Author's Note: I wrote this chapter (in a half-assed manner, mind you) back when I'd written the other original ending. I always meant to post it, but haven't taken the initiative until now. Consider this, then, the alternate ending. I didn't like this one as much at first but it's kind of grown on me.
Fun (and random) Fact: I wanted to make this chapter an "echo" of the very first, which is why it starts out the same and there are certain similarities between the two.
He stood before a church.
There had been at time, not long ago, when the irony of a holy place, a sacrosanct place, holding something he needed had brought a smile to his face. He was not smiling now; eyes downcast, there were newly formed creases lining his face, bringing an element of somber resignation to his expression. He stood for long moments absolutely still amidst the swirling, heavy fall of snow; his shoulders and the unbound length of his pale hair were dusted with a fine covering of the crystalline substance. As first one and then another icy flake caught on his downcast lashes he opened his eyes, blinking to focus again on what lie before him.
What had once been the slums of a great city was now an open expanse of wasteland, bared for the first time ever to the sky, to the fresh air, to the world itself. The mechanized mass that had symbolized the pinnacle of civilization was all but gone, destroyed by the aftermath of humanity versus Planet. The upper plates of Midgar had crumbled, the great gargantuan pieces falling upon the undercity below. The result was complete and total devastation; for that reason, the fact that the small, worn church Sephiroth now stood before was still in one whole piece should have been astounding.
But Sephiroth, snow-dusted and motionless, was not astounded. If ever there were anything that should survive such a calamity, he knew, it would be this church. Abruptly his free hand clenched into a fist, the ice-caked leather of his glove creaking in protest; in the other hand he held a thin, flat piece of metal covered in the intricate spread of frost designs and a simple, folded length of pale rose ribbon. He took a deep breath and then another before walking to the door of the church that hung lopsided on its hinges. It swung open beneath his touch with a screech that told of rust too long untreated. The sound echoed eerily throughout the confines of the interior; his entrance was thus blatantly announced. The church was lit only by the flickering white light of a material lantern that had been set down at the edge of a bed of flowers growing up through the splintered wood floor. It did not seem strange to Sephiroth that such plants were still growing, still in bloom, even in the heart of this unusually bitter winter. From where he knelt among the leaves and petals, a solitary man lifted his bowed head at the harsh, intrusive noise of the door and swiveled to face the church's newest occupant.
For a long time they regarded each other, their respective, luminous mako gazes –one green, the other blue- unwavering and revealing nothing but a mere hint of the old familiar animosity between them both. When the former General closed the door gently behind him and then began to walk towards the circle of light created by the lamp, the other man rose to his feet and turned fully to face him.
It was Cloud that spoke first, voice husky as though it had not been used in a long time. "So you aren't dead."
A smile, mirthless, flickered about Sephiroth's mouth. "No."
"Rumors began to appear when no trace of Jenova could be found. When Hojo's body was discovered. There were speculations, hundreds of them, that you were dead too."
"One should never trust to rumors and hearsay." Sephiroth said quietly.
"So it seems."
Silence fell then, poignant and heavy. The blatant hostility they had once held for each other had faded somewhere in the weeks past so full of chaos, of death, of sacrifice. Neither, it seemed, had the will any longer to resume the old dance of hatred and anger. It was Cloud again who spoke, words falling softly into the gentle stillness surrounding them. "You were with her, weren't you? When she …"
He faltered, but his eye's held Sephiroth's, and in them could be read all the things that Sephiroth himself had felt in enormity for so long now. He nodded, free hand fisting again as an emotion he'd never known until very recently washed through him. "I was with her, yes."
Cloud said then in a tone that would have been accusing were it not for the heavy grief and faint disbelief it carried, "You loved her."
Those words, so simply stated, caused a sharp ache to resound within Sephiroth, emphasizing the painful void that had grown within him, consumed him now for weeks on end. "I did." He said in an almost silent voice.
Cloud nodded. "I thought you must have, later. And she … she cared for you, I think. I saw it when we spoke down there, before –before I …"
Sephiroth said nothing.
"It wasn't me," Cloud continued harshly. "It wasn't my will –but you knew that already, didn't you?"
"I did." The former General said again, and after a moment he went on. "Understand, Strife, that I was to be the executioner. But I managed –somehow- to defy the orders and the manipulation, and so Mother turned instead to the other she could control almost as much as me."
"And I did it." Cloud's words were thick with self loathing.
Remaining silent, Sephiroth closed his eyes tightly, briefly, against recollections of what Aerith had in her final moments, of the forgiveness she'd bestowed upon not only her lover but her executioner as well. And suddenly he wanted to destroy this man before him, this man that had taken from him the very thing, the wonder, that had broken Jenova's hold over him, the miracle he had found and had for far too short a time. Instead, gritting his teeth against the all too familiar desire for violence, for vengeance, he extended the hand holding the ribbon and piece of metal.
"What is this?" Cloud asked, taking them. He fingered the ribbon as it unfurled to fall, fluttering gently, from his fingers; a smile, achingly sad, curved his lips for a brief moment. As he then flipped the piece of metal over, as he recognized the solid engraving that read simply Jenova, as he recalled seeing it fastened securely to the head of a monstrosity, his breath left him in a soundless gasp.
Sephiroth turned; he'd done all he'd meant to do. He was several paces from the door when Cloud called after him, "Sephiroth – you destroyed her? Jenova?"
Without pivoting, the other replied, "Yes."
For reasons I realized far too late. For revenge, for my pain, for the fact I've lost the one and only thing that made me feel like what I truly am – human.
"Why do you think?" Was all he said, and resumed walking. The door's reluctant screech preceded his exit, and when the door closed behind him he stood motionless a moment, staring unseeing into the dance of snow on wind before him.
" … This is the way of things, Sephiroth … I have known you truly, and through you I have known happiness, however brief. I would not change that …"
He would recall, for eternity and beyond, all that a flower girl from the slums had ever spoken to him; he would remember always that it was she that had defied the Son of the Calamity, that she had in doing so pierced the layers of lies and deceit to discover the person he hadn't even know existed underneath. He would remember, forever, the mere mortal girl – the Cetra- that had brought him to his knees.
"… maybe we'll find each other again, for that too- that too is the way of things. In this world or the next …"
The once General, the wayward Son, walked back into the meandering fall of glittering crystals, treading a new path, a different path, through the snow.