'Tis The Season – part 2 of 2

So, we all know Scrooge did not like what he saw in his future. Will Cloud's future be any easier to handle?

...Heck no! XP

Edit: Thanks to LuckyLadybug for noticing a continuity error. It's fixed and boy, do I feel kind of stupid now.

Aerith had left Cloud sitting on his bed, his knees drawn to his chest and his head buried in his arms. And although he had not noticed it, the clock had been set back to a few minutes past midnight. He may have dozed off, he didn't remember; but he remained more or less motionless for an hour.

His mind was a little hazy with exhaustion, but this did not stop him from suddenly sensing someone else in the room with him.

"You always were a big baby, Cloud."

Cloud looked up and there was Zack, leaning against the wall opposite Cloud and watching him with a teasing smile.

"You're..." Cloud looked at the clock by his bed, once again glancing at it just in time to see the numbers flash to 1:01 a.m. "You're the second ghost?"

"That's right. You didn't think I'd let Aerith have all the fun, did you?"

Cloud just shrugged, reluctantly sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed, wincing at the stiffness in his bones.

Cloud couldn't seem to meet Zack's eyes; Zack figured whatever Cloud had seen in the past had really done a number on him. He folded his arms and waited patiently for Cloud to pull himself together.

As for Cloud, he was trying to remember the last time he and Zack had actually talked. Sure, he could remember snatches of Zack's one-sided conversations from their escape from ShinRa Manor, but actually speaking with him like this...

"Seven years," Cloud said finally. "Has it really been that long?"

"Yeah," Zack said quietly.

"Then...it's good to see you again, Zack."

Zack grinned in relief. "Good to see you too. As much as I'd love to sit around and reminisce about the good old days, we don't exactly have that much time." He straightened up with the same exuberance he'd had when he was alive. "There's no time like the present, or whatever," Zack stated.

"You...haven't really changed a bit, have you?"

Zack shrugged. He strode over to the door leading out of Cloud's room and watched him expectantly. Cloud met his gaze somewhat dubiously.

"Don't worry, there's no black holes outside this time," Zack rolled his eyes. "And I'm not gonna hold your hand, either."

Nodding resolvedly, Cloud got up and followed Zack to the door, who swung it open. An otherworldly gust of wind passed over them, and Cloud saw that they were standing in a hospital hallway. There were a few nurses standing nearby and chatting, unaware of Cloud and Zack.

"This is...kind of normal," Cloud remarked.

"Not what you were expecting, is it?" Zack grinned, heading down the hallway and motioning for Cloud to follow.

"No, not really. So...when are we?"

"Eleven o'clock on New Year's Eve," Zack answered, as the sterile white walls around them began to melt away. "Two hours ago."

When their surroundings came into focus once more, Cloud saw they were standing right outside a very familiar bar.

"That's right, Tifa's party..." Judging from the noise coming from inside Seventh Heaven, the party was in full swing. "Wait, does she know I'm in the hospital?"

Zack nodded. "You had your phone with you, of course. Seventh Heaven's number is the first one on your contacts list."

"I guess it is..."

"Let's go inside." Zack suddenly strode into the bar, passing straight through the wall. After a moment's hesitation, Cloud followed. Unlike Zack, though, Cloud opted to use the door. Though they could touch objects, they still went unseen and unheard by everyone around them.

Cloud was standing by the door, taking in the sight of the lively bar; the jovial, companionable air made it seem more crowded than it was. All of his old friends were there: Barret, Yuffie, Cid and Shera, Red XIII, even Vincent. Some of the regular customers were there too; there were many bigger and fancier bars in Edge and Cloud knew that the fact that these people chose her bar meant a lot to Tifa. Cloud looked at the faces of the men who had been coming here after work for months and realized with a pang that he knew none of their names.

He was pulled rudely from his thoughts when Tifa breezed over, practically out of nowhere.

"How'd this door open?" she asked no one in particular, and stuck her hand directly through Cloud's forearm in order to close the door. He jumped despite himself.

Tifa suddenly froze and pulled her hand back, staring in Cloud's direction. He started to panic, unsure of what he should do, but then Marlene bounded over and threw her arms around Tifa's waist.

"Can't we call Cloud, pleeeease?" Marlene begged.

"No, sweetie!" Tifa laughed, trying to shake off Marlene with little success. "He's sleeping now, okay? He needs to sleep now to get better. C'mon, help me in the back room, will you?"

Marlene stopped pouting and nodded brightly, bounding after Tifa into the storeroom. "Hey, are you bringing out the good stuff?" one of the regulars – Cloud wanted to say his name was Matthew – called after Tifa.

They returned with champagne – or rather, two bottles of real champagne and a bottle of sparkling cider for Marlene and Denzel. Everybody cheered, and they cheered even louder when Tifa told them it would be on the house. She poured drinks and looked around with satisfaction at her guests and best friends – there was Cid at one of the tables in the corner, having a loud poker game with Barret, Johnny, Sylar, and Hugo. Shera sat behind him, smiling happily. Speaking of which, Red XIII looked like the epitome of contentment, curled up by the jukebox. Vincent was sitting at the bar, nursing his drink, gazing about the room with a vaguely pleased expression on his face. And Yuffie, Yuffie was bounding around the room, looking for something worth stealing on Tifa's guests and, finding nothing, going around and pestering each table in turn.

They drank to a happy new year; Marlene joined in but made a face at her first sip of the bitter cider. Denzel, on the other hand, was positively tickled at being able to imitate the adults, and eventually drained his glass.

"To Cloud," he said, holding his glass in the air with gusto. "That he gets better really fast!"

"Keh!" Yuffie spoke up. "'Gets better', my ass!"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Tifa asked, feeling oddly defensive.

Yuffie shrugged, suddenly aware that she might have hit a nerve. "All I'm sayin' is, it's gonna take a lot more than a nice toast to fix that guy. Didn't you say he's been a big jerk the past couple weeks, too?"

"Cloud's not a jerk!" Denzel protested loudly. "He just...doesn't have any holiday spirit, is all!"

"Denzel." Tifa put a hand on his shoulder and looked at him warningly.

In the slightly awkward pause that followed, Zack leaned over and nudged Cloud. "He's really loyal to you, huh? You're kind of his hero, you know." Cloud didn't say anything, just shrugged slightly.

"Er, hey, speaking of spirits..." Hugo broke the silence, taking a deep drink from his champagne glass. "Man, this stuff is exxx-cellent."

"Yeah, too bad Cloud's missing out on all the good booze!" Cid piped up raucously.

"And getting to make fun of you, you old geezer!" Yuffie interjected.

"Me!? The hell did I do!?"

"You got engaged," Barret stated, breaking into a vicious grin.

Cid scowled but Shera was positively beaming. "Aw, shaddup, we went over this already!" Cid growled, obviously embarrassed at the attention. "It ain't none of your damn business!"

Zack turned to Cloud once more and chuckled aloud at the shocked expression on his friend's face. "Cid and Shera!?" Cloud repeated dubiously. "Getting married?" Zack just shrugged and smiled.

"So, anybody hungry?" Tifa asked, obviously relieved that the subject had moved away from Cloud. They answered the affirmative, and she headed into the back room for some sustenance.

"Arentcha gonna sit down at all, Tifa?" Barret called after her. Tifa just shrugged in reply, continuing to bustle around and make sure everyone was well fed.

"She likes to distract herself," Cloud observed suddenly. "She's this busy only when she's upset about something." Zack grinned in reply.

"So you're not a total idiot after all, Cloud. Good observation. See, I knew there was still hope for you."

"Is she...really that upset over me?"

Zack rolled his eyes. "Okay, maybe there isn't..."

Cloud pointedly ignored Zack's last comment. "Honestly, I didn't think everybody would come. But they even managed to drag Vincent here...And Cid and Shera, I never would've seen that one coming."

"Nobody else seems near as surprised about it as you are, Cloud," Zack stated evenly. Cloud looked at him sharply.

"What are you saying?" he asked. "I...care about them, all of them."

Zack smiled a bit smugly. "Oh? Then why were you so eager to skip this party?" Cloud opened his mouth then shut it again.

"Because...because I'm not any better than I was six months ago, even after all that trouble you and Aerith and everybody else went through." Cloud clenched his fist.

Zack put his hand on Cloud's shoulder, who flinched visibly at the touch. "Cloud. I don't think you're getting the point of this holiday – it's not just presents and getting drunk. It's...starting over, y'know? It's starting over and knowing everybody's done some stupid things and everybody gets another chance every January 1st." He nodded at the happy people crowding the Seventh Heaven.

"They all lost just as much as you did, Cloud, but they can still get together and be happy, can't they?"

Cloud was silent for a moment, pondering Zack's words. He turned back to his friend, only to see he was beginning to grow transparent.

"Already time, huh?" Zack scowled and pushed Cloud out of Seventh Heaven. Cloud was surprised to see that, somehow, they were in the sprawling cemetery of Edge. There was a memorial to those who had died back when Sector 7 was crushed, and a half-finished memorial to Geostigma's victims. The mood of the place was very somber, very morose.

"What are we doing here?" Cloud asked, uneasy. He didn't like coming here – so many of the people buried here had died two years ago, in the chaos of the war against ShinRa and Meteorfall, and the less he was reminded of that the better...

Zack was breathing heavily and he sat down stiffly on a nearby stone bench. "This is where you'll meet the third ghost, the ghost of New Year's to come. I was hoping it wouldn't have to come to this, but... You almost understand, but not quite. You always were a slow learner, Cloud." Zack looked amused but Cloud just looked at him worriedly.

"You're fading..."

"Well, yeah, I am the present, aren't I? It never lasts very long. You just blink and it's gone." Suddenly Zack grew serious, and put his hand on Cloud's shoulder. "Cloud. No matter what you see in the future, no matter what the ghost tells you – there's still hope. Me and Aerith wouldn't even be here if there wasn't hope. So don't be an idiot and give up. Be strong."

Be strong. The words seemed to echo on the wind as Zack faded away completely. Cloud sat motionless for a moment, a little shocked and a little sad. But as before, he suddenly became aware of someone standing behind him. He turned to see a tall man – at least, he figured it was a man, he couldn't see their face – covered from head to foot by a long black robe. The figure was intimidating.

"You're the third ghost?" Cloud asked. The top of the robe moved, as if the spirit had nodded his head. But that was all the answer Cloud got.

The ghost laid a cold, thin hand on Cloud's shoulder and gave him a sharp push forward. "Okay, okay," Cloud muttered. Their surroundings melted away as before, but this time Cloud wasn't startled.

They found themselves at Seventh Heaven again, but somehow it seemed different than when he had been there with Zack.

He looked back at the cloaked spirit, who simply pointed at the building.

"Alright, alright," Cloud muttered, taking the hint and walking in through the wall. He could tell immediately the mood was much sadder and more lonesome than it had been before.

Tonight it was just Tifa and Barret, sitting alone at the bar.

"Thanks for coming," Tifa was saying, her voice soft.

Barret just shrugged. "Yeah, well, I figured-" He was interrupted by the phone ringing, and both of them seemed relieved at the distraction.

"Hello?" Tifa said a little too eagerly, gripping the receiver a little too tightly. "Hi, Yuffie... No, no, I'm fine. Barret and Marlene are here for a couple of days." She smiled and gave a weak chuckle. "Like you really need an invitation. You all just show up and demand free beer. Besides...I figured you'd be busy..." Tifa looked sad again, Barret looked awkward, and Cloud just watched, his expression serious and otherwise unreadable.

Tifa hung up. "Poor Yuffie," she murmured. "She really did care about her dad, even if she complained about him all the time."

"She's too young to be runnin' a whole damn country," Barret agreed.

Cloud nodded in agreement, even though they couldn't see him. The gloomy atmosphere had him worried. Where was...he?

Barret took a gulp from the glass he had in front of him. Tifa went to refill it, but he waved her away. "No thanks. Ain't no point in getting drunk off our asses. It won't change a damn thing."

The ensuing silence was a little too sad, so Barret cleared his throat. "You talked to Cid lately?" he asked.

"No," Tifa sighed. "Not since...Shera miscarried."

Cloud felt his stomach drop out.

"I was there," Barret muttered. "Never seen him so upset. Pacing, cussing like you wouldn't believe... And he was crying, too."

There was a dull thump as Tifa hit the counter. "What happened to us, Barret?"

The question hung uncomfortably in the air. Cloud was beginning to think he'd seen enough. He looked back, but the spirit was nowhere to be found.

"Thanks for coming," Tifa said again, this time slowly and deliberately. "You're the last...I mean... Even Vincent...went back to his damn box. He threw his cell phone away. Even Cloud...never did that."

Cloud waited with a sort of morbid curiosity for Tifa to reveal his fate, but they were interrupted by a tiny voice from upstairs: "Papa?"

Barret swallowed. "Yeah, Marlene?"

"I didn't wanna wake Denzel, but I can't sleep," came the reply. "Can you come tuck me in, Papa?"

"Sure, Marlene," Barret said, his voice thick with emotion. He slowly got to his feet and Tifa and the invisible Cloud listened to his heavy footsteps on the stairs.

Tifa suddenly began wiping the counter with ferocity. "What happened to us, Cloud?" she whispered, wiping the same spot over and over. Cloud stared at the rag in her hands, afraid to look at her face.

"I don't even know what was wrong with you, Cloud. Maybe you thought we didn't care enough. We just...we just wanted you to work things through on your own." She smiled dryly. "I wonder what you would've said if you'd known how much we talked about you. It wasn't always good things; it was usually things like 'why is he so selfish?' and 'why can't he just try?', but we talked about you all the time." She dropped the rag and buried her face in her hands, propping her elbows on the counter.

"I guess that's why, then. That's why everything fell apart after you died."

Cloud wasn't surprised. He swallowed and tried to say her name.

"That one New Year's Eve, you got into that accident, and we all thought maybe you'd slow down after that, but you just went faster and faster on that stupid motorcycle...Why did you have to be such an idiot?!" Tifa burst out, beginning to sob. But then she looked straight at Cloud without realizing it, her eyes filled with tears, and said softly, "Or maybe, you're happier dead."

"No!" Cloud shouted, "Tifa, I'm not dead yet! And I wouldn't be happy dead, not if it made you...made you suffer this much!"

He stepped back and looked wildly around the room. "Did you hear that?" he called. "I don't want her to suffer, and if that means I have to stay alive and let people bother me for donations, then fine!"

Tifa was still crying, and Cloud was getting angrier and angrier. He strode purposefully out of the bar, to confront the ghost outside. To his surprise, he found himself not standing on the street outside of Seventh Heaven, but back in the huge cemetery. The ghost towered over him. Refusing to be intimidated, Cloud squared himself and looked straight at the apparition.

"Didn't you hear me?" Cloud demanded. "I'm through with this, take me back!"

In response, the specter merely pointed at a spot behind Cloud. Cloud turned on his heel and saw the ghost was gesturing towards a small headstone. Cloud turned back to the ghost, growing uneasy. "Why aren't you taking me back? I've learned my lesson. I'll try again, I'll try to be better..."

The phantom did not move, just continued to point. Finally, Cloud stepped cautiously over to the gravestone.

Kneeling before it, he saw it was his own.

"Why!?" he shouted, knowing the spirit was standing over him. "Why are you showing me this? I will try, if this is what will happen if I don't! I want to live, I...Damn it, why won't you say anything!?"

It was totally silent for a moment, save for Cloud's somewhat ragged breathing. Then: "You're pathetic, Cloud."

Cloud felt his heart skip a beat. Slowly he got to his feet.

"That's right, stand and face me."

Cloud turned and found himself face-to-face with Sephiroth, shrugging off the long black cape. His insides felt cold but Cloud refused to be afraid, remembering Zack's words and Tifa's tears. He had to get home. He had to.

"Let me go, Sephiroth."

In response, Sephiroth held out Masamune. "You will fight me."

Cloud saw his own Buster Sword lying on the ground at his feet. He did not bother to question where it came from, merely picked it up and held it at the ready. "Fine."

They sprang into motion at the exact same moment, each with the same level of confidence that they could defeat the other. There was no doubt that Cloud had come a long way since the first time he faced Sephiroth.

Their blades crossed and they were locked into position. Cloud felt his heels digging into the soft earth. Gritting his teeth, he gave one mighty shove.

Instantly, he was surrounded by blackness. There was nothing – he couldn't see or hear or feel anything. It was much like the space he'd walked through with Aerith. "So you can teach a pathetic dog new tricks," Sephiroth's voice echoed around him, then disappeared completely.

"You called me pathetic already!" Cloud called, his heart pounding in his ears. He had no idea how to get out of this place. "I'd like to wake up now..." He broke into a run, struggling to keep his balance in this strange vacuum. He stumbled and felt his stomach drop out as he began to fall, but then he felt someone grab both his hands and pull him back up. Or two someones, as the two hands holding his belonged to different people.

"You did it, Cloud!" he heard Aerith say from somewhere nearby.

"Yup, I knew you had it in you," Zack added.

There was a light up ahead, and Cloud once again had to shut his eyes to block it out. "Thank you," he muttered, as the light washed over him.

"Well, you're very welcome, dearie!"

Cloud blinked a few times, forcing his tired eyes open. "Mm...?" A chubby nurse hovering over him, taking his vital signs, came into focus.

"Haha, you're finally awake!"

Gradually Cloud became aware of his surroundings – same hospital room, same hospital bed, only now daylight was streaming in.

"What day is it?" he asked hoarsely, slowly sitting up.

"It's New Year's Day, Mr. Strife!" the nurse told him cheerfully.

Then it had all been in one night. Then... "So I'm not too late, then," Cloud said suddenly. "Of course it was all in one night, they're dead, they can screw around with time..."

"Now, now, Mr. Strife, don't get too excited," the nurse patted his shoulder. "You just rest and I'll go call your friend Tifa!" With that she bustled out.

"Quit calling me 'Mr. Strife'," Cloud muttered under his breath.

Tifa burst in at nine o'clock on the morning, wrapped in her winter coat and her favorite red scarf. "Cloud!" She strode over to the bed and stopped short of throwing her arms around him, which he was grateful for.

A little embarrassed now, Tifa sat on the edge of Cloud's bed. "You know, if you didn't have a concussion, I'd throw you down the stairs for pulling a stunt like that."

Cloud smiled.

"Hey, I'm not kidding!" But she looked relieved to see him smile all the same.

"Yeah, I know." Any awkwardness dissolved in that moment.

"I talked to the doctor," Tifa continued brightly. "You're okay, if you want to go home. I figured you'd be eager to get out of here."

Cloud nodded gratefully. "Oh, but everybody spent the night last night," Tifa said suddenly. "So it's a bit noisy back home. I could tell them to keep it down or kick 'em out or..."

"Seeing everybody sounds nice," Cloud said firmly. Once again, Tifa looked ready to throw her arms around his neck.

"Then I'll go tell the doctor-" Tifa jumped to her feet, but stopped short when Cloud grabbed her hand.

"I just wanted to say..." he began awkwardly. "I'm sorry for the way I've been acting. I was a selfish jerk."

Tifa smiled brilliantly. "What the heck's come over you, Cloud?" Cloud just shrugged in reply.

"Let's just say... I had a really vivid dream last night."

They were walking down the hallway out of the hospital when something occurred to Cloud. "How are we getting home, anyway?"

"Cid drove me up here. We took his truck."

And something else occurred to Cloud.

"Tifa...where's Fenrir?"


"...Is it bad?"

Tifa nodded slowly. "The guy who found you on the highway, he had it towed and, well, it got pretty banged up."

"Is it fixable?" Cloud sighed.

"Hey, I don't know anything about motorcycles. You can just take a look when we get home, okay?" She ducked her head to hide the slight smile on her face. Cloud didn't notice, since they'd reached the hospital exit. He was disappointed about his bike, but he was eager to get home. Away from the hospital.

And away from the weird nurse who kept calling him annoying pet names.

"So, congratulations about you and Shera," Cloud said as they climbed into Cid's truck. He said it politely enough, but anyone who knew Cloud would be able to catch the teasing in his voice.

"Aw, why the hell did ya have to tell him about that, Tifa!" Cid grumbled.

Tifa did not reply at first, just looked over at Cloud in wonder. "I...didn't tell him about that."

The truck grew completely silent, and the corners of Cloud's mouth quirked up. Tifa recalled what he'd said earlier – a very vivid dream – and she wondered if...

But the idea was too far-fetched and Tifa was too down-to-earth to consider it seriously.

Cid, Tifa, and Cloud walked into Seventh Heaven, and the place practically exploded.

"CLOUD!" Denzel and Marlene both shot over and hugged him around the middle. Tifa laughed and Cid grumped about being stuck in the doorway and everybody needing to 'just calm the heck down already'.

"Aw, man!" Yuffie shouted. Cloud looked up to see her balanced precariously on the bar's counter, struggling to hang up a banner that read "Welcome back Cloud". Upon closer inspection he saw it was made of folded napkins.

"I woulda had it done by the time he got here if you two woulda helped me instead of sitting on your lazy asses laughing at me!" Yuffie shouted, glaring at Barret and Red XIII, who, indeed, looked rather amused.

"Ugh!" Yuffie waved her arms indignantly and would've pitched right off the counter had Vincent not reached out and steadied her with his good hand.

Suddenly Denzel and Marlene were pulling him in the bar, laughing and chattering. "Can I show him the surprise, Tifa?" Denzel was asking. "Pleeeease?"

Then suddenly they were pulling him through the back room and out to the small garage where Cloud normally kept his bike. Marlene flung open the door to reveal Fenrir, parked in the garage, as good as new. And it even had a fresh coat of wax.

Cloud just stared at it confusion. "I thought...Tifa said it was all banged up..."

"It was," Cid boomed from behind him, "'cept I was here, so I thought I'd fix it up for you, you ungrateful ass!"

"I, uh... thank you." Cloud wasn't sure what else to say. He'd been selfish and rude lately, and yet they all still came together to wish him well. He found himself thinking of what his mother had told him – all I know is there are people out there who would love to be friends with you. She'd been right, as mothers often are.

"This is getting too damn sappy, I say we eat!" Cid exclaimed.

"Yeah, where's breakfast!?" Barret hollered from back in the bar.

Cloud turned back to see Tifa give a long-suffering sigh, but she was smiling all the same. "You people are pigs," she said. "Come on, Shera, let's see what we can whip up!" The two trooped cheerfully into the kitchen, the rest of the group hot on their heels.

Cloud paused for a moment, deep in thought, and then decided he could brood some other time. For now, he was going to enjoy New Year's with his family.

"Think he's okay now?"


"You don't think that we were too hard on him?"

"Nah. He's a tough guy, Aerith. Though that third ghost, that was freaky. How'd you pull that one off?"

She shrugs. "I took every negative feeling in the Lifestream and kind of...channeled it, if you will. It's not my fault it took the form of Sephiroth!"

He nods. "Ah, well that makes sense, then."

"How do you mean?"

"Aerith. C'mon. Every negative thing ever, Cloud associates with Sephiroth."


"Still, alls well that ends well, I guess." He puts his arm around his partner-in-crime and kisses her on the forehead. "Mission accomplished. And Happy New Year, Aerith."

She smiles prettily. "Happy New Year, Zack."

A/N: Couldn't resist sticking in a bit of Zack/Aerith at the end there. Did you see them in that Crisis Core trailer? So cute.

Anyway, I can't believe I met my deadline of Christmas Eve. This was a really, really difficult story to write and I'm feeling quite pleased with myself for doing so. XD But anyway, happy holidays and God bless!