((Last Edited: 05/08/12))
Author's Note: Well, I guess I'll start by saying thanks for giving this fic a try. To be honest, this is my first fan fiction and I am open to constructive criticism, advice and suggestions.
Also, I will do my best to keep all characters as in-character as possible. Some discrepancies in behavior (and appearance) will occur, but for the most part, there will be a reason and an explanation. If you feel that I am being horribly OOC, please, I encourage you to tell me. I love feedback because it makes me a better writer in the end (and it usually makes me want to write more).
Being as this is an alternate universe situation: I'm going to slaughter the timeline. Ages and times events happen will be shifted and whatnot.
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII in its entirety do not belong to me but to Square Equinox. To quote another writer: "These are not my toys; I'm just abusing them…"
Warning: The story is M for possible themes I may pursue in the near future that include: Adult themes, swearing, violence, abuse, torture, sexual themes, etc. If you have a problem with m/m relationships, please, stop reading now and do not accuse me of not warning you ahead of time. I will not repeat this general warning statement.
Also, potential SPOILERS! While I play with the events and warp them to my satisfaction, there are references to the games, especially Crisis Core. Alright? No getting mad at me for that.
Rating (chapter): PG-13
Word Count: 3,894
Summary: The first thing on Cloud Strife's mind when he woke was Not Again. Reliving the past once was hard enough, but doing everything again for a fourth time…Refusing to believe that he is trapped in a cycle of endless death and re-birth, Cloud decides to do whatever he can to stop the future he knows from happening. Along the way, he finds himself tangled up with the man he could not help but think was beautiful but learned to hate. Sephiroth was always part of the problem, but could Cloud turn the General into the solution? Time Travel fic/AU.
Fourth Time's the Charm
"I've always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific." –Lilly Tomlin
Chapter One: Awake
The first thing on Cloud Strife's mind when he woke was, 'Not Again!'
With blue eyes suddenly wide open, he stared up at the bunk above him. Darkness consumed everything in deceptively peaceful shadows, mocking him with elusive tranquility. Only vague shapes marked the contents of the room: Two bunk beds, four ShinRa issue trunks, a wastebasket and a door. Cloud blinked and let out a soft groan of misery. Damn. He was fifteen, again.
Any other person in his situation would believe this to be but a dream. In his case, however, this was a very, horribly real, nightmare. Ironically enough, this was not the first time he ended up back in Midgar, trapped in this pathetic teenage form and forced to relieve half of his miserable life. This was the third.
Each time this happened, where he was "re-born" or "reset" or whatever you want to call it, he retained fragmented memories of his past. Some were more vivid than others and lingered as painful and powerful reminders to what he failed to accomplish in his past "lives". Collectively, over the last three lifetimes, he had spent just under fifty years training, fighting, and trying to figure out what in Gaia's name he was supposed to do. Fifty years of fighting and torture—suffering agony incomparable and unconceivable by others.
He had no idea why the Lifestream kept rejecting him, kicking him back to this day after every time he died. At first, he thought JENOVA and her taint caused the Planet to treat him as a virus. Then, as time passed, he began to have his doubts. There was something else…another reason. After all, he survived so much in his first life…if only he could remember more. Perhaps then, he could understand…Cloud shuffled through disjointed memories, hoping—no, praying—that he could find an answer among them.
(The details blurred together and the harder he tried to think, the less clear things became. Perhaps it was a blessing. It meant the pain that tormented him—reminded him of past hurts—was weaker.)
Hero. Champion. Savior.
Right, Gaia. The Planet had a reason for this nonsense. Maybe Aerith had something to do with it too; she always did have a powerful connection to Her and the Lifestream.
Unfortunately, he would never know because, she, like everyone else, remembered nothing. NOTHING! It was maddening trying to keep his mouth shut about the future, what he knew of his friends, and then having to remake said friendships—all the while, trying to change the future—did not do much to help his sanity either. In his last life, Cloud could not keep what he knew to himself…and it did not end well. Obviously since…he was in the cadet barracks again. Briefly, he pondered why but everything he tried to remember from that life became skewed in his mind's eye. (Damn his faulty memories.)
After a while of failed recollections, Cloud sat up in the cheap excuse of a bed and glanced around the eerily familiar space. He could hear his roommates breathing, the one above him even let out a soft snore now and then. His body felt tired, weak, and fragile. No muscle shaped his frame. All the tone he had before was gone, leaving him as a pathetically girly excuse of a man. With thin shoulders and hips, gangly limbs and slender and almost feminine curves, Cloud at this age could pass as a girl—he had before—but he refused to think about that now.
For a moment, he merely sat there, sheets covering his legs, and tried to clear his head.
It was 4:30 a.m. His twenty-eight year old mind from his first life (thank Gaia he remembered that much) still influenced specific aspects of his behavior such as waking up before dawn. Cloud's teenage body however, protested vehemently, screaming for him to slump back against the mattress and go to sleep. If he was going to have to be fifteen again, might as well get a good night's rest…
'No,' thought Cloud and he swung his legs out. Standing up, every muscle complained rather loudly. Again, he hesitated, straining his mind to remember. This was the fourth time he had been here, awakening to aching muscles and muddled thoughts. Slowly, the information flickered before his eyes.
The day before had been rough, pushing the cadets to their limits. The laps, the exercises and the sword training…everything was almost beyond anyone's ability. Coaches and SOLDIERs sat back and watched the boys trudge onwards, laughing at their efforts, yelling when they fell behind and dragging those too sick to continue to the medical wing.
They claimed it was to give the cadets a taste of the physical aspect of the SOLDIER program; when truly, it was to break the cadets down and so that ShinRa could build them back up in the image they wanted.
By the end of the next year-and-a-half, the cadets who lasted until the end would be in the best shape of their young lives, ready to face the exams.
Cloud frowned at his thoughts. He failed the SOLDIER exams the first time because he was weak. But how exactly had he made it the second go around? He was certain he had made SOLDIER then. His head throbbed with complaint…He would figure that out later.
His thoughts had taken him across the room where he found a second door. Said door led to a bathroom…well er—toilet—he corrected upon opening it. Cloud shut himself inside and flipped on the light. The room was dirty and the mirror had a giant crack along one side but that hardly stopped it from being functional. In said mirror, staring back at him was his reflection. He eyed himself. 'Too pretty. Too young.'
There was nothing rough or masculine about the face staring back at him. His face was dominated by deceptively big eyes that shone brightly with both innocence and wisdom. Messy, uncontrollably spiked blonde hair fell in all directions, looking the same mussed with sleep as it did after a furious combing. Topping that all, he had pale, unblemished skin like a doll finished with a soft chin and pouty mouth. 'Damn.'
At least then, he did not look like a twelve-year-old. Rather—he blinked with surprise—he looked his actual age. Like a man, serious, weary and experienced in the misfortunes of life. His expression softened. There was no use in getting angry. No one would believe the truth that he was a warrior and a hero that the Planet kept reincarnating for some reason.
'Why? Why me? Why this moment? Why this place?'
His thoughts wandered to a movie Zack made him watch after they first met called Groundhog Day. The main character kept reliving the same day until he got it right… Thinking of Zack, Cloud cringed. The SOLDIER would not remember him. They had never met. The raven-haired man, with his big smiles and boisterous, puppy-like ways was not yet part of Cloud's life.
Searing pain instantly ricocheted in his skull like a gunshot, causing Cloud to clutch his head and slump onto the toilet.
Eyes fluttering, he tried to fight the sudden surge of memories that flooded him. Each memory was a quick flash, appearing and disappearing rapidly, and blurring together until they formed an incomprehensible mess. Cloud gritted his teeth against the pain. Waiting for what he knew was about to come.
Sephiroth lowered Masamune, a twisted sneer contorting his beautiful features. The man looked like a walking god even in his insanity. Silver hair like a curtain flowing down his back and shoulders, mako-green eyes glittering, paired together they made Cloud think of an angel. Even if that angel was one that brought death and destruction, clad entirely in black leather and standing with seven-foot katana poised to strike.
Blood stained the floor. Mako from broken tanks hissed as it ate away at the metal grating. The air was becoming hard to breathe.
"Zack," Cloud murmured, seeing the First laying in a semiconscious heap nearby.
"Finish…Sephiroth…" The raven-haired SOLDIER gasped. Cloud felt his heart twist inside his chest. He let out a cry, screaming the General's name in a voice filled with pain and anger. With the head of JENOVA tucked beneath his arm, the silver-haired man snarled as Cloud charged forwards with Zack's Buster sword. The silver-haired warrior was injured and limping, but far stronger than any other SOLDIER. An unenhanced cadet posed no threat in his eyes.
Zack's sword was an impossibly large blade for a First Class to wield, much less someone like Cloud. Consumed with anguish for innocent dead and wounded, he found a pool of strength. Leaping into the air, he tried to bring the blade down in a devastating thrust, but Sephiroth moved like lightning, catching his strike with Masamune. For a moment, time seemed to grow still.
Cloud stared down at his General, his enemy, the man who attacked his friends and his home.
A flick of the wrist effortlessly sent Cloud flying backwards.
Slamming into the ground caused his head to spin. Numb from the impact, he lay there, motionless. Cloud could not think straight. He could not move. Even as Sephiroth stood over him, malevolence gleaming in his eyes.'It did not have to be like this', he thought. If only he could change this… The powerful, admirable General Sephiroth did not have to listen to JENOVA… If only he had listened to Zack…
Time crawled by, slowly, like cold honey. Masamune surged forwards in a deadly thrust aimed at Cloud's chest. He could only watch helplessly as the blade inched forwards.' I wonder what dying is like?' At least if he died this way, he died in battle with the most powerful man on the planet rather than as a no name grunt in Wutai or some other place by a stranger's hands.
It was in these seconds that Cloud wondered what made the General so magnetic. He was beautiful, yes, but there was something else…His presence demanded notice, it radiated control and power. It was an aura of a leader…a hero. His hero. Even in this moment of madness, Sephiroth remained his hero. He was still that flawless warrior who won the war in Wutai. 'Not a hair out of place.'
At last, time caught up with itself. Steel slicing through flesh and sinew, imbedding deep into tissue before breaking into the air. Masamune slid through Cloud's chest as if he were made of butter, then Sephiroth lifted him from the ground. The sheer amount of pain he felt was indescribable. Before long, his vision tinged with red and blood began to bubble into his throat, choking him.
'This is the end…No.'
No. Cloud could not give up. He thought of Zack, the town…everyone. He closed his eyes and grabbed Masamune and pulled himself further onto the blade. Then, when his feet touched the ground, he opened them. Staring at him with a look of disbelief was Sephiroth, dangling from the hilt of his own weapon. "Impossible…"
Cloud tightened his grip and next thing he knew, the blade slid free of his chest and the General crashed into the reactor. A flash of smoke and fire and…
The memory fell to dust, scattering all sensation.
Suddenly, Cloud was straddling Fenrir; the monstrous bike sped down the highway with a deafening roar.
Everything around him was falling to pieces. His best efforts to save the world were in vain. People were dying. A plague, the all-consuming Geostigma, JENOVA's taint in the Lifestream was wreaking havoc. The illness that was quickening the death of the Planet.
Cloud did not know what to do. His friends, he abandoned them. He could not watch them die. After all these years, he was a failure. No matter what he did, it was not enough. Killing Sephiroth, not once, but thrice. Destroying the remnants. Blowing up the reactors. No. The world was ending. There was no escaping that.
But he was trying.
It was too much. He could not be the hero anymore. Feeling twisted and broken, Cloud raced away from his past. He tried to forget everyone he knew. Everyone he failed in his weakness. Left to their doomed fate.
Zack…his laughing aquamarine eyes staring blankly at the weeping sky.
Aerith…her pink dress stained red as she fell before the alter.
Tifa…prone upon the dirt like a broken doll as the town burned.
More faces flashed through his mind. Cid, Vincent, Barret, Red XIII, Yuffie…Marlene…Denzel…
Chilling laughter ran through the air as the world burned.
A flash of silver, black and green sprang before his eyes.
He shuddered; Fenrir swerved. Cloud snapped back into reality. Paranoia about the silver warrior frequently left him sleepless at night. At least when was awake, the terrors he could face and slice to bits. In his dreams, he could only watch helplessly as the past repeated itself, mocking him for his failure.
It was selfish of him to run away like this. Cloud knew. He did not deny the fact. After so long of being the hero, just finding escape was all he sought. Peace. Sleep. A life free of nightmares. At twenty-eight, his concerns should be about settling down, finding someone special, and enjoying a period of slowness. Instead, he was fighting to save a world that was rotting from the inside out. It was all he had ever done after that fateful day in the Nibelheim reactor.
There had never been a time to find love or even romance. Any liaisons he did have were detached from emotion and used as means of comfort in a world of so much pain.
For some reason, Sephiroth once again came to mind, causing Cloud to jump in his seat. Why was he even thinking about the man? The silver-haired warrior was an insane, sadistic bastard who did his best to gut him like a fish. He killed Aerith, hurt Tifa, burned down Niblehiem, and nearly succeeded in destroying the entire Planet.
'You admired him once.' Cloud bowed his shoulders with guilt.'No, you worshipped the ground he walked on. He was a god in your eyes. A god who walked among humans. Beautiful. Unattainable. Flawless. But you also saw him as a man. A man capable of doing so much good. You even fancied yourself to be in l—'No. Those were days long gone. Days of a foolish child. He was not a blushing boy of thirteen, so it was better he stopped thinking of Sephiroth altogether.
Fenrir jolted beneath him. Cloud's heat skipped a beat.
A haunting laugh and the flash of steel.
Something was not right. Tires screeched against the pavement. Fenrir groaned. Cloud clamped his eyes shut and…
Nothing…the memory bled away into green.
Cloud shuddered, sweat dripping down his brow. He clutched his skull as the events of his first life and death assaulted him. It was agonizing to remember but the pain of forgetting was even worse sometimes.
Breathing in slowly, he tried to swallow the grief that came with that life.
Cloud waited trying to regain his breath; it would not be long now. His second and third lives would collapse on him at any moment. If he stayed calm, then everything would be okay. His brain would tuck everything away and ease the hurt. Right? At least the tortures he faced at Hojo's hands did not have to be completely relived. Just the beginning and the end of his era as a hero. The hero he never wanted to be.
Zack was the hero. The SOLDIER was supposed to be the one who lived and became Gaia's champion. It should have been his destiny, not Cloud's…
Zack…Liquid fire leapt through his veins, causing Cloud to collapse and open his mouth in a silent scream.
"Welcome to SOLDIER Spiky!"
Cloud smiled up at the First Class SOLDIER standing next to him. Zack Fair had been there through it all. Laughing, smiling, being a friend and companion. Even if seeing him alive and well at first made him solemn, nothing could dampen Cloud's spirit now.
Looking around, he saw his fellow SOLDIERs smiling at him. Even those who treated him with disdain as a cadet now had eyes filled with respect. Country boy Cloud had made it. He was no longer weak. He was no longer shy. He was a SOLDIER Third Class. He could make a difference.
The future could be changed.
Feeling uplifted, Cloud allowed himself to fall into the moment.
"You deserve it." He was not quite sure who said it, or if it was just a thought of his own creation. All he knew was that it felt true and real. He deserved it. A moment of happiness where his dreams came true…
Zack wrapped an arm around Cloud's shoulders.
'I won't fail you this time…'
"C'mon Spike, let's celebrate!"
Happy memories hurt the worst. At least the ones filled with death and blood could be forgotten. Good memories lingered. The pain they carried lasted forever, like a scar on his soul.
A tear slipped down Cloud's cheek as he struggled to keep a grip on his sanity. He had to be strong. Letting himself be broken would only result in having to do this all over again. How Gaia kept doing this to him, he was unsure, but he knew that until everything was made right, the torture would not stop.
He would suffer every moment he ever lived through in an instant. Then, if he held together, he could forget. Gaia would let him leave the past behind…mostly. If he deviated from Her plan, She would assault him with reminders of his previous failures, flickers of those he failed to protect, or the tortures he endured. He served a cruel goddess and Cloud knew he was as much Her toy as Her champion.
Echoes of nearing footsteps made Cloud lurch. He lay on the ground, blood pooling all around him, the very air burned his senses. Smoke fell thick and heavy over the landscape, blurring the scene until it was impossible to tell if he was outside or somewhere else. Then again, it did not help that he could not breathe and the lack of oxygen was making everything appear tilted.
Groaning, Cloud tried to rise but found his limbs like rubber. Where was his weapon? Why was he here? He blinked. A dull throb in his skull reminded him of the blow Sephiroth dealt him earlier…SEPHIROTH!
Thinking of the silver-haired man made him panic. Not only had he failed to stop the ex-General from going insane and burning down Nibelheim, but he also failed to gather AVALANCHE into a team to fight against the man. Zack was alive…Cloud believed. But the raven-haired SOLDIER was nowhere in sight.
Cloud knew that it was Sephiroth standing over him without even glancing up at the man. That voice, dark and sensual, edged with command as well as insanity…It was unmistakable. As well as that aura of danger and power, like a wild cat, lithe and ready for the kill.
He may have become a SOLDIER but it was not enough to stop the chaos. In fact, reflecting on the past made him believe that this was worse of an outcome. He was only twenty. This world was a battleground. Slaughter commanded by Sephiroth nearly wiped out the human populous. Only a few dared to stand up against him. It was a suicidal mission to kill the man that people knew as the One-Winged Angel. Angels did not die—especially not those who were harbingers of death.
"To think, Mother thought you a danger!" Mockery laced Sephiroth's words like venom. "A human is no threat to a god."
A leather boot struck Cloud hard in the ribs, breaking at least one. Blood filled his mouth. Why did he not just kill him already? Why wait? 'Let me die.' The boot connected again, this time with Cloud's face, breaking his nose. It was over. He was too weak to win this battle. Gaia, all he wanted to was rest.
At last, apparently done with his playing, Sephiroth drew Masamune. The action was languorous, almost bored. Cloud allowed his eyes to drift to the face of his once-hero. Coldness. There was nothing to read but icy indifference. Even the mako gaze that normally glistened with insanity was frozen over.
Cloud coughed, sending blood across the dirt and onto the ex-General's, somehow pristine, boots.
"Insolent until the end, aren't you?" The silver-haired man growled before sinking the blade through Cloud's chest, just missing his heart. Why couldn't he just die? Suffering only built so much character before it began to destroy what humanity remained. Numb, Cloud stared at the face of his assailant. There was no strength left in him to defy the odds and become the hero.
His fingers twitched, recalling how he first bested the man in battle. No. He was no hero. He refused to live a life of pain and endless sorrows again. This was his end. His salvation. An ironic smile played on Cloud's lips as he whispered his last words, "Thank you…"
Cloud's eyes cracked open; he could feel the pressure of Masamune against his heart. The feel of the cold steel passing through his chest, puncturing his lungs, resting against the beating organ. He could taste the blood that filled his mouth… But that was another life. Another time. It was the past…
He lay on the floor, sweating and sore. Bruises were slowly blossoming where he struck something solid during his fall, after blacking out while experiencing his visions. Slowly, he managed to rise to a crouch and then up to his full, and unimpressive, height of five foot five. He knew he had to sit down. It was not over. There was one more life he had yet to relive…
But it did not hit him as hard as he expected. There was a flood of emotions and scenes, but none manifested into full-blown visions like the others. Perhaps Gaia understood what insanity was and how experiencing it again could warp Cloud into a mindless mess, useless for whatever plans She might have.
After what felt like hours, his heart, at last, began to slow, allowing Cloud to catch his breath and find his calm. He needed to go back to sleep. Rest would ease his mind and help him heal. There was so much to do and he had so little time to figure out exactly what he needed to accomplish. How was he supposed to stop Sephiroth from falling under JENOVA's influence? Even if the General did not become her pawn, she was still Calamity, her existence a taint in the Lifestream. Then there was the problem with the fact that no matter what anyone did, the Planet would still die, just…more slowly.
Was it possible that Cloud was just trapped in an endless cycle of death and rebirth? Were all of his actions in vain?
Confused and harboring one hell of a headache, he splashed his face with water and stumbled back into the room. Everyone still slept peacefully. Cloud made his way to his bed and collapsed, letting reality fade to black.
A/N: (For new readers and old, I have finally got a beta. So, slowly but surely, these chapter will get prettied up for ya'll. Thanks bunches for everyone who has been with me from the beginning and for those who have peeked a curious eye and kept on reading.
02/26/12: Another revising! Enjoy.
05/08/12: Grammar and spelling check. Minor revisions.)