'Tis The Season

Disclaimer: Cloud and co. belong to Squeenix and Nomura and all those cool dudes, not me. A Christmas Carol is owned by, um, Charles Dickens?

Notes: Yes, I do realize this is an all-around silly sort of story idea. While it's not a parody, and it's a bit angsty at times, I do hope you have fun reading it. I definitely had fun writing it.

I will confess I'm a bit nervous about posting this, just because I've never attempted anything this long for the FF7 fandom. I'm finding that these are some of the most difficult characters I've ever had to write for, lol. Oh, a quick note - the website Final Fantasy VII Citadel has a game timeline that puts forth the idea that Gaia uses the same calendar system as on Earth, based on all the inscriptions you see on Jenova's helmet. While this isn't necessarily canon, obviously, I found that using that idea would be really useful in writing this, so that's what I did. Sorry if it bothers you too much.

"I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me." – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Every winter, the world of Gaia celebrated the turning of a new year.

The holiday had been celebrated for thousands of years, but it wasn't until the ShinRa Corporation came into existence and changed the planet that New Year's became much more commercialized. People began to buy their friends and family gifts to exchange. So for a while, the holiday's true meaning was forgotten in the haze of the corporate world.

ShinRa's collapse almost three years ago, of course, had left the people of Gaia with a renewed appreciation for their planet. Except they still gave each other gifts, because who doesn't like receiving presents?

New Year's Day was, also, the anniversary of the defeat of Jenova at what would become known as Northern Crater, two thousand years ago. So New Year's on Gaia had even more of a meaning of rebirth and renewal than New Year's on, say, Earth. Although, both worlds did view the occasion as an excuse to get spectacularly drunk.

And it was this fact that started Cloud's whole ordeal.

See, this particular year, Cloud Strife was simply not in the spirit of things. Maybe it was the stretch of rainy days they had been having, maybe it was people acting rushed and rude (though, it wasn't as though Cloud had ever been the poster child of politeness, either), maybe it was a simple case of the holiday blues. Whatever the reason, Cloud was being stubborn and gloomy, and Tifa had no idea what to do about it.

The day before New Year's Eve, Cloud was sitting at Seventh Heaven's bar, looking over some delivery invoices, when there was a knock at the door. Tifa was getting ready to open the bar for the night and so she sent Cloud to see whom it was. Two frail-looking gentlemen were standing at the door; they were going around taking donations for some charitable organization to help the poor and homeless.

"How much can I put you down for?" asked one man, as his partner eagerly held his pen and notebook at the ready.

"Nothing," Cloud had sighed.

"So you want to remain anonymous?" the man said, his tone annoyingly cheery.

"No, I want to be left alone," Cloud snapped, slamming the door in their faces.

Tifa had appeared behind them then, more shocked than angry. "What's gotten into you, Cloud?" she demanded. She sent him out to make some deliveries shortly after that, before she lost her temper and said things she'd regret later.

This whole month he'd been taking care of some long-distance deliveries; the holidays brought in more money and stranger pieces of cargo. Just a few weeks ago, Cloud had delivered a Tonberry skull to a small curio store of questionable legality (the store had gold chocobo feathers for sale, for goodness' sake) outside of Wutai's capital.

The afternoon of New Year's Eve found him on one such delivery. Tifa had been leaving almost endless messages on his cell phone, reminding him to be home in time for the New Year's Eve celebration at Seventh Heaven. All of their old friends would be there. Of course, Seventh Heaven had been picked unanimously as the location for the party, because at Seventh Heaven they knew they could get free liquor from Tifa.

This was precisely the liquor that Tifa had asked Cloud to pick up on his way back to Edge. It was stashed securely in one of Fenrir's many little compartments and he was speeding back to Edge, thoughtful.

He'd picked up his cargo and listened to his voicemail once more before setting off – Tifa had left him another message and her anxious tone was impossible to miss. Cloud did not want to go to this party, but listening to that message, he knew he had no choice; she seemed to think it would be good for him. The only way Tifa would allow him to miss this party was if he were comatose or dead.

It was getting a little late and so Cloud was taking a different route to Edge – south of there Midgar was a series of steep hills that afforded a more direct but more dangerous passage to Edge.

But he had some alcohol to deliver.

He was driving fast but not too fast. He was a little distracted but not too badly. Still, all the factors added up, and he noticed the eighteen-wheel truck in the wrong lane, coming straight toward him, just a half-second too late. The driver of the truck was drunk.

Cloud swerved sharply to the right, straight for the edge of the hill he was driving on. To avoid flying off the edge he braked, hard, causing Fenrir to slide outwards. Cloud was flung off the motorcycle, the wind knocked out of him as he hit the asphalt.

Everything was fuzzy. Maybe he wouldn't have to sit through the noisy New Year's Party after all.

Before everything went completely black, he heard voices.

"Cloud! Hey, Cloud!"

"Cloud, are you ready?"

'Ready...? For what?'

'...Why can't everyone just leave me alone?'

When Cloud opened his eyes, he found himself in a dark and quiet hospital room. He was warm and sleepy and his head ached, and he would've fallen back into a dreamless sleep if he had not seen, out of the corner of his eye, the digital clock on his bedside table.

11:58. Then 11:59.

And automatically Cloud began counting down in his head. "Fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven..."

'Today is December 31," was scrawled across the top of a whiteboard on the wall. Below that was Cloud's name and bunch of information like his height, weight, age, and some more stuff that he couldn't decipher; the handwriting was too messy. So...it was still New Year's Eve.

"...Forty-six, forty-five, forty-four..."

With a pang of guilt Cloud remembered Tifa...

"...Thirty-two, thirty-one, thirty..."

Was she worried about him? Had everybody shown up at the party?

"Twenty-seven, twenty-six, twenty-five..."

And another thought struck him...Did they even know he was in the hospital?

"Six, five, four... Three, two, one-"

But the time on the clock did not change; rather, it seemed as though time had stopped. The silhouette of a tall figure appeared next to Cloud's bedside in a haze of light the same shade of green as the Lifestream.

He blinked and rubbed his eyes but the figure remained. The whole room was bathed in the ethereal green glow, affording enough light for Cloud to make out the unmistakable shoulder-length silver hair and brilliant blue-green eyes.

"Hello, big brother." The person smiled unkindly.

"...Kadaj?" Cloud was absolutely bewildered.

"That's who I was in life. Now we're part of the Lifestream," Kadaj corrected. By 'we', Cloud saw that he also meant Loz and Yazoo, who were standing at the foot of Cloud's bed.

He sat up slowly, looking around. "Wait...does that mean I'm-?"

"No, you're not dead," Kadaj answered, almost impatiently.

"Not physically dead, anyway," Yazoo added.

Cloud looked sharply at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just what it sounds like," Loz said smugly.

"You're running out of time, big brother," Kadaj said sternly.

"Time for what?"

In reply, Kadaj stepped forward and leaned towards Cloud. "Time to save yourself."

"That's why we're here," Loz said.

"To warn you," Yazoo finished.

Cloud was dubious. "I'm having trouble believing you're here for my spiritual health, considering all the times you tried to kill me," he said. "Besides, I might've hit my head pretty hard when I crashed... So who's to say you're really ghosts or souls or spirits or whatever you are?"

This time Yazoo stepped forward, putting his hands on Cloud's sheets and leaning forward. "Those shackles should be proof enough," he said darkly, nodding towards Cloud's arms.

He looked down and was rather frightened at the heavy shackles that had suddenly appeared on his wrists. "What the hell is this?"

"Those chains have been with you a long time, Cloud," Kadaj said softly.

"You don't really want to be carrying them around for the rest of your life and your afterlife, do you?" Loz asked.

Cloud looked at all three of them in turn. "I-I don't understand!" he growled, annoyed and maybe even a little afraid.

"Of course you don't." Kadaj's manner was suddenly patronizing. "But it's not our job to make you understand."

"You will be haunted by three spirits –" Yazoo informed him.

"I've had enough haunting for one night," Cloud protested feebly.

"They'll make you understand," Loz added.

They were beginning to fade away, back into the green glow that had brought them there.

"Expect the first ghost at one!" Kadaj exclaimed. Yazoo was smiling dryly.

"Your friends in the Lifestream are good to you, big brother."

Cloud's eyes widened. "Friends-you don't mean-?"

But they were gone, and time started again. The clock changed to midnight.

"Happy New Year."

"Cloud? Clooooud, wake up. We don't have all night, you know."

He stirred and slowly opened his eyes; someone had turned on the lamp by his bed and it gave the room a yellowish, warm glow.

Or maybe the warmth was coming from Aerith, who was sitting on the edge of the bed and smiling down at him.

Cloud sat up and stared at her with wide eyes. She just kept smiling. "How have you been, Cloud?"

Cloud just shrugged slightly. He couldn't look away from her face, and he couldn't say her name.

"It's okay, Cloud," she said, resting her hand on his knee. "I understand." As she always had.

Cloud looked around the room, eager for a distraction. Once again, his eyes fell on the digital clock by his bed, and he watched the time change from 1:00 to 1:01.

Cloud looked at Aerith again. "Then you're-?"

"That's right!" she smiled, straightening up and tugging Cloud's hand.

He pulled his hand back. "So...what exactly are you?"

"Hm..." Aerith looked thoughtful. "The ghost of New Years past." She shrugged. "Or something like that."

"The past?"

"Your past, more like. Time's wasting, we need to get a move on!" she said, her hands on her hips. Slowly Cloud got out of bed and gingerly stood up, as if he feared the floor was not strong enough to hold his weight.

"Where are we going?" he asked quietly.

"You'll see when we get there!" Aerith told him impatiently, as she was already heading for the door.

Cloud remained where he was. "So, is this...?" He trailed off, looking at his bare feet and the loose pants and t-shirt he'd been dressed in at the hospital.

Aerith smiled at him and held out her hand. "You're fine, Cloud."

Slowly, he came to her, and his whole countenance was one of nervousness and a little bit of pain. She took his hand and opened the door leading out of the room, and suddenly they were swallowed by something like a black hole.

Cloud couldn't see anything at all; he didn't even know if his eyes were open or closed. The ground seemed to be gone; he was putting one foot in front of other but he met no resistance. He didn't know what was up and what was down.

He tried to speak and couldn't, for a moment. "...Aerith?" he said finally.

"I'm still here, Cloud," she said from somewhere in front of him (at least, he thought it was the front of him), and he held her hand a little tighter.

Then, a tiny pinprick of light appeared in the distance; they walked towards it as it suddenly ballooned in size and enveloped them in it, the light so bright and sudden Cloud had to put up his free hand and shield his eyes.

When the light faded they were standing in the town square of Nibelheim. Cloud's face lit up with recognition immediately, and he let go of Aerith's hand and stepped forward, looking around. This was either a very elaborate dream, or...

He turned back to look at Aerith. "Why are we...?" He trailed off, uncertain as to how to phrase the question.

"We're in the past," she told him matter-of-factly. "Today is New Year's Eve, thirteen years ago."

"So I was...I am...ten years old." Cloud took another few steps forward. "What, am I supposed to go meet myself or something?"

Aerith shook her head. "Silly, haven't you noticed? We're not real here."

Cloud kicked at the snow on the ground, wriggling his bare toes in it. It wasn't cold at all; he imagined this is how it would feel to walk on sugar. "I guess we're not..." he marveled.

"So where shall we go first?" Aerith asked, stepping forward to stand next to Cloud. She sounded almost jubilant over the whole situation. In contrast, Cloud remained silent and just shrugged uncomfortably. And Aerith just sighed to herself; she knew this would probably be hard, but she didn't think it would be quite this hard.

"What are we even doing here?" Cloud asked suddenly, unsettled by the thought of wandering around in his troubled past.

Aerith touched his arm. "Don't worry about that now," she said kindly. "The answers will come in time. So...will you show me around, Cloud? I want to see the places where you grew up." When he seemed reluctant to move Aerith started walking in the hope he'd follow.

He did, albeit resignedly, and she was relieved.

"I feel safe here," Cloud remarked, sounding surprised. "I didn't think I would."

"Silly. Everybody has a safe place to grow up in." Aerith nodded.

"Did you?" Cloud asked somewhat tactlessly, thinking of ShinRa and their relentless desire to get their hands on Aerith.

"Oh, I managed," she said simply, because nothing is a touchy subject when one is dead. "I grew flowers." She smiled at him and was happy when she saw the beginnings of a smile on his face.

They came to stand in front of a one-story whitewashed building. "This is where I went to school," he said. "I hated it here. Definitely never felt safe in this place..."

Suddenly the door flew open and children raced out of it. Cloud could recognize their faces (after all, these had been his classmates), but he could not remember their names. All the kids were cheering and kicking up the snow.

"It's the beginning of winter break. I forgot how exciting that always was," Cloud said, a touch of amusement in his words.

A small group of children, all about ten years old, dashed outside then. Cloud could only stare as he got a good look at all of their faces.

"That's Tristan," he said finally, watching one tall boy with slicked-back brown hair. "Him and Tifa...they were the leaders."

Almost as if on cue, a ten-year-old Tifa walked out of the school. She was walking calmly, trying to be dignified, but it was obvious she was just as excited as all the other children.

"Hey guys, wait up!" Another, much more familiar child came out then, hurriedly throwing his coat on and cramming a hat over his unruly blond hair.

"It's me," Cloud murmured. Behind him, Aerith was saying something about how cute he was as a kid, but he barely heard her. Somehow, he felt as though he were truly ten again..

Cloud knew the others did not like him, but he hung around with them anyway because there was no one else to hang around with.

He approached the group, Tifa and Tristan at the head.

"Party at Sam's house!" Tristan was saying, throwing his arm around the shoulders of his friend Sam, a wiry boy with sparkling hazel eyes and freckles. Sam was something like Tristan's right-hand man. He followed Tristan like an affectionate puppy, much the same way Cloud followed Tifa.

The group began running down the street, talking in excited shouts about the presents they wanted this year. The happiness they felt was complete and infectious, as the adults around them cracked a smile as they passed. It wasn't to last very long, not for Cloud anyway.

Sam lived a few houses down from Tifa, so they were outside her door when he opened his mouth and the trouble started.

"I want a –" Cloud began, ready to rattle off the list of things he wanted but knew he wouldn't get.

Tristan came to a halt and the group stopped abruptly, stepping on each other's heels. "Whaddya think you're doing?" he demanded, really noticing Cloud for the first time.

Cloud steeled himself for the inevitable conflict. "Comin' to the party with you guys."

"You are not!"

"Are too!

"Are not, 'cause nobody wants you there anyway!"

Cloud was stung when no one came to his defense. Not even Tifa; she just looked at her feet, halfway between annoyance and pity.

"I am too going, 'cause you can't tell me what to do!" Cloud shouted finally, launching himself at Tristan and tackling him to the ground. They fought as most small boys do; with flailing fists and snow being kicked everywhere. The others were shouting encouragements to Tristan.

"What's going on out here?" came the gruff voice above them. Large hands pulled Cloud and Tristan apart. Both immediately stopped struggling when they noticed Tifa's father had been the one to break up the fight.

The boys at school made Cloud angry, but Tifa's dad made him afraid. He wouldn't ever quite be able to forget that time at Mt. Nibel, when Tifa fell and nearly died – and her father shouting himself hoarse at Cloud.

He looked disapprovingly at both boys, but his gaze sharpened when he looked at Cloud. "Tifa, you go inside."

"Yes, Papa!" Tifa said, running into her house and making no effort to hide her eagerness at a chance to escape the situation.

"Cloud?" He looked up, and there was his mother, coming out of their house and walking over to the scene as well. "Were you fighting again, Cloud?" she asked sternly. He nodded awkwardly, as the other boys laughed at his public scolding.

"You boys head on home too," Tifa's dad said, and it was a command rather than a suggestion. They all scowled suddenly.

"Way to go, Cloud," Sam sneered. "You ruined our afternoon."

Cloud glared at Sam's retreating back and stuffed his trembling hands into his pockets. His mother ushered him inside.

"Cloud, what am I going to do with you?" she said, exasperated. "How many times do I have to tell you, it's up to you to be the better man and walk away...I don't have time to deal with this now, Cloud. Up to your room."

Cloud, still scowling, unceremoniously dumped his coat on the floor and stomped upstairs. Once in his room, he shut the door and dragged his desk chair over to the window and flopped into it. Cloud leaned forward and rested his head on his arms, his nose just barely touching the cold glass of the window.

'Nobody wants you there anyway!'

Cloud sighed and blinked away the tears that stubbornly refused to leave him alone. He decided that the only present he really, really wanted was to be strong.

About half an hour later there was a knock at his bedroom door. "Cloud?" His mother walked in. Cloud didn't bother responding, though he knew she wasn't angry with him anymore. His exiles never lasted very long.

"Oh, Cloud," she sighed, crossing the room and standing behind him, resting her hands on his shoulders. "What am I going to do with you?" she repeated, but this time there was no exasperation in her voice.

"He started it, Mom!" Cloud craned his neck to look up at her, his blue eyes wide and earnest. "He said they didn't want me at their party...How come they don't like me, Mama?"

But then he noticed the lines on her face and her sad eyes and Cloud snapped his head back and looked out the window again. He wished he didn't complain all the time.

"Aw, who cares," he muttered. "Their parties are never any fun, anyway."

"That's the spirit," Mom said a bit sadly, ruffling his hair. "Don't worry about those boys, Cloud. Just because you don't have any friends at school doesn't mean that...Well, all I know is that there are people out there who would love to be friends with you. You just haven't met them yet."


"Come on, Cloud, the two of us will have a fun winter break, I promise. I'm a pretty cool mom, aren't I?"

He gave a long-suffering sigh but he was grinning as he looked up at her. "Mo-o-om..."

Smiling, she bent to kiss his forehead. "That's my name, don't wear it out."

She straightened up and put her hands on her hips. "Alright, I've got a deal for you – you help me make New Year's dinner and –"

"With mashed potatoes?"

"Why, of course. As I was saying, you help with dinner and I'll see if I can scrounge up a present or two..."

"I get presents!?" he shouted, scrambling to his feet and nearly knocking over his chair in the process. "So I'm not in trouble anymore?"

"Of course not, Cloud," she said, putting her arms around him in a protective hug. "Don't forget, the New Year means we all get a chance to start over and be forgiven. ...And that was your life lesson of the day. Now come on, I'm starving!"

Smiling, they both hurried downstairs, leaving the two unseen figures standing in Cloud's bedroom

Aerith was sitting on the edge of Cloud's old bed, thinking the whole scene had been very bittersweet.

"I forgot that she did so much for me," Cloud said quietly. They were both silent for a moment.

"There's another New Year's we need to see," Aerith spoke up.

"Why?" Cloud turned to face her, and when he did she saw the pain visible on his face. "All of them were pretty much the same."

"Even after you left Nibelheim?" she asked, and before he could respond the shapes and colors of the bedroom began to melt away and rearrange themselves.

Cloud and Aerith were standing in the back of a large multipurpose room, decorated for a banquet of some sort. Once again, Cloud looked around in awed recognition, but this place obviously made him nervous, unlike Nibelheim.

"This is the SOLDIER headquarters. We're in Midgar," he said, mostly to himself rather than to Aerith. She nodded anyway.

President Shinra was standing on a platform at the front of the room, giving a speech. Though Cloud knew he and Aerith couldn't be seen or heard, he spoke in hushed tones anyway. "It's the annual New Year's party they'd throw for us. The president would make a speech, and people would get promoted to 1st Class... And then everybody would get drunk and haze the new recruits of the year. That's one reason I'm glad I never really made it in."

Cloud looked around and his next words were hopeless and sad: "I recognize their faces, but I don't remember the names of anyone here, Aerith."

"But you remember them, don't you?" Aerith asked, pointing at the 1st Class soldiers sitting behind the president. He looked and realized who she meant – Zack and Sephiroth, sitting side-by-side and looking tremendously bored.

The president was talking about the accomplishments of 1st Class, and from behind Cloud and Aerith someone murmured, "I'd give anything to be that powerful."

Cloud turned to identify a red-haired young SOLDIER as the one who had just spoken, and his fourteen-year-old self, nodding in agreement. Cloud found himself nodding along with his younger counterpart, and once again he felt as though he were being sucked into the past.

Being so far in the back, Cloud could hardly see or hear anything and he was finding it hard to keep from dozing off, let alone pay attention.

The speech was finally over, much to his relief, and he was hoping this was his chance to get away from the party. Unluckily, Cloud was attempting to surreptitiously leave when he bumped into a 2nd Class officer by the name of Harles, and Harles just so happened to be the officer in charge of training Cloud's group.

Harles turned from the man he'd been talking to. "Ah, Cloud, nice to see you here!" he said boisterously, wine glass firmly in hand.

Cloud sighed inwardly; well, it was worth a shot... "Sir, I'd like permission to leave early."

"Whatever for?" Harles asked, raising an eyebrow and looking at Cloud as though he'd grown another head.

"So I can...practice some more," Cloud said uncomfortably. "You said my form needed work..."

"Nonsense, boy, you have a whole 'nother year to train!" Harles laughed uproariously. "This is a party, you're supposed to be having fun! Which reminds me... Cloud, have you met Zack?" He turned back to the man he'd been talking with before Cloud came over, and Cloud looked at the man, young and well-built with black hair.

"He'll be taking over the training of your group," Harles explained. "1st Class fighter, but he's much too soft to be giving orders yet!" Once again, he laughed uproariously. Zack chuckled appreciatively, and Cloud just blinked.

"I'll leave you two to get acquainted!" Harles said, before finally ambling off. Cloud looked after him uncomfortably, then looked back at the soldier named Zack.

Nothing about Zack looked soft, that was Cloud's first impression. But then he grinned, almost mockingly. Cloud was surprised, though, to realize there was no real maliciousness in Zack's face at all. And Cloud would know; he was experienced when it came to being made fun of.

"I don't see why they think I need to command anything at all," Zack complained lightly, mostly to himself, as he watched Harles disappear into the crowd. "Actually fighting's much more fun."

Cloud suddenly remembered that Zack had been one of the new 1st Class soldiers personally commended by the President.

"So, your name's Cloud?"


At this, Zack turned to face Cloud and raised an eyebrow. "'Sir'? My name's 'Zack'. 'Sir' kinda makes me feel like I'm fifty. Besides, by the end of the night everybody'll be too drunk for any kind of formality anyway."

"Sorry," Cloud muttered, unsure of what else to say. He was starting to get really irritated with this whole party...

"Harles was right, you do need to lighten up," Zack observed. "C'mon, let's go get something to drink."

"I, uh, can't drink yet," Cloud protested, as Zack grabbed his arm and stared pulling him over to the refreshments.

"Really? How old are you, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I'll be fifteen next month, si-Zack."

Zack stopped abruptly and turned to look at Cloud. His expression darkened. Cloud swallowed, wondering what he'd done wrong. It's not like you had to be a certain age to join SOLDIER... or had he been wrong about that? Were they going to throw him out, now?

"Pretty young," Zack said finally. "You-ah well, it's none of my business. Well, fine. If we can't drink, we'll people-watch instead." He tugged Cloud into a more discreet position, unseen by everyone except Aerith and Cloud, eight years older now.

Aerith couldn't take her eyes off the two soldiers; Zack had spoken to her many times about their mutual friend, but it wasn't as though she'd ever seen Zack and Cloud together. Zack was pointing to various people in the room and then making some comment to Cloud, who broke into a grin a couple times.

From his spot next to her, Cloud suddenly spoke up. "He talked to me all the time. About people to avoid and who to kiss up to and sometimes he talked about home and sometimes he talked about you. And I tried to hard to get stronger...I tried to just be better, because I wanted to have something worthwhile to say to him."


"I've never understood it," Cloud said quietly. "Why did he die to protect me?"

Aerith smiled despite herself. "He told me once it was because you had a girl waiting for you back home. And because he knew you were going to be a damn good fighter."

Cloud looked over at her with a quizzical expression, because Aerith was probably the last person he'd expect to swear. She shrugged in reply. "His words, not mine."

"Besides," she continued, "you were friends, right? You would've done the same for Zack."

Cloud turned away, and nodded slightly. "I don't understand why you're showing me all this," he said. "I thought I wasn't supposed to live in the past. Isn't that what you showed me, back when Sephiroth appeared again?"

"You can't live in the past," she answered, "but you can't ignore it, either. There's a balance between the two."

"And I'm supposed to figure it out."

"That's right. Cloud, there's one more New Year's Eve we need to see." Her tone was hesitant, almost nervous even, and Cloud turned to face her again.

"It was about half a year before we all met each other," Aerith continued, not meeting Cloud's gaze. "You were...alone, that New Year's Eve."

Cloud felt cold settle in his stomach. "Do you mean, after Zack died, when I..." Aerith didn't say anything.

He swallowed and shook his head. "I don't want to see that...Aerith, please..."

"I'm sorry, Cloud, it's not up to you or me." She had barely finished speaking when the warm glow of the banquet hall faded into the cold fluorescent streetlights of the slums of Midgar.

They were standing in the Sector 7 train station, and they quickly spotted the familiar shock of blond hair. This Cloud of three years ago was sitting slumped against a large pillar, his head bowed.

Janitors were walking about, sweeping the floors and picking up trash. "This one alive?" one of them asked, poking at Cloud's leg with the stick of his broom. His partner walked over and knelt in front of Cloud.

"Hellooo?" The man shook Cloud by the shoulder. "Yeah, he's alive. Still blinking, still breathin'."

"He won't be for long, not when it's this cold," the first janitor remarked, shrugging his shoulders, as the two men walked away.

No one else paid the catatonic Cloud any mind, except for a skinny, poorly dressed man who knelt down and draped a worn coat in Cloud's lap. "Happy New Year, buddy," he said, pity clear in his voice, and continued on his way.

"I couldn't move," the real Cloud said suddenly. "I was in shock, I guess. I just couldn't...make sense of everything, so I started to forget. But I remember, I heard a voice telling me not to go to sleep, because if I did I would probably freeze to death... That was my voice, wasn't it? The real me..."

Aerith touched his arm, but he pulled away. For once, she did not know what to do. She had known facing his past would hurt him; but they'd kind of been counting on that. If the things they showed him were not upsetting enough he wouldn't listen and he'd learn nothing; but if the things they showed him were too distressing, he'd close himself off and, once again, learn nothing. Aerith sighed; it was rather delicate, this plan she and Zack had cooked up...

"When I finally got my memories back," Cloud continued, "it was so hard to talk to my friends, because I realized that they didn't really know me at all..."

Well, at least he was still talking to her. That was a good sign. "They wanted to know you, Cloud," she said earnestly. "They still do!"

Cloud was staring unblinkingly ahead, his hands clenched at his sides. Aerith recognized all the hallmarks of one who is trying not to cry.

For Cloud could hardly bear to watch this pathetic, empty version of himself. This Cloud had been nothing but a loathsome puppet that took and took and took – took Zack's identity, took Cloud's sanity, took Aerith's life.

The self-loathing bubbled in his stomach and made him feel sick. Cloud sank to the curb, resting his elbows on his knees and burying his face in his hands. Aerith crouched next to him, putting her arms around him and leaning her head against his shoulder. The gesture was so tender Cloud had to shut his eyes.

"I don't want to see anymore," he whispered helplessly.

"I know," Aerith whispered back. "We're done here, Cloud." No sooner had she finished speaking than she faded away, and Cloud was left alone in the darkness of his hospital room

A/N: Lol, Zack kinda took the role of Scrooge's lost girlfriend. I'm not really sure how that happened. Cloud's mommy was way too much fun to write, by the way, as was little!Cloud. I just wanted to hug him and squeeze him and give him lots and lots of presents. And friends.

Oh, and because I realize it may have been a bit confusing – the FF7 timeline I mentioned earlier put Zack's death at about December 22nd, so in that last flashback we're seeing the Cloud that has just buried Zack and is taking over his identity. That Cloud's mind was rebooting, so to speak. XD

Anyway, hope you enjoyed part one of the story! The second half will be up sometime tomorrow, Christmas Eve.