AKA yet another FFVII time-traveling fix-it fic.

Fandom: Final Fantasy VII

Author: Quagga

Pairings: Cloud/Sephiroth, Zack/Aerith, and various other potential combinations of those four.

Rating: M; contains or will contain graphic violence, angst, wangst, mindfuckery, possibly mild sexual content, etc.

Summary: The Cetra want to change the past, and Sephiroth's punishment is to be the one that changes it for them. AU. (Cloud/Sephiroth, Zack/Aerith).

Note: Based on original game canon.

Chapter One

At first, nothing.

Then a sudden burst of light, splintering like broken glass and cutting jagged holes through his consciousness without remorse, then utter icy cold, then the gates that held back the fury of the flood broke open and he drowned in a sea of rage and sorrow and anger and sadness and hatred, deeper and colder and more staggering than everything else, embroiled within the rush of emotion and raw feeling, pulling him down, sinking him, choking him, ending him, then over.

Nothing again.

Then hands held before his face, blood and scraps of black congealing between fingers, skin melting away from bone, bone splintering and falling before him, and everything now melting away before he could even scream. A flash of something in the darkness, beyond the darkness, iridescent and oddly illuminated blue eyes looking down at him with an oddly flat mingling of rage, sorrow, disbelief, pity, and yes, certainly hatred, and then there was nothing again, stretching in all directions towards forever, like there had never been anything, and everything was dark.

Dark, maybe, but there was still sensation. The ringing in his head intensified enough for him to finally notice it, and the aching in his limbs worsened enough for him to notice that he had limbs. Vocal chords seemed to constrict. Muscles twitched, expanded, contracted, and then went limp. Soon everything was still again but for his insides, and with his stomach twisting into knots he realized -- or maybe remembered -- that he had a stomach, had lungs, had a heart somewhere in there, had bodily functions that seemed normal and yet entirely forgotten. When he drew his first breath, though, even the air seemed to shatter into a thousand crystalline and cold shards that scythed through his lungs like a sword.

Yes, a sword -- covered in red, covered in blood, raised over his head, then he tasted blood, fell, and then it was darkness again.

At last -- nothing.

But then he stared mindlessly forth into the cosmos, a night sky full of stars and planets and little drifting things about to be consumed, endlessly dark and vast, spreading in every direction. Even if his eyes took in the universe, they were nothing but mirrors reflecting pinpoints of life, sensing without seeing, seeing without understanding, processing it without true awareness. Existing without consciousness -- still nothing -- but then he was aware, thinking, realizing that it was the clearest sky he had ever seen. Disjointed thoughts started to come together, and as soon as they did, there was that awareness again. If his body really could be called a body, it was being destroyed.

Wounded without bleeding, maybe, but something sank into him and started sucking everything out, relentless. A billion points of light, a billion tiny creatures crawling over him, a billion tiny lights in a million tiny homes and a billion little parasites drawing away energy and replacing it with something seething, a million voices screaming all at once until his head cracked open and everything bubbled and sizzled on its way out, desiccating him until he was nothing more than an empty husk of something that had once been.

Then it was all stinging cold and familiarity. Green, burning fluorescent green, freezing his insides and rendering him motionless, nothing but green all around, holding him in stasis -- green, terrible, terrible green, burning, seething, bubbling, stinging green, and yet he wanted it to stay because he knew ripping it out of him was going to rip out his insides. It didn't stay. Ripped out of him, sudden and brutally, and the green disappeared and left what felt like a million shards of broken green inside of him, like green was a knife, a sword, or a needle. He choked. He might have tried screaming with vocal chords that didn't work. He definitely felt a rush, felt knees crack against a hard surface, felt his head smack against the ground, and felt his muscles begin seizing and his spine arching and curling at a nearly impossible angle and his muscles tensing until they began to tear -- before finally, finally, a more familiar stillness came again.

He recognized this kind of still silence, called it exhaustion, and kept his eyes closed.

A second later something bludgeoned him, and he heard a crack before feeling the burst of pain and sliding down, breath knocked out of his body when he wasn't even aware it had been there in the first place. He choked for it, longing for the return of what he didn't know he'd had and now missed, but before he could suck air back in another blow knocked it right out of him. Instinct saved him where rational thought couldn't. On his knees, now, looking at nothing and anticipating, crouched down defensively even if he felt nakedly defenseless, gritting teeth that felt like they rattled in his head, almost snarling at nothingness -- and then he heard laughter.

Many voices as one, but all in unison – they were all laughing, and definitely at him. Laughter didn't faze him. Helplessness did. He looked all around, seeing nothing, and yet he could still hear it, getting louder and louder with each passing moment, more and more infuriating. He tried to shout something, but his vocal chords constricted and he choked, reaching up to grab at his throat now and then coughing. Each cough expelled a fine green mist that curled into visible tendrils and disappeared without illuminating the darkness. He couldn't even see his own hands before him, but he could hear their laughter increase, more and more the more he choked and struggled, before coming to an abrupt end.

Well met, little one. Well met.

Reverberating, echoing, booming, the voice flattened him, but when he covered his ears it grew louder, intensifying until he writhed with each word, worsening when beyond the voice he heard more laughter.

However, it's a very futile effort. We can flatten you with a single breath. Don't bother resisting.

Still echoing, the voice of a million, of legion, so immense it seemed like his hands pressing into both sides of his skull were the only thing keeping his head together before it swelled and exploded from the force of it. Vibrating, shattering everything, rocking him right down to the roots of his teeth and the marrow in his bones -- ripping him apart from inside out and breaking him piece by piece, yet with a kind of ease and nonchalance he couldn't hope to fight against. But he couldn't keep from resisting -- his body tried to resist it, every nerve and cell rebelling and only making the pain intensify. Finally, his consciousness shattered to pieces, splitting into a million shards, and even if his vocal chords didn't work, he screamed in his head until he couldn't scream anymore. Without strength now, he remained at the mercy of the voice.

We see no reason for affording you mercy or compassion, the voice mused, in a tone that sounded almost idle, even vaguely congenial. You have forfeited the right to it, though the usefulness of your existence is apparent, even to us.

Even instinctive resistance ebbed away, now, leaving him a raw bundle of splintered nerves that twitched on each syllable. The owners of the voice didn't particularly seem to care. They spoke without any kind of urgency or necessity, only what seemed to be a kind of amused sadism, increasing until he finally understood that their chief purpose, now, was just to torture him.

Useful though you are, it is crucial that we do not allow you to forget. We cannot forgive you, either -- the time for that, unfortunately, has passed. The time for any number of things has passed, actually. Compassion. Understanding. Helplessness. It is time to make a move. Be glad that we find you useful.

His mouth kept on moving, trying to form words of his own, though the reverberations had him writhing and his vocal chords seemed frozen, locking him in a kind of silent hell. Not like words would have tempered the seething anger he heard behind that casual amusement and sadistic glee, but the growing confusion cut to the bone along with the pain, and with it came panic. That set off a round of other emotions, as well -- panic faded, something close to rage bubbled up and overwhelmed him, and adrenaline-rush resistance returned, lashing out at his surroundings with fury even if he couldn't even move his limbs. The voice was in him, all around him, and definitely not blind to his thoughts.

Just understand -- there is no one we can't break.

They drove into him, twisted him, tore him from the insides, and broke him.

Again. The time for mercy has long since passed.

No clear view of the cosmos this time, but something mundane -- darkness in his surroundings, but light surrounding his own body, enough for him to look down and see that he was naked and defenseless, cocooned in strands of phosphorous green that kept him motionless and seared against his skin. Confusion, rage, and panic supplanted his exhaustion quickly, but the emotions exploded in a quick flare and dissipated before they could give rise to anything. He closed his eyes for a moment, before squinting up into the light, thinking that perhaps he could see something in it. Nothing. It burned, though, so it was easier just to close his eyes and wait, exhausted beyond limits. All of this seemed oddly familiar. Strands of insanely glowing green instead of leather or metal straps, a bright light with no discernible source and yet still a spotlight, naked, helpless, defenseless -- it beckoned to some kind of memory, but his mind felt too fragmented to try to piece it together.

"You're still in pieces, aren't you?"

A voice, strange, echoing, multi-layered, yet comprehensible -- multiple voices speaking at once, but it no longer shook him to the core. He opened his eyes. Another spotlight shone down on a man, and seeing the man's face jolted something out of his memories, pulling up the first recognizable fragment. He knew that face, black hair, sun-tanned and blue-eyed, but the voice coming out of its mouth wasn't recognizable. Something else was off, and while his mind struggled to rationalize it, the figure seemed to fade in and fade out, even blurring entirely sometimes. It was like a television set, struggling with a weak signal, cutting in and out, and then it seemed like someone was intentionally tampering with the image -- the eyes brightened then darkened, then the hair and clothes, size and shape, shifting and changing, uncertainly. Finally, he squinted and it solidified a little more, taking a step towards him.

"Don't be alarmed by my appearance. This place relies only on recognition, and will change depending upon the images in your own mind. Though I wonder why there's nothing else here -- have you forgotten everything?"

He opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came out, and the figure smiled -- a quirk of one lip that was all wrong, entirely empty.

"Never matter. As I said before, we will not allow you to forget. You are most useful to us with your memories intact, Jenova's child."

There it was, a name -- and his throat started constricting and limbs started shaking. Confined and helpless, he watched the figure fade and something appear all around him. The cold machinery of a mako reactor, always slick with mist rising up from the core, where it reached right into the lifeblood of the Planet. The thrust of a sword, final and climactic, piercing a black-haired man's chest and then whipping him away with a scornful lack of effort. A town burning somewhere in the mountains. The burning haze of the lifestream. A girl falling, pierced through by the silver sword, a small materia orb slipping out of her hair. Blue eyes, strange hair, gleaming sword, blood on the sword, blood congealing between his hands, and the metallic taste of blood in his mouth -- yes, all of these were memories, fragments ripped from his mind and strewn before him, but none of them made sense. As he watched, a deep and sickening exhaustion began sinking into him. When he dared close his eyes against the onslaught, though, an electric and yet ice-cold surge of pain jerked him back to alertness, arching his body against its restraints and scything through his insides, forcing his eyes open again, to watch the rest, to watch and watch and watch, over and over, until it began to change. With every thrust of the sword, he felt metal inside of him, scraping bone and slicing organs as if they were nothing, twisting, then slipping out, one clear, simple stroke. Different places every time, never exact, never precise, but blood bubbled up and curled in his throat, mingled with sickly mako bile, choking him until he twitched, twisted, writhed, and jerked against his restraints.

But it gave him understanding, when before there had been none -- and with understanding, he could calmly endure the agony. .

"You must understand, now." The figure was back, nothing more than the barest hint of a shadow -- then it was him, looking down, silver-haired and mako-eyed, wearing the same clothes as in memory, holding that sword. No more blurring or shifting, perhaps because he was center stage in his own mind, now.

"Yes." For the first time, he could speak, though it came out as nothing more than a sick rasp. It didn't really seem to matter.

"You're an enemy to so very many people, and for so many reasons, they will never forgive you. They cannot forget you, either. Hatred is more binding, far more permanent than love. In a thousand years, the hatred will still remain. This... cannot be so. It is not what we desire." Seeing him so defenseless, naked, and helpless, it noticed as soon as he felt it -- odd and almost unconscious, deep-seated satisfaction -- and sudden frigid stab somewhere inside exploded into a ripple of agony and a full-blown assault, punishing him for an impulse he couldn't avoid. This time he heard his own screams, then heard his own desperate scrabbling against his bonds in an attempt to escape, knowing all the while that it was impossible.

"You dare to find satisfaction in being remembered, but not in remembering. So we have decided that you will be forgotten."

"...Ancients," he finally muttered, almost nonsensically. The figure smiled down at him, a slight quirk of the lips.

"Yes, Jenova's Child. It is so. We are Cetra, the Ancients, rightful heirs to this planet."

"I am..."

"You are nothing. Parasitic, foreign, nothing. But... you are useful. You are ours."

Foolish old arrogance flared up again. "I am no one's."

When he was done screaming this time, the Cetra seemed like a shadow again, its shape almost discernible but for the faint illumination coming from above, more an outline than something corporeal. He forced his eyes open and looked towards it, trembling so badly he could barely focus. When the trembling ceased, the shadow seemed to take a shape again, responding to his thoughts and coming fully formed right out of nightmares. Professor Hojo stood before him, as clear as day, though the fact that it spoke with the voice of the Cetra quelled most of his immediate revulsion.

"You are ours. Eternally, now -- there is no mercy, and no end or beginning for you. You are only ours."

Resignation felt incredibly foreign to him, but enough pain and here it was, crushing him under its weight. "...What do you want with me?"

The figure flickered and faded, becoming a shadow once more. His vision seemed to be blurring, too, fading and blinking out, though the coice of the Cetra cut through even his wavering consciousness, not half-so-loud as before but still shaking him right down to the core.

"Though you are nothing more than a parasite, you can be used. We wish to achieve one goal, and to do so, the course of events must be changed. Time bends and shifts in all directions. We will take advantage of the flow of time, and return you to the origin of all that went wrong."

"...You... can control time...?"

"No. That is beyond us." He'd struck a nerve, somehow, and the Cetra's anger coiled through him, burningly acidic, though compared to the intense reverberations and their unmasked wrath, it was nothing more than a mild discomfort. "We merely ride the flow of time, backwards and forwards, through use of the Lifestream. But our abilities are sufficient for the task we hope to achieve."

"...And that is...?" Questions, questions, so many questions -- and he was too weak to ask most of them. Instead he forced his eyes to remain open and watched the shadow, still trembling and struggling for breath but slowly growing calmer as the leftover energy from the Cetra's wrath began to fade to merely an unsettling background hum.

"We will create a new future."

Perhaps they sensed his doubt, maybe even a touch of scorn -- because they bludgeoned him again, and though it smacked the breath out of his lungs in one quick burst and he let out a choking cry, it was more like an after-thought. By the time he opened his eyes, though, he felt the chilling rush and began dropping. Falling through endless currents of darkness, then feeling his teeth grind together, his knees crack against a hard surface, and his cheekbone smack wetly and crack against a hard floor -- concrete, rough and grainy, but definitely real, recognizable concrete.

He jerked up his head, looking around and finding the darkness suddenly not so inexplicable anymore. He was in a building, surrounded by the looming shadows of machinery cast by dim lights in the high corners of the room. Nighttime, here -- past working hours. Shinra HQ's research floors were quiet and still as a morgue, though as soon as he recognized where he was he lurched to his feet and made for the elevator, trying to escape almost impulsively. Before he passed through the doors, though, a webbing of green lifestream wrapped across the entrance, barring him. He stepped back, and heard their voice again -- distant, but he could sense the coiling anger.

"No. That is not your path."

"Then where?" He hissed, irritably. "When is this?"

"To the cells in back. You will see."

The cells -- he turned and lurched down the hall in silence. His cheek throbbed for a few seconds, then the pain faded as the wound knit itself back together, leaving nothing but a bloodstain on his face. He didn't bother wiping it off, instead continuing, winding through the narrow halls before reaching the tiny, dimly lit corridor in back, where a row of prison cells lined the walls. He glanced inside most and saw nothing, but paused at the last cell, peering in and really, truly understanding for the first time.

"You are in the right place. Now act."

The voice strained, and he wondered if this was all some kind of sick illusion. It didn't matter if it was, so he dismissed it before putting his hands to the bars and pulling them apart as if they were nothing and giving little thought to it. When he stepped inside and looked down, though, his understanding of the situation wavered once more. This felt real. The clinging humidity inside of the lab, created by the thick mako mist floating around the specimen tubes, the dim lights and the twisted shadows they cast across the machinery, the distant rumblings of Midgar below, the sterile scent of equipment and the slight damp of every surface under his hands, all of it was pitch-perfect and picture-perfect. It didn't feel like a mere memory. Memories, even his, dealt in fragments, fudged details.

"This is as you think it is -- reality. Look around you."

He did. The tiny cell had a single bed, a sink, some books stacked in a neat pile on the floor. It also had an occupant -- a small boy, sleeping, face framed by silver hair, troubled, clutching his blankets around him with thin, pale fingers, trembling on occasion. Convinced now this was the past, but entirely unimpressed, he cocked his head and arched his eyebrows.

"What am I supposed to do?"

A prickle of pain again, and though the anger of the Cetra felt distant, he had little doubt they could put him through the wall again and tear him to pieces, if the need became clear. He didn't so much as cringe, but he did frown, just a little. Their voice came out as a hiss.

"This is where it begins -- you must ensure that you are forgotten."

Looking at the boy struggle to sleep and clutch his blankets gave rise to a slow, building discomfort. "Should I take him?"

"Yes. Give him an escape, the one true path. Salvage what is left of his innocence."

The Cetra, he realized, were being purposely vague, as if they really were giving him some kind of choice -- but he saw through their ploy and recognized it for what it was. His surroundings were no illusion, but they were still trying to weave one through words, hoping to ensnare him and catch him in an obvious foible. There was no guaranteeing that they wouldn't just destroy him in the end, anyway, but the fresh memory of the agonies they could force him into kept him from falling pray to it and enduring their punishment. It was probably futile to begin with -- no matter what path he chose, they were intent on punishing him.

"...I understand."

His words actually woke the boy up, jerked him out of his sleep. Bleary mako eyes cracked open, then sharpened and turned to him, wide with confusion. The boy, no older than seven, sat up sharply and stared.

"W...Who are you?" The boy asked, his voice thin and high, though he still seemed a little groggy from the remnants of sleep. The two of them merely looked at one another, for the longest time -- or what felt like it. Burning eyes, stripped of their genetic hue and now the color of mako, coupled with the same silvery hair, the same ice-pale skin, the same odd cat-slit pupils, all looking up at him, but set in a younger face that lacked the careful discipline that rigorous training would soon carve out of that childish curiosity and vitality.

"Well?" The Cetra asked, their voice now a poison, twisting through his innards again.

"Are you... here to... are you going to take me downstairs to the lab, or...take me somewhere else?" The boy asked, the last part so hesitant that it almost edged out the little bit of childish hopefulness in it.

"Yes," Sephiroth said, for no reason at all, his fingers closing around a familiar hard pommel -- and with a single swift thrust, he impaled the boy on the edge of the sword now in his hands, pinning the child to the wall behind him. He tried to make it a clean strike right through the heart, but the boy moved at the last moment and it went through a lung, crookedly, scraping his spine instead. He knew, because he felt it -- and as soon as the tip of the blade touched the wall he fell to his knees, shuddering, choking, and clutching at his own chest, before forcing his head upright.

The boy just looked at him for one long moment, his eyes wide and glassy and his mouth open. Sephiroth withdrew the sword and felt it in his own insides, now on his knees. The boy remained upright for perhaps five agonizing seconds, before finally, the mako glare in his eyes seemed to fade a little -- it wasn't as bright as it would be later, and he was still growing into the monster he would later become. Vulnerable, for just a few more years -- but now that meant nothing. The boy fell, eyes still open, blood gushing from a seeping hole in his chest. A last crisp rattle of air leaving his lungs broke the silence, and then he died.

Sephiroth stood above the corpse for a moment, staring -- then his vision turned to bright bursts of light, another bludgeon -- the intense wrath of the planet, but worse this time, twisting and curling through him until it bubbled over into more screams and he bit his tongue and tasted bitter metallic blood in the back of his throat. It occurred to him as soon as it was over that it wasn't anger, not this time -- the shadowy figure of the Cetra wore his own face again, only with exhilaration written all over it.

"Why punish me? I did as you asked," Sephiroth managed to rasp out, earning another invisible blow that slammed him into an invisible wall, then sliding down -- and more laughter, high and insane, all in unison -- enough to send him keeling over and clutching his head again. It trailed off quickly, though, and when he looked up, the Cetra just stared back at him with his own eyes, now completely flat.

"We do not need any more reasons to punish. The acts you have already committed are unforgivable."

He stared, before straightening up, unsure of whether the burning he felt inside was rage, or -- something inexplicable, especially for him -- fear. He kept on expecting to vanish, or for his memories to disappear suddenly, or for everything to fall apart -- or maybe for him to find himself alone in a cell at night, breathing his last breath -- but nothing changed.

"Don't worry," though the Cetra seemed pleased to see that he was worrying. "Even after killing that child, you will continue to exist, and so will all of your memories. If you think you've done more than simply scratched the surface of our plans for you, you have a far poorer understanding of reality than I could have imagined. We are creating an alternate timeline, one from which you have been erased. This is just the beginning."

"...I don't understand," he murmured, the words bizarre, foreign on his tongue.

"Of course you don't. But you've successfully completed your first task, and can now continue to work for us," the Cetra said with an empty smile. Before Sephiroth could speak -- demand an explanation even when he didn't have the power to demand anything of anyone, or simply ask why -- the Cetra's wrath flowed through him again, flattening him to the ground effortlessly and beginning to rip into him, physically, mentally, maybe even spiritually. It broke him as easily as the spread of a ripple over a pure, calm surface of water -- and as he endured it in helpless silence, he began to understand his punishment.


author's notes

1. This story might be completely nonsensical now, but it might make more sense in coming chapters… I hope. I really have no gauge of whether I'm writing an actual story or unintelligible dreck that only makes sense to me.

2. One of a million fics with a time-travel plot device, I know, but I don't read much FFVII fiction at all, so hopefully this one isn't just a retelling of some other, better fic out there.

3. If you read this far, please leave a review. I loooooooove feedback of all shapes and sizes. The next chapter will be posted soon.