The young man stiffened in anticipation as the long mournful howl of some unseen beast shattered the silence of the dark. Reaching out reflexively, he gripped the specially crafted handle of the gigantic blade which stood hidden from any prospective prowler's view and moved swiftly towards the curtain-drawn window. Carefully staying out of side, he parted the drapes slightly and stared out into the eerie blackness that had shrouded the village.
Nothing stirred. All was quiet and still. Here in Gongaga, not even the slightest breeze blew. For a moment, the young man thought that he had imagined that unnerving shriek, but suddenly it rang out again, even closer than before. Before his watchful gaze, a hideously mutated creature darted out from the surrounding lush greenery, across the village and vanished into the shadows again.
Yet another victim of Shinra's failed plans to gain control of nature's finest resources, the Mako energy hidden deep within the earth, which had resulted in an explosion of the Mako reactor.
The young man sighed in relief and his entire being relaxed. These were troubled times and no one could predict when Shinra troops would strike. As far as he knew, the Turks from Shinra, Reno, Rude and Elena were already aware of their presence in the obscure village of Gongaga and had no doubt reported their knowledge to their superiors. They had managed to send the Turks packing during their last battle, but a surprise attack dead in the night might not yield such fortunate results.
Cloud Strife, 21, ex-Soldier of Shinra let the drapes fall back against the window concealing their presence temporarily. Slumping against the wall of the room they had rented for their temporary stay, he ran his fingers through his unruly blonde hair and closed his ocean blue eyes for a momentary rest while his other hand drifted to his side where his huge blade stood before fingering the words that were deeply engraved into the metallic surface.
These words held great meaning for him. They were the symbol of his defection from Shinra and ultimately, Sephiroth. They were the constant reminder of who he was now and not what he used to be. When he swung the gigantic blade above his head in their customary victory dance, the words would glint sharply in the sunlight and these words would flash into his mind once again.
On the surface, he was nothing more than the ordinary street punk, save for the curious armor he wore, the huge blade he lugged around and one more thing- the icy glow in his eyes which warned others he was not one to be messed with. Eyes were the windows to one's soul and in Cloud's case that wasn't too wrong.
Cloud let his eyes wander over the room which was simply furnished with a bed, a bedside table and a cupboard before letting his gaze fall upon his two sleeping compatriots, Tifa Lockheart and Aerith Gainsborough. Red, Barret and Cait Sith were holed up in another house a short distance away and were undoubtedly fast asleep given the ungodly hour Cloud was up at.
The mechanical gears of the clock whirred softly signaling the end of yet another hour.
Cloud seldom suffered from insomnia. Most nights, he was too worn out doing battle against the beasts of the land and Shinra's forces in the day to keep awake for long. More often then not, he was out like a light the minute his head hit the pillow. A warrior like himself needed much rest. Tonight, however, was different from most nights. He'd slept for a while, but nightmares plagued his short rest. A haunting voice had penetrated into his deep abyss of sleep and tormented him, taunted him until it became unbearable and he had woken up drenched in cold sweat. It was impossible to sleep after that and he'd found himself doing guard duty to pass time. He wondered how he would be able to survive the long day ahead with only about an hour of sleep.
Tifa let out a soft sigh and shifted slightly in her slumber. Cloud turned and regarded her silently. Tifa, his childhood friend and quite possibly the only childhood friend he had.
She also was a very lovely young woman.
Her long dark hair, now untied, fell over her body in sensuous waves as her slender body moved in rhythm with her breathing. For an instant, Cloud's breath almost caught, but almost immediately, that feeling passed. He averted his eyes awkwardly and stared intently at her glove that was laid out on the table beside her sleeping form. Tifa's choice of weapon and she used it well. He'd seen some of the damage she'd meted out with that glove and had made a silent vow that he would never be at the receiving end of that thing.
Thick and messed up as he was, Cloud was no complete fool. He knew how Tifa felt about him and he might have felt the same way about her a long time ago, but that was in past, back when they were still kids. Things were different now. Sometimes, when they were alone, he could feel the intensity of her feelings hitting him like a sledgehammer. Even when they weren't alone, the subtle hints about her feelings for him that she inevitably dropped were enough to drive home the message to everyone on the team. Tifa was in love. And the person she was in love with was Cloud. True, he had to admit that he did like her, but it wasn't in the same way she liked him. To him, Tifa was a good friend, a fellow companion and an occasional confidant. Not a prospective lover.
At least not yet.
Troubled by his conflicting emotions, Cloud straightened up and left his position by the window. A stroll and some fresh night air might help clear his head and tire him out enough to go to bed.
Cloud left the little hut and presently found himself heading towards the graveyard. As he'd suspected, the fresh air did wonders for clearing his head. Unfortunately, it also revitalised him leaving him feeling invigorated and fresh. Getting enough shuteye for the journey the next day was going to be a slight problem.
As he neared the gloomy graveyard, he slowed until he came to a complete halt at the entrance and surveyed the scene before him in silent reverence.
A slight mist hung in the surrounding atmosphere blurring the view of the tombstones that were arranged in a few neat rows. A few of the gravestones were well maintained and free from algae and vines growing in the little crevices on the surface of the other tombstones, but the rest were run down, crumbling slowly under the natural force of wind and rain. The words on some of the tombstones were in fact, hardly intelligible, being reduced to some queer unknown symbols.
There weren't that many tombstones in the graveyard, but then again, Gongaga was a tiny village. Any life lost by the villagers would most probably have a drastic impact on the entire community, especially loss of lives caused by the huge explosion at the Mako reactor.
Cloud stepped into the graveyard, his heavy boots crunching the gravel beneath him. As he made his way towards a tombstone half hidden by the multitude of tiny green plants growing on it, an uneasy feeling settled heavily upon him. A strange chill raced up his spine to the back of his neck and in spite of himself, he shivered.
Pausing briefly before the tombstone, Cloud went down slowly on one knee and brushed away the dirt on the surface of stone monument. A green slime came off on his glove and Cloud wrinkled his nose in disgust before bending forward to read the headstone.
Jake Plath. 24.
Another death caused by Shinra's Mako reactor.
Cloud shook his head sadly and made to leave when the words on the headstone suddenly swum before his eyes before they were replaced with a single word in bold.
A searing pain ripped through Cloud's skull and he let out a half-choked cry of anguish as he fell to the ground, clutching his head.
A stream of memories began to flood his mind, too many for him comprehend, before they were replaced with another and yet another. A familiar face surfaced in his mind's eye. Familiar... but strange, as if Cloud had never seen that face before. And yet...
A warm glow began to spread throughout Cloud's body replacing the earlier sensation of cold that he had felt. Almost as if it had never existed, the throbbing pain in his head died away and he looked up as if compelled to by some unknown force.
A misty apparition appeared before him bearing the face that had appeared in his mind just seconds ago. Words failed him as he searched his mind for a name to match that face.
"The name's Zack."
Cloud blinked and the entire graveyard he was in melted away to reveal a courtyard of some sort. He found himself in a scruffy blue uniform identical to the one the apparition was clad in. Shinra's uniform. For low ranking officers. In short, those who didn't or hadn't made it to SOLDIER.
Wild dark hair framed the handsome features of the man standing before him. His eyes were twin blue pools of dancing mischief and a wide grin was etched upon his face. He winked and held out his hand to Cloud. Almost subconsciously, Cloud reached out and took his hand as the man pulled him to his feet.
"The recruits around here tend to pick on others who look weaker than they are. You sent them packing. Guess you ain't as weak as you looked huh?"
At any other ordinary time, Cloud would have hurled himself at the fool who had dared call him "weak-looking" but now, he felt no offense towards the stranger before him.
"... I guess so."
"You're new around here aren't you? Tell you what, next time they decide to pick on you for a fight, get me involved too." He threw back his head and laughed.
"Between the two of us, we'll make them wish they'd never set their eyes upon Cloud Strife and Zack."
"... How do you know my name?"
The man turned to go, ignoring Cloud's spoken question.
"Guess we'll be seeing plenty of each other around here. See ya around kiddo!"
The apparition turned and smiled gently at Cloud before dissolving into nothingness together with the courtyard. Cloud was standing alone in the graveyard once more.
"...Who was that?" Cloud murmured softly to himself even as a voice inside his head supplied him with the answer.
Zack. That was Zack.
Who's Zack? He asked himself mentally, but this time there was no response.
An overwhelming sense of loss and grief came over him. At what, he questioned himself.
More puzzles and no answer.
He hugged himself tightly to block out the dull ache in his chest and turned to leave.
That voice again. Only this time, it wasn't his inner voice. Nor was it Zack's. Sephiroth. It was Sephiroth's voice.
"Who are you?" He asked himself mentally for the millionth time even though he knew the answer to that query.
You know me.
You know who I am.
Leave your friends, Cloud.
Join me in the Reunion.
"Leave me alone!" This time, the angered outburst from Cloud came verbally.
"I SAID, leave me alone!"
Cloud spun around, his face contorted by rage. He found himself face to face with porcelain-like features upon a delicate heart-shaped face of breath-taking beauty.
Aerith. She must have come up to him when he was being distracted by Sephiroth's voice.
Auburn hair which was usually tied back firmly in a bobbing ponytail, unlike that of Tifa's loose ponytail, now cascaded freely to Aerith's slim waist as earnest deep green eyes bore into his own blue ones.
"Are you all right?"
"... I'm sorry. I thought you were... someone else."
"It's okay." She smiled as she moved away and started smoothing out the creases in her soft pink dress.
Cloud found himself strangely transfixed by that movement as his heartbeat began to accelerate. Clearing his throat, he racked his mind for something to say.
"Umm... What are you doing out here at a time like this?"
She looked at him and smiled once again.
"I could say the same to you."
Cloud realised that he was holding his breath. He flushed and turned away, hoping she hadn't seen that.
Tinkling laughter sounded behind him. Crap. She had seen him blushing.
"I sensed that you were somewhat... confused and came out to see if you were okay."
Surprised, Cloud turned around, but Aerith was no longer looking at him. She was staring intently at the tombstone he had been standing before earlier with a faraway look in her eyes.
"Cloud... you saw him didn't you?"
"... Saw who?" Cloud tried to feign ignorance.
Aerith looked up at him strangely before shaking her head quickly.
"No one. Forget I said that."
This girl had more secrets then she was letting on. But for now, it didn't bother Cloud. After all, who didn't have their own private painful past?
Aerith crossed the distance between the two of them and laid her head upon his back.
She continued undaunted.
"No matter what happens to you in the future, always remember this. You have friends who care about you and love you. Don't try to handle everything by yourself."
"... I'll remember. The same goes for you too, Aerith. I'll always be here if you need me."
Reaching out behind him, Cloud found Aerith's hand and took it, placing it against his chest. She started slightly before settling against him again. Cloud sighed softly and lifted his head up. Millions of stars, sparkling like diamonds, were sprinkled across the dark blue of the velvet sky. The moon shone down dimly upon them and for a moment, Cloud believed that he could almost see the craters on the surface of it.
Aerith is right. No matter what happens, I'll always have my team to depend on in the darkest hours of my life. Tifa, Barret, Red, Yuffie, Cait Sith and... Aerith. From the bottom of my heart I thank you... my friends. You've ignited in me a spark of hope for the future which I thought forever gone and given me new meaning in life.
Glowing blue eyes that laughed in a masculine face that was yet, strangely gentle. Wild untamed spiky hair that stuck out at all odd angles. This man had once had a special place in Cloud's lonely existence. For a moment, Cloud could almost see him again, so tangible and real... could almost taste his name on his lips, the memory of their time spent together struggling to surface in his mind...
Almost... but not quite. The memory, as with the apparition, slipped through the sands of time in his mind like quicksilver before he could latch on to it. And he realised, with startling certainty that Zack was gone. A representation of a happy period of time that could never be reclaimed. And just like before, knowledge of his departure left Cloud with a hollow sense of aching loss. A loss that he could not remember but grieved for anyway. And it wasn't fair.
He clutched Aerith's hand tighter as he squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden phantom pain in his chest and the bitterness that washed over him.
There. He'd said his final farewell.