Disclaimer: I do not own FFVII
Summary: He felt alone and he went to her church to be alone. Neither would stay that way. First part of the Redeeming Features series.
Inside an old church in the heart of the slums, Cloud Strife sat at the edge of the clear pool that lay in the centre of the space, rippling outward until it reached the meads of vibrantly hued blooms of every colour and kind imaginable, thriving despite the unorthodox environment. Pallid rays of evening sunshine spilled through the stained glass window that lent them a extra little something, a shade of ethereality, whereupon the one who took refuge in this place could feel that this was the last bastion of life on the planet, and they the only one left to enjoy it.
Aeris never did do anything by halves.
But today, meditation and calm were possessed of an elusive quality, and Cloud was unable to capture the bubble of blissful oblivion that allowed him to escape the strains, anxieties and burdens that life placed on him. Living wasn't supposed to be difficult, though the blonde found himself in this haven more often than not, letting the soothing waters lap until they had washed away his sorrows, and he could again think of happier times.
Many would call the present that yearned for happier time, but Cloud somehow felt they had moved on without him, that what he needed to be content and happy was forever out of reach, and those times of conflict and battle had been a means to an end for some time, giving him what he needed, giving him the chance to see them again. The cost of peace seemed too high to pay, if what he had to give up for it became the cause of so much personal grief.
He couldn't see them again.
He had accepted it, though nothing could have made the bitter pill any easier to swallow. Aeris' nightly forays into his slumbering psyche had been dwindling for some time, and Zack was rarely present in those diminishing mirages. That was what they had become, mirages, seen clearly from a distance and when he reached out to them, it transpired that they were never really there at all. Sometimes he imagined he could hear them, and asked them for advice on the most trivial of matters, sandwich filler, what to get the kids for birthdays, do socks and sandals really constitute an irredeemable breach in the cosmic fabric of time and space? Occasionally, he even got an answer, or so he thought, but when it was usually the impulse he had been leaning toward all along, it brought him little comfort.
Hearing voices in your head to compensate for the voices that were in your head before. He shuddered to think of the potential for merciless teasing this nugget of blackmail gold would have in the hands of say, Yuffie, and kept his thoughts, all his own these days, to himself.
The most peculiar thing about it all was that this gradual distancing meant that he would no longer see Sephiroth, as his friends absence was a clear sign that they were unneeded and could now rest in peace. He would not keep them from that richly deserved reprieve, though Cloud couldn't help but view the Calamity's vessel with a fragment less enmity that he would have if the one in question had been standing before him, with the pitiless smirk that was burned into his memory. Still, if not for the sake of the world he had self appointed himself to protect, he would have welcomed him, if only for the opportunity to say a final goodbye to those he had loved best.
Cloud missed them, and even the reassuring presence of Tifa and the kids couldn't fully sate the aching of his tired heart. He didn't help matters by keeping an emotional distance from them, as well as a physical one. He had failed once before, and in spite of what they might think, wasn't convinced that they had chosen the right guy for the job.
He was no champion, he'd just gotten lucky before, and he didn't know where to go from here. Cloud would later remember this thought with wry amusement at the whims of fate after what happened next.
After a time, he became aware that the stillness of the sanctuary had been disturbed, and the air had taken on a heavy quality. The surroundings dimmed, until the banks of vibrant flowers were little more than steaks in the periphery of his vision. His attention was focused wholly on the pool.
A lone air pocket rose through the water and popped, wrinkling the surface of the mere and casting forth a faint unbroken circle that was easily discernable to his enhanced vision. It was followed by a second, larger bubble and then a third, sparkling against the underside of the waters skin until it rent it in twain. The atmosphere was anticipatory and he leapt to his feet, both excited and apprehensive.
Then he saw the first hand.
It wasn't dainty and unblemished, but lightly tanned and calloused. A man's hand, one that had seen many a day of hard work. Specifically, sword work. Cloud knew even as he ignored the instincts that were screaming at him to retreat, to observe this possibly dangerous phenomenon from a safer distance and reached out to clasp the bodiless limb struggling to breach the world above.
Fingers scrabbled and then grasped firmly, using the leverage presented to pull themselves further up. Cloud pulled with them until an arm and shoulders came into view, and a face he remembered well. Firmly pushing awe, hope and the fledgling panic that he would be unable to do anything for his miraculously revived friend to the back of his mind, he dragged Zack out and onto the bank.
Eyes fluttered and shut, opening again to squint blearily as though trying to discern the light at the end of a tunnel. The smile that blossomed when the glint of recognition entered cobalt irises made his heart leap in his chest.
"Hey there, am I the first one out?" he chuckled. Cloud gave a weak laugh too, and then the meaning of Zack's words registered with him. Aeris.
Quickly, he let his eyes rove across the unsettled waters, and finally espied a glimmer of pink in its depths that didn't come from the reflection of the blooms flexing by the brink. Cloud dove in with scarcely the presence of mind to draw a preserving breath, found the form drifting languidly to the bottom of the pool and with a powerful kick broke the surface with his precious cargo.
Aeris was awake and coughing up water before they made it out, she was wet, bedraggled and altogether had the appearance of one who has exhausted themselves in some endeavour they have not yet had a moment to recoup from.
"I scared you," she stated, not unkindly, once she had recovered enough to speak. Zack crawled up on his other side, and Cloud looked from one to the other in disbelieving joy, their images distorting before his eyes as the tears he had never allowed himself to shed for their deaths came to him. He would let them fall, for this time they wouldn't disappear if he blinked.
"I-are you?" here words failed him and the tears fell as he found himself wrapped in Zack's arms while Aeris kept her comforting, warm, real grip on his hand.
Zack squeezed him so tightly that Cloud entertained the giddy fear he would actually break a bone in his affection. He wouldn't care, the pain would serve as proof that this wasn't all one beautiful dream that Tifa would come to shake him awake from at any moment.
He exhaled noisily. "You're here to stay?" They nodded, kindness and sincerity evident in their shared gaze.
"With Jenova gone…" Cloud wondered why she didn't say Sephiroth, but reasoned that his name might be a sore topic for her, given the circumstances of her demise, and kept his peace "…those who were affected by her most directly are being given another chance."
He gazed wetly at Aeris. "Really?" She grinned a little.
"It's been in the planning stages for a long time Spiky, and the last time you put Jenova down, we neutralized her before she could take Seph over again and be out of the Ancient's reach," Zack continued. Cloud was now uncertain, the phrasing of this explanation tugging at some latent instinct that refused to be deciphered yet. His anxiety only heightened as his friends exchanged significant looks.
Zack ran a hand through his damp locks, which were already beginning to regain their natural spikiness. "You do know that all that time you were fighting Sephiroth, you weren't really fighting him, but Jenova, right? The Sephiroth we knew was lost before Nibelheim was burned, and he's been a prisoner while she took his body on a mass murdering rampage."
His breathing quickened a little, and Cloud began to feel a tinge of hysteria laced with panic. "What are you talking about?" he breathed. Sephiroth was Jenova. Before he could question their sanity further, the pool was once again thrown into flux and Zack jumped up, apparently fully recovered.
"The rest are coming," he gasped, and Cloud cried out as he dove into the water again, only to gape as he re-emerged almost immediately with an unconscious blonde man he didn't recognize. Aeris sprang into action and after a moment he joined her in helping Zack to bring the man onto dry land.
While he was staring in incomprehension, Zack looked sharply at Aeris. "I know we expected this, but he needs a hospital fast." Cloud snapped to attention at this, and mutely began to punch numbers into his PHS, grateful for once that he hadn't left it at home.
"Cloud? If you've got the number of a Turk on there, it might be better to call them to pick up Lazard," the other said earnestly.
Cloud was bewildered and uneasy. "Why?" Zack grinned wryly.
"Because he's the former director of SOLDIER, and Rufus Shinra's half-brother."
Cloud choked and glanced at the man. Though he had no reason to doubt Zack, who surely knew more than he did after being in cahoots with the Cetra all this time, it was still necessary to try and reaffirm it for himself. Even in unconsciousness, more than the matching hair colour grabbed his attention. Lazard somehow retained a measure of dignity that was as familiar as day to him.
He mentally shook himself. "I'll call Reno, never thought having his number would be useful." Zack grinned faintly, seemingly remembering Reno with a good deal more fondness than he would have expected, and Cloud was abruptly reminded that he had only the sketchy recollections garnered from Zack's memories on which to base his remembrance of Shinra as it was at the time he was a cadet. There had been much he didn't see, and he hardly remembered what he had done in his own time there. Mutely, he placed the call, relayed his message and hung up before Reno could process it enough to begin yelling. He would get it done.
He just remembered Sephiroth. Zack's words came to him, unbidden, and it gave him an unpleasant jolt to realize that his friend had essentially protested the innocence of his greatest foe. What if he was right. His thoughts were yet again derailed from their increasingly crooked path when the water began to roil and churn again. This time Cloud noticed a faint luminescence from within the pool that had eluded him before. A signal then. Detachedly, he wondered how many more people were going to appear.
Zack didn't jump in this time, and the next person to emerge did so under their own power.
"Angeal," he crowed, embracing the man, who gave a fond, indulgent smile and returned the gesture. Cloud was suddenly and strongly aware that he was not the only person that Zack had been close to, and his own lack of knowledge began to feel like the crippling disadvantage it always should have been, if not for pure luck and a group of very talented friends. He didn't know anything anymore.
Number five near exploded from the water, making Cloud start for his blade before he restrained himself, and immediately began to wring moisture from his dripping rust coloured hair with a scowl.
"Did this grand entrance of yours have to involve quite so much water?" he asked distastefully, making this last word sound like an invective and looking for all the world like Nanaki after Yuffie had taken it into her head that he would like a spontaneous, materia aided bath. Red, enraged and turning still redder as they went on.
Angeal shot him a quelling look and the redhead quieted, though stubbornly continued to glower irritably at nowhere in particular. A palpable tension could be felt, though Cloud couldn't imagine why. These three had evidently been expected by Aeris and Zack, so what was wrong?
Zack looked, for the first time, nervous. "Cloud, I really need you to remember what I said before and, keep an open mind, yeah?" Cloud could only nod mutely as Angeal crouched by the water's edge to welcome a figure that was familiar and terrifying.
"Sephiroth," he stated, his tone as devoid of emotion as he himself felt. Instead of the expected shock, terror and fury that should have accompanied it, there was a sort of cool numbness spreading through his body, immobilising him. He could do nothing as his nemesis was half dragged from the pool.
It was a peculiar thing to note, as their eyes met, that Sephiroth had never looked more human, even before everything had all gone to hell. The man he had idolised had been picture perfect in his posters, and only marginally less so in person. Immaculate and polished, the memory was jarring when confronted with the reality. The clothes were the same, but rumpled and trailing water and the hair that had been so iconic was now dark grey with moisture, falling in tangled disarray about his face.
If anything was going to stop Cloud from overcoming the weakness in his limbs and turning this encounter into a repeat of all the others, when only one of them had walked away, it was the expression on the angels face. The condescending half smile was nowhere to be seen, that foul light illuminating those inhuman eyes from within absent. Unguarded, exposed, human.
"Cloud," his adversary murmured, hardly louder than a whisper and without the confident menace he had remembered and accepted as real. Quiet, almost apologetic, as the condemned waiting for the axe to fall. In a detached manner, as if he were viewing the scenario from outside of himself, he noted Zack's unyielding grip on his shoulder, the inexplicably open warmth as Aeris gave a reassuring smile to her once murderer and the way Angeal and his unnamed compatriot came to flank him almost, subtly but protectively.
Like they thought he needed protecting, from him.
"You can ask," Sephiroth said, and his tone, and demeanour were self-deprecating. Cloud swallowed with difficulty. It occurred to him that he had never spoken to Sephiroth as such, if one didn't count their ritual repartee before the inevitable battle commenced.
He took a breath, feeling suddenly as if the air had become devoid of oxygen. "Why are you here?" Zack's grip tightened.
Sephiroth blinked. "I am being…given another chance to right the wrongs I committed in Jenova's name," he said calmly, but Cloud didn't miss how his eyes flickered to Aeris as though asking her to confirm the truthfulness of his assertion, and his forgoing the use of 'mother' in his speech instead of Jenova, for the first time in memory.
"That's right, Cloud," Aeris said urgently "Jenova has been destroyed, your last battle with Sephiroth enraged her, she became too careless, and the Ancients were ready and waiting for her in the lifestream."
He tore his gaze away from Sephiroth to reaffirm her entreaty. "Jenova is really gone?" Aeris nodded.
"She's gone, Cloud. You're free of her, and so is Sephiroth," she said meaningfully. Cloud jolted.
"He killed you," the blonde said urgently, trying to understand.
She shook her head sadly. "I'm not human Cloud, not fully. The planet speaks to me and grants me insight. I was aware then that Sephiroth was not the true enemy, and I thought of breaking the calamity's hold over him. I underestimated its strength, and I couldn't save either of us," she said sadly.
"He never had a choice, Spiky. What you saw wasn't Sephiroth," Zack said earnestly. They believed so strongly in what they were saying, he could see it in their eyes, but believing it went again everything he had thought to be undeniable and absolute.
The flower girl looked at him imploringly. "Do you trust me?"
His expression lightened for the first time since the exchange had begun. "You know I do."
"Will you still trust me when I say that none of us have anything to fear now? The danger is gone, and it's time for us to live," Aeris said gravely. Zack crouched down.
"I know how you feel Spiky, and so does Seph over there. He might have controlled you before, but only because he was being controlled in turn. It's not fair to him or you if you let that alien bitch off the hook and take that blame on yourselves," the raven said firmly, looking at Cloud with one eye and Sephiroth with the other, as if he was repeating himself, and thought it was well past time the recipients understood what he was trying to say.
He looked at Sephiroth, who made no threatening move. The angel met his eyes evenly, and behind the wariness, he could see acceptance of whatever fate was decided for him. It was different in a battle, when blades clashed and there could be only one victor. Not so here, and the blonde had the uneasy sense that the other man expected him to reject him, despite the assurances of his friends, and was at peace with it in a way that he could not have seen had he still held aspirations of domination and godhood. He had made mistakes, and he knew it and was repentant for them. Was that not all he could do, all anyone could do? Why should his forgiveness come at a higher price when his faults were the same as every imperfect person on the planet?
Only human, in all the ways that counted. As much as anyone else, and perhaps more.
"Do you want to be here?" he asked. A ripple of surprise passed through the assembled watchers but Cloud only cared about one person's opinion now.
With shadowed eyes, Sephiroth replied "Yes."
They waited, and then the blonde seemed to decide something.
"I promised Aeris I would trust her, and I have no right to judge you now," he stated. It was less than welcoming, but it was enough, and Cloud saw the gratitude that flashed across Sephiroth's face before he was tugged into a hug by Zack and bestowed a proud look by Aeris.
"Thank you," he said simply.
"Thank me after everyone else finds out," he quipped, and Zack choked on laughter, apparently not at all worried about the potentially disastrous outcome when the rest of Avalanche found out that their sworn nemesis was alive, endorsed by their friend, who was also alive again and strictly off the kill list.
Cloud almost smiled, at least life wouldn't be boring anymore.