Disclaimer: Just so I don't have to write this thing over and over again, I'm telling y'all right now that I own nothing, just copies of Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, the Advent Children soundtrack, and Final Fantasy VIII. Said titles and their settings and characters belong to Squaresoft/Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts and all associated titles, characters and ideas belong to Square Enix and Disney. They're far richer and infinitely more creative than I am. If I were that kind of ass-kicking cool, I wouldn't be writing fanfiction in my spare time.
AN: Completely revised/rewritten as of 13 January 2008. Many thanks to wolkevompinguin for the beta.
High above on the horizon, the sky and the ocean below it were awash with the bright colors of sunset. Oranges mingled with shades of purple and pink before giving way to the nighttime blues that crept in from the east. A soft breeze, enough to lessen the effects of the heat without chilling those people who had ventured outside to watch perhaps one of the most beautiful natural wonders, played about their hair, causing the strands to tickle any bare skin they touched. It was calm. It was perfect.
Casting glances at the two adults seated on either side of him on the roof they'd chosen for the evening, the young Keyblade master felt he'd done the right thing in asking them to join him for the evening. It had been awkward, asking them, but in the end, the awkwardness faded, replaced instead by a familiar sort of ease that he could understand without truly understanding it at all. And was he ever grateful for that initial nervousness to be gone! He didn't want to leave in the morning without having gotten to spend some time with his hero and the young woman whose strength and loyalty he admired so much. No, he wanted his last evening in Radiant Garden to paint some of the most beautiful and treasured memories he'd ever make in his lifetime.
It wasn't as though he'd get to do this when he returned home. Not the way he was now.
And so, over hot dogs and burgers they ordered from a stand in the marketplace – the Keyblade master could still barely contain the giggy excitement he'd felt when his hero fished one of the hot dogs out of the paper sack and handed it to him – they told stories of their childhoods, their adventures, laughing as the evening wore on. They fell silent when the colors in the sky intensified. He leaned into the young woman's shoulder a little while still being hugged tight against his hero's left side. Not since his quest began had be felt so thoroughly happy. Everything – he hoped – was okay now. Everything would finally be okay. Having seen what he'd seen, having done what he'd done, it was all he could ever hope for, he realized. He'd learned so much in the last two years, but learning to hold onto his hope was the most powerful lesson of all.
"Did you know that Cloud and I used to do this when we were kids?"
The Keyblader glanced up at the young woman, whose ruby-colored eyes sparkled brightly as she smiled at him. He hadn't expected either adult to break the silence, even though the young woman was infinitely more open, therefore approachable, than the young man holding them both. "Really, Tifa?" Privately, the boy hoped he sounded surprised. It wouldn't do for him to sound skeptical or sarcastic. Nor would it do for him to sound as though he already knew what she was telling him.
"Uh-huh. We would sneak off in the afternoon – Cloud was already a bit of an explorer so no one paid his slipping off much attention – and sit at an old well in our village an watch the sun sink down over the mountains." Tifa ruffled the boy's hair with her right hand, which had been resting on his shoulder since Cloud put an arm around both of them. "I've seen a lot of sunsets since then. None of them really compare to a sunset in the mountains."
The boy smiled a little, remembering the days when his mother would go with him out to the island to watch the sunset when they didn't watch it from the roof of their house. "I've always watched the sun set over the ocean…I've never really watched it set over mountains before."
Beside him, Cloud snorted a little. There was a distinct lack of humor in the sound, and the man's face was as blank as ever. When he spoke, though, his tone held notes of amusement. "You're missing out, then, Sora."
Sora snorted before he could stop himself. "Nah. From what you've told me, it gets really cold in your hometown. I've had enough snow to last me a lifetime." He then told them about his adventures in ancient China with a girl named Mulan. At first, neither adult reacted when Sora described running around in the cold in naught but shorts and a t-shirt. Having grown up in the mountains of Nibelheim, both Cloud and Tifa were fairly immune to the cold. When the lad mentioned having to slog through waist-deep snow in said outfit, however, Cloud shuddered while Tifa scolded him. As accustomed to the cold as they were, both adults had sense enough to bundle up to protect themselves from the elements when there was snow on the ground.
The grown man only listened with half an ear while Tifa continued her scolding of their younger companion. It was a habit he'd gotten into lately, as much as he hated himself for it. When he heard Sora's somewhat sarcastic, mostly playful -- and strangely disconcerting – utterance of, "Yes, Mom," Cloud fought to suppress the shivers that threatened to run the length of his spine. He glanced at the boy, an eyebrow raised curiously. He wasn't sure if he should feel relieved or annoyed when Sora didn't notice.
Cloud decided to let his annoyance go. He didn't want to spoil the easy camaraderie with a sour attitude. It was a miracle he hadn't put Sora in a sanatorium yet. Spirits knew everyone else was close to committing themselves if they weren't already thinking about putting him in a padded room. "We're going to miss you when you go," he murmured sincerely. Cloud noticed the way Tifa blinked in surprise, taken aback by his sudden and inexplicable willingness to share his feelings when he was normally so reserved.
Sora looked at the young man in something akin to genuine curiosity. "You mean it?" The boy's tone held a note of skepticism that made their female companion forget her own surprise and giggle.
Cloud regarded the boy stoically. For reasons he could not completely understand, he was always startled by the boy's resemblance to him; the nearly exact same gravity-defying hair style, if brown instead of blond, and those same blue eyes made him feel as if he were looking himself in the mirror. Hiding his astonishment well behind a mask of cool regard, Cloud took his time to answer. It seemed to his companions as though he were deciding if Sora could be trusted with such information. Finally, after stretching the silence precariously close to the breaking point, Cloud nodded slightly. "Yeah."
He watched Sora smile, the boy's blue eyes sparkling a little in a fashion eerily familiar to Cloud's ever-observant gaze. It surprised him when Sora remained silent, yet still firmly attached to his side. Why the boy admired and idolized him was beyond reckoning. The brooding swordsman felt he'd done nothing to warrant such…respect. Still, the boy had invited him to spend the evening with him. How could he refuse? "Sora,"
Sora blinked in surprise before his expression shifted to one of barely-concealed nervousness. "Yeah?"
The young man hesitated for but a fraction of a second. "Thanks."
The boy only grinned broadly before returning his gaze to the horizon, though he did snuggle closer against his hero. On Sora's other side, Tifa smiled at Cloud and leaned over to kiss his cheek softly the way she did before he'd go out somewhere. Cloud decided he did not mind if Sora crowded his personal space or if Tifa touched him, though at present he wasn't one to truly reciprocate such affections. He felt didn't deserve them. However, he did get a chance to see if his hypothesis was indeed correct. That smile Sora showed him was definitely one Cloud had seen before, though on another face. It was a face he knew very, very well.
As the sun sank lower and lower on the horizon and the light faded in the streets of Radiant Garden, Cloud, Tifa and Sora remained on the roof they'd been sitting on all evening. Cloud couldn't remember a time when he'd felt so peaceful after escaping Shinra, aside from those quiet moments he and Tifa shared at various points in their adventures together with their friends. He missed those times. Not necessarily the times when their lives were in danger, but those wonderful, quiet moments in between when the world faded away. Those brief periods where they could forget about everyone and everything else except each other.
How strange, he thought, that he could feel so at ease with a boy he barely knew – a familiar, beloved soul in a stranger's skin.
The question slipped from his mouth before he could stop himself. "Where will you go?"
Sora stifled a yawn. "Home." He glanced at Cloud, as if stunned that the blond warrior had willingly spoken to him without prompting from Tifa or someone else. He averted his eyes quickly to keep Cloud and Tifa from seeing his emotions play across his face as they were. "I've gotta go back to my mom. We're all we've got."
Tifa and Cloud exchanged looks. A familiar tale from a stranger's tongue. The young woman's brow furrowed in concern. "What happened to your dad?"
Sora shrugged, a gesture which suddenly seemed much too Cloud-like. "He died when I was a baby. I don't have any memories of him. My aunts and uncles talk about him all the time even though Mom won't, and there are a lot of pictures. Riku's mom has known Mom for a while, and she knew Dad. Every time she sees me, she says Dad was a great guy and he would've been proud of me." A note of wistfulness crept into the boy's voice, joining the tones of bitterness in a serenade known all too well by the adults he sat with. Tifa had grown up without her mother and lost her father when she was fifteen. Cloud never knew his father, and like Tifa, lost his mother when he was in his teens – the night Sephiroth went on a rampage and slaughtered the citizens of Nibelheim.
For a while the two young adults didn't know what to say in response to the chilling confession. Cloud didn't know what to think. Something that felt wrong, disgusting – wrong! –settled in the pit of his stomach. The boy's admission nauseated him. And he didn't know why it bothered him so much, which agitated him further. He wanted for Sora to laugh, to tell them he was joking. But the boy remained silent, the bitterness rolling off him like waves into shore. Still, Cloud felt he had to say something without dropping hints that he knew something he wasn't supposed to. "I'm sure your father would be proud of you." Truthfully, Cloud felt that was likely the case. The boy's father would be insane if he weren't proud of his son. Glancing at Tifa from the corner of his eye, the blond man saw that she too felt the nausea he was feeling, that she seemed to think it impossible for anyone to feel anything other than pride for what the boy had done.
"Cloud's right, Sora," Tifa asserted softly, but firmly. Cloud nodded when she lifted her eyes briefly to meet his before gazing at Sora once more. "If that's not enough for you, just think of how proud we both are of you, okay?"
The boy seemed to seriously consider the young woman's words before nodding slowly. "Yeah, okay. Thanks Tifa." He lifted his eyes to first meet the young woman's gaze, then to meet Cloud's, nodding again, this time with greater certainty. In the gathering dark of night, the sun having fully disappeared below the horizon, the boy's blushing face was barely visible. Only the light given off by streetlamps revealed the pink stain in the boy's skin.
With the sun now gone to bed, Cloud decided it was time for them to head back. There was no sense of urgency in the young man's voice or in his actions. He was very relaxed. They could take their time returning to Merlin's house. He felt that Tifa and Sora would like it if they walked around the town for a while first.
He hoped they would leap at the chance to drag the evening out as much as possible. It would give him time to think and observe. To withdraw without letting on that something was bothering him.
As he thought about it, Cloud snorted inwardly. There was always something bothering him, and people always seemed to know when he was disturbed. Tifa and Aeris were especially in tune with him. He wondered if Zack would be as in tune with him as the aforementioned women. Given the way they'd bonded in Modeoheim, Cloud determined that he wouldn't at all be surprised if Zack could see right through him as Tifa and Aeris could.
Speaking of Zack, where was he? Why wasn't he in Radiant Garden with Aeris?
The swordsman raised his head, glancing around before resting his eyes on Tifa and Sora, who stood a few paces ahead of him. Both sported looks of concern. Were it not for the guilt he now felt for having caused them to worry, Cloud would have frowned slightly upon noticing that Sora's expression was a mixture of both concern and irritation.
He knows something.
No one – except Aeris – knew. Cloud hadn't told them. He thought it best that they didn't know. Hopefully, by disappearing from their lives, he could fade away. No one would remember him.
Perhaps that was part of the reason he found Sora's presence to be so disconcerting, Cloud thought. Cloud Strife wasn't as clueless and dense as people routinely thought him to be. He was just prone to ignoring that which he decided he didn't like. And Cloud decided that he didn't exactly like the way Sora was looking at him. It gave him hope, even though he felt he had none.
The boy wasn't exactly clever – he was far from it, actually – but Sora was evidently rather good at hiding things from others despite being an open book.
Sora's appearance, his mannerisms…they told Cloud of something he probably had no right knowing. They told Cloud far more than words ever could.
"The truth would be nice, Sora."
The words fell from Cloud's tongue like dead weight. Immediately, the easy camaraderie shattered like tempered glass. Cloud realized the atmosphere had changed to that of parents confronting their child with their desire for the truth in the face of a lie. He remembered it from his childhood. He remembered it from the times he and Tifa caught Marlene and Denzel in the act of making mischief. Neither position was enjoyable. It was even less enjoyable now, having come to the conclusions he'd reached within the last few minutes.
When Sora remained unwilling to answer, Cloud ventured toward the boy. "You knew me when you saw me. You knew Tifa when you saw her. You know Yuffie. Your friends know us too. How do you know us?"
He kept his eyes on Sora, but in his peripheral vision, Cloud noted the look of resignation on Tifa's face. She noticed too, he mused to himself. He would have allowed himself to wonder at how amazing it was that Tifa always seemed to think along the same lines he did, but Cloud quickly shut off that traitorous part of his mind. Thoughts such as those were dangerous. If he ignored what Sora's presence meant for him – which he was rather intent on doing – then it would only hurt Tifa. Tifa was all Cloud had left. He couldn't bear to bring her any further pain. Getting involved with her, only to leave her forever…no. He couldn't hurt her like that. It would kill him hundreds, thousands, countless times over to do that.
They knew the bittersweet feelings of having known something beautiful – home, family, friendship – only to have it ripped away. Cloud wanted to spare Tifa, and therefore himself, the fate of Zack and Aeris.
But this boy. This boy here before them. What he represented made the swordsman's heart swell with dangerous feelings: love, happiness, and hope.
"You know already," Sora murmured quietly, voice almost inaudible in the evening hum of the town. His admission confirmed the swordsman's ideas. He had been correct. "Why do you need to ask me?"
Cloud continued toward the boy, stopping just within arm's reach. "Because I want answers."
The warrior felt a surge of pride when Sora raised his eyes – blue eyes shaped like his mother's – defiantly. The boy came by his stubborn streak honestly, Cloud thought. "And what happens if I tell you, Cloud? Will I still be born?"
As much as Cloud wanted to say, "no," he couldn't bring himself to. Instead, he nodded slightly. "There are things that have to happen, or so I've been told. You're one of them."
His words seemed to soothe the boy, for Sora relaxed – not much, for he still retained a high level of wary suspicion, but enough to appear ready to talk. Cloud decided to wait him out. If Sora wanted to drag his feet, that was okay. The blond man was willing to stand there for an eternity if need be until he got his answers.
And Sora finally appeared to understand that. He laughed humorlessly. "Reno was right. You are as unmoving as a rock, Dad."
Sora shook his head, seeing the bewilderment writ so clearly into Cloud and Tifa's faces. He'd had a feeling he wouldn't be able to hide the truth from them for long. He was just surprised that Cloud had been the one to ask, instead of Tifa. Looking back on his own memories, however, Sora knew that Tifa would never have asked him. She and Cloud were a rather lot alike. Both were as stubborn as mules, and they both liked to ignore things. As Reno had put it, it took the couple a while to be up front with one another about their feelings.
Glancing between the couple before him now, Sora knew he'd have to let them get together in their own time. As for the opportunity that was glaring like an overexposed photograph, Sora knew there was never a better chance to take it. He could still save them.
Lowering his gaze to stare at his feet, Sora breathed nervously. "My name is Sora Lockhart-Strife," he murmured quietly. He didn't want to see their reactions. If he looked now, Sora knew he'd run away. He'd do what his dad was doing now – running away. "My father is Cloud Strife…and my mother," he paused, voice shaky. "My mother is Tifa Lockhart."
Heavy silence fell over the small group. The scent of hope permeated the air before thoroughly saturating it until the atmosphere all but bled it. Sora knew that a good portion of that hopeful anticipation was coming from Tifa, but the more cautious version of the same feeling, the more dominant sense, came from Cloud. The lost, forlorn look that had dulled Cloud's eyes wasn't gone, but there was a spark hidden in those striking blue depths now. Sora could feel it. The weight of that darkness Cloud carried with him lifted, if only just a little. It was enough. It had to be enough.
There was so much Sora wanted to tell them. There was more still that he couldn't. He couldn't tell them everything he knew. He couldn't tell them what he didn't know. If there were rules to be followed, Sora didn't know what they were. Best to say as much as possible without saying too much. It was a principle Vincent and Tseung impressed upon him from the time he was old enough to understand.
But how much was too much?
A pair of strong, masculine arms closing around him drew him back to reality. "Neither of us dies that easy, Sora."
"You're a hypocrite."
He felt Cloud jerk as if he'd been scalded, or perhaps hit with an electricity-based spell instead. Given the man's general immunity to the cold, Sora thought a vat of ice water wouldn't shock Cloud nearly as much as the other two. "What makes you say that?" He heard and felt Cloud's voice rumble against his ear.
"You don't believe that about yourself." Sora kept his voice soft so that only Cloud could hear the words even with Tifa standing so close to them.
Sora didn't know if he was relieved or disappointed when Cloud did not respond. He did not want to hear any claims denying Cloud's hard-held beliefs that he would die after fighting so hard – and so long – to survive. The man was a survivor. Sora had grown up hearing the tales told by members of his extended family. Only the stories his mother and Tseung told him described everything in full. Of course Mom and Tseung would know best, after Dad himself, anyway.
"You get through everything because you've got it in you to stay alive," Sora heard himself say. "We need you…me and Mom…we need you to stay with us."
We need you…
Cloud couldn't find it within himself to argue. How could he?
And yet, he couldn't bring himself to fully believe the boy's words, either. He'd let two dear friends die. He'd let Tifa get hurt more than a few times. He himself was dying. What good was he if he couldn't protect those he cared for? What good was he if he couldn't protect himself? What good did a sick, dying man do anyone?
Easy. The sick, dying man who failed his loved ones on a continual basis did nothing.
But Sora's words struck a chord deep inside his heart, stirring his soul in the process.
Sora shook his head. "I can't tell you. Just please, please. Be careful. Don't give up."
Cloud looked at Tifa then. She seemed as equally uncomfortable with the situation as Cloud did. The swordsman felt guilty again, this time for having confronted Sora about this with Tifa around. He supposed her discomfort stemmed from knowing that in time, she would be a mother, to her best friend's child no less. Cloud knew Tifa loved him. For God's sakes, he loved her too, he really did. He just couldn't imagine how Tifa felt. Removing one arm from around Sora's lanky teenage shoulders, Cloud invited his childhood friend to join the embrace as a measure of comfort. To his relief as much as his chagrin, the young woman accepted. "He won't give up, Sora," Tifa said firmly. "We won't let him."
Face still pressed into Cloud's front, the adults heard Sora snort.
The swordsman sighed heavily. Promises were dangerous things to make. The promise to Tifa when they were kids. The promise he'd made to Zack. The promise to Aeris.
He was horrible at keeping promises. And here he was, about to make another one.
It was a promise, however, he knew he needed to make.
"We'll be fine, Sora. I promise."
Sora snorted again. This time, he finally brought his arms up to hug Cloud tightly. "You'd better be."
They spoke no more, breaking the moment only to walk around the town. Cloud kept an arm around Tifa's waist, the other around Sora's shoulders. Only when the clock struck midnight did they turn back, their feet carrying them to Merlin's house. The camaraderie had returned. There was a lighter, warmer feel to it now. And Cloud decided he was going to enjoy it while he still had it. Even if he never knew this again in his lifetime, he was glad to have known it, if only for an evening.
Leon was waiting for them when the old wizard's house finally came into view. Aeris stood a ways behind him. Both were smiling, though Leon's smile wasn't as noticeable from a distance as the flower maiden's. As they drew closer to the house, Leon stepped out to meet them. "We may never meet again, but we'll never forget each other." His smile widened a little, taking on a warmer glow as he regarded Sora with a degree of fondness they never saw when the brunet smiled at anyone else.
Cloud allowed Sora to shrug his arm off in favor of embracing the Gunblader tightly. "Thanks for everything, Leon."
To everyone's surprise, Leon chuckled a little. "You can call me 'Squall,' Sora. It's okay if you do, now."
The blond man and his martial artist companion watched bemusedly as the boy claiming to be their son slowly recovered from his shock to grin brightly at the Gunblader. "If you say so, Squall."
Squall snorted, then gently pushed the boy back. "Riku and Kairi are waiting up for you. Get to bed."
"Yes, sir!" Sora said, snapping to attention and giving a mock-salute to the restoration committee's leader. Stopping only to hug Aeris and exchange pleasantries with her, Sora darted inside. Once his pounding footsteps faded up the stairs, Leon – Squall – and Aeris turned to the blond swordsman and the martial artist he held close.
"You took longer than we thought you would," Squall stated. "He tell you?"
Cloud nodded, but it was Tifa who answered. "He's ours. I can't explain it, but it's like my body knows him." She looked at Aeris pointedly, but the Ancient only smiled. Tifa sighed, slightly frustrated. "I understand that there are things he can't tell us, but what I want to know is why he didn't walk away. Why did he stay so close to us?"
"He wants to know the man his mother loves," Aeris said simply, her warm green eyes resting on Cloud.
Squall regarded Cloud as well. "Don't disappoint him, Strife."
Cloud snorted. "You act more like his father than I do."
The Gunblader snorted. "You're not the only one who had a kid show up." He motioned to the inside of the house upon seeing the questioning looks Cloud and Tifa wore. "Kairi looks like Rinoa."
Everyone knew who Rinoa was. Squall's fiancée.
Tifa searched Squall's face. "What about Riku?" Though it was possibly too much to hope for given the surly silver-haired teen's tight-lipped manner around everyone save Aeris, Tifa hoped that the 16-year-old had talked to Squall. They'd all noticed how he'd kept his distance from Cloud – and vice versa – most likely due to his appearance. The boy did look like Sephiroth, after all.
Squall pursed his lips before shaking his head. "Hasn't said a word. Aeris is the only one he'll talk to, and she's not talking."
The young woman in question shook her head with a smile. "I will not betray his confidence."
"Exactly what I mean," Squall muttered. He stared into the darkness of the street, turning to go inside as he began to yawn. "I'm going to bed. Good-night."
Cloud, Tifa, and Aeris all bid the younger man a good night's rest, but did not move from their places just outside the front door. Much to the flower maiden's delight, Cloud had not yet released his hold on Tifa. His arm was still around her waist. Maybe there was hope for them both after all.
The young woman also noted the faint traces of depression in her friends' faces. Smiling kindly, she reached out to touch Cloud's face and Tifa's shoulder. "Good-byes aren't forever, you know." Her eyes drifted down to rest briefly on Tifa's stomach before returning to the younger woman's beautiful ruby eyes. "You'll see him again."
Her friends nodded slowly. "What about you, Aeris?" Tifa asked quietly. "What about Zack?"
Aeris only continued to smile. "We'll just have to wait and see, Tifa." She embraced them both. "Don't worry about us. Zack and I are fine. We will be okay, no matter what happens."
She stepped back when she heard them finally agree with her, ushering them into the house and up to bed. They had a long day tomorrow, just as Sora, Riku and Kairi did. They needed their rest so that they would be able to deal with what was to come.
A gloved hand came to rest on her shoulder. She smiled, and allowed herself to be pulled back to lean against a firm, muscular body. "I think they got the message. Cloud especially."
"I hope so," came the reply. "Chocobo-head can be kinda dense."
Aeris giggled. "Be that as it may, I believe that's a case of the pot calling the kettle black, Zachary."
Her companion chuckled quietly. "At least I told you I was interested." He released her, if only to take her hand in his. "Coming home?" The hope in his face was quickly replaced by disappointment when she shook her head, explaining that she had things yet to do. Knowing there was no way to convince her otherwise, her companion smiled and kissed her softly before heading off into the darkness.