I want to give a very special thank you to you guys from Hearts of Paradise... yeah, you know who you are. Thanks for not lynching me, and thanks for making this fic so much fun for me.
Extra special luffs to Rem-chan, whose birthday is today, to whom this epilogue is dedicated for zee gifty-ness. Rawr rawr.
Lastly, shameless plug. It seems my muse has decided that Blossoms wants a companion fic. So, uh... keep your eyes open? Eh-heh.
Hugs to all... and onward, to the epilogue...
Epilogue - Whispers of Yesterday
It was a mixture of hope and love, she told me later, that kept her going all those years, and despite the cliched words I couldn't help but agree with her. Hope was fleeting, and love was just a memory, but it had been enough. It had always been enough to keep me alive through every battle, every footstep in the darkness. Every crushing bout of loneliness that always threatened to destroy me.
"Our memories keep everything alive," she whispered to me, her hand gently squeezing my own. I almost cringed at the words; most of my memories held nothing but pain, and I didn't want to remember them.
But there were people there - friends, comrades, family - and they didn't deserve to be lost and forgotten.
The resistance team. Barrett, Tifa. My mother. Zack.
I couldn't just forget about them.
But sometimes... you have to let go.
I realized that, wandering aimlessly through the garden of ice at the banks of the Rising Falls, Aerith's hand clasped within my own. The words spoke urgently to me, a whisper of the past, and for the first time in years, I answered their call.
"Go on ahead," I told her quietly, pleading with her not to ask despite her quizzical expression. "I'll catch up." She watched me for a long moment, then nodded, smiling softly and giving my cheek a small kiss.
"Don't stay too long," she told me in a laughably stern voice, the light in her eyes betraying the seriousness she was aiming for. I knew she was telling me for several different reasons, and I thanked her for all of them with my returning smile. I promised to be brief and waited until she disappeared behind one of the giant glaciers before turning towards the glistening water that rose up around me.
"You've been waiting for this, haven't you?" I said abruptly, my voice barely a whisper, lost in the sound of the falls.
His image wavering in the liquid mirror, Zack just grinned in response.
"Yeah..." I continued, ignoring the smile he always wore, the smile that had become almost forced after we'd been imprisoned. "You've been waiting for me to set you free."
I closed my eyes. "Don't be."
Don't ever be sorry. You're incomplete, aren't you? You stayed for my sake... to take care of me, because I couldn't do it on my own.
I heard laughter, echoing in the depths of my mind. "Is that why? And here I thought I was just selfish."
A smile finally broke out across my lips, and I shook my head. "No... no, that was me. I was selfish because I couldn't let you go. I was afraid... afraid of losing you and having to admit how much I held you back. How... things could have been different for you, if I hadn't been here."
"... You're an idiot, you know."
I opened my eyes, chuckling quietly to myself. "I always called you that. But it was the opposite, wasn't it."
We should have been opposites. So many ways...
"Don't ever think it should have been you, Cloud."
I blinked, suddenly feeling tears in my eyes, and fought against the growing pain in my chest. Why... why, when he...
He just smiled again. "I always told you that you'd won her. But I shouldn't have... it's unfair to you both. Guess I never really wanted to admit... listen, you can't force someone to love you."
I swallowed hard. "I know."
"Sometimes you just have to sit back and let others be happy."
"And sometimes people die."
"... I know."
"Cloud..." His eyes were pleading, begging for what he knew I was nearly unwilling to give him.
I turned my head away, no longer able to stand his expression. But I couldn't escape his voice.
"Cloud... let me go."
Reaching up, I brushed a hand against my eyes, then lifted my gaze to look at him a final time. "Zack... I never thanked you."
"You did. You always have. You just don't see how."
I nodded reluctantly, and I knew he was right. But I had to say it, nonetheless. "Thank you. For everything you've done... thank you."
"It wasn't just for you."
I laughed, my heart aching at the sound I hadn't heard in a long time. That was so like him.
"Cloud... -please-. Let me go."
I'm afraid to...
"It'll only hurt more if you stay like this." His eyes were serious, full of the concern I'd always known he thrived on.
Zack... he always wanted to help people.
"You need to be your own person. Your heart needs to be empty so -she- can fill it."
"Sometimes I wonder," I murmured, one hand fisted over my chest, "If it's really the you who's inside me that she loves..."
Ah, and I'd gone and hurt him, his eyes closing to hide the agony that one sentence brought him.
"You know that's not true."
"I know." But it doesn't mean I understand.
"You never did. And I can't help you with that... only she can."
I couldn't fight him anymore. The pain in my heart was becoming unbearable, the weight threatening to bring me to my knees. His grief and the sheer emptiness his presence brought within me was overwhelming.
"Go," I said in a hoarse voice, clenching my eyes shut and reaching deep inside myself, wandering through the scattered tapestry of darkness and light towards the single remaining part of my soul that wasn't truly mine.
And I let him go.
My eyes snapped open, feeling more than hearing his whispered thank you, and I looked instantly towards the waterfalls. Zack was gone, the easygoing smile and golden Mako eyes fading from both the water and my heart, where my best friend had resided all these years, guiding me through my shadows as nothing more than a quiet, encouraging voice that never, ever let me give in.
"I'm sorry," I lifted my eyes to the night sky, where the stars - millions of them, more than I could remember - winked and shone with the light of every world. "Even now, I'm sorry."
I never wanted you to leave me.
But there were no longer tears in my eyes, and I felt... relieved, more than anything, by the sudden, barren feeling in my soul.
For though it was empty, it no longer felt so incomplete.
I watched the water lift majestically from the unknown sources below for another long moment, then turned around to follow Aerith back to the castle.
Back home... to my family, to my memories. And to love.
Thank you for reading.