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walked this path before (without you)

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One last task for the planet, Aerith had called it, appearing in his dreams with her typical brand of afterlife-induced mysticism and cryptic statements. One last task, and after this the Planet would have nothing more to ask – not from him nor from anyone else. While that sounded slightly ominous to Cloud, he had very little left to lose from accepting her offer. His boots clicked against the stone floor as he slowly advanced towards Aerith’s pool of water, still safely ensconced in the church and surrounded by more flowers than ever before.

The flowers swayed as a gentle breeze blew through the church, their colours illuminated by the sunlight streaming through the derelict wall. He slowly lowered himself to sit by the side of the water, mindful of the fragile blossoms. His reflection stared impassively back at him as he gazed into the depths, and he was struck by how weary he looked. Years of defending the Planet had cost him dearly, and while he was still young in years the emotional toll could be seen in his worn features.

I wonder what he say, Cloud thought suddenly, but scoffed at the thought almost as quickly as it had appeared. He had delighted in his vanity, going so far as to maintain Cloud’s looks almost as though they were an extension of his own. At least, he had before, before Cloud had-

Shaking his head to divest himself of such thoughts, he began unbuckling his gear. He couldn’t afford to go down that road – Aerith had told him that he would have to ‘just let go’, whatever that meant, and Cloud doubted that dwelling on his mistakes was going to help. He laid First Tsurugi reverently on the edge of the pool, so that there was no mistaking where he had gone.

He had gotten the impression that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix, and should anyone be searching for him the church would be one of the first places they looked. While it had been many long years since he had lived within the church’s walls - he scoffed now at how foolish he had been back then, to have thought that things could never be worse, how sorely mistaken - it remained a sanctuary for all who visited the ruined city, and the last memorial for those Cloud had lost.

Some of those wounds would never truly heal, he mused to himself as he glanced at the red rapier that gleamed proudly beside the Buster sword. Tearing himself away from that train of thought once again, he removed the last of his armour, stripped now down to his undersuit. Taking a final glance around the familiar architecture, he gingerly lowered himself into the water. The pool seemed suddenly vast and endless before his eyes, the previously clear waters darkening and surrounding him in shadows tinged with green – the Lifestream – as he sank deeper and deeper. He closed his eyes against dark finality, wondering if this was an end somehow, was it over, Aerith-

Cloud opened his eyes. He was on a bunk bed, the slats supporting the mattress above him seeming vaguely familiar. He blinked again, slow and cautious. This was feeling more familiar by the second. Lurching to his feet, he stumbled to where he somehow just knew where the bathroom was, cracking his shoulder on the doorframe and wincing as it hurt far more than the Mako coursing through his veins should have allowed. As he straightened up in front of the mirror, the answer became abruptly clear. The green scarf tied around his neck contrasted with the natural blue of Cloud’s eyes – his clear, unenhanced eyes, free of Mako for the first time in decades. Is this a dream, Cloud wondered as he inspected his gangly teenage limbs, or a test?

He was in his regular army uniform, the material scratchy and new – he must not have been here for long, as even his foggy recollection of the days before the Nibelheim reactor recalled how easily the fabric wore away. He struggled to separate much of what was his own experience with Shinra and what remained of Zack’s memories. In fact, the only memories he had taken special care to retrieve were those of-

Cloud stilled as the full implications sank in. He was here, somehow, unenhanced and untrained but armed with decades of knowledge and memories of what was to come – and if this was real, if he had really travelled back through the decades, then that meant Genesis was still alive. Still at Shinra. Still vibrant and healthy and untouched by the degradation that led to all of this. Sephiroth, Angeal, Zack, Aerith, his entire town – there was so much he could do, so many lives that could be saved. This is what the Planet wants from me, he realised, to stop the damage before it even occurs. Perhaps this too was a reward from Gaia herself, the Gift of the Goddess, a second chance for Cloud to make things right, to atone for his greatest crime. All he had to do was wait for the opportunity.

Integrating himself back into a life he had long forgotten took less effort than he had thought. Surrounded by people and places he once could barely remember, his memories surged to the forefront of his mind, finally drowning out the fragments of Zack’s memories he had claimed as his own. His younger self had already gained a reputation for being quiet and slightly distant, and Cloud rarely found himself at risk of saying or doing anything that would give away the knowledge he held.

As the days went by, he kept his head down and his eyes peeled, searching for any scrap of information that could aid in his task. He passed Zack in the Shinra building once or twice, and had never been more thankful for the helmet obscuring his features as he glimpsed the exuberant SOLDIER, face unscarred and still free from the weight of the betrayals that had marred his final years.

Genesis remained out of sight – for now. The date of their first meeting drew ever closer, and with it Cloud’s anxieties only grew. The memory of that day was one of the clearest he had from the days before Hojo’s labs, for which he was thankful. In recent years (from his perspective), that memory was one of the few that was both easily recalled and untainted by the reality of what Cloud had done.

He swallowed hard against the lump that formed in his throat at that thought. After his crime, his failureyou could have saved him if you’d tried harder, why didn’t you – did he even deserve to know Genesis again? To attempt any sort of relationship when Cloud knew the truth – that his weakness had led to him murdering the man he loved, the same way he had killed Sephiroth, the same way Zack had sacrificed himself for him, only worse because Genesis had trusted every part of himself to Cloud and had been repaid only in death as the Planet bid Cloud to strike him down.

It was that same weakness that had Cloud standing in front of the Sector 8 fountain at an obscenely early hour of the morning, discarding his helmet to feel the pre-dawn chill on his face before the sector filled with civilians – just as he had on this day the first time. He had berated himself the entire way down, cursing the selfishness that led him here just to speak to Genesis one more time. He had a plan, after this, to tear down all that Hojo and Hollander had built, but couldn’t bring himself to leave without hearing Genesis’s voice again and knowing that what he was doing would be worth it to keep that vibrant spark of a man alive.

He watched the water flow through the fountain and waited. The sector was quiet enough that Cloud was able to hear the other man’s approach long before he reached the fountain. The clicking of boots slowed to a stop a few paces behind Cloud, who took a deep breath and steeled himself for the sound of that familiar voice. He had rehearsed the script of this encounter a hundred times in his head while he waited, remembered that Genesis started by saying-



Cloud didn’t dare turn around.

There was a long stretch of silence, neither one of them moving an inch. Genesis swallowed, audible even to Cloud’s unenhanced ears. “Cloud, please,” and Cloud would have flinched at the crack in the man’s voice if he wasn’t frozen with shock, the sound unlike any he had heard Genesis make. He heard him close the distance between them, the steps hesitant as they approached the fountain. There was another long pause, broken this time not by words but by a hand upon his forearm, the gentleness of the touch very nearly bringing Cloud to tears. Blinking furiously to hold them back, he slowly turned his head down to stare at the gloved hand. It was visibly trembling, barely even touching him, as though afraid of rejection.

Cloud’s eyes followed the stretch of red leather all the way up Genesis’s arm to his face, taking in the sight of him whole and healthy in a way he hadn’t been even after Deepground was done with him, but was only able to meet the glowing eyes for a brief moment before the wave of guilt and shame forced him to look away. If Genesis knew, why was he even here, how could he stand to touch Cloud if he remembered what he had done? Genesis’s other hand reached out to turn Cloud’s face towards him, finally capturing his gaze, pain evident in his features.
Cloud took several deep breaths, mouth working slightly as he attempted to force himself to speak.

“Gen-“ was as far as he got, voice strangled almost beyond comprehension, before he silenced himself again. The hand on his face trailed down his neck and shoulders, reverent in the silence, following the curve of muscle down his arm all the way to his hand, which was given a brief squeeze before the hand was retracted. Genesis removed something from his coat pocket and returned the hand to Cloud’s almost instantly, as though afraid to let go even for an instant.

“Not here. We can’t, not- not here. Later.” Cloud’s surprise at seeing the usually eloquent First so obviously lost for words was broken by the feeling of Genesis pressing something into his palm, wrapping Cloud’s fingers around it with a carefulness that caused an ache to spring up in his chest. “Tonight. Please.” The returning crack in the other’s voice was almost too much to bear, and Cloud found himself nodding as he stared back at the taller man, wanting to do something, anything to erase that uncertainty in those beautiful eyes, to make him smile the way he used to before their life had gone so horribly wrong.

At Cloud’s nod, Genesis closed his eyes and took a slow, deep breath. He gave the smaller hand a final squeeze, a reassurance for them both, before departing abruptly in a swirl of red leather, his departure so sudden that Cloud barely had time to process it. Uncurling his fingers revealed the object that Genesis had given him – an access card to the First apartments. Genesis’s apartment. Tonight, he had said. Cloud exhaled, feeling suddenly too cold in the chill morning air.

The rest of the day passed in a blur as Cloud attempted to process the morning’s events. The keycard felt heavy in his pocket, a constant reminder that the conversation Cloud was dreading was drawing closer by the hour. When he was finally released from patrol the sky had already darkened, the shadows a stark contrast to their encounter that morning, Cloud mused as he rode the glass elevator up to the Firsts’ quarters. He wondered if that was a sign of some kind. Genesis would have been able to weave a poetic interpretation about skies and metaphors – he had often done so, in the earlier years, turning anecdotes of their times together into dramatic retellings with a theatrical, self-referential humour that had never failed to make Cloud laugh.

The memory brought a smile to Cloud’s face, but it was quickly erased as the elevator slowed to a stop. Stepping into the familiar hallway, he nervously approached the door to Genesis’s apartment, feeling more anxious with every step. Standing outside the door, he took only a moment to himself. No point delaying the inevitable, Strife – it wasn’t as if he could have said no to anything Genesis asked of him – he quickly swiped the keycard, gave a brisk two knocks on the door and let himself in.

The sense of familiarity that washed over him as he stepped inside stole the breath from Cloud’s lungs in an instant. Details he had lost to Hojo’s experiments came back to him in a wave of memories – their favourite blanket, draped over Genesis’s reading armchair, the smell of the candles they both loved, the arcane fashion with which Genesis had organised the books on the shelves, and Cloud felt more at home than he had in many years.

Genesis himself was perched on a tall stool in the kitchen, a clearly well-read copy of LOVELESS open on the bench in front of him. Divested of the usual ensemble of red leather and wearing casual clothes, he seemed smaller than Cloud remembered. It took a long moment to realise that he had been staring silently at Cloud since he had entered. Cloud took another few cautious steps towards him, feeling a surge of almost-courage as the other man remained silent. It’s now or never, he thought.

“I’m so sorry.”

Genesis’s eyes widened slightly, but he didn’t move. Didn’t speak. Cloud kept talking, feeling as though a dam had been broken inside him.

“Gaia, Genesis, I’m so sorry, I can’t- I couldn’t,” he swallowed hard, but continued, “I couldn’t save you, I didn’t try hard enough and you deserved to live but I couldn’t save you so I just-“ He heard the stool scrape across the floor as Genesis pushed himself up to stand facing him, but couldn’t stop the flow of words that were now escaping. “I killed you. I don’t deserve your forgiveness so I won’t ask for it but I promise,” and Cloud felt tears spring to his eyes again as Genesis just kept looking at him, for surely the other man must hate him for what he had done, “you won’t have to see me again, I’m going to go, I’ll take out Hojo and Hollander and then leave, Jenova is on the other continent, you won’t need to- to see me again, after what I’ve done.”

Having run out of words, Cloud buried his face in his hands, taking a few ragged breaths as he waited for Genesis to tell him to leave. This was it. Hearing Genesis finally approach him, still silent, he braced himself for the words he knew would come.

To Cloud’s surprise, instead of words breaking the silence, he felt two hands gently circle his wrists, pulling his own hands away from his face and exposing it to Genesis’s scrutiny. Unable to pull away, he tilted his head up to look properly at the taller man. Genesis’s face was a mask of anguish, the usually composed man clearly unable to hold himself together as a single tear rolled down his cheek, and how Cloud’s heart ached at the sight, knowing that he had caused this pain. Genesis released Cloud’s hands only to bring them up to cup his face, holding his gaze intently as he spoke.

“Please don’t leave, Cloud,” and Cloud felt his breathing stop. “You need not ask my forgiveness, for there is nothing to forgive. What I was, who I was at the end…was nothing more than a shell. I remember how thankful I was,” he continued, stroking Cloud’s cheek with his thumb as though nothing had ever changed, “that it was you who set me free. If there is fault here, let it be mine, for allowing them to make me into that- that shadow. I would never think to blame you for my own failings, my dearest Cloud.”

Genesis paused to kiss Cloud’s forehead, the gesture almost painful in its tenderness, and Cloud felt the tenuous hold he was gaining on his emotions shatter as though it had never been. “Whatever challenges you would face – Hojo, Jenova, this entire damned corporation – I would face them at your side, if you would have me.”

In lieu of an answer Cloud brought his own hands up to grasp Genesis’s, pulling them away from his face. He felt the other man tense, anticipating rejection – so like Genesis, to assume the worst – but that tension was quickly erased as Cloud leaned upwards to kiss him, chaste but filled with all the words Cloud wanted to say. Genesis’s grip on his hands tightened even as the tension left them both, replaced with a bone-deep relief.

Breaking the kiss, Cloud returned his gaze to Genesis’s eyes as the reality of the situation finally hit him. They were here, together, against all odds – against death and time itself – each seeking forgiveness from the other. Cloud didn’t even realise he was crying until Genesis freed one of his hands to wipe the tears from his face, a shade of worry entering his expression.
“Cloud, if there is anything-“

“I just,” Cloud interrupted, shaking his head slightly as he drew closer, “I never thought I’d see you again, not until I died, if I even could, and now…”

“How foolish,” Genesis responded with a ghost of a smirk, “to think that I would not make my way back to you.”

That made Cloud pause. “Did you…do this, somehow?”

Even if the morrow is barren of promises, nothing shall forestall my return.” That wasn’t an answer, but Cloud understood, even before Genesis added with a more pronounced smile, “That flower girl of yours cares for you very deeply.”

He remembered the vision of Aerith he had seen after Genesis’s death, the concern on her face at the state Cloud had been in. Of course she had helped. Closing the small distance between them, Cloud embraced Genesis, burying his head in the other man’s shoulder.

“I missed you.” He mumbled as Genesis brought one hand up to stroke through the back of Cloud’s hair, the other winding around his waist as Genesis drew him impossibly closer.

“I missed you too, my beloved,” Genesis replied, equally soft, “more than I could ever say.”

They stayed like that for what could have been minutes or hours, the silence stretching onwards as Cloud let himself cry the way he had never allowed after Genesis’s death, the weight of his guilt finally abating after many long years. They eventually sank to the floor, still locked in an embrace, as Cloud felt the force of his emotional exhaustion hit him all at once. Genesis, still absently stroking Cloud’s hair, finally broke the silence, taking a shuddering breath before he began speaking with a practiced cadence, his voiced hushed in its reverence.

There is no hate, only joy, for you are beloved by the goddess, hero of the dawn, healer of worlds…”

Cloud let the words wash over him, soothing in their familiarity, listening to Genesis recite LOVELESS to him in this apartment as he had a hundred times before and feeling more at peace than he had in years. He felt a brief presence – a slight breeze carrying the smell of flowers, a flash of Lifestream green, a gentle hand offering a blessing – and finally, Cloud smiled.