'Every time you see them happy, you remember how sad they're going to be, and it breaks your heart. Because what's the point of them being happy now, if they're going to be sad later? The answer is, of course, because they're going to be sad later.'
'Are you sure about going up there alone?' Tifa asked. 'What if you get attacked or you hurt yourself—'
'I have my PHS,' Cloud said firmly. 'I'll call you if I find trouble.'
'Call me when you get to the tower,' Tifa said. 'And call me on your way back!'
'Yes, Mother,' Cloud smirked. Tifa gave him a playful slap with the back of her hand, and finally let him go out of the door.
He took a long breath through his nose before he started to walk, smelling the sweetness of Aerith's flowers. They sat, bright and cheerful, in little boxes by the windows and hanging baskets either side of the door. Originally, he and Tifa had only meant to bring a few of them home, but they had exploded all around the bar, scattering themselves around the foundations and creating their own little garden in front of the building. Tifa and Cloud gave away cuttings to anyone who wanted them. Within a few months, flower pots and boxes had become a common sight in Edge.
Cloud had been back to Aerith's church a few times since he'd come back to his own time, but he'd never seen her again.
'You brought flowers to the people of Midgar, just like you wanted,' he said once, to the empty room. 'I mean, the old city got blown up first but I think it still counts.'
His attempts to coax Aerith back had been fruitless. She probably knew about the flowers anyway, he thought.
Leaving the city of Edge behind, Cloud made his way across the desert to Midgar. It was still strange, sometimes, to see the city like this. In the past, Midgar had felt like a dark, proud monster that swallowed anyone who entered. Now he could walk freely among the monster's bones.
Alone and quiet, Cloud clambered up to the Shinra Headquarters as a leisurely pace and slipped into the broken building unhindered.
For the walk up to Floor 30, he put on a pair of mental blinkers. If he didn't look around at the destruction, it wouldn't hurt. Staying focused was the most important thing. He had a job to do, and then he had a home to get back to. Don't look.
All of the little lights in the console room were still blinking in their various colours, which was a good sign. He scanned over them, reading the numbers and the dials with a fixed expression, barely glancing up to shift along to the next console.
He took his PHS from his pocket and picked Tifa's name out of his contacts. She picked up before the first ring had finished.
'Is everything all right?' She sounded like she'd done nothing all morning but sit wringing her hands.
'Everything's perfect,' he replied. 'No signs of anything shutting down again. I think we're all set.'
'Okay,' Tifa barely sounded relieved. 'Hurry home, okay?'
'I'll see you soon,' he promised, and hung up.
Finally, with his work done, lifted his head and allowed himself to take everything in. This time around, the decay should have been all the more depressing for his more recent memories of the building's splendour, but for some reason he felt none of the miserable pangs he'd expected.
Dust swirled and clouded around his shoes as he walked over to the Materia Accelerator room and switched on the light. The machine was a black, twisted husk; the tubes coiled in on themselves in loops and knots. Cloud hadn't expected to be able to use it again – he'd felt the force of that explosion first hand, after all – but he had wanted to see it, nonetheless. It was something of a comfort to know that the machine was still there, even if it was utterly destroyed.
Cloud looked a little closer at the darkness. There in the wreckage, glinting faintly. He flicked the light off and, yes, there was definitely something in there, glowing. It was such a pale light, he was surprised he'd noticed it at all.
He dropped down from the platform and started to pick his way through the torn and twisted machine towards the little light. He had to crawl on his belly to scoop it out from under a hunk of charred scrap.
It was a materia: tiny, slightly misshapen and half coated in soot, but still undeniably a materia.
Cloud turned it over and over in his hands, and then rubbed the dirt from it on his sleeve. He wandered all the way back to the platform with it, chewing on the inside of his mouth as he thought about what to do with it; about the chance that it might be the materia that had sent him back in time.
He climbed back up on the platform and then sat on its edge, legs hanging over. He squeezed the materia in his fist and tried to call the power out of it.
The light in his fingers sputtered and died.
'Hah,' Cloud said. It wasn't really a laugh and it wasn't quite a sigh of disappointment either. One-time use only. He'd thought it might be; no wonder Shinra had pulled their money out of the project in favour of other methods of combining materia. Who wanted a weapon they could only use once in a battle?
He pocketed the little ball, now dull as a rock, and hopped up. Tifa wanted him home, and that was precisely where he intended to go.
Upon stepping back into the staircase, though, Cloud had another thought. He hesitated a moment, and then turned determinedly away from the stairs leading down and marched up towards the SOLDIER offices.
It was a stupid thing to do, really. Sephiroth had been officially 'retired' for years before the headquarters had been hit; there was really no reason why his office would have been maintained. Cloud would have been surprised if they hadn't cleaned the place out and thrown all of Sephiroth's belongings in the sewer.
Except that Sephiroth had been Midgar's hero and Shinra's poster boy for years. He had been the face of the company's glory days.
Cloud had to hack the door hinges apart with his sword before he could kick the door down.
The hallway that he had paced so frequently with letters and errands for his boss and his friends was eerily quiet. In his mind, he could hear the whispers of Zack's laughter and the ghostly scratching of Sephiroth's pen signing his soul away on page after page of field reports. When he scraped at the grime with the sole of his shoe, he could still see the faint marks of chocobo prints in the carpet. Zack and Reno had raced the birds through this corridor so many times, the janitors had despaired of ever cleaning them off.
Cloud stopped again because, though someone had tried to pull them out, he could see where a very unimpressed cactuar had embedded its spines in the wall. Zack had caught the pota pota blast right in the face and had to go to the infirmary for days to have the needles picked out of his forehead. Sephiroth had given him no sympathy. It was what he'd deserved, he said, for trying to keep the damn thing as a pet.
Sephiroth's office door was closed, but it opened without resistance when Cloud pushed it. He prepared himself for how utterly different the room would look. It would probably have been redecorated; the furniture either replaced or moved around to suit someone else's comforts.
It was the same.
Every inch of the room, excepting the fact everything had clearly been thrown around under Meteor and the subsequent neglect and, was just the same as it had been when Sephiroth had been alive. Even the hooks for Masamune were still sat up on the wall, although the sword had not sat there in years.
Now Cloud felt the ache that he had been expecting, like a hole opening up in his heart. He actually touched his chest absently, and realised that pain was not so much in his heart as in the scar Masamune had left under his collarbone.
The chair behind the desk had fallen over and slid across the room. Cloud righted it and pushed it back where it belonged.
He plucked the dead materia from his pocket and opened up one of the desk drawers. There was no use in keeping it, and for some reason he thought that it deserved to be here with the rest of his memories, preserved in a place where everything was still the same. Something slid to the front of the drawer as it opened.
It was a little square of paper. Sephiroth had written, in the corner, in his perfectly neat calligraphy: R, A, Z, C, S: 19.8.2002. Cloud frowned. He had no idea what Sephiroth had meant by that little code. He turned the paper over, and his frown fell into an open mouth, and then a smile.
The photograph had been taken in a bar, years ago. The corners were slightly crumpled, and the colours were a little faded, but for the most part it was intact. Looking up at him were the faces of Reno, Aerith, Zack, himself and Sephiroth – thus the initials – all sat around one table in a bar together. They were all grinning except for Sephiroth, who seemed to have decided that simply not glaring was enough enthusiasm.
He could hardly believe that Sephiroth had held on to such a cheesy photograph; it seemed entirely unlike him to be so whimsical. Then Cloud found himself grinning even wider. That, he thought, was probably why he'd been keeping it face down in his drawer. No framed pictures of friends on the desk for Shinra's finest: just a quiet little reminder that they were there, nearby, right where he could reach them.
Cloud put the photograph back in the drawer and placed the materia over the top of it. The pain in his chest was gone.
'So, Zack,' Sephiroth said, sliding into a seat at their table, 'would you mind telling me exactly what kind of top-priority mission takes place in a Sector Two bar?'
'A top secret, undercover one,' Zack said, budging up to make room for the last addition to their party, pushing Cloud, Aerith and Reno along like dominoes. 'And in that vein, I told you not to wear all of that leather shit. You were supposed to come in civilian clothing.'
Sephiroth looked down at himself.
'I'm not wearing my coat.'
'Yes you are. You just took the armour off the shoulders. And "civilian clothing" generally means "colours".'
'I don't like colours.' Sephiroth scowled.
'Stop being a miserable bastard and drink.' Zack slid a bottle of beer across the table towards him. Sephiroth looked at it, looked at everyone else, and resignedly flicked the metal cap off with his thumb.
'You do know that, with all the mako in my blood, it's going to take thirty these to get me drunk?' Sephiroth said conversationally. Zack shrugged.
'It takes me longer than Reno. That's why we buy our own drinks after the first round.'
'Also,' Sephiroth added, 'Cloud is a minor and therefore should not be drinking alcohol, and buying it for him is considered a felony in every sector in Midgar.'
'I've got lemonade,' Cloud replied, sounding decidedly unhappy about it.
'Lemonade, plus,' Zack said, passing a flat metal flask to Cloud under the table. Cloud brightened up very suddenly, and his drink slipped below the table for just a few seconds before coming up a few inches fuller than it had been before.
Sephiroth sat back in his chair.
'You dragged me out of my office and away from a very important report about our last mission in Junon to watch you, your girlfriend, a Turk and a minor get drunk in the last sector that will accept Reno's credit card?' he said.
'Nowhere accepts Reno's credit card,' Zack said. 'This is a mission; we're charging the drinks on the company card.'
'You say that now…'
'You'll change your mind.'
'No I won't.'
Zack fixed him with an uncharacteristically serious look, like a father staring down at his stroppy toddler.
'Would you rather be up in your office, all alone and drowning in paperwork?'
The corners of Sephiroth's lips twitched into something remarkably close to a smile.
When waitress came over a few minutes later to take their empty glasses, Zack handed her a disposable camera.
'It's taken us months to get our friend here out,' he said. 'Help us take evidence!'
She fumbled with the buttons for a while, eyes darting more than once up towards Sephiroth in terror. Eventually, she managed to get it the right way up, stutter,
'S-s-sm-smile,' and take the picture.
'Cheers,' Zack said, taking it back. He nudged Sephiroth. 'I'll give you a copy. You could put it on your desk.'
'A photograph of you on my desk?' Sephiroth said. 'I suppose if nothing else it would help to frighten everyone away…'
Zack ignored his jibe and ordered another round for them all. Cloud looked rather less miserable about his second lemonade, probably because Zack had given him the flask again when he thought Sephiroth wasn't looking.
Four and a half hours later, Aerith had gone home. Cloud and Zack were performing an energetic and tone-deaf rendition of the theme from LOVELESS on the karaoke and Reno was being chased out from behind the bar with a pool cue. Sephiroth stayed behind to finish his fifteenth beer and to catch Cloud when he stumbled off of the stage.
The paperwork could wait.
[AN: And that would, in fact, be the end. I hope it wasn't as depressing as some of you were worrying, but I really couldn't throw in a cheesily happy ending for what I had in mind. I never wanted Cloud to fix everything - just to make a few things things that little bit better.
An enormous thank you to everyone who's read and/or reviewed this, especially my frequent commenters. The Answer has received so much more kindness and attention than I expected, and you've really all warmed my heart with your messages. I'm not going to promise anything, but I do have some other ideas mulling around: mainly a few lighthearted one-shots, based on this universe, of Zack and Reno having shenanigans. There are some other fandoms I'll be playing with, too, but that'll come as it comes! Thank you all again!]