Cloud stared down at the double-knotted shoelaces of his combat boots, at the wooden slats of the rope bridge, at the gray slabs of rock to the right of him... Anything to keep from staring down into the abyss.
"I hate this," he muttered to no one in particular, knowing he wouldn't be heard.
He had hated these mountains ever since he was a little kid. Ever since he'd followed Tifa into the foothills and she'd nearly been killed, and he had come away with scratches. They had blamed him for that, back then.
Now he had a gun, and still the only thing keeping him safe was the presence of Sephiroth and Zax. They took out the larger creatures, with their huge swords and swift moves and powerful materia. He and Omega could keep animals at bay long enough for the general and the SOLDIER to take their turn and finish the things off. How long would it be until he ever approached their level...?
Swallowing back apprehension with a dry mouth, Cloud put one hand on the rope rail of the bridge. It seemed rickety, far too rickety...
And Tifa was their local guide.
She moved, sure-footed, up the trail and over tumbled rocks, shaking back dark hair. Now Tifa skirted even the bridge with no trace of fear. She was a lithe teenager, grown from a pretty girl, not quite a woman yet. Her training with Zangan showed in the way she moved confidently now.
Cloud had felt an odd sort of fright when she showed up, and he had realized she was the one Sephiroth had spoken of. He was glad now for the helmet that was part of the Shinra regular uniform; she would never recognize him. He didn't want Tifa to know what a failure he'd turned out to be. But at the same time, he wanted to keep her safe. The Nibel Mountains were a dangerous place.
He gripped his gun tightly, lurching a step as the bridge swayed.
"Uh, the bridge~!" Tifa cried out. Her sudden shriek ricocheted off the mountains, echoing back redoubled.
With a heavy snap and twang, the cabled ropes parted.
Cloud was spinning, tumbling in the air, clutching his gun and twining his hand into the rope beside him and hoping it was enough, because he didn't have the capacity to hold anymore. Blood was thundering in his ears and all the breath slammed from his lungs as the bridge bounced off the side of the mountain, as if trying to shake the pitiful figures that clung to it.
Zax!! He stared wildly upwards. Above him, Zax dangled by one arm from a stout plank. His eyes were dazed and then he shook his head, lifted his other arm, and started to pull himself up.
Tifa!? Further up, Sephiroth held fast to the bridge with one hand, the other locked around the girl's wrist. Without even looking like he exerted himself, he hauled Tifa up and she grabbed onto the remains of the bridge, gasping.
Alive. They were all still alive.
Cloud just held on to the bridge for a moment longer, resting his forehead against a wooden plank in relief, then slung his gun over his back and began to climb. He was pleased to note he didn't feel more than mildly winded after he managed to haul himself over the projection of rock above.
At the top, Sephiroth scanned their faces, then gave a curt nod. He was in full-powered general mode now, operating on whatever best plan he had for this contingency.
"Everyone seems to be all right," Sephiroth commented, and glanced at Tifa. "Can we get back to where we were?"
Tifa nodded, brushing back mussed strands of dark brown hair. "These caves are intertwined, just like an ant farm..." she told them. She blinked. "Oh, and Sephiroth, there seems to be one person missing."
Sephiroth looked at her, expressionless. "It may sound cold, but we've got no time to search for him. We can't go back now, so we must go on. We'll travel together from here." He looked directly at Cloud.
Cloud felt a shiver in his gut. Did Sephiroth know it was him? Would he care if he didn't know either way?
He didn't like it. But this was a military outfit, and there was no room in a mission for a rescue outfit.
Zax was the last one to linger on the path. "You okay?" The tilt of his head indicated that he knew it was him, Cloud -- there was a relieved smile waiting at the corners of his mouth.
"I'm okay, Zax."
There it was, in full bloom.
The Mt. Nibel reactor looked like any other Shinra reactor Cloud had seen in the past two years. Fort Condor, Gongaga, Midgar...they all looked the same. They had the same basic, scientifically precise layout. He supposed it was for efficiency's sake.
"We finally made it," Tifa said with obvious relief. "We sure took the long way, though."
"Tifa, you wait here," Zax told the girl, as he and Sephiroth began to approach the metal steps.
Tifa took a step forward. "I'm going inside, too! I wanna see!"
Unseen beneath his helmet, Cloud rolled his eyes. He could predict Sephiroth's reaction to this outburst. ...Just like a child.
"You stay here," Sephiroth said, leveling an implacable look on the girl. She was no match for a Mako-powered stare. "This place is full of Shinra's industrial secrets."
"But..." Tifa protested.
"Take care of the lady," Sephiroth turned and addressed him.
And now Cloud understood. This was the extent of his purpose on this mission: to keep the prying public from trying to see too much. Sephiroth and Zax got the dangerous parts, cleaning up the vicious monsters and containing whatever had gone awry in the reactor. Cloud was the regular. He got crowd-control duty.
But this was to protect Tifa. He still took that seriously.
Cloud stepped up and barred Tifa's path as she moved to follow despite the general's words.
Tifa scuffed her feet violently, brown hair and breasts bouncing. She glared at his helmeted face. "Ah, man... Better take real good care of me, then."
Unseen, Cloud made an incredulous face.
They waited outside the reactor for an hour, maybe more.
After giving him a withering look of scorn, Tifa paced off towards one of the metal supports for the outer shell of the Nibel reactor. Cloud hesitated for a moment, then followed. The mountains were riddled with a honeycomb network of caves, and they could be ambushed by claws and teeth at any point in the area. It would have been safer if Sephiroth had allowed them to wait just within the reactor, but he supposed he could understand the official stance. If the girl wasn't allowed to set foot in the reactor at all, she wouldn't be able to make up stories about having been inside.
Tifa turned and glared. "Are you going to follow me every inch of the way, then?" she said huffily.
Cloud wasn't going to risk speaking aloud. It had been two years and his voice had deepened a little, but she might still recognize him. Instead, he just nodded.
"Fuu." She blew brown bangs out of her eyes and turned away, kicking a pebble across the uneven ground.
After they had waited for an interminable amount of time, and Tifa had kicked her rock from one end of the reactor premises to the other, and tried to induce him into a game of Tic-Tac-Toe played by dragging their boots in the dirt, at last the door to the reactor clanged open. Their heads popped up, and he was relieved to see Zax clattering down the metal stairway. Then Cloud got a look at his face.
Zax looked shaken. No, he almost looked...afraid.
He had never seen Zax look this way before, his composure in tatters.
Behind him came Sephiroth, and his face was carved in such thunderous lines that it made Cloud afraid just to look at him. But it was more than just anger that gave Cloud that feeling; the look on his face, it was...it...
He'd felt it on his own face. It was a little bit lost, and a lot disillusioned.
It was wrong for Sephiroth to seem this way. He was the general, composed, in charge, issuing crisp orders that everyone else scrambled to obey. Sephiroth was in control.
The look on his face now had little to do with control.
"We're going back, right now," Sephiroth barked. He swept past them. "NOW!"
Tifa jumped, and scurried into the lead. "Y-yes, sir!"
What...? Cloud wanted to say, as Zax passed him. He wanted to catch at his elbow and demand some answers. But Zax turned his head, face strained with worry, and gave him a shake of the head.
Not now, that look said. Damned well not now.
Once they got back to the inn, the situation worsened further.
Sephiroth disappeared in between dinner and the time Zax went upstairs to get the gil to pay for their meal.
"He just let Tom Omega die like that," Zax snapped his fingers. "You were there. You remember. He didn't even spare a fifteen-minute search to see if the man was clinging by his fingers to the cliff-face. He could've still been alive..."
Cloud was nodding, more dazed than anything else. Sephiroth had vanished. He was their commanding officer, and he was gone. "Yeah...and when you came out of the reactor..."
"He's lost it, Cloud!" Zax exclaimed, gesticulating wildly, pacing around the confines of the aisle between the beds. "I'm telling you, he's blown a fuse! You weren't down there with him -- you didn't see the way he was raving on about being just like those Mako-monsters, being less than human, being not special but some kind of monster himself...and then he was laying into the Mako pods with the Masamune!"
"No, I wasn't there," Cloud said, tone subdued. "I was outside, guarding Shinra's industrial secrets."
Zax continued as if he hadn't heard. "He's gone crazy! We don't even know where the hell he is now, and..." He stopped all of a sudden and dropped onto one of the beds. "Shit. This is not good, Cloud."
"You're telling me this?" Cloud said sarcastically. "Of course it's not good! Our commanding officer has gone AWOL, or at least gone! And it's Sephiroth!"
"We need to radio this in," Zax said, shaking his head. He looked up. "But..."
Cloud didn't like that look on the man's face. "But...what?"
"They're making monsters," Zax told him, lowering his head into his hands. "Shinra -- the monsters, they're making monsters in that reactor -- I don't know why, probably to frighten the people into believing their only protection is Shinra's army. Shinra shouldn't even have an army, you know that?"
"Yeah," Cloud said slowly. "I'd heard it started out as a security force, and got bigger as the company got bigger...and then Shinra had a large armed force that it 'loaned' to Midgar's cause during the war..."
"And I'll bet Shinra started the damned war, to begin with," Zax looked up, golden eyes taut with anxiety. "This isn't right, Cloud. And the whole reason for this mission is to clean up one of Hojo's messes. This reactor was never meant to function without support staff, anyway."
Cloud swallowed. "So what do we do?" He hoped to hell Zax would have some kind of answer, because he didn't know what he could suggest.
"Do?" Zax snorted. "What can we do, Cloud? Sephiroth's vanished. We haven't finished the mission -- there's still work that needs to be done at the reactor. All we can do is stick around and hope he shows up again, to help us complete the mission we've started."
"Dammit," Cloud said softly.
"Well..." Zax's grin edged into wildness. "Don't sound too put out, Strife. Since he's gone, it leaves us alone -- together -- for the first time in weeks. So whaddya say we take advantage of that, for a little while at least?"
"Zax..." Cloud began, his stomach clenching. Then he relaxed. He wanted to be reassured like this. He wanted Zax to prove to him that everything was still okay between the two of them. "Yeah. I really...I've been wanting to." He smiled.
"Mm." Zax's expression softened. "C'mere, then."
Some time early the next morning, the driver who had ferried them from Gongaga to Nibelheim burst in on their breakfast bringing word of Sephiroth.
"He's in the Mansion!" The driver skidded to a halt by the table, holding his gun in a loose grip. "Sephiroth...some of the villagers have seen the general in the Mansion at the back of the village."
Zax and Cloud exchanged a glance.
"Get back to the Mansion!" Zax ordered, shoving his chair back with force as he stood. "Try to find out where he went inside, private!"
"Yes, sir!" The man clicked his heels; turned and ran down the stairs.
Zax was seizing his Buster Sword; strapping it onto his back and turning with a concentrated expression. "Tell me everything you know about the Mansion."
Cloud related it in a few sentences as they ran over. It was the biggest building in Nibelheim, and one of the oldest ones. It had been there for his whole life; for as long as anyone in the village could recall. People used to call it Shinra Mansion. A long time ago, people from Shinra, Inc. had inhabited it.
As they came up to the gate of the fence guarding the premises, Zax and Cloud paused, threading through the knot of people that milled there. Zax paused near him.
"Take care of it, Cloud," he nodded to him.
Cloud knew what this meant. He was on crowd control again.
In this particular instance, it was even more important. If Sephiroth really had snapped, they would have to keep the townspeople out of it and away for as long as it took. People wouldn't really want to go inside -- the place had a reputation as a haunted house -- but they would try to get a glimpse of the general. They were already gossiping. He could hear them from where he stood, machine gun held stiffly across his chest.
"Do you think...?"
"...maybe there's more Shinra secrets inside..."
"...Sephiroth looked like a man gone obsessed..."
Maybe it was true that they were as afraid of the Shinra as they were of the monsters.
It wasn't long before Zax came out again, and the look in his eyes now was that of borderline panic.
"We've got to radio Midgar," were the first words out of Zax's mouth once they got back to the relative security of the inn's upper floor.
"What? Are you serious?" Cloud was actually kind of relieved. If that kind of look had been on Zax's face, he was sure it wasn't something they could handle with the two of them and their driver -- who was more of a pilot cum driver than a genuine regular of the Shinra army.
"Leave me alone."
Cloud turned his head. Zax's tone had been unusually dark and somber. "Huh?"
"That's all he would say to me, before I finally left," Zax said. "Leave me alone. At first he was talking. 'My mother's name is Jenova...the Jenova project...Is this just a coincidence?' Sounded like something straight out of crackpot Hojo's notes. He wanted to be alone. That was all he'd say, after. And...I felt sorry for him...so I left. After how he was inside the reactor, I didn't know what else to do..."
Zax described how Sephiroth had been possessed, pacing, leafing through book after old, musty-smelling book. And, almost against his will, he related the frenzied look in his eyes.
They had no choice. They radioed the Shinra army headquarters in Junon, and they relayed to Midgar, and received word back. Wait.
It was just the two of them, Zax and Cloud, staring at the window and both of them too tense even to eat. Sephiroth didn't come out of the Shinra mansion. He continued to read, presumably, as if possessed by something, and not once did the light go out...
At one point, Zax turned to Cloud and gripped his shoulder, hard. "Something's going to happen. Cloud...gods, we don't get paid enough for this shit..." He lapsed off, letting go, looking blank. "I don't know what to do."
"I'm going back in there."
The light in the Mansion still burned, unblinking as it had been for the past day and a half. Cloud felt exhausted. Zax looked like hell.
"Should I come with...?" Cloud trailed off. He didn't know how much good he could be. He'd pushed Sephiroth away on that one morning, and the man had been scarcely courteous since.
A muscle worked in Zax's jaw. "I want you to stay outside. I don't know what kind of dangerous mood he's in."
"He's been cooped up there for two days..." Cloud trailed off. "Something is really wrong."
"Yes," Zax agreed. "But I still have to go in."
And for a second time, he watched Zax step through the doorway of Shinra Mansion, swallowed up into the belly of the beast. It was nighttime, now, and any curious villagers were tucked away in their beds. They had seemed to lose interest after the first few hours.
Cloud gripped his gun tightly, and stood by the gate.
He wasn't stupid enough to try and tell himself he wasn't frightened. The very air was charged, seeming to breathe heavy and ominous portents down the back of his neck.
It hadn't been very long. Zax had been gone maybe fifteen minutes. Every muscle in his body was rigid, fearing whatever happened next. Worried for Zax's safety.
And suddenly the night was blooming with the promise of that danger, Fire3 blooming in the air and shivering across the rooftops, Fire3 leaping from one wooden roof to another, flames raining down from the sky. Orange-crimson spilled over signs and dropped onto dirt and crawled up the sides of buildings. It caught and burned in places it had no right to burn, like the metal siding of the inn.
Nibelheim...his city...his mother -- !
Cloud was barely aware of screaming until he felt his throat go raw. He was turning, gun lifted in his arms, and caught sight of Sephiroth standing in the doorway of Shinra Mansion. His arms were uplifted, his face turned to the sky.
He was calling down Fire upon the sleeping town.
Cloud took aim at a human for the first time in his life.
Nibelheim was burning.
Cloud lay on the ground taking shallow breaths. His gut, his whole chest hurt and burned and felt like it was caved in from the tremendous blow of Masamune. He had lifted his gun, and Sephiroth...the general had moved. He had been faster than Cloud had ever seen anything move.
Next he knew, he lay ten yards from where he'd started and his gun was in at least two different pieces. The general had turned, silver hair sweeping over his shoulders like a cloak. Then he'd lifted his arms again, and the fire coursed down like rain.
Nibelheim was burning, and his life was going up in the flames with it.
A black-haired blur was dashing nearby. Cloud glimpsed the faded-lavender dungarees from the corner of his eye and felt some kind of passive relief. Zax had emerged from the Mansion alive.
"Hey, it's you!" someone called out. "You're still sane, right? Then come over here and help me! I'll check out this house. You check that one over there!"
Zax was stooping over him, face twisted in lines of grief and rage.
"Sephi...roth." He needed to warn Zax. Sephiroth was mad, not merely possessed or upset by whatever discoveries he'd stumbled over. His green eyes had been glacially calm, but what was housed behind them was *gone.* Then Zax's hands were on his pulse points, making sure he was still alive.
"You're going to be all right, I promise, it's going to be okay..." Zax's voice was hoarse with smoke and pain but the low chant reached through to him, cutting deep. How...? "I'm gonna go check your house now, okay?"
Cloud could only twitch. How could it ever be okay?
Moments later, he could see him emerging from the burning building from the corner of his eye. Zax's shoulders were slumped. He was shaking his head.
"Cruel." He could hear his lover's low groan. "Sephiroth...this is too terrible." That was it, Cloud thought with numb clarity. His mother was dead.
Then Zax was turning, running, gasping: "No -- don't kill them!" Zax was running away from him.
And Nibelheim burned around him.
I have to get up.
...and Tifa, they've both gone...
Every muscle in his body was hurting. He felt bruised all over, from chin to thighs, by the terrible blow Sephiroth had given him. At the last minute, Sephiroth had reversed his sword, striking him with the blunt side of the blade. Even so, Cloud was surprised he was still alive; he had been knocked through the air several times the length of his body. But if Sephiroth hadn't turned the sword around, Cloud would be in two pieces now.
He had to get up. They had gone to the reactor again; he could feel it. That was where this had all started.
He had to get moving. And once he moved his foot, he found he could move his leg. Once he moved one leg, it was easier to move both. Once he started moving, he knew it would hurt like nothing else in the world if he stopped.
So he kept moving. Because he had to.
There was something Cloud still had left to protect.
Cloud didn't remember the long trip to the reactor. Maybe he crawled part-way; his legs certainly felt scraped and dragged through the dust. Zax had gone before; to stop Sephiroth for good, maybe. And he knew, just as his lover would have known, how that fight would have to end.
Bile rose up in his throat.
Cloud had to stop by the metal stairs of the reactor for a moment, shaking, throwing up the paltry contents of his stomach. He had seen the bodies of people he knew -- had known -- burnt, smelling of barbecued flesh and the stench of hair turned to ashes. He had seen the bodies left by Masamune, wounds hardly bleeding, even that little amount having been spilled in the seconds between the blade leaving flesh and the stopping of the heart.
He was frightened. Everyone else he loved was dying all around him, and Cloud had nothing to hold onto.
He did not want to die.
Tifa's voice was screaming out, twisting as it spiraled higher in the cavernous reactor. Cloud paused on the edge and thought he might throw up again. Mr. Lockhart was sprawled out on the concrete in the boneless stance of the dead.
"Sephiroth did this to you, didn't he? Sephiroth...SOLDIER...Mako reactors... Shinra...everything..."
He had known the man since he was a toddler. Tifa's father... Cloud fumbled his way over to the chains that would take him to the lower level. This place had the same layout as the reactors he'd been in before. He gulped and felt sweat trickle down his face.
"I hate them all!"
No, Tifa, wait...
She was groping for the sword that had fallen to the ground beside her. The Masamune, Cloud realized. When did Sephiroth drop it...? This Jenova must be more important to him than anything.
Tifa seized the sword, its length all but dragging the ground, and ran inside the innermost room of the reactor.
Cloud, clinging to the chains, saw her vanish.
"No!" Zax was scrambling after her, a few steps behind. "Wait, Tifa!"
Wait... Cloud HAD to hurry. He had to move faster, because neither of them would wait.
He slipped down the chains, fell five feet and grabbed frantically at the clammy links, and brought his fall to a halt with a body-jolting jerk. God... His arms ached with the strain. He felt weak. He couldn't handle this, he wasn't strong enough; but if he didn't keep going, there was no one else who would. What could possibly stop Sephiroth in this condition? He didn't have any materia on him, his gun was melting in Nibelheim's fires, and he didn't even know enough blistering language to stop a cat in its tracks.
Cloud shimmied down the thick chains, sliding the rest of the way, feeling the skin of his hands tear. He slammed to his feet on the lower level and staggered. What he wouldn't give for the Cure materia embedded in Zax's Buster Sword now...
He kept moving, because if he stopped he was pretty sure he'd pass out. He could hardly squeeze breath past the pain in his lungs and it was a miracle and a half to be moving at all.
Slow, too damned slow... He ripped his helmet off, gulping air. He felt a little better; at least, as if he could continue to put one foot in front of the other. He moved into the inner chamber of the reactor, averting his eyes from the fallen body of Mr. Lockhart. There was very little blood, as it was with most of Sephiroth's kills.
Inside, Cloud had trouble focusing for a moment. He was confronted by row upon row of gray metal pods, their skin slick and swollen like some weird strain of monstrous seeds.
He looked up.
Tifa was crumpled on the stairs, fallen like a carelessly-mauled doll, her flat wide-brimmed hat still tumbling down. Cloud was frozen with the scope of these events, the suddenness, the way each and every thing he cared for was being knocked flat like dominoes in merciless, indifferent precision.
Sephiroth was already at the top of the stairs, palming open a door that hissed with steam, a door marked 'Jenova.' "I'm here, Mother."
Cloud was riveted. He couldn't do anything but shiver for a moment as Zax ran after him inside, Buster Sword out and ready in his hands. Something inside was screaming, we're all going to die. No, this had to be some kind of bad dream...there had to be something he could do...he hurried to Tifa's side, kneeling, shocked at the lines of bright color that were beginning to spill down her cream-colored shirt.
The door clanged shut behind Zax with finality.
"You promised..." Tifa exhaled a rattling breath, brown eyes focusing up with wonder as he bent beside her. Cloud gathered her up in his arms and began to move her out of the stairway. "You promised that you'd come...when I was in trouble..."
I'm not much of a hero. He choked on the words, touching her lips, setting her down carefully on the metal catwalk beside a gray-skinned pod. I'm sorry, but Zax...
Cloud stood, pulling the tattered threads of his courage left around him. He had nothing left to lose.
The door to the Jenova room irised open, spitting Zax out and now his lover was falling, too, shot down from a great height and bouncing over the tops of the pods; coming down with a final, ominous crack. His sword fell at last from nerveless fingers and his eyes were open and glazed.
Cloud froze, clutching for the support of the railing beside him. No. No. NO.
And Sephiroth was sweeping down the stairs, Sephiroth, silver hair fluttering in his wake like a war banner, Sephiroth, his mouth grim and his eyes wild with some private hell that no one could wake him from.
"SEPHIROTH!" he yelled, making a wild gesture with his arm. He could still see the line of white that made a bloodless furrow in Zax's chest, shoulder to opposite hip. His sword was halfway across the room.
"Oh. You." Sephiroth did not even pause; he tread past the bodies of the fallen and moved on. "Traitor."
And, just like that, he left.
Cloud had no room left for shock. He stumbled across the room, scooping up Zax's fallen Buster Sword. It came as a surprise that he could lift it in his two hands. And then, riding his rage, he ran after the general. "Stop!"
Sephiroth, surprisingly, did. He turned and stared at Cloud with cool eyes that weren't really seeing him.
"My family...my hometown," he gritted. "How could you do this to them!?" A killing fury was rising up inside of him. "What about MY sadness!? My family...friends...the sadness of having my home taken away from me!? It's the same as your sadness!"
He lifted the Buster Sword above his head, and struck.
Sephiroth...I trusted you...No, you're not the Sephiroth I used to know! The cry echoed over and over in his ears, in his head, the iconic figure of the perfect general wavering and dissolving. He had had a hero, once.
Bright silver parried him. Cloud's hands felt thick; he was struggling to remember his swordplay and he shifted his grip, driving upwards. Sephiroth's sword spun around the blocky wedge of the Buster Sword, then it was flying out of his hands, clattering to the metal floor.
Cloud held very still. One thing, one regret pounded through his head.
...if I was as good as Zax, if I was better, if I'd been good enough to be in SOLDIER...
Sephiroth lifted one silver brow, then Masamune was flashing.
Cloud felt the thud of impact, and looked down. There was a length of tempered steel embedded in his belly. He observed it with a light-headed sort of detachment.
Sephiroth's eyes were murderous. He was going to kick him off with one boot, now, and that would be the end of him.
Cloud grabbed the sword in both hands. He seized it, in this terrible silence, blood thundering in the space between to cover up his pain, and he lifted. He was beyond surprise now to find he could lift not only the heavy Masamune, but the general with his own two hands.
"Wh-what...you...impossible!" Green eyes widened. A measure of sanity seeped back with fear.
It was too late. Cloud was wrenching him over the side, over the pipes that bridged the gap of the very core of the reactor. Then the sword was spinning out of his hands, slicing deep cuts into his palms as it left, and Sephiroth was pitching backwards, endless silver hair fanned out around him. The last look on his face was one of astonishment, and then he closed his eyes. It was a long way to go.
They say you can spit on the Lifestream, deep in the core.
Cloud watched Sephiroth fall into the pit of the reactor. He felt...nothing. It was all gone. He pressed a hand to his side feeling real pain for the first time, as the holly-bright blood began to flow. "That's for Zax," he said, before he passed out.
He was floating.
Cloud had never been swimming before, but he thought this was how it must be. It was remarkably easy, buoyed along by a stream of pure light.
The comforting, familiar blue-green, warm like the ocean, swam up to embrace him. Cloud wanted to fall and keep falling. He had seen Zax fall, rag-boneless like a doll. He knew what it meant. He had seen his house burning. He had touched his hand to Tifa's bloodless white face; heard her whimper as he freed her clinging hands. They were all dead.
He never wanted to wake up again.
Cloud turned over, tucking into a ball, trying to feel his way towards peace. Oblivion, at the very least.
And then the voices began their uproar.
Too much time in the Lifestream.
Huh? Where...had that come from?
You 'n me, kid...we've spent too much time in the Lifestream.
He turned, still gripped in the rush of turquoise light that was pouring over him, tumbling him head over heels. A nightmare. His past. His future; it was all here, rolled together in a repeating loop.
I have to get up.
...I don't ever want to get up again.
"Cloud. It's not time yet." The voice was low and familiar, feminine. There was a woman facing him, her face framed in blonde -- no, now it was long brown hair. When she spoke again, it was high and lilting. "You have to go back."
"What? No! I want to come home, too." Cloud felt so tired. The weight of his past -- or was it his future? -- was crushing down around him. "Haven't I done enough?"
Aeris faced him, brown hair hanging over her shoulders. Right. This is Aeris. I met her...in Midgar. In my future...no, just a few weeks ago.
"You still have something you haven't done," Aeris told him, putting her head to the side.
Aeris is dead.
"But..." Cloud's shoulders slumped. Everything he'd done and suffered, and he still couldn't rest?
"You can't change it, you know." Her face, her shape, were becoming more distinct. A tendril of brown hair fell over her left eye. "No matter how many times you dream it, it will always be the same."
He felt numb. "I thought so, but..." It was frustrating. Here, in this place, he could remember what he'd been through. Once he returned, it would start all over again, remembering only bits, searching for Zax while not realizing that was what he did.
"It's just a dream, Cloud."
He tried to find a way to save Zax in this dream-past, while he moved forward to take revenge on Sephiroth.
"If everything's a dream, don't wake me..."
She gave him a smile. A little shake of her head. *No, Cloud, you know that's not possible.* "Cloud, I realized why I felt an affinity for you."
"What's that?" he asked, weary and ungracious.
"You loved him too," Aeris said simply. She began to dissolve, sparkles coalescing and making a ripple as they re-joined the Lifestream. "He became a part of you, you know. When you were lost. He was always close to you."
"Then where is he now?" Cloud demanded. "Aeris, wait! No, don't disappear!"
She was already gone, fading with a beatific smile. Cloud watched his fingers strain uselessly for the place where she had seemed to float, just outside of the Stream.
It was the same dream every time.
Cloud opened his eyes, staring at the endless blue of the sky, seeing the hot Mako-gold of Zax's eyes in the burning sun.
"Was it enough? The phoenix down got him, didn't it?" That was Vincent, sounding concerned.
"Cloud, get the fuck up!" Cid's voice, gruff and irritated. "You think we've got phoenix downs to waste?"
It was a dream he hadn't remembered on waking, not until he'd been plunged through the Lifestream and back again. Now he lived it every time he got knocked down for the count. "I'm all right." He shook off the cold feeling in his limbs and got to his feet, Ultima Weapon gripped in both hands and held at the ready.
The Capparwire hit him with a Grand Spark, almost knocking him off his feet, and Cloud counterattacked with the blood singing in his veins. Every time it happened, he felt a little closer to Zax.
Cloud had been through the Lifestream twice...and both times, he had felt Aeris' presence hovering at the edge of his mind like a ghost adrift, wanting to soothe him but unable to touch. He had seen the face of his mother, and had been able to recognize the misty shape of his father.
And having been through the Lifestream twice, Cloud knew that Zax was not waiting there.
Vincent lifted his Death Penalty, shot scattering wide to obliterate every creature facing them.
"Nice shot," Cid complimented him, rummaging around. He stood and scowled, champing the evil-smelling cigar between his teeth. "Shitty spoils."
Vincent shrugged. "Cloud, what are we doing down here?"
"Let's get going," Cloud said evasively. "There's something I still have to do."
Gongaga Village was much as he'd remembered it. The twisted spires of the abandoned reactor clawed up against the sky, stark evidence of Shinra's casual discard of tools that no longer met their standards. Cloud touched the hilt of the Ultima Weapon behind him and trudged up the dusty path.
"Why d'we have to wait here?" Cid had demanded, irate.
"Just leave it alone, Cid," Vincent had told him, imperturbable.
"But we're about to go north to the Crater! The final Battle, remember that?"
"Everyone has their last respects to pay, or regrets to absolve," he'd heard Vincent murmuring as he walked away. "We all need to go there with a clear conscience and nothing left behind us. We took care of that last night, but Cloud... This is Cloud's loose end."
"How d'you know?"
Cloud kept walking, but his ears caught what Vincent said one last time.
"I saw his face."
In the village, he knocked on the door of the last hut to the right. He had no idea what to say, how much to admit. The door opened.
"Mr. Darklighter?" Cloud shifted, uncomfortable already, with the man's faded-copper eyes on his.
"Huh? Oh, it's you. You've been here before, haven't you, boy?"
"Don't 'sir' me. I was never in the military. Come in, come in." Inside, Zax's mother was tucked in a chair by the window, rocking and knitting, humming to herself, covered with a colorful quilt.
"Sir, I've come..." Cloud stopped. He cleared his throat. "I've come to tell you the truth about your son."
He would tell him, and tomorrow he would go to his final battle. And then, after that, he might be able to see Zax again.
You know that saying, about how your life flashes before your eyes, right before you die?