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gaudium vivendi

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Cloud wasn’t too sure of where he was. It was dark and silent, yet still greener than Gaia had ever been, especially with the foggy air of Midgar. The trees surrounding him reeked of black magic, and he carefully clasped at the materia in his pack and in the grooves of his sword. He didn’t know this place. The trees looked dead, the light was minimal, filtered through the brown leaves, and the clearing he was in was surprisingly empty.

 

There were few empty clearings left in Gaia, when he had left, after his defeat of Sephiroth. Everything was left in ruins, rubble decorating the roads and blocking off alleys and streets. People built shacks and make shift houses wherever they could find, and the continent wasn’t empty anymore. No more random empty spaces of land in between cities. Just cottages and buildings and attempts at houses.

 

This place was different. Cloud couldn’t say that it was very different from Midgar, with the foul stench of black magic and the polluted air, but Midgar was what one would call a concrete jungle, with buildings stretching into the sky (okay, just one, the ShinRa headquarters), but this place, this forest, was filled with trees and more trees, and from what Cloud knew of trees, they were supposed to be green. Very green. The Sleeping Forest had looked nothing like this.

 

He briefly wondered if Aerith could have done something about this. She probably could. In fact, with the Holy materia in his pack, he probably could do something about this dead-beat, sorry excuse of a forest. It would take a lot out of him, but all in the name of a green forest. Cloud couldn’t really say that he liked seeing a forest like this. Greenery had become something rare and treasured in Midgar, the last he knew, and this irked him.

 

He also felt a bit bad for all the animals living in the forest. Living in a dark, bland, riddled with black magic forest. It was a terrible habitat. The water probably wasn’t safe to drink here. Travellers would have a very hard time passing through this stretch of trees.

 

Cloud thought that he probably shouldn’t use the Holy materia for a thing like this, however. It seemed like a bit of a waste, not when there was most likely bound to be someone here who could do something. Maybe there were Ancients here, like Aerith, and they could help cure this forest.

 

But, Cloud decided, spinning around and clasping First Tsurugi on his back. First things first. He would very much like to find some sort of civilization.

 

And food. He would like some food.

 

-=-

 

It took him an hour to find people. Or rather, voices.

 

Very loud, very irritating, and very stupid voices. They mostly consisted of complaints and questions of “How much longer do we have to go? How big is this goddamn forest?!”

 

In that one hour, Cloud had killed fifty spiders the size of the Highwind, two deer (he suspected they had gone mad with prolonged stay in the forest), and eight squirrels. The squirrels had attacked him. Cloud didn’t even realize that the tiny critters had it in them to so brazenly attack a creature at least five times their size, and wielding a sword five times their size too.

 

Cloud had deemed it time well spent, and he had trekked about fifteen kilometers. He might have been going in circles, but he didn’t have a map, nor was he informed of any special path to follow (he was starting to suspect that the forest was a little bit like the Sleeping Forest, in which it tricked those who strayed off the path, or didn’t have a magical musical instrument to wake the forest up), so he supposed it was alright.

 

He was a bit upset that killing all those monsters didn’t give him any gil or items, but maybe this world ran differently from Gaia.

 

The people he stumbled across sure looked different.

 

Their copious amounts of facial hair stunned him for a bit. They weren’t fairly tall, about Yuffie’s height, maybe a bit shorter. All of them carried weapons in their weight, and they were… arguing about how to cross the river?

 

Cloud didn’t understand what was so hard about crossing the river. Just leaping over it would do. It wasn’t even that wide. Or if need be, that guy who resembled Barret with the shaved head could just take one of his axes and fell a tree, and use that tree as a bridge.

 

They certainly didn’t need a boat.

 

He settled down behind a tree, watching the hoard of people argue over the “difficult” issue of crossing the river, and idly counted them. Thirteen people with immense facial hair, and one person with hair not on his face but on his feet. And shoeless.

 

They were certainly amusing, to say the least.

 

They came to an agreement (of course they did, no matter how much Cloud doubted their intelligence levels, they were probably smarter than to just stand around arguing and wasting time) and started crossing the river with the boat in small groups, until the fat man with braided beard almost tumbled into the river.

 

Cloud said almost, because at the last minute, something possessed him to grip the back of his shirt and pull him back from the bank. A feather touch, light and quick, and the idiot red head certainly didn’t think much of it, just shouting back information on how he was “okay, but I nearly lost my balance, by Mahal! If I had dropped into that river… What did Beorn say about it again?”

 

“He just said that the water was dangerous!”

 

“Well thankfully, I didn’t drop in! Now pass the boat back, come along now, I’d like to get to the other side without dropping in the river, thank you very much.”

 

Yes, Cloud decided. They were amusing. And reminded him a bit of his old AVALANCHE team.

 

Maybe it was because of how much the red head had reminded him of Barret, with their sizes, that Cloud had saved the man.

 

No matter, he didn’t need to know.

 

-=-

 

He followed them for a bit, ducking past stray branches and hiding behind trees. Cloud wasn’t amazing at stealth, but being on the run for more than half his life helped him be stealthy, and the people in front of him chasing after the lights couldn’t sense his presence at all. And Cloud’s hair was blond, like a chocobo’s. Who wouldn’t notice hair like that, in the midst of this forest of black and brown?

 

And chasing after a white light. Honestly. He watched as the man with hairy feet grumbled and threw his hands up in exasperation before hurrying after the idiots, and Cloud reached back to grip his broadsword, before following them.

 

They were idiots, but they had a map. If only they knew the simple way out of this godforsaken forest.

 

Evidently, they didn't.

 

When the thirteen of those stupid people found themselves trapped in the webs of the spiders, Cloud had to try very hard to resist the urge to hit his head against the nearest tree.

 

Barret was stupid and dumb and sometimes let emotions control him, charging into battle without a care, but honestly. He wasn’t this bad.

 

He trailed after them, silent and soft, feet barely touching the ground.

 

He later found it highly amusing when he found thirteen hairy people strung up in cocoons in webs, with one desperately trying to cut them open from the thick strands of silk. One was particularly amusing – the one with black hair and blue eyes, and a frown that rivaled Rufus. Rufus may have been the President of ShinRa for as long as he had, but that man had never been able to learn how to put up a proper poker face (all that time spent around the Turks was wasted, just wasted), and the frown was the most common thing Cloud saw on the man’s face.

 

Cloud was certainly content to watch them struggle and cry out and scream when the spiders came crawling towards them, but they had a map, and Cloud needed that map to get out of the forest and make some sense of the world he had been thrown into.

 

With a sigh, he unsheathed the daggers at his thighs and went after the spiders. No need to get spider guts all over First Tsurugi – the spiders weren’t worth the effort, and their guts weren’t worthy enough to get splattered over his precious sword.

 

He made short work of the spiders (they were big lumbering creatures – one would have thought that with eight legs, they would have been faster, and yet they had been slow, slower than Sephiroth definitely, and the noise their legs made alerted him to their hiding spots easily. Their underbellies were also surprisingly soft), and when he was done, a silence had fallen over the people.

 

Cloud turned back, flicking his daggers in a sorry attempt to rid it of the guts still dangling from the tip, and was a bit surprised. Instead of there being thirteen people (the one with hair on his feet had mysteriously disappeared), there were now more. Definitely more. The new people that had arrived were tall, easily towering over Cloud by thirty centimeters, with long bows and quivers of arrows all slung over their backs. There was a certain lack of facial hair that led Cloud to believe (and hope) that these new people were of a different species from the twelve others with beards, and the one with hairy feet.

 

And with the way they were perched on the trees, feet curled around the roots like they were ready to spring off at a moment’s notice, Cloud would bet his Cure Materia that these new people knew the forest.

 

He really didn’t want to lose his Mastered Cure Materia, so he murmured a quick prayer to Shiva that he was right.

 

“State your name and your purpose here in Mirkwood,” one of the new people said, jumping down from his position in the trees. His friends (friends? People?) had surrounded the hairy people. Cloud blinked a bit at seeing that – were the people with no facial hair enemies with the people with facial hair?

 

“Cloud Strife,” he replied, sheathing his daggers. Wouldn’t do him any good to anger the one person who might know the way out of the forest. “I’m lost.”

 

“Enwenno hain!” The longhaired blond said, tossing his head to the side, and the female with red hair nodded, yelling something out to the rest of the new people, and they in turn starting herding the hairy people somewhere. The hairy people tried to put up a fight, yelling curses and threats, but they soon disappeared elsewhere, and Cloud was left with the strange longhaired blond.

 

“My name is Legolas, son of Thranduil, King of the Elves of Northern Mirkwood.” At this, he looked at Cloud expectantly, as if waiting for a reaction, but Cloud just nodded hesitantly and shrugged. The information meant nothing to him. Sure, now he knew he was talking to a prince and was in a place called Mirkwood, but that was it.

 

“Elves?” Cloud repeated. That was something he was interested in.

 

“… Yes,” Legolas replied, and looked at Cloud weirdly, like he was one of Hojo’s experiments. Cloud grimaced a bit at that comparison. He was one of Hojo’s experiments.

 

“I didn’t know that elves existed.”

 

“… We’ve existed since the beginnings of time.”

 

Cloud blinked at that, and said a soft “ah.” He really didn’t know this place.

 

“I’ll take you to see my father,” Legolas informed him, before bounding off into the forest. “He’ll know what to do with you,” he continued, looking a bit shocked at the fact that Cloud could keep up with him and all of his jumping acrobatics. Cloud privately thought that Legolas could forgo all the graceful leaps and jumps from tree to tree, but it seemed like a shorter way through the forest, so Cloud didn’t think too much on it.

 

-=-

 

Thranduil reminded Cloud very much of Sephiroth. Both had long flowing hair of a bright (pale) color that easily reached their knees, both had a sword dangling from their side, and both had frowns on their faces.

 

Really, Cloud couldn’t see much of a difference. But he hoped that Thranduil wasn’t a crazed madman bent on destroying the world for his supposed “salvation” and his mother.

 

As time went by, with Thranduil’s speech dragging on, Cloud revised his opinion of the man.

 

Thranduil wasn’t a bleached Sephiroth.

 

He was a Rufus with long hair and looked much prettier.

 

They both had a penchant for dramatic speeches and flamboyant hand movements. Which included walking (pacing) around the floor and smirking at appropriate times.

 

It was all highly amusing, especially when the elf king (supposedly, Cloud really couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that elves existed. Magical people with sharp pointy ears and two meters tall) pointed the edge of his sword against Cloud’s neck, pushing hard enough to draw a tiny slip of blood, before the cut healed and disappeared.

 

Thranduil was speechless, and so were the other people in the room.

 

“What are you?” He asked in a hushed tone, and Cloud had frowned at that. Not who, but what, like Cloud had already skipped past the category of ‘human’ and had moved on to ‘strange and suspicious creature’. It reminded him a bit of Hojo. Which wasn’t a good thing to be reminded of.

 

“I’m a human,” Cloud deadpanned. “Also the Ultima, but that’s a title few know me by.”

 

Few, because who had been left to hear Cloud be ‘bestowed’ that title?

 

Aerith had been lost. Barret soon followed. Cid tried staying strong, but soon time took its toll on him. Reeve – a tentative ally – had been killed in the middle of the night. Cloud killed Reeve’s murderers, oh yes, but Reeve had already been long gone.

 

Tifa had been remained. But she had left to run Seventh Heaven. Yufie left to lead Wutai, or what was left of Wutai. Nanaki had gone back to Cosmo Canyon, finding it torn to pieces and scraps, and had disappeared.

 

Reno had been by Cloud’s side. Not his first choice of a buddy, but a buddy nonetheless.

 

It had been enough.

 

“The Ultima,” Thranduil said, his tongue caressing the word like it was foreign and unheard of. “A strange name… for a strange man. Who owns a strange sword.”

 

Cloud nodded, because he couldn’t do anything else. An elf had tried to take the sword away from him, but First Tsurugi was heavy, and even in Gaia, only Cloud had been able to lift the beauty of a sword – fitting, seeing as Cloud had been the one to craft it from scratch. The elf had bent backwards and only with Cloud’s help did he manage to get up on one knee, and lifting but the hilt of the sword.

 

Cloud took it from him and swung it back on his shoulder, reattaching it to his harness, and the elf had watched with something that seemed like a mix of fear and awe in his eyes.

 

Cloud had had that look directed at him one too many times. It was one he was dearly familiar with.

 

He missed Fenrir, his bike.

 

“Tell me, what are you doing in this world? Why were you with the… dwarves, in the forest?” The elf king spat out the word ‘dwarves’ like it was a curse, or something foul on the tip of his tongue, and Cloud shrugged, because again, he really didn’t know the answer to any of those questions.

 

“I was lost,” he said. “I was lost and the… dwarves, you said? The dwarves looked like they had a map. I assumed they knew the way out of the forest.”

 

“Their sense of direction is so poor that even with sign posts scattered around the forest on every tree there is, they would still get lost.”

 

“They had a map,” Cloud repeated. “A map of the world.”

 

Thranduil paused at this, studying Cloud closely, before straightening and beckoning to the elf called Legolas.

 

“Take this stranger to the library.” Thranduil looked at him weirdly, muttering something in that strange language again. He continued, “and answer whatever questions he may ask. He seems to be genuinely lost in our kingdom, and we will offer solace to whatever lost traveller there is in Mirkwood.”

 

The ex-SOLDIER nodded, but added in a “what about the dwarves?”

 

Evidently, by the way the elves stiffened, it was the wrong question to ask.

 

“They will be dealt with,” Thranduil said with a tone of finality, sweeping away in his large cloak. He murmured something in that strange language again, and Legolas gave a sharp nod, pulling on Cloud’s elbow.

 

Cloud followed, because he was a stranger in a stranger land, and Legolas seemed friendly enough.

 

-=-

 

It was amusing as well, how quickly Legolas dropped all forms of formality the moment they had reached the privacy of the library. Elves seemed like the gentle type, but according to Legolas, most spent their time practicing archery, resting, or doing patrols. A rare few came to the library, seeing as most of the elves residing here had already lived for centuries, and they had already devoured most of the information here.

 

Legolas reminded Cloud of a nine-year-old Yuffie, excited and bursting with questions, with a tiny silver of tact hidden in her words.

 

Cloud had explained everything to the best of his capabilities, but he had drawn the line at the materia. Legolas had eagerly pointed to the glowing green and red orbs in the groove of his sword – they had left Cloud with his pack and his sword, the pack out of respect for him, and the sword because no one else could carry it – and had asked for their purpose.

 

“It’s just a decoration,” Cloud told him. “They’re pretty, aren’t they?”

 

Legolas looked doubtful, but he let it slide. Perhaps living for over a century gave people a little more tact than nine-year-olds had. “What about that ribbon on your arm?”

 

“… That’s a memory,” the ex-SOLDIER explained, eyes trained on the pink ribbon tied around his bicep, not looking up at Legolas. “A memory of someone who fell in battle. Who gave herself up for the better of the world.”

 

“Ah,” Legolas replied, and Cloud knew that he understood. “Was she your Heart?”

 

“My Heart?”

 

Legolas nodded, straightening from his sideways position on the long chair. “We call it our Heart, the dwarves call it their One, it’s something like a… soul mate? A love? We love once, and only once.”

 

“… She was already someone else’s Heart,” Cloud murmured, closing his eyes and watching a head of black hair and sky-blue Mako eyes surge past. “I never had a chance.”

 

“Sometimes our Heart might already have another Heart. It happens. In that case, we just let go and pray for them to be happy. As long as our Heart is happy, be it as our side or at another’s side, it matters not. All that matters to us is our Heart’s wellbeing.”

 

Cloud didn’t know what to say at this revelation, and just shrugged. He felt that it conveyed what he was trying to say.

 

“Ah, so she was your Heart.”

 

“Maybe,” Cloud replied, turning to look away. “She disappeared too fast for me to make sure.”

 

-=-

 

Cloud wasn’t intending on stumbling across the prisoned dwarves. He didn’t even know that the dwarves had been prisoned. He had just assumed that the elves had kicked them out of their forest without any sort of preamble.

 

He could sort of understand what they were going through. Being imprisoned for ‘no good reason’ with no opportunity to defend themselves?

 

Cloud and his AVALANCHE team had undergone that more often than he could count.

 

Which was why, Cloud reasoned to himself as he cast a Sleep on all nearby dwarves, his actions were perfectly justifiable.

 

Wrapping his fingers around the padlock for the jail that housed the dwarf with less of a beard – if he remembered correctly, the rest had called him… Kili? Kilí? They had pronounced it in a strange manner. And all the dwarves had ridiculously confusing names that occasionally ended with the same syllables which confused Cloud. Cloud squeezed lightly, and the padlock broke apart.

 

He opened the door, lifted Dwarf No. 1 on his back, and walked off.

 

In this fashion, he helped twelve unconscious dwarves escape their prison.

 

The one with the black hair and blue eyes and Rufus’ frown was nowhere to be seen, and the hobbit – as Legolas had informed him, after Cloud provided a description – was missing. If Cloud was right, the Hobbit hadn’t even been captured.

 

Strange. But he had greater things to worry about, like the twelve unconscious dwarves in his room. He had cast a random Vanish on them (one of the rarer materia, and Cloud had counted himself lucky to have found it), but with the sort of ruckus they could make, invisibility wouldn’t help their case for long.

 

Going back to his room and standing in the general direction of the pile of dwarves, Cloud cast another Sleep, and another Vanish.

 

It took Legolas a while to find Cloud later, Legolas breathing heavily and sweating just a tad, eyes wild. “Cloud, did you see the dwarves? Did you see any dwarves?”

 

“Dwarves?” Cloud asked. “What do they look like?”

 

Cloud isn’t lying, but he isn’t telling all of the truth either. It’s true that he doesn’t know what dwarves look like, but he can assume that the hairy people he had seen just a few days ago were these dwarves, and with the Vanish cast on the pile of dwarves, he can’t see them. Cloud isn’t lying, but he isn’t telling the truth.

 

“… It’s alright if you don’t,” Legolas told him after a suspicious pause, eyes running down him. “Just that, well, Father won’t take to it too well. It’s been nice knowing and talking to you, but you might want to escape now.” He gave Cloud a look, like he knew exactly what Cloud had done. “I didn’t really agree with Father’s treatment of them anyways, and I think the last one was still stuck somewhere in the… basement? Maybe?”

 

Cloud gave a start, because Legolas was covering up for him, giving him a clear way out even though they had only known each other for a total of three days and a half and Cloud didn’t understand why anyone would ever do that. He was also almost blatantly telling Cloud where the last dwarf was.

 

The ex-SOLDIER nodded, and turned on his heel to leave. He didn’t know how to deal with goodwill.

 

He sneaked down to the basement prison, cast another Sleep, grabbed the last dwarf and stuffed him in a sack – potato sack – like the rest of his kin.

 

Cloud heaved them over his back, lugging a few stray sacks behind him, and escaped into the forest again. Legolas had kindly gifted him with a map – a map! It was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place! – and Cloud was fairly certain that he knew where to go.

 

The hobbit followed behind him, invisible as well (and Cloud didn’t understand how the creature had become invisible, because that would require a Vanish spell – or did the workings of this world include Hobbits being able to vanish at will? – and he was fairly certain that the Hobbit did not have a Vanish materia), but his footsteps were loud to Cloud’s enhanced senses, and he could easily tell where the hobbit was.

 

He made good time, reaching the edge of the forest after only an hour.

 

He would have made it faster, but by Shiva, the dwarves were heavy.

 

-=- 

 

Cloud wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near the dwarves when they awoke, but apparently the hobbi- Bilbo, Bilbo had informed him of his severe lack of skills in the outdoor survival area. The hobbit couldn’t hunt, couldn’t catch fish, couldn’t cook with a fire (well he could, he just very much preferred a proper stove and oven and whatnot), and was in general just there to burgle something later on.

 

Cloud couldn’t bring himself to leave the small creature to fend for himself, especially when thirteen dwarves later regained consciousness.

 

So he stayed. He stayed and he hunted and he caught and he fished, and he made enough food to feed ten Barrets, which was (hopefully) enough to feed thirteen dwarves, one hobbit, and a little of Cloud. He didn’t need to eat much now. He wasn’t hungry. Yet.

 

When the dwarves awoke, they tried to attack him. Key word being tried.

 

Cloud had been genetically enhanced. He had Mako running through his veins. He could take an aerial bombing and not bat an eyelid. What made the dwarves think that all twelve of them could do any lasting damage to him? Hojo had been one man, but he had been a smart, evil, sly man, and these dwarves seemed to be none of the above.

 

To be fair, their hits hurt just a tad, because even if the cuts and lacerations they rained down on him healed in a second, the fact that they were there and that his skin had broken apart hurt.

 

It took them roughly half an hour to stop attempting to attack Cloud, when Cloud just sat there on a nearby rock and didn’t retaliate whatsoever. The pot simmering away and the grilled fish at the side was a distraction as well – Bilbo was eating, just sitting and eating, and surely if the dwarves didn’t trust him, they trusted Bilbo, and watching Bilbo just sit and eat surely meant something. Not to mention the dwarves had been on the road for god knows how long, and meat was terribly hard to come by on the roads, if one didn’t know how to obtain it.

 

The dwarves grudgingly gave in, and settled around the fire while keeping wary eyes on Cloud. Bilbo merely inched closer to the man – the dwarves had been out for a day and a half (Cloud never imagined that Sleep would work for that long, it usually just knocked Barret out for three hours, or Tifa for five. Cloud could either brush it off, or if it was mastered, it would just knock him off for an hour or so) and in that time, Bilbo had gotten pleasantly acquainted with their blond stranger ally-not-yet-friend.

 

“That’s Kilí,” Bilbo whispered to him, pointing out a dwarf with more scruff than beard. “His older brother is Fili, over there, the one next to him with a head of golden hair. They’re heirs to the throne, nephews of the King. The King’s Thorin, by the way, the one sitting over there, furthest from the fire.”

 

The introduction went on, and Cloud committed all the names to memory.

 

When the meal was finished, they packed up (Cloud had nothing to pack, he just waited patiently at the side of the worn path for them) and set off. The dwarves had awoken at daybreak, and their meal took them around two hours – they ate a lot, to make up for lost meals – so by the time they set off, it was midday.

 

They took the long way to Erebor, and would have to pass through Laketown.

 

“It’s a four day journey,” Bilbo confided in Cloud. “If we had a boat, and went down the river, we would probably reach Laketown in a day. But we’re going around the river, since it’s too wide to cross, and Balin says that we’d take four days, if we’re lucky.”

 

“I believe you said that you had to reach Erebor by Durin’s Day?”

 

“Yes, Durin’s Day.”

 

“Wouldn’t four days be too long for that? Is Durin’s Day not in three days?”

 

“It is.” Bilbo sighed, once, slow and long, a deep breath, and looked over at the fire. The light glinted off the dwarves’ long faces, washing them in shades of fiery gold. “It will be too late.”

 

Cloud reached into his pack, fiddling with a red materia that sung of delicious sylkis greens and a pom-pom. Choco/Mog, his first ever summon. Chocobo’s were fast, faster than most humans, and if he input enough magic power into it… He had summoned more than one chocobo before, and he could probably summon fifteen… if he put his back into it. Or if he made multiple rounds.

 

But he could. What he wasn’t sure of, was if he would.

 

He owed them nothing, after all. They owed him more, much more than what he would ever owe them. Cloud was nothing if not self-sufficient.

 

He thought of Tifa, of Reno, of Barret, of Marlene, of Cid, of all the stupid, idiotic people that had been his people, once upon a time, and looked at the figures huddled around the fire who so desperately wanted back their home, just like Cloud himself had wanted – wanted a home, someplace to belong – and Cloud couldn’t find it in himself to deny them.

 

Cloud turned to face Bilbo. “I might know of a way to help,” he said. “But it might not work, and there’s no guarantee that it’ll speed us up by a lot, but whatever boost we can get is a boost we’ll take, right?”

 

Bilbo’s face brightened, and he nodded frantically, thanking Cloud profusely. “You don’t have to do this,” he later added thoughtfully. “You don’t have to, but we- or rather, I am so grateful for your help. The dwarves probably will be as well, but they are proud, proud creatures, and they will hold on so tight to their pride that the most they might give you is a nod in thanks.”

 

Cloud shrugged. “I’ll take what I can get,” he replied, rubbing at the ribbon tied around his wrist. “Someone taught me to help those in need, and not ask for anything in return.”