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By: Athena Epilepsia
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII, as well as all its characters and such, belongs to Squaresoft. This is a simple fanfic and is not being used to make money. Okay, I've never been good at love stories or anything; people by now should have noticed that. This fanfic is one of my few attempts to make a story with love in it. Please tell me what you think by e-mailing me!
She gazed through the greenish haze, unable to see through it. It had been too long; no longer was she able to see past the surface of the Lifestream, into the world that she had departed long ago. Six months. Now that she thought about it, the time didn't seem real. She could still remember her death and events before that, but after that . . . time had slipped by without her.
Death itself was not terrible; she had never feared it, as she was sure that there was nothing to be scared of in death. Tseng had been there to welcome her, as had Zack and her mother, Ifalna. They had come to her with open arms and tears in their eyes; she remembered throwing herself into their arms, tears rushing up and seizing her eyes as she cried. A reunion, at last; she had never gotten over her mother's death, and Zack and Tseng's deaths had been painful for her as well. It had been wonderful to sit with them and talk of easier times.
The twenty-three weeks that followed were quite uneventful, up to the point where a familiar face dropped in on them, his soul wrenched from the Living Realm in one frightful moment and thrown to the Lifestream. Rufus Shinra. He had taken to her appearance in shock, unsure of what had truly happened. At the thought of the young President, Aeris Gainsborough shook her head. He had died so young; he wasn't any older than Cloud when he had died. Following Rufus' appearance in the Lifestream were Scarlet, Heidegger, and Hojo, all of whom immediately secluded themselves from the rest of the "residents" of the Lifestream.
Then, he had come, one day before the end of the twenty-fourth week. Sephiroth. Greatly confused and vulnerable after his long battle against Cloud, the once-almighty son of Jenova had been easy to confront and speak to. With Tseng and Zack standing next to her, she had told him of Hojo's treachery and about Lucrecia, who was trapped between the Living Realm and the Lifestream because of Hojo's experiments. She had told him the truth.
When Holy's power had countered Meteor's, the souls of the Lifestream had joined as one to fight for the survival of the Planet. Such a feeling it had been, to be using the powers given to the dead to weave such an intricate spell with loves and former enemies alike; even Don Corneo, Scarlet, Heidegger, and Hojo had joined forces with her to fight against the monster summoned by Jenova's puppet. Together, they had stood, just as Cloud, Tifa, and all the others had stood together as Sephiroth. Together, they had won.
But during that whole time, she had been able to see into realm she had come to love. She had been able to see Cloud, Tifa and Barret -- even Reno, Rude, and Elena. Silently, she wondered if Tseng had been as distraught and sorrowful as she was when he had found himself unable to gaze up through Lifestream's hazy barrier to see whatever his heart yearned for. Lifesight. Half a year after death, a person lost their Lifesight, and in the process, their connection with the Living Realm. It marked their true passing to the Lifestream.
"Is something wrong, Aeris?"
Aeris turned, her sparkling green eyes falling upon Tseng. ". . . How long have you been standing there?" she whispered, clasping her hands in front of her.
Tseng, forever garbed in his Turk uniform, shrugged. "A few moments, maybe longer," he replied, nearing her slowly. "What's on your mind? You've been distant the last two days."
"I. . ." Aeris bit her lip, lowering her gaze. ". . . After Holy and Meteor, I lost my Lifesight."
"Your Lifesight?" Tseng held his breath for a moment, letting the surprise settle in. "I'm sorry, Aeris." It hadn't been easy when he had lost his Lifesight; he didn't see any reason for it not to be hard for her. "What . . . was the last thing you saw?"
"Cloud," Aeris murmured, letting her hands fall to her sides. "I saw him . . . and Tifa, Barret, Nanaki, and the others. They were all in Kalm, helping rebuild the town." Tears pricked the corners of her eyes. "I-- I even saw the man that controlled Cait Sith."
"Reeve," Tseng sighed. He nodded, a slight smile creasing his face. "I'm glad he survived. If he plans to take over Shinra Incorporated, I'm sure he'll do a great job."
"He seemed like a nice man," agreed Aeris. She paused, raising her gaze again. "Tseng, what was the last thing you saw before you lost your Lifesight?"
"The Turks," Tseng immediately responded. "I saw them getting out of Midgar after battling Cloud, Cid, and Vincent. They appeared all right at that time. I hope they're okay now."
"I'm sure they are," Aeris said. "But . . . I'm worried about Cloud. I think he blames himself for my death. I-- I don't want him to feel that way." She turned away. "I-- I wish that I could tell him not to worry. I should have done something when I still had my Lifesight, but my death didn't leave a large enough impact on the people of the Planet to give me strong ties to the Living Realm."
Tseng bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Aeris. I wish I could help you, but I'm powerless as well." He could see Aeris slightly nod and walk away from him. When she had disappeared from his sight, he turned and murmured to himself, "But I know of someone who can help. . ."
He approached slowly, his eyes always on the man that sat before him, his back towards him. "Sir?" he whispered cautiously, looking down at the young man clad in white.
Rufus Shinra opened his eyes at the sound of a familiar voice. "What is it, Tseng?" he sighed, unfolding his legs so that he could stand up. Ever since his arrival in the Lifestream, the only ones to approach him to talk were Tseng, Aeris, and her former boyfriend, Zack.
"I . . . have a favor to ask of you."
Rufus, who was standing by now, raised his gaze to his former leader of the Turks. "A favor?" he repeated, one fair brow rising. "What kind of favor?"
"I'd . . . like to ask if you would use your Lifesight for Aeris' sake."
"Aeris' sake?" Rufus blinked, openly showing his confusion. He stared at Tseng, his brilliant blue eyes showing his curiosity. "What's wrong with Aeris?"
"She wishes to see Cloud Strife one more time," Tseng said in a low voice. When he saw a shadow fall over Rufus' features, he bit the inside of his lip. He had known Rufus wouldn't take well to the mentioning of Cloud, but he knew he would take it better than Sephiroth would. "As her friend, I can't ignore such a request. Especially a last request."
The younger man seemed to ponder Tseng's words for a long moment. "Cloud Strife. . . I don't know. . ." He frowned. "What did you have in mind exactly?"
"I was hoping that you could use your influence on the Planet to enter Cloud's dreams," Tseng said. "From there, he can be drawn into the Lifestream."
Rufus turned away and took a few steps in the opposite direction. "Enter Cloud Strife's dreams and lure him into the Lifestream. . .," he murmured. ". . . Aeris truly must love him to wish to see him even after death." As his back was facing Tseng, Rufus was unable to see the ex-Turk nod his head. ". . . Very well. I'll see what I can do." He spun to face Tseng, folding his arms across his chest. "But only for Aeris' sake and the fact that I feel I should do something for everything Shinra Incorporated has done. I owe nothing to Cloud."
"Thank you, sir," Tseng sighed, smiling. "I will be forever grateful."
"Forever. . .," whispered Rufus, his gaze wandering. A sardonic smile slowly made its way to his face. "Don't say that; I may just take it literally."
Rufus looked towards the green haze above, seeing past it to see the sun setting. The time was quickly approaching. He sighed, pacing in a small circle. He was beginning to doubt his abilities; never before had he tried to enter a living one's dreams -- he hadn't been in the Lifestream long enough to truly take in his powers of the dead. All he knew was that this would be extremely difficult. Tseng had put a lot of thought into his decision about asking him to Dreamwalk in Cloud's mind; his reputation and death had left a huge impact on the people of the Planet, making it all that much easier to keep ties with the Living Realm.
But there were still many things working against him. His negative effect on the people would make his appearance through the Dreamwalk negative as well, meaning that his presence in Cloud's dream would make it a nightmare. This in itself would make his Dreamwalk tough, but adding to that was the fact that Cloud, being one of the leaders of AVALANCHE, and himself, being the President of Shinra Incorporated, had been enemies until the end, despite their common goal to get rid of Sephiroth.
"Why so worried, Shinra?" came a cool voice from behind him. "One would think you were expecting terrible news or something."
Speak of the devil. . . Rufus looked up at the speaker, even though he already knew who it was. "Sephiroth," he sighed. "What do you want?"
"An answer is all," replied the tall, silver-haired man. Dressed in his trademark black SOLDIER uniform and trenchcoat, the man was both imposing and dark to behold, even in death. His glowing Mako eyes didn't make it any easier for one to look at him. "You don't normally looked so worked up. Especially when you're dead."
At that last remark, Rufus looked skyward. He couldn't believe Sephiroth had to say such a thing. "If you must know," he began, returning his gaze to Sephiroth, "I am waiting for the time when I have to begin the Crossing."
Sephiroth, not as well-informed about the full abilities of the dead, frowned, a dead giveaway that he was either surprised or confused. "The Crossing? What are you talking about?"
"Tseng has asked me to Dreamwalk into Cloud Strife's dreams and bring him into the Lifestream," explained Rufus. "Why I'm telling you this, I haven't the slightest clue; it's none of your business."
"Why would Tseng want you to do such a thing?" Sephiroth asked, his eyes narrowing as Rufus' words settled in. "What does he want from Cloud Strife?"
"He asked for Aeris; it turns out she wants to speak to him one last time," replied the ex-President. "Now, if you will leave me alone, I must begin soon."
Sephiroth watched Rufus turn his back on him and sit on the ground, cross-legged. He continued to watch in silence, up to the point where Rufus' voice cut through the stillness. "Your presence makes it extremely difficult to concentrate, Sephiroth. Is there some reason why you haven't left yet?"
"I am curious," Sephiroth replied, taking a few steps towards the sitting figure. "I have never seen anyone try something so bizarre before."
"Bizarre. . . I would call summoning Meteor from space to destroy the Planet pretty bizarre had I not seen it with my own eyes," Rufus murmured, not opening his eyes to properly acknowledge Sephiroth. When silence came as his only reply, Rufus opened one eye. His eye immediately fell on Sephiroth, who was sitting right in front of him cross-legged, glaring at him. "What the hell are you doing?" he demanded. If they were alive, Rufus would never have had shouted in such a way to Sephiroth's face, but in death, many new opportunities were opened as others were shut away.
"I wish to become part of this Crossing and Dreamwalk," the silver-haired ex-SOLDIER said coolly. "As I have never been told of these powers, I would like to experience them now that I know they exist."
"I can understand why you have never been told," Rufus said dryly, opening his other eye. "Everyone keeps their distance from you and wouldn't wish to have anything to do with you, son of Jenova."
Sephiroth threw him a glare that could wilt flowers. "I would kill you were you alive, Shinra," he spat, standing and looking down upon him.
"I do have a first name, you know," he muttered, flicking a few strands of blond hair from his line of vision.
"I wouldn't give you the pleasure to hear it pass my lips, Shinra," retorted Sephiroth, continuing to stare down at him.
Rufus shook his head. I walked straight into that, he thought wryly. "You astound me sometimes, Sephiroth. . . Now, if you would sit down and shut up, I would like to begin."
That threw Sephiroth off completely; he had expected for Rufus to either explode or curtly tell him to leave. Suspicion and anger lingering in his gaze, Sephiroth sat down again across from Rufus, who had closed his eyes again. He kept his eyes open, shock washing over his features as he saw Rufus give off a strange, bluish aura. The aura grew steadily stronger, enveloping him as well. Sephiroth held his breath as everything around him blacked out.
Through his eyelids, he was able to see a pulsing light. A greenish-blue pulsing light. Opening his eyes, Rufus found himself standing in the middle of a strange, void-like place that swirled and stretched. He forced himself to not succumb to the strain that the landscape had on his eyes and mind. At his side was Sephiroth, his eyes still shut. "Sephiroth," he said, stepping away from the man and looking around.
The silver-haired ex-SOLDIER's eyes fluttered open, and he took a good look at the place before him before adjusting his gaze on the one thing -- other than himself -- that didn't stretch and swirl. "Where are we?" he asked. There was no anger in his voice; just confusion.
"I'm guessing Cloud's mind," replied Rufus.
Sephiroth looked around for a moment, then smirked. "I always knew Strife's head was empty. This must be why it was so easy to manipulate him."
At the silver-haired man's remark, Rufus rolled his eyes. It was so like him to make such a crude joke. "Anyway," he started, walking away from Sephiroth, "we should start the Vision." Sephiroth frowned, then nodded as he followed after Rufus. "We'll have to be careful, though. This dream will have a negative impact on Cloud because it's us doing it."
"Negative impact? You mean a nightmare?"
Rufus nodded slowly and continued on. This definitely wasn't going to be easy.
Cloud was dreaming for once; it wasn't normal for him to dream now, with Sephiroth gone and Shinra dealt with. But he dreamed anyway. It was a dark dream, covered in shadow-shrouds and meanings that made no sense. He heard obscured calls from the darkness, grasping hands trying to pull him into the shadows. It took all his strength to get away and all his bravery to keep his wits. Never before had such a nightmare haunted him.
From the haze of his dreams came a beautiful form, wrapped in white and with her hands clasped in front of her. Cloud reached for her, his Mako eyes widening in surprise as he realized that the beautiful woman was none other then his beloved Aeris. His fingers had just barely touched her fingers when he was jerked away, breath stolen from his lips as he was dragged away from Aeris. As his vision returned, he could make out a figure dressed in gray behind Aeris, clasping her hands behind her back with one hand and covering her mouth with the other. Dread and fear froze Cloud's spine as his gaze averted upward, to the man holding Aeris. A malicious sneer had worked its way upon the man's face, his eyes a sinisterly glowing blue-green as he returned Cloud's gaze.
"NO!!" Cloud tried to run to Aeris' rescue, but found himself being held back as well.
He struggled against the person that held him, rage climbing through him and exploding out of his throat as a scream of fury. It took all his strength to twist himself to behold the second assailant, who was dressed in a black suit that looked all too familiar, except for the color. A smirk -- an evil, arrogant smirk -- was etched on his smooth face, his cool blue eyes piercing his own despite the fact they were not Mako-infused. Horror flooded Cloud's mind as he looked at the man who was just barely older than him, and not even as well-built as him.
"This is for everything you've done, Cloud Strife." Rufus' voice was cold and filled with bitter anger. Cloud could only grit his teeth as Rufus spun him to face Sephiroth and Aeris. Sephiroth now brandished Masamune, which he quickly brought to Aeris' neck. The sneer on his face became an insane, wild smile.
"NO!!! Leave her alone!" screamed Cloud, his lungs aching as he screamed. "Leave her out of this!" As Sephiroth pressed the blade to Aeris' neck, Cloud continued to scream. "Aeris! Aeris!!! AERIS!!" The tears in Aeris' eyes replayed themselves again and again in Cloud's mind, and he began crying himself. "Nooo!! Please, no!!"
A terrible scream could be heard over Cloud's, and he watched in horror as blood spurted from the wound in Aeris' neck. Her eyes glazed over and, as Sephiroth released her, she fell to the floor lifelessly. Aeris' lifeblood formed a puddle around her unmoving body as Cloud could only look down upon her. Although he continued to stare in soundless terror, he could hear laughter break through the silence. Two voices, laughing in the same cruel way. Cloud sank to his knees as Rufus released him, his gaze never averting from Aeris' corpse.
He wasn't quite aware that Sephiroth stood over him with his still-bloody Masamune now; he couldn't have moved even if he were to try to leap to his feet. "Puppet. . . Life is too good for you to live out." Sephiroth brought his longsword above his head, ready to deal the the final blow. Cloud was unable to see his nemesis, however; all he saw was Aeris' prone form and the large puddle of blood around her.
Then, he saw nothing at all.
Cloud snapped awake at that moment, drenched with sweat. He was breathing hard and gasping for air, clutching the sheets underneath him tightly. Such a horrid, terrifying dream. . . What could have caused it? Cloud ran a hand through his spiky hair, feeling the sweat in his hair as his fingers met it. The dream reminded him how much he hated Shinra and Sephiroth. Was the nightmare meant to strengthen his feelings against evil? . . . Or was there more to it?
Shaking his head to clear it of such questions, Cloud laid back down to go to sleep.
"Damn," cursed Rufus, turning and beginning to pace. "We were unable to get through the negative waves."
Sephiroth watched the ex-president for a moment, a frown on his face as well. "Can't we just try again tomorrow night?" he asked.
"From what I've heard," Rufus said, "Dreamwalking takes its toll on the living one. If we don't succeed tomorrow evening, we'll have to wait a whole year to try again. By that time, our Lifesight will have faded away."
"So we're going to have to work extra hard next time," Sephiroth sighed. He smirked at the younger man and crossed his arms. "I would never had thought that you would be so forceful as to accomplish this task for Aeris' sake."
Rufus stared at him for a moment, then flicked the hair from his face in the same manner he had in life. "I'm just trying to prove that Rufus Shinra can do anything. Even in death."
They walked side by side through the haze, towards an area that seemed to draw all souls towards it. Both were quiet; there wasn't much to talk about, and even less to talk about that they actually agreed on. As they neared their destination, they could make out the tall, foreboding structure before them as a tower. It was nowhere near the height of the Shinra Building, but it was still a sight to behold, with dark walls flecked white and green. Rufus stepped into the tower first, followed by Sephiroth. Once inside, they admired the floor and walls, all of which were made to appear forever-white with intricate designs across them, ranging from legendary birds to signs of life in languages neither could quite comprehend. Among these signs, though, Rufus had discovered one sign that had truly unnerved him -- "Shin-Ra" in Wutainese, as his father had made the logo for Shinra Incorporated. Who had made it? It made him begin to wonder how many Shinras there were in the Lifestream other than himself.
Sephiroth, having never stepped into the tower before, looked around in wonder. Such ancient-appearing designs. . . It reminded him of the City of the Ancients, and he immediately felt depressed. His frown went unnoticed by Rufus, who was busy searching the milling crowd for someone. After a few moments, a familiar figure stepped from the sea of faces and confronted them.
The man nodded respectfully to both men before speaking. "How did it go, sir?" Tseng queried, clasping his hands behind his back and looking inquiringly at the youngest man.
Rufus crossed his arms and shook his head. "We couldn't get through to Cloud, Tseng. The negative waves are too powerful." He looked at Sephiroth with a frown of his own. "And it definitely didn't help that heĘdecided to come with me."
Tseng sighed. "This isn't good," he stated sadly. "I wish I could help you, but even if I could, my presence would probably disrupt the negative waves even further."
"You can't help it, Tseng," Rufus stated, flicking his hair back with his left hand. "We'll just try again tomorrow night. We need to try a different way . . . that's for sure."
Sephiroth finally decided to speak. "Shinra, you never explained why we can only get into Strife's head one more time. I'd like to know what's at stake with this Crossing business."
". . . You didn't tell him, sir?" Tseng whispered, a little startled by Sephiroth's question. Rufus shook his head and glanced away, clearly not wanting to have to explain what was 'at stake'. Tseng faced Sephiroth and began speaking. "By making a second Crossing, you put the dreamer's mind at danger. The dreamer will be very disoriented by the Crossing. A third Crossing is unheard of; insanity is usually the side effect by it." Sephiroth's brow rose in surprise at that, but Tseng wasn't finished yet. "A repeating dream also is dangerous. . . It will lead to temporary loss of memory."
"So, basically, we have to try something completely different than what we did before," Sephiroth murmured, his eyes narrowing at the new information.
"That's right," affirmed Rufus. "Instead of using the Vision method, we'll Walk right into Cloud's dream. It will be harder to do; it will be a strain more on our physical control than mental control."
Sephiroth quirked an evil little smile. "Are you sure you can handle this physical strain then, Shinra?" he mocked.
It didn't take longer than a split-second for Rufus to flash Sephiroth his own sneer. "You forget, Sephiroth," he began, "I was able to hold Cloud back, despite my lack of SOLDIER training." The two shared a small inside joke and chuckled.
Tseng, sadly, was everything short of confused.
"Are you prepared?" the first asked.
The second sighed and tossed back his silver hair. "Do you even have to ask?"
The first rolled his eyes. "I'll take that as a yes." He took a deep breath, then shut his eyes. The second followed suit. "Now, concentrate. I don't want to mess up this time." He received no answer except the familiar feeling of blackness overwhelming him.
". . . We're back here again," Sephiroth murmured, watching Rufus open his eyes to the strange landscape that was Cloud's mind. He cleared his throat before speaking. "So, what do we do now?"
"Follow me," replied Rufus. "We have to enter Cloud's dream physically; mental images didn't work well last time." He paused, then turned to look at Sephiroth. "Where did that image of Aeris come from, anyway?"
Sephiroth frowned and shook his head, not wanting to delve back into the induced nightmare from the night before. When silence came to be his only reply from the taller man, Rufus shrugged and strode away. After a second of hesitation, Sephiroth hurried after him.
He dreamt again of the shadows and darkness, swallowing the light and leaving him to their mercy. It was horrible, feeling the blackness clawing at him from every direction, trying to rip his own light from him. He ran, dodging evil pairs of eyes and the hands of shadows, towards a pinpoint of light in the far distance. It grew steadily brighter as he ran, filling him with hope as he sprinted. He stopped once he was close to the light, blinking at the smiling figure of Aeris.
"Aeris. . ." Cloud reached for her, his hands trembling violently. Was she real? Was she a ghost? Would she speak if he touched her? The questions quaked his mind and he drew his hand back, his eyes darting around him. He had . . . heard something.
"Welcome back." The voice was dangerously familiar, although it echoed strangely in his ear.
Cloud spun away from Aeris, his eyes narrowing on the white-clad figure before him. "Rufus. . ." He clenched his hands into fists and fell into a battle stance. "I'm not letting you hurt Aeris this time! Get away from us!"
Rufus raised his hands defensively and took a step forward. "I have no weapons," he said. "Let up your guard, Cloud."
"Why?!" demanded the leader of AVALANCHE. "You and Sephiroth killed Aeris last time!"
"That was a dream, Strife."
His heart almost stopped at the voice. Spinning back to face the voice, Cloud realized that Aeris was no longer there. In her place stood Sephiroth, his arms folded across his chest. He, too, was unarmed. Cloud turned so he could see both of the men, taking a quick step backwards. What was going on here??
"You really shouldn't be afraid, Strife," Sephiroth sighed, shaking his head. It sounded odd to Cloud's ear; his former tormentor was not referring to him as 'puppet' for once. "We're not here to slay you in your dreams."
"On the contrary," Rufus interrupted, "we're here to take you to Aeris."
"What?" The shock was apparent in the young man's voice.
"We've been asked to carry out Aeris' last request," explained the ex-President, running a hand through his hair. "Now, come with us; it's getting difficult to stay in this dream." Cloud stared at the man, dumbfounded. An exasperated sigh made its way past Rufus' lips. "Sephiroth, grab him. We've got to get out of here."
Sephiroth looked at him blankly for a moment, then smirked. Nodding, he grabbed hold of Cloud and dragged him away, Rufus slowly following as the world around them faded into light.
Cloud's eyes twitched as he awoke, a groan getting past him. He brought a hand up to rub his eyes, the scenery around him slowly focusing. The man held his breath as he stared at the green haze that was his surroundings. "W-- where am I?" he whispered, not expecting the answer.
Cloud snapped his gaze up, finally realizing that two forms stood over him. Rufus offered him his hand, which Cloud hesitantly took. It shocked him that it was real to the touch. "Wh-- what's going on?" he queried, tearing his hand away as soon as he was on his feet. "How can you two be alive?"
"We're not," Sephiroth replied dryly. He sounded quite sane now, if not a tad bored of what was going on. "And before you panic, you're not dead, Strife. You're only here temporarily."
"Follow us, Cloud," Rufus said. His tone of voice was firmer than Sephiroth's at this point, and Cloud suddenly got the idea that Rufus was in charge between the two. Why Sephiroth would allow Rufus to be in charge, he couldn't even begin to guess. "We'll take you to Aeris." He turned a slight smile to Sephiroth. "She'll be thrilled to see you."
"Isn't that the truth," agreed Sephiroth. It surprised Cloud that this was actually happening. He couldn't believe that he was actually seeing his two worst enemies carrying a civil conversation. An insane, homicidal maniac and an arrogant, over-confident President were two very unlikely people to get along. Sephiroth leveled his gaze onto him, then smirked. "We better get going. It looks like our little Romeo here is anxious for his Juliet."
The fact that Sephiroth knew about Romeo and Juliet threw Cloud off for a moment, but a blush took over his face as his words settled in. Rufus chuckled and began walking away. Sephiroth threw his former enemy a sneer before striding after Rufus. Unable to do anything else, Cloud went after the two, the blush slowly fading from his cheeks.
Tseng watched in relief as Rufus and Sephiroth entered the tower. He made his way to them quickly and immediately asked, "What happened? Did you succeed?"
Rufus grinned at his former leader of the Turks. He must have been quite worked up if he had skipped all forms of greeting. "Yes, it succeeded," he replied. "Cloud is behind us." He looked around the area for a moment. "Where is Aeris?"
"She decided to stay out in her area of the Lifestream," Tseng said, frowning. Aeris had fallen farther into depression since yesterday and had wished for solitude. If she weren't dead already, Tseng would have probably worried that she might kill herself.
It was then that Cloud entered the tower, blinking at the tower's designs. He frowned in confusion, then brought his gaze down to the black-haired man in front of Rufus and Sephiroth. "Tseng of the Turks?" he queried.
"It's nice to see you again, Cloud." Tseng smiled at the bewildered look on the young man's face. He wondered if Cloud would dismiss all of this as a wild dream when he awoke. "You'll have to follow me to get to Aeris. She isn't here."
"Isn't here?" repeated Cloud. "Where is she, then?"
Tseng gestured the three young men to follow him. "She's been keeping to herself for a while now," he said, his remark directed to Cloud. ". . . You honestly don't believe any of this is happening, do you?" Cloud frowned, then shook his head. "You have every right not to believe this, but this is no dream. I asked President Rufus to bring you here for Aeris, and somehow he got Sephiroth involved."
"I got myself involved," Sephiroth interrupted. "Little Shinra here couldn't have gotten me involved even if he had wanted to."
"Little??" repeated Rufus, glaring at Sephiroth. "I'm only six years younger than you!"
"Yeah -- that makes you little," Sephiroth teased, throwing the younger man a devious grin. Cloud looked at the two quizzically when Rufus grumbled and looked away. This was just getting odder and odder. . .
Tseng pointed to the pink-garbed woman in the distance, her back to them. Next to him, Cloud's heart leapt. She still looked as beautiful as he remembered her to be, with her gorgeous brown hair braided with a ribbon adorning the top of it. He felt his knees grow weak and he stumbled forward. Sephiroth grabbed his shoulders and set him on his feet, smirking at him and rolling his eyes, as if teasing him about being lovesick. Cloud wondered what had induced such strange behavior from Sephiroth; he had thought that the man would try to kill him every chance he got. The same went for Rufus. Cloud looked at the other blond-haired man, whose face was carefully expressionless.
"Go to her, Cloud," Rufus said after a silence that seemed to stretch on for an eternity had passed. He offered him a smirk. "Sephiroth and I went through a lot to get you here to Aeris. You better not back out now."
Wanting to prove the ex-President wrong, Cloud firmed his face and began walking over to Aeris. All three of the deceased men glanced at each other before letting Cloud approach Aeris alone.
The three had respectfully turned away as Aeris and Cloud were reunited; after watching Aeris throw her arms around Cloud and cry into his chest, Tseng decided he had seen enough. Likewise with Rufus and Sephiroth, although the two wouldn't admit it to themselves. They remained silent for a while, a little awkward to be so close to Aeris and Cloud while they spoke. After a while, an impatient Rufus turned his head to speak to his fellow deceased. Their conversation was hesitant and slow at first, but soon the situation became less tense and they spoke more freely.
The hint of the sound of footsteps drew Sephiroth's eyes. He turned to see Cloud walking back to them, something strange upon his face. Aeris was nowhere to be seen. His Mako eyes shimmered with something that Sephiroth was unable to completely understand. Was it the hint of tears? The thought made him curious, but Tseng spoke first. "Are you all right, Cloud?"
Cloud, who had been staring at basically nothing for the whole time, managed to focus his gaze onto Tseng. "I--" He shook his head, as if hoping it would clear his head of what Aeris had spoken to him about. Why would she want him to let go of her? He loved her, for crying outloud! In the back of his head, part of him was reminding him of Tifa, and he immediately felt horrible. Ever since the threat against the Planet had been wiped out of existence, he had avoided her, his thoughts always of Aeris.
Sephiroth's voice ended his reverie and brought him back to reality . . . or whatever he was in. Cloud cleared his throat and looked at the three faces before him. Each of these men had been his enemy in life, but now they had each taken it upon themselves to bring him to Aeris. "I. . . I want go back," he whispered, not daring to each their gazes.
By his voice alone, Sephiroth was able to tell Aeris' words must have hurt Cloud. He nodded solemnly, a thought lingering within his head. Why was he no longer angry at Cloud and not wanting him dead? Almost immediately, the question was answered by another section of his mind. He had never been angry at Cloud in the first place; in his insanity, he had hated the whole human race, but never quite concentrated his anger on one person.
Next to him, Rufus frowned at Cloud's request. It was a strained request, with so much pain behind the words. In a way, it mirrored his memories of childhood. He had survived it well enough, but had never gotten over it. A pang of sorrow overtook him as he felt for his former enemy. Aeris had wanted to sever the relationship between herself and Cloud, and that was more than likely what was killing Cloud softly. Not waiting for an answer from Tseng or Sephiroth, Rufus stepped forward and laid his hand on Cloud's shoulder.
"We'll take care of her, Cloud," he murmured, vowing to a question that must have been eating the ex-mercenary alive. "Don't worry about her so much. She wanted to see you to make sure you were all right and to show you that she was all right." Cloud glanced at him, then bowed his head.
"Come along, Cloud," Tseng said, his voice soft. Rufus let his hand drop down to his side as Cloud walked after Tseng into the green haze. For a moment, he wondered if Cloud would be the last living one to come into Lifestream in such a way without the risk of Mako poisoning. Perhaps he would be. Out of the corner of his eye, Rufus could see Sephiroth step up to his side and watch Cloud and Tseng disappear from view. It was then that he decided to speak.
". . . What?" Rufus could feel the glowing eyes on him as the word passed the former SOLDIER's lips.
The beginning of a smirk was on the white-clad man's face as he spoke. "You do realize that you just referred to Cloud by his first name, right?"
There was a heavy silence between the two following his question.
". . . . . . Shut up, Shinra."
Rufus grinned and looked at the older man, who seemed annoyed to see the grin on his face. The afterlife was going to be great.
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