Epilogue

"...Aeris?"

"I think she is waking up."

"I hope so..." A heavy sigh. "Aeris?"

She groaned sleepily in annoyance, rolling over and pulling a pillow over her head. A quiet chuckle resulted from her movement, and she lazily swatted one hand in the sound's direction.

No, Mom, I don't want to get up... I don't want to go. They'll all make fun of me...

"Aeris?" the voice persisted anyway, her hand making no contact and falling back limply onto the bed. Not her mother's voice after all... far too deep to be. In fact, it was definitely a man's voice speaking to her. Beneath the pillow, Aeris sleepily opened her eyes, a soft smile of recognition crossing her face. It was the voice of her hero, the man she loved... her husband.

Aeris pulled the pillow back from her head and rolled over to face the direction where she could almost feel him standing, tiredly blinking her eyes open to gaze up at him with a yawn. He was standing at her bedside in her room on the Highwind, smiling at her in relief and joy, an expression that was so unusual on his face that it was even more beautiful than she could have imagined, melting right through to her heart. She beamed back despite her exhaustion and the fog of sleep that still clung to her mind, slowly sitting up in the bed and reaching out to him with both arms.

"Seph," she mumbled sleepily, leaning heavily against him when he immediately leaned over and took her into his arms, holding her tightly against him. "What happened...?"

"We stopped Meteor," he said quietly, his voice muffled against her hair. "And then it seems we passed out from exhaustion immediately afterwards. But that was three days ago now... I was beginning to think you would never awaken."

"Oh my gods, three days?!" she exclaimed lifting her head to look into his face with shock, blushing in embarrassment at having slept for so long. He nodded, mouth turned down into a deep frown, his eyes filled with the pain and worry he must have been feeling the entire time. "I am so sorry... I didn't mean to make you worry."

"Nonsense," he said as he dropped to sit beside her on the bed, gently pulling her close so that she could lean against him. "I slept through the first two days of it... It is Vincent we have made worry most."

Aeris glanced up in surprise, having forgotten she'd heard Sephiroth talking to someone before. And sure enough, standing over by the room's small portal window, was Vincent, his expression as stoic as always, his long red cape falling around him and obscuring his form from view. He briefly met her eyes, then shrugged.

"It was not a problem," he said, as if he had simply held a door open for her instead of keeping watch over their unconscious bodies for so long.

"Thank you," she whispered a bit tearfully, the shock of what had happened leaving her even more emotional than usual. Vincent nodded stiffly, looking quite uncomfortable, then turned and fled from the room without another word. Aeris shook her head and sighed, then laid her head back down on Sephiroth's shoulder, snuggling up closer to him as if seeking to prove he was real.

"So it's really all over," she said quietly, already feeling better with his strong arms around her. "We... we really did it..."

"Yes... The immediate threat to the Planet has ended."

"But?" she asked, sensing the doubt in his words. He frowned, looking guilty for having brought it up at such a time, but then sighed heavily.

"Shin-ra is still as powerful and dangerous as before. It is not truly over until they are defeated..."

"You're right," Aeris agreed quietly. "They have to be stopped, and one day... I think all of us working together can do it."

He looked surprised for a moment, but then nodded his agreement, leaning down to softly kiss her forehead. "Someday," he said in nearly a whisper. "But for now, I think we have earned some... time off."

Aeris looked up the smirk he wore and giggled, bringing one hand up to rest on his chest, directly over his heart. "You're right, we're definitely going to have to look into taking a vacation," she said with a grin, still unable to fully comprehend that everything was over, and that they were really still together, as husband and wife.

"It is a good thing Cloud owes me one..." Sephiroth mumbled, and Aeris wasn't sure exactly what he meant. Perhaps because of the fight that night, during which Cloud had attacked him without provocation and very nearly killed him? But the look in Sephiroth's eyes seemed to hint that it was something far deeper than that, though she also sensed that it wasn't something he wanted to talk about just then. When he was ready to share his thoughts, she would listen, but she would wait until he was ready. That was a lesson she had learned the hard way, and she did not intend to repeat it.

"Well, let me get dressed," was all Aeris said in response, fighting off the rest of her exhaustion and weakness and managing to get to her feet with only a bit of assistance.

"Then we'll go and see where we're headed next, and look into taking that time off."

Sephiroth nodded reluctantly, hating to let her go, but rose and quietly left the room, waiting outside the door for her to get ready, feeling uncomfortable in the situation and unsure of what he should have done. He was her husband, yet they had spent next to no time alone together, and he still felt painfully awkward around her. That was something he desperately hoped would pass, wanting more than anything in the world to make her happy and their marriage work despite all the odds stacked against them.

Once he had closed the door to her room, he slumped back against the wall and closed his eyes with a sigh, a complete, blessed relief overtaking him, a single tear falling to trail down his cheek. His angel was alive, unharmed, and the Planet was saved. Perhaps now, he would truly get his second chance at life, his opportunity to learn to live again, to love, to repay the debts he still carried on his soul. Finally, he would get the chance to be with Aeris, to spend the rest of his life loving and caring for her. Finally, the worst was over...

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The news of Aeris' awakening spread quickly, and soon the entire team was gathered on the bridge of the Highwind, awaiting her arrival to begin the meeting Cloud had called.

When she did finally step out of the stairwell, a bit pale and shaken but otherwise unharmed, she was greeted with wide smiles and tight hugs, all of which she gratefully accepted, though she never released her hold on Sephiroth's hand. When everyone had settled down, all eyes were once again drawn to their leader, who stood at one of the control panels with a serious look on his face, as if he had something important to say despite the celebration.

"Well... looks like we did it," Cloud said when there was silence, unable to help but crack a small, pleased smile. "There's no trace of Zack or Jenova, or Meteor... and any damage that resulted was minimal. The Planet has been saved, thanks to all of you... especially Aeris."

Aeris looked down self consciously, wanting to remind Cloud that Sephiroth had actually done far more than she had, but was too tired to want to be drawn into an argument. At her side, Sephiroth tensed a bit at the slight, but said nothing.

"I guess... this is the part where we all sit back and ask, 'What now'?" Cloud went on, his eyes scanning the group. "Some of you have families and hometowns to return to, some of you don't. And though our mission would seem to be over now that Meteor has been stopped..."

"It ain't really over til Shin-ra falls!" Barret interjected, pumping one thick fist into the air.

Cloud looked annoyed at the interruption for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. That was the reason all of this started to begin with, the reason Avalanche was formed, the reason most of you joined us... We may have gotten rid of the most dangerous threats for now, but as long as Shin-ra is around, I'm afraid there will always be more."

"If we do not continue to oppose them, I fear a repeat of history will be inevitable," Red said wisely, nodding his head.

"And they're still controlling my homeland!" Yuffie added, anger in her young eyes. "It's not over for me until Shin-ra is run out of Wutai!"

"Or until they pay for what they did in Corel," Barret added with a frown.

"And Nibelheim," Tifa whispered, causing a brief moment of tense silence that thankfully passed without incident.

"So... as you can see, there are a lot of unresolved issues," Cloud went on, leaning back on the control panel now with both arms folded over his chest. "I, for one, will not rest until Shin-ra pays for all they've done and is put to rest permanently so they can never hurt another person or endanger the Planet again."

"Damn straight!" agreed Barret, nodding enthusiastically. He had been the founder of Avalanche for just those reasons, after all, and had already devoted his life to the cause.

"Now, I don't expect all of you to want to remain part of this," Cloud went on, winning a few looks of surprise. "This has been a long, dangerous, exhausting trip, and I know there are things a lot of you want and need to get back to. And it wouldn't be fair for me to ask you all to continue to fight and endanger yourselves after all we've just been through... So, this is what I've decided to do."

He paused, clearing his throat, uncomfortable under all the pairs of watching eyes. "I'm going to put Avalanche on a three-day hiatus, starting tomorrow. Cid has already agreed to do this, so just tell him where you want to go, and he'll drop you off there before going home to Rocket Town for his break. Use the three days to visit your families and friends, rest, have fun... whatever you want. But also use them to reflect... And when the three days are up, if you still want to be a part of Avalanche, just wait outside at the place we dropped you off around the same time. Cid has already decided he's staying on, and he's agreed to let us continue to use the Highwind for as long as we need."

Cid nodded, a cigarette dangling from his lips. "I ain't through with those mother fuckers yet," he said in way of explanation. "Steal my airship, crash my plane, and fuck up my space program, will they?! Ha!"

"At the end of the three days, if we pass by and you're not there waiting, we'll assume you chose to stay behind," Cloud went on a moment later. "No one will think any less of you, and there will be no hard feelings. I want everyone to do what they feel is right for them. Think about what you've been fighting for, and if you still feel like it's unresolved and want to continue, I'd be honored to have every one of you with us. But if you think your time here is through, that's fine, too, and I'm glad to have gotten to know you and had you by my side during all this. Please, think this through and make your decision wisely. Whatever you choose, I'll never forget any of you..."

Cloud looked down then, signaling that he was through and wished everyone would stop looking at him, and Tifa put an arm around him, grinning with pride at what was perhaps his final performance as their leader. She whispered something in his ear that caused him to grin a bit lopsidedly a moment later, lifting his head and managing to look a lot less uncomfortable and embarrassed with her support.

"So, where am I heading?" Cid asked, his two young pilots-in-training listening eagerly, having already decided that they went where Cid did, wondering what part of the Planet they would get to see next.

"The Capital City of Wutai," Yuffie said instantly, swallowing a bit nervously. "I need to have a looong talk with my father..."

"Cosmo Canyon, please," Red said with a feline grin. "I would like to spend the time with Grandfather and share all we have seen with him."

"Elmyra's house in Sector 6!" Barret exclaimed, beaming. "Time to go see my Marlene!"

"Me too," Aeris said a bit quietly, glancing up at Sephiroth. "I miss my mother... and I owe her an explanation of where I've been all this time!" The look in her eyes as she gazed up at Sephiroth was nearly pleading, and after a long pause and heavy sigh, he finally nodded.

"And I as well," he said stiffly, as if it was the last place he really wanted to go, but would do anything for Aeris, even spend the three days in the burning pits of the most fiery hell.

She grinned, squeezing his hand, and he managed a very small smile down at her before averting his eyes, his expression fading to its usual unreadable one. He certainly did not want anyone to think he was growing soft.

"Okay," Cid said, entering the information into his flight computer, to calculate the best drop-off order and flight route. "Anyone else?"

"Icicle Inn for us," Tifa said with a grin. "It's a beautiful place this time of year." Cloud grinned and nodded, managing to push aside thoughts of his hometown for the moment. They had already decided that they did not ever wish to return to the mockery of Nibelheim Shin-ra had reconstructed, even if it was the closest thing to home they had left.

"Okay," Cid nodded, adding that to the list. "That everyone?" He looked around, eyes instantly falling on the silent figure standing away from the others, peering over the guard rail, and frowned. "Where are you going, Vinny?"

Vincent frowned at the continued use of the hated nickname, but finally did turn around to face the others, his expression blank. "I... do not know," he said quietly, his eyes somewhere up in the sky. "I have no place to go..."

"You can come with us," Aeris instantly offered, her expression filled with pity and concern. "I'm sure Mom won't mind." Vincent was family now, too, and she couldn't stand the thought of him being on his own, so lonely, after all he had done for she and Sephiroth.

Vincent shook his head immediately, however. "No, I do not want to intrude," he said, never even looking in her direction. "And I wish to be alone..."

"Umm, okay. Well, if you think of a place, just let me know," Cid said with a shrug.

"You're welcome to stay on board when I get to Rocket Town, though... or hell, you can come stay with me if you want." For just a moment, Cid seemed genuinely concerned about Vincent, who he had so enjoyed giving a hard time throughout the trip.

"Thank you for the offer," Vincent said simply, silently vanishing down the stairwell like a lonely ghost a moment later.

"Weirdo," Cid muttered under his breath, winning glares from Aeris and Sephiroth. He coughed, swearing quietly at himself, then turned back to the controls.

"Well, looks like we'll head to Sector 6 first, then go to Icicle Inn... then West from there. Ladies and gentlemen, we will be arriving in Sector 6 at approximately eight a.m. tomorrow morning. Thank you for traveling on my god damn airship, I hope you enjoyed the fucking ride!"

The End


((Author's Note: This story is directly continued in 'Interlude', which is the tale of Avalanche's three day break, and then in 'Battlegrounds' where they get back to business. And since I've been actively writing again as of early 2012, the adventure is continuing once again! Visit my profile to see for yourself, as there are tons of new fics :) Thank you so much for coming along for the ride, and I hope you'll continue with me! As always, I would LOVE to hear from you and treasure your comments. ~ JenesisX))