Authors Notes: Has it nearly been a year already? Haha. Well at least it wasn't a full year before I updated. I'll put effort to pick up the pace, but lets face it, I've made that promise before. My only consolation is that this was a long chapter, and that I'm looking forward to writing the next one.
Chapter 11 - White Flowers
When Cloud awoke the next day, he knew right away that he had slept late into the afternoon. He had never been one to sleep in; constantly in action his time was rarely so invaluable that he could spend it laying in bed. His body was stiff and his muscles ached in protest of being immobile so long, clearly unused to the situation.
The warmth of his blankets was a comfort, though. Curling deeper into them, he shut his eyes tightly, hoping that would make everything go away. He only cracked an eyelid to glance at the alarm clock on the metal framed end table next to his bed, which confirmed he had indeed slept through his morning classes.
It did not concern Cloud nearly as much as the scenarios running through his jumbled mind.
How long until Shinra troops slammed down his door and poured in to arrest him? Surely Angeal would have followed through on his threats and reported him by now. Despite having nothing to back his suspicions but dreams, the word of a First Class General would surely be enough to initiate Shinra's action. There were enough oddities in Cloud's files to at least warrant an investigation, enough to be arrested and questioned on his background.
It was a terrifying thought. His imagination was quick to fill in the blanks of what Shinra would do if he was found. Hojo's laboratories may have been from long ago in his past, but the memories were fiercely vivid. The dormant power inside of him, the mako energy empowered by the planet, topped off with the ability that Cloud had once wielded effortlessly even to his death - all of it would send Shinra's scientists reeling in delighted speculation. How baffled Hojo might be, should he find that in Cloud's every fibre lay fragments of Sephiroth cells that he had only recently begun to experiment with.
There was no way Shinra would take him. He knew he would have to run, despite the constant reminder of just how many soldiers Shinra had sent after him and Zack so many years ago. Hundreds of troopers, fully armed and equipped, simply to take down two young escapees who might tell their secrets. How many soldiers would Shinra send after someone they considered an actual threat?
Would he face all of Shinra? It was a cold irony, that the world and the people in it, those who he had been sent to save, would hunt him like a dangerous, feral animal.
Yet the thought of living on the run, fighting for his life every minute, never stopping, never living a normal life - all of it was familiar. He was used to the life of a warrior. Settling into this charade of normalcy was far more stressful than fighting ever had been.
Perhaps that was why he had never settled down before, never stopped fighting, never stopped running. He was afraid of this normality, so completely overwhelmed by it that it was easier to simply escape it and never even try.
As he organized his thoughts, compartmentalized his concerns, The Planet's orders were noticeably absent. Nothing to tell him, nothing to clarify the situation or offer comfort, no instructions or path to follow. Instead The Planet's voices were an uncoordinated murmur, a thousand different voices telling him a thousand different things, but unable to ever agree on what had to be conveyed.
When the noise in his head refused to clear, Cloud's frustrations finally forced him from bed into a mobile state. He would have been arrested by now, had Angeal reported him. Sitting in bed and struggling with his anxieties was getting him nowhere. He thought of visiting Zack to talk to him about what had happened. Perhaps he could find some closure on what Angeal had decided. Yet he had promised Angeal that he would stay away, in an attempt to get the SOLDIER off his back. Maybe that was why Angeal had not reported him - perhaps it was better to leave things as they were until he knew for sure.
So instead of seeking Zack, Cloud dressed to train. He needed quiet, and there was no better way to find it than fighting. Until The Planet decided what he should do, he would push his body to relieve his mind. The calm headspace from combat was too tempting to resist.
The common room of the dormitory was empty of any other cadets, something that pleased Cloud. Not that relations were strained with them, on the contrary, they had never bothered or even really spoken to him. He assumed that when he had first arrived, they had little to do with the small boy from a rural town. Now he was the rising star, an intimidating figure sitting above the rest of his class with an untouchable talent. Other cadets tried hard not to meet his gaze and all greetings were curt and short.
The hallway was also empty when he entered it, which Cloud did find strange. Usually filled with mingling cadets and staff, there wasn't a soul in the empty corridor. It wasn't until he entered the lobby that he discovered where everyone was. Bodies were packed to the doors of the side entrance he came through, completely blocking passage. Cadets, SOLDIER, and employees alike had stopped what they were doing to line the sides of the lobby, leaving a path from the main doors to the elevator.
Unsure of what was going on, Cloud joined the crowd. He wormed his way through the tall people at the back, squeezing to the front where he could see what the gathering was for. When he bumped into someone he excused himself, but when he glanced up he quickly recognized the bright red hair Chev, the SOLDIER he had been on mission with. The man's face brightened with recognition. "Hey, Cloud!"
Cloud nodded his greeting, before tilting his head towards the main entrance. "What's going on?"
"Mission just completed in Wutai, a big success. The squad just came home. All the SOLDIER have already gone through, but..." He grinned. "Well, everyone wants to see the Generals return."
Chev had no sooner spoken the words when the doors opened, causing the crowd to cheer and applaud. A man in a red coat that Cloud barely remembered as General Genesis Raphsodus walked proudly through the path to the elevators. At his side was a fearfully familiar face. Sephiroth.
Seeing the man again, alive and healthy, after so many years hit Cloud in the gut like a sucker punch. He had understood that Sephiroth would be alive in this world, was even recently reminded of that by Angeal's comments. Yet he was unprepared for the reality.
Sephiroth is alive.
Memories resurfaced fast enough to make Cloud dizzy as he watched. Sephiroth's madness as he burned Nibelheim to the ground. The hatred in mako eyes when a young Cloud, such an insignificant opponent, dared to try and stop him. The mental torment of being unable to stop himself as he danced helpless in the man's control, unable to decipher his own thoughts from those of his sinister puppeteer. The constant struggle to maintain his mind and his confidence while he fought the man. The painful task of rebuilding his life in the aftermath of the cataclysm left in Sephiroth's wake.
The nagging knowledge that Sephiroth would never truly disappear until Cloud too was gone.
All of it rushed back and suffocated Cloud in a wave of despair. It hadn't even started yet, and he would have to face it all again? Cloud hardly noticed he was swaying slightly until Chev put a concerned hand on his shoulder to steady him. As Sephiroth drew level with Cloud's spot in the crowd, the blond's breath left his chest completely when the silver haired demon's head spun in his direction.
Despite being buried deep within a crowd of much larger people, something drew Sephiroth's gaze straight to Cloud, picking him out as if he was the only one there. The loathing in the man's fierce glare froze Cloud in place, as if nothing had changed. As if all those murderous battles and struggles weren't a lifetime away. The scathing hatred was as fresh and tangible in the man's eyes as if he had just climbed out of the lifestream.
The pressure in Cloud's head seemed to reach a peak, and it took him precious seconds to realize the dull roar he heard was that of The Planet, suddenly riled and protective of the fragile mind they had inherited. The implications were as terrifying as the man's glare - not only that Sephiroth's presence was enough to frenzy The Planet into a protective state, as if the connection Sephiroth had with his mind had not been severed despite all that had happened - but the fact that Cloud could not even feel his predecessor's presence in his head anymore, perhaps the biggest problem.
Cloud found himself reaching for his sword, but as much as he was ready for an attack, suddenly Sephiroth's attention was snapped away to the redhead beside him. Cloud could have sworn he saw the man blink a couple times in near confusion before he returned to his comrade's side, sparing only a sidelong glare in Cloud's direction he passed them by.
Cloud was left with undue concern. Angeal had said Sephiroth did not know Cloud existed, and the man was obviously not the same crazed weapon that Cloud had killed in times past. Yet why was a Sephiroth still sane and functional able to pick Cloud out of a crowd so easily? Still feel the same way towards him as he had in a past life, perhaps without even understanding why?
Cloud was broken from his stunned trance when Chev's grip on his shoulder reached painful levels - the man's white knuckle grip and bated breath proving to Cloud that he had not imagined Sephiroth's reaction.
"Dude..." Chev finally breathed. "Did you...see...?" As if needing confirmation that what had happened was real, Cloud's grim silence answered volumes. Chev finally removed his hand, turning to Cloud stiffly. "Was that at you? Did you kill his dog or something?"
Cloud laughed, a bitter strained noise that did nothing to ease the tension in his body. "I've never even seen him before." Cloud muttered honestly, finally trying to offer Chev a reassuring flash of teeth that barely counted as a smile. "Maybe someone behind us?"
Chev was relieved and calmed enough by that. "I hope so. I think I need to go change my drawers, it was like he was staring right at us, trying to kill us a thousand times with his eyes."
Cloud grunted as he watched the elevator ascend with its high ranking cargo. The crowd started to disperse, returning to their business now that their time to cheer on two of the Generals had passed. Suddenly his wish to take the elevator to the training rooms vanished. Sephiroth would only be returning to his routine, but Cloud did not want to risk running into the man in case he was laying in wait. Paranoia seemed warranted considering recent events.
"I have to go." He muttered to Chev, turning towards the stairs. "I'll see you around."
He didn't wait for a response; instead he started up the stairs with a new plan in mind. He needed support, answers, clarification. He did not know what kind of comfort he would find, or even if it could be offered any longer, but he needed to try. If naught else but to find closure for the loss of the only human relationship he had coming to this world.
Though he made the trip to Zack's room in record time, it seemed like eons for Cloud's overworked mind. His mind raced with possible explanations that he could present, but as soon as he was face to face with Zack's door, all his plans evaporated from his mind.
Cloud steeled himself and knocked anyways, knowing full well if he tried to recollect his thoughts he would end up leaving instead. Moments after the first knock the door opened. Zack seemed tired when he appeared in the doorway, but he beamed when he saw Cloud.
"Hey! Come in!" Zack said, quickly stepping to the side to let Cloud through. As soon as the blond made it through the door, Zack led them deeper into his apartment. "I was going to come and see you soon, I swear." Zack called quickly.
As Cloud followed him into the kitchen area, he was surprised to see a duffle bag on Zack's small kitchen table, already half packed. There was a multitude of other items scattered about the area, obviously still in the process of being packed. "I got called on a mission this morning, I leave this evening. I was going to come see you when I was done packing."
Cloud found himself nodding, waving it off dismissively. "I didn't think you'd be allowed."
Zack's expression hardened, and he turned from where he was pairing socks from a pile of clean laundry to face Cloud. "Angeal wouldn't stop me from seeing you." He said plainly. "I can decide for myself who I consider my friend." Something about Cloud's expression must have given away his relief at this, because Zack quickly softened.
He closed the space between him and the blond suddenly, then pulled Cloud into a kind embrace. He held Cloud close by wrapping strong arms around his shoulders. A combination of relief, comfort, and Zack's cologne quickly overwhelmed Cloud. He gave a sigh as he leaned into the larger boy, awkwardly touching Zack's elbows in a meek effort to return the embrace. "I'm not a threat." He whispered, words barely spoken. "I would never hurt you."
Zack hummed his agreement. "I know that. I think Angeal knows it too. He understands you wouldn't hurt me, he just..." Zack seemed to cast about for words for a moment, absently rubbing his hand across Cloud's back in a far too motherly manner. Cloud remained stiff in the other man's arms, but Zack did not seem to mind. Instead he rested his chin on top of Cloud's head, taking advantage of the difference in their heights. "Angeal's under a lot of pressure. Everyone turns to him with their problems, and they expect him to know what to do. And you...seem to be hiding the answers he's looking for."
"I don't understand what's going on. I don't know the answers." Cloud said quickly, honestly. People's dreams were not something he'd been informed of. Nothing The Planet had ever mentioned explained why those around him would be able to remember the past in any way. There was undeniable proof that it was happening, but Cloud only knew his own purpose. Everything else was a mystery to him. "But I wouldn't harm you. You'll never understand how much your safety means to me."
He let out a sigh, and finally relaxed just a little into Zack's touch. The man seemed to be thinking on what Cloud said, one hand absently lifting from Cloud's back to pet his hair before he finally spoke. "They're not just dreams, are they?"
The Planet was a swarm of voices, all of them speaking, but not clear enough to be of any help to Cloud. Without The Planets concise instructions to keep his silence, Cloud finally shook his head. "No, they're not just dreams."
Zack stepped back, his eyes falling to the floor as he pressed his hands to Cloud's shoulders. "Then I understand how you feel. I don't even understand why - but I feel the same way."
Cloud pulled away easily, and ran his fingers through his hair nervously, a sign of his stress. "I don't want to taint anyone with this. I didn't know about the dreams. I didn't know anything at all."
"Hey, it's alright." Zack said quickly as he reached out to touch Cloud's arm reassuringly. "We'll figure it out." When Cloud continued to stare away, a thin hand still gripping his hair, Zack moved close and gently pressed his lips to the blond's forehead. "You're not alone, alright? We can help you."
Cloud knew Zack was wrong, and that he was more alone than the SOLDIER could possibly imagine. Yet the words were reassuring in their own right, just a reminder of the simple kindnesses that he might still find in this world.
After a few long moments, Zack finally smiled and jerked his thumb to his duffel bag. "Gotta finish packing. I'll be gone for a couple of days." When Cloud nodded his understanding, Zack returned to his work, folding a pair of pants from the laundry pile. "You have SOLDIER entrance exams coming up soon, don't you? You'll be SOLDIER 3rd by the end of the month."
The confidence in Zack's tone was encouraging, even though Cloud was sure of his ability to make SOLDIER. The time that he had been too weak and fragile to make the cut was long since passed. He had fully surpassed the ability of SOLDIER at one point, and he would soon reach that point again with enough training.
He turned to leave, but before he made it out of the small kitchen area, a nagging question stopped him and he turned back to Zack. "So Angeal isn't going to report me to Shinra?"
Zack looked up, two pairs of mako eyes meeting before he shrugged. "I wouldn't worry about him setting Shinra after you, no." Cloud immediately understood what Zack meant. Angeal did not have to get the company involved to be a threat. "He's got a lot of reasons to dig at you, though. He's probably not going to just let it go."
Cloud turned away, staring hard at the floor. "I have nothing to tell him. I don't know the answers to the questions he's asking."
"You know some of them, though." Zack sighed. "You've obviously involved in...something." The silence that followed Zack's pause was accented by Cloud's stubborn refusal to admit anything, and Zack eventually laughed if only to break the tension. "What you tell anyone is up to you. Just know that we're here for you, and we'll listen if you ever want to talk, okay?"
Cloud gave an indecisive shrug in response, before he raised his hand in a wave goodbye. "Good luck on your mission." He offered with a tense smile as he left the room.
There was comfort there, but it wasn't enough to sooth Cloud's guilty mind or his frayed nerves.
There were other cadets in the common area of their dorm when Cloud returned to his room, but he ignored them as he made a beeline back to his small bedroom. Collapsing on the mattress, he wished that sleep would return to him and stop the thoughts that were trying to drive him crazy.
He was facing a bright light, which was odd in itself. He spent so little time above the plate anymore, that he had almost forgotten what the sky was. But as he opened his eyes, he saw that it was only a small crack of sunlight, shining down throughout the rubble of a hole in a roof, many feet above him. Where was he?
As he sat up, to his surprise, a voice spoke behind him. "You okay?"
Her voice was soft, and gentle. A kind voice that brought warmth to a place that he knew had been damaged, somehow. Turning his head, he looked at her. Warm brown hair, beautiful green eyes and pale skin. She was a beauty to behold.
"This is a church in the Sector 5 slums." She said, wisely warding off the question that was already on the tip of his tongue. "You suddenly fell on top of me, it gave me a real scare."
"...I came crashing down?" Cloud asked, his memories of what exactly had happened still a little shaky. Not that the feeling was unfamiliar to him, he often found himself unable to remember things.
"The roof and the flower bed must have broken your fall. You were really lucky." She sounded amazed that he wasn't hurt, that he was still moving and speaking coherently. It wasn't very surprising to Cloud though; it took a lot to hurt him, even a long fall he could survive. It was part of being an ex-SOLDIER.
"Flower bed?" Cloud looked around, and finally took in his surroundings. He was sitting in a bed of flowers, such a rare sight since he had left Nibelheim. They were beautiful white lilies, basking in the light that came through the roof. It was a rare beauty, in this dull city. Quickly jumping to his feet, he brushed himself off and stepped away from the flowers, careful not to crush any more. "Sorry about that."
"That's all right. The flowers here are quite resilient because this is a sacred place. They say you can't grow grass and flowers in Midgar. But for some reason, the flowers have no trouble blooming here." She walked away from him, looking over her flowers with great affection. "I love it here." Turning her attention back to Cloud, her expression softened into one of kindness. "So we meet again. Do you remember me?"
Cloud did; as soon as she asked it all came back. Running through the streets of Midgar, trying to avoid the Shinra soldiers after him. She had been standing there perfectly calm in the storm that had so many people running. "Yeah, I remember you." He said softly. "You were selling flowers."
She turned to her flowers again, and finally Cloud cleared his throat, to bring her attention back to him. "Oh!" She said, as if just remembering. "We don't know each other's names, do we? I'm Aeris, the flower girl. Nice to meet you."
Cloud jolted awake suddenly. The dream, no, memories began to fade as soon as he awoke, slipping away even as he tried to grab onto them. Aeris. It was her. He had dreamed of her before, without even knowing who she was. In his dreams, she tended the flowers from the church in a field of white. She drove him away because he could not be beside her.
In his dreams, he had to leave her behind or else she would hurt as much as he.
She had been alive, he had met her in Midgar. Somehow Cloud knew that she had come to be an important part of his life - and yet he could barely grasp onto the memories of who she was, of what she looked like. It was as if there was a block in his mind, interference that stopped him from recollecting.
Gritting his teeth, Cloud stood up and prepared himself for an excursion. It would be more dangerous to go armed into Midgar's streets, so he only took a couple of materia as he slipped quietly from his bedroom. The clock flashed past midnight, nearly one in the morning, but he did not let that stop him as he snuck out of the Shinra building.
Whether or not he could remember who she was, he remembered where he met her. She would be alive and well, tending her flowers at the church in the slums. He would go there, and perhaps seeing her again would fill in the blanks that Cloud knew were important.
It was easy to slip from Shinra's land, and once he hit the plate there was little notice given to just another cadet on the town at night. He took the train down into the slums, keeping to himself and not drawing unwanted attention.
At this time of night, most honest and hard working people were sound asleep in their beds, which left the streets crawling with only the less upstanding citizens of the slums. Some not-too-sober people leaned on each other while they walked down the sidewalks, moving from one bar to another. In the shadows of the allies scuttled the filth of human society that one did better than to encounter.
Cloud kept his head down and walked in the shadows briskly. Without First Sword equipped he was not as armed as he would have liked, but that did not mean he was defenceless. Not that he wanted to have to pull one of the knives from their sheathes on any one, much preferring discretion as he made his way throughout the slums.
Getting off the main streets without incident, Cloud made his way deep into Sector 5, memories starting to flash as he moved through familiar terrain. Well, somewhat familiar. Most of his memories were of Midgar destroyed, the church in his memories the only building in this sector left standing.
He came quite close before the looming stature of the old church started to stand out from the darkness. His heart rate increased, something Cloud couldn't ignore as he came closer. Walking up the steps, memories started to flash through his mind, and upon reaching the top of them Cloud's legs gave out under the sudden onslaught. His hands hit the pavement hard as he fell to his knees, but that wasn't what he saw or felt.
It was a rare sight in Midgar. They had been commonplace in Nibelheim, but Cloud had learned that the pollution of Midgar, and the Plate especially were unforgiving for natural growth. Even grass was hard to come by, but yet, in this little church, the flowers thrived in purity completely oblivious to the contamination around them. Much like the girl who tended them.
Guilt. Her blood was on his hands, he was held accountable for her death. No one would say it to his face - perhaps they weren't even thinking it. But the voice in his head would never let him forget it was his failing's that had brought his world to this place. Worse, that the sadness he felt was contrived in an effort for his body to feel something. As he sat in the flowers, cupping one of the large lily blooms in his hand, he watched the tears roll from his face to the petals with a strange sense of detachment. He would try to prove that voice wrong or die trying. Because if it was right, Cloud's existence was as much of a threat to the planet as His was.
It was the water that cured the stigma. He had stayed here for almost a year, tending the flowers in her memory. He had been alone that entire time as he fought against it. Sometimes it had felt like Sephiroth's grasp over his mind was stronger than his own, and there had been so little he could do about it. But she was still there - watching over him. The water in the pool was her gift to those she left behind. Little by little, Cloud felt that knowledge start to close wounds he'd thought impossible to heal.
He had brought some of her flowers to Zack's resting place, and now they grew in the sun next to Buster Sword's blade, where it was thrust into the ground. It was a pleasant thought, when he looked at them. A reminder that they were together in the lifestream, and that someday he would join them.
Sometimes he would walk into the church after a long day, and for a few brilliant moments he would see her standing there, looking at her flowers with a kind fondness, appreciation that they were still there. She would look up at him, and smile, before she faded away. Cloud could never tell if it was truly her, or only his imagination, but the effect was the same. Sometimes he would find himself lost in a sea of white flowers. Sometimes alone with her, sometimes with Zack behind her. She would smile and talk to him. Calm him down, before returning him to his place in the world.
In his dreams, he would see her in a field of white flowers. But now she no longer smiled or cheered him up. He did not belong there anymore, and she would drive him out. And somehow, Cloud understood. Because she was dead. His connection to her had been strong enough to feel her in the lifestream, by her choice or his. The comfort had been that one day he would join her there. But that lifestream no longer existed.
The Planet would not let him have that peace until his task was complete.
Cloud's hands were cold against the concrete of the Church's steps, his knees sore from kneeling there so long. How long had he been lost in memories? His body protested as he forced himself to straighten, a grim determination settling around him. She had died, and he had been responsible. But he had been given another chance, to save her in this life.
There was something akin to hope in his heart as he opened the doorway to step into the church. But whatever he had expected, he did not find.
It was dark except where beams of moonlight shone into the front of the church. There was a feeling of wrongness in Cloud's gut as he walked deeper into the building. The pews were broken and dusty, it was clear no one had ever been in this building for years and years. When he reached the front, his heart sank deeper into his chest.
There were supposed to be flowers, life, but there was nothing. She had tended flowers here long before Cloud had come to Midgar, so why was there nothing? Where the floorboards ended, broken into the ground, there was only cold black dirt, devoid of anything. This is where flowers had at one time grown, and yet...
Squatting next to the dirt, Cloud frowned when he spotted a dim color in the darkness. A single sprout, small and forlorn, had pushed up from the soil. It looked unhealthy, ready to die, and Cloud felt something shrivel inside of him the same way.
Cloud was unsure of his motivation, yet he found himself tending to that tiny sprout. He pulled a water bottle from his jacket to hydrate the parched thing, broke up the soil around it. He caught himself making plans to bring back fertilizer and gardening tools. Perhaps he could find other sprouts for sale above the plate, and plant them here. He was hard-pressed to understand the drive, but this was simply where her flowers were supposed to grow.
Did he hope she would return if there were flowers here? Cloud already knew what the answer would be, part of him had already conceded to that truth. She wasn't here, and she wouldn't come. Something had stopped this world from accepting an important part of Cloud's life back into it, and Cloud longed to know why.
The Planet was silent, refusing to give him the explanation he demanded. Or maybe there was something about this place that maintained the silence, the serenity that Cloud remembered.
Cloud realized the time when the sun began to rise, a few determined sunbeams managed to find their way down from the plate and poured through the hole in the roof of the church.
As he stood up, his resolve strengthened when he looked down at the little green sprout, struggling to survive. It had already started to look healthier, perking up from the water Cloud had given it. Perhaps there was something inside Cloud that identified with its plight. Abandoned and forgotten, but still struggling to live on against all odds.
If this plant died, what would it mean for him?
He left the church, but not for long. It was hard to find fertilizer under the plate, so Cloud ended up taking the train back up to find some. It would have been easier to simply put the sprout in a pot and take it with him, but that place was important. That was where her flowers had to grow.
His escapades into gardening lasted into late morning, yet he felt the result well worth the effort. The soil was rich and soft with the fertilizer he had put around the sprout. He had purchased a large watering bulb and drove it into the soil, filled with water. Even if he did not make it back for a few days, the plant would survive off what he had provided.
Rats scuttled along the pews around him as Cloud left the patch of dirt behind, his boots making a dull thump on old wood as he walked. He stopped at the entrance, and looked back over his shoulder. As much as he willed the scene to be different, nothing had changed, and he forced himself to accept it.
As he left the church behind it was a struggle to not look back. This place was not what he remembered, with its healing water and bright flowers. The place that had been so important to him was now nothing, and it was hard for Cloud to face that. When he got far enough away, he left the protective barrier that had silenced the voices of The Planet. A muddle of whispers flooded his mind again, and in the chaos of voices he did not hear that melodic voice as it called out to him.
'Cloud, I'm so sorry.'
He had been sure that the world had returned to the way it was, that everything was as it had been. But something had changed in the scene of this world, beyond Cloud's place in it. What else would be different? What impact would it have on the course of events?
He had to find Jenova, destroy her and remove all traces of her existence from documentation. He knew his main targets, and without them much of the contamination of The Planet would be halted. It would end in conflict, much of the dangerous research had already commenced. Sephiroth had already been created, as the culmination of years of research and experiments. Even now, Hojo was trying to replicate Sephiroth's cells and functions in other people.
For now, at least, none of those attempts would be successful. Zack had been the first success.
But what would he do, after Jenova was eliminated? That was the reason he had been sent, but Shinra's use of mako might still drain The Planet's strength from the lifestream. There would be others to deal with that - but what if some in Shinra had regained memories through dreams, of what had happened as well? Cloud shuddered to think. What if someone like Rufus Shinra knew the direction the world would head?
And what of Aeris? Cloud remembered next to nothing about her, but her inexistence would have to have some effect on the world. There was no doubt in his mind that she had never been born in this world. One had to wonder how much of an impact a single life would have in the stream of things.
How much of it rested with Cloud? The Planet had focused him on Jenova's destruction, but was it possible that after it was done, The Planet would shift his focus to something else? It was painful to even consider.
Such thoughts were all that kept Cloud company on his way back to the Shinra building. In an effort to stop the descending chaos of his thoughts, he forced himself to catch the last class of the day instead. With SOLDIER exams looming at the end of the month, classes let out early in the afternoon to give cadets more time to focus on their training.
The entire class was devoted to grinding into them what they would need for their exams. Battle tactics, formations, and protocols were reviewed. Their instructor was sure to drill into them the need to train in their free time, in order to do well on the exams.
Cloud did not feel the need to review tactics and formations, so he opted for physical training instead. After stopping in his room to grab his sword and some materia, he headed for the training centre.
Despite having been awake for a long period of time, he did not feel the pulls of exhaustion as he logged into the battle menu from his phone. He was still using Zack's information -he would have his own as soon as he became SOLDIER- but Zack was still his only access to the database. He did not need to flick through options long, instead opting for the most difficult mission he could access.
As he put the VR helmet on, the mission began to construct itself in front of him. Pulling his sword from its sheath, Cloud threw himself into the fray without hesitation.
Enemy lines had been penetrated, brutally. Cloud had carved a path from the outer perimeter to the inside of the enemy base, leaving nothing but the bodies of soldiers and their attack robots behind him. Alarm's had been set off, flashing red and sounding alerts to all military personnel that there was an intruder that had to be dealt with; but the survivors were scattered and fell easily as they tried to stop him.
Several captains had barricaded themselves the control room that kept parts of the building locked down. They were preparing for Cloud's attack, and the blond was so overconfident to think that there would not be resistance. But he had planned ahead. When he breached a wall through sheer force and explosives that he had located, he did not charge in as they had expected. Instead he tossed a gas bomb into the room, and waited by the exit to catch them as they rushed to escape it's deadly fumes.
Just as the first enemy met Cloud's sword with a yell of surprise, everything froze and began to disintegrate. Mission Aborted flashed in front of Cloud's eyes, and with a growl of dismay, Cloud quickly yanked the helmet off his head to see what had disrupted his training.
He didn't expect to see Angeal standing in front of him with PHS in hand, no doubt how he terminated the mission. Cloud's eyes were still blurry and crossed from refocusing on the real world, and he took a careful step backwards before he sheathed his sword and let the VR helmet fall to the floor.
Angeal barely spared Cloud a glance as he scrolled through his phone, which left the blond struggling to find the restraint he required to bite back several angry remarks. The last thing Cloud needed was to spark a confrontation. Cloud waited with a smooth façade of calm indifference while Angeal finished reviewing the mission he had cancelled, eventually focusing a steady gaze on Cloud.
"I have exams coming in a week." Cloud said carefully. "I need to train." If Angeal had finally chosen take offence at Cloud's use of Zack's training card, surely he could overlook it until exam's were over and Cloud had access to his own.
Angeal snorted, tapping his phone a couple of times before he flipped it to show Cloud the screen. It was a replay of Cloud's performance, in which Cloud charged a particularly challenging extermination robot with Braver and seared it clean in half. "This isn't training." Angeal remarked, before taking his phone back and continuing to review the cancelled mission. "It's…hacking metal to bits. You're not improving your skills or challenging yourself at all."
Cloud glared. He had been running one of the most difficult missions he could unlock with Zack's clearance, doing the best he could to pose a challenge with his training. Keep it civil, he reminded himself, as Angeal continued. "I was watching your run for a while before I stopped it. It just seems like a waste of time if you aren't learning anything, just grinding numbers to make your profile more impressive."
"That's not—" Cloud stopped himself, narrowing his eyes at the obvious baiting. Angeal was intimately familiar with Zack's training, he knew that it was a difficult mission and that Cloud wasn't just trying to look good. Cloud rolled his shoulders in an exasperated manner. "Then what would you suggest I do to improve?"
Angeal grinned as he scrolled through his phone, his expression far too delighted for Cloud's comfort. Without the use of the VR helmet, the training centre transformed. This was the way First's trained, which immediately alluded to the difficulty of the mission Angeal had chosen. No wonder he looked so happy.
It was rather simplistic, near the back of the room two large attack bots appeared, however they had been set to passive-mode by Angeal and did not initiate combat. Still, they were far more advanced than the ones used in the missions Cloud had been running.
"What, can't kill me in a fair fight so you're hoping to let some robots do it?" Cloud muttered. Mission instructions weren't transmitted, so he assumed instead that Angeal had cooked something unique up to challenge him. Great.
"This isn't to demonstrate your swordsmanship. These robots are immune to all physical damage, only susceptible to lightning. You'll have to use magic to kill them." Cloud narrowed his eyes while he reached for his materia, but Angeal stopped him before he could find the right sphere. "You'll use this."
Angeal passed him a small materia, which Cloud immediately recognized as bolt. The obvious difference was that it was new and unleveled, whereas Cloud's usual bolt materia was mastered. Cloud's face must have betrayed his lack of amusement, because Angeal explained. "You won't always have mastered materia to fall back on."
"Yeah I'm sure I'll see you running around Wutai casting bolt1 to save the day." Cloud muttered, drawing a snort from Angeal in response.
"I don't need mastered materia to do damage. And neither should you. I've seen your stats. Your spells are impressive, sure. But with your stats and your materia, you should be hitting way harder than you do. Your magic use is weak." It was concerning, Cloud decided, that Angeal had put this much thought into his abilities. Yet he was also insulted that Angeal would pick apart his training that way, as if such a weakness warranted scrutiny.
Sparing a final glare at Angeal, Cloud pressed the materia into Mystile and wasted no time in charging the spell. Upon casting, the spell sizzled against the robots armor, doing little to impress Cloud. There was no effect, clearly showing that the robot was partially resistant to lightning as well. If Angeal's game was to belittle his abilities, he would get little response from Cloud. The blond's prides confidence had already been dragged through the mud.
In rapid succession he casted spell after spell, watching as they sizzled uselessly with no effect. When his mana was fully depleted, he pulled an ether from his sheath and glared at Angeal as he drank it. "Satisfied?"
Pointedly ignoring Cloud's irritation, Angeal breathed a sigh as he grabbed Cloud's arm. Before the blond could react, he plucked the materia from Mystile and pressed it into the handle of the training sword at his side. Cloud watched silently as Angeal stepped up to stand next to him.
"Anyone can use Materia, but few can fully harness it." Angeal said seriously, as he stretched his arm out in front of him. When he tightened his fist, a crackle of electricity sparked around his hand. Almost like a caress, the electricity danced about his fist and up his arm. Cloud tried hard not to be impressed as he watched it swirl across his shoulders, before it arced back to his fist with a loud crack. Casually, Angeal swung his fist through the air, almost tossing the magic towards the training robots in front of them.
Lightning exploded with energy as soon as it left his palm, bursting with great speed across the floor. Within seconds it exploded underneath the robot, blasting through its armor with a resounding bang, destroying it effortlessly. As it crumpled to the floor, Cloud let out a soft breath he hadn't realized he was holding on to.
"Bolt1, huh?" He was suddenly more interested in learning to utilize his magic.
"Some of your stats are as high as mine." Angeal said bluntly, turning to face Cloud. "You should hold yourself to a much higher standard than just SOLDIER. Being able to control and shape your spells takes a lot of training, and inherit abilities. Genesis, Sephiroth, and myself are the only SOLDIER who have perfected this form of combat." Electricity sparked as Angeal pulled the materia from the slot in his sword, passing it back to Cloud. "I have no doubt you hold the same capability."
Cloud rolled the materia in his hand, staring at it thoughtfully. Whether Angeal understood why, the man was right. The three General's were unique in their abilities due to the nature of their construction. Cloud shared the cells they had been created with - he could heal the same way, was resistant to harm, and had the same physical capabilities because of the experiments he had endured.
But there was more to him now, even more than before his death. The Planet had settled into his body, and infused him with mako direct from the lifestream. There was no reason he shouldn't be able to use that and excel with magic as much as he did with his sword.
Yet he depended on the strength of his materia instead, unable to power his spells any more than an average SOLDIER. He could not resist shooting Angeal a filthy glare as he pressed the materia back into Mystile. Had the man interrupted him to start a fight, interrogate him or had he mouthed off, Cloud would have simply brushed him off. Instead Angeal had shown the calculating knowledge and observance that made him an excellent mentor to Zack, and given Cloud something to seriously consider.
Awkward. Cloud wasn't sure how to respond to someone actually teaching him something. Of course, after all that had happened so many years ago, Cloud was the only one of their kind left alive. In this time period, he was not a unique creature. These were the men that had predeceased him, of which he was only a sketchy copy. Whereas Cloud had been completely overwhelmed by his power and struggled to simply maintain his sanity, these men had spent their lives training to utilize every drop of their ability.
If the WRO had men like Angeal or Sephiroth on their side during the war, it was possible they wouldn't have lost. But Cloud, the weakest of their kind, had been the only one left. Even Zack had proven more capable of handling the power he had received, barely phased, with the will to fight against anything that challenged him. Frustrating then, that the biggest burden was put on the weakest link.
Angeal made no comment as Cloud considered this, staring blankly at the materia he had junctioned. The biggest problem was that Cloud did not even know where to begin. Perhaps controlling and empowering a spell was simply like flexing the right muscle at the proper time, but it was a muscle he did not even know he had.
A few moments of intense concentration proved he felt nothing from the materia except the base spell. With an angry glance in Angeal's direction, he found the man's gaze focused entirely upon him, displaying a vast amount of interest in Cloud's concentration.
Knowing he was being watched so closely made things worse. Perhaps he was simply unable to reach to his materia the same way the three general's could. It was possible the ability had never made it into the makeup of an unsuccessful clone.
With that angry thought, Cloud cast the spell, and was unsurprised when it bounced harmlessly off the robot. It seemed to be mocking Cloud from where it stood next to the smoking lump of scrap Angeal had turned its partner into.
"You're too tense." Angeal said, stepping behind Cloud. The blond tensed further at the close proximity, but Angeal disregarded this. "Magic is a flow through your body. It starts at the materia, then it follows your bodies energies. That connection is what allows you to control it. Anyone can. But when you are as high strung as you, the energies in your body reflect it. They're chaotic and don't let the magic flow, so it stunts your spells."
When Angeal set large hands on his shoulders, Cloud jumped. "You aren't even trying to relax." The larger man grumbled, though there was amusement in his tone.
"I can't." Cloud said honestly. "I don't even know how."
When Angeal chuckled, the man was close enough Cloud felt warm breath against his hair. "You do it every time you enter combat. Tension leaves you and you fly. You focus only on battle, and forget everything else. Do that now."
The bliss of battle was a headspace Cloud loved. It was what he was designed for. His life was an overcomplicated mess, a constant struggle against everything threatening to overwhelm him. But combat was different. In a fight, his only goals were to stay alive, and eliminate the threat. Then, he did not have to worry about why he was fighting, his motives or reasons. None of that mattered until after the battle was over. The rush of the moment was what brought him peace.
The last months of his life had been nothing but fighting, and Cloud was fully aware that had it been any different, he would not have lasted so long. Without war to lose himself in, he would have fallen apart.
"I don't do it intentionally." Cloud frowned. "It just...happens."
"Then stop thinking about anything but your magic. Let it happen." Suddenly Angeal's hands were slowly rubbing Cloud's tense shoulders in a soothing manner, meant to calm. "You can feel the spell from your materia, otherwise you wouldn't be able to cast it. Just focus on where the materia connects with you, and don't worry about anything else."
Much easier said than done. Especially when Angeal did not stop rubbing his shoulders, something that felt a little too good to be appropriate. It was having the desired effect though - his shoulders loosened, and Cloud found himself leaning into the contact instead of jumping away.
As he relaxed, he attempted to sensitize his body to the connection of the materia, to feel where the foreign power source was being drawn. Yet all that did was bring his attention to another foreign connection being made - Angeal's hands. Perhaps he was a little touch starved, but the contact was intimate enough to be distracting.
It finally dawned on him. The closeness of Angeal's body as it nearly pressed against him, radiating warmth. The duck of the man's head so his lips were nearly brushing against Cloud's ear, hot breath tickling it easily. It was all meant to be seductive, and the reaction it stirred from Cloud's body was not conducive to relaxing.
There was a second when Cloud wondered how Zack responded to actions like this, but he brushed such thoughts off. Unable to contain the blush clawing his cheeks, he mumbled. "You're making it hard to concentrate."
Angeal grinned as he backed away enough to give Cloud some space, but he did not apologize. When Cloud reached for his spell again, he was flustered but not tense, and to his surprise he noticed a difference in how easy it was to call the power from the spell.
For the briefest moment as he casted, Cloud closed his eyes and simply felt what Angeal told him was supposed to be there. As the materia flared to life and power coursed through him, Cloud could feel that it was indeed chaotic and uncontrollable. But he felt something else, if only for a second. The whisper of familiar voices, usually so foggy in his mind, were crystal clear as they called out to him from deep within his soul. So many spoke to him at once, calling out as they reached for him, and for that time there was nothing but comfort. Cloud knew that this was The Planet, as connected to his being as the materia was. Without thinking he reached for that comforting chorus of voice and thought, at the same time as he reached for the spell.
The result was explosive. The air itself was charged and sparked with electricity as the spell exploded from his hands, a twisting bolt of lightning that arced from his palm towards the robot. With a sizzling flash it's armor exploded from the strike, electricity crackling loud in the air as it rocked through its target. As it shorted, the robot crumpled to the floor to join the other, still spasming with the aftershocks of electricity.
It hadn't been an extravagant display, and it was leagues from the careful display of control Angeal had demonstrated. Instead, Cloud's palms were raw and perhaps a little burnt, and he was sure he'd never be capable of the control Angeal was, with the chaotic force his abilities seemed to be. But Shiva's shorts, it was effective. The Planet had given him power, a strength to fight for its cause. Cloud had simply never been able to use it until now.
Angeal was clapping as Cloud turned to look at him, the man obviously impressed. "Well, I guess that works." Cloud commented in an offhand manner, trying not to sound too pleased with himself or Angeal's advice.
"There's this rumour going around that I know what I'm talking about." Angeal said with a wave of his hand, studying Cloud for a moment. "It takes incredible training to be able to control that power, but it can be done." Chuckling suddenly, Angeal squinted at the scraps of burnt metal on the floor. "Genesis can pinpoint electricity to only a single circuit on these bots. He can fry their targeting system, so that they attack each other instead. He's always had a remarkable ability with magic." Scooping up the forgotten VR helmet from the floor, he tossed it to Cloud. "So, you ready for the real thing?"
Cloud nodded, but when he glanced at his materia, Angeal smirked. "You'll want your own materia for this one. Just a hint - you'll need Barrier. And put every bit of juice you have into it, because that's the only way it'll stop what's coming for you."
Cloud was almost giddy for the challenge and the chance to really practice, as he picked out his materia.
It had been the sixth missile that got him. Hi-tech stealthing missiles were not fair. Heat-seeking, homing, hi-tech stealthing missiles were even less fair. Angeal had not been kidding when he said that a beefed up barrier would be all that'd keep him alive. Even with his new ability, the barrier he had casted barely kept him together when the first one hit. There was no warning at all, the things were impossible to see with the Invisible spell fused into them, and there was little time to guess their course with the heat of battle upon him.
He hadn't even seen the mech suits that the opponents wore before, and their AI was infallible. They worked as a perfect team, and try as he might Cloud was unable to separate them, instead having to fight them in a group, a much more dangerous task. He focused on one at a time, picking them off while he dodged attacks, keeping up Barrier to try and protect himself while he used his newfound abilities to cast devastating magic to hinder his opponents.
When one of the stealth missiles slammed into him, Cloud was sent sprawling, his Barrier breaking as he tried to scramble to his feet. He was immobilized for long few seconds as he casted cure3 to recover, and the mechsuits showed no mercy in exploiting that weakness. One swerved hard to throw him off, then grabbed him by his ankle and lifted him into the air while the second suit behind drew back for an attack at his prone form. Twisting in the air, Cloud slashed First Sword through the arm of the suit holding him, cutting it shear off and saving himself from the blow that skimmed above his head as he landed on the ground. He casted Ultima, pulling every drop of power that he could find within himself with it, and with a satisfying explosion the mech suits surrounding him were destroyed.
Then the missile hit. He had forgotten Barrier, and there was nothing he could do.
The screen flashed black in his visor, and Cloud came out of his daze on the training room floor as Angeal pulled off the VR helmet with one hand, offering him a Potion in the other. Despite the effects of the helmet leaving his body, Cloud chugged the potion greedily to ease the pains and aches shooting through him.
"Told you to keep Barrier up." Angeal said, holding out a hand to help Cloud up.
"That's so cheap making those missiles invisible." Cloud moaned, pulling himself to his feet using Angeal's offered hand.
"Sephiroth thought so too, This mission was based off of a raid he was sent on against an experimental arms centre in Wutai. The mech suits never made it into military production because he destroyed their prototypes, but Shinra likes to be prepared." As Cloud sheathed his sword, Angeal offered a smile. "You did better than most of the Firsts that run this. A bit more challenging than the missions you've been frequenting."
Cloud snorted. "You just wanted to see me get my ass kicked."
"There's that." Angeal admitted unabashedly. "That's enough for the day. You look exhausted." Cloud nodded as he pulled materia from Mystile and put it back into his sheath. When he was finished, the silence continued. As it grew uncomfortable, Cloud rubbed the back of his neck nervously.
Perhaps to diffuse the tension, Angeal turned to leave.
"Wait." Cloud spoke up, and Angeal stopped in his tracks. "Look, I know I haven't made the greatest impression." Angeal laughed in response as he turned to face Cloud in time to see the blond wince. "I've got a lot on my plate. Just trying to keep myself sane is a full time job, and I've never had much tolerance for people...butting in to my affairs." Perhaps he said the last bit with a little more vindication than necessary. Angeal's attention was on him fully, but the man said nothing. The silence was breeding awkwardness within Cloud, and he was crumbling under its weight.
"I don't understand why other people are getting involved. They're just dreams, I'm not the one behind them, I'm not causing them. I didn't even know they were happening."
He was tired. Physically exhausted from staying up so long, and the excruciating training, yes. But he was emotionally and mentally drained as well, and it showed in his voice, his posture, his expression. Angeal did not have to try hard to find it in him to believe Cloud, and after a few long moments his expression softened.
"Where are you eating tonight?"
There were a lot of responses to his admission that Cloud expected, but that was not one of them. He gaped for a few long moments as he processed the question. "The cafeteria, I guess?"
Angeal's expression was serious as he considered. "If you enjoyed my cooking last time, you could come and have a real supper with me, instead." He paused, no doubt to give Cloud a few moments to think back to the meal he'd had and consider, before he added his condition. "But if you decide to come, I want real answers. I want to know the truth."
Cloud scoffed despite himself. The man had no idea what he was asking. He had been able to connect the dots, sure, but he had been completely unwilling to draw the outlandish conclusion presented. Even if Cloud did tell him the truth, Angeal would assume he was lying.
"So you're bribing me with food now?"
"It's not a bribe." Angeal said seriously, despite Cloud's incredulous tone. He turned his back to the blond and walked towards the exit. "I'm offering you an opportunity you're not likely to get from anyone else." When he reached the door, he didn't look back, instead only offered a wave over his shoulder. "Whether you take the offer is up to you. I'm eating at seven."
It was presumptuous of Angeal to offer understanding when he did not even know what he was asking of Cloud. His situation was so outrageous, there was no chance that someone could believe what he could tell them. Even if they did believe him, how would telling someone make his burden any easier to bear? Cloud knew there was no way for someone to sympathize with his problems.
And yet some part of him yearned for what Angeal was offering, feeling no doubt exactly as Angeal assumed he would. Lost and lonely, he wished for the comfort of sharing the burden, of not being alone as he was consumed.
For sanities sake, would agreeing to answer Angeal's questions be worth it? If Angeal brushed them off as more lies, then Cloud would know for sure. He could push away lingering doubts that would haunt him otherwise. Or would it be too much, to share his situation and have it tossed aside as foolish lies?
It was late into the afternoon before Cloud made his decision.