Disclaimer: See Chapter One.
Part One - Chapter 2
By Knowing Shadows
Cloud did not notice straight away that something was very wrong around him. He lay in comfortable darkness, praising his dreamless, restful slumber silently. It had been a long time, he pondered to himself, since he had had a rest like this, and could only barely remember just how exhausted he had been at the time to bring it about.
Which, in turn, made him wonder what he had done to himself to warrant something like this.
He turned into the warmth of the bed he lay on, drawing that comfort around him, afraid to let it go. He let himself uncurl, spreading out into it. He sighed in satisfaction, content to let himself just lay there in the warmth and to not question it. The idea of even opening his eyes was something he would not acknowledge, nor would he question why he seemed to be lying in a bed when, in reality, he didn't actually have one.
As more awareness returned to his aching body he began to sense little things. The first was that his body just didn't feel right somehow. He couldn't pinpoint just what was troubling him, except for the fact that his limbs felt somewhat...looser. On the mountain, the bitter chill of winter would seep into even a young man's joints and make him feel stiff and old. Feeling the cold from the inside as well was, at times, the worst part of braving the Nibelheim winters.
The second thing he noticed was that he wasn't alone. He was in a room, and there were other presences besides his own. How many, he couldn't tell. Had someone found him, all alone up in his home on Mt. Nibel? He wondered who it might be. Why weren't they waking him? Had something happened to him?
Casting his mind back, the last thing that Cloud found he remembered was kneeling on the rock plinth, as he always did. He remembered, vaguely, that he had been upset. He ran his tired mind along this line of events to try and find out what had happened next. Voices, inside his head and yet not...and then darkness, leading to where he was now.
He moaned lightly in the bed.
The hushed whispers stopped. They hadn't registered before, not until the silence left behind filled the space in his ears where they had been. He stayed perfectly still, barely breathing, heart beating rapidly in his chest.
Something moved, but he couldn't tell where. His senses were slower, less defined than he was used to, and he felt blind without them. He didn't feel drugged, which was strange. It was just...his body wasn't quite the same anymore.
"You reckon he's awake yet?" asked a quiet voice from the room.
Cloud dimly recognised the voice, but no face or name came to mind. Alarm bells did not ring, so that meant he did not associate it with danger, but he couldn't be sure, not with his tired mind as it was.
"Probably. He doesn't sleep like a rock, unlike some people I could mention," said a second voice scathingly.
"That's unfair," replied the first voice indignantly. "I do not sleep like a rock."
"Ha. You're not fooling anyone."
The voices were perhaps what pulled him completely out of sleep, though he didn't open his eyes, afraid of what he might see. Whatever lay beyond the barrier of his eyelids didn't sound in any way a threat, but the unfamiliarity of it made him wary.
"Hang on a sec, I'm gonna try something..."
"Oh, no, don't. You'll scare the shit out of him."
"Exactly. Now be quiet or you'll ruin it."
There was the sound of rustling movement, and Cloud's heartbeat quickened again to meet it. Gently, a weight settled itself on the edge of the bed, dipping the mattress to the right of him. It shifted closer to him and lay out against his side. It shook for a moment, trying to suppress laughter. Cloud couldn't work out what was supposed to be happening.
A hand touched his cheek gently, a brushing of bare skin. The voice, when it spoke, was very close. "Wake up, Cloud..."
He flinched when the touch on his cheek came again, as if he were responding to it whilst waking. A snicker, desperately tried to be quietened, reached his ears. Cloud opened his eyes groggily there was no faking on that account and stared at the darker pair across from his that sparkled with suppressed mirth. Cloud's eyes dropped down the long, thin nose to the achingly familiar half-smile that lay there, and screamed.
The door was shaking behind him. Cloud's arms trembled where they supported his weight against the sink in the bathroom. His head was bowed over the cold, clear water in the basin, damp blond hair straggling round his face and neck, sticking to his skin. His breathing sounded very loud in his own ears, and it felt like his heart was beating hard enough to burst through his ribs. It was difficult to breathe properly.
The door shook again as fists pummelled into it. "Hey, Cloud, come on! I didn't mean it! It was a joke!"
Cloud's head sank lower even as his shoulders tensed again. "It's not possible," he murmured, and the sound of his voice made him shudder. "It's just...this can't be right." He lifted his head, meeting the gaze of the reflection in the mirror, and stared at it. His hair was as lively as it had ever been, sunshine blond where he was used to pale yellow now. Water dripped from the end of his nose where he had splashed his face with cold water. The face he was looking at was one he used to know so very well, one that had changed so subtly over the years into something so different that now, looking back on his past, it was almost impossible to imagine what might become of this fragile, small body.
It was the eyes that got him the most. Blue. Just blue.
No Mako glow.
The body he was looking at was his own from 14 or 15 years ago. Short, gangly, awkward...The limbs had felt looser because he'd never braved a Nibelheim Winter as he would have to in 14 or so years' time, and because he was still growing. This was the body that would, if he thought about it, have to survive the horrors of the trip to Nibelheim with Sephiroth and Zack.
Maybe that's why I hardly recognise myself. I'm so used to seeing the product of Nibelheim in a mirror. This...pre-packaged format...doesn't look like me at all.
He was startled out of his reverie by the door rattling in its frame in time with the shout. He turned round to face it, breath catching in his throat. He knew that an explanation would be needed for his extreme reaction to finding the person behind the door in his bed, as well as his scrambled dash for the bathroom, but couldn't think of what to say.
Not that I even know what's really going on. The only thing that I can think of is the one thing I doubt can be possibly done...
Waking up fully had helped to jog his memory somewhat. He remembered speaking to the Cetra by the headstone he had fashioned. They had told him they could help ease his pain. And then they had done...something...of which this was the result.
"They can't have sent me back," he muttered to himself. "It's impossible. They can't have sent me back."
"Cloud, are you going to open the door or what?"
Cloud coughed lightly, finding it an uncomfortable thing with a dry and scratchy throat. Hesitantly, fearfully, he moved to the door and unlocked it. "It's open, Zack," he said, hoping that he would be heard.
There's no way I can hide from this. I can feel that this isn't a dream. Whatever the Cetra did, this is real. Or...as real as it can be.
The door swung open to reveal a taller, darker man than Cloud standing in its wake. His hair was pitch black, hanging down past his shoulders in backwards-pointing spikes. He had a long, tanned face and broad shoulders that didn't let anyone doubt that he had strength in his body. His smile and eyes were friendly and handsome - and it was all exactly as Cloud remembered.
For a moment, it seemed as if Cloud's heart stopped beating.
Zack's smile turned lopsided. "What's the matter, Spike? Sounds corny, but you look like you've seen a ghost."
Cloud felt his heart rapidly start to beat again. He knew he was staring, but didn't care. Something wouldn't connect in his brain, that this was really who he thought he was seeing. He knew that when it hit him, it would really hit him hard.
"I think I have," he said.
Zack grinned, not understanding. "Hey, come on, I'm not that frightening. I'm sorry I scared you so much in bed, but still!"
He was still having trouble breathing. "It's okay. It doesn't matter," Cloud managed to say, still staring, and feeling cold to the bone.
The grin faded, leaving an expression of concern across the SOLDIER's dark face. "You okay, kid? You look spooked. Everything alright?"
"I'm...I'm fine." Struggling to breathe, to make sense of everything. "It's nothing...nothing to worry about."
"You sure?" Always concerned. Always. God, it was all too damn familiar to be thrown back at him like this.
"I...I'll be okay."
The grin was back, lighting up Zack's face again as if to say that he had never been worried just a moment before. "Yeah, you'll have to be alright. I think you're gonna be late for class."
If Cloud had ever tried to convince himself that what he had fallen into was some kind of dream, he was convinced no longer. In fact, it seemed that he was reliving some kind of bad memory. He remembered being late for class many times half the time because of Zack and getting punished because of it, but this day had probably outstripped them all.
"Strife! Night guard duty, 2200 hours outside the barracks! No slacking!"
That had been the proverbial icing on the cake, and had actually been yelled at him whilst he was in the middle of paying for his lack of grace during training through press-ups. Press-ups had also been his punishment for being late, and so he had done them quietly and without fuss in front of the whole group of trainees, much to their delight.
It had been like stepping back into a nightmare. The snickers as he had started to bend down to start had been painful to hear, hitting too close to home. It was exactly like it had been before. Fourteen years out of it had not dulled that ache.
I remember why I hated this place so much. I remember wishing that I could just get up and leave and it would all be okay, but I never did. I couldn't. Not...not with who I would leave behind.
The sparring practice he had almost been looking forward to. He had been paired up with a boy who was even smaller than he was, and far more frightened of the prospect of having to beat someone in a fight than Cloud was. He had thought that it was almost unfair, him being put with someone like this, until they had started and he had gone down in the first round.
Must remember that 15 year old body does not work the same way as a 25 or 30 year old body does. Must remember, must remember.
"Whoa...Cloud? You okay?"
He looked up at his partner from where he was sprawled on his back and then started to get to his feet, ignoring the concern in the other boy's eyes and brushing himself off before retaking his practice sword and vowing to work harder this time round.
From then on it hadn't been too bad, until he had accidentally broken one of the swords. More press-ups had been his answer, until during this it had been decided that he would also be put on night guard. Cloud suppressed a groan as the other trainees and their tutor left the area. Cloud finished his press-ups and climbed to his feet with a moan, feeling the ache beginning to set in from all the work he had done.
I want to go home. I want Vincent to come back and tell me what everyone's been up to. Anything...I don't want to stay here.
The urge to cry was astounding, but he reigned it in, blinking rapidly. His heart felt heavy and full to bursting in his chest. This place...whatever it was...was going to be too much to take unless he could find a way home. If living on the mountain for 9 or so years had not been enough to make him suicidal, being back in the soldier barracks would probably do the trick.
That's the bastards' plan. They're sick of listening to my subconscious whine so they're going to make me kill myself to stop it. What a brilliant way to go.
He wiped his eyes and sniffed, then squared his shoulders and started to make his way back to the dorms. He had a few hours to spare, he might as well spend them somewhere he knew he was safe.
"Night guard? Haha! Sucks to be you!"
Cloud flopped back on the bed he had woken up in earlier on, closing his eyes as Zack laughed at the news. Zack being far, far above him in rank couldn't be pulled for night duty anymore. It was the scourge of all the cadets, something they abhorred and loathed, and the instructors knew it. Cloud couldn't believe he had to do it again. After the Nibelheim incident, when he and Zack had been held captive, one of the things he thought about was that at least he wouldn't have to do night guard anymore if he died down there.
Should've known I wouldn't be able to get out of it that easily.
The mattress jiggled as Zack bounced onto it. Cloud opened his eyes and stared up at the older man, sensing that the smile had gone before he saw it. "Honestly, though, Cloud," Zack started quietly, "You sure you're up for it? You still look a little pale to me-"
"I always look too pale to you," Cloud pointed out.
"Maybe you're just always sick!" Zack retorted, smiling again so his dark eyes crinkled at he edges. "I could try and pull rank and get you out of it, if you don't feel well."
"They still outrank you as instructors. You seem to forget, because you always offer to do this when I get night guard." Cloud smiled a little at the familiarity of the situation. For a moment, it was almost like he really was back in the barracks. This was a conversation he could play out by heart, for they'd had it many times before. It was a shame that he couldn't just immerse himself and believe he really was back when he knew that there was something wrong about it.
"I could still try." And it was said with a pout. "Aw, they always manage to put you on night guard, and you never skive out of it, either. Ruin my fun for the evening, why don't you!"
Cloud raised an eyebrow at the older man. "Fun? Just what were you planning on doing?"
It was a challenge, one that at one time he remembered he would have been too scared to voice for fear of what Zack might think of him. But that had been a long time ago.
Zack's eyes glittered, picking up instantly on the double-entendre with relish. "You," he said easily, winking, before suddenly diving in and shoving his hands up under Cloud's shirt. The blond started laughing even before Zack found the ticklish spots under his ribs, kicking uselessly as he squirmed under the assault.
He was used to the levels of innuendo at the barracks now. It was inevitable, and at first it had shocked him. Having grown up in a mountain town, isolated and disliked by the children his age, he hadn't even really known that it existed. He knew of sex, the mechanics of it and the idea of there being some kind of love behind the act, but this had been turned upside down once he had arrived in Midgar. It was not only the fact that people joked around about something he had been taught was an intimate subject, and not only the fact that it was practiced casually this he had learned from Zack, who had had his fair share of casual partners - but that in a place like this, full of men and men only, who were mostly surprisingly open-minded, casual sex was something commonly practiced between members of the same sex.
He had never known, before he reached Midgar, that same-sex pairings were even possible. Of course, he'd gotten used to it by now. He'd had to his own share of crushes had soon come, much to his dismay and embarrassment. Of course, his strongest had been centred on the General, as many were, but one of his first had been Zack himself. Zack had never known, as far as Cloud knew, but when he looked back on it, Zack had to have had some idea. Of course, at this point in time he no longer liked Zack that way. Zack was a dear friend one he had never forgotten but that was all. They teased each other, bickered fondly, often had tickling matches like their current one, but nothing more. Remembering his old fantasies at a time when he had been so embarrassed by the idea of liking another man that he hadn't allowed them to go beyond some rather passionate kissing still made him blush, however.
Zack drew back, still laughing, smoothed back his hair and poked Cloud's bare stomach. Cloud pulled down his shirt, ever body-conscious, and smiled shyly. The thought came to him that if he stayed here a while, he would become very, very aware that he hadn't slept with anyone for a very long time. Shame made him flush a little though his affections were most definitely centred on one man only didn't mean he couldn't find others attractive.
He pushed those thoughts away viciously, catching his breath from laughing so much. It was a shame that his happiness he had been happy for a moment when Zack had been tickling him could be shattered so easily, not just by the thought that this wasn't really real, but also by thinking of something like sex. It depressed him, but he tried not to let it show. Zack would have picked up on it easily, and he didn't want to worry the other man.
"Come on," Zack was saying, ruffling Cloud's hair playfully. "Cheer up, Spike. You're doing good."
"You always say that, too!" Cloud said, chuckling as he sat up on his bed. "I think you're trying to convince yourself more than me, now!"
"Yeah, you're in my troop. Can't let anyone let me down and make me look bad, ya know?" Zack winked at him again, as if to make sure Cloud knew he was joking. "Nah, I hear your test scores are on the up, though? I do believe that this calls for celebration!"
"Everything calls for celebration with you."
"Hey, is this criticise Zack's methods of fun' day or what? You're such a bully." Zack stuck out his tongue. "Don't be such a stick in the mud. Have a beer! Do something! Do it for me, since you're not going to be here later. Have some fun."
"Beer'll make me go to sleep. I'll get reprimanded for slacking, and get night guard duty tomorrow night to make up for it. I think I'll pass." Cloud grinned at Zack's dejected expression. "Sorry."
"You're not sorry at all, really," Zack snorted, but let the subject drop. Instead, he lay back on Cloud's bed with a sigh, completely ignoring the fact that Cloud was also there and forcing him to move to make room. Cloud smiled to himself, easily falling back into the old pattern of things. In the back of his mind he wondered if he should tell Zack what had happened to him that this really wasn't the Cloud he thought he was talking to, and that he was lost and couldn't get home.
But then I'd have to tell him everything that happens later on. He'd never believe me. He'd think I was crazy. If he lost respect for me, I wouldn't know what to do.
I'll keep my silence.
"Let's head on down to the canteen. Yummy ShinRa food, all for us. Oh, the joy."
He was yawning already. Cloud tried desperately to stop it, one hand over his mouth and eyes closed, but couldn't. It was only, what, eleven? And he was already tired.
Night guard duty started at ten o'clock and went on until about four or five in the morning, depending when the morning guard decided they would turn up to take over the shift (which they were supposed to actually take over at a quarter to four). Depending on where you were stationed, you could end up all over the ShinRa training complex. Cloud, as usual, found himself posted at the back end of the complex. Too small to be threatening at the entrance, it seemed, Cloud was then given over to this even more dangerous area. This back area let out onto a rather nasty area of Midgar, rife with thugs and drug addicts. More than one time he could remember standing out here, awake out of fear, listening to gunshots going off left, right and centre and hoping he didn't get spotted. He had been no match for any criminal at this point in time. Anyone that dared enter the complex through here would get cut down swiftly by SOLDIER, but it was meant to be a deterrent you don't slack, you don't get put here.
It had been quiet so far, though, which Cloud was pleased about. It was unusual, but welcome. He hated being put out here, but he would have to stick it out.
Cloud wasn't concentrating much on his surroundings anyway. Much of his thoughts were turned inward, trying to work out what the Cetra had meant by their last statement before he had woken up in the SOLDIER barracks of 15 years ago.
//Don't waste the chance we have given you.//
What chance? What have you done by putting me back here? What can I possibly do? I'm a cadet. No-one. Even if you think I can somehow do something to save myself later on, how do you think I can accomplish it?
He'd worked out so far that the Cetra must have sent him back to change something something that would save his state of mind in the years to come. If it had to do with Sephiroth, there was nothing he could do. Sephiroth wouldn't give him the time of day, let alone stay away from Nibelheim, which was an assigned mission. There was nothing he could do here, just sit and relive it all over again.
Which would kill me. I will not go through that again. Never.
Having coming to the conclusion that he could do nothing useful, he then got round to the equally depressing question of how long he would be here. A dream would surely have ended by now and usually a dreamer never realises they might be dreaming until they wake.
What if I do have to live this all over again? If I kill myself instead of suffering again, and if I really have somehow come back through time which is impossible anyway then that means there will be no Cloud Strife when Meteor comes. Sephiroth and Jenova might not be killed. The Planet could be destroyed.
Cloud leaned back against the concrete wall and sighed, determined not to cry at the hopelessness that flooded his body. He refused to just stand back and let this happen to him, but at the same time he could see no way out of it. The Cetra were more powerful than he could ever even hope to be, and this was obviously their doing.
Then maybe I'll have to find a way to do what the Cetra want.
A sound caught his attention, making him snap his head up. A door, somewhere, had opened. His ears had picked up the sound, and then his heartbeat quickened as he heard the door shut. He pulled his gun up into both hands, staring out into the darkness that suddenly seemed very oppressive.
Please don't let it be dangerous. A Whole Eater I can handle can they even open doors with those legs? and maybe even a person, but nothing more. Please.
He gasped in fright as he heard footsteps. He shouldn't have been afraid, he had faced far, far worse than anything Midgar could throw at him, but being able to handle it was one thing when compared to not knowing if you could.
He should let himself be known. Let whatever it was out there that he knew it was there. He was ready for it. "This is ShinRa property!" he cried shakily. "Don't come any closer, whoever whatever you are."
"I belong to ShinRa." A figure stepped out of the shadows abruptly, making Cloud shriek and leap back in fright. He almost pulled the trigger on the machine gun he held, but instantly dropped it when he saw who the figure was, eyes growing wider still.
"General, sir!" he cried before he knew what he was doing, scrambling to pick up the gun from the ground. "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't know it was you-"
"I'm surprised you even heard me coming." Green eyes narrowed as they passed over him, filing away details, and a gloved hand went for the security code panel of the door, long fingers typing in numbers quickly as Cloud tried to gather himself. In the dim light cast from overhead, Sephiroth's silver-hued hair still managed to shine.
Oh God, oh God, oh God.
"It...It's what I'm trained for, sir," was all he managed to say in response.
The security panel beeped as the green light flashed on, and the door slid open with a low hiss. The General half-turned towards Cloud, regarding him intently for a moment before saying, "Well, at least they've done something right." He inclined his head in acknowledgement, then stepped through the door and walked away. He had been there for all of ten seconds, in dim lighting, but Cloud had registered the line of blood marring one pale cheek. Cloud went to the doorway and watched him go, until he disappeared around a corner.
He wondered what General Sephiroth had been up to in this part of Midgar, especially to have been cut on his face like that, but decided it wasn't for him to worry about, at least until he finished worrying about his heart, which was fluttering around like a caged bird in his chest. The blood that had rushed to his face made him feel hot, and embarrassment made it even worse.
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, Cloud thought sadly to himself, one hand clawed into the fabric of his uniform over his chest. Oh God, it's really him. He's alive. Still alive.
For a moment, it was almost like everything he believed was real had been the dream, and he had never actually killed Sephiroth at all. And for that moment, before reality came crashing down around him like a tidal wave, the relief and joy was enough to make him dizzy.
End Chapter 2.
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