I don't own FFVII. The title refers to a line in a Deep Purple song. Incidentally, I don't really like the band or the song; it just served as inspiration. Also, I realize I left out a lot of scenes. Some I felt weren't important to the focus I wanted to give this story, some would have been redundant, and some were just silly. What's left is heavily condensed.

Thanks for reading.


Black spot, streaking.

Train's coming. Twenty tons: solid-- steel, glass, and liquid--mako.

Catch this train. All aboard.

Pacing himself behind it, he grabbed an overhanging bar and dropped, floated, crouched on the slick surface, nailing the dismount. No sweat.

He was a SOLDIER, First Class.

He always did as he was told.

XXXX

"Cloud."

Girl.

Girlgirlgirlgirl.

He knew this girl. Forests, mountains, silver, green, deep green, sputter, cough, Say Cheese, Nibelheim, home, Tifa.

"T-Tifa."

She smiled.

This was different, no, the same--wait-- she matters-- nothing matters but the mission, you're a SOLDIER, Cloud. Cloud, that's right. He knew it was his name. What did that mean?

He caught the attention of worried brown eyes and blacked out on the answer.

She'll brief him later.

XXXX

The seconds of his life blinked in red.

He fought and ran until sulfurous fumes blanketed his vision, pluming upward and outward into a searing corona of fire and destruction.

He felt an itch in the back of his brain and ignored it.

The green would have to wait for another day.

XXXX

Flowers. Only a gil.

He should just walk away.

No, closer. She's the one.

Was it right, this voice inside him? The girl was smiling, the flowers bright. It seemed harmless enough. He scratched his head on the answer and wondered if he had always done that.

Yeah, he had. He did it in Nibelheim, too, for that weird girl-- no, Tifa.

That's right. Tifa.

He did it for her.

XXXX

"A flower for me? Oh Cloud, you shouldn't have."

Insouciant shrug. Nah. No big.

She tittered on about flowers and colors, closed her eyes and scented the blossom, then suggested that perhaps she should fill the bar with them, to make it feel more like home.

Her shy smile beamed through the shade and gloom of the dingy room, and he had to agree.

It really brightened up the joint.

XXXX

Ten steps from his spot to hers. Standard steps, heel-to-toe regulation length, child's play.

Ten steps. One two three four-five-sixseveneightnine ten.

Would it have made a difference if it were seven, or twelve?

Undoubtedly. With the seventh step, he was sandwiched somewhere between six and eight in that infinite sequence of numbers, propelled forward by their relentless march until heel-toe encountered bedroll, and he fell flat on the floor into her waiting arms.

Twelve would have been slightly more awkward. Two past base ten, beyond his comfort zone, he hupped-two-three-four onto her sleeping space, awaiting her orders. Stay, or return-- she chose.

But ten left him at a loss. He had reached his boundary, the last frontier to explore. He didn't know what waited on the other side.

Roughing his hair, he maneuvered through sprawled, snoring bodies to his mattress in the far corner of the makeshift bedroom.

Maybe he'll find out tomorrow.

He'll always have time.

XXXX

"You forgot the promise, too."

"Promise?" he coughed.

"So you DID forget."

Had he?

He remembered the softening wooden planks that grumbled when he climbed the well. And the way the cool mountain air taunted him, prickling his skin with chilling doubts while he waited in silence, alone. He could feel the blood rushing back to his skin when she arrived like a vision out of his dreams, swathed in the blue of the scintillating heavens, a halo of a billion stars twinkling in knowing delight from their zenith. His throat still constricted when he recalled the taste of those first few words telling her of his plans, while omitting the finer points: the black and white of SOLDIER training and monster fighting, and the shimmering silvered picture of a girl's satisfied swoon when he returned in glory and swooped in for a kiss, her body arched into his, her toes fluttering over the dusty ground, her heart racing, just edging out the beat of his own; and how, almost choking on the tingling strength of her presence, he quashed the doubts vice-gripping his stomach when she asked him to be a hero--her hero. He would come save her once. He promised.

But the newspapers never carried his name, nor his arms, her adoring form. His hands felt achingly empty, and he longed for a memory of threading his fingers through hers.

He found nothing. His fists clenched; his nails clawed the skin through the leather of his gloves. Seven years later, still alone. A washed-up motley of foolish dreams and teenage hormones.

"You got your childhood dream, didn't you?"

A kiss, a smile, a swoon, SOLDIER? No, he didn't. Not all of them.

But with the hope peeking out behind her guarded eyes, he supposed one out of four wasn't so bad; so he took the job and stayed, for 3000. Make that two.

"Thanks, Cloud." She broke into a radiant grin, just for him, and he blinked away the strange feelings plumbing the depths of his being.

Perhaps two out of four was way better.

XXXX

He didn't want her to go. Who was he to protect her?

Maybe if, in the past, he had saved a couple of kids from a burning building, he'd feel ready for this.

But he hadn't, even though he remembered the tongues of fire. The bite of steel. The tang of blood. The bitter screams of pain from her heart and the acid of Sephiroth's name. He blinked away the ache in his own chest and returned to her concerned gaze.

Her hand drew up to touch his arm, but she changed her mind, pulled back, fell away.

He wasn't her hero.

XXXX

He thought he had fallen once. So what, he had fallen again. From the sky, through a hole, away from her.

She would hurt again, he knew it somehow, maybe. Dead or alive, she'd still get hurt.

Bloody shame the descent didn't end the pain once and for all.

XXXX

He knew this girl, and he didn't. Didn't care: bodyguards, dates, frolicking in the fucking flowers. Get close, stay away.

There were two of him now. The one above and the one below.

The one below was familiar, so he decided it was the truth and marched to its orders, damn the rest.

The one above slipped into the umber of her eyes, the curve of her mouth, the blur of the horizon when his memories faded and he was left with shadows.

Ignore the hurt on her face: horizons blacken, memories dissolve, colors dim.

XXXX

He couldn't handle it, the noise. A part of his brain was being ripped apart. His blood boiled. He saw green.

Head, head, head, she's got his head. Sephiroth's here. Something's calling. J-E-N-O-V-A.

MAKEITSTOPMAKEITSTOPMAKEITSTOP

"Cloud, be strong!"

The connection severed, he came back to reality: stuck in a lab, where the slightest misstep would get you hung, drawn, and quartered, where the water ran green and science was a horror story.

Where someone believed in him enough to hold on to him, to give him her light when the darkness popped in suddenly, to up the ante when the nightmares played for keeps.

XXXX

Ten thousand people: Crushed. A girl who had become his responsibility: Kidnapped, possibly tortured.

The new president with the power to end this: Alive, and scot-free.

A madman: On the loose, mocking him, luring them closer.

His team: Tired from the trek to the tower. Captured, escaped, and now embarking on a quest.

He held his head up because he was an ex-SOLDIER. People listened to him.

Take first watch. Stop. This way. Yes. No. Let's mosey.

He had to wonder if the outlook would be better if the voices would just shut up.

XXXX

They had trusted each other once, before vying as mortal enemies. War did funny things like that, bringing together two people, neither of whom liked to talk. Or maybe war turned him silent. Back then he had talked to everybody: Sephiroth, the guy puking in the corner of the truck, Tifa.

He told the group his story. How he had come back home. Tried to visit Tifa, protected her in the mountains, saved her after his hero killed almost everybody he had ever known.

Maybe Sephiroth had been just like him once. Maybe losing his mother, his friends, his mind had turned him into a sadistic silent killer.

He swallowed and looked across the room for encouragement that he wasn't on the same path, that he wasn't a monster. Quiet eyes told him something important, something she couldn't voice yet. It might have been bad, with the way she clutched her head and clenched her fists nervously at times, but she still stood by him and smiled and made him believe everything would be alright.

Her attitude mattered the most.

XXXX

He was remembering all sorts of things now, like how, in one of their last conversations, his mother had pressured him about a girlfriend. An older one, one who would take care of her wayward son.

Sound advice, he assumed, but he hadn't been interested then. He couldn't remember why, but he thought it was important. A detail gone wrong.

XXXX

She reached out to him, this girl who struck a pose in pink. "Hey, Cloud, do you think I look good like this?" She giggled a lot, and smiled, and light emanated from every pore of her body, filliped away by a manicured nail or the roundabout sway of her hair. With her, he could ignore the summoning shades, pretend that he wasn't teetering on the edge, tethered to reality only by a young brunette with deep, dark, quiet eyes.

This other girl was dependent on him, and he liked that. He was an ex-SOLDIER-turned-mercenary-turned-bodyguard. People needed him for all sorts of dangerous stuff.

Besides, he knew that in his line of work, weakness took no prisoners.

Weakness killed.

XXXX

Lights, so many spasming, 'Try Me!', OPEN!', 'World-Renowned', 'FREE.'

Too many voices, sights, sensations. Happy families, down-and-out loners. The flash of money, drinks, women, glitz.

So he fought in the Battle Arena. Slash, pivot, stab. Vital signs; cold sweat; blood streaks. Spectators screaming. Crowd rah-rahing. Sandpaper grip of his gloves against his blade.

Adrenaline pumping--heart sprinting--breaths shaky.

His thoughts muted over the trembling tangibility of his own body.

XXXX

There was no place like home.

There were no fights, no fires, no losers straggling far behind the crowd, no angel lying dead, waiting for the seventh day to open her eyes.

A hand on his shoulder and a nod of understanding. They shouldn't have come back here. Only bad things happened when you dredged up old memories.

Especially when your old home was hell.

XXXX

Their stars were aligned. It was fated.

A hole in his stomach, black and fathomless; the emptiness growling, gnawing, clawing at his entrails. Something was amiss, a voice shouted.

No, we need her.

He scratched the back of his head and thought maybe it was true, maybe a piece of him belonged to her. The darkness howled a lone cry through his soul, and everything went dead. A hollowed core of his being, the silence, left him strangely restless.

But what did he know?

Sure, maybe deep down, he thought it was a joke. Maybe clones didn't have birthdays.

Maybe the stars didn't know shit.

XXXX

The sky burned, a supernova explosion before the world went silent and collapsed in on itself. A black hole, sucking, surging, pulling; stretched until he broke apart, then micronized into oblivion. Would she remember him the way he wanted? Or would she remember the guy who never wanted to save the world, but tried anyways, and failed?

He saw flashes of light in his memories, and he thought they might hold the key, be it portended salvation or inevitable doom.

He knew it was only a matter of time before he crashed and burned, spiraling forever on the horizon, always out of reach.

Fifty-thousand miles on each side of him, a whole lot of nothing.

The darkness was calling.

XXXX

Lightning never struck the same place twice. His quicksilver blade came down once, and she was dead.

Aerith.

you. fucking. monster.

He wanted to slash maim torture murder that bloody psychopath. But his blade had always been slower, clumsily trailing far behind the speed of light, missing wide from the anger burning in his visage.

Done for. His weakness got her killed.

He lowered her body into the beckoning depths and paled as the darkness claimed her too.

He didn't have a prayer.

XXXX

swim

alone girl burn town eyes red dark died good job puppet failure professor please give me a number holy there's so much i need to tell you welcome to SOLDIER you're so like him we're friends right ain't no getting off this train we're on i want to meet you cloud run sleep well cloud it's your attitude that matters i'm really sorry maybe one day you'll meet the real--

"Oh, Cloud." Her voice, tinctured in timbres of whites and grays, cut through the murk of his mind.

Breathe.

"What happened to you?"

Go away, Tifa. You'll only hurt more.

XXXX

How many of him were there?

Had he always been this out of himself, always something else? An outsider dying to be one of the accepted, a weakling striving to be a SOLDIER, an inarticulate loser impersonating his jovial best friend?

She said he remembered those stars, that they had shared that night together, that he was the real Cloud.

But clones see the same world. They're real, in a sense.

They just don't deserve to exist.

XXXX

It wasn't enough, his memories.

He needed something else, something locked deep within his heart. Something to do with her, she had suggested.

But those were too precious, too dear. He had sealed them up so no one would ever know, not even himself.

But perhaps she was right, he had to take a chance. If he weren't real, then it didn't matter. Knowing somebody else's hopes and dreams and failures shouldn't bother him at all. And if he were real, then he would cross his fingers that for the first time in his life, something would go right.

He was going for broke.

XXXX

He stood under her window, wishing on every falling star that he'd be noticed. He fought--anyone and anybody but her--and hoped she'd know that he was strong, that he'd protect her, that he'd never hurt her. He had already broken that promise once, so he joined SOLDIER determined never to break it again, until that day at the reactor when he had come too late.

And she? She looked for him, stood by him, cradled the pieces of him in her hands when he had crumbled into nothing.

As a child, he had loved her. As a teenager, he had saved her.

As an adult, he finally knew her.

XXXX

"We finally...meet again."

For the first time in five years, they saw each other completely with their own eyes. She was nervous, tired, drenched, stunning.

He could get used to this.

XXXX

Fire, Puppet: "For me, this is a personal feud."

Hojo, Nibelheim, Zack, Tifa: "I want to beat Sephiroth. And settle my past."

Aerith: "Saving the planet just happens to be a part of that."

"I've been thinking."

Finally: "I know why I'm fighting."

"I'm fighting to save the planet, and that's that." So many died for this, Aerith died for this, he has to keep going.

"But besides that, there's something personal too...

"A very personal memory that I have." Tons. All of them now. The deep ones, the real deal.

"What about you all?

"I want all of you to find that something within yourselves."

He glanced over at her, heart open and vulnerable and beating for him. He knew he was safe there.

Give it your best shot, Sephiroth. He's fighting for everything.

Let's mosey.

XXXX

The cogs of his mind turned slowly from years of accumulated rust and dust, their raspy scrapes jamming the words in his throat.

He had an excuse. Doomsday lingered in the air around them, cast them in its ephemeral light, and still, she took his breath away. Nevertheless, she deserved to hear him voice his soul before a one-winged angel came to pass his final judgment.

They stared at each other through the chiaroscuro of the painted dusk, and for a moment, the horizon solidified and he thought he should repay the favor. She gave him his memories, his self; it was time to hand them right back.

Words aren't the only way, she had said, to tell someone how you feel.

Fine by him. He was never much good with them anyways.

XXXX

When he advanced, she surged to meet him; when he retreated, she sank too. She pulled, repatterned the old scars on his back, anchored new sensations in his memories. Saline drops coursed from her body onto his, entwined: incubating them in the present while liquefying their two forms in the ancient crystalline reflection of the stars. And her calls, whispers at first, a please, a moan, then crescendoing into more, and more, to climax on his cry, or hers. His voice cut through the plains, but it rang deeper, charged depths inside him to a place where he was alive and knew only a name.

In the darkness, he couldn't tell where his body ended and hers began, where his memories stopped and hers started. They were just two, one, sharing the last night of their lives.

Adjusting her clothes, her temple over the thrumming melody in his chest, he played the wilted ends of her hair between his fingertips. Together they would fall asleep.

He figured it didn't matter so much whether they were the double, or just a single entity, depending on how you looked at it. The sun would still rise for them regardless.

Once. At least once more.

XXXX

"Time to get up, Tifa."

"Mm?"

"It's almost dawn."

Sleep-mussed and satiated, they'd take on the world. An unusual situation, to be sure. SOLDIERs all had girls at home, writing stacks of scented love letters and waiting for their heroes to return. But his was by his side, maybe a little bruised and beaten, but an ally for life, come raging earth, stormy seas, fire in the sky.

Her nose wiggled in her sleep, and she cleaved deeper to the warmth of his chest.

He smiled.

Those SOLDIER boys had no idea what they were missing.

XXXX

The others were complaining, scared, hurt. They looked at Sephiroth, gross and transformed, and he thought he'd lost his team.

All he could feel was heat and flame. His journey had always been through fire.

"Cloud! Cloud!"

But she still called out to him. Everyone was still here. Aerith was here. He wasn't alone.

"It's not over yet...This isn't the end yet!" he rallied his friends.

The anger dissipated, memories refreshed him, and he fought. There was light, and stillness, and Sephiroth was gone.

And the world was finally on his side.

XXXX

He had seen her. With his own eyes, no less-- not Zack's or Jenova's or anybody else's. She was smiling, at peace, invoking the power that would destroy Meteor.

A vision of her stretched towards him, but when he reached back, the familiar grip of a fighter's hand encountered his, and he knew he'd never let go.

So he looked at the green and said goodbye. He could meet them in his memories. Tifa had taught him that when she had found him addlepated and alone. He didn't need a second dip to remind him of who he was or where he wanted to be.

He held her close--this girl who knew him, saved him, loved him; they'd done everything they could.

Now was the time to wait.

XXXX

He had left once.

Then he had come back. And now they were to start a new life, together this time.

The journey was long and twisted, but he didn't mind that he ended up right where he started.

Always-- he had always done everything for her.