Random official facts about geostigma:
1. It's NOT contagious.
2. It's contracted by people who are "worrying, suffering, or giving up on life," in the words of Yuffie.
Just thought I'd share. Hahaha. If you haven't read Case of Yuffie, you reallyreally should. 
Anyway! This fic took me a record minimum time to write and I'm extremely pleased with the way it came out. Maybe that's 'cos I actually EDITED this one...eheh.... I must say, while I was writing this Mr. Strife Plushie frowned over my shoulder in the most disapproving manner the entire time. I don't think he likes my making these sort of things known to the general Fandom Public. Okay, I am rambling now.... On with el storyo!
Oh yeah--it's rated M for a scene of violence, just to be on the safe side. Maybe T would work, but it grossed me out just writing it. O_o
Since the moment he had first stepped into this other-worldly, forgotten forest, the place reminded him of a mirror. Not that he saw himself reflected in every silvery pool or stone, but it was like a mirror in the way things felt. The way each glowing tree seemed to imitate the other, casting the same mellow blue light across the forest floor; the way the dark water slept so still and delicate, as if the slightest rustling of grass would shatter it to pieces. It was as if a thin glass had covered his eyes and ears, for he heard only silence. The whole place was filled with a silence, and it crept and curled around every ancient tree and stone.
Pillars rose above the waters like a flight of ancient marble stairs. At the bottom he stood, straining to see the crest through the wisps of steam rising from the lake. Then, one by one, slowly and hesitantly, he climbed the pillars. In this strange place, even his booted footfalls were muted. And though it was an eerie, ethereal place, the colors were mesmerizingly beautiful—blues like the depths of an ocean, glimpses of teal and aqua, soothing fragments of sleeping gold shells and smooth silver shores…. Had he stepped into a painting? The artist must have been a mystical, secretive person.
One last step and he was standing on a small platform. Its surface was smooth and polished from thousands of feet before his. Now, high above the ground, he had a different view of everything; he could see deep into the obsidian waters and up above the silver tree-tops. The view seemed oddly familiar. Even more familiar was the figure kneeling on the platform, bowed like a single pink flower amidst a field of midnight blue. Her slender fingers were clasped together, head slightly bent. Like everything else here, she was silent; though her lips moved in unspoken prayer. Aeris. He wanted to call her name, see her look up and smile. Assure him that, after the uncertainty of separation, she was actually here—warm, alive, heart beating steadily. But somehow, words wouldn't come to him. Maybe the silence was so perfect he was afraid to shatter it; or maybe his feelings were too difficult to put into words--he had never been good at that. Either way, he stood rooted to the spot, studying her contentedly. He knew she was aware of his presence—any moment now, her emerald eyes would meet his. A subtle, knowing smile would appear on her thin lips, and she would call his name. "Cloud…"
But she never had the chance. A cold blade of steel made sure of that.
Crimson drops of blood flecked his face and arms like hot rain, staining the painting. Now her eyes meet his, but this would be the last time. They snapped open like those of a frightened animal, trapped in his gaze. Down her ashen chin trickled streams of scarlet. Blood—she struggled to breathe, choking and sputtering as it seeped into her lungs. A few seconds of thrashing and she slumped forward. Blood, blood…it raced greedily down the blade's edge. It found its way to the handle. And it stained Cloud's hands.
For it wasn't Sephiroth's weapon that Aeris lay impaled on—it was his.
He wrenched the shaft of silver from her body and heard a solid breaking, the crunch of bone resonating through his hands. Not completely lifeless yet, her body thudded to the cold stone. It lay convulsing and twitching as her dying nerves fired desultorily. So much blood: it gathered in dark pools beneath her body and it slithered under his feet; it sloshed across the marble and mingled with the blood of others. Others…yes, other mangled corpses littered the dark marble. Two of them were only children, the third a dark-haired woman, her face chiseled into a statue of death. The empty eyes stared at him from sunken sockets.
Then, like a slow, creeping poison, a foreign noise echoed throughout the Forgotten City. It began vaguely and distorted, but grew louder—stronger—until the air was alive with it. He heard not the screams of the fallen or the tearing of their flesh by his sword, but an entirely different sound altogether: laughter. Maniacal laughter. It came from Cloud's own lungs, in his own voice. In a giddy haze he stepped forward and, foot slick with blood, savagely kicked the crumpled body before him. Bones broke easily beneath his feet—he savored the sensation. So satisfying was this that he did it again. And again, and again…
Seventh Heaven. Suddenly he was on his back, staring at the ceiling of his room in Seventh Heaven and the only sound that stirred the night air was his frantic gasping for breath. The laughter lingered in his frenzied mind. Darkness—blessed darkness—engulfed the Forgotten City and the dark lake and the tattered corpses of his dream. But it wasn't enough to soften the pictures now vividly engraved in his mind.
Aeris…the thick scarlet pools…. And the kids…. Tifa.
It was every nightmare in one.
He wanted to rush across the hallway and to convince himself they were safe and sound, still sleeping as he last saw them, but terror was pinning him to the bed.
Just a dream….
In his sweating palms he clenched fistfuls of sheets. Every muscle was rigid with panic; nothing would slow his electric pulse. He closed his eyes and the ceiling disappeared, only to be replaced by….
As much as they repulsed him, the mutilated bodies of Aeris and his family were not what sickened him most. No, it was something else. Like the mirror, it wasn't so much the sight but the feeling of it all that quickened his pulse: delight. The gore and carnage had sent sheer ecstasy racing through him.
He had murdered Aeris. He had murdered them all in cold blood: and laughed.
Even as he lay here paralyzed in the darkness, heartbeat thudding through his limbs, he could feel a faint remnant of pleasure.
How was he capable of feeling such a sick satisfaction?
He got to his feet, stumbled blindly into the bathroom, and vomited.
Only a dream…. That much was true. Like the reflection in a mirror, everything he had envisioned was fake. It didn't happen, he told himself. It's not real. The blood he felt dribbling down his hands wasn't any more real than the cold marble floor, or little Marlene's battered body. Though his dream had felt more authentic than reality, it was all fake.
However, there was one exception to the lie….
His shivering hands slipped on the porcelain. He grasped the countertop and, with some difficulty, hauled himself from his knees and leaned heavily over the sink. He splashed his face and cool water soothed his skin, rubbing imaginary drops of blood from it.
He was losing control. That was the one exception to the lie; the one reality that spread through entire dream and made it all become so frightening. He could lose himself alarmingly easily to the monster inside himself—a feeling he had been well acquainted with in the past. After the defeat of Sephiroth, who was the one who held the puppet strings, Cloud had been sure he was finally his mind's sole master, in complete control of himself.
Six days ago, black marks had appeared on his arm and changed all that.
As if mere recollection were enough to stir it, the stigma woke. As usual, he felt it before he saw it: a thousand dull needles prodding his skin from the inside like maggots, squirming and burning and building until he felt it would burst from his skin. This time, it actually did. He clenched his jaw, stifling a shout, and watched his arm as the white bandages turned to black. Vertigo came next. Head pounding and arm pulsing painfully, he struggled to stay upright as the room began to spin.
If you didn't resist, this would be a lot less painful.
In the mirror, he watched the pupils in his now-green eyes narrow to cat-like slits.
Get…out of my head!
Cold laughter resounded through his mind in reply. How could I? We're the same person, Cloud.
In his own eyes, Cloud saw another's cruelty and ruthlessness staring back at him like hard flint. Shutting his eyes, he broke the gaze. But the voice was still there.
The only difference is that, unlike me, you were a—failed—experiment. Which makes you—
--a puppet, Cloud.
Cloud's eyes (or, rather, Sephiroth's eyes) flashed open, a fierce jade. In the mirror those eyes stared back at him from behind a veil of hair. Silver hair. Like an unbidden ghost, Sephiroth was standing behind the glass, his gleaming eyes burning into Cloud's skull.
Cloud recoiled in alarm, but his reflection only smirked sardonically. You can't run from me, so why try? It was true. His feet refused to obey him as if they were nailed to the floor. Besides, continued the voice, why would you want to leave? There are still so many places to go, things to find, people to kill. For instance, we could start with Tifa.
Don't you touch her--!
Again came Sephiroth's laughter—or was it Cloud's? I won't, Cloud. But you will.
Crippling fear and reckless fury both boiled on Cloud's skin. Sephiroth pressed his gloved hand against the glass and, however he tried to fight it, Cloud's own hand met the other. He tried to shrink away but his reflection held him prisoner in the glass.
Don't worry, he felt his lips form the words. I'll make sure you enjoy every second of it--
Sephiroth splintered like a lattice of thorns and a thousand crystal shards rained to the floor as Cloud smashed his fist into the mirror. Glittering fragments skidded across the floor with icy clinks. Several found their way into Cloud's skin as if Sephiroth intended him to have a sharp reminder of his demon. For several slow seconds, the shattering enveloped him and drowned the voice in his head.
I'll see you soon.
Cloud slouched over the sink, sides heaving in fatigue. The razor edges of the mirror had sliced his knuckles, and now bloody handprints covered the countertop. In the fragments of glass he glimpsed his fractured reflection—his real reflection. The reptilian green orbs had vanished; only frightened cerulean stared back at him. He had forgotten to turn off the faucet from before, and now the cold water overflowed and fell on his bare feet. He turned it off and dipped his bleeding hand in the sink. Threads of red tainted the water. Steady, now, until the room stopped spinning….
A lot less painful. Sephiroth's words echoed vaguely through his mind.
Black liquid oozed from his arm like hot tar. He tried to take deeper breaths.
...every second of it…
The light was on. Why was everything blurry?
He fell against the wall and slid to the floor. Slumped over.
He resigned himself to the pain and lay motionless where he had fallen, face half-pressed to the cold bathroom tile and one arm crushed beneath the weight of his body. The floor was the wall and the wall was the ceiling. A mess of glass and blood and sweat and fear, Cloud closed his eyes. For the first time since he had contracted the stigma, darkness clawed at his vision and his mind went black.
Two in the morning is when the night is darkest, and it was just around then that Cloud stumbled into his room. His desk was cluttered with pictures and books and scraps of old paper. Hidden behind the untidiness a neon clock counted silently: 3:05 AM. He crossed to the bed and sat down slowly. A particularly large piece of glass was embedded in the bottom of his foot. Luckily it hadn't bled much, but it smarted painfully. He crossed his foot over his knee and tried to coax the glass out, but his thoughts were elsewhere.
Several minutes later and no luck found him sprawled across the bed. He stared at the ceiling again, smudges of blood on his white wife-beater.
Finally he got up, crossed the room, and rummaged through the closet. After searching several minutes he found a duffel bag. He threw it on the bed and set about packing, careful not to slam the dresser drawers. Phone, a roll of gil, keys, clothes…he paused when he came to a black sleeve. Would he still need this, wherever he was going? The family wouldn't be there, so did he have to hide it anymore? Not for the first time, he wondered if Tifa knew. He was certain she had put the pieces together by now, but so far she hadn't mentioned his suspicious change of wardrobe. Then again, perhaps she hadn't noticed; the past several days he had been spending less time at the Heaven and more time on "deliveries." Which was really synonymous with "thinking time"—and he needed a lot of it. Driving to distant destinations allotted him that time. Often he thought about the past or the family. That he'd be leaving had never crossed his mind.
He pressed the sleeve into the bag, too. Even if he wouldn't be around anyone, something compelled him to wear it. Hide the mark from the world. It was a mark of weakness, a mark of one of his shortcomings. Perhaps he only wore the cloth to hide it from himself.
Bag slung over his shoulder, he stepped into the hallway softly closed the door behind him. The hallway was as dark as his room, the only light being provided by a small window near the stairs that overlooked the grubby bystreets of Edge. Moving quietly through the hall, he stopped at the first door—the children's room. He would have liked to slip in and tell them goodbye, but waking them wasn't an option.
Like a noiseless fog he continued down the hall. And—he couldn't stop himself—he found he had paused at Tifa's door. The light reflected faintly from its white paint, like the trees at the Forgotten City. On the silver knob his hand lingered. Should he wake her? Let her sleep? Or leave a note that, instead of him, she'd find in the morning? He eased the door open and took a tentative step inside, peering into the darkness. His shadow fell across the floor to the foot of her bed; and the silver-blue light of the hallway was just enough to illuminate the figure sleeping there.
Dreaming or awake, Tifa's face always wore the same placid expression: the corners of her lips lifted delicately into curves that often grew into a smile; eyelashes an arc of ebony against her pale skin. Wisps of dark hair fell across her chin like ornaments only she could wear. She looked so…peaceful. And here he stood, a wretched wreck of a man not even strong enough to protect her.
Again the gory nightmare reached for his mind. Stomach churning, he pressed a hand against the wall to keep from sinking to his knees--
And Tifa's face came to his mind. "I'm here for you, whenever you need me," she so often told him. ("I mean it, Cloud," she would insist if he smiled and shook his head). Standing here, trembling, he wanted to take up her offer. His guilt, his doubt, his fears…. Like a child afraid of the monsters in his closet, he wanted to slip under the covers next to her and tell her everything. Fall apart in her arms. Staying there forever wouldn't be so bad, either.
But he couldn't. Wouldn't—his arm pulsed in painful reminder, and his feet remained as motionless as if swallowed in his shadow's darkness.
A glimmer of silver led his gaze from Tifa's face to her hand. Her right hand. It lay nestled under her head, and a tiny wolf entwined about one finger like an intricate vine. Cloud remembered standing in front of a jeweler's shop in Kalm shortly after Meteor. The ring: it was a symbol of determination, of resolve. To press on and endure, to fight "for myself and my family," were the words Cloud remembered.
Guiltily, he twisted its twin around his own finger. Those were his own words.
He didn't deserve to wear this.
He stood in the doorway, listening to Tifa's breathing, but his mind was back at the Forgotten City and blood drenched his hands. He was in the sweltering Midgar desert, watching a silhouette fade into nothingness. The things he had done, the things he hadn't: sins. By leaving, he felt he was abandoning his family. But staying here…wasn't that a sin, too? Because by staying, he was placing them in the hands of the most dangerous thing of all: himself.
He soughed and shook his head, lost. There was only one thing he knew for sure: he was leaving to protect them. And it hurt.
One long last look at Tifa, and then he turned and closed the door. Her face, lit only by the mellow blue light of the hallway, melted into the shadows.
I miss you already.
The enormous, empty bar echoed his footsteps as he trudged down the stairs, each step leaden. Thud. Thud. The dim light was barely enough to see by as he stumbled around the counter and tables the children so frequently watched him work at, sorting maps and addresses and routes. They were always so curious and vivacious; he sometimes forgot his troubles and found himself enjoying answering their countless questions…another thing he would miss.
A wrong step in the dark sent his shoulder smashing into the corner of a shelf. He stumbled back, clutching his arm and stifling an oath. He touched his arm lightly and he was reminded of the rotting flesh beneath the bandages. Six short days, and he was slipping away more quickly with each. How long until it ate away his entire body? Or, even worse—how long until it devoured his entire mind? He wasn't going to stick around to find out.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he perceived an array of glass bottles gleaming faintly on the shelf. Weary, he stared at them. For once—just once—he thought he'd like to drown himself in their intoxicating, mind-numbing contents. To be blissfully freed from the cage that was his fears, to forget…the idea was tempting. Desperate, his fingers toyed with the neck of the nearest bottle. He rarely drank. And when he did, it was never to the point of losing his mind. That was exactly why he had always avoided the stuff, anyway. Alcohol and puppet strings—the two could be a lethal combination.
All this his mind knew and yet, ineffably, he couldn't seem to let go of the bottle….
He was still standing there, trying to persuade himself one way or the other, when he heard the sound of glass skimming across the wooden counter. Having literally lived in a bar for the past two years, he was well-acquainted with the noise—but now he whirled in surprise. A glass sat in front of him on the counter.
"I thought you liked water."
Cloud followed the voice to a barstool. On it, still dressed in blue fleece pajamas and slippers, sat a boy.
"Denzel. What are you doing up so early?"
He didn't reply. In both hands he clasped a glass of water bigger than his hands themselves. The ice clinked as he bowed his head. "I couldn't sleep." His eyes flickered up briefly, and then he stared at the floor again. Cloud knew that look well.
"Your head again?"
You and me both, kid, thought Cloud. He stepped around the counter to sit next to Denzel, pulling his water along with him.
"Cloud?" Denzel looked up at him again, this time with more concern than shame.
"Where are you going? Another delivery?"
He hesitated. "No. Not this time." He hadn't realized how dry his mouth was. In his glass he watched the ice flounder about like shards of the mirror. He half-expected to see those hideous green eyes leering up at him. He downed the glass quickly and, like Denzel had said, discovered it was water. The boy knew him very well.
He detected such a great amount of fear in such a small voice that he turned in alarm. "What? What is it?"
Denzel only stared at him with wide eyes, mouth hanging open as if the words had frozen in his mouth. Tears swam beneath his startled indigo eyes. Slowly, he lifted a shaking finger.
And pointed at Cloud.
My eyes? Is it my eyes? The face in the mirror—
Cloud shut his eyes and swiftly turned his head away. But they were the same ever-brilliant blue as ever, and they were not what had shocked Denzel.
"You have it, too."
The stigma. He hadn't concealed it, and now he felt both the cool air and Denzel's stare on his naked arm.
"D-did…did I do that to you?" Denzel was trying so hard to keep his voice composed and steady, but Cloud heard the tears beneath.
"No!" His eyes snapped open and he spun to face the boy. "Don't you think for a single second that this is your fault, Denzel. Denzel. Denzel! Are you listening? …Aw…come here, kid." Cloud set his glass down and pulled the blubbering twelve-year-old up into his lap, choking back tears of his own. This certainly wasn't making leaving any easier.
His shirt muffled the boy's sobbing. "You c-can't die, Cloud…"
Cloud stared past the rumpled mess of brown hair under his chin, eyes distant. "Maybe I won't."
The boy's crying and his own thoughts were the only things Cloud heard for a while as he stroked the orphan's back. On the wall a clock ticked, but other than that, the bar was silent. Tick, tock. For a while they sat there, child and ex-cadet. Two different people but, at the present, so similar.
Finally Cloud spoke. "I've gotta go." He lowered Denzel gently to the floor and then stood up, shouldering his pack.
"When will you be back?" His little hand was clinging so tightly to Cloud's fingers.
Cloud shook his head and began toward the door, Denzel still holding his fingers as he tagged along. When they find a cure, he wanted to say. As soon as they find a cure, I'll be back. He didn't have the heart to tell the boy there wasn't one. "I can't say for sure."
"If it's a long time, come visit us sometimes?"
He sidestepped a table. "I don't think that'd be a good idea…. But, until I do come back, will you do me a favor?"
The door loomed ahead of them like an iron gate with only a one-way key. When they reached it, Cloud kneeled and gazed at the boy. "Don't tell Marlene—or Tifa." He jerked his head toward his arm, gesturing to the stigma. "She'd only worry. And then," he added, "she'd tie me to a barstool and never let me leave and that'd be the end of Strife Delivery Service." He ruffled Denzel's hair and smiled. A shy grin rewarded his efforts. "Take it easy, kid."
They embraced and the boy wrapped his arms tightly around Cloud's neck, as if doing so would keep him here. When they parted, Cloud had pressed something into Denzel's hand.
The door closed and he was gone. Denzel found a window and pressed his face to the cold glass, watching as a motorcycle and the figure on it disappeared around the corner of Seventh Heaven. He strained to listen to the engine's snarl even after it had faded into silence.
And then he was alone in the empty bar, with nothing but the starry night sky and the ring in his palm.
If you haven't seen ACC, you ought to. The scene with Cloud explaining to Marlene why he left--well, sort of "explaining (you know Cloud)--is partially what inspired this, along with the mystery behind Denzel's ring. Which they never explained in ACC, either. I figure, if it fit him, why was he wearing it around his neck? Which led to, it's too big for him. Which led to, it's not his. Et Cetra.
Do you empathize with Cloud or do you think he should have stayed? Did his attempt to cheer up Denzel make you smile?
In other words--reviewwwww pleeez? =D This is one of my favorite fics so far and I loves feedback.