Almost Karma

By BluWhispers

Chapter 1

Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no money from this work. Final Fantasy VII and its characters and settings belong to Square Enix.

Warnings: Swearing, mature themes, and yaoi. Don't like, don't read. Enough said.

A/N: I've caught the time-travel bug.

Vincent had once mentioned Karma and the Three-Fold Law. Cloud had only listened with half an ear - more focused on trying to get drunk enough to forget that he was trying to save the world. He remembered Cid's response though.

Fuck you.

And then the Triplets happened.

Fuck you indeed.

Now Cloud was trying to get drunk enough to forget that he had saved the world, twice. It was a losing battle – Mako and years of almost painful control over his emotions had burned away any traces of human weakness. Tifa was doing her best to help though, as she always did. Cocktail after cocktail of almost 100% alcohol was put into his hands as she tried every recipe she could think of. He could tell she was tempted to just douse him with it intravenously, and she probably would have, if it wasn't for the fact that Cloud did not react well to needles of any kind.

Still, the thought of being able to get drunk for the first time in a long time gave the idea some merit. Even though he'd probably die from the alcohol in his bloodstream; but that too was a welcome thought.

If Tifa knew she'd skip the drinks and just knock him out.

The ceiling fans in Seventh Heaven kicked at the air lazily, and the nostalgic golden light of sunset was really making Cloud wish for some manner of oblivion. He didn't like these times: these quiet, introspective moments that crept up on him and seized him like an ex-wife after alimony payments. He was getting them far too often these days – it was almost enough to make him wish he had some omnipotent enemy to hunt down, if only to give him something to focus on.

As long as said omnipotent enemy didn't have long silver hair and piercing green eyes. Because Cloud really didn't think he had it in him to kill Sephiroth again.

Third time's a charm.

Maybe if he faced Sephiroth again he'd be able to shove him deep into his memories for good. Or maybe Sephiroth and he would finally kill each other once and for all. Then Cloud wouldn't have to sit here in Seventh Heaven and drink through all of Tifa's booze.

It was a pleasant notion.

A clatter, and another glass filled to the brim with enough alcohol to knock even Cid out with its smell was pushed into his hand. He gulped it down without a second's hesitation, slamming it down on the worn wooden counter and waited for it to hit him, waited for any sign that it would help stop his mind from churning through memories and faces.

No such luck. He was as alert as ever. He heard Tifa sigh in frustration, and he felt bad for her. She was trying to help, and if he was a more out-spoken man, he would have told her how much he appreciated her understanding, her almost-devotion that caused her to put up with his almost-psychotic behavior, caused her to open her doors to him at all hours of the day and night and empty her best liquor into his hopelessly scarred stomach.

But he wasn't an out-spoken man: he wasn't Zack, and he would never be Zack. No matter how convinced he'd been otherwise. But that was a long time ago, a lifetime ago, when he'd been whacked out of his mind and wandering around in an almost-daze.

Goddammit.

He'd been trying his best not to think of Zack. Because the memories would just assail him with the force of Yuffie's shrieks, and then he'd have to think about how much he missed that black-haired almost-friend of his.

I'm such an almost-person.

And that was exactly it. Cloud knew he was dysfunctional, knew he was incomplete. And he knew that no matter what he did he would never be whole, because a huge part of him had been ripped out and mangled and shoved back into his blond head with such viciousness and fury and cruelty that the memories of life before AVALANCHE were spotty at best, and would always be spotty. Like a part of him was just taunting him, reminding him of how much of himself had been lost and would never be found.

He'd known today was going to be bad. Just as it always was on the anniversary of her death.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tifa mixing up another drink, and suddenly he really wished she would take that pink ribbon off her arm because he really didn't need another reminder of his ineptitude.

No "almosts" there.

Another drink, and this time he took it slow, nursed it as though treating it with patience might help make it The One.

This isn't one of her flowers, idiot.

Long hair whispered over his hand, and irrationally he wished it was silver and not black. But it was just Tifa leaning against the bar, her hands placed on either side of Cloud's, looking at him with that sadness and compassion and understanding that made Cloud think that she pitied him his life.

He knew she didn't though, because then she'd have to admit that she felt sorry for herself too. Not that her life hadn't been hard, but it'd certainly been a picnic compared to his.

Not that he would wish his life on anyone – he didn't want anyone else to suffer what he'd had.

He studied her, just to give himself something to look at that wasn't inanimate or inhuman. Because Tifa had never been inanimate or inhuman, she was as warm as they came. And a part of him wished that he could love her the way she loved him, because maybe that would help ease his pain. But instead he just felt worse, because he could never give her a part of himself that he'd lost lifetimes ago.

He'd given her that ring just to tell her that he would always love her as Tifa. She'd understood, she always did.

Maybe it would have been better if she hadn't, because then he wouldn't come to Seventh Heaven whenever he needed someone to be there for him.

But then where would he go? There was no place in this world he hadn't already been to multiple times – sometimes to hunt, sometimes to deliver, sometimes just to think and reflect and almost-cry.

Sighing, he downed the rest of his drink and stood. Tifa just looked at him with that sorrow in her sweet brown eyes, and he thought of kissing her before he left. But he couldn't bring himself to do it, not because he wasn't an affectionate man (everyone knew he wasn't anyway), but because it wasn't her he wanted to kiss.

Stop it. Just stop it.

He nodded at her once, and she offered him an almost-smile. Then he turned and left, not bothering to drop a bag of Gil on the bar because the last time he'd tried had been the last time. She'd looked like she was about to sic her Final Heaven attack on him, and that wouldn't have been good for Denzel or Marlene to see. Might give them ideas.

As usual Fenrir had drawn a crowd, everyone from Midgar to Wutai to the Northern Crater recognizing it as Cloud Strife's bike. And everyone knew Cloud Strife, everyone wanted to see him, be a part of his life, because he had saved their world twice and he was a goddamned hero.

He hated that word, and at times like these he hated these people he'd helped.

They gave him a wide berth, even though he could tell some of them wanted to throw themselves at him, or at least shake his hand or talk to him. But his taciturn and almost-cold nature was as infamous as his battle prowess, and Tifa had warned as many as she could about the ill-effects of going near Cloud Strife when he didn't initiate the contact.

He straddled Fenrir, powered it up, and took off.

If only he could leave the hopelessness behind as easily as he left Edge in the dust.

-----

Aeris had perfected the Art of Voyeurism in her time as part of the Lifestream. She could move between thoughts and dreams and places as easily as the Prom Queen through high school. But there was only ever one person she watched, and she really wished she could talk to him, or at least show him that she was there, that she hadn't left him, and that she really wished he would stop beating himself up over all the things that had gone wrong in his life.

But all she could do was watch and wish. After the Triplets, she had lost the ability to communicate with Cloud. She wondered if it was because he'd lost a part of himself when he killed Sephiroth a second time. She knew it wasn't because he'd forgotten her or his guilt.

She'd known that today would be a bad day. Known as soon as the sun rose that Cloud would be driven out of his home by the demons in his heart, that he would ride Fenrir like a maniac and end up at Tifa's trying to drink himself to death.

And just as always, he would leave perfectly sober and ride like a junkie on a trip to the Forgotten Capital. If it wasn't for the fact that he was Cloud Strife, he'd have broken his neck ages ago.

Twelve minutes faster than last year.

Cloud was just sitting there, staring into the water. Fenrir had steam coming off its tyres, that was how fast Cloud had pushed his beloved motorcycle. There was a little trickle of blood winding its way down the alabaster skin of his right cheek from when a stray stone had nicked him in his flight from the past, but he didn't seem to notice.

No, it wasn't that. She knew he noticed. Cloud noticed everything, every little thing that people did or didn't do, every little smell and sound and sight and thought and action. It was just that he didn't care anymore, hadn't cared in a long time, and that hurt her more than the sight of his blood on his skin.

As she watched him, sitting there looking as despondent as he always did on this day, she remembered that almost-insane notion that she'd gotten some time ago.

Put him through it again? Have I really no heart?

But at times like these, when Cloud looked like he really wanted to cry if he could only remember how to, she could almost believe that making her idea a reality was the best thing anyone could do for the broken hero.

When Cloud buried his head in his hands and wrenched at his hair, howling in impotent rage and despair, she made up her mind.

What goes around comes around. But this time, it'll be different.

Taking a deep breath, or as deep a breath as a spirit could take, she pushed. And she watched as Cloud fell into the waters of the Forgotten Capital and fell through time.

I hope this helps, Cloud.

With that, she closed her eyes and moved – she had things to do.

-----

Tifa was still staring at the door when the sounds of Fenrir had faded to nothing. She couldn't bring herself to move even her eyes. The cloud of despair that rained over Cloud 24/7 had gotten to her, and sometimes she wished Cloud would just take his pain and shove it right up a Chocobo's arse.

She instantly regretted thinking that, just as she always did whenever she got mad with Cloud for not being strong enough to deal with his pain and regret. She knew he had it rough, rougher than the rest of them, and she suspected she knew why. She didn't like it, but she'd come to accept it. Because that was all she could do. Accept it and be there for Cloud whenever he came in looking like a lost little boy who'd had his favorite toy broken over his head multiple times; or reject it and in so doing reject Cloud.

No one could reject Cloud, not after everything he'd sacrificed for them.

Outside, she could hear the people talking, as they always did whenever Cloud had blown through town like the force of Nature that he was. For all that he tried to be invisible and un-noticed, he attracted attention like Materia attracted Yuffie.

She could hear them talk about how handsome he was, how perfectly and beautifully formed his features were, how brilliantly his baby blue eyes shone; stupid, stupid things that made her skin crawl and made her wish she could use civilians for punching bags. It wasn't that she disliked them noticing Cloud's looks, and she knew all too well how mesmerizing he was physically. It was because these people didn't realize how much it had taken for Cloud to become so strong and muscular and lean and powerful; and they certainly didn't know how many scars littered his body. Mako and Materia and potions could only do so much, and Cloud had long ago stopped letting her patch him up because she could never hold back the little gasp or look of horror every time she bore witness to his past.

She sighed then, if only to fill the air with a sound that wasn't adulation or adoration over a blond-haired man with more emotional baggage than a bunch of Prozac-dependent adolescents.

"Again?"

A deep voice startled her, making her spin around and shoot her fist into a golden claw before the voice registered.

You can take the man out of the Turks, but you'll never take the Turk out of the man.

"Hello Vincent." She tried for a smile, but she knew it was wan. He'd let her hand go as soon as that light of recognition hit her eyes, and he'd settled himself into the same bar-stool that Cloud had vacated awhile ago.

He grunted in response.

You've been spending too much time with Cloud.

She mixed him up a drink, not as potent as the ones she'd made for Cloud, because Cloud was a machine and practically insane, and Vincent was just a man with Protomateria in his body.

He nursed it as Cloud had done with his last drink, and she told herself to stop seeing Cloud in everything around her.

Get a grip, girl.

They were quiet for awhile, and Tifa took the opportunity to clean the numerous glasses strewn all over her bar from Cloud's very solemn and very depressing visit. She knew that soon enough Barret and Cid would come barreling through the doors, and that they would again be disappointed that Cloud hadn't hung around long enough for them to see him. But she also knew that secretly they would be relieved that he wasn't there – not because they didn't want to see him, no. They loved Cloud dearly, everyone did. But because every time they were around, Cloud would force himself to act like everything was alright, like he wasn't hurting. And it was that knowledge, the fact that Cloud was still trying to make everything OK for them, that they hated. Because Cloud had done enough for them: too much, in fact. And they couldn't do anything for him.

The sound of running water filled the wooden haven of Seventh Heaven. Tifa refused to have anything cold and metallic in her bar, and only the sink and the necessary bar utensils were a disgusting hard grey. Wood was warm, organic, nurturing. At least it was to her. Cloud had once said wood was just dead plants. It had taken all of her willpower not to break his face.

"He told me he couldn't talk to her anymore."

Vincent's old voice, so different from his deceptively young appearance, startled her from her act of washing high-ball glasses. She almost dropped the one she was holding, and only years of training and reflexes kept it from shattering on the scuffed floor.

She turned the tap off and looked at Vincent. She could wash the stupid glasses later. Barret and Cid didn't need fresh glasses for every drink, and Seventh Heaven was closed to the public today.

She didn't need to ask who it was that Cloud couldn't talk to anymore.

She wished Cloud had told her that. Wished she didn't have to hear it from a shape-shifting immortal who was so much like the blond it hurt. Because even though Vincent resembled Cloud in so many ways, he would never be Cloud.

Vincent would never be broken enough to be Cloud.

She didn't know what to say, but apparently Vincent knew she wouldn't. He always liked saying things that stunned others into silence. It was why Cid and Barret cursed so fluently around him – he enjoyed dropping verbal bombs on people.

Tifa turned, started mixing a drink for herself. God knew she needed one. Cloud had the ability to drain the life out of anyone by being Mr Morose. Every time he came to visit her, she could feel a little part of herself breaking. His visits were wearing down her natural optimism and spirit, but she couldn't bring herself to tell him to cheer up or else. It would be selfish, and Tifa had never been a selfish person. Perhaps when she'd been a child; and young and naïve and selfish as all children are. But not anymore. Not after all that she'd been through, all that she'd watched Cloud suffer through.

She spilled a little of her drink into the ashtray as she turned back to face Vincent: that silly incongruous ashtray that Denzel and Marlene had painted for Cloud. He'd taken up smoking after the whole Triplets Incident, but he never smoked around the children.

Always looking out for everyone else.

She stared at the butts left behind, crushed by strong, calloused fingers. And she wished that there was something, some drug or drink or potion that would make Cloud's pain go away.

She remembered Cloud after he'd killed Sephiroth the first time. He'd seemed to have found some peace at first, and she'd stupidly hoped they could settle down and be a family.

Then she noticed that he'd stopped sleeping or eating, and had started working on his bike. When it was done, he told her it was called Fenrir. And then he'd started his delivery business.

She'd understood. Cloud had never really had a home. Nibelheim had too many cruel memories, and, try as she might, she could never give him the home that he'd always longed for. She told herself that it was alright, because no matter how far Cloud wandered, he always came back to Seventh Heaven.

She'd thought he was happy with his job – he was certainly sleeping and eating again. But then she started noticing the little downturn of his mouth when he thought she wasn't looking, and the way he preferred to sleep with his back against the wall, holding First Tsurugi so tightly in his right hand that the veins stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. He'd only slept like that when they'd been chasing Sephiroth, and she'd wondered if he was doing it again because maybe he could keep the demons at bay that way.

After the Terrible Trio, he'd seemed better. Not fantastic, and certainly not cheerful, but better. No longer dragging around such a terrible weight.

Or maybe that was just because his Geostigma was gone.

He'd started spending more and more time away from Edge, away from her and the children and their little circle of friends. It seemed only Vincent saw him more than twice a month – and that was only because Vincent was a wanderer like Cloud. The rest of them had settled down, built homes for themselves, moved on. Cid had married Shera, and the word was that she was pregnant and making him smoke outside the house. He'd cussed long and loudly, it seemed. Then he'd just built himself a nice little gazebo, and Yuffie had given him an obnoxiously pink deckchair.

Yuffie had taken up the reins of Wutai, although she was still wont to wander around stealing Materia. The rest of them had given up trying to tell her that it wasn't the kind of thing a lady did. She never did figure out that Cloud always managed to steal Materia off her whenever he visited – she was still trying to catch that elusive little thief that seemed to be plaguing Wutai.

Barret had become quite a wealthy man, amassing a fortune in the oil trade. He was generous to a fault though, and most of his funds were spent on building homes and schools and clinics. He'd put enough aside to ensure that Marlene and Denzel would never have to work a day in their lives. That was the first thing he'd done with his money, and Tifa would never forget the day he'd strode into her bar, practically glowing with pride, and the way he'd picked her, Marlene, and Denzel up in a bone-crushing hug, just because he couldn't talk - he was so overjoyed. He'd tried to give Tifa money too, tried to give her more than she could spend in a lifetime, but the only thing she accepted was his help in remodeling her bar.

She liked her work. It made her feel useful, wanted.

If she didn't keep Seventh Heaven running, where would Cloud run to?

The past.

Her head snapped up, and she spun around, eyes searching wildly for the source of that long-dead voice. Vincent had Cerberus drawn too, and was trying to find a target.

They looked at each other, and instantly made for the old church.

-----

Aeris sighed and wondered for the umpteenth time if she'd made the right decision. Not with regards to sending Cloud back, no; but she wondered if she should be saying anything to Tifa and Vincent. She knew they'd worry over Cloud, knew that they worried about him all the time. She just didn't want them finding Fenrir abandoned in the Forgotten Capital, with no Cloud in sight.

Let's just get this over with.

Steeling herself, she turned just as the doors to the church burst open and two dark-haired warriors stopped dead in their tracks upon seeing her.

She smiled at them, it was easy to. She loved them dearly, and their flabbergasted expressions were hilarious. She would have teased them about it too, if she had more time here, and if it wasn't draining the Planet terribly to give her a more corporeal form.

"Hello." Her voice, though weak and thin with the amount of effort it was taking for her to speak to them and appear before them, seemed to break the trance, and Tifa's mouth worked as though she was trying to form words.

"I haven't got much time here," Aeris continued, ignoring how Tifa was surreptitiously pinching herself to ensure it wasn't a dream. "I just wanted to tell you that Cloud's safe. But he won't be coming back, at least not for a while."

At the mention of Cloud, Vincent and Tifa started as though electrified, and a thousand questions came bubbling out at once. Aeris didn't try to answer them, she just repeated that Cloud would be fine (she hoped) and then she closed her eyes and sank back into the little lake that had formed in her church.

Please be OK, Cloud.

-----

Vincent was the first to break the trance, and he moved forward almost cautiously before peering into the pool. He didn't see anything but his own reflection and the petals that always floated by the edges; not that he'd been expecting to see anything.

Ancients.

He turned back to Tifa, who had been rendered immobile. She looked heart-broken, and he knew that if he'd been a less emotionally-constipated man, he'd be wearing the same despondent look on his face. Instead, he walked out of the church, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder as he passed her, and then he practically flew to the Forgotten Capital. He knew he wouldn't find Cloud there: knew with a certainty that he hated that Cloud was long gone, gone to a long-ago time. If he was honest with himself, he'd admit that he wanted to go back too, if only to stop Lucrecia from turning away from him.

That would have prevented the entire Sephiroth fiasco, and that would have prevented a lot of things.

But he knew that it was Cloud who had the strongest links to the past, and it was Cloud who still carried Sephiroth and Jenova in his blood just as he carried the memories of them on his shoulders.

Vincent knew that the only thing he could do for his friend now was to take care of Fenrir, on the off chance that Cloud ever returned.

-----

Cloud hadn't had a hangover in a long time, but he could have sworn this is what it felt like. Which was odd for any number of reasons, but mostly because he could've sworn he'd left Tifa's sober as a monk.

Habit made his senses sharpen, even though he wished he could just go back to sleep. It had been fitful, as always, but at least it had been dreamless. The nightmares had been plaguing him a little too much recently.

There shouldn't be anyone here.

He could tell that there were others around him, even though the last thing he remembered was being at the Forgotten Capital – cursing his traitorous body for not being able to get drunk, cursing his traitorous eyes for not being able to tear, cursing his traitorous mind for not being able to leave his memories buried, cursing himself for not being able to save Aeris and Zack, and then just cursing Life and Fate and that asshole Murphy for everything that went wrong.

His eyes snapped open, and instantly he wished they hadn't. The light, albeit weak, hurt. And then, even though it pained him to do so, he rolled to his feet, one hand reaching for Tsurugi, the other going into a defensive guard.

And then it hit him, like a train hitting an errant insect.

This isn't happening. This isn't real.

Around him were fifteen others: young boys still sleeping, snoring away in this military room that reeked of sweat and old socks and cheap alcohol.

Cadet bunks.

That knowledge made him stagger, and he dropped ungracefully back to the lumpy mattress behind him. He hadn't been anything but graceful in a long time, but now, as he looked at his thin, gangly limbs, he wished he hadn't woken up.

This is just an illusion.

Except illusions and dreams didn't feel this real, didn't have this much detail. He could feel the cold floor beneath his bare feet, the cool air on his neck from the vents, the headache pounding in his skull, and his heart thundering in his chest.

He glanced at himself, and then he propelled himself off the bed and down the hall, into the communal bathrooms. He got there just in time to empty what appeared to be a bar-full of last night's liquor into the ceramic commode, and as soon as the first wave of shock was over, he retched again and again and again until his stomach ached with having nothing else to throw up.

He sat there on the cold tiled floor even though it was making him shiver. He hadn't had an illness in a very long time, and he'd gotten used to ignoring aches and pains. The vomit stank though, and he raised himself to his feet with an effort, flushing the toilet and heading to the sinks. He washed his face with the heavily-chlorinated water, and then he just stared at his reflection in the chipped mirror.

No.

He was fifteen again.

His eyes weren't glowing, and he'd almost forgotten that they hadn't always been such a vivid blue. Not that he looked at himself in mirrors much – he couldn't bear to face the proof of Hojo's experiments. But he'd caught enough glimpses of himself before to know that his eyes should have been much brighter than the bloodshot ones staring wildly back at him now.

His face was thinner, slight traces of puppy fat still in his cheeks. His face would fill out later, become more angular and more tanned. He would have a man's face. Not this childish visage with its untamable mop of hair that resembled a Chocobo's backside more than anything. At least when he was a man, when he was Cloud Strife, Savior Of The Bloody World Twice, people had said his hair was cool. They'd tried to emulate his style – and Reeve swore that more people were breathing hairspray than oxygen because of Cloud Strife.

Now though, his hair just looked stupid. Everything about him looked stupid, and he hated the fact that this was how he'd looked all those years ago, before he'd become the most feared warrior in all the world.

At least when he was famous for his fighting ability, no one would have dared called him stupid.

He pinched himself, hard, and his reflection winced with him.

It's not a dream.

He just stared at himself in the mirror as he tried to understand what that meant for him. He wasn't an idiot, even though Barret called him one often enough. He knew that he was back in the cadet program of SOLDIER, which meant that Nibelheim hadn't happened yet.

Which means that Zack and Aeris are still alive, and Sephiroth is sane.

He didn't know which part of that thought was making his heart thump louder in his very thin, very awkward, very un-filled-out chest.

His ear wasn't pierced either, was the irrational thought that leapt hysterically to the forefront of his mind.

Taking a deep breath, Cloud turned and headed back to his bunk. He needed to know what day it was, what date it was, and whether he could get out and look for some explanations.

And then he needed to know if Zack had befriended him yet.

At the thought of Zack, his chest tightened, just as it always did whenever the memory of the SOLDIER hit him. Cloud couldn't stop the wild excitement that coursed through him at the realization that Zack was here somewhere and alive.

He entered the bunks as soundlessly as possible, not that it would have made a difference. A stampeding Bahamut wouldn't have woken the slumbering cadets.

He looked around for some sort of calendar, and then he noticed the cheap plastic clock on the wall, Shinra-issued to the cadets so that they could countdown to their exams and the moment of their failure.

Quit being so damned negative.

Judging by the date, and assuming the obnoxious time-piece was even accurate, he had just over eight months to Nibelheim, and roughly four months to the SOLDIER Entrance Exams.

The word "SUN" stared back at him, and he realized elatedly that it was a Sunday. Which meant he was free to do as he pleased, as long as he was back before curfew. He debated going to look for Zack, but then realized that he couldn't remember exactly when Zack had befriended him, and if they weren't friends yet it would be really awkward approaching the SOLDIER.

Aeris then.

His mind made up, he dressed quickly and left the barracks.

-----

It was almost surreal, being back here. Cloud was more accustomed to seeing rubble and debris where the Shinra buildings had once stood, instead of this tangible display of their power. Around him rose various buildings of different heights, some were training areas, some were classrooms and dining halls, some were bunks, and some he had never figured out what they were used for.

Making his way quickly to the gates, he kept his head low as he passed the sleepy guard who simply blinked at him before turning away. It was too early on a Sunday for any cadet to be up and about, but the guard didn't care. He just wanted his shift to end so he could crawl into a nice, warm bed for the rest of the day.

Cloud wasn't surprised to feel elated at the fact that he wasn't being treated with the annoying reverence everyone had come to treat him with. If it wasn't adoration and worship, it was Tifa and the others treading on egg-shells around him.

He walked briskly to the train station, and bought his return ticket from a very surprised looking attendant. It was slightly past 7AM and the only reason the trains ran this early was because they were automated and Shinra couldn't be bothered to set a timer – so the trains ran practically 24/7.

Thought those greedy Scrooges would at least try to save some money on the running and maintenance costs.

Cloud's mouth turned down in derision as it always did when he thought of the porky president. He accepted his change from the attendant, 20Gil for his 100Gil piece. It cost very little to go from above the plate to the slums. But it cost plenty to come above the plate, and that was if the attendants below even allowed you to buy a ticket. Shinra was very particular about who could come near their perfect pristine buildings.

The train screeched to a halt steps away from Cloud, and he entered the empty carriage, glad for the solitude. With a loud squeal and a resounding clang, the doors shut and the train kicked back for a second before starting off. Cloud stumbled, and cursed his utter lack of co-ordination. He'd honed his body into a precise killing machine, and now he couldn't keep his balance on a damned train.

He sat gingerly on one of the thin plastic seats, and stared out the grimy window as the world flew past. He felt slightly numb, like he didn't know how exactly he should be feeling. He supposed he should be glad that someone somewhere had heard his prayers and granted his wish. But at the same time, and this thought made his shoulders curl in and his head sink down with the weight of it all, what if he failed again? Would he then have to relive every horrible moment and be powerless to stop it again? Would he have to watch Zack's body practically vibrate as it was riddled with bullets, would he have to feel the heat of the flames as Nibelheim burned, would he have to stare as the Masamune sliced clean through Aeris like a hot knife through butter?

Would he have to look into the eyes of the greatest man he'd ever known, and see only madness?

Shaking his head, he resolved not to think about it. At least not until Aeris shed some light on this turn of events. Cloud was nothing if not a pragmatist. He knew he hadn't always been one though – knew that in his younger days he'd been an emo little drama queen with a chip on his shoulder. But too many things had happened, and he had realized the value of shutting away emotions while sorting things through logically, rationally, coolly.

The train screeched to a halt again, huffing as it slammed its doors open for Cloud. He exited, making for Sector 5 and praying that Aeris would be there. He ignored the sights and sounds and acrid smell of the slums, but he couldn't help super-imposing what he was seeing with what he remembered of Midgar after Meteor.

Sunlight.

This Midgar, this life under the plate, was one of the reasons why he sometimes thought that Meteor had been a good thing. At least it had taken away the plate and therefore the very symbol and proof of the oppression of the 'lower class'. From then on things had blossomed, helped along by WRO and Neo-Shinra. Tifa and Barret had helped a lot too, but Cloud had given up trying to chip in when all that happened was that people would stop whatever they were doing to congregate around him and gape.

Resolutely he ignored the drunks littering the streets, reeking of urine and bile and disease. He could smell fumes from the reactors too, and he really wanted to blow them up. But then he remembered what had happened the last time he'd done it, and he tried to forget Jesse's and Bigg's broken bodies.

Fortunately for him, all was relatively quiet. There were a few people stumbling around, prostitutes heading to wherever they called home after a night's work, junkies wandering in their dazed little worlds, the odd pickpocket looking for some loose change. Cloud side-stepped them all, and it was only years of training that prevented him from reacting to their proximity – that, and the knowledge that he was unarmed and weak in this time. He cursed himself, wishing he had thought to secure some sort of weapon before bailing out of the barracks, but he'd gotten used to always having several knives on him even when he slept, and First Tsurugi was never far from him.

Have to get a blade.

First things first, though. He breathed a sigh of relief when the broken steeple of Aeris' church came into view. He was panting slightly from his near-jog through the slums, and he almost missed the effects of Hojo's tinkering. At least then he'd almost never gotten winded.

The doors were as he'd remembered – at once imposing and inviting. He paused a moment to catch his breath, and then he realized that he was panting more out of nerves than anything else. He cursed silently, hating that he hadn't thought things through in his rush to find Aeris, to reassure himself that at least in this world she was alive.

What if she doesn't know?

He didn't think he could bear it if she didn't recognize him, if she looked at him as though he was a freak or druggie on a trip. Then he remembered that Aeris could never look unkindly at anyone, and he didn't want to see pity in her eyes.

Squaring his shoulders, he pushed the doors open, tensing as they squeaked and squealed on their hinges as though protesting this early morning exertion. He couldn't care less though. The church was exactly as he'd remembered, down to that silent calm that pervaded the solemn beauty of it all. He took a deep breath then, breathing in the scent of flowers and stone and wood, closing his eyes to savor it, and then he opened them and stepped across the threshold.

The little field of flowers waved at him, the blooms lightly swaying, beckoning invitingly. He walked hesitantly towards them, as though afraid that they would melt away and become a lake rimmed with petals if he got too close.

They didn't, and he stood there and just looked at them. He'd spent a lot of time in the church before Kadaj had rocked up and blown a hole in the ground, and he could have sworn the flowers here were somehow more colorful, more alive than they had been when he'd lain on his threadbare bed-roll clutching his left arm and knowing that it was his punishment for not being good enough.

"Hello."

A soft voice that tinkled like bells in morning dew. He didn't dare turn, didn't dare look, as though doing so would mean that the vision of her would disappear as it always did. He clenched his fists, tried to calm himself, took a shaky breath, as he listened to her footsteps moving closer. He could smell her, that scent of flowers and earth and wind in an old church that was so distinctly Aeris that it overpowered him temporarily, and Cloud had to close his eyes at the enormity of it all.

A light hand on his left bicep, and he couldn't stop himself from reaching out and holding it there, keeping it in place. He'd never been whole after losing her, and if this wasn't real he'd be a much more broken man.

It's cruel to kick fallen puppies.

But her hand beneath his felt as solid and real and as dainty as ever, and he could feel her lightly calloused fingertips against his non-existent bicep. It strengthened him, this proof of her being there, and he turned.

He'd forgotten how incredibly beautiful she was.

Her green eyes twinkled at him, kind and all-knowing and gentle and tender and loving. Her brown hair was in her usual braid, falling down her back, but wavy tendrils had escaped and they framed her delicate face like a lover's caress. Her lips were curled in a smile that was at once warm and amused and so filled with affection that he felt his own lips mimicking her.

"Hello," he said, voice catching as his throat closed up. He couldn't say anything more, and just stared at her, wanting so much to hug her to him and beg for forgiveness, yet somehow feeling unworthy of touching her any more than he already was. He'd always felt like he was tainting her somehow, even in his memories – because he was useless and imperfect, and she was an angel.

She smiled at him, a knowing smile that seemed to tell him that she knew exactly what he was thinking. Then again, she'd always seemed to know the self-depreciating thoughts that clamored in his Swiss-cheese brain.

"It's good to see you, Cloud." And then her smile widened, but it was tinged with sorrow.

Cloud's smile fled his face instantly and he frowned: he hated seeing Aeris upset. Hated seeing any one of his friends upset.

She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Cloud." And then his brow furrowed in confusion. What was she sorry about? She was here, she was real, she was alive, and he could talk to her and hold her and touch her. It was almost enough to make him forget that he'd failed to save her.

"Why are you apologizing?" his hold on her hand tightened, and he made himself relax it so as not to hurt her.

"Because I did what I did without asking you how you'd feel about it." Aeris' eyes were troubled as she looked up at him, and Cloud could only stare at her.

"…I'm just glad to be here with you," he answered at last. "And thank you for giving me this."

At that, Aeris reached out with her other hand and pulled Cloud to her, holding him against her and stroking the back of his head. He closed his eyes and savored the feel of her, breathing in her scent, and he couldn't bear the thought of waking up and having this be just another trick of his mind.

At length Aeris pulled away and led him to one of the pews. They sat, and Cloud held her hand in both of his, not wanting to relinquish contact.

"You have questions?" she cocked her head to the side, tilted it curiously in that graceful way of hers.

He nodded, and his throat worked as he tried to speak. It took him several tries, but at length Cloud was able to give voice to the burning question in his mind.

"Why?"

She smiled again, and looked away briefly before looking him in the eye. "Because you were sad, Cloud. Because you couldn't seem to forgive yourself no matter what, and because you couldn't seem to understand that it was never your fault to begin with."

Cloud looked away then, at the flowers grinning perkily up at him. His headache from before was back with a vengeance: funny how he'd pushed it away thus far. He didn't want to think about what he couldn't forgive himself for. It was bad enough he had to live with the proof of his failures everyday.

"Oh Cloud," Aeris breathed, reaching out to stroke his cheek lightly. He turned back to face her. "Things will be different this time, you'll see." And she seemed to be trying to will him to agree with her. "You have a chance now to have the life you want."

And Cloud pondered her words even as he leaned his cheek into her caress. To have what he wanted… he couldn't stop his mind from straying to an image of long silver hair and an aristocratic profile. He pushed the thought out of his head brutally.

Not a chance.

And somehow that hurt, knowing that here HE was alive, but would still never return the feelings that had torn Cloud to shreds every time he'd had to kill him.

Aeris sighed as she looked at him. She could almost see the dark thoughts consuming his mind, the pessimism born of a lifetime of sacrifices and shattered dreams. If she hadn't been convinced before, now she was absolutely positive that it had been the right thing to do - sending Cloud back to where he had a chance at happiness.

Cloud just looked at her and tried to give her a half-smile.

Always trying to make everyone happy.

She wanted him to be happy, wanted him to seize this chance with both hands and pursue it with the dogged determination that had made him chase Sephiroth to the ends of the world. But she knew he'd need plenty of nudges along the way – he seemed to believe that he wasn't worthy of happiness. But she couldn't blame him. Every time he'd had a chance at some sort of joy it'd been snatched cruelly away from him.

Not this time.

Aeris was determined that this time would be different. This time, Cloud would have his heart's desire. He'd done enough for the world that he deserved something better than cold memories.

She hesitated though, and Cloud sensed it, as he always did.

"What is it?" the urgency of his voice didn't suit this young face, nor did it escape her that his voice had deepened, his words more clipped. This was the voice of the leader of AVALANCHE, at once caring, compassionate, business-like, and authoritative.

She couldn't look him in the eye. "What I did…when I sent you back, I changed the order of things." She took a deep breath, looking everywhere but at the blond boy-man next to her. "There will be challenges you'll have to overcome – because you're the one who'll save the world." She chanced a glance at him then, and instantly wished she hadn't.

Cloud's face had closed-off, his body had tensed. His eyes were frigid, and the line of his jaw was so grim and firm that it looked completely incongruous with his fifteen-year old appearance.

He was looking straight at her and wishing he didn't have to play the damned hero again. He was sick of it. Sure, he'd wanted everyone to know he was strong, that was partly why he'd left Nibelheim for cadet training. But when he'd gotten the strength he'd wished for, no one had told him that the price he'd have to pay would be more than he could ever recover from.

"I'm so sorry, Cloud." She touched his cheek, noting how he didn't react at all to her. Some of her pain must have shown in her eyes, though, because he instantly forced himself to relax. His eyes were still cold, but not as freezingly hard as before.

Cloud knew he couldn't blame Aeris, knew there was no point getting angry. A part of him had been expecting this. But still he'd been hoping that he wouldn't have to play the Savior again, that he wouldn't have to be the super-strong, super-fast, super-tough warrior whom everyone turned to whenever things got rough.

He just wanted to be Cloud.

Instantly he felt bad – here he was being selfish, whining about the unfairness of it all when the Planet was suffering, Vincent was locked in a coffin, and Red XIII was probably being dissected by Hojo right now.

He sighed, and when Aeris looked at him, he gave her a small smile. It wasn't much, but at least he wanted her to know that he understood, and that he'd do it, and this time he'd keep her safe.

It was the least he could do.

She smiled at him, and suddenly he didn't care if he had to save the world a thousand times. It was worth it to have her back in his life – she'd always been the joyful part of his soul, the happy little song in his heart, the light in his mind.

Cloud didn't want to think about what he would do or how he would feel if a certain green-eyed SOLDIER smiled at him.

Probably start babbling like a girl.

-----

"Hey, Cloud. Where've you been?"

Cloud looked up in surprise, and stared straight into the light brown eyes of Brian Tranton. He barely remembered him from his cadet days, but what he could remember was that Brian was one of the few who'd never poked fun at Cloud for being weak and puny. Of course, it might have had something to do with the fact that Brian himself wasn't very strong or smart. He was the second son of a middle class family out of Kalm, and seemed to be the kind of average, normal person that Cloud had often wished he could be.

He must've stared at Brian for too long, because Tranton simply rolled his eyes and smiled. "You're out of it, again." Then Brian simply turned back to his book.

Dumbly, Cloud made for his bed and collapsed onto it. He looked around at the rest of his bunk-mates, and none of them seemed to have even noticed him.

Runt of the litter.

He'd forgotten much of his days as a cadet – had WANTED to forget and he had. But he knew he'd been alternately picked on or ignored. He supposed his immaturity hadn't helped, or the fact that he'd been too weak to do much.

This time would be different though.

With that in mind, he leaned back and started to plan.

The time with Aeris had been good. They'd had lunch together, and he'd walked her home before receiving a peck on the cheek. He felt happier, calmer, lighter. And now he was back in the barracks, trying not to think about the consequences of failing, and trying to figure out how to get stronger, faster.

And then he needed to work out how to befriend Zack and get close enough to Sephiroth to stop Nibelheim.

"Lights out!" The bellow seemed to galvanize the cadets into action, as everyone scrambled to put away drinks and cards and books before the room was plunged into darkness. Cloud himself simply toed off his boots and lay back down, the rollercoaster ride his emotions had taken all day making him fall asleep as soon as his head hit the cheap pillow.