried to figure out what it meant. Something was being conveyed between them now. At last, Lazard looked back. "You're a very dangerous young man, Cloud Strife.

"And you could be more right than you know.

"Most people think that Shinra is one company, run by President Shinra. In reality, it is six or seven different companies. All of which have their own supply chains, resources, and goals. Each of them competes with the others for funding from President Shinra. President Shinra himself focuses the full attention of his time on maintaining power. That and his pet projects.

"It is quite possible that one of these organizations wants us to fail in Wutai. If I were to be discredited, by forces might be folded into their control. But, we cannot focus on that at the moment.

"The sinking of those ships has destroyed our momentum in Wutai. Most of our reinforcements went down with them, and it will be some time before more arrive. His attack also destroyed a supply depot in our main base.

"And his explosives expert obliterated several critical bridges. Without them, we've had to draw off our main thrust toward Fort Tamblin. Victory was in our grasp until that happened.

"This... setback, is going to cause serious problems. The war could be lengthened by months. And in that time, other enemies of Shinra can regroup."

"Based on the reports you gave the Turks about Barret Wallace, I think I know his motivations," said Angeal. "Tseng's information is always reliable."

"There is a problem, however," said Lazard. "Lightning until now was considered a model soldier. And little research has been done into her background. At least beyond the usual background checks.

"Snow Villiers, I believe you grew up with her?"

"Well, we were never friends," said Snow, rubbing the back of his head. "But I got on well with her sister, Serah. Serah and I... well we got close, and eventually we'd planned to get married. Lightning though hated me and as soon as she found out, went back to the front."

"I see," said Lazard. "And this has... what to do with present events?"

"Well then the Mako reactor exploded; it was sabotaged by Wutai," said Snow. "See, we were a major industrial base for the region. When Wutai bombed it, the Mako spread all over the town.

"I was lucky enough to live on the outskirts, so I got out okay, but...

"Serah lived near the factories. She got caught in the Mako and hospitalized. I tried sending letters to tell Lightning what happened, but my guess is she tore them up. By the time I reached her, her sister was on death's door. She tried healing her, but nothing worked.

"Serah died.

"Then Lightning beat me to a pulp and left. She uh... she'd done that before."

"Ah, yes, I uh... had heard about orders to drop those charges," said Lazard with a somewhat guilty look.

"Anyway, I guess she might have turned on Shinra for it," said Snow.

"So she's helping Wutai?" asked Cloud.

"She's helping Barret," said Lazard.

Cloud looked at him. "What do you mean?"

"Lightning is a powerful SOLDIER," said Lazard. "If she wanted to stop Barret from firing on us, she could have. At the very least, she could have seized his detonator and used it.

"The fact that she allowed him to do so indicates she has no real loyalty for the one who she represented."

"No offense, sir," said Snow. "But I didn't get the impression that Lightning was working for Barret. More like they happened to be killing the same people at the same time."

"Then perhaps they are merely allies of convenience," said Lazard. "Our enemy does not seem to have a defined chain of command. That gives us the advantage.

"Welcome to the Wutai front, gentlemen. You will both be under Angeal's command for the next mission."

"What mission is that?" asked Cloud.

"Since both of you have performed well, I want you to accompany him for a mission of import. Ever since, Wallace and Lightning launched their attack. Wutai has been capitalizing on it. No doubt, you've heard the rumors of men snatched from their beds and the raids.

"Worst of all, they blew up the bridge leading over the river. The nearest ford is now held by a large group of Wutai soldiers.

"If we don't take it, Wutai might very well force our soldiers to surrender without a fight. I'd hate to think what fate awaited them there."

"No problem, sir," said Snow. "Heroes don't run from fights! We're taking the river, right?"

"That's correct, of course," said Lazard. "All three of you."

Cloud blinked, and suspicion grew in his mind. Could Lazard have been using the Wutai raids to purge disloyal parts of SOLDIER? And were they being sent to their deaths? "Hold on, shouldn't we have a larger force than this?"

"I am a SOLDIER 1st Class," said Angeal. "You're assigned to me for your understanding of our enemies."

"Oh, right," said Cloud.

Lazard either had a lot of faith in Cloud and Snow or was trying to get them killed. Either way, Cloud needed to survive to find out.

They got their kit and set out that very day.

Together they walked beyond the bounds of the camp. As they did, Angeal kept his sword strapped to his back. Cloud eyed it suspiciously; the blade was... strange. Like a huge cleaver, meticulously well maintained.

The land around them was green, with many tall trees all around them. The path had been cut, with the area cleared a hundred feet on either side. Angeal had explained it had been there for an ambush. Not that an ambush seemed imminent.

Everything was... quiet.

Far too quiet for Cloud's liking, and he had to break the silence. He looked to snow, who seemed in one of his moody moments. "So, Snow, why would you join the Shinra military anyway?"

Snow shrugged. "I needed a job."

"That's it?" asked Cloud.

"Yeah, it was either that or factory work," said Snow. "And I'd had enough of it. Who was I going to support in my old age? Figured I might as well see the world a bit."

"Well, you didn't miss much," said Cloud. "I did some factory work, it was mindnumbing."

"Yeah, I know, right," said Snow. "So, uh, where are you from?"

"Nibelheim," said Cloud. "Not much of a town, not much to go back to. Though I'll have to eventually anyway."

"What's to go back to, then?" asked Snow.

Cloud thought about the question. "Well, my Mom's there, I guess. And uh, well, there's also a girl."

"Girlfriend?" asked Snow, brightening up a bit.

"No, her names Tifa," said Cloud. "I uh, well, I made her a promise to come and save her someday."

"From who? Some kind of evil arranged marriage?" asked Snow.

"Not that I know of, she just uh, well she said she wanted me to come to rescue her if she was ever in a bind," said Cloud. "I figure, after I make SOLDIER 1st class, I'll go see her."

"Alright!" said Snow. "I'll help you save your damsel in distress!"

"You want to be in SOLDIER?" asked Angeal, looking back. "Why?"

"I want to be like Sephiroth," said Cloud.

"Hey, Angeal, you're a 1st Class Soldier," said Snow. "Have you met Sephiroth?"

Angeal nodded. "Yes. Many times.

"We're old friends."

Cloud wondered if Sephiroth had ever taken Angeal into his confidence. If they were old friends, maybe they did. "Oh right, um, has he ever mentioned me?"

"No," said Angeal, looking at him strangely. "Why would he?"

Apparently not. Sephiroth hadn't mentioned any of this to anyone, had he.

Of course.

That was why Sephiroth had been so cagey. He must have known that there was some kind of conspiracy. Cloud's assignment here must have been because Sephiroth wanted him to gather information. "Oh, I just...

"Well, he saved me from a dragon once; I guess I kind of thought he might have told you the story. Probably doesn't remember me, but he might remember the dragon."

If Angeal found out Cloud was basically Sephiroth's protege, it could go further. Everything had to stay secret.

"Near Nibelheim?" asked Angeal suddenly. "Just south of it, maybe by a day."

"Yes," said Cloud.

Angeal smiled, the first change of expression Cloud had seen on the man. "Now, I remember.

"He said that some kid was out there by himself in the middle of a rainstorm. He got hit by the truck, and a dragon came out. You've come a long way from Midgar, haven't you?"

"Well, yeah, it's been difficult," said Cloud. "But so far, it's been worth it, I guess. Nothing worth doing is ever easy."

Angeal stopped in his tracks and just stared at him. Stared for a moment. "Not many people would call status as a private in the military worth that kind of journey."

Cloud considered it and realized that he hadn't made very much progress for his effort. And yet he did not feel his efforts had been wasted. "It's sort of an honor thing. Nobody would want to read a hero's journey where the hero is made a king at the beginning. But plenty of stories have the hero go on a journey and not get rich at the end.

"I don't care about money, not really, though I'm careful with it.

"What I want to do is be known for doing great deeds. To be renown for heroism, and achieving feats of courage, no one else could do."

Angeal stared at Cloud for a long, long time, and it became awkward, to say the least.

"Sound good to me," said Snow at last. "On the bright side, you're guaranteed to survive."

Angeal turned and started walking again, and they followed. "What makes you say that?" asked Cloud.

"Oh, come on, Cloud. The heroes never die," said Snow.

"Not until Act 3 anyway," said Angeal, more to himself than them.

"Oh come on, don't kill the mood," said Snow. "And that's always a one in a million thing anyway."

"I think you'd get on well with Zack," said Angeal.

This almost made Cloud stop in his tracks. "Zack, you know Zack?"

"Yes, I'm... something of a mentor for him," mused Angeal. "You've met him?

"Oh, we uh, ran into one another when I was near Fort Condor," said Cloud. "I saw him wipe out an entire fort. They were heavily armed and everything."

"Well, he is a SOLDIER 2nd class," said Angeal. "And one of the most skilled."

"Is he here in Wutai?" asked Cloud, hoping not. If Zack was here, he was a suspect.

"Not at the moment," said Angeal. "He's preparing for an exam to apply for SOLDIER 1st class. There have been some reshuffling of SOLDIER personnel lately. All in preparation for a largescale operation. A lot of promotion opportunities.

"Maybe I'll tell you about it later."

That statement was offhand, but Cloud thought it could be far more important. If Genesis and Angeal were old friends, then they were probably on the same side. Genesis had all but let Barret and Lightning go.

Why though? If Barret had broken the terms, why let him escape.

Unless there was something else, they needed Barret to do. Cloud wrestled with these thoughts the entire way to the river.

When at last they got there, they saw crowds of people crossing the ford from behind the cover of some rocks. They were Wutai citizens, carrying whatever belongings they could bring with them. Wutai soldiers, masked and with rifles and spears, were flanking them. Distantly, Cloud could see several Wutai troops handing guns to refugees.

A large wall had been erected in front of the ford, with an open gate. On either side of the wall were heavy machinegun nests. A sentry was on it. Cloud was surprised they were so well prepared. There were a number of bodies strewn across the field.

A Shinra strike group.

"Are those refugees?" asked Snow.

"Yes, they're fleeing from the village Barret moved the guns through," said Angeal. "They're probably fleeing our inevitable reprisal."

"What now?" asked Cloud.

"We'll wait for them to pass, then I'll attack head-on," said Angeal. "I'll keep their fire drawn on me. While they're focusing, you'll creep up and grenade those gun positions. Once that's done, pick your targets.

"Understand?"

"Yes, sir," said Cloud, mentally doubting that Angeal was part of the conspiracy. If he wanted Cloud and Snow dead, he could have just told them to charge.

"Good," said Angeal. "Snow, you're on the leftmost position, Cloud, you're on the right."

They all tensed, preparing for their operation.

"One," said Angeal, "two, three, now!"

And he surged over the rocks and sprinted toward the guns. As he did, he drew out his sword and sent a huge fireball smashing into the dirt. The Wutai troops got behind their positions. Cloud and Snow skirted around in opposite directions simultaneously. Cloud drew out one of his bombs and began to make his way toward the leftmost gun.

The Wutai troops were opening fire on Angeal en masse, and he was held in place by rains of bullets. His sword was flashing, and he sent bolts of lightning at the walls, forcing their heads down. He was making such an entrance that Cloud managed to crawl through the dirt unnoticed. Even so, he was moving so slow that if someone did mark him, he was dead.

His hands were filthy too, it had rained yesterday, and the muck was all over him. Cloud moved on and reached the gun. Pulling himself up, he activated the explosive then tossed it into his gun. There was a scream, and then smoke and fire consumed the position.

Drawing his sword, Cloud vaulted over the wall and saw a Wutai soldier. The man raised his gun, but Cloud struck faster. Bringing down his sword, he cleaved his mask and caught him in the face. Blood streamed, and the man fell backward, screaming, even as the other gun exploded.

Then Angeal was among the enemy, hacking and slashing with his sword, and they could not stand before him.

Cloud kneeled down by the man he'd killed and pulled off his mask. Before he'd cleaved a rift in his face, he looked like he could have been somebody's father. Cloud had killed this man, cut his lifeforce short. Yes, it had been in a war, but...

He remembered the men who had tried to mug him. He recalled how Sephiroth had reduced them to bloodstained carcasses. It had been so unreal; they hadn't been human. And looking up, Cloud saw the man at the gun. He'd had his whole torso blown open; his organs were visible and wrecked.

The rest of the Wutai soldiers were fleeing, and Cloud saw Angeal was letting them go. One of them, a refugee woman with a gun, was firing at Snow. But Snow pushed the gun away, punched her in the gut, and snapped her neck. Raising his own rifle, he prepared to fire after the fleeing soldiers.

"And the hero's save the day!" cried Snow.

Angeal grabbed the gun and pushed it down. "Well spoken, Snow. But heroes don't kill fleeing opponents." Then he looked over to Cloud. "Cloud, are you alright?"

"...Yes," said Cloud after a moment. Staring into the distance, he saw the Wutai forces fleeing back. Looking to the corpse of the women Snow had killed, he saw many others like it. And looking to the crowd of fleeing people, he saw another force arise.

Yet it did not attack.

"...They're withdrawing?" asked Cloud. "Why?

"There are only three of us."

"True, but I'm one of those three," said Angeal. "Anyway, it's just as well that they are fleeing. This war is all but over."

"Are you sure?" asked Snow, seeming disappointed.

"Quite," said Angeal. "We've been in the midst of negotiations with the King of Wutai for some time. So far, he's been stalling us to force us to give him a better treaty. After Barret Wallace's stunt, he's liable to get one.

"Lazard has given him as good a deal as he's ever going to get."

That...

If Lazard was working with Wutai, the massacre in the harbor could have been a peace offering. A way to deal Shinra a defeat to seal a more generous peace offering, but without Lazard losing any of his men. But what about the disappearances?

"So what now?" asked Cloud.

"Now?" asked Angeal. "We hold this position until reinforcements arrive. Then we get more orders."

Cloud decided he ought to press the subject. "So, they were already negotiating for a truce?"

"Yes," said Angeal. "Wutai has put up a much better fight than anyone expected, and their agents have causes no end of misery. They sabotaged a reactor in Corel, among other things.

"The only question is how reasonable our terms were.

"Your ships were meant to be part of a troop surge that would allow us to take Fort Tamblin and march on Wutai city. As things stand, even if we seize all that territory, we'll have no one to hold it with. And with the damage to our supplies and the loss of the bridge..."

"Yeah?" asked Snow.

Angeal sighed. "Well, I'm guessing that Mako reactor President Shinra had built for Hollander's experiments in the lab is going to be under threat. Mako reactors are a lot more expensive than weapons and soldiers, so the idea of Wutai blowing it up and the war dragging out...

"Yeah, I think President Shinra will tell Lazard to take the deal. Especially with some of the bonuses, Lazard has in mind to offer."

"Bonuses?" asked Cloud, wondering if that was the idea. "Why would those make Dad... the president more likely to give up?"

Angeal raised an eyebrow. "You're President Shinra's son."

Had this now been on the file? "One of many," was what Cloud said.

Angeal paused. "That makes you and Lazard brothers then, or half at least. He also worked his way up from nothing to please President Shinra."

"Seriously?" asked Snow. "Small world, huh. You're Lazard's baby brother."

"Lazard was even considered for the position of Heir Apparent at one point," said Angeal. "He wasn't happy about being passed over for Rufus, I can tell you."

It was the last piece.

Lazard was like Cloud, only he'd achieved much more. Rufus was less accomplished but had been handed the position. If Lazard was anything like Cloud, he'd have been furious at the idea. And having a private army at his disposal...

This plan couldn't have been long in the making, not more than nine months.

"Something wrong, Cloud?" asked Snow.

'Hide your disappointment behind a believable facade,' said Sephiroth.

"Well, I was just thinking... we're just the mop-up crew," said Cloud.

"Well, no one ever said being a hero was glorious," said Angeal.

"I've been saying that to myself for years," said Snow, voice somber.

Angeal paused and finally spoke. "Listen, Cloud.

"If you want to be a hero. You need two things, dreams, and honor.

"A man with dreams, but no honor is a villain. A man with honor, but no dreams is a bystander. You have to be willing to go farther than anyone else, but have the principles to keep from becoming a monster."

Cloud looked up at Angeal and knew he was in on it. Lazard was the ideal candidate. Who else could have engineered this without being noticed? Genesis was nuts, and Angeal was clearly working closely with Lazard. There had been an unforgivable breach of security here. And nothing had happened to any officers.

Either Lazard was a traitor, or he was an idiot. And Cloud knew that Lazard was not an idiot.

And as for Angeal, Angeal, that gutless son of a bitch was part of it.

He was standing there over the blood-drenched corpses of Cloud's entire battalion. They were his own men to be led into battle. All of them slaughtered without even making landfall as a bargaining chip. And for what? So Lazard could settle his Daddy issues and take power for himself.

"Thanks for the advice," said Cloud.

And he could not quite keep the fury from his tone. So instead he looked to all the bodies. "You and I have a lot of corpses to bury."

Angeal seemed to think about the statement. But he wouldn't ever know what Cloud meant by that until it was too late.

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