Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish dreams from reality, and Cloud has learned the hard way.
Recently, he's taken to living in Aeris' church again; a year has passed, so those seeking the cure for Geostigma have come and gone, and the church lies abandoned and disused once more. The pool of water still remains, cool and clear, surrounded on all sides by the small, delicate white flowers that bloom defiantly throughout the year.
Cloud is not here for those.
Nor is he here for the memories; ones he used to cling to with every fibre of his being, irrationally afraid that somehow, he might lose himself again and forget all about her. Now, though, he's managed to come to a quiet sort of acceptance; she is there, and though he may not deserve it, she will not abandon him.
What brings Cloud to the church now, after everything should have been over and finally laid to rest, is something quite different.
He can't help but feel that Tifa resents him for it - for leaving her, and Marlene, and Denzel... when it should have all been okay. They’d all been expecting normality; it makes his heart ache that she can't understand, and that he can't explain.
But somewhere inside him, he knows: it's not over.
The first dream hadn’t really come as a surprise. It had only been a week. Exactly seven days after Cloud had killed him for the third time. He’d woken up abruptly in the darkness, breathing heavily and trembling, a foreign wetness around his eyes.
They came regularly after that; every night, for a month. Cloud was restless, always distracted. He knew that Tifa and the children were worried - they would try and talk to him, try and make him laugh, or even smile. But always there, a persistent presence at the back of his mind, was him.
Cloud knew he should let go - knew that what he was doing was obsessive and unhealthy. But, those dreams… as much as it sickened him, they fed his secret desires even as they filled him with shame. Within his dreams, Cloud could have him and be with him, despite the distance and hatred and madness that divided them.
He retreated into himself; hardly spoke, barely ate. His sleeping patterns became erratic and disturbed, a hellish sanctuary where he could finally meet his dark, damned angel again.
It all meant something: it had to, and he was determined to find out what. Eventually, Tifa had cornered him and demanded an explanation; tears shining in hurt eyes bright with anger. In a way, he had told her. Quietly, faltering, not quite comfortable meeting her gaze, already guilty about the fear he knew he would see there.
The dreams grew more intense; burning fires and flashing green eyes, and then… cool, sweet darkness. An oblivion accompanied by that leather-gloved hand, beckoning to him, needing him, wanting him.
Sephiroth was coming back.
The night he came to this conclusion he awoke with a gasp, silently begging, desperately trying to claw his way back into the prescient dream that was dissipating right in front of him. But then it was gone, and he lay in silence staring at the ceiling. Jaw clenched, every muscle taut and tense, ready for the action he knew was inevitable.
He could remember only fragments of the dream, and replayed them feverishly in his mind, over and over again.
Tifa told him it was the few weak remnants of Jenova left in the lifestream playing games with him. He told her she was wrong.
After his revelation, the dreams stopped. Cloud couldn't understand it; what he had been waiting to hear - that Sephiroth was coming back again - had finally happened. He knew it would come to this; their cycle was inescapable. But, the dreams… he needed them.
A month passed by, and nothing happened. Tifa brightened and tried to reassure him that they had just been dreams, and that there was nothing to worry about. But Cloud couldn't, and wouldn't, accept it.
"Just let go," she had told him gently, pulling him to her and hugging him tightly, as though he might disappear at any second.
He had seen it, seen it all, and knew what was coming. Jenova or no Jenova, Sephiroth would be back, and this time, it would be different.
Because the dreams hadn’t all been violent and foreboding. There were the dreams that would make him shiver and twist in his bed, angling his neck just so. The dreams where those glowing green eyes would survey him, glittering with power and desire. Where he knew that, finally, he didn’t need to be strong, and didn’t need to fight. The silver hair would cascade down over him, brushing his cheeks and spilling down onto his shoulders; Cloud would open his eyes, and see that possessive smile meant only for him.
The weight he could feel pressing against his thighs and stomach was only illusory, he knew that. The scent of leather and metal and smoke that filled the air and made him dizzy - it wasn't real.
But it could be, or so the quiet whispers told him.
Cloud would wake up, bruises on his neck and arms and patterning his torso. Seeing them in the daylight shamed him, but he still felt a sense of loss once they disappeared.
And when the dreams stopped, he felt empty.
So here Cloud is, in Aeris' church. He theorises that being close to the water that bubbles up from near the lifestream will bring him closer to him. The dreams do return, and triumph wells up within him like bile.
And so, Cloud waits. Over and over he has these dreams, and over and over he wakes up thinking, today will be the day.
But the day never comes.
Cloud is not religious; has never been religious. But the church's stained-glass windows and high ceiling arches; burnished icons and eroded statues… they humble him, and he can easily imagine Sephiroth descending among them, beams of sunlight streaming down through the dusty air, falling upon the feathery softness of his white wing.
Time passes, and Cloud feels himself faltering, feels his faith failing.
His dreams mean something, and Sephiroth will be back… won't he?
There's black leather and the silver flashing brightness of the Masamune blade, and Cloud feels like he's sixteen again. There's Sephiroth sneering down at him, and then he's saying something - mouth moving, eyes full of amusement and pity, but Cloud can't make it out, can't hear a thing—
—and he's gone. And Cloud feels a hollow, bitter emptiness within, waking up and gasping as he retches, eyes wild and pained.
The dreams don't return after that, and Cloud finally realises that, maybe, he's been deluding himself. But it's an agonising thought, and he knows it's because he doesn't want to have to finally, irrevocably say goodbye. He's done it twice before, and each time had it ripped to pieces and thrown back in his face.
He should let go. But this time, he's not sure that he can.