Summary: Cloud has suffered and asked for forgiveness, but Aeris knows she alone cannot give him it. He must find that forgiveness and peace where it began, back at SOLDIER. SephirothxCloud
Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no money from this work. Anything recognizable to the Final Fantasy VII series and its associated parts belongs to Square Enix and affiliated companies.
Chapter One: The Walls are Closing In
In what was left of the old cafeteria of Shinra Headquarters, where the recruits and SOLDIERs had eaten so many years ago, great lumbering beasts walked now. Fiends that fed off the old mako in the labs had overrun the entirety of Shinra Company's compound and the surrounding area. No one bothered to clean it out anymore. There were few people strong enough to do it, and none of them wanted to go anywhere near it. After all the trouble Shinra had caused, the damage in Midgar and beyond, the area was finally feeling some measure of peace. Even the people of Edge rarely ventured near Shinra Headquarter's remains; leaving those demons alone.
The Shinra complex after Meteor was a pile of rubble for the most part anyway. The plate had completely collapsed and Shinra Headquarters had gone down with it, falling on its lower levels, crushing the labs except the deepest ones underground, and leaving debris for miles around. The entire underbelly of the tower was a ruin, and most of the labs were completely inaccessible—which luckily meant if no one could get in, it wasn't likely anything could get out. Later the top floor had been completely destroyed by Jenova's second reunion, furthering the total devastation of what had once been an empire. Now it was only habitable for the monsters that roamed the remains of Midgar.
Cloud Strife was among those few who could have cleaned it out, but Shinra was about the last place on the planet he ever wanted to see again. Still, he hadn't moved too far from it. Cloud had made himself a home a little ways outside the wreckage of Midgar. After saving the world and taking down the mighty Shinra Corporation with a small band of warriors, his name had spread to the reaches of the Northern Crater, Mideel, and beyond. Unable to escape this unwanted fame but not wanting to go too far from his closest friends, he had sought the solitude of the mountains outside Midgar and frequently made appearances in Edge to the delight of its people. Tifa's influence from Seventh Heaven, among threats and exaggerations, had kept the worst of his admirers away. Occasionally someone drifted close by, but the fiends that loitered between his home and Edge kept all but the most ardent people away.
He visited Edge almost twice a week. Tifa always had a spare bedroom for him if he didn't want to return home, and Denzel and Marlene were always thrilled to see him. Barret seemed to find it funny how 'soft' Cloud had gotten, but Tifa, suited to her motherly role over Denzel and Marlene, always admonished the larger man anytime he even mentioned it. Their home had a cozy, welcoming atmosphere, but Cloud never spent much time there. He had at first found their constant presence like a weight upon him, as though he was still their leader and they still looked to him for direction. Even as that feeling passed, Cloud felt stifled and withdrawn if he stayed longer than dinner. Over time Tifa and Barret had grown accustomed to him leaving suddenly and popping up again in a couple of days.
Cloud's delivery service still ran, mostly because he was at loose ends but no conventional work appealed to him. After Kadaj's gang shook up the tentative peace, he'd taken a break before starting up again. The miniature vacation had been more about reconnecting with himself and better clearing through the clutter of his mind. Many memories of Shinra were full of holes, and sorting through them seemed to only make it worse.
Though Cloud enjoyed the travel, and therefore fighting, of his delivery service, he didn't make enough to really support himself. Rufus Shinra, of all people, had surprisingly lent some of his aid—which Cloud had only taken after a lot of pushing. As long as Cloud cleared the road from Edge to Kalm of monsters once every two weeks and ran some special deliveries for the President, then he was afforded free provisions from Neo-Shinra.
Neo-Shinra worked closely with Reeve Tuesti's World Regenesis Organization (WRO) now. Slowly the company was clearing the blood off of the Shinra name. It still made basic commodities, like potions, antidotes, and simple armor, though it was not the all-encompassing empire its predecessor once was. Neo-Shinra was also no longer involved in providing electricity to the people, which had been the real powerbase of the old business. The company was growing in the eyes of the populace, especially after digging up and giving much information to the WRO about previous Shinra activities in an effort to improve their image. Cloud's association with them, even if it had little to do with actual business, only boosted this.
Cloud's delivery service gave him the chance to travel far and wide across the continent. He often dropped in on friends when nearby them and made a point of taking a short break when near Nibelheim to visit his mother's grave. The City of the Ancients was also frequented on days of note to Cloud, especially the anniversary of Aeris' death, the destruction of Nibelheim, and Sephiroth's demise. Cloud didn't cry, but those days seemed to fall when it rained, and the flowers he planted by the graves were always in bloom.
There was one more ritual Cloud always adhered to: on his way home, he would stop at the cliff overlooking Midgar. He would often stand in silence thinking of his best friend, of their history he could scarcely remember, and wondering about what could have been. Even though the buster sword had been moved to its new home in Aeris' church, the cliff was still Cloud's spot alone for Zack.
Despite the blond's generally brooding nature, he had managed to loosen up in the years of rest. He and Vincent saw each other rarely, since Vincent was even more of a lone wolf and prone to disappearing for months at a time. Still, the ex-Turk always showed up eventually, and was an excellent sparring partner because he remained one of the few capable of keeping up with Cloud's mako-enhanced speed. Barret had returned to Marlene in Midgar once he finally removed the gun from his metal arm and replaced it with a steel hand when the three remnants had been defeated. He raised her with Tifa at Seventh Heaven and treated Denzel like a son. Cloud had long acknowledged he was a poor father-substitute, and was rather thankful to not be relegated the job.
Cid still lived in Rocket Town and had finally married Shera. He continued to tinker with airships, rockets, and anything mechanical he could get his hands on—with the exception of Fenrir, which Cloud had been careful to maintain himself. The couple always had warm cider whenever Cloud was over, and he enjoyed it even if he would never admit it. Tifa had tipped them off that a young Cloud had been quite fond of it, much to his chagrin.
Yuffie had changed the most of all the members of AVALANCHE. Where she had been the annoying and exasperatingly high-spirited ninja, she had grown more mature with age. She still complained in a whiny voice and stole his materia occasionally, but becoming the leader of Wutai had mellowed her some. Cloud still found her difficult to handle for long periods of time, but no one could say she wasn't a great leader of her people.
Despite everyone he knew around the world and his fame, Cloud's social life was still stunted at best. He rarely spent more than a day or two with friends and went out of his way to avoid most cities and certainly crowds, finding solitude more to his liking. He could often be caught stargazing and roaming at all times of the day and night. His habits of wading into the ocean or disappearing into the hills and crags for days to come back bloody and ragged had gotten him a number of lectures from a worried Tifa.
Cloud knew that many of his friends were disappointed that getting a second whack at his arch-nemesis hadn't greatly changed him in the long run. Tifa and the others had believed he'd come to terms with his past history, but Cloud still struggled with it. It didn't weigh him down like it used to, but he couldn't escape it either. The remnants and that final fight had only added to the endless questions and what-ifs, not brought him true peace.
How long until he wasn't a memory again?
Another briskly cool night had fallen upon the mountains outside Midgar. Gusts of snow-laced wind had hit Midgar as the months of winter wound on. Cloud laid on his bed in his small, three-room house, the refrigerator full of Tifa's home-cooked food, and three photos sitting on the small table of the living room. A General, a SOLDIER, a cadet, and Tifa were in one. The other two on the right had all of AVALANCHE in it, one from after Meteor, one from after the three remnants returned.
The small refrigerator and the entire kitchen were bare except for the sink. It had three dishes and several mismatched cups that had yet to be cleaned. The living room was relatively spotless except for a number of bandages strewn about, some even dotted with blood. Cloud was often too tired to throw them out until the following morning, and left them like bits of an unraveled mummy strewn across his floor.
The sheer numbers of plants, however, overran the simplicity of the room. Every windowsill and table had at least some fern or flower on it. Cloud had taken up a small collection of various plant-life and let it flourish quietly in his home. Aeris' church no longer had her flower garden, but now a pool rimmed with her yellow and white blossoms. Cloud often ventured into Midgar just to visit her little spot, though usually early in the morning or as the day died, because much of the public visited it too. He resolutely refused to be upset by the loss of such a personal place. Instead he took from the remains of her garden seeds and had grown some of his own so that he could have a little bit of herself with him, just as he had a little bit of Zack inside him.
Beyond the kitchen and living room were two other rooms: a small bathroom connected to a marginally bigger bedroom. The entire place, all built by Cloud, was small, but Cloud had no need of anything bigger and didn't want for anything more.
The blond owner and builder of this house was curled up on top of his coverlet, the material having been kicked off at some point in the night, and restlessly moved in his sleep. Behind his lids his eyes roved about blindly in a green-haze. Like thick, sluggish water it wrapped around his form, suspending him in a void without any sense of time or place. Disoriented and afraid, he twisted and turned fruitlessly, struggling against the sheets. There was a constant painful pulse like a heartbeat that sent throbs of pure agony through his body. The more violently he moved the more the pain increased. Faintly glowing green eyes opened dazedly, not fully aware of himself.
Sitting up helped as Cloud got a feel for his surroundings. He sighed quietly as he slid off the bed and into the combined kitchen and living room. Resigned to another sleepless night, he took the last clean glass from the cupboard and filled it with water. Barely awake Cloud blinked his eyes several times; his senses slow to interpret the situation.
Everything bent and tilted around him for a moment, and a heavy sense of dread settled in his stomach. Like suddenly standing up and the blood rushing to his head, he closed his eyes to reign in the dizziness and the sudden urge to vomit. When he reopened them everything had straightened out and his stomach wasn't dry heaving, but the details seemed sharper and stood out more in his mind. The water from the sink and in the glass turned his hands a greenish, nauseating glow from the light.
Cloud pulled his hand sharply out from under the sink as the water began to overflow the cup and run over his fingers. The sudden burning sensation where his hand touched the liquid jerked his mind to a more functional state, and he reflexively dropped the glass.
It shattered. The uneven tiling of his floor was rained upon with droplets of green that left ugly splotches where they landed. Like mercury, the beads banded together and formed puddles of acidic chemical that would leave permanent dark green stains. Each individual piece of glass on the floor reflected a thousand times over the sickening green glow.
Startled as the fumes reached him, he gagged and choked on the searing smell and fumbled backwards to get away. He knew the burn and the scent that now overwhelmed his kitchen—knew it all too well. As he looked at his hand, it had taken on an unhealthy redness where the chemical touched him, and the area became irritated and sensitive to touch. The course flannel of his pants was harsh against it as he wiped his flaming hand against his thigh, only agitating the burn. Cloud recognized the feeling.
The bottoms of his bare feet stepped on the broken glass and cut into him, and his elbow connected solidly with the wall, but he was barely aware of the pain. He managed to throw open the two windows of the room, but the odor, like bile, would not leave his nose.
Blindly he turned from the smell and went back to his room, tracking blood on the floor. He slammed the door behind him a bit too hard, his muscles still agitated and twitching with repressed strength, and the door groaned and cracked at the force. Seeing the bed Cloud's whole body slumped as he sat down, holding his head in his hands, reigning in his breathing and trying to slow his frantic heart rate. He could have laughed if his throat wasn't closed so tight and he wasn't still short of breath. Already the smell was dissipating into the air, and Cloud breathed in and out slowly.
Imagining mako everywhere had been the least of the tricks his mind had played on him. Coming to the City of Ancients and seeing Aeris again, looking at his reflection in the church and seeing Sephiroth's eyes once more, all of these things had happened and nothing had come of them. Cloud's mind had led him long ago to believe he had been a First Class SOLDIER, that he had gone on missions, done amazing things, all untrue. It had betrayed him to Jenova's will and had turned him into a puppet when he handed over the black materia to Sephiroth. Even now the weakness of his shattered mind still haunted him with false vision after false vision.
Standing up again and feeling more tired than he had in weeks; the blond slipped off his flannel sleeping-pants and fell back upon the bed. Nude, the sheets rubbed against him like cool soothing fingers. The blond rolled on to his stomach to cool his hot body down. His hand pained him to even touch the soft pillows, and he let it dangle off the side instead. Cloud left the coverlet at the foot of the bed and sprawled out to attempt sleep. His tired mind ceaselessly moved though, and he did not sleep well.
The morning sun broke into the little room where its occupant stirred. Cloud slept so lightly that the barest morning rays were enough to shake him awake. Constant paranoia from army life and living in the open with Sephiroth and Hojo on the loose didn't allow Cloud a solid black slab of sleep anymore. Still groggy, he crossed to his dresser and pulled on the usual attire of the day: a sleeveless sweater along with loose military pants, and steel-toed combat boots.
The bathroom was small, with a couple of plants left by Marlene proliferating on the windowsill, and one lone toothbrush sat on the sink nearby. Cloud leaned over to grab it and began to meticulously brush his teeth.
The memories of the night before swam back into the forefront of his mind. Cloud pushed those away ruthlessly and, like a good soldier, separated himself from the pain and instead focused on the bland activity of brushing and spitting. He spat the last of it out and filled up a cup with water. The blond swirled it and gurgled once before spitting it out again, but stopped from repeating the action. The water had tinted the plastic cup green on the inside and warmed his marked hand. The burn from the night before became quite evident under the morning light.
In one violent motion Cloud dumped it all out into the drain, almost throwing the cup into the sink too. His eyes grew unnaturally wide as the chemical dribbled pooled at the bottom of the sink. His hands shook as he tried to refill the cup with water just to show himself it wasn't what it seemed. It proved to be impossible as more and more glowing-green filled his cup instead. Cloud backed away from the sink towards the door, drawing in a sharp breath, his face white and strained. He easily sidestepped the trashcan but his back hit the closed door.
Everything stopped around him as he tried to escape the images and desperately looked into the mirror. The familiar flop of blond hair and pale skin were strangely overshadowed by the luminescent orbs staring into a face as fearful as the one on the first day of SOLDIER recruitment.
Cloud was out the door and on his motorcycle as fast as his enhanced muscles could carry him. In his flight he stopped long enough in the living room to collect a handful of materia, which he stuffed into the pockets of his pants. Sudden escapes from inns and breaking camp fast in AVALANCHE had honed the technique of thinking on his feet where the military had not. First Tsurugi was strapped to his back in a flash. Cloud slid on the goggles and gunned Fenrir's engine. The accompanying roar of the motor matched the roar of panic in Cloud's ears as he took off into the desert.
He swerved madly around monsters and the arched noses and chins of cliffs, making hairpin curves and skidding sharply in his blind attempt to escape. He was panicking he knew, but he couldn't shake the hysteria clawing in his stomach. The desert sand and bright sun blinded him as the wind whipped around in a tumult, dragging on his clothes. At the back of his mind he knew that at the speed he was moving, he could be a mangled mess of metal and blood if he crashed. All the same he upped the speed, pushing his subconscious back where it belonged, kicking up debris behind him.
The ocean glimmered on the edge of the horizon, and Cloud didn't stop until Fenrir's front tire was washed clean by the tide. Breathing hard with exertion and finally feeling the harried panic dissipate some, Cloud dismounted and slipped off his boots and socks. He rolled up his pants to his knees and waded into the water.
If he looked far enough up the coast he could see the grey outline of Midgar. Where the once perpetual smoke-cloud had smothered it, there was an odd sense of wonder at being able to see it fully. Cloud imagined he could see the spire of Aeris' church from this distance. He had never slept in that church, though he'd lain there for hours, staring up through the hole in the roof at the sky. The nightmares that plagued him would have tainted the beauty of her home.
Cloud turned back to the ocean, feeling terribly worn, like he had finally stretched himself too far and he could no longer muster the will to fight it. Something in him felt far older than he was, and it tugged at his weary soul. As he stared out into the ocean he could remember a younger Cloud looking out at this same sight too. He could recall the uncomfortable bouncing in the back of a yellow pick-up truck, and the dreamlike quality of Zack's words. The ocean, he remembered, was where Zack washed his hands of the mako and cleaned Cloud's for him because he had been too weak to do it himself.
Cloud leaned down into the water and let it swirl about his burnt hand, wiping away the memory. There was something soothing in the caress of the ocean that calmed those black thoughts, like that moment when he'd felt Aeris reaching out to hold his hand. He waded further into the water ignoring the waves of the ocean pulling at his clothes, letting the peace and gentle rhythm of the water guide him to the shores of restful sleep, a place he hadn't been to in a long time.
He began to sway, the sides of his feet lifting off the rough sand and then back down with the surf, basking in the primal rhythm. He leaned his head back and felt the warmth of the sun on his face. His eyes gently shut, and then quietly, almost unknown to him, he began to fall.
He landed in a garden, the soft cushion of grass wonderfully familiar. Cloud looked up at the endless blue sky and wondered if his eyes had ever been that color—if they had ever been just normal. He could no longer remember what they had looked like. As a cadet he had never had mako treatments. Waking up long after Hojo had turned him into a lab rat, his eyes had changed forever, and his broken memory had forgotten who he had been before.
Aeris stood off to the side and slightly behind Cloud, letting him soak in the peace of her garden. He would not feel that calm for very long, and had already gone so long without, that she asked from deep inside her that he might feel that again. Slowly his eyes closed, and the delicate lashes caused tiny shadows to appear upon his fine features, too sharp from stress and burdens. Kneeling by his side she reached out a hand to his. Rubbing his knuckles and kneading his palm, she sang a soft, low song that her own mother had calmed her with long ago.
She could only hope Cloud could forgive her and himself.
Shinra was not so old-fashioned as to have a trumpet player wake its soldiers in the mornings. Instead they had an alarm someone had said long ago was like the screech of a castrated Behemoth.
Cloud had suffered enough of these wake-up calls to last a lifetime and thought he would never have to wake to it again. After all the commotion of his early life, waking up at the crack of dawn to silence was a blessing. When the sudden blare of the alarms shattered the silence of the room with a sudden cacophony of sound, Cloud was up like a shot, one hand under the pillow for the knife he kept there. With a particularly loud WHAM, Cloud's head connected with the bottom of the bunk above him.
He rubbed his forehead partially from pain but mostly from shock. His mind seemed to detach itself involuntarily as he took in the room.
It was a far too recognizable, with four sets of bunk beds spread about: two against one wall perpendicular to him, his own and the bunk above it to the left of the door, and the other set directly across from his. The walls were the dull gray steel and the floor a dirt-thin carpet in very faded red. The only windows were two small ones close to the ceiling that couldn't be opened. In all the bunks around him, people were beginning to stir. Cadets with long-forgotten faces and voices that recalled some of his most faded memories peeked out of covers and rolled over on pillows. Like ghosts, they stumbled out of bed and started their daily routine.
Someone dropped in front of him, and Cloud sharply pulled back, ready to flee or fight. One fist was already clenched in preparation, but the figure before him asked for a punch in the face for an entirely different reason.
"Up and at em'! Materia's today, and I don't want to miss a bit of it." The boy laughed easily, a bright smile on his face. The other cadets in the barracks were groaning at him but Cloud only stared. Daniel Gavish's face had been half-burnt off and warped with pain in his death. Cloud couldn't remember the circumstances, but that gruesome image swam right into focus as he stared at him, perfectly numb with shock.
"You're back in the clouds, Cloud." In a singsong voice at a near-painful octave this early in the morning, Dan's hips wiggled in a gesture not unlike a smug Yuffie. Cloud twitched in response, his fist whitening with tension, hearing those words echo from long years past. "Can't miss theory or Sergeant'll have your ass." The boy waved and practically skipped out of the room, fully dressed and ready to go. The other boys, done pulling on their own clothes by now, fished out any necessary books and paper and also began to leave. As they trickled out, a painful cold settled over Cloud's chest.
The very last of them spared the blond a glance. He said nothing as he left.
Cloud sat in the silence of the room carefully counting his heartbeats to reassure himself this simply couldn't be real. Then in one violent motion he turned and punched a fist into the steel wall. His knuckles broke and bled, but for Cloud the pain was insignificant in comparison to the overwhelming truth. He swallowed harshly. Something was at work here, something that didn't take into account his feelings or care that this would be the string to unbind him. With a frustrated cry, Cloud slammed his other fist into the same wall, not even denting the metal and ignoring the smarting it caused. Both hands bled rivets, and Cloud knew his face was screwed up and red from all of the emotions going through him. He couldn't name half of them, but he could feel the hot, blinding press of them clamoring for room.
Vomit crept up his throat again, and his eyes began to burn. Ruthlessly he suppressed both urges and lowered his head, searching for his stoic strength.
More in control now, he relaxed his arms but kept the knuckles in place before allowing them to come away from the wall to splay out his hands, palms pressed against the steel wall. He couldn't pull his eyes away from the image of his red and bloodied hands, and soon the burning behind his eyes messed up his vision until his trembling hands were blurring with the wall. Too much emotion that couldn't be suppressed left him unable to remove his hands or stop himself from pushing as hard as possible against the walls of the barracks. He pushed against the insurmountable walls of the room, struggling blindly to fight the inevitable.