Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 40

Once More into the Stream...

By Damodred

On further reflection, the earth did not tremble, Cloud noted - but the clash of the blades could be felt through the air even here. They were still half a mile away from the fight; taking the longer route to avoid detection. They were not wondering whether their efforts were futile or not; such thoughts might lead to failure. Instead they devoted themselves to carrying out their mission.

Here in the bowels of the Crater, the voices were loud. Crying out about the injustice and rape of the Planet when Jenova crash-landed what seemed to be centuries ago - the new wound confused them; as a rule, the dead were not the quickest to see changes. But this was a fierce fire burning in the depths of the Planet - it made them see the present in an unprecedented way. Cloud did not dare wonder why; Aerith had her suspicions. In fact, she was counting on the essence of the dead and their interaction with the Lifestream to help them defeat this evil, this demi-god called Chaos. She had no more ideas beyond that one, but she had the feeling she was not mistaken in her guess...she only hoped Cloud knew it as well. She studied the blond soldier briefly. From behind he could still be mistaken for a young man; his hair still darting in all directions, his poise rigid and his stance confident. Once an onlooker saw his face the illusion shattered; those eyes had seen much more than their fair share of pain.

Unaware of the silent scrutiny, Cloud plodded on mechanically, his body obeying his subconscious commands while his mind roiled, trying to find an anchor in the Lifestream. He sensed them everywhere, but the previously bright spark that was Tifa was not among them. He did not know why it was so; he knew this was the right place and the right time - from dreams, visions and nightmares. But he was uncertain of the task ahead of him and so he searched for the answer. As his failure grew more and more pronounced his understanding increased. He abandoned his search and resigned himself to what was to come.

The vagaries of the terrain delivered them far above the battlefield; their faces flickered in the white light evoked by the flashing blades and the red glow of the forcefield. Chaos was not omniscient; he could effectively block what he could see and so the two combatants were shielded off from the rest of the party and from the entrance to the cavern; Aerith and Cloud had a clear view of them from above, however. As Chaos ducked a vicious slash of the Masamune and responded with a blast of power that fell Sephiroth to his knees, Aerith winced and withdrew against the ledge, pulling Cloud back. "He can take care of himself," she whispered hoarsely; the sulphuric air was getting to her. Cloud seemed no worse for the wear despite neither of them using their powers in fear of being detected. Cloud nodded and joined her, reluctantly pulling his eyes away from Sephiroth. He noted that the blond soldier managed to parry the devastating downstroke of the Atma blade and was back on his feet.

"It is time," Aerith said serenely, finding a comfortable position on the ground and settling down. Cloud nodded slowly, acknowledging what they both knew; the battle could not be concluded on a simply physical leve - even if Sephiroth could battle Vincent to a standstill, he could not destroy him. The ancient treatment added to his recently acquired powers prevented that. Cloud sank to the ground and closed his eyes, warily opening his mind.

The contact was instant and crystal clear - it felt almost like an assault and Cloud's first instinct was to close himself off again. Then he felt a faint touch on his arm - Aerith's reassuring hand. He relaxed and abandoned himself to the flow. It pulled them both deep into the Lifestream, losing the connection to their physical bodies far behind. The voices were calm, soothing and benevolent - Cloud suddenly knew that they would be safe there, waiting for their consciousness to return. The white light was everywhere, omnipotent but not harmful. It flowed through them, into their minds, and illuminated the conduit they were floating through at phenomenal speeds - or so it seemed. Not having eyes or ears to gauge their progress, the Ancient and the SOLDIER were directly sensing this massed life force. They flew on.

Aerith suddenly realized she could see - not just sense, or feel with her mind but actually see. She has never been so deep into the LifeStream and did not know why this would be but she had a faint idea. She turned her body towards Cloud and met his equally astonished eyes. They sparkled a deep blue in this pseudo-reality. Shrugging and smiling faintly, she said "We are, who we think we are, even here." Then she thought about it and corrected herself, "Especially here." Cloud nodded, seeing both of their forms finalize and become truly solid - but better. He could not see himself but he could tell that Aerith's countenance was even more beautiful (if that was possible) than her real face. No, not really he thought to himself, this is what she always looks like, but without the sorrow and the pain that was wrought on her through the years. Aerith nodded, somehow sensing what he was thinking from her own observations of the SOLDIER's unweathered appearance. "Yes," she said softly, "this is what we were supposed to be." Their flight seemed to be slowing. Their surroundings took on more definition.

For the first time since Tifa's death, Cloud registered an emotion. It was surprise, tinged with slight fear. She wasn't really surprised, she was feeling much the same. They seemed to be at the edge of Nibelheim, the town where Cloud and Tifa grew up. What's more, this Nibelheim was not dead - there were soft sounds of machinery, voices and even the distinct "Waaark!" of trained Chocobos. After exchanging brief glances of puzzlement they walked on into the town, Cloud's heart tightening painfully in his chest. The burning in his eyes would not go away, either. As they made their way to the town center, the inhabitants looked up and waved, smiling gently, but all turned away immediately, not interested in conversation. Cloud stopped, helplessly overcome with emotion, but Aerith tugged on his arm and led him to where she now knew they had to go. She knocked on the door to a small house. After a few footsteps inside, the door opened and Cloud's legs almost buckled. "Hello Cloud," said Tifa, her head cocked prettily, "I've been waiting for you."


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