Disclaimer: FFVII is property of Square-Enix.
An endless cycle of death. Permeating death. Everything simply ceasing to exist: Humans, animals, plants, trees, shrubs.
The desert was a stratum that awaited the victim, observing its prey closely with lustful eyes as he or she stalked onwards, towards inevitable doom. Such was the way.
The morning sun greeted its friend below as the two exchanged an undisturbed mutual silence. They had a job to do, and they would get to it.
The scorching sun was at its peak as it distastefully mocked the two men while they trudged advertently through the fine white sand.
The vast white expanse stretched on and on as far as the eye could see, repetition taking on a new meaning as there stood not a sign of anything suggesting there would be a change in the environment anytime soon. The vivid blue sky loomed overhead, stretching over the entire plane as the two vibrant colors from air and earth meshed together to create a dizzying juxtaposition.
Cloud paused momentarily and wiped a thick bead of sweat from his forehead. Vincent continued to glide ahead soundlessly, as he had been doing for the past 40 minutes.
"Vincent," came the deep voice of the would-be SOLDIER. The ex-Turk paused and turned to face his companion. "We need to stop for a second."
The older man's face was emotionless, containing not a trace of life as it peered back dully at the blonde haired warrior. "We stop. We die."
Cloud inhaled and exhaled slowly, closing his eyes in the process. He opened them. "We're running out of water."
Vincent was quiet for some time as Cloud stared up at the sky contemplatively, the brilliant golden rays further making his blonde locks radiate. His hair had become nearly blinding.
"At this rate, it's unlikely either of us will make it." Vincent's words were poignant but low, barely audible despite the dry weather.
Cloud's blue orbs bore into Vincent's red irises. "We'll make it." His assurance bordered on hesitation.
The younger man still couldn't comprehend how Vincent was capable of walking through scorching weather conditions with his cape. Logically, it should have been tossed hours ago as it served to do nothing but trap more heat.
Vincent turned and proceeded onwards once more as Cloud eyed his water vial.
Quarter full. Vincent was correct, it wouldn't last.
Strapping the vial back to his belt, Cloud took a deep breath and proceeded forward as well, trailing the gunman.
Cloud stopped once more, releasing the sword from its harness as it slipped into the sand with a soft swish. The thick metal blade gleaned in the sunlight, a sparkling white. Dropping to his knees, he placed his gloved hands on top of the grains, taking a moment to recollect himself.
Vincent crouched into a squat position and stared off wistfully into the distance.
Cloud panted. "Aren't you thirsty?" He refused to take a swig of his vial as much as his body demanded it at the moment.
"I am," came the simple reply.
Cloud took several more deep breaths.
How long had they been walking for? He couldn't be sure. It had been some time. Perhaps several days. Definitely longer than 24 hours. Minimal rest. Minimal sleep.
And of course, minimal water.
It was becoming ever more tempting to take at least a simple sip of his vial but he had to refrain. The journey ahead was still long.
They had miles to go. Unbound. Unknown territory. No foreseeable limits or boundaries in sight. Just… nothingness. That's all there was and that's all there had been so far. Nothingness. Absolute desolation.
"Cloud." The younger man looked up at Vincent. "You should take a drink. It looks like you could use it."
"I'll be fine," Cloud countered.
Vincent frowned slightly in disapproval. "Don't be stupid," he growled the words tactfully. "Your body is suffering dehydration. I understand you're low but you need to intake some liquid now."
Cloud's eyes narrowed marginally as a sinking feeling overcame him. Just why was Vincent so intent on having Cloud waste what little supply of water he had left? Standing up, the blonde haired swordsman reattached his blade to the harness before wiping away another thick trickle of sweat.
"Let's keep moving," he ordered.
His caped companion shook his head once but stood up and followed suit silently, as the afternoon sun continued its onslaught upon the two men below.
Cloud's mouth had become numb and it felt as dry as a piece of wood. His mind began to race as chemical reactions within his body prompted him to overreact.
He began coughing and heaving violently while struggling with the flask, unsuccessfully trying to untangle it from his belt.
He needed it. A few drops of water at the least. Just anything. Body shuddering involuntarily, Cloud's sporadically twitching fingers managed to let loose the vial as he fought with the cap, trying with all effort to remove it.
At last, the lid was successfully detached and before he could invert the flask to allow the precious liquid to soak his mouth and esophagus, a metal claw fiercely grabbed the vial away, causing Cloud to fall back.
He glared up venomously at Vincent, who housed a furious expression of his own. "What were you doing?" the older man berated.
Cloud's emotions were racing as he felt nothing but contempt at that moment, even forgetting the overwhelming cry from his body and its request for water.
"What does it look like Vincent? What are you doing? That's my water!"
Vincent didn't appear too comfortable himself at the moment, his chest rising up and down quicker than usual, indicating fatigue. "Did you see your hands? Unstable. You were about to empty that entire vial everywhere but where it counts the most: your mouth."
Cloud pursed his lips as he attempted to calm the surging anger. "Give me the vial Vincent. Now..." he voiced darkly.
The ex-Turk appeared apprehensive for a moment as he eyed the vial with interest, glancing at how much remained inside. "Not much left in here Cloud," he replied after a moment's silence.
"Give me the vial." Cloud outstretched his arm as he laid seated on the hot sand.
Another pause from the older man before he reluctantly glided over, practically tossing the vial at the last instant.
Cloud leapt up forcefully, snatching the vial in midair to ensure that nothing spilled out. With a snarl, he shouted, "What's wrong with you? You could've spilt it!"
Vincent remained callous. Unaffected. Undisturbed.
"You're not yourself Cloud."
Cloud snorted. "Me? Not myself? I didn't just throw the flask, potentially emptying everything inside."
"You're not yourself Cloud," Vincent repeated a second time, in a more chilling manner.
For the first time since the start of their journey, Cloud felt the overriding warmth engulfing his body give way to an unfamiliar coldness as it crept all along his back, wrapping its bony fingers around his spine, just begging him to scream out in pain.
Glancing down at his flask, he plugged the lid back on, fastening the vial back onto his harness.
All of a sudden, he no longer felt thirsty.
Vincent stopped as Cloud continued marching on, unaware of his companion's halt.
The blonde haired man finally paused, turning around. "What is it?"
Vincent opened his mouth, as if searching for the right words before opting to shut it.
"Cloud." Vincent ceased walking once more, his voice more authoritative this time.
The other turned around irritably. "What?" he barked.
Vincent swallowed slowly, making the process appear almost too painful to execute. "At this rate, we both won't make it."
Cloud frowned and muttered several curses under his breath as he turned away from Vincent, beginning to trek once more. "Keep moving," he shouted over the side.
"Why do you keep running away from your problems Cloud?"
The words prompted the swordsman to halt, as he stood numb and rigid.
It was something only Tifa would say. Tifa… What would she be doing now? Worrying about him? Worrying about Vincent? Possibly delved into other tasks at the moment?
Turning around, a gloomy expression encompassed Cloud's face. "Stop talking and move."
"We won't make it," Vincent stated simply, still rooted to his spot, the sun reflecting his red cape brightly.
Cloud's patience was wearing thin. "We will. You have to have hope."
"Hope is a last resort, given to those who have nothing left worth living for."
The cryptic words did nothing to soothe the other man's temperament. "Vincent, walk!"
"Is that an order?" Vincent spat out.
Cloud peered up at the sky once more as he too swallowed in forceful manner. Without another word, he turned his back to Vincent and progressed on ahead once more.
There was no other way around it. Cloud absolutely required some water to replenish his system. Mental concentration and discipline had worked only for so long. It was as if sharp splinters of wood were crawling within his throat, dancing up and down its linings. Removing the lid from the flask, he tilted the vial as a thin stream of unsurprisingly warm liquid seeped inside his mouth and down his throat.
Never had water tasted better in his entire life. He wanted more, to simply let the entire flask empty away as he drowned himself in the liquid but he couldn't. He couldn't, for the time and place didn't allow it.
Returning the flask back to his belt, he heard a boisterous laugh coming from Vincent. Very uncharacteristic of the usually dark, guarded man.
"Vincent?" Cloud questioned.
The older man continued to chuckle. "Unable to hold out Cloud? Not like the SOLDIER in you is it?"
The swordsman appeared perturbed for a moment as he studied his caped companion in wonder. "Vincent, what's wrong with you?"
At this, the former Turk's eyes widened considerably as a sly smile took hold of his face. "What's wrong with me? Cloud, are you sure you're asking the right question?"
Cloud's eyes flickered all over Vincent's body, studying him attentively for a brief moment. Unconsciously, during that time, his hand had reached for the hilt of his Buster Sword but now, as he realization sank in onto what he was doing, he pulled it away the last second.
"We better keep moving."
"Yes of course…" Vincent stated quietly, in biting fashion, "…onwards."
Cloud now made sure to walk within fair distance of Vincent as the two men moved along. He had begun to receive an uncomfortable vibe emanating from the former Turk.
It had been plaguing him for the past several while: Why had Vincent not taken a single sip of his own flask in all the time Cloud had been watching him?
In fact, as far as he could tell, he had not once spotted Vincent re-hydrating himself. It was peculiar and odd.
Cloud was suffering from fatigue and perhaps he had just not been paying enough attention. Despite his heightened soldier instincts, the current motor functions of his body were processing at an all-time low. Sluggish.
A feeling of despair had crept up within the last hour as certain undesirable scenarios played out in his mind.
What if Vincent guessed correct? What if they didn't make it? What then? Would two of AVALANCHE's greatest, who teamed up to take down the once invincible Sephiroth fall to the heat of the inanimate desert?
"Cloud." Vincent sliced through his thoughts. "You must understand."
The swordsman turned, observing his comrade incredulously. "Understand what?"
"Open your eyes."
Cloud squinted and the permeating heat wave did nothing to soothe his agitated nerves. "Vincent, are you feeling okay?"
Vincent grunted in amusement. "Better. I am magnificent."
Cloud had no reply. He turned on his heel and began marching on ahead again before he was halted by a sharp cry.
"Cloud!" the sharpshooter shouted vehemently. "Don't turn your back on me!"
Letting out an exasperated sigh, the blonde man turned back around once more. He began coldly, with a hostile look in his eyes, "Vincent, you're not yourself. You're not well." He took several steps towards the older man and stopped, a distance of some 20 feet separating the two. "We'll stop when the sun falls and rest up for the night."
"No rest," came the disapproving words.
Cloud shook his head. "We're resting…" he began.
"No rest," Vincent stated clearly once more. He threw his cape behind his shoulder and trudged along, past his spiky haired companion.
Cloud stared at his gloved palms in fascination.
How old was he? He couldn't be sure anymore.
Vincent observed the spectacle from the side quietly.
The sun wasn't nearly as strong as it had been midday but nevertheless, it was a force to be reckoned with as it continued to bombard the two travelers with intense rays of unbearable heat.
Cloud's teeth were clenched as he blinked profusely, sweat invading his eyes by trickling down from his brows above. Stealing a glance at Vincent over to his far right, he noticed the gunman no longer walking as effortlessly as he had been earlier.
There were staggers in his step and the certain elegance and grace that often accompanied him when he marched seemed to have abandoned him some time back.
"Cloud," Vincent stated with an authoratitive voice from the right.
Wiping more sweat away, Cloud acknowledged his partner. "Yes?"
It was hard to tell from the distance and the heat obscuring the surroundings but it appeared to Cloud that Vincent had just smiled. Albeit cruelly and in a somewhat sinister fashion.
The words stung, piercing Cloud's heart far more than he had anticipated, prompting him to halt. His eyebrows furrowed down into a scowl. "What?"
"You… are… Sephiroth." Vincent enunciated the words mechanically.
"Vincent, what's wrong with you?" Cloud bellowed.
A deep hoarse chuckle escaped the former Turk's lips as the eerie sounds reached Cloud's ears. For the second time that day, Cloud found himself easing his hand over the hilt of the Buster Sword strapped behind him.
Then, as quickly and unexpectedly as the laughter had come, it died down in much similar fashion. Vincent gazed with steely eyes and an intense but grim expression at his comrade. "You're just like him. You don't see it in yourself but in the end, both of you are alike. You're no different."
Cloud's patience was beginning to wear thin as his eyes returned the cold look Vincent was sending him. "You have no idea what you're talking about."
At this, Vincent quirked an eyebrow in interest. "Don't I?"
Cloud shook his head. "No, you really don't."
"What makes you so different from him?"
"I don't kill and slaughter people mercilessly and without reason."
"The Midgar Mako Reactor?" Vincent shot back.
Momentarily stunned, Cloud paused to collect himself. "That was for a job. For a purpose."
Vincent's stoic expression was turning darker by the minute. "Sephiroth had a purpose as well."
"Keep moving Vincent..." Cloud began dangerously.
"Sephiroth at least did what he did in what he believed in…"
"I said keep moving."
"He wasn't pretending to be something he wasn't. Even in his disillusioned state, he knew where his loyalties lay."
"Don't test me!" Cloud's voice rose gradually.
"Do you know where your loyalties lie?"
"Vincent…" The swordsman's eyes were fiery and wide, creating a surreal image.
"You are a puppet. A tool."
"Eh…" Cloud struggled for a split second with his emotions as they waged war within before erupting. "Damn you!"
Removing his sword from its harness and in one swift motion, Cloud sent the massive blade down with thunderous force on the earth below. A powerful wave of blue energy producing a shockwave ripple of sand and air erupted forth from the metal, traveling at a dizzying rate towards a shocked Vincent.
With enhanced reflexes, the sharpshooter leapt out of the way with no time to spare as the blue wave stormed by before dissipating after a certain length. His livid red eyes shot towards the man in question.
Cloud stood, clutching his sword as his shoulder blades moved up and down continuously, chest heaving at an alarming rate. Closing his eyes and shaking his head in shame, Cloud returned the Buster Sword to its rightful place.
There was a haunting pause.
"I'm… sorry…" Cloud whispered the words softly yet they reached the ears of the intended individual without effort.
Vincent stood motionless as he watched the blonde haired warrior collapse to the sand discouragingly and from exhaustion.
The two men sat across from each other, their legs crossed as they stared at the same point in the sand from their respective positions.
There was a lengthy pause and for a moment, Cloud was unsure if he would respond at all.
"Why do you keep running?"
Another momentary pause before…
"Why do you keep running from me?"
Cloud surveyed Vincent blankly.
The sun hung low but it was an irrelevant point in this case.
Fatigued, aching, weary, starved and suffering from dehydration, the two men marched along, now side by side, their shoulders briefly brushing from time to time.
Vincent paused and clutched at his abdomen before collapsing forward with extended arms.
Cloud, doing his best to maintain his own sense of balance as the disorientation began to spread, crouched next to him. His throat felt as if it were burning inside out.
"Vincent?" he choked out.
"This is an effort in vain."
"Perhaps… it's best that we combine the flasks and one of us moves on."
Cloud stood up immediately, anger overtaking him. "No." His words were final.
"Listen to me, there's no ot-"
"I said no!"
Vincent coughed once and nodded, wiping his mouth before standing up. He took several steps back. "Very well then… We'll have to do this in another way I see."
Cloud stood poised and ready. "You've lost your mind Vincent."
"Why don't you ever notice Cloud? Why don't you ever notice things?" Vincent cocked his head to the side. "You're so oblivious. Damaged beyond repair."
"We will get through this."
Vincent shook his head. "You won't listen? So be it. A duel to the death. Survival of the fittest. The victor moves on and the one left behind will suffer whatever fate this environment has in store."
Cloud's eyes widened ever so slightly as he studied the man ahead, who returned an impassive look, no trace of emotion now evident on his face.
"We're not fighting Vincent."
"No…" Vincent agreed. "We're not fighting. We're doing an essential process of elimination." At that instant, his hand crept towards the obscured Death Penalty rifle strapped to his side.
Cloud took a step back, pointing a finger threateningly. "Don't." Vincent continued to make the move towards drawing his arm. "I said don't!"
"You never noticed Cloud. You never did, and never will." He pulled the rifle out and proceeded to bring it up to aim at his desired target.
Cloud moved with blinding speed, unsheathing the large blade as he brought it out into a defensive position up ahead. "I'm not going to fight you Vincent."
"No?" Vincent questioned with a sardonic grin.
"No. Now put down your gun."
"I have no gun. I have arms." The words made Cloud uneasy.
The weapon came down hesitantly.
Cloud dropped his guard slightly, pausing.
Vincent reached to his other side, pulling out his flask of water as he unscrewed the lid.
"What are you doing?" Cloud questioned.
"If you don't want this water, then we can just let it go to waste can't we?"
The older man paid no attention as he pulled off the lid and began to release the water overtop his black hair.
Cloud sped on ahead, sword clutched tightly in both hands, a wave of adrenaline surging throughout his body. Vincent grinned and threw the flask carefully to the side. Bringing up the Death Penalty at the last moment, he fired off an earth shattering shot.
It was as if at that moment, the desert shuddered, feeling the resonating echo of the bullet bouncing off the thick, glossy metal blade.
Vincent fired again but Cloud, with his heightened Mako exposure and abundance of Jenova cells, worked to bypass the bullet as he went straight at Vincent, blade extended towards the midsection of the man in view.
A final shot rang out.
The deafening silence hung over the still air as Cloud's face hovered over Vincent's in wonder and bewilderment. A look of pain masked his features as he gazed at Vincent's amused expression and smirk.
"Vi- Vincent?" he stuttered painfully.
The black haired individual smiled and gulped once before a thick trickle of blood escaped his lips as it descended down his porcelain face before staining the glistening part of the blade below not currently planted in his midsection.
He breathed out slowly once before bringing his lips up to Cloud's ear. "I'm… the cold halo encircling your thoughts."
Cloud stared on in horror as realization of what he had done sunk in. He released the hilt of the blade, taking several steps back as he examined the impaled man.
Vincent's body began to shudder violently as he croaked several times before collapsing to the floor. The setting sun cast an ambient red hue that mixed in well with the now red colored sand soaked with Vincent's blood.
"Cloud…" Vincent looked up weakly at the man ahead. "Why…? I- loved you…" His voice sounded slightly different. Softer.
Cloud blinked, clutching the sides of his head in agony as he fell back, shaking his head furiously. "Vincent!" He shut his eyes tightly. "Shut up! You don't know what you're saying!"
"Cl- Cloud…" The voice was soft. It was soft now and… feminine…
In fact, it didn't sound much like Vincent's voice at all any longer.
"Cloud... Do you really hate me that much?"
Everything went still and quiet as Cloud opened his eyes as if for the first time. He gasped as one would gasp once emerging from a body of water after much needed air. The setting sun shone directly into his bright blue Mako colored eyes while they filled up with glistening tears that threatened to spill.
Blinking, everything came into clarity and focus for once, the invisible blanket being lifted.
He looked down at the person in question and at Vincent.
Only it wasn't Vincent anymore.
It was Tifa.
She stared up at him passionately but in fear, quivering as her trembling arms held on to the gaping wound and blade still planted inside her body.
"Why?" Her own set of tears streamed down her disheartened face. "Cloud… You're Sephiroth. You're…" She was weakening as she struggled for precious air and words. "You're no different. You… finished…"
There was nothing more to say.
Softly, she let her body sling forward and to the side as the last ounce of life abandoned her fragile state.
Cloud dropped to his knees, clutching his hair tightly as the tears emerged freely, exposing the dry sand below to the alien liquid.
He crawled over to Tifa and began to hug her, caressing her smooth features as he rocked back and forth. "No…" he bawled. "No Tifa… no…no…"
The sun descended peacefully into its slumber, shrouding Cloud in a sea of darkness. It exchanged a silent, unseen smile with the desert below as it made its final goodbye.
The sun and desert had done their job. They had succeeded in killing Cloud Strife.
A/N: Dark and depressing. Bet none of you saw that coming did you? There were several hints throughout alluding to it being her. Opinions?