A Conversation With Death
Things were different this time around. He half expected to see them greeting him, even though he knew they had passed through the lifestream long ago. There was nothing familiar about this place anymore. There were no scents of flowers; no twinkling of laughter; or comfort of brotherhood. All he could see was a stark-white void of purity that looked more like nothingness.
He felt even lighter than last time. Looking down at his hands, he was startled to discover that they were smaller: much smaller. There were no words to describe the shock. In the many years he had spent growing up into a man; in death, he found himself shrunk back into the body of a child.
His short, stubby legs were things he had hated because he couldn't run or reach. His mother complained that he had wanted to grow too fast for her tastes, but not fast enough for his. This was something completely unexpected and new. As he looked around the haze of white static, he tried to find anything, something that he could hold onto. Panic set in and he felt like a helpless little boy again: fragile and small.
A black blob slowly formed in the misty-white. It grew larger and larger as it came closer. He looked up as the black form came into focus and stopped in front of him. It had been a long time since he had to look up at someone. He saw the indistinguishable face of a black-hooded man. Only a sharp pointed-chin and thin lips were visible, the rest of his face was hidden within the shadows of his cloak.
Cloud shied away from the man.
The stranger chuckled. He sat down on a bench that had mysteriously appeared. Resting so that his elbows touched his knees, the hooded-man stared at Cloud. There was nothing malicious or awkward about it; just a mere curiosity. Cloud likened the look to when Sora would watch him as he cleaned Fenir or worked in his office.
Thinking about his family reminded him of why he didn't want to be here. He was dead. He hadn't thought that his day would end like it had, but he never would have forgiven himself if he hadn't tried to save those people. He was certain that he got the last person out of the burning building before it collapsed. He hoped that he was the only one that perished.
He wondered how Tifa was handling everything. He was sure thatDenzelwould keep an eye on Sora and be the male-figure in the house. Marlene would be able to help with chores and he was certain that his old friends were going to be there for support. But the idea that he wouldn't be there for his family; notably his son, hurt him.
"Would you like to sit?" the hooded man asked.
Cloud nodded his head and tried to climb up the bench, but his short arms couldn't reach the edge. It was frustrating. Then the hooded man bent down and lifted him up, placing him gently on the seat next to him.
"Thanks," Cloud murmured, hardly shocked that his voice was also child-like. He didn't like that he had to be helped, but it was appreciated. Looking up at the hooded man, he couldn't help but wonder where he had been all of the other times he had been in the lifestream. It probably had something to do with the fact that this time, he was here to stay.
"You're Death, aren't you?"
"I guess you could say that."
"You guess? Do you greet the dead all of the time, or just me?"
"I've greeted others before you, but not everyone."
"That's not very clear."
"It wasn't meant to be."
Cloud snorted. The man sounded likeDenzel: too smart for his own good. "So then, who are you?"
"That's a good question."
"You don't know who you are?"
"I do, but it's been so long, I've nearly forgotten."
Cloud shook his head. "You already know who I am, so I guess I don't need to tell you anything, do I?"
"I do know who you are, but not who you are."
"You like being cryptic. You would get along well with one of my friends."
"Vincent. He hasn't been around much lately. I wonder if he'll show up after hearing that I passed away." Cloud hung his head down. "Sora hasn't really seen him since he was a baby."
"You were happy when he was born. Happier than you've ever been. How old is your son now?"
"He's barely two," Cloud said looking down at his feet. He kicked them back and fourth. "I hope he's okay. I didn't want to leave him or my family so soon."
"Children are resilient creatures. He will be fine. Your wife will take care of him."
"I know Tifa can do it and we have lots of friends and family that will be there for him. But still."
"Are you more concerned with the fact that you will miss seeing him grow?"
"Yeah, I am. It just kills me knowing that I won't be able to give him any advice if he needs it or help teach him all sorts of things that only I can," Cloud sighed. "It's so . . ."
"That's life. And death. It's all a learning experience."
Cloud looked up at the hooded man. "What else am I supposed to learn?"
"You'd be surprised. Things become clearer when you die.""If you say so. You know, I'm normally not a very talkative guy. And here I am talking to a complete stranger. So I guess you're right."
"See, you've changed already. So tell me, why didn't you like to talk to others?"
"I was always a little awkward. It didn't help that my family was . . . broken."
The hooded man fell silent for a while before speaking again. "Did you really feel that way?"
"It's the only word I know that best describes it. My father, I don't know what happened to him. My mother never told me. All I know is that he used to be with us until one day he stopped coming home. I barely remember him, but I remember how sad my mother was. She would sometimes stay-up late crying. I was so helpless I didn't know what I could do. I wanted to be strong for her, but I was just a stupid kid. I guess I know now that there really wasn't anything more that I could have done. She loved my father, but I hated him for not being there when she needed him the most. I don't think I ever got to show her how much I matured before she died. In retrospect, I should have known all along that my father would never have left her willingly. I don't know what happened to him and I guess I'll never know."
The hooded man nodded his head. "Regret is a painful pill to swallow. It never goes away, no matter what you do. We start dying from the day that we're born. It's just a matter of dumb-luck whether you die as a young babe, a youth in your prime, or aged like a fine wine. Death comes when it wants to, not when you're ready."
Cloud chuckled. "Now I know you would have gotten along withVincent. He has that same sort of fatalistic attitude."
"And you don't?"
"I used to."
"Do you have any regrets now that you've died?"
Cloud lifted his hand to count them off and noticed that they were no longer the chubby hands of a toddler. They were now about the size of a young boy. His legs still swung over the bench, but if he tried hard enough he could touch the ground with his toes. The hooded man rubbed Cloud's head, ruffling his long spikes.
"What's happening to me?"
"Looks like you're growing."
"I know that, but why? This is all so very strange."
"Everything has a purpose here. You may have to wait until you discover what it is."
Cloud folded his arms indignantly. "If I'm supposed to be reminded of my childhood, I'd rather not."
"It wasn't really the happiest time for me."
"Were they your worst memories?"
Cloud shook his head. "Still, I prefer not to dwell on them. I did many foolish things back then."
"Don't all children?"
"Not in the same way I did."
The hooded man paused for a moment before he spoke. "You saved her life back then. Regardless of what her father thought, if you weren't there, she never would have made it."
"I know. But it still hurts to be lectured by an adult like that. The neighborhood kids never liked me in the first place. After that, I was never treated the same."
"Fathers will sometimes do irrational things when they feel their child is in danger. It's instinct. Do not blame him for his actions."
"I forgave him a while back. After Sora was born, this need to protect developed that was nothing like what I feel for Tifa, Denzel, or Marlene. It was . . . it was . . ."
"Fatherhood is like that."
"Do you have children? Or is that even possible? You just sound so experienced."
"I have a son."
"What happened to him?"
The hooded man smirked. "He grew up."
Cloud remained silent with his thoughts. What would Sora be like growing up? Would he have problems making friends? Would he be fine if he didn't have his father to turn to for advice? Cloud worried more and more about the implications of his death. He wasn't sure what changes would have happened if his father never disappeared, but he was certain that it would only have been positive. But the past was the past. There was nothing that Cloud could do to alter his life and he was completely powerless to do anything for Sora's.
He looked down at his hands and noticed that they had grown from child-size to his normal adult hands. Familiar rough calluses were a welcome relief from the soft, scar-free hands. He knew hardship and burden; was practically raised on it. But was that something that he could stand to have Sora suffer through? Regret was never more painful to bear than it was now.
"Was it hard? Raising him?" Cloud asked.
"It was hard. But I wasn't able to raise him."
Cloud stared at the man incredulously.
The hooded man chuckled. "I've been here the entire time my son had to grow-up."
"So you're . . . not Death?"
"No, but I am dead."
The hooded man shook his head. "There's nothing to be sorry for. I wish I was there for him, but he turned out just fine. There's no one I'm more proud of then my son."
"You were able to watch him?"
"The lifestream let me."
The air shimmered around him. A small reflecting pool appeared out of the white miasma. Cloud started down into the pool until an image started to form. Colors bled into one another until a clear picture appeared of people walking around in Edge. It was raining. Not a hard downpour, but enough to make it uncomfortable and dour. Despite the weather, there was a large crowd all dressed in black Cloud recognized most of them: family, friends, and customers. There were also the multitude of people he didn't know. He could only stare in disbelief as he watched his own funeral.
"This is surreal. So this is how you watched your son grow?"
"Yes, and this is how I watched him die. But he was brave and sacrificed himself to save others. It was a heroic death. And he'd be happy to know that he saved everyone from that burning building."
Cloud's eyes widened as he stared at the hooded man in front of him. "Who? Who are you?"
The man lifted his hood back as a shock of blond hair fell forward. A familiar pair of blue eyes stared back at him and Cloud almost felt like he was looking into a mirror. The only striking difference was the man before him had flat hair that fell into his face and a smile that was more comfortable on his lips.
"Hello, Cloud. It's been a while."
The man nodded. It was a simple bob of the head; the exact same mannerism that Cloud favored. Like father, like son.
"You probably have a million questions," Cloud's father said.
"More than a million."
"Do you want to start on them one at a time?"
Cloud stared at his father for a moment before answering. "I think seeing you: here. It answers most of them. But I do have one right now. What happened?"
"It was a stupid mistake. One that I never should have made, but did and look what it cost me. I went up to the mountains to gather some plants and herbs for your mother. The trails were wet since it had rained the night before and I slipped. Died on impact. The nibel wolves made short work of my body, which is why no one was able to find it. I'm sorry that it happened. I know how hard it was on you and your mother. Especially you."
Cloud shook his head. "No. I'm glad that I know now. For the longest time, people talked. Most thought you had run off. But Mom knew better. I suspected, but was never sure."
"I know. I watched you and your mother everyday after I died. It was hard."
Cloud looked down at the images of his funeral. "This was what you've been doing? Watching?"
The older man nodded. "It was all I could do."
"So you know about everything. What I did, how I struggled . . . how I fought."
"Yes. That was about the only thing good that came out of this arrangement. Even though I couldn't help you or dry your tears, I was able to watch you grow into a man. You're strong. Stronger than I ever was. I'm proud of you."
Cloud's father laughed. "I forget how shy you are to compliments. It must sound strange hearing that."
"Not strange, just . . . different."
"A 'good' different?"
"I've waited years to finally say that to you. Years to finally see you and talk to you again. It was worth the wait." The man smiled serenely as he watched his grandson in the reflecting pool. "He's a great kid. You've done well."
"He is." Cloud smiled.
The older Strife stood up from the bench and reached his hand out to Cloud. As soon as Cloud took his hand, he pulled the younger man into his arms.
The hug startled Cloud. He hadn't held his father since he was very young. He couldn't even remember if he hugged him on the day he died. The comfort was natural and filled him with feelings he had never realized he was missing. He was whole; he was complete.
"I hate to leave you now, but it's time for me to go."
"To where your mother is."
Cloud looked around uncertain about what to do or say. "If you leave, what am I going to do without you?"
The older man smiled and gestured to the reflecting pool. "Sit. Watch. And learn how your son grows up to become a man. My time here is over, but yours is just beginning."
Cloud paused and took a good look at his father, trying to memorize everything about him. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, son." With a wave and a smile, Cloud's father walked off into the wispy white light and disappeared.
All that was left was the bench, the reflecting pool, and images of Sora looking confused. It was a familiar look. One Cloud wore many years ago when he learned his father wasn't ever coming home. Like a dutiful son and concerned father, Cloud sat and watched. He resolved to watch every tear and every smile. He wanted to learn how Sora would grow. And when the time came, he would have one more conversation with his son.