And so, dear readers, our little tale is concluded. I hope you've enjoyed it, and I also hope all of you have a very good 2009. If you have a moment, leave me a review and tell me what you thought of the story; I always enjoy hearing from you. 'Till the next fic!

Stave Five: The End of It

Vincent woke.

He was bathed in cold sweat, and his heart pounded wildly in his chest, but he was alive. Additionally, he was not buried with his own corpse; this happy fact was a source of endless relief for him.

Sitting up in bed, he inspected the curtains. Much to his delight, they were firmly in place and had not been torn down by a degenerate looking to pawn off a dead man's belongings. Vincent got to his feet, giddy for the first time in years. He was alive, he could prevent the awful future he had seen, and it seemed he was no worse for the wear after the experience.

It was almost… funny.

Before he knew what was happening, Vincent laughed. The sound wormed its way out of him, as though it had been trapped in his gut for a very long time – an assessment that was not too far from the truth – and erupted into the world, loud and joyous. He immediately closed his mouth afterward, embarrassment taking hold of him, but the fact remained: he had laughed, and it had been genuine and unrestrained. He was that happy.

It then occurred to him – he had no idea what day it was. He could easily have been asleep for a week, so well-rested did he feel, or it could have only been a single, supernatural night. The need to know burning within him, he moved to the window and opened it. He had a calendar, of course, but it was downstairs, and he judged this a more alacritous method of discovering the date.

Fortuitously for Vincent, a young man was walking down the street. He was heading into the heart of Edge, bundled up because of the weather but merry nonetheless. Vincent called to him, "Hey!"

The young man looked up at the curious stranger shouting at him from a window. "What?"

"What day is it?" Vincent asked.

A look of pure bemusement crossed the boy's features. "Are you okay, mister? Did you hit your head or something? It's Meteor Day, how can you not know that?"

Meteor Day! Privately, Vincent rejoiced at his good fortune. He had not missed it after all. The Spirits had done their work in the span of only one night, which, Vincent acknowledged, made a certain amount of sense – they were spirits, after all, and there was no telling to which limitations they were subject, if any. "I'm fine," he assured the young man. "I… I've been busy for a while now. Thank you!"

He closed the window, letting the boy go back on his way into Edge, and hurriedly dressed himself. His invitation had been for dinner, of course, but he knew his hosts would not object if he arrived earlier than that.

Vincent departed his building in gloriously high spirits. He walked to the suburbs of Edge, a different man from the one who had pensively made his way to and from the Shin-Ra Building for four years. Those who passed him in the street were not cowed by his presence but rather made merrier, for he courteously wished them a Happy Meteor Day and received the same in turn.

To think only yesterday he would have abhorred saying those words! Yet Vincent now understood the true purpose of Meteor Day, and all holidays like it. They had not been made to overshadow the events of the original day, or to give people false hope for the future. Rather, their purpose was to bring families and loved ones together, so they might celebrate their lives and the good things in them – not in ignorance of the harsh realities of those lives, but in acceptance of them. For without pitfalls and difficulties, how could anyone enjoy happy times or successes?

Of course, Vincent would never articulate his understanding in such a way; he would sooner be shot than ever espouse these things aloud. However, he comprehended all of this, intuitively if nothing else, and was a better man for it.

Such were his thoughts when he opened the doors to Seventh Heaven. Everything was quite like what the Ghost of Days Present had shown him. Tifa and Cloud were behind the bar, Cid and Barret sat at it and argued over drinks, Red XIII, Reeve, and Shelke sat at a table, and Yuffie was in a corner with Marlene and Denzel, telling them a story.

Everyone looked up in open shock at the sight of Vincent. Their surprise only increased when he smiled – not too broadly, of course, just a small curve of his lips – and said, "Happy Meteor Day, everyone."

Cid, his mouth agape, slowly pushed away the drink he had been nursing, obviously suspicious of its contents. Cloud was the first to recover his voice. "Vincent! Glad you decided to come by. We… didn't think we'd be seeing you."

"Well, I've had a bit of a revelation. Don't ask me to explain, because you wouldn't believe me." Vincent gestured at everyone in the bar, the smile on his face growing just a bit. "I know what Meteor Day is about, now. It's not a stupid holiday, or a trick, or anything. It's about all of you."

"Well, we did save the world," Tifa laughed, "but that's a bit selfish…"

"Not what I meant," Vincent said, his tone light. "It's about all of you – not because you're the saviors of the Planet or anything like that, but because you're my family."

Nobody knew quite what to say to that. Silence reigned until Yuffie finally spoke up. "So that would make me the sexy cousin, right?"

The festivities recommenced immediately after that, the tension broken. For the first time in a long time, Vincent felt at home and entirely comfortable among his friends. The quest was still there, of course; he had much to do before he could undo the changes made to his body by Hojo. However, he now saw there was so much more to living. One goal did not have to be the single thing around which his life revolved, and, ironically enough, he owed this knowledge to the very man who had so drastically altered that life decades ago.

There was still one important thing for him to do. At an opportune moment, he drew Shelke aside. "There's something we need to talk about."

She cocked her head at him. "What is it?"

He laid a hand on her shoulder. "Your health is precious, Shelke, and I think you're working too hard. Like you said before, the experiments go at a slow pace. We only have to check up on them once every few days. When you're not in the lab, I want you to take good care of yourself. You have a bright future ahead of you."

Shelke nodded. "I can do that. Thank you, Vincent Valentine."

"You're welcome," Vincent assured her. "And thank you – I owe you more than you know."

And over the years, Vincent was good as his word. He worked, of course, and pursued his goals, but he took time to live and to be with his friends. He kept an eye on Shelke's health and helped her when she required it, and as a result she did not die. He treasured the meaning of the holidays in his heart, keeping the teachings of the three Spirits in mind. This is not to say he became a wellspring of optimism and joy. Occasionally he would still brood; he would quite often make dark comments about the fate of humanity; and he always remained taciturn and mysterious. He never ceased being Vincent Valentine, not for an instant – but he became a better Vincent than he had been, and he made sure he did not slip back into his old ways.

Never again did he see any spirits, or at least spirits of the sort that had visited him one fateful Meteor Day Eve, and he was content to leave it that way. His only regret, ironically enough, was that he would never be able to thank Hojo – but, as Shelke observed, "Everyone has regrets, and life is about dealing with them without letting them overwhelm you. Isn't that right, Vincent Valentine?"

He could not have agreed more.