A soul flowed in the Lifestream. She was one with it, one with the other souls, one with the Planet's lifeblood--but not quite. Something separated her from them, a bond to the Planet far stronger than any they could possess.
She sensed the foreign presence of a living being in the Lifestream and shifted her attention to it. This presence was accompanied by that of a dying man, a soul returning to the Planet, falling into the Lifestream, joining them, becoming one--but not quite. Was this soul different in the same manner in which she was different? Her memory called to her and negated the thought. This was Sephiroth. He was dead then?
Then the other, the one who yet lived... Cloud?
She strained herself and, for a moment, found sight, wonderful sight. Below her she could see Cloud, and she reached to him, willing herself back into being.
But she was not alive; her soul alone could sustain nothing, and the image wavered and quickly died, leaving her sightless again. It was not so bad, to be entirely without senses. More often than not, she could not recall ever having had them.
There was a swell of energy, a wave of anxiety and urgency sweeping through her and the souls around her. Meteor had begun its attack on the Planet, and Holy was not strong enough to stop it. The spell which should have repelled it instead was slowly becoming a part of it.
She strained herself, strained her essence. She had no form, no shape, nothing but dim thought, elusive emotion, and fading awareness. Stretching, she felt the Lifestream surge with her, surge to stop Meteor. She willed it to stop with all that was left of herself and urged those around her to do the same, be they sentient or fragments of alien thought. By their effort, Meteor cracked, crumbled, died.
She felt something brush at her and close around her. A calling, a summons which she was powerless to resist. It pulled her through the current, deeper and deeper, as though trying to drown her. She tried to struggle, but had no body with which to struggle. She tried to scream, but had no mouth with which to scream. She tried to look at her captor, but had no eyes with which to see. The force dragged her out of the Lifestream, and moments passed while she existed in this non-place.
Then she suddenly recognized something in this summons, and she let even this faint consciousness begin to fade. Slipping, sliding away, like so many forgotten memories...
Aeris opened her eyes. Eyes...? She blinked and sat up with a start, looking around. Flowers surrounded her, brilliant reds and pale blues and glowing yellows among vibrant green leaves. She was in a field of wildflowers which spread as far as she could see, and the sky above her was a beautiful, clear blue. The place was familiar, and yet she knew that she had never been here before.
She climbed to her feet, knowing instantly. The Cetra will return to the Promised Land, a land that promises supreme happiness. But what happiness was this? It was beautiful here, but nevertheless the place held nothing for her. Cloud was not here and would never be here.
She heard voices behind her, some of them vaguely familiar, as though recognizable from a dream. Her ancestors. One of the voices was distinctly familiar, and Aeris turned around to face them. "Mother?"
Ifalna smiled and stepped forward from the group. "Aeris... Welcome home." Her green eyes sparkled, her long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail of untamed curls, and she wore the same red dress that Aeris remembered. Her mother looked much the same as when she had last seen her, on the steps of the train station fifteen years ago, when she had been a child.
Her mother was happy now. This was her Promised Land, and the Promised Land of all the other Cetra, Aeris realized, seeing similar welcoming smiles on all their faces.
She managed to smile weakly in response and shook her head slightly. She doubted that she could ever be so happy here.
Ifalna tilted her head in concern. "What's wrong?"
She dropped her head and studied her feet. "I... Cloud..." She trailed off, unable and unwilling to articulate.
Her mother seemed to understand perfectly. "You love him," she said simply.
Aeris looked up sharply at the words. She was almost surprised, but it was true, wasn't it? She had fallen for Cloud, and she hadn't even gotten to tell him.
"But you won't be able to see him again," Ifalna continued, eyes showing sympathy but voice firm. "You have to let go. All of us had to learn to let go."
She felt tears come to her eyes. She didn't want to let go. How could she? She swallowed and wiped ineffectually at her eyes. Crying would do her no good. "Why couldn't I have stayed in the Lifestream?" she asked. "Then, someday, maybe I'd meet him again."
Her mother shook her head sadly. "It... doesn't work that way. You felt it, didn't you? Our souls aren't quite like those in the Lifestream. We don't belong there. You must understand, as many of us did, that you won't be able to have contact with your friends. You can do whatever you want here, but when it comes to the real world... We cannot interfere in any way. There are no more Cetra left, no more links to the world of the living. We can watch, but nothing more."
Lowering her gaze, Aeris stared again at her feet and studied the flowers crushed beneath her large brown boots. At length she regained her composure and looked up. "I want to watch him then. If I can't be with him, I at least want to see him."
Ifalna nodded, although there was some reluctance in her manner; surely she was worried that her daughter would not be able to let go. Aeris followed her blindly as she led the way through the field of flowers. She paid no attention to her surroundings, not caring what this place looked like. A prison was a prison. She tried to resign herself to her fate. She was aware, but not alive, and she was lucky to have that consciousness, wasn't she? Only the Cetra had that luxury. But was it really a luxury? Who would want eternity if it was this lonely?
At last they stopped, and Aeris finally looked up again. Soft green grass spread beneath her feet, and a glittering lake stretched out in front of her. Scattered thickets stood on the edge of this side of the lake, and a forest on the far side. Nearby, a cluster of tall trees held a small house in their boughs.
Her mother waited a moment for her to take in the view, and then led her up the ladder to the house. Inside was a cozy-looking living room. A soft couch sat against one wall, a table occupied the center of the room, resting atop a brightly-colored woven rug, and a rocking chair sat motionless in one corner. The opposite wall held a broad window with a cushioned seat built into it. Sunlight streamed in, stretching across the seat, the table, the sofa.
Gesturing for Aeris to make herself comfortable, Ifalna walked through the door on the far side. Aeris sank down onto the soft cushions of the sofa and stared at the wood grain of the table. Her mother returned a moment later, setting a fair-sized mirror down before her. She blinked and looked up questioningly.
"Mirrors here allow you to look into the real world, if you want them to," Ifalna explained. "At least, that's the easiest way of going about it."
Aeris nodded and turned to the mirror, absently studying her reflection. "So, I can see Cloud through this? I can watch him...?"
"How?" she asked.
Ifalna smiled softly. "All you have to do is want it."
Aeris looked into the glass, willing it to show her Cloud. She started as her own image disappeared, replaced by another. The Highwind, now an airplane, had landed once more at the edge of Northern Crater, and Cloud stood at its edge, shaking his head. Rock had crumbled from the side, making any path downwards quite impossible. Aeris leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands. Watching him, perhaps she could forget herself and her loneliness.
Cloud shook his head and turned away from the crater's edge to climb back onto the Highwind. He strode past the others without meeting their gazes and stopped before Cid. "Let's go," he said levelly. "She's not there."
The pilot nodded silently, and within minutes the Highwind was back in the air, speeding southward towards Gold Saucer. Somehow it seemed a fitting place to say goodbye; that was the last place, besides the Temple, where all of them had been together. They were short one person now, of course, and in decidedly lower spirits. A few of them could make their way home from the amusement park, and the others would likely leave with Cid.
The ship landed outside of North Corel, and the eight of them filed out. They walked through the dusty street, past the disheveled tents and crumbling houses, and on up the steps to the ropeway. They climbed into the car, which soon pushed off from the station with a jolt. Those who were standing staggered slightly. Cloud watched out the window, though there was little to see; it was dark, and below them there was nothing but desert.
They all made the short trip in silence, thinking of the one who had saved them, the one who had sacrificed the most, the one who was now absent. It did not seem at all fair.
Even Gold Saucer was silent, the cheerful music no longer playing. The lady at the entrance seemed surprised to see them, but she said nothing and did not ask to see their passes.
They assembled in the main hall of the Ghost Square hotel, in much the same manner that they had the night Cloud had gone on that one date with Aeris--except that Aeris was not there. She was somewhere in the Lifestream or, perhaps, in the Promised Land, wherever that might have been.
Cloud took up his position by the door and looked at each of them in turn, wanting to remember their faces this night.
To his right, standing by the unattended chess table, was Barret. He stared at his feet, probably thinking about Aeris like the rest of them and worrying about the people in Midgar. Above all, he was wondering if Marlene was safe, wondering where she was, wondering when he would next see her. Maybe now that the Planet was safe, his little girl could have a normal life.
Yuffie stood nearby with a defiant grin on her face, as though she had just marched straight into Hell and come back with barely a scratch. Cloud supposed this was true enough, and maybe they all should have been grinning. After all, hadn't they defeated Sephiroth and saved the Planet? Hadn't they done what they had set out to do? But they had lost something along the way, and Yuffie seemed to be the only one who didn't feel that now.
Cait Sith sat in front of the stairs, his stuffed body incongruous with the emotions he surely felt. Normally cheerful, all he managed now was to offer Cloud a half-hearted grin. He, too, was thinking of Aeris, maybe recalling the last time he had spoken with her; at the Temple of the Ancients, he had foretold a happy future for her and Cloud. They should have known that the cat's fortunes were rarely accurate.
Vincent occupied the corner below the stairs, his crimson gaze fixed upon the floor. Normally he showed no emotion whatsoever, as if to prove his assertion that he had none, but in his fatigue a deep sadness and loneliness belied his words. Cloud had to wonder what was weighing down his thoughts. He wondered, too, where the man would go now. He had never seemed to have any purpose beyond revenge, nor had he ever spoken his mind.
Cid sat in a chair to Vincent's left, his spear propped against the wall nearby. He was smoking, as always, and he looked more anxious than tired. He probably wanted to return home and repair the Highwind. And maybe, however much he denied caring about her, he missed Shera. Cloud was sort of hoping that they would get together. It seemed strange that they hadn't already.
Nanaki lay sprawled on the floor near the door to the back room, his fiery tale swishing idly back and forth. He looked exhausted; he had fought hard, and now the spell-casting and the battling tooth-and-claw had taken their toll on him. His gaze rested wearily on the floor, and Cloud wondered if memories of Bugenhagen were weighing him down, too. Nanaki could return home a proud warrior, but he no longer had any family to greet him.
Tifa stood to Cloud's left, preoccupied with her thoughts. She did notice his glance, though, and cast him a weak smile before returning her gaze to her feet. He wondered what was bothering her. It wasn't only the memory of Aeris's death, and she hadn't seemed too dismayed by Midgar's destruction. There always seemed to be something that she was hiding from him, and he could never figure it out. Maybe now, with nothing else in the way, he could figure out how to ask her what it was.
"Well," Cloud said finally, knowing that whatever he said would be inadequate. "It seems like our journey has come to an end. Sephiroth is dead. Shinra is falling apart. Midgar's been more or less destroyed. We don't have any reasons to stick together anymore, except maybe the shaky friendships we've developed over the past few weeks. We all came from different places, and I expect we'll all be heading back now."
The others nodded their agreement and confirmation. Yes, those with homes to go back to were going home. Yes, they were tired of the fighting. Yes, they were glad it was over now.
Yes, they wished there were some things that had happened differently.
"I'll be going back to that villa in Costa del Sol," Cloud continued, and shook his head. "I've got no place else to go. If anyone wants to come with me, I'd appreciate the company. If not..." He shrugged his shoulders, a gesture they were all familiar with by now.
"I think the rest of us're goin' home," Barret said. "Midgar's in ruins, but I ain't gonna abandon it."
Cloud and Tifa both nodded their understanding, and then there was a silence. No one wanted to say anything more, because it seemed like goodbyes were all that they had to say, and those seemed too final. Slowly, quietly, the group dispersed.
Barret was the first to go, anxious to see Marlene again. Cait Sith hurried after him, and his kitten's voice could be heard faintly outside, assuring the big man that the girl was all right.
Yuffie went over to nudge Cid, telling him that he had to take her home, and thank the gods that she would never have to ride that hellish ship ever again. This, of course, produced a curse from the pilot as he stood, but to her credit, Yuffie said nothing about materia as she left. Cloud had told her before the battle that she could keep what she had on her, and although she had argued for more then, now she seemed satisfied.
Vincent stepped from his corner and followed them like a shadow, catching Cloud's gaze on his way out and holding it long enough to make the blond uncomfortable. He looked down to find Nanaki near his feet. The feline bumped his head against Cloud's leg in a gesture of sympathy, knowing that he was still upset about Aeris. Then he turned and padded silently after Vincent.
Tifa took a few steps towards him, and Cloud realized with some startlement that they were the only two left. She seemed anxious about something, and when he noticed her, she dropped her gaze to her feet. He waited awkwardly for a minute, and at length she lifted her gaze to his face.
He wasn't sure what she was trying to say, but he shook his head and pretended he did. Maybe it had something to do with Aeris; that was what everyone was thinking about tonight. "I'll be all right, Teef," he told her, managing a weak grin and a shrug. "Time heals all wounds, right?"
Tifa smiled hesitantly, but her gaze looked miserable. "Yeah, but... I..." She trailed off and shook her head.
Cloud frowned; he had guessed wrong. "What's wrong?"
"No, nothing's wrong, it's just that..." She sighed and looked down again, unable to say what she wanted to.
He shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "You can tell me later, okay?"
She nodded, and he turned towards the door, opening it for her. She smiled at him as she walked out, and they walked together back to the ropeway station. They had to wait there for a moment for the tram to return, and when it did they climbed on in silence. Their gold chocobo, having been on the Highwind, was waiting for them none-too-patiently in North Corel. Their silence seemed to make it uneasy, but they held it for the ride eastward across the mountains to Costa del Sol.
Barret had never much liked Kalm, but tonight it seemed like the best place in the world. Cait Sith directed him to one of the houses, and the tall black-haired man who greeted him introduced himself as Reeve. Marlene, he said, was upstairs, and after that statement, Barret ceased to pay him any attention and ran upstairs.
Marlene heard him coming and poked her head out of a room. "Papa!" she exclaimed happily.
He swept her up into his arms, murmuring nonsensical words in an attempt to express how worried he had been about her.
"Don't cry, Papa," Marlene chided, giggling. "Your whiskers hurt!"
Barret wished that Dyne could be here now to see his little girl, already four years old, but Dyne was gone. He wondered how long it would be before he had to explain his absence to Marlene. Enough people had told her that she looked nothing like her 'Papa' that she knew this somehow made him not her father in the same way that most people had fathers. Eventually, he figured that she'd ask, and he'd have to tell her how Dyne had thrown himself off a cliff. It was not something he looked forward to, but she was only four. He had a few years longer to think about it.
He shook his head slightly, taking her back inside the room so he could sit down. He rocked her gently back and forth.
His hands weren't any cleaner than Dyne's had been, but he was finished with fighting. With Shinra gone, there was no need to fight. There was a hell of a lot of cleaning up to do, but no more battles, no more killing, no more worrying about his adopted daughter. He wouldn't have to leave her in someone else's care and face her anxious questions. Where was he going? When would he be back? Would he be okay? No more of that. He could take care of her now that the fighting was over.
Reeve peeked into the bedroom where Barret sat, holding Marlene. He smiled, then turned and quietly walked back downstairs, not wanting to intrude on the father-daughter reunion. Nothing was holding him here anymore--he certainly wasn't going to wait around for some kind of thanks from Barret that he didn't deserve--so Reeve stepped out of the house, blinking in the morning sunshine. It was going to be a nice day, he decided, and stuffed his hands into his pockets, looking down.
What was he going to do now? Shinra was gone, and he was out of a job--not that he had liked it very much anyway, always striving to protect what good was left in Midgar and failing miserably, dismissed with a few words from President Shinra.
He had never really fit in with Cloud's group either; at first they had regarded him with incredulity and laughter, then with ceaseless suspicion when they found out he worked for Shinra. They had at last accepted him as an ally, but never as a friend. Out of all of them, Aeris had thought the best of him, but she was dead.
Besides, Reeve considered, none of them knew him. They knew Cait Sith, yes, but what was Cait but a false persona, a cheerful stuffed cat about as different from Reeve as he could be? No, he wasn't like Cait Sith at all; he had just liked the escape he found in pretending to be happy.
Kicking a stray rock on the blue cobblestone street, he glanced up, towards Midgar. Maybe he could go find the Turks. It would be easier to stick it out with them than on his own, even if it wouldn't be the same without Tseng. After the Temple of the Ancients, not one of them had seen him again, and all of them save Elena had accepted him as dead. He had to be after suffering a wound like that.
Reeve sighed and picked up his pace as he walked out of Kalm towards what remained of Midgar. He could at least make himself useful in helping the survivors and see if Reno, Rude, or Elena were among them.
Vincent made his way south, walking across the dry land that marked the edge of the desert surrounding Gold Saucer and the ghost of South Corel. The Death Penalty hung at his side, and he lifted it mechanically to fire whenever some monster got in his way. He did not watch to see if the shot hit--he rarely missed--nor to see if the blow proved fatal. It did not matter, so long as nothing bothered him.
It was nearing noon when he turned west and started up into the mountains. The steep and rocky slope slowed his pace only marginally, although he did have to pay closer attention to his footing and on occasion to use his claw to steady himself.
The sun had already reached its zenith and begun its slow decline down the sky by the time he reached the summit, but it still illuminated the bottom of the valley. The water of the lake and the falls glittered in the sunlight, but the beauty of the view failed to stir anything in him. He barely even paused to take it in.
Vincent started down the slope, taking his time although he knew that if she was still here, her time was probably limited. That fact should have made him want to hurry to make certain he reached her in time, but he continued at the same pace.
Nothing seemed to matter now, not even this. Thirty years of nightmares only to be awakened to kill Lucrecia's son? He had told her before that Sephiroth was dead, but he was certain that by now she was aware of the lie. Would she understand? Could she forgive him for that?
There is no forgiveness for you, a voice in the back of his mind told him, and he nodded his agreement. No, there was no forgiveness for him, most especially not from her.
It was mid-afternoon when he finally reached the bottom of the slope. His steps took him towards the waterfall, and still they did not quicken. The only emotion he had left was reserved for her, and yet he could not even muster enough of it to feel some anxiety for her? How pathetic.
What he had said to Sephiroth was no longer true, if it ever had been. They had just been words, shouted in a moment when such strong words had seemed necessary. Now, they were meaningless. It seemed that it would be an eternity before his time finally came--if it ever did.
Reaching the waterfall, Vincent paused momentarily, some kind of worry finally stirring in him. What would he do if he did find her here? he wondered, but he pushed on through the waterfall before he could dwell on the question.
It was surprisingly quiet once he had passed through the cascading water and into the hidden chamber. Lucrecia sat slumped on the floor by the pulsing light that was her altar.
He strode to her and knelt silently beside her.
She looked up at him with sad eyes. "Vincent," she said softly. "I was hoping... that I'd see you again, before the end."
He frowned minutely. "You are dying, aren't you?" he asked, though he did not need to ask. The fact of it had lain in his mind since they had last seen her. A part of him only hoped against all logic that it was not true.
She nodded in confirmation. "Yes, I am. I can feel it, that I'll be gone soon. Even the Jenova can't keep me alive forever. It can't keep bringing me back."
Vincent said nothing. There was nothing he could say.
"But... I wanted to tell you some things." She hesitated. "Most importantly, I want you to know that you never did anything wrong. None of this mess was your fault, and I certainly don't blame you for any of it."
He opened his mouth to protest, but Lucrecia laid a slender finger over his lips, silencing him.
"No, don't you even start. I won't have it. It wasn't your fault." She paused, waiting for his grudging agreement. "Secondly... I want you to look after Sephiroth."
He blinked in confusion, and this time she let him speak. "But, Lucrecia... Sephiroth is dead."
She shook her head. "Maybe he is now, but this isn't the first time he's been dead. I have died before, you understand. He'll have another chance. In five years' time, he'll return again, like he did before. The Jenova in him will heal him and resurrect him. Vincent, promise me that you'll look after him."
There was a pause as Vincent hesitated.
"Please, Vincent. I don't want him going through the same thing all over again."
He nodded at that. "I will look after him. I promise."
Lucrecia smiled in relief and leaned against him, closing her eyes. For an instant, he worried that the time had come and she would say nothing more. Why he should have been disappointed, he did not know.
"There's something I want to ask you before I return to the Planet," she said very quietly, voice almost a whisper.
She opened her blue-green eyes and drew back to look at him searchingly. "Do you still love me?"
"Yes," he answered immediately, and he meant it.
Her smile returned. "Good."
He tilted his head, but she did not respond to his unspoken question. "Why do you say that?" he asked.
She took his flesh hand and held it in both her own. "Because it's nice to know that you're loved back," she answered with something like regret in her voice.
It took a moment before Vincent understood. When he did, he stared at her in open disbelief.
Lucrecia's smile broadened, though she looked tired now. "Now, I have one last thing to ask of you, and I know it's going to be hard for you: I want you to kiss me."
Vincent continued to stare at her, wondering if he had heart her correctly. He nearly asked her to repeat herself.
She laughed softly and lifted a hand to touch his face. "Can it really be that hard, to kiss the woman you love?"
He slowly freed his hand from her grasp and tentatively lifted it to her cheek. She had never said it, and still she had not really said it, but the implication now was stronger than ever before. Did she really mean it? Could she? He studied her face, memorizing it, the patient smile on her lips, the warmth of her skin beneath his fingers.
I want you to kiss me.
He brought his face closer to hers, closed his eyes, and kissed her. When he pulled back, there was gratitude and relief in her eyes. She leaned against him again, and he held her close. If only this moment could last forever. If only he hadn't known that she was dying. If only she weren't dying. Whatever she said, it was still his fault.
"Vincent," she said quietly, "it's time. I... wish I could have stayed with you, but..." She trailed off, shaking her head. She looked up at him. "Goodbye, Vincent."
There was a burning behind his eyes that he did not recognize. "Goodbye, Lucrecia," he replied softly. "I love you."
"I love you, too," she whispered. Her blue-green eyes closed. Her chest rose and fell and did not rise again. He could no longer feel her heart beating.
Vincent sat motionless, holding her still form, and found himself blinking back tears as the warmth seeped from her body. At length he succumbed to them, lowering his head and weeping silently, the noiseless sobs shaking his body.
Some time later, he did not know how long, his crying abated and he wiped his face roughly on his sleeve. Lucrecia was dead, and this time it seemed final. The Jenova cells, as she had said, could not keep bringing her back.
He laid her limp body before the dimmed altar, and paused beside it. He had failed her time and time again, but he vowed that he would respect her wishes and look after Sephiroth when the time came.
Vincent straightened, turned from Lucrecia's still form, and left the cave. His pace was swift but unhurried as he returned over the mountains and plains to Nibelheim. It was late evening, and the sky was dark when he returned. The streets were empty, most of the houses dark. No anxious faces peered at him through the curtains, and it was just as well.
He entered the mansion silently, made his way down to the basement, and climbed back into his coffin. He would not be needed until five years hence, and until then his nightmares and demons could have their way with him.
Nanaki paused at the bottom of the stone steps, looking up at his home town from below. It looked just as glorious as it always had, with the afternoon sun setting the canyon's walls aflame, contrasting brilliantly with the deep blue of the sky. The windmills turned slowly and deliberately. He could hear the people of the canyon conversing, relief over the previous night's events coloring their voices. Enticing smells wafted from cook fires, from foods being prepared for some sort of celebration, no doubt.
But it would not be the same without Bugenhagen.
Nanaki sighed, almost tempted to turn around and sleep outside the village. He did not want to take part in the festivities; he was too tired, and he missed Bugenhagen. But he did want to go home. Surely the villagers would understand, and they would grant him the rest he desired.
He hauled himself up the last of the steps, nodding absently to Ira, the gatekeeper, as the man welcomed him cheerfully. Many more of the villagers let out cries of joy when they saw him and hailed him as the great warrior Nanaki. Their voices died down when they saw how tired he was, and they parted for him as he made his way to the inn, where he had a room in the back.
His room was dark and circular, hung with old woven cloth and dark skins, lined with various pillows and large enough to comfortably house at least ten of his kind. But there was only him. He collapsed on a pillow near the entryway and quickly fell asleep.
His dreams were muddled and bittersweet, full of the pained yells of the Gi tribe as his father Seto tore through them. He dreamed of his mother, too, telling him with sad eyes that his father had run away. And last, briefly, he glimpsed Seto standing atop the cliff, roaring defiance as the poisoned arrows of the Gi sank into his flesh.
Nanaki awoke during the night, leaping to his feet and looking wildly about for his father and his mother. He realized slowly that both were long dead, and he was no longer a frightened and helpless cub.
He padded quietly from his room, easily avoiding the notice of those few people still awake. It was long past midnight, he construed, and closer to morning, or the villagers would still be partying, celebrating Meteor's destruction and the return of their guardian Nanaki. There would be more parties throughout the week, he knew. Perhaps he would be up to participating in the next one.
He continued silently up the stairs into the tunnels of Cosmo Canyon and soon found himself before the great sealed door that led into the cave of the Gi. He remembered where the hidden switch was, and he pushed it with his nose. The door slid open with a groan, and Nanaki entered swiftly.
The dark passageways proved no difficulty. He could see well enough, and the ghosts that lingered warily avoided the son of the warrior Seto. He reached the end of the wide tunnel where the ceiling pulled back to reveal the moon, and his father silhouetted against its light. He did not pause until he had scaled the cliff and stood beside Seto. He looked up at the stone face, the mouth set in a ferocious snarl, the warning in that stance despite the arrows that protruded from the stone flesh. None of the living would dare pass this way, and even the dead seemed skittish here.
Nanaki nuzzled his father's cold flank. "I have returned a warrior," he said, fighting the waver in his voice. "I am finally worthy to bear the name Nanaki, son of Seto." He waited, as though his words could magically bring the life back into his father's body. Nothing happened, and Nanaki lay down to mourn his parents, his grandfather, and Aeris.
Yuffie stopped short, studying her hometown of Wutai across the short distance that remained. Her grin faded as she stared at the buildings in the setting sun. The beautiful sight failed to comfort her. She felt in her pocket for the materia she had been allowed to keep. Aside from the Leviathan materia and the few orbs she had had from the start, she hadn't acquired much. Only a measly eight materia. After the battle, she hadn't cared enough to argue for more. Who cared about materia after going through something like that?
But what would her dad think? Eight was pretty pathetic. He had wanted her to nab all of it, she was sure, since Cloud and the others wouldn't have much use for it now. But then, what use would Godo have for it now that Shinra was out of the picture? He'd always been greedy. Maybe she took after him a little in that respect.
She crossed her arms suddenly and shook her head sharply. "I don't care," she declared to no one. "That lazy old goat's not gonna get any of my materia! He never did a thing to deserve it!" He didn't even manage to save Wutai.
The thought made her uneasy, and she nearly pushed it out of her mind. "Well, that's because he's pathetic," she decided. "Yuffie Kisaragi can sure as hell clean up this dumpy tourist attraction."
Sticking her tongue out at the town, Yuffie crossed the remaining distance and marched confidently in.
Cid turned the Highwind away from where he had dropped off Yuffie and headed back towards Midgar. His crew had decided that they wanted to help with the clean up, so he would let them off at the ruins and pilot the airship-turned-airplane solo back to Rocket Town... and Shera. He was damned if he was going to admit it to anyone, but he actually did love the woman. Hell, wasn't that why he'd aborted the launch of the Shinra No. 26 to save her life?
He was anxious to get home, and so when he saw the tiny figure waving her arms up at him, he regarded it dubiously. He was bringing the Highwind down near there anyway, and as they grew closer he could identify the figure as Elena of the Turks. What the fuck does she want? he wondered, curiosity battling fatigue and the desire to return home.
It had to be something pretty urgent if she was desperate enough to wave him down, Cid reasoned, and he could always turn her down if her request was too outrageous. He set the ship down, nodding to himself, and headed out with his crew.
He did not know how or indeed why he had held on for so long. He did not know how he had endured the pain or survived the blood loss, even with his few successful cure spells. He knew only that he was waiting for someone, though whether she had brown eyes or green, blond hair or chestnut, a manner loud or gentle, he could not recall.
There had been a promise he had made, and another he had broken many years earlier. And with them, a desire to fulfill the first, and to atone for the second. Though with death threatening to claim him at each ragged breath, he did not know how he could accomplish either.
Tseng became aware of a rustling of brush, and slowly realized that the sound indicated that something was coming towards him. He wondered almost hopefully if it was a monster; perhaps the thing could finally finish what Sephiroth had not. He had just barely managed to crawl out of the Temple and hide himself here, but no one had come looking for him. Apparently they all assumed he was dead. Sephiroth's blows were usually fatal, after all; he had only left Tseng alive so that he could show Cloud the way.
He heard a voice exclaim something from very close by, but in his hazy state of mind, he could not make out the words. It was a woman's voice, and he thought that he should have recognized it, but he could not. A moment later, he felt the pain subside, and he perceived belatedly that someone had cast a cure spell on him.
He struggled to open his eyes, but at first he could see nothing but a blur of darkened colors. He blinked several times and then focused on the figure of a blond woman--Elena, he remembered--crouching beside him. She looked worried. He tried to speak, but his throat was dry and he only coughed raggedly, wincing.
Elena bit her lip and turned to someone behind her. "Do you have any water?" she asked hopefully. "Or could you... could you get some?"
The figure left silently, and Elena turned back to Tseng.
"You just hang in there, okay? You'll be all right."
He could only shake his head. He didn't think there was any recovering from this. It would take some powerful healing magic to mend him.
The man returned, handing Elena a canteen, and this time Tseng recognized him as Cid Highwind. He wondered what the man was doing here. Elena held the canteen to his lips, and he drank gratefully.
"What happened to you?" she asked. "We all thought you were dead. Did Cloud--?"
He grunted and managed to speak this time, although his voice rasped painfully. "No, Sephiroth... It was Sephiroth. Why... why did you... come back?"
She shook her head slightly. "I don't know. I just thought... Well, no one found your body, and I thought, 'what if he's still alive back there?' With Rufus dead, Shinra's falling apart, so there was nothing to keep me from coming back here. Meteor's gone, too," she added.
"Oh... That's right, you don't know. Once you get better, I'll have to fill you in on everything you missed."
He tried to speak, to explain that he was dying, but his voice caught in his throat and he coughed again. This time he tasted blood in his mouth. Elena held the canteen for him and he drank again. "I... I don't think I'm going to make it," Tseng told her, enunciating carefully. "This wound is--"
"No," Elena interrupted, shaking her head fervently. "No, you'll be all right. A few good cure spells and you'll be fine. Here, I'll--"
"Don't... waste any spells on me. This wound... is too bad."
Her eyes were glistening with tears, and she kept shaking her head. "Don't talk like that. You'll be all right."
"No. No, I won't."
She bit her lip again. A tear ran down her cheek.
Tseng tried to smile, but he had never been very good at smiling, and he failed. "Don't cry," he told her. "I was... already dead, right?"
She shook her head once, sharply. "No, you're not going to die!" she said desperately.
His breath was coming raggedly; he didn't have much time left. "Tell Aeris... that I'm sorry. I should never have... become a Turk."
Elena blinked in momentary confusion, and then she said gently, "Tseng... Aeris is dead."
"Tell her... anyway," he insisted.
She nodded silently, the tears streaming down her face now. She did not seem to notice.
Tseng managed, with great effort, to lift a bloody hand to her cheek. So much for that dinner, he thought regretfully. "I'll see you again someday," he told her softly, with a sudden certitude. His next breath failed him, and he closed his eyes. Everything faded away into nothingness.
Tifa opened the door a crack and peered into Cloud's bedroom to see if he was awake. She found him lying on his back, hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. He looked wide awake, in spite of his fatigue. He hadn't seen her, and she hesitated. No, she was going to go through with this. Even if he didn't love her back, she had to tell him. With Aeris gone... Well, maybe she could comfort him.
She opened the door farther, and he sat up, looking over at her. She walked over and hesitantly sat across from him on the other bed. "I... um, I wanted to talk to you," she began nervously.
"Okay," Cloud said slowly. "Is this about that thing you were trying to tell me before?"
She nodded biting her lip.
"So what's bothering you?" he asked.
Tifa wished she could be calm about this, but it was so hard to tell him after all this time. She couldn't help thinking that Aeris would have had no trouble with it. "Cloud, I..." She shook her head. She couldn't just say it, could she? "I don't know how to say this," she admitted sheepishly.
"Just say what you're thinking," Cloud told her, not seeming to understand what was so difficult.
She smiled at his attempt to help. "Yeah, I guess. Well, you see, you're... more than a friend to me, and..." She trailed off, not knowing the right words. At least she had managed that. She took a deep breath and let it out shakily, not feeling any less anxious.
Cloud was watching her with uncertainty. His expression did not help.
"I mean," Tifa plowed on, "I know you... you love Aeris, but..." She swallowed and forced herself to meet his gaze. "I love you, Cloud." There. She had finally said it. It was out with. He knew. Nothing more was required of her.
He stared at her, mouth working but no words coming out. It did not surprise her; all this time, he had considered her a good friend and nothing more, never suspecting that she might think of him differently. Still, she had been hoping for something besides shock. He could have looked happy to know it.
"But... but, I thought..." he stuttered.
Tifa lowered her gaze to the floor, feeling silly. She could feel her cheeks darken. "When you left Nibelheim," she began, feeling as though she had to explain herself, "and I had you make that promise, I didn't want you to go. I guess... that was when it started. But I waited too long to say anything. I know you don't... love me back, but I had to tell you anyway."
Cloud nodded slightly in understanding. He looked down at his hands, and an awkward moment passed. "Tifa," he said eventually, "you've always been a good friend to me, my best friend, but... I don't know what to say..."
She looked up and found herself meeting his gaze. He looked guilty. "You can't help it if you don't feel the same way, so don't worry about it. I'm more worried about you... because she's not here for you."
He dropped his gaze, the guilt replaced by sadness. "I don't know what to do," he admitted. "I really thought... that I was going to see her again. I almost thought I did, but I guess she's in the Promised Land now. I hope she's happy there."
Tifa nodded in agreement and waited for him to speak again.
At length he asked softly, "Tifa, what are we going to do?"
The question surprised her, and she looked carefully at Cloud. He really did look lost, and she wondered what she could say to him. To some degree, maybe they were in the same boat, both wanting someone they could not have, but at least she could stay by his side so long as he let her. Aeris was dead, and that was someplace he could not follow.
"We don't have anyone or any place to go back to," Cloud went on, "not like everyone else. There's just the two of us here, not knowing what to do."
It was funny how saving the Planet had ripped their lives apart anyway.
"Cloud," Tifa said gently, trying to smile, "I've thought that a lot of times. You left Nibelheim and I didn't see you for a long time, and then I lost Nibelheim, too, and then Sector 7. But, there's always something left. You may not love me, but I can at least stay by your side. Even if we don't know what to do, we can at least stick together, right?"
He nodded, and although he didn't look comforted, he managed to return her smile. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
Because of the major changes that occurred between the original "Like Fallen Angels" and this version, I decided I'd make mention of them. Because we all love commentary, right? Right. (Yes, I'm bored.)
Anyway, here we have what was originally chapters 1 and 2. When I was through with the major editing, I decided to combine them and call them the prologue, mostly because that meant I had a nice 45 chapters instead of 47, partly because it makes more sense to separate this from the rest of the story anyway, considering these events happen five years prior to the meat of it.
Man, looking back, I was really mean to Yuffie in the beginning. I didn't used to like her because the whole materia-theft episode really annoyed me, but during the course of writing LFA, she became one of my favorite characters, something which made the original a little lopsided in representing her. That's one of the things I've tried to remedy. I also think how I handled Tseng's death in this version is a big improvement on the original scene, which was just sort of... corny. It also didn't explain how Elena got there to begin with.