disclaimer
i only own final fantasy in my dreams.




Warning: this story takes a decently mature tone at times. Though not gory, perverted, or excessive in any way, if you have problems with things like violence or childbirth and the human reproductive system, be careful. I do confess that, although the serious part of the story is the most important, it is merely the backbone. I tend to be very sarcastic when I write, and this story is more for entertainment's sake than to be a lecture. A note to readers: I made a sort of compromise on the AR issue (Aeris's Resurrection) which I hope will attract readers of both opinions. Although I have not, in fact, resurrected Aeris Gainsborough, she is still an integral part of my story and can be considered one of the main characters.


enjoy.


Intro: Behind Closed Doors





I was never really anyone.

Born? I was born, if you call it that, in the labs of Shinra, in a small test tube beneath the misguided hands of a man called Hojo. Created, soul cleaved to a body that I never really owned. I was the composite of everything Hojo ever played with: through my human blood runs both the power of the Ancients and the knowledge of the cosmoe, that ancient race of animals residing in Cosmo Canyon. Anything Hojo ever touched eventually became a part of me: All sorts of magic and Materia, monsters and Mako - such things have been injected into my blood. I was just a dumping ground - a toy, yet the ultimate weapon of defense.

They called me simply the Aurora Project.

Hojo told me one night, reveling in both the success of a previous experiment and his victory in an ongoing battle with a large bottle of whisky, where the idea for my creation had come from. "Long ago," he said, "there was another mad scientist who took as his goal the manipulation and creation of powerful, magical beings. His name was Kaefka. One of his test subjects was a young girl, full of unbelievable powers running in her blood. It was this Kaefka's experiments with this girl that eventually perfected the magic we now call Manipulate. I read about it in a history once." I sat very still. "This is why, my dear, dear, Aurora," he slurred now, his long fingers stroking my cheek, "this is why you wear my crown..." His hands glazed over the small silver band I had always worn, small crests of yellow Materia beads peering from inside its iron workings.

I remember little from those times. What I remember, I remember coldly, as if I were watching the body of someone else. I was never really anyone - just the Aurora Project. I remember briefly other subjects of Hojo's - the great red beast, the man with the dark hair, the transfigured machines, the shrieking blond man, the lovely young woman with the green eyes. I remember receiving transfusions from some of them, howling in pain as magics mixed beneath my skin. Hojo's glowing eyes beckoned me on. I was no one.

I did not know my fate. I had never been outside Hojo's lab rooms - extensive as they were, it was a small world. Then one day, Hojo left - everyone left. The blue suits, the white coats. All gone. I roamed the Shinra labs like a ghost, doing for myself what I could, trying to gather the courage to open the door, the doors that had always been closed ...








I. Back to the Beginning

Chapter 1: Wounded City



Red loped into the town of Nibelheim, his paws padding lightly on the dirt roads, making small pat-pat noises that echoed through the sleeping town. The sun had risen gently in the sky, long fingers of flame and rose slowly fading over the sharp peaks. Red was not surprised to see everyone still asleep; he had slipped out of the conservatory of Cosmo Canyon late at night, starting the journey across the cliffs and through the plains under a clear, black sky. Red had incredible strength and stamina; his beast-like physique - resembling a wolf, or a lion - had been well-trained over his lifetime. The run, though tiring, was nothing especially hard to the cosmoe.

Red slowed his pace and looked around him. The town was slowly recovering, as was the world around it. Tiny flowers grew in hopeful gardens beneath patched roofs. Yes, the world was coming back, piece by piece. It had only been a month before that Meteor hung in the sky, red with promise, and Sephiroth had walked the earth. After those two great battles - first, the horrendous struggle with and defeat of Sephiroth; second, the climactic destruction of Meteor with the power of Holy and the Lifestream - the world had paused in its tracks, then slowly let out a collective sigh. Little by little, the people were regaining their confidence and their peace.

Cloud had sent everyone home after the last battle. "Go away," he had said, with a slight smile. "Go home. Make sure everything you cared about, everything you fought for, is alright. Go back to your families and friends and your pasts and get a little bit of comfort."

"But -" Tifa had protested - "but there's so much still to do! Someone has to go down and help rebuild everything in Midgar. Not to mention -"

Cloud put a hand on her shoulder, laughing. "We all need a break, Tifa. How about this - anyone interested, we'll meet back in Nibelheim in a month. Send word before you come. Then we'll start the rest of our work - the healing we need to do. The healing Aeris would have done. We'll go to Midgar and see how badly Meteor hit them." There were nods of agreement all around.

The month had passed, and Red had enjoyed immensely his return home - even though his grandfather and mentor, Bugenhagen, was still missed. Red spent long nights in the conservatory, thinking and watching the stars, determined to become the scholar and wise-man Bugenhagen had been. At times, a long, mournful howl had echoed over the Canyon, deep in the melancholy of midnight; although mature, Red still mourned his mother and father and especially his mentor.

However, the time had come to meet up with the others and begin the long task of healing the Planet. Red had done a little research before heading off on the journey. He now padded up to a small house - newly built, it stood a little apart from the others - where he recognized the scent of Cloud.

The door was a slight bit open, and he pushed it with his nose. "Cloud?"

A voice from inside: "Red? Is that you?"

Red pushed the door the rest of the way and padded into the small house. "Of course."

The house was freshly built and still smelled a bit like freshly cut wood and mortar. The furnishings were simple. Red continued through a small living room into the kitchen, where Cloud Strife sat at a wooden table drinking coffee. His warrior's garb had vanished; he wore a simple t-shirt and dark pants.

"Hey!" he said, seeing Red. "That was a fast trip."

Red grinned at his friend. "We of Cosmo Canyon travel fast and light," he said, settling his canine form next to the table and curling his burning tail around his legs.

"And carry a mean bite," Cloud said, returning the grin. "It's great to see you."

Red marveled for a second at how - well, how lighthearted Cloud was now. The month of rest must have done wonders to him. He finally seemed relaxed; he was joking around and smiling, and energetic about his life.

"Who else is coming?" Red asked, nosing a small pastry on the table.

Cloud pushed it toward Red's muzzle, then leaned back in the chair. "Tifa's here ... well, not here," he said with a slight blush; "she's in her own house. She'll probably be over today. Cid is coming in later this afternoon, once he gets himself out of bed." Cloud winked and continued. "Barrett is already in Midgar, with Marlene, working on repairs and such. Cait ... " Cloud paused. "Well, Cait Sith has been taken out of operation. However, Reeve has expressed a desire to help us in our reparations."

"Wait," Red said, his mouth half full of pastry. "Reeve? Of the Shinra Reeve?"

Cloud nodded. "Of the EX-Shinra. They've dismantled the company; most of its upper employees are dead anyway. The Turks have taken charge of what used to be Shinra and are now behind some of the most advanced schemes for new power systems in the world."

"The Turks?" Red shook his mane in disbelief. "They're still around?"

A voice from behind him spoke: "Yes, they're all 'up and kicking', as you say."

"Vincent," Cloud said, smiling. "Hello again."

Red turned on his haunches to welcome the tall, dark man. "Vincent," he said, with a small nod. The caped man returned his formality and sat at a chair at Cloud's table.

"Yes, the Turks are still around," Vincent continued. "And although still up to scheming and sneaky dealing, they don't seem to be up to evil anymore. They've turned Shinra into a larger company called Solar Collective, which is run by a Board of Directors instead of a President. And yes, all of the Turks sit on the Board, but they have invited in select others who have knowledge and experience."

"I don't believe it," Red said, smiling. "The Turks are going good?"

Cloud offered Vincent a cup of coffee, but Vincent refused, shaking his long, dark locks. Somehow, the thought of Vincent Valentine with a home-brewed cup of coffee made Red want to giggle.

"Not going good, Red, so much as they've recognized a profit." Cloud sat back down. "Think about it. We're all going to need power - as in energy - soon, now that Mako Reactors have been banned. The Turks have the biggest 'in' with all the research and information Shinra has. They realized a chance to make themselves a very prominent place in the world, along with a ton of money. It's a very clever move."

Vincent shifted in his chair. "The thing is this - although the Turks aren't really our friends, I believe we can now cross them off on our list of enemies."

"You sure?" Red asked. "Cause that's quite a relief."

Vincent nodded slightly. "From what I've seen, they're much better off now, and wouldn't bother us."

Red cocked his head. "If you don't mind my asking, Vincent, where have you been these past couple weeks? Where'd you go?"

Vincent's lips twisted. "I had a few things to take care of," he said, "then I returned to the Shinra Mansion here in Nibelheim."

"He's been going over a lot of the old Shinra notes and information," Cloud offered. "Been scouring the stuff they left in that little laboratory and library down there."

"There's quite a bit of information. Most of the notes are Hojo's." Vincent's red eyes flared momentarily. "But some of it is useful for us."

Red's eyes lit up at the mention of research. "Really? I've been going through Grandfather's old books and notes. We should compare what we've gotten." Although a dark and enigmatic man, Vincent's intelligence had never been in question, and Red was eager to discuss anything having to do with knowledge.

Vincent gave the cosmoe a small friendly smile. "Perhaps we will, Nanaki."

After the small breakfast had ended, the three headed out into the town. Though she was alone, Tifa had kept the large old family house. Red heard the sound of a piano - some skillful artist teased the keys, bringing the melody of Clair De Lune out a window. "Is that a recording?"

"Nope," Cloud said. "That's Tifa."

"You're kidding," Red said. "That's Tifa?"

Cloud nodded. "She's always had a gift for the piano. She's been playing a lot since ... since we got home."

Red asked quietly: "How are things between you two?"

Cloud hung his head. "I don't know. Same as ever. We're still friends." Red decided wisely to not ask anything more and approached the house, ringing the small bell.

The song abruptly stopped, followed by the less musical sound of someone pounding down the stairs. Tifa threw the door open and gasped. "Red!" she exclaimed, grinning and throwing her arms around his neck. Red broke into a smile himself and gave Tifa a brief nuzzle. "How are you, Tifa?" he asked once she had detached herself.

"Not bad. Much better now," she said, straightening. She had traded in her fighting garb for a long pair of jeans and a striped sweater. She looked at Vincent. "I don't suppose you'd care to be welcomed in the same way, Vincent. So I'll watch myself."

Vincent actually smiled. "Hello, Tifa. Good to see you again."

"And Cloud." She gave her old friend a dazzling smile. "Fancy meeting you here." Cloud returned the smile; Tifa shook her hair from her face and looked back at the others. "So what's up for the day?"

"Well," Cloud said, "Cid should be in this afternoon to pick us all up. Barrett is already in Midgar. Yuffie is taking care of business in Wutai, but will take a boat and meet us in Midgar to help when she's done. I told her to just call PHS." He grinned. "And Cait Sith ... well, the robot was dismantled, but Reeve has offered his assistance."

Tifa whistled. "Reeve. Alright, then. You guys care to come in?"

The afternoon was not long; the old friends caught up on each other's lives. Tifa had come home to relax and heal; Cloud had done much the same. The two had worked together for a while on Cloud's new house, then spent a little time apart. Vincent had joined them in Nibelheim soon after the house was done - "to avoid all the work, I'm sure," Tifa said with a grin, at which Vincent growled - and spent most of his days deep in the dark of the Mansion basement. Red filled them in on the work he had done in Cosmo Canyon with Bugenhagen's information.

Soon, a loud whirring noise passed overhead, and Tifa leapt up. "There's Cid," she said. "Let's get ready to go."

Red walked to the door. "You and Cloud go get ready. Vince and I will talk to Cid."

Sure enough, the Highwind sat just beyond the outskirts of the town. As Vincent and Red approached, they could see a tall, thin man vault himself off of the edge and land superbly in the grass below. He straightened as they approached and tossed his cigarette. "Hey!"

"Hello, Cid," Red answered. "How's the ship?"

"Better n'ever!" Cid said with a grin. "Fixed 'er all up last month. She's been ready to go for a week!"

Vincent appraised the ship. "Impressive, Cid. Good work."

"Of course it's good work!" Cid replied, but with a sarcastic grin. "Thanks, Vince," he added.

A shout from behind turned all their heads. Cloud and Tifa were approaching, dressed in their working garb. Cid let out a whoop. "Let's get these engines going!"

The trip was short and much smoother than in the past; everyone commented on

the flight improvements, which made Cid swear with pride. Tifa spent much of the flight above-decks, peering over the edge, wind in her hair. Below her she watched the ocean pass by. It was unbelievable, she thought, that just a month ago, Emerald Weapon had hidden there. It was unbelievable that so much had happened ...

Tifa Lockheart closed her eyes and let the wind blow her memories away.



They had reached Midgar in very little time, and Cid zeroed in on the area where Barrett was very quickly. It wasn't hard; Cid had made an intelligent guess, and it was easy to pick out the clear spaces from the piles of ruins in the Sector 7 Slums. Barrett and some friends of his had cleared off Seventh Heaven - the old bar and Avalanche hideout - which brought tears to Tifa's eyes when she saw it. Staying with Barrett were Marlene and Elmyra, the woman who had been Aeris's surrogate mother and Marlene's sometime protector. Both had survived the destruction and chaos in Midgar; according to Elmyra, Aeris's church had barely been touched by the disaster. The woman and the young girl had set up a pseudo-hospital among the golden flowers, healing and caring for the wounded. Barrett had found them a few weeks ago and persuaded them to come with him to Sector 7, where they had set up a central headquarters of sorts for the reconstruction of Midgar.

Barrett, however, was losing hope, which he expressed soon after a hasty reunion. "The city's trashed to pieces!" he said furiously. "Everything's a gigantic mess. We've scoured the city and gotten what we can, but it looks real damn hopeless. We may just have to clean up what we can and move on - let Mother Nature do her part."

Red tilted his head. "You've been all over the city?"

"What's left of it," Barrett replied. "A lot of it was destroyed even before Meteor and Holy duked it out three feet above the mess. The only place we haven't gone to yet is the rubble that was Shinra HQ. I have a good mind to just let it rot."

Vincent shook his head slowly. "That's a place we should go. Someone should explore it, make sure there's nothing left. They had a lot of equipment and information stored there, if for the wrong reasons."

Barrett said, "According to the people who've come back here, there are monsters prowling it. So I think we're just the people for the job."

"How have the monsters been down here? In the slums?" Tifa was still staring at Seventh Heaven in wonderment.

"There haven't been too many, and nothin' I can't handle," said the large black man proudly. "I guess most of 'em have stuck together in the center of the city."

Cid grinned. "Then I say we go and kick them the hell out!"

They spent the evening in Barrett's bar-turned-complex. He had done quite a good job with it; and once people had heard that someone was helping Midgar, they had flocked to him by the handful. Teams of workers scoured the wreckage and sent the injured back to Seventh Heaven; a team of doctors and nurses, headed by Elmyra and assisted by the little Marlene, patched up wounds. Later on, Barrett and a group of contacts searched out safe places for people to stay, far away. Some went to relatives; some went to entirely new lands. But slowly and surely, Midgar was emptying itself of human life.

Tifa stayed up late, after everyone had gone to bed. She sat on a stool remarkably like her own behind the bar (which now served as a pseudo-reception area). Her thoughts and memories echoed inside the small room ... old members of Avalanche, grinning and joking around as they ordered drinks and sandwiches; the absurdly young Marlene insisting that she could wait tables. They were all connected with ghosts now, haunting her thoughts. She twiddled her fingers on the woodwork of the bar in a long-forgotten habit. She could still hear Barrett in the meeting room beneath her, yelling orders; she could see the tall, spiky-haired man standing in the door, watching her ...

Wait. She cleared her head of the memories, but Cloud remained in the doorway. "Hey," she said softly.

"Hey." He looked at her, then pulled another stool up to the bar.

"Want a drink?" she asked.

He gave her a lopsided smile. "Give me something hard."

Instinctively she reached for one of the cabinets, only to find a stack of disordered papers and a few dirty plates. "You'll have to wait on that. The place seems to have changed ownership."

Cloud bowed his head. "What are you out here for?"

"Peace and quiet," she quipped. "You know Cid and Barrett both snore, and Red howls in his sleep."

Cloud laughed out loud at her quick retort. "Tifa, you're really something. And you know what I meant."

She smiled. "I can't help it. Being back here ... it's hard. Once we left ... I never thought I'd come back." Her eyes glazed over the corner which had once held a small replica of her piano. "And now ... as empty as it is, the place is too full."

"Memories?" Cloud had begun to play with the woodwork as well, she noticed.

"Yes. And no." Tifa sighed. "Memories of people who aren't here and should be. Memories of a life that's gone. Not that my life in the slums, at the bar, was anything ecstatically grand. But ... it was. It was a part of me. And now ..." she stopped.

Cloud was silent and she realized she may have said too much. No matter, Lockheart. You told yourself a while ago to be honest to him. "What about you?"

Cloud gave her that lopsided smile again. "Cid was snoring."

Tifa burst out laughing. Their eyes met, briefly, twinkling with humor. This is how it should be...

Then Cloud stood, bowing his head in mock politeness. "I leave you now, lady, and return to my noisy bed."

"You don't have to go," she said before she thought. Cloud paused, turning back to her.

"We both need sleep, Tifa," he said gently. "There'll be lots of hard work and probably some fighting tomorrow."

She nodded. "Right. Good night, Mr. Strife."

He smiled. "And a good night to you, Miss Lockheart." He turned and went back down the stairs.

Tifa stared for a while longer at the empty tables in the room before curling up behind the bar in a dreamless sleep.