The party sat in the den of Rufus's mansion, one of the few structures that had been relatively undamaged in the Battle of Wutai. Cloud stood in front of Rufus, who sat in his favorite armchair. In chairs on either side of Rufus sat Marlene and Reeve, both of whom looked decades younger than they had the night before. Curled up at Marlene's feet was Red XIII, watching Cloud with his good eye. Behind Cloud, Raguel, Genesis, and Weiss made the three points of a triangle around Michael, who stood with his head bowed, the knowledge of his defeat plain on his face. The Turks were out in the city, conducting cleanup operations.
In the aftermath, the populace and the Protectorate refugees had emerged from the underground reservoir, returning to their homes and their lives… mostly. There were some whose homes had been destroyed, it was true, but they were offered shelter elsewhere until they could get back on their feet. Something else had changed, though, something much deeper and more fundamental than a few buildings falling.
The Losts were gone. The disease, the bane of humanity for half a century, had been erased.
In less than a minute.
When Cloud had gone up in a nova of light in the plaza, it had not just swept across Wutai and consumed the Losts there. His power had kept expanding, rushing over the surface of the world, infusing every nook and cranny with its penetrating light, and everywhere it had found a Lost it had taken vengeance.
Rufus took a long sip of brandy. "What happens next?"
"Whatever you want," Cloud replied in a voice that was his own and seven others'.
Putting down his glass, Rufus steepled his fingers, looking hard at Cloud. "Would you mind… being different people? Talking to you like this is strange."
The blonde shrugged. His glow diminished, points of light bled from him, and where there had been one person there were now eight.
"So, whatcha wanna know?" Cid drawled, sucking on a cigarette that might have been real.
"The world is really cleansed of Losts?" Rufus asked.
"We got no reason to lie to ya 'bout it. When we went apeshit in the plaza, we did 'em all in."
Rufus sighed. "Humanity does this to itself, struggles with the consequences for fifty years, and it's all made better in one day by a WEAPON. We should just let the Planet make all our decisions for us from now on."
"The Planet didn't make Cloud a WEAPON to rule," Aerith said in her quiet voice. "It's not interested in adjudication. What we did was our own decision – a human one, at that."
"So you're saying," Rufus murmured, "all that happened was AVALANCHE saving the world… again."
"Pretty much, yeah," Tifa said.
The President of Wutai sat back in his chair and rubbed at his temples. "Sometimes I wonder why I even try."
"Look at it this way," Zack spoke up. "This is the last time it'll happen. Now will be your chance to shine as protector of the Planet."
"Really?" Michael sneered at his double's back. "This will be the last time? I somehow doubt all of you can just sit there with the power at your command and stand idly by as humanity continues to suffer from its own hubris and ignorance."
"You're right," Cloud agreed. "We can't. And that's why we have to leave, too."
The sound of Marlene choking on her own drink was very loud in the resulting silence. Red XIII, however, nodded as Marlene coughed noisily into her hand. "I thought you would say that," he said.
"Leave? For where?" Reeve demanded, looking concerned.
Aerith held up a hand. "Not all of us are going to go, Reeve. We became this way, joined with Cloud, because he couldn't fight Michael's will alone. However, everyone in our group consciousness is distinct – one and many at the same time. Unlike Raguel's personality, with its inextricable Denzel and Gabriel components, we can go back to being individual entities at any time. One or two of us will leave; the rest will return to the Planet."
"Even if most of you are staying – returning – whatever it is you're doing… where will whoever's leaving end up?"
Cloud shrugged. "I don't know where I'll go. Just that I will."
"Why you, Cloud?" Marlene asked, looking distraught.
"The Planet chose me for this power," Cloud replied. "I don't think anybody but me should need to bear the responsibility."
At that, Tifa stepped forward and clucked her tongue significantly. "I think," she said, "you should let people make up their own minds about that sort of thing. They might have ideas about whether or not they want to share a burden with the man they married." She held up her left hand, a shining ring on her finger. "Or did you forget?"
Cloud raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that?"
Tifa put her hands on her hips. "Cloud Strife, I didn't wait for decades in limbo with nobody to talk to but Cid –"
"I resent that!" the old pilot barked.
"– to stand back and watch you try to do everything yourself again," she finished.
A genuine, warm smile lit Cloud's face. "I appreciate it, Tifa. More than you know."
Returning his smile, she tapped his forehead. "I think I have some idea," she whispered.
They stared into one another's eyes for a moment before Rufus began clearing his throat. It sounded like somebody was dying horribly, so they took the hint and looked at him. He gave them a thin smile and immediately stopped coughing. "So the two of you are leaving for parts unknown," he said. "As are Raguel and Michael, or so I'm given to understand. What about those two?"
"We are the protectors of the Planet," Genesis replied. "We will return to our pods and wait for the next day when we are needed. I hope for all our sakes that it will not be soon."
"That answers all my questions, then," Rufus said. He stretched, catlike, before taking another sip of brandy. "Except for one. Why didn't the Planet just give Cloud this power when he woke up? For that matter, why didn't it give him this power when he was born? It would have saved a lot of trouble in the long run."
"Because he never asked," Aerith replied.
Rufus made a face. "You mean to tell me that if, at any point, Cloud had asked the Planet to give him this power, it would have?"
"Only if he'd used the right words," she replied with a smile. "The Planet is particular about how people address it."
"We're all living on a recalcitrant child."
Aerith shook her head. "Sometimes, Rufus, you are far wiser than you have any right to be."
The party stood in the plaza beneath a starry sky.
The day had been spent saying goodbye. There had been people to talk to, places they wanted to visit because they would never have another chance to see them. Barret had gone to Old Corel; Cid had visited Rocket Town and paid his respects to Shera's memory; Aerith and Zack had gone to the ruins of Gongaga; Cloud and Tifa had gone back to Seventh Heaven one last time.
Vincent and Yuffie had stayed in Wutai.
We sure are a couple of idiots, eh, Vince?
What are you talking about, Yuffie?
We both did some pretty stupid stuff in our lifetimes. You left me, and I went and took it personally and turned traitor, and that just shot everything straight to hell and got you killed, and instead of staying dead you had to come back as Galian and slowly go crazy. That about covers it, right?
…You make it sound as though it was my fault.
Well, you did leave me first.
I believe it was your idea to get into a relationship in the first place.
Well, you're stupid.
Shut up. I hate you.
No, you don't.
…No. I don't.
As he looked up at the stars, Vincent smiled. It had been good to live one last time. He glanced at the small Wutainese woman standing next to him, then looked at the gauntlet on his arm.
Yes, it had been very good.
"What'chu smilin' 'bout, Vincent?" Barret asked. "You look awful happy fer a man 'bout to meet his maker 'gain."
"This is actually the fourth time," Vincent replied. "I've got nothing to worry about." He put his right arm around Yuffie's shoulders and drew her close to him; she smiled and wrapped her left arm around his waist. "Nothing at all."
Barret gave a small chuckle and slapped Vincent on the back. "Yer all right, Valentine."
A short distance away, Cloud shook hands with Raguel. "Will we see one another again?"
Raguel shook its head. "No. I don't think we will." It looked at Michael, who sullenly stared back at it. "Are you ready?"
"Maybe I'll die one day," Michael replied, "and I won't have to spend all eternity with you. That's the single bright point I look forward to."
The ∅ Angel blinked once, very slowly. "I would not count on that."
It seized him by the collar, crouched, and launched itself into the sky with the force of a rocket, leaving a crater in the asphalt where it had stood. Cloud watched the two points of black disappear into the sky, and despite the fact that the evening chill could not actually touch him, he felt cold.
"I almos' feel sorry for the son-bitch," Cid muttered.
"Which one?" Cloud asked.
The pilot shrugged.
Cloud had to grin at that. "All right," he said. "It's time for all of us to be on our separate ways."
"Are you sure you won't stay a little longer?" Marlene asked. "I…"
Barret pulled her into an embrace and held her there. "It's okay, kiddo," he told her. "I'm jes' goin' back to how I been for the past few decades 's all. I'll rest easier knowin' you got a bit longer 'fore you come join me." She returned his hug, obviously trying not to cry and failing.
Reeve tugged at his collar, obviously not sure how to proceed. "I don't know what to say," he began, "except thank you."
"You don't have to say anything more than that," Cloud replied. "After all, if you hadn't sent Vincent to find me, none of this would have happened. You helped save the world too, Reeve."
The ex-head of the Protectorate grabbed Cloud and hugged him fiercely. "I'll miss you," he said. "That's all I can think of. I'll miss you."
"What about me?" Yuffie demanded, poking Reeve. "Was I just a walking annoyance to you all these years or something?"
Cloud sighed and pulled her into the hug, then looked around at everyone else. Marlene had gone from hugging Barret to Aerith and Tifa, while Zack, Cid, Vincent, Rufus, and Red XIII stood apart. Zack obviously didn't feel like he knew anyone here well enough to be giving goodbye hugs, Cid was an old bastard who hated long goodbyes, and Vincent, Rufus, and Red XIII were themselves. None of them wanted to be caught up in farewells.
Marlene disengaged from Aerith and Tifa and nodded, wiping at the tears in her eyes. "I'll be fine now," she said. "It's time."
Barret gave her one last pat on the head before he moved to join the rest of AVALANCHE. Only Tifa and Cloud stood apart; the rest of them began to fade, the glow slowly draining from their forms until they were little more than pinpricks of light drifting through the air.
"Vincent," Red XIII called an instant before they were gone. "It was fun."
The gunman's mote sparkled one last time, and then it and everyone else's faded away.
Cloud and Tifa now exuded waves of light and energy, power that had been divided eight ways now only divided by two. "We should be going too," Cloud said to her. She nodded.
"Well, this is it, then," Reeve said. "The end of AVALANCHE… for real, this time."
Rufus chuckled. "I thought I would be happier when it finally happened. Now I'm so distraught I could almost cry."
"No, you couldn't," Tifa said to him. He grinned at her, his too-white teeth making him look like a shark.
"Wherever you're going," Marlene asked, "be careful, okay?"
"We will," Cloud replied. "Promise."
Red XIII padded up to Cloud and nuzzled his hand. "It was good to know you."
"I'm leaving the Planet to you, Red," Cloud told him jokingly. "That okay with you?"
The beast nodded, perfectly serious. "Of course." When Cloud seemed a bit taken aback at his reaction, Red XIII explained, "This is the end, as Reeve said… but everything is in balance. The Fall began with a meteor, and it ended with another. Every ending is also a beginning, as my Grandfather used to tell me. Your request is only natural."
Cloud smiled at him. "All right, then. The Planet's yours, Red. Take good care of it." He turned to Tifa and offered her his hand. "I think it's high time we were on our way."
Tifa nodded and took his proffered hand. "Any idea where you want to go?"
"I don't know," Cloud replied. "Let's pick a star and see where that takes us."
The two of them disappeared into a single, brilliant point of light, whiter and purer than the sun. The light jumped into the air and flung itself into space, disappearing into the great void beyond the Planet.
From their vantage point atop Mount Da Chao, Genesis and Weiss watched a shooting star rush across the sky. Genesis traced its path with an outstretched finger, watched it head straight for one of the stars on Leviathan's belt.
"Make a wish, brother," he said, "and it will come true."
At the End of All Things
So, it's been a long six months. I really enjoyed writing this story and I hope all of you enjoyed reading it!
Looking back on this story, I feel like it really represents a lot in my advancement as a writer. Thanks of course goes to my lovely beta Pen Against Sword, but I'd like to take a moment and say a very special thank you to VulcanElf, who has really helped me polish and sharpen my writing over the course of this fic. She has been invaluable to this story's development. I'd also like to say thank you to all of you, my readers, for staying with the story, reviewing it, reading all of it (my God, it's long), and just in general being awesome. You go.
Finally, I'm going to call this part Where Did Mengde Steal This From? Whenever I read Shonen manga, I always wonder where the hell the authors get their ideas. I, unfortunately, ascribe to the philosophy of writing that says you steal everything and make it your own. So, for fun, I'm going to tell you where I stole all the Immaculate Swords' powers from!
Renbato: I guess there's this one episode of Justice League where the Dee Dees get this technology that lets them duplicate whenever they take damage? I don't know. There are so many oh-look-I-make-copies-of-myself guys out there I have no idea which one I stole this from. I actually just fought one while replaying Jade Empire. So yeah, I have no idea where he comes from.
Alexandria: Control by nerve induction or whatnot through little threads inserted into the brain? This is pure Legato Bluesummers from Trigun, who makes his enemies kill themselves by controlling their movements by sending electrical currents down super-thin, almost-invisible "threads" he puts in their spines. Spoiler: he's so much cooler than anything I could ever make up. *cries*
Barachiel: Monkey-see-monkey-do boy is based on that one Suu-shin bodyguard from Rurouni Kenshin. The one that fights Aoshi with mimicry and gets his shit ruined.
Jegudiel: More mimicry, and more Rurouni Kenshin. The fact that he's Barachiel's master ("I don't fight like Barachiel, Barachiel fights like me") is from the Aoshi-Han'nya relationship, and the fact that Jegudiel not taking Red's genius into account is the flaw in his fighting style is lifted from how Aoshi defeats the Suu-shin ("It is my sword, and I know its every swing").
Selaphiel/Denzel: Invisible force walls, shockwaves, and all this stuff are pretty common themes, but throwing them all together was actually my idea. I'm going to say I didn't steal this from anywhere.
Uriel: Four words: Hellsing. Walter C. Dornez. Dude fights with razor wire and is utterly badass. He can slice you up effortlessly and can also burrow his wires into your skin to control you like a puppet.
Uriel-Yuffie: Dual fuuma shuriken are KIND of like dual chakrams, right? No? Well, her moves (what few she got to use) were vintage Axel from Kingdom Hearts II.
Raphael: I listen to music constantly while I write, and one of the bands that featured prominently in my playlists while I was writing this was Tool. One of their songs is called Vicarious. Can you guess where I got the idea for vicarius from? Lame, I know.
Gabriel: He punches things. Not much to say here. His mannerisms and appearance are pretty much all "borrowed" from L of Death Note fame, though.
Michael: I figured he had to have a thing he does, so I gave him the sphere of annihilation, which is the actual name of a spell from Dungeons and Dragons. Basically, if you fail a die roll, you die. And are reduced to nothing. Older editions were even worse; there's one infamous dungeon where if you open the wrong door you walk into one of these and die without even getting to roll. Anyway, I thought a sphere wasn't good for mano-a-mano dueling, so I let him make it into a sword. The image of the negative-light thing has been around for a while, very notably in Akira (though I only saw Akira after I wrote the first chapter with the sphere in it, actually).
Raguel: It doesn't actually do much, but the whole turns-up-naked-at-first-and-is-very-androgynous bit is just mind-screwing anime in general (hi, Neon Genesis Evangelion). The suit it makes for itself was just me playing around.
And as a final bonus, I'll tell you where I got my ideas for the Losts! I knew I wanted some kind of horrible, mutated monster, but I wasn't sure exactly how to portray it. Then I had the misfortune of watching the video to Tool's "Schism" at 1:30 in the morning. While the video is interesting on repeat viewings, it's a pure nightmare the first time through. There is one particular bit at around 2:30 or so where the humanoids in it start walking around with their legs straight, their bodies bent very sharply at the waist, using their arms as forelegs, bobbing their heads in between their arms. My uncanny valley alarm went off like all get out and I said to myself, "That's how the Losts need to move." I had to lose the head-bobbing in order for them to shriek and bite things, but still. Go watch "Schism" if you're curious. I warn you again, it is deeply disturbing.
And that concludes this edition of Where Did Mengde Steal This From?. I hope you all found it enjoyable. I will continue to be in the FFVII fandom - no specific plans, but keep an eye out for me. Until next time!