Title: Calling it Even
Summary: They live.
A/N: Crisis Core. Again. And what is life but a blessing and a responsibility at the same time?
A/N2: Happy (25th) Birthday, Cloud Strife. :)
Two men stood in front of a door, staring at a neatly printed sign hanging on it. They read it for a few minutes in silence, before the one standing on the right spoke up.
"Closed for the day? What's she mean by 'closed for the day'?"
"Means the bar's closed today."
"I know that, but it's never closed on Saturdays!"
"First time for everythin'."
"Erzel, you're bein' a real pain, y'know that?"
"Look, if Strife's Delivery Service is closed too, you know something's up."
"Got a package to deliver to a friend in the 2nd sector but Strife's not pickin' up his cell phone."
"...huh. Wonder what's goin' on."
It was a wonder how the church maintained its state here. Cloud looked up at the crumbling beams, at the open ceiling where it shouldn't be, at the dusty, broken pews. He wondered, quietly, just how long it might take before the church finally collapsed into itself. It wasn't pleasant to think about but it seemed inevitable.
And then, without so much as a warning, someone answered his unspoken question.
Probably not for decades really. It was built to last.
Cloud barely kept himself from starting. He flicked his glance left and right, straining to see through the corners of his eyes. He knew if he turned around, there wouldn't be anyone there. But maybe if he just tried to stretch his eyes as far as they could go without actually moving his head…?
There was a laugh only he heard.
You haven't seen me for quite a while, Cloud. Don't try looking now.
"…was worth a shot," murmured the blond man under his breath.
Another laugh. Finally decided to bring the kids for a visit, eh?
Cloud couldn't help the little smirk that took over his lips. "Had to borrow a neighbour's van."
Fenrir's not exactly a family-size vehicle. But man, where was that kinda horsepower when I was around?
The smirk grew a little. "Shinra Company would never issue things like that to Soldiers."
Much to our loss.
Cloud looked over at the Buster sword, quietly standing some way away. Then he looked back to the pool, glittering in the sunlight. "…is Aerith here?"
What, no "hello, how have you been?" No "good to hear from you, Zack"? What am I, chopped liver?
He closed his eyes, knowing Zack to be everything else but that. "Close."
Smartass. She's keeping Tifa company.
Even then, Cloud didn't turn around to see if it was true, trusting in Tifa's comfortable silence behind him. "…I see."
Nice job, by the way. Good to see you two walk in like that.
Cloud's eyelids flew open. It'd taken two trips to get all the kids here, and on his second round back, he'd brushed a kiss against Tifa's temple when he thought no one was looking. He coloured slightly, much to Zack's laughter.
"…it took a while," Cloud finally said, getting over his slight embarrassment at being caught after all.
There's the understatement of the millennium.
He could say nothing to that. Instead, he continued watching the way the waters lapped at the edges of the planks, watched them reflect the various colours of the church and the flowers.
"The others should be here soon. We'll be here the whole day."
And whose idea was it to have the party here?
Cloud hesitated for a moment. The truth was, he hadn't really made note of his birthday in years. He'd never felt the need to. In a way, he'd never really thought that his was a birth worth celebrating.
The kids and Tifa felt otherwise. Together, they had cajoled and persuaded him into finally agreeing to a very small party.
"On one condition," he had said, making them pause in their jubilation. They looked up at him expectantly.
"We have it at the church."
As the kids began to grin amongst themselves, Tifa smiled widely, taking his hand in hers. "Deal."
He could practically feel Zack grin.
Cloud felt his heart swell at that one syllable, so infused with amusement and pride… somehow still so full of life.
He took in a breath, let it out slowly. He'd thought about Zack and Aerith's presence before. When he was sure he wasn't just hallucinating, he'd wondered how he still managed to hear them.
"...are we keeping you here?"
...difficult question there. I don't really know myself. All I know is, sometimes I see you, sometimes I don't. Sometimes you hear me, like now, sometimes you don't. But, in a way, me and Aerith never leave.
"...I don't think I understand."
Told you it was a hard one. Just think of it as sporadic spiritual visits. How 'bout that?
Cloud smirked to himself at that answer. "Tifa wishes she could see Aerith. And you."
…she didn't think you were crazy when you told her you could still hear us? Somehow, I'm not surprised.
He finally glanced behind, saw Tifa's peaceful expression as she gazed at the Buster Sword. Cloud's lips tilted upwards. "...she always believed you two kept an eye out for us."
Tifa was always a smart girl.
There was silence after that, sans the murmuring of the children and the sound of water. Cloud rested his eyes on the yellow and white lilies, breathing in their scent, feeling a small breeze blow against his hair gently.
He thought Zack had gone but the voice came again suddenly.
...y'know, I didn't think about what I said that time.
"...what do you mean?"
I said you were proof of my existence. I gave you my pride, all my hopes and dreams. I practically gave you my life.
Words that may have sounded like some sort of pointed reminder came out apologetic instead, much to Cloud's bewilderment.
Must be quite a burden to bear.
Cloud shook his head slowly, opening his eyes again. He stared at the coloured rays of light shining through the glass-stained windows, images flashing through his mind's eye, many regrets pulling at his heart, many promises echoing with them.
Much had been taken from him.
But in the end, Cloud felt, even more had been given back.
"I promised to live for you as well. I won't forget again." He smiled slightly. "Besides, you died saving me. Wasn't that a burden too?"
So does that mean we're even?
Cloud could have laughed. He continued to smile instead, closing his eyes for the second time. "We were never even, Zack.
"You were always better."
Zack laughed, the glow around him pulsing with each chuckle. Behind him and Cloud, Marlene and Denzel were in hushed conversation with the other children. Shelke sat with them, listening quietly. A little to the side, Tifa had turned to the flowers, one hand gently touching a growing lily. Aerith, beaming gentle light as Zack was, stood beside her.
Further beyond, familiar faces and voices were coming through the open doors. Zack watched Barret swoop his daughter into a bear hug while Nanaki and Cait Sith were greeted by enthusiastic hugs from the girls. Cid ruffled everyone's hair in his own rough fashion, Shera smiling beside him. Vincent was, as usual, quieter than everyone else though he waved to Shelke and the children. Aerith laughed, unheard, to see Yuffie tackle Tifa in a speedy hug from behind.
And Zack turned to Cloud, grinning although he couldn't see it.
You didn't do so bad yourself, Chocobo Head.
Firstly, I apologize, DEEPLY, for spelling inconsistencies, plot inconsistencies, grammar and vocabulary errors. Barret's name especially gave me fits when I realized I'd been using all SORTS of different spellings throughout the entire 107 chapters. That, and miscellaneous spellings that kept swaying between the American and British style which is several degrees of terrifying for me personally. I should be reviewing and correcting these errors... eventually. T_T Thank you so much for your patience, guys.
While FM is complete here on this site, I hope to continue writing more in the LJ version. 'Hope' being the operative term. What I am sure of, is that LJ will be getting some updates in terms of bonus chapters that I wrote but didn't include in this version. So if you're still interested, do check in once in awhile. :D I can't really guarantee anything, but there WILL be updates. I am Determined! Any questions you may have, feel free to head over there and ask – I'll try to answer them ASAP.
Whether you were there from the beginning, jumped in the middle or near the end, as long as you read this story, I thank you all so much. You allowed a seventeen-year-old to continue practicing and polishing her writing right up till this day. With every review and every favourite, you motivated me to keep at it until this point. I'm grateful that this collection has made some of your days a little better, or made you smile or think.
So thank you all again, God bless you, and I hope you've enjoyed yourselves. I know I have! :D