Part One - Chapter 1
By Knowing Shadows
"You used to captivate me
By your resonating light,
But now I'm bound by the life you left behind.
Your face it haunts my once pleasant dreams,
Your voice it chased away all the sanity in me.
These wounds won't seem to heal,
This pain is just too real,
There's just too much that time cannot erase."
Evanescence – My Immortal
"Why do you want to become a SOLDIER?"
"Why do you want to know?"
The winds whipped across the Nibel mountains just as they had always done, stinging the vulnerable skin of any traveller who dared traverse them and putting off many of those who thought they might brave it. The rain was so heavy that it looked like a grey cloud had settled right across the mountains and the town of Nibelheim, softening and blurring the outlines until it almost faded away.
It had been raining like this for several days, the mountains seeming to draw in all the dark clouds and keep them. No-one had ventured outside to brave the harsh weather, so everything was quiet except for the pounding of the heavy raindrops on the roofs and ground below.
A lone figure headed resolutely through Nibelheim square towards the mountain path, pulling his cloak closer around him to try and dampen the effects of the rain, though he was soaked through as it was. His long, dark hair streamed backwards from his pale face. The wind tried to rip the red material out of his grip, but he held on determinedly as he passed the gates to the Shinra Mansion. His mind briefly flickered towards echoing memories of pain triggered by the sight of the old house, but he refused to let himself linger on those dark thoughts, choosing instead to focus on his trip up the mountain.
It had been a long time since Vincent Valentine had visited this place.
For a long while, Vincent was convinced that he would never return to Nibelheim, that he would never set foot within the confines of the isolated town. Too much had happened here to ever make him want to come back, to face up to the demons that still inhabited this place for him. No-one had wanted to come back. The town stood as a constant reminder of the past, one too painful for anyone to encounter again. So they had stayed away.
The reason for Vincent's arrival made no sense to him, for he had thought that that reason would have even less enthusiasm for being here than anyone else.
As he passed onto the familiar mountain path, Vincent let his eyes rove ahead, taking in the dark rocks that marked the treacherous walkway, if ever there was one. It had not changed since he had last seen it, and neither had the town. Thinking about it, it unsettled him that in so long a time, nothing had happened to alter it.
So much had changed for everyone and the world around them for this to stay the same. It was almost like stepping back into the past, an unwelcome reminder of things gone by whilst they had all moved on around it. Because they had all moved on...they had had no choice but to move on...
Except maybe one of our number.
Nine years...it had been a long time.
A long time since Meteor had blazed across the skies and Sephiroth had almost spelled doom for the Planet. A long time since Jenova had been destroyed. A long time since, well, a lot of things.
The metal of his boots made gentle thumping noises on the rocks as he slowly made his way up the winding path, using his grafted alloy arm to help keep his balance as the rising gale tried its best to hinder him. The rain drove mercilessly against him, obscuring his sharp vision. It was a dangerous path anyway, without nature working against him as it was.
His reason for fighting his way up through the Nibel mountains was grave, and he knew that in the end it may be for nothing, but he was willing to take the chance.
He almost missed the hidden path heading off around the other side of the mountain, but just saw it through the grey rain. It was made to look as natural as possible, and even if someone spotted it, they would think it hadn't been used in a long time. Vincent knelt down in the roughage that hid the footpath, impressed by the effort made to conceal it. Anyone with lesser eyesight than he would have completely missed it.
Whether it was the person he was looking for or not, someone was definitely around here. Vincent stood and slid through the thorny bushes onto the narrow, winding and uneven path. He could not see the end of it, for it was well placed and easily mistakable as a natural part of the mountain, a tiny rock ledge hewn by the elements over many years.
Vincent wondered whether or not that was so as he quietly walked along.
The tiny ledge wound along the edge of the mountain, until he was eventually sheltered from the worst of the rain and wind about an hour later. He squinted against the drizzle, spotting something set into the rock-face further along. If it had been on the wrong side of the mountain the rain would have ensured that he wouldn't have seen it. It struck him that whoever was up here definitely did not want to be found, and absently he wondered if he should honour that obvious need.
I'm not the only one who wants to know if you're up here. However, if it really is you, I should accept that you don't want to be found, and so should the others.
It was a small, roughly built hut standing in the protective shelter of the rocks, hardly visible for it seemed to be specially designed to be as non-intrusive as possible. Vincent squinted again, trying to get a clear view through the rain. However, it was impossible to make out details from where he stood, so Vincent set off along the path again, reckoning that he would probably make it in about five to ten minutes. And, if anyone was there, they would probably have spotted him already.
The ledge seemed to get more difficult to traverse as he continued, the rain making it slippery and even more potentially dangerous. As he drew nearer to the hut, Vincent could see that, like the entrance to the path, it had been made to look as though it hadn't been used in a while. The shutters over the empty window-frames looked like they were about to fall off their creaking hinges, but they were holding up extremely well in the wind despite this. Another trick to fool anyone who might find this place anyway. In fact, the whole hut – which only seemed to be a small, one-roomed affair – looked as if it were about to fall down, but was actually far better made than that.
"Clever," Vincent murmured to himself, dark red eyes sweeping over the deliberate shoddiness of the hut. He knew that someone had to have been here recently. His nostrils flared as the beast in him caught the faint human scent on the wind.
He knew that scent well. Hadn't forgotten it though the person himself hadn't been near Vincent in nine years.
"But not clever enough." He moved forward silently to search for a door. No-one seemed to have seen him, he was hoping. There was no lock of any kind on the door when he found it. Listening carefully, he could hear no sounds from inside the hut.
Do I go in? Or leave him alone and tell the others that I found nothing. Tell the villagers that their stories are wrong and that no-one lives up here.
The only reason Vincent was there was because of the Nibelheim residents' stories. They whispered among themselves of the strange man who they had seen on the mountainside but who never came down to the village. They speculated on who it might be, but the strangest rumour had been that it was indeed a man who went by a name Vincent knew well.
Some of the villagers seemed to believe that it was Cloud Strife.
The door slid inwards easily and with no creaking hinges, unlike the shutters. Vincent's eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness, inspecting the sparse furnishings. It was surprisingly warm inside, and Vincent saw that this was due to several green, faintly glowing materia that lay in opposite corners of the hut. A jumble of blankets and a pillow on one side was obviously the designated bed. There was an old rocking chair and a roughly made table in the centre. A locked trunk sat against one wall. Vincent wondered why the trunk was locked, when the door wasn't. There was no-one inside, but a familiar sword was propped up in a corner, the metal glinting dully from the dim materia glow.
The Ultima Weapon: Cloud Strife's most prized possession.
I found your home and your things, but you're not here. Nine years of hiding, and you still refuse to be found.
He really had no business being in someone else's home, so Vincent stepped back into the cold outside and pondered his options, gazing around him to gauge the area. The path wound on past the hut and carried on out of his view. Vincent ran pale fingers through his soaked black hair and stared down the continued walkway.
I should try and find you, just to see how you're doing. Even if you don't want me here. Even if you won't tell me why you're here.
Again, Vincent went onwards down the rocky path, picking his way carefully through the loose chippings that littered the ground beneath his feet. This part of the ledge was curved so he couldn't see much further along from where he was.
The dark-haired man kept his footsteps as light as possible as he moved, trying to keep his presence hidden for as long as he was able to. The path rounded out and then stayed straight, leading onto a little jutting piece of sheltered rock a little way onwards. Vincent's footsteps slowed until he halted, staring out at the path's end.
Kneeling on the flat rock, sheltered from the stinging rain from the walls of stones around him, was a figure, wrapped up in dark, wet blankets. He was barely twenty feet away, from Vincent's judgement. The figure had their back turned to him.
You can't hide forever.
The figure never moved as he drew closer, close enough to stand on that little plinth of rock only several feet away. Didn't react to his presence at all, though Vincent was certain they knew he was there.
They hadn't stayed out in the rain. Cloud had merely stood, a little taller than Vincent remembered, and quietly suggested that they head back to dry off and talk, if that was what Vincent wanted. He hadn't pulled the hood back from his face, so his features were shadowed and Vincent could not see him properly as he passed.
They had not left before Vincent saw what had been on the rock plinth.
They made it back to the hut with no problems and inside it was still pleasantly warm. Cloud pulled off his heavy cloak and hung it up to dry by one of the small material. From the back, Vincent could already see the changes that had taken place in the young man. He had grown a little taller, and moved with an ease he had not possessed the last time they had met. His blond hair was longer, though still just as unruly. The old Soldier uniform had gone, replaced with dark trousers and thick shirt to try and fend off the adverse weather. Vincent recognised the heavy leather boots sitting in the corner by the bed, now too torn and scuffed to wear.
"Sit down," came the murmured command, so quiet that Vincent almost didn't hear it. He stared at Cloud's back, at the spot between his shoulder blades, contemplating the slightly deepened voice.
"There's only one chair."
Vincent hesitated only a moment before moving to the rocking chair and sinking slowly into it. It creaked lightly under his weight as he settled down. He kept his eyes trained on Cloud as he busied himself lighting an old oil lamp that hung in the corner, unwilling to admit that he was startled by the defeatist attitude of his old ally.
Is this what the last nine years has done to you?
Cloud turned, then, allowing Vincent to see his shadowed face as the lamp flickered into life. His face was longer, thinner, mouth down-turned and lips thin. The colour of his hair seemed to have faded a little. His hair framed his thin, pale face with a not much stronger colour.
He has eyes like mine.
For the fleeting moment this more serious Cloud allowed his eyes to meet Vincent's, the far older man saw himself reflected in them. Even the Mako glow couldn't disguise how dead they were. Devoid of anything that constituted as emotion, they stared back at him momentarily and it was like looking at stone.
But if they're like mine...I know what that hides...
Pain, above all things.
"What are you doing here, Vincent?"
"Why are you here?"
Something flashed within the deadened core of that body, briefly turning the stone into something else before it reverted again. Frustration and annoyance that his home and privacy had been invaded and that his unwelcome visitor was the one who was questioning him.
"You disappeared, Cloud."
"I wanted to be left alone."
"For nine years?" Vincent raised an elegant eyebrow at the blond.
Cloud narrowed blue eyes at him. "If that's how long it takes."
Vincent was finding it very difficult to call this man Cloud, still remembering the inexperienced young man who had led their team to victory so long ago. This man was like someone completely different – someone who had taken Cloud's appearance and name but forgotten to change their personality accordingly.
Cloud's last words dwelled heavily on the dark-haired man, and he couldn't help but think back to what he had seen outside when he'd found Cloud. A name flashed before his eyes, one that hadn't been uttered from his lips for many years.
"If that's how long it takes? Nine years, Cloud, yet you still mourn for a dead man."
"How would you know what I mourn for?" Cloud hissed, beginning to pace along one wall of the hut, unwilling to be confronted but unable to stop it.
"I saw his name on the stone you knelt before."
"I don't mourn for him. I mourn for no-one."
"You mourn for what has passed and you cannot change it. You dwell on him, for what reason I don't know. He was not a martyr to be worshipped, Cloud, he almost killed us all-"
"Don't say that." The blond's voice was barely above a whisper, but the pain permeating it made Vincent obey the command and stare at his old friend. "Don't say things like that."
In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Cloud could not bring himself to look at Vincent, as if in those few words he had bared a part of his soul not usually aired, and wished dearly for the punishment to be swift, and expecting it to hurt.
"You still believe he's innocent." The gunman found it hard to appreciate the implications of what had been said, unable to grasp why Cloud might still think this was so.
I knew he never wanted to believe it when we were fighting...but to delude yourself for nine years...
Cloud chose not to answer Vincent's last comment, instead saying, "If you intended to come here and mock me, I'd rather you left."
"I don't intend to mock you."
Nine years had definitely changed Cloud Strife, but for better or worse Vincent was unsure. He knew that he was not wanted here, and that Cloud really had wanted to be left to his own devices, but he found himself reluctant to leave. He had found Cloud, a shadow of the man he once was, but alive and well. Someone who had just walked off the face of the Planet nine years ago during all the chaos after Meteor, and failed to let them know if he was okay. For a long while they had all believed he had been dragged off by a monster, but had found nothing to suggest so. Besides, Cloud was too powerful for any monster anyway. To think of him as bested by anything like that was an insult.
Yet he lives up here, a virtual hermit, and kneels before a grave he put there for someone he should hate.
"He's dead, Cloud. Nothing you can do will change that."
A fleeting look of pain crossed that pale face, and Cloud let his legs fold under him as he abruptly sat down on the bed of blankets. "I know," he said softly, staring down at his slender fingers with something stronger than sadness in his face. "I know he's dead, Vincent. I killed him."
"You had to."
"I could have saved him, you know." Cloud's voice held an oddly strangled note, tight and unsteady, as if this concept was something he had wrestled with himself over before.
"He was beyond all redemption. You could not have changed him then."
"No, I meant before...when we went to Nibelheim..."
They sat there in silence for a few moments, Vincent regarding Cloud's suffering form with a deep, aching sympathy. Cloud's hands were trembling, his face bloodless and hair hanging limp around his shoulders. His eyes stood out terribly bright against the rest of his pale figure. In the short time that Vincent had been in his company, it was the first time that there had been a display of almost uncontrollable emotion, but the context of it was not what Vincent would have chosen.
"Is that what you're here for, Cloud?" Vincent asked, trying to break the younger man out of his painful reverie. "To repent for something that wasn't your fault?" The blond's eyes, so distant before, snapped to his, searching, as if Vincent could give him the forgiveness he so obviously wanted.
But I can't...I can't give him what he needs because he doesn't need it.
"I don't know..."
"I spent thirty years in a coffin, Cloud, trying to repent for not saving Lucrecia when she needed me, for not saving the same man you agonise over. I could have done it. I could have taken him away from Hojo when he was born, I could have saved him before any of us knew anything would go wrong...but I didn't."
"But that wasn't your fault-"
"And neither was this yours."
"You don't understand."
"I understand better than you think I do, mark my words, Cloud."
"You don't understand." The words were hissed vengefully from between clenched teeth, the jaw set stubbornly against the annoyance that thickly laced his voice. It was almost enough to convince Vincent that maybe he didn't understand; maybe this man before him had undergone more pain than he in only a third of the time. Maybe even less.
He could think of nothing to say.
After a while, Cloud got to his feet and started sorting through a few little bits around the room, keeping his eyes away from Vincent at all times. Eventually, though he didn't turn to look at his guest, he said, "How is everyone?"
Wondering why you left them...Where you went...How you're doing...Wondering if you're going to come back...If you're alive at all...
"As far as I know, they're all fine. Getting on with their lives. Tifa has a three year old daughter, if you'd like to know."
"Is she married?"
"Yes, to a man named Richard. From Kalm. He loves her. He treats her well."
"She still worries about you."
"Then tell her she doesn't need to. I'm fine out here."
"You could be fine with everyone else."
"No, I couldn't."
"You could try."
Vincent left Cloud not too long afterwards, making his way back down the mountains through the pouring rain, hardly able to see his way through the ferocity of the approaching storm. When he finally reached Nibelheim and turned back to take one last look at the mountains, the first flash of lightning and roll of thunder split the air asunder.
Cloud had said that there had been a lot of storms recently.
Back on the mountainside, Cloud settled down to try and get some rest, ignoring the loud thunder outside and the lightning that sent bright flashes across his eyelids. He was used to braving these storms: in nine years he had encountered many of their kind. He almost enjoyed them.
He chose to try and not dwell upon the unexpected visit from Vincent Valentine. He was not surprised that he had been found. After all, if he was going to hide thoroughly, a place so close to his old town wouldn't have been the best choice. It had been those first few years where he had had to stay hidden, and those had passed slowly but without a hitch. They stopped searching so rigorously, so he settled down where he was now. And had not been bothered until that day.
The mountain bore the full fury of the storm for the entire night. The noise from outside and the fact that he was too alert to go to sleep kept him up for most of the night. He couldn't help but replay his conversation with Vincent over and over in his head, wondering what he would go back and tell the others.
Even if he did realise, he knows better than to tell them. He knows I wouldn't want them to know.
For how long he stared at the ceiling he didn't know. Often these days he would lie awake for hours. Sometimes he would drift into a dream, but he would wake up again about a half hour later. Other times he didn't think at all. The nights when all he could do was remember were the worst.
After those times, he found the days hard to bear because it was still all he could think of. Face, places, times and scenes all played over and over in his head until he could take no more. After several sleepless nights, he would exhaust himself out and his body would sleep without permission from the rest of him.
Vincent doesn't understand. He can't understand.
The storm carried on well into the next morning, and by the time it finally died down, Cloud had woken up and was ready as he normally was every morning. Wrapping up warm, he stepped outside into the cool air and headed along the path to the rock platform where Vincent had found him yesterday.
He headed this way every day and spent several hours crouched there, reflecting. It was a ritual he had started up a long time ago, and felt obliged to stick to it for as long as it took to feel like he had repented. He didn't think that it would be any time soon.
He had taken a life. He had taken a life that he felt hadn't needed to be taken. Therefore, he would give as much as he could in return.
Cloud reached the platform and slowly sank to his knees on the cold floor, blue eyes resting upon the curved stone that he himself had erected in this sheltered place. It had taken him months to fashion this stone – this headstone – and find the perfect place to put it. It had taken him many more weeks to carve the name into the smoothed stone perfectly. A reminder of what he had done, and how much he had to atone for.
Most of the times he came to this place, he fell into a dreamlike state where his mind was blissfully blank. It helped him to deal with being there for hours on end some days. It helped him connect to things. Sometimes, when he lay so close to that line between wakefulness and unconsciousness that the distinction wasn't discernable, he could feel the Lifestream beneath his feet; could hear the jumble of voices and presences that tried to ease the pain they felt in his being.
It doesn't work. I still feel it like the day I struck that killing blow.
Cloud stared wordlessly at the curved letters, and his eyes began to water. Maybe it had been Vincent's visit that made this trip mean all the more to him, he wasn't sure. Eyes wide and shining, he reached out a shaking hand and let his fingers lightly trail down the curve of the ‘S', feeling his chest constrict painfully.
"I'm sorry," he whispered thickly, lowering his eyelids until his eyelashes obscured his eyes. He didn't wipe away the tears that ran gentle rivulets down his smooth cheeks, just let them fall. "I'm so very sorry..."
He hadn't cried in a long time.
I love you. I never told you. I regret it like nothing else.
Cloud didn't know how long he sat there for, staring at that name. He didn't notice when he settled into that balanced place, didn't realise when it was that his mind touched that place that was the Lifestream. Suddenly he was surrounded by a warmth that he hadn't felt in a long time, and realised that the soothing flow around him was the swirl of energy that usually greeted his arrival to this place.
By now he was used to the simplified, direct sentences that were used when speaking to him and the strangeness of hearing a thousand or more voices echoing around him at once. He was used to the collective ‘consciousness' that welcomed his presence.
Yes. I hurt.
//We can feel your pain even when you are not with us. You long for release.//
//You want a way out.//
More than anything.
//You want to change things.//
But I can't do that. I know that I can't.
//We can help you.//
Somewhere in Cloud's consciousness he realised that he did not get an answer, but he could not say anything in time. Before he could react, something was pulled away beneath him, and he was falling too fast to breathe. He felt that everything was blurring around him though he could not see.
On the rock platform on Nibel Mountain, Cloud's body jerked, and then slumped forward against the headstone, lying still.
//Don't waste the chance we have given you.//
End of Chapter One. Yes, there is more...somewhere...
Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VII, its characters, settings, plotline, etc. That all belongs to the mighty Squaresoft. This disclaimer applies for the entire story – I am not rewriting this every time I write a new chapter.
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