Author's Notes: Timeline Divergent AU at the end of the first disc, under the City of Ancients. Shit happens. Ignore the author's propensity toward weirdness.
Warnings: Strong language, violence, blood, psychological torture, character death (duh), future slash.
Feedback - especially concrit - is encouraged, loved, and stared adoringly at.
Disclaimer: Not mine, not makin' money.
This sparkling water and crystal city looked like spun sugar, the candy-glass Cloud's mother had once made on Saturday afternoons. The sweets were granted because of guilt and as an apology for the things she had to close her eyes to; somehow, this place managed the same sad, quiet desperation. What could Aeris hope to manage here in such a fragile, damaged, beautiful world?
She wants, something hissed in his head, a malevolent other-thought fighting past the constant buzz of mako and a presence more benign. She wants to…
"What?" Cloud murmured, though his better sense told him to ignore the voice.
Tifa placed a hand on his arm. He stopped for her and the rest of the group stopped with him, too enchanted by the place to do anything but follow. Her big red-brown eyes were wide with worry (Cloud's talking to himself what do we do what do I do if he goes away in his head?), but he shook off her grip and ignored the concern, continuing forward.
Aeris, someone familiar pleaded, but it sounded like Cloud's own thoughts. How did he know they weren't? Please don't.
Kill her, the other-thought growled.
Stop her! Kill her!
The argument in his head was so loud it was making him feel all fuzzy. He wished they'd take it somewhere else – he'd be just peachy with only his own mind for company. He didn't want to kill anyone; Mama had taught him better than that.
"Both of you shut up," he whispered, concentrating on the mako hum instead.
"Cloud," Tifa ventured, "no one's talking."
He tried to smile at her, made an attempt at reassuring and came out awkward. "Does it matter? They can shut up anyway."
He knew, somewhere in his lingering rationality, that that had been a wrong thing to say. He felt childish and cottony, like someone had pressed a pillow over his face and some parts of his brain didn't have enough air to function right. Of course, no one could do that to him now.
"Cloud?" Tifa asked again.
"We have to find Aeris." A sharp snap of purpose cutting through the haze.
Tifa nodded, assured now that Cloud was back on track. He almost felt bad that 'slightly focused' was all they could ask of him, sometimes. Tifa, especially – the rest of the group didn't rely on him half as much as she pretended to. Cloud didn't count himself stupid; he knew that half of her 'hero' talk was out of guilt. She wanted him to feel needed. A quick glance over his shoulder proved that none of the others were really even paying attention to him, engaged in their own quiet conversations, more subdued than usual. Even Yuffie and Barret were near silent, Yuffie passing the time by showing him how to fold paper animals from faded gil notes as they walked.
The whole group was tenser than they wanted to let on. Aeris's disappearance had been a worry, Cloud's increasingly erratic behavior a burden. He knew that, and still couldn't help it. They didn't, couldn't, know what it was like to have these things in his head, pushing and pulling at him incessantly, telling him to do things he never wanted to do.
Telling him to hurt her, and he had.
He wanted desperately to believe he hadn't been just dreaming her forgiveness. If they found her here, that dream, everything she'd said in it, was true. …And there was one more person capable of invading his thoughts and dreams, but with Aeris he found he didn't mind so much. It was always that way with her; if anyone else did the things she did - the teasing and dresses and her fascination for playing with his hair – he'd be over and done with them very quickly.
"Aeris!" Tifa gasped, and Cloud snapped his attention to the outside world.
Aeris had never looked very ethereal at all, even when she was wandering around strange forests in his dreams; there was a quality about her that spoke of solid earth and trees with deep roots, flowers blossoming where no flowers should be. She looked ethereal now, otherworldly and disconnected. He didn't like it.
"Aeris!" He echoed when she didn't stir.
He'd never seen anyone so still, so frighteningly serene. Not even the pink folds of her dress, draped prettily around her bended knees, stirred in the still air, her breath didn't flutter her bangs. She looked like one of those pretty dolls from Wutai, beautifully crafted and eerily still, with glass eyes that fluttered open to stare at you when you tipped their heads back. She looked like a corpse.
Years ago, he would have had to scramble to make his way up the glass platforms leading to her strange little tower. Now, he did it with such grace that he didn't even need to think about it.
Interfering little liar! The other-thought shrieked, the grating female mixing with a demanding male timber that Cloud found frighteningly irresistible. Get rid of her!
His hands scrambled at the hilt of his sword, the movements awkward and jerky; his head suddenly ached fiercely, his fingers half numb.
Cloud, you can't –
A shriek from the female half of the other-thought cut off the better voice, muffled it and wrapped it in layers of do it do it kill her kill her the bitch do it!
His sword finally yanked free of its sheath, materia glistening strangely in their recesses. Cloud noticed with almost surprised disconnect that he was trembling. Why? What was he doing? He suddenly couldn't remember much - just that he had something very important…
"What the hell are you doin'?"
People, angry people, buzzing in the background. If he didn't finish this, they'd stop him. He was strong, he was Soldier: individually they could not take him down, but together they were capable. They wanted to stop him from getting rid of the –
Interference, spawn of interference, liars both
- Doll girl in front of him, whatever she'd done. She'd had to have done something, or the other-thought wouldn't be so vehement. When people did bad things, they were punished. He'd learned that lesson as a child.
The motion had been made hundreds of times – the smooth draw back of sword, the effortless lunge…the too soft yield of flesh and the cracking of bones as they snapped under the pressure of dull metal.
Punishment, the ultimate penalty for wrongs committed. What could make a person understand their sins more than their own death? Nothing, nothing at all in this world. In those moments of pain, bleeding as she died, suffering as she did, perhaps she understood.
Or perhaps she didn't. It wasn't any of his concern, as long as she was dead.
Someone screamed his name; others screamed one unfamiliar to him. Did it belong to her? Who was –
Sanity returned to him like a bullet to the brain. He opened his mouth to scream, but choked on the half formed sound, a crying little whimper. Her eyes, those beautiful green eyes, had snapped open. Blood, blood, she was bleeding and he'd done it his sword was still in her and her eyes were going glassy because he'd tipped her back too far and her eyelids had fluttered open –
I forgive you.
The world tipped sideways, upside down. He dropped to his knees, the momentum dragging the sword out of her, and she, too, dropped. Dropped to the beautiful, blood soaked, spun sugar floor.
Good boy, purred the other-thought.
Tifa stood frozen halfway to the platform, bile rising in her throat. The world had exploded: the others shouted behind her, shocked curses mingling with commands for her to move, damn it;Aeris's pretty little hair ornament gave a soft little clink-clink and then rolled into the water; Cloud knelt in the blood he'd drawn and made wounded animal sounds.
That hadn't just happened.
That had not just happened. It couldn't have. Cloud wouldn't…do that.
He would; he had.
A strong arm wrapped around hers, drew her back down the platform, and she vaguely recognized Barret's voice cutting through the shock.
"Come on, girl. Now's not the time to lose it."
As if she could do anything else! Aeris was dead; Aeris was dead and Cloud had killed her! Barret should be charging up there and – and –
Tifa clamped her hands over her mouth and shrieked, the noise muffled by leather gloves. Whirling, she buried her face in Barret's vest, trying to block out the memory of Cloud's sword and Aeris's blood, trying to block out the sound of Cloud sobbing and retching. Barret held her as gently as he did his daughter, but she could feel the rumbling growl of anger building in his chest. He wanted to charge up there and kill Cloud, and the only reason he didn't was because Tifa was there.
Obviously, Barret thought to leave the charging and killing to others, to the footsteps slapping on the ground as they leapt up toward the tower: Aeris's avenging angels going to strike down her champion.
Aeris! Aeris was there and she was okay and hadn't run off to join a cult or anything! She was acting sort of zombie-like and weird, but that would be okay because Cloud would snap her out of it. There was nothing Aeris enjoyed more than teasing Cloud and she wouldn't stay all zombiefied if she was presented with the chance.
Hold the phone – what was Cloud doing? The situation did not call for swords! No pointy objects needed to be employed at all, really, because this was Aeris and –
She was, he had…but…
Yuffie had seen people die before. Because, really, hello? Ninja, Wutai, old people, whatever. But this…this was…
So many levels of sheer fucking wrong. At least sixty! So many levels!
She screamed someone's name – Cloud's or Aeris's or maybe just sheer gibberish her brain was trying to connect together as a name but was actually 'dearsweetohfuck!'. Aeris – dear, sweet, crazy, fun Aeris – had just been gutted by Cloud – cute, dorky bad crazy Cloud. Oh, bad mental touch. So, so wrong.
Yuffie couldn't quite express her feelings in words.
"Mother fucker!" Cid could.
"Mother fucker!" She repeated, because she honestly couldn't think of anything else to say.
This was bad. Bad, bad, bad.
Yuffie scrambled up the platforms behind Vincent, ninja grace failing her once or twice. She didn't know what she wanted to kill, but she was damn well going to put her shuriken right through something.
Vincent was well used to seeing his comrades kill people, even friends or allies; it was the fact of being a Turk. It was this experience, and only this experience, that kept him from panicking completely. The others had that aspect firmly in hand already – Cid's vocabulary had become exclusively limited to the word 'fuck', and Yuffie wasn't far behind.
One fact remained: Cloud had become dangerously unstable. A liability, to be a Turk about it, and liabilities were removed before they could put their swords through anyone else. Vincent couldn't stop a shudder. Aeris had been a good, nice girl, and an honest person. Those traits had been a rarity in his time, and the world had only gotten worse since then.
She hadn't deserved death, especially not like that.
He made a quick ammo check on quicksilver, his faster reflexes bringing him to the crystal tower before the others. His fingers clicked back the safety almost without his brain asking them to, the barrel of his gun leveled firmly and unerringly at the back of Cloud's head.
Yet, for the first time in his life, before the coffin or otherwise, Vincent Valentine's fingers refused to pull the trigger. It wasn't, he thought, any sentimentality or strong emotional attachment to the man he'd seen as 'leader' for a time, but a barely heard command in his blood. Something Hojo had left there, telling him, unequivocally, no; no doubt that if he disobeyed, Galian Beast would be called to the forefront for all the wrong reasons.
No other allies were going to die today; Vincent lowered his gun and hoped he wouldn't have to explain the action later.
The weapon was jerked back up a split second later, but it was not the sobbing heap of Cloud he aimed at. Sephiroth's descent – where had he come from, and how had he been there without attracting Vincent's notice? – was almost eerie, slow and graceful. His hair drifted around his face as he set down his boots soundlessly into Aeris's spreading pool of blood.
Vincent was distantly aware of Yuffie standing beside him now, her shuriken drawn back and ready to strike, but she didn't know at whom to aim. She was too young; she was hesitating.
So are you, he reminded himself.
There was something about Sephiroth that froze the blood, made you want to back up instead of charging forward. Vincent didn't know if Sephiroth's presence had always felt this wrong, but recognized the trait as inherited from Hojo. The wise thing to do would be to shoot him, but as much as Sephiroth had inherited from his father, the angles of the face and the grace of his movement were all her, all Lucrecia.
Damning himself for a fool, Vincent holstered his gun and lunged forward, his clawed fingers sinking into the back of Cloud's shirt. Unfortunately, Sephiroth was just as fast, darting over Aeris's fallen, broken body to snatch Cloud out of Vincent's grip. Cloud didn't even struggle as his shirt ripped down the back and Sephiroth lifted him into his arms.
"So sad," Sephiroth purred. "So broken, my pretty puppet."
Sephiroth coolly ducked out of the path of Yuffie's shuriken, ignored the hum of materia spells being charged.
"I'll allow the rest of you to live today," he said lightly, as if he were handing down some great mercy. "If you can survive her."
Faster than even Vincent could react, Sephiroth was gone – and Cloud with him.
Tifa cast a low level cure spell on Yuffie's wounded arm, ignoring for a moment the teenager's completely age-inappropriate curses. Now was not the time to chastise anyone, and Tifa couldn't work up the energy, besides. She'd pulled herself together to fight against the bit of Jenova Sephiroth had left behind for them, but mostly her body had been running entirely on autopilot. A significant portion of her thoughts was going toward the desperate attempt to block out what she'd just seen.
The world had become perfectly silent and delicate; the only sound the harsh panting of their breath, the only movement the soft flickering of fire from Nanaki's tail. Aeris lay in front of them, eyes open and staring at nothing, her skin too pale, her hair and dress stained with blood – a corpse, a body, nothing more. Yuffie was the first to break down again, small sniffles gradually increasing into hiccups and then violent sobs as she buried her face in Tifa's shoulder. Tifa hugged her close and gave herself over to tears again, the two girls sharing their grief together.
Nanaki's howl added an eerie backdrop to the sounds of crying, his own expression as pure as the human tears he could not shed. Tifa could hear Barret's growling sobs, and she chanced a glance up at him. He'd never been above crying, when anger wasn't his first reaction, and Aeris certainly deserved his tears. Cait Sith had hung his head, a robot parody of emotion, and Cid and Vincent just…stared. Cid was smoking and when he handed the cigarette over to Vincent the other man accepted it without a word.
After the nicotine was spent between them, Vincent ground the butt out under his heel and unfastened his cloak. Tifa blinked in shock, not quite processing what he was doing as he took the dark red material and laid it over Aeris, picking up her body to wrap her in it, covering up those staring eyes. He picked her up, cradling her almost gently in arms both real and mechanical.
Cid walked over to lend a hand to Yuffie as Barret helped Tifa up, and Tifa suddenly felt very young for her twenty-two years. What had ten or twenty (or more, in Vincent's case) added to these lives that made the older men so calm? She'd seen things, horrible things that had changed her mind and life forever, but not half as much as Barret had seen. She knew his story, a bit, and could only guess at Cid or Vincent's.
"He killed her," Yuffie whispered, voice hoarse. "They're both gone."
"I know, kid," Cid said.
"I'll fucking kill him," she said, hand tightening around her shuriken. "I will!"
Cid just nodded. "I know, kid."
Tifa knew she was supposed to want Cloud dead. He'd just killed Aeris in cold blood, and now stood in a position to do even more harm. But she couldn't bear to wish that, couldn't stand the thought of losing another loved one. It was her fault; she should have noticed more or done something about what she did notice. Cloud had been skirting the edge of dangerous for weeks now, and they'd all seen that at the Temple of the Ancients.
It wasn't his fault, it couldn't be.
"Tifa," Barret started, and she winced. He'd know what she was thinking. "We can't let 'im get away with…"
"He's a crazy bastard. …just didn't think he was that crazy, y'know?"
"Fuck," Yuffie muttered again.
"And watch your damn language, young lady," Cid chided, voice familiar with exasperated tolerance.
The world abruptly snapped back to normal. Vincent was holding Aeris's body and Cloud was gone but…they were still here, and there were things that still had to be done. Whatever Sephiroth and Jenova planned to do with Cloud, it wasn't going to be anything approaching good for them or the planet.
"What do we do?" Tifa managed.
Vincent looked down at the limp red bundle in his arms. "We find a place for her, first. She deserves it."
"And then we kick some spiky blond ass!" Yuffie declared, waving her shuriken for emphasis, her tear-streaked face vicious.
"It's not his fault!" Tifa objected. "We have to worry about Sephiroth and Jenova first, and see if we can get him back."
"Back?" Barret demanded. "He's a murderer, Tifa! We don't want him back!"
The betrayal had obviously stung Barret much deeper than he was comfortable admitting.
"He didn't want to!"
He opened his mouth to retort, probably to yell, but Cid's sharp whistle cut them off.
"Save it, you two! We can have the family spats later."
Tifa didn't think it was Cid's place to get huffy about anyone yelling at other people, considering his own track record, but kept her mouth shut.
"Cid's right," Nanaki added, padding over to nudge Tifa's leg affectionately. "And so is Vincent. Aeris deserves to be honored like a Cetra."
"But where?" Cait Sith – or Reeve, if he had control of the cat, now – asked.
Tifa thought for a long moment. "The lake," she answered. "The one outside. It seems…a good place."
If there was any such thing as a good place for a funeral.