"While down below the trees
bathed in cool breeze
silver starlight breaks down the night.
And so we pass on by the crimson eye
of great god Mars
as we travel the universe."

Black Sabbath, 'Planet Caravan'

Chapter 31
Lunar Strain

Two years prior - Seven days after Meteorfall

Once the wreckage had been cleared, and the worst of the damage had been undone, the group known as Avalanche had occupied itself with rescue efforts in Midgar and other areas of the world affected by the errant comet. This task concluded, there followed a brief period of respite, during which they gathered at Kalm to celebrate their victory and to remember the fallen.

It was nearing midnight, and Cloud had stolen away from the ongoing celebrations, finding a quiet spot by the riverbed surrounded by the woods north of the bustling hamlet. He had sat there for some time, gathering his thoughts as he watched the still water, when his contemplations were interrupted by an unexpected visitor. He turned his head as he heard someone emerge from the thicket behind him.

"Hey," he greeted Yuffie as she came up next to him.

"Hey," she replied.

"Tifa send you to find me?" Cloud asked.

Yuffie shook her head. "No, I came on my own. Got a little curious as to why you disappeared this time around."

"Just wanted a little time on my own," Cloud said.

"You'll get plenty of that soon enough," Yuffie replied. "The group's splitting up, remember?"

"I know," Cloud said, turning his attention back to the lake before them. "Everyone's going back to their own lives."

During the course of their journey, the disparate members of their ragtag group had grown close, and learned to trust and rely upon one another. But they all knew it wasn't going to last forever. The day would soon come when they all had to go their separate ways. Even so, knowing that it all had to come to an end didn't make it any easier to part ways. They would remain together for a while still, but the end was coming. They all sensed it, reluctant as they were to accept the truth.

Yuffie looked Avalanche's elected leader over as she approached his chosen place of solitude. She noticed that, as of late, he seemed to be drawn to water, as people were said to be when contemplating life... and death.

"It's cold out here," she said, shivering and rubbing her arms as she sat down next to him.

Cloud nodded, but made no reply. Having grown up in the north, cold didn't faze him like the rest of them. Neither did he remark, as the others might have, that her choice of attire would make it cold anywhere. Perhaps he thought it too obvious a retort to bother with.

"You should come back inside," Yuffie said. "Everyone's waiting."

"I'll head back soon," Cloud said. "Just need a few more minutes."

Neither of them said anything else for a while. They simply sat there, gazing down into the water, watching the full moon reflected on its surface.

"So, Mister 'Ex-Soldier-First-Class-But-Not-Really'.." Yuffie said, breaking the silence. "A gil for your thoughts?"

"Been thinking about the past, you know?" Cloud replied.

"Like what?" Yuffie asked.

"The Cetra," Cloud replied. "And Jenova."

"What about them?"

"They didn't come out of nowhere," Cloud said. "Everything has its beginning, right?"

"Right..." Yuffie nodded. "What was it Vincent used to say? 'Nothing comes out of nothing'?"

"Yeah," Cloud replied, looking up towards the sky. "Makes you wonder what else is out there.."

Yuffie followed his gaze, looking up at the infinite sea of stars illuminating the cloudless sky. The light of a thousand worlds, long past, taking numberless eons to reach them here and now. Beautiful and eternal, or so it seemed.

"Maybe it's better if we don't find out," she replied.

"I guess it teaches us one thing," Cloud said.

"What?" Yuffie asked.

"Not to look for salvation from up above," he said, looking up again.

She gave a sardonic chuckle in reply. "You always this cheerful, Spikes, or is this a special occasion?"

"No," Cloud said. "Just some scattered thoughts. Too much down-time, perhaps."

"It does get you thinking," Yuffie said. "Not sure if that's such a good thing."

"Maybe not," Cloud replied.

"Anything else rattling around in there?" Yuffie asked, looking at her companion again.

"There's one thing," Cloud said. "If something had been done differently.."

Yuffie sighed. "Not this again.."

"I don't just mean us," Cloud said. "All of this stretches far back into the past. Sephiroth, Jenova, Meteor... All of these things were set in motion long before we had any hand in it."

Yuffie nodded, waiting for him to continue.

"We avoided the worst, sure, but... maybe it could have been avoided altogether."

"You think so?" Yuffie asked, uncertain.

"If things had gone differently," Cloud said. "If different choices had been made along the way..."

He paused, giving a slight shrug. "That's what I keep wondering. Is it fate? Or just bad luck?"

"You're asking the wrong person, Spikes," Yuffie said. "You want the philosophy department, you'd better get a hold of Vincent. I just steal stuff."

Cloud nodded, but said nothing. He returned his gaze to the waters below, folding his hands before his face.

"Look," Yuffie said, "you can't get caught up in the what-ifs. You'll drive yourself crazy thinking like that. What's done is done."

Cloud shrugged again. "I suppose."

"Now, there's a party going on, and we're missing it," Yuffie said. "Don't make me drag your spiky ass back inside, okay?"

"Don't worry," Cloud said. "I'll just be a minute."

"Well, I'm staying here until you leave," Yuffie said, smiling. "You're not getting away that easily."

"If you insist," Cloud replied.

They sat in silence for another moment. Yuffie drew her knees up underneath her chin, doing her best to ward off the cold as she looked down, gazing at her own reflection in the water. Cloud glanced at the young ninja. It wasn't hard for him to guess what was on her mind. She was no doubt contemplating her own reasons for departing from the group.

"You're going to have to wear that crown one day," he said.

"Don't remind me."

"For what it's worth," Cloud said, "I think Wutai's finally getting the ruler it deserves."

She looked at him to gauge whether he was being sarcastic or not. But his words seemed sincere, as did the expression with which he regarded her.

"Thanks," she replied, smiling at him.

"Come on," Cloud said, getting back up. "Let's get back inside."

He offered his hand, and she accepted, allowing him to pull her back up to her feet. They walked side by side back through the forest, returning to their friends' gathering for one last celebration before the end. And so came to pass the dissolution of the group of adventurers known as Avalanche, until fate would summon their presence once again.