Ah, well dear readers, it's been a long trip in this, my first full-length Final Fantasy fic. I've got a slightly longer chapter to wrap it up, complete with a reunion and a final twist to spice things up! Enjoy the final chapter!
"Another scotch on the rocks, er…." The drunk businessman squinted at the name tag. "Tommy, another scotch." Behind the hotel bar, the barkeep rolled his eyes and sighed.
"Mr. Monroe, this is your fourth one tonight. And my name is Thomas, not Tommy," Cloud said dryly. "Haven't you had enough?"
"Hey, look kid!" Mr. Monroe snapped, holding a shaking hand up and pointing at him. "I'm the customer, you're the server, and I'll tell you when I've had enough."
"Fine," Cloud muttered, turning and grabbing the bottle of scotch from the counter behind him. He grabbed a glass and poured the drink. "Five hundred gil, same as before," he muttered, placing the glass on the counter. Mr. Monroe grinned and slapped a gil note on the counter, grabbing his drink and walking away. Cloud picked up the note and pursed his lip. The drunk had given him a thousand.
"Nice tip," Cloud shrugged, heading to the register. He opened it and slipped the note in with the others.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen of the Little Nirvana Hotel…" Cloud looked up as the man on the stage in the lounge swept his arm behind him, the curtain rising to reveal a woman sitting as a piano. "For your enjoyment tonight, the lovely Miss Julia." The people in the lounge clapped as the woman began playing, the announcer walking off-stage. Cloud sighed. When he'd first start working at the hotel, Julia's playing had been heavenly. Now after listening to her play every other night for more than a year, he was sick of her.
"More than a year…time sure passes quick," Cloud thought, turning his head to look at the minifridge behind the bar. Only two bottles of water left. He sighed and leaned down to the cupboard underneath, pulling out a case of water bottles and began sliding them into the fridge. Barkeeping wasn't a glamorous job, but it was a step up from where he'd started, as a bellhop. If he graded on a curve though, he was still well underneath where he'd been two years ago…
Cloud tried not to think back on the life he'd run from. It didn't work, his thoughts always strayed back. He'd gotten regular emails from his friends in Midgar, at least he had when he'd gone to the internet café a few months after arriving in Mideel. He didn't have a computer anymore, even if he wanted to reply to them he couldn't. Cloud would be lying if he said he had no regrets about what he'd done. He had enough of them he could sell them and still have plenty left over to make himself feel like crap. He kept wondering how everyone back in Midgar was doing, kept wondering if and when he should head home.
"Yeah, that would go over well," Cloud thought, scowling. "Hi everyone, remember me? The guy who walked out on all of you? No thanks." He sighed and turned his attention back to refilling the minifridge.
"Excuse me, sir?" Cloud nodded slightly to let the woman at the counter know he'd heard. "Can I have a bottle of water please?" the woman asked. Cloud nodded and pulled out one of the two colder bottles.
"Certainly miss," he said, turning. "That'll be two-hundred fifty…." Cloud trailed off as he turned around and saw who was sitting at the bar. The woman was currently opening her purse, and grabbed a bill before she lifted her head. They locked eyes, and the women similarly froze. Cloud stared dumbly as the woman licked her lips.
"C…Cloud?" she whispered. Cloud came to his senses hearing his name, and nodded.
"Hi Aeris," he replied, setting the bottle of water on the counter. He took another discreet look at Aeris. She looked different, a lot different. He hair hung loose half-way down her back, shorter than he remembered, and she had on a red shawl over a white blouse. Her face looked different too. He imagined he looked different two, his hair was a little shorter and a little spikier, and he had on the black and gold uniform of the hotel staff.
"I don't believe it…" Aeris whispered, still staring. "Cloud, what are you doing here?"
"I work here, and my name is Thomas," Cloud said, tapping his nametag. "Is that everything?"
"I…that's it?" Aeris said. "That's all you have to say to me? 'Is that everything'? How about 'nice to see you'?"
"Nice to see you," Cloud shrugged. Aeris gave him a sour look. Inwardly, Cloud wasn't sure what to do. Part of him wanted her to just leave so he could continue to try to put her and other aspects of his past from his mind. The other part wanted to pull her over the bar and kiss her. Cloud decided to ignore both of them. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I came here to meet with a client yesterday, business meeting," Aeris said.
"I'll assume you got a different position at Shinra then?"
"Yeah; yours," Aeris said, half-smiling. "They gave me your job a few months after you left when they noticed I knew more about your job than your replacement did."
"Good for you," Cloud nodded. Aeris bit her lip and lowered her eyes.
"Can we talk?" she whispered. "In private, I mean. There's a lot you have to hear, and a lot I want to know."
"I'm working, my shift ends at midnight," Cloud replied. "If you want to talk, do it here," Aeris sighed and opened her mouth.
"Yo, barkeep!" Cloud and Aeris turned to see a man with two friends waving to him at the end of the bar.
"That's my cue. Duty calls, sorry," Cloud said, looking back at Aeris. Aeris thought for a moment, then reached back into her purse and pulled out a pen.
"Please," she said, writing on a napkin on the counter. "Come see me." She slid the napkin over the counter, and Cloud took it after a moment.
"I'll think about it," he said, walking to the end of the bar. He looked back as he reached the men. Aeris had already left.
Cloud looked up silently at the numbers on the hotel door, remembering another moment vaguely similar to this one. He lifted a hand to knock, and got two taps before the door swung open. Aeris stood inside, her shawl gone leaving her in her blouse and a crimson skirt.
"I was worried you wouldn't come," she whispered. Cloud ducked his head and walked inside.
"Well, I was a bit worried," he muttered as Aeris closed the door behind him. "I remember what happened the last time I knocked on your door to talk to you." He turned as Aeris clenched her eyes shut.
"Can we please not talk about that right yet?" she asked. Cloud shrugged and sat down on the foot of the bed.
"Alright, you suggest a topic," he replied. Aeris paced aimless for a moment.
"How about we start with you explaining where you've been the last two years," she answered. Cloud shrugged and held out his hands.
"I've been here. Caught the first plane I saw leaving, it happened to go here. I worked from odd job to odd job for a bit as 'Thomas Ark', until I got a job here as a bellhop. Worked hard, was loyal, got my liquor license about five months ago, became a bartender. I got an apartment a few blocks away, it's not glamorous but neither is my pay."
"Any friends?" Aeris asked.
"I keep to myself, the only people who know me here know me as Thomas or 'Tommy', I don't want them to find out."
"You sound lonely is all," Aeris explained. Cloud flinched slightly as Aeris hit that one point he'd tried to glaze over.
"It's not much, but it's mine. I started over and worked on my own drive and my own desires. I can't honestly say the same about my old life." Cloud lowered his eyes. "How is everyone?" he asked quietly.
"They're good…Barret is in a motel now, he and Mirna are going through a rough patch. Cid's still at the university, not much there. I'm still at Shinra, like I said, working at your old place. Yuffie decided to come back, she's my secretary now. I moved in with my mom, needed…" Aeris hesitated for a moment. "Needed a change of pace."
"Sounds like everyone is doing well," Cloud said, not noting Aeris' hesitation. "What about Tifa?"
"Tifa, she's…she moved out of your apartment a few months after you left. We all helped her pack. She said there were too many memories there. She lives in a new place now, she co-owns Zangan's dojo too. She hosted a citywide tournament last month there. She's trying to get back into a relationship, but she hasn't met anyone yet."
"You still talk to her then?"
"Well we're not exactly BFF, but yeah, we see each other. We kinda sympathize with each other," Aeris said. She let out a cry of frustration as she realized what she'd said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean…"
"Sure you did," Cloud muttered, standing up. "Well, nice catching up, good night." He walked towards the door and grabbed the knob, and stopped as Aeris grabbed his free hand.
"Cloud, please," she whispered. "Come home. We miss you."
"Sure you do," Cloud said.
"We do! Do you think we've spent the last two years hating you! We all hurt when you left but we're over it now, all of us. We just want you back."
"That's it?" Cloud snorted. "That's the big secret you had to tell me, that you guys want me to come home? Sorry Aeris, but I left that behind. I have a new life now, and it's not exactly a storybook fairytale, but it's mine. This is who I am now."
"No it's not. You're not Thomas…whatever you call yourself! You're Cloud Strife!" Aeris shouted. "And maybe you've forgotten who you really are, but we haven't! I haven't."
"Get over me, it was a stupid office fling," Cloud growled. "Forget about it."
"I can't forget about it! I'm reminded of you every day, every time I…" Aeris stopped herself, and Cloud frowned and turned.
"Every time…what?" he asked suspiciously. Aeris sighed and walked to her purse on the nightstand behind the bed.
"This, is why I wanted to talk to you," she said, reaching into her purse. "You want to leave behind your friends and me? Fine. What about her?" Aeris turned and held out her hand. Cloud reached out and took her offering, looking down at it in confusion. It was a little girl in a small pink jumper, asleep on a blanket. Her eyes were closed but her hair was light brown, almost pink in the photo's lighting. Cloud peered at the photo curiously. The girl looked familiar…
"Cute kid, who is she?" Cloud asked. Aeris took a breath.
"She's our daughter," she said simply. Cloud froze, his fingers snapping open and the picture fluttering to the floor.
"She…she's…huh?" he asked dumbly, looking up at Aeris. Aeris reached down and picked up the picture.
"She's our daughter. Yours and mine," she repeated.
"But, we…she can't…it was one time!" Cloud protested.
"Once is all it takes, Cloud. I've gone over the math a million times, she's either five months late, or she's yours. Her birthday was a few months ago. Besides, math aside…" Aeris smiled softly as she looked down at the photo. "She has your eyes. Everyone who's seen her says she looks just like you. Even your mom." Cloud collapsed into a chair by the wall staring at the floor. So that's why she looked familiar…
"Wha…what's her name?" he asked. Aeris sighed and looked up at the ceiling.
"The first night I brought her home, there was a thunderstorm…I was always a bit afraid of lightning. I was feeding her in my room, and every time there was a lightning bolt outside, I jumped. She never did, not once. I dropped the bottle at one bolt, but she never cried or stopped feeding, she wasn't afraid of the storm at all…" Aeris lowered her eyes. "Her name's Lightning."
"Lightning…" Cloud whispered. "Skye, Cloud…continuing the tradition I guess. That why you moved in with Elmyra?"
"Yeah. I had to either give up my job, or my baby. I decided to try and juggle both."
"And, I'm doing it, barely. But it's hard, when I have to leave her for things like this. She's getting to the age where she can talk, and she has a lot of questions about where I go and why I don't want to answer."
"Does she know about me?" Cloud asked.
"She knows that somewhere, she has a father that loves her, even if he can't be there to tell her…that's what I've told her. I wish I believed that myself." Cloud looked up and locked eyes with Aeris. "Cloud, if you won't come home for me, for your friends…come home for her. I don't care about what happened in the past, I care about now. I want you to come back with me, Cloud."
"Me? Why would you want me around?" Cloud snapped, standing up. "You think you can just guilt me into coming back! Just spring all this on me to get me to follow you home? I have a new life, a new identity, a new home. You can't just expect me to do a reversal on this after everything!"
"I didn't come here to guilt you into anything," Aeris said softly. "I came to let you know what you have waiting back home. Who you have waiting."
"I. Don't. Care," Cloud grated, walking to the door.
"Alright then, thanks for listening. If you've no intention of coming back with me, then leave."
"Fine," Cloud grabbed the door handle and turned his back to her.
"One question, before you go," Aeris said. Cloud waited for her to continue. "Do you still love me?" Aeris asked. Cloud closed his eyes.
"I've thought about you every damn day since I left…" he said. He stood there silently, until he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Aeris looking up at him. She held his gaze for a moment, then leaned up and kissed him. Cloud savored the familiar sweetness for a moment, before she pulled back.
"What was that for?" he asked.
"Correcting a mistake," Aeris whispered. "I never should have let you leave that apartment."
"You said you didn't love me."
"I lied, idiot."
"Oh." Cloud grabbed Aeris' hips and pulled her back into another kiss. Aeris' arm curled around Cloud's neck as he held her against him. After several moments, Aeris pulled back, resting her forehead against his, panting.
"Do you want to leave?" she asked. "Or do you want to finish that kiss?"
"That's it?" Cloud chuckled. "Guilt doesn't work, so you try to lure me back with sex?"
"Is it working?"
"…a little bit." Aeris let out a laugh, and Cloud joined in.
"This isn't about guilt or sex, Cloud. It's about you coming home. You have a family waiting for you at home. All of us, a family together. And friends, who have wondered what's happened to you and want you to come back. You belong with us, Cloud…please, I won't ask again…come home with me." Cloud was silent for a moment.
"How long are you here?" he asked.
"My round-trip ticket is scheduled for tomorrow, but I can afford to change it."
"Do it then…I can't let my boss know the same day I leave."
"Then…" Aeris' face lit up.
"Just, gimme a couple a days. Gotta pack and all that," Cloud said sheepishly. "But…yeah…yeah. I wanna go home…with you." Aeris felt tears begin to slide down her cheeks, and she smiled.
"No problem…I'll help you pack," she laughed.
"Yeah, and…I want to know more, about Lightning. If I'm gonna be a father I don't want to meet my daughter blind."
"Of course! There's a lot of stories about her, and I've got more pictures," Aeris said, turning away. Cloud grabbed her should and stopped her, turning her back around.
"Later," Cloud whispered. "Right now, I want to finish that kiss." He pulled Aeris towards him once more for one more kiss, sealing Cloud's vow in their meeting.