It was a fluke. An accident. One improbable event leading to another.
Fenrir ground to a halt, the purr of the engine dwindling into silence.
Cloud regarded the zolom with a mixture of caution and disbelief.
It wasn't just unusual – it was suspicious. Midgar zoloms were supposed to stay in the swamplands, not venture out onto the dry, rocky plains surrounding Midgar.
Blue eyes, bright with mako, eyed the monster speculatively. It wasn't deformed at least, but its behaviour was odd – prowling and stealthy, though of course a zolom couldn't be stealthy when it was so far out of its element. Not protecting territory, he soon realised. Hunting.
That explained it. The ecosystems surrounding Midgar were still in a state of flux, even four years after Meteor – the swamplands were of course affected too. It was hungry – evidently hungry enough to venture outside its normal habitat in search of prey.
That was when he noticed how quiet it had become. And how the zolom appeared to be heading his way.
Cloud cursed softly under his breath. How unlucky to be the only thing resembling prey within sight.
His hand hovered over the ignition briefly, and then instead hit the release on the sword compartments. They sprung open with a heavy thunk, and he assembled First Tsurugi in a quick series of practiced motions.
He could probably outrun the zolom on Fenrir, but if it made it so far out of the swamplands on its own, it might make it to Edge, Kalm, or one of the other satellite settlements in the area. Tifa was just going to have to deal with him making it back later than he said. The materia slots on his sword were already fitted, and he patted his pocket to check his Time and Restore were there, ready to be swapped in if things went badly.
The zolom was close, slithering its way towards him, the shifting scrape of its scales across the rocky ground growing harsh in his ears. Cloud took off at a sprint to the west – it wouldn't do for his primary mode of transportation to get trashed in the fight. The monstrosity shifted course, body writhing across the ground with purpose and unmistakeable intention now. The blond readied First Tsurugi as the distance between them closed, braced himself, and sprung.
The next two minutes were a kaleidoscope of metal and teeth and magic and scales and blood. The zolom was large, as big as Bahamut, and its body twisted and turned in unpredictable ways that would have left anyone without a SOLDIER's reflexes crushed. Cloud sidestepped, struck with his sword, and jumped away to put some more distance between himself and the lashing tail. Bright blue eyes widened - the tail whipped the air – the monster shrieked, and he barely brought First Tsurugi around in time to protect himself.
The impact rattled his teeth, and the momentum sent him freewheeling through the air. Instinct was all that kept him oriented, his knees bending automatically to take the shock as he landed, leaving a trail of billowing dust as he slid to a stop. The zolom, reptilian eyes wild and hungry, dived forward, jowls open in anticipation of a meal. A chance. First Tsurugi rose in the air, preparing for the split-second strike that would decide the monster's fate.
That was the moment it all changed.
Unbeknown to Cloud, the last jarring hit had knocked one of the materia in his hip pocket clear. It arced high in the air, hung for a moment, then began to fall... directly into the path of First Tsurugi.
Cloud was already moving - it was too late to change the angle of the strike. His eyes widened as the materia shattered under the blow. The air seemed to still and the sound grew muted, save for an eerie ringing and delicate tinkle as the small orb exploded into thousands of crystalline fragments.
An accident, a loss, a misstep… and all it should have been. Except Something Was Wrong.
Cloud recoiled, zolom forgotten, as the materia dust began to swirl in the air, sparkling like fireworks as it caught the bright afternoon sun.
Coming closer. Reaching for him.
The Ribbon on his arm grew hot. In the reflection of First Tsurugi, he could see his eyes glowing, brighter than they had in months.
Something was tearing, falling, twisting, turning. Then, only darkness.
At some point, Cloud became aware that he was somewhere he wasn't supposed to be. He was not in the comfort of his bed in Kalm, nor did it feel like he was resting on the cot at the church. His arms felt gritty. Sleeping in the open then, but the kiss of sunlight warmed his face, and why hadn't he laid out a sleeping bag instead of passing out on the stony ground? Did he have a concussion?
Consciousness was as slippery as an eel, but the sense of wrongness like a siren's call, coaxing him awake. Danger? But he couldn't hear anything other than the gentle breeze over a rocky wasteland.
Wasn't there supposed to be a monster?
Cloud opened his eyes and sat up in one smooth motion, though the world spun dizzyingly, in a way he hadn't experienced since the curse of Geostigma. He nearly threw up – another sensation he hadn't experienced for a long time – and his muscles ached like… well, like he'd been run over by a zolom.
The disorientation was thankfully short-lived. But when he finally chased the last of the fog from his mind, the blond was disturbed to be no more aware of where he was.
The zolom was gone. Fenrir was gone. The landscape looked familiar, but it didn't quite match his memory of the area. Trying to triangulate his position based on the known landmarks, he should have only been a couple of clicks west of where he'd fought the monster, though how he'd even travelled that short distance without realising it...
He held up an arm to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. Morning? But the sun had been dipping into the horizon line when he'd come across the monster. He couldn't possibly have been there the whole night. The scent of mako would keep lesser predators away from him, but there was plenty of wildlife in the area more than happy to take a bite out of any human foolish enough to sleep in the open. Apparently that included Midgar zoloms these days.
Abruptly, he pulled out his PHS. No calls – that was odd. Maybe Seventh Heaven had been too busy for Tifa to worry over him? He stared at it for a long moment, fingers ghosting over the buttons, and then slid it back into his pocket.
The ache in his body lingered, but considering the pain it had endured in the past, he shook it off, taking his time in getting to his feet and stretching. He set out towards where he remembered leaving Fenrir, but the horizon lay bare. No sign of the fight, either.
It took only a few minutes of quiet recollection to form a guess of what had occurred. He'd broken a mastered Time materia with First Tsurugi, and something had gone wrong.
Cloud had never personally broken materia before - one generally didn't try to, materia were far too precious - but Barret and Yuffie had accidents before. Maybe not with a mastered Time materia specifically, but the materia they had broken just became useless - a glass bauble that would eventually erode into fragments of crystallised mako. Certainly neither of them had been engulfed in a shower of glowing dust.
Perhaps the materia fragments reacted to the mako in his blood? Aeris might have been able to explain it, or even one of Reeve's scientists in the WRO, but the most he could make was a wild guess. Maybe even First Tsurugi played a part - the sword had been constructed out of the remnants of the Planet's Weapons, after all.
Training and experience kicked in. What were his resources? Ribbon was still tied securely around his arm - he would be protected from any Status materia effects. He rubbed at it distractedly, recalling how it had tightened and burned his arm when the Time materia broke. Maybe Ribbon had something to do with it too.
Gil rattled in his pocket, enough for a few nights room and board at an inn. First Tsurugi was slung in its harness. Some hypers, hi-potions and ethers in a pouch on his thigh, along with several vials of water from the spring at the Church, in case he came across any people still suffering Geostigma. The eight other materia he had on him - All, Neo Bahamut, Barrier, Fire, Lightning, Comet, plus a Restore and Chocobo Lure in his pocket. All of them mastered, making him something of a walking arsenal. He hadn't needed them for a simple delivery, but after Kadaj's troop had stolen most of his stash, he took to keeping them equipped just in case something happened. Something like this.
Fenrir might have been missing, but he could lure a wild chocobo to get him back to civilisation. It had been a while since he'd ridden bareback - or anything less than a black, for that matter - but it would be faster than walking. He rolled the Chocobo Lure materia between his fingers, focusing his thoughts until it grew warm in his palm, then jammed it into a different pocket – one with a zip, this time. That taken care of, he started walking again. Chocobo Lure only worked if there were actually chocobos nearby to lure – there was little point waiting for a ride that might not come.
The Midgar wastes made for a miserable journey on foot, though. While the open, empty expanse let him go full throttle on Fenrir, on foot it was little better than tracking through the Corel desert. There was no shade, very little to look at, and far too many unpleasant memories to keep him company.
Desperate for a distraction – some monsters would be welcome at this point - Cloud took out his PHS as he walked and examined it, still disconcerted by the lack of calls. He'd been sure he'd told Tifa he'd be back by nightfall. And he'd been good at keeping his word lately, too. Sure, he'd stayed out for days and days without word in the past, but…
Maybe she'd finally given up on him. He grunted softly at the thought, and resolutely returned the PHS to his pocket. Zack used to tease him for his stubbornness, but Tifa had him beaten by a mile. It was a relief she wasn't worrying. He didn't particularly feel like calling up Cid or Reeve to organise transport back from the middle of nowhere, which Tifa would undoubtedly make him do if she knew he was trudging through the wastes alone. As though anything out here could seriously threaten him.
Aside from Midgar zoloms, apparently. But armed to the teeth with materia, there was never any danger of losing that fight. Unless he had. It was hard to tell, when he couldn't remember the end of it.
Brow furrowed in thought, Cloud almost missed the telltale scuffle of talons on rock. He paused, tilting his head, and caught wind of a faint 'Wark?'
Finally. He turned, and the yellow chocobo dogging his footsteps straightened and cocked its head. "Wark!" Feathers the colour of sunshine puffed up as the bird strutted closer. Bold, but it only looked curious.
As soon as it was in reach, Cloud gave the neck a soft pat. The feathers were smooth and soft under his fingers, lacking the coarseness of a wild chocobo. Another minute of careful inspection revealed the band around its claw. Tame. An escapee, or had it thrown its rider?
"I don't have any greens," he murmured. "But will you take me to your owner? Home? Farm?" Edge, Kalm, the Chocobo Farm – any of them would do.
Chocobos were generally quite intelligent creatures, but everybody taught the birds different commands – he was taking a wild stab, hoping he caught at least one key word. It cawed happily, however, and once he was on its back, set out at a decent pace. Cloud sighed and settled in for the ride. Clearly the words meant something to it.
He must have wandered further than he thought, because in what seemed like no time at all, they were making their way through farmland, and then only moments later, he found himself in the midst of a small collection of houses – scarcely enough to qualify as a village.
Slightly bewildered, he dismounted the chocobo, patting its beak absently as it cooed at him. Something struck him as familiar, but Cloud was relatively sure he'd never stepped foot in this place before – surprising, considering how far and wide his delivery service took him, and he figured himself to be within a few hours' travel of Edge.
His arrival did not go unnoticed. A tired-looking woman glanced through her window, then a moment later the door flung open and she hurried through the street to him, nearly tripping over her skirts in her haste. By the time she reached his side her face was flushed and her hair had come loose from its bun, a motley mix of grey and brown strands framing her features.
"Sunshine! Oh, thank Odin!"
Cloud recoiled before remembering the bird at his side. The chocobo in question perked up. "Is he yours?"
She patted the bird with fervour, and it crooned at the attention, eyes half-closing in dumb bliss. "My husband's. I left the stable door open for only a minute this morning but- well, never you mind, I'm just so happy he came to no harm. There've been so many monsters about, I was thinking the worst- how did you find him?"
Belatedly, Cloud cancelled the Chocobo Lure still active in his pocket. "I was out in the wastes. Asked him to take me to his owner." He paused, wondering if it were appropriate to say anything more – there was a good chance his Lure was what caused the bird to bolt the stable to begin with - before settling on, "He's a smart bird."
"He's very well-trained. My husband – well, you know, I don't like to brag, but he used to be a top of the line racer. He loves his chocobos, bought this one from Billy as just a chick and raised him himself. I can't thank you enough for bringing him back, Mr-" She finally turned her attention to him.
"Strife," Cloud murmured.
Her friendly demeanour vanished in an instant, and she recoiled in fear. "SOLDIER…" The words whispered like a curse.
It had been a while since he'd received that reaction. "I'm not. I don't work for ShinRa, either." The words were short and clipped.
She didn't believe him – no one ever did on the first meeting. "But your eyes-"
"I don't like to talk about it." And the matter was closed. Everybody always wanted an explanation, but it was personal, and he was hardly going to tell a complete stranger that he'd spent four years of his life as a laboratory experiment, no matter how guilty he felt over a runaway chocobo.
"Right. Sorry. Excuse me." She withdrew, exuberance at the return of her chocobo drained.
An awkward silence hung in the air, and Cloud felt badly for ruining the mood, but it was nothing new – he ruined the mood wherever he went. He would just find out what he needed to know and be on his way. "Do you know how far it is to Edge from here?" At the woman's blank expression, he reluctantly explained, "I thought I knew where I was, but I must have been wrong. I don't remember a village being here."
Her unease had not abated, but she latched onto the question quickly, no doubt keen to hurry his progress along and escape his presence. "Edge? Edge… I'm not sure. Oh! But my husband has a map – he likes cartography too, you know." She started back towards her house before remembering the chocobo, and wavered for a minute. Evidently deciding him trustworthy enough, she asked, "Would you mind putting Sunshine back in the stable? It's right behind the house, just put him in and make sure the gate's good and properly shut so he can't get out again. I'll get the maps sorted quick smart, Mr Strife."
It was profoundly weird being called 'Mr' by someone older than him, but he'd long resigned himself to people giving him respect he wasn't due. Cloud just nodded wordlessly and steered 'Sunshine' towards the stable behind the house while the nameless woman – was he supposed to ask her name in return, or did she not introduce herself on purpose? – hitched up her skirts and hurried back into the cottage.
The stable was fortunately as easy to find as she'd said, and with his extensive experience in chocobo husbandry, herding the bird into its stall a simple matter. Reflex had him refilling the water trough and scattering some greens on the floor, and he even took a minute with a weathered brush to give the bird a quick groom. He reasoned it was only manners, since he'd ridden the bird there, but once that was taken care of, forced to admit he was dallying. Checking the latch on the stall for the third time wasn't going to make it any more secure.
With Sunshine returned to his rightful place, Cloud found himself in front of the house again, uncomfortably aware of the eyes peering through the other windows across the way, and not sure what to do. Was he allowed inside? Tifa had given him more than just a few lectures for striding into people's houses uninvited when he had business, and the woman hadn't been very comfortable with him. But he didn't want to stay outside under the stares of the other villagers, either. It made his skin prickle, and brought back memories of a burning town.
Decision made, he knocked once and entered. Thankfully, aside from a nervous glance in his direction – he belatedly realised he was still carrying First Tsurugi - the woman did not appear offended. Her arms were full of books and laminated scrolls, which she haphazardly dumped on the floor. "Won't take long, Mr Strife. I just have to find which one of these blasted – ah, here it is. My husband's bad at organising, you see, I swear he spent half the day looking for his glasses once when they were right on top of his head the whole time, he couldn't find a thing if I weren't here to tidy things up." Cloud nodded, for lack of any other response. She spread the map out on the floor. "So where should I start looking? I'm not familiar with 'Edge'."
He started to move closer to look for himself, but at her flinch, thought better of it and instead asked, "How old is the map?"
"Maybe… three, four years?"
"Midgar? Well, why didn't you just say so? You're not far off at all, only a few hours on a good fast chocobo, my husband-"
He wasn't listening anymore. His eyes had fallen on the folded newspaper on the table. 'SHINRA DECLARES WAR' stretched across the front page in bold letters. An old issue, from the start of the war with Wutai. Another one of those nasty little reminders of the horrors past.
"Mr Strife. Mr Strife!"
With a jerk, he turned his attention back to the woman. "Sorry. I was just-"
She followed his line of sight and sighed. "Ah yes. Bad business, that. ShinRa picking fights, I think." Her gaze turned suspicious again. "Are you sure you've got nothing to do with ShinRa? My husband's done nothing wrong, you know. He's retired, just helps out on Billy's farm and plays with maps. Never worked for them, no matter what anyone says."
Tired of her suspicion, he growled, "I once had plenty to do with ShinRa, but none of it good."
That seemed to finally mollify her, and a tentative smile crept on to her face. "Right, right. ShinRa's full of good promises, but out here, they matter so little." There were hidden meanings behind her words, but apparently now she had established the association to be negative, she was more willing to trust him. She shifted the map so he could see. "So, here we are Mr Strife, and you can just follow this road here all the way to Midgar."
Cloud blinked, slowly taking in the name her finger hovered over. "…This is Kalm?"
She looked surprised, then laughed. "Of course! Didn't you see the sign? It's a little faded, true, I keep telling the Mayor-"
With a sudden sense of dread, Cloud snatched up the newspaper. "How old is this paper?"
Now she just looked confused. "The date's right there, see? Not even a week old – came in the last post."
Abruptly, Cloud turned on his heel and strode out of the house, paper still clutched in his hand.
Outside, he looked around with more careful eyes, glowing blue gaze calculating. Now he knew what struck him as so familiar. This was Kalm, before Meteor had driven people from Midgar and turned the rundown mining village into a bustling town. It was all there. The Inn where he'd relayed his false past. The circle of modest houses. The road unpaved, as he remembered it from his first visit. The distant sunset, turned blood red by pollution. The trail leading to the mythril mines.
Very slowly, Cloud pulled out his PHS again, and dialled Tifa. After an agonisingly long moment of silence, a robotic female voice answered. 'This call cannot be connected. Please check the number, and if you persist in having problems, bring your PHS to your nearest ShinRa Communications outlet to be serviced.'
ShinRa still owned and managed the communication grid. Tifa's number didn't exist.
He dialled Vincent next, then Yuffie, then Reno. Reno's was answered by a young woman whose voice he didn't recognise, so he hung up immediately. He almost dialled Reeve, but at the last minute, thought better of it. There was a small chance Reeve's number hadn't changed.
"Mr Strife! Mr Strife, is there a problem?" The woman had come running after him.
He didn't answer her question. "Thanks for your help. I have to go."
"It was no trouble, not after you brought Sunshine back, and if you've got troubles with ShinRa-"
Cloud wasn't listening anymore – already heading east.
He needed to pay a quick visit to the Chocobo Farm.
Three hours of hard riding later, and there stood the proof. Midgar.
Cloud let the reins slide from his fingers, shocked into stillness at the sight of a whole, un-ruined, pre-Meteor Midgar.
It was true.
He'd gone back in time.
Slowly, he reached back, and nicked his finger across First Tsurugi's outer edge. Blood welled briefly from his fingertip, before the mako regeneration took over and healed it before his eyes, leaving a faint burning sensation behind. Not a twisted dream then, and far too detailed to be a hallucination.
The knowledge didn't hit him as hard as it realistically should have. Maybe he was becoming used to unpleasant surprises. Discovering he'd somehow travelled back in time was far less emotionally challenging than coming to terms with the fact that he'd been unwittingly living a lie, or that Sephiroth just didn't have the good grace to stay dead.
Until he thought that last sentence over, and felt like he might throw up.
Sephiroth was still alive.
And not just Sephiroth. Zack. Aeris. His mother.
He sank to his knees, vision blurring.
He choked, overwhelmed and unable to tear his eyes away from the unspoiled, frighteningly whole visage of the metropolis that was the beginning and end of everything. The rented chocobo let out a wuff, nudging at his arm, but the reins remained dangling in the air as all the worst moments of his life played themselves out before his eyes. Events which now lay before him.
ShinRa, Weapons, Meteor, Avalanche, Zack, Aeris, Kadaj, Deep Ground, Reunion, Nibelheim.
All of it. How many years? Four since meteor. Six since the Lab. Ten since Nibelheim. Ten years of mistakes and failures and struggles!
He didn't know how long he knelt there, fingers clutching at the dirt as he heaved in shallow gasps. An hour, perhaps two, judging by the setting sun, before his emotions started to settle down enough to allow him to think coherently again. At some point, the chocobo had grown bored, and wandered off to take a nap nearby under an outcropping of rock offering a sliver of shade. His hands and knees were dirty from kneeling on the ground. And most importantly, for all practical purposes, Cloud was still stuck in the past.
What was he supposed to do? What could he do?
That was when a new thought occurred to him, one that wiped away the shock and filled him with hope.
The possibility of change.
He knew about Jenova. Knew about the threat to the Planet, the Weapons, everything that would happen. The war in Wutai had barely begun. Maybe he could change that, too.
It wasn't a question of how, or if it were possible. There remained the chance it was all in his head after all - maybe the broken Time materia had driven him back into a mako poisoned delirium. It didn't matter. He had to do it. Not because it was the right thing to do, not even for the possibilities that it represented - simply because he couldn't survive watching everything happen again, real or not. It would break him for good.
Besides, how many sleepless nights had he lain awake, turning everything over in his head? He'd spent years ruminating over the what-ifs, the recriminations. If he hadn't handed over the Black Materia. If he'd been strong enough to save Aeris. If he'd been fast enough to stop the Sector 7 plate falling. If he'd woken up in time to save Zack. If he'd acted sooner, and stopped Nibelheim from burning. If he hadn't been such a failure, time and time and time again.
The people of Edge treated him like a hero, but he was really only a failure who had to clean up his own mistakes.
Cloud stood, brushing the grit from his hands and knees. He checked that First Tsurugi was still secure in its harness, ran his fingers across his materia, and patted his pocket for his PHS and supplies. Everything was in order. He whistled the chocobo, and the bird was back by his side in moments, whuffing happily and shoving its beak under his hand. He gave it a quick pat, swung up on its back, and then they were away, heading back to Kalm. Away from Midgar.
If he was going to change things, there was a person who needed to die.