Equivalent Trade

Cloud didn't dream of that place anymore, where he had been Sephiroth and Zack's – he blushed even now to think it – lover. One outcome of the fight with the three remnants of Sephiroth was that he had finally allowed himself to let go of the past. He missed the times that he had spent with Sephiroth and Zack as a cadet, simply being their friend, of course. Just as he missed the brief time he had known Aeris. Their deaths would always cause him sorrow, but he wasn't going to let it rule his life.

He would have preferred those dreams, however, to what had been coming lately.

Cloud didn't remember these dreams as well, but they disturbed him greatly. The clearest recollection he had was of wings – two, three, seven, sometimes even ten – sprouting from his back as he leap off of a cliff and soared over the planet. The emotions he felt during the flight were intoxicating. He was utterly free and content, powerful and invincible, looking over the lowly mortals with sheer confidence…

It was driving him mad. Or maybe he had already gone mad. Cloud wondered absentmindedly if this had happened to Sephiroth; if he was now taking the same road as the General had so long ago in Nibelheim. That possibility frightened him to the core. If the blond went insane and tried to destroy the world, it was doubtful anyone currently alive could stop him.

So tonight, when Cloud lay down and prepared to sleep, he came to a decision. When the dream finally snuck up on him, he deliberately did not fly off as he had in the past. Instead he concentrated and felt the comforting weight of his weapon appear in his hands, out of thin air.

Just as Sephiroth had in their last battle.

Shoving the thought away, the man turned, examining his surroundings. "Jenova! Where are you!"

"She is not here, Cloud Strife. Though I understand why you might think she has caused this. Rest assured that it is not without reason."

"Who are you!" Cloud snapped, irritated. He had more than enough people mess with his head in his lifetime, thank you very much!

A woman abruptly appeared, smiling at Cloud. "Hello young Cloud. I am what humans generally call Gaia." Cloud frowned, studying the woman in front of him. From his understanding the Planet had never been described as such a mature, awake presence, despite the tales about Gaia. Which meant this was probably a trick. He rushed forward, sword held high and attacked. The woman's image abruptly shattered, leaving a small girl appearing to be about Marlene's age in her place, short brown hair framing her young face. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" Cloud slowly lowered his blade as he watched the girl break into tears.

"I guess what it really comes down to is that I'm lonely," Gaia whispered as her tears finally stopped. She sighed and sat on the ground, pulling her knees up to her chest. "The Cetra used to talk to me all of the time but then they went away. They can't talk to me like they used to anymore."

It made sense for the Planet to be a child, Cloud thought as he sat besides the girl. The Planet had hardly acted as a mature adult. It seemed fickle, impatient and illogical at times. "What about humans?"

Gaia twitched in irritation. "Humans don't talk to me; they only hurt me. They drill holes in me and make me sick. Why should I like humans?"

Cloud winced, silently acknowledging that the spirit had a point. "But I'm human."

"You don't have to be!" Gaia replied, eyes bright with joy. "I can finish what that guy started and you won't be human anymore and you won't die and I'll never be alone and everything will be wonderful!"

"Wonderful?" Cloud growled, voice shaking with repressed emotion. "What Hojo did to me – " He choked, unable to finish the sentence.

"Please? PLEASE? I'd do anything!" Her deep green eyes – not unlike Aeris', Cloud's mind absently noted – stared up into his in entreaty.

"There is nothing you could do that I would want."

"I could give you your mother back! Wouldn't you like that?"

Cloud shook his head. His mother had hardly been close. Her death had certainly hurt him – she was his mother after all – but he could easily live without her, knowing he might someday see her again in the Lifestream.

"Please? There has to be something! I don't want to be all alone again! I want a family!" Cloud flinched. "Couldn't you be my brother? My big brother who protects me? I don't want to be all alone. Something will come and hurt me one day and no one will protect me!"

Cloud closed his eyes, his mind flashing back to his own youth. He had been so alone, hurt so often by those very people who should have been protecting him… Could he deny a request for protection?

As so often happened when he was presented with a difficult situation, he wondered what Zack would do.

Zack… Maybe, just maybe…

"Would you be able to – "

Gaia appeared to be able to follow his thoughts, because she grinned and nodded before Cloud finished his sentence. "Of course!"

"Only if they want to."

"Done."

"Then you have a deal." Gaia smiled once more and then abruptly vanished. In fact, the whole dream disappeared, leaving Cloud floating in a sphere of dark emerald green light. In a sudden flash of insight Cloud understood that this was the Planet's power. The Lifestream was not green in and of itself but drew both color and power from the Planet. He knew this would take a very long time but would be well worth it in the end. Cloud Strife smiled and let himself fall into the power without complaint.

Now Cloud slept without protest, finding himself a part of the deeper green of Gaia the minute his head hit his pillow. He noticed changes already; his eyesight and hearing had improved and he could easily sense the Lifestream beneath his feet. He smiled to himself as he awoke, quickly dressing and heading downstairs. "Cloud! Can I come with you this time?"

"Not this time, Denzel," Cloud replied to the boy's question. Denzel sat back in his seat, clearly pouting. Cloud shook his head slightly at Tifa's inquisitive look. No matter what it wouldn't do for Denzel to accompany him on this delivery. The surrounding area was simply too dangerous.

Strange that despite the supernatural changes that had been occurring every night life was still so normal by day.

"Breakfast, Cloud?"

"No thanks, Tifa. I need to get going if I'm going to get there in time."

"At least take your lunch." Cloud accepted the bag, gave Tifa and Denzel a nod, allowed Marlene to steal a quick hug and stepped outside into a field of flowers, instead of the street he had been expecting. Cloud stared at the abrupt change of scenery. "Aeris?"

She appeared besides him and held him gently. Cloud returned the embrace, breathing her unique sent of flowers and the scent of clear, pure water. Or at least that was what it reminded him of; after all, water didn't have an actual scent. "I'm sorry Cloud; I can't come."

It took him a minute to realize what she meant. He felt a bit disappointed but not surprised. "That's alright."

"I'm needed here, in the Lifestream. I'll always be here for you, if you need me." Her smile was so bright it seemed to outshine the sun. "We'll even be working together, after a fashion oh great protector of the planet."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Aeris…"

She laughed and let him go, moving back. "Better focus, Cloud. Someone's calling you."

"Wha-Marlene. " Cloud blinked and found himself standing back outside of the house he shared with Tifa. "What's going on?"

Marlene tugged on Cloud's sleeve. "Tifa says you need to come back. She got a phone call." Cloud picked the girl up and quickly strode back into the house.

"Cloud." Tifa's voice quivered only the tiniest bit. "They found something at Cosmo Canyon. Nanaki has called all of AVALANCE. Cid's coming with the Highwind."

Cosmo Canyon…of course, they worship the Planet there…the connection must be the strongest….Cloud reflected as they sprinted out the door after leaving Marlene and Denzel with a neighbor. His heart pounded violently in his chest; this would undoubtedly be one of the most trying experiences in his life but the rewards….

The rewards would be quite possibly beyond anything he could have imagined.

Cloud was the last one to enter the already crowded room. His eyes swept along those their, taking in their reactions. Yuffie looked angry but slightly scared, Tifa and Barret looked murderous, Vincent and Nanaki were unreadable, Cait Sith seemed cheerful as usual but that did not say anything about Reeve's stance, Cid looked upset and disgusted. It was the pilot who spoke first. "Bloody bastard says he doesn't remember anything." Cloud's eyes flickered over to the last two figures in the room, careful to keep his expression controlled. Neither gave anything away though they were intently studying him. "Everyone out."

"CLOUD! You can mean-"

"Out." Cloud repeated firmly, locking his eyes' with Sephiroth's. The members of AVALANCE slowly filled out, Tifa leaving last. Cloud broke his staring match long enough to give her a reassuring look then locked the door. Undoubtedly they would remained crowded about the door, attempting to listen – actually he could feel them doing it now – but this was enough privacy for what he needed to do. "Zack."

The SOLDIER smiled brightly, moving quickly across the room to embrace his younger friend. "Damn Cloud, you grew up on me! Don't look nearly as bad as you did when I last saw you." He stepped back and examine Cloud's figure, making appreciative noises.

Cloud blushed slightly, but was confused by Zack's words. 'Aeris?'

'Yes Cloud?'

'They don't remember?' Cid had said as much but that didn't make it true…

'The human mind does not handle death well, Cloud. Neither remembers anything after they died. Or their death for that matter. They know they did die and that they returned of their own will to help you, but its distant knowledge, not personal.'

'I see.' Then the dreams had merely been dreams after all.

Aeris laughed. Not quite. What you were actually experiencing was brief union between your souls. Physical intimacy was the best way for your mind to process that.'

Cloud flushed slightly at that, though it did make sense. Even in that place, Sephiroth had seemed more distant than Zack and he knew his bond with Zack had been stronger. So they hadn't been exchanging conversations and doing other – things – exactly, but passing feelings. The rest was just his imagination.

'Mostly. Zack did manage to get some things through to you. Cloud absentmindedly nodded, recalling Zack's last words to him in just about every dream. The SOLDIER had always urged him to stay in the real world. He didn't belong in the afterlife yet.

"You, Midgar to Cloud, over!"

"Sorry, Zack." Cloud blinked, and stared up at the man that had served both as mentor and friend during his years in Midgar. He looked just the same as always.

"Don't tune out on me again, spike. Besides, don't you have someone else to greet?" Zack grinned, tossing his arm over Cloud's shoulder and gestured to the final figure in the room.

"Sephiroth."

The minute Cloud spoke his name Sephiroth knew something was wrong. It had taken them months to get Cloud to open up to them when the blond had been in training and ever longer for him to use the nickname that Zack felt so comfortable with and apparently all of that work had come undone. Cloud was tense, his face shuttered and his eyes dark.

Sephiroth silently vowed vengeance upon the person who had turned the bright child he had once known into this cold statue.

Then again… The ex-General paused to consider. He knew that he had discovered something in Nibelheim that had caused him to attack Zack and Cloud. He knew that Cloud had ended up somehow destroying him…

Perhaps the blond thought he was angry with him? It wasn't impossible and most would usually hold quite a bit of anger in their hearts towards the one who had slain them. Sephiroth actually was rather proud of Cloud. He knew he had deserved his death – though he couldn't remember why – and that Cloud, who wasn't even a SOLDIER had managed to destroy him… Well, that was quite an accomplishment. He would have to know the details eventually, but that would be a rather painful conversation and certainly not one necessary at the moment.

Cloud was a SOLDIER now, Sephiroth silently observed noting the glowing blue eyes and the complicated sword on his back. He wondered what rank the younger man held. He was dressed as a first class – no surprise there, Sephiroth had noted the boy's potential even if the examiners hadn't seen it – and was undoubtedly a good leader as well.

Perhaps one action could bring Cloud out of that fortress he had erected. It wasn't normally something he would even consider, but that might just work to his advantage. The best way to get genuine reactions out of Cloud had been to surprise him after all. Besides, he had wanted to do it and there wasn't an obnoxious president and a twisted scientist watching his every move at the moment.

The green eyed man crossed the room in several quick strides, captured Cloud's chin and gently kissed him.

Cloud jerked slightly as his lips met Sephiroth's. 'Better than the dreams…' He thought absentmindedly as he tilted his head up more to get a better angle. He felt his cheeks flush again as Sephiroth pulled away, looking like a cat that had just gotten the canary. "I have wanted to do that for years."

"SEPH!" Cloud exclaimed, and then faltered as he realized how easily the nickname had come to his lips. Both of the other members of the room looked rather relieved after his shout, however. Cloud bent, snagged one of the pillows that served as Cosmo Canyon's main form of seats off the floor and threw it at Sephiroth.

"It's not his fault you died before he was legal," Zack interjected. Cloud snagged another pillow and chucked it towards the raven haired man. "Oyo, Spike! This means war! Come on, Seph."

"Hey, no teaming up! That's cheating! Ask, don't do that!"

"Still ticklish I see! Surrender!"

"Never!"

"Seph, hold him down."

"ARGH. SEPH! ZACK!"

"What's going on in there?"

"I don't know!"

"# Cloud better be alright…"

THUMP

"That didn't sound good!"

"CLOUD!"

"Move!" SNAP. CRASH.

"Nice job, Tifa."

"Thanks, now let's go save Cloud!"

"Er, um…"

"Maybe we should leave?"

"What are- LEAVE CLOUD ALONE YOU TWO."

"They look kinda busy to me-"

"Shut up, Yuffie."

"Hey!"

Cloud rolled his eyes as he heard AVALENCE come tumbling in the door, which now lay in pieces after Tifa's attack. He shifted and abruptly threw Zack and Sephiroth off. Ignoring the group behind him, he snagged his pillow and hit Sephiroth over the head. "I'm not sixteen anymore you guys."

"You most certainly aren't," Zack teased, pretending to give Cloud a look over.

"But we thought-" Tifa stared at the three men sprawled on the floor amidst a pile of very scattered pillows.

"We'd never harm lil'old Spike," Zack grinned and climbed to his feet. Cloud followed and reached out his hand towards Sephiroth. The older man grabbed it and pulled himself to his feet. "We knew each other when Spike was back in training you see. This is nothing unusual."

"Nothing unusual…? Cloud, don't tell me you didn't tell them what happened!"

"Not yet, Tifa." Cloud sighed. "I suspect we'll need several days to go over everything."

Tifa felt her heart twist at her love's words. She could feel Cloud pulling away from her as he had so often in the past and it hurt. Yet she couldn't help but notice how relaxed Cloud looked in between the two relics of his past. Could she be so selfish as to hold on to him when he would be happier elsewhere?

"Wait a minute, how do we know that crazy idiot isn't gonna try to take over the world again?" Barrett asked, giving Sephiroth a dirty look. Sephiroth and Zack exchanged confused glances. Again?

"He's not, Barrett. Gaia wouldn't have allowed him to come back if he was."

"A-Aeris?"

Suddenly, the young woman who had died by Sephiroth's blade was there, as if nothing had ever happened. The Cetra smiled, exchanging a long look with Cloud. "The Planet has returned these two for a reason and we should respect that, even if we don't know what that reason is."

"What is this, dead people coming back to life day?"

"Not quite, Cid. I can't stay long, but you needed to know there was no threat."

"Aeris, I don't understand. What's going on?" Tifa asked.

"Look to Cloud. He won't lead you in the wrong direction. Take care my friends!" Without fanfare, exactly as she had materialized, Aeris vanished.

"I don't understand. How did she…Aeris is dead."

"A projection like that would take quite a bit of energy." Red mused, glancing at Cloud. The blond appeared neither surprised by Aeris' appearance nor her abrupt disappearance. Cloud merely smiled, the same sort of knowing smile that Aeris had worn so often in life.

"In any case, I believe Cloud needs to debrief us on what has happened," Sephiroth smoothly interjected. He got a glare from the general populace for his trouble.

Cloud sighed. "I'll take care of this, guys; you go ahead and leave."

"Are you sure, Cloud?"

"Positive."

Tifa paused by the blond, placing her hand on his arm. "When should I expect you home?"

"No sooner than a week. We have a lot to cover."

"Alright, just…be careful, Cloud."

Cloud tossed off a careless grin, the kind found so often on Zack's face. "Aren't I always?" Tifa rolled her eyes. "Well, shall we go?"

"Damn, Cloud. I have no idea how you managed this. We could never have bought it, even on our combined stipends!" Zack looked very impressed at the size of the villa.

Cloud looked back at his friend. "Yeah well, perk of saving the world I guess. We were in the area and someone gave us a lead about valuable weapons being in the house. Mostly a hoax, but it serves its purpose every once and a while." He opened the door and the trio stepped inside.

"A little dusty, isn't it?" Sephiroth raised an eyebrow as he noted the condition of the interior.

"I haven't been here in a few years. Never got around to selling it. Besides, it's nice to have a place I can come if I need to be alone. A little dust won't kill you."

"I don't know. If Seph gets his hair dirty he might crumble; it's the source of all his power you realize."

"Shut up, Zackary." The three moved quietly about the house, working to make it habitable again. At last they sat down, having finished all they needed to at the moment and lacking anything else to do. They could no longer put off this conversation.

Cloud took a deep breath. "It started with the Nibelheim mission…."

"Dear god," Zack whispered as Cloud finished his story, staring at the younger man. He had endured so much, and had been so alone. A quick glance showed Sephiroth wasn't doing well either. "Seph – "

"Cloud, I…." Sephiroth trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. He had changed the youth he remembered into the solemn young man in front of him…it was all his fault.

"Seph, it's okay. I forgave you a long time ago. You couldn't help it and neither could I. Things sometimes just happen, whether it's right or not." Cloud reached over and grasped Sephiroth's hand tightly. "You were there for me when I needed it," Cloud continued, remembering his not-dreams, "and came back to me. If anyone should be asking for forgiveness, it should be me."

"Cloud." The name was hushed, layered with disbelief and something more. Sephiroth leaned over and gently kissed Cloud again. But if the last kiss had been a joke, this was one of forgiveness. Zack stood slowly, trying to escape without breaking the scene.

"Don't even think about it, Zack." Cloud reached out with his other hand and grasped the SOLDIER's wrist.

"You two keep up like that and you're going to need privacy."

"You're a part of this too, Zack."

There was a long moment of silence. "You mean….all three of us!"

"Why not?" Cloud grinned. "Best of both worlds." His expression turned serious, eyes alight with something more than mere mako. "Besides, it feels right."

"It does," Sephiroth agreed softly.

"Well then, I'm really glad that we cleaned up the beds already!" Zack laughed. Cloud rolled his eyes and stood, firmly tugging both men with him. They left the room laughing, leaving the darkness of the past behind for a moment.

"Cloud?" Sephiroth forced himself awake, aware of a shift in the air around him. Something was going on, and it had to do with Cloud. He ran his hand over the blond's back only to feel…wings? He sat up and studied the man's back. He didn't see anything but he certainly felt them. "Cloud?"

"Hm…Seph? Not time to get up yet." Blue eyes barely blinked open, but it was enough for Sephiroth to note their unusual brilliance.

"CLOUD!" The worried shout fully woke Cloud and jerked Zack from his dreams.

"What?"

"Seph, what's wrong?"

Sephiroth pointed at a mirror across the room. "That's what's wrong." Bright, bright blue eyes stared back in the mirror, far beyond the levels that humans normally could handle.

"Oh, that."

"OH, THAT?"

Cloud shrugged. "Side effect of what Gaia's been doing. Nothing major."

"WHAT has Gaia been doing?" Cloud sighed and explained. "Spike, you shouldn't have done that. I know you missed us but – "

"It wasn't just that. It was- " Cloud struggled to find the words. "Gaia is so young, and she's so alone…"

"See yourself in her?"

"A bit."

"So you agreed to be her protector and/or big brother figure," Zack continued, "and asked for us to come back?"

"Aeris as well, but she couldn't come back. Said she had to stay with the Lifestream."

"How long are you going to live?" Sephiroth asked, examining the blond besides him. Cloud didn't look inhuman – he himself looked more inhuman to tell the truth – but the touch was there, just under the surface.

"No idea. It doesn't matter anyway." Cloud shrugged. "You're both here and that's what's important."

"Cloud, we'll die of old age some day." Sephiroth pointed out.

"Not likely. Aeris said Gaia froze your aging, so as long as you don't get yourselves killed you be fine." Cloud smiled.

"Get ourselves killed! As if! First-Class SOLDIER here, and.. wait, did you say Aeris said?"

"Yes." Cloud struggled to hide his amusement. It was fun to be the one with all the information for once. Zack and Sephiroth had always known everything when he had been a cadet.

"You can talk to Aeris."

"On a regular basis, actually."

"You really have to fill us in fully, Cloud." Sephiroth sighed and wrapped an arm about the blond's waist.

"Yes, tomorrow. When the sun's up. For now, I'm going to sleep." Zack grumbled. Sephiroth shook his head but followed his lover's lead, drifting off in a few moments. Cloud smiled to himself, warmed both from within and without. He had challenges ahead of him, not the least explaining his new relationship to the other former members of AVALANCHE, but he could handle it.

He could handle it all. He wasn't alone.