It begins with black, a smudge creeping through his line of vision in the same way a paper edge chars when set aflame. He blinks hard, rubs his eyes. When it doesn't stop he panics, but only for a moment.
Aeris speaks his name, but there's something wrong about her voice. Cloud can see the timbre of it, a shimmer of sound in the air like ripples cutting through water.
She stands in front of him with her hands clasped at her waist, waiting. He focuses on her eyes and her pupils dilate, spreading into the green until her irises are like pools of spilled ink.
"Cloud?" she says again, and her voice sounds like a recording played in slow motion, thick and drawn out.
"Are you alright, Cloud?"
In the space of an instant the whites of her eyes are eclipsed; she blinks and her eyes are nothing but black.
Cloud lets out a noise of shock as he falls backwards to the ground, landing hard. The wind is knocked out of him; he sees it go, a harsh swirl of ashes from his mouth, rising to the sky. He coughs and grabs at his throat; his mouth is dry.
There's an ache in his skin that's begun to crawl through him, fluttering like an itch he can't scratch. He attributes it to nerves misfiring somewhere in his body, misfiring, yes, that's it—-like sparks jumping from livewires in reactor circuitry or faulty lighting in the slums buzzing as neon sputters on and off.
The black comes again into his vision, only this time its hair, heavy and dark against his face. He pushes it out of his eyes and feels a tickle travel through his scalp; the hair is his.
When he casts his eyes along the length of his prone body he begins to shake, because his hands don't quite seem to belong to him, and the SOLIDER First Class uniform he's wearing seems a bit out of place.
"No," Cloud says. His voice isn't his, but he recognizes it. It echoes in his ears as his tongue thickens and his teeth chatter. "No," he says again, in Zack's voice, and grabs at Zack's hair with Zack's hands because he must be in Zack's body right now; it's the only explanation, but why-
There are flames. He's sitting in them, but he doesn't feel them; contrarily he is cold. He's holding a fistful of black hair but his arm is his again, and the hair is-
"Tifa?" Cloud says, because the hair's attached to Tifa's head. He thinks it's Tifa kneeling next to him; her face is like a white point of light blurred around the edges, faded like a photograph. And when it comes to photographs—-
"Am I in it?" Cloud hears himself say, desperate and strained. He sees his voice, choked and tightened like a twisted rag. "Am I in this one?"
"Cloud, relax," Tifa says, and Cloud thinks her a puppet or robot with a programmed voice trying to be human, an uncanny replica of something Cloud once knew.
He closes his eyes for a moment, and when he opens them the world seems to have snapped back into normalcy, the color of the sky through leaves and branches sharp and bright in saturated clarity. He breathes, deeply. His arm aches.
He turns his head and Vincent is there, kneeling over him. Cloud's aching arm is outstretched and burning, viscous black liquid oozing through his sleeve and coating part of the hand tangled in Vincent's hair. A droplet falls stretched and slow to the ground, and Cloud feels humiliation wash over him in a series of shivers hot and cold and hot again, though maybe those temperatures are result of the Stigma—
"It was your hair," Cloud says. "I'm sorry, it's—it's in your hair—" but he doesn't move. The silence of forest is like a vast and suffocating ocean; Cloud keeps his hand in Vincent's hair, holding the strands as if they were the only anchors left by which he can cling to reality.
"Are you alright?" Vincent asks, placing his hand on Cloud's chest as if feeling for a heartbeat. His expression is blank—-even ex-Turks keep themselves unreadable- but Cloud can sense the panic-edged concern in the tension around Vincent's eyes.
"I think so," Cloud says. "Is there something… in my eye?"
"No," Vincent says softly. "Stay still. Let it bleed."
Cloud runs his fingers slowly down through the strands of Vincent's hair until he reaches the ends, rests his arm at his side. His fingers twitch in a spasm that begins in his hand, seizes his muscles with a pain which travels through his forearm and terminates somewhere deep in his bicep. Cloud grits his teeth, sits up abruptly and grabs his oozing arm with his other hand.
"I'm sorry," he says again. "I need to—"
"Don't move," Vincent says, and now he grabs Cloud with his claw, loose around the ball of Cloud's good shoulder, but just firm enough so that Cloud can feel the pinpricks of metal pushing against his skin.
"You forget that little shocks me," Vincent says, and it's true, because Vincent is not one to be disturbed by grotesque transformations of the body, by any curse of flesh natural or otherwise.
"It's spreading." Cloud's sleeve is damp; he absently wipes his hand against the grass, the black offal of active Stigma leaving the blades coated and heavy, stuck together in a clump. He looks at Vincent.
"I was seeing things, wasn't I?"
"Yes," Vincent says. "Has this happened before?"
Cloud shakes his head no. "Must be getting worse." He looks up at the sky, the white pinpricks of visible stars in the darkening blue.
Vincent leans closer. The leather of his glove is cool where he gently places his hand against Cloud's cheek, and Cloud turns to look at him with eyes defeated, dull.
"I thought—" Cloud begins, and doesn't quite know how to finish. Cloud knows better than most people that reality is an abstract concept, that the brain is fascinatingly powerful in its ability to distort it.
"You will survive this," Vincent says. He lets his hand slide down Cloud's face, trails his fingertips against the side of Cloud's neck.
"How does this feel?" Vincent asks, sliding his hand back up to touch Cloud's face again.
"Real," Cloud says quietly. "You're not afraid of me, are you. Of… this."
"No, I am not," Vincent says. A smile barely touches his mouth as he runs his thumb gently over Cloud's lips. Cloud sighs and closes his eyes, lets his mouth fall slightly open.
"Besides," Vincent continues, "I think I might know something of living through nightmares."