Disclaimer: I don't own FF7 and I'm not making any money off of this.

Rating: PG

Continuity: Post Advent Children (look out for spoilers). This breaks off from FF7 continuity from there. In other words, assume no DoC.

Summary: A look at the tattered pieces of Cloud's mind and his journey to rebuild himself. The pairing is Cloud/Tifa, but the point of the story is Cloud's development as an individual.

Notes: Italics are used for flashbacks and thoughts in Cloud's mind. They are also used to emphasize words where needed, but the difference should be clear. I'm sorry if it's confusing, but I intend for it to be somewhat. Cloud's mind is a very disorienting place.

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Self-Assembly

Step 1 – Finding the Pieces

It's at the tip of a sword that he finds himself converged on a singular identity with a sense of clarity. He dances across moonlit air, tasting the siren call of his blade through the dark, his senses mixing and combining into simple awareness. There is a graceful freedom in his movements as he swings his sword around to block the bullets his opponent fires, sparks flying in the air as metal strikes metal. He flips to the ground and strikes out at another of the uniformed guards, taking him down easily with the broadside of his sword. His mind is focused around driven intent. Take down the guards. Complete the mission.

There isn't room to consider what the mission was or what it means. Not now with his foot lashing out into someone's chin and his twin blades crossing in front of his chest to meet with more bullets. He jumps up and off of the walls, the ceiling, the shoulders of the men attacking him—anything to keep him moving and fluid and alive. Alive. He's so alive right now and he has crossed the threshold of doubt or self-confidence to simple being and purpose. The mission, whatever it was, was important to him once. That's all the matters. The rest are details that he'll remember when he needs them.

A flash bomb goes off beside his ear and he blinks rapidly, blood spilling out from a gash on his forehead and filling his eyes, blurring his vision, touching the tip of his tongue with salty metal as he licks his lips. But there's only one guard left standing and he knows that this one too will go down because he will not stop until he is finished.

The last one grunts and charges, the only one of the guards carrying a sword as well as a gun. Cloud's own blades are occupied with blocking the automatic rapid-fire of the latter weapon, and he is left with no option other than to try to twist out of the way at the last second, jumping upward. There is the sharp fire-explosion of pain as the guard's sword stabs through his thigh but in the end, it doesn't really matter, because Cloud's blade is through the man's stomach. They slip to the ground together, collapsing in a cryptic embrace.

&&&&&

"Tell me you got it." He strains to see Yuffie's face over his shoulder as she jumps onto his motorcycle behind him. His breath makes little white clouds in the air, still coming in gasps from the run to their rendezvous point. His thigh is too numb now for pain and he knows he's lost a lot of blood from the sword wound that last soldier gave him. He can feel warm liquid filling his boot.

Yuffie's small body presses against his back. "Just go! Go already, Cloud! They're coming and I'm out of materia!"

He sees her other hand waving wildly back towards the new Shinra headquarters building in the peripheral of his vision, and then he's twisting the clutch, the motorcycle grumbling to life. He pushes off with his good leg (the one not leaking out all the blood in his body), the ground accelerating by. Shoulders swaying, he leans forward on the bike, blinking to focus on the road ahead, feeling disconnected from his body by the blood loss. Everything seems surreal, cast by the eerie glow of the stars.

Green mist around him, always around him and filling him through his lungs and his pores. He wants only to breathe clean, colorless air but its been years since that and all he can do is look at the world through emerald shades as the scientist stands before him in a long lab coat that should be white. Hojo. The man's name echoes through his head like a marble dropped on glass, leaving chinks in his mind as it bounces through. He's barely able to move, cheek pressed against the cold glass of his containment tube after another round of experiments. Hojo is watching him, staring with that humorless smile on his face, waiting. Watching and waiting.

"Yeeeeaaaah!" It takes him a slow, confused moment to realize Yuffie is chearing. "We did it! That'll show those scumbags."

Turning his head slightly, he asks in flat tones, "So you got it?"

"Well, duh, Spikey-head."

"Kid. Hey, Cloud. Can you hear me? We're going to get out of here, okay? And when we do, we're going to get those Shinra bastards." The voice sounds muted, bound by glass and mako. He tries to turn his eyes to see Zack, fists raised and eyes wide, floating in the tube next to him.

"Good," Cloud manages through fast breaths. He knows he doesn't have long until he passes out, but the first buildings of Edge are rising around them and he knows they are close, so close, and he needs to hold on just a little longer.

"Hey, Cloud? Cloud, are you okay?"

He doesn't answer.

&&&&&

Fingers trembling on the doorknob, he pushes his way into the Seventh Heaven, momentum launching him forward and legs stuck in time and space as his torso keeps moving, slamming into the floor of the bar and knocking the air out of his lungs with a gasp. The sound of Yuffie's voice is a distant buzzing and then there are others around him, all buzzing in his ears. A hand presses against his shoulder, another against his hip, rolling him over, but he blacks out before he can see who they belong to.

"Zack?" He's blinking uncontrollably and shaking so much. Raising a hand to his face, he stares at his pale, almost transparent skin, fluttering like a slip of paper in the wind, and he wonders if he's real.

"Hey, kid. You're awake!" The deep, gruff tones should sound excited, but they are too weighted, the edges of the words blunted and numb.

"Am I dead?" It feels so strange to be floating here in this green mist but he can't remember anything different. It's been so long. How long has it been since he's been alive?

"If you were dead, would I be here talking to ya?"

"Maybe you're dead too."

"I'm not dead!" Zack almost sounds indignant. "Look kid, when we get out of here, we're gonna take this whole place down, starting with that sick Hojo freak."

He begins coughing, feeling his body react from deep in his stomach and a pressure building up inside his head.

"Hey, Cloud… Are you okay? Come on, you can beat this, okay?" Zack sounds desperate.

A wheezing gasping fills the space of his containment tube and it takes him a moment to realize it's coming from him and that he's stopped coughing. Another few breaths and he tries to smile, feeling bad for that desperate voice but not really sure who it belongs to anymore. "It'll take more than a few experiments to take down a first-class SOLDIER like me, right?" He feels only half-conscious as he says it, voice not sounding like his own.

There is a short stretch of silence and then he hears, "Right, kid," before darkness mutes his senses completely.

He gasps awake, pushing his body upward with unsteady arms and looking around frantically. He's trying to figure out where he is and who he is and why. The airs slips out of his lungs as he sees the faces of Avalanche watching him, and as he realizes that he's sitting on his bed in his room at the Seventh Heaven. His eyes dart about until he finds Tifa's steady gaze, worry tightening her features. He focuses on that gaze, on the way her eyes get lighter in the middle, almost auburn, with dark brown outlining the irises. She's sitting beside him and he feels her hand press against his back between his shoulders.

"How do you feel?" she asks.

He looks down at his thigh and sees the leg of his pants ripped off at the knee and the bottom of a bandage that he can feel tight against his wound. Not answering her question, he asks, "How long was I out?"

"Three hours." The voice is Barret's.

Again, he looks around the room, feeling the tenseness, like a loaded gun waiting for the trigger to be pulled. He's the gun and they're waiting for him. "Yuffie," he says suddenly. "What did you find?"

"Well, it's about time you asked," she says, bouncing a little and speaking with upturned tones. Her short black hair shifts around her face and he remembers how young she really is. He wonders what it would have been like to experience being eighteen like her.

"I broke into the lab," she continues, "and wow, Cloud, I was so badass I took down like a gazillion guards, and then I poked around for a bit and I found their lab book, just like Reeve said there would be and man, Cloud, these guys are messed up."

His eyes widen and his leather gloves creek a little as he tightens his grip on the bed.

"Oh, don't worry, they're not doing any human testing or anything. Just animals." She holds up a thick maroon book. "And it kind of looks like they're trying to figure out a safe way to use mako as energy without hurting the planet."

He sighs, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.

"That's no guarantee they don't have other records somewhere for worse stuff that they're doing," Cid says.

"No," he responds slowly, "it doesn't." He's staring down at his hands in his lap, turning them over. There are rips in the black leather, and he sees the peach of his skin through them.

"Then what's the point?" asks Barret.

"To send Rufus a message." He stands then, putting most of his weight on his good leg. Gradually, he leans onto the other one, feeling the stabs of pain and the muscles convulsing, but it holds him up. "To tell him that we're watching." He turns and looks up at Barret, the large dark-skinned man standing against the wall by the window, massive arms crossed over his chest.

And then Barrett is laughing at him, big booming sounds that unload the tension in the room. "Wonder of wonders Spike-o. Looks like you're resorting to scare tactics. One of those Turks are gonna come kill you in your sleep."

Cloud smiles a little. "They can try," he says. And then, feeling the weight of all their expectations around him, he walks out of the room.

&&&&&

He stands outside, head thrown back and looking at the stars, the sounds of the Avalanche crew seeping out the doors of the Seventh Heaven behind him and dispersing in the night air. He's cold and shivering in the sleeveless ribbed fabric of his black top but he doesn't feel it, his mouth drawn in a tight line and the glow of the stars burning into the retinas of his unblinking eyes. It's her. She's inside of him, clawing her way across his mind with her teeth, splattering it with red that clouds his vision as her banshee screams fill his ears. "Come to me, my son."

Something warm touches his arm, a light touch too gentle to fit with the shredding of his mind, glaringly out of place and yet he still barely notices it, is still barely able to force his mind to register that someone is standing next to him. He stiffens and turns his head slowly to the slim, dark-haired figure, blinking to recognize her through the static in his mind that makes him think of bad cellphone coverage. All circuits are currently busy, please try again later.

"Tifa?" he manages to question quietly. His voice sounds digitalized, disconnected, and artificial.

She smiles up at him and he knows he must be staring at her blankly, trying to see her through the lightning flashes and snow in his vision. Her smile falters.

Blank eyes and long black hair lifted on the winds of pure mako energy and flowing around a grotesque body of amputated limps and decomposed flesh. The eyes open suddenly, pure blue and radiating outward with unnatural light. "Come to me. Come to mother." And he's reaching towards her, reaching out to grab the deformed shoulders and pull her towards him--

"Cloud?" Someone is holding his hand and shaking it lightly. "Come on, Cloud, let's go inside."

Cloud. That's my name. He looks down at Tifa again, not knowing when he'd looked away, and somehow he manages to notice the concern laced in the amber of her eyes. "I hear her…" he says suddenly, not knowing where his voice came from.

She holds his gaze for a moment, unmoving, and then something changes in her expression. Her head tilts downward, and he wonders if it's because she understands.

"Do you need to go see her?"

His eyes widen as he looks at her in horror, and then she's strangling him in the decayed grasp of her will, cold like icicles lodging in his eyes, his hands, his legs, his chest. She pulls him by these like a marionette on strings. "Yes… come see me. Come my son. Free me and together we'll sail the galaxies with this planet as our vessel…"

"…Aeris."

He blinks, breathing in sharply, realizing that Tifa has been speaking but missing all but that one word, that name, and knowing with a twist in his chest that no, she doesn't understand. He shakes his head violently and the motion dizzies him. It feels like he's falling, falling, falling into her—

"Jenova," he whispers through clenched teeth.

Tifa was talking again and she stops abruptly at his voice, her hand tightening its grip on his. "Cloud?"

He doesn't answer, confused by the name and not sure who she's talking to and where he is. Mother…

"Cloud." More forcefully this time. "We can fight this together. You're not alone."

He tries to focus on her, on the feel of her arms sliding around his sides to his back, the press of her warmth suddenly against his chest, the black strands of her hair brushing his chin. You're not alone.

But it's not solitude he fears. His fractured mind hasn't had that since Hojo's lab. It's being alone with HER. Jenova. Calamity of the skies.

He tries to focus on Tifa, on the details of her. He brings a hand up to run through her hair, forcing himself to see each individual strand as it slides over his fingers. He feels the press of her arms against his back and the splay of her hands against his shoulder blades, outlining them with his mind. He hears her breathing a little unevenly, hears Yuffie laughing somewhere behind inside the bar and Barrett's gruff yelling, hears the sounds of a wolf howling beyond the city limits and thinks of Zack…

"Tifa?"

She moves her head against his chest and looks up at him. At some point he'd put his arms around her but he can't really place when. It doesn't matter because he's holding her now in this moment and the static has finally cleared into the reality of the cold brush of the air against his cheeks and the starlight against the slope of her shoulders and the thumping of his heart in his chest.

She looks absolutely terrified. He runs a hand over her back gently. "It's okay, Tifa. I'm here."

Her lips stretch into a wide smile, the fear slipping out of her expression. "I know."

&&&&&

Sephiroth's voice comes sometimes too, with a sweep of white hair and too-bright green eyes, sharp like the steel point of a knife. For two years it plagued him incessantly, smooth deep tones clawing numbingly into his conscience: "Brother…"

It always started that way, with arsenic-laced, honey-smooth tones. "We have to find her. We have to find Mother." And then, as he would fight to ignore it, the voice would intensify. "Remember? Remember how I killed Aeris? Remember how I almost killed them all? You're nothing. You're a helpless, delusional weakling of a man that couldn't even make it into SOLDIER. Remember? Remember how you failed?" There would be a pause here, an eerie quiet that left him stumbling within himself, fists clenched and nails digging into his palms. And for two years he believed it and every time he closed his eyes he saw Sephiroth in a red haze, lightning strikes illuminating his face and the cryptic glint of his white teeth as his lips slithered up into something meant to be a smile.

For two years he couldn't escape that voice. But then Sephiroth returned in the body of Kadej and now it was easy.

"Shut the hell up. I killed you twice, you delusional madman. Remember? Get out of my life."

He feels Sephiroth slinking away, dissolving back into the depths of his consciousness, and Cloud crosses his arms, a barely perceptible smirk on his face and a smug glint in the brilliant blue of his eyes.

&&&&&

"Vincent."

Vincent Valentine turns his head slightly to look at him, stoic features unmoving.

Grabbing his mug of bear, Cloud takes a long swig and sets it down on the bar quietly before speaking again. "Do you ever hear voices? In your head, I mean."

Vincent regards him for a moment and then shifts on his stool to face forward again, hands placed in his lap and back stiff. It's sometime in the early morning and they are the only ones still awake. They've been sitting here in silence for hours, battling their own demons with an unspoken understanding. Dim light comes from a lamp in the corner and the place seems eerie in its emptiness. There is the sound of thumping upstairs and Cloud guesses that it is one of the members of Avalanche venturing out of bed to use the bathroom. From the heavy bluntness of the sounds, it's probably Barret.

"Yes."

Cloud turns to the other man, the read cape drawn tight around his shoulders. He has excellent night vision from the mako enhancements Hojo put him through and he sees Vincent's features clearly. There is no emotion in them, but he thinks the eyes look shadowed. "Yes?"

"That is what I said."

Cloud gazes down at the mug in his hands through half-lidded eyes. The amber liquid is almost gone. "How do you deal with it?"

Vincent makes a movement that Cloud takes to be a shrug. "I hide in a coffin and refuse to speak to anyone."

Cloud's eyes widen and the beer glints yellow in the sudden light. "What?"

"But I do not recommend that course of action."

Cloud examines the man now, sure that he is smiling even though the lips haven't moved. It occurs to him that Vincent might actually have a sense of humor. Then he realizes that he is also telling the truth. I hid too. Off and on for two years. "I tried hiding already. It didn't work."

Vincent doesn't respond, but he takes a swig of his drink, closing his eyes as he does. They are slow to open again.

"Vincent, what do you recommend?"

Vincent turns slowly toward him, then lets his gaze travel up to the ceiling. It's quiet now, but Cloud imagines them all sleeping upstairs, Denzel and Marlene tangled up in their covers and the rest of Avalanche spread throughout the bedrooms. "Being here," Vincent says.

Cloud imagines Tifa, curled up in a ball with a hand across her forehead like she usually sleeps. He thinks of the pictures the children drew of them a year ago that still hang on her bedroom wall. She'd snatched them from Denzel and Marlene's room when Denzel threatened to throw them out because he thought they looked "childish." He's in that phase now where he wants to be so old and Cloud has to be careful because Denzel will follow anything he does, no matter how stupid or how dangerous.

A slow smile forms on Cloud's lips. "I guess you're right." He pauses and then thinks of something. "Hey, remember when I asked you if sins could be forgiven? I said I was going to try."

Vincent looks at him, waiting.

"They can be."

And this time Cloud knows he sees the lips twitch just a little as Vincent says, "I'm glad."

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Coming soon… Step 2 - Rebuilding