Rufus ShinRa looked over the city of Edge from the apartment he'd purchased, face blank. A crowd had gathered below. Four pall-bearers carried the casket through the center, moving slowly and methodically: Vincent Valentine, Barrett Wallace, Tifa Lockheart and Cid Highwind. Nanaki walked at the front of the procession, his tail up and leading the way as if to shine the dreariness of Edge away. It didn't work.
Behind him, directly in front of the casket, walked Reeve Tuesti carrying his Cait Sith doll. Said doll had curled up in his hands and seemed to be mourning in its own way. Yuffie Kisaragi trailed behind, dressed to the nines as a Princess of Wutai, a full entourage of Wutain soldiers and servants carrying lamps of incense, creating a sort of haze around the foreign group. In the very back, came Denzel and Marlene, followed by Shelke.
Denzel looked straight ahead, eyes not shifting from one side to another. He looked pale, if stoic, but Rufus could recognize shock when he saw it. Marlene, on the other hand, was openly weeping, her shoulder shaking and her hands over her face, pressing a handkerchief to it. Shelke just looked puzzled, if alert. It was her job to take care of the two teenagers.
Elena and Rude moved through the crowd, keeping up as Rufus had ordered, looking out for trouble and taking care of minor problems that popped up before they became larger problems. The last thing they (both Edge and AVALANCHE) needed was some sort of riot.
The executive had one hand crossed over his chest and another in front of his face. Instead of his normal, white suit, he'd donned a black one as he, too, was in mourning. Behind him, Tsung and Reno stood, both quiet and stoic. Reno, who had refused to go to the gathering, stating that they wouldn't want him there. Tseng who wouldn't leave Rufus' side.
As they watched AVALANCHE pass by, his mind went over the events of the previous year. They'd cured Geostigma… or so they'd thought. The purifying water definitely did its job, but Jenova was… well, Jenova. Initially, she'd been known for taking on the likeness of the Ancients' lost ones. Sephiroth had mutated and could quite literally take over bodies with enough cells in them. Genesis and Angeal could make copies of themselves in various ways. Jenova cells were fluid and tended to adapt very quickly.
And adapt they did.
And the first people who had been affected by the new, once again incurable disease, had been those with the most Jenova cells in them, no matter how 'purified' they'd been; namely, former SOLDIERS. They'd been dropping left and right, and despite never being officially part of it, Cloud had been no different.
It hadn't taken him long to succumb to the new strain.
Honestly, everything had looked hopeful while the former infantry man was alive, but now…? If Jenova could take out their strongest so easily… And who would fight against the next uprising? The rest of AVALANCHE? Frankly, Rufus was surprised Vincent seemed to be holding up as well as he was. Either the experiments had finally begun to wear on his body or the Omega battle had really taken its toll. The rest of them were strong, but without someone with Mako enhancements, it would be odds or evens, and that was if the social unrest and fear of the outbreak of the newer, more aggressive strain of Geostigma didn't tear the known world apart first.
Rufus hadn't, by some miracle, contracted the disease this time, but it was only a matter of time. He did not like the idea of going back to the pain and fatigue those black rashes caused and had, once again, locked himself away from the crowd and masses. Unlike the first strain, this one seemed to act more like an actual disease, spreading through touch and closeness with the remaining SOLDIERS as patient zeros. It acted differently than the first outbreak, and Rufus had scientists working around the clock to try and find a cure, but in that moment, he couldn't deny that he was worried.
His words to Kadaj came back to his mind. Go on; bring your Jenovas and your Sephiroths; cause trouble to your heart's content. We will do as life mandates. We promise, we won't let you win, we'll stop you. Every time.*
He'd meant those words. He still felt them, but it was getting harder and harder to believe in them. With so many people dying, again, it looked more like life would just succumb as the SOLDIERS had.
The Wutai war had cost the Wutians almost half of their population, and no small amount of ShinRa's. The bombing of Kalm, the Gongaga reactor explosion, and the original AVALANCHE all had detrimental effects on the population as a whole, but were ultimately small in comparison with the War. That had been the first cataclysmic loss of life. Even Nibelheim, while devastating, had been on a small scale in comparison when it came to Wutai.
Which really said so much.
But the little things have a way of building up and everything up to that point contributed to the current problem.
Then the Sector 7 plate and following AVALANCHE and some strange manifestation of Sephiroth's will across the world had done its own number on the population. Then Meteor and they'd lost almost 90% of the worlds most populated city: A city already reeling from the Sector 7 plate drop.
Then Geostigma had wiped out a good 10 – 15% of the remaining world's population. The Remnant's attack on Edge, the Omega and Deepground crisis… By Rufus' peoples' best estimates, the world had lost over 60% of it's population in the last 20 years. And that didn't even account for the newest strain of Geostigma.
The situation was getting worse, not better.
And Rufus had no idea what to do about it.
"Did you send my condolence gift to them?" Rufus asked aloud.
"Yes, sir," Tseng answered immediately.
A brief hesitation. "They took it."
He didn't want to ask if Tseng had threatened or strong-armed Tifa into accepting his offer of a headstone and a memorial. Probably. Cloud likely wouldn't want to be remembered like that (although, he planned on putting Zachary Fair and the rest of AVALANCHE in the sculpture as well), but memorials were for the people left behind, not the deceased.
He'd already had work begun on it.
In all honesty, he really did want to help them as best he could. They'd saved the planet… or at least, put off its destruction, time and time again. They deserved to be remembered.
Most of them didn't seem to want to be remembered though. It made absolutely no sense to Rufus. He'd only really realized how different their mind-set was recently, and he doubted he'd ever really understand them. He was doing the best he could.
But it wasn't enough.
It was never enough.
When did he get so cynical?
Was he ever really idealistic? Or just entitled? Barrett Wallace said he was still entitled. No one had disagreed with him. Rufus wasn't sure how he could be 'entitled'. Sure, he had money, but he was trying to be better…
And that just reiterated how his efforts just weren't enough.
He was done with this.
Sighing, he turned away from the window. "I'm going to bed early. Wake me up in eight hours."
"Sir!" both Reno and Tseng said at the same time.
"Keep monitoring the situation."
"Yes, sir," came the unison reply again just before Rufus shut the door to his bedroom.
He walked to the bathroom to have a shower and turned the faucet on to let the water heat up and began stripping, throwing his clothes on the floor for one of his servants later. He'd just gotten his shirt off when he caught sight of himself in the mirror and stopped, walking over to it and looking over the man he saw there.
Thirty years old. Thirty, and what had he done? By this age, his father had been well on his way to making the ShinRa Electric Company a world power – a government in its own right. And Rufus' accomplishments? He'd tried to make everyone respect him through fear after doing his best to take away any hope they had, seen his company fall – quite literally – in flames, almost died multiple times, gotten sick and jumped off a building. Maybe somewhere in there, he'd done a little growing up.
He expected a younger, thinner version of Rupert ShinRa to look back at him. Overall, he'd always taken after his father. They had the same hair and eye color, same nose, same chin (if one looked at Rupert's older pictures, without the fat)… but the man that looked back at Rufus didn't remind him of his father. Rupert had never had the utterly exhausted look Rufus sported now. No, that had been all his mother. His mother who kept up appearances and, in all honesty, could probably be a better under cover agent than most Turks with how she could hide her emotions. He'd only caught glimpses of her tru self a couple of times before she'd died, when she thought he hadn't seen. He'd thought she looked pathetic at the time.
Now he just felt sorry for her.
Married to a man who didn't love her and was almost openly unfaithful to her; forced to be the eye candy and perfect wife, no matter how she'd felt. Mother of a son who hadn't wanted much to do with her, despite all she tried to do for him… Alone in a gilded cage full of self-righteous people who didn't care about anyone but themselves.
It was a wonder she'd lasted as long as she had. He remembered when he'd been informed of her death, just after he'd begun funding the first AVALANCHE. He'd been informed and then they'd had a closed-casket funeral that lasted all of an hour before he and his father had just gone back to their own projects. Part of him had wondered, once, if she'd faked her own death just to get away from Rupert (and him, although he hadn't seen that at the time), and now he hoped she had. He'd never cared to double check.
And yet, that woman stared back at him. He could only see her weary eyes and the bags she'd tried to hide with makeup. He didn't bother. Blond hair (although hers had been a darker, mousy blond) styled perfectly over grey-blue eyes that had once been far brighter. He looked… dull. Maybe it was just him? His own perception? Did it matter?
He sighed again and opened the mirror so he wouldn't see himself anymore and stepped into the shower, luxuriating in the warm water. If he weren't so tired, he'd break down and have a bath, but he really just wanted to go to bed and forget everything for a while. He could deal with everything when he woke up tomorrow.
When he got out and back into his room, bath towel tied firmly around him, he found a warm meal waiting and smiled. At least he had his Turks. Loyal to a fault, each of them, and competent to boot. He honestly couldn't ask for more. Not realistically (not that that hadn't stopped him from trying when he'd been young and stupid…).
He quickly ate his meal, left what he couldn't stomach on the tray and retired, falling asleep fairly quickly.
He woke up in a field of flowers.
For several seconds all he could do was look at said flowers and blink. Then he turned his gaze up. In the distance, in any direction, all he could see was white. No sound, no darkness, no blemishes or breaks except what came from him and the flowers.
He didn't know what to say at first, so he said nothing. He could feel the flowers brushing his skin and smell their sweet fragrance. Could this be a dream? No… he was thinking far too coherently. A vision then? He'd never gotten a vision before...
"Hello, Rufus," said a soft voice behind him. He turned to look, but stopped about half way when he saw one Cloud Strife sitting a couple of feet to the side of him, facing the opposite direction.
"Cloud?" he asked, old habits keeping him from stuttering, but it was a near thing.
"You know," the other man (the dead man) said, "you're lucky I'm a direct person. Other people don't like talking face to face here."
A soft giggle behind him, from two voices. One light and high, the second almost as deep as Cloud's. Said blond was staring straight ahead, expression dry. He was dressed in his traditional black with that same wolf's head on his shoulder. He didn't have a sword harness or his sword, but everything else looked so normal.
Rufus looked down at himself, seeing his typical white suit with purple accents. One of his favorites. He blinked.
"Am I… dead?" he asked.
Cloud snorted. "Hardly."
"But… you are?"
A small, half- smile touched the other man's lips. He didn't answer. He didn't need to.
"I see," the businessman said slowly.
"You always did catch on fast."
Not fast enough, Rufus thought to himself bitterly. He'd always caught onto business options and ways to maintain or grow his power base, but when it came to other people…
Any other people.
"So, to what do I owe this pleasure? Or are you simply visiting everybody in their dreams?"
Any mirth on Cloud's face vanished, although he didn't so much as move. Rufus frowned worriedly. Somehow he seemed even more dour than usual, even though Rufus couldn't figure out why he'd pick up on that. He never had before. Cloud had gotten notoriously difficult to read in his last couple of years.
"The planet's dying."
Rufus tried not to flinch at that. "Yes… I came to a similar conclusion myself."
"She keeps losing her weapons."
The business man frowned. "Emerald and Ultima?" he asked, not wanting to name all of them.
Rufus felt his eyes widen. "You?"
Cloud nodded once, a short but firm bob. "She didn't expect me to die."
"Oh." It would take a minute to get his head wrapped around that.
"The Calamity mutated," the soft voice from behind him said.
He got the distinct impression that he shouldn't turn around this time and decided to follow that.
"Of course, she did," Rufus muttered. "Did we expect differently?"
"We thought we'd finally been able to purify her cells," said the third voice, male, with a bright undertone despite the solemn topic.
"We?" the second voice asked.
A snort. "Fine, you."
Somehow, Rufus could feel an approving smile from the second voice. He had a pretty good idea who the voices belonged to. He just couldn't understand why they were talking to him.
"So, what do you want me to do about it?" he asked, happy to bring the attention back to himself.
"We have an idea," the second voice said slowly.
Cloud's expression (somehow) became drier. "We want to send you back in time."
A groan, then the third voice almost whined, "Spike…"
The blond warrior just raised an eyebrow.
"You know, Sephiroth used to do that."
That got a reaction as Cloud's eyes narrowed.
"What? It's true!"
Rufus inserted himself again, gaze focused intently on Cloud. "Why me?"
This time, the warrior turned to look at Rufus, mako-blue eyes as intense as ever. "Are you refusing?"
Well, it was nice to know he could refuse.
"Not necessarily, but… why choose me? Why not you?"
Cloud sighed. "The planet couldn't send me back while I was alive due to the high concentration of Jenova cells in my body and the influence it had on me."
"We probably could have found a way," the third voice said, voice solemn again, "but he died before we could."
"And that's a problem because…?" Rufus asked.
"There's a difference between the memories of the dead and the memories of the living," the second voice explained.
The not-quite soldier beside him nodded and took up the explanation. "If the planet tried to send me back into my younger body, the memories would likely kill my younger self. So we had to choose someone living."
Rufus wasn't convinced. "There's still a risk." There always was. Nothing of worth came for free.
Cloud nodded. "It's small."
The businessman snorted. "Not small enough that you would ask one of your AVALANCHE friends."
A moment of silence, but Cloud's gaze never wavered. "They didn't have the kind of political and social power you did," he said.
Rufus wanted to throw his hands in the air, but settled for rolling his eyes. "Which is part of the problem. I'm not a good person, Cloud." Even with all the growing up he'd done – maybe because of that – he could admit that that still applied to him. Rufus was still a spoiled, attention-hoarding heir. Nothing would ever change that.
"That's why I need a promise from you, Rufus: If you accept this offer, I need you to promise us you will put the well being of the world above ShinRa, no matter the cost."
Rufus leaned back from Cloud, eyebrows raised and slanted in wariness. Did he really mean that? Did he expect Rufus to not take advantage of that and just go back and be a hero? He'd never wanted to be a hero. Heroes lived terrible lives and died.
Or they fell and became the villain. Hello, Sephiroth.
"I don't know why you think you can trust me with this," Rufus finally responded, because really?! The entirety of AVALANCHE had never hidden disdain for him and his company. Not that he could blame them… now.
Cloud's little smile returned. "Mainly because you keep asking and pointing that out. You're not as bad as you think you are. Not anymore."
"But Lockheart, or Wallace or even Highwind—"
"Might be able to do something, but Tifa was in Nibelhiem until she was sixteen, Barrett lived in a coal-mining town that ShinRa had its eye on and Cid has never been particularly ambitious about anything that didn't have to do with flying or space."
"Valentine or Nanaki then."
"Nanaki would have a hard time leaving Cosmo Canyon, even with everything he'd know, and traveling or being taken seriously would be worse." Because humans are self-righteous creatures who didn't know (or accept) that any other species could be intelligent. They all knew that. "Vincent was locked in a coffin for twenty years and only released when his former Turk partner found him."
"When was that?"
"About a year before we found him," said the second voice. Well, that confirmed her identity in any case. Then he could sense someone walking towards him and fought the urge to turn around again. Somehow, he knew this would vanish if he did.
"Rufus, do you think so terribly of yourself?"
He didn't think terribly of himself, he was just realistic.
"I told you, I'm not a good person."
"C'mon, man," the third voice piped in, "anyone can be a hero if they try hard enough."
Rufus' jaw clenched. "Maybe I don't want to be a hero. Heroes tend to die ignominious deaths."
Cloud's eyes narrowed, even though he was staring straight ahead and not at Rufus again. "You think you were randomly picked? We chose you for a reason."
"Because I had the power at the time, yes, I understand that," Rufus said, waving his hand dismissively. "And you think I've somehow changed from what I used to be. I haven't." Not as much as they were implying in any case. "I am still the rich, greedy son of the former president of the world. And I always will be."
The not-SOLDIER's face smoothed out again. "You're afraid."
Rufus sputtered. "What? Of course not! Why should I—"
The living man shut his mouth with a clop. How was being afraid good?
"You're not afraid of the situation, you're afraid of yourself," Aerith said softly. She sounded like she'd come to sit right behind him. And had she read his mind? He stiffened, but still didn't turn to face her.
A snort from the third voice (Zachary? Likely). "Every hero in the world – every person with any responsibility – has questioned themselves. I did. Spiky did. Aerith did."
Rufus shook his head. "You give me too much credit."
Why was he refusing this? If he accepted, it wasn't like they could take it back… could they?
"And what if I go back and simply make sure ShinRa is the top company again? Ensure it never falls?" Because he would. "Would you bring me back here and send someone else?"
A pause. "We can only send one person. That's all the power the planet has," Areith said, almost whispering.
"Besides," likely-Zack said, "make ShinRa a good company and there won't be any issues."
Cloud snorted, but didn't dispute the claim. He probably didn't think that was possible. He probably wasn't wrong. Still..
"You're saying that I can go back, ensure ShinRa doesn't fall and you would endorse my actions?"
"If you put the world first, sure!" likely-Zack said, enthusiastically.
Again, Cloud didn't say anything.
That was… actually better than Rufus expected. And honestly, he didn't really have any more reasons not to do it. It wasn't as if he was leaving a promising future behind.
"I don't believe this is an offer I can turn down, then," Rufus said, feeling a hope bubble in his gut. He could save his family's business and become president of the world! Getting another chance at that…
"The people," Cloud finally said, still not looking at him.
"What?" Rufus asked.
Cloud turned a glare on him. "The people make up the planet. Do what's best for them."
The businessman frowned. "I cannot right all the wrongs in the world."
The warrior nodded. "Good people accept that, but try anyway."
Rufus just stared at him. That… really said so much about Cloud Strife right there.
He cleared his throat. "What about this world?"
"We'll still do what we can to help it along. We will try to find a way to counter Jenova's presence," Aerith said.
"But in case we can't," likely-Zack said.
Rufus took a deep breath.
"Promise," Cloud said.
The other blond blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Promise us that you will put the planet first."
Rufus leaned back and away a little bit. "Well, I—"
"Promise!" Cloud insisted.
Rufus sighed. If he promised, he planned on keeping said promise. "Very well."
"Say the words."
The businessman rolled his eyes. "I promise."
Cloud really never should have become a parent.
"To put Gaia and its people first, before the ShinRa company."
The warrior looked past him to likely-Zack and Aerith. He nodded at them, then nodded back at Rufus, holding out his hand to shake.
Cloud didn't seem like the type of person to wish people luck, so Rufus appreciated the gesture a little more than he otherwise would have when he reached out and took the man's hand. No sooner had his hand grasped the other, then the world faded away.
Rufus woke up… in his bed… in his old room… in a building that had exploded years ago… with a numerous amount of dates in his head that he most certainly hadn't known before and only some inkling to their significance.
Oh, so they couldn't send a dead person back, but a live person with dead memories was just fine.
He groaned, rolled over and put his head under his pillow.
They could deal with him not saving the world for ten more minutes.
AN: So, remember when I said I had two time-travel fics for FFVII? Um... try three. This is the third one. The one that is coming to me easily enough in between me drawing for my comic. If you want to support that, go to Webtoons and search for HACamp. Two series will come up, the one I'm entering into the contest is called 'Hope for Scars' and I could really use some likes and subscribes!
Again: Webtoons HACamp.