Chapter 23: Rebirth
(This section will focus on Cloud as the speaker) I woke up, my consciousness slowly returning. My vision started out very blurry, but I thought I was looking up at another person. The ground felt hot--it almost hurt laying on it. I managed to sit up "Ungh... where am I?" My vision returned, and I found Professor Hojo standing in front of me "Good, you're awake. Guess what I brought was enough to fix you after all." I was confused, and realized the whole place was fire and brimstone, a lake of lava just beside me "What in the world..? What happened here? And how did I get here?" I got to my feet, and kept my attention on Hojo, who shrugged in response "I don't know how you got here, but if I had to guess Sephiroth or his twin I just heard about brought you here whenever you blacked out." I realized I was sweating from the high heat in the area "Ugh, it's horribly hot here... don't tell me Sephiroth lied again and did this to the whole Planet!" I started to hurry out, but Hojo stopped me "This mess... isn't his fault. It's mine. JENOVA told me to save his life, and when I used the black water on his reactor... this happened. It was a mere accident, but his response to the new JENOVA cells was so intense it caused an earthquake, a number of explosions... and last but not least, this scenery. Don't blame him for that." I sighed "And you were stupid enough to do her bidding? I thought I might at least be able to trust you... guess not." Hojo lashed out "Hey, if I didn't do it she would have killed me! You know I can't fight well! I saved you too, you should be grateful for that!" I turned back to him reluctantly "Ok, fine. Just tell me where he went, at least. I need to know more about what happened to the Planet. Most likely, he has the answers I'm looking for." Hojo shrugged "Beats me where he went. He didn't say where he was going when he flew away, except something about cleaning up 'the kingdom'. I don't have a precise location of his whereabouts, unfortunately. If I had a monitor in front of me, that would be easy." I crossed my arms, then asked "What does he mean 'kingdom'?" Hojo stopped in thought "I can't say for certain, but most likely what he said means that JENOVA is the overlord of this Planet now. Which would mean she seized control of it some unknown time ago. How it happened though, I am clueless. I simply woke up in this reversed world the same way you did, and focused on doing my job at Shinra HQ. I know little more about what happened than you do " I felt a wave of strangeness sweep over me "What in the world is happening...? It's like humans never existed on this Planet... Tifa, Yuffie, Vincent... everyone is gone..." Hojo added "Yes... Rufus and the rest of Shinra Company have also fallen. Little choice is left but to assist JENOVA's family and kind with whatever is needed, unless you want her to publicly execute you." Hojo started to walk away, and I shouted at him "What?! Have you lost your mind?!" Hojo replied "Shout at me all you like. Look around, Cloud: what else is left to choose except death? On a different matter though, I can lead her company and rise to the peak of scientific glory... I've always wanted that place in science..." He laughed and walked out of sight after that. I shook my head "I guess there's no reasoning with him, either... but, he really is right... as much as I don't want to believe it... there really is nothing else left. Where am I supposed to go..? I doubt I'd be easily accepted into her group of warriors. They all hate me like there's no tomorrow. I suppose it's time to go my own way, but I'll have to avoid hurting them this time..." Then I focused on leaving the area and getting outside.
Later that day, in the kingdom outskirts...
I found an abandoned motorbike and decided to use it to get around. I had been driving outside for a long while, and everything looked normal outside the ruined Forgotten City, except all the flowers were black. They weren't dead, it appeared to be their natural color. It seemed rather peaceful, and I wondered who JENOVA really was when I saw the peaceful outside that seemed to go on forever. I had flashbacks of fighting Sephieroth atop that tower, and remembered her heavy tears she shed when she struck me with her katana and kept me in midair. I remembered doing the same thing to her, and felt guilty "What have I done..? I really got it all wrong..." I felt light tears fall from my face, but forced them to stop. I heard a woman's voice laugh playfully somewhere ahead, and got startled out of my thoughts. I recognized that voice too well "Wha...?! Was that... Aeris?! It can't be!" I slammed the brakes and hurried off my motorbike, then started running straight without thinking. I came to a large field of black flowers, and there she was: only this time, her clothes were black, her hair was silver, and the bow in her hair was white. She had her hands folded and smiled "JENOVA Gaia... my home... I made it back!" She seemed to cry from feeling overjoyed, wiping her tears with her hand. I slowly approached her, unable to believe what I was seeing "Aeris... is it really you?" She seemed mildly startled when she heard me, but she didn't turn hostile like I'd feared "Cloud? Ahhh, that's right... I have an important job to do..." I asked "What is it, Aeris?" She answered "JENOVA wants me to help you understand her kingdom and legacy more. I'm different from most of the family, though. I'm more of a protector than a warrior to this world. For this reason, she decided it was best I help you live in her world until she decides it's safe to let you roam on your own." I sighed "So you're just here to keep me out of trouble? Great." Aeris drew closer to me, and said "No, that's not the true reason... but I am supposed to keep you from danger, if that's what you mean by trouble." I was confused "You... protect me? Why?" Aeris shook her head "It's a very long story... I can't say much except that by entering city, you're putting yourself in danger since you seem to have a poor reputation concerning Mother and her notable subordinates. Not only are they hostile towards you, but these same fears have been instilled in every child to be born to JENOVA since the beginning of the True Legacy, briefly after the Infinite Reunion activation. Countless generations of family remnants and more powerful members bear the same grudge that Sephiroth and his female look-alike have against you, which means if you enter the kingdom's main area, you're in for a painful surprise. If you go in without me, they'll all come at you like an avalanche." I understood what she was talking about, but I didn't understand why JENOVA was letting me live if she hated me so much. Aeris offered her hand "So the question is... do you want to come with me and start from the beginning?" I replied "Of course I do! But I don't remember anything that happened before I woke up in this strange world... except everything about my encounters and battles with JENOVA and Sephiroth." I took her hand, and we held hands, walking towards the city. When we entered, she explained "Its a bit war-torn since another war just ended, but everyone is ok and life is back to normal again. We never fight each other; instead, we strive to get stronger and be our best, and to increase the overall power of future generations. This is what Mother wants for us; and what will one day become a truly formidable race that can stand up to even the greatest of enemies. This message not only came from Mother, but Princess Sephieroth also stressed the importance of this. She taught her close Brothers, Yazoo and Loz, that persistence and cooperation are crucial to success, then spread this word far and wide to inspire the rest of the family to be their best. She always said if you don't give up, you can accomplish anything. She is highly respected among younger family members and everyone simply adores her undying spirit. Even if she does meet with death some day, her message will remain, and her spirit will live on in the legacy forever. Sephieroth is also Family Hero and highly respected and recognized by nearly everyone in the family." I was amazed at what I just heard "Darn... she really was trying to do what she thought was right... out of love. I messed up real bad with her... I'm lucky the stigma didn't kill me on that tower... I thought I was done for." Aeris looked at me "Maybe you did make a big mistake, but the time may come for you and her to be friends even so." I felt sad and guilty at the same time "She won't wanna be friends with me... not after what I did to her. What I did to her is what Sephiroth did to me: I killed her family, her only Brothers... I stole everything from her. She'll never forgive me. I still haven't forgiven Sephiroth." Aeris gently squeezed my hand "I don't expect you to believe or agree with what I said right away. You lost your family to Sephiroth, and she lost hers to you; two wrongs that are not easily made right. It might be too late to change what already happened, but it's never too late to try again, Cloud." I asked "What am I supposed to do? Where do I go to stay, and what about a job? I have nowhere to return to. And somehow, I doubt there's a path back to the world I remember." Aeris took my other hand and faced me "We can stay at JENOVA Church for the time being. As for a job, however, that's pretty tricky... You won't be accepted into JENOVA SOLDIER with your current status. You may have the muscle so to speak, but trust on either side is too weak for that to work well. Hmm..." She let go of my hands and seemed to go into deep thought. After a brief silence, she turned back to me smiling "How do you feel about helping kids? You know, the little ones who are still learning and growing?" I nodded "It might be a good start, but the inherited hatred you described... won't they run away or something?" Aeris replied "At first glance, maybe, but if you are careful and nice, they might actually like you. We have a couple rather large families in the kingdom that could use your help: Sephiroth and JENOVA's, residing at the abandoned Nibelheim area... and then Yazoo and Sephieroth also have a bunch at the Mako Reactor that are still very new and quite young." That worried me "Uh oh... will they even let me in? Sephiroth especially..." Aeris answered "They will if they see me. Normally our Father, JENBU likes to help with overall backup, but since another war just ended, he can't watch the young ones for JENOVA. Yazoo and Sephieroth usually have Loz help with family matters when they can't be around, but he had to go to Tifa's for his own reasons. The poor guy is too exhausted to go any further and needs to rest..." I asked "I can't do both jobs, though... who's going to help the side I don't choose? And how are there so many children all of a sudden?" Aeris explained "Mother previously sacrificed herself to save Sephieroth, and rested in the lifestream for a year. When she regained life, a powerful reunion manifested itself, giving birth to many new family members in reaction to her intense power. Since she is strongest immediately after being reborn, it's easily possible for that to happen. The other alternative is a destructive move she can use to destroy all enemies present on the Planet, which is why all members of JENOVA SOLDIER made haste to defeat Shinra in time for her return. Since they succeeded, she birthed numerous new lives, and since Sephieroth inherited her power from the sacrifice, she also birthed many lives at the same time. Yazoo was chosen the father of Sephieroth's since he is her closest Brother, and Sephiroth was chosen to father JENOVA's since he is her most treasured son." I grumbled "Oh great, another big band of kids that will grow up to hate me. Just what I wanted..." Aeris replied "They won't hate you if they see who you really are, Cloud. If you want to start from the beginning, this is a great way to do it. They can all talk, so communicating should be fine as long as you be good to them. They're still young, so they aren't strong enough to hurt or kill you which should take a lot off your shoulder. But you have to be nice to them: don't show them your gloom-and-doom attitude, show them the real you." I paused for a brief moment "Alright, then... take me to Yazoo's kids. I'm not ready to go see Sephiroth." Aeris said "Cloud, if you keep trying to run away, you won't make any progress. Who do you truly want to help?" I stopped to think, then answered "Ahhh, alright... bring me to Sephiroth's kids, then." Aeris said "Then let's go to Nibelheim where he's keeping them. It's a bit messy since much of the war took place there, but it's safe enough for his kids to play. I will help Yazoo and Sephieroth, and I'm sending you to Sephiroth's location." I sighed "Here goes nothing..." She let go of me, and a white light enveloped me for several minutes. When it began to fade, I found myself inside what looked like Shinra Manor "Wait, huh..? She said Nibelheim, not this place..." I studied the area, and heard a lot of laughter that seemed like it was from several young children. The laughing seemed to come from downstairs "Laughing? I guess this wasn't wrong, then. But a certain somebody won't be happy to see me..." I went to the stairs and went down. I came to a large room and saw Sephiroth sitting in a black chair that seemed like a throne, several silver-haired children all around that went silent upon seeing me. Sephiroth took immediate notice of my presence, holding one of the kids in his arms that had very long hair. His eyes narrowed at me "Hmph... so you chose to care for mine instead of my Sister's? Interesting..." He stood up and approached me "If you're truly capable of being part of our family, then prove yourself worthy of the part. Until I see enough to decide you're worth something, I won't give you any mercy. Take my son Oruka, here--hold him and try to make him smile." Sephiroth handed me the young boy, smiling at me in a familiar way; it wasn't his friendly smile, of course. I wasn't sure if he had one. I gently held the boy, who seemed to be trembling in my arms. He was clearly scared. I wanted to comfort him, and tried "Hey, it's alright... don't be scared, ok? I won't hurt you." I started to feel my top get wet, and that told me the boy was already crying. I heard Sephiroth laugh under his breath, clearly happy at my failure. I ignored him, hoping to avoid frightening the boy any further "Don't cry, Oruka... I won't hurt you or try to make you scared. I'm a nice guy, ok?" I heard him sniffle, but he looked at me and stopped crying, and seemed confused "Huh...?" Sephiroth mumbled something under his breath, but I couldn't make out the words. I focused on the boy "It's alright, ok? Daddy has some very important work to do, and I came here to help you and your Brothers and Sisters until he can come back. I'm not here to hurt or scare any of you." I managed to smile at him, and he laughed, wrapping his arms around my neck and nuzzled me a couple times. I noticed the other kids on the other side of the room where Sephiroth was sitting also seemed happy. Sephiroth turned to look at them, then back to me "Impressive... you actually got him to smile. The rest of them seem pretty happy too, but if I get a bad report..." Sephiroth drew his katana, barely keeping it from touching my body "It's all over, Cloud. If you make even one mistake with my kids, you can kiss your life goodbye." Then he left without looking back. I gently put Oruka down, and he looked where Sephiroth left "Daddy doesn't really like you... does he?" I replied "No, I'm afraid not..." Oruka turned back to me "He told us you were the bad man... and to stay away from you... I didn't know you'd act so nice..." I knelt down to the boy and asked "Is that why you got scared when he had me hold you and you started to cry?" He nodded, a strange expression on his face "He told us if you saw us that you would... you would kill us... but you didn't even get your weapons out..." I couldn't believe what he had said. Sephiroth was teaching his kids about death way too soon. I didn't like that, but I can't say I didn't understand it either. Sephiroth was surrounded by nothing but enemies for most of his life and years on the Planet. It only makes sense that he would tell them something like this so early; it was his way of protecting them from the painful fates he suffered. I realized that Oruka hadn't fully inherited Sephiroth's hatred yet, and began to see that I might still be able to help him and his siblings grow much happier than past generations in JENOVA's legacy had. The boy looked at me and asked "What's your name, mister?" I smiled and said "I'm Cloud--Cloud Strife. I'm here to care for you kids in your Dad's place until he can come back." Oruka smiled at me "Let's play! I wanna play with you, Big Brother!" I stood up, and he pulled at the lower part of my shirt, trying to lead me to his siblings. I laughed "Alright, alright. But no getting too rough, ok? We don't want anyone to get hurt." The other kids seemed happy and excited, and I sat down in Sephiroth's throne. They were all laughing and smiling, and I couldn't help smiling myself. And one of them already called me Big Brother, too. I felt like things just might get better, seeing several kids already liking me that were also Sephiroth's. Even though they already had loved me, I wasn't so sure Sephiroth would warm up too easily towards me. I wondered what he would think if his kids got mad at him for not liking me. Would he disregard it, or would he feel bad? I didn't really know the answer to that question. Sephiroth was serious about looking after his own kind, and protecting anyone he sees worthy, while treating them with absolute respect. But him and I never get along. Would he accept me because of his children's feelings, or keep his hatred sealed inside himself?