Author's note (please read): Recently I've been playing way too much FF7 than should be healthy and after reading a few time travel fics I was a little disappointed that almost none of them featured Cloud as old as he was in AC. Then I stumbled on Eir's tomorrow. The idea and the concept of it were actually the root for this story, though my damn mind warped it into something totally different even before I started writing. The start of the story is similar, but I changed the plot significantly. The problem is, even though I have the major events planned out, the little pieces in between are sprouting directly from my mind onto paper. Well, I'll see where it leads.
Somehow, he wasn't even surprised he was here again. After all, this was the place of his birth, his creation, the home of an alien monster, the place where his hero became his enemy. The place where he died, only to be cruelly brought back as a monster, and later hailed a hero.
Even after over 500 years, the name of that small, at first glance insignificant village sent violent shivers down his spine. Not even the ultimate healer Lady Time was able to ease the wounds he was dealt in this town. He would never be able to make peace with this place. He knew that much.
And yet, since Tifa's death, over 470 years ago he found himself returning to this ghost town, whose hollow eyed people always looked at him as if expecting him to turn into one of the monsters he often killed when he came to the town. Cloud almost snorted. All around the world he was hailed the Planet's Hero, The Immortal Guardian, and he was despised and feared in his own hometown.
A little mountain town that still persisted in existing, years after Midgar became ruins overgrown with wildlife. The town didn't change, and if he didn't see people change every time he came to visit, he would have thought they were immortal. Like him.
It wasn't hard to guess that he was cursed with eternal life. After all, Sephiroth wasn't the only one who was too stubborn to stay dead. Cloud was just too stubborn to die in the first place. It was obvious really. He had lost count of the times he was on the brink of death, only for Aerith and Zack to appear and push him back into the land of the living. After some time of lengthy discussions with Reeve, they concluded that due to Mako and Jenova/Sephiroth cells in Cloud's blood, his body couldn't dissolve into the Lifestream and thus, couldn't grow old, so the only way for him to die is for something to kill him. And that would be extremely difficult.
"The energy we have is only borrowed, and one day we have to give it back." Marlene's words rang in his head clear as day. "But you Cloud, you have been gifted that energy. Even if you wanted to, you cannot give it back." She spoke those words once, when she was just a girl. The second time, she was a wrinkly old woman, on her deathbed, her frail hand in his.
"Because I'm a monster?" The words left his mouth before he could stop them.
She just smiled. "No Silly, because it would be rude to return a gift."
If anything, his face became even more forlorn. "Monsters don't deserve gifts."
"Then it's a good thing you're not a monster."
Those were her last words.
The day she died, Cloud left Edge and mounted his monster of a machine, willing it to lead him away, away from the pain caused by the loss of another person dear to him. Without even noticing, the weather around him became colder, windy. Snowy. That wasn't the first time he returned to Nibelheim, and it was far from the last.
As the deaths of his friends and their children began piling up, his blind escapes to Nibelheim became more frequent. But he rarely went down to the town itself, preferring to stay on the outskirts, in the forest and often venturing into the Mako caves. On rare occasions he did stray into Nibelheim itself, he would only do it during the night. That was how he acquired his nickname: The Ghost of Nibelheim. As there was little to do in a small town but gossip, many stories of how he came to be emerged.
One said that was a Midgar-war veteran who left his love in this town, but died in the war and returned as the ghost, looking for the love he came too late to save.
Another one said that he was a SOLIDER who went to join the old ShinRa, died and returned to his hometown in order to seek peace. This one was a little too close to the truth for Cloud's taste.
There were many more, but the one Cloud agreed with the most, was the one saying that he was one of the monsters from the ShinRa mansion, lurking around because he was unable to stray far from its place of creation. Somehow, Cloud was more comfortable with the thought that he kept coming here because he was drawn by the Mako in his blood to the place of his birth and his creation than that he kept returning in order to seek peace and forgiveness. Monsters didn't deserve forgiveness.
He wondered when he started sounding like Vincent.
The memory of the gunman sent pangs of pain in his heart as he fingered the summon materia in his pocket. For a while, the morose gunman had seemed to find peace with his sins and his demons, something Cloud envied him for a while on. After Deep Ground was defeated, Cid made god damn sure that the ex-Turk wouldn't try to go to sleep again. Or worse. He got Vincent a job at Highwind ship as navigator, dragging him all over the Planet, weathers Vincent liked it or not. Cid swore with every swear word in his extensive vocabulary that he would get the gunman to smile and to 'live a little', as he put it.
It seemed to work. The morose cloud that hung over Vincent's head 24/7 seemed to dissipate and he could even be caught with a slight smile on his face every once in a while. But alas, everyone knew such happiness is not allowed to last.
It was stormy. An early stage of a hurricane. Turbulent, but nothing the Highwind couldn't handle. That was what Cid said. Some had disagreed. Cid just retorted:
"This ship survived Sephiroth, WEAPONS, Remnants and Deep Ground freaks. Not even Gaia herself could destroy this ship. I'll be damned if I let her."
Turns out, Gaia took it as a challenge.
The little storm soon became a hurricane too big for even the Highwind to handle. Cid had cursed Gaia in at least ten different languages, he did everything he could to keep the ship in the air. It was all to no avail. The ship crashed into thousands of pieces in the nearby mountain.
Number of survivors: 1
Vincent had been on the ship. He had tried to help the Captain, he did everything he could short of releasing Chaos to try and save the ship and its crew. It was all in vain. The ship crashed anyway. When Vincent came to, he was surrounded by snow, ice, metal, fire and blood. Charred pieces of metal licked by the dying fire, bodies of the crewmembers mauled by the crash, some beyond recognition. By the time he found Cid, it was too late. Vincent just fell to his knees next to the cold corpse, and silently cried. He stayed there long after the fires of the ship died out and snow covered his cape.
He probably would have become an ice statue if Cloud's strong connection with the Lifestream didn't alert him to the crash. When the ship hit the mountain the planet let out a cry so strong it almost brought him to his knees. Fearing the worst, Cloud drove Fenrir at maximum speed at the foot of the mountain and ran the rest of the way. The sight was enough to shake even a war veteran like him. He found Vincent almost completely buried under the snow with a body that was unmistakably Cid.
Vincent was as still as a statue. Cloud didn't say anything. He came to stand next to Vincent, thrust First Tsurugi into the ground and just stood next to him, letting him mourn his loss, only occasionally wiping the snow from himself and Vincent.
Gaia only knows how long they stayed there before Vincent silently stood up. Cloud dislodged his sword from earth and turned towards Fenrir. Vincent followed him in silence. When Cloud mounted the monster bike and pointedly looked at him, Vincent just sat behind him without argument. It told volumes of just how much Vincent was shaken. Cloud practically herded him to Seventh Heaven. Tifa was about to ask what happened but when she saw the state of the two men she kept quiet and started making a 'Cloud special', a drink she herself concocted that was almost pure alcohol and the only thing that could get a SOLIDER drunk, but fatal to a normal human. Then again, Vincent wasn't exactly human. And she had a feeling he would need it.
Three glasses later, moist started misting in Vincent's eyes. He didn't sob, didn't even outright cry, just let an occasional tear slip from his eye while he told them what happened. Cloud sat opposite of him, listening to him without saying a word. He was never really good with words and Vincent didn't seem to mind. But what Vincent said at the end startled him.
"Years ago, when Lucrecia died I went into hiding, and when AVALANCHE chased me out I started running away. And now the history is repeating itself, right from the start." Vincent let out a sigh that could be described as wary.
"I was better off hiding." He murmured.
"But then you never would have met Cid. Or us." Cloud finally spoke, just as quietly.
"And I would have only the deaths of the past to live with, now I have been burdened with the deaths of the present too." When Cloud looked like he was about to say something else Vincent cut him off.
"You don't need to try and comfort me. You will understand what I was talking about in a few decades." And with those cryptic words he stood up and left the bar with a sway of his cloak.
It was four years before Cloud saw him again.
Cloud was coming back from a delivery when he felt a surge of magic power come from the Lifestream. It was the same thing he would feel when a new summon had been created. As the surge had been especially strong, it meant the summon had been especially powerful. When a flick of the glowed wrist sent Fenrir speeding in another direction the surge happened again. From the same direction. This time weaker, but still powerful. Now confused Cloud kicked Fenrir in a gear higher, unable to shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong.
When three more surges happened, with the last one being the most powerful, Cloud was on the verge of panic. Or better yet, the Planet was. Which meant something was unnaturally entering the summon void. A sort of a pocket space in the Lifestream where summons reside. But it sent a jolt of his own panic when he came to the place the surges were coming from.
The Nibeheim Mansion.
Sword drawn, muscles tensed and ready for a Sephiroth-level battle, Cloud entered the mansion, hoping beyond hope that the materia he was looking for was on the upper mansion floors. Unfortunately for him, the source of the magic power could be felt giving off small pulses as the Lifestream kept fighting off its advances. They were coming from the basement. As he collected the willpower to force the frightening images of his imprisonment in the labs to the back of him mind the pulses grew stronger.
When he came down it was pitch black save for an intense red glow of a small crystal ball on the floor. It was the summon that was causing such ripples in the Lifestream. Cloud bent to pick it up, but as soon as his glowed hands touched the smooth surface, his entire world went white.
He was surrounded by white. White world of white mist. It looked like the entrance to the Lifestream but it felt different.
"Why did you come here?" Vincent's voice resounded around him. He turned around looking for a source of the voice that seemed to be coming from everywhere. Instead he came face to face with an unknown summon. It had red leathery wings which were wrapped around him like a cloak, ripped to shreds on the bottom. It's skin was deathly gray, and the hair that was held back with a red bandana was black with the ends looking like they were on fire, and among the knotted tresses was protruding a horn, as sharp as the fangs poking out a bloodied mouth. Its left hand was covered with bandages, but even those couldn't cover the black talons on the hand.
It took him a minute before he realized he was looking at Vincent.
"What happened to you?" Cloud whispered lowering the sword he didn't even realize was still poised to attack.
"You didn't answer my question." 'Vincent' retorted. He seemed uncomfortable that Cloud was here.
"The planet felt something forcing itself into the Lifestream. Five of them, actually. It panicked and I came looking for the source. I found a red materia in the basement of a ShinRa mansion. Your materia apparently." Cloud paused to regard Vincent more carefully. He now looked like a strangely deformed version of Chaos. Though, it was logical that the most powerful demon would take over the most aspects of the shared body.
"Why did you turn yourself into a summon?" Cloud found he was having difficulties keeping his voice its usual monotone.
"It is a fitting punishment for my sins." 'Vincent' looked down. "You have to go. The planet won't allow its Golden WEAPON to become a mere summon."
"What are you talking about?" Cloud tensed at how 'Vincent' called him but before he could do anything a black clawed hand gave him a forceful push at the chest and sent him reeling backwards, out of the world of white mist. When he opened his eyes he found himself on the floor of the ShinRa mansion's basement, the red materia in his hand.
It was hard to say how long Cloud sat there on the floor looking at the materia in his hand. After what seemed like hours, days, weeks, he got up and pocketed the red materia. With a swish of cloth he was out. Out of Nibelheim, away from the nightmares, to contemplate Vincent's words.
It had been so many years since then. And only when Marlene's great granddaughter, who he raised almost singlehandedly, died the same way her predecessor did, with her hand in his, a smile on her face, did he finally understand Vincent's words.
Every person taken away takes with them a piece of your heart, until it's too frail to beat again, yet unable to stop. All that remains is a pain your chest, like it knows something is missing, and knows it cannot be returned or replaced. And that pain eats away at you, from the inside, a merciless itch you cannot scratch, a wound that cannot heal, until it drives you into madness.
Cloud then understood Vincent's words more than he ever wanted to.
The original AVALANCHE was long gone, leaving their children behind with their knowledge passed onto them. Those children had their own children, passed their knowledge to them, and then perished. Some followed the footsteps of their great ancestors, some did not. Some died like Marlene did, in their warm houses, in their beds, and Cloud by their side. But the most painful deaths were the ones Cloud couldn't prevent, those who died long before their time was up. The children he raised and helped raise, the ones dearest to him, even the ones who were not so dear to him.
It was deaths like those that tore Cloud apart.
And through it all Cloud remained unchanged. He stayed the same, his hair, his sword, even his leather clothes, never changed, seemingly unaffected by the ebb and flow of time. But, like the stone, even though it seemed to remain the same, the waters and winds chirped away grain by grain of sand off its surface, just like time and death chirped away little more of Cloud's heart with every year.
Aerith and Zack's visits became less and less frequent. By now, he hadn't heard from them in almost twelve years. For Cloud, who heard voices of the Planet, Jenova, Sephiroth, Aerith, Zack and about half the Lifestream in his head since he left Hojo's lab, it became way too quiet. Even the Planet stopped its whispers and was content with the peace he kept on its surface.
Cloud couldn't remember if he ever felt this… alone, before.
So when the stories of his and his friends' actions to save the planet faded into legends, the stories mothers told their children before bedtime, old tales grannies spoke of when there was somebody willing to listen, Cloud was forgotten. The hero the stories described was not a morose mercenary with a mysterious past, but a courageous, optimistic young man, with a cheerful smile, spiky hair and a giant sword.
The stories described Zack Fair.
Though it was mostly Turk's fault, Cloud might have been partly to blame for it. Often when he came to someplace, if they would let him stay at a nearby inn in exchange for killing a few monsters, he would sit on the inn's porch with children surrounding him, listening to his tales of how the hero defeated the calamity from the skies and her son with the most rag-tag group of people the Planet had ever seen. But in his stories, there was one major lie; in them, Cloud was the one who died, and Zack was the Ex-SOLIDER who jumped from the top of a train, buster sword in hand, and joined the AVALANCHE with Tifa. In a way, he was. But nobody suspected that the actual hero of those stories was the one sitting with them. After all, when parts of the truth start fading over time, the rest was easy to fill out and manipulate.
Cloud would know. He lived such a lie and by such manipulation for too long.
Aerith's church had been rebuilt, mostly by the children of the original AVALANCHE, and Cloud kept it in order since then. After the meteor, many people came to the church to see the magical pool that healed the Geo Stigma, or at least see the flowers that somehow still remained blooming even after years underwater. But as the planet grew healthier, and people forgot the meaning of the church that was in their stories, the sacred place was forgotten along with Cloud.
Zack's buster sword still stood there. This time, Cloud made damn sure there was never any rust or blemish on its surface, but he somehow still didn't have the heart to remove the vines of the blooming Clematis flowers that wound their way around the blade. He figured that even in death, the proof of Zack and Aerith's love for each other was allowed to show.
They deserved it more than anyone. Especially him.
The people of the Edge called him 'The Warrior Monk'. He supposed that was partially true. After all, even though he was no Cetra, he could hear the whispers of the planet, visit the Lifestream at will and he could talk to dead people. The title 'Warrior Monk' kind of suited him. For some time, Cloud thought he was content with himself, travelling with his monster bike he always called Fenrir, no matter how many times he had to build it anew, around the world, slay monsters and then return to the church he lived in once again.
Bu then it came. The Anniversary, as he dubbed it. The day Sephiroth was defeated for the last time. Somehow he always remembered. He somehow instinctively knew that it was that day, every year, without fail. But those days always left him melancholy. For every time that day came, it meant another year went by with him barely noticing it. It was the only way he kept track of time anymore. When today came, and he looked back at how long has it been he had been shocked.
500 years had passed since the final death of Sephiroth. 470 since Tifa's death. 465 since Yuffie's. 490 since Cid's. 486 since 'Vincent's'. 471 since Barret's. 460 since Reno's. 422 since Denzel's. 420 since Marlene's.
The years of the deaths were so many, Cloud wondered how he remembered them all. And even though the Lifestream had claimed so many of his friends and family, it never took him in, never even letting him pass the white space in between, the sort of rift between the two worlds. He had been going to that space in between almost regularly for a few years, hoping to see his deceased friends. Sometimes, Aerith was there. Sometimes, she would be with Zack. Most of the time not. But only Aerith came. The others' souls merged with the Lifestream, becoming just a thread in its endless strings of green. Cloud figured that was because she was a Cetra. In those few years, he perfected the art of disattachment, leaving his body sitting on the floor of the old church while his soul wandered the white world, searching for a flash of pink dress.
But ever since that fateful question almost twelve years ago, he never saw her or anybody else again, no matter how often he ventured into the void, or how long he would stay there.
"When will I join you?" It was a more polite saying of the question: "When will I finally die?"
A look of fear passed Aerith's face, soon replaced by something that looked like regret, sadness and… Guilt? She looked up at him with those green eyes of hers and said in the saddest voice he ever heard her use.
"I don't know."
Cloud didn't know what to think of her last words before she disappeared into the Lifestream. She had seemed so sad, like she knew the real answer was too painful for him to hear. That simple sentence seemed to hold the secret to the day of his demise. And if it ever will come.
Cloud figured he wouldn't get his answers by going to the void again, as he had been trying that for long enough, without yielding any results. So he did what he had always done. Hopped on Fenrir, and at full speed drove away to Nibelheim.
And that was how he found himself here, in the Ghost Town. He parked Fenrir in a secluded spot near the town, but still far and hidden enough that overly curious strangers wouldn't try to steal it. He would like to see them try though. If even Reno couldn't even drive it, much less steer it, common civilians had no chance.
Standing on the face of the mountain overlooking Nibelheim, Cloud tried to convince himself that the goose bumps he felt over his back were due to cold, but he knew better. Every time he closed his eyes, all he would see was a burning town. How masochistic of him, Cloud thought, that he kept coming back to the place that brought him so much pain.
Inevitably, his gaze was drawn to the still standing reactor. He always wondered why NeoShinRa never deactivated the reactor. Even though the rest of the world mostly used oil as a fuel that Barret had discovered, Nibelheim was the only town that still ran on Mako power that Cloud had seen. He didn't even know who kept the reactor up and running.
When Cloud shook his head off such thoughts, he realized he started walking towards the reactor. He hesitated. Even though he came to Nibeheim regularly, the centuries old reactor was one place he never ventured. It held too many memories of failure and mistakes. It had been 500 years since Sephiroth's death, even longer since he was last in there. If in all that time he couldn't make peace with the town itself, there was no way he would be able to make peace with the place that marked the beginning of his death. Sephiroth died in there, and along with him died the boy who aspired to be like him, to be a hero.
That train of thought was interrupted by an idea: if the dip into the Mako reactor killed Sephiroth, wouldn't it kill him as well?
When Cloud asked Aerith when he would finally die, she became terrified, probably because she thought he wanted to take his own life. But the thought never occurred to him until now. He always thought that a stronger opponent will come, kill him, and take his place as the Planet's guardian, so he would finally be able to rest in peace. He lingered because he thought he might be needed. But he wasn't. Not anymore. The Planet didn't need a guardian. The people of the Planet retained peace, held from engaging in any wars because they all remembered what happened during The Great War.
So, if he wasn't needed to guard the Planet, what was his purpose? The Calamity and her Son had been defeated, ShinRa had fallen, WEAPONS were destroyed, his comrades had perished, and yet, he was still here. He hadn't heard even a whisper from the Planet in years, only sometimes a satisfied humming, much like that of a purring cat. The Planet was content, there was no threat… Did that mean he was free to go? Would, when he finally came to the Lifestream, Zack appear and, in his distinctly Zack-ish manner, slap him on the shoulder and ask him what took him so long? Would Aerith come too, and hug him, and say she missed him? Would he be able to see his friends, see if they had reunited with each other and their children in the Lifestream?
Cloud's gaze fell on the reactor. Only one way to find out.
With a determined step, ignoring the goose bumps on his flesh and a knotting feeling in his stomach, Cloud headed to the steps that led to the reactor. Unfortunately, the assault of memories, flashbacks of Tifa's bloodied body on those steps, Zack's still one just lying there kept repeating. The torturous images almost made him give up and turn away, but he steeled his resolve, reminding himself that this was nothing compared to some of the things he went through. Even though every step was an agony to make, Cloud eventually made his way to the reactor core. He stood on the rail, looking down into the unrefined Mako. One more step, and he would be gone for good from this world, and hopefully join the others in the next.
Cloud took a deep breath, and jumped.