The One Who Stayed Behind
A Final Fantasy 7 story
Jeff Herrold

September 11th, 2002

Into the sightless void he flew. The only sound that had seemed important to him was that of his own breathing. It was important to him that he kept on, striving forward into the unknown. Though pain and fatigue gripped him at every turn, he kept on. To give up was to fail. To fail was to die. To breathe was to stay alive. In this cavern of darkness of sound and sight, he could not see himself. Was he there? Did he exist? What was he before this tunnel? Who was he? Did it matter? No. All that mattered was the continuation. Continuity.

Wisps of vesper light circled around him in the timeless void. Sight returned in varying degrees, a child sneaking back into the house after a night out, careful, hardly noticed. He clenched his fist and traveled on, straight as an arrow, moving without movement. He hardly knew where he was going, or what he was going for, he only knew that he would know it when he got there.

Suddenly up ahead he saw it waiting for him, standing bare-chested atop a plateau of broken promises and failed dreams. It glared at him with icy foreboding, as if it knew of his arrival, as if it had been waiting for this moment for all time. He felt a sensation of slowing, as if his long journey in this tunnel of blackness and rock was coming to an end. It gripped within itself the implement of his destruction. He had come all this way and now Death was at the end, waiting for him. It had always been so.

He felt betrayed, angered. What for was this, this horrible end to a grand adventure? He had traveled the world, worn and battle-ravaged, and now to be bested by this, this gaunt figure of unbridled malice? Had he traveled so far, given up so much to be brought here and now to this ethereal plane to die?

"It isn't fair," he whispered. The ghost of a smile was on Death's lips, as if to indicate yes, yes it was not fair. Heroes come and heroes go, and they all die in the end. A prisoner to the self. Death took up his scythe and thrust the point towards him, a challenge. Time to die.

He stood in a matterless void. Thinking of it, he gathered traction around his worn and weary feet. White particles of dust that had no actual existence in reality crunched underneath his boots as he walked, pebbles skipping and fading into nothingness as he passed. The only ground was that underneath him, the only reality that which he created. Death nodded one warrior to another. Beyond madness there is the ordered formality of chaos, a politeness that even Death, taker of so many, abided by.

He found in his hand the hilt of his weapon, a pitiful thing next to the absoluteness of Death. It hefted its scythe and swung it a few times experimentally, perhaps planning the best strike with which to take his soul and end his pain. He raised his own weapon, his own existence, the ultimate. He would vanquish Death, or die trying.

They rushed. They clashed. They fought turn for turn, strike for strike, each attack parried by another. Together they danced, and lightning flashed about them. Death began to laugh silently, blood running from its brow. Its hair, bone white, glistened with the exertion. Its eyes flared with insanity. The boy doubled back, swinging his blade. Standing his ground, he caught his breath, watching Death. He was afraid.

Death raised his scythe and rushed at the infidel, yelling. Even as the apparition brought both hands down to cleave the boy in half, he side stepped and leapt through realities. Existences and lifetimes flared past him, years and eras flowed past like water beneath his feet. He stared at all the possible existences and ways he could live and shed tears.

               She took him in her arms
                         He hugged his son tightly as the
      Bells rang and he kissed her and together
                     They lifted their son into the air

He was flying, they were flying, it was love, and it was

                                "A boy, Cloud. You're a father"
                     "I will always be with you"
              "Don't leave me."

Everything, every life he passed filled him with experiences and awe. He felt himself live and die a billion times, felt the joy of love and the pang of heartbreak a thousand fold. He saw himself experiencing all these things after charging Death with a multitude of blows and slaying it. Through the defeat of Death would he find life.

Then he was back and Death was charging, and there was no time, no time at all, and as he raised his sword and saw in his mind's eye the limit of infinity, saw the death of Death and the emancipation of his soul, saw in one blink of an eye the myriad of love and existence that could be his, he knew that in order for any of that to be possible, for any attempt of happiness, there must be this one thing. The price for happiness in an infinite universe is the eventuality of everything. For every successful outcome of this battle there must be that one failed attempt. Weeping silently, he threw his weapon to the side, turned to the infinite, and let Death take him.

* * * * *

Cloud turned his head away from the lithe form of his wife and silently rolled out of bed. He stood up, his naked form pale in the moonlight. He felt the tingle of carpet against the soles of his feet as he walked away towards the other end of the bed. There she lay, her breathing slow and steady as she clenched the pillow between her arms. Her supple body clad in a flowing nightgown, still warm from the excitement the night before. He ran his finger through her hair, careful not to wake her, always soft and gentle. He traced her jaw line with a finger, felt her velvet skin.

She rolled over and looked at him, eyes heavy with sleep. "Cloud, come to bed..." He assured her that he would, and smiled as she rolled over satisfied, sleep once again taking her in its loving embrace. Cloud stood there several minutes longer, watching her before turning and leaving the room.

He had found a robe somewhere and put it on before leaving the house. No one would be abroad this time at night, he knew, but it would be cold where he was going and he wouldn't return for a long time. In his arms he carried the sheathed form of the Ultima Weapon, its raw power quiet and lulled, a slumbering tiger. He walked and walked for hours, the relative care and calm of the town falling behind him and the rolling plains growing before him. The moon illuminated the night sky and was the only other companion. Moon, man, and sword walked on.

Then suddenly, he was there. Midgar stood before him, sunk into the deep valley rolling out before him like a sleeping giant. The ruined city, now overgrown with lush green plant life no longer seemed the suffocating jailer that it had once been, but a new being that through death had found life. It was quiet, a holy radiance surrounding the place that for so long had not been visited by human beings. Cloud began his trek down towards the huge ruin, his face set with grim determination.

It had not been yet three years since Meteor fell, but even so the rapid jungle-like growth of Midgar continued to surprise and amaze him. There was something holy here, something joyous that had been suppressed, cramped in the rotting boards of a broken church but now could blossom freely. The essence of the Cetra was here, an essence that could transcend time and space. Cloud pulled his way towards the ruins, looking at his sword. It had not been used since that last fight, the last battle between Sephiroth's control onto his subconscious and himself, the battle within his own mind. Cloud had conquered Sephiroth using this sword, had emancipated his soul. Cloud had been a puppet no longer. He thanked someone dear to him every day for that. Thanks to him it had been possible to live a life of happiness, a happiness that otherwise could not have been possible.

"It's been a while since I last came, hasn't it?" Cloud whispered into the darkness. He had come to a bare section of rock that seemed out of place amid the thriving greenery. He felt his eyes well up and laughed at his own humanity, the ease with which his tears came. "I promised...I promised you I'd bring him last time." He kneeled down and laid the Ultima Weapon along his knees. "I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner."

"You're still fighting, aren't you? I know you are. Sephiroth caused so much pain and devastation, killed so many...And when you save someone's life, you're responsible for it, aren't you? How many did you save? A billion? A hundred trillion? You're paying in full." Cloud's voice trailed off.

Suddenly he shouted with full force, as if angry with himself: "Sometimes I wish it had been me instead of you, you know? I'm so happy, now, and I wish you could experience it. Tifa...She's, she's pregnant, you know. We're going to have a baby." He paused for a few moments.

"If it's a boy, I'll name it after you, how's that? Not me, you. Would you like that? I like to think you would." Cloud stood, and looked towards the horizon. Dawn was coming, and he had better return to bed before his wife missed him. He made this trip once every year to keep promises, dreams, and tomorrow alive. Each time leaving was harder and harder.

Cloud unsheathed the Ultima Weapon and with a mighty thrust, embedded the sword hilt deep into the large heap of stone and rock before him, the one rocky place in this forest of life. "There, it's yours now. It must be hard, hard to always fight. But resting is nice too, and love is nice. I wish you could know it. How many more are you fighting for? How many more come here and thank you? Am I the only one? How many of us lived and went on to get old and gray and marry and have children while you stayed behind, making it possible? How long must you stay? Why do you do it..." Cloud trailed off, his tears more frequent. "I...I have to go. Thank you, my friend. Thank you." Cloud turned and walked away.

It was important to keep your promises. He knew that even as he began the long trek back to Kalm, even as the sun began to rise behind him. You owed it to your fallen heroes, to the ones who died before you, and the ones who stayed behind, keeping everything possible. He had learned as much during the last fight with Sephiroth, where he had stared into the infinite and met himself. Met the man whom he remembered every year, the man without whom his happiness, his happiness with Tifa and the child to come could not exist. The man who stayed behind...The man who fought with Death and would lose so that so others could live.

Into the sightless void he flew. The only sound that had seemed important to him was that of his own breathing. It was important to him that he kept on, striving forward into the unknown. Though pain and fatigue gripped him at every turn, he kept on. To give up was to fail. To fail was to die. To breathe was to stay alive. In this cavern of darkness of sound and sight, he could not see himself. Was he there? Did he exist? What was he before this tunnel? Who was he? Did it matter? No. All that mattered was the continuation. Continuity.