“Stay where you belong ... in my memories.”
He offered it up, a reverent prayer hidden under a newfound determination. Watching as a single black wing unfurled itself from Sephiroth’s back, the avenging angel that had haunted his nights for too many years. The Nightmare they called him, but he was much more than that, so much more.
“I will ... never be a memory.”
Final and truer words Cloud thought he would never hear again. Sephiroth would never be a mere memory, no matter how much he willed it, he would be the monster that mothers used to frighten their children, the shadow that would follow everyone as they tried to make their way through life.
But for the first time, as that single wing curled around him, hiding his greatest fear from sight and dissolving in a sea of feathers to reveal Kadaj once again; Cloud realised something. Sephiroth was his greatest fear, that was true, and he would forever follow him, haunt his every step, but he could no longer make Cloud doubt himself. He had defeated Sephiroth, not once, but twice, he had beaten his fear, and his shame down, and at last he recognised that for what it was.
You could never forget the past, but you could overcome it.
As this new thought settled over him he turned his eyes to Kadaj, readying his weapon though he could clearly see that there was nothing left in the boy but pure desperation. It took far more effort than should ever be needed for him to get to his feet, and his charge was little more than a stumble as his sword tumbled from his hand and he fell.
Cloud caught him, unsure what made him reach out. But his arm curled comfortably around Kadaj’s shoulders, keeping his head from striking the hard concrete underfoot. Kadaj’s eyes roved for a moment, a small frown of puzzlement creasing the skin between his eyes; eyes that looked nothing like Sephiroth’s, too young and far too confused.
It was such a small sound, a whole mixture of emotions tied to a single word, and Cloud could do nothing but tighten his grip a fraction, his eyes searching this face, looking for any signs of Sephiroth there, any sign of the madness he had seen there before. But there was nothing, not a single hint.
The rain began to fall and Kadaj shivered a little as it touched his skin. Cloud laid down his sword, the quiet snick of the metal coming to rest on stone loud in what seemed like the most silent moment he had ever experienced; even the Airship, which he knew still hovered overhead, made only the faintest of thrumming sounds, virtually undetectable to him. He manoeuvred Kadaj to the ground, brushing that concealing fringe aside and frowned as the blue eyes fluttered shut.
“What do I do with you now?” he asked the now peaceful figure, sitting back in his crouch to consider his options.
“Look after them.”
His head snapped sharply to the right as he felt her hand brush against his shoulder, knowing that he would see nothing but rain. “Them?” he questioned, but if she replied he did not hear it, as a gunshot rang across the roof, slicing through the still air to land with perfect accuracy at the ground by his left knee. The shards of concrete kicked up by the bullet bounced harmlessly off him.
It was not a shot designed to hurt him, so he did not immediately reach down to grip the handle of his sword, instead he turned his gaze across the rooftop, through the rain to where the other Remnants stood, worry and fear etched on their faces. He was not as surprised as he felt he should have been to see they had survived the Turks bombs.
There was another shot, which landed directly in front of him, between him and Kadaj, a clear signal to move away. He did so, getting slowly to his feet and stepping back, leaving his sword on the ground, knowing that the sound of the metal scraping across the concrete could easily startle the one holding the gun to fire with intent.
They supported each other as they made their way across the roof, the large one holding the one with the gun up, and doing most of the actual moving, while the one with the gun corrected his direction more than once, the gun held steadily in Clouds direction. The blast had done damage; he could see the beginnings of bruises as they drew closer, cuts with the blood from them disappearing under the healing rain.
The gun clattered to the ground as the two dropped down beside Kadaj, and as Cloud watched they slumped down into unconsciousness, all three moving unconsciously until they were pressed together. He watched them for a few moments before he approached again, waiting to feel the rise of some emotion other than compassion. But there was no anger, no hatred and no fear. But then, there was no way anyone could feel any of those things looking at them now, with their hair plastered down with the rain, their faces smooth and so very, very young looking. It was difficult to imagine them doing what they had, and had he not seen it himself, he would not have believed it.
“Look after them, huh…” he said. “Mind telling me how I’m supposed to do that?”
“They’ve been told so many things Cloud, so many terrible and conflicting things. Love is not something that needs to be earned; it should always be freely given. Give them a home Cloud. Give them a second chance.”
Cloud turned is eyes heavenward, closing his eyes and letting the rain caress his face, letting her words drift over him. “A second chance?” He looked down again, nodding decisively. He would trust in Aerith; after all, to do anything else would be disrespectful to all she had done for him. “I think I can manage that. The ‘Home’ might be asking a bit much.”
He could hear her laughter in the way the rain tinkled off some metal sheeting nearby. “You have so little faith in the others?” she asked him, teasing.
He smiled, feeling a peace wash over him, looking up and at the Airship hovering close by. “No.” he told her. “No… but I think you forget who I have to deal with.”
She laughed again, and as it faded away he did not feel the cutting loss he thought he would, knowing that she would be there with him if he needed her, bolstering him up if he began to fall once again into the depths of despair.
Now he just had to work out how to get the three onto the Airship without inciting an argument, though he knew the moment he considered it that an argument was going to erupt no matter what he did.
The voice was followed by the thump of Tifa landing on the roof, and drew his attention away from the three before him. She was rising from her landing crouch when he turned to her, and his eyes flicked upwards to see the Airships ladder unwinding still, and the look of consternation on Barret’s face as he peered over the edge. Obviously she hadn’t bothered to wait.
The arms that encircled his neck brought his attention back squarely to Tifa. His own arms reached round without his permission to rest at her back, pulling her in just a little tighter before releasing her. There was a distinct giggle in the air as he did but he ignored it.
“It’s over.” He told her, her arms squeezed and she nodded before pulling away, smiling. He looked back up at the Airship, to where Barret was still looking down. “Tell Cid to bring it down!” he called up, he could see Barret frown, but thankfully he didn’t question, just vanished to speak to Cid.
“Cloud?” Tifa asked; she was kneeling beside the Remnants now, surprised to find them still alive if the look on her face was anything to go by. “They’re…” she looked up at him.
“Second chances and forgiveness.” Was all he said, but she understood, the slow realisation of it passed across her face. There was an instant when he thought she might be the first block in the road, but it passed quickly and she nodded. Had Aerith spoken to her too, had she told Tifa what she had told him? He thought she might have when he saw Tifa reach out a hand to rest it on the large one’s forehead, a soft look in her eyes that she saved for Marlene and Denzel.
There was a whoosh of engines and the Airship came to rest five feet above the roof.
“Close as he can get it Spiky!” Barret yelled across to him. “Roof won’t hold for a landing, so get your ass on board and let's go!”
“We’ll need you help down here Barret.” Tifa called, reaching a hand across and squeezing Clouds, showing her support.
“Ya injured?” Barret asked, his tone somewhere between concerned and confused, but he jumped from the door and made his way across to them muttering. “Told ya not to go jumping outta there like that.”
Tifa shook her head. “No, no injuries. Not on our side anyway.” She nodded to the three.
Barret looked and was silent for a full minute, taking the whole thing in before he took a deliberate step back and crossed his arms. “No way.” He said. The first stumbling block had been reached, but Cloud had known Barret would argue first, and possibly loudest. The man had such a clear cut and defined view of good and evil, it took a lot of work to get him to see that there were other colours all along the spectrum of human nature.
“We can debate this inside.” Tifa said, forestalling any other arguments. “We need to get back to Marlene and Denzel.” Dropping Marlene’s name worked, as it always did with Barret, and with a disapproving huff he lifted the larger Remnant easily and carried him to the Airship, Tifa followed him, climbing inside to make space while Barret returned, lifting Kadaj, leaving Cloud to carry the long haired one.
It didn’t take long to get all three on board and safely stowed in one of the crew rooms on board. Cloud then made the last trip outside to retrieve his fallen swords, pausing for a moment to let the soothing rain clear his head for the inevitable confrontation that would occur in the wheel room of the ship. The rain began to taper off as he climbed inside. Leaving all but one sword with the crew member they had left stationed outside the room with the Remnants inside he made his way through the ship to the wheel room.
It was a new place to him, but he had no trouble finding his way to the others. The shouting was a perfect homing beacon. In a way the scene he walked into reminded him of the fight he had just had, only words replaced the flurry of blows, sounds of anger louder than the sound of sword blades crossing, scraping and intending to do damage.
Tifa’s relief upon seeing him made him feel guilty for leaving her to deal with this alone, it hadn’t been intentional, but it had happened. He took stock of what was going on. Barret, as he had guessed, was the one doing most of the shouting, with Yuffie as his shrieking harmony, both firmly against anything involving the Remnants. Cait Sith was hopping about, attempting; in a way that only made things worse; to calm the situation down. Tifa was also trying to diffuse the situation, but was having as much luck as Cait Sith. Vincent and Red XIII stood out of the way, watching in silence. Vincent looked as inscrutable as ever as his eyes flicked from person to person, and Red XIII seemed resigned to the fact that with all the yelling no one was going to listen to him.
But the one that surprised Cloud most was Cid, who was also, predictably, shouting. His hands, gripping the wheel of the Airship, were calm and relaxed, belying the emotion in his voice. He wasn’t nearly as wound up as he was pretending to be. But that didn’t surprise Cloud; in their time travelling together it had become all too clear that Cid just liked a good yelling match, the act of it relaxing him far more that the sedate practices of the others. No, it was what he was saying that surprised Cloud, who had thought Cid would be another against this move.
“You wanna kill them Barret? You go right ahead. But just how’re ya gonna look Marlene in the eye when you do. How’re ya gonna do that and not think to yourself ‘I killed kids’, kids that ain’t no older looking than the Brat there? Kids that were lying there all defenceless.”
“They’re dangerous! You saw what they done!” Barret roared back but he had deflated just a little.
“How do you even know what they look like?” Yuffie questioned suddenly, obviously irritated more by him calling her a ‘brat’ than anything else.
“I got eyes. And they work a damn sight better than yours,” this was directed at Barret again. “I saw what they done, and it ain’t pretty. But I also saw that they’re kids, who ain’t in any shape to defend themselves right now. You wanna cross that line Barret? You gonna take that step and turn yerself into a man who ain’t fit to be the father of a little girl?” Cid glared at him, turning the wheel with an easy, practiced hand to head back towards Edge.
Barret was silent, and Cloud used that as his opening to step forward and say. “Aerith asked.” All heads turned towards him except for Tifa, and Cid, but even he shifted his eyes just enough to keep him in view while he piloted. Cloud swallowed and continued, he had always hated this part of being the ‘leader’, everyone looking to him as if he somehow knew all the answers and how to solve every problem.
“Aerith asked me to give them a second chance. To give them a home and help them atone for what they’ve done.” He said. Tifa had turned to offer him a reassuring smile. “I’m not saying that any of you have to help, or even be involved. But I’m going to honour her request. I owe her that much.”
The silence after he finished grew, and grew. They all owed her that much; and each of them knew it. At long last Barret let out an explosive sigh and, cursing, he shoved past Cloud and left the room. Yuffie was seething and followed him soon after, having tried, and failed to come up with anything to say that would counter Clouds’ words.
“I will go and make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid.” Vincent said, pushing off the wall and following Yuffie out. He didn’t need to explain what he meant by that, Yuffie’s ‘action first consequences later’ approach was well known among them. Barret could be trusted not to take matters into his own hands.
Cloud sighed, deeply and from the very bottom of his soul and looked up to meet Cid’s eyes. “Thank you.” The support had been unexpected, but very welcome.
Cid shrugged, one hand leaving the wheel to pull a cigarette from behind his ear. “Just playin’ Devils Advocate.” He said, waving the hand in Tifa’s direction before bringing the cigarette to his mouth. “’Sides, there was an unfair advantage over Tifa there, Barret and th’ Brat are both louder than her, an’ she’s too good natured to just kick ‘em to make ‘em listen.”
Cloud shifted a glance to Tifa, who was blushing, and smiled. “Still.” He said seriously. “Thank you.”
“What do we do now?” Cait Sith piped up, Reeve’s dulcet tones coming through the speaker. Reeve rarely used the remote speaker system he’d installed in Cait any more, especially not when all he had to do now was pick up the phone, but the receiver was always enabled so he could listen in on what exactly the robot was up to, the A.I. was advanced enough to handle most situations by itself, but it did come in handy.
Red XIII stepped forward. “There are still children with the Stigma, perhaps we should see to them first. The Remnants are sleeping yes?” he looked to Cloud for confirmation, and continued when Cloud nodded. “Then we shall take the necessary precautions and deal with them afterwards. Would that be acceptable?
“If you require a place to hold them, you are welcome to use the WRO facility. We don’t have much yet, but it’s secure.” Reeve offered.
“A prison?” Cloud asked, not liking the implications of that.
Reeve chuckled; warm and knowing. “No. I spent enough time in a cell to refuse to have them in my building. We have a fully operational infirmary here. It is secure, and should be strong enough to contain them long enough for you to finish up in Edge.”
“You building a fortress up there Reeve?” Cid asked with a surprised laugh.
“Call me paranoid, but I’d rather have a facility that can withstand an attack. I’ll have it made ready for your arrival. Reeve out.” There was a click as the speaker was shut off, Cloud was well aware he could still hear them, but Cait Sith’s own A.I. switched back on.
Cloud frowned. It made sense to make sure the Remnants were secure, but wasn’t that just taking the easy way out? It was only one step from leaving them in a secure infirmary to putting them away in a cell and forgetting about them. An easy step.
“Cloud, we’ll need time to sort something out at home for them. And you know Reeve would never…” she trailed off and sighed. “This way we can at least have them checked out; make sure they’re not hurt in some way we can’t deal with. And wouldn’t it be better to ask them if they want to stay with us? Waking up at the bar, being told it’s their new home, and that we’ll look after them… We’d be no better than Jenova, telling them what to do.” She reached out her hand and her fingers closed around his arm. “The Infirmary will be neutral ground, and if they don’t accept our offer well… we’ll come up with something else. We won’t just put them away and forget about them, I promise.”
He closed his eyes, knowing what she said was true, and nodded slowly.
“Great, it’s settled then. I’ll take our guests over to Reeve and leave you lot to clear up this damned mess here?” Cid said. “Now where do ya want me to drop ya?”
“Always looking for a way out of work, huh Cid?” Tifa smiled.
Cid winked at her. “More like always looking for an excuse to keep my ass in the air.”
“The rains stopped!” Cait Sith pointed out, his modulated accent a little jarring. “Where can we take everyone who still has the Stigma?”
“The Church.” Cloud answered easily. “There’s a pool in the church now. That’s were we take them. The water there can heal them.”
“Drop us at my bar Cid, we can pick up Denzel and Marlene and begin directing people to the Church.” Tifa said, giving his arm a small squeeze before letting go.
As he watched the Airship continue on its way, taking the Remnants to Reeve and his new Base of Operations for the WRO, he hoped that he would make it there in time to see them wake. Aerith had entrusted them to him, but despite that he found he wanted to be there anyway, he wanted to see what she saw in them, wanted to know why she had asked this of him.
But first Jenova’s legacy needed to be removed before she could do any more damage.