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Welcome to the Circus

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The next time Cloud wakes, it’s to loud screaming and crashing as the plane lurches dangerously. He keeps his eyes shut and counts to ten, hoping desperately, futilely, that he won’t open them to mayhem and disaster. Before he even reaches six, though, someone shakes him roughly and he’s met with a blurry but very frantic version of Tifa’s face.

“Cloud! The pilot’s been knocked out! Zack’s in the cockpit right now, but he’s barely keeping us up! You’ve driven things like this before—you’ve got to get in there and take the controls!”

“Submarines are not airplanes,” Cloud tells her, but she drags him up anyways.

As they dart through each cabin, Tifa smashes ruthlessly through the shadowed monsters that swarm towards them with a single free hand, still pulling Cloud behind her with the other, and Cloud says incredulously, “How’d they even get all the way up here? We’re at least thirty thousand feet in the air!”

Tifa’s gloves creak dangerously as she clenches her fist and sends another monster crashing through three rows of seats. The passengers, thankful but terrified, scatter out of her way like frightened mice. “Kill first, ask questions later!”

The plane lurches again, and Cloud clamps his mouth shut, feeling like he’s lost his stomach somewhere between his seat and their current location.

By the time they reach the entrance to the cockpit, Aerith looks very relieved, dropping her staff from its brandished position. “Get in, quick! Zack has no idea what he’s doing!”

“I won't either!” Cloud hisses, but Tifa pushes him in and slams the door shut behind him anyways.

“Cloudy!” Zack, on the other hand, looks like he’s having the time of his life as he lets go of the yoke to twirl in his seat. “This is awesome! There are so many buttons!”

Cloud decides that he actually might be a better choice to rely on than Zack after all. “Zack, what happened to autopilot?”

“Oh,” Zack says. “The monsters shorted something out when they showed up—kinda like they did with the lights in the theater, I guess? Autopilot’s not working, so we gotta drive this thing manual. And the pilot’s kinda unconscious right now, so I’ve just been winging it. I think it’s turning out pretty okay, though! Tifa and Aerith have the monster-killing part handled, so all we gotta do is not crash.”

Just as he says that, the plane lists to one side, turning the world sideways for a second before Zack casually reaches over and straightens the yoke, setting everything right-side-up again.

“Not crashing is fine and all,” Cloud says, feeling rather green about the edges, “but can we also not do that again?”

“Oh right, motion sickness! Sorry!” Zack says, looking genuinely apologetic. He quickly places both hands on the controls. “Good thing you missed the worst of it. Now, the part in between, when the pilot was unconscious and we were trying to figure out how to open the door to the cockpit—yeah, now that was pretty wild.”

Cloud blinks. “How did I not wake up for that?”

“Well, the screaming hadn’t started up yet,” Zack says. “Also, Seph was holding you like a teddy bear to keep you from feeling the worst of it, the big softie. Snarled real touchily when we tried to wake you up, so we let you guys be. Where’d he disappear off to, anyways?”

“He wasn’t there when I woke up. Maybe he went to help with the monsters.”

“Huh, guess so.”

Suddenly, a loud explosion sounds from somewhere in the back, and the plane jerks once, twice, then everything goes sideways again as it begins to spiral.

“Shit!” Zack says. “We’re losing altitude! How do we safely land this thing?”

“Uh—” Cloud thinks frantically. “Slow us down! How do we—the flaps, deploy the flaps—”

“Which button is that?!”

“Fuck, just—pull up! Pull up!”

“Oh gods, that mountain is way too fucking close, I’m sorry for ever making fun of you for crashing into that mountain at Modeoheim, Tseng, please don’t slander me after we die—”

“Zack! The water! Aim for the water—”

-

"Aww, you look like a wet kitten," Zack coos as Cloud tries to wring the water out of his soaking-wet hair, his bangs hanging limply in his eyes.

Cloud glares.

"A grumpy wet kitten," Aerith corrects, giggling.

Not far away, the other passengers gather by the water and murmur together worriedly. Fortunately, their impromptu landing in the lake hadn't caused any injuries worse than many bruises and a few broken bones. Less fortunately, while Aerith and Tifa had managed to grab their bags before the plane had gone down, Cloud’s and Zack's are lost to the bottom of the lake. Sephiroth, on the other hand—well, Cloud's not sure if Sephiroth even brought a bag. As such, it looks like half of them will be backpacking up Mt. Nibel without actual backpacks.

“Hey, Aerith,” Zack says. “The water washed my concealer away, d’ya think you could help me fix it up?”

“Of course, babe. But—why, Cloud, would you look at that,” Aerith says, bringing her hand up over her mouth in mock surprise. “It appears that your bandages are simply far too soggy to function properly. Why don’t I help you out with that, too?”

Cloud hastily brings his hand up to his bandage, which, sure enough, is sliding off his cheek, very wet and very sad. “I… don’t think that’s necessary—”

“Of course it’s necessary!” Zack says. “What will the other passengers think of us when you waltz around with a nasty bruise like that spreading across your cheek and such a cute, pitiful expression on your face?”

“Zack—”

“I’m sure you’ll perk right up with a bit of makeup on,” Aerith says. “Don’t you think so too, Seph?”

Sephiroth makes a disparaging noise in the back of his throat. “Don’t involve me in your harebrained schemes.”

“Wow, that’s practically permission coming from you, Seph,” Zack says, cackling. “You really do wanna see Cloudy all prettied up, don’t you?”

“I mean, he did miss out on Miss Cloud,” Aerith says, already tugging her apparently waterproof case of makeup out of her bag.

“Tifa,” Cloud says, shooting her as pathetic a look as he can muster. The memory of the kind of attention he’d gotten the last time he’d been dragged into something like this still makes him squirm uncomfortably.

Tifa, the traitor, only turns away and smothers her laughter in her fist.

Cloud sighs and resigns himself to his fate as Aerith and Zack crowd in over him, forcing him to sit down on the grass. For all his protests, it’s really not a bad solution to covering up the Geostigma markings. And if Aerith wants to have a bit of fun at the same time, well, Cloud doesn't have the heart to stop her, even if it does cost him a bit of his pride. At least this time he’s not aiming to look like a female hooker, so it shouldn’t be as unpleasant. Probably.

Most of the stuff she smears onto his face isn’t too bad, even the eye shadow, but the moment she reaches for the eyeliner—

“What are you doing with that,” Cloud says with poorly concealed alarm. Things that small and pointy shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near people’s eyes.

“Just relax and look down, Cloud,” Aerith scolds, brandishing the pen in a very worrying manner. “You’ve got to treat your new boyfriend somehow, right? You two never even had a proper dressed-up dinner date or anything. Now look up—yes, just like that. You should be grateful. You’re going to be so pretty after this, I’m going to be jealous.”

“Aw, babe, there’s no need to be jealous,” Zack says. “No one will ever be prettier than you in my eyes.” He pauses. “Cloudy will be very pretty, though, won’t he? Ah, I’m so proud…”

“I don’t need to be pretty,” Cloud says. “Sephiroth doesn’t care if I’m pretty or not.”

“What!” Zack stands in outrage. “Seph, how could you let poor Cloudy think—”

“Which is a good thing!” Cloud hastens to add.

Zack pouts. “Fine then. Be pretty for other people.”

“We’re going up an uninhabited mountain, into a cave probably crawling with shadow monsters. There are no other people, Zack.”

“Exactly!” Zack says. “Think of the terrible dangers we’ll face! Any of us could lose our lives at any moment! What if you die? Do you really want our last perception of you to be those terrible black marks on your face? No! We want to remember you as you lived, bright and full of—okay, not exactly happiness, but you get what I mean, don’t you?”

“So,” Cloud says dryly, “it’s fine if I die, as long as I’m pretty? Zack, I don’t think—holy shit Aerith what is that—”

“Mascara,” Aerith answers cheerfully. “Hold very still, okay? I don’t want to accidentally blind you or anything. I’ve never healed makeup-related injuries before.”

Cloud obeys.

Aerith steps back and holds up a small, circular mirror. “So, what do you think? I only brought some of my makeup, so I had to make do with a warmer pallet than I’d like, but—”

“I think you did a great job, babe,” Zack says enthusiastically, and Cloud… doesn’t disagree. It’s much less exaggerated than last time—he thinks his eyes might look bigger, and his lips shinier, and the eye shadow seems to do something, but otherwise, he’s not the kind of aesthetically-minded person who’d be able to pick out anything else. Honestly, he’s just glad he still looks like himself.

Aerith pats Zack’s arm indulgently. “Thanks, Zack. But your opinion, as kind as it is, doesn’t really count.” He wilts, and Cloud feels compelled to also pat his arm, but consolingly instead. However, he freezes when Aerith calls, “Seph! Come over here! We need your feedback!”

“What—no, Aerith, let’s not make a big deal of this, okay? Let’s just get going, we still have to find Vincent, and—”

Cloud clamps his mouth shut when Sephiroth steps in front of him, staring down with an unreadable expression. Suddenly, he’s a bit afraid of what that expression might mean. Is it approval? Disapproval? Contempt, even? He’s fought so hard for Sephiroth to see him as someone worthy of acknowledgment, an equal; if Sephiroth loses any respect for him just because of the way he looks—

“It is… acceptable,” Sephiroth says.

“Really?” Aerith huffs, placing her hands on her hips. “I go through all this trouble for you, Seph, and that’s all you say?”

“Your objective was to cover up the marks on his face, was it not?” Sephiroth says. “You accomplished your goal. There is nothing more to be said.”

Cloud darts a look up at Sephiroth through his much darker eyelashes, biting his lip uncertainly. Is he—is he being kind by casually brushing over the subject? Or maybe he really is less than impressed. Or maybe, like Cloud had said earlier, Sephiroth doesn’t actually care about what he looks like, and some part of him is less pleased by the thought that than he’d like to be.

Sephiroth frowns deeply as an angry-sounding noise punches out of his chest, and he stalks off.

Cloud’s shoulders slump. “Aerith, what was that for?”

“Well, this is very important,” Aerith says. “We have to remind Sephiroth of what he has to lose if he decides to turn against humanity. For now, it’s you, since that seems to be what he cares about most right now. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to his more, ah, carnal nature to accomplish that.”

“Well,” Cloud says, “it kinda looks like we drove him away instead.”

“Aw, no, Cloud, that’s not true, you did perfectly. Don’t be sad. Seph’s just being a dumb-dumb—you heard me right, a dumb-dumb. He panicked, that’s all.”

“That come-hither look you shot him, along with the lip-biting thing towards the end there?” Zack says. “Totally had him all hot and bothered. Trust me, I’d know that kind of look from a mile away. But wait, no, actually—that’s not a good thing, that’s a very, very bad thing!” He grasps Cloud by the shoulders and shakes him. “Cloudy, if he ever touches you in a no-no place while looking at you like that, you tell him to stop! And you’d better let me know! I’ll, I’ll—” He makes a loud, incomprehensible noise.

Cloud frowns. “What is this, sixth grade sex ed? Besides, he was angry, not horny. That’s his half-angry, half-confused, half-wants-to-stab-me kind of look. Wait, no, that’s three halves.” Cloud pauses to reconsider. “Never mind. Either way, that’s just how he looks when he wants to stab something. Namely me.”

“What? No! No way! Don’t tell me he’s been eye-raping you since day one! My poor Cloudy’s innocence…! Next thing we know, he’ll be taking your virginity like a—like a brute!”

“I wouldn’t mind being there for that kind of stabbing,” Aerith says a bit dreamily, and Zack looks scandalized.

Cloud rolls his eyes. Sometimes, Zack really does treat him like he’s still a sixteen-year-old trooper fresh out of the countryside. Most days, it’s a nice break from his life in general, but every once in a while, it leads to situations like this. “Whatever you say. Zack, give me your phone. I need to call Vincent to let him know what happened, and then we need to check up on the people back home.”

Zack fishes his still-wet phone from his pocket. “So, my waterproof case did come in handy after all! You made fun of me when I got it, you know.”

“I was mocking your clumsiness, not your foresight,” Cloud tells him. “Now hand it over.”

-

The first thing Vincent says to him is, “Your plane crashed.”

“ … How’d you know?”

Vincent sighs, long and loud. “Flight tracker. It’s also on the news. Though with your luck, I should have anticipated it regardless. However, we’re fortunate. Your location is less than half a day’s journey from our destination. I’ll be there shortly.” He hangs up.

“Nice talking to you too, Vincent,” Cloud says to the dial tone, and pulls up Angeal’s number next. The person who picks up, though, is definitely not Angeal.

“Why hello there, you’ve reached Madame Red’s hostess club,” purrs a lascivious voice. “We specialize in dances and massages of a… special interest. Of course, we also offer a special over-the-line deal, with a starting rate of seventy gil per hour. How may we service you today, Master?”

Cloud blinks. “ … Reno?”

“Oh! Oh shit! That you, Strife? What’re ya doin’ with Zack’s phone, yo? Ifrit’s balls, Zack’s gonna kill me—”

“What are you doing with Angeal’s phone?”

“Me’n the rest o’ the Turks are helpin’ yer buddies out with that special assignment ya gave ‘em, yo! Saw ‘em fumblin’ around hopelessly like a buncha blind hedgehog pies and felt real bad, they were so pathetic! So Boss was real magnanimous and offered—”

“Reno,” a different voice says, muffled by distance. “Who’s that you’re speaking with?”

“Angeal?” Cloud says. “You let the Turks help you out?”

“Cloud!” There’s a period of loud fumbling, then the static clears, and Angeal coughs, sounding a tad embarrassed. “Well, you see, they just wouldn’t take no for an answer, and—”

“Fuck you, we’re awesome!” Reno hollers. “You ain’t never figured out nothin’ about how we all remembered everythin’ while y’all were scramblin’ around with yer heads in yer asses, did ya? That’s right, yo, it’s ‘cause we—”

A door slams, cutting his voice off.

“Sorry about that.”

Cloud sighs. “Don’t worry about it. It’s Reno.”

“So, what did you call for?”

“The monsters attacked us on the airplane,” Cloud says, and Angeal inhales sharply. “Did you guys—?”

“No,” he says quickly. “Nothing’s happened. In fact, other than the anticipated political fuss, it’s almost too peaceful, here.”

“The monsters didn’t attack anyone outside the theater, either,” Cloud says in realization. “Which means…”

“She’s targeting someone in your group,” Angeal finishes.

And if JENOVA wants to get her slimy tentacles on anyone at all, it would be—

Sephiroth.

This is the same conclusion everyone else reaches, too, when Cloud tells them the news. Their gazes all instantly snap to Sephiroth. Before they can discuss the issue further, though, a tingling at the nape of Cloud’s neck prompts him to look up just in time to catch a glimpse of a dark silhouette swoop across the sky.

“Vincent’s here,” Cloud says. The corner of his mouth quirks up. “Let’s mosey.”

-

Upon catching sight of Cloud’s face, Vincent pauses, but only says, “ … I see things are going well.” With that ambiguous statement, he turns with a dramatic flair and leads them into the woods.

As they hike up the mountainside, Sephiroth hovers a few feet behind Cloud at all times, until he finally tugs him aside and says stiffly, “Aerith informed me that my actions earlier hurt your feelings. I apologize. It was not my intention. I was merely… surprised.”

Cloud raises a brow. “How long did you rehearse that for?”

Sephiroth ignores his comment in favor of stubbornly plowing on. “Zack also informed me that if I were to ever have any indecent thoughts about you and your virginity, he would not hesitate to eviscerate me slowly and painfully with a rusty spoon. Seeing as he is still incapable of defeating me with an actual weapon, I am unsure of how he plans to accomplish this, but he seemed very serious.”

Cloud snorts. “He’ll find a way.”

“I also wanted to let you know… that your makeup is very nice, and while it does happen to prompt many so-called… ‘indecent thoughts’ about you… I think you are very pretty just as yourself. And I am no more or less interested in you than I was before.” Sephiroth pauses. “Don’t tell Zack what I said about my thoughts.”

“Oh, that’s… very sweet of you,” Cloud says, surprised. It looks like teenage Sephiroth might have a larger influence on Sephiroth’s overall psyche than he’d thought. He smiles. “Thanks.”

“You forgive me?” Along with those words, Sephiroth’s look of raw hope so strongly mirrors his dream from earlier that Cloud’s breath hitches.

“I—yeah. Yeah, of course I do,” he says, trying to conceal the wobble in his voice, and hopes Sephiroth doesn’t notice the extra layer to his response. Sephiroth frowns, though, clearly picking up on something, so Cloud slides a hand into his and tugs gently. “C'mon, let’s catch up with the others.”

-

When they reach the cave, the sun has just begun to set, gilding the landscape in gold fire. Its entrance appears to be no more than a crevice in the stone face of the mountain—that is, until Vincent sweeps aside a curtain of crawling ivy, revealing a much larger hole.

The interior of the cave is eerily quiet, their footsteps echoing loudly off the damp walls. To the side, Cloud can see Zack slip his hand over Aerith’s, who squeezes reassuringly back. Tifa’s gaze darts around nervously, and even Sephiroth is frowning as he reaches up to rubs his temples. Only Vincent seems unperturbed as he scans the area and says, “The creatures appear to have all left. When I was here previously, the cave was swarming with them.”

“So… what do we do now?” Zack says. “It just looks like a normal super-creepy cave to me. How’re we gonna find any clues?”

“There is more,” Vincent says. “Follow me.”

He leads them to the very back of the cave, where a mako pool glows a sickly green. In the center of the pool lies a large crystal, its glow weak and fluctuating. Darkness spreads like veins beneath its surface, pulsing with some poisonous heartbeat. Cloud can vaguely make out a humanoid figure trapped within.

“Oh, no,” Aerith breathes, hands over her mouth. She looks sick. “Cloud…”

Beside Cloud, Sephiroth winces and raises a hand up to his forehead again. “Her voice… it’s getting louder…”

Someone else says something in response to that rather alarming statement, but the conversation blurs indistinctly. Suddenly, Cloud feels compelled to take a step forward, then another, and another, until he’s walking straight through the mako, uncaring of how its impurity causes it to burn like acid against his skin. Like a beacon, the crystal beckons, and before he knows it, he’s face to face with his own frozen self, not quite a mirror image, but near enough to send an eerie prickle down Cloud’s spine. He raises a hand and presses it gently against the crystal’s surface.

Clarity snaps back just in time for him to hear Tifa say, “Cloud! What are you doing? Get back from there, it’s dangerous—”

Something rumbles. With a deceptively delicate cracking noise, fissures lace through the crystal’s surface, until the first chunk cracks away and falls into the pool with a booming splash, spraying up mako in a fine green mist. Cloud recoils, protecting his face with his arms. As if following a cue, more and more shards rain into the liquid, shattering the cave’s deathly silence again and again until he can’t differentiate the ringing noise in his ears from the echoes resonating against the stone walls.

When the mako haze clears, the stillness somehow still ringing loudly, Cloud’s double hovers in the air, body slack, as if sleeping.

“Cloud,” Tifa calls again, alarmed—

The other Cloud’s eyes snap open, revealing a near-blinding white glow. His gaze falls to Cloud.

Two cannot coexist.

“Uh, what—ah!” Cloud yelps as his instincts scream, ducking just in time for Tsurugi to whistle over his head, cutting off a few strands of his hair. “Shit!”

“Crap!” Zack says, sounding panicked. “Crystal-Cloud’s gone crazy! JENOVA must’ve already gotten to him!”

“Seph’s collapsed!” Aerith says, equally as panicked. “I think she’s trying to control him, too!”

“Aerith!” Cloud calls, hissing sharply as he barely avoids a lethal blow, Tsurugi instead carving a deep scratch up his forearm. Crystal-Cloud, as Zack’s dubbed him, is pressing him so hard he doesn’t even have time to pull his sword from his back; the only reason he hasn’t been sliced in half yet is because he’s intimately familiar with his own style and can somewhat predict the other’s motions. “Get him out of the—agh, out of the way!”

Tifa strikes harshly from behind, sending crystal-Cloud stumbling and giving Cloud enough time to draw Apocalypse. Their opponent, however, retaliates by knocking Tifa away with the flat of his sword, too hard and too fast for her to recover, and she chokes back a scream as her hip smashes against a sharp stone with a disturbing crack.

“Tifa!” Aerith cries. Having settled Sephiroth safely against the wall, she scrambles to her friend’s side, hands quickly lighting up green.

“Cloud!” Vincent warns, and Cloud darts out of the way as he shoots thrice in crystal-Cloud’s direction. The bullets converge on him in a triangular whirlwind, but he simply splits Tsurugi in two and bats them away without blinking an eye. In the attempt to gain some breathing room, Cloud leaps back a few paces, but barely manages to say, “Zack—” before his opponent is suddenly right in front of him, somehow conveying the threat of imminent death with his completely expressionless face.

Cloud bring his sword up, but he already knows he’s too slow, much too slow. He flinches backwards, thinking, This is it, Zack, you were right, I’m going to die with makeup on, are you happy now—

“Cloud!!” Zack yells, Ragnarok colliding against the longer of the two blades and pushing it back.

Cloud hastily warns, “Zack, watch for the other sword—”

But crystal-Cloud simply tosses Zack back carelessly, skirting around to attack Cloud again with a vengeance.

Zack manages to land against the wall, feet-first, and doggedly intercepts once again. “Cloud!” he says again. “I know you’re in there somewhere! It’s Zack, your buddy! You gotta stop—”

“Don’t bother, Zack, there’s no one in there, he’s just being controlled—”

“You gotta believe, Cloudy!” Zack says. “I believe in you. Even if you’re not in there anymore, you used to be—there’s gotta be something of you left, right? Ughh—!” Zack grunts as he’s thrown into the wall again, much harsher this time, leaving him open and vulnerable as he slides to the floor, but crystal-Cloud merely fixes his eerie gaze back on Cloud again.

Their eyes meet.

Two cannot coexist, his own voice says again in his head, overlaid by a chorus of faint, familiar voices, and suddenly, Cloud understands. His strangely intent focus on Cloud, the way he avoids seriously hurting the others when he could kill them all in ten seconds flat—

The next time crystal-Cloud darts toward him, too fast for him to see, he lets his sword drop limply to the side, tip meeting the ground with a clatter, and Tsurugi plunges deep into his chest.

Crystal-Cloud stares down at him, then his eyes flutter shut, cutting off their brilliant glow.

It is as it should be.

Cloud coughs, blood spilling from his lips, thick and red and wet. He blinks, once, twice, each time slower than the next as black spots dance across his vision and his friends’ cries fade in and out of his hearing, making everything seem fuzzy and distant. His eyelids are heavy, dragging lower and lower, and with the last of his strength, he looks over his counterpart’s shoulder and catches sight of wide green eyes.

Cloud coughs wetly again. “S-Sephiroth…”

Sephiroth’s eyes grow wider. “Cloud—”

-

Cloud frowns as he wipes away the green-tinted blood staining his sword. The wildlife in the Nibel region hasn't been this aggressive for over a millennia, not since they'd shut down the reactors. There’s a large number of naturally-occurring mako springs in the area, but only tainted mako causes this intense of a reaction—and it's getting worse. The first few encounters had barely been challenging enough for Cloud to pull out his sword; now, the only reason he doesn't have a debilitating chunk of flesh missing from his right hip is his disturbingly fast healing rate.

It's going to be bothering him for the next few days, he knows it. Just another item on the long list of injuries Vincent is sure to notice and glare disapprovingly about in the hopes of pressuring Cloud into talking.

He won’t, though. Not until he’s sure of what’s going on. There’s no point in resurrecting age-old worries if his suspicions end up being wrong, and there’s no one who wants Cloud’s suspicions to be wrong more than Cloud himself.

Over the past few months, he’s managed to track the cases of mako-crazed animals and narrow down the cause to this area—specifically, this cave. It makes sense: it’s located only a few hundred feet lower in elevation than the Nibel reactor, possibly even directly beneath its mako reservoir, and has escaped their many inspections throughout the years because its entrance, concealed by a curtain of greenery, is on the opposite side of the mountain. Mako in that reactor had been filtered through JENOVA herself; if it’d managed to somehow seep into the soil, or worse, a water source in the cave throughout the years…

Even with all the times Sephiroth had returned, after the Geostigma outbreak, JENOVA had never done more than rely on using Sephiroth alone. Cloud had honestly thought that her influence on the Planet had been eradicated by Aerith’s healing rain. But now that Sephiroth is gone, has been for centuries, she may be resorting to different methods, a slow and insidious gathering of power rather than anything as showy or explosive as summoning Meteor.

The moment Cloud steps inside, he knows something is wrong. Over the past years, he's gotten used to feeling the Planet's presence humming beneath his feet, hearing the barely-distinguishable murmuring of the Lifestream in the space behind his brain, but now it's muffled, as if a curtain has been drawn, and he feels small and alone. Empty. The unceasing drip, drip, drip of water trickling down the cave’s walls only serves to further set his nerves on edge. Hesitantly, he edges in deeper, his unease growing steadily the entire way.

Cloud flinches as a sibilant whisper echoes throughout the cave, bouncing off the walls and sliding uncomfortably across his hearing. Every fiber in his body is screaming to get the fuck out, but if what he suspects really is true…

Well. The thought keeps him forging ahead.

When he reaches the back, though, there’s nothing there. Carefully, he presses a hand up against the cool, wet stone—

danger

Cloud stumbles backwards, clutching his head. It feels like the Planet’s ripped a hole through his mind in her desperation to contact him, smashing through the strange barrier keeping her out of the cave with reckless abandon. Suddenly, a flurry of shadows rush out of every corner, every crevice, stretching out towards him hungrily like a gaping maw—

dangerrungetawayDANGER

This time, Cloud can’t keep the cry of pain from bursting from his lips. Just as the first dark tendril wraps its way around his ankle, harshly tugging his feet out from underneath him, the Planet screams

DANGERCALAMITYCORRUPTIONMADNESS

A blinding light sears across Cloud’s vision, and the Lifestream roars in his ears. The last thing he hears, almost a whisper, is

protect

then he knows no more.