Final Fantasy VII: Another Story
Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy VII.
A/N: Well, here it is, guys. ^^ Disc Two. With any luck (and some creativity on my part), this is where the story will really start to diverge from the game. Enjoy!
PLEASE INSERT DISC TWO TO CONTINUE
File 037: Endings and Beginnings
Icicle Inn rose up out of the early morning mist, a collection of houses and buildings nestled in the shadow of the great mountains to the north. Exhausted and despondent as they were, a current of energy seemed to move through the group as they neared the resort, a few of them picking up the pace even against the frigid winds that moved down from the mountain. Sephiroth kept the same steady pace as he had before, keeping his eyes fixed on the village. He moved up the path, picking his way through the snow and ice as he led the way for the rest of the group. He looked around at the others, making sure that none of them were lagging. They were cold, he could tell that much. Despite stopping for winter clothes at an outpost before crossing into the region and wearing twice as many layers as before, they had still been walking for days in a region of the world most often traveled by vehicle or chocobo. And it was still not quite the right season to be this far north, not summer yet. But given the events in the Capital, he supposed they hadn't really had much of a choice.
And perhaps, Cissnei was right. Perhaps being out here would rejuvenate them in a way.
He watched as Cloud and Tifa moved near the rear of the group, standing close enough together to say that they were walking together, but maintaining a distance between them. Cloud walked ahead of her, and neither of them seemed much in the mood for conversation. Cid and Nanaki walked together, the pilot not having fully recovered from his fall and occasionally needing to lean against Nanaki for support. He grumbled about this, but didn't complain too much, and swore at Nanaki less than he swore at the rest of them when he sank down next to their campfires at night and lit a cigarette. Beside them walked Barret, hollow-eyed, his gun arm at his side as he glanced around for any threats. One didn't have to know too much about him to know that his thoughts were in Midgar, half a world away. Zack and Aerith walked together, Aerith dressed in dark pants and a parka the same shade of pink as her usual dress, and Zack in a dark blue jacket, lighter than he should have needed without his enhancements. The two walked holding hands, and Aerith occasionally leaned against him, but they didn't speak much, and it was clear that whatever distance had been between them, it had only been conditionally repaired.
There was still more talking to be done. But at the moment, they neededeach other.
His eyes moved over Vincent, a spot of red in the snow at the rear of their group. Unlike the others, he hadn't changed out of his usual garb when they stopped—it was entirely possible he didn't even feel the cold. He walked with his gun in his hand and didn't speak, not unusual for Vincent, but even more pronounced in the silence of the rest of the group. Yuffie walked a few feet ahead of him, her hands in her jacket pockets. Her expression was far-off, she didn't speak, and almost didn't seem to notice that they were nearing the Inn. Not too far from her walked Shalua, keeping her distance from the group like an outsider, her pack slung over one shoulder as her other arm hung limply at her side. It was a simple, unmoving prosthetic, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances.
He kept an eye on Blaire, watching as the child picked her way carefully through the snow. She hadn't spoken much since waking up in the Capital, speaking to him only when spoken to and refusing to look him in the eye. She'd carried her sword, but only because he told her she needed something to protect herself with, and alternated between shrinking away from it as though it was a serpent or clutching it like a lifeline. He would have to decide what to do with her when they reached the Inn, he remembered. That wasn't a decision he was looking forward to.
The cold, hard-eyed people who trudged through the snow with him were certainly not the same people that had begged for a night off at the Gold Saucer. Once, he might have been glad for the change. Now, he wasn't so sure.
He glanced at Cissnei, who walked next to him, the lower part of her face hidden by a scarf against the wind. She met his eyes, and he caught a brief amount of sympathy there, wondered, for a moment, what he must look like, and decided it wasn't important. They were nearing the town limits, which meant warmth, and rest, and food, and a subtle shift of responsibility within the group, as he relinquished the control he had needed to have over them to make sure they arrived in one piece and Cissnei assumed the control she gained to make sure they didn't bankrupt themselves or get arrested by Shinra while they were there.
Just like they'd done countless times before, only with one less among their number.
He thought of the sword they had left behind in the Forgotten Capital, remembered countless others like it, lost in the jungles of Wutai, picked apart by scavengers who didn't know what they meant, or soldiers who knew what they meant had every reason to be enraged by them. He thought of Angeal, dead, and Genesis, also lost in his own way. He wasn't any stranger to loss, and knew that to some of the members of the group he appeared cold, unfeeling, pressing them on and pushing them through the wilderness without allowing them time to properly grieve.
But there was no time. They would move on. They had to. It was cold, but it was necessary.
They were still talking about the fate of the world.
Except he didn't know how they would proceed from here. Genesis and the other Tsviets were gone—they had not chased after them even during their relatively unprotected march across the Northern Continent towards this place. Jenova was…also gone. He didn't feel anything of her at all, not even the presence at the back of his mind that had been there for as long as he could remember. It was almost enough to make him believe she was truly dead. Almost.
Jenova was gone, Genesis off somewhere he couldn't see, and the Black Materia was missing. The world had not yet ended, Rufus Shinra continued to grow his empire, and the most powerful government to ever grace the face of Gaia still wanted them dead. The whole time they had been traveling, there had never been a plan, but there had at least always been direction, and now he felt robbed of even that, felt keenly for the first time that they had no goals, nothing beyond perhaps locating the Black Materia, and no next steps except maybe to pay a visit to Modeoheim. It was disconcerting, being caught in a world without a plan, like the last thread of sanity had been pulled out from under his feet. He focused on what little direction they did have, knowing that they needed to keep moving, one foot in front of another, or they would all die.
"…We're almost there," said Cissnei, her voice hushed almost as though she was afraid to break the silence.
He looked over at her, and nodded. She nodded back, nothing more needing to be exchanged between them.
He had that, at least, for what it was worth.
"Zack," he said, looking over at the other ex-SOLDIER.
Zack looked over at him, not releasing Aerith's hand. "What's up?" he asked, tilting his head quizzically. It was a gesture reminiscent of Zack's usual cheerfulness, but it rang hollow, not even reaching his eyes. Sephiroth pretended not to notice. More than anything else, Kunsel had been Zack's friend, and a man deserved the right to grieve.
"We'll head straight for the inn. Do you remember where that is?"
Zack nodded, looking back at the growing sight of Icicle Inn. "I'll take care of it."
"Will we be staying long?" asked Aerith, looking over at them.
Sephiroth frowned, but it was Cissnei who responded. "Probably not too long," she said. "A few days, but not longer than we have to." She paused. "They have hot springs up here."
"That might be nice," said Aerith, with the tone of someone who was trying very hard to mean it.
"Alright, that is it!" said a voice loudly from behind them. He turned—several did, looks of surprise on their faces. Yuffie stepped forward, waving a hand in the air with a frustrated look on her face. "I'm tired of moping. It's been eight days and we're all turning into Vincent!" She gestured at him dramatically. Vincent blinked, appearing more confused than anything. Yuffie pressed her hand against her chest. "I'm going to the hot springs. I'm going to try to have fun! Who's with me?"
"Kid, shut up," grumbled Cid, rubbing at his temples with one hand and squeezing his eyes shut. "You're giving me a headache."
"Who asked you, old man?" asked Yuffie, rolling her eyes.
Cid grumbled something unsavory under his breath and rolled his eyes, but Yuffie's outburst had had its intended effect; there wasn't any real anger behind his words. He saw Tifa let out a chuckle and hide it behind her wrist, saw Zack crack a smile, even if only for a moment.
"I'll join you," said Cissnei, looking back at Yuffie. She gave the ninja a warm smile. "Why not?"
"Ah, hell," said Zack, picking up on what she was doing. "I'm in. Why not?"
"But not in the same hot spring, I hope," said Aerith sternly, grabbing onto his arm and causing another low undercurrent of chuckles to move through the group. Zack gave her a teasing smile.
"Not unless you want me to," he said.
That did it. Aerith let out a shocked gasp of "Zack Fair!", shoving him in the arm as laughter spread through the group behind them. It was broken, ragged laughter, not the same kind that had filled their campfires in the past, and laced through with new pain that hadn't been there before and old pains that still lingered, and it hurt, but the hurt in it was better somehow, as though it was a sign that the wound was finally healing. Tifa giggled, and Cid let out a raucous guffaw and Yuffie shrieked with hysterical laughter. Barret let out a belly laugh, Shalua smiled and hid her chuckles behind her hand, Cloud glanced away and hid his half-smile. Cissnei laughed softly beside him, and Nanaki let out something that sounded almost like a purr.
He might have smiled too. He wasn't sure. He kept his eyes on the road ahead of them, content, for the moment, that for better or for worse, they were healing.
In the end, it only took one word to set them on edge again.
They were walking into town, quiet again but not quite as somber, when a local woman saw them. She dropped the basket she was carrying, bread and fruits—precious cargo up here in the far north, they had to be shipped in—rolling across the snow-covered ground. She didn't bother to pick them up; she was staring right at Aerith. The group stopped too, looking at her. She was an elderly woman, strands of graying hair escaping from beneath her hood, but the eyes that stared at Aerith were still perfectly clear, and there was no mistaking the recognition in them.
She spoke one word.
The smell of antiseptic assaulted her just as she walked through the sliding doors into the Shinra Building's medical floor. Elena moved past a nurse pushing a cart of medical supplies, not missing the way the nurse glanced at her as she moved. She lowered her gaze to the ground, self-consciously adjusting her suit, before straightening up and walking through the now-familiar halls. No one questioned her, for which she was grateful for. It seemed like even in the infirmary, the Turks' dark suit commanded respect and a wide berth.
Reno stopped her just as she rounded another corner.
The red-headed Turk stood leaning against the wall at the end of the hallway, looking more disheveled than usual. He held his ElectroMag Rod in one hand, holding it out in front of her to block her passage. The other rested on the back of his neck, rubbing at it as if it were sore before falling back to his side. He let his other hand fall as well, once it was clear that Elena had no plans of moving further forward at the moment.
"He's busy," said Reno, by way of explanation, jerking his head towards the closed door down the hall.
Elena nodded, saying nothing. She moved to stand against the wall opposite from Reno, and shifted uncomfortably at the way he was watching her. Because it was Reno, and because she was stubbornly trying to prove to herself that she had nothing to hide, she looked up, forcing herself to meet his gaze head-on. His lips curled up in a brief smirk, but it didn't reach his eyes. They were tired, she realized, as if he hadn't been getting enough sleep. Then again, he was technically second-in-command of the Turks, so maybe he hadn't. Reno had been at the hospital a lot lately—secret meetings with Tseng, conferences hidden under the excuse that he was still getting checked out from the Sector 7 battle. He and Rude didn't tell her anything, but she wasn't stupid.
The thought bothered her, that despite being a fully-fledged member of the Turks, there were still things they didn't tell her about. But now wasn't the time for that fight, so instead she folded her arms, looking back down the hallway at that closed door.
"He's still working?" she asked.
Reno shrugged. "He's Tseng," he said. "He doesn't stop working. You'd think two swords to the chest would make him take a break."
The way he said it implied that there was some old bitterness there. Elena thought about mentioning it, thought better of it, and glanced back down at the ground. She could still remember hearing Tseng's distress call, coming back to the Temple of the Ancients to find him lying there. He'd been barely conscious by the time she made it, and just as they were pulling away from the island, the entire Temple collapsed. She pursed her lips close together, trying to dispel the memory.
"Who's he talking to?" she asked, deciding to try again and work some information out of Reno. "Do you know?"
Reno shrugged. "Beats me," he said, lazily. "It ain't my business."
"You have to know something," said Elena.
Reno smiled slyly at her. "It's not a woman, if that's what you're asking," he said.
Elena flushed before she realized what she was doing. "Reno!" she said.
"Come on, Laney, everyone knows you've got it bad," said Reno, leaning back further against the wall. He watched her, continuing to give her a lazy smile. "Rude likes Tifa, if you're wondering."
"I wasn't, and I'm not here because of that!" said Elena.
"Then why are you here?"
Elena folded her arms, saying nothing. She thought back to what had had happened at the Temple, to the last few words Tseng had said to her before she left to deliver the pictures. He'd asked her out, or at least, she thought she did. But trust Tseng to not even mention anything about that now that he was awake. He tolerated her presence, didn't object to having her around when she wasn't working, but that was all.
"I didn't have anything better to do," she said.
"Uh-huh," said Reno, with a look that told her he believed exactly none of that. "Sure thing, Laney."
She decided against trying to convince him that it was true, glancing down at the ground before back up at him. "You look like hell," she finally said. "What's Tseng been having you do?"
There was that shrug again. "Oh, you know," he said. "A little bit of this, a little bit of that."
Her eyes narrowed at his evasive answer. "Reno," she said.
The smile faded from his face. He stared at her, his green eyes suddenly serious. Elena blinked, the sudden change in mood causing her to freeze. "Look, Laney, I'm doing you a favor," he said. "Stop asking questions, unless you want to get more than you bargained for."
Her mouth snapped shut. She thought about asking something, opened her mouth again, then closed it. It was so easy to forget sometimes that Reno could be serious, even dangerous, when he wanted to be. But when he glared like that, it was easy to remember. The glare faded, and she relaxed, slipping her hands defensively into the pockets of her suit pants. "At least tell me what it's about," she said.
"How do you feel about your sister lately?"
Elena really hadn't thought that much about her. She was supposed to be a traitor, all of the other ex-Turks were. Something that had happened with Veld, and the department before she joined. Tseng had struck some kind of deal with the company, allowing any of the other Turks who were involved to escape with their lives, as long as they stayed in hiding. The last Elena heard, it sounded like she might be getting married, to her old partner, no less. She hadn't really cared.
"I…don't really think about her much," she said.
"Good. Don't." Reno looked back at the door, watching as it opened. "You're up," he said.
Elena glanced at the door, watching as a man in a blue suit walked out of it. Her eyes widened a fraction as she recognized Reeve Tuesti, Director of Urban Planning, in the instant before he turned and began walking to the other side of the hallway. She thought about saying something, but Reno's mouth tightened suddenly in a way that made her keep her mouth shut. She looked back at him. "Didn't you need to see him?" she asked.
"Nah, I just needed to give him something," said Reno. He handed Elena the folder he was carrying. "Give that to him. He'll probably like seeing you more than me anyway."
She resisted the urge to open it, not when he was standing right in front of her. Instead, she tucked it under her arm, nodding. "Then, see you tomorrow," she said, walking towards the hospital room. For a moment, she thought Reno would follow her, but then she heard footsteps, and looked over her shoulder to see him walking away.
Elena took a breath, and faced the sliding door. She reached up a hand, knocking on it.
"Who's there?" asked a voice from inside. Elena winced. He sounded pained, but on the bright side, at least he sounded more lucid than he had yesterday. A part of her wondered whether the nurses had changed his pain medication or whether Tseng had refused any in order to stay sharp. Knowing him, it was probably the latter.
"It's Elena, sir," she said. She glanced down at the file, realizing suddenly that Reno had provided her with an excuse to be here. She found herself suddenly torn between hating him and buying him a drink. "I…have something from Reno."
"Come in," said Tseng.
Elena exhaled, pressing the button beside the door. The sliding door slid open, revealing a small, pristine hospital room. The rooms in this part of the floor were normally reserved for important Shinra staff or business partners, of which the Director of the Turks certainly qualified. Because of that, it had none of the austerity of the regular run-of-the-mill rooms. It still was obviously a hospital, but it was spacious and private, with a window that overlooked the city of Midgar.
Tseng was sitting up when she walked in. He had something in his hand—who had brought that to him? The sight of it made her pause. It was a single yellow flower, a bright yellow bloom that she recognized from previous visits to the slums.
One of Aerith's flowers.
She looked away, the sight of it making her feel alienated, for a reason she couldn't explain. She tried not to watch as Tseng tucked the flower into the vase beside his bed, tried not to wonder who else might have sent him flowers—certainly not Reno or Rude, and she hadn't done it—maybe it was the hospital staff, as a courtesy. She was still thinking about that when Tseng cleared his throat.
"You have something for me?" he asked.
"Oh, right!" She'd nearly forgotten. Elena stepped forward, handing him the file that Reno brought her. "Sorry," she said.
He took it from her, searching her face. Elena avoided his eyes, taking a step back. She watched as Tseng drew the file to himself and opened it once, glancing inside of it. He closed it again, setting it aside before she could catch a glimpse. "Thank you," he said, in a tone that sounded too much like dismissal. He looked far-off, as though he had a million things on his mind. Elena shifted in place, unsure whether she should stay or go. At length, she walked over to a visitor's chair and sat in it, staying at the edge of the seat in case he told her to leave. When he didn't say anything after a while, she relaxed, sinking further into the seat.
"How are you feeling, sir?" she asked, when the silence dragged on so long as to become uncomfortable.
"Better," said Tseng, in a tone that made her question that. She thought back to the pain in his voice earlier, and realized that she wouldn't put it past Tseng to refuse painkillers if he felt they were impairing him. It would be out of place to ask, though, so she twisted her fingers around in her lap and watched the sun start to set from the window.
"Can I get anything for you?" she asked, after another long pause.
"Not right now," said Tseng.
She exhaled, wondering if she should have left after all. Her eyes moved again, looking at the flowers by the bed. They were artfully arranged, she realized, something tugging at the back of her memory. She'd grown up in Midgar, so flowers were not something she was used to seeing, but her father had been important in his day…as a child, she and her sister had read a lot of books, done a lot of traveling. She couldn't help but feel as though the arrangement was important, somehow. It was dominated by a small purple flower, in clusters, but the sight of that one yellow bloom was enough to give her pause. She looked away again.
Elena hesitated, then tried another tack, bringing the conversation back to work. "I looked through Deepground, like you said," she said. "It appears to be abandoned. Er—by the Tsviets, I mean. The regular SOLDIERs are still there. They…didn't object to the entrance being closed off."
He nodded, but didn't say anything else. Elena saw him glance briefly at the file on his bedside table, a small, very subtle tell—they were always subtle with Tseng—but it was enough to set her nerves on edge again.
"What aren't you telling me?" she asked, her voice tight. "Sir," she added as an afterthought, as Tseng glanced at her.
"Excuse me?" he asked. His tone was a warning, but it had been days, and Elena had been sitting on this since she first brought him back from the Temple—no, she'd been thinking about this before that—and she couldn't take it anymore.
"You, and Reno, and Rude," she said. "You're doing something, and you're keeping me in the dark. I've been one of you for months, and I still feel like you don't trust me. You send me around delivering papers, like an errand girl, while Reno and Rude do all the real missions. It's like I'm only half a Turk, or—!"
Or a replacement for my sister.
Even in her head, the words were ugly, and she clamped her mouth shut, trying to escape them from coming out. She could feel herself shaking, and she clenched her fists, resolutely not looking at Tseng. That did it. He was about to tell her off. She was going to be fired for sure.
But Tseng didn't say anything for a few long moments. When he finally spoke, it was with a calm, methodical voice, the voice of the Director of the Turks.
"You want a real mission," he said. It wasn't a question.
She nodded, looking up at him.
Tseng glanced pointedly at the file by his side. "Take that to the slums," he said. "Do it tonight, don't let anyone see it. Make it look like you're going to Wall Market—Reno and Rude usually play cards at the bar there. Join them. I'll write down where I want that delivered. Read it, memorize it, burn it. Deliver the file, don't stay too long, and come right back. Do you understand?"
She nodded, a little bit stunned. Elena rose, taking the file carefully and tucking it into her suit jacket. Tseng watched her, nodding with something that might have been approval, and for a little while, she wasn't aware of much else.
It was only as she was leaving the room that she recognized the flower she had been looking at. It was a Wutaiian bloom—Aster tataricus.
Elmyra watched as the little girl in front of her, freshly scrubbed and in new clothes with her hair neatly braided, started to eat, and marveled at the resilience of the child. When Shelke first brought her in, she had been terrified and shaking, but now that she had bathed and changed and was obviously somewhere safe, she had relaxed, and had started eating the food in front of her. The Turk next to her, Chris, echoed her thoughts, propping her injured leg up on a chair.
"She's a trooper," she said.
Elmyra nodded, watching the girl. Marlene's actions reminded her of another little girl, one that she had met on the street not so long ago, in front of a train station. She felt a pang of worry, wondering where that same girl was now, and what she was doing. The woman exhaled, her lips tightening in a frown. It wouldn't do her any good to sit and worry about Aerith now. They would hear something soon, or they wouldn't. She stood up, walking over to Marlene.
"Marlene, sweetheart," she said, sitting down next to the girl. "Are you feeling okay?"
Marlene sat back, swallowing her food. "Mm-hmm," she said. "Shelke helped me!"
"Yes." Elmyra's eyes moved unconsciously towards the door on the other side of the hall, behind which Shelke was still being interrogated by Shion and Eira. She tried to keep her own personal opinions of the matter out of her face, turning towards Marlene. "She did."
"Is Shelke in trouble?" asked Marlene, frowning.
"No, she's not," said Elmyra, picking up a napkin and wiping at Marlene's face. "You should finish your food."
Something in her tone apparently made Marlene not believe her. The girl frowned, turning towards her. "Shelke's not a bad person," she said. "She's my friend. Tell Shion that."
"I think Shion already knows that, dear," said Elmyra.
Marlene folded her arms. "I want to talk to Papa," she said. "Can I talk to him now?"
For response, Elmyra glanced at Chris. The Turk frowned, leaning back in her seat. "We still can't get a secure connection," she said. "But we're working on it."
"Soon," said Elmyra, tucking a strand of Marlene's brown hair behind her ear. "I promise."
"Okay…" said Marlene. She glanced back at her plate. "Shelke's going to be okay, right? Promise?"
Elmyra nodded, placing her hand on Marlene's shoulder and squeezing lightly. She glanced at Chris, who was starting to get to her feet. "I'm gonna go see what's going on," she said, starting for the locked room. "Why don't you put the kid to bed?"
Elmyra nodded again, sitting back in her seat and watching as Marlene finished her food.
On the other side of the door, Shelke looked away from the conversation, looking back at the pair of Turks who were facing her. She remembered them, she realized, or at least one of them. He was older now, and something appeared to be wrong with one of his hands, but she thought she remembered his face, fragmented, as though from another time. Before she was a Tsviet?
Did a time like that exist?
"Tell me again," the man was saying. "About Deepground and Jenova."
Shelke stared at him, then opened her mouth and began to speak…
TO BE CONTINUED