AN: Warning: Unbeta'd.
Cloud had long since known that every one of his friends was also a peg anchoring his sanity. It didn't seem to bother them and thus it didn't bother him, it just… was. And he cared so much about each one of them that he would do almost anything for them – somehow, he would find the strength. As long as he had one friend still in the world, he could handle whatever the universe threw at them.
Or so he'd thought.
However, circumstances seemed determined to deprive him of as many 'pegs' as possible. Between the normal danger they faced in their respective jobs, the fact that Sephiroth just kept coming back and the knowledge that most of them were, well, mortal, it was a wonder they lasted as long as they did.
After all the experiments done on him, Cloud aged at a minimal rate (if he aged at all), and could only watch as most of the rest of AVALANCHE aged and changed like normal humans. Only Vincent and Nanaki aged similarly to him. Even Cait Sith grew rusty and had to have maintenance.
It probably shouldn't have been a surprise to see Cid go first. He died on a mission from the WRO where he ran into a storm even he couldn't navigate through. Either that, or he died trying to save someone, which would explain why they found his body thrown far from the crashed ship, broken like a rag doll. He left Shera and their daughter behind. The only consolation was that he died in the sky, like he would have wanted.
Reeve went next. Just before his retirement. He'd managed to find a successor to the WRO and he threw his heart and soul into training her up. A woman named Cyna who had grown up in Midgar, and then Edge and had a spine made of steel – which she proved with some of what she was thrown into… Especially when Reeve was assassinated. They didn't know who ordered it – someone dissatisfied with the WRO in general or a rival company. The fact that they hadn't been able to track the killer down never sat well with anyone who remained alive.
Then Yuffie's father died, and she took over the Wutian throne. She could no longer run rampant throughout the world on dangerous adventures. To see her, they had to make plans weeks if not months in advance and even then, they couldn't really do much other than sit and talk over dinner. Every time they went, she seemed to sag more and more once the doors were closed and servants left, as if she carried an ever increasing weight on her shoulders. She hated it, but she loved her people more than she hated her 'imprisonment', so she did her job, found a Wutian noble Cloud had never met, married him and ruled her homeland.
Barrett died next. He'd been excavating a mine, and he too died saving as many people as he could when the shaft collapsed around his crew and he managed to somehow get most of them out of the way. Marlene, who had just graduated from her final year of school, was inconsolable. The rest of AVALANCHE didn't fare much better. Marlene decided to settle down in Corel herself, determined to continue to rebuild the town as her father had always wanted.
Then Denzel left Edge to work at the Golden Saucer, partially to be near Marlene and partially because he'd grown himself and needed his independance. Part of Cloud and Tifa would always be proud of him, but seeing him off that day seemed particularly bittersweet. The child he considered his son was going off to make a life for himself, and to support his still grieving sister. He honestly couldn't have been more proud – or more sad to see him go – than at the moment he left on a transport to Junon.
By then, all the other orphans had grown up and gotten jobs – and lives – of their own as well. This left Cloud and Tifa alone. They took in all of the remaining Cait Siths, and did everything they could to keep them up, and they supported the WRO as well. In all honesty, Cloud wanted to follow Denzel and Marlene to Corel, but he knew that Edge needed him and the remainder of AVALANCHE – as their aces in the hole.
Because Sephiroth kept.
Some cluster of Jenova cells would gather here, or a clone in a lab would pop up there. Hojo was nothing if not thorough in his determination to make sure his son had the best chance at returning from the lifestream permanently.
And no one else could really stand up to him.
Sometimes what was left of Avalanche would be able to foil his plans entirely, but most often he'd end up taking a good chunk of the rest of the world's dwindling population with him each time he came back.
One of his attacks, not a year after their children had moved away, took out the gold saucer.
Marlene had been there with Denzel that day.
Cloud almost broke again when he heard the news.
Tifa almost broke with him and… never quite recovered. It was just another weight on Cloud's pile of things he couldn't recover from.
Shelke, of all people, went next. The modifications to her body, while also slowing her aging, caused other complications that they just couldn't treat. She died in her sleep with her sister at her side, crying. Shalua didn't last the year after that, and no one seemed to know quite what had killed her.
It was the day they lost Tifa that Cloud gave up. The two of them had gone on a trek to the Northern Crater as a preemptive measure. They'd been lucky just before that, when they'd found the next Sephiroth clone almost complete in some random lab out in the middle of nowhere, and had taken the whole area out before said clone had even had a chance. They were hoping this would be similar, and once again, they got lucky, finding yet another cluster of Jenova cells just beginning to take shape.
Maybe it was the nastiness of their self-appointed task, the drudgery of doing it over and over again, or the weight of everything they'd lost, but both of them had wanted to take out a little bit of anger. They'd burned what they found with a Hell Fiaraga and a Neo Bahamut blast on top of that. Overkill, perhaps, but they'd long since learned that there really was no such thing when it came to Sephiroth.
Either their magic attacks had destabilized the area or the cavern had been tied to Sephiroth's life force because it collapsed. In their AVALANCE days, easily twenty five years earlier, Tifa would have been right next to or just behind Cloud. But, unlike Cloud, she'd aged. By the time he realized she wasn't just behind him, it had been too late. He'd turned in time to see her smile at him before the avalanche buried her and her Cait Sith.
He'd blacked out after that and woken up with the entire crater somehow caved and filled in, standing on the lip of the dip that was all that remained of the hole, swords out and covered in… something. He'd collapsed to his knees and didn't know how long he just knelt there in the cold before Vincent found him. He suspected his Cait Sith had gone in search of the gunman because he didn't remember seeing the little robot during that time.
Somehow, he ended up at Cosmo Canyon and Vincent had assured him that he'd taken care of everything back at Edge – the 7th Heaven, WRO contacts, etc. If Cloud had been able to feel anything at that point, it would have been grateful, he was sure.
Losing Tifa had been a huge blow to his already shattered psyche. He didn't know how long he stayed in Cosmo Canyon, but their efforts at the Northern Crater seemed to have stopped all of Sephiroth's resurrection attempts. Gratefully, he didn't have to leave, so he didn't. Not until Yuffie invited them to Wutai to celebrate her son ascending the throne.
When he saw Yuffie – the thief who had always been like an annoying little sister to him – with gray hair streaked through with white, he realized just how long it had been. It almost broke through the numb blanket that had become his normal state of being.
She introduced Cloud, Vincent, Nanaki and the remaining Cait Sith dolls to her three children (her husband had, sadly, died a couple of years back and Cloud was ashamed to admit he only vaguely remembered being informed). Of course, then she'd promptly let her family know that she'd be leaving them, and may not come back, and would be going on one last world tour with her old friends.
Cloud didn't have the heart to tell her no. Apparently, neither did Vincent. Nanaki kindly refused to come as he had to return to Cosmo Canyon. His mate, Denah, was expecting a litter. Three of the remaining four Cait Siths returned with Nanaki, but one set off with them on a 'crusade to rebuild the world!' as Yuffie called it.
They managed to wander for a good three years before Yuffie caught a cold that wouldn't go away. The stubborn woman still took another year to succumb.
Not a month later, they lost their Cait Sith to a monster attack on their way back to Cosmo Canyon.
It was then that Cloud confessed to Vincent that he felt like the death of each friend had knocked lose an anchoring pin in his mind and he didn't know what would happen if they all died. He was still numb these days (although Yuffie had helped… a lot), but he could tell there was something off in him, and that, if nothing else, concerned him.
Vincent replied that he felt much the same in an emotionless voice that would have sounded completely insincere if Cloud didn't know his friend as well as he did.
They stopped by Shera's on the way back just in time to bid her farewell. She was losing a battle to cancer. Her daughter and her grandchildren were there with her and they thanked Cloud and Vincent for visiting one last time.
And with that it was only Cloud, Vincent, Nanaki and two of the Cait Sith robots left (one in the canyon had broken down while they'd been gone and without Reeve there to fix them… no one else could seem to repair them, no one could figure out why).
Nanaki's new litter was, in all truth, adorable. It as while holding those new cubs that Cloud found he could feel again. Nearly forty years after Tifa's death, and he was finally putting himself back together again.
Of course that was when Sephiroth would return.
It began with whispers from the south. Small villages were reported to have been wiped out, and it didn't look like a monster attack either. Houses were left standing and whole, sometimes with meals laid out on tables.
Cyna had, apparently, trained her own replacement and somehow managed to go into retirement herself, leaving a young man named Porel in charge. He had inherited Cloud's phs number and called to ask him to check it out. They had to talk Nanaki into staying home to protect his newborns. Reluctantly, he agreed, but insisted on seeing Cloud, Vincent and the most functional of the Cait Sith dolls off.
After some travel and searching, they found exactly what had been described, with the exception of looting. The towns had been more or less stripped clean, although if one knew where and how to look, a few unnoticed treasures could be found. Cloud never really had lost his tendency to go through other people's drawers…
Then, finishing up after the third village they'd come across, something he hadn't felt since the day Tifa died shot through his head and he knew…
He led Vincent towards the feeling, just coming over the top of a hill when he froze. Beside him, Vincint did much the same, because it seemed that Jenova had been spending the last forty years well. They hadn't run into a clone so much as a veritable army, if a small one.
Consisting of remnants.
None of them looked exactly like the three Cloud had fought in Edge nearly sixty years before, but he knew what they were, somehow.
And in the center of them, sitting on a hill as if it were a throne…
"Sephiroth," Cloud whispered.
And the moment he spoke, it felt as if walls inside his head came down. Suddenly he could feel them, not just vaguely sense them. He could differentiate between each and every one of them and part of him longed to go with them in a way that he hadn't felt in decades.
He gasped, a hand going to his head.
"Cloud?" Vincent asked, a note of worry under his stoic tones.
"They were hiding," he managed to gasp out. He didn't know how they'd done it – just keeping their murderous intent under wraps long enough to build the army – let alone hiding from Cloud and the remainder of AVALANCHE and the WRO – that must have taken a will of iron. From all of them. He didn't know how they'd managed to do it, but that was beside the point.
He felt his knees buckle and ended up falling on the ground, still clutching his head with one hand, the other curling into the grass and weeds he'd landed on.
Vincent frowned and took out his phone.
"Ah, ah, ah…" a smug voice echoed in his ears and his head and his chest all at once. He grit his teeth and struggled to glance up. Several remnants had somehow sneaked up on them, as the two AVALANCE members were surrounded. The silver-haired people brandished weapons at them, smugly. Knowing a losing (or at least all too difficult one-handed) battle when he saw one, Vincent slowly lowered the phone in it to the ground. He must have managed a speed dial because a voice came from the other side.
"Reinforcements—" was all Cloud could get out before one of the remnants smashed the phone.
As if in worry (that wasn't entirely faked), Vincent leaned down and asked in a voice so low only a SOLDIER could hear: "Can you fight?"
He honestly wasn't sure…
But then, he'd always risen to the challenge before. And he would again. Through sheer will if he had to.
"Yes," he said.
Vincent nodded and straightened, still holding his hands up in surrender.
"Your guns. Drop them," one of the remnants said.
Stupid of them. Cloud almost wanted to grin, but he could barely focus on that through the pain and muddiness in his head. So, instead, he simply braced himself, waiting for just the right moment...
Vincent reached for his guns. There were enough of the remnants that they thought he wouldn't actually use them.
They were wrong.
The moment Cloud heard the gunfire, he was off, leaping forward but staying low so as not to be in Vincent's way, swinging First Tsurugi around at anything that moved that wasn't ex-turk.
Not five minutes into the fight (although, to be fair, it felt like an eternity), Chaos came out.
That's when Sephiroth got involved.
For some reason, he ignored Cloud physically, but the mental pressure increased, and not just from the one-winged man, but from all the remnants. The blond stumbled and fell mid-swing, head swimming as he realized his sword had fallen from his hand.
Then he looked up to see Sephiroth and Chaos battling in the sky, their wings flaring: demon vs. demon. It was a sight to behold, even for Cloud. It took a moment for him to realize that he had to help his one remaining companion, so he looked down and reached for his sword lying a couple of feet in front of him. Someone stepped on his hand before he could touch it and he bit out an angry curse.
A feeling of elation rose in his head and he felt his stomach clench. He forced himself to look up and his blood froze at the sight that met his eyes. Sephiroth had a hand buried in Vincent's gut. He withdrew it, taking the protomateria with him. Why would he do that? It would only make Chaos stronger… or, less controllable.
And sure enough, Chaos went, quite literally, berserk, attacking Sephiroth with new vengeance.
Cloud, again, moved to do something, but realized he was being held by many hands. How had he not noticed that before… and why were they holding him? Why hadn't they just killed him?
"Just watch, brother," one of them whispered.
"Once he's gone, you'll have no one else to rescue you," another cackled.
Cloud's eyes widened. They were going to kill Vincent? Part of him wished them luck – Vincent was incredibly hard to kill – but part of him remembered those times during the initial Jenova crisis when they had to use phoenix downs on him because he'd been hurt (even killed) by their fights with monsters. That part of him remembered that Vincent had lost battles before… and with how reckless he was being now… Even Chaos couldn't make him completely immortal.
And he could see it. Sephiroth would win; he would kill Vincent.
The one person who would always be with him – who held his sanity in the palm of his hand. His one companion because he could never ask Nanaki to leave his family… and where was Cait Sith?
He actually called out, just to see one of the remnants come forward with the broken remains of the robot, throwing it at his feet. It didn't respond to his inquiries. One more link to Reeve gone… one more of his pegs shattered. He just stared at it for far too many seconds in a little shock.
He looked up at Vincent and Sephiroth again, growing more desperate. Chaos fought the returned general with the frenzied moves of the – quite literally – possessed. Judging from the manic grin on Sephiroth's face, he was enjoying this… and he was confident he could end this… and…
"NO!" Cloud screamed, pushing back with all his might on the mental pressure. All the remnants in the near vicinity backed off, yelling in pain and holding their heads. Cloud felt the hands release him and rose to his feet, sprinting forward and scooping his sword off of the ground. He didn't pay attention to the sudden, sharp pain in his back, eyes only focused on Sephiroth swinging his Masamune around. Two moves, and it would kill Vincent. He had less than seconds, so whatever pain he felt was inconsequential. He had to get there – to stop Sephiroth from killing Vincent. He had to!
Crouching, he launched himself into the air, only just barely aware of the black wing that unfurled behind him, somehow acting as magic – a spell all it's own – to fly. For the moment, he thanked his (for once) good fortune and held his sword at the ready, desperate to get in the way… but he wouldn't make it.
He took his sword and broke it apart. The small blade fell into his hands and he reached back, throwing it…
He watched as Masamune cut through his friend, the giant sword's slice switching directions somehow (impossibly) as Sephiroth flipped over Cloud's tossed sword…
No… no no no no…
Cloud reached for his cure materia, but he knew it was too late. He caught the top half of Vincent, turning to try and reach the rest of him ignoring the blood.
"C-cloud," Vincent said, his voice gurgling. Cloud desperation rose. Maybe he could somehow place the two haves together and have them heal? Vincent always did heal about as fast as a SOLDIER. Enough cures…
"Cloud, you're stronger… than you… think," Vincent said. Where was Chaos? Why had Vincent reverted? How? No, that wasn't important right now, he had to—
It was the tone in Vincent's voice. They didn't have the time or resources to really save him, and they both knew it. Even a phoenix down couldn't bring him back from this… not unless he got to Vincent now, something he couldn't do seeing as he still had Sephiroth and his army of remnants to deal with.
"You can… defeat him… permanently…"
He stared at Vincent's mouth as if it had suddenly disappeared because what? That's what they'd been trying to do! Why did he suddenly think Cloud could do what he'd never been able to before? Why?
He didn't have any more time to think as he sensed something coming his way. Turning, somehow, in the air, he held up his sword, which met Sephiroth's. The other's momentum sent them hurtling towards the ground. Cloud flared his wing and fought against the kinetic energy, slowing them down enough so that when they did hit, he could put his feet back out behind him, stopping the momentum with a swing, sending Sephiroth back into the air.
Still clutching Vincent with one arm, he launched into the sky after the silver haired former general.
"Let… go… Cloud," Vincent's voice wasn't even a whisper.
Stubbornly, the blond man just clutched the other harder.
"Let… me… go…"
Again, it was the note in his voice that had Cloud gritting his teeth and doing just that. Vincent fell to the ground. The one peg currently anchoring his sanity – his very soul – loose, and then gone.
He could tell Sephiroth was about to comment on it, but he didn't care; didn't even hear what the other man had to say. All he could do was throw himself forward and fight with a ferocity the other found surprising, if his expression was anything to go by.
Cloud lost himself to the battle after that. He barely remembered swinging, blocking or parrying, but it must have happened because Sephiroth's smile had vanished, replaced by a scowl. Cloud felt himself grinning, perhaps a little manically at that and just pushed harder.
Then he saw it, one minute slip-up, but it was all Cloud needed.
The next thing they knew Sephiroth's eyes flew wide as First Tsurugi pierced him straight through the chest. Cloud didn't remember taking that much pleasure in killing someone before – seeing the look on that normally smug face didn't make up for his losses, but it helped.
A cough. A splatter of blood. Cloud pushed harder.
"You… will always… be one of us," the silver-haired man said, a smirk coming back to his lips. "A monster. And we will never… stop… coming… back."
Gritting his teeth, Cloud drew the sword up, instinctively finding the leverage in mid-air to do so, bisecting the other's face, leaving only the echo of one word in his mind.
With an angry yell he stabbed at Sephiroth again, with no response from the other. He didn't care, though, and didn't stop there. No. He pulled on his fire materia and burned the other again, and again, and again… He burned until there were only ashes falling to the ground. He followed and kept on burning until he ran out of MP. Then he reached into his pouch and downed an ether and was about to start another round when he noticed the remnants.
They stood stock still around, staring at him.
Why? Why hadn't they done something when he'd been fighting Sephiroth, now that he stopped to think about it. They could have used magic on him while he was in the air…
"Brother?" one of them dared to whisper – a long-haired, large remnant with more delicate features than Sephiroth.
Cloud turned his glare on the man and pushed. The remnant screamed and fell to the ground hands on his head. Cloud blinked, immediately releasing that pressure he hadn't known he'd be able to manipulate. The other remnants backed away.
That was… unexpected. For the first time since he'd seen this latest version of Sephiroth, another thought overtook the echo of his words for a moment. You're stronger than you think you are. Was this what Vincent had meant?
He didn't know.
No one spoke for the longest time. No one moved.
Then, another one of the remnants stepped forward, this one shorter, with medium-length hair and a determined expression.
"What do we do now, brother?"
"What of the Reunion?" another asked.
Cloud just stared at them because… he didn't have an answer. They weren't attacking him, and he didn't think he could stomach the idea of simply destroying them all if they weren't trying to outright kill him. Not after Kadaj. But he couldn't take them back to civilization, and even if he tried, where would he take them? Who would take them in? The WRO? He'd be lucky if they didn't try to destroy everything on the spot. They'd been getting a little trigger-happy lately. There was no way he'd take them back to Cosmo Canyon around Nanaki and his new litter.
And the thought just kept echoing in his mind. Reunion. We will never… stop… coming… back.
And they wouldn't.
He could see that now. He could sense it now.
As long as any significant amount of Jenova cells remained on the planet, the remnants and Sephiroth and Jenova would always return.
And he was the only one standing in their way.
The only one left…
Oh, there was one more Cait Sith doll in Cosmo Canyon and Nanaki… and he'd always thought that if he had at least one friend to look out for, that it would be enough.
Apparently, he'd been wrong because the enormity of what the rest of his existence would be suddenly overwhelmed him. Trying to stop Jenova and her spawn again and again and again… He fell to his knees, realizing that his vigil would never end.
What little of himself he'd managed to put together after Tifa's death broke right back down again.
And, for the first time, he felt that he truly understood Sephiroth – the Sephiroth from his memories of Niblehiem: the man who had lost his support in the form of his friends; the man who had then discovered what had been done to him in the past; the man who had realized he was a monster; the man who saw the futility of everything he'd been doing up until that point; the man who broke under the pressure.
He truly understood.
It had taken him being pushed this far – breaking several times – before he could really get it.
The wing on his back – also one of black feathers – ruffled in the wind.
Then a sound broke the silence. He started with just a snort… but then it turned into a chuckle… and then a full-blown, hysterical laugh.
There was no winning. Not for Gaia. Not as long as Jenova remained.
And he'd been naive to think otherwise.
Many of the remnants shifted, exchanging glances.
Finally, a lanky, short-haired remnant decided to bravely speak up.
"We want our reunion," he said, almost defiant, gripping his own chosen weapon (a war scythe, of all things) tightly.
Cloud didn't quite know what to think of that, except to laugh harder.
"I see now," he finally got out between chuckles. "You're right. There has to be a Reunion."
Confusion. He sensed confusion from them. It didn't stop him from going on.
"If there's to be a Reunion," he finally managed to say as he looked up at the man, grinning, "it will be my reunion." Not Jenova's, and most certainly not Sephiroth's.
The remnants looked (and felt) shocked and pleased, all underlined with a streak of wary caution. Then Cloud pushed again, somehow knowing that his message would come across. Every remnant in the circle fell to either one or both knees. Some even went so far as to collapse to the ground entirely.
"Why do we fight?" he asked the gathered group.
"For mother!" one replied.
Right. For… Mother.
"And what does… Mother want?"
"To sail the cosmos and take other worlds!" another one yelled.
Cloud nodded. That made sense.
"She says we are meant to sail the cosmos! But she has been scattered! First, we need all of Mother! Find what remains and bring her here!" Cloud yelled.
Funny, he couldn't remember the last time he'd yelled like this to a crowd. He wasn't sure he'd ever done so… but it felt right now.
More pleased murmurings.
"Keep yourselves hidden so no other hero has a chance to arise! Use caution and, just as you did here, we will reveal ourselves at the right moment.
"GO!" he yelled, pushing again.
They all scrambled up and vacated the area, leaving Cloud alone on the hilltop with the remainders of the battle.
It took him a couple of seconds to find Vincent's body. Actually, he found Cait Sith's remains first, and gathered them into his arms before finding the former Turk. He fell to his knees next to his friend.
"Sorry, Vincent," he whispered, "it looks like I'm more of a monster after all. And I just… wasn't strong enough." Story of his life.
But he could do this.
He could, and he would.
Cloud buried both of them, leaving their respective weapons and some stones to mark their graves.
Then he lifted his wing and rose into the air. He had work to do, after all.
AN: I know this goes by lightning fast. I know this and 'smooth flow' don't belong in the same sentence. This is the type of story you get when I'm working on a webtoon all day. *ahem* I still liked the idea.
FFVII release in FIVE DAYS! *squee*