Raised by Wolves— Chapter I
Cloud stared out across the wasteland, dust swirling around his feet. It had been over fifty years since the Remnants had been defeated and the Geostigma had been purged by Aerith's rain. Almost everyone from Cloud's old life was dead. Marlene and Denzel were in their sixties now with kids who were full-grown. Tifa, Barrett, Cid, and Yuffie had long since grown old and died, their kids living their own lives with families of their own. Rufus, Rino, Rude, Tseng, and Elena combined with Reeve Tuesti and began the laborious process of changing the remains of the company. Their descendants had managed to finish turning Shinra around, making it into Neo-Shinra. It was the time of the next generation.
Cloud, however, hadn't aged a day. He, Vincent, and Shelke had watched the world pass them by, growing and changing while they themselves were trapped in the same bodies that they'd begun their journey with. Nanaki still aged, but as with his race, he aged infinitely slower and kept them company as he watched the world change and grow alongside them.
The blonde hero often found himself wondering if their bodies would even be able to enter the Lifestream, after all of the things that Hojo had done to them. One would think that it would have an adverse effect. Although, Kadaj and his brothers had had no trouble dissolving into the Lifestream; they had been clones as well, albeit of a slightly different kind.
Cloud sighed, a light breath of air ghosting through his pale lips. He was so, so tired. He wanted to rest, to die out with the rest of his friends. He wanted to be welcomed into the Lifestream, to see Zack and Aerith and Tifa and all the others that had left the Planet's surface. He wanted his own happy ending, not to be forever trapped in a body that was far too durable and that perpetually looked as though he was in his early twenties. He didn't want to look at the world, hearing the Planet's whispers and being reminded of all his failures, all of the things he couldn't stop from happening. He was tired of feeling guilty. Tired of being used and scraped raw. Tired of feeling both too much and too little.
He wanted to rest, to fall into oblivion. To cease existing.
He knew. He knew that his friends wouldn't want him to do that. Planet, if Tifa knew half of what he'd really been thinking all these years, she'd have beaten him to a pulp…
"Dilly dally, shilly shally. Isn't it time you did the forgiving?"
"I've never tried."
"Forget it, Cloud! Why don't you ever pay any attention to us?!"
Cloud smiled slightly at the memories, closing his eyes.
I'm so tired.
A gentle breath of wind. The rustling of flowers. The smell of growing things and loamy soil.
Cloud opened his eyes slowly, taking in the field of yellow and white flowers. He stood still for a moment, just taking everything in and relaxing.
"And here you are again. Really, what are we to do with you?"
A gentle, teasing voice filled Cloud's ears. He turned slightly.
"Aerith," he said, taking in the pink dress, the brown-red hair, and the soft green eyes.
"Hello, Cloud. You look like you're about to break again," she said gently, teasingly, though her eyes were understanding.
Cloud didn't reply, just looked at her. And then he did something he hadn't before: he flopped onto the ground, hands resting behind his head as he lay amongst the flowers.
"Seems that way… And yet, I can't die. Not me. Not Vincent. Not Shelke."
"Must suck, huh?" joined in a new voice.
Cloud's eyes widened, startled. He shot up and looked over towards Aerith.
"Z-Zack?" he said hesitantly, not believing his eyes; he hadn't seen or heard Zack since the stigma incident…
"Yup," said the dark-haired SOLDIER with an easy grin. "Yah look like shit, Spiky," he added, crossing over to Cloud and dropping into a cross-legged seat in front of the blonde.
"Thanks so much," Cloud said wryly, a small grin spreading across his lips as he looked at Zack and the sheer happiness of seeing his old friend filled him.
"You really should drop the whole 'it's all my fault' guilt-thing, you know," Zack continued, "It's not good for your health."
Cloud's smile spread a bit wider at Zack's easy words, and then dropped a bit.
"But, you wouldn't have die—" Cloud started.
"Not hearing it," cut in Zack, pouncing on the blue-eyed blonde and wrestling him into submission, ruffling his spikes like he had when Cloud was a trooper.
"Zack!" yelped Cloud, trying to fend off his friend.
Eventually, he succeeded. Hearing muffled giggles, he looked up and over to where Aerith had been standing. She was now sitting, her knees and feet tucked beneath her, and her pink dress arranged modestly around her legs. She was giggling, a hand raised to cover her mouth. Her braid and pink ribbon swayed as she attempted to suppress her laughter. Cloud smiled at the sight.
"Hah! Told you I'd get him to smile within five minutes after the first meeting!" exclaimed Zack, fist pumping the air in victory.
"What?" asked Cloud, frowning slightly.
"Time for your reward then," said Aerith lightly, leaning over and pecking Zack softly on the lips.
Zack grinned. "I've got the best girlfriend in all of Gaea!" he said, his broad grin practically splitting his face, "Wait, should I say 'Lifestream' instead? How do I say that right?" wondered Zack, scratching his head thoughtfully.
Cloud rolled his eyes, drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them.
"Aerith, Zack. Why am I here?" he finally asked.
Zack and Aerith shared a look, falling silent, expressions serious.
"You're not… happy, are you Cloud?" it was phrased as a question, though they all knew the answer. "You haven't been for a long time…" continued Aerith, looking at him with her soft green, Cetra eyes.
Cloud opened his mouth, then paused to think, frowning. When was the last time he was happy?
"I… I don't know. I'm not really sure. I've felt… content, comfortable. Most of my memories are still kind of hazy… I think when I went on that mission with you was probably it, before all the bad stuff happened," Cloud said hesitantly, "There have been a few times since."
Zack face-palmed. "What about when you were a kid?" he asked.
Cloud shrugged. "I don't really remember much, but most of what I do remember isn't exactly…happy," he said ruefully. Vague memories of name-calling and being shoved around briefly flickered through his mind.
Zack frowned. "What about your family?"
"Just my mom and I."
"Wait, what about Tifa?" asked Zack.
Cloud sighed. "Hadn't I ever mentioned any of this to you?"
"Nope," said Zack with a frown, "Not a word."
"So?" prodded Zack, nudging Cloud's arm.
"Tifa… was the mayor's daughter and the prettiest girl in town. She was popular, and I never really met up with her except for right before I left to join SOLDIER," explained Cloud.
"Oh," was Zack's intelligent reply. He didn't know what else to say. Spiky didn't seem to have great childhood; sounded like the polar opposite of what his had been, in fact.
"Cloud?" Aerith's voice broke through Cloud's conflicting thoughts, brought on by Zack's questions.
The blonde looked at her, his blue eyes old and tired and so deeply sad that Aerith felt her heart clench.
"He's been through so much, and yet he'll still—"
"Cloud, the Planet. You can tell, can't you? That she is struggling, weak and sick? You can hear it…" she said, clasping her hands in her lap.
Zack moved to sit next to her, placing his hand on top of hers in a silent show of support. He knew how much it hurt her, how much it hurt them both, to have to tell Cloud what was going to happen.
"The Planet is dying, Cloud. Too much has happened to it. Having to cure the geostigma took its toll. It added to the damage already done by ShinRa, Meteor, and Sephiroth. The Planet will start failing within the next few years," said Aerith quietly, taking a deep breath.
"It's…dying?" questioned Cloud, "Then what did we all fight for?" he asked himself quietly, dropping his spiky blonde head onto his knees, looking very much like an overwhelmed child.
"But! There's good news! And bad news," added Zack, dropping a hand onto Cloud's lowered head and ruffling the soft golden hair, for a moment marveling at how soft it was before Cloud automatically knocked his hand away.
Cloud lifted his head slightly, just enough to look over at Zack. He raised an eyebrow at the SOLDIER First, silently asking. Zack laughed.
"Y'see, there's a way to… fix it, I guess you could say. But you aren't going to like it," warned Zack.
"I never do," Cloud pointed out, a wry smile twisting his lips; Zack winced, but continued his explanation.
"The Planet has enough energy to rewind the events that happened, but let your memories of this time stay with you. You won't have the enhancements that you have now, but I think the Planet has something planned to make things a bit easier, though I'm not sure what. That part went way over my head," explained Zack, rubbing the back of his neck.
"How far back will I be sent?" Cloud asked, wondering if he'd be sent back far enough to prevent what happened to Vincent.
Zack seemed to know what he was thinking and shook his head ruefully, "Sorry Cloud. You'll be sent back to your child years, I think. I'm not sure exactly what age you'll be, but you'll be back in Nibelheim as a kid," he said apologetically.
"And that's why you asked about my childhood so suddenly," muttered Cloud.
"I'm sorry, Cloud. I tried to get Her to do something else, but—" Aerith started.
Cloud waved her off, giving her a small smile. He released his knees and flopped back spread-eagled into the flowers and closed his eyes with a small sigh, enjoying the momentary peace he felt.
Zack and Aerith looked at each other, then at Cloud. He looked more relaxed than he had for many years now. His eyes were closed, and the lines around his mouth, eyes, and brow were smoothed out, making him look years younger. His ever-present frown followed the lines and disappeared as well.
"When and how is it gonna start?" Cloud asked, eyes still closed and posture still relaxed.
Aerith and Zack looked at each other.
"In a few moments, actually. The Lifestream will take you," said Zack sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.
"What—" Cloud started, eyes snapping open and his body shooting upright.
As he stared at Aerith and Zack, he felt a tug. His eyes widened further.
"Wait—!" he began, "I'm not—!"
And then he was surrounded by swirling green. His memories began flickering by him, a confusing myriad of images that hardly made sense as they moved backwards at a blurring speed.
At first, Cloud didn't feel anything, aside from a slight nausea from the moving images. Gradually, he lost his sense of body, feeling nothing but an odd rushing sensation much like when he stood up too fast. There was no pain at first. But Cloud slowly became aware of a swelling noise that wasn't noise. His conscious was abruptly seized from all sides, pulled and twisted until it felt like every piece of his mind was being ripped and torn to shreds. If Cloud had a mouth and vocal cords he would have been screaming in agony. As it was, he could only endure, hoping desperately for the Lifestream to finish with him. After a time of excruciating pain, his consciousness waned and he felt nothing.
AN: This chapter is kinda short, but they'll get longer. Promise =] And if you want to review, you can, though I'm not holding my breath lol.