Author's Note: This chapter is really long, longest yet by far, which normally says to me that I haven't been brutal enough with my editing machete yet, but I guess it's good to go out with a nice big serving? And god knows I can agonise over endings way too much.
So, yes. This is it. I hope you've enjoyed reading my somewhat self-indulgent time travel story. No sequel, so I also hope the ending satisfies - even though I know there's always going to be some people who wanted it to turn out differently. But if you'll forgive me a moment of pretentiousness, the great nature of fandom (and certain poems), is the freedom to go create a new interpretation when you didn't get the one you wanted!
Also, a big thanks to everyone to who reviewed. I didn't always get to reply, but I did appreciate those who took the time to comment.
The Fifth Act
Cloud slowly became aware of the low murmur of voices nearby. It was confusing. Who was talking? Was this the Lifestream? It didn't feel like the Lifestream – he should know, he'd gone swimming through it more than once. He frowned, fingers twitching, and a low groan built in his throat. Everything hurt.
The voices suddenly hushed. There was movement, then - "He's waking up!"
"I'll go get the others." Footsteps thudded past.
Cloud forced his eyes open, and immediately wished he hadn't. He shut them again with a hiss.
More movement, and the rustle of fabric. "Try again. I've shut the curtains."
Cautiously, he cracked open an eyelid. The light didn't burn straight to the back of his skull this time. He rolled his head to the side towards the voice. It was Genesis, sitting on the bed next to his with his arms crossed, looking very displeased.
"What…?" he whispered, throat scratchy and raw. The Inn at Nibelheim? What happened to the Reactor? And wasn't he supposed to be dead? Aeris couldn't have possibly interfered this time!
"You," Genesis declared, "Have a lot of explaining to do."
Zack bounded back into the room. "Angeal's still sleeping, but the others will be here in a minute." He plopped down on the chair next to Cloud's bed. "Morning, sunshine, how are you feeling?"
He felt, rather appropriately, like he'd been run through by Sephiroth. And shot by Vincent. "How…?"
Zack fidgeted, looking away. "You wouldn't stop. Genesis had to cast a Sleep spell on you at the last minute."
"I didn't expect it to have any effect, honestly," the Commander grumbled. "It was reflex."
Cloud gingerly raised a hand to touch his bare arm. He'd forgotten. He'd given Kunsel Ribbon. Was that why Jenova had so much stronger an effect on him? No, not entirely. He couldn't blame Ribbon's absence.
"Zack," he whispered, stomach churning at the memory. "In the Reactor, I-"
Zack grinned and rolled his shoulders. "I'm fine, see? Don't worry about it! You weren't yourself. And besides, you stopped when it counted, right?"
"Not all of us were so lucky," a new voice drawled from the doorway.
Cloud knew who it was without even looking – would have known even if he hadn't said anything. "Sephiroth." His fingers clutched the blankets, and he struggled to sit up, gasping with the effort.
"Whoa, take it easy!" Zack helped him rest against the headboard. "We couldn't heal you up all the way. Genesis nearly passed out trying to save you."
"It wasn't the healing that was the problem," the Commander huffed. "It was all the ice and fire and sleep spells before that."
"Your fault, for using materia like it was the end of the world," Sephiroth drawled.
Cloud tactfully didn't point out that it very nearly could have been the end of the world.
"I could handle it now," Genesis grumbled.
Sephiroth sent him a stern look as he entered the room to stand with them. The lucid part of him – the part that wasn't in frantic denial – noticed that he was careful to keep his distance. "No more materia. Not for another twelve hours at least. We're out of ethers, and I don't need all of us bedridden."
That made Cloud pay closer attention to his fellow SOLDIERs. Genesis had a slightly ashen look to his complexion – the sort that came from materia exhaustion specifically. Zack looked rather worn too. Sephiroth didn't seem quite as tired, but looking closely, Cloud could see the edge of white bandages peeking out from underneath his coat. And he was missing his left shoulder pauldron, too.
Sephiroth's lips quirked, apparently having noticed his inspection. "You were already mid-swing when Genesis knocked you out, so I did not escape entirely unscathed. Do you care to try again?"
Cloud shot him a glare. "Don't push your luck," he growled. He wished dearly for First Tsurugi, but a furtive look around the room revealed it sitting in the far corner, well out of reach, with Vincent carefully situated between them. Cloud hadn't even seen Vincent arrive.
"Relax," Sephiroth ordered. "I'm not eager to continue our fight just yet. And you're in no state to even try."
"I'd rather you didn't continue it at all," Genesis commented irritably. "I can only cast FullCure so many times in one day."
"I'm afraid that's up to Cloud."
The other SOLDIERs turned their focus on him. He looked away, teeth clenched. Truthfully, if it weren't for his injuries, he might have been out of bed and attacking already, weapon or not.
"Come on, Cloud," Zack begged. "The future sounded really bad, but it went differently this time! Sephiroth's still sane and everything!"
His head whipped back around as he stared at his fellow SOLDIER with wide eyes. "You know?"
Cloud suddenly wished he'd just jumped into the Reactor core. See them try and revive him then. This was not a conversation he wanted to have right now. Or ever.
"I told them," Sephiroth confirmed. "Though it was up to Sergeant Kunsel to fill us in on the particulars."
"Kunsel?" He hadn't noticed his arrival, either – the SOLDIER Second had been loitering by the doorway, quietly watching proceedings. At his attention, he waved. He still looked pale, and resting more of his weight against the doorframe than strictly necessary, but it was good to see the Second Class in one piece and coherent. He'd been worried after Hojo's dire predictions. "What happened to you?"
"Made it out thanks to you, but mako addiction got the better of me. I was out of it for a while, but I came around in Midgar a few days ago under the care of Zack's lovely girlfriend." Zack grinned at the mention of Aeris. "I was hoping I could make it back before anything happened, but I only got here a few hours ago." He sighed, scratching the back of his neck. "If I'd been just a bit faster… well, as it was, I had to call in a lot of favours to make it here this quick."
Cloud felt a wave of relief, followed quickly by dread. "What did you tell them?"
"Jenova, Meteor, ShinRa. Just the big stuff," Kunsel assured him.
"Things you should have told us from the beginning." Vincent's deep voice cleaved through the conversation for the first time.
Cloud glowered at the bedsheets. "You wouldn't have believed me." He wouldn't have taken the risk, either, at what Sephiroth or Genesis or one of the others might have done with the knowledge. If there were a materia capable of erasing people's memories, he would have given his sword arm for it right then.
"We should have guessed, regardless," Genesis grumbled. "Your PHS was a complete giveaway."
"Who would have thought time travel, though?" Zack protested. "There was always another explanation. We just couldn't make it all fit together! Like how he got the treatments, or what happened to his friends and family." He paused. Cloud didn't like the look of brewing excitement on his face. "Wait… that thing with Spike's Ma… Spike's you!"
He sounded entirely too gleeful. Cloud glared at him. "Don't you dare tell them!"
"Aww, but Cloud-!"
Genesis looked absurdly pleased by the revelation for some reason. He probably didn't want to know.
"Leave the kid alone, Zack," Kunsel warned. "Apparently I owe him big. Besides, what are they supposed to do if they know? And who wants to hear about all the horrible things that could be waiting for them in the future?"
Zack pouted. "Yeah, okay, I see your point. But jeez, Cloud, isn't it kind of tough? I mean, that's your Ma."
"I know, Zack." He fought to keep his voice level. "But she's alive this time. That's all that matters." He'd come to terms with his mother's death, and no matter how Jenova had torn at old wounds that wouldn't change.
"Ah yes. Sergeant Kunsel mentioned the burning village. It explains why you hate Sephiroth so much, at least," Genesis mused.
"It justifies nothing," Sephiroth dismissed. "I deserve the benefit of the doubt. I have not even laid eyes upon Ms Strife, much less had the opportunity to murder her."
"But you weren't exactly putting up a good front for sanity, you know, burning down the mansion like that," Zack pointed out. "No wonder Cloud jumped to conclusions." He paused. "Why did you burn down the mansion?"
"I wanted to destroy the research," was the simple reply. "It was disgusting and needed to be purged from this planet."
"But what about the scientists and guards?" Zack asked cautiously.
Sephiroth didn't appear bothered by the question. "I let them go and made it clear I never wanted to see them ever again before I started the fire." At Genesis's and Zack's uncomfortable silence, he raised an eyebrow. "Did you think I had killed them?"
"What were we supposed to think?" Zack defended. "The place was a furnace!"
Cloud was still reeling from the revelation that the mansion had been destroyed. He'd thought about it plenty of times – after they'd liberated Vincent back in his original timeline, he'd toyed with his Fire materia for a good ten minutes before leaving to follow the others. Something always stopped him. It was like the opposite of a holy place, something so steeped in his personal history, something so magnificently terrible about it that he never really believed it could be destroyed.
"The building was old. It burned well." Sephiroth looked rather satisfied at the memory.
"Then you went to the Reactor," he murmured, still trying to reconstruct everything that had happened. "Just like last time."
"Apparently. But you didn't even stop to ask what my intentions were," Sephiroth replied.
"I didn't need to. You said yourself – you were going to show me the ending," he snapped, fists clenching in the blanket.
"And was that a problem? I thought it rather poetic."
"You would," Genesis scoffed, then turned to Cloud. "This man has no understanding of Literature. Do you know what he told me? That he intended to slay the Goddess. And then he proceeds to accuse me of having a hero complex and ego problems."
"Are you denying it?" Sephiroth sounded amused.
"You know," Zack interjected, "I don't know that much about Loveless, but I always thought the Goddess was the girl. You know, the one left behind, waiting for the hero."
"That's the version playing in Sector 4 at the moment," Kunsel agreed.
It was as though the world had turned upside down. He'd misunderstood from the very beginning – blinded by the events gone past. All along, Sephiroth had done a better job fighting Jenova than he had? Had intended on destroying her from the very beginning?
And for some reason, instead of focusing on that, they were discussing Loveless?
"You have all entirely misinterpreted it," Genesis declared. "You're forgetting the most important element. The 'Gift of the Goddess'. An all-consuming destruction, or an all-healing salvation." He glanced at Cloud from the corner of his eyes. "The conclusion depends entirely upon that, and that alone."
A heavy silence hung over them at those words. Sephiroth looked thoughtful. Zack looked confused. And who knew what Kunsel or Vincent were feeling.
Then Sephiroth dismissed, "An ill-defined concept. In Cloud's eyes, my destruction would be a form of salvation."
Cloud flushed. He'd been thinking along those exact lines.
"That said," the General continued, "I never imagined you to be so committed to the 'salvation' of the planet that you would so eagerly sacrifice yourself."
He stilled. "It was necessary," he ground out, silently hoping they'd leave it at that. Let them think that was all it was. A desperate charge in which he risked everything to take out his opponent.
He'd never been so lucky, though. "I don't believe that's correct," Vincent spoke up, voice barely loud enough to stir the air but able to command the attention of everyone in the room none-the-less. "You were capable of blocking or dodging that attack. You could have struck again before any of us had the chance to react." His crimson gaze lingered on him, cold and assessing. "So then the question is, why didn't you?"
The silence following that question grew choking.
"Cloud?" Kunsel sounded worried.
He took a deep breath. It rattled uncomfortably in his chest, and the pain in his side freshened at the movement. "Because," he said, "That was the way it had to be."
It took a long moment for his statement to sink in.
"I don't believe it," Genesis eventually murmured. "Angeal was right. You are suicidal."
Zack leapt to his feet. "Cloud! You can't be serious! A murder-suicide?"
"It was the only way to be sure it never happened again," he repeated, not looking up from the bedspread. He desperately wanted to crawl under the covers and hide.
Zack shook his head. "No way. I don't get it! Jenova was destroyed, right? Even if you thought Sephiroth could still be a risk, why try to kill yourself?"
How could he explain it? They would never understand.
In that split second, he'd wondered what he'd do after he killed Sephiroth.
His first thought had been to destroy ShinRa. Destroy the company that had drained the Planet, dropped the Plate on Sector 7, and made Sephiroth possible in the first place. Destroy the man who left his mother in Nibelheim to die.
Except… once he'd been freed of Jenova's influence, he'd realised how familiar that line of thinking was.
When he found out the truth of his origins…
...The first thing Sephiroth had done when he'd returned from the Lifestream was assassinate President ShinRa.
He started to hate ShinRa.
Revenge on ShinRa hadn't been enough. He turned his resentful eyes towards the Planet, and constructed fanciful notions that it was to be destroyed and made anew – that it was his birthright.
Then after a while, he started to hate everything.
He'd felt sick to the core. How sure could he be that in exacting revenge on ShinRa, in saving the Planet, that he wouldn't create a calamity just as bad? That he wouldn't become something worse than Sephiroth?
Even now, he wasn't sure if he trusted himself with that kind of power. Jenova had been able to control him so easily. All it had taken was that one hook of bitter resentment that he couldn't have the same friends or family in this world, coupled with that simmering anger at the discovery of his heritage, and Jenova had been able to wheedle her way in, more thoroughly even than when he'd been little more than a blank slate, desperately searching for the truth of his identity.
Just because Jenova was gone didn't mean the bitterness had gone away. How much would it take? How close was he to the edge?
If he became the next Sephiroth, would anybody be able to stop him?
Sephiroth appeared to sense his line of thinking. He crossed his arms and fixed him with a steely green glare. "I'll make you a deal, Cloud. You promise to kill me should I go insane, and I'll do the same for you."
The words snapped him out of his introspection, and he glowered at the General. "You can't. I can beat you."
"Then I will simply have to elicit help," he replied, with a raised eyebrow towards the rest of the room's occupants.
Zack crossed his arms. "Hey! We didn't go to all that effort to save you just to kill you later!" He leant in, expression earnest. "But you know, we wouldn't let you do anything bad. If Genesis and Vincent and Kunsel and me worked together, we could tackle either of you, no problem!"
…That was true, wasn't it? In the Northern Crater, Avalanche had been with him. For that particular version of Sephiroth – the strongest one – he hadn't fought alone.
It was overwhelming. He'd dismissed them all, subconsciously – they weren't his friends, from his timeline. They were people he had to save, not people to rely on. He'd been so stuck on the absence of Tifa and Avalanche, on Vincent's distrust, on all the sacrifices he had to make and secrets he had to keep that he'd failed to notice the new allies around him. Which now apparently included his once mortal enemy.
"I don't understand," he murmured. "How did it all change? I didn't do anything in the end."
He hadn't killed Hojo. Hadn't killed Jenova. Hadn't stopped the Wutai War. Hadn't even managed to kill Sephiroth. Hadn't done a single thing he'd set out to when he decided to change the future.
"You cured me," Genesis reminded him primly. "Apparently otherwise I would have left ShinRa."
"I must confess that it may have had an impact on my own conduct," Sephiroth acknowledged. "When you and Angeal went missing, I might not have handled the company's treachery as well without Genesis on hand."
The Commander smirked, and tucked a stray strand of hair behind his ear. "So the great General Sephiroth does care."
"I merely meant that your obsession with Loveless was sufficiently amusing to distract me."
That was the difference?
Impossible. All that time, all those failures, all that struggling… and he'd already changed fate with that one, thoughtless act of compassion? That one stab of sympathy he felt for a fellow test subject in Wutai?
He gasped, folding in on himself. Genesis and Zack were by his side in an instant. "Cloud, what's wrong? Did you reopen your wounds?" His friend – alive, whole, and untouched by Hojo – patted his back gingerly.
"Do you need another FullCure? Vincent may be able to cast it," Genesis offered.
He shook his head. The pain from his half-healed wounds didn't even register. The room at the Inn suddenly felt overcrowded. Five SOLDIERs and a former Turk. None of whom would have been there otherwise.
Dare he believe? Dare he trust?
"That was it?" he repeated hoarsely. "Just because Genesis didn't leave ShinRa, you didn't go crazy?"
Sephiroth frowned. "Perhaps not entirely." He inclined his head towards Vincent. "Were I not aware of a human mother, also, I might not have been so inclined to use reason."
Such small changes.
He gave Sephiroth a dubious look. "You really don't have any notions of godhood? No 'right to the Planet'?" he pressed.
"Why would he?" Zack asked. "He's as human as the rest of us."
Sephiroth, however, met his gaze evenly. He knew what Cloud was talking about. "I won't deny that in the library... even in the Reactor, the thought crossed my mind." He cast a glance towards Genesis. "More than Gods... We were monsters."
Genesis gripped his shoulder.
He folded his arms. "But you know, Cloud, at that last moment, when you were speared with my sword and I truly thought the end had come... I have never felt so human before in my life." He frowned, almost talking to himself. "I truly believed I would die. In that instant, I felt mortal for the very first time."
He'd seen the look before, he recalled. The first time in the Reactor, when Cloud had thrown him into the core. Then in the Northern Crater, when they faced off amidst the whirling Lifestream. In the ruins of Midgar, for just a moment, when Cloud had struck with Omnislash.
It was good enough. That public admission, more than anything else, convinced him.
There was still a chance. Something else might set Sephiroth off. But now... Cloud thought, for the first time, it might be worth the risk.
And with everyone else around… maybe he could take a risk on himself, too.
That evening found Cloud walking down the hallway in the Inn towards the other room, hand pressed against the wall for some extra support. Mako worked quickly - it would probably take another few days to completely heal his injuries without the aid of materia, but he could at least stand and walk short distances without reopening the bullet wound in his leg or the hole Masamune had left in his side.
It had been a stressful afternoon, filled with endless questions about the 'future' and repeated demands for promises that he wouldn't kill either himself or Sephiroth the minute their backs were turned. Finally, however, he had a chance to slip out of the room. Kunsel had gone to visit the Strife household to offer his thanks, and Sephiroth had gone to talk to the Mayor about the mansion.
He paused in the corridor. "You were right. You don't need to worry. I won't try to kill him again."
Vincent stepped into view behind him, seeming to melt from the shadows. "It isn't only Sephiroth I'm concerned about."
"I'm not going to kill myself, either. I never wanted to die."
"Yet you still intended to."
"Would you prefer I locked myself in a coffin for thirty years?" He turned to face the former Turk directly. "What would you have done, if you lost control to Chaos?" It was an answer he already knew, but one of the many things he'd never share.
"…It appears you knew me quite well in your future."
Cloud sighed, and continued slowly down the hallway. "Yeah."
Vincent didn't have a response. Cloud hadn't expected one.
"Where are you going now?"
"Just to the next room." He didn't extrapolate beyond that. Vincent shadowed him, somehow making the unnaturally sedate pace seem perfectly normal.
He paused outside the entrance, staring down at the line of warm light peeking out from underneath the door. He could hear voices on the other side. Zack and Genesis, probably. "Hey. You should take Sephiroth to go see his real mother."
"You think it wise?"
Cloud shrugged. It couldn't hurt. Just a little more insurance. Anything to keep Sephiroth firmly grounded on the side of humanity. "He never found out the whole truth in my time," he murmured. A lot like him in that respect.
Vincent inclined his head, and Cloud twisted the handle.
The room was a perfect mirror image of the one he'd come from – three beds lined up against the wall, a sink in one corner, and old, faded paintings hanging on the walls. The warm light from the lamps shaded everything an off orange that gave him a headache, instead of creating the 'cosy' feel the owner had been after. Genesis and Zack were sitting by the bedside next to the far wall, and looked up as he entered.
"Hey!" Zack greeted.
Genesis frowned. "You're not supposed to be up and about yet." He rolled a materia between his fingers. "Don't make me cast Sleep on you again."
Cloud really needed to get Ribbon back from Kunsel soon. Genesis was enjoying his newfound vulnerability to status materia far too much.
He moved over to stand near the bed. Angeal looked up at him tiredly – propped against the headboard. He didn't look well, and was swathed in bandages. "Strife." His gaze wandered towards Vincent next, and took on a wary expression.
Zack hastily introduced, "Vincent, this is my mentor, Angeal. Angeal, this is Vincent. He's an ex-Turk." Apparently figuring it would earn character points, he added, "He killed Hojo."
Vincent made no motion that could be construed as a greeting, but Angeal relaxed and nodded all the same.
"How is he?" Cloud asked Genesis in a low voice. Not that it mattered. In a room full of SOLDIERs, everyone could hear him easily.
The auburn-haired Commander pressed his lips together in a thin line, casting a glance at his bed-ridden friend. "With degradation, there is little materia can do."
"Don't worry about me. I've come to terms with it," Angeal said tiredly, eyes closed as his head rested against the pillow tucked behind him.
Genesis scowled. "Come to terms with it? Given up, you mean!"
"You can't give up, Angeal. There's meant to be a cure, right?" Zack threw him a desperate glance.
Genesis must have told them. Cloud remained impassive. Aeris should be safe from ShinRa now that Hojo was gone, but he'd rather not take chances. Instead, he muttered, "I wanted to say sorry."
Angeal shook his head. "Genesis and Zack explained it. You weren't yourself. I thought something was off when I confronted you." He broke into a wry grin. "I deserved it, anyway."
"Angeal!" Zack began to protest, but his teacher held up a hand for silence.
"Genesis, Zack, could we have a moment?"
Genesis looked reluctant to leave them without a chaperone. Understandable. It had been Cloud who'd put Angeal into his current condition in the first place. The wounds weren't life threatening for a normal SOLDIER, but with such an advanced state of degradation, they could become a real problem.
"I don't have my sword, if that's what you're worried about," Cloud offered.
Genesis glared at him, then back at Angeal. "I can see that perfectly well."
"He just doesn't like being left out," Zack confided, then winced as Genesis gripped him by the back of his neck like a misbehaving puppy. "Ow! Genesis!"
"Call us when you're done," he huffed, and dragged Zack from the room with him. After a moment, Vincent drifted out as well.
"And no listening at the door!" Angeal called out after them.
Cloud sat down on the bed next to Angeal's, gaze focused somewhere on the opposite wall.
"Now that you're awake, they're focusing all their worry on me." He shifted in place with a slight grimace. "I wouldn't mind too much if you were to pass out in the hallway when you're done," he joked.
Cloud stared at him. "You're not angry?"
The grey-haired Commander sighed. "I should be the one asking that question."
A minute dragged by in uncomfortable silence. Honestly, after dealing with Hojo, Cloud had entirely forgotten about Hollander and his initial abduction. In fact, compared to the past few months, his time in Banora seemed like a holiday in Costa de Sol. Eventually, he shrugged. He probably didn't have it in him to forgive Angeal, but he could ignore it. He'd managed to declare a truce with the Turks, after all, and they dropped the Plate on Sector 7.
"I didn't tell them. About your S-cells, I mean," Angeal said.
"It doesn't matter," he muttered. "Sephiroth knows now."
"I guess he does." A beat. "So, time travel, huh?"
Cloud shrugged again.
Angeal stared at him thoughtfully for a long moment. It was strange seeing the man like this – old, tired, hair grey, face wrinkled, and confined to a bed. He didn't look like one of ShinRa's top SOLDIERs. If it weren't for the subtly glowing eyes or the white feathers poking out from under the sheets, he could have been mistaken for somebody's grandfather.
"You've probably been given quite the interrogation already, but can I ask just one more question?"
Angeal looked off into the distance – through a window that showed only the inky darkness of Nibelheim's night. "I've been thinking about it a lot lately, as you'd probably guess. My legacy. What I should do." He touched the bandages wrapped around his chest with a rueful smile. "I know my body well enough to know I don't have a lot of time left. I don't think Genesis and Zack understand how little." He sighed, and turned back to him. "I guess I'm just beating around the bush. Strife… is this how I die?"
He knew it would only be a matter of time before somebody asked him that question.
Cloud looked down at his hand. Before Kunsel had left earlier, he'd quietly pressed a vial of clear liquid into his grasp. 'From Aeris', he'd mouthed.
"No," he said shortly. "This isn't how you die."
It was the small actions that made the biggest differences.
Wordlessly, he thrust the vial out at Angeal. He stared at it blankly, until comprehension dawned on him. "But… you've been in confinement the past six months!"
"Don't ask questions I won't answer." He stood and headed to the door. Angeal would probably want the privacy.
He paused, fingers resting on the handle.
"…Thanks. Not just for the cure. But for helping Genesis, and Sephiroth, and Zack."
"It's really nothing," he murmured. "I'm not even the one you should be thanking."
"I think you're selling yourself short. Maybe you didn't kill Hojo or Jenova, from what I hear, but if it weren't for you, neither would have anyone else." He gave him a considering look. "…You've been fighting alone for a long time, haven't you? All by yourself."
Almost anyone who looked at Angeal would see nothing but brawn, but he was shrewd in his own way. He understood people, the same way Zack and Aeris did.
"…Yeah. But not anymore."
Things progressed quickly after Angeal had been cured. Tseng had done his job well - careful revealing of misdirected funds to the Science Department, Hojo's role in Hollander's murder, and the professor's lies about the 'Promised Land' had angered the President enough to avoid too much of a fuss when he found out about Hojo's death. He was a savvy businessman, even as he grew older - he was not so stupid as to risk the desertion of all of his top SOLDIERs, especially when the damage had already been done. Thus several days after the incident at the Reactor, Lazard had called and politely asked when they would be back so he could organise the mission roster. Not long after that, the Turks flew in on helicopter to pick over the burnt out remains of the mansion, a new, unfamiliar doctor was promoted to head of the Science Department, Kunsel's 'death' was explained away as part of a classified mission, and the whole affair was quietly swept under the rug, with the proviso that so long as they pretended nothing had changed, ShinRa was willing to pretend too.
Elaborate cover-ups, Cloud reflected bitterly, were ShinRa's true speciality.
Now, two weeks later, he walked through the Sector 5 slums, eyes carefully directed at the ground. His latest stint in the mako tanks still had them glowing as bright as one of the SOLDIERs from Deep Ground – it would be a while before his system adjusted and they reverted to their normal luminescence.
It felt strange to be back in Midgar. Trapped in Hojo's lab, he'd almost resigned himself to losing another four years. And to fly back in an airship, instead of going by foot, bike, boat, or whatever ride they managed to hitch – that had been strange, too. It had taken Zack months to drag them back to Midgar, hunted by ShinRa. The possibility of taking an airship back and returning to work for the company was not a thought he'd ever entertained.
Cloud hadn't really wanted to return - it had been bad enough working for the company again the first time. Kunsel and Vincent had been reluctant, too. But the others had argued persuasively that it would be easier to change ShinRa from the inside instead of running amok blowing up Reactors.
It was just awkward, working at ShinRa now that he knew. He wasn't sure how to react around Lazard or Rufus or the President anymore. He'd considered using his relation to exert some influence on the company, but Cloud wasn't cut out for that kind of politics. He'd prefer if nobody knew of the link at all - it would make things easier on his younger self in the long run, too.
His life was far too complicated. He missed having normal problems.
There was the church. Still a fixture in the slums, scarcely changed, no matter what time he wound up in. Cloud slowed his pace, approaching with a quiet reverence, footsteps growing softer so as not to disturb the peace. He stopped outside and took a deep breath. Even out here, he could smell them. The flowers.
He needed to see her with his own eyes. To make sure it wasn't his imagination. To make sure she was still alive.
He pushed open the heavy doors. The hinges squeaked loudly, announcing his arrival. And there she was, wearing her white sundress, pink ribbon in her hair, kneeling among the white and yellow flowers.
Not just the flowers, he realised after a moment. A small pond, too. Only a quarter of the size of the one he remembered, but the sight still sent shivers of familiarity down his spine. Odd – now he was getting for nostalgic for things he remembered from the future instead of the past.
"Mr Nobody!" Aeris greeted, voice echoing sweetly off the stone walls. "I was hoping you'd come visit."
He headed down the aisle towards her, stopping a short distance away. She didn't wait for him to say anything – probably knew he wouldn't. He'd be content to stand and stare at the scene all day. "Zack came here as soon as you got back from Nibelheim," she said. "I was really happy for him. I'm glad his teacher's okay."
"Thanks to you," he murmured.
"Not just me. Everyone worked together." She clasped her hands in her lap and searched him with bright green eyes. "And what about you, Mr Nobody? Are you okay now?"
He looked off to the side, not able to meet her eyes. "…I don't know. Maybe."
She gave him a considering look at that, but didn't press.
Cloud shifted awkwardly in place. He'd come to see her, but now that he was here, didn't know what to say. "…That was your voice I heard, wasn't it? In the Reactor."
She nodded. "It was just a minute," she confided. "For just one minute, I could tap into the Lifestream. I learned, when trying to summon the water."
I've become a lot stronger since we last met.
"Does that mean you can hear it, now?" he asked. "The cries of the Planet?" He recalled Nanaki talking about it when the WEAPONs first rose. That was one concern always lingering in the back of his mind – that even though the most immediate threat of Jenova and Meteor might have been eliminated, that also meant the longer-term threat wouldn't be neutralised.
She hummed a little, and told him, "You shouldn't worry so much. The Planet's stronger than you think." She selected a flower and carefully broke the stem, adding it to the growing pile next to her.
He remembered enormous tendrils of Lifestream bursting from the surface, streaming through the sky, rising to meet Meteor. "Yeah. I guess it is."
"So why such a sad face?" she prodded.
He shook his head. "How can you not be scared? Knowing what I did."
She tilted her head to the side. "What do you mean?"
"I… I nearly killed him," he confessed. "Zack. And not just him. I could have become Jenova's vessel." The words tumbled out of his mouth. "If it weren't for you-"
She turned sombre. "All I did was give you a nudge. I couldn't have done anything, if you decided not to listen."
"But how did you- I'm not a Cetra."
"Silly." She gave him a soft smile. "Just because you can't hear the Planet, doesn't mean the Planet can't hear you. You were calling to her with all your might."
Unbelievable. "Still…Thanks," he mumbled.
"It was really nothing," she promised. "I'm just glad you're still with us. Zack would have missed you. I would have, too."
The sentiment left him off-balance. Odin, did everybody know what he'd done?
"Don't worry. Zack didn't tell me." She plucked another flower, arranging it in a tidy bundle with the others.
That wasn't much of a relief, considering. "I thought you couldn't read minds," he accused.
"Of course I can't. But I can tell what you're thinking anyway. It's written all over your face."
And his friends always complained he wasn't expressive.
"You're not thinking of disappearing, though, are you?" she asked softly.
Cloud hunched his shoulders. "I tried, actually. But I barely made it out of Midgar before Genesis and Sephiroth appeared to drag me back." He scowled. Now that he'd learned how to use their connection, Sephiroth had been putting S-cells to good use in tracking him down. Probably had him on some kind of suicide watch still.
"Good," she said. "I don't blame you for what happened, and neither does Zack. It's what you do with your future that counts." She gathered up the flowers and brought them over to a quaint-looking wagon. At his curious look, she beamed. "Do you like my flower wagon? Zack made it for me."
He noticed two others in the corner of the church – one looked like it would fall apart in a slight breeze, and the other reminded him of one of Scarlet's machines. This one had delicate trimming, was painted white, and had large, ornamental wheels. Third time lucky, he guessed. "It's nice." What happened to the basket, though? Was this another change? "You know, you could even sell them above Plate, now. You don't have to hide from ShinRa anymore. Hojo's gone."
The brightness of her smile left him off-balance. "I hadn't thought of that. It would be wonderful if everybody could enjoy them."
"And Zack promised to show you the sky sometime, right? You can go with him, now."
Her eyes widened at that, and she turned to look at him in surprise. "He told you?"
Embarrassed, Cloud didn't answer. But Aeris looked so pleased at the thought, he didn't think she needed one.
Zack would keep his promise this time. It still seemed unreal to him. Abruptly, he let out a huff of a laugh and sat on the nearest pew.
"Something funny, Mr Nobody?" Aeris teased gently.
Cloud rubbed his neck. "Not really. I just…" He didn't know how to explain it. "I never thought everything would turn out so well." Everything kept going wrong – getting the ending he wanted had seemed impossible at times.
"I think you did, or you wouldn't have worked so hard. You just have to start believing in it."
They were strangers in this time, but she still knew him so well. "You're right, again," he admitted.
She gave him a cheeky grin. "Of course I am. You think too much, Mr Nobody. Where would you be without me and Zack to take care of you?"
The words should have stung – because he had lost them both once, so violently – but now they filled him with comfort. Because they were going to be around now, weren't they? Younger than he was this time, and their relationship was different, but they were still here.
He'd finally grown comfortable with the idea that he could start a new life here in place of his old one. Of course, that didn't mean he wouldn't continue to do small things to improve the lives of his former friends. He could do something about the incident in Corel that led to Barrett losing his arm and Marlene losing her parents. Make sure Nanaki stayed safe in Cosmo Canyon. Help Cid get into space. Support Reeve with his plans, try to find some way to prevent Rufus becoming so ruthless, and make sure Shalua and Shelke didn't run afoul of Deep Ground or Avalanche.
He also had to keep an eye on his 'nephew', who'd signed up to cadet training despite the uncertain future of the SOLDIER program. Why, he didn't know. Cloud officially didn't understand himself anymore. The timeline had apparently diverged too much.
"I think I'm in trouble if I need a pair of teenagers looking out for me," was all he said.
Aeris giggled. "So, what happens next?' she asked brightly.
"Next?" He stared at the flowers, their petals quivering faintly in the breeze wafting in through the half-open door. "I don't know." It was strange not to know, now. But it was a relief, too. It meant things really had begun to change. He stood, and started to head for the door. There were still things left to do. "Isn't the rest up to the Planet?"
Cloud was heading to the Equipment Room when he was practically accosted by a blur of red in the hallway. "Genesis?"
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
He shrugged out of his grip. "Just visiting a friend in the slums."
The Commander eyed him suspiciously, but seeing as he'd returned in one piece, seemed to forgive him. Angeal followed him up the hallway, and rolled his eyes behind his friend's back. He was back to his normal self, though there were a few more wrinkles lining his face than before, and some grey streaks still lingering in his hair.
He tossed a small device at him – Cloud caught it on reflex, and stared at it in confusion. "My PHS?" He'd wondered what had happened to it, but assumed it had been lost for good. "Where's it been?"
"Reeve Tuesti," Genesis explained. "You need to help the Planet, correct? Future technology seems a good way to start. I brought it to him to reverse-engineer."
"Without asking me first?" he grumbled, mostly for the sake of it.
"I figured you didn't need it," he dismissed. "Aside from that one call from Vincent, the only other messages you received were spam. You may want to look into blocking that."
Cloud's eyes widened, and he flipped open his PHS, frantically paging through message after message, each one worse than the last. "You haven't been answering it?"
Genesis looked puzzled. "Of course not. It was obviously a hoax. It grew increasingly absurd. Escaping from a flock of death gazes into a behemoth's den? Getting lost in the wastes and winding up at Modeoheim? Who would believe that?"
He reached the most recent message, swore, and snapped the PHS shut. "Tell Lazard I'm going to be gone for a couple of days. I have to go rescue someone in the Northern Crater."
"The Northern Crater?" Angeal raised his eyebrows. "How on earth did anybody wind up there?" The alive part went unspoken.
Cloud threw his hands up in the air and headed for the elevator. "I wish I knew."
Forget saving Zack, or Aeris, or Genesis, or Angeal. Keeping Yuffie alive was quickly becoming his most difficult mission. And he still didn't know how she'd gotten his PHS number in this timeline.
Thank you for reading!