Once More, With Feeling... – Chapter 1: Travel Plans

Summary: Cloud is offered the chance to change the past… it's not an easy road to take.

Author: Illusor Meaneld

Rated T: for Descriptive violence and injuries, No Adult Situations, No Cussing.

Disclaimer: I did not create, and do not own the characters from Final Fantasy 7, They are owned by Square-Enix, and I am simply borrowing them for my own (and hopefully your) enjoyment.

105 years old … Cloud mused to himself, staring distractedly into the fireplace. Much like Vincent, and Shelke, the blond "Hero" didn't look his age in the slightest. Clear blue eyes glinted in the firelight, smooth, youthful skin, barely hinting at adulthood without the harsher structure of true maturity, and of course, his signature blond locks, just as gravity-defying as ever. He had long since ceased to worry about his hair, and it had grown decently long over the years, the spikes jutting down past his shoulder-blades in places. One hundred and five long years of existence… Cloud Strife, sighed and stretched, limbering his muscles absent-mindedly, pacing through his house without even paying attention, he retrieved his sword, a simple one-piece blade this time. Tidied what little disorder he managed to create in the average morning and stepped out the door to "work".

These days, Cloud spent his time hunting monsters, (it was sometimes quite lucrative.) Tending to the rare chocobos he'd bred, and sparring with Vincent and Shelke whenever either of them passed his way. Today, Cloud's face lit with a rare smile as he spotted the deep red fur and fiery tail of Nanaki. The Blood-lion grinned back, baring fangs,

"It's been too long, hasn't it Cloud?" Nanaki purred,

"Yes, it has old friend, what have you been up to lately?" Cloud smiled as Nanaki rubbed his jaw affectionately against the blonde's thigh. They walked and talked, hunting monsters together nostalgically, reminiscing about old friends, all of the other original AVALANCHE team had passed away, … that was to be expected after such a long time, neither Barrett nor Cid had been particularly young when the adventures had started, Tifa never did have kids of her own, but had loved the orphaned children. Yuffie passed on her heritage to future generations in Wutai eventually, but the Ninja's propensity for mischief had eventually gotten the better of her, when age began slowing her down. Reeve ran out of Cait Sith dolls, and Rufus Shinra's health never fully recovered. Nanaki, once known as "Red 13" had taken over the care of Cosmo Canyon after Bugenhagen had finally passed on the torch. It had been a long road, but Cloud felt he was content. The others didn't bother him about the lack of company he kept, they all understood. He was laughing by the time Nanaki had to leave, with a good-bye nod and a flick of his tail, the noble creature made his way back home.

This was how it should be, Cloud decided, the world continued to do what needed to be done, his life was full of comfortable habit, nothing lacking …. Now if only he could convince her of that.

That night found Cloud in a familiar dreamscape, one almost as comfortable as the home he had built for himself. He sat in the field of flowers, smiling gently as she approached, it was always the same way. He even spared a nod for the man who followed in her wake.

"Good Evening Aeris," Cloud murmured respectfully, "It's good to see you." And it was, like all of his friends, the flower girl did not change with time. Even though her reasons were different, everyone ceased to age once they left the land of the living.

"Hey, Spikey." Zack greeted, a smile twisted his lips but his tone was solemn, Cloud missed the upbeat greeting he used to get from his raven-haired mentor.

"Cloud,…" Aeris began slowly, "You're not really happy,… are you Cloud?"

The blonde shrugged, "I think I'm happy Aeris, … I mean, … I'm not UN-happy. I enjoy my house, it's comfortable, I make a good living at what I do, and I talk to the others when they stop by. It's … pleasant." He smiled reassuringly at both of them, but they were unconvinced.

"Cloud, that's not what I mean… you're HEALTHY, and you're WELL… but you're not really 'Happy'. You're just existing… we were hoping that it would get better, … Sephiroth was defeated long ago, and all the pieces were there for you to pick up…. But you never did. It's like something was missing, and we could never fix that."

"Missing?" Cloud frowned, he was happy… wasn't he? At least he liked to believe he was…

"Missing from your fundamental structure, Spike," Zack interjected smoothly, "Aeris and Mother Gaia think that maybe you were just too emotionally scarred … that you'd lost too much."

"They say that time heals all wounds… but sometimes it's just not enough." Aeris finished.

Cloud heaved a sigh, the two of them seemed to worry about him all the time these days, trying to coax him to interact more with others, or to do something more adventurous with his days, this was the first he'd heard of their "Happiness" theory though…

"I'm not sure what you want me to do then." Cloud finally admitted, "I don't want to do anything different, there never seems much point, but how would one go about changing something like that?" Zack and Aeris exchanged a glance,

"We have a proposition," she began, a true smile beginning to light her features.

"It was the planet's idea" the Ex-SOLDIER amended,

"So basically, they want to send me back in time… to an Alternate Reality, where these things haven't happened yet." Cloud finished explaining, Vincent and Shelke exchanged a glance before raising an eyebrow each in his direction.

"That sounds like a bad movie waiting to happen." Shelke muttered,

"Alternate Reality?" Vincent's eyebrow remained pointedly raised.

Cloud sighed, "I know it sounds weird, … they had to explain a lot of it to me too. Basically there are other worlds with our story unfolding…" Cloud struggled to remember the particular descriptions Aeris had given him, when he was awake, his memory was impeccable. … but his dreams, even those with Aeris and Zack tended to slip away from him. "Time doesn't pass the same way in these worlds… so they found one from while I was still young, before the whole Sephiroth Crisis, before Nibelheim… before almost all of it!" He glanced apologetically at Vincent, it wasn't before HIS tragedy… The gunman shrugged stoically, silently banishing any worry of discontent.

"Are you going to go then?" Shelke asked,

"I'm not sure yet…" the blonde scratched the back of his head, deep in thought. "It's a big decision… I mean, after all I've done here…"

"Go, Cloud." Vincent interrupted.

"What?" Cloud was taken aback at how quickly Vincent dismissed him.

"You've never really forgotten, or forgiven yourself." The gunman clarified,

"Aeris is right, ... you're not happy here." Shelke agreed.

"But I… If… what… What would I DO there?" The blonde was simply flabbergasted, and feeling perhaps a little betrayed.

"Stop Hojo of course." The young girl responded immediately, followed by a nod from her taller counterpart.

"Hojo? … not Sephiroth?"

Shelke snorted, "Of course Hojo, … Sephiroth would never have become what he did without that madman."

Cloud hesitated, when he had brought up the subject of Aeris' suggestion to the two travelers, he had somehow expected that they would encourage him to stay… after all, he was the only one besides them who would remain ageless, the only of their friends who could stay forever. … But thinking further, he wondered if they would take the chance he was given, the blonde's gaze drifted speculatively to Vincent, … in a heartbeat he decided… the ex-Turk would die all over again if he could stop the atrocities from happening to Lucretia, the swordsman glanced at Shelke, her? Not so much,… she had what she needed, and she honestly seemed happy in her work. Cloud heaved a sigh, it wouldn't be easy, that much was certain… he had grown complacent in his routine, … though he was certainly fit and agile… the best swordsman on the Planet. He remained silent for a long time, finally resting his gaze on Shelke,

"How should I stop Hojo?"

The young cyborg smiled slowly, "Can you memorize everything I'm about to tell you Cloud…?"

He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, … it wasn't like he'd done anything like a time-dimensional shift before. Aeris and Zack met him in his dreams like always, and when he told them his decision, he had to admit he loved seeing both of their faces light up in those brilliant happy smiles he hadn't realized he'd been missing. After that they simply asked him to lay down and sleep. Relaxing amongst Aeris' flowers was surprisingly easy, but 'sleeping' while he was technically dreaming made him chuckle. After a few bouts of teasing with Zack, he finally managed to settle down, and much to his surprise, he drifted to sleep… again.

The next morning Cloud woke to pure darkness, with a cry he panicked, touching his fingers to his face and eyes to make sure everything was unharmed, there was no blindfold, nothing obstructing, … the room was just dark… TOO dark… after several precious moments he finally realized why, … his eyes weren't glowing! Even in the deepest cave he wasn't blind, his eyes glowed, ever so slightly illuminating his surroundings, his Mako-enhanced vision could pick out the details of any room, he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen pure darkness. A shout both too close, and muffled by the walls jolted the blonde from his thoughts,

"Oi, Kid! Ya asked meh ta wake yeh! Dun be late for the Shen-rah exahmes." A harsh voice came through the door, a meaty hand thudding against it's surface once more.

"K-kay!" Cloud squeaked, startling himself further as his voice caught and broke, he strained to hear the retreated footsteps, another thing that should have been easy, he breathed deeply, trying to slow his pounding heart. What was going on? By the Cetra! What had … … Cloud spat a curse, filling the silence with a few choice expletives, "by the Cetra" indeed. So he'd come back in time then? Time and Dimension, he reminded himself, piecing together the accent he'd heard through the door his eyes widened, "Don't be late for the Shin-Ra exams." The man had said,… Exams? … So he wasn't even a Cadet yet… what time did those even start? … For that matter, what time was it NOW? He fumbled his way around the dark room, painfully bumping into every unfamiliar object in the even more unfamiliar room. He was sure he would be just one large bruise by the time he finally managed to turn on the light.

The room was small, but furnished, and now that he was paying attention there was that sterile, well-vacuumed smell one commonly found in hotels. There was a watch on the side table that read 5:30 am, earlier perhaps than he used to get up, but nothing that should have been too difficult. At least, not to his OLD body, he mentally grumbled as a jaw-cracking yawn split his face without warning. He staggered to the bathroom, desperate for a look In the mirror, and moments later wished he hadn't. A pale, frightened-looking boy looked back at him, he couldn't have been more than 13 or 14, … shorter than he could even remember being, (though of course he must have been this height before.) he barely seemed to clear 5 foot. Wide blue eyes so clear and pale Cloud gasped at them. But most agonizing was the scrawny awkward limbs, no visible muscles anywhere they should be, and so many bones poking out at odd angles he wondered how he even moved with any semblance of coordination!

A few moments later, Cloud firmly decided there WASN'T any semblance of coordination, the term "all knees and elbows" was never so painfully clear, as those particular joints seemed to magnet themselves to every sharp and possibly harmful surface with disturbing accuracy. He was grabbing up the few possessions he decided must be his, a duffle bag with clothing he blanched at, obviously he'd been deprived of any kind of common sense, … or fashion sense for that matter, he winced at a pair of "chocobo pajamas", morbidly curious as to whether he had actually LIKED such things at this age. Thankfully Cloud's agony was interrupted when the Hotel Manager pounded on his door again, eagerly telling him he needed to leave right away if he were going to make the Exams. After picking up a piece of paper he'd located that specified the times and places of the Shin-Ra Examinations, Cloud hefted his duffle, sighed at the weight of it, straightened his thin shoulders and with determination beyond his tender years, strode out of his room, and away from the establishment.