Author's notes at the bottom since this is, y'know, the final chapter, and it seemed like the thing to do.
Zack never really remembered how they managed to get back to the surface, call Cid over the PHS, and return to the Highwind.
"We lost another reactor," Vincent reported. "Minimal casualties. Most of the civilians have been evacuated to a camp on the outskirts. They're calling it Edge, now."
"The Gold Saucer?"
"The last WEAPON has been destroyed."
Zack thought of the body they'd left in the Crater, hands on its chest and wrapped around Garmr, made of the bones of Summons and WEAPONs alike. It was funny how Zack had never realized just how small Cloud was for a man his age; he'd always seemed like so much more.
"Yeah. I guess it has."
"Where's Cloud?" was the first thing Elena asked on their return, and she watched in confusion as Sephiroth left the Junon command center without a word.
"He," Zack started, pausing to unstick the words from the lump in his throat, but he didn't need to finish. Elena turned pale under bandages and had to brace herself with a hand against a console. She swallowed a few times, nodded, and if her eyes were red and her voice thick as she kept Junon's military running smoothly, no one commented.
"Cosmo Canyon and North Corel were the ones who took down the WEAPON," Tifa told them, voice crackling with the distance between Junon and Rocket Town. "We managed to get in contact with the Corel group working in alternative fuel methods. Their leader's name is Barret and he's a little pissed we didn't call them earlier for help, but he's volunteered to go down to Midgar to see about setting up a system to replace the reactors. Vincent and the reconstruction leaders have been working on it. The Wutaians are negotiating with what's left of ShinRa, but Reeve says he wants you and Sephiroth back as soon as possible."
Nothing like a global threat to bring the world together. Zack tried to convince himself that a few personal losses were worth the wellbeing of mankind, but he'd never been good at the whole 'leaving a man behind' thing.
Elena was the one who broke the news to Tifa. She was the one who listened to Tifa's muted sobs over the PHS, and she was the one who spent the better part of an hour sitting quietly on the line and wishing she was in Rocket Town to share Tifa's grief in person. Instead she was in her military guest quarters, sitting on the floor alone in the dark with her back against a cold wall, her slowly healing burns all itchy and her ass going numb.
In a lot of ways, basically every way possible, Aeris was a miracle. She took one look at Edge, metaphorically rolled up her sleeves, and told Zack and Sephiroth that she would help take care of it while they figured out how the future was going to unroll. After all, they didn't have anyone to tell them what was going to happen now.
A ShinRa executive, two SOLDIERs, four Turks, a dead Turk, a talking lion, five Wutaians, and a terrorist leader walk into a bar, Zack thought, looking around the warehouse temporarily serving as the newly born WRO's headquarters. Reeve, haggard and dark-eyed, sat at the head of a scavenged conference table that Zack recognized as belonging to the now-destroyed office of the SOLDIER head; somehow, something so mundane in the midst of all the upheaval was kind of hilarious.
It turned out that this Barret was a founding member of the same AVALANCHE group that had been giving ShinRa so much trouble. He was coarse, loud, temperamental, and probably the guy most qualified to talk about things like coal power and repurposing the fucking mako reactors once they get fixed up for the first time in two fucking decades of ignoring the common folk, now that ShinRa's finally got a personal gods-damned use for 'em. Well, he wasn't wrong.
My people have agreed to share their research with AVALANCHE, said Nanaki solemnly.
The Wutaians stood in a united front. Lord Godo will lend the aid of Wutai on a few conditions. Zack snuck a look at Sephiroth when it was agreed that all ShinRa forces would leave Wutai and return control to the rightful people, but he couldn't see anything past Sephiroth's marble-like expression.
When all eyes turned to him, Zack told them, Aeris says the Planet is quiet now. Then it had to be explained that there was one last Ancient still alive and she was down in Edge right now helping the doctors.
Then it's over, Reeve sighed, and for a little while the warehouse was silent.
The news spread through the survivors. The actual cause of all the tragedy remained unknown, and so increasingly improbable stories ranging from geological instability to divine wrath ran rampant. Celebrations were muted and hope was a battered, cracked thing, but at least it was there.
It took a few weeks of hard, uncomfortable living before the first coal-driven power generators got up and running, and by then Edge was well on its way to becoming a permanent settlement with the fallen half of the Plate reduced to a still, dark gargoyle jutting up against the horizon.
There was talk of having a wake. What actually happened was that everyone ended up at the Seventh Heaven, which had managed to survive the chaos, around one of the big tables at the back: Elena, Tifa, Nanaki, Reeve, Cid, Vincent, Zack, Aeris, Sephiroth. Even the freaking wolf was there, sitting with his head on his paws under the table at everyone's feet, and Yuffie (who, much to her disgruntlement, was stuck with a glass of apple juice instead of the whiskey she'd demanded). Tifa and Elena were holding hands under the table. Zack looked around and couldn't get over how relatively few people had known someone like Cloud well enough, who cared enough, to show up, and who were still alive.
No one seemed to know how to break the tension until Cid grunted, raised his pint, and said, "To crazy, spiky-ass kids too fucking stubborn to give up."
"Did I ever tell you about the time me and Cloud broke into high-security ShinRa stuff?" grinned Elena, cheerfulness trying so hard to cover up the dark note under her voice.
Zack, catching on, chimed in, "The sci-fi movie incident."
"How about the time Cloud wasn't even tall enough to reach the cupboards and he still punched out a bully almost twice his size?" Tifa added with a lopsided smile.
No one left the bar until well after it was supposed to close. Veld (and what was it about Turks coming back to life, Zack had politely looked away when he saw the expression on Vincent's face the first time Vincent had seen Veld) remained a silent shadow behind the bar where Elfé used to stand, making no move to throw them out, and even if he had a different reason for it at least he was able to share in their mourning.
Zack only spoke with Sephiroth once about Cloud.
"At least he died a hero," he said quietly, but Sephiroth shook his head sharply.
"He wouldn't have wanted anyone to call him that."
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the edge of an overpass that had cracked apart, creating a high perch that gave them a view of the half-destroyed city below them and the new one rising from its rubble. Sunlight occasionally caught on the pendant hanging from a thin chain around Sephiroth's neck, lighting up the carved Ice materia like a small, cold star.
"He once admitted that you, Aeris, and I were the only reasons he kept going," Sephiroth said unexpectedly. "There were so many times he wanted to give up. I don't think he ever truly healed from everything – Hojo was just the final pressure point."
"Maybe," Zack said slowly, "but I don't think that's entirely true. He loved us, didn't he? That doesn't happen without a little bit of hope somewhere."
"I hated him sometimes. I hated how much control he had over me, like I was a puppet he could command. But he also gave me something no one else did."
Sephiroth looked at him with old pain tucked in the corners of his lips. "He made he feel human."
"Did you love him?"
Sephiroth turned back to the skyline, brow furrowed. Zack was ready to give up waiting when Sephiroth finally admitted, "I don't know. He was…"
Everything, Zack supplied. Too many things to a traumatized child that had grown up into an extraordinary man.
"I suppose you're going to tell me not to be angry?"
Zack snorted. "Hell no. Be angry, you've earned at least that much. Just don't, y'know, let it be the only thing you ever feel."
They stood in companionable silence, sharing the weight on their shoulders. The Buster on Zack's back didn't make the weight any easier to bear, and he'd noticed that Sephiroth hadn't once used the Masamune since he pulled it out of Cloud's body and mechanically wiped the blood off with his shirt.
Now what's going to happen, Zack had asked Aeris the night before, and she'd replied, Guess we'll find out the same way as everyone else now: one day at a time.
Once upon a time, it took a year, eight months, and three days for the Planet to die. Then the story got rewritten, and it took about that long for the Planet to heal.
Sephiroth parked his bike in front of Elmyra's house, tucked the box under an arm, and turned to the happily-panting wolf that had run after him the whole way here. "Fenrir, stay."
Fenrir plopped his butt down on the ground beside the bike and looked up at him with his tail thumping lightly.
Sephiroth walked up to the door and knocked. An immediate duet of tiny voices still learning to talk burst out before Elmyra opened the door, balancing a solemn-faced toddler on one hip with a second one hiding behind her skirt and peeking up at Sephiroth.
"Hello," he greeted them with a small nod, taking care to meet the kids' eyes as well as Elmyra's.
"Come in, Sephiroth." She opened the door wider and stepped back to let him through the door. He was suddenly assaulted by the little girl jumping out from behind Elmyra and latching onto his leg with a happy coo.
He held out the box. "Aeris sent this."
"Aah, it must be the new clothes she promised. I swear it's impossible to keep up with how fast these little beasts are growing. Put it on the kitchen table, please, if you don't mind."
Sephiroth headed for the table with careful strides to avoid booting off the clinging child. She squealed and demanded, "Go! Go!"
"Marlene," Elmyra scolded, "Sephiroth's a person, not a playground."
Both children looked very dubious about this. The kid in her arms made grabby hands at Sephiroth's long hair and Elmyra said with exasperation, "Denzel, really."
Sephiroth dutifully held out a thick lock of hair and managed not to wince when Denzel tangled his little hands in it and promptly yanked.
"You shouldn't encourage them," Elmyra scolded him, making Sephiroth feel a little like the kid who had once told Ifalna that knives were for stabbing, not eating.
"My apologies." He gently extricated his hair from Denzel's grip, ignoring the sulky glare he got in return. He made to leave and Elmyra said, "You don't have to run so quickly. Would you like something to drink?"
"No, thank you."
"Are you on a schedule?"
No. "I should return to the construction site." They didn't need him there at this point.
Elmyra had the same assessing gaze that Ifalna once had. Perhaps it came with motherhood. "All right," she said eventually, "but I expect to see you back here soon. The children miss having someone to play with that isn't their ol' mum."
"Of course, ma'am."
He removed Marlene from his leg, ignoring her protests, and left the cozy warmth of the cottage for the chillier air outside. It was nearing dusk and, without the Plate to act as insulation, the nights in Midgar's old slums got a little colder than they used to. Fenrir's tail started wagging again as Sephiroth approached.
"Let's go back," he murmured, patting the wolf on the head before swinging a leg over the bike and settling. Let's go back, not, Let's go home, because Sephiroth hadn't figured out where that was yet.
Neither Aeris nor Zack were at the church when he arrived, presumably still working over in Edge with Barret and the others. Fenrir bounded inside ahead of him and snuffled around the flower patch while Sephiroth climbed the rickety stairs to one of the makeshift bedrooms on the second floor. It had three solid walls and a ceiling, but where there should have been a fourth wall was just a few broken boards and empty space that spilled onto the flowers and pews below, and there was little more than a bed, a dresser, and a desk. He put his PHS on the desk and let the messages play as he shrugged off his coat and debated what the hell he was going to do with his time.
"Hey, Seph, it's me, listen, if you get a call about a barfight it was all Reno's fault – "
"It's Aeris. Some of the people down at the west construction site were asking about you today, they haven't seen you in a while – "
"Sephiroth, I need your input on the quarterly budget for SOLDIER – "
There would never be any new SOLDIERs. Sephiroth was thankful for that if only because it meant his obligations to them wouldn't last forever, and then he'd…well, he would figure that out if, when, it came to that.
The light coming in through the church's high arched windows was nearly gone when the experimental solar-powered generator, tucked away in one of the distant corners of the first floor, kicked on with a quiet hum and several warm-colored lamps on both floors lit up. Sephiroth started to go back down to check the readings that Reeve would ask about during their next meeting and was halfway down the stairs when he heard Fenrir bark and take off towards the entrance.
Immediately he had the military-issue knife from his boot, slightly more maneuverable in a church than a seven-foot sword, in hand as he pressed himself into the shadows along the wall and slunk towards the entrance. He was expecting a thief, or maybe Fenrir was just being overexcited and it would be Aeris and Zack laughing at his paranoia, but the first sight of unruly blond hair sent his knife jangling to the floor from nerveless fingers.
"Hey," Cloud said softly, and that single unremarkable word was enough to make time stumble into a frozen, suspended moment.
Cloud was in a pair of worn blue jeans and a black shirt washed so often it had become a soft, dark grey, and there was no blood, no hole where the Masamune would've slid through it like butter. The light of the lamps in the church sanctuary cast a healthy glow on Cloud's skin, made his eyes look so wonderfully, terribly alive as he leaned against the doorjamb with his hands in his pockets. If it hadn't been for Fenrir butting up against Cloud's legs, knocking him back a step, Sephiroth would've been absolutely certain he was dreaming.
"If you're a hallucination," he says faintly, "we will have words."
Cloud straightened up. "I'm real. I'm not going anywhere." He bit his lip, a nervous motion that Sephiroth didn't ever remember seeing him do. "Unless you want me to. I understand if you do."
Sephiroth was walking forward purposefully without actually knowing what he was going to do when he got there, if he was going to punch Cloud or kiss him, since both seemed equally attractive. Cloud visibly braced himself but didn't back away, obviously preparing himself for whatever Sephiroth was going to dish out – which was, apparently, wrapping his long arms around Cloud and pulling him close so tightly that the breath was huffed out of him. He smelled like the plains outside Midgar, all dry earth and green grass, as though he'd been traveling for a while, with the faintest acid tinge of mako. Cloud didn't respond at first, holding himself stiffly, but slowly his muscles unwound and it wasn't long before his hands were fisting in the back of Sephiroth's shirt so tightly that his knuckles popped.
"You are an asshole," Sephiroth muttered into his hair. Cloud's shoulders shook with a laugh as he said in Sephiroth's chest, muffled, "You've been spending a lot of time with Zack."
"He's been here," Sephiroth said without thinking, and Cloud flinched, pulled back until Sephiroth's arms fell back to his side.
"So he…all of you…you've been all right?"
For a given definition. "Yes."
Cloud tilted his head and looked at Sephiroth hard, examining the furrow of his brows, the line of his lips, the steadiness of his gaze. Before he could push further, Sephiroth asked, "Why are you here?"
By which he meant how, and Cloud bought some time to search for words by stroking Fenrir's head. "I think this is the Planet finally letting me go. I don't…have anything to do anymore. In terms of, uh, saving the world or whatever."
"We did help with that."
Cloud ducked his head, though not so far that Sephiroth couldn't see a little smile. "Yeah. I was never very good at doing things on my own."
"Now what?" Sephiroth asked, unknowingly echoing Zack so long ago, and Cloud replied, "I hear there's still some reconstruction going on. There are always heavy beams that need lifting."
The thought that Cloud would suddenly appear on a day like any other and make it seem so easy – Sephiroth took a step back, leaving Cloud alone on the threshold. He didn't say anything, but it seemed that he didn't have to; there was guilt on Cloud's face, and fear, but also determination.
"I'm not…okay," said Cloud. "I'm not, and I've hurt you. But if you're still willing, I…I want to try anyway."
"You think it's worth it?" asked Sephiroth, because he was an idiot, because he could always be trusted to put logic over emotion even when his heart is pounding out, Yes, say yes, please.
Cloud took a moment to scrutinize Sephiroth, from the hair that had slid carelessly over a shoulder, the long leanness of his torso, the strength of his legs. All that Sephiroth could do was stand straight and still and wait, feeling like it was important that he wasn't the one to reach out this time. A solid minute passed before Cloud stretched out a hand, gently pushed the wayward hair back behind Sephiroth's ear, and let his fingers trail down the curve of his jaw. "It feels different, now," he murmured. "You're still there, in the back of my head, but I feel like…me." He snorted wryly. "For what that's worth."
Sephiroth could feel it too, that small presence in the back of his mind that wasn't his own, but it wasn't nearly as consuming as it used to be. He waited, and Cloud went on, "I want to see what it's like when the Planet isn't going to hell and our worst fight will be about taking out the trash. I want it to be a choice that we both make."
It was after dark on a day that had started like any other, in which the most exciting thing to happen was Zack's bitch-face when Sephiroth and Aeris both tried banning him from hanging out so often with Reno, in which Sephiroth had volunteered to take a package to Elmyra to escape the chaos of the people-filled construction site, in which there was absolutely no indication – no prophecy, no prediction, no visions – that this would be the day Cloud came back alive.
Sephiroth laced his fingers with Cloud's and said quietly, "Welcome home."
I have a love/hate relationship with Eir's Tomorrow: love, because I've put in so much time and effort, and hate, because I've put in so much time and effort. It's haunted my fandom presence for literally years, largely because of my own guilt for not finishing it sooner, and I'm glad to see it finally, finally end. It was meant to be an id!fic of guilty pleasures (c'mon, a wolf, like Cloud's a Disney princess?) (and the plot was originally for a Naruto fic, what up), so the scale of the response it got was legitimately terrifying and is one of the reasons I took so long to update – I was afraid of fucking it up for people.
Some things I learned from this:
- I cannot do ensemble casts.
- Longfic is not my strong point.
- You always, always write for content, not chapter length (classic FF. Net, ahaha).
- Never post WIP for three reasons: it's easier to edit details for better continuity, you can take your time without feeling pressured, and it's goddamn annoying when a writer never updates.
- Write for your own happiness.
The plot was based shamelessly off of Knowing Shadow's Fusion and Twig's A Long Hard Road. When new time-travel fics starting appearing, I made a point of not reading them because I didn't want to be tempted into stealing other people's ideas (and, quite honestly, I already have an insecure opinion of ET, I was terrified to find proof that other people were doing the same idea but better, bawww). Any similarities between ET and fics not explicitly cited in the beginning are coincidences. I think I got all my influences disclaimed, but always feel free to ask.
(My favorite moment will always be the fandom award it got in its incomplete, earliest incarnation, with all the flaws that entailed – not because it's an award, but because I showed it to my mum and she was so proud. She never read any of my fics, as far as I know, but she knew how much I love writing and was, y'know, proud.)
I'm sure the last two chapters won't meet a lot of people's expectations. The events themselves were planned right from the beginning, but since I could spend another two years worrying over the writing itself that I think it's better for me personally to just post them and let it all go. I did my best with what I had in terms of that love/hate relationship and burn-out, so if it doesn't meet expectations I hope it least provides an endpoint.
For all that I've bitched about this fic, I truly appreciate every comment of support and constructive criticism. Some people professed how they were affected and it's so incredibly humbling to think of that. The idea that others would dedicate time and resources to fanart and a podfic is just…gah. I've flailed and blushed both online and IRL about it, and I really can't find the words to adequately explain how honored I am.