Disclaimer: I don't own any of them. Not making any money from this. Love the thought of Sephiroth and Cloud, they'd be so good for each other. Please leave me a review if you like the story.

Author's Note: This story begins towards the end of FFVII: Advent Children, the movie continuation by Square Enix of their hit game, Final Fantasy VII. It is quite possibly the most gorgeous CGI-movie I have ever seen, and I highly recommend watching it (and rewatching it, and rewatching it). I recently took my own advice, and also watched a behind-the-scenes special in which the many brilliant minds behind Final Fantasy got to give their thoughts about their amazing collaborate creation. And some of what they said got me thinking. And for anyone reading this, here's the fractured stream of thought that occurred:

In the movie, after beating back Sephiroth yet again, Cloud is shot by Yazoo and has a near-death experience in the Lifestream. Aeris sends him back and the planet heals him and all the victims of Geostigma. But what if she hadn't? Cloud's desire to return to existence seemed nebulous, to say the least. And what-if, just what-if when Tifa asked, "Why must we lose out to a memory?", she had been referring to Sephiroth and not to Aeris? Especially given Cloud's last words to Sephiroth, "Stay in my memories where you belong," and the One-Winged-Angel's reply, "I will never be a memory."

And so it begins. You cannot kill a memory. The only way to eliminate it…is for it to never happen in the first place

PAST TENSE; FUTURE IMPERFECT


Chapter 1: Numb

I've become so numb I can't feel you there
Become so tired, so much more aware
I'm becoming this, all I want to do
Is be more like me and be less like you

- "Numb", Linkin Park

The weight in Cloud Strife's arms lessened abruptly as a pale but joyful smile stole over Kadaj's face. "Mother?" he murmured, reaching for something – someone? – Cloud could not see, and then the younger man was gone, his upraised hand dissolving into the twining green beams of the Lifestream. Cloud stood slowly, watching the last fragments of Kadaj's essence disappear, blinking as a light rain began to fall on his upturned face.

It was over.

Was it over?

He thought about that even as the cool dampness against his face seemed to answer in the affirmative, trickling down his cheeks as if to wash away tears, although whether of joy or sorrow, he could not say.

"I will never be a memory."

Ah, Sephiroth. The one-winged angel, master of the pithy one-liner. For some reason, the thought struck him as being incredibly amusing, though he couldn't quite find the energy to laugh.

Thing is though, Sephiroth probably meant what he said - this was, after all, the third time Cloud had faced him. Tifa would probably come up with some platitude about third time being the charm and all that, but Cloud had the feeling that Sephiroth was unlikely to take old wives' aphorisms to heart when plotting his return. The man had a will like no other – how else could one explain his repeated resurrections from the Lifestream? Even Aeris hadn't managed that, and she was a Cetra. That indomitable strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles was what Cloud lov…admired. Had admired. Because he certainly didn't admire him now. Right? He ignored the heaviness in his chest determinedly, closing his eyes against the brightness of the sky. Ifrit, he was tired. Bone weary. And so very numb.

Cid Highwind's latest baby was hovering above him, and the blonde man looked up, knowing that his ex-AVALANCHE comrades were likely waving to him from the ship even if he couldn't see them. Well, Yuffie would be, at least. He started to return the unseen gesture listlessly, wanting to let them know that he was all right, when a blow from behind brought him to his knees. Even as he crumpled, he recognized the feeling – he'd been shot enough times to remember the gut-wrenching way it knocked the wind right out of your lungs. Funny, it didn't really seem to hurt very much, he thought dizzily, although the ground did seem to be coming up to meet him with disconcerting speed. He heard, rather than felt, his sword fall from his hand with a metallic clatter, heard Yazoo and Loz gasping something faintly about them all going together to see Mother. Guess they took the bonds of family love very seriously, he thought wryly, and then everything around him seemed to haze out into a blanket of endless white. That was all right. It was better than the greyness of the ruins of Midgar.

He didn't know how long he had been floating in a soothing sea of blankness when he felt a cool hand on his forehead. It reminded him of the way his mother used to feel whenever he had a fever and she would calm his thrashing with her touch, and he mumbled without opening his eyes, "Mother?"

A familiar girlish giggle with just a touch of exasperation. "Why does everyone keep calling me 'Mother' today?"

"Isn't that a good thing? You're obviously well loved," replied an amused drawl that seemed just as familiar. It was warm and reassuring, and brought forth memories of piercing blue eyes topped by a shock of unruly dark hair just beginning to grey with the silvery sheen brought on by Mako exposure.

"I don't need a child as old as this one!" the first voice retorted petulantly.

He panicked. He didn't want to leave this place. It was safe here. No one could bother him. He struggled to say something, but his lips wouldn't move.

An answering sigh. "Sorry buddy – you heard the lady. Looks like there's no place for you here…."

No. No. "No! Wait!" And with that exclamation, Cloud was suddenly on his feet, stumbling forward, kicking up flowers under his feet. He looked around wildly, recognizing his surroundings. A field of white and yellow lilies, far as the eye could see, their bobbing heads vivid against the glossy green leaves - it was Aeris's garden, the one he'd seen in his dreams – or hallucinations, since you couldn't call them dreams if you were awake when you had them. And sure enough, the lady herself was standing there, a little ways away, a faint half-smile curving her lips, her auburn bangs moving lightly in the warm breeze that brushed over his face like a benediction.

"You came. Even though you're about to break. That's a good sign." Her voice was as he remembered it, gentle and calm.

He took a hesitant step towards her, then stopped. "You've said that before."

"It doesn't make it less true."

He thought about that. He seemed to be doing a lot of thinking lately. Not brooding, which was what he had been doing the last two years. Just thinking. "I suppose you're right."

"You look better this time though. Have you found what you wanted?"

He thought about that, too. "I'm not sure. Have I?"

"Only you can answer that, Cloud," chided Aeris with mock severity. "I can't do it for you. Do you remember what it was you wanted?"

"I…think I wanted to be forgiven. By you. By Zack. By everyone."

"Who is everyone?"

He frowned. "I don't know. Tifa. Vincent. Everyone."

Aeris Gainsborough shook her head in exasperation, although the fond light never left her eyes. "Oh Cloud. Still the same. Still trying to take on the sins of the world and asking for forgiveness from everyone but the one person who matters." She sighed. "Well, if it helps…I've never forgiven you. Because there was never anything to forgive. So if you want forgiveness, I think you're going to have to ask someone else for it. I'm all out."

He stared at her numbly. She raised a dark brow at him, then turned and addressed what appeared to be the empty air by her shoulder. "Was he always this tongue-tied even before I met him?"

"Who, Spikey?" asked a hearty voice, and Cloud's eyes widened with shock as a familiar figure shimmered into existence beside Aeris, arms folded across a broad chest, eyes of mako blue smiling cheerfully. "You have no idea. At one point I thought we'd have to start communicating in sign language. Still, he didn't turn out so badly – they say it's the quiet cadets you should watch. He was much the same, you know."

Cloud wondered briefly who he was – he didn't think Zack was referring to him from the way the SOLDIER had stressed the pronoun. But that thought got lost very quickly in the wave of joy, and pain, and guilt that washed over him, causing the world started to tilt crazily around him again as he staggered with the sheer intensity of the unaccustomed deluge of emotion.

"Whoa, steady there, Spikey," and Zack was suddenly by his side holding him up. His gloved hands were reassuringly real as they wrapped easily around Cloud's arm. "You've had a rough day. Come on, why don't we sit down for a bit, eh?"

Cloud nodded dumbly and allowed his friend to lower him gently to the ground. The SOLDIER took a seat next to him, sprawling out ungracefully and plucking a blade of grass to chew on as Aeris glided over gracefully to join them, spreading her skirt out neatly before folding her hands primly in her lap. The scene seemed so…normal. For a long moment, no one spoke. To his consternation, Cloud felt tears starting to well up in his eyes, and he ducked his head to hide them as Aeris clucked softly.

"It's all right, Cloud. You don't have to be strong all the time."

"Yeah, kid," added Zack. "It's just us here anyway. Who would we tell? Besides, Yazoo and Loz cry all the time. I don't know how Kadaj deals with it."

The blonde swallowed hard, jaw working as he struggled to find words to match the turmoil within him.

"I missed you. So much," and his voice broke as Zack sat up and threw an arm around his shoulders, pulling the younger man in for a hug which was fiercely returned, much to Zack's evident surprise – Cloud was generally not the most demonstrative of individuals. "Both of you…I couldn't save you…." As always, the extroverted SOLDIER had a way of breaking through his brittle shell of apathy, and though the aching hollowness in his chest was not lessened, the frozen winter of his emotions was beginning to thaw. Or perhaps it had already started back by the pool when Vincent had confronted him. His mind shied away from Vincent's striking resemblance to another man who had always been able to draw forth his emotions with a look.

"Geez, kid, knock it off – the guilt thing's getting old!" Zack laughed, rubbing Cloud's back comfortingly. "And I never asked you to live out my life for me, y'know – much rather do it myself. Oh, oops," and he massaged his temples in embarrassment as Cloud's eyes darkened with misery. "Damn, Spikey, it's like tiptoeing around a minefield talking to you when you're like this. Look, none of it was your fault. Destiny has to play out the way it's meant to. 'sides, it's kind of nice here – lots of flowers and things, Aeris has a real green thumb. Good thing the mako takes care of allergies, eh? Now if only we could do something about the food…."

Shooting her companion a mock glare, Aeris patted Cloud's thigh comfortingly. "And we're here now. We've always been here, Cloud. Even when you were most alone…."

He looked down, unable to meet her pellucid gaze. "I've been so lonely…so tired."

"Aw, come on Spikey, that's your own fault," nudged Zack gently. "You've been avoiding your friends the last two years, and you weren't much better as a cadet! Don't think ol' Zack isn't keeping an eye on you just because he isn't around, you know." He leered and waggled his eyebrows at his young friend. "Ol' Zack Knightblade here can go anywhere, see anything from up here – even what you get up to in the bedro – ow!" he yelped as Aeris smacked him smartly upside the head, her serene half-smile not wavering from her lips.

Cloud glared at his friend, but a faint smile touched his lips. "I'd forgotten how annoying you could be whenever you'd talk about yourself in the third person."

"Who? Ol' Zack?" laughed his friend, eliciting a giggle from Aeris as Cloud rolled his eyes. It felt good to smile again, even if his cheeks did feel as though they might crack from the effort.

"Save the Planet again and this is the thanks I get. See if I do anything about it the next time, why don't you. Perhaps I should go back after all," Cloud moaned in mock frustration.

"You could," said Aeris calmly, toying with the end of her braid. "Actually, you should…."

"Don't!" snapped Cloud, and the sudden hostility made both brunettes eye him oddly. The blonde ran his fingers agitatedly through his wild mane, his anger gone as swiftly as it had come. "Just…don't. Please."

"Don't what, Cloud?" asked the Cetra gently.

"Don't tell me what I should and shouldn't do," and the dullness in Cloud's husky tenor made his audience frown. He rested his head on his drawn-up knees, blonde spikes drooping gloomily. "Not here, please - I'm tired of being what everyone wants me to be back there, I don't want to have to think about it here, too. Wherever here is."

Aeris and Zack exchanged glances, but it was the latter who finally spoke up. "You know where we are, kid. And what is it that they want you to be?"

"Oh, I don't know," Cloud muttered with uncharacteristic sarcasm, not raising his head, so that the other two had to strain to hear his muffled words. "Rufus Shinra wants the ex-SOLDIER to do his dirty work. Yuffie wants me to be perky and happy all the damn time, and that probably goes for most of AVALANCHE. I just got chased around Edge and Midgar by a trio of wannabe Sephiroths determined on having me join the family reunion and reminding me of my status as a puppet. And then there's Tifa, who keeps trying to make me into some idealized version of a hero even though I've told her that I'm not that person she sees in her head. Every single message she leaves sounds just the same, 'Where are you? Why aren't you coming home? I know you want to be here with me. Why do you keep running away? We need you, Cloud,'" he mimicked exasperatedly. "She must never have gotten the memo about actions speaking louder than words. I'm at my wits end – I don't know what more I can do to make her happy! I. Just. Want. To be. Left. Alone." His voice was bleak in its self-pity, although it was more animated than it had been prior to his outburst. "I don't deserve to be with anyone."

Zack looked at him gravely, but his lips were twitching as he leaned forward and said, deadpan, "Have you considered getting an unlisted number?"

Cloud lifted his head and stared dumbly at him, mouth agape. Aeris's lips were pressed tightly together, though her grey eyes were dancing with mirth. Zack shrugged. "What, it worked for me whenever I had to get a chick off my back. At least until I met Aeris and didn't have to worry about that anymore." The Cetra beamed her approval and reached over to lace her fingers through Zack's, nodding in agreement.

"The first time another girl called him while he was with me, I grabbed his phone and dumped it into my watering can. No phone, no calls."

"And what about if I needed to make a call?" huffed Zack in mock indignation, eyes twinkling.

"Oh please, it wasn't as if there were no public phones on the base," Aeris snorted delicately. "And he always let you use his phone if you needed it, remember?"

The blonde stared at the sweetly smiling Cetra, whose benign exterior apparently concealed a very possessive girlfriend. And then, much to his own surprise, Cloud began to laugh. He laughed until tears came to his eyes and he was breathless, falling backwards into the field of sweetly scented flowers, gasping for air, and if there was an edge of hysteria to it, Aeris and Zack were too polite to comment on it, being enlightened beings in the Lifestream and all.

And suddenly he didn't feel quite so numb.


"He looks so peaceful," Tifa sighed, smoothing back a wayward strand of hair that had fallen over Cloud's face, her hand lingering on his forehead longer than was strictly necessary. The blonde's face was pale but relaxed in repose, the lines of pain and loss that radiated from the corners of his too-old eyes fading and making him look years younger. His chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly as he breathed shallowly, but the mako that still flowed through his veins was already hard at work, and the unnerving rattling in his chest had already faded from when they had first brought him back to 7th Heaven. "Shouldn't he have woken up by now though?"

"He'll wake when he's ready. Come, Tifa. Leave him be – he'll heal faster." Vincent's tone was flat, brooking no refusals. Tifa was always up for one anyway.

"I can't leave him alone, he needs me."

"He needs rest, and he's not going to get any with you fussing over him like that." His voice was not unkind, but a spark of irritation was clearly visible in his crimson eyes. "Tifa, you have to stop projecting on him like that."

"I am not!" she snapped. "Why can't you see that…."

"Take it outside, you two," Cid growled softly from the door. The gruff pilot had a surprisingly gentle touch when it came to fixing up broken things, people included, and he had been the one to treat Cloud's wounds as best they could with their limited supplies. He'd be damned if his handiwork was undone by two knuckleheads – well, one knucklehead, he amended; Vincent had been trying to get Tifa to leave the kid alone, after all. He shot the tall man a sympathetic look, which was answered with a wry half-shrug.

Vincent gestured politely for Tifa to precede him, and after a venomous glare, she did so. The ex-TURK rolled his eyes and followed her out and down to the closed bar area, mentally preparing himself to reason with someone who was evidently disinclined to be reasonable. The sun slanted in through the cracks in the shutters, giving the room a warm and inviting glow, in stark contrast to the reluctance with which the two comrades walked in. Tifa immediately headed to her usual station behind the bar, waving Vincent carelessly towards the corner stool.

"Want a drink?"

"No, thank you," he demurred. She nodded curtly and poured herself a slug of something out of one of the bottles, knocking it back. It seemed a little early to be touching the hard stuff, in Vincent's opinion, but he supposed they'd all had a pretty hard day.

"So."

"So," he echoed in his low baritone. Now that Cloud wasn't right there, arguing over him seemed silly somehow. Not to mention that if the young man ever heard about it, he'd probably find some way to blame himself for it.

Tifa sighed. "This is stupid. I don't know what we're arguing about anyway."

Vincent shrugged, wrapping his red mantle about him defensively. He wasn't entirely certain either. The young woman before him was one of Cloud's childhood friends. Was it so wrong that she be concerned over the boy?

"I mean, you know he needs me. And now that that evil man's been defeated once and for all, he can stop running and come home."

Oh, right. That. The word that was not just a river in…never mind. He sighed and resisted the urge to rub the bridge of his nose with his Claw. The resulting aesthetics would not be pretty. "Tifa…first of all, I think it's premature to dismiss the danger completely. And secondly…did you ever stop to consider that Cloud might have been running from you? From your constant nagging and fussing over him?"

"Well of course he was."

Success?

"He just didn't want to worry me when he had the Geostigma. But the Planet has taken care of all that, so everything is going to be just fine from now on. He's moved on from Aeris and he's ready for a fresh start – he wouldn't have come back to fight otherwise!"

Guess not. He really should have had that drink.

"Oh for the love of…it's not Aeris he needs to move on from, Tifa" Vincent said tiredly. "It never was. Cloud loved Aeris, yes, but so did we all. And with his psyche partially shored up by his friend Zack's memories, it's hardly surprising that he was unusually close to her. So yes, some of his guilt probably stems from not being able to prevent her death. But Aeris isn't the one his entire existence revolved – and revolves - around."

Tifa's dark slender brows drew together in a frown. "Then who..."

Gods, the woman was dense. Vincent Valentine's blood-red eyes narrowed as his lips curled in an oddly familiar smirk. Well, the apple didn't fall all that far from the tree, he supposed, and it was vaguely reassuring to see one's favorite qualities replicated in one's offspring. Even if said offspring was a crazed ex-ShinRa General with delusions of godhood.

"Isn't it obvious, Tifa? There is only one person who could have roused him from his apathy."

She looked confused. He closed his eyes and prayed silently to gods he didn't believe in for patience with the less intellectually endowed, even as his cynical side pointed out that Tifa certainly made up for that with...other attributes.

"Sephiroth."