Chapter Forty-Eight

New Year's Day

January 1st, [ ν ] - εγλ 0001

The soft dirt of the slums crunched under Sephiroth's boots as he walked under the twinkling lights. It could have just been his imagination, but the slums looked darker tonight, the plate hovering a little lower. It was said that it was impossible to tell the difference between night and day below the plate, but as the clock approached midnight it seemed the whole city had been swallowed into an inky black sky.

He didn't know what drew him to the church this night, but the flower girl had been in the back of his mind ever since Genesis had sat down at their table. No, more than that. She had been creeping further into his mind, like a dark thought that only grew the more he tried to suppress it. As he walked closer, he church shone to him in the darkness ahead, light from the streets twinkling off the tattered stained glass windows that ran along its facade. His lip twitched in the hint of a smile as he approached.

Then the ground moved.

It was gentle at first, the slight vibration on felt by the shifting of the dirt beneath his boots and the slight sway of steel poles in the distance. But it grew steadily, each second another shake or rumble until the whole world was creaking in time to the sway of the earth.

Sephiroth broke into a sprint. The church was old, made of stone and nowhere near suited to standing up to an earthquake.

None of Midgar was, it wasn't near a fault line.

He was getting closer to the door — it was ajar. Was she inside?

He dodged a falling chunk of stone and darted inside the door, only to be stopped dead in his stride as mortar and glass rained around him.

Aerith was on her knees. But only briefly.

The world seemed to fade away as he watched. She slid down a sword — his sword! — and fell motionless in the patch of flowers she had always cared for. He took his first hesitant step towards her.

"Ask him if he remembers now."

Sephiroth's eyes snapped up to the figure he had been desperately trying not to see. It was wearing his clothes, holding his sword, staring back with his eyes and grinning with his face.

The only difference was the wing, black feathers stretched majestically out to one side. Just like Genesis.

"Who are you?" Sephiroth snarled, Masamune already in his hand.

"I am who you should be," his doppelgänger replied. "Ask him if he remembers."

With a yell, Sephiroth charged, and in a swirl of feathers and black smoke, the figure disappeared.

As soon as the figure disappeared, the world returned. The church, covered in dust and rubble. Aerith, lying still on the flowerbed. With a steadiness that defied the pounding of his heart, he knelt down next to her and put two fingers on her neck.

It took longer than he would dare admit before he could feel her heartbeat over his own.

"Cloud! Cloud!"

Cloud opened his eyes, his brain struggling to catch up. It seemed that no matter how much experience he got with waking up after losing consciousness, he was never any faster at it. Tifa was hovering over him, one hand pressed against his forehead. Denzel stood nervously just a few steps behind.

Back in Seventh Heaven, then. "What happened?" he asked, pulling himself into a sitting position. At least his body was still obeying him.

"You collapsed right after an earthquake," Zack said. Zack. Right, so he was in the other Seventh Heaven. "Just like at your apartment."

"Did you see anything?" Tifa asked.

Cloud shook his head. No, no being pulled into the Lifestream this time. "The last time it was," he took a brief glance around the room and took in the many SOLDIERs looking on, "her. The Weapons were supposed to be waking."

"Weapons? Oh, shit," Denzel said, frantically grabbing for his pockets.

"Denz?" Tifa asked.

"We just got a recall notice," he said, pulling out his phone. "We were about to head up… thought it was because of the earthquakes."

"Weapons?" Angeal asked.

Cloud shook his head. "A big problem. We need to get back to Shinra."

"Shinra?" Tifa asked. The disappointment in her voice did not escape his notice.

"We've got to use everything we can," Cloud said with a shrug. With a grunt and a careful hand from Tifa, he struggled to his feet. "Where Vincent?"

Tifa made a few of her own glances around the room before sighing and saying, "Shinra."

Right. Cloud shook his head, trying to clear the lingering buzz from the alcohol and whatever had knocked him out during the earthquake. The rest of the SOLDIERs were filing out of the room, following Zack's lead as he herded them out the door. Angeal and Genesis stood at the edge of the bar, shooting uncertain looks his way while Tifa and Denzel stood at his side, looking at him expectantly.

"Well… let's mosey," Cloud said, flashing Tifa a short grin and motioning for the two Firsts to follow. They nearly made it to the door before his phone rang.

"Sephiroth?" he asked once he had flipped the phone open.

Please… meet me … hospital … friend … attacked.

"Someone has been hurt?" Cloud asked, stopping mid-stride to the confused and curious looks of everyone around. He pressed the receiver closer to his ear in the hope that could somehow cut through the snowy static on the call.

on the train … please … anything … come quickly.

"Alright, I'll meet you at the hospital. We were on our way up anyway," Cloud said, flipping the phone closed and shoving it back in his pocket.

"What did Sephiroth want?" Genesis asked, walking beside him as they left the bar out into the dim, stale air of the slums.

"Something about his friend being attacked," Cloud said, shaking his head. "He sounded really off."

"His friend… the one he went to meet?" Genesis asked. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then added, "That flower girl, perhaps?"

Cloud and Tifa took one look at each other and broke into a frantic sprint, Denzel trailing closely behind them.

They just missed the train, the whistle blowing and the doors closing as soon as they climbed the steps up to the station.

So they spent the trip up to Midgar holding on to the sides of the carriage, the train manager screaming at them from the window whenever they passed through a clear section of track.

Some Shinra police were waiting for them as they reached the station nearest the hospital, but there wasn't even time to hear the yelling before they were barreling past, Tifa kicking one to the ground as he tried to grab her wrist.

Security at the hospital was a lot easier, most of them either recognising Cloud or smart enough to defer to those who did. After one guard correctly assumed he was chasing after Sephiroth and pointed them in the right direction, they were open the doors to one of the private rooms near the emergency department.

"Aerith," Cloud said under his harried breath, rushing to her side as soon as he saw her lying motionless on the stark white hospital bed.

"You know her?" Sephiroth asked, standing from the side of the bed where he had been seated, clutching at her hand.

"What happened?" Cloud asked, ignoring the question in favour of checking her vitals as quickly as he could manage. Pulse: steady. Low for sleeping, but not concerning. Temperature: fine.

"She was stabbed through the stomach roughly half an hour ago."

"There's no blood," Cloud said, pushing aside the hospital gown to see. "No wound…" His fingers traced over a thin scar… the right size… exactly the same place. "What's going on?"

"I saw it happen," Sephiroth said.

"Who stabbed her?" Cloud asked, yanking his fingers away and rounding on Sephiroth.

Sephiroth shook his head and stepped back, but refused to answer.

"Who did this?" Cloud yelled, grabbing Sephiroth's coat and shoving the larger man up against the wall. He pressed in, growling when Sephiroth turned his head aside, the spikes of his hair barely touching Sephiroth's chin. "Why are you hiding?"

"He looked… like a clone of myself."

"What?" Cloud asked, the words hitting him like a bucket of icy water. He stepped back, his fingers dropping from their grip around that leather coat.

Sephiroth shook himself off and straightened his back, but still refused to look Cloud in the eye. "Except for the wing, he would have been a perfect copy. He was wearing my uniform. He even carried Masamune, or a copy of it."

"Cloud…" Tifa said from behind him, "did… he… come back too?"

Sephiroth stilled, pinning Cloud beneath that piercing glare. "He said 'ask him if he remembers.'"

"It's him," Cloud whispered, falling back against the empty bed and burying his head in his hands. Why now? Why did he have to keep reappearing just as things were finally looking up? Why couldn't he be free?

"Now it is you who are hiding, Cloud Strife. Who is he?"

"You. He's what you turned into after I killed you."