Author's Note: This chapter ended up being much sadder than I originally intended to make it, which is probably due to the fact that I was actually in quite a shitty mood while I wrote the majority of it, with the exception of the beginning and the ending. However, it could just be the fact that writing sad things seems to be my forte. As I warned my friends, sensitive fan girls may wish to have tissues handy for a portion of this. While I was writing this, I was listening to "Silent Night" by Manheim Steamroller. It's an amazing song, my absolute favorite version of that song, and it tears me up every time I hear it. I think it goes well with this chapter. Also... in my world, it snows in and around Midgar. Yes. Thanks to everyone for reading, and happy holidays once again!
Back in Seventh Heaven, the party was beginning to wind down. It was past midnight and doziness was beginning to overtake the drunken guests. The kids were also quite tired, and ready to go to sleep so that they could get the night over with and open their presents in the morning. However, every single one of them was worried about Cloud and whether or not he would actually return for the holiday.
"Damn…" Cid said, rubbing at his throbbing head. "Good party… mostly… damn…"
"Shit… yeah…" Barret said, sighing. "Damn, what the hell is with Spiky?"
"He missed a damn good party, whatever's up." Cid said, attempting to make light of the situation.
"Yeah…" Barret said, laughing a little bit.
"Damn, Rude…" Reno said, hiccupping and rubbing at his head. "I never knew you were a pop star."
"I'd … appreciate it if you never mentioned that ever again…" Rude said, examining the floor and massaging his aching head. "To anyone…Ever."
"I promise… I won't…" Reno said, smirking and thinking what a great story he had to tell Rufus, Tseng, and Elena when he saw them later in the day.
Tifa sighed, taking a seat on one of the bar stools after putting all the empty glasses and plates by the sink to deal with later. "Tifa?" Denzel asked, and she looked up at him. "Cloud is coming back, right?"
"Don't worry about it." She said, smiling. "Get some sleep. In the morning you'll have lots of presents to open."
"Okay…" He said, looking dissatisfied but heading over towards his room nonetheless.
"That Cloud… ooooh, he's such a pain sometimes." Yuffie said, from where she leaned on the bar with a bad headache. "Not quite as bad as this hangover will be, but…"
Nanaki was curled up in the corner, sleeping in the way cats do, his fiery tail winding around him. Cait Sith was using him as a fluffy red pillow.
"Cloud still suffers." Vincent said, his amber eyes staring ahead as he mused. "He's lost more than we know of."
"I know he's upset over Aerith, but what about us?" Tifa said, sighing again. "He's got so much more than he realizes."
"It's more than that." Vincent said, shaking his head.
"Whatever it is…" Tifa said, running her fingers absentmindedly though her hair. "I hope he comes around soon. I don't care whatever it is. It's Christmastime. Whether he likes it or not, we're a family now and he's got people who care about him. He can't keep running off like this."
Vincent shrugged, becoming lost in his thoughts. "Tifa?" She turned to see Marlene standing behind her. "I'm going to sleep now, okay?"
"Sure, Marlene. " She said, putting on a smile. "Merry Christmas."
Marlene turned to leave, but stopped for a moment. "Tifa." She said, turning back around and smiling. "Cloud will come back. I just know it. Don't you worry about it." She hugged her.
Tifa smiled, for real that time. "I'm sure he will." She said. "Goodnight, Marlene."
The little girl turned and made her way towards her room. "Merry Christmas!" She called out.
Tifa shook her head, sighing. "I hope you are right, Marlene." She said. "Cloud, you better come back. Please don't ruin Christmas."
Cloud's wanderings inevitably brought him to a place he'd too often found himself visiting. The makeshift grave was covered in snow, a blanket of white covering the place that not too many years ago had been stained red with blood.
Don't think about that. Cloud told himself, but even as he did tears stung at his eyes.
The weathered Buster Sword was in stark contrast with its surroundings. It was a reminder of the horrible feeling of loss he had experienced on that very cliff overlooking the remains of Midgar. It was a big part of the reason he found himself feeling so dismal on the eve of what was supposedly the happiest day of the year.
Sighing, he stepped down from his motorcycle and approached the rusted weapon, placing his hands against the cold metal. Zack had said that the sword was a representation of his dreams, his pride, and his honor. Cloud had said he would live out both of their lives. Yet, even after all he had accomplished, he couldn't help but feel like he hadn't done enough. Looking at the sword in it's present condition, he couldn't help feeling like he'd let all of the promises he'd made rust and freeze out in the snow.
He didn't know when he'd started, but he was crying. The tears were bitter cold against his face. He thought he'd resolved this, that he could finally move on, after his last big battle with Sephiroth. But apparently some scars never really heal, he thought as he sunk to his knees. He wasn't worried about what anyone would think of him at that moment. He was alone, completely and terribly alone. The worst part of it was that he knew he had so many people who cared about him, but no matter how much he tried to let go of the past, he still couldn't help but feel as if his life were horribly incomplete.
He lay in the snow, not too far from where Zack had been on that horrible day. The snow was awfully cold, soaking into his clothes and making his body feel numb. Even that couldn't compare with the chill he had felt in the rain as he'd realized that Zack was gone. Gone forever like Aerith, like Nibelheim as he knew it, like so many things.
"Merry Christmas, Zack."
The white snow made a light dust over his dark clothing as he lay there in his mournful reminisce. He knew he shouldn't be there. He should be back with Tifa and Denzel and everyone else, with the people who had become his family. After all, Christmas was the time you were meant to be with those you cared the most about. What did that say about him, then? He sighed and closed his eyes.
"Jeez, Cloud. What are you doing out here? Your promise to live out both our lives won't mean much if you freeze to death visiting my grave."
Startled, Cloud sat bolt upright, expecting to be met with the bleak winter scenery but instead finding himself surrounded in bright white light. "…Zack?"
He was met by a familiar laugh, one that had haunted his dreams for far too long even though it had only been a few years. He shut his eyes tightly, afraid that if he opened them he would find that he was alone again out in the snow.
"Honestly, Cloud. How do you expect to keep that promise if you keep living like this?"
"It really is you…" Cloud said as the tears started anew. "Zack…I'm so sorry."
"Stop apologizing. I never blamed you for anything. "
"Well, I did…"
"What could you have done to save me? Nothing, Cloud. I never once blamed you for what happened to me. I would never have been able to forgive myself if those bastards would have gotten you, too. I never once regretted that you lived and I died. You're a hero, Cloud. You saved the whole damn planet. Don't you dare think that I'm not proud of you. You've lived my dreams and more."
"But…but even that doesn't bring you back. You, or Aerith. I'm still alone."
"When have you ever been alone since I died?"
Cloud actually had to consider that question, and to his embarrassment, he found that he didn't actually have a valid answer. Each time had been of his own accord.
"I rest my case."
"Zack… please don't go yet… what about that Christmas you promised me?"
"We're here now, aren't we?"
Cloud had to laugh a little. "This isn't quite what I imagined when you said 'the best Christmas ever'."
Again, he heard Zack's familiar laughter echo in his mind.
"Beggars can't be choosers, y'know."
Cloud smiled. "I suppose this is what Aerith meant by dilly dallying, huh?"
He felt Zack's hand on his shoulder, real as if he were alive.
"You're not alone, Cloud. You've got so many people that care about you. Everything happened so fast. We both lost four years, Cloud. I know you weren't ready for it. So much time wasted, it's a shame really. You have to make up for all that lost time, Cloud, for the both of us. You've still got time left. I don't. Don't waste it here. "
Zack ruffled his hair, the way he had many a time before.
"I'll see you again someday, Cloud…but hopefully not for a long time."
"Don't go, Zack…"
Zack patted him on the head once more as his presence began to fade.
"Merry Christmas, Cloud."
"Merry Christmas, Zack."
When he opened his eyes, the snow was back, and Zack was nowhere to be seen. He sighed. His clothes were soaked and he was cold, but suddenly the night didn't seem so bitter. He shivered, realizing for the first time how silly he had been to allow himself to stay out in the freezing weather for that long.
Standing, he turned one last time to look at the Buster Sword, which now seemed rather than a sad reminder to be a great symbol of all that both he and Zack had accomplished. He smiled and nodded slightly. "Thank you, Zack."
When he returned to Seventh Heaven late that night, he found most of the party guests passed out around the various tables, too sedated by the alcohol to bother with leaving or at least finding a better place to crash. The only one still conscious was Vincent, who had been lost in thought staring out the window before Cloud had come through the door. He nodded in acknowledgement, appearing happy in his own way. "So you came back." He said.
"Yeah." Cloud said, smiling. "I said I would, didn't I?"
Tifa had heard the door and come out from her room, and she beamed when she saw that it was Cloud standing there in the entranceway, covered in snow and his wet clothes dripping on the floor.
"Cloud…" She said, still smiling but in a way that was shadowed with sternness. "You came back…what…happened to you?"
"I'm done wasting time" Cloud said, smiling, a true and bright smile that was a rare and wonderful sight. "Enough dilly dallying. I've got a life to live."
"Cloud…" She said, shaking her head and smiling a giddy little smile. "I am glad to hear that, but…what…?"
"I spoke with an old friend." Cloud said, his look distant but no longer haunted. He still smiled.
Tifa was puzzled. Who could it have been? Just about everyone he really knew well had been at the party. "Who?" She asked finally, when she was unable to produce an answer.
Tifa gasped slightly, everything coming together all at once. Cloud hadn't only felt the blame for the death of Aerith, she realized, but also for the man called Zack, the one she had met once before in Nibelheim. The SOLDIER's death had affected Cloud just as much as Aerith's had, but Tifa had forgotten almost completely about him. She nodded. "I see." She said, smiling. "Well, my thanks to him for bringing you back home."
"Cloud?" Denzel rubbed at his eyes, awoken by their conversation.
Cloud nodded. "See? I kept my promise."
Denzel grinned. "I knew you would."
One of the dark forms passed out on the tables grunted and shifted. "Shut up, yo…" Reno muttered, covering his ears. "Oiii, my head…"
Cloud laughed, ruffling his hair in embarrassment, a habit he had picked up from Zack. "Sorry!" He said, making his way towards his own room. "I forgot we had a bunch of drunks passed out in here..."
"Very funny…" Reno muttered. Rude fell over in his chair and bumped his head against the table. He grunted.
Cloud trailed water behind him as he walked. In the back of his mind he greatly looked forward to reaching his room and changing into something warm and dry.
"Well, welcome back." Tifa said, with a smile. "And Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas." Cloud said, with a nod.
"This is going to be the best Christmas ever!" Denzel called out, a groan coming from the dark forms of the party guests. Cloud, Tifa, and Denzel smiled. Even Vincent smiled from his vantage point on the other side of the room. A rare sight indeed. It really would be the best Christmas ever.
In the back of his mind, Cloud heard laughter and a familiar voice saying, "I told you so."