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In Search of Life

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The day Cloud Strife dies is a cold Tuesday in the middle of winter.

The blizzard had been raging for days now, snow piling up past the windows and completely covering the chimney, preventing a fire from being lit for fear of filling the cottage with smoke. The temperature hadn’t risen from lung-searingly cold in just as long, reducing the snowed-in occupants to a shivering lump under a veritable mountain of blankets. Cloud started coughing and wouldn’t stop on the second night - the last night they’d had a fire to gather around - no matter what Claudia did to keep him warm.

He’d always been a small child, sickly at times, with constant scrapes and bruises from taking “falls” around the village. She tried to make sure he ate enough, but food was scarce in the mountains, especially in winter, and she didn’t make enough money as the local seamstress to afford the various imported goods. It was rare that she could take the time to hunt - not with a small child always getting into trouble to look after - and their diets suffered because of it. So, when he began shivering, his teeth clattering together, despite his place cradled on her chest wrapped in every blanket and fur they owned, a sinking feeling began to gather in her gut. He tried to smile up at her as he shook and coughed, attempting to reassure her that they’d be fine, that they’d pull through like they had for every other storm. Claudia smiled back down at him, her little Stormcloud, and tried not to cry.

In the morning she started a small fire, letting it burn for as long as she dared with the air trapped inside as it was, to warm up some broth for them to drink. The warmth bloomed in them like hope and they opened the drapes to catch as much sunlight as they could. When evening returned, Cloudia made another fire for their dinner, but her son’s cough had returned in full force and what warmth had risen that morning dwindled away with the sun. She thanked Odin and watched her son’s smile light up the room.

She couldn’t bring herself to even try and sleep with Cloud jerking against her chest, wracking coughs that resolved into shivering and then back again. Even when the fits lasted minutes at a time, he would never fail to smile up at her as he caught his breath before he was sent into another one. She’s not sure when he stopped shivering, when his breathing turned shallow and the coughs ceased to send his body shuddering. She only realized something was wrong when he tried to get away from her, when he complained weakly about being warm despite her own shivers still wracking her body. She was able to stop him from leaving the blankets entirely, trapping him back to her chest with unsettling ease. She reorientated them, settling them down on their sides so she could curl around him completely under the layers. He stopped trying to escape quickly and Claudia wasn’t able to hold back the tears that poured down her face.

It was sometime after sunrise when Cloud stopped breathing, when his heart went silent in his chest. She stayed there, clutching at him for a bit, praying to every god she could remember for his lungs to shudder and inflate, for his light heartbeat to start again. When it was clear nothing would be changing, she allowed herself to cry until she had no more tears before she forced herself to move. She stood up, wrapped her son in the pile of blankets, and moved him to the fireplace. She then put on her winter furs, her sturdy boots, and walked over to the back window. She stepped on the stool placed next to it and cracked the top open - it being designed for this exact purpose - and pulled herself through.

The blizzard still howled outside, the snow stinging her cheeks and the cold stealing the breath from her lungs. Claudia used the snowbank between their cottage and the Lockharts’ home to get onto her roof, and started pulling the snow away from the chimney, ensuring that it wouldn’t get covered for another few days even if the current snowfall continued. She slid down the back again and clambered back through the window. She discarded her outer layers and went over to the fireplace, working quickly as she placed the wood and struck at the flint to get a fire going. She fed it until it crackled merrily, then warmed a serving of broth for herself, astutely avoiding looking at the form hidden beneath the pile of furs and blankets next to her. When she stopped shivering, when a physical warmth pooled in her stomach (not warming her heart, but it would have to do for now) she refueled the fire and stood up, resolved. She gathered her mountaineering gear, hesitating not a moment before she took a package of cured meats, her fire materia, and her best fur and packed them away in her bag. She pulled her furs and boots on again, threw her snowshoes over her shoulder, and exited the now-warm cottage through the window.

-_-_-_-

Mount Nibel wasn’t an easy climb in the middle of summer, when the sun shone and the only danger other than the wildlife was the sheer incline of the trails and the almost identical appearances of them all. In the winter, especially in a storm, a lot of the wildlife would be hiding away to wait out the weather, but that still left navigating and actually making the climb. Time was also not on her side, she’d been close to freezing only an hour before, and too long out in the blizzard would finish her off quickly. Still, she was a Strife; her family had lived in these mountains for generations and they were in her blood as much as the stories of the old gods were.

The trek was treacherous. She had feared she’d gotten turned around multiple times when the wind shifted the snowbanks around her and filled in her prints behind her. She found and crossed the bridge around noon, then huddled down in a cave entrance to scarf down an oatcake for lunch before proceeding up the long climb to the peak. The wind howled around her and the falling snow prevented her from seeing more than twenty feet in front of her even with the daylight helping. She clambered up almost sheer cliffside at point, the pathways completely lost under feet of snow. Her shivers picked up in full force once more, her teeth chattering and fingers long-numb under her mittens. She tried to mark her path the best she could with her pitons and rope in the hope that she wouldn’t get lost on the way back down.

Daylight was fading when she finally reached the peak. The snow had lessened slightly, but the wind was stronger than ever. It roared around her as she walked the ancient trail to the mountaintop shrine, only visible by the stone markers long-since erected. At the end of the trail sat the shrine, jutting up out of the snow. The stone steps and dasis were clear despite the blizzard still raging, something that would surprise anyone but Claudia. She approached slowly, stopping at the base to look up at the two statues, before steeling herself and ascending with her eyes respectfully averted from the gods’ likeness.

She kneeled before them and unslung her pack from her shoulders and worked at the straps with her numb fingers. She wrenched the bag open and dug through it for her offerings, laying them out before her. She bowed deeply, clasping her hands and pressing them to her forehead as she began praying.

Hel - keeper of lost souls - Fenrir - protector of kin - hear me…”

-_-_-_-

Voices reached her, wherever she was. She remembered kneeling there on cold stone, praying to her gods with the wind whipping around her. She remembered light fading and the cold settling into her bones, and still, she prayed. She remembered the chill settling into her bones, convincing her she’d never be warm again. She… she remembered…

The voices spoke again, echoing around her through the space. She tried to move only to realize that there was nothing to move. And yet, somehow, she existed in the space. It was dark, yet there were gradients to the black, lightening until it reached a point far off in the distance where a pinprick of firelight danced.

“Hel, Fenrir, please hear me in this space.”

The voices stopped. She felt something focus on her, as if the very universe was turning its gaze upon her. She wilted under the sheer presence, but refused to cease her prayers. A voice, deep and smooth dual-toned with the growls of a beast, vibrated through her. She could not hear it for she had no ears but it somehow radiated and demanded she hears it anyways.

We hear you, Daughter of the Mountain. We have received your offerings. What is it you wish of us?”

If she had lungs, she would have let out a shuddering breath of relief.

Please. My son; he is but a boy, he does not deserve to die this day.

A hum of contemplation. The voice separates into two as the duality resolves itself.

You wish to have what has been lost returned to you. A common wish.

You misunderstand!”

She freezes, terrified at her outburst. A moment. A growl-like laugh grows around her.

Then clarify, Daughter, you may speak.” The voice is not a voice. It is the howl of Nibel Wolves on the full moon, the wary growl of a cornered beast, the snarl of a mother protecting her children. Somehow, it resolves into words anyways.

I am not asking for myself. A parents’ duty is not ownership. He is not mine to lose, only mine to treasure and protect until he stands on his own. I request his life for his sake, to use my own as currency for it is my duty to provide for him.”

Another slow laugh, but this one is not that of a beast. It is smooth and deep, light and regal, chilling and cold; all at the same time.

I see. You speak well, Daughter mine. Tell me, what will you offer? What are you willing to give for your son?”

She makes a valiant attempt to clear her throat without having one to clear.

Myself, in its entirety. Take my mind, my life, my soul. Whatever you determine is of value. I will give it for him.”

A hum of contemplation from both voices. The heavy gaze pinning her in place leaves, and if she could gasp for breath she would. They begin conversing, quietly, and change languages enough to where she can only catch a few words here and there.

The planet… Calamity… prepare… strength of will… a savior.

The gaze returns to her.

We shall grant your request. Your son shall live, though his life will be one of hardship. He will bear the name Strife in its entirety, everything it entails.”

Claudia could dry in relief. A life of hardship was still a life.

“Thank you, old ones. What is it I shall pay?”

“The boy will need to be prepared for what is to come. He will need guidance and you will provide it. However, when you are not needed to teach him, the fog shall take your mind. Lucid existence purely for the sake of another. Will you pay it?”

A moment, a breath.

“Of course.”

“Then it is done. Return to your son, Daughter.”

Thank you…”

-_-_-_-

Claudia opened her eyes. She was still kneeling in front of the shrine. Her offerings were gone, her body coated with snow and her whole body numb. New daylight rose over the mountain, cutting through the cloud cover despite the snow still falling around her. The blizzard had calmed and would probably clear out before the day was done. She stood, bowed once more to the statues, before she picked up her pack and began the trek down.

It went easier this time. Less snow blowing around to conceal her path, and the urgency now simply being for her own survival, rather than that of two people. Despite that her whole body was barely responding, she somehow found it easier to move, to find her way. Her ropes and pitons guided her back to the bridge and she stopped there to rest for a few minutes before continuing. Any trace of her passing the day before had been wiped away by the swirling snow. She finds her way anyways.

She reaches Nielheim in the late afternoon. All that remains of the blizzard is some slowly-falling flakes and the piles of snow burying the village. She retraces her steps to the backside of her home, spying fire and lantern light shining from inside. She scrapes the snow away from the same window she exited from and peers inside. Cloud sitting up by the fire, stirring a pot of something set on the hearth. She lets out a sob, her relief boiling up from the pit she’d shoved her emotions in a day ago, and lets her head fall and thunk against the glass.

Cloud whips around, eyes wide, and he smiles at her as he leaps up to let her in. The warmth of the cottage is second best only to the hug her son gives her once she’s stripped from her furs. He looks up at her once the relief of her return has passed and frowns. His eyes are still blue, but they have changed, now like pieces of the sky have been ripped down and placed in his head.

“Ma, why’d ya go out for so long? Ya told me never ta go out in storms!”

“I know, my Stormcloud. I had something I needed to do.”

He pouts again, unsatisfied with her non-answer, but pulls her close to the fire anyways.

“Come on! Get warm; it’s cold out, Ma.”

She chuckles and settles down next to the fire, holding her long-numb hands out towards the flames. Cloud stirs the pot again, and the smell of broth and cooking meat fills her nose. As warmth settles back into her frozen bones, something tingles in the back of her head. Tears prick her eyes and she grabs her son, holding him to her chest and breathing in the scent of him. He complains, but her heart is whole as her mind fills with fog.

-_-_-_-

When she surfaces, lucidity pooling in her mind like cool water, it’s early fall. She has fabric in her lab and a needle in her hand and suddenly she remembers. Cloud comes in through the door and calls out a subdued greeting, face averted. He is favoring one leg slightly, not enough for anything to be broken, but still, he is clearly injured.

“Stormcloud, what have you gotten into now?”

He freezes, turning to look at her. Bruises mar the right side of his face. There is dried blood drawing a line from his nose to his chin. His eyes widen as he takes her in and fill with tears.

“Ma?” he asks, voice shaking.

“It’s me, Stormcloud. I’m sorry I left you.”

He launches himself at her with a cry, latching on and burying his face in her shoulder. She hugs him tight and rocks back and forth, humming a tune under her breath. With time, his cries die down and he pulls away, wiping at his eyes. She wipes away her own tears and smiles down at him.

“Ma, why did you leave?”

Her heart clenches in her chest and she has to fight to get her answer out.

“I had to, Stormcloud. It is my price to pay.”

“For what! Why you? Why not…”

She hugs him again even as her breath catches in her throat.

“Not you, never you. My job is to protect you, to make sure you have a place to grow, to make sacrifices for you.”

“But, Ma-”

“No, Cloud. I’m not going to argue about this. Now, will you tell me what you’ve been up to?”

She gets him to explain eventually. How, after she faded she still did her work and bustled around the cottage, but did not speak. How she would smile at him without recognition in her eyes. How she would stare uncomprehendingly at the kitchen when he asked about food so he had to teach himself to make their meals. She cried again and he never let go of her, even as he told her how the other villagers gossiped about her winter hike and how she’d gone and gotten herself cursed. He told her how he tried to keep going to his lessons, but that the other kids wouldn’t leave him alone, how he had to learn to defend himself against the bigger boys when they teased him about her and the state of his clothes.

They spent the afternoon just soaking in each other’s presences, and the evening cooking together as she taught him how to make the hearty oatcakes they kept for trail food and the stew made from her own family recipe. Together, they settled down on her bed for the night. She told him the stories of their blood, using her hands to paint pictures in their imaginations and they fell asleep there, curled around each other.

-_-_-_-

It wasn’t until she overheard some of the other women talking about the seasonal hunters staying at the inn a few days later that she realized why she had surfaced. Hunting was in her blood as a Strife just as much as the mountains were. Her son was old enough to start learning the ways.

She asked him if he’d like to learn that afternoon, and his smile was answer enough. They set out early the next morning, having gathered their gear the night before, she led them to the stretch of woods that she preferred for snares this time of year. He learned quickly, nimble fingers tying knots with quiet efficiency and she treasured the smiles he gave in response to her prayers.

She spent the afternoon teaching him how to fletch his own arrows in preparation for when he got a bow of his own. Though he cut himself multiple times, his smile did not waver. They returned to check the snares just after dark and were rewarded with a few rabbits. She showed him how to make a clean kill with a knife, when he didn’t hesitate to do his own, something in her twinged. She taught him how to skin and clean the animals by the light of the lantern behind their cottage. His nose wrinkled at the scent of blood, but didn’t complain the whole time.

Over the next couple months, she taught him how to track, how to use the sun and the stars and the slope of the mountain to navigate the woods. They came back each day tired, but content and they ate better than they had for a long time. Even so, as the chill of the first frost descended, she felt the familiar fog creep back in. She held her son tight to her chest where they lay together on her bed and surrendered to it.

-_-_-_-

She surfaced several times over the next few years, always coming around for long enough to teach her son to live, to survive, to fight, even. She taught him to tan leather hides and work them into straps. She taught him what she knew of medicine, which herbs helped with coughs, how to bind wounds and breaks, when to know something was beyond your skill. She taught him of the dangers of the mountain, of the beasts that hunt you even as you hunt them, of the plants that were okay to eat and the one that would make you itch for a month. She got him a bow and taught him to shoot, where to hit to disable and where to hit to kill with mercy.

He grew right before her eyes. In starts and stops, he got taller as what remained of his baby fat fell from his cheeks. His hands formed calluses and his body gained scars. His eyes hardened, the sky crystalizing in his resolve. Every time she surfaced, he greeted her the same way; tears streaming and his face softening as he keened into her shoulder. Her heart broke a little more each time she saw it.

Then, when she surfaced in early winter, she realized something was different. He looked at her, tears falling, but did not launch himself at her. Instead, he steeled himself and stood strong before her.

“Ma,” he said, voice shaking. “I want to leave home. I want to go to Midgar and join SOLDIER so I can get you out of here.”

His eyes were hard with resolve. She knew she could not sway him from his path and, for just a moment, made the selfish wish for time to stop marching forward.

“If that’s what your heart is telling you to do, Stormcloud. I won’t stop you.”

He threw himself at her, shaking with relief, and broke down in her arms. She hugged him tightly and ignored the building dread in her gut.

He leaves just before the first snow, having paid a merchant truck to take him down the mountain. From there, he’d have to find passage to the Eastern Continent himself, but Claudia has faith as much as she worries; he’s a Strife, after all. She’s done all she can for him. She’s surprised to see Tifa Lockhart there to see Cloud off. The girl seemingly bears no ill will to him, despite the rest of the village kids’ shared opinion on her son, so she lets the two have their goodbye before she sends him off. Once the girl leaves, tears are shed, promises are made, and she watches and waves as Cloud disappears down the mountain road. The Fog takes her before she makes it back to her house.

-_-_-_-

She’s aware when a knock comes at her door. She has to readjust, to check the calendar pinned to one of the cabinets for the year (she lost almost two years this time, something that scares her because it’s never been that long before) before she can bring herself to answer her caller. It’s a ShinRa infantryman. She looks at him, confused, before he pulls off his helmet and it’s Cloud. He’s sixteen now, taller than her, and looking so grown up. Tears rise in her eyes and she grabs him in a hug.

“My Stormcloud, you came home.”

He hugs her back, desperate and grasping, and she pulls him into the cottage to sit down. They stay like that for a while, soaking in each other’s presence, before he breaks the silence.

“I’m only home for a few days, Ma. I’m on a mission, technically, but my CO gave me permission to visit.”

She smiles at him and he returns it. Her heart feels full.

“It’s alright. I’m just happy to have you here at all. Now, tell me about the big city. You meet anyone you want to bring home yet?”

He groans even as she laughs, and talks about his time with Shinra. He speaks on failing the SOLDIER exam, apologizing for his failure but Claudia will hear none of it. The relief is plain on his face. Moving on, he talks about his time in Junon, in Midgar. He talks about saving the life of a scientist, about meeting the SOLDIER Zack and becoming his friend. He talks a little about his current mission, how it’s with both Zack and Sephiroth, the world-famous SOLDIER Commander, but that he can’t say too much more because of “confidentiality”. She laughs at him using such a professional-sounding word and he pouts and it feels like no time has passed at all.

Soon, evening comes and she cooks him a hearty Nibel dinner, but then he has to get back to the inn to report back. She gives him a hug, a kiss, and a bag of oatcakes to-go and sees him out. She has just finished cleaning the kitchen when the fog starts to roll back in. It’s so soon after going so long in its embrace, but she doesn’t dare fight it for fear for her son.

-_-_-_-

She doesn’t know what time it is. There’s light outside, but it’s a different light than the sun. It dances out there, transfixing her with its strange beauty. Then, the smoke reaches her lungs and she coughs.

Oh, the town’s on fire.

She runs to her bed, pulling the box of valuables from underneath it even as the cottage goes up around her. The smoke threatens to choke her, but she fights through it. She needs to get outside, to find Cloud, to make sure he’s okay.

She throws the door open and stands transfixed. The whole town really is aflame. Even the water tower, which groans as the study wood supports burn and start to crumble away. Movement catches her eye and she sees Cloud, helmet off and kneeling in the gravel in front of her. He’s coughing heavily and has ash smeared all over him, but he’s alive. She goes to call out to him when she becomes aware of someone standing behind her. Her son looks up at her and his eyes, now bright with the reflected flame, widen in fear.

Something pierces her chest from behind and she looks down. A sword sticks out from her chest, dead center. Distantly, she hears Cloud scream, hears a deep voice speak from behind her, but can only focus on the cold steel making it hard to breathe. Then, the sword wrenches - sending sparks dancing in her vision - and rips through her torso to the left. In slow motion, she looks back at her son, kneeling there as she’s torn apart in front of him. There’s disbelief on his face, grief already taking it over as tears begin to fall. But, it’s his eyes that she focuses on. They burn with rage, alight with a pure fury that screams death for anything that stands in its path. More than anything, it’s that fact that brings peace to her.

Yes, her son will grieve for her. Yes, he will have to learn to move on, but there is no doubt in her mind that he will. Because he is angry, and a Strife that rages is a Strife that lives.