Cloud was fairly certain he'd died. He couldn't remember how he died exactly. But he could swear he remembered becoming a part of the lifestream. Of seeing Aerith and his friends and family for the first time in years. He remembered a feeling of peace, of finally being able to let go and relax.
But he also has memories of growing up in this new country called Lucis. Or new to him at least. Apparently it has a two thousand year history. It was mind boggling to Cloud, who has seen countries and companies rise and fall over the course of his life.
His first assumption, once the initial panic of waking up in an empty hospital room had passed, was that he'd somehow been transported into someone else's body. The memories of growing up in Lucis clashed with what little he remembered of his childhood in Nibelheim. The discordant experiences brought to mind the conflict that resulted from his self-deception. Though the history he'd created for himself during the hunt for Sephiroth had at least been mostly based in reality.
When a nurse came in to check on him, he was sitting up on the bed with his head in his hands. He could hear her voice, he knew she was asking him questions, but his whole focus was in trying to sort out his memories.
It was hard to tamp down the panicked thoughts of, Not again. Not again!
He'd had Tifa to help him sort out the truth from reality last time. She had been able to confirm which memories from Nibelheim were true or not. She'd helped him realize that he wasn't just a failed experiment who had assumed the identity of Cloud Strife. She'd shown him that their shared memories were real. That his feelings were real.
Here he had no one.
There were now multiple voices around him trying to get his attention, but he filtered them out, not letting them intrude. He bent his legs to rest his forehead against his knees. The movement caused the voices to briefly stop, before they picked up once more.
In a way, the past experience of sorting out which memories were real and which were fake helped him now. Without that experience, it would have taken much longer for him to gain an idea of what had happened. Without it, he might truly have believed the reflexive thought that he'd just had a bunch of false memories implanted. Or the second thought that he was now possessing some poor boy's body.
Who would've thought he'd ever feel slightly grateful for that agonizing experience.
But thanks to that, Cloud was able to quickly decide that it was just him in this body. Not only did the memories feel like they had happened to him, the behavior of the young boy didn't feel out of character to him. Not like the persona of a cold hearted mercenary he'd superimposed over himself.
The only conclusion that made any sense, if he assumed his memory of dying was correct, was that he'd somehow reincarnated.
"Son? Can you hear me?" An older voice grabbed his attention. The worry in it caused the part of him that was the young boy perk up and pay attention.
Memories of an older man with kind eyes played out in his mind's eye. He was the father figure Cloud had lacked growing up. Always ready with a wise word of advice. His approval was something the boy had never had any reason to doubt.
But... with an outsider's perspective, Cloud could see there was also a strange distance between the man and the boy.
Right, that was his new name, wasn't it? Oh yeah, while he'd been having his identity crisis, people had been trying to ask him questions hadn't they?
Cloud glanced sideways through the fingers of the hand still at his temple and bit back a groan. A doctor, and two nurses were standing back near the door, while his father figure and legal guardian, Mr. Hester, was standing just out of arms reach.
The man was looking at him with nothing but concern... wait, no. There was something else. Crocus would not have noticed, too young and too blinded by his feelings, but Cloud could see the weariness in the man's gaze. Why else was he standing so far away from his adopted son?
The man smiled when their eyes met. "Are you with us now, Crocus?"
Cloud winced, the name sounded both weird and familiar at the same time. He forced himself to uncurl from his hunched position. He needed time to sort out all his new memories properly. And though a part of him wanted to relax into the eager to please persona of Crocus... Cloud's years of experience would not completely let him. Not when right now it felt like sliding back into his 'cool first class Soldier' act.
"Yeah," he answered, settling into a cross legged position. He paused in the act of lowering his hands at the sight of his Crownsguard Captain standing at the foot of the bed, and made sure to rest them in his lap in as non-threatening a pose as possible.
What were they all so tense for?
"Doctor Sana here needs to ask you a few questions." His adopted father said before stepping back.
The part of him that was still sixteen was a little hurt. Why pass him over to a doctor so quickly? But that same part also felt the usual resignation that followed such actions. Cloud forced himself to focus on the woman now standing at his bedside, clipboard in hand, instead of getting lost in memories. He could do that after these people left.
"Hello again Crocus." She greeted him politely.
Cloud nodded back at her, his unease at being at the mercy of someone in a white coat and clipboard warring with Crocus' feelings of familiarity. That's right. In this life he'd grown used to regular visits to the hospital. And this Doctor in particular.
Later. He'd examine that detail later.
"I have a few questions for you. Perfectly standard."
Cloud nodded agreeably, but some of his skepticism must have shown for she smoothly continued, "don't worry, you are not the only one to have such a strong reaction to the Crystal. These questions are simply to assess your physical, emotional, and mental state."
She adjusted her hold on the clipboard and readied a pen in her right hand. "Now, describe any physical discomfort or pain that you are feeling. Even if you think it is minor now, it could turn into a serious issue in the future. You know how it is." She smiled at him slightly in encouragement.
A cynical part of him wondered if they'd learned that kind smiles and praise got the best results out of Crocus.
"Um, well, my head hurts. It feels like a bad headache. But that's all." He forced a shy shrug, knowing it often softened the more sympathetic people. He had to use Crocus's instincts to get him out of this. Cloud just wanted to storm out and to Hel with the consequences.
What followed were more probing questions about where the pain was located, if movement made it worse, and if light bothered his eyes at all. He downplayed the headache, Cloud's reticence and suspicion not letting him be as honest as Crocus wanted to be.
"Alright, if you aren't feeling better after a night's rest we'll prescribe some light painkillers. Moving on, please detail the events that led to you being here to the best of your ability."
Crocus opened his mouth and answered. Describing the trip to the throne room, bashfully mentioning how excited he was to meet King Regis, and how the nervousness of the other Kingsglaive potentials had been infectious.
As Crocus talked, Cloud noted that Doctor Sana had opened with easy questions on his physical health to make him relax before moving on to the real reason he was being questioned.
"I remember kneeling before the King. I... can't remember how the others reacted to his magic. But when his hand touched my shoulder it was..." Crocus paused, searching for the right words. Or at least, the right words that wouldn't make them suspicious.
It had been like a bolt to the brain. Like a rude awakening from a deep sleep.
Cloud managed to clamp down on Crocus's guilt that he was about to tell a lie, and shrugged. "It was... overwhelming. Then I woke up here, with a huge headache." He gestured towards his head and then returned his hand back to his lap, keeping the silent Crownsguard Captain in his peripheral vision.
Apparently that was the right response. The tension in the room noticeably decreased at his self-deprecating tone.
He did his best to answer the rest of her questions. He was a little annoyed over how careful they were treating him. The brusqueness of the nurse taking his blood pressure and checking his other vitals was weirdly relieving. But at the same time... he'd caught glimpses of Crownsguards stationed outside his door when the spare nurse left. What were they so afraid of?
Apparently fainting when coming into contact with the King's magic was very rare. So rare that it had only happened once in the last decade. He was to schedule a meeting with that very member of the Kingsglaive as soon as he was cleared for duty.
Crocus meekly nodded when told he would need to spend the night at the hospital but, assuming no complications arose, would be free to leave in the morning with his guardian.
Cloud wanted to protest and demand to be let out right away, but knew that would be out of character. He didn't know what they'd been looking for or why they'd been so wary. Best to play it safe and go along with everything for now. And on the bright side, that meant he had all night to work out just what had happened to him.
He bid his guardian, or adopted father, good night. The man looked incredibly relieved that nothing had gone wrong with his meeting with the King. Beyond the fainting at least.
His Crownsguard Captain refrained from clapping him on the shoulder, like he usually did, instead he simply wished Crocus well and followed the others out the door.
Now Cloud was finally alone.
He lay back down on the bed, adjusting the blankets to better cover his torso. Blue eyes stared at the ceiling, while his mind started to gear up for a long night. Thankfully he hadn't properly panicked yet. It was a small mercy that in this life Crocus was so used to hospitals and doctors.
He closed his eyes, intent on trying to remember how he got into this situation, but immediately snapped them open. Nope. Bad idea. He needed to ground himself in the present. In Crocus's present. He couldn't afford to get lost in the memories these smells brought up for Cloud.
So. Start from a known memory. That's what he and Tifa had done, during their time in the lifestream. He needed to start from a point he knew for sure had happened.
Everything he'd told the doctor had been true. He remembered, as Crocus, feeling giddy with excitement at having been given the honour to apply for the Kingsglaive. And at such a young age too! He'd felt like his skills were finally being recognized as good things, instead of the suspicion he'd always gotten from his fellow Crownsguard recruits.
He remembered the shining black marble of the throne room, and how cold it had felt on his knees through his thin pants. It had been incredibly hard to stay still with his head bowed when the King had approached him. The King had said something to him, but Crocus had been so overwhelmed he couldn't remember how he'd responded.
Right. That was when Cloud had woken up. He'd looked around at the people surrounding him, people who just moments before he could have named, and had not recognized them. That was the moment he'd ceased to be just Crocus, ward of the noble Amicitia household, and had gained the memories of Cloud Strife.
Had the Crystal done something to him? Given him this other man's memories? Crocus felt panic building in the back of his throat, was this related to how he'd been treated his whole life?
But Cloud didn't think so. He knew what it felt like to have fake memories. This did not feel like that at all. In fact, he reasoned, panic subsiding, it felt closer to the night after he and Tifa had escaped the Lifestream. It felt like all the pieces inside of himself were finally fitting together properly.
In that case... maybe it really was reincarnation. That's what happened with the Lifestream after all. When you died, your spirit energy returned to the planet. That energy was then used to make new life elsewhere on the planet.
As Crocus, he had never heard of anything like that. The Cosmogeny taught that when you died, you joined the sea of souls in a place referred to simply as 'The Beyond'. It was there that you would meet the souls of your loved ones and be with them for the rest of eternity.
Crocus had never been especially devout, but he did believe in the Gods, in The Beyond, and in the Lucian King's divine right to rule. But all of those things had always been abstract concepts to Crocus.
To Cloud, the existence of the lifestream was as real as the bed he was currently sitting on. And for Cloud, many of Crocus's implicit beliefs were too... incomplete. They reminded Cloud of the folklore he'd grown up with in Nibelheim.
Cloud rubbed his temples, trying to dispel the headache that continued to pound at his temples. Maybe he should save the existential thoughts for when he was feeling better. It was probably a good idea to sleep some more and let his new memories settle in.
He'd figure out the implications of his reincarnation later.
As he settled himself properly under the blankets and adjusted his pillow, his eyes caught on a dark patch of skin just on the inside of his wrist. Cloud settled on his back, and held his wrist up in the air before his face, frowning at what he saw.
Glaring sharply down at him in cold black lines was a barcode. And below that, in a clear precise font, a serial number.
He has a number.
In this new life. He has a number.
A noise bubbled up from his chest, barely contained into just a snort.
Cloud blinked, and tried to suppress the emotions physically squeezing his chest. But it was no use, and before he knew it, he was laughing. Why was he laughing? Nothing about this was funny. He pressed his marked hand against his mouth, trying to stifle the noises.
Crucus didn't understand. He'd always had the barcode, it was a fact of life. It was something to hide, something that separated him from all the Lucians. A mark that, he was told, meant he was from Niflheim. He assumed it was just something the country did to people.
But Cloud knew better. It made the twitchyness of everyone around him make so much more sense. It wasn't because he was from an enemy nation. It also explained why he had always been naturally faster than all the others his age.
It meant he was an experiment.
Cloud had never been given a number. Hojo had declared him a failure. (A fact Sephiroth had been practically gleeful about.)
The question now was, did the number label him as a success? Or a failure? And, more importantly, whose experiment was he?
His laughter cut off as abruptly as it had started. Crocus despaired. He didn't know what the number and barcode meant. He'd never pressed his adopted father. Or the doctors. How could they keep something like this from him? Why hadn't he asked more questions?
Because he wanted to be accepted, Cloud answered.
He dropped the hand to his side and told himself it was something else he could worry about later. First he needed the headache to go away and for his new memories to settle. And for that to happen he needed to sleep.
Crocus didn't know how he could possibly sleep after all the life altering realizations he'd had in just the last few minutes, but Cloud did. Meditation was something he'd learned from his friends, and it had served him well in getting to sleep when his mind was overwhelmed.
He took a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled.
After a beat, he inhaled again, held it, and then exhaled.
He did this, focusing only on his body and how it felt, until the tension slowly bled out of his muscles. From the tips of his toes to the top of his head. He forced the panic and hysteria out, and took in nothing else. By focusing so intently on relaxing his body, he fell asleep between one breath and the next.
Author's note: I have a few ideas on where this could go. I don't really want to rehash Kingsglaive or the game, so Cloud will be on a journey separate from that. What I might end up doing is write vignettes of how Cloud ends up changing things by accident/on purpose. Unfortunately that means he either won't meet Prompto for a while or will avoid him. I already wrote the scene where they first meet so it depends if I decide to keep it or not. If the story ends up taking me in a different direction I could always post it as an alt-scene I guess.
Hope you enjoy! And please let me know what you think :)