Cloud couldn’t tell if the heat rising to his face was due to the steam from the water, or from the close proximity.
The steam, definitely.
The marble edge of the bath -pool,really- dug into Cloud's back uncomfortably, with how far he tried to lean away from the figure looming over him. Cloud was essentially trapped with Sephiroth’s arms leaning on the marble next to Cloud's boxing him in, with his head bowed staring down at Cloud with unnerving intensity. The General’s hair had fallen around him, like a silver curtain that gave them the illusion of privacy from prying eyes.
Nothing ever good came out of being the center of that attention. Usually it ended with another unwanted stab of Masamune, or receiving slabs of concrete and falling buildings.
Cloud's chest felt as if it was filled with hummingbirds, nervously fluttering inside his ribcage waiting for an opening to fly away. He was uncomfortable with this turn of events. There were no insane monologues, threats of destruction, or lofty proclamations of godhood with this Sephiroth.
At least that one was a familiar ground for the blond, and he could just use First Tsurugi and stab him repeatedly until he dissolved away. But this one?
Sephiroth raised a hand, and Cloud immediately tracked its movement out of the corner of his eyes, his paranoia never letting down. But Sephiroth only brought his hand closer to Cloud's face, and with the back of his fingers, he started to gently, slowly caress the blond's cheek.
Cloud felt his heart hammering even louder. What was Sephiroth doing? He wasn’t doing anything murderous or villanous. He was just there looming and touching!
He felt trapped.
Then Sephiroth, with his unwavering gaze said, "I wonder..."
Gaia, he even sounded like him .
Cloud thanked whatever summon was around when his voice didn't waver as he curtly answered, "...what?"
"I wonder what would take me to make you stay."
Just like that, the spell broke and Cloud fought to suppress a shudder. Make him? He swallowed the disgust rising within him, and grimaced.
For Sephiroth? It would take almost nothing to order Cloud, with the words backed by the J-cells and the call for Reunion at his beck and call.
But for Cloud? It would take everything. His freedom, his will, his mind, his agency.
He snatched the wrist of the hand that had been caressing him and glared as the other just looked perplexed. And through gritted teeth, he ground out, "Nothing you say or do will ever make me stay."
Cloud escaped the parody of closeness through the opening at the underside of Sephiroth's arm, and made a beeline to the exit of the bathroom.
He didn’t need to turn around to see the stunned expression the other man would be wearing.
After all, his Sephiroth had never expected his puppet to ever disobey him either.
Cloud coughed, and sat up disoriented. His throat felt dry as if he had been smoking nothing but the dust of the Midgar wastelands for hours, and the back of his head throbbed as if he had been clubbed by a particularly angry monster. What had he been doing? Cloud was sure he wasn’t on any deliveries or travel schedules. He was certain he had left Seventh Heaven a few hours ago to get to the WRO headquarters after a particularly insistent summons from Reeve.
Then what was he doing here, out in the nowhere, instead of the bustling roads of Edge?
He dusted himself, and looked back. First Tsurugi was embedded to the dirt a few feet away from him, and after rummaging through his pocket assured him that he still had the materia he had been carrying around for a few days now. Lightning, Ice, Fire, Restore, Revive, Barrier, and Scan. He carefully pulled out First Tsurugi, slightly relieved that the impromptu dive into the dirt hadn’t caused any loose particles getting stuck in the locking mechanism, and sheathed it.
Reeve had asked for curative, and elemental materia after all.
He was certain he was nearby Edge, but so far, only a gigantic monument gilded in gold shone at the distance under the midday sun. Cloud shrugged, and started walking. He didn’t have Fenrir or a Chocobo Lure with him, so he would get to the monument by evening, at least.
What was it? It looked like the Gold Saucer, but it was differently proportioned. He could see at least 7 stories divided in between with gigantic plates, and it seemed as if it was more… phallic in structure. He spotted the glare of the light reflected on the base of the tower, hinting towards a decently sized city with solar paneling at least.
Definitely not Edge, then.
Solar panels had been one of the core of the new energy initiatives that the WRO and Cosmo Canyon had collaborated together in order to bring energy output levels that could rival Mako. So far it had been promising, but the photovoltaic cells had been too expensive for the citizens of Edge to afford one big enough to cover the city’s energy consumption, so the WRO had installed one in Junon instead, as a ‘test run’ before moving on to larger cities. Corel had been more focused on oil, and Mideel on geothermal energy.
There were some offshoots of AVALANCHE that claimed that oil was also harmful for the Planet, but nothing had been proven so far. So WRO had its hands full trying to bring the “quality of life” that Shinra had provided before, and trying to satisfy everybody around the Planet.
Cloud stopped, and turned around warily with one hand at the hilt of the sword. There was a massive truck caked with monster guts and blood that was racing his way, billowing a dust cloud behind it as it sped up. One of the passengers had stood up from the seat, and was waving energetically through the window, half propped outside the fast moving car.
“You!! Blondie!! Yoohoo!”
The truck roared to a stop right in front of Cloud, and for a second, the swordsman worried that he would have to cast a Revive on the passengers who clearly were not wearing any regulation seatbelts or safety measures when the truck toppled precariously to a side when it slammed the brakes.
“You goin’ to Midgard then?”
The tattooed guy that had been waving at him banged the side of the truck a few times after the question, and the people on the vehicle hooted enthusiastically. Cloud frowned. Why would anyone go to a dangerous ghost city?
“Ohhh, you a country hick then? Nahh, it’s Midgard! The heart of our entire planet, the soul, the money, the goods, yeah?”
What in the Planet…?
“You seem a bit lost, bro. Weren’t you going to Midgard?”
“Midgar is a ghost city.” Cloud replied, still not letting go of the hilt of his sword. Better to be cautious if they ended up being a bunch of reckless scavengers who raided empty cities hunting for old Shinra glory.
But the man just laughed, and soon all the passengers followed with their hoots, giggles, and roars of enthusiasm. Cloud felt a sudden stab of uncertainty, but waited until the laughter abated.
“Nahh, bro. You seriously were living under a rock, huh? That is Midgard, the Golden City.” The guy said with a hint of pride and awe, pointing at the golden tower at the distance. The numerous passengers gave another cheer at the mention of the name.
“So, you wanna lift?”, he said again when Cloud failed to respond. “We are all gonna live a new life there, yeah? So you can come with us if you wanna get there! It is farther than it looks, you know. There are rumours of people dying, those who didn’t have a reliable vehicle to take them there, and the sun is hotter than what you feel right now.” Some at the back nodded when he finished talking.
“What do you say, yeah?”
Cloud deliberated for a few second, and nodded. It sounded better than walking for hours under the sun wearing nothing but black. He could take them if they ended up being scavengers, and it sounded like a completely new city that Cloud hadn’t heard about before.
He climbed up to the back of the truck, sitting between two women who had bright shawls wrapped around their heads, and an elderly man who gave him a gummy smile when he made eye contact.
It was going to be a long drive.
Cloud stared. The passengers all climbed down from the truck with joyful springs to their steps, helping each other unload their travel packs, but Cloud could only blankly look further ahead.
It was an unholy cross between Gold Saucer and Shinra megalomania. The entire city, bigger than Edge for sure, was all painted in gold, with the central tower gleaming even brighter with the artificial lights shined on it. The tower even went underground, with a giant hole dug underneath the city that was too similar to the slums under the Shinra plate back when it existed. Instead of only one plate separating the ‘rich’ upper level dwellers from the ‘poor’ slummers, there were seven. Trains busily interweaved between the golden support beams, and the bustle of the people could even be felt at this distance.
Instead of a tower within a city, it was a city within a tower. Numerous bridges anchored the city and its first plate to the solid ground, leaving nothing but a mile long drop and the slums at the bottom of the artificial moat.
And no, the shine was definitely not from solar panels but from the sheer amount of gold that glinted under the light. And the ugly Shinra building on top of everything was made uglier with the artificial color reflecting the light.
“Something else, yeah? We were all there, bro.” The tattooed man,- Brogart he said his name was- whistled when he noticed Cloud just staying there, immobile. He carelessly patted Cloud twice on his arm, and walked back to the truck saying, “We have to move by foot from now on! We got our forger- ahem, legal papers but the checks are stricter on vehicle so we gotta move among the walkers. Be fast or we’ll be leaving you behind, bro!”
That shook Cloud out of his reverie, and followed the throng of people that had multiplied during the short walk into the first bridge that came on sight. The line of people trying to get into the city was long, and the bridge even longer. People speaking different languages shouted and talked around him, some sitting down and sharing a meal when it became clear the line wouldn’t move as fast as expected. Some started bartering, sharing tales, cooling down from the heat of the sun under the shade of the gigantic tower.
Brogart came through the crowd and slapped a few yellowed papers on his hands. “Oh, yeah, here bro! Almost forgot. Your residency papers, and your identification papers! What did you say your name was?”
Cloud blinked. “I… didn’t say. It’s Cloud.”
The man guffawed, and sobered up with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry to hear that, bro. Well, you can write down your own name at the top of the blank space of this paper. We had to do with whatever we had on hand, so sorry if yours isn’t up to standard. Nguyen tried his best.”
At the mention of his name, the old man with the gummy smile looked up from his sitting position further away, and gave them a thumbs up. Cloud gingerly returned it with a small wave of his hand. The old man kept prodding his sword and poking his chest, which had made Cloud uncomfortable during the whole trip on the truck.
“And when the guards come and ask questions, don’t be too creative with your story. Simpler it is, harder for them to check, yeah?” Brogart wiped the sweat from his brow, and slapped him on the back enthusiastically again.
“If you manage to get in, don’t forget to look me up on Sector 0, yeah? We hicks gotta stay together after all!”
We country boys have to stick together after all!
Cloud shook himself out of the sudden flashback, and managed a weak smile.
“Yeah, thank you.”
Brogart just guffawed again, and soon went back to his position, far closer to the entrance than the rest of the people were.
He ambled through the throng of people, all of them dirty but smiling. He was certain he was in the lower sectors, and the lack of Shinra troops told him enough regarding the lower plates' sentiment regarding Shinra or anything upper-plate related.
Since the tower - city- was tall, it didn't block out the sun entirely, and as a result the people seemed... not as withdrawn as the slum dwellers of Midgar during the peak of its Shinra glory. His memory of his arrival to Midgar was spotty, his time as an eco-terrorist was hazy, but he could definitely remember the tight expressions and feeble smiles of the lower plate citizens, shoulders hunched with unspoken fear of the invisible grip of Shinra, and the bruised and bloodied knobbly knuckles that people turned a blind eye to.
The people here... didn't seem to share that wrung-out desperation carved out of a hope withered too soon.
Cloud walked inside a dingy shop that had 'Drinks and Food' smeared on the front, hoping to eat and drink something first before he started investigating 'Midgard'.
The patrons inside the bar quieted immediately when he stepped inside, and Cloud ignored the pointed stares, trying to not feel too unsettled.
Cloud picked the furthest corner of the shop, and pulled out a stool. The cook behind the dirty counter flipped something expertly with the spatula and called out, “What can I get ya- Strife?”
The cook's face had gone slack, and the mystery food she was cooking was starting to burn in the pan. Her exclamation of surprise had definitely called the attention of every single patron inside the small shop. Cloud resisted the urge to sigh. The citizens of most of the smaller villages in the Planet had grown used to him and the AVALANCHE members dropping by and rushing out, and their initial awe and suspicion had simmered down into just a respectful distance. In the case of bigger cities, there were too many people to truly notice the mismatched group so they could move more easily.
That wasn't the case for Midgard, apparently.
Where was this city, exactly? He couldn't remember any place like this when they were traveling the continents, and a city-tower this big should have been on Shinra's radar since the beginning. The Shinra building on top probably meant that this was another branch of Shinra-sanctioned city, and the name was too similar to Midgar to be a coincidence.
When he realized that the cook was still slack-jawed, waiting for an answer, Cloud shrugged lightly.
When she saw his eyes, the cook's astonishment bled out into a sheepish laughter that broke the tension in the room. She crossed her arms and exclaimed, “You almost fooled me! Ha! Nice one there. The eye colour seems wrong, but I could'a sworn that you were him in the flesh!”
Her boisterous declaration had the patrons laughing, smiling, and chattering with each other again, and Cloud spied one or two of them raising their glass towards him in a mock salute. He decided to remain silent, and just returned a small nod of acknowledgment.
“Well, you are one of the better ones out there!” The cook grinned and gestured at the menu scrawled on the walls. “Take a drink. It's on the house.” She winked and laughed at his baffled expression.
“It's appreciated, but why-”
“Why offer a drink for free? Well,” Her tone turned wistful, but her eyes glimmered with something fierce when she said, “Let's just say that you reminded me of hope.”
That... was unexpected.
His answer was lost in the sudden bustle at the entrance of the shop, and both Cloud and the cook looked back towards the door where someone was holding several stacks of empty glass bottle boxes as if they weighted nothing.
“Hey Flan, I was wondering if the delivering guy has been delayed? The bar didn't get the requested supply for today and-”
Wait. He knew that voice.
“Tifa?” He called, and the figure stopped dead in their tracks before dumping the entire load they had been carrying to the ground. The bottles rattled loudly and some of them shattered on impact, leaving a glittery mess on the floor.
She looked relieved to see him, and Cloud blinked in confusion but returned her sudden hug with a small smile and a soft hug of his own.
There was a statue of himself smack dab on the main square. His hair was spikier, had his buster sword at its back, and was reaching out to an imaginary recipient with a flower at its hand. But it was definitely him. He had his other hand on his chest and had his eyes closed, like some kind of tragic hero from a medieval rendition of Loveless.
People left bouquets of flowers at its pedestal, and lightly prayed under their breath. Tifa smiled slightly next to him, and said in a low voice, “The you from here died sacrificing himself to save the people. So they erected a statue so as to not to forget.”
Cloud, immediately uncomfortable with any kind of recognition, readjusted his hood and stayed silent.
“And also because you were an iconic couple with the General.”
Cloud choked and whispered in a strangled voice, “...what?”
Tifa only nodded sympathetically, and patted his arm in comfort. “Yeah, apparently you were his…” Here, Tifa coughed lightly and continued, “First Love.”
The blonde could hear the Capital Letters on the innocuous two words. “First love?” he mouthed to her, feeling slightly hysterical. She only nodded. “Apparently it’s a big thing on this Planet. People call it First Sight actually, to describe the first person who truly saw you for who you are. It’s kind of complicated, but the meaning could encompass any kind of love, from platonic to sexual, so…”
Tifa trailed off, and Cloud opened his mouth and closed it. Opened and closed it again. “And you are saying that I was…” Gaia, he couldn’t finish the thought. Absolutely not. He had had puppy crushes and fond feelings, with Aerith, Tifa, and Zack once upon a time, all in the past, but never anything romantic or… sexual with anybody.
“You are my First Sight here too, you know.”
Tifa nonchalantly commented, and Cloud choked again. It was as if someone had summoned Kujata on his head, and had the Chocobo song on repeat on a broken radio. Bless her heart, Tifa soon noticed the faint expression on his face, and immediately dragged him away from the populated square to make him sit on one of the benches on the outskirts.
“Apparently the Tifa from here had the Nibelheim bridge incident with you. And when I crossed over to here I kind of received her memories...” At Cloud’s faraway look she quickly added, “Don’t worry Cloud. I’m happy with what we had, have” she quickly corrected herself, “with Marlene and Denzel and the Seventh Heaven.”
She took a deep breath, and steeled herself before dropping the bombshell.
“There is another thing you must know. The General that the you from here was an item with? … is General Sephiroth. He is not dead here and… he is well-liked. And everybody who was gone in our world is alive here.”
The blonde only nodded, and palmed the Revive on his bracer. He was definitely going crazy. This had to be a Mako fever dream, or some kind of hallucination that his sleep addled mind might have conjured up. Maybe he was in the chasm between life and death, and this was the… in between or something. Not the Lifestream though, because it wasn’t as green as expected.
Yeah, that made more sense.
He only needed to cast Life2 and Cure3 and he would be back on Edge, probably still on the sidewalk keeled over. He started feeding mana into the materia, which started to glow brighter and brighter. The light started attracting the curious glances of the passerby people, but Cloud didn’t care.
“Wait, Cloud! Don’t-!”
Tifa screamed and wrenched away his hand that was casting, and the spell went wide to the sky without a specific target.
About restorative magic: If there is no set target to heal, then it latches on to whoever or whatever is the closest that needs healing. And in this case, the entire square glowed brightly for a moment, and soon exploded into showers of multicolored glitter, small winged figures coming down from the heavens, and a downpour of Phoenix Downs onto the pavements. The initial cries of terror changed into cries of surprise and happiness, and someone screamed, “I can see again after 40 years of blindness! It’s a miracle!!!”
Dead plants and shrubbery suddenly became vibrant and green, the elderly could suddenly run again, somebody found their dead dog alive and barking, and many found their neck or back kinks suddenly disappearing.
So when people started scanning the square looking for a cause of these numerous miracles, they found a pretty couple still holding wrists, frozen to their spot with something bright and magical slowly fading away in the wrist of the blond.
After eons of dodging a stampede, hiding behind trash cans, disguising the spiky hair, and even crossdressing, they finally managed to stumble back into Tifa’s bar, -Almost Heaven, as it was called here- and managed to lock the doors.
Tifa huffed, and pulled of the skewed orange wig from her head, and bonelessly slid onto the bar stool and hid her face under her hands. Cloud only followed, toeing off the glittery high heels by the door and followed her suit. He ran a hand through his hair and pulled off the cheap pins he had affixed to his hair one by one.
After a moment of silence, Tifa groaned.
“I am never doing that again.”
Cloud just nodded miserably, and continued to pull off the clips from his hair. After just few more minutes of silence, Tifa looked up and turned to him.
“Right. Should have explained before in a more… controlled setting. How long have you been here?”
At her question, Cloud looked up as well and ran a hand through his face. “A few hours, at most.” Then he paused and shrugged. “Came to in the Midgar wastelands, or what I thought it was.”
Tifa closed her eyes and lightly picked at the frayed seams of her fingerless gloves. “I came here almost three weeks ago.” At her confession, Cloud’s attention immediately snapped to her. She continued, “I didn’t realize something was different until I was taking orders and I did not recognize any of the liquor labels when I turned around the counter.” She let out a slightly strangled laughter.
“At first I thought the kids were pulling a prank. They were always so well-behaved, so I thought to myself, the children are finally learning to be children, instead of having been forced to grow up so fast…” She paused, and continued at a lower voice, “That maybe it was them acting as children should so it was nothing to be alarmed about.” Her gloves creaked when she closed them into a tight fist.
She opened her eyes again when she asked, “When was the last time you saw me, Cloud?”
He stilled. He had left Seventh Heaven this morning, after saying goodbye to Denzel and Marlene, and had seen Tifa when he had helped her clean up the bar… Yesterday? Three days ago?
Alarmed, he answered, “I… can’t remember, Tifa. Definitely within the week, but-”
He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. Memories were never his forte, with his spotty track record after everything, but something told him this was not another case of blank space-outs he had in the past.
Tifa just nodded and pursed her lips. “When… people slip into this world, the timelines get completely mixed. Reeve was here for almost five months. None of us noticed.”
“Reeve is here?” He had received the call this morning in order to head out to the WRO at Reeve’s request. Wait, no. Cait’s request on behalf of Reeve’s. But if Reeve had disappeared for almost as long as a day or two, the entire WRO would have gone ballistics.
“And Cid as well. He actually owns a tea shop here.” They shared a brief smile before the mood turned somber again. “We all just found ourselves here suddenly. No explanations, no magic, no nothing. Reeve is working on a way to get us back, but he is apparently in a high ranking position here as well, so his time is… limited.”
She stood up, and went behind the counter and produced two cups and a bottle of alcohol. After pouring them, she slid one to Cloud, who accepted the drink with a small nod of thanks. He definitely needed a drink, even if it didn’t work on him.
“We can get home again. I’ll make sure of it.” He promised, and Tifa returned a slightly strained smile. After they milled about their drinks silently, Tifa frowned and took the glasses away. She washed them with more force than necessary, and took a deep breath.
“Cloud… There is one last thing you should know.”
At his inquisitive glance, she gripped the counter with force, and thought about the best way of approaching the subject. It was a sore and painful spot for her, for Cloud, and almost everybody on AVALANCHE but especially for the Nibelheimers after the burning, and the… the massacre of the entire town.
“This Sephiroth… almost burned the world after he lost you here. Do not give him another chance.”