Warnings: pre-Nibelheim, smoochies, and Reno being Reno

Disclaimer: Owning FFVII would make me a rich woman. But since my purse is quite empty at the moment, I most likely don't own it, nor do I claim to.

Morning After

By Aphelion Orion


They say that the morning after is a period of time where your brain - caught between the last remnants of sleep and the upcoming tasks of the new day - can sit back, observe the world through half-lidded eyes and calmly sort through the events of the last day, which usually results in a revelation of some kind. A few moments where everything that happened appears in crystal clarity and makes perfect sense.

They speak about the morning after as if it were a good thing.

Cloud has come to loathe the morning after.

When he was younger, he used to quietly hope that whoever spoke about the afore-mentioned early hours in a positive way, would at least burn their tongue on their first cup of coffee. A childish hope for divine retribution of some kind.

Mornings after are never a good thing; that, he has learned from experience. It didn't matter if it was Johnny and his group of bullies back in Nibelheim, who used to beat him up on a regular basis - the scrapes and bruises and bloody nose didn't hurt so much in that moment, but rather, the next morning, when he used to wake up sore and aching all over, realizing that the other kids would never, ever grow tired of making him suffer.

Or the day when the SOLDIER entrance exam results had been posted for everyone to see, and Cloud looked for his name in vain - he was, of course, numb with shock during the entire day, but it wasn't until the next morning, as he lay in his bunk and listened to the creaking of the upper bed's springs, that the implications hit him like a standard-issue ShinRa train transporting super-condensed Mako. It had taken him a while to realize that the stickiness on his face came from tears.

And it also didn't matter if it was the day he finally defeated Sephiroth at the Northern Crater, the elation that it was over didn't give way to the realization that it was over until daybreak, when his muddled thoughts slowly started untangling themselves. For the first time, he realized that death meant defeat and defeat meant death, and no amount of strength could overcome death. It was unbelievably stupid, but he had been hoping up until the last moment, that he would somehow be able to save Sephiroth. But he hadn't found a way, and so Sephiroth had died, and he had taken Cloud's dreams with him.

The morning after was a time of penance, and he could merely do his best to ignore the despair squeezing his heart in a vice-like grip, and gather enough courage to try and atone. He was never really sure what constituted atonement in his case, but that didn't stop him from trying.

Today, however, was shaping up to be different.

He woke up to the first rays of sun winking through the gap in the curtains, and the smell of rain-dampened earth filling the small bedroom. At first, he was confused as to where, and when he was. For a moment, he felt years younger, and half-expected to still be fourteen and to be greeted by Zack throwing open the door with such enthusiasm that the doorknob left a dent in the wall next to the frame.

The illusion dissipated quickly, however, as no cheery "Good morning!" was shouted at him, and he remembered that the barracks had been dreary and window-less and the air had always smelt stale and heavy with engine exhaust and Mako fumes.

Reality was reasserting itself with a vengeance. Cloud's eyes fell on the flat steel of his trusted sword, which was leaning against the bedside table and gleaming dully under the blue glow of his eyes. The pile of neatly folded clothes on the chair brought on a fleeting bout of humour - some soldierly habits died hard, even when he himself felt just about dead on his feet.

As his sleep-addled mind became more awake, memories of the previous day slowly started to come back, like drops of water dripping from a faucet. They were disjointed, fragmented, but this was not an unusual occurrence... the rush of adrenaline tended to blur everything else.

Cloud clearly remembered Kadaj in his final moments, though, how young he had seemed then, and how scared.
And he remembered the expression on Sephiroth's face right before the Omnislash ripped through him, how it had been so very un-Sephiroth-like, an expression of true fear, proving that behind the transformation, behind the power and grace, the spirit was still nothing but a fragment, twisted and reshaped to resemble the whole.
And this fragment, the determination, driven only by the desperate desire to achieve unity, had dissolved in his arms under the pouring rain.

Now, Cloud's mind pauses and slowly rewinds those memories. Something is missing, something that has been a part of this morning ritual for so long that he feels almost incomplete without it. He is surprised that he can sift through his memories without feeling guilt settle in his stomach like a slab of concrete, without despair, sadness and shame tightening around his throat like an invisible steel choker.

The surprise gradually gives way to confusion. How can these feelings not be there?

Involuntarily, his mind wanders off in search of the all-too familiar emotions, and is growing more and more frantic with each passing second of searching and not finding anything.

All the while, Cloud remains totally still and merely tries to fight off the panicky feeling that is setting in, and to get control of his breathing. The thought that hyperventilation is a stupid reaction to this situation does little to alleviate his anxiety. His entire world has just shifted on its axis, after all, and getting used to this will take some time.

Finally, some intrinsic part of his mind, the part that also makes sure the rest of him adheres to the more crucial rules in life – "Nutrition is only optional for so long, even for a SOLDIER", "Going for too long without air is probably lethal" and "Don't keep your sword in the bed unless you are planning to skewer yourself" – well, this part decides that a shower is a basic necessity, even when you are currently suffering a mild bout of panic.

This part of his mind makes him get up, methodically pull off his boxers and t-shirt, and step into the bathroom. All the while, the rest of him is still reeling.

Under the soothing, cool spray of the shower, Cloud is finally able to clear his head. His body relaxes and his breathing slows down to a normal pace. The guilt and pain that have been a part of his life for almost as long as he can remember aren't coming – but it doesn't matter.

They don't have to.

Cloud tilts his head upwards to face the falling water, and takes a moment to simply revel in the feel of the drops hitting his skin. For a precious few seconds, everything is calm and quiet inside his head.

Then, a stray thought demands his attention, and suddenly, laughter is bubbling up within him, rising in his throat and escaping from his lips; not the laughter of irony or – Planet forbid – madness, but the soft laughter of pure delight. Delight at being able to think of something so trivial, so asinine...

…Maybe, he'll spare the morning-after people's tongues today.


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