Summary: Time travel/AU. Cloud is cast into a new world when his planet is destroyed, tasked with saving this new younger planet, but can fate ever really be thwarted?
Warnings: Language, violence, sex, rape
This Silent Sacrifice
His lungs burned, screaming for release. His mind was broken. His eyes could not see passed the green haze engulfing him. Someone was speaking. He knew that voice, comfort was wrapped up in ever note if only he could make out the words. But he was too weak to place a face with it, or to make sense of the words.
The familiar nightmare was shattered when Cloud was embraced by a gentle warm whiteness. He knew this place. He had no sense of his body, but it did not matter, he knew he still floated in the world of dreams, but this one was far better than the nightmares that haunted him.
He felt her comforting presence before he heard her voice. But the usual sweet tones were broken by a note of urgency. "Cloud! Cloud wake up!"
Cloud struggled against the fog still enveloping his mind. Wake up? Why? He was safe here, with her. There were no scientists to prod him or Mako to burn him in this whiteness.
"Cloud!" Aeris called again. "You have to wake up! The planet needs you."
Chaotic emotions spilled into him, shattering his peace: Danger. Threat. Guardians. Fight. Survival.
His eyes cracked opened, glowing in the darkness of night. He was breathing heavily, hardly aware that his fingers had closed over the hilt of the knife he always kept beneath his pillow. It had been six years since the Remnants, and the world was a safer place, but one could never be too careful. Old habits drilled into his head and body from years of living under the constant shadow of death were not easily broken.
The long body next to him shifted into wakefulness. Silky hair spilled over his bare arm as Vincent propped his weight up on an elbow, eyes raking over Cloud to pinpoint the problem.
Cloud shook his head, trying to get rid of the tendrils of scattered dreams. What had woken him? It didn't feel like his usual nightmare. He awoke from that one covered in sweat, usually with a bloodied lip from unconsciously trying to hold back the screams. But now he only felt an overwhelming need. There was something he had to do, but what?
"I don't know, Vincent. I just felt…" Vincent waited.
Vincent knew him better than any other now living. Words were not needed between them, the silences so much more then moments without voice. Vincent was his closest friend. As time had passed their similarities had drawn them closer. Over time Tifa finally accepted that Cloud would never love her as she wanted, never settle down and live a quite peacefully life nestled in her arms. He was addicted to wandering, to danger. The years spent hunting Sephiroth, cleansing the planet of monsters, had become a drug to him. And not even six years had been able to purge the addiction.
His inner demons had driven him on, never granting him rest. His demons were of a different nature then Vincent's, but they drove him with the same fear. Fear of peace, fear of time, of his own mind, of the memories that were too painful to let go of. He would never find peace, but he had accepted that long ago.
He was thankful though, that he did not have to be alone. Vincent was not his lover. They were friends first; the comfort of bodies was shared when needed, nothing more, nothing less.
They wandered. That was their life. Sometimes together, sometime seeking solitude. But they always found each other again.
Cloud did not abandon the others who had been there with him through the worst years in his life. Tifa had long since settled down with Barret, and unlikely couple at first, but they had fit surprisingly well together. Denzel and Marlene were growing up. Denzel an angsty teen who had never lost his hero worship for Cloud, but he had added Vincent to the list as well. Barrett's oil rigs had hit pay dirt, and he was now one of the richest men on the planet. Denzel had gotten his first motorcycle when he turned 15, and TIfa had finally caved and allowed Vincent to teach Denzel how to shoot. The boy was obsessed with guns and bikes.
The years since the Remnants were not all filled with happy endings though. Only two years after the defeat of Kadaj, Cid and Yuffie were killed when the Highwind crashed. The cause of the crash was never discovered, and it left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Yuffie had taken up the rule of Chieftess of Wutai only two months before, and foul play was suspected, but nothing had ever been proved. The loss had devastated the remaining AVALANCHE members.
Reeve was still mayor of Edge and had done a fine job cleaning up the city, but all the stress had given him premature grays. He looked ten years older than his forty-one.
Cloud's eyes roved over Vincent's familiar, aristocratic features as he tried to hold onto the fleeting dream. "Something is coming. I feel it, I just…" He struggled to put his thoughts in order. "Aeris," he breathed finally, "I felt her, but how?"
He had not been visited by either Aeris or Zack since they had left him in the church all those years ago. He couldn't deny the abandonment he felt when he thought of them. He suspected they thought the separation was for his own good, but he missed them. He still visited the church with Aeris' healing pool and Zack's Buster Sword. He went there more often then was healthy. But memories have a way of haunting a person. They clung to him, and he was too afraid of what he would be left with without them to let them go. He cloaked himself in the past, unable to break free entirely. He would never be free of the lingering touch of Zack's memories, or the piece of Zack's soul that still dwelt within his own lesser self.
But he no longer had to consciously work to be Cloud and not Zack. The part of him that was Cloud before Hojo was lost forever; his memories were unbearably tainted. They filled him like pieces of shattered glass, fragments cutting into his soul that he clung to with bloodied fingers. Zack's memories were clearer to him then his own from before Hojo, before the Mako, before the living death. He could never give them up; he didn't think he could face a Cloud without a part of Zack. In a small part of his soul he knew he was utterly terrified of what that Cloud would look like. Even without the conscious influence of Zack, he knew a large part of himself had been molded when he took on Zack's identity and lost his own. He was too much of a coward to discover what a Cloud without Zack would be like.
"Aeris?" Vincent questioned.
Cloud rarely spoke of Zack or Aeris to anyone. The guilt and regret were too deep, just as Vincent never spoke of Lucrecia, never voiced his own sorrow or broken desires. Sephiroth had brought them together in a sense. Not only the years of hunting him down, but the shared understanding. Vincent never spoke the words, but they hung between them, understood in the silence. Vincent regretted never knowing Sephiroth, his son; he blamed himself for abandoning him. For taking the word of a mad scientist who told him Lucrecia's child had died. Even before Vincent knew Sephiroth for his own blood, he would have tried to save him, to tear him from Hojo's clutches, even at the price of his own life. But Vincent was in no fit state to discern truth from the lies Hojo poured into his ear as he tore apart Vincent's body. So Vincent had laid himself down in a coffin believing Lucrecia and her child had perished, believing he had utterly failed. He sealed himself away from the world, taking the demons now living in his body with him as he sought out punishment for the sins he laid at his own feet.
Sephiroth was a monster. That was how all but two in this world saw him. But Cloud could never forget the Sephiroth he saw in Zack's memories. The friend. Cloud had no memories of Sephiroth before Nibelheim, he did not know if he had ever met him before, but with Zack's memories came an almost unwanted understanding. Sephiroth had consumed his existence for nearly ten years of his life. Hoio torturing his body, bent on bringing a second Sephiroth into the world. And after, all those years of hunting, fighting, hating the man for what he did, what he had become. But he knew, always knew, and could not escape the knowledge, that this was not the true Sephiroth. The man he fought and killed three times was little more than Jenova wearing the face of a friend, of Zack's friend. The friend in some of his most treasured memories.
"Yes, but I cannot remember what she wanted. But something… something important…" Cloud lost himself in thought, and Vincent silently watched the emotions flickering in the usually impassive blue depths. "I miss her…" Cloud breathed.
"Cloud…" Vincent hesitated, it was an unspoken rule between them not to speak of the past, but he had long wanted to know the answer to this question and the opportunity had presented itself. He only hoped the time had been enough now to smooth the answer "Were you in love with her?"
Cloud snapped out of his drifting thoughts and gave Vincent a wary look, shuttering his eyes against the invasion. But then he sighed, the sudden defensive tension draining from his smaller frame. "It's complicated. You remember what I was like when I first met you? I still thought I was Zack, and Zack was in love with Aeris." There was a long pause. "We were lovers, yes, but I loved her as Zack, and when I came to myself I…" Cloud shook his head, golden spikes swaying in the movement. "I was never in love with her; she was only a sister to me."
Vincent was frowning, a rare show of emotion. "But she knew you were not Zack…"
Cloud shifted uncomfortably, "I had a piece of him in me, I acted like him, believed I was him. I remembered her…"
"Cloud, what did Aeris do when you discovered yourself?"
It was Cloud's turn to frown, "She asked me to forgive her. Of course there was nothing to forgive. I was mortified that I had… that I had…" he did not finish.
"You blamed yourself for what happened between you? She used you, Cloud." And now Vincent's voice had taken on a hint of anger that surprised Cloud.
"No! If I had not…"
"She knew you were not Zack, but she played upon that broken part of you that believed you were."
Vincent sighed, seeing the growing distress in Cloud's features. "Loneliness can lead even the purest of hearts to act selfishly. You were not Zack, but you were so like the man she loved, still loved… When Shelke…" Vincent paused, this was not a topic they often spoke of, but Cloud had shared one of the deepest and most guarded secrets with him. "There were pieces of Lucrecia in Shelke, and I admit that I was drawn to her. It is not so difficult to see how Aeris would have been pulled towards the part of Zack in you. It is long in the past now, though." They both knew this last statement meant nothing to either of them.
They sat in silence for a long moment. Cloud's thoughts betraying him to the past. To forgotten embraces, and kisses that now felt stolen and undeserved. He had felt guilt and shame over what had passed between himself and Aeris, and the weight of his regret had only doubled when he had failed to save her. Now though he was confused. He had never once thought that she had used him, how could she? She was Aeris. But still she was a person, he reminded himself, and no one is perfect. This revelation did nothing to lessen his own burden over her death, but he felt an unfamiliar lightness, as if one small piece on his sins had finally been erased and eased off his shoulders. She had told him he didn't need her to forgive him, because there was nothing to forgive. But he had never truly believed that. He could never forgive himself for failing her. For failing Zack. For failing so many. But somehow, he felt just a tiny bit better knowing the pale shadow of love they had shared, the fake love of lovers that neither had truly held for the other, was not entirely his fault.
Vincent pulled Cloud into an embrace, startling Cloud with the unexpected affection. They rarely touched outside of sex. But Cloud fell into the pale arms willingly, surprising himself with the unexpected comfort he found in Vincent's touch. Cloud's back pressed into Vincent's chest. He felt the warm tingle of Vincent's breath upon his bare neck, as Vincent setting one hand upon Cloud's hip, not quite comfortable enough to wrap him in a full embrace. But there was no awkwardness in the touch, and Cloud leaned back into the solid warmth of his friend.
Cloud's thoughts were suddenly interrupted when Aeris' voice broke into his waking world. "CLOUD! Hurry, the planet needs you. Please, hurry! "
"Aeris!" Cloud was already on his feet and reaching for First Tsurugi, "Where? What is it?"
"Outside, the heavens are bleeding! Hurry Cloud!
"Vincent, something's wrong." Cloud hastily pulled on his pants, not bothering to grab a shirt as he bolted out the door, Vincent at his heels, his gun already out.
Cloud's eyes scanned the darkness, searching for the danger, but it only took a moment before both their eyes were drawn upwards and a gasp escaped his lips. Stars were blotted out, a huge black shape covered an uncomfortable amount of the night sky. The meteor was huge, but what was most disturbing was the lack of fiery resistance it should have met when it breached the planet's atmosphere. The resistance was almost nonexistent though, as if the planet had been too weak to defend itself. The meteor was massive, and would have been devastating under normal conditions. But where the planet's atmosphere should have broken the large space rock into small bits by now, it was only slowing its progress by a hairs breath. Something was wrong.
Cloud turned to his companion, overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness the like of which he had not felt since the Geostigma when he had had to watch Denzel slowly dying. When his own body degraded about him, slowing rotting away. Cloud's eyes met yellow ones for a brief moment that seemed to last a lifetime. Everything was said, and nothing was said in that one look. Before Chaos leapt from the ground, his wings snapping in the night breeze as he hurled himself towards the end of the world.
Cloud watched, his fingers griping First Tsurugi uselessly, until they turned white. He could only stand and watch as his friend sped towards what was sure to be his death. Not even Chaos could battle a meteor and live. Cloud knew he had looked upon his friend for the last time, and his heart tore under a grief threatening to bring him too his knees.
No more! He could not bear to lose Vincent too. Enough. Enough pain, enough sorrow, enough death, enough regret. He was drowning in it, but he could not, would not take his eyes off the diminishing light that was Chaos's form. He watched as Chaos's light merged with the greater brightness of the meteor hurling towards them. And then there was nothing. Nothing to mark Vincent's passing. The light was gone, engulfed. And still the rock sped downwards, no dent in its surface, no ominous cracking giving evidence to Vincent's sacrifice. He was gone. At least Cloud would not have long before joining him in death.
"Legend shall speak of sacrifice at world's end." Cloud's head whipped around at the unfamiliar voice, his eyes finally tearing from the approaching doom. A man stepped from the shadows. Red leather coat flapping about him, a majestic black wing sprouting from his back. The man's eyes settled upon Cloud.
"When the war of the beasts brings about the world's end
The goddess descends from the sky
Wings of light and dark spread afar
She guides us to bliss, her gift everlasting."
The man's voice was rich and cultured, strangely calming. Here they stood, seemingly at world's end, and this man was quoting Loveless. The man shook some of his auburn hair from his eyes, tossing his head back to cast a challenge up towards their approaching destruction. "Even if the marrow is barren of promises, nothing shall forestall my return." And with that parting line the man leap into the air, drawing a red rapier sword as he threw himself at their approaching death.
Cloud watched in awe as the man's form was lost in a swirling tornado of green threads that looked eerily similar to the Lifestream. The man flew towards the meteor, body cloaked in the whipping green. A crack broke the night sky, louder than any thunder, the very earth shook under the weight of the assault. The meteor split into four separate pieces under the man's attack, but he wasn't done yet. The green shrouded man crashed into the shattered pieces, breaking them down, smaller and smaller. The sky was filled with rock fragments and a growing blanket of ash that blocked the man from Cloud's sight.
It seemed too unbelievable to be true. Cloud had been prepared for death to greet him in the next few seconds, but now? Cloud was overwhelmed by the sudden sense of being cheated. Death, the elusive mistress. He had not sought it for a long time with Vincent's companionship, but now? Despair filled Cloud, assaulting him, bringing him to his knees with the weight of Vincent's loss. Vincent had made the past bearable. But now that he was gone it seemed to beat down upon Cloud with a vengeance, squeezing the life from his lunges. He couldn't breathe! Vincent was dead. Why did they always leave him? Vincent had been his lifeline; they had been each other's sanity when they felt the world aging about them, leaving them behind in the past. Six years had come and gone, but Cloud had not aged a day, and Vincent still didn't look a day over twenty-five. The experiments forced upon them had twisted them, and frozen them in bodies that seemed doomed to remain stuck in the past along with their souls.
Cloud's eyes were dry and burning as he struggled for breath under the assault of grief. He was being selfish, wishing for the world to end, for it all to stop, for relief, but he no longer cared. Life had lost its meaning, and he could not survive this. Could not endure the years alone. But he could not cry; the tears would not come to relieve his burning eyes. Cloud Strife did not cry. Had not cried since he had disappeared into the Shinra mansion all those long years ago where he had lost that part of his humanity.
A gloved hand on his bare shoulder startled him. He jerked away from the unfamiliar touch, hand flexing upon First Tsurugi, as he struggled to his feet, refusing to show weakness. It was the man. The man who had saved the world. The two world saviors looked at each other for a long moment. The man's eyes swept over his bare chest, haggard face, and the death grip upon his sword.
Finally the man spoke. "My name is Genesis."
Cloud frowned, trying to place the name. It was familiar, but he couldn't quite…
"I am one of the Guardian's of Gaia, as are you Cloud Strife."
The man tilted his head, lips twisting in a smirk, but he offered no explanation. "The meteor has been broken down, but it has only slowed the inevitable. The ash now covers the sky, and will block out the sun. Life on this planet is doomed; it is only a matter of time."
"Then why did you do that! It would have been better to end it quickly, rather than letting humanity die a slow death of cold starvation without the sun!"
"Because the meteor would have destroyed the planet, breaking it into pieces to float in space for eternity. The Lifestream would have died, the souls lost. That was not the will of the goddess. This planet's time is over, humanity as you know it will die, but the Lifestream will endure. She guides us to bliss, her gift everlasting. Do you not see, Guardian of the Planet?"
Cloud was silent, not willing to admit how confused he really was. So the world was over, but not?
"The Promised Land awaits us, the life after death, the gift of the goddess."
"The afterlife? Will… will the other dead be there as well?" Cloud hated the hesitancy in his voice.
"Yes, all souls shall meet again in the Promised Land. All save one."
Cloud froze in horror. NO! It was too much to bear, too much. How could fate be this cruel?
"The planet has chosen you for the Guardian of her memories. The memory of her death shall live on in your mind. Your soul shall be sent on, to another world, a younger world where these things have yet to unfold. You will be our memory, and you will be the younger planet's savior, armed with the mightiest of weapons –knowledge. This other world has the same characters, the same events, but it is years in the past. You must change its future or it will meet the same fate as this world."
Cloud's voice was dead as he asked, "How? I cannot stop a meteor."
"No. But the planet can. The planet's life was drained. Jenova, the Mako Reactors, Omaga's destruction, they took her natural defenses from her, and left her open to attack. You must stop the decaying of the planet before it is too late."
"And if I say no? If I say I don't care anymore?"
"My friend, the fates are cruel…"
"I don't care! I'm tired! I want—."
Genesis cut him off again, that calm steady voice clashing with his own growing panic. "The wandering soul knows no rest."
"The fates can find somebody else to play with."
Genesis looked at him for a long moment, assessing him, before turning away, casting his eyes up to the hazy heavens. There were no stars to see, no light flickering through the thick clouds now swamping the atmosphere. Genesis's voice was powerful, threaded with some hidden emotion, some forgotten memory:
"There is no hate, only joy, for you are beloved by the goddess
Hero of the dawn, healer of worlds, dreams of the marrow hath the shattered soul
Pride is lost
Wings stripped away, the end if nigh
My friend, the fates are cruel
There are no dreams, no honor remains
The arrow has left the bow of the goddess
My soul, corrupted by vengeance
Hath endured torment to find the end of the journey
In my own salvation and your eternal slumber."
It was frightening how deeply those scattered lines touched Cloud's soul. They overwhelmed him with a deep sense of sorrow and regret. He knew these feels were pouring out of this man, Genesis, as he fed them into the words, his eyes distant, seeing something only he could grasp. And suddenly Cloud understood. Genesis was telling him of his own sins. What they were Cloud didn't know, but it did not matter, what mattered was the regret, the burning desire to relive, to undo the mistakes of a life. That was an emotion Cloud was more than familiar with. Vincent's face flickered before his eyes, twisted in a rare display of the crippling emotion Cloud had seen only a handful of times over the years. To undo one's mistakes, to live again…
"I understand." Cloud's voice split the silence. It was no longer quite so dead.
Hope was something he was no longer familiar with. Thoughts of the future were shied away from, but not now. Now he understood and accepted the burden and blessing offered to him. The Guardian of the planet's memories. The task of saving this younger planet. The chance to undo the mistakes of his past. To relive this broken life. He did not look for happiness in his future; he had long given up hope of that, but something else, maybe rest? Maybe forgiveness? Lay ahead, if only he could grasp it. If only he could succeed. His life was a riddled patchwork of failures, of weakness, of mistakes and the struggle to correct those blunders. Failure was always a high possibility for Cloud Strife, but there was a chance. A chance…
"I offer thee this silent sacrifice."