"It's a hard thing to decide, knowing that you can change the past you hate, but by doing so, risk every inch of the future."
Cloud jerked his head up as Marlene's spontaneous laughter echoed outside his bedroom door. The patter of feet ran past, signaling that Denzel was probably chasing the girl in a game of some sort. To be able to see such happiness in the children, in Marlene only three months after Geostigma was cured, was a miracle in itself and one he guiltily knew he should be thankful for.
"Cloud, Marlene, Denzel! Dinnertime!"
He sighed and stood from his seat on the edge of his bed and headed downstairs. He still wasn't really used to this whole "family" thing, staying in one place for so long. Staying here, at Tifa's Seventh Heaven in Edge. She had recreated it as best she could after the end of Midgar, after they'd defeated Sephiroth and destroyed Meteor, and had some semblance of a life back.
And yet, he still wasn't comfortable. He'd spent two years with his delivery service, trying to avoid any contact with his old friends. He'd tried to sever it all, never answering back to them no matter how many messages they had left on his cellphone, but he had been unable to completely throw them away. Unable to really let go. Was it this same reason that had caused him to somehow find himself at that woman's place and make this…insane wish?
She smiled as she saw him and welcomed him to the dinner table. Tifa Lockheart was an average-in-height girl, and one given to a lot of smiling with half the chance. Lately she was always happy. Her reddish brown eyes were warm and full of caring and he knew she was a wonderful woman and a happy mother, with how she had cared for Marlene and Denzel. Half the time lately, when he looked at her, he couldn't even tell she was a grade-A martial artist who had helped him defeat Sephiroth two years ago.
"Barret should be back soon. Aren't you glad, Marlene?" she commented as she set out the supper she habitually prepared every day at six o'clock.
Barret Wallace was Marlene's adopted father and also one of the biggest men that Cloud had ever seen. Not only was the man 6'4, but seemingly built of pure muscle. Having one arm grafted as a gun ended up making him look like a weapon in every aspect. But despite that, the big man was a pushover when it came to his sweet, nine-year-old daughter.
Tifa caught his eye when he sat down and he smiled back as best he could, even if his thoughts were still consumed by the tiny bottle upstairs. Even he wasn't dense enough to not notice that Tifa certainly…'favored' him. He could remember when he was child how he'd had a crush on her and at one point in his life, he would have been jumping for joy and gladly taken advantage of that, but he found that now he was no longer interested in her that way. She was just a close, childhood friend that had always stuck by him no matter what and he couldn't imagine that feeling changing now.
As usual, he let Tifa, Marlene, and Denzel talk as they liked and didn't say much. He was getting better, but some part of him still remained reserved and unnerved about the whole situation. He had told Vincent Valentine, the former Turk who had suffered Hojo's terrible experiments, that he was going to seek forgiveness for himself, but he wasn't sure how he was going to do it.
That was where she had come in. He hadn't known how strong his wish was until she appeared or he had found his way to her, he wasn't sure which it was at this point. She had told him the price for his wish was very high, but he could do it. He could fix everything.
"This vial…put the contents of it in a glass of water and drink it when you go to sleep. Make sure no one but you drinks it." He remembered her smile, then, which was so serious despite it felt like it should have seemed otherwise. "This is a heavy price, though, if you use it. You can't go back. It's a one-way ticket, Cloud Strife. Every inch of the reality and future you have now will be gone and it will never happen again. If you fail in whatever you go back for, there is no guarantee that you would be able to stop your enemies again. More than just one of your friends could die this time. Should you use this, you will forever be giving up what relationships you have now and also the relationships those around you have for others. Do you want to give up everything you have worked so hard for? This is your price if you use this."
But was it worth it? Was it really worth destroying the past seven years of his life and everything he had ever worked for? Was it right for him to make a choice that encompassed the whole world? He would be taking Marlene and Denzel away from each other, though they would never know it. What about the rest of his friends and the lives they had finally single-handedly carved out for themselves with what they were given in life? Especially now, since it seemed like they had just this fragile reign of peace going?
And most of all, if it happened again, could he go through seeing Nibelheim, his hometown, being destroyed once more? Could he stand seeing Tifa break down in tears at her dead father's body? Watch as his most beloved of role model's go insane with corrupted knowledge of what he was, that by the time the real truth came out, that he was already unsalvageable? Could he stand there and have another front row seat as Sephiroth stabbed Aeris Gainsborough, the last Ancient and close friend, through the heart another time?
That was his real price, he thought to himself. If he failed, he'd have to see all of it happen all over again and there was the very distinct possibility, a gut feeling in his heart, that it would be so much worse than what they had just gone through now. If he had to, he thought he would break. Should he try to beat the odds when he wasn't sure he could survive the odds beating him?
"Cloud? Is something the matter?"
He jerked his head up as Tifa's worried voice sliced through his preoccupation. He managed a reassuring smile as Marlene and Denzel cleared their plates and brought them to the sink. "I'm fine, Tifa. Just not feeling very well tonight, is all."
She glanced down at his nearly untouched plate of food. "Uh huh. Well, if you're not feeling well, you should go to bed and rest early."
"I think I will," he replied, latching onto the suggestion like a lifeline to escape back to his room. For the past week he had found his thoughts all consuming about this little bottle and this chance.
Part of him whispered that this was too good to be true. That there was no way this could ever actually happen. A voice in his subconscious told him that he had no idea how good he really had it, how easy the battle against Sephiroth had ended up when it could have been so much worse. Could he willingly throw away the success that they had achieved just for the possibility that he could make it so that it would never happen in the first place?
He knew if he asked his friends that they'd tell him the woman had given him a load of bullshit. That there was no way such a miracle could ever truly happen. It would just be a fragile dream. Those that might actually believe it held that power, probably led by Tifa, would tell him not to. To not risk all that they had just for a possibility.
It was the reason that only he could drink this that he hadn't already mentioned it before to at least Tifa. He knew she'd just be worried if he told her, so he didn't plan on it. No, whether or not he chose to do this, he would keep this secret from everyone.
Cloud dropped to lie on the bed, staring at the ceiling, but now his nerves were tense knowing that that little bottle was just in reach of his hand. He'd never been more torn in his life. Would it, could it, possibly even work? Did he want to take the chance that he could save one life, while at the same time risking even more if he couldn't do it?
His thoughts circled around to repeat the same worries, like a needle stuck in a groove and he kicked off his shoes absently. The sounds of life below his window filtered up and he just listened to the ambiance. Both Tifa and Aeris had said to him that he had dilly-dallied when he had hesitated during the fiasco with Kadaj and his gang. Was that all he was capable of doing? He didn't feel right anymore, ever since the final battle with Sephiroth. He feared making decisions, lest they bring more deaths. He had lost confidence in himself.
After Kadaj, he had gotten some of that back, some of that life, and had made at least some peace in himself, but he still remained as hesitant as ever to make decisions. He wanted that confidence back, in full. He wanted to feel like himself again, in a way that he hadn't been for two years. Back then, he had known exactly what to do and was willing to do anything to achieve it. He hadn't ever hesitated, just headed straight for Sephiroth, no matter where in the world he had chosen to go.
Now he found he lacked a goal. For years, it had all been about Sephiroth and the crisis. Now when facing nothing but a regular life, having no choice but to deal with the grief of Aeris' death and his own failures, he found himself out of sorts and without anywhere to look ahead to.
Cloud hated that feeling.
He sat up and swung his legs over, snatching the bottle and staring at its inner contents through the glass. It wasn't a liquid since when he shook the bottle, it could hear a faint tinkling sound. He didn't like hesitating. He didn't like feeling like he wasn't walking, but baby-stepping forward in his life. All the sadness and grief that they had all experienced…this was a chance to erase it all and start with a clean slate. To prevent Aeris' death so she could live, for if there was any girl who deserved it, it was her.
His grip tightened on the glass and he stood up to detour to the bathroom for a glass of water. He uncorked the topper and watched as tiny little black, hard pieces of powder hit the water he had poured and dissolved. He held it up to the light, but the water remained the same, as if nothing had once been dropped in.
The warrior frowned and steeled his resolve, Aeris' face flashing through his mind's eye and how lively she had been. It didn't taste like anything but water and he drank it all. He didn't pass out and he didn't feel strange. In fact, he felt the same as before. Was it possible it really was all a hoax? He peered into the bottle, seeing only a few straggles of powder left. Though he wasn't sure if it meant anything, or anything would come of it, he gently filled the small vial with a little bit of water and got the dredges down his throat.
If it really did work and the woman's instructions were to be followed, he didn't want to chance anyone else having any of it and suffering ill consequences.
Though it wasn't really night, he decided to sleep anyway, since she had told him to only drink it before he went to bed. With the sound of humming from Tifa downstairs in his ears as he slid between the sheets, his skepticism flared up and said that it probably meant nothing. And yet, the moment he had made his decision, he felt better. As if he was no longer standing still while everyone else continued to walk forward toward their futures.
--Minor notes here and for the future: eye color is a bitch. Later in chapter 2, Sephiroth's original eye color is unknown to me. In the game, it's turquoise, but when I looked reallllllly closely at the like one closeup shot of Sephiroth's eyes in AC, they were silver, so...I chose my explanation as I did and I think it worked.