"Ghosts"

----

Note: This can be viewed as a side-fic to Tora, (I think it fits in the timeline. Maybe. Probably not.) which would take place after the end of the game, but before the start of Tora, or as a completely stand alone fic. It's up to you.

---- ---- ----

Away with all the troubles that you've made.

Away with waiting for another day.

Away.

And every light I found, every light I found.

Is every light that's shining down on me.

I'm never alone.

- "With Every Light" The Smashing Pumpkins

---- ---- ----

The storm had been building all evening. Dark clouds rolled in from the west, bringing with them frigid air and the promise of snow. Snow was hardly a peculiar phenomenon in Nibelheim at this time of year, the mountain air cooling the breezes that blew in off the water and freezing the moisture out of them.

The Shinra employees were gone now, the impressions that they left in the town combining with the ghosts of those who burned to leave shadows that haunt the town, fading footsteps echoing Cloud's own.

No one had returned to this town, and its emptiness stands as a sullen testament to that which cannot change. Tifa has not come here, because the memories in this town are not ones that she would welcome.

Cloud doesn't welcome them either, but sometimes he feels like an addict, the memories in the town a drug. And like any good addiction it grows, until the faint and acrid tang of cold mountain air is not enough to sustain him and he must return here, to the source of the scent.

Winter in the Nibel mountains is beautiful, in the way that a sword is beautiful, sharp and shining and so cold. Sephiroth was beautiful in that way too, even when the edges blurred and Jenova leached in, like rust, like plague.

Cloud always comes here when the snow falls, because when everything's covered in white it's easier to forget that once, five years ago and more, everything was covered in red.

Red from the fire and the blood and reflections off of strands of silver hair floating in the hot wind.

Hair is interesting in that it combusts rapidly. When his mother burned, her hair caught ablaze like a halo of flame. His house is reconstructed, a perfect replica of what once was, but in his mind all he sees is his mother, burning up like some angel that can't find its way back to heaven.

Sephiroth fell because he only had one wing. His mother had none, and the fires took her as she fell.

The Shinra mansion did not burn. If Cloud were to hold his mastered materia to the walls and cast the highest fire spell he could, he still does not think that the building would burn. Things of Hell cannot burn, only persevere in a flame that consumes all else.

Cloud cannot burn.

He goes to the mansion because of all the buildings in the town, it is original. The darkened gloom and tattered drapes, the floorboards that creak and the pale sunlight that struggles to find its way - Shinra did not fabricate these.

It is here in the basement of this place, under the shadows of tanks meant for man and monster and with the smell of ancient books in the air, that the ghosts come for him.

----

Cloud is not surprised that his mother is the first. She's not the first one he really lost, but she's the first one he cared about enough to have the losing hurt.

He /is/ surprised that she is unmarked. Her clothes are the ones she died in, her bright gold hair pulled back and neatly braided. Her hands are clasped behind her back and her face is smooth and unmarked by pain or worry. She looks like someone who has never known death.

She looks alive.

"Son."

Cloud remembers that voice: it was soft and smooth, it rolled over him in gentle waves when he was ill, it was gloriously welcoming when he came home, it was filled with peace and love and sorrow and joy and hope. It was human.

His mother's voice sounds exactly the same now as then, and something goes tight and hard in his chest when he hears it.

"My boy...you've gotten so big, when I wasn't watching. Why are you being such a shy guy? Come give your mom a hug."

He can remember hugging his mother. Cloud can remember running toward her open arms, seeing her breath rise as white mist in the mountain air. And when he leapt into her arms, she held him tightly and swung the child-he- was around in a tight circle that contained nothing but happiness at being with her, being alive.

Her voice is so human, and he turns then, hope rising in him, because he can't remember what's real and what's not. He's spent his life dreaming and awake and dying and dead and who's to say that's he's alive now? Who's to say that he can't run into her arms now?

So he turns, and his mother holds her hands out to him, her arms open. In life, she had smooth hands, pale and white, with small calluses on the palm and her fingers, from working in the garden and chafing in the cold mountain air.

Now, his mother's hands are charred red and black. The skin rises up in curled strips, and underneath them the muscles exist as ash. The fingers move, extending, and he can see the bone, a whiteness that shouldn't be there as raw tendons flex. The blood is been burned away, but the flesh remains, a carcass, an animated ghost.

Stumbling back, Cloud covers his eyes and wishes that he could fall asleep.

He can't.

-----

He knows that his mother has gone, just as he knows that another has arrived.

"Spike."

Zack is as he remembers him, and he can't remember if what he sees is true or not. Still, he /looks/ real: the height, the solid appearance - even dead, Zack looked like he could move mountains.

Zack does not move and his hands are in his pockets. The soldier uniform in ripped and torn - lived in, although the occupant is dead. Blood leaks through the fabric around his hands. Cloud stares at them, as a passerby stares at a car crash, as pedestrian stares at someone's remains when they've thrown themselves from the plate.

There's something horrible about his hands. Something horrible because it will be real, so real that he'll know he's not dreaming even though he is and /he can't wake up/.

"How you doing, Spike?"

Concern, Zack was always concerned, always worried. Sephiroth used to taunt him for it, calling him a "mother hen with the hair from hell." At which Zack had responded that Sephiroth "was one to talk, Mr. five foot long 'I'm a pretty lady' hair." The fight that had broken out had been crazy but so much fun, even when they dragged Cloud into it, laughing as they did.

It had been a time where everything was hazy and gold and perfect and now everything was shattered and in pieces on the floor and Cloud didn't know how to make it go back to the way it was.

So he prays that Zack keeps his hands in his pockets, because as long as he does Cloud can live in the memory of what was and what can never be again. Something he can't have but something he can dream about, when he's not quite asleep.

"Shit, Spike, you filled out, kid. Always knew you would. Still scrawny but at least you don't look like the next good breeze is going to blow you over."

Cloud knows the only dreams you don't wake up from are nightmares. The only ones you get to wake up from are the ones you want to stay asleep in forever, comfortable in a version of life that's better than the original.

There are some things you can't change, and there are some things you can. And the ones you want to change are always the ones that you can't change. But sometimes, if you're lucky, you can switch what you can change and what you can't change, like slipping on a different soul.

Cloud is rarely lucky, and Zack's hand slips from his pocket to runs through his bangs, smearing the black hair red.

Zack's hands are a riddled mass of shot wounds. Bullet holes rip through the flesh, marking it with entry and exit wounds. Blood drips from them to pool on the floor. The action of the heart pushes blood through the body. Corpses don't bleed. So Zack is alive and bleeding even though he's dead.

Zack's dead, even though the dead can't bleed, and the dead can't move, can't reach for him, can't move a step toward him as if he would run that blood-stained, dripping hand through Cloud's hair. The blond cringes back, not from the fear of Zack, but from the fear of whether or not that touch would be /real/.

As he stumbles back the presence of Zack fades, receding into the gloom of the lab.

Cloud wonders if he would bleed: he's not sure how deep he would have to go.

----

She always moved without making a sound. She was always so still, so quiet and yet so alive and vibrant when she wanted to be.

Her boots make no sound, but the fabric of her dress brushes against skin and the heavy hair caught up in her braid.

But that braid wasn't there when she died, her hair was undone when she died and there's no blood and there should be blood, there should be a gaping hole in her chest. Cloud knows the feel of the Masamune in his chest, knows the cold air hitting the wound and the colder steel hitting his heart, knows the hole it leaves when it passes through.

There should be a hole, there should be a wound, there should be anything to remind him that this is /not real/, that she's dead and Zack's dead, and his mother's dead and /everything/ is dead.

"Cloud."

They bury their dead in the walls of churches.

But he didn't bury her. She drowned. Except she didn't. The sword ripped through her ribs and her heart and she wasn't breathing when the water took her.

Still though, when he stares at her, at the soft brown hair and deep green eyes and the sweet sad smile, he wonders if he should have waited, if he should have held on longer.

Maybe she would have been happier, in the walls of a church she loved. At least she would have been loved then, since he's not sure if she ever was.

Zack loved her maybe, but he didn't love her enough, not enough to stay

//and he looked and stared and the bullets tore through and he was leaving//

and he hadn't loved, hadn't loved her enough not to let her leave.

//And the sword shining silk and silver, softer now as it went through her and there was red and so much blood and the hollow echo of a past wound and a new grief.//

Aeris loved them all in life, and she loved them all in dying, and she loved them all in death.

And he let her go alone. He let the water take her: sailors die that way, alone in the sea, and their souls are trapped and never freed, dragged down to lonely graves.

Aeris died with a soul, with light and hope. Cloud knew he would die in darkness, with ghosts pulling him down into the water. And all that would rise would be foam on a wave.

But there is no malice in her eyes, no anger in the dead and rotting hands the she held clasped in front of her. The hands of those who die at sea, who die alone and rest in unmarked graves.

Unloved and afraid in the dark.

----

"Strife."

Black, so much black and the hair shining silver and white. So tall, so imposing, so impossibly beautiful - Sephiroth was as he remembered him, at the end of it all. But his eyes, his eyes that glowed green were sane and Cloud felt grief rip through him again at the sight.

Sephiroth was unarmed and wore no gloves. He did not hide his hands, with were ripped through with sword cuts that tore ragged wounds through his palm and went clean through his hand.

They were wounds that could not have originated from the Ultima Weapon: they were too precise for the large blade.

"Of course they aren't from your weapon."

The tone was matter of fact and somewhat resigned. There was a hint of the authority that usually presided in the voice, but for the most part it was casual and calm. It was a voice Cloud remembered too well: the voice that laughed when they were alone and carried delightful humor in it.

"Because in the end, Cloud, I killed myself, even if it was by your sword."

No. That couldn't be true and grief and denial tore through -

//and the sword fell and it was my fault and oh god someone make the blood go back, someone take it all back, take it all back, please make it all not real, I'm sorry, Seph, oh god I'm so so sorry//

- because he had killed him and it was his fault, and he couldn't let that guilt go.

It was all he had left.

Sephiroth caught his eyes, as if he had heard that thought. Perhaps he had. He dropped his gaze without speaking, staring absently at his hands, composing himself. The blood ran down from the wounds in his hands,

"The hardest part is letting go. I couldn't let go. Not of anything."

That gaze again, emerald burning into blue, green eyes that held such conviction in them, a fire that burned brighter than the flames of Nibelheim had. When he spoke again, Sephiroth's voice was soft, but filled with that conviction.

"There's a Cloud I know, a Cloud I remember. And I want you to let us go and find him."

And Sephiroth moved forward, those last aching steps, and enclosed Cloud in his arms. They wrapped around him like the wings of fallen angels, holding him safe and secure.

It's somewhere between what he wants and what he needs and what he hoped could ever be real.

And then it's gone, as if it never was, as swift and fading as the touch of a hand on his face, running briefly through his hair. The words remain, though, words that hang in the air, the tremor of Sephiroth's voice resounding in his chest, his heart.

"Live for yourself, Cloud...and live for me, because between the return of sanity and the loss of life, I wished for that, for you."

And Sephiroth had left him three times now, left him with nothing but memories and the faint, bitter shards of hope. But this time...this time, things were not as they had been before.

He was not alone.

To be human was to stumble and sometimes fall, was to give up and lose everything, was to get up and start all over anyway.

His soul was human, and he was human, no matter what the burn in his eyes or the change in his genetics told him otherwise. He was human, and in the empty spaces left by Sephiroth's passing he could feel the change build, a new spring, a new start.

And slowly, softly, he felt the remnants of a dream reconstruct, raising the structure of his soul on feathery stilts, tremulous and quivering, to meet the dawn.

----

----

Author's Notes

----

1. Forgive the odd song lyrics format. It's an attempt to keep Fanfiction.net from eating them. And yes, it is sort of sacrilege to use a song that good in something like this, isn't it?

2. There are some parts I'm not happy with and some parts I really love about this fiction. I won't tell you which are which, and I hope you enjoyed. It's one big writing exercise anyway.

3. I'm really on this dealing with death kick. Please bear with me and the quasi-similar themes in the one-shots. Stupid characters and there stupid angst over dead people. Bah.

4. Yes, I know, Sephiroth's meeting with Cloud is weird. But he's usually such a twit that since he cooperated with me this time, I'm not going to question it.