Plot Summary - Battle worn and tired, Cloud Strife was used to carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Over time, the Planet began to crumble and slowly the burden lightened, but at a terrible cost. Now, Cloud's traded peace for that burden restored. He may not be alone anymore, but he has something to lose. To keep it safe, all he has to do is save the world... Again.

Warnings - Some Yaoi and Het, partially AU, Violence, Language, Angst, Character Death, Dark Themes, eventual Time/Dimension Play (Some is side-canon related), Unbetaed.

More will develop as the story progresses. Pairing is mainly Cloud/Zack for now. Cloud/Aeris(/Zack) gets a special mention.

Note: ANGST. The story has it in the warnings. It is under the Angst category on FFN. If you ask me to lessen the Angst, I'm going to just scratch my head in confusion. There is a reason that, despite having a dedicated pairing, this story is NOT under the romance category.

This story is updated on an every two day basis. Always.

In the years after Meteorfall, Edge had stood as a beacon of human perseverance and willpower. It symbolized the survival of the entire planet and a species back from the brink of extinction. Triumph over the forces of evil.

Most citizens had a pride-filled story of their own recovery process. Building new homes, schools, businesses... It had been hard, but all the better for it. With no mako energy to pollute the skies above, many of the people of Edge would stare up at night and consider thanking the planet for the meteor crisis. It had, after all, liberated them in more ways than one. For all the lives lost, they created new ones that would never know the oppression of Shinra. These children would know the sight of the stars that had once been hidden by thick mako smog.

Then the swarm came; Hojo's monstrosities. They filled the streets and dragged people from their homes. Corpses lay where they fell and no one got the chance to move them, because the swarm never stopped.

A year later and the bones of those who died in the purge still sat exactly where they had then. Those lucky enough to get out brought almost nothing with them and the homes were still filled with personal belongings in a frozen state of normalcy long past. Shoes by the doors, clothes on the floor, baths full of water long stagnated, and bones of pets left behind.

But in those morbid pseudo-mausoleums, there were veritable hoards of canned food that were still very much important to those humans who yet clung to life.

It was the hope for rations that prompted the monthly excursion into the dead city. A small team of soldiers, all trained to get in and get out as quickly as possible, was sent in to recover as much as they could. Anything else of use was fair game as well. Clothing, medicine, first aid supplies, and more. Some of it came down to life or death need, but other items were just luxuries that people sorely missed.

However, these trips into Edge were incredibly dangerous. More often than not, the team came back missing a member. The city remained overrun by the same monsters that had culled the city in the first place. It had become common place to put the mission in the hands of only those who had nothing left to lose. These people figured that their death wish might at least save a few lives. Therefore, the party of scavengers was always sent off with hugs, cheers, and thanks from all of their comrades who felt it necessary to say their goodbyes just in case the worst happened.

Cloud had more than once contemplated volunteering himself for one of these missions, but it would no good to leave the militia wondering if their de facto leader was suicidal. There were already too many whispers of such things for his liking. It killed morale; no matter how correct the rumors were in the end. Besides, Tifa would never let him leave without making him regret it thoroughly first. He doubted even the solace of death would make up for the anger and hurt it would cause her to see him leave.

Admittedly, it's not like Cloud had much to fear on such a mission. He had long given up hope that he'd simply happen upon something strong enough to kill him. So, instead, he was forced to send his loyal soldiers off to do a duty that he could handle single-handedly with better results. A waste of resources. Lives for lives; leaving the group smaller each and every time. None of it made him happy to make the trade, and nothing ever would.

Things had progressively worsened over the past months. They'd been stuck for the whole year in this area due to the alarming concentration of monsters between them and the coast. With great care, Wutai had been able to send some aid through Kalm but even that was running short now. With no way to get the rest of the survivors to safety, the men were flat out refusing to leave. The soldiers were all husbands and fathers who wouldn't leave their families. It would be certain death for those unable to move anyway. Without the army to hold off the swarm, it'd close in on them within hours after they left.

A plan to ferry the survivors out slowly on the Highwind had fallen short when it became obvious that the amount of fuel available to them would never allow for the trip more than twice. Those two trips were being saved as a last resort at this point. And moving south to Junon was nearly impossible as well, with the mines occupied by a large faction of the swarm and the mountains impassable.

Many of the survivors were either rather young or old and sickly. Cloud had entertained getting rid of the sick in his darker moments. The children could be carried after all. Respiratory illnesses were common among the older people. These are the people who spent most of their lives in the heavily polluted Midgar and the dry, dusty plains were doing their lungs no favors.

Tifa and Marlene spent most of their day tending to these unfortunate souls. It took its toll on the both of them as they cried in each other's arms for hours after losing someone they'd been caring for. Cloud grew tired of the frequent bouts of tears as the noise disrupted his ability to listen for commotion during the night. He was in every sense the only warning system the camp had for impending attacks. His enhanced hearing allowed him significant warning before the loud creatures actually reached near enough to hurt anyone. However, the girls spending an evening crying generally made his attempts to listen for danger fruitless.

He couldn't hold it against them for very long though. After losing Denzel to Geostigma, they had become sensitive to illness related deaths.

The boy, that had become the son Tifa always wanted, was snatched from her life by the reemergence of the man who had killed her beloved father. If Tifa needed any more reason to despise Sephiroth, and everything he stood for, then Denzel's death had provided the nudge. Cloud had returned from putting his eternal burden to rest yet again to find her clutching the boy's body to her heart and sobbing. Cloud had merely been able to stare at the corpse mutely and hope that Tifa didn't look to him for support. She had, of course, because it was the logical thing to do. Like a coward, Cloud left town and didn't return for half a year.

By the time that he came back, Tifa had taken the hint and realized that Cloud was never going to adapt to being part of a family. A family meant losing, and Cloud was done losing those he loved. So instead, he blocked off his heart and operated like a machine. Tifa eventually accepted it, but it had broken her heart.

These were the things that Cloud thought about as he watched the scavenger party leave that day. He was perched on an outcropping with his sword at the ready. Most days were wasted away like this and Cloud had long since accepted it as a given in his life to be the watch dog for signs of danger. Every once in a long while, one of the survivors would bring him something to eat or drink. Some days, he'd accept it silently. Others, he'd flat out refuse to take it on the off-chance that no food would be coming back from Edge that month. People had quickly learned not to argue with him over such things. His mako eyes tended to scare off the most of them anyway.

At times, Cloud wondered if his eyes had simply become slitted like Sephiroth's but was too averse to checking in a mirror. Mirrors held a life of their own for Cloud that he was reluctant to face. When Tifa looked at herself in one, she saw nothing but her own reflection. When Cloud got weak enough to peer into one, he was as often faced with someone else as he was with himself. Naturally, it was the same person every time: Sephiroth. The false reflection even moved separately from his own movements. If there was another unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity, the reflection would stare at them as though it could simply reach out and kill them from inside the mirror. No one but Aeris had been able to see the illusion; Tifa only ever saw Cloud staring back at her.

A cynical smile crept across Cloud's face as he imagined others being privy to the disconcerting effect. He'd probably even use mirrors more often if it worked like that.

A low wail reached his ears and his head turned sharply in its general direction. He relaxed almost instantly as it was only a cremation taking place just outside the camp. The family of the dead soldier stood around and mourned their fallen loved one. Cloud staunchly noted that the pyre was made as he had ordered. The disposal of the dead was a tricky matter these days. At first they had been able to bury the dead but, as Hojo's tactics changed to include body snatching, they began to cremate the freshly dead to prevent their reanimation. Luckily for those unfortunate souls who died in the purge, Hojo didn't pick up the habit until they had decayed far too much for any sort of use.

Soft footfalls let Cloud know his tenuous privacy was already being breached.

"S-sir?" a young boy started in a weak voice. Cloud spared a glance at the frightened boy and gave a stiff nod. "My m-mom wanted me to g-give you some wa-water..."

Cloud accepted it mostly to get rid of the boy for both of their sakes. The moment the canteen left the boy's hands, he began sprinting away. Cloud could hear the mother admonish the boy a bit for the hasty exit, but she let it go rather quickly. Even she couldn't blame the child for being afraid of Cloud.

To think, these people had once considered him a hero. How laughable. Not that Cloud was in the habit of laughing often these days.

Their faith in him had faltered after he was not there to help fend off the swarm from overrunning Edge in the first place. He had arrived too late to do anything more than get Tifa and Marlene out with the rest of the survivors. Initially, their suspicions over his 'SOLDIER' past had inspired them to try and kick him out of the camp. Some implied heavily that he couldn't be trusted because of the mako surging in his veins. Nothing had come of the accusations though, as it became increasingly clear he was the only one in camp with the experience necessary to keep them alive. He corralled the best fighters and managed to get them in working order quick enough to keep everyone safe from the frequent attacks. Over the many months they held their camp together, they had slowly returned to believing him their leader; but not their hero. No, never again would they call him a hero.

A piece of Zack inside of him burned to have the glorified title back, but everything that made him Cloud was happier this way. It was easier to succeed when they expected less of him from the beginning.

Hours passed before he finally heard the claws of some runners raking across the dusty plains. Hojo's makonoids were not known for their subtlety. Thank the Lifestream for small miracles. Cloud stood quickly and took hold of his sword. There would be no time to spare as, from the sound of it, they were about to be hit with a fairly sizable attack.

The soldiers that were standing around the perimeter all turned their eyes to him as he moved. Cloud waved a hand in the air to signal that the troops should be at the ready for orders. Immediately, the camp burst into action as mothers scrambled to get their children to safety. Within moments the outside area was empty save for the nervous fighters. Cloud swept an eye over what they had left and began to plan. It tested knowledge he didn't even remember consciously learning. Whether he learned war tactics from Hojo or from Zack's memories, Cloud was never quite sure.

"Stevens," Cloud started quietly. The man stood taller and waited. "You'll take your men and station them to the Southwest. We need to be prepared in case a mob comes out of Edge or if the scavengers return early. Stay spread thinly. I want as much coverage as we can get. It sounds like nothing more than a group of runners, but I'm hearing at least 50." Stevens nodded stiffly and turned on his heel to move his men into position. He was the closest thing Cloud had to a second in command. He was a former SOLDIER 3rd class and possessed more fighting ability than the non-enhanced. Fortunately, that meant he took orders well.

"The rest of you, I want you to form a tight line to the Northwest of camp. No more than a sword's length between you. The runners will be trying to break our line to reach the inner camp. We won't let them get that far. Carlson, you'll take yours and form the front line. Abrams and Peres you'll take second and third, respectively. Shaw, take yours and set roving guards on the outskirts of camp. You'll catch anything that manages to break through."

The leaders of each group began ushering their men into position immediately. Satisfied, Cloud returned to his tent to prepare. Brushing past the flaps of the tent, he opened up his cache of materia.

With little thought, he slotted a mastered Restore and Barrier. It was mostly for the benefit of the soldiers as he never needed to use them for himself. His eyes fell on one that glowed just a little brighter than the rest and he suddenly had the urge to slot this one as well. Cloud picked up his mastered Comet and turned it over in his hand. It was almost never needed in battle and its power was incredible (and hard to control) when it was used. Unable to shake the feeling that he'd better have it on hand, he slotted it as well.

"Cloud!" The flaps of the tent flew open and swung closed very quickly behind him. With a sigh, Cloud stood to acknowledge Tifa. She was out of breath, as though she'd run the length of the camp to get here. "Cloud," she started again, calmer this time. "What's going on?"

"Routine attack. It's nothing to worry about yet," he said in a calm voice. There was no reason to give her any sort of indication that something was wrong. She would just worry needlessly. As he moved to leave, he gave a small kick to the top of the box that stored his materia to close it. Tifa looked frustrated at his answer. Not surprising; she was always frustrated by his answers.

"Okay, but you always say that. Do you need me out there? I can—"

"No. We'll handle it. Keep the children quiet," he said smoothly as he cut her off. She knew he didn't want her on the battlefield but she never stopped asking anyway. Annoyed, she huffed and sat down on the cot gracelessly. He chose to ignore her as he headed to join the rest of the soldiers.

Cloud was pleased to note that they had followed his orders perfectly and it appeared that the camp was well guarded on the inside too. With the passing time, the cacophony of monsters was slowly getting louder. Cloud leant against a large rock, off to the side of the lined up men and closed his eyes. Seeing him relaxed seemed to improve morale before a battle. In his experience, tense soldiers didn't make for very good fighters.

Barely thirty minutes passed before a cry alerted him that the monsters could now be seen on the horizon. He opened one eye to survey the incoming threat and did a quick count. Once again, he had been correct in his estimate; fifty to sixty runners. It was nothing to worry about, as they'd faced worse odds a hundred times over.

Out of boredom more than anything, he chose to return to his meditating to pass the final time before they arrived. He let his mind drift off with no particular direction. If he thought of nothing long enough, she always found a way to show up. Moments later, his mind filled with soft green as though the Lifestream itself was flowing through his consciousness. It soothed him to the core and he imagined himself wading into the green and being consumed by it; like floating on his back in the ocean.

Something wasn't right, he realized slowly. Doing this generally filled him with the sense of being calmly rocked by the otherworldly waves. Today, it was as though he was being tossed from side to side by them.

His eyes flew open as a scream filled the air.

The soldiers had all turned towards the screech with terrified faces. It had come from the opposite side of camp. Cloud gave a signal for them to hold their positions as he ran to see what had happened. His brain was still foggy and confused from being pulled out of his dream state so abruptly. He ground to a halt at the northeastern edge of camp and saw a small group of women pointing and crying loudly. Growling low in his throat at the distracting noise, he pushed them aside to see what they were looking at. And what he saw left him cold.

There, far too close for comfort, was a black line moving towards camp at a slow but consistent speed. Horrifyingly enough, they were close enough for Cloud to see faces. At least a hundred dead and risen on their way from Kalm. A mix of Wutai soldiers and Kalm's citizens who had been holding out to the North. From the numbers, Cloud reasoned that the entire town must have fallen.

Cursing, he turned and ordered the women back to camp. When they were far enough away, he stopped and listened as carefully as he could. All he could hear was the sound of the incoming runners. A hand to the ground was the only way for Cloud to feel these new enemies. He snarled and rushed back to his lined up soldiers.

The runners were covering the sound of the slower moving and quieter dead, and, because they had less distance to travel, they had been able to get close enough undetected. He was going to have to spread his lines incredibly thin to even have a chance to repel an attack of this caliber. He considered removing the line guarding the Southwest but the sight of a sheet white Stevens, who was heading in the same direction as he was, stopped his thoughts dead in their tracks. Stevens finally noticed Cloud coming back from the Northeast and he cast a terrified glace between where Cloud was and where he should be.

"Please, Strife, please… Please tell me there's nothing coming from up there," he asked in a voice filled with horror.

"What's the situation on the South?"

Stevens ran a hand over his face at Cloud's obvious evasion. "We've… We've got at least forty flying things coming from Edge. Looks like twenty or so of our 'lost' scavengers on their way home and about twenty more runners sitting at the outskirts of the city. They're just waiting, Strife. You've got to know what that means."

Cloud's whole body felt numb. Eighty enemies to the Southwest, over a hundred coming from the Northeast, and at least fifty to the Northwest. Hojo waited them out till he had enough firepower to take them down in one go. If the runners from Edge were waiting… That meant they were keeping quiet specifically to keep Cloud from being able to hear their approach. Flying makonoids? Cloud hadn't been aware that those even existed. Moving through the air would most likely make them quiet movers like the dead. It wasn't surprising that he never heard them over the small army of runners sent as a distraction.

"We're going to die today, aren't we Strife?"

Cloud looked at Stevens and wished he could lie to the man who had served so loyally all this time. A nod was all he could manage in the end. Stevens slumped and buried his face in his hands.

"Round the men up… Tell them… Tell them to form a complete barrier around the camp. We'll be surrounded anyway. Make sure they say goodbye to their families. We've got twenty minutes at best," Cloud said softly as he pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers. Stevens didn't bother wasting any more time as he ran to pass the message along. Cloud returned to his tent to see Tifa and Marlene one more time.

The girls were sitting on the cot and talking as calmly as they could despite their white knuckles. They knew something was happening when they heard the scream. Cloud was appreciative that, for once, Tifa had stayed put. They looked at him the second he walked in, but his face gave away nothing as they eagerly looked for good news of any kind.

Solemnly, he walked closer and knelt down beside Marlene. Being the perceptive girl that she was, she immediately burst into tears. Tifa grabbed her up into her arms and tried to calm her down. Cloud put his hand on her shoulder and coaxed her into looking at him. In her terror and distress, she fisted her hands in his shirt and clung tightly. While he tried to look reassuring, he knew it was most likely a lost cause. Carefully, he lifted a hand and untied Aeris' ribbon from his arm. With practiced hands, he tied it around her wrist. Aeris had taught him how to make a passable bow when she had been alive. Marlene touched it and held her arm to her chest. He pressed a kiss to her temple and whispered that her father loved her very much. She threw her arms around him and hugged him as though she'd never get another chance. In truth, she probably wouldn't.

Tifa's eyes were riveted on Cloud's face as he pulled away from Marlene. He could see her fear, but comforting her would be much harder than the girl. He stood and motioned for her to follow him outside. She nodded shakily and offered her hand for him to help her stand.

After pulling her up, he turned to leave. Marlene grabbed his sleeve before he could step away. "But… Cloud? What will you have to remember Aeris?" Her eyes were huge and wet, but he was relieved to see the innocence that was never truly taken away from her. At least she could still believe in eternal peace in the Lifestream.

After a short pause, he raised his hand to his neck and tugged on a silver chain he wore tucked inside his shirt. As he ran his fingers over the small loop threaded on the chain, he allowed himself to smile a weak, but real, smile for the first time in many months. He held it out till the chain was pulled taut. On the simple chain was a beautiful diamond ring. The band resembled a woven vine and was studded with small diamonds. The setting was reminiscent of a blooming flower with a large diamond sitting in the middle.

"Oh Cloud, it's perfect."

As his heart clenched in longing, his eyes slipped closed for a second as he imagined her bright and smiling face as he'd slipped it onto her finger. The fireworks colored the area of the gondola as they exploded below and around us. He didn't understand what she had meant then, but… when it was too late, and he was left wondering if she had only loved the pieces of Zack she had recognized in him but with no way to ask her… he realized what she was saying then.

"I think I must have seen him again, in you… But you're different. Things are different… Cloud… I'm searching for you. I want to meet you. What I mean is…. I want to meet… you."

A part of him selfishly hoped… That after she had come to know the real him, that she would have still loved him.

Tifa spared one glance at the ring and rushed out of the tent with a sob. It had cut at her heart to know that Cloud had truly loved Aeris, but couldn't love her.

Marlene's eyes flicked between the ring and the flaps of the tent that Tifa had disappeared through. Cloud put a hand on her head for one more minute and then followed Tifa outside. He found her clutching at her arms and crying. For a moment, his emotions acted as though they existed for once and he was overcome with sympathy. Truthfully, not loving Tifa had always been one of Cloud's biggest regrets. She definitely deserved the happiness it would have brought her.

"So… This is it? After everything, this is how we die? Is there really no hope? Maybe, if I helped?"

"Tifa… Don't leave Marlene," he said softly. You wouldn't be able to change anything. We'll be fighting till there are none of us left anyway. If there's a chance, we'll find it. He wished he could have said everything he wanted to, because maybe it would have given her some comfort. Yet, his throat just stopped working for him.

Her tearful eyes met his and she lunged forward suddenly. It was his only warning before she pressed her lips to his. He stood ridged and let her do as she wanted. It did no good, as she still sobbed brokenly when she pulled back.

He half expected her to say something else. Instead she punched his shoulder with all her might. Cloud barely moved and the wicked bruise that would have blossomed was instantly erased by the mako inside. Without another word, she turned away from him and reentered the tent. Cloud was grateful; she had let him off the hook easy for once and assumed Cloud wouldn't be able to handle any meaningful sort of goodbye.

Cloud walked back to the Southwest edge of the camp in a daze. The men were already in position and battle ready. Forcing his mind to concentrate, his eyes focused on the flying monsters that were barely moments from reaching them. They didn't appear to be feathered. In fact, they were rather leathery in appearance. It was no surprise and it gave no clue as to what they were before they were tainted. Runners were just mutated behemoths that had skin hardened to the point of being armored.

The sound of the impending conflict was starting to become deafening to Cloud. Claws in dirt, sobs and hyperventilated breaths, flapping wings, and the pounding heartbeats of the soldiers near him. He could feel Jenova closing in like a tightening noose. Every cell in his body cried out to unite with her; a sensation Cloud knew well.

The runners arrived in the Northwest as Cloud heard the sound of tearing flesh and clanging steel. The men around him lifted their weapons and started muttering prayers.

Cloud just closed his eyes and smiled faintly. War was something he knew how to handle.

The smile didn't fade even as he charged Comet 2.

EDIT: Revised October 7, 2013. Minor structure changes and descriptions. No scenes added.