Disclaimer: All characters in this story belong to Square-Enix or whoever it is that owns Final Fantasy these days.

Notes to the story: This chapter pretty much follows the game almost exactly, apart from obvious tweakings of the dialogue.

Sorry it took so long to update this. Unfortunately, when I went to Japan I forgot to bring the disc with this story with me. But now I'm back in the UK on holiday, and this time I'll remember to bring the disc back with me to Japan. :)

Enjoy.

-Ludi x

-oOo-


: Chapter Twenty : Black Materia

The three watchers watched in trepidation as the image of Sephiroth walked wordlessly down the pillared aisle, a lopsided grin marring the haughty beauty of his face.

"Yes, it is I. I have come to claim what is rightfully mine." His low, commanding voice filled the resonant chamber sonorously. "As last of the Cetra."

Tseng stood back, fear seeping into his features now; yet still he retained his ground.

"You are not the last of the Cetra," he replied, his voice betraying a slight tremour as he spoke. "There is another."

Sephiroth gave a short, soft laugh.

"You mean the girl? Her presence hardly concerns me. Soon she shall be destroyed as all you other poor, insignificant folk shall be."

"What do you mean?"

Sephiroth glared at him with those two piercingly lucid blue eyes, walking closer, always walking closer.

"What do I mean?" His eyes narrowed to cat-like slits, his voice trembled with a barely disguised strain of triumph, "Only this - that with the Black Materia I shall bring forth the ancient monster and shall rule the world!"

His voice broke into wild laughter, startling Tseng, who was becoming more and more apprehensive with every step Sephiroth advanced toward him. He spoke waveringly.

"A monster? How can you rule the Planet by summoning a monster?"

Sephiroth abruptly stopped laughing and stopped in front of the trmebling form of the Turk, his gaze scornful.

"You are beginning to tire me, mortal." He deliberately ran a gloved finger over the edge of his blade, causing Tseng to quiver in fear. "You Shinra, you call yourselves leaders of the world, but you are nothing compared to the power of Jenova and her race."

Those softly spoken words had lulled Tseng into a false sense of security; there was a sudden and unexpected movement and Sephiroth's blade was cleaving effortlessly through the air, faster than thought; Tseng had had made no attempt to defend himself, and in the next second he was swaying backward, cut through to the stomach, holding on to his wound in agony. Sephiroth stared down contemptuously at him, no remorse in his eyes.

"Why?" Tseng croaked, his voice thick with pain and fear. "If you are of the Cetra, why all this killing and bloodshed?"

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed.

"It is my right that I should kill you," he spoke coldly. "Be thankful that you shall not witness the calamity that meets those fools who live."

With this foreboding prediction, the image before the three watchers began to shift and dwindle in front of their eyes, finally waning into nothingness. Cloud and the others were back in the room with the pool, standing beside the translucent water. Becoming slowly accustomed to the relatively dark room, Cloud turned to Aerith.

"What was Sephiroth talking about? He mentioned Black Materia. What's that?"

Aerith rested a hand on her forehead as though tired.

"I'm not sure." She looked up. "We must go to Sephiroth."

"But how do we know where the room with the altar is?" Cloud queried. His question was not left unanswered for long, for Aerith began to wander out of the room and through a corridor that Cloud had not even noticed existed. At the end of this dark, murky corridor was another capacious circular room. In the middle of the room was a large chasm, which could only be crossed by the hands of a large, moving clock-face. Around this clock-face were twelve doors, the ninth of which was the one the three of them had just exited from. Cloud stood stock-still. Within this room he could hear a babble of soft, whispering voices that seemed to exude from deep within the chasm. He shook his head in puzzlement. No, he wasn't sure that they were really voices, but they sounded like flittering sounds against a soft wind, like butterflies' wings flapping. He trembled a little at the sensation.

Aerith pointed at the twelfth door.

"That's the exit to the temple." She moved her finger down to the sixth door. "And that's the shrine where the altar is."

Cloud shook himself out of the befuddled state the room had struck him in. He spoke, his voice echoing along he walls, contesting those insistent whisperings.

"Then let's go."

They stepped on to the waiting minute hand of the clock, and walked across on to the centre of the face. As they did so, the whispering voices seemed to grow louder and more painful to the ears.

"The sixth door." Aerith suddenly uttered, making Cloud and Cait Sith jump in surprise. "The sixth door."

Before Cloud could ask her what she was talking about, the hour hand of the clock began to shift placidly over to the sixth portal and stopped with a quiver and a click. Aerith turned round to them and gave them an expectant smile.

"Well...here goes."

Cloud nodded wordlessly. Taking the lead, he walked over the hour hand and on to the platform on which stood the sixth door. He strode over to it, and rested his hand gently on the doorknob. He stopped. The sounds were still going on in the room behind him, whistling on the air around his ears, as though they were trying to tell him something. The noise was maddening, he had a sort of urge to defy it. Pushing the whispered words firmly aside, he pressed down on the gilt handle. The door swung eagerly open.

And there he was.

At the bottom of the room stood Sephiroth, in front of the high golden altar. Cloud immediately felt it once again - the wave inexpressible and violent anger, crawling through his nerves into the very corners of his body. There were words in his brain, ordering him to fight the terrible hatred inside him. Trying to heed them, Cloud clenched his fists into two tight balls at his side and moved into the room. Sephiroth had seemed to sense his presence, for he turned round slowly to face the entrants, a mocking smile on his face.

"So, you've finally come Cloud," he spoke with a dangerous softness, "I have been waiting for you."

Cloud once again felt the familiar sense of revulsion within him, the hate with which he loathed Sephiroth. It was all he could do to take control of it as he answered.

"Why me? Why are you waiting for me?"

Sephiroth grinned and did not bother to reply to Cloud's question.

"You are still ignorant of my plans for the future of this Planet, I see." He played thoughtfully with the sheath of his sword, never taking his eyes off the three of them. "Let me enlighten you."

He began to pace the altar before them, his eyes still fixed on the three, almost as if he were assessing them.

"I am sure," he began, musingly, "that you know that it is my ultimate ambition to become god of this Planet. Indeed, that is my birthright. But it is not enough that I should simply dominate the world. No - domination is crude, simplistic. Unworthy of a creature such as me." He paused, frowned, continued: "No doubt you know that the purpose of the Cetra is to become one with the Planet. This is my ultimate desire, and this I can achieve by finding the Promised Land." He stopped pacing and faced them, his bright eyes glinting gravely. "But even this is not enough. I must ensure that I become the most powerful being through the Planet. Even though I will no longer be an entity with a bodily form, I must make my whole self encompass the very dreams of man since the beginning of time. I will be the Planet, not just one with it, but every part of it. The ocean, the earth, the mantle, the crust; its mind, its soul."

"How can you possibly do this?!" Cait Sith demanded, struck at Sephiroth's obsessive seriousness. Sephiroth gazed down on him in disdain.

"What would happen," he began, his voice silky, "if there was an injury that threatened the very life of the Planet?"

"It would be repaired." Cloud stated, confused as to how it mattered. "The Lifestream would gather together to heal the wound. The larger the wound, the more the Lifestream will gather to repair it."

Sephiroth smiled at him approvingly.

"I see you've been doing your homework, Cloud. And very well done, in fact. You are completely correct. And what is more, this very fact of nature will aid my plans."

Cloud stared up at him in sudden and fearful realisation. This man, he thought, he's a megalomaniac, what he is planning can't be possible, can never be possible. Sephiroth nodded knowingly at him.

"Yes. I see you understand, Cloud. I shall create such a wound to the Planet, and I shall stand inside this wound and let the approaching Lifestream swallow me up. We shall mingle together, become one. I shall be the Lifestream, and the Lifestream shall be me. I will be the spirit energy that gives this Planet life. I shall be all-powerful."

"But," Cloud began, desperation winning through his initial sense of disbelief, "how can you create such a wound? It's not possible."

"Ah, but it is," Sephiroth answered with calm certainty. "And with the Black Materia I shall achieve this."

Aerith spoke, and for the first time, there was real fury on her face.

"You won't do this. I won't let you!" Sephiroth raised an eyebrow in amusement as she spoke, but let her continue. "I will do everything in my power to stop you, Sephiroth. Everything. You're wrong. This is not the purpose of the Cetra. You think you are strong, but you are weak. And I will stop you, no matter what!"

Sephiroth laughed derisively into the golden chamber and stepped down from the altar, walking to stand before Aerith. As the two stood facing each other, Cloud was struck at how similar and yet different they looked. She was the light, he the dark. They were worlds apart and yet so close it sent shivers crawling down his spine to see them stand together. Sephiroth was staring at her, caressing her with his eyes. He spoke to her, a soft yet harsh whisper.

"Poor, poor Aerith. You have deluded yourself. It is you who is weak. You think you are the strong, virtuous heroine, because you relish in the pleasures the miserable human world has showered upon you." He was dangerously close to her, yet there was disgust on his face. "You do not realise that the very things that embrace you now will turn against you."

With a parting, silent glare into her eyes, he turned to Cloud.

"Do not pretend, Cloud," he said in a low soft voice. "You know what you are. That is why you understand my thoughts, my intentions. That is why you understand me."

He began to move back toward the door. Cloud started as if to stop him, but something gripped him before he could. His whole head was being filled with Sephiroth's voice, the last words he'd spoken to him whirling like a carousel through his mind. The sentences made no sense to him, yet somehow, he knew what they meant deep within him; he just didn't know where to find them. They were torturing him now, he could not think or see straight. He was falling to the floor, watching Sephiroth disappear through the door, beseeching him to remain, begging him...

"Cloud, Cloud, don't listen!"

Another voice was calling him, a wonderfully gentle, comforting voice. He wakened from his state of turmoil, felt two familiar hands help him up.

"Don't listen to what he says," Aerith was pleading with him as if from far away. "Cloud, please don't listen."

Cloud forgot Sephiroth's words with an effort, pushed them out of his mind. He leant against Aerith and felt himself simmer at her touch. Slowly, slowly, he came back. When his vision had cleared, he looked about him. Sephiroth was gone. Cait Sith and Aerith were looking at him with sad and questioning eyes.

"Aerith," he opened his mouth and somehow his voice spoke, "how will his plan work? It can't Aerith, it can't."

She let go of him then and walked slowly to one of the murals on the wall with a purpose he'd hardly seen in her before.

"Look," she said, and they looked.

It was a picture of people, all kinds of people; males and females, children and adults, blacks and whites. The strange thing about these people was that they all had open mouths and eyes that were staring upwards, terrified expressions on their faces. Cloud moved his gaze to the place where the painted people were looking. Drawn above them was a round object with a tail, like... like a shooting star. Words that Sephiroth had spoken to Cloud previously suddenly came back to him: 'A calamity from the skies.'

"Is that...Jenova?" he asked Aerith uncertainly.

She shook her head, looking surprised at his words.

"No. This is Meteor."

"Meteor?" Cait Sith repeated carefully.

"Yes. There are things the Cetra have told me since I've been here." She halted and ran her fingers across the faded fresco. "The legends say that if the Black Materia falls into the wrong hands, a monster will appear from the skies and cause a massive wound to the Planet. This is Meteor. It can be summoned through the Black Materia if prayed for."

"But how do we get this Black Materia?" Cloud asked. "Tseng said it was on this altar."

Aerith looked toward the altar pensively.

"The Ancients say that this temple is the Black Materia."

"What?" Cait Sith began. "How can this temple be materia?"

"Well," Aerith began, "this temple will concentrate itself into the Black Materia if a sacrifice is made."

"Great. A sacrifice of what?" Cloud asked.

Aerith looked at them with a profound sadness in her eyes.

"A person has to sacrifice himor herself willingly at that altar," she finally answered. Cait Sith looked horrified.

"Sacrifice themselves?!"

They all looked at each other. There seemed to be no way out of the situation, but Cloud was positive that he should not let Sephiroth obtain the Black Materia. He frowned momentarily. It wasn't fair to have come this far and then suddenly give up. There must be some way out of the problem.

Cait Sith suddenly jumped up in abrupt enlightenment.

"I've got it!" he exclaimed loudly. Aerith looked up at him in surprise.

"What, what is it?"

Cait Sith grinned round at them.

"I'll be the one to get the Black Materia!" He ignored their doubtful looks and continued patiently. "Listen, I'm not a real living thing, am I. What I mean is, this isn't my real body, is it. My real body is back at Shinra Headquarters, right?"

Aerith smiled suddenly.

"So you can go and get the Black Materia without being killed!"

Cait Sith nodded vehemently.

"Right! All I'd be sacrificing would be this stuffed toy-body, wouldn't I!"

Cloud nodded.

"You're right." He turned and looked toward the altar thoughtfully. "Well, you'd better get to it, otherwise Sephiroth will think of a way to get it first. I wonder why he went in the first place..."

Aerith's face fell and she looked at Cait Sith with concern on her face.

"Cait Sith, are you sure you want to do this? We'll never see you again, will we."

Cait Sith shook his head and smiled at Aerith.

"If it's for you and the others, I'd gladly sacrifice anything I had to." He looked suddenly sheepish. "Besides, I never got to make up for that incident at the Gold Saucer." He looked meekly at Cloud. "I'm sorry about that, really. I guess I just blew it."

Aerith was touched.

"Cait Sith, you only did what you had to, and I can understand that. We didn't mind, really." She paused and looked thoughtful for a moment. "So you're really going to go forever?"

Cait Sith looked at her with an unexpected affection on his face. He smiled cheerfully at her.

"Hey, don't worry about it, I'll always be around in some way or another." He suddenly turned devilish. "I have a great idea! As a parting gift, why I don't I tell you your fortunes?!"

Aerith suddenly brightened, a sunny little smile playing across his lips.

"In that case, Cait Sith, I have a very special request to ask of you."

"What's that?" he asked curiously. Aerith coloured a little.

"Will you do a love match for me and Cloud?" she requested in a low voice. Cloud stared at her.

"Aerith..." he began, but didn't have the heart to stop her. Cait Sith seemed delighted by the suggestion.

"Wow. Never had a question like that before...Well, let me just see..."

He shut his eyes and began to sway back and forth in his usual comical manner as though in an ecstatic trance. Aerith gazed at him hopefully, waiting for him to finish. Finally, Cait Sith let out a deep breath, opened his eyes wide and returned to his normal state.

"Wow," he gasped incredulously. "Wow..."

Aerith clasped her hands together anxiously.

"Well? What did it say?"

Cait Sith was shaking his head back and forth humorously.

"This doesn't look good for Tifa."

"What? What do you mean?" Aerith was almost mad with suspense. Cait Sith looked up at her and grinned broadly.

"This is great! I've never had such a positive match before!"

"Positive match?!" Aerith cried.

"Yup. You and Cloud are made for each other. A perfect couple."

There were looks of surprise on both Aerith and Cloud's faces: Aerith's from pleasure, and Cloud's from embarrassment. He intervened quickly, not quite sure whether to believe the fortune, especially when told by Cait Sith.

"Cait Sith, are you sure...?"

Cait Sith cut in seriously before he could carry on.

"Sure I'm sure. You're both born to be together." He waved emphatically upward with his hand. "It's all written in the sky. Aerith's star and Cloud's star, crossing paths at night. You'll be together forever."

Cloud shifted uncomfortably; Aerith's smile, however, was in danger of being ingrained onto her face forever.

"Oh, I'm so happy. Cait Sith, thank you!" She gave him a little scratch behind the ear. "You're the best fortune-teller ever. I'm going to miss you so much."

Cait Sith passed a deep sigh and stared back at her dolefully.

"I'm going to miss you too Aerith. You've been so good to me." He turned round quickly. "Well...guess I've got to get this over and done with. Bye you guys. It's been great knowing you."

"You too, believe it or not," Cloud returned with sudden, genuine feeling, and Cait Sith passed him a fleeting, thankful smile.

"Thanks Cloud. I hope now, you can find it in you to trust me." He turned to the altar. "You had better get going now. I'll take it on from here."

Cloud nodded encouragingly at him.

"Yes - come on Aerith, let's go."

Aerith gave Cait Sith a last goodbye.

"Bye. Cait Sith, be strong."

They turned and walked out of the gold room, leaving Cait Sith behind. As Aerith led Cloud to the twelfth door of the clock room, the exit, she spoke quietly and sorrowfully.

"I hope he'll be all right."

"He'll be all right, as far as it goes," Cloud answered sombrely, then he thought of something else to ask as an afterthought. "Did you really believe all he said back there?"

She did not reply readily, but when she did answer it was with downcast eyes.

"I didn't want to hurt him, so I thought I'd play along with him a bit. You see everyone hates him, and it isn't fair. He was sent to us as a spy first and foremost - it wasn't his fault that he came to like us in the end. If he didn't, he would have turned us in ages ago." She looked up at him with clear eyes. "He's not even a fortune-teller anyway, Cloud, so you shouldn't worry about whether his fortunes hold any truth or not."

There was nothing he could find to say in reply to her words, so he shut his mouth quickly and said nothing.

As they reached the temple's exit, a resonant rumble sounding from beneath the floor filled the deep silence, the low vibrations rocking them both. Cloud looked back in alarm.

"We'd better get out of here! This place is going to be non-existent in a moment."

Aerith showed she understood with a nod of her head.

"Yes - let's hurry."

They began to walk at a fast pace toward the exit, but the corridor suddenly began to shake violently as though from a wound deep within the heart of the temple. They both stopped in petrified bewilderment.

"Cait Sith must have done it by now!" Aerith gasped, frightened. Cloud looked around him and his eyes sharply caught out the exit door. He turned Aerith.

"We've got to run, otherwise we'll never make it! The exit's over there!"

They both began to run toward the great door, stumbling over chunks of fallen rock and disoriented by the shock waves that had begun to consume the whole building. They finally found the doors and, miraculously, somehow managed to swing them open. The warm outside greeted them, the sudden brightness dazzled their eyes. Another tremor shook the temple, so much so that Aerith nearly fell to the ground. Helping her regain her balance, Cloud shouted out loud to get himself heard over the tremendous groans from the crumbling building.

"We'd better hurry or it'll blow!"

"But..."

Another loud crash silenced Aerith's sentence. Wordlessly, Cloud grasped her hand and began to run down the steps, out toward the forest. The whole area around was beginning to shudder now and the sound of rocks crumbling could be heard from behind them.

"Cloud," Aerith's voice was strained, breathless, "I can't run anymore..."

He didn't stop, didn't even think. They continued to run, the wind thrashing across their faces. An almighty crash deafened the sounds of the forest; and then a low rumble, as though of thunder, threw itself out into the atmosphere, rolling outward with a hellish clarity. Cloud shot a look back over his shoulder. He could sense that the temple was about to give in, about to explode and be razed to the ground. Setting his jaw, he looked ahead of him grimly. He moved in closer to Aerith, so that he was running alongside her.

"Aerith!" he yelled out. "Get down!"

Seeing her confusion, he clutched at her waist and pulled her down to the ground with him.

"Cloud...!"

A tremendous outburst filled the air, sending a blast of hot wind speeding around the area with the overwhelming power of its force. Cloud spread his weight over Aerith, shielding her from the heat and the flying rubble that was hurtling toward them from the dying temple. The explosion did not seem to die down: on and on it went, one blast after another, terrifyingly close. Cloud closed his eyes and waited for it to be over. His back was exposed to the painful heat and he could feel shards of stone piercing him. Aerith lay warm and soft beneath him. Instinctively, his fingers tightened around her waist. He was almost amazed by the suddenness of this action, especially in the terror of the moment.

And then it was over.

The atmosphere began to settle, and gradually the birdsong began to sound above them. The stillness in the air was unnatural and dark, almost evil. Aerith shifted beneath him uneasily. Cloud seemed to come awake to the situation, and slowly he sat up, holding her up with him. She seemed a little dizzy and clung onto his shirt, her hair loose.

"Is it over?" she asked, her voice weak.

Cloud looked around. The temple was not even a pile of rubble on the ground. It simply seemed to have disappeared from sight, except for a trail of smoke that was the only sign of anything extraordinary having happened. The sky seemed to have turned a shade darker; and there was a lingering quiet in the air about them; not even the wind was blowing anymore. He let out the breath that had been caught in his throat.

"Yes. It's over."

Aerith sighed in relief and rearranged her hair with one hand, the other still holding on to him. Cloud felt his heart beat out of step for a second. He realised somewhat self-consciously, that his arm was still around her slender, supple waist. Immediately, he dropped it and looked away. Aerith noticed the quickness of his action and, reluctantly, freed him from her grasp.

"Cait Sith..." she remarked sorrowfully.

Cloud stood up to face the scene of the disaster. It was strange, almost as though he could feel the power of the Black Materia emanating toward him from the ruin. He tried to shake the throbbing ache out of his head. It felt heavy and murky, and his back hurt from the explosion. Aerith picked herself up from the floor behind him. Cloud felt her put a hand to his back and he winced in pain.

"Cloud, you're not hurt, are you?" she inquired, concern filling her voice. He was moved by her touch, and somewhere in the back of his mind he acknowledged it. But there was some other irrepressible force that was moving him away from it, from her. Shaking his head, Cloud walked a few steps forward hesitantly.

"Aerith...the Black Materia is there...we have to get it."

"Let's go then," her voice replied shortly, and they began to make their way back toward the temple.

-oOo-

Where the beautiful sanctuary had once stood was now a gaping hole in the ground, perfect in its shape. It was as though something intelligent as well as all-powerful had simply removed the top building and its foundations leaving just this chasm. At the bottom shone the Black Materia, a faultless orb of ebony crystal. Aerith shuddered at the sight of it.

"It's there," she said in a low voice, looking over the edge of the crater. Cloud kicked a piece of loose stone over the brim and tested the firmness of the broken rock. It seemed quite stable under his feet.

"The rock surface shouldn't give way," he commented thoughtfully. "Come on, let's go down."

He began to climb down, jumping from one odd ledge to another, Aerith following in his footsteps. They soon got down to the bottom. Cloud helped Aerith down the last step and took in the scene cautiously. The Black Materia lay among the dirt and stone, dark and beautiful. And malevolent. Cloud could feel it, surrounding him, haunting him. He hung back, his heart beating fast. Aerith looked warily up at him, but said nothing.

Wrenching his courage into one heavy bulk, he walked up to the glowing jewel and bent over it. It stared right back up at him, calm and watchful, like an unblinking eye. Uncertainly, Cloud reached out for it. It touched his finger and it was cold. It took great strength of mind simply to close his fingers round it. Once he had picked it up, he stood and turned round triumphantly.

"Aerith, I have it!"

It was then that he felt it, the incredible impact of such energy that he could not move, powerful as an electric shock. Yet there was no pain in the force, just an incredible sense of loss in his body, the sense of him no longer having control of it.

Sweat broke on his forehead, his fingers began to shake. It was Sephiroth he could feel, Sephiroth who was all round him, pulling him in, drowning his mind. And now he could not only feel him, but see him as well. Cloud's whole body gave a convulsion of horror that didn't come out. He had no influence on how to move or motivate his body. It seemed to be totally divorced from his mind. And as he found himself staring into Sephiroth's eyes, he found that his mind too, was filled with hate and destruction and fear and anger, things that he had no reason to think or feel.

"Come Cloud," Sephiroth was beckoning him, ordering him, "the Black Materia." His hand was stretched out toward him, greedy and impatient. "After all, this is the reason why you've gone to all this trouble, isn't it. To give it to me."

Cloud put a step forward, his foot shaking. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, the voices, words, emotions and nerves were singing again, singing tremulously into a new and frightening crescendo. He would do it, and yet he knew somehow that he must not. There was reverberating pain...deep inside... and then that dreamy voice, except now it was condensed, wild, almost as painful as the pain.

Cloud, stop!!

He could not. There was just the knowledge that he must wake up, wake up immediately. He took another step, unable to stop himself.

"Cloud!" There was panic in Aerith's voice. "Cloud, don't listen to him!"

But Sephiroth didn't need to say any words. He had Cloud's mind, and that was all he could have needed anyway. Cloud was powerless to stop his legs moving in accord with Sephiroth's wishes. On he went, until he reached the tall, silver-haired man, and they stood, face to face. Sephiroth smiled.

"Give it to me."

At the back of his mind, Cloud heard the alarm bells ringing. He gripped tightly onto the Black Materia, tried to will himself to move away.

"No!" he screamed.

His hand moved forward, dropped the dark materia in Sephiroth's waiting palm. The pain suddenly descended on to Cloud, he could feel it mounting, filling up to the very tips of his fingers. He stood shaking in agony.

"Good boy," Sephiroth smiled. "Good boy, Cloud."

Cloud suddenly felt a release from the loss of control, from the pain. But Sephiroth was gone; and so was the Black Materia. No - the pain was still in his head, but it was a different pain. It was an overwhelming hate, a poison that was cursing him. Sephiroth was still there, still in him. Cloud clenched his fists in fury.

"I did it!" he yelled into the stagnant air. "I did it! Why?! Why?!"

He screamed out for the sake of it, because it made him hate more. And Aerith was behind him, her hand on his shoulder.

"It's okay, Cloud," he could hear her saying. "It wasn't your fault. It wasn't your fault."

He hated her, he hated the way she was good and beautiful, and the way she repeated that damned sentence over and over. He turned on her, the thoughts whirling round in his head like a tornado.

"Shut up!" he yelled. "Shut up!!"

He hit her, once, twice, thrice, he hit her until it was an inexhaustible, infinite rhythm and he could not stop it. All he could feel was the loathing in his heart, and it was almost as powerful an emotion as that which he felt for her. Maybe it was what he felt for her, he thought somewhere in the middle of his violent wrath, and he fought urgently against her futile struggling, forgetting even the reasons why he was doing so. They were on the ground now, and his arms were flailing out incessantly, sometimes hitting, sometimes missing. Aerith suddenly went limp, exhausted in the face of his brutal frenzy. A wave of fear suddenly rushed into Cloud's mind. He knew that somehow he must stop this madness. He wanted her to fight back, to stop him, to kill him if she had to. Surely even death must be better than this evil insanity.

"Stop me!" he was screaming at her, tears burning his eyes, spilling forth. "Stop me, Aerith!"

"Cloud!!"

Cloud heard the voice, but could not stop. Sephiroth's power was still inside him, and until it was gone, he'd never stop. I want to die, he thought suddenly. Please, someone kill me!

Just as the wish had passed through his mind, something crashed into him from behind, heavy as a boulder. Exhausted and in agony, Cloud fell forward, and let the blessed blackness consume him.

-oOo-


Next: The search for Sephiroth continues, and how will everyone take Cloud's betrayal?