Note: This was originally supposed to have been a writing meme response to a prompt given to me by Zalein, but it kind of got away from me. This is an alternate ending to the story Dear Kunsel, written by Sinnatious and used with permission.
If you haven't read Sinnatious's work, for the love of Final Fantasy VII, go do it.
Many thanks to Zalein for beta reading.
Dear Kunsel: Reprise
Subject: Become a hero
Fenrir thrummed beneath Cloud as he idled in the street, excusing the delay by checking his PHS for mail he knew he hadn't received. His inbox was empty, of course - at least of anything new. There was only one message, and it was months old. Unread because he couldn't open it.
'Text lost in transmission.'
Cloud stared at his PHS for a full ten seconds before he finally forced himself to put the thing away. If he looked at it much longer, he knew he'd be tempted to try to open the message again, and that was an exercise in frustration he didn't need. I'll delete it after this, he told himself firmly. He hadn't been able to bring himself to do it before, unwilling to give up the chance that maybe there was a way to retrieve the text, but it had been months, and Reeve still hadn't managed it. It was time to put the memory of Kunsel to rest.
He killed the engine, cutting his bike's throaty growl off. No use delaying any longer.
The building he walked into was a lot like most of the others in Edge, run down, patched up, a remnant of Midgar that had managed to survive the fall of Meteor. There was little indication to what it once had been, but now Cloud knew it was a shelter for people who didn't have anywhere else to go yet. Rebuilding took time. It would probably be years before everyone was moved out of all the shelters like this.
He didn't bother checking in at the desk. People were free to come and go, unless they were looking for a room, and that wasn't why he was here. He took a left instead, heading into the convalescent ward. That was another common feature that many of these shelters had. Not everyone who'd survived Meteor had come out unscathed.
According to the tip that Cloud had received, the man he was looking for hadn't.
Room 105... room 107... He stopped when he reached room 110. The door was unremarkable, plain brown wood with a scuffed veneer that spoke of better days.
It might have been one of the most intimidating doors Cloud had seen since Nibelheim. He stared at it for a long moment before he steeled himself to knock. Just do it, he told himself. Kunsel would have done this for you. It wasn't a question. He already knew.
His hand met with the hard wood and he waited. Waited, then knocked again. Only silence greeted him, but that wasn't surprising. He'd been warned.
But he'd had to try.
Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped inside.
The room beyond was just as drab as the rest of the building was. There was no carpet on the floor, no decorations on the walls, and a chair, a bed, and a nightstand were the only pieces of furniture there. Sunlight filtered in through a curtained window, enough to see by without turning the light on. A thin stream that slipped through a crack in the curtains fell on the foot of the bed, drawing Cloud's eyes to the occupant.
It was hard to judge the man's age with his body muffled by sheets and his head wrapped in bandages, but his thin face bore signs of strain and was pale from the lack of sunlight. His brown hair hung limp, just clean enough that it wasn't from neglect. His blue eyes were cracked open and unseeing, his expression utterly slack.
In the dimly lit room, those blue eyes glowed. Cloud stilled, though it wasn't a surprise. Mako poisoning. The result of being caught too close to the clash of Meteor, Holy, and the Lifestream itself when everything had gone to hell. Most of the people caught that close had died, either from the destruction going on all around them or from the mako poisoning itself. It was a testament to luck or high mako tolerance - if not both - that this man had survived long enough to be pulled from the rubble of his home.
Quietly, Cloud closed the door, then turned to face the man. Awkward silence filled the room.
Shiva, where did he even begin? He was no good at things like this. That was why he'd taken the coward's way out and let Kunsel talk to Aerith's mom after... After.
Kunsel wasn't here, though, and there was no one else. Cloud took a breath and steeled himself.
"My name is Cloud," he said. "And you're... Ansel, right?" The man didn't react, didn't so much as blink to indicate he was even aware of Cloud's presence in the room. Cloud waited half a heartbeat before he realized he was stupidly waiting for a response that would never come. Feeling foolish, he slid the chair closer to the bed and sat down. "I knew your son," he started again, then stopped and amended, "Sort of. I never met him, but he helped me. He... I owe him a lot."
Silence again. Cloud might as well have been talking at the side of a death bed but for the sound of the man's soft breath.
"He was in SOLDIER. Second Class. I don't know if you knew." There was so little he did know, despite months of searching. Meteor had done a good job of destroying ShinRa's records. Cloud hadn't stopped looking, though. He'd felt he owed Kunsel this much at least. But things like what kind of relationship Kunsel had had with his parents just weren't in the few records he'd found. A name, an address, and the search and rescue account of pulling someone from the ruin of that home, someone identified as the man who lived there. That was all there was on Kunsel's parents. Cloud had made it count.
"I wish I could tell you more about him," he murmured. An ache formed in his throat with the words. "We didn't ever... really talk. He tried, but I..." But Cloud had been too suspicious, too reticent, too caught up in his own personal crises to respond in the way Kunsel clearly wanted.
Hey, Cloud, right? It's Kunsel.
I can't do a lot, but I'm gonna look out for you.
Come on, Cloud. Talk to me. Tell me what's bothering you.
He'd taken Kunsel for granted. He'd thought there would always be another chance. Another text, another offer of drinks, another piece of advice. Kunsel was just always there, always in touch whether Cloud wanted it or not.
Until the day he wasn't.
Until the day Meteor fell.
Cloud's hands curled into his knees. It was hard to keep talking. He didn't know what to say. Nothing he could think of was adequate, could even hope to sum up what had happened, or what it had meant to him.
Finally, Cloud swallowed back the ache. "He was in Midgar, I think." Facts. He could do facts. "ShinRa called a lot of SOLDIERs in. Then... they helped evacuate the city." Midgar was huge and densely populated. Reeve had needed all the help he could get. SOLDIERs were the people's heroes. People would listen to them, and they were there.
'Become a hero.'
He didn't know if that was what Kunsel had been trying to tell him with that message, but that was what he'd decided it meant. It would be just like Kunsel to be out there, helping people until the end.
"You should be proud of him," he said roughly. "He was a good man." He didn't expect Ansel to answer, didn't know if the man even heard, but the words needed to be said. It was all he could offer for the man who'd been more of a friend than Cloud had ever deserved.
With his stock of words depleted, and nothing more he could think of to say, another awkward silence descended, one Cloud didn't know what to do with. He'd come here for closure, both for himself and for Ansel, but it didn't feel finished.
Maybe it never would.
Exhaling softly, Cloud finally stood up. There was only one thing left to do at this point. Pulling his PHS out, he flipped it open and scrolled down one last time to Kunsel's name. His fingers hesitated for a moment before he figured out what he wanted to say.
'I talked to your father. You don't have to worry. I'll look out for him.'
Ansel's empty gaze was still listlessly fixed on nothing that Cloud could see, but he knew that mako poisoning didn't have to be the end. There was still hope for him.
'If you see Zack, say hi for me.'
In a way, that was a goodbye to both his friends.
He hit Send, wondering idly if somewhere in the afterlife Kunsel's hand was itching to answer his PHS. If anyone could find a way to take their PHS with them to the grave, it would be him. He'd messaged Cloud so much that Cloud had sometimes wondered if his PHS was attached to his hip. He'd even-
A PHS trilled. Cloud started at the sound, then again when a hand beneath the sheets twitched. It was the first sign of life the man in the bed had ever given. Hope flickered, then stilled - it wasn't much, but it was a promising sign. He was responding to outside stimulus.
But where had the call come from?
A quick glance confirmed what he'd already known, that it hadn't been his PHS. A search of the nightstand revealed nothing, and nothing under the bed. Cloud turned a speculative look at its occupant. Was it possible...?
Only one way to find out. It was a mild invasion of privacy, but someone was trying to contact Ansel, someone who didn't know that he wouldn't, couldn't return the call. That was enough to make Cloud's decision easy as he peeled the corner of the bed sheet back.
Sure enough, there was a black PHS cradled in the comatose man's hand. The model wasn't that old, a year or two at most, and a light was blinking to indicate mail received. Cloud eased it free from Ansel's fingers, raising an eyebrow at his surprisingly iron grip, then without preamble flipped it open and pulled up the incoming mail.
What he saw froze the breath in his lungs.
Other texts, other missed calls, then there it was again.
His thumb kept scrolling even as his mind frantically scrambled to keep up with the text, with what it meant.
Five times. Five texts that had never been read at all. Cloud's head snapped up, and he stared, wide-eyed.
No gray hair. No crow's feet. A body that was thin but resisting atrophy too well.
Bright blue eyes infused with mako.
It was an effort to believe that his heart hadn't stopped. "Kunsel?" he whispered.
Nothing. No response. Still, Cloud's hands trembled as he set the other's PHS down just inches from his hand, before carefully, carefully sending one more text.
'You still owe me a drink.'
The other PHS trilled, breaking the silence in the air. Kunsel's hand jerked.
And closed around it, thumb curled as though to hit the button to reply.