:: Epilogue ::
Nine months and two weddings later, the village of Nibelheim was freshly awash with eager and insistent visitors. The Highwind had dropped off Cid and Barret's families, Vincent, Red, Reeve and Yuffie, and the group had excitedly walked up to the house Cloud and Tifa shared amid a crowd of gawping locals.
Cloud greeted them all in a flustered state.
"Hello, Cloud," said Cid, easily. "Happy days?"
"Shut up, Cid and sit down," he ordered the other. "You know well enough that I'm at my wits end!"
Everyone grinned. Cloud was in a state, with dark rings under his eyes, and his hair amok.
"So," Yuffie began, conversationally, "I'm going to be an auntie at last, Cloud."
"Give me a break, Yuffie, I could do without the sarcastic jokes." He slumped down into a chair and dropped his head into his hands. "Do you know how long they've kept her in there? Seven hours! Seven long, bloody hours! That doctor from Mideel came, and said it would be all right...and then Tifa started screaming, and they pushed me out...and I said..."
"Hey, calm it, lover boy." Cid shushed him. "So Tifa's already in labour? Did we come too late?"
Cloud looked confused.
His question was not answered, however, for the doctor suddenly emerged from the bedroom and passed Cloud a broad grin as he spoke.
"It's all right, Cloud. You wife's just had a lovely little..."
"Wait!" Cloud interrupted, standing up in the midst of the sudden flurry in the room. "Don't tell me! I want to find out for myself!"
There was a general stampede to the bedroom upstairs, and then Cloud led the crowd into the room with a flourish. Tifa was inside, on the bed, cradling a small bundle in her arms. Her face looked tired, but happy. She smiled as everyone entered.
"Cloud," she greeted as calmly as ever. "You're a father! Say hello to our new precious little one."
Cloud, hardly able to walk, moved forwards on to the one knee beside his wife and received the tiny load. He found himself staring into two precocious jade-coloured eyes, warm with unconditional, newborn love.
"It's a girl," Tifa told him in a low voice, but he had known that already. With a trembling hand, he gently stroked the soft fur of auburn hair on her head. He smiled.
"Hello, Aeris," he whispered.
Five hundred summers had passed since then, and Nanaki was now in the winter of his life. Many years had passed since he had raised his last cub, and since the last of his friends had gone. For now Nanaki was old, and white had touched the scarlet fur at his chest. He had watched his friends and their descendants die around him for the past five centuries, and now, he knew that soon it would be his turn too.
He sat now on the cliff that rose against the old ruins of Midgar to the south, and nuzzled the cubs of his cubs at his feet. The seagulls were cawing above, trying to race to their nests in the towering metal structure that had once been the Shinra Building.
"Grandfather," one of the pups growled to Nanaki as they looked down on the ancient ruins. "Were you really alive when the Shinra Ruins were standing?"
"Yes, I was," he replied. The sea level had long since risen, and the landscape around them was a mishmash of swamps and marshland. "Midgar was the biggest city in the world."
"Bigger than our home in Cosmo Canyon?" another cub voiced in wonder.
"Of course," Nanaki nodded. "There used to be a town, over there in the north-east, called Kalm. Now it's all under water."
"Why isn't Cosmo Canyon underwater?" another youngster asked.
"Because we're lucky enough to live on high ground, little ones," he answered smilingly. "Now before we go back to the shelter, would you like me to tell you a story?"
"Yes!" one and all enthused together. "Tell us about the evil Hojo and his experiments!"
"Well..." Nanaki frowned. He did not find this particular story one of the most enjoyable ones. He was about to give in and retell the whole anecdote for the fiftieth time when all of a sudden a voice hailed them from nearby.
Nanaki and the cubs whirled round. A young woman with long, wavy auburn hair and black eyes was standing nearby, a basket of water flowers in her hands. Nanaki smiled, for this was a friend that had not been lost throughout the years.
The cubs all followed suit.
"Good morning, Holy One!"
The girl moved forwards, a warm smile on her soft pink lips.
"Well, Nanaki," she began after a pause. "It's been a long time, hasn't it. You have grey hair now, old friend."
"You never change," he remarked, looking at the girl up and down. "You still look as beautiful as ever."
"Well, I did change once," she reminded him wryly, then she turned to the eager young pups that had crowded round beside her. "And how are my little ones then?"
"Very well, Holy One!" they greeted in unison. Nanaki lifted an eyebrow.
"You've met our small troubles, I see," he growled.
"Yes. I met them last year when I was visiting their parents," the other nodded. "They've grown a lot since then."
Nanaki nodded his agreement with a certain irony. In his opinion the older they grew, the more trouble they became.
"I was just going to tell the young ones here a story," he said, changing the subject.
"Oh?" The girl's eyes were sparkling. "And what story might that be?"
"Hojo and his evil, primitive experiments!" the cubs chimed in together.
The girl began to laugh.
"Well, I have a story to tell about that one!" She glanced at Nanaki slyly. "Your grandfather there was put in a cage with me, and Hojo ordered us to fight to the death!"
"Which one of you won?" one asked, with wide eyes.
"Well, we're both alive and well, so obviously neither of us won."
"I don't get it," another complained, and then they dwelled no more on the matter. "Well, Holy One, tell us another story."
"Only if you promise not to call me 'Holy One' in the future," the girl frowned almost sulkily. "I can't think what possessed people to suddenly call me by that ridiculous name."
"Because you're their protector," Nanaki cut in, in his wizened voice. "Because you're their guardian angel."
"Oh yes," the girl remarked sarcastically. "Well, young cubs, what story would you like me to tell?"
"We want to hear about all of them - Cid the mad inventor, and Yuffie the thief, Tifa the bar girl, and Aeris the flower girl - Barret the eco-warrior, and Red XIII the lion, and Cait Sith the toy-cat and Vincent the vampire..."
The girl raised her eyebrows.
"What wild retellings have you been feeding these young ones, Nanaki?" she questioned, her tone matronly. Nanaki shrugged playfully. He wasn't feeling as old as he was. The cubs continued.
"...and the greatest man that ever lived on this earth, the great hero, Cloud!"
"Ah." The cubs were surprised to see a strangely wistful look on the Holy One's face as she spoke. "Now Cloud is one hero I remember particularly well."
"You knew the legendary hero, Cloud?!" they all gasped. "That can't be true!"
"Oh, and why not?" she looked down on them smilingly.
"Because you're so young and pretty! Cloud and his friends died nearly five hundred years ago!"
"Oh, did they now?" The Holy One's face was a trifle testy. "I'll have you know that at least two of them are still alive."
The cubs were adamant that she was not telling the truth.
"But that's impossible, no one can live that long! You're lying!"
"I'll have you know that the Holy One never lies," the girl replied, her eyes twinkling.
"No, she doesn't," Nanaki told the pups seriously. "Well now 'Holy One'. Why don't we settle down and listen to the story of Cloud and his friends?"
The Holy One dipped her hand into her basket and brought a blue forget-me-not playfully to her lips. Only in her eyes did any sign of her timeless wisdom shine through on her youthful face as she proceeded to tell her story to the eager cubs "Well, I have got a story to tell about Cloud and the others," she began slowly. "It begins with a lady, who sits at the sill of her window in the snowy fields up north..."
-TO BE CONTINUED...-
A final note...: So I finally got this up. Yes, yes, I know, it was a month overdue, but I was in Hong Kong and didn't have access to any of my files. And besides, I was having too much fun. ;) And for those who were confused about the last line there, it was supposed to have particular resonance because it was the first line of my FF7 novelization, which starts with Ifalna and Dr. Gast living in Icicle Inn.
I would like to say a huge thank you to those of you that have read this story, and particularly to those who have left their comments and criticisms. They were very much appreciated and even though this story was written some years ago, it was great to hear what you all thought of it. Special thanks to Wolfwood, who's stuck with me from the beginning and reviewed throughout (you rule! ), and to Tacofoolio - your comments were most insightful. To everyone else, many thanks! -
And last, but not least, a sequel is soon to be up - watch this space for 'Coming Full-Circle'... :)