Skye Morin Strife

Beloved Mother and Friend

Remembered by all who knew her

It wasn't much of an epitaph, pathetic really in comparison to some of the others carved around it, but he didn't mind. His mother had never been one for grandeur or self-embellishment, always living for those around her rather than herself, so the little remembrance suited her, and warmed his heart to read. Yes, she would be remembered by everyone she'd come into contact with, they'd remember her spirit, her easy kindness, and the love, more than anything else, that she'd held for the child she'd been deprived of in the last few months of her life.

Cloud ducked his head and swallowed hard, promising himself that this time he would keep his composure, still quailing at the memory of the first time he'd visited this Lifestream Sanctuary on his way home from the hospital.

"I can't…"

His fingers clenched around the pink flower held between them, and he forced them to relax before he damaged the delicate stem while taking a breath to speak.

"I'm sorry if you don't really approve, but this is just something I have to do."

He pressed his lips together until he couldn't feel them anymore, and then lowered himself to the ground so he could set the single plant down on the offering step, where dozens of its kind in all arrangements and colours were already littering the speckled marble. He stayed like that for a minute, braced on one knee, the rug sack hanging from his left shoulder weighing down that side.

"And don't worry. I know I'll be able to do this, so just relax okay?"

Into the silence he closed his eyes and let the scent of the flowers fill his lungs, some fleshy and sweet with ripeness, others older with rot and mould, their reds turning black and their greens brown. It didn't mean anything bad, just that some hearts were healing quicker than others, or had had longer to do so.

"Cloud?"

Then there were footsteps coming up behind him, each one echoed a dozen times up through the walls after they'd been made so that eventually all order was lost and the hall became a frenzy of the sound multiplied on itself several times. He opened his eyes and then slowly rose to his feet, not turning around as the other boy came to stand at his right.

"..." Zack breathed out beside him, his eyes running over all the carved names, "I think I would have liked his to be here as well," he murmured, and Cloud felt his chest clench in sadness.

Angeal was dead.

They'd known it the second they saw that blast no matter how much they'd tried to deny it at the time. Nothing, not even a SOLDIER, could have survived that destruction. Once the scene was cleared and the magic contained, the remains had been easy to find within the ruins of the once great home; two lifeless bodies so torn apart it had taken days to identify one from the other. But they had done so eventually, and Angeal Hewley, legendary SOLDIER first class and mentor to hundreds of Shinra recruits striving to be the same, had been officially declared dead along with the great General Sephiroth, who's legacy needed no embellishing beyond common knowledge.

And not only that, but the mountain of Modoeheim quickly became known as the slope where heroes were felled, when a third body was discovered to the public's horror. That of Genesis Rhapsodos; the last of the trio of Shinra's origional idols.

The city had gone into in a state of shock. Rumors and theories burned through the zip-wire, concocting fiction and blurring the truth as something of a hysteria set in when the people perceived how greatly weakened their military must be now, how vulnerable to their enemies they had been left. Shinra though, was quick to rally against this threat to its name, lifting the people's spirits through assurances and ceremonies boasting its ever increasing prowess. Even turning the deaths of their star figures into a celebration of strength and skill in the form of a memorial service in which the souls of the men were bid entry to the Lifestream, their names engraved on great plaques that were set, side by side, in the middle of the Shinra courtyard, where all aspiring heroes could look to them for motivation.

Zack of course had protested this, disgusted by the idea of his uncle's name being in anyway associated with the betrayer's beside it for the rest of time. But of course he'd been ignored, having no power in Shinra to change anything, and in the end he just had to content himself with his own memories of his uncle's life, and the idea that at one point these three men were all each-other had had, and that maybe despite it all they ought to be left togother.

It went without saying, of course, that Cloud's own role in the SOLDIER's deaths, and the details of his disappearance and subsequent reappearance, had been kept stiflingly under-wraps by the same authorities, only rumours of the truth ever making their way to the public knowledge, and even these being disregarded as slander to a great heroes' name. Cloud didn't mind this at all, in fact he was perfect. He didn't need Sephiroth to be exposed to the world as the villain he really was, not when he couldn't do anymore harm to anyone, and he didn't want the shadow of his ordeal to forever darken his own life and make moving on impossible. He didn't want to be known as a victim, that would have been the greatest victory Sephiroth could have ever got over him.

"Anyway,"

He snapped out of his thoughts and turned to look at the other boy who was now watching him with soft interest, "we have to get going. Enrolment's in less than an hour and you don't want to be late for that. Trust me," he gave a sort of half smile at some memory and knuckled his hands on his hips. "Last chance, are you sure you really want to do this. It's not too late to back out."

"No," he shook his head and then heaved the rug sack up further onto his shoulder using the strap, "I'm not backing out. This is what I want."

"Heh," the other boy shrugged and clicked his tongue, "okay then. But don't come crying to me when your legs feel like the bones have been replaced with metal saws. Or your head starts floating off your neck from all the shit they'll pump into ya."

He chuckled and arched a brow, "that bad?"

"Oh yeah..." Zack offered a dramatic look of horror and then drifted his eyes back over the wall again, just idly, until they fixed on something that Cloud could tell by his body language had caught his interest. He narrowed his eyes and turned to look in the direction of the boy's focus.

"What are y-" But then he saw it too.

Aerith Gainsborough

Beloved child of the city

Taken before her time but remembered beyond her years by those she touched

Survived by her mother and the friends she made in life

May this young soul find the peace and adventures she'd never had a chance to experience in this realm

He swallowed and watched as Zack took a step back and then held out his left arm, rolling the loose sleeve of his shirt back all the way to the bicep and exposing under it a faded strip of pink cloth wrapped around the area just at the bulge of the muscle.

"Untie this for me, will ya?"

"..." he did as asked, but as his fingers began working on the hardened knot he felt a shiver run through him, and everything became brighter for just a moment.

"Cloud. Try to forget."

Blinking this away, he worked on the tie until finally it loosened, and then catching the ribbon as it fell away from the skin, he handed it to Zack who then held it up in front of himself for a short while, a thoughtful look of perplexity deepening his features that Cloud didn't want to interrupt. The boy closed his hand and lowered himself down so he could, as Cloud had done with the flower moments before, set the thing with the rest of the offerings on the step, muttering something that the blond didn't catch under his breath.

He came back up with all of the moment completely washed away from his face, replaced with another knowing smile.

"Okay then Grunt, you ready to go?"

He narrowed his eyes and shrugged, "yes I am. You can't scare me with your name calling either."

"Heh, we'll see. Come on then Chocobo-head, march!"

"Gaia..."

With one last look at his mother's engraved name added to the list of thousands, he turned and preceded the other boy out through the hall, a knot of nervous excitement coiling in his stomach as he realized this was really the beginning. That it was finally about to start.

A Grunt they would call him and a Grunt he would be for now, but he didn't care because he knew that that wouldn't last forever. He'd been weak for too long, Seph...Sephiroth had used that weakness to control him and make him suffer for all that time, it alone had formed the bars of the cage the man had kept him in. But no longer. That was all just memories now, wisps of air and smoke that couldn't do solid harm now, and this was the start of something new, something he would fight for until he could say to himself and all the world that he had achieved what he needed to achieve,

that his name was Cloud Strife, SOLDIER first class.

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When the Lifestream erupted onto the surface of the planet, the man had already surrendered his inconsequential memories to the planet. Memories from when he was a boy, of his few friends, of the battles when he was still unaware, of his life in bygone days– all these became a part of the inundation, encased around Meteor, and finally receded. At the same time, the core of his spirit, and those memories deeply related to it, moved from torrent to torrent, and traveled around the land, from city to city. When the people who were trying to escape, or those left unable to do anything but stand still, were enveloped by those streams, he decided to leave them with his stigma. If Cloud noticed that stigma, the man was certain that he would never disappear. As long as Cloud remembers me, I can continue to exist. Within the Lifestream, and on the surface. Even if my spirit disseminates, even if just one fragment of a memory courses around the planet, in the end I can count on Cloud's consciousness to bring me back.

(Extract from On The Way To A Smile: Case of the Lifestream- translated by Hitoshura)