Fourth Time's the Charm
Chapter Forty-six: Time
How long had it been since he woke up in the past? It seemed like such a long time ago. Then again, when was living their fourth life, the years stopped mattering. Everything stopped mattering, even living. Cloud traced the spot over his heart where Sephiroth's sword impaled him decades of living ago, that fateful strike the start of a twisted destiny he never wanted. He survived the impossible and became the hero and champion of a dying deity. When the dark angel tied his life to Cloud's through cold steel and bloodshed, he bound him to perpetual tragedy.
The hate propelled him through one armageddon into another, striving the tip the scales in the Planet's favor, to cleanse Her of the illness that tainted Her blood. Her fear crafted him into the perfect tool, the deathless WEAPON. JENOVA, however, changed him, made him weak as well as godly. He became a clone, a simple, clueless clone with memories borrowed from a dead friend. A fate that now had Sephiroth in it's thrall. Except Zack was not dead, and Sephiroth was not the one trapped in a coma.
He could feel the Planet try to soothe him, sing Her motherly song and assure him that She meant well. That She never meant to cause him suffering. That one day, he could rest and his soul fade into nothingness, as was his dream. But he pushed Her away. No longer did he trust Her. She broke him. In his blood was enough Mako to kill the average man...his genetics more warped than even the most monstrous of SOLDIER failures. Those he tried to protect with desperation were left in a state of ruin. He wondered:
Would Tifa ever leave that pitiful town in the mountains? Would Nanaki ever realize his father's bravery? Would Cid ever reach space? Would Barrett lose his wife? Would Yuffie leave Wutai?
Cloud sighed and reached for the mirror before him, perched on the wall above the bathroom sink. Blue eyes stained with mako, too old for this young face, stared back at him like always. Wild spikes were shorn into a more manageable mop, but a few locks still sprung out at gravity defying angles, making him look ruffled and unkept. Skin that was always too pale from a lifetime in the mountains possessed a trace warmth from time in the sunshine, a dash of freckles spattering across his nose.
A few old memories flickered before his eyes.
Those were happier days. More innocent days. He recalled every time he stared into the mirror, horrified by the bruises his fellow cadets left on his face...or when he first spied the shine glimmering around his pupils. He could still see that hopeful mountain kid, so soft-spoken and shy, who dreamed of nothing more than meeting his idol.
Of becoming something more than who he was at the time.
That old cracked mirror in the barracks hid nothing. It reflected the rawest of truth.
Cloud wondered what he would see now if he stared into its dirty surface. Now that he had destroyed JENOVA. Now that ShinRa was in disarray. Now that Reno was dead and Sephiroth lost his memory.
He shut his eyes and allowed his forehead to fall against the cool glass.
The man he hated for so long. The man he loved for even longer. The forbidden kisses. The single night spent in passion. The confusing, chaotic dreams of a dark angel and his pet.
He could not feel their connection anymore.
With JENOVA's death, it was severed.
No more Reunion.
No more inexplicable allure.
He could walk away now if he wished.
And yet, he could not.
After giving up so much, he did not want to lose this. If the Planet was going to take him on some hellish merry-go-round of life and death, then he was going to do what he wanted now that She no longer controlled him. He was finally going to be selfish. No more heroics. No more fighting the end. Maybe he would go back to being a mechanic or breed more chocobos. Maybe he would help Aerith set up a flower shop, or start a delivery service again. Maybe he could pretend that the world wasn't going to end. He postponed it at least. Maybe a decade or two. He had time. So little time.
And he spent so much of it trying to deny himself of his desires.
Slowly, he opened his eyes again, staring into the reflection clouded by his breath.
It was time.
Stepping out of the bathroom, he entered the creaky hallway. The house was alive with people. He passed Tseng's room, where he remained in his rocking chair like always, healing slowly, but healing all the same. He often spoke aloud of going to sleep and never waking, yet he never moved an inch towards the medications on the table beside him that could easily end his life if taken all at once. Nor did he point the gun he always had on his person at himself. Maybe it was a Turk thing. Or perhaps, it was guilt. The same guilt that kept Cloud walking despite his every wish to do otherwise. He had to keep living for the sake of the dead. Their lost lives not a sacrifice in vain.
Tseng would never be whole again. And he knew it. He would be better off dead, no longer in pain, away from the ghosts. Instead he remained, blind eye unfocused as his mind whirled in chaos. Cloud heard him sleep talk sometimes, about his Turks, about Veterns old and young ones lost before they could earn their stripes. Rude, Cissinei, Elena...they were but a few of the many gone, their lives snuffed by Genesis in one way or another.
Cloud pushed past the doorway.
Reno's spirit lingered too strongly in that room, with the backstabbing Turk whom he admired for so long. Those green eyes flashed bright, his hair even brighter. Scarred and broken, a rat plucked from the slums...but perhaps the most understanding out of everyone he met in this lifetime. They trained together, fought together, cross-dressed together...and Reno knew every bit of the truth. He knew things that even Sephiroth, with his mental connection and their shared dreams, never knew...never would know. Reno was a friend, a confidant.
A Turk to the end.
He died a hero's death in a battle that both separated and united. It was a suicide mission to begin with. None of them had high hopes of survival when they dove into Hollander's underground compound. Truly, what did any of them have from that fateless ruin? Sephiroth lost his memory. Vincent lost contact with his demons. Elena lost her life. Tseng lost everything but his life. And Cloud...he gained only the vague assurance that Zack was possibly alive and the alliance of a half-dead Turk.
Unless one counted the anticlimactic deaths of Hollander, Genesis, Hojo and JENOVA.
The blond shuddered. He broke his own promise of never becoming an experiment in Hojo's clutches ever again. He could still taste the mako in his mouth, searing his lungs and engorging his blood. No more.
Wiping the sudden beads of sweat dampening his brow, Cloud shoved aside those haunting days of not so long ago. He focused instead on the gentle murmur of Aerith's voice. She was speaking with Zack. As always. Nearly a week had passed since the SOLDIERs were found and taken into their tiny home. He had yet to stir from his sleep, his breathing shallow, but his heartbeat steady. According to Vincent, Aerith saved him with her rain. Though how long the cure would last was anyone's guess.
Blue eyes watched unblinking as the flower girl stroked raven locks, her skin too pale, her cheeks too rosy. There was an almost unwilling liveliness to her. Her healthy body at contrast with her mind. Cloud could see the shadows, not just those beneath her eyes, but inside her soul. Hojo broke her. Snapped her to bits and crushed her beyond repair. Hope held her together with wet glue, the pieces perpetually sliding out of place, constantly in need of little prods and tweaks to keep a semblance or order.
Every morning and evening she brushed his hair and sang to him, whispered promises of forever.
"You need to wake up," he heard her say. Cloud sighed and clutched the wall with calloused fingers. "Then we can get married and raise a family. Like we swore we would." He was surprised when Aerith grabbed Zack's limp arm and flatted his palm over her belly. There were tears streaking down her face. "I'm going to be a mother. He'll need his father. You've always wanted a son. Please, wake up and help me raise him. Don't make me do it alone."
"Oh Aerith," he whispered, his words little more than a soft breath.
"Please. Please. He needs you. We need you. I...need you."
Cloud kept walking, unable to interfere with this moment. However, and it might have been a slight play of the light, he wore he saw Zack's hand twitch at the mention of a family. Mako poisoning was a tricky thing, in particular when one did not know what extra bits were in that cocktail Hojo injected in him. The mad man mentioned a SOLDIER enduring his experimentations better than the mundanes. They would be lucky, that if Zack did survive, if he did not Degrade like Genesis or Angeal. No one would be able to endure watching him wither into madness as his body rotted apart.
Why did Fate keep the lovers apart? Why did one life always have to fade before the other? Both of their lives cut brutally short? He wanted to give them a chance. All he garnered was suffering for them both. Zack's death this time would not be heroic, a sacrifice made for the sake of a friend. And Aerith would not die praying for Holy, her blood spilt to save the Planet.
But there was a good chance they would die utterly suffering.
Such a bitter taste.
He had to hope, even in vain, that they would heal, that there would be a happy ending for them at last.
His feet led him to the kitchen.
There, Vincent sat at the table, fingers flying across the keys of the laptop.
He kept the household up to date on current events and prying eyes away from the odd collection stowed away within the shack.
Apparently President ShinRa was dead. Assassinated without protection from his Turks and SOLDIERs. Midgar was in chaos. The revolution earlier than expected. Maybe the first AVALANCHE stood a shot this time. Hopefully the Plate would not fall.
Young Rufus was calling a state of emergency.
Warrants of arrest for AWOL Cadets wanted by dead scientists would be low on his list of concerns.
They would be lucky is total war did not fall upon the Continent.
After all, ShinRa Electric Company was acting as a de facto government of the mainland. Despite his army and political mongering, President ShinRa was little more than the owner of a power company...but he held the world in a chokehold, leaving it unable to assume any sensible form of governing.
"Is something amiss?" Crimson eyes did not leave the screen.
"Do you know about Aerith?"
"I never realized she and Zack..."
"The child is biologically Sephiroth's. Hojo's doing."
No wonder she never said a word about the pregnancy. Cloud scratched his head, as was habit when he was uncertain with what to say.
Perhaps there was nothing left to say on the matter.
Not asking who he was referring to, Cloud gave Vincent a partial salute and wandered onto the porch. Cross-legged in the grass was the proud silver General, face towards the darkening horizon. Shorten locks reminded him of the Remnants who called him brother. Those lifetime ago clones that worshipped Sephiroth's very existence and saw Cloud as one of their own. Each of the boys were a little piece of their "big brother". Kadaj was his madness. Yazoo his vanity. And Loz his strength. They were all strangely childish, longing desperately for Mother's love and approval. Each was beautiful and broken in their own way. Each just a shadow of the original.
Just like Cloud.
Standing in the grass darkened by Sephiroth's erect form, the sun casting his shadow long and black, Cloud watched the man breathe. Flawless. Utter killing perfection. Each muscle carved as if from marble. Shortened locks like liquid silver, molten in the fading light.
"I wish I remembered."
That deep baritone sent shivers into his belly, every memory a tangible sensation. How he longed to relive the single night in his embrace, of loving him in the most physical of ways. Yet he flinched at the prospect despite his desire. But the Planet was wicked like that, and maybe it was a little of JENOVA's doing. All he knew was that for a few hours, he wanted only to be one to the very cellular level with this man. Despite the fear and the anger and the hate, every moment of betrayal. This man, this dark angel incarnate, was forever ingrained in his being.
He would never escape him.
Sephiroth would never be just a memory.
He would something so much more.
And yet, the last they spoke, they were strained, the lines of lust and common sense drawn in the sand. Cloud rejected Sephiroth. Told him that they could not be lovers. But...
...that was then.
That was before the battle.
That was when the world still made a little sense and he was walking into the jaws of death itself.
Sephiroth was both an ally and an enemy then.
A foe of a different color.
But as Cloud stood in the inglorious afterglow of yet another failure of a lifetime, he wished that he could have a little of that hope back.
To clutch those precious seeds of want.
"Time will help, Sephiroth."
Cloud shuffled to stand by him. A few stilted minutes later, he sat down, gazing at those waning beams.
"Sephiroth. That name. It ill suits."
"It is larger than life, just like you," Cloud said softly in return. "Be thankful it isn't something ridiculous like Cloud. I never did figure out what my mother was thinking when she called me that."
Feline eyes crept to Cloud's face, green against a grayish pallor. He was not sleeping well. Not since he awoke from his impromptu nap. Aerith's healing rain did something to him. Made him somber. Perhaps she opened a small channel into the depths of his psyche, made his mind at odds with itself.
Whatever happened, it caused Sephiroth to spend long hours staring at the sky.
"Cloud," the blond tilted his head. "I rather like clouds."
The blond flushed, not certain why that statement made him anxious, "Is that so?"
"I am uncertain," Sephiroth looked away. "What will happen if Fair does not wake?" Cloud turned his own gaze skywards. The silver warrior referred to Zack as such, likely still struggling to cope with the reality that "Zack Fair" was not his name. "Will we remain here? Will we seek him medical attention elsewhere?"
A beat of silence.
"I don't know."
Nothing was certain anymore. Not even death.
Blue met green. Why was Sephiroth so close? When did he crouch beside him?
"What were we to each other?"
"What do you mean?"
"Forget I mentioned it."
He turned away. Together they rose to their feet, gazes awkwardly adverted.
Why did their conversations always fall into stilted silence?
Could it be cruel to say they loved each other? To say that they were in some illicit affair with one another? Should he mention the primitive connection they shared? If it was not cruel, at the very least it was selfish. Horribly selfish. Sephiroth did not have his memories. He could not completely understand why Cloud would feel any different than companionship to him, especially if he thought he was Zack still.
Cloud grimaced and touched his shoulder, startled when Sephiroth jerked away and grabbed him forcefully by both arms, eyes burning with something akin to fury.
The grip loosened then fell away.
"I do not understand why I...please...I need to remember..."
Impulsively, Cloud reached up and touched his former lover's face, silencing his mutterings. Neither of them moved for a long time. They simply stared, lost and confused and so uncertain.
Slowly, so as to give him a chance to pull away, Cloud lifted his face towards Sephiroth's, allowed their noses to brush, their breathes mingling for a heartbeat. Time stilled. Neither moved. Then, lips touched. Softly. Sweetly. Sadly.
"I believe understand."
"Do you remember anything?"
Sephiroth shook his head, but clasped a hand around Cloud's fingers, loosely, hesitantly.
"We should back inside."
"Yeah. We should."
Together they turned their backs to the fading embers of dusk.
If nothing else, they had time.
A/N: Four years to the day I posted the first chapter of Fourth Time's the Charm. It all started in the lunchroom during my Senior year of High school. I was a fanfiction newbie with a love of FF7 fics, but never played a single FF7 game nor watched the movie. As the year progressed and I fell in love with this genera and this tale, I watched Advent Children, played the original game on my PC multiple times from start to finish, as well as watched cutscenes from Crisis Core. Research galore went into the later chapters. And, in a small way, writing this story changed my life and I am not ashamed to admit it.
Thank you all for being patient. With every plot twist and six month hiatus, and each cliff hanger that left you confused. I hope your questions have been answered.
Because I am a sucker for a happy ending.
And after so much angst, hopeful is what the characters deserved.
I know that this final chapter does not resolve everything in a neat little bow, but what happens next is for the reader to imagine. Does Zack wake? Does Sephiroth regain his memories? What happens to Aerith? As for Cloud, is this his final life?
I will revisit this concept, more than likely, in a future oneshot, but there will be no true sequel. After nearly 200K words and 46 chapters, this tale is done.
Please review! I read and adore each and every one of them!
And for those who have been there from the beginning, you are my inspiration. Your patience and encouragement have made this story possible and bigger than I ever imagined.