Author's Note: Well, here's the last one. Anyone who's been reading this touched-up/borderline-rewritten version, I hope you've enjoyed it. I do have plans for other projects along this thread—Vincent's and Lucrecia's story, Zack's death, Sephiroth's descent into madness, Cloud's return to sanity—but they, as with most of my stories, are rather long in coming.
Thanks to anyone who's still waiting for Bound, but I have to say that it's going to be a while. Maybe a week, maybe two, maybe even a month. I'm really sorry, but things on my end have spun completely out of my control, and my computer is currently sitting, unhooked and unplugged, in the corner of my living room. It works just fine, but I don't have anywhere to set it up right now. I'm trying to get it hooked up for about ten minutes or so so I can upload Bound onto a disk and work on it from my mother's computer, but it doesn't looks like it's gonna happen. Sorry, and thank you for your continued patience!
Part Three: I Missed You
Cloud turned around and looked out at everyone—eyes going from Scarlet to Vincent to Rufus, carefully brushing over Tifa, to Hojo—and then let out a sigh. "Everyone, thanks for everything," he said with the faintest of smiles, that smile that belonged not to him, but the amethyst-eyed man of Sephiroth's illusions. "And…I'm sorry." He turned his sapphire eyes on Vincent. "Sorry." To Barret. "Sorry." At last, at long last, he turned to Tifa. "Especially you, Tifa—I'm so sorry." He felt tears burn behind his eyes. "You've been so good to me; I don't know what you say…" The unnumbered Clone shook his head, letting out a long and shaking breath, closing his eyes. "I never lived up to being Cloud," he murmured, "but Tifa…maybe, one day, you'll meet the real Cloud again."
Tifa fell to her knees. "No…" she gasped, tears streaming down her face, salty rivulets unstoppable. She clenched her eyes shut and shook with a single sob, then another and another. She could taste the tears in her mouth. The fighter pounded her fists on the ground, sobbing, her voice weak and broken, laced with pain and sorrow beyond anything she had ever known. "…No!"
Cloud opened his eyes once more, the burning behind them fading, and started to walk past Professor Hojo. He stopped dead directly in front of him, turning slowly to face the ebon-haired Wutaian, and found that the scientist was laughing.
"This is perfect!" Hojo beamed. "This means that the experiment was a complete success!" He let out another high, raspy laugh, reaching out to take Cloud's free hand—his left. "What number were you?" He inquired, pulling off the younger man's glove and unwinding the bandages Cloud had always covered that hand with. At least now he understood why he felt so compelled to keep it concealed. Hojo turned Cloud's hand over to view the top, and then his brow furrowed when he saw that it was unmarked. "Huh?" He looked back up at Cloud, eyes narrowing slightly. "Where's your tattoo?"
Cloud's eyes turned dark with melancholy. "Professor Hojo," he said softly, "I don't have a number. You didn't give me one because you said I was a failed experiment."
A failure, just like always… murmured a voice in the back of his mind.
Hojo's eyes went wide and he took a startled step backward, dropping Cloud's bare hand and his indigo glove. "What the—?" He took a shaky breath. "You mean only a failure made it here!"
Cloud leaned in closer to the scientist. "Professor…please give me a number," he pleaded in a whisper, tears forming in his eyes. "Please, Professor…" He held out his bare hand, the one that should have borne a number, his number; something that would be true and near and so very real. Something that he could trust as reality. Something that could never be called a lie.
"Shut up, you miserable failure!" Hojo snapped, eyes dark, face flushed with rage.
A horrible, beautiful buzzing echoed in Cloud's ears—the call. He was being summoned. He looked up at the roots and the Materia they held, and then cast his eyes downward, clenching them shut. He crossed his arms as though he was cold, shivering in spite of the wonderful heat that was rushing through him, or perhaps because of it. Perhaps, deep down in the darkest corner of his soul, Cloud was still fighting Sephiroth's call. Perhaps, for some reason not even he could tell, he was still trying to save the Planet.
If this inner struggle was going on, Cloud did not notice. He curled up on the ground, pulling up his knees to his chest and circling them with his arms, and closed his glowing eyes. The numberless Clone let out a long breath, as though he were falling asleep.
Rufus watched in horrid fascination as the young man known as Cloud floated up into the air, flipping upside-down and then shooting toward the roots high above, as though he was falling but his gravity had somehow been reversed, pointing his fall upward . "What in the world…?"
Vincent closed his eyes and bowed his head. It's over, he thought emptily. We've lost…
Scarlet stared upward, trying to distinguish the sunshine-haired boy from the twisted mass of gnarled roots and the glow of that Materia stone they encircled, but not really understanding what it all meant. That boy had the Black Materia—the one Sephiroth was after—and Hojo had asked where his number was. She started. Was he…? She turned to face Hojo, cinnamon eyes wide. Hojo, what have you done?
"Who was that?" Rufus inquired, tearing his impossibly bright eyes away from the distant, upside-down figure of Cloud and placing them on Hojo.
The scientist snorted in disgust. "He's a Sephiroth Clone I created after the real Sephiroth died five years ago." He shurgged as though in dismissal, but continued his explanation anyway. "Jenova cells and Mako, my knowledge and skills, along with science and nature; they've all been combined to bring him to life."
Cloud sat in silence high above, listening intently to every word that was said.
"I'm not wild about the failure part," Hojo continued, "but the Jenova Reunion Theory has now been proven." He folded his arms and looked up at the lattice of roots high above them, brow furrowing. "At least he succeeded in that, the little fool…"
It wasn't time yet, Cloud knew that much. Just a moment more… Sephiroth's call wasn't strong enough; to give him the Black Materia now would prove fatal for everyone involved—Sephiroth and himself included. And then what would the point be? What good would it have done anyone? If not even Sephiroth survived, then everything truly was lost…
The scientist cast his eyes downward again, speaking in a tone so matter-of-fact that even Rufus felt somewhat sick to his stomach. "You see, even if Jenova's body is completely dismembered, it will eventually become one again. That's what is meant by the Jenova Reunion." Hojo nodded in satisfaction, fully enjoying the spotlight placed on him—it wasn't every day he got to explain his life's work. Well, Gast's life's work; the work he had given his life for. Hojo almost laughed at the irony.
He didn't know that Cloud could hear his every word and more, every nuance of emotion loud in the blond's ears—louder still in Sephiroth's. Cloud could feel him, his call growing stronger with each word from the lunatic scientist below, and shook his head. Not yet, Sephiroth. Not quite yet…
"I've been waiting for the Reunion to start; five years have passed and now the Clones have begun to return." Hojo's manic grin broadened as he glanced up in an attempt to see Cloud amidst the tangled roots—it was a vain attempt, though Cloud, had he only lifted his head, would have been able to see Hojo perfectly. "I thought the Clones would gather at Midgar, where Jenova was stored, but my predictions weren't entirely correct," the Professor continued. "Jenova itself began to move away from the Shinra Building.
Cloud opened his eyes.
"But, being the genius that I am, I soon figured it out." He gestured with his hands, pacing back and forth. "You see, it was all Sephiroth's doing. Sephiroth is not content to diffuse his will into the Lifestream; he wants to manipulate the Clones himself."
Cloud closed his eyes once more, hugging his legs and leaning his forehead against his knees. "Yes," he said softly, "that was how it got started."
The greasy-haired self-proclaimed genius sighed. "I wondered where the Clones were going, but I was never able to figure it out."
Vincent narrowed his scarlet eyes, grinding his teeth. "Don't you think you screwed around enough, Hojo!" he inquired angrily, throwing back his cloak to reveal his artificial arm, the claw that Hojo himself had given him. "You had already killed more people than any one soul is worth—I'm glad you never figured it out."
"I couldn't figure it out either," Cloud breathed, unheard.
Hojo, completely ignoring Vincent's outburst, finally completed his monologue. "The one thing that I did know what that Sephiroth was their final destination."
Cloud looked down, his brow furrowing. "I wasn't pursuing Sephiroth," he shook his head. "I was being summoned by Sephiroth." He let out a sigh and shook his head once more, closing his eyes tightly. "All the anger and hatred I bore him made it impossible for me to ever forget him. That, and what he gave me…" He opened his eyes and rose to his feet, raising his voice ever so slightly. "Sephiroth? I'm here. I brought you the Black Materia." He looked about. "Sephiroth…where are you?" he sounded almost hurt, upset by Sephiroth's neglect. His only successful Clone—and yet the only failure—had come, and now he wasn't even going to show himself?
Cloud started, searching for the owner of that voice. That beautiful, terrible, cherished, loathed voice; the voice he had gone so long without hearing in its full glory. Clones, memories—illusions, rather—and impressions could never compare to the real thing. He listened intently, certain there would be more.
The blond turned to face the huge Materia stone, taking a step toward it, then another, then another. He placed one hand against it—his bare hand, the one that should have borne his number—and took a deep breath. He really was here; Cloud could feel him… He leaned his cheek against the stone, closing his eyes and letting out a sigh as warmth flowed through him. Cloud smiled. "Sephiroth…" he breathed. "So we finally meet again."
The giant Materia stone began to shake, but Cloud did not recoil; even when the roots that bound it loosened, lowering it down halfway to the ground, not even when the winter light cast through the stone to reveal Sephiroth's sleeping form, snow-pale hair shining in the snow-pale sunlight. Still Cloud leaned against it—this was where Sephiroth lay. This was where he was meant to be. Always near…forever by Sephiroth's side. This was how it was meant to be.
He took a short breath, lowering his voice to whisper so faint he could barely hear it himself. "I missed you," he breathed.
Hojo let out an elated laugh—he alone among those congregated below had not moved when Sephiroth's resting place began to fall—and threw out both arms. "Did you see it!" he exclaimed. "It's Sephiroth! He is here!" Everyone turned to face the raving professor as he began gesturing wildly, almost convulsively. "This is perfect! Both Jenova's Reunion and Sephiroth's will! They won't be diffused into the Lifestream, but gathered here!" He laughed aloud, his ragged voice breaking at the crescendo of each chime.
Tifa pulled away from Vincent, who had lifted her from the ground when Sephiroth began to travel downward, and stomped up to the much older man. "What are you so happy about, Professor!" she inquired incredulously, unable to believe that anyone could be this insane. "You know what this means, don't you!" Hojo continued to cackle, and Tifa ground her teeth, raising her voice to a shout. "Cloud has the Black Materia! Sephiroth is going to summon Meteor!" She stomped her foot on the springy earth, leaning in closer to the maniacally joyful scientist. "Every single person is going to die!"
Rufus let out a sigh, shaking his head and raking one hand through his fiery blond hair. "Whatever I say now is too little, too late…" he trailed off, turquoise eyes growing dark, and let out a sigh before looking up, his eyes locking with Vincent's. "We must evacuate." Everyone turned to the President of Shinra with surprise, but he merely shook his head. "I want you all to come with me. There is still much more I want to hear."
Vincent narrowed his eyes slightly. Tell tales to a Shinra? He thought. I'd rather die than explain anything to anyone even associated with Shinra, much less the leader. He opened his mouth to express this aloud, but one look from Rufus made any words he had prepared die before they were even given life. He looked…apologetic. Truly sorry for what he had done.
The gunner took a wary breath, shaking his head. "We're trusting you, Shinra," he said resolutely. "Don't turn out to be like your father."
Rufus nodded and turned around. "All right, the Highwind is this w—" he broke off as Barret's gruff voice cut through his own silky tones, turning to the massive vigilante with eyes that were slightly narrowed, almost confused.
"Cloud!" Barret hollered. "Stop! Knock it off!"
Tifa's head jerked back as she looked up, looking for what Barret was seeing. Her eyes widened. "Dear Gaea…" she murmured, her voice dead and distant.
Cloud stood in front of Sephiroth, though there was nothing beneath his feet to support him, with the Black Materia in his right hand, his left pressed against the cool stone, the contact a conduit for Sephiroth's warmth to flow through. He leaned forward, extending his hand, and his eyes—those heartbroken, dark eyes—grew a little bit brighter. "Here, Sephiroth," he said softly. "I brought it…just for you…"
He pressed his other hand against the stone, the Black Materia resonating in time with both his and Sephiroth's heartbeat. His fingers sunk through the glassy surface, edged with light, and soon his entire forearm was immersed in the stone, which now seemed somehow liquid. It was painful, so very painful, but he carefully spread out each of his cramped fingers, releasing the shining black gem into the white-haired man's resting place. It floated through the perfectly solid stone as though it was water, lodging itself against Sephiroth's chest, just over his heart. Cloud watched with shining eyes as it slowly sunk into the man's chest, burying itself deep within him.
The blond looked back up, his eyes alighting on the face of Jenova's son, and his already Mako-bright eyes brightened. "That's it, Sephiroth. It's for you," he closed his eyes and drew back both hands, placing them against his chest, "and only you. I hope you like it."
Then the world began to shake. The tremors sent ripples of energy through the air upon which Cloud stood, making his step unsteady. He knew he was going to fall; there was no way he could remain steady in such a quake. He was, after all, just a failed Clone… Cloud didn't have time to think again, however, for it was then that something snapped amongst the mass of roots that held up Sephiroth, sending the giant Materia tomb down to the ground.
He turned to watch as his comrades—former comrades, perhaps? Or comrades of the man he had pretended to be?—rushed away from the impending disaster. Everyone ran except Vincent and Hojo, the latter of which was swiftly retrieved by Tifa. The girl paused at the mouth of the cave, turning to look back at the gunner. "Vincent, come on!" she shouted.
The ruby-eyed man stared up at Cloud for a moment more; when their eyes finally met, Cloud realized what the gunner was doing, why he refused to leave. Vincent was waiting for Cloud to come back down.
Sephiroth's only surviving Clone gave a smile, a serene smile that seemed impossible in his current situation, and shook his head gently. No, Vincent, he thought. I don't deserve your company anymore. I don't deserve anything…
As though Vincent could hear Cloud's thoughts, which wasn't unlikely considering what had been done to the gunner, he averted his eyes and bowed his head. Taking a deep breath, he nodded once and then turned to follow after Tifa. She hurried out, and the scarlet-cloaked man gave one last glance to Cloud before rushing out after her.
Cloud let out a sigh, dipping down in the air to be even with Sephiroth once more, and gave him the same impossibly serene smile. Leaning his brow against the cool stone, feeling the hum that ran through his body at the contact, he closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around the stone as far as he could. He turned his head to one side, resting his cheek against the Materia, and let out a long breath.
"Sephiroth…" he whispered.
The earth beneath them began to break, Mako pouring forth from the gashes like blood from a wound, and quickly began to fill up the cave. A heartbeat and it was at Cloud's feet; another and it was up to his waist. One more and he was completely immersed in the Planet's liquid energy. And still he smiled, opening his mouth to speak one last time.
"…I missed you."
And then his world turned to darkness.