The fires of Midgar burned for weeks. The entire plate had collapsed and made little pockets where the husks survived. They came loping out of the ruins in ones and twos, tearing into the refugees taking shelter along Midgar's edge.
After two weeks they bombed the city again and reduced it to a crater. No more Reaper troops came crawling out.
Later, much later, after the Gaia-Rannoch treaty had been signed and the City of Edge established, with its acres of prefab housing and fleet of green-house ships drifting high above the clouds, the bombings would be remembered as the Scouring of Midgar. A memorial would be built and thousands of flowers and mementos left at its feet.
But in the moment, Sephiroth put his head down and worked. The rebels out in the wilderness returned, bringing supplies and survival know-how with them. He was the only remaining figurehead that people recognised, so he took charge and organised the crowds. They did what he said, largely out of habit and familiarity. Shepard negotiated aid with the Quarians and the Geth and kept the peace. The refugee crowds were massive and terrified after the sudden destruction of their city, panic and threat of rioting was never far away. There was much to be done.
After a long day working in the rubble, he walked back to his tent. His eyes stung from the concrete dust still drifting through the air. He pulled aside the flap and stepped inside, stretching out his shoulder as he went. Inside, Shepard sat on her bed, taking off the plates of her armour.
They hadn't talked about it. There wasn't the time. The emergency relief tents could house multiple people and there were too few accommodations already. Sharing space was prudent.
She nodded at him. He nodded back.
He sat on his bed on the other side of the tent and began undoing the long braid of his hair. The Quarians stared at it sometimes. He got the feeling they didn't have any hair under those helmets and weren't used to seeing humans with so much of it.
They were pleasant enough to work with, though, the Quarians. Just people, really, under their enviro-suits.
Shepard cut off a pained groan. He looked up. She held her arm up to get at the latches of her chest plate. The angle looked awkward, probably from strained back muscles.
She was going to leave. The second the Quarians had arrived her time on Gaia had been on a timer. She hadn't said anything. Neither had said anything.
Admiral Raan had informed them that the Normandy was on its way.
He stood and crossed the gap.
"Here," he said, kneeling and reaching for the latches. She held her arm up for him, her expression pinched and her eyes hooded. He clicked the little latches open, running down her side as far as her hip.
"Thanks," she murmured. She pulled the plate off and let it fall onto the bed, her posture relaxing without the stiff metal holding her up. Her eyes rose to him. "How are you holding up?"
He shrugged and stood. "Well enough."
She stood too. They regarded each other, a foot's distance between them. He remembered the feeling of her in his arms after the confrontation in the planet's core. Her strong arms around him, her soft skin under his hands, and curls of steam rising in the air around them.
She dragged a hand down her face.
"Can I touch you?" she asked, her voice ragged.
He blinked. "Yes."
She hugged him. He felt something inside of him snap and he curled around her, winding his arms around her waist. She tucked her head into the crook of his neck and he rested his chin against her hair. Her arms trembled around his back, holding him close. Hot ragged breath brushed against his ear. A shiver travelled down his spine.
Shinra was gone. Genesis was dead. Angeal was in a medically induced coma. And she was going to leave. It was all broken and gone and she was leaving. His arms tightened around her.
"Sephiroth?" she whispered.
He swallowed. "I can't believe Shinra's gone." It was the easiest thing to give voice to.
She let out a hollow laugh. "I did promise."
He curled his hand around the back of her head, digging his fingers into her hair.
"I pictured more of a hostile takeover. Assassination. Blackmail exchanged in backrooms."
The breath on his neck trembled. "So did I," she said quietly.
She pulled back and met his eye. He didn't want to let go of her. Her eyes were focused and intent on him. Her hands were on his biceps and shoulders, her grip strong.
"This isn't the end," she said.
His eyes dropped.
"Hey." She moved her head and caught his gaze again. He saw her throat move as she swallowed. She looked like she wanted to say something but closed her mouth and looked away.
She let out a ragged sigh and her eyes flicked up to meet his again, burning into him. "Can I kiss you?"
He covered her lips with his own.
The world seemed to fade away, and they collapsed onto the bed together. He kissed onto her skin a multitude of words he couldn't quite say and she seared him with her touch.
The dawn found them in each other's arms on two thin beds pushed together. Sephiroth held her, feeling her chest rise and fall, and listened to the sounds of ships coming in to land.
Shepard walked through the rubble that had been Midgar. Quiet ships hummed past in the distance, taking off and landing at the hastily assembled Spaceport on the far side of the tent city. In the ruins, there was quiet.
Midgar had been built on top of a natural spring, an older refugee had told her. He was one of few alive who remembered it, the little riverside hamlet that Shinra had bulldozed and repurposed into its metropolis, piping all the river water directly into its factories and reactors until the spring was all but forgotten and drinking water shipped in from the Kalm mountain ranges.
With the city's destruction the pipes cracked and the factory reservoirs burst. The water flowed out again, and in the centre of the ruins a lake slowly rose up, lapping at Shinra's ruin.
She stopped at the water's edge.
The remains of HQ were in there somewhere.
A sprout of razor weed skittered away from her dust covered boots. A seagull landed on a warped girder rising from the depths.
The water looked dark and cold. A wide mirror without so much as a ripple. It wouldn't be safe to drink for years, not after the horrors it had swallowed.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a little white book. She ran her fingers over the spine, then the embossed title. It wasn't really white anymore, not even ivory. She'd tried her best to wash the blood stains off the back cover but didn't have anything much cleaner to wash it off with.
She cleared her throat.
"Your parents wanted to take your body back to Banora," she started, quietly. She kicked at the dirt, feeling out of place and insufficient. "Wanted to hide you away in a quiet grave at the family manor. I didn't let them. You're welcome. We insisted you be here, at the edge of the lake. By the memorial for the lost, next to the ruins. Figured you'd like that better."
Her voice didn't carry far. The smashed concrete and twisted metal soaked it up, leaving nothing but quiet between the black lake and the grey skies. The seagull studied her, standing on one leg.
She opened the little book. Her eyes followed the first couple of lines of the poem.
"Angeal's doing better, by the way. They woke him up from the coma. They think his chances are good. He wants to live now. I guess all this has… shaken him back into himself."
The lines turned blurry. She closed the book.
"You died a hero. Are you happy?" She blinked a couple of times. It was bloody dusty out. "Nobody else really knows what happened, but there are some rumours. The memorial will be controversial. I bet that'd please you. They'll be debating your ending for generations."
She was too old to pretend. Tears welled in her eyes. She put a hand over her mouth and let them fall.
"You bastard," she said. "It didn't have to be like this. You could have been here. I wish you were here so I could yell at you and you'd yell back and we'd work it all out."
Her shoulders shook.
"I miss you, Genesis. We all miss you."
She closed her eyes and let out a shaky sigh.
"I was going to read some Loveless. Maybe apologise…" Her throat tightened. She shook her head. "…I can't."
She clutched the book so hard her fingers ached. She sucked in a breath and let it out again. Slowly, she made her fingers relax. Bracing herself, she squared her shoulders and looked out across the lake.
"I think… I'm always going to be a little angry at you. But I'll come back and try again. Next time I'm on Gaia. And the time after that… and the time after that. I'll keep trying. Until I've read the whole damn thing."
She hung her head. Some poems didn't have endings. They finished all the same. It didn't sound like anything he would have been satisfied with.
"Goodbye, my friend," she whispered. "It's won't be the same without you."
She turned and walked away.
The clouds were drifting apart in the distance, patches of blue sky peeking through. It would be a nice afternoon.
Angeal was standing a polite distance away, fumbling with a set of dog tags. She patted him on the shoulder as she passed.
Further on she found Sephiroth, leaning against a concrete slab with his arms crossed. He had gone out to the shores of the lake before dawn, declaring it safe enough to traverse when he joined her at breakfast later.
She leaned against the slab next to him, shoulders brushing together. She looked sidelong at him.
It felt so natural, being this close to him. He didn't say anything. He was good at that. She leaned her head back and crossed her arms.
"What happens now?"
He didn't reply for a long moment. She felt him shrug.
"Angeal intends to retire, regardless of whether or not they can fully heal him. He said something about farming."
She nodded slowly. "Sounds nice."
"I don't think he'll ever pick up a sword again."
"Hopefully, he won't need to." She dragged a hand down her face. "Zack's trying to wheedle his way into joining the Alliance. Though Admiral Hackett wants to talk to me and you before he commits to letting any Shinra military personnel, let alone SOLDIERs, into the corps."
Sephiroth let out a short hollow laugh. "SOLDIERs signing up to fight for other militaries. If nothing else confirmed that Shinra was truly gone…"
She smiled. "It's about damn time."
He looked down at his feet. "It… still doesn't feel real. How could it be?" He glanced at her from the corner of his eye. "Will the Alliance take him?"
"They will if you give permission. Technically, he's still your SOLDIER."
"They would be wiser not to. They don't know anything about him. About SOLDIER, about Shinra, what it means and what he's capable of." He looked straight ahead. "They won't take him."
She frowned. "Sephiroth," she began.
He looked up at Angeal's return, and she cut herself off. The three of them shared a nod. He had lost a lot of muscle mass, but he looked better than he had in a some time. One of the ever-present creases between his eyes had eased out.
"How much longer are you… planetside?" he asked her.
She pulled herself up onto the concrete slab to sit on, resting her elbows on her knees and letting her legs swing. "The Normandy will be here in three days, but I'll be hanging around probably another month to sort things out. I'm not just running away the second the door is open." She kept her smile in check but her mouth betrayed her at the name of her ship.
Sephiroth watched her legs with a carefully placid expression, not turning to look back at her. She caught the jagged edges in his eyes.
Angeal offered her a tentative smile. "Come say goodbye before you go, will you?"
"And you're always welcome to come back," he said, "from wherever it is you're going."
She blinked at him curiously. "You can come up and see me too, you know. We're not really from different worlds anymore."
He scratched the back of his neck and looked up. The clouds had parted enough to show the silhouette of a Geth dreadnaught hanging in the upper atmosphere. "I guess so."
She swung herself down. "You'll get used to it."
The next day rushed past, too busy for introspection. Kunsel had all but disappeared into a Quarian ship, helping adapt the technology to work with the local Gaian gear. He swapped out his SOLDIER helmet for a Quarian one without missing a beat. He mentioned to Shepard while they installed solar panels on top of prefab housing units that someone called the Shadow Broker had offered him a job.
She smiled into her collar.
"Probably don't mention that to anyone else," she replied, deciding she'd have to give Liara a piece of her mind after all the proper reunions were out of the way. Poaching a perfectly good sniper out from under her, honestly.
"Yeah," he said. He hooked up the long thin solar panel, latching it securely onto the framework. "I figured she wouldn't mind me telling you, though."
She cocked her head, still wiring her panel into the building. "She?"
"She, he, they, them. Us." He shrugged. "Guess I'll be seeing you around then?"
"Count on it." She made sure the panel was nice and stable, then switched it on. It came to life with a row of flickering lights.
"You know I'm proud of you, right?"
He paused, tinkering with his controls.
She was pretty sure he was holding back a smile under the helmet.
"Good." She dusted off her hands and moved onto the next one with a smile.
They found Scout's iron box in the arms of one of the shell shocked survivors from Reeve's department. It was dented and looked dead to Sephiroth's Omni-tool. A short wiry Geth took it from him and sometime later a bright green Geth Prime walked out of the workshop towards him.
Shepard watched Sephiroth look up in awe at the towering Prime that called him a friend and stretched out to shake his hand. They exchanged what looked like the most awkward hug either species had ever taken part in. It was also so utterly heartfelt that Shepard felt it rude to watch. She wandered off, feeling something warm and affectionate in her chest. Who knew Sephiroth could be so damn cute.
Scout didn't linger in the Prime platform for long: they transferred into the mainframe of a small Geth frigate as soon as a ship was available. The ship hummed to life and the door opened. Cait Sith trotted up the gangplank. The cat hadn't been the same since Reeve's death: quieter, less bold. He still wore a crown and sold predictions though. The loading bay door closed on the little AI cat asking Scout what the going rate on the future was up in space.
Shepard didn't say goodbye. She would put good money on having to rescue Cait from Aria T'Loak at least once before the end of the year. Next to her, Sephiroth watched Scout take off with a closed off expression. The warm glowing feeling in her chest turned pensive.
She pursed her lips. She grabbed his hand and led him away from the landing strips.
They climbed one of the short cliffs that dotted the Midgar wastes, talking quietly about safe topics on their way up. Wutai had not opened its borders, but tentative scouts had approached the aliens and queries were made. It remained to be seen what would come of it, Shepard's deal with the empress still stood. The Alliance would respect Wutai sovereignty and stay out of their territory.
Reds and golds and the last of the light leeched out of the sky on the climb up. Distant cruisers and live-ships masquerading as twinkling stars greeted them when they reached the top. The wind sighed by, crisp and dusty.
Shepard stood at the edge and looked out over the city. It sprawled out in a circle around the ruins, taking up more space than Midgar ever had. Lights dotted throughout, marking the improvised streets and pathways and the clusters that had become gathering places.
Sephiroth stood behind her. She wondered if he would say anything. After a moment, he snuck his hands around her waist, pressing himself against her back.
It was still so new and cautious, the thing they had discovered between them. No, not discovered. Cultivated, just by accident. Occasionally tended, occasionally stomped on, watered more often than not, and then found it to have grown into something strong and resilient with deep roots. She leaned back against him. His coat and yards of silver whipped about them in the breeze.
"Cissnei asked to join me on the Normandy today," she said.
He tilted his head. "Did she?"
"Mmm," she snuggled into him. She was in civilian clothes and missing the temperature controls of her armour. "She said she's 'looking for new purpose now that Shinra is finished.' Wants to find herself in the stars, apparently."
He scoffed. "Did she say it with a straight face?"
"With a shameless smile and Rufus Shinra smirking in the background. 'Midgar Frontiers.'" She shook her head. "His old man is dead for thirty seconds and he's already rebranding and branching out."
"He's a Shinra," Sephiroth rumbled with some venom.
"He's about to be bogged down by infinite Citadel regulations and two-thousand-year-old Volus trading guilds, no matter what his last name is. I wish him luck."
Sephiroth paused for a long moment. She waited him out. The hands around her waist flexed and grew tighter.
"What did you tell her?" he asked.
" 'Welcome aboard.' I can handle a single spy. And Cissnei is good people."
"You're far too cavalier about this."
She twisted her head around to look at him. His brow was heavy over his eyes.
"Says the man who once welcomed an alien into the most prestigious military corps on the planet," she said softly.
"I have never regretted it." He let go of her, and she turned her back on the view to face him. She could see the lights of the Quarian fleet reflected in his eyes.
"You have it all back now," he said, quietly. "All your planets and stars and space stations."
She peered at him in the dark. She thought of their thin camp beds, hastily pushed together, a sword propped up on one side and a rifle on the other. The first rays of sunlight falling across his sleeping face. She thought of her Normandy quarters, dyed blue in the light of a fish tank.
"Come with me?" she said. It was a question, an order, an offer, a plea.
He froze. "I…"
"There's a place on the Normandy for you. If you want it," she said. He hadn't asked. She wanted it too much to not offer. "There'll always be a place for you on my ship."
"I'm not Alliance." He turned his head and looked at her sidelong.
"Few of my specialists are." She stepped forward, taking his hand. "Come with me. Let me show you the stars. The nebulas, the Citadel, Tuchanka, Rannoch, Omega, the relays, …Earth."
He swallowed. His eyes roamed her face, something lost and desperate shining in their Mako glow.
"There are planets out there that nobody has ever set foot on," she continued, stepping closer again. "Lush garden worlds. Silent planets covered in ruins. Hostile worlds exploding in larva. Thriving cities on distant moons gracefully orbiting their planets, and a host of stars stretching away in every direction."
He lifted his hand to her face and traced her cheek and jawline.
"You shared your world with me," she said, covering his hand with hers. "Let me show you mine."
"I wouldn't be a SOLDIER." He shook his head. "Who would I be? What would I do?"
She smiled at him. "Whatever you wanted."
His eyes snapped up to hers.
Then he kissed her. Sudden and full and with a passion that stole her breath away. She gasped against him, then surged up to meet him. Her hand tangled in his hair and his arm wound around her waist. They parted, pulling back for air. She panted against his lips.
"Can I take that as a yes?" she asked.
"Yes," he breathed. A small smile touched his lips and shone in his eyes. "Yes. I'll go with you." He tightened his arms around her, burying his head in her neck. He was getting to like doing that, she thought, running her hand through his hair and leaning into the embrace.
"You're going to love it."
"I'm going to explore the cosmos," he said, with an innocent wonderment she'd never heard from him before.
"Off-world. You're going off-world."
"I am going to explore the cosmos," he said staunchly.
She laughed. He drew back and looked at her with such affection.
"Scout will be happy," she murmured against his lips. "He was hoping to show you Rannoch."
"I'll look forward to it."
Her Omni-tool glowed an alert, and she felt a fierce and free smile split her face.
"How's that for timing. Look," she said, pointing out over the cliff. He grudgingly drew his attention away from her to look into the night.
The sleek shape of an Alliance stealth frigate, white, black, and blue, swooped down into the atmosphere, silent and beautiful.
She was going to wait until morning, but by the time they made their way to the bottom of the cliff that sounded ridiculous. They walked side by side up to the landing pad and through the boarding tunnel. The glass side gave a full view of the letters painted on its side.
She pulled herself to her full height and held her head high. She was tired and sore and probably looking odd in her civvies. She didn't care. She squared her shoulders and walked up the gangplank.
The airlock disengaged and she stepped inside, Sephiroth half a step behind her.
"Welcome home, Commander."
A sincere thank you to everyone who has commented, faved, or simply read this far. Special thanks to VendettaSmiles for betta reading.
I started this story four years ago in a very different place than I am now, and it helped carry me through some rough patches. For a while, I didn't think I'd ever finish, and then I confess I held off on finishing because I wasn't ready to let this chapter close. I think it's about time now.
Thank you for letting me take you on this long, winding journey. I cannot tell you how much it means to me.