OKAY. So it's been. Two years? A year and a half? More or less. I've fallen out of fanfiction, alas, but I have been kindly prodded into to posting this last chapter up for everyone. I'm not happy with it, especially not in retrospect, but you all do deserve an ending.
I have fandom to thank for a lot, including getting me into writing. This has been a great ride, and I appreciate everyone who enjoyed this. I hope this lives up to at least some of your expectations.
The pain sang. It ripped, it tore, it burned –
Somewhere, beneath the green agony, Cloud's stubborn strength, and the unyielding affection of another (Zack – how?), Sephiroth's soul stirred. Shook itself off, for the first time in years, for the first time since two deaths of his own, the countless slaughter of others, and more madness than could be borne. Twisted, choked – realized.
She was no one's Mother.
And he didn't want to know. How it had felt to be loved, to be noticed, to be the center of all the great affection one being could know – who would, who could, give that up? Who cared what She asked of him,; She was beautiful and perfect.
Zack. A dead man.
Destruction isn't beauty. And it damn sure isn't love.
He didn't even know what 'love' meant, beyond Mother, beyond her Safety and her Mission and her Trust. Beyond that –
A friend's smile, all encompassing and all accepting, no matter how much he didn't understand.
Stubborn determination of the strongest sort, from the trooper who (on paper, always only on paper) had the least potential.
No one asking him to kill. No one asking him to be a weapon, a tool, a murderer, a General. No one treating him like messiah, pariah, god, monster. Just. Human.
Sephiroth's soul stirred.
And Jenova burned.
Cloud woke up in the infirmary, but he didn't panic. He didn't like it, certainly, but without the IV and the horrible haze of memory and confusion, the terror was two steps removed. Those two steps were all he needed.
"What happened?" he asked Zack.
It did not occur to Cloud to find it odd that he could see Zack, incorporeal and flickering, but standing by Sephiroth's bedside. He stroked back silver bangs.
"Exactly what you meant to happen, as far as I can tell." Zack looked over his shoulder to smile on Cloud. "He's just gotta put himself back together."
"Help him," Cloud said. "Please."
"You know it."
Zack smiled, blurred around the edges, and disappeared. All was quiet in Cloud's head; probably not so, he guessed, in Sephiroth's. Cloud looked over at the man, whose great body was still, mako eyes closed, long silver hair braided back. Terror didn't spark, nor disgust – nor affection. Cloud remembered loving, but that was…
Buried. And maybe for the best. Cloud needed as clear a head as he could hope for, and Sephiroth needed time without demands. Tolerance (friendship, Cloud was sure, once he had something to interact with beyond unconscious) would be enough. Love could follow after, if it was inclined.
Brisk footsteps sounded on the tile, and Cloud pushed himself into a sitting position.
It was no one Cloud could recognize, but the storm gray eyes and dark hair were an echo – or the creator of one.
"Laguna?" he guessed.
"You're a sharp kid." Laguna smiled, small laugh lines crinkling around his eyes. "Though Squall thinks I should approach you as President Loire."
Cloud snorted. "He doesn't like me much."
"He must like you at least a little bit," Laguna said. "Don't worry, he probably doesn't even notice."
"Laguna," he said. "This is hardly Esthar, and you're certainly not one of her citizens. Yet."
"Yet?" Cloud echoed, trying not to be bowled over by the sheer goodwill Laguna radiated. He didn't trust any stranger further than he could throw them (though, considering his own strength, that was perhaps less than apt), but he didn't know how to deal with that unquestioning smile.
"Squall tells me you're both amazing fighters with extensive military experience. I'm a man of government, presented with the problem of you. I have two options, right?"
"Control," Cloud said, expression grim. "Or destroy."
"At least, that's what most would say." Laguna sat down on the end of the bed and spread his arms. "But I was a soldier once, and those options both suck."
"A SeeD?" Cloud asked.
"No. A Galbadian." Laguna laughed. "It's a long story."
"You don't want us dead. Then what do you want?"
"New ideas. New perspective. New techniques," Laguna said. "Our world is in flux. If my country, or my son, comes under fire I want to be able to protect them."
"I don't know that you won't be the one bringing others under fire," Cloud said.
Laguna shrugged. "No, you don't. Except that I promise I'm sick of war and danger. Think about the offer."
Irvine lay in the bed he shared with Selphie, hat and coat thrown across the room somewhere. She sprawled on top of him, face tucked against the crook of his neck and small hands drifting under his vest to doodle nonsense shapes on his skin. Siren had come back to Irvine when Cloud was unconscious; Irvine'd picked up the man to bring him back to Ragnorak, and Siren jumped minds at the first touch of skin to skin. It seemed she was well and truly done with anything in that man's mind.
Granted, so was Irvine. Staring at the ceiling, carding a hand through Selphie's hair and trying to convince his body that it could, in fact, sleep now, he was trying to calm down his Guardian Force. Siren was angry, mostly, and just a little bit scared. It took a hell of a lot to scare a GF. Once Strife was awake he'd explain, maybe, what had happened when that cocoon of white had blocked him and psychopath (who was not, they were supposed to believe, a psychopath) from view. Whatever it was, Siren hadn't liked it one bit.
Don't you fuss, he told her. Sorry I let you go into that alone. I'll never abandon any of my ladies like that again.
She didn't answer him. They hardly ever did. But something in that empty nest space of his mind untangled.
"What do you think'll happen now?" Selphie asked, her breath tickling against his neck.
"Can't say I know," Irvine said. "Guess Squall and his dad'll figure it out, and if they need our help, they'll ask for it. We might even get some peace and quiet."
"Boo." He could almost feel her pouting. "I hate peace and quiet."
Irvine smiled. "You can plan a victory party. Force all the students come and toast to something they had no idea was happening. There could be streamers."
"I do like streamers." She stayed silent for a few moments, and then, "do you think Galbadia will pay us for taking out Sephiroth?"
Nevermind they'd had very little to do with it; no one was going to tell Galbadia that.
"There wasn't a formal contract," Irvine said, considering. "And we're not getting a red cent from the Garden, I can tell you that. But Headmaster might well sweet talk some reward money and heroic suffering compensation out of the country."
Galbadia – what was left of it, at least – couldn't really afford to be paying 'heroic suffering compensation', anymore than they could have hired a Garden to take care of the problem when it first arose. Their treasuries were bare, they depended mostly, now, on Esthar's charity to keep their country in existence. Irvine didn't take anything but pleasure in the thought of them scrambling for one more favor from Laguna.
Governments didn't know what they were doing, and Galbadia Garden had never done him any favors. He'd take money from them both, if it meant more comfort for Balamb Garden. This was his home now.
And somebody needed to fund Selphie's near compulsive use of streamers.
Tifa brought Cloud dinner; just a sandwich and a bottle of juice she'd grabbed after sharing a meal with Seifer. Cloud sat cross legged on the infirmary bed, tense, but not obviously on the brink of violence toward medical staff. He had a clipboard propped on one knee, and was writing something.
Unconscious, helpless, Sephiroth lay prone in the bed beside Cloud's. With an IV in his arm and shadows under his eyes, he looked human. Looked. Hatred rose like bile, but Tifa swallowed it back. If she didn't forgive, Cloud seemed to; she'd respect that.
"Hey," she said, though he had to know she was there.
He looked up and smiled, more sincere than she'd seen in months. "Hey."
"Hungry?" she asked.
"I could eat."
She handed over his food, sat next to him on the bed. From this angle, she couldn't read his chicken scratch. Once, after the plate fell, but before Meteor, he'd written her a note that scared anddn confused her. Not the contents ("going out to restock, back before midnight"), but the handwriting; bold and clear capitals, straight and sure. Nothing like the jumbled rambling, loopy mess Cloud had used in school. Too different, even, to have evolved from it. Seeing that scrawl now - illegibility had never filled her with such warmth.
"What are you writing?"
He swallowed a bite of sandwich. "It's for Barret and Marlene. And the others, but."
"Why would you need -" her stomach knotted. "You're not coming back."
"We don't even know if you'll be able to get back," Cloud pointed out. "But...if you go, no, I'm not going with you."
His eyes went to Sephiroth. "I have a responsibility for him. This means a fresh start."
"You don't need me," Cloud interrupted. "Our world doesn't need me. Sephiroth will need me. I've been offered a job, I'll have that to do. It's a fresh start for me, too."
"You've thought this through."
What would it mean to Cloud, to never step foot in Nibelheim or Midgar again? Never see the Shin-Ra logo, or meet someone who knew the meaning of mako eyes? To live on a world not marked by fire and labs and memory in every corner?
"I have. It's not because I don't love you." He rushed through his words with the stubborn determination of his younger years. "Or the others. But." He stalled.
Tifa put a hand on his arm. "I'm glad you're thinking about yourself, too."
When was the last time he had?
The quality of phone lines in Timber wasn't as good as most other places, but it managed. Rinoa's voice came through a bit warped, but clear enough.
"He is," Squall said.
He wasn't entirely sure why she'd called him. Probably she'd felt Cloud's strong and unconventional use of the holy spells - Rinoa was sensitive to magic, on the intrinsic level of the sorceress. Really, he shouldn't be surprised that she wanted to know how everything had worked out.
"Sephiroth's unconscious, but I don't particularly care."
Rinoa's giggle sounded forced. "You wouldn't, no. I'm sure Cloud appreciates you doing this, very much."
Squall turned over in bed to face the wall. "I don't particularly care about his gratitude, either."
"Are you doing okay?" she asked.
"I'm tired," he admitted. "It's been a long day."
A long day, filled with more people and more problems than he'd had to deal with in a long time. For once, he was happy to see Laguna; his father seemed positively eager to take this problem off of Squall's hands. Squall didn't underestimate Laguna's intelligence, or his political abilities, but...he wouldn't say it was trust. He didn't, and wouldn't ever, trust Laguna.
But maybe he trusted Laguna's desire to make Squall trust him.
"You don't have anything else to do, right?"
"The Headmaster's taking care of the formal explanations," Squall said. "Zell's swearing at anyone who calls my office to ask about it."
He could almost see her smiling. "I'm glad you're being taken care of."
Even if I'm not there lingered between them.
"Go to sleep, Squall."
"Fine. Good night, Rinoa."
I love you.
He did not dream.
Quistis found Vincent on the Quad, void of cloak or gun, sitting on a bench under one of the lights and reading a book. He looked normal, just as he had days ago, before a monster tore out of him and tore monsters apart. She found, somehow, that she no longer wanted to back away from him.
Instead, she sat down next to him.
"It's late to be out here reading," she said, keeping her voice soft.
He didn't look up, but his eyes paused in their scanning. "Cid's asleep."
"The library's open -" Probably where he'd gotten the book in the first place.
"I'm fine. The light is adequate."
Quistis smoothed down her skirt. "I apologize for the way I've been acting toward you, Mr. Valentine. It was uncalled for."
He didn't look at all startled, surprised, or anything really. He put a finger in his book to keep his place, and met her with steady red eyes.
"I'm used to it."
"That doesn't make it right," she said.
"I'm a hired killer." She smiled ruefully. "I don't get to judge."
The sun was just bringing the infirmary out of gray smudged darkness when Zack returned to Cloud, settling to his mind like a well loved memory.
He's going to be okay, he whispered into Cloud's waking mind. He may not wake up for awhile, but he'll be fine.
Relief washed over Cloud. "Thank you."
You need to get everyone outside, Zack said. Now.
"Zack -" Cloud didn't even realize he was speaking out loud. "Why?"
Zack was gone. Cloud climbed out of bed, gave up on finding his boots, and took one last long look at Sephiroth before exiting the infirmary at a job. The students had stopped even taking a second glance at him. Nor, however, did any of them want to stop and answer his question about where his companions or Squall might be.
He came to Cid and Vincent's room first. His brisk knock was answered by Cid, freshly showered and dressed, already smoking.
"Is Vincent there?" Cloud asked.
Cid shrugged. "Not all night, far as I know. He does that sometimes, ain't unusual."
"We have to get the others."
Zack fluttered in. They're leaving. And back out.
"You're leaving," Cloud echoed. He tried to look as if he hadn't just gotten that information himself.
Cid's expression was caught somewhere between stern and fond. "But you're not."
"You've been talking to Tifa."
He snorted. "Or I just discovered deductive fucking reasoning. You're not a dumb kid, you know what's up."
Cid ducked back into the room. Cloud watched from the doorway as he shrugged into his jacket, then handed Cloud Vincent's cloak and gun. Taking Venus Gospel in hand, Cid ushered Cloud out into the hall and shut the door behind him. It all had an air of graceful, stubborn finality.
"You don't mind?" Cloud asked, not sure what he wanted the answer to be.
"Of course I fucking mind." Cid stopped in the middle of the hallway, turned to look at him. "But I also trust your stupid ass to make the right decision, for once in your life. We can't hover over you forever."
"Shut up, idiot."
Cid grabbed Cloud, and it was Cloud's friendship with him that kept him from pulling back when Cid yanked him into a rough hug.
"Stop calling me an idiot," Cloud muttered around the awkward moment.
"Stop being an idiot and I'll stop calling you out on it," Cid snapped. When the space between them was normal again, his look softened. "I got something for ya."
Cloud blinked. "What?"
Cid raised a hand to his head and hooked his fingers under the strap of his goggles. He pulled them off, smoothly catching the pack of cigarettes with the same hand. Tucking those into an inside pocket of his jacket, he pressed the goggles into Cloud's hands.
"I know the army has superstitions. Air force does too. Dog tags have seen death, flight jacket's seen death, but nobody's been wearing these goggles in a bad battle or a plane gone down. I figure they're worth a little bit of luck. Don't fucking waste it."
Cid was going off down the hall. "Let's find the others," he barked over his shoulder.
Tifa ducked into Seifer's room - he'd given her the touchpad password days ago. A sort of frantic determination burned behind her eyes, and she squared her shoulders. She looked ready to tear things apart. Or put them back together.
"We're leaving," she announced.
Seifer looked up, expression carefully smooth. Tifa read the shock and the hurt behind his eyes, though.
He turned around in his desk chair to face the door. "Bye," he said.
She walked over, grabbed him by the collar, and yanked him upright. "Come with me," she said, staring up at him earnestly. "Come with me and try something new. I can give you a job and a place to sleep. I know you have friends here, and I know you love them, but. Come with me."
Easy as closing the distance between them, he was kissing her. Kissing her like she meant something, and wasn't just a pretty face attached to a fine body. Kissing her like he expected her to be aggressive, hold her own. She wrapped her arms around his neck and obliged.
"I have to say goodbye to Fuujin and Raijin," he said, when they pulled apart.
"I know." She smiled at him, strong and bright. "I'll tell the others to wait as long as they can. Get your gunblade, and we'll be outside the front entrance."
She kissed him again, hard, and then left just as quickly as she'd come.
Cloud pressed folded pieces of paper into Tifa's hands.
"For Barret," he reminded her.
To his surprise, after ten minutes (during which Tifa had assured they she had a good reason for waiting), Seifer strode from the front entrance and deposited himself by her side. She slipped a hand into his.
"It's a blond trading program," Cid remarked, and earned himself a smack upside the head.
"Fuujin and Raijin?" Tifa asked, her eyes on Seifer.
"They understand," he said, his voice softer than Cloud was used to. "I taught them well enough to sort themselves out."
Cloud still didn't trust, or like, Seifer at all. But if anyone could control him, he supposed it was Tifa. She let go of his hand to step forward and fold Cloud into a hug, planting a motherly kiss on his cheek.
"I hope we'll see each other again," she whispered. "Someday."
"Me too." He didn't hold out much honest hope, but a little bit never really hurt.
He'd already gotten his hug from Cid, and when Tifa stepped back he found himself staring at Vincent. He fidgeted. Vincent was a very good friend, and Cloud had a great deal of affection for him, but -
Vincent held out his good hand, and fond relief flooded through Cloud as he shook it.
"Take care of yourself," Vincent said. "And Lucrecia's son."
Cloud nodded. "I will. Take care of Cid."
What? Cloud thought back, not sure what to expect from Zack's tone.
I love you. Aeris loves you.
I love you guys, too. Why?
Bye, kid, take care of yourself.
Zack - ?!
Like a double image over the rest of the world, Cloud saw Zack step away from him. Zack turned, smiled, then reached a hand out and clasped it around a more delicate one, reaching through time and dimensions to find him. Aeris.
I belong on that world - I'm of its dead. They're going to use me as a conduit to get the others back, and I'll finally go where I'm supposed to.
With Aeris, Cloud said. Good.
"Don't do anything stupid," Zack said, grinning, and the words came out clear and audible.
And the world went white, and left Cloud behind.
You're probably swearing at me for doing this. You're probably thinking you'd kill me if you could. Sorry about that. Sorry about worrying you. And I know that I worried you more than you'll ever admit. Tell Marlene I'm sorry, too, for not
But we have to do what we have to do. You always thought that. And you wouldn't
want me to leave behind a loved one that needs me. You can all take care of each
other. Please take care of each other, so I know I don't have to worry.
Yuffie can have most of the materia I didn't bring along, but there's a box in
my bedside stand; cures, preemptive, scan, stuff like that. Give that to Marlene,
it's a good starting collection. Yuffie should be happy enough with the summon
that I left.
Tell Yuffie bye for me too, and good luck with Wutai, and that she's a better
friend than she probably realized. And Red. I think Red probably
already knows what happened by now, so you don't have to tell him much. Helps
when you can listen to the planet.
I love you guys.