Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all its characters are property of Square Enix Co., Ltd. No copyright infringement is intended.
Written For: FF_Santa (LJ Holiday Exchange Comm). My recipient was Tamatamatan. She said she liked gen, slash, and horror, and I somehow put them all together and got this.
Warning(s): Post-Apocalyptic AU, Character Deaths (pre-story)
I will never be a memory…
Cloud heard Sephiroth's parting words echoing in his head, over and over. He tried to block his ears, but Sephiroth's voice persisted, even though Sephiroth had left hours ago to carve his revenge into the world. Cloud remained in the exact position he had been in when Sephiroth had emerged from the black sludge that had sprung up from the pool in Aerith's church. He still sat beside Tifa, waiting for Aerith to return and somehow fix everything. But Aerith's voice did not return to drown out Sephiroth's.
Sunlight still shone through the broken rafters. Denzel and Marlene huddled in its rays, staring at him with red eyes and wet faces. They needed comfort, but Cloud had none left to give them. They needed Tifa, who would be able to take them in her arms and smooth away their fears. He gently shook Tifa, but she did not move. She did not make a sound. She did not even breathe.
"Wake up, Tifa," Cloud whispered. "Please wake up. We have to get moving. Edge is burning."
But Tifa did not respond. The red, sticky liquid that pooled beneath her had turned dark. Cloud did not know what it was. Blood, said a voice in his head that sounded remarkably like Sephiroth. Cloud tried to ignore him.
"Please wake up, Tifa. Why are you sleeping at a time like this?"
Marlene and Denzel approached. Denzel leaned forward to close Tifa's open, glassy eyes. His thin body shivered as he stared down at her.
"Cloud," Marlene said, taking Cloud's hand. "Cloud, we have to go now."
Cloud continued to shake Tifa's body. "Why won't she wake up?"
Dead. Cloud jerked away, horrified. The dark, sticky substance stained his hands and clothes. Blood, the voice in his head reminded him. Tifa's blood. He stared up at Marlene as his emotions quickly eroded, disintegrating and leaving him with dust for a heart.
"Why does he always take the women?" Cloud whispered.
Marlene did not answer. She only took his hand and led him out of Aerith's church. As they left, it collapsed onto itself, and its wreckage turned black with corruption. Around them, Midgar died a second time, eroding and rusting before their eyes.
As they walked, Sephiroth's voice finally faded, leaving Cloud as empty as an unsold coffin.
With their golden blond hair, Rufus and Elena looked like brother and sister under the flickering lights. They had no relation in life, but in death, they were twins, one in white and the other in navy blue, both stained with blood. Reno studied them with heavy-lidded eyes, amazed at their similarities. He wondered if the fact that they had left behind corpses to clean up made them twins as well. There was nothing left of Rude.
Reno pushed thoughts of his partner from his mind and lit his cigarette with shaking hands. He stared around the wreckage. Two lights still flickered in what remained of the Healen Lodge, like some perverse joke. Knowing what he did of Sephiroth, Reno would not put it past him.
Tseng stood between the corpses, looking as if he was torn on who he should attend first. Duty won over sentimentality, and he lifted Rufus into his arms. He stared over at Reno, his face ashen. "Carry Elena, please." His voice sounded hoarse.
Reno nodded and picked her up. Already, her body felt stiff and cold. Her expression remained frozen in fear, and Reno imagined he could see Sephiroth still reflected in her eyes. Reno cradled her and followed Tseng out to the hills behind the wreckage.
Lacking shovels, they used rocks to dig graves. Reno carved a third grave into the soil, though Rude was only ash scattered across the Healen Lodge's wreckage. As Tseng pushed dirt over Rufus and Elena, Reno stared down at Rude's grave, wondering where he had misplaced his grief. Sorrow was hard to conjure when he half-expected Rude to appear at any moment from behind a broken wall. Rude would straighten his tie and straighten his sunglasses, then apologize to Tseng for being late. Reno stared at the wreckage, waiting, but Rude did not appear. Instead, Tseng shoved dirt back into Rude's empty grave.
"What do we do now?" Reno asked, feeling something stick in his throat and burn at his eyes.
Tseng studied him. His dark eyes seemed hollow points set in his sallow face. "We don't do anything. There is no we anymore. I'm going home. You do as you like." He stood and brushed dirt from his suit and his hands. It was a losing battle.
"Home?" Reno thought of the ruins of Midgar, of the Sector 7 slums he had buried under a section of plate five years ago. He thought of the drunken old man who had spent half of his life sitting in front of the television, drinking beer, and the other half chasing Reno around the house with meaty hands. Reno could never go home again, but that suited him just fine. He would rather let Sephiroth run him through as he had the President and Elena than go back home. "Where's home?"
"Wutai." Tseng stared at the horizon, his gaze stretching into infinity. "Good luck, Reno."
Reno watched Tseng walk away as sorrow slowly crept its way in and gnawed at his insides. He sat by the shallow graves and thought of the old, bald man with meaty hands that he had crushed in the Sector 7 slums, along with many other people-innocent people who had not deserved to die like the old man had. With every step that Tseng took away from Reno, grief pierced his chest as sharply as the Masamune, only slower, deeper, more painful.
Reno wondered if this was his penance for what he had done to Sector 7.
"This world is falling apart." Barret stood with his arms crossed, glowering. Behind him, Marlene and Denzel stared at the floor. "Sephiroth is fucking rotting the Planet from the inside out. Don't you care?"
"He will never be a memory," Cloud said, his voice as hollow as he felt. "There's no point in fighting him. He'll only come back again."
Barret spit at Cloud's feet. "You fucking pussy. Aerith never gave up. Tifa never gave up. But you're gonna give up?"
"They're dead." The words felt funny in Cloud's mouth and left a bad aftertaste. He turned from Barret to stare at the wall of the Junon hotel, for the wall did not judge him. A reactor-roach darted over the cracked surface. The wallpaper had already yellowed and peeled, though Cloud had seen them pasting it on only a week ago. Everything in the world seemed to have such a short lifespan now.
"The only dead one around here is you." Barret shook his head and turned on his heel. He passed Marlene and Denzel. "Let's go, kids. I ain't gonna fucking give up like this asshole."
"Oh, Cloud." Marlene ran over and kissed him on the cheek. "Please come with us?"
"Please," Denzel urged, stepping forward. The hope in his eyes seemed misplaced, a thing of the past. It belonged to a time when Cloud could watch flowers grow in churches and find a plate of fried chicken waiting for him when he returned home.
Cloud continued to watch the roach make its way across the wall. "I can't. I can't stop him anymore. He'll just keep taking people from me."
Marlene closed her eyes and hung her head. "Tifa wouldn't want you to give up, Cloud."
"She wouldn't have wanted to die like she did, either."
Marlene took a deep breath. "If you change your mind, Cloud, please call us. Please." She squeezed his hand and ran back to Denzel.
Denzel took Marlene's hand in his and stared at Cloud with wide eyes. Some of his hope had faded, as it should. He would not hurt as much if he had no hope. "Good-bye, Cloud."
When the children walked out, Cloud turned back to watching the roach crawl across the wall, but it had fallen to the floor. It twitched once, twice, then stopped moving altogether.
After three days of walking and two without food, Reno arrived at the chocobo farm. To his surprise, he found a familiar figure out in the chocobo pens. He fished his last cigarette from his pocket and watched Cloud pet a sickly gold chocobo. It lay on the ground beside him, making soft "wark" noises. Wind ruffled its feathers. Several flew off, fluttering past Reno.
"There any food around here, Cloud?" he asked after a several moments passing without acknowledgment of his arrival. Might as well skip the pleasantries and get right to what mattered.
Cloud shrugged. "I had some bread that Choco Billy gave me this morning. It was fresh-baked, but tasted stale. Soon, everything we eat will be rotten. Eventually, we'll die of food-poisoning."
"Wow, you're a real ray of sunshine in the dark, aren't you? I feel so fucking cheered that I think I'm gonna go slit my wrists and sit in a tub of water." Reno lit his cigarette. Somehow, in this dying world, Cloud still looked vibrant. Despite his tone and his blank expression, his mako eyes still shone like gems.
"Only Choco Billy is left here, along with the woman who drove me here from Junon." Cloud stroked the chocobo's head. "She's probably going to die soon. She hasn't left her bed in days."
"Wow. And I thought you were fucked up before." Reno took a drag of his cigarette and hauled Cloud up. Cloud's hands felt oddly warm, especially in the chilly air. "Why are you here?"
"Because I can't die. I don't deserve to." Cloud stared down at the chocobo, his expression as lost as a child in the Gongaga jungle.
"Your positive outlook on life is making me grateful there's no tall buildings to jump from around here." Reno also studied the chocobo. It was molting and wheezing, but it was not yet dead. "I haven't eaten anything in two days, so let's go see this Choco Billy of yours for some more bread. I don't give a shit how stale it tastes. And then we're gonna see if this birdie can still run."
Cloud blinked and finally looked up at Reno. "We?"
"Did you call your friends again?" Reno asked. He peeked outside the window. Rain still drenched North Corel, not that he needed to see it to believe it, as hard as it drummed on the roof. The radio reports said the squall stretched over the entire desert and would cause flooding.
"Yes," Cloud said. He stretched across his bed and stared up at the cracked ceiling. The bright side to their stay in North Corel was that it had already been ruins, so they could not tell the difference. The people here already knew devastation intimately, and they had prepared for anything-even floods in the desert. Their food kept longer and plants still grew. Somehow, this shanty-town was one of the last places of bounty in the world.
"And?" Reno prompted. Getting Cloud to speak was no easy feat in the best of circumstances and even less so now.
"My calls still won't go through."
"Maybe they're dead, too." Reno went to fish a cigarette from his pocket, but he was out. He sighed. Cigarettes were hard to come by lately. Everyone needed their vices at the moment.
"Probably." Cloud's voice caught, and he turned over. Reno made himself busy with cleaning up the empty bottles of booze he had left littering their room while Cloud shook on the bed. It amazed him that it took Cloud so long to finally break. Reno had broken almost immediately after Tseng left him alone with the dead, and now he existed in a wonderfully numb condition-which was likely aided by his rampant alcohol consumption. He would have to give up that vice soon, as well, for he was running low on his stock of liquor.
Reno found a half-full bottle of gin. He thrust it at Cloud and shook the bottle. "Here. Drink this. It'll make you feel better. Then you can be as fucking fantastically zen as I am."
Cloud looked up and grabbed Reno's wrist. He felt warm, and Reno's numbness seemed to wear off at the touch. He ached for the familiarity of the Turks, an ache for the only family he had been willing to call family. But they were dead and gone now. Like all those people he had killed in Sector 7. All that remained of his past was Cloud himself.
"I should have gone with them," Cloud whispered, knocking the gin from Reno's hand. It clanked and rolled off the bed. "Now everyone's dead. Why do I always let the people I love die?"
"I wish I could tell you." Reno meant that sincerely, perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of sympathy, perhaps because the stars aligned just so. He pushed Cloud flat on the bed and then climbed over him. Cloud stared up at him with wide blue eyes. They shown in the dim light, and his body felt warm, alive, an anomaly of health in a gangrenous world. Reno did not understand it, but he did not have to understand it to enjoy the warmth of Cloud's body, or the responding warmth in his own.
Cloud gently took Reno's hair in his hand. He suddenly yanked hard and mashed their faces together in the most graceless kiss Reno had ever shared. But Cloud's warmth spread across his body, sparking fires across his nerves. Reno kissed back and slid his hands down Cloud's body. Cloud returned the gesture, his touch leaving Reno breathless.
Reno wondered if it was ironic that the best sex he ever had was right there, right then, in a world three-quarters dead with the former puppet of the man responsible for destroying it. Either that, or poetic justice.
Rain continued to drum on the roof, and Cloud could not recall how many weeks it had rained now or how many weeks they had spent in North Corel, killing the rainborn monsters in exchange for food. If Cloud believed in a god, he would think it a divine desire to wash the world clean of the human impurities that crawled over it like maggots.
Reno curled around Cloud, his hair spilling across Cloud's chest. It tickled a little, but Cloud was too comfortable to brush it off. "I like the way you taste," Reno whispered, opening his eyes.
"The way I taste?" Cloud asked with a yawn. "That sounds dirty."
Reno chuckled, a brief, dark sound. He slid upwards and ran his tongue over Cloud's cheek, then worked his way down his throat and stopped at his collarbone. "Everything about you. You taste fresh. Clean. Like a piece of freshly-picked fruit, washed in pure water." His tone sounded idle, but his gaze fixed intently on Cloud's face.
Cloud stared back and ran his fingers over Reno's neck. The rest of his body was hard angles and sharp edges, but the skin on his neck was as smooth and soft as a baby's. "Aerith used to be like that."
"But she's gone. You're still here." Reno kissed the corner of Cloud's mouth. He smelled faintly of vodka, but Cloud somehow associated that with comfort now. Cloud kissed back, desire drawing him from a somnolent mood to one that craved hungry fingers and lazy kisses.
When Reno did not respond to his urgent touch, Cloud paused and studied Reno's face. That same intent gaze remained, expectant. There was hope in those blue eyes, a hope that Cloud found he did not wish to fade. Cloud considered their conversation and realized what Reno wanted. "I like you, too, Reno."
Reno smirked and pushed Cloud back on the bed to reward him.
Cloud stood on the porch, listening to his phone ring as he tried to reach Barret. Rain dripped down the sides and leaked through the holes. Soon, the building would rust and collapse. The pieces would wash away into the desert, and eventually North Corel would be lost, like everywhere else. How it managed to survives months of deluge, Cloud did not know. He dialed Cid's number, and as it rang, he glanced down the street.
In a shack much like the one he and Reno stayed in, a few children peeked out at the sludge-filled streets. A woman, presumably their mother, trudged towards them, carrying over-ripened fruits and vegetables in her arms. If they ate quickly, it would still be good enough to eat. The rain had plastered the woman's hair against her face, but her jaw was set and her shoulders straight. The mud sucked at her feet, but her forward march never faltered. In her, Cloud saw Aerith. He saw Tifa. He saw Yuffie. He saw Shera. He saw Marlene. He even saw his own mother.
When Cid's number failed to connect, Cloud tried Yuffie's, then Vincent's. As usual, the phone rang and rang until the automated female voice coolly informed him that his call could not be completed at this time. Cloud sighed and closed his phone. The woman down the street yanked her feet from the mud and stepped onto her porch. She handed the food to her children. One shrieked about pickleberries, and she laughed in response. She laughed. How long had it been since Cloud heard anyone laugh?
Cloud walked back inside his shack, still clutching his phone. Reno still lay on the bed, sleeping. The sheets were twisted around his slender form, revealing pale skin that begged to be touched. Why had Reno dragged him along, and why had Cloud acquiesced? He studied Reno, unable to answer why he kept company with a former Turk, even one as beautiful as Reno. The shock of Reno's red hair looked like fresh blood in the gloom. The rest of Reno seemed as dull as the rest of the decaying world, but his hair was a spot of vitality where none else could be found. Perhaps that was why.
Cloud sat beside Reno and ran his fingers through the silky tresses. Reno stirred at the touch and raised his head. He blinked at Cloud. "Again?" he asked. "I know cripshays with more restrained sex drives than you."
"In a little bit." Cloud stared down at the phone still clutched in one hand. His other hand had its fingers buried in Reno's hair. "I still can't get through."
Reno did not respond, but he moved closer to Cloud. He had once said that he found Cloud warm, though Cloud did not know why that was. He did not mind having Reno curled around him. It comforted him, reminding him he was cared for in the same way Aerith's flowers and Tifa's fried chicken once had.
"I don't know how to find them."
"At least they wanted you to find them." Reno turned his face and stared at the headboard. Cloud wondered if he thought of Tseng, the last of Reno's Turks family, who had abandoned him when Sephiroth destroyed Shin-Ra. The loss had left Reno as much an orphan as Cloud. "That counts for something. We should find another way."
"We?" Cloud asked.
Though Bugenhagen had died, Cloud stepped into the Cosmo Canyon observatory with a rumble in his gut that promised something could be found here-something that would point him the right direction. The air felt cold, and generator hummed a little too loudly. He glanced around the large room, wondering what answers it could provide him, if any. Reno lurked by the doorway, his gaze darting around nervously, as if he expected Sephiroth to appear from behind a spinning holographic orb.
Cloud found nothing in the room but stale memories. He shook his head and turned to leave, wondering why he thought there would be something here.
They're not dead, you know.
The familiar echo of Aerith's voice brought Cloud to his knees. He choked, his eyes stinging, his chest burning. He could smell her, the scent of freshly picked flowers, hanging in the air.
They just need you to save them, Cloud.
Cloud gasped. "I-I thought that-"
I was dead? Oh, Cloud. I already died. I've only been waiting, just like everyone else.
"Waiting?" Cloud asked the spinning images of planets and stars. Reno stepped inside the room, his brow furrowed, but he said nothing.
Waiting for you to wake up.
"Wake up?" Cloud stood again. His own planet shone before him, blue and green in a vast sea of nothingness. "Sephiroth came back. He came back and took Tifa. I couldn't stop him. It was just like before, with you." His voice caught, and he paused to catch his breath and let the pain in his chest pass. "He said he will never be a memory. He can't be defeated."
Sephiroth isn't a memory, Cloud. He's a nightmare, and you need to wake up. Tifa's with me now. Don't worry about her. Worry about what you have right now. About all our friends who need you to save them. About the entire world that needs you to save it.
"Hey," Reno said. He put a hand on Cloud's shoulder. "Are you okay? Who are you talking to?"
Cloud studied Reno. He realized there was real concern on Reno's face. Humanity glittered in his eyes as it never had before. His hair appeared bright and alluring under the observatory lights. Cloud's hand twitched, and, as if guided by Aerith's own hands, Cloud touched Reno's throat and felt his pulse throbbing beneath his fingertips. It felt strong.
You see, Cloud? Aerith's voice echoed throughout the observatory, but Reno did not react. He only watched Cloud, deaf to the voice of a dead woman. You bring people to life. Even when you're not trying. Imagine what you can do when you actually try to save people.
Cloud nodded and stroked Reno's cheek. He recalled how often Reno curled around him, how Reno murmured of his warmth, how Reno reminded Cloud of the pulsing life that deserved to live without Sephiroth's corruption. Ignoring Reno's quizzical expression, Cloud turned back to the glowing representation of their planet. "You're right. You're always right, Aerith. Show me. Show me where to find Sephiroth."
The Planet shone before him, spinning in time to the sun. A black miasma infected a space deep in its crust. Veins of darkness spread throughout the Planet, choking the Lifestream, slowly eating away at the world and, with it, the people who dwelled on it. In the center of the darkness, Cloud knew he would find Sephiroth. He absently stroked at the hilt of First Tsurugi, knowing that he would have to face him again. As long as Sephiroth returned, it was his duty to face him every time.
"Let me guess," Reno said with a groan. "We're going there, aren't we? Why do we always get stuck with the shit jobs?"
"We?" Cloud glanced behind him.
Reno met his gaze and nodded. "We."
Cloud smiled. "So we are. My friends are waiting for us to save them."