"Are you leaving again? It hasn't even been a week".
I pause near the staircase, straining my shoulders, clutching the railing. Not looking back. I already know what's behind me. Who.
Her stubborn gaze is boring into my neck. She's rubbing the glasses with washcloth - one by one, again and again. The glass is squeaking and crying under her fingers but Tifa is relentless. The clock on the wall shows five in the morning.
"Denzel will be upset", - she continues.
Denzel is no longer a child, he is fourteen, and he looks at me with eyes full of silent adoration. Like I'm a miracle descended from heaven down to earth. Like I'm a hero. A god. Just like I used to look at him.
And this – this is unbearable.
I grit my teeth, dreaming to be anywhere but here right now: on the streets, in the mountains, in heath, or, even better - riding Fenrir in the fields of Kalm. What I wouldn't give to hear now the roar of engine and to feel the harsh wind upon my face, blowing out all unwanted thoughts out of my head.
" ... You are shutting us away, Cloud. We are all worried".
"I'm all right", - I force through my suddenly tightened throat.
And who is it exactly that worried about me anyway? Yuffie is buried to the ears in the affairs of her country after her father's death, and still hasn't managed to dig herself out. Vincent apparently has built himself a cabin somewhere in the mountains, and now shoots rabbits out of his gun, enjoying the solitude and the torments of his guilty conscience far away from civilization. Cid and Shera are raising their second child, a girl, as far as I can remember, and in the remaining time trying to develop a new model of ship with some sort of hyper-drive running on solar energy on Rufus's orders. Nanaki is sitting in the Grand Canyon, chewing grass and making magic from Lifestream, communicating with the Planet like no one else has been able to since Aerith's death. Barrett is running through the city and scaring all Marlene's suitors with his mechanical arm, and helping at the bar in the evenings. And following Tifa with sad and hopeless eyes.
And the others are long dead (dead, right?).
"Cloud, even bleeding, you'll still insist that everything is fine", - deep-seeded bitterness breaks through her voice.
The thing is, I have long ago developed immunity to bitterness. Tifa's words will never hurt me as much as he once could – just with his tone ("I'll never be only a memory"), with look (like poison, like acid, like mako, that whispers in my ears with different voices ), with careless gesture (Masamune sang, breaking through my ribs, lungs, heart).
Even after all these years Tifa still wants me. She is still waiting, not knowing that the boy with a sullen look and invisible weight of the whole world on his shoulders, always ready to do anything for his friends, for her, never really existed. She still wants me, waits for me, choking me with her desire.
"Sometimes I think that it was your goal from the start".
Sometimes I hate her for it.
"Every time you walk away I fear that this time you won't come back".
'You have always returned to him' - hangs between us her silent reproach.
"I fear that you'll forget about us".
I flinch at her uncertain touch. Her hand is too small, her touch is too soft, fingers are too feminine, and her figure is too fragile, she has too dark hair and all too human eyes, and her name is not Sephi ...
"That you'll burnt yourself out".
And what do you know about burning and fire?!
I roughly yank my shoulder out of her grip and take off to the exit in several hurried steps, slamming the door behind me. I mount the bike, tugging impatiently on the ignition, and checking out the fastening of the First Tsurugi.
I also didn't know anything about the fire, until he taught me. Until Nibelheim was set ablaze. The village burned brightly, fiercely, voraciously. Like inferno. "Demon" - shouted in panic Wutay soldiers being killed by dozens, hundreds, thousands by his sword. "My handmade perfection" - laughed Hojo, sticking the next dose of mako in his vein. "My Favorite Son" - Jenova whispered approvingly, hugging him with her cold hands. And I was devoured by the fire, feeling the burn of his mark upon my heart, upon my soul. I wanted to fall on my knees in terror, in admiration, like the sacrificial lamb voluntary offering my throat to his insatiable blade.
Young and cruel god of war, he was so beautifully magnificent in his insanity, that for the first time in my life I felt the urge to pray.
…I put on my goggles on and rev the engine.
Afterwards, moments, minutes, years later, floating in a bunker filled with concentrated poison the color of freshly-cut grass, feeling my sense of "self" gradually dissolve into mako, I stubbornly held unto that memory. I screamed in pain from torture inflicted on me by Hojo, who kept calling it 'experiments for the benefit of mankind' and 'medicine' with the tenacity of a true fanatic, while cutting me open again and again with a scalpel without anesthesia. In those rare moments when we were both conscious, I exchanged flat jokes with Zack to somehow remind myself that another human being in touching distance does not always mean pain-mako-blood-screams-Hojo-laugh-madness-mako-pain. I scratched his name on the inside of the bullet-proof glass with my preternaturally sharp fingernails when my thoughts became too slow and unfamiliar, and the temptation of escape from reality into another world, filled with gentle whispers of thousands different voices, and clear blue sky and peaceful dreams grown irresistible.
Gradually the names of my school enemies lost their importance, and I forgot them. Next began to fade the memories of my mother, her severe temper and rarely shown affection. After that slowly but steadily vanished my memories of childhood, of army, all my goals, dreams and hopes. But there were two things I've always remembered.
My name and the way Nibelheim was gutted by horrible, beautiful fire.
In the end, I was saved by Zack. He dragged me out of Hojo's laboratories on his own back, like a sack of potatoes.
And, like a true hero straight out from my teenage dreams, covered me with his own body from the bullets in one step away from freedom.
'You'll be fine, Cloud.'
In my confusion and shock, I sucked out of him all that was possible and what was not. His gestures, his habits, his self-confidence and skill with the sword, his love (remember me, Aerith?), and even his deep respect for Sephiroth-before-Nibelheim. I wore his personality as a chemical protection suit in a high radiation environment, almost merging with it, trying to re-learn how to exist in new surroundings. In new conditions.
With new cells in my body.
In those days, I walked on a thin, brittle ice with poison-green water underneath. Bottomless pool color of Lifestream. Starving madness, made tangible. With each new step I took new cracks appeared on the ice under my feet – short and long, thin and thick; thousands of cracks in my personality and memories. Because Cloud died long ago, at the moment when he pushed his hero-monster-monster-god-killer over the edge of a bridge in the reactor, and Zack also died, covering me with his body from the bullets.
'Do you remember, Cloud?'
I-we-you, and flowers in the meadow under the arch of a ruined church, and rain-smeared blood on the sword, and agonizing shame, where until recently (yesterday, last month, a year, a thousand years ago) used to be pride, and SOLDIER First Class, a hero, a butcher, and long white hair around the corner, and everything's burnt to ashes in a great, magnificent fire.
"You've changed a lot, Cloud" - Tifa told me then, the only one of our gang of environmental terrorists, who remembered me before.
I just shrugged, not knowing what to answer.
"You are lost, Cloud", - Aerith's smile was sad, understanding and painfully familiar.
I nodded in agreement, not even trying to argue.
'You run and run, and run, Cloud. Do not fall', - could be read in Vincent's dark deep eyes.
And I ran. All over the planet I chased after the ghost of my past, chased after my personal nightmare came to life. I didn't, couldn't believe that he was alive again. I was going crazy with fear, hope and painful anticipation. And then I stumbled.
And it almost killed me.
"You raised your sword at me", - he said with surprise during our first encounter after Nibelheim.
I remember how hard my hands were shaking.
"Silly child", - he shook his head at my stubbornness, his thin lips curving into a cruel smile. – "Stop with your games. Don't you hear Mother calling you?"
"Monster", - I whispered hoarsely, stepping back. Because even then we both knew – if he would call me, I'll come.
And the monster hissed and gave out a deep throaty chuckle, pushing his lips back in a predatory grin that could not be mistaken for a smile, and shook his mane, which I once upon a time wanted to sift through with my fingers (and still do). He followed my movements with his non-human eyes with feline pupils. Watched me. Watched me.
"There was a time, boy, when you used to call me General. You admired me. Maybe, even loved".
"It has all burnt down to ashes", - I lied through my teeth. – "Someday we'll burn, too, you know. Together." - And fastidious superiority on his pale, thin face was momentarily replaced with interest.
"Very well", - he said in the end, and at that moment I realized, that my death sentence had been postponed.
And then we danced, injuring each other with blades and words, both drenched from head to toe in blood and mako. He talked about how he would enjoy killing my friends right in front of my eyes. I responded, that I'll kill him first, and in that moment I even believed it. He laughed condescendingly, accusing me of disloyalty to Mother and of improper conduct for Jenova's youngest son. I hissed through my clenched teeth, that I already have a mother and I do not need another, desperately trying not to think about his lips, the curve of his back and incest. He hotly exhaled "my toy" in my ear with some kind of perverted, inappropriate affection and then "we'll burn together" with a deep note of a strange melancholy in his voice. And I was desperately trying to hold back the tremor in my limbs, feeling his scorching breath on my neck, feeling, as foreign cells in my body sang in joy.
He was toying with me like a cat toys with a mouse.
And then he stopped – and crushed me down in one move.
He whispered "my Cloud" and sank his fangs in the back of my neck, squeezing my hips in a steely grip. Slammed me into the wall, covered my body with his own. And I lost. I dropped my sword and fell to my knees, spreading my legs, throwing my head back obediently, letting his teeth tear into my neck, and hands – tear into my body. I groaned helplessly, desperately, almost screaming, eagerly inhaling a lungful of his scent, choking, drowning. He laughed a deep, throaty laugh of a smug predator that finally caught his elusive pray, bending my back, pushing my buttocks apart. He opened me up with his gloved fingers, and I only hissed "more" and moved my hips forward, ignoring the pain. He slammed into me, using his own saliva instead of lube and fucked me fast and hard, relentlessly driving his length into my body. And I screamed, tearing my throat raw, then moaned, then - wheezed his name, over and over, without stopping, like a prayer.
And then he was gone. Vanished in the fog without a trace with a satisfied, sated grin on his face, leaving me lying on the ground, empty eyes staring at the pre-dawn sky, digging my fingers into the earth and hair, running down again and again in my head his deep and drawling "very well". Sweet - as poison. And mako in my veins was burning.
Only then did I fully realize that he will not just kill me. He will destroy me utterly. Crush me - without pity or doubt. Grind me into dust and scatter remains to the winds.
And I – and I will let him do it without any hesitation.
... Sand is crunching under Fenrir's wheels and sea, covered with brittle thin ice near the coast, stretches to the skyline.
My eyelids grow heavy, and, for some reason, it becomes difficult breathe. My heart beat is strained and tired.
Closing my eyes, I let go of the brakes, thinking about Masamune's unearthly song, about the cruel and sensual curve of his lips, about his eyes, full of venom and terrible madness.
And I remember how I burned. How he burned.
How we burned. Together.
'You brought your sword again? Stubborn boy. But Masamune likes you – can you hear her singing?'
'Come on, boy, take me into your mouth. Deeper. I know you want to.'
'Does that excite you, Cloud? Fucking with a monster in the middle of a village scorched by fire, knee-deep in blood, hmm? Wrong answer, you little hypocrite. Well? I can't hear you. Louder. Scream louder, boy!'
'I will make them pay, Cloud, I will make them pay, for they betrayed my Mother. This world will drown in its own blood. And you will see it all with your own eyes, because I. Will. Not. Let. You. Go.'
... And the ice breaks beneath me.
A month, a year, or, perhaps, a thousand years later.
"And in the last life, I worked on a farm on the outskirts of Kalm. Bred chocobos, if you can believe it. I liked it – this life was quiet and calm, but no matter how much I tried, I couldn't shake off a feeling that something was missing. What was it, I wonder?"
I bury my hands in his white hair, greedily raking my fingers through silky strands; sifting through them slowly, carefully.
"And I died so foolishly. Again. I accidentally impaled myself on a SOLDIER sword from the War For The Planet in the ruins of Midgard. And who only thought to call it...? It's now a real relic, I could have got some serious money for it in the capital. And instead I impaled myself on it".
I broodingly rub the scar on my chest, the one left from Masamune - and who said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place? At last, the phantom pain subsides.
"Do you know what they call me in history books? A hero. A savior. But, of course, you know it, I already told you this. Funny, is not it?"
I sigh, lying down by his side.
"Zack no longer remembers us. He was finally reborn and he looked happy. Planet whispers to me that I could do the same. But..."
I close my eyes, slowly slipping into sleep, where dreams are full of mako and life and fear, of pleasure and pain, and your fingers on my neck, and your breath - in my lungs.
"I will wait. I will wait until you wake up".