Cloud has suffered and asked for forgiveness, but Aeris knows she alone cannot give him it. He must find that forgiveness and peace where it began, back at SOLDIER. SephirothxCloud
In the old cafeteria of Shinra, where the recruits and SOLDIERs and eaten so many years ago, a great lumbering beast walked now. The entirety of Shinra had become overrun by fiends that fed off the old mako in the labs and the distasteful atmosphere Shinra had left behind.
After so much had happened in Midgar, after all the troubles the city suffered and all the terrible things that left its borders, the mad SOLDIERs and the even madder scientists that had once infested it, peace had finally reached out its trembling fingers.
Cloud Strife had made himself a home not far outside the wreckage and the survivor’s dwellings. With saving the world and taking down the mighty Shinra with a small band of warriors, his name had spread to the reaches of the Northern Crater and Mideel. Unable to escape this unwanted fame, he had sought the solitude of the mountains outside Midgar and often made appearances in Edge to the delight of its people. Tifa’s influence from Seventh Heaven, among threats and exaggerated fame, had kept the worst of his admirers away. Occasionally someone drifted close by, but the fiends that loitered between his home and Edge kept most ardent people away.
He visited Edge almost three times a week. Tifa always had a spare bedroom for him if he didn't want to return home and Denzel and Marlene were thrilled to have him. Barret seemed to find it funny how ‘soft’ Cloud had gotten, but Tifa, suited to her motherly role over Denzel and Marlene, admonished the larger man like she would a child anytime he even mentioned it. Cloud had at first found their constant presence like a weight upon him, as though he was still their leader and the fate of the world still sat upon his shoulders. Overtime though, they had grown accustomed to him leaving suddenly and popping up again in a couple of days. His surprise visits became almost a game with the children as they tried to find him in Edge before he could reach Seventh Heaven.
His delivery service still ran, though weekends were taken off to spend some time alone. He had started up again after a small break after Kadaj’s gang ran through the peace. This break had been more about reconnecting with himself and better clearing through the clutter of his mind. Many memories of Shinra were full of holes and sorting through them seemed to only make it worse. The frustration from this was often vented on the surrounding monsters.
Though Cloud enjoyed the travel, and therefore fighting, of his delivery service, he didn't make enough to really support himself. Rufus Shinra, of all people, had surprisingly lent some of his aid to the ex-SOLDIER. As long as Cloud cleared the road around Edge to Kalm of monsters once every two weeks and ran some special deliveries for the ex-President’s son, then he was afforded free provisions from Neo-Shinra.
Neo-Shinra worked closely with Reeve Tuesti’s World Regenesis Organization (WRO) now. Slowly Neo-Shinra was clearing the blood off of ‘Shinra’ and still made basic commodities, though it was not the all-encompassing empire its predecessor once was. They were also growing in the eyes of the populace, especially after digging up and giving much information to the WRO about previous Shinra activities in an effort to improve their image. Cloud’s association with them, even if it had little to do with actual business, only boosted this.
Cloud’s delivery service afforded him the chance to travel far and wide across the continent. He often dropped in on friends when nearby them and made a point of taking a short break when near Nibelheim to visit his mother’s grave. The City of the Ancients was also frequented on days of note to Cloud, especially the anniversary of Aeris’ death, Nibelheim, and Sephiroth’s demise. Cloud didn't cry at these moments, but those days seemed to fall when it rained, and the flowers he planted by the graves bloomed beautifully. Cloud also made a point of stopping at the lone buster sword overlooking Midgar whenever he returned home. He would often stand in silence thinking of his best friend and wondering just how different things could have been.
Despite Cloud’s general brooding nature, he had managed to loosen up in the years of rest. He and Vincent saw each other rarely, but the ex-Turk was an excellent sparring partner as he was one of the few capable of keeping up with Cloud’s mako-enhanced speed. Barret had returned to Marlene in Midgar once he finally removed the gun from his metal arm and replaced it with a steel hand. He raised her with Tifa at Seventh Heaven and treated Denzel like a son.
Cid still lived in Rocket Town and had married Shera. After much tedious interrogation to a stoic Cloud, warm cider became the only drink they would have whenever Cloud was over. Tifa had tipped them off that a young Cloud had been quite fond of it. Though older than Cloud, Cid and he actually shared similar tastes in music. Though Tifa had been surprised to know Cloud even listened to music, the blonde had only shared that the cadet’s barracks offered little in the ways of entertainment. Marlene had avowed to one day catch Cloud bobbing his head to music one day.
Yuffie had changed the most. Where she had been the annoying and exasperatingly high-spirited ninja, she had grown more mature with age. Wutai had a fantastic mountain range, and after much goading had managed to get Cloud to compete in rock-climbing with her. Cloud, an expert after clambering around Nibelheim’s infamously dangerous mountain range, had beaten her with time to spare. This had escalated to a full-out war between them that raged quietly in the background of their friendship.
Back at home, however, Cloud’s social life dimmed down. He rarely spent more than a day or two with friends, finding solitude more to his liking. Cloud could often be caught star gazing and roaming at all times of the day and night. His habits of wading into the ocean or disappearing into the hills and crags for days to come back bloody and ragged had fueled the rumor mill of Edge. The fact that mostly young woman ran said mill had not escaped Cloud, though their affections were misplaced if they thought his heart was still free.
Another briskly cool night had fallen upon the Midgar Mountains. The perpetual breath of cool air turned to a real gust of snow-laced wind as the months of winter died on. Cloud laid in his small, three room house, the refrigerator full of Tifa’s home cooked food and three photos sat on the small table of the living room. A General, a SOLDIER, a cadet, and Tifa were in one. The other two on the right had all of AVALANCHE in it, one from after Meteor, one from after the three remnants returned.
The small refrigerator and the entire kitchen were bare except for a small bowl of salsa and an empty bag of tortilla chips. The sink had three dishes and several mismatched cups that had yet to be cleaned because Cloud hadn't picked up fresh water yet. The living room was relatively spotless except for a number of bandages strewn about, some even spotted with blood. Cloud was often too tired to throw them out until the following morning, and left them like bits of an unraveled mummy.
The sheer numbers of plants, however, overran the simplicity of the room. Every windowsill and table had at least some fern or flower on it. Cloud had taken up a small collection of various plant life and let it flourish quietly in his home. Aeris’ church still had her flower garden in it and Cloud often ventured into Midgar just to visit her little spot. From there he had taken seeds and grown some of his own so that he could have a little bit of herself with him, just as he had a little bit of Zack inside him.
Beyond the kitchen and living room were two other rooms. A little bathroom was connected to the bedroom. The entire place, all built by Cloud, was small, but Cloud had no need of anything bigger and didn't want anything more.
The blonde owner and builder of this house was curled up on top of his coverlet, the material having been kicked off at some point in the night, and restlessly moved in his sleep. Behind his lids his eyes roved about blindly in a green-haze. Like thick water, it flowed around his form, suspending him in a void without any sense of time or place. Disoriented and afraid, he twisted and turned fruitlessly, struggling against the sheets and the terror caught in his throat. There was a constant painful pulse, like a heartbeat, that sent throbs of pure agony shooting through his body. The more violently he moved, the more the pain increased. Sharp breaths and a sudden spasm later and the glowing green was echoed in his eyes as they opened dazedly, not fully aware of himself.
Sitting up helped as Cloud got a feel for his surroundings. There was a quiet sigh released into the room as the occupant slid off the bed and into the combined kitchen and living room. Resigned to another sleepless night, he took the last clean glass from the cupboard and filled it with water. Barely awake, Cloud blinked his eyes several times; his senses slow to interpret the situation.
Everything bent and tilted around him for a moment, and a heavy sense of dread settled on his stomach. Like suddenly standing up and the blood rushing to his head, he closed his eyes to reign in the dizzying world. When he reopened them, everything had straightened out but the details seemed sharper and stood out more in his mind. Like walking in on a gory massacre, every minute detail was taken in with an unnerving clarity. The water from the sink and in the glass turned his hands a greenish, nauseating glow from the light.
Cloud pulled his hand sharply out from under the sink as the water began to overflow the cup and run over his fingers. The sudden pain jerked his mind to a more functional state and he reflexively dropped the glass.
It shattered. The uneven tiling of his floor was rained upon with droplets of green that left ugly splotches where they landed. Like mercury, the beads banded together and formed little puddles of acidic chemical that would leave permanent stains. Staring at his hand, Cloud barely noticed the tinkering of the glass so close to his bare feet that had broke apart and the splash of his drink. Each individual piece reflected a thousand times over the sickening glow.
He gagged and choked on the searing fumes and fumbled backwards to get away. He knew the burn and the scent that now overwhelmed his kitchen. As he looked to his hand, it had taken on an unhealthy redness where the chemical touched him, and the area became irritated and sensitive to touch. The course flannel was harsh against it as he wiped it against his thigh and only agitated the mark. Cloud knew this feeling. The bottoms of his bare feet stepped on the broken glass and his elbow connected solidly with the wall but the pain was like little pinpricks and hardly noticed. He managed to throw open the two windows of the room, but the odor, like bile, would not leave his nostrils.
Blindly he turned from the smell and went back to his room. He slammed the door behind him a bit too hard his muscles still agitated and twitching with repressed strength. The door groaned and cracked a bit at the force, but the mako and adrenaline pumping through him was only just beginning to fade. Seeing the bed put things a bit more into perspective, and his whole body slumped as he sat down. He could have laughed if his face wasn't still red and he wasn't still short of breath. Already the smell was leaving him and Cloud, putting down the previous events to the workings of his odd mind, breathed out a quiet chuckle.
Imagining mako everywhere had been the least of his mind playing tricks on him. Coming to the City of Ancients and seeing Aeris again, popping in at the church and meeting Sephiroth’s eyes once more, all of these things had happened and nothing had come of them. Cloud’s mind had led him, long ago, to believe he had been a First Class SOLDIER, that he had been one of the best. Cloud’s mind had betrayed him to Jenova’s will and had turned him into the puppet when he handed over the black materia to Sephiroth. Even now the weakness of his shattered mind still haunted him and false vision after false vision, Cloud could only cynically laugh at the memories of his precious people his subconscious seemed unable to forget.
Standing up again and feeling just a tiny bit saner, the blonde slipped off his flannel sleeping-pants and fell back upon the bed. Nude, the sheets rubbed against him like cool soothing fingers. After the Shinra cadet bunks and sleeping on the ground during the Sephiroth chase, Cloud had practically demanded the finest Wutain silk he could get his hands on. The blonde rolled on to his stomach to cool his hot body down. His hand pained him to even touch the soft pillows and he let it dangle off the side instead. Cloud left the coverlet at the foot of the bed and sprawled out to attempt sleep. His tired mind ceaselessly moved though, and he did not sleep well.
The morning sun broke into the little room where its occupant stirred. Cloud slept lightly enough that the barest of morning’s rays were enough to shake him awake. Constant paranoia from army life and living in the open with Sephiroth and Hojo on the loose didn't allow Cloud a solid black slab of sleep anymore. Still groggy from poor sleeping habits he crossed to his dresser and pulled on the usual attire of the day. A sleeveless sweater along with loose military pants and steel-toed combats were pulled on to cover his muscular torso and to hide old scars.
The bathroom was small with a couple of plants left by Marlene proliferating on the windowsill and one lone toothbrush sat on the sink nearby. Cloud leaned over to grab the cow-print toothbrush and, after applying some toothpaste, began to meticulously brush his teeth.
The memories of the night before swam back into the forefront of his mind. Cloud pushed those away ruthlessly and, like a good soldier, separated himself from the pain and instead focused on the bland activity of brushing and spitting. He spat the last of it out and filled up a cup with water. The blonde swirled it and gurgled once before spitting it out again, but stopped from repeating the action. The water had tinted the cup green on the inside and warmed his marked hand. The stain from the night before became quite evident under morning’s eye.
In one violent motion Cloud dumped it all out and into the drain. His eyes grew unnaturally wide as the chemical slipped away. His hands shook as he tried to refill the cup with water just to show himself it wasn't what it seemed. It proved to be impossible as more and more glowing-green filled his cup instead. Cloud backed away from the sink towards the door drawing in a sharp breath, his face white and strained. He easily sidestepped the trash can but his back hit the closed door.
His gaze skittered to the shower where the droplets had become bright green and to the lightly stained porcelain of his sink. Everything stopped around him as he tried to escape the vision and desperately looked into the mirror. The familiar flop of blonde hair and pale skin were strangely overshadowed by the luminescent orbs staring into a face as fearful as the one on the first day of SOLDIER recruitment. As he looked into those eyes, Cloud could see the memories of test tubes, syringes of mako, and the glint of glasses play out before him.
Cloud was out the door and on his motorcycle as fast as his enhanced muscles could carry him. In his flight he stopped long enough in the living room to collect a handful of materia which was stuffed into the pockets of his pants. Sudden escapes from inns when fleeing Hojo’s incarceration and later breaking camp fast in AVALANCHE had honed the technique of thinking on his feet where the military had not. First Tsuguri was strapped on to his back in a flash following this up. Cloud slid on the goggles and gunned Fenrir’s engine. The accompanying roar of the motor matched the roar of panic in Cloud’s ears as he took off into the desert.
He swerved madly around monsters and the arched noses and chins of cliffs, making hairpin curves and skidding sharply in his blind panic to just get away. The desert sand and bright sun blinded him as the wind whipped around in a tumult. At the back of him mind he knew that at the speed he was moving, he could be a mangled mess of metal and blood if he crashed. The mako, he thought dryly, might spare him that fate though. All the same he sped along, pushing his subconscious back where it belonged, kicking up debris and trailing the smell of fear and hysteria with him.
The ocean glimmered on the edge of the horizon and Cloud didn't stop until Fenrir’s front tire could be washed clean by the tide. Cloud dismounted and slipped off his socks and boots. He rolled up his pants to his knees and, with bare feet, waded into the water. The sudden shock of cold giggling around his toes woke his entire body up then relaxed it. As he stood there Cloud glad for something stable in the turmoil of recent events
If he looked far enough down the coast he could see the little dot that was Midgar. Where the once perpetual smoke-cloud had hovered over and smothered it, there was an odd clarity to being able to see it fully. Cloud imagined he could see the spire of Aeris’ church. He had never slept in that church. The nightmares that diseased his mind would taint the beauty of her home.
Cloud turned back to the ocean, feeling terribly worn, like the curtains of his mind were closing in on him and he could no longer muster the will to fight it. Something in the ex-SOLDIER felt far older than he was and it tugged at his warrior’s soul. As he stared out into the ocean he could remember a younger Cloud looking out at this same sight too. He could recall the uncomfortable bouncing in back of a pick-up truck and the dreamlike quality of Zack’s words. The ocean, he remembered, was where Zack washed his hands of the mako and cleaned Cloud’s for him because he had been too weak.
Cloud leaned down into the water and let it swirl about his burnt hand, wiping away the memory of mako though it couldn't clean his soul of the guilt of Zack’s death. There was something soothing in the caress of the ocean, like Aeris reaching out to hold his hand. He waded further into the water ignoring the fingers of the ocean tugging at his clothes, letting the peace and gentle rhythm guide him to the shores of sleep, a place he had left long ago.
Something in Cloud let go, like deep inside him the door had been unlocked. It was indescribable, the sense of freedom that swept over him, like the chains of his past no longer held him and he lifted his arms up, opening his heart to the sky. For the briefest of moments, as he swayed softly with the rhythm of the Planet's heart, Cloud felt something warm him, like a burgeoning of hope where a hole had been before. Slowly, like a man bowing to his death, he fell back.
He landed in a garden, the soft cushion of grass a comfort to his weary soul. Cloud looked up at the endless blue sky and wondered if his eyes had ever been that color; if they had ever been just normal. He could no longer remember what they looked like. As a cadet he had never had mako-treatments. Waking up long after Hojo had turned him into a lab rat, his eyes had changed forever and his broken memory had forgotten his blue eyes.
Aeris stood off to the side, letting Cloud soak in the peace of her garden. He would not feel that calm for very long, and had already gone so long without, that she asked from deep inside her that he might feel that again. Slowly his eyes closed and the delicate lashes caused tiny shadows to appear upon his fine features. Kneeling by his left side she reached out a hand to his. Rubbing his knuckles and kneading his palm, she sang a soft, low song that her own mother had calmed her with.
She could only hope Cloud could forgive her and himself.
Shinra was not so old-fashioned as to have a trumpet player wake its SOLDIERs in the mornings. No, Shinra was high-tech, so instead they would rather shock its members awake with an alarm akin to the screech of a castrated Behemoth.
Cloud had suffered enough of these wake-up calls to last a lifetime and figured he would never have to wake to it again. After all the commotion of his early life, waking up at the crack of dawn to silence was a blessing. Where that had gone, he didn't know. When the sudden blare of the alarms shattered the silence of the room with a sudden cacophony of sound, Cloud was up like a shot. With a particularly loud WHAM, Cloud’s head connected with the bottom of the bunk above him.
He rubbed his forehead, partially from pain, but mostly from shock. His mind involuntarily seemed to detach itself from his soul as he studied his surroundings. It was a far too recognizable room with four sets of bunk beds spread about: two against one wall, his own to the left of the door, and the other set across from his. The walls were the same dull grey steel and the floor a dirt-thin carpet. The only windows were two small ones close to the ceiling and perpetually closed. In all the bunks around him, people began to stir. Cadets with long-forgotten faces and voices that recalled some of his oldest memories peeked out of covers and looked up from pillows. Like ghosts, they started their daily routine as Cloud’s world began to crumble.
Something dropped in front of him and Cloud sharply pulled back. One fist was already clenched in preparation for a fight, but the unthreatening figure before him asked for a punch in the face for an entirely different reason.
“Up and at em’ cowboy! Materia’s today and you don’t want to miss a bit of it. I’m already getting the hang of it, even if I can only freeze an ice cube.” The boy laughed easily, a bright smile on his face. The other cadets in the barracks were groaning at him but Cloud only stared. Daniel Gavish’s face had been half-burnt off and warped with pain in his death. With his strange double-vision Cloud felt bile creeping up his throat as he stared at him.
“Since you’re back in the clouds, Cloud, I’ll go to breakfast.” In a sing-song voice at a near-painful octave, Dan did a little twirl on the spot. Cloud twitched in response, his fist whitening with tension, hearing those words echo from long years past. “Can’t miss theory or Sergeant’ll have your ass.” The boy waved and practically skipped out of the room. The other boys, done dressing, fished out any necessary books and paper and also left. As they trickled out a coldness settled over Cloud’s chest.
The very last of them spared the blonde a glance. He said nothing as he left.
Cloud sat in silence, carefully counting his heartbeats and breaths to reassure himself this simply couldn't be real. Then, in one violent motion, turned his body and punched his right fist into the steel wall. His knuckles broke and bled but for Cloud, the pain was insignificant in comparison to the overwhelming truth he could feel on the edge of his awareness. Something was at work here, something that didn't take into account his feelings, or care that this would be the string to unbind him. With a frustrated cry, Cloud slammed his other fist into the same wall, not even denting the metal and ignoring the sharp pain it caused. Both hands bled rivets and Cloud knew his face was screwed up from the tornado of emotions going through him. They swirled angrily around him in a vortex of fear, disbelief, and anger.
Blankly he loosened the strength he pushed into the wall, keeping the knuckles in place, allowing them to splay out after a moment against the steel wall. Something in Cloud’s heart was stirring and the burning behind his eyes messed up his vision until his trembling hands were blurred with the wall. Too much emotion left him unable to remove his hands from the pressure he still exerted against the walls of the barracks.
He pushed against the insurmountable fortifications of the room, struggling against the fate left to him with unseeing eyes.