Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VII. *cries*
Out Of Suffering, Emerge The Strongest Souls
Chapter Two: Of Dreams and Anguish
It had taken a while for Cloud to finally convince himself that he wasn't experiencing a particularly vivid dream. He had been wandering the slums in a haze of shock and disbelief for past hour or so. The blond was lucky that that his appearance (or more accurately, First Tsurugi) made thieves and thugs keep a wary distance – they might have tried to take advantage of his complete distraction otherwise. He wasn't his usual alert self at the moment, but it really wasn't that surprising. After all, it wasn't every day that you went back in time.
Time travel. Cloud exhaled loudly, shaking his head. It still seemed impossible despite the evidence in front of his eyes. His stomach suddenly lurched uneasily and the swordsman stopped for a moment to brace his gloved hand against a nearby wall, leaning forward carefully in case he really was sick this time. He took slow, deep breaths, trying to quell the feeling of nausea that had suddenly intensified again.
The queasiness slowly faded to a bearable level and Cloud straightened up again, grimacing in disgust as he rubbed the back of his hand over his brow to remove the sweat that had beaded there. He hated being sick. It was a horrible reminder of the Geostigma and how feeble it had made him feel; how it had seemed as if his body was breaking apart from the inside out. The swordsman absently touched his arm, where his Geostigma had been visible. Internal illnesses were so much worse than wounds from claws or teeth or blades or bullets.
Cloud began walking again, thinking as he gingerly picked his way over the rubble of what had once been a building. Terminal diseases aside, he hadn't felt this ill since before he had been pumped full of mako. The green liquid seemed to have cured him of the travel sickness had been his constant and unwelcome companion for the first sixteen years of his life; not to mention preventing him from catching any colds or any of the other common illnesses that afflicted the general population. He could only assume that his present state of nausea had been caused by travelling through time and was something so strong that not even mako could banish it.
Time travel. There it was again. All his thoughts led back to what had caused his current situation but Cloud could barely wrap his head around the idea. He was aware that he was mentally shying away from the enormity of the revelation – not to mention its devastating consequences – but the seeming impossibility of it had had him wondering if he had finally snapped and descended into insanity.
It had certainly felt like that when he had first laid eyes on Hojo. The blond swordsman had regained consciousness lying on the sterile white floor of a laboratory and the unwelcome familiarity of his surroundings had made him instantly lurch to his feet in a panic. This resultant dizziness had been almost been enough to send him back to floor. It was only sheer stubbornness that had kept him upright and Cloud had began searching for the way out.
Stumbling across Hojo had felt like one of his nightmares coming to life – the kind that still woke him in the middle of night, gasping and sweating, filled with terror and fury and helplessness. The only explanation he could think of at the time was that somehow the scientist had survived Meteorfall and had kidnapped him to use in more warped experiments. A reasonable guess – and one far more likely than what actually appeared to be the truth. When Cloud had looked out the window and saw Midgar – in its pre-Meteor state – an icy wave of shock had swept through him, followed by sudden fear for his sanity. But then his memories of what had happened just before he woke up in Hojo's lab chose that moment to finally surface from the depths of his mind. He didn't entirely trust them – he had a bad track record with memories – but it was enough to make him doubt, make him consider the possibility that somehow, unbelievably, he might actually be in the past.
After killing Hojo, the swordsman had made his escape down the emergency stairs. It was at that point, as his dizziness had faded, that his nausea had begun to manifest – although really he could only be thankful that its appearance had been delayed long enough for him to get away from the Shinra tower. Cloud had ridden the train down the slums (narrowly avoiding throwing up) and had been walking through the ramshackle buildings and mounds of rubbish and rubble for about an hour. Every sensation – every object touched, every undamaged part of the slums he laid eyes on – was another confirmation of his impossible reality.
Cloud came to a halt, his hand resting on the jutting edge of a slab of concrete embedded upright in the ground, as his mind came to a silent conclusion; as it finally accepted the truth.
I… really am in the past.
The blond swordsman remained completely still, the enormity of the realisation sinking in. The nearby area was silent too. There was only the sound of his breathing, harsh and ragged, loud to his sensitive ears.
Then, fast on the heels of acceptance, came the logical questions. How? How is this even possible? And more importantly, why? Why send someone back in time? And why me in particular?
…Well, he could guess the answer to that last one anyway – modesty aside, Cloud had to be one of the strongest beings on the Planet. Physically, anyway.
The ex-mercenary pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache gathering behind his eyes and if the sense of swelling was anything to go by, it was promising to be a bad one. However it was nothing compared to the emotions expanding within him, wrestling for space. It must have been the Planet that sent me back. It must. Nothing else has that kind of power.
Images flashed in front of his eyes, the last things he could remember before he woke up in Hojo's lab, that seemed to confirm this idea. (White light, tinted with the green of the Lifestream, exploding around him, swallowing him up. The startled cries of the others echoing around the ruined church as Cloud vanished from their view, then a tremendous wrenching sensation, as if he were a plant being torn out of the ground by its roots –)
Cloud shook his head vigorously, trying the banished the remembered feeling. The headache grew worse. He pressed the heels of his gloved hands into his eyes, exhaling slowly. Why did the Planet send me? It must need me to do something…but…I'm hardly fit for it. I'm still recovering. Without Tifa's help, I'd still be a complete wreck, and I'm far from healed as it is…
The terrible realisation hit him like a punch to the gut, stealing his breath. Tifa was in future. As were all his friends, his comrades. The people whom he saved the world with, who had helped Tifa pull him out of the deep well of depression and had alternatively been there for him and kicked his ass when he needed it. Those bonds that were as strong as steel, that had been forged in the heat of battle, that had connected them even when they were scattered across the Planet – had been finally, unthinkably, severed. Because he was far beyond their reach now, separated by time; an insurmountable obstacle.
Memories of them flashed through his mind; Yuffie, bright-eyed and cocky, waving a shining orb in a taunting fashion; Barret, throwing his gun arm out for emphasis, exclaiming loudly over something; Cid, leaning on his spear, smoking and grinning at the 'kids' of the group; Vincent, quiet as ever, red eyes inscrutable, fingers resting lightly on Cerberus; Cait Sith, chattering wildly and bouncing around their feet; Nanaki, lounging in the shade of a tree, observing his surroundings with curiosity; Tifa, Marlene and Denzel at her side, leaning on the bar, dark hair brushing the wood, dark eyes fixed on him, amused, caring, exasperated, loving –
Cloud wrenched his thoughts away from them, the agony increasing with every memory. The sense of loss was stunning. Pain was gathering within him, tightening his chest and squeezing his lungs, closing up his throat with unshed tears. The swordsman felt light-headed with grief. They still existed, here in this time period, but none of them knew him. They were strangers; not yet the people he had travelled the globe with, not yet grown into the people that would one day save the world. All those experiences they had been through together, all the blood they had shed in defence of the Planet, all the hard-won, unshakable friendships – lost in a heartbeat. He was completely, absolutely alone. It was a cruel parody of all those times the blond had sought solitude, avoiding companionship of any sort. But the possibility of contact had always been there. His friends had always been within reach…
Cloud's hands clenched unconsciously into fists, the pressure so strong that the black leather strained over his knuckles and creaked under the pressure. Pain flared in his left hand as a slim band of gold on his third finger bit deeply enough into skin to draw blood. Tifa…
The blond swordsman wasn't sure how long he wandered the slums aimlessly, lost in the anguish and grief, but his stupor was broken suddenly in an unexpected way. A pure note, like the chiming of a crystal bell, shivered through the air, seeming to bypass his ears and echo directly within his brain. Cloud's head snapped up, startled, and his hand shot to the hilt of First Tsurugi. It fell away again in surprise, as he realised where he was.
Aerith's church lay directly in front of him; the beautiful, dilapidated old building nestled amongst the rubbish and rubble of the Sector 5 slums. Somehow, his feet had carried him here without conscious direction and right now, the church seemed like a god-send. It represented peace and comfort and familiarity. The ex-mercenary hesitated only a moment, before easing open one of the massive doors and slipping inside.
The church was empty, save for the flowers. Shafts of moonlight fell through gaps high in the roof, bathing the delicate blossoms in silvery-white light. Cloud padded forwards, down the aisle between the pews. Ancient wooden floorboards creaked under his heavy boots, loud in the absolute silence of the church.
The blond paused before the bed of flowers, gazing down at them. In his own time, a pool of pure, clear water sprinkled with butter-yellow petals had replaced them. Here, they still bloomed in all their quiet, defiant glory. The moonlight had robbed them of their colours but their scent remained; a sweet fragrance that hung in the still air, reminiscent of summer. It breathed life into a small part of sunless, poisoned Midgar.
Cloud hesitated briefly, and then sank to the ground. He placed First Tsurugi on the floor beside him and sat cross-legged. He leaned back against a pew and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. The minute the swordsman had walked through the door, the atmosphere of the church had washed over him like a wave of warm, soothing water. The calm, peaceful aura was a balm to his wounds. The sense of overwhelming grief and aloneness had faded into the background; his lingering headache and nausea had dwindled to almost nothing.
Cloud wondered, not for the first time, if Aerith's presence – and the healing that she brought – had somehow soaked into the very stones of the building. He could feel himself drifting off to sleep, worn out by the emotional stress of the last few hours. This place felt safe and secure and his mind was demanding rest. The blond swordsman sighed and shifted against the hard wood of the pew. Within minutes, he was fast asleep.
For a moment, Cloud thought he'd woken up. Then he realised that the flowers at his feet formed an endless carpet that appeared to stretch on for miles and that they were the only things – apart from himself – in an empty, light-filled white void.
Well, not quite. There was a flash of pink out of the corner of his eye, and then the ex-mercenary sensed someone step up behind and slightly to the left of him. A bright voice spoke. "Hello again, Cloud."
"Aerith." The swordsman relaxed at the familiar voice, warmth and recognition filling him. Her presence still invoked a lingering sense of guilt and grief, underlying the happier emotions, but it had diminished greatly from the black, acidic self-hate that had once eaten away at his soul. Finding the strength to stand against Sephiroth had been the catalyst that had dragged him out of his paralysing depression, and the support of his friends had been the anchor that had prevented him from falling again. Cloud was far from healed, but he was on the road to recovery.
However, for once Aerith's untimely death was not foremost in his thoughts at one of their meetings. His mind was already racing ahead and relief was the dominant emotion as he thought he knew the reason for one of the brunette's rare visits. "I don't suppose you're here to fill me in on what's going on?"
"Yes, I am." She paused, then asked, almost nervously, "Walk with me?"
Cloud nodded and began moving forward through flowers. Aerith moved with him, although he only caught glimpses of her out of the corner of his eye. The silence stretched on and he wondered why she wasn't talking.
A few more minutes passed (or perhaps it was hours; time was hard to judge during Aerith's visits) before the brunette finally spoke. "Cloud…"
With that one word, he suddenly realised that she was nervous. Tension coiled in his stomach in response. What could she have to say that was so bad she feared his reaction?
A deep sigh came from the Cetra walking beside him. Then she finally spoke. "I'm sorry. I wish I could have prevented this, but even I can't sway the Planet once it has made up its mind."
Cloud exhaled heavily. "So I was right, then? Getting sent to the past was Gaia's doing?"
"I'm afraid so." Aerith sounded unhappy.
"What does it mean?" The blond stopped walking, trepidation filling him. "Aerith, why exactly was I sent back?"
The brunette swallowed audibly. "It started… about a year ago. When the Geostigma had reached its peak, just before the Remnants appeared and you and Sephiroth fought it out in the ruins of Midgar. The Planet was afraid that it was irrevocably damaged; afraid that even if the Geostigma was eventually banished, it would forever carry Jenova's taint within the Lifestream. Afraid that the Calamity would never stop returning, rising from the dead again and again, wearing down its defences until it would be simply too weak to fight Jenova off again."
Aerith paused and took a deep breath. "So it decided on another course of action. To send someone back into the past, in order to prevent Jenova from ever joining the Lifestream in the first place."
Cloud swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. He wasn't even sure what he was feeling right now. "And that someone was me?"
"I'm sorry." Aerith sounded miserable. "You are one of the strongest people on the people; physically Sephiroth's equal. And you've already saved the world once, albeit with help. The Planet thought you were an excellent choice for its protector."
The blond swordsman was unable to restrain a bitter laugh at this. "Yes, because I've proved myself so good at protecting people in the past."
"Stop it." The Cetra swatted him lightly on the shoulder. "I don't blame you, and Zack certainly doesn't. There's no reason for you to blame yourself. Don't start regressing now; what would Tifa say?"
Cloud was silent, feeling that crushing sense of loneliness and loss rising up again to smother him. Aerith seemed to pick up on it; he felt, rather than saw, her wince beside him. "I'm sorry…Cloud…"
"I suppose there was never any chance of me having any say in the matter?" the ex-mercenary interrupted her, a flicker of anger stirring in him for the first time. Aside from the fact that he would not have chosen into go the past, having the decision itself taken out of his hands was a loss of control that felt too much like manipulation. And if there was one thing he had grown to hate, it was manipulation.
"Cloud, you must understand, the Planet doesn't mean you ill," Aerith's tone was agitated. "It…it thinks in broad strokes. Of what is best for the whole, instead of the individual. It believes that sending you into the past is the best way to protect everyone and everything. What the Planet doesn't understand is that it isn't good for you to be separated from the people you care about. It simply isn't good at people. It doesn't really understand the complexities of human emotion, doesn't understand the trauma you've been through, doesn't understand that you need your friends." There was a touch on his shoulder, light and comforting. "That's where I stepped in. I couldn't change the Planet's mind, but I convinced it that you would need help, would need support."
Cloud froze, hardly daring to hope. It would too painful to have it crushed now. "Aerith…?"
Her hand slipped into his, and gave it a reassuring squeeze, bare fingers radiating warmth into the black leather. "I've sent you some anchors, Cloud."
He could hear the radiant smile in her voice and suddenly wanted desperately to turn and see it on her face, see the joy of it touch her green eyes and fill them with light. But he resisted, knowing that it was impossible. She would simply vanish before he could see her.
Instead, Cloud squeezed back gently, and simply said, "Thank you," letting the emotion fill his voice and do the talking for him. He had never been that good with words.
"You're welcome." Her voice was still smiling. And then her fingers slipped out of his, leaving them cold. "But I…I'm afraid I must leave now. I'm running out of time and it's a long journey back."
Cloud was jolted by her words. "You're going back? To the future?"
"Yes." Her voice was tinged with regret. "I can't stay; even if circumstances had allowed, I don't have a body, which I would need in order to make the transition. There are certain imbalances in the fabric of time caused by the arrival of time travellers that are allowing me this short visit; but I won't be able to remain any longer, because I'm afraid that I'm going to have ask you to correct those imbalances, in order to prevent a paradox occurring."
"Yes. Don't worry," she added, smiling, perhaps sensing his trepidation. "You'll know them when you stumble over them. And you will stumble over them. Things like that tend to get drawn together." There was quiet for a few moments, then she added, "Also, the nausea and headaches that you've been experiencing are actually a side effect of the imbalances. They won't completely disappear until the imbalances are sorted."
The swordsman nodded, mostly to himself. He had been right, in a roundabout way, that the time-travel had caused his unusual illness.
Silence fell momentarily. Then Cloud broke it. "So this is it?" he asked, taking a deep breath. "This is goodbye? Forever, this time?"
He felt fingertips lightly on his back again, Aerith trying to pour comfort through the simple touch. "Yes and no. It's the final goodbye for me. But not for you. You'll see me again; albeit not this me."
"…I don't understand."
Aerith's clear, bright laughter rang out. "Silly! Hasn't it occurred to you? I exist here too you know! I'm quite sure you'll sure cross paths with the younger version of myself, especially since you're currently camped out in her church!"
Cloud stood stock still, shock filling him. He couldn't believe that he hadn't realised. He had been too dazed by the fact that he had time-travelled, and by the misery-inducing knowledge that he was completely and utterly alone. But Aerith…was alive here. Gaia, so was Zack! The thought made a roaring tidal wave of emotions rise within him, a bizarre mix of hope and fear, joy and grief. Maybe, if I'm here to change the future, I could change their futures too, he thought, hope soaring within him. Avert the fate that awaits them.
"I'll leave you to chew on that then." The brunette's voice made him snap back to his surroundings. The ex-mercenary felt her fingers slip into his one last time and then her lips pressed a feather-light kiss against his temple. "Farewell, Cloud." He could hear the finality in her voice as she released his hand. This really was goodbye.
Then she walked forward, brushing past him, and the blond saw her clearly for the first time since he had held her body in the City of the Ancients. The pink dress, fitting her slender form like a glove (the pink dress, stained red with her lifeblood, spirit fled her body too quickly to be saved); the thick plait of auburn hair that swayed a little with her movement, pink ribbon keeping it place (the pink ribbons that they all wear now, in memory of her sacrifice, in memory of her).
Then Aerith half-turned and he saw her face clearly, framed by locks of hair. She smiled that breathtaking smile, her green eyes bright with life and laughter, and all thoughts of blood and death were banished.
"Goodbye, Aerith." Cloud managed choke out somehow, pierced through by both grief and joy.
"You'll see me soon," the brunette promised. "Even if it's not exactly me." She paused. "I have faith in you Cloud. You'll do an excellent job of protecting the Planet. I know you will." She winked suddenly and tapped the side of her head. "Ancient's intuition."
Cloud gave a choked laugh, overwhelmed by so much emotion that he wasn't even sure what it was anymore, but still managed to raise a sceptical brow in response to the banter.
Aerith waggled a finger in mock-admonishment. "Doubter! Don't worry; you'll prove yourself wrong." Then she stepped away and began turning around. "But don't forget to live for yourself either," she added, pausing and fixing her green eyes on him. Another fleeting smile touched her lips. "Have fun. Do things for yourself. Be happy. Live."
Cloud nodded, still unable to speak, but he knew she understood. She smiled, one last time, and he tried to fix the image of her like that in his mind, the way her face filled with light. "I know you'll be fine."
Then Aerith turned and walked away for the last time, disappearing into the white, light-filled void.
The plains surrounding Midgar were arid wastelands, devoid of almost all life. During the day the temperature soared, baking the landscape. At night, it plummeted to below freezing, changing from one extreme to the other. Rain never seemed to fall on the area and the earth was completely infertile. The plains were so drained of life that only a few monsters even bothered to roam the dry, dusty brown wasteland in search of food.
Tonight, however, they had unexpected company. Two forms huddled together for warmth, in the lee of an enormous black motorcycle which was propped up by the kickstand. It sheltered them a little from the cold wind that occasionally blew and that made them shiver uncontrollably.
One was a girl, no more than seven years old. Her dark brown hair was plaited back from her face, secured with a pink bow, and she wore a white dress, which had turned brown thanks to the dusty earth.
The other was a boy, about two years older. He had fine, feathery brown hair that fell across his face and into his blue eyes. He wore loose canvas trousers and a dark, grey hoodie, which was currently zipped up around both children in an attempt to keep them both warm.
The faint pale light of dawn was visible on the eastern horizon but it brought no comfort to the boy and girl huddled as closely as they could to each other, and to Fenrir, whose engine still retained some heat.
"D-don't worry, D-denzel," the girl said, teeth chattering. Her hand found his and they held each other tightly. "He'll come for us. She said he would. He'll come."
A/N: Done! As you can see, I have decided to continue this story after all. xD Though this chapter was a pain in the ass to write. I don't know how some people write angst all the time, it just makes me feel so miserable. Even recovering!Cloud is pretty mopey. xD
Also, before anyone asks, Cloud is 24, Marlene is 7 and Denzel is 9, which means this story takes place a year after Advent Children (but they were sent back before the events of DoC begin.) Just to clarify. :)
Anyhow, thank you for reading and if you have got this far, please leave a review. :D