Eden in Mourning
Disclaimer: Sadly, I don't own any of the Final Fantasy Series
Warnings: Mostly canon-compliant (if you squint), preslash
Meteor hangs huge in the sky. Bigger and bigger and bigger still. Sinking ever closer until Tseng thinks he could lift his hand and feel the burn on his skin. He smells flowers on the wind as they evacuate Midgar, but he doesn't even pause to consider that impossibility as he grabs a girl with brown hair and all but shoves her into Reno's arms.
There are no flowers here. Not anymore. No flowers. No pink ribbons. No more smiles and soft green eyes.
Just them. Just the people of the city. Just the big calamity falling from the skies. Just a group of insane people led by an insane man with insane hair trying to save the world.
Now, that madness has infected him, too. Infected his Turks. His subordinates. His… friends.
Rude. Reno. Elena.
But now, it's too late. Now, it's time.
Meteor is so big that it's almost all he can see. Just it and the faint hint of green as he finally stops and inhales the scent of flowers. Allows himself just a moment to think. To feel. To regret.
Just a moment.
That's all they have left. Just a heartbeat. A breath.
Tseng stands on the edge and waits for the end to come.
He sees Strife sometime later. They're calling this new settlement Edge, as if Midgar has become a taboo word. As if they can erase all the terror and loss and sorrow with pretty but empty words.
Strife has a pink ribbon on one arm. It's the first thing Tseng notices. Not the way he walks, like a wounded predator attempting to be a man. Not the huge sword with its intricate patterns and incredibly strange sheath he has on his back. Not bright blue eyes that take in everything but look at nothing.
A pink ribbon.
Tseng fights not to stare in the middle of the street. All thoughts of his current assignment, of Rufus Shinra's orders, evaporate away. He goes to follow, but there are too many people to move quickly. Spiky hair is swallowed up by the crowd.
It's no matter though. It isn't like Avalanche is actively attempting to hide these days. He just had no reason to seek them out before.
Not until now.
Strife isn't there. Naturally.
It's the way the world works after all. No one is ever where they are supposed to be. Nothing ever works out as he expects.
Shinra was supposed to save them. Their general was never supposed to betray his own comrades. A crazed man with the world's largest identity crisis wasn't supposed to win.
Aerith wasn't supposed to die.
It isn't much to look at, Avalanche's new headquarters. They might not call it that, but Tseng isn't fooled. This is a less a bar and more like a home base. At least for the moment.
Strife isn't there. Everyone else seems to be.
Lockhart moves like a dancer between tables as she hands out drinks. Kisaragi bounces around while Nanaki lounges on the floor and flicks his fiery tail. Highwind and Wallace gesture wildly back and forth, even as Tuesti quietly eggs them on. Valentine, with his Turk eyes and Turk smirk, watches as Tseng eases into the seat in the corner.
Everyone else is there. Everyone save one.
Tseng doesn't think of her. He doesn't.
He leaves long before Strife returns.
He doesn't even intend to meet Strife at the church. Not the first time. They simply happen to be there at the same time.
Tseng would die before he'd ever admit that he returns as often as he can to tend the flowers, but he knows that at least one other person has been coming by for the same reason. He's been to Seventh Heaven a half a dozen times and hasn't seen Strife once.
But now, here he stands. Right at the heart of Aerith's sanctuary and gazing down like the flowers hold all the answers. As if he can hear her voice, see her flitting about between them if he only stands there long enough.
He doesn't glance up as Tseng comes to the closest pew, but Tseng isn't fooled. Strife spends more effort pretending not to notice him than he does looking at Aerith's legacy. Particularly when Tseng moves to stand near him.
Somewhere, he hears her give a sigh. All but sees her shake her head.
Tseng doesn't smirk. It's a near thing.
Strife keeps pretending, but it's fine. Tseng doesn't acknowledge him either. He merely goes about his business with a professional air.
Aerith sighs again.
Seventh Heaven is neutral ground. They may not say that officially, but it is. A place they can go without hostile stares. Without additional worry over stray bullets or knives to the back.
Avalanche and the Turks aren't friends either, but they are no longer enemies.
The bar is clean, scented like lemons and a hint of faux lavender that makes him grit his teeth before he learns to ignore it.
The drinks are good though. Not watered down.
Reno is already working on his third. Elena is on her first but has distracted herself with papers on the table in front of her. Rude is having only water, but then, he's too busy not watching Lockhart.
Tseng enjoys his tea, breathing in chamomile and honey as the steam curls up his nose. Watching over the rim as Wallace talks loudly with a man too richly dressed for this neighborhood. Reeve Tuesti hurries in then and just as quickly leaves with Valentine and Highwind in tow. Nanaki isn't present. Nor is Wutai's infamous princess, but Lockhart has a crowd of her own as she mixes drinks with a wide smile.
Strife, however, is unexpectedly unassuming. His clothes are muted shades, blue with grey and black. Shorter than most but all sharp angles. Quietly concealed blades and armor even here as Marlene sits next to him and colors.
But nobody left seems to notice this. Notice Strife at all. Only two people truly seem to see him as he lingers in the margins, and one is a child at his side.
That doesn't mean Strife can't see them. Lockhart. Her patrons. What remains of Avalanche.
Strife looks over at him. He looks at Strife.
But then, Marlene calls out, and the spell is broken.
Something changes afterward. Tseng isn't sure what.
It's a nameless thing that looms over Strife's shoulder and makes him hunch forward. It dogs his steps as he goes to his bike. Prowls after him as he and Tseng brush by each other as they cross paths time and time again.
There's a tension. A bite. A sharpness to Strife that abruptly dulls and cracks around the ages. One day, he is alive. Bright eyes that follow Marlene. Small if cocky smiles to Valentine and Lockhart. Wordless exchanges with Tseng himself.
The next, he's a corpse.
Near to one at any rate.
His clothing goes from muted to downright dreary. Heavy like a barrier between him and the world. His blade is his constant companion, never far from his hand. His shoulders curl inward, and he is poised on the edge. Looking out with eyes that are more shaded than blue.
But that's when he is actually there. He usually isn't.
The church is empty when Tseng arrives. Even her voice in his head – his heart – is quiet. She walks beside him on feet that are somehow more real than Strife is these days. Tseng though knows the truth even as he sees her move forward and away from him.
Aerith isn't there. Neither is Strife.
Tseng sits in the first pew. The flowers are his only company.
Strife is a ghost. Slipping into the shadows and fading away as more time passes. Where once he lurked at the fringes, only a figment remains. An afterimage of blond and blue the burns out further with each heartbeat.
Even when he brings back another child for Lockhart to mind, he's still a phantom. A whisper of a man who haunts Tseng's days but is never truly there.
The flowers are tended at the church, but Tseng doesn't see him. Doesn't hear the sound of Fenrir roaring up the street. Doesn't feel the weight of Mako glowing eyes as he leaves.
Tseng goes by the bar, but he doesn't even need to so much as speak to Lockhart to know she hasn't seen Strife. Not for a while. Not for a long time. The truth is written in the pull of her brow. The tightness to her shoulders. The way her eyes go to the door whenever it opens.
She's disappointed each and every time. But she still keeps waiting. Still keeps searching. Still keeps hoping.
Tseng doesn't dare.
The church is silent around them. Almost serene. Air so clean, crisp. Flowers yellow and pure white.
Mocking as he stands above Strife. Dark eyes watching as the man wraps a bandage around his arm like it's the most normal thing in the world.
But it isn't normal. It isn't natural. Not by a longshot.
He watches as black drips down Strife's skin. Tracks it with his gaze to the wooden boards below. Back up to his hand, then slender wrist, past his elbow. All the way up to the source.
Strife doesn't glance at him. He just keeps working the bandage in his good hand like this means nothing. As if he doesn't know what this is at all.
His teeth are gritted though. From pain, Tseng thinks. More than annoyance.
From the agony of being eaten inside out. From being consumed piece by piece until nothing is left but black.
Tseng's fingers itch for movement. Flutter to reach out. But he clenches his muscles until they start to spasm. He simply stands there, deathly still save for breathing.
Strife doesn't look up once.
Tseng isn't waiting.
The Turks frequent this bar because it's neutral ground, run by people who are something resembling allies. The drinks aren't watered down, the inside is always clean, and Lockhart tolerates little less than the best behavior from her patrons.
He isn't waiting. Truly.
He can almost believe his own lie.
He idly sips his tea, even as he knows Strife is upstairs above them all. For once here and not Gaia only knows where else.
Tseng occupies himself with watching the patrons. A smattering of locals by the far wall. A few travelers nursing both meals and drinks. Highwind here with a delivery and now sitting at the bar. Valentine in the dimness not too far away, eating and drinking nothing.
And then, there's Strife. Appearing like a mirage amongst them. This is the first Tseng has seen him in weeks. The first he's seen the man outside the church in even longer.
Strife stalks by like a shade and fades into the twilight.
Tseng doesn't rise immediately, though Valentine still notices the instant he leaves his seat. Tseng doesn't even hesitate in front of glinting red eyes and a cloaked face, however. It's expected for a Turk of his caliber to notice, but to his eternal consternation, so does Lockhart.
She gazes at him from the corner of her eye as he goes for the back door. The same Strife had used just minutes earlier.
Her face is dark, and her brows are pulled low. Teeth worry her lip. But even as she watches him, all of that eases. Something like relief fills her features, and her mouth almost quirks.
Tseng stiffens. He keeps walking through sheer willpower alone.
There aren't screams. He's too well trained for that, and truly, this is not the worst he's ever had. Close, yes. But not there.
Elena isn't quiet, but her words are vicious and biting. Nothing but obscenities. Profanity that would turn Reno's head, curses enough to burn Rude's ears. She gives nothing away though.
It makes him proud even as they suffer.
There's blood on his lips and in his throat. His muscles throb, his bones creak, and his nerves shriek. His eyes burn.
This was supposed to be easy. It never is though.
He thinks of death. He thinks of Aerith. He thinks of other things. Other people.
He wonders how long it will take Reno to return with reinforcements. Who he'll bring with him. Who will bother to come.
Their subsequent escape is a blur. Bullets and blades. Battle fought against remnants and phantoms and shadows of fallen men.
He only breathes when it's over. When he and Elena lean against one another in an ancient forest. When a cure washes over him with a tingle of green magic and a figure crouches in front of them.
His chest aches from both healing ribs and something else. His mouth is too dry.
It's a red cloak he sees though. There is no blond hair.
Tseng will never admit his disappointment is worse than the torture.
It tastes like ash in his mouth.
They aren't dead. Not now. Not with meteor. And not with the remnants either. Not with horror. Or agony. Or loss.
They aren't dead. Not all of them at least.
Tseng doesn't think about that. About them. Except when he does.
Doesn't think about eyes the color of new plants in spring. Or her rich laughter. Or her letters to a ghost. Or the scent of flowers.
And now, he doesn't think about blond hair and a perpetual frown. About shoulders holding the weight of the world. And hours passing in companionable silence.
The remnants are now fragments. Fading away to nothingness. But he hears Lockhart's screams over the radio in Rude's hand, and he knows without knowing.
They act like he's fragile in those precarious few moments before rain comes and a miracle breathes life. Their voices are soft, hands reaching but not touching. They treat him like he'll fall apart. Like he's broken.
Like he's a widower.
Elena whispers his name. Reno calls out. Rude murmurs an apology. Rufus is silent.
And really, that says more than anything.
The rain is heavy in his hair, but he hovers outside the church and doesn't go in. He hears the laughter of children long before he sees them. Feels the cheers in his bones.
He closes his eyes. She isn't here, but he can still hear her. Feel her pulling him forward like she had all those times before. Inviting him in. Asking him to stay. For a few minutes. For a little longer. For forever.
He lingers in the doorway. Watches children splash through the water. Tastes a sweet and familiar perfume on the air. Hears a voice that will never be forgotten. Chiding and forgiving at the same time.
But it isn't her that he sees.
Blue eyes look at him then. As he remains in the shadows and doesn't come into the light.
Blue eyes see him. Acknowledge him in a way Aerith never did.
Things aren't said. There are too many witnesses. Too much silence between them. Too much distance.
Tseng turns then and leaves without entering.
He dreams of her. Has ever since she died.
If he's truly honest with himself, he has for longer than that.
It's never the same, and Tseng knows that her heart forever belonged elsewhere. But he's mourned her all this time and probably always will. He's not alone in that.
But this dream is different.
They sit amongst her garden as always, but now, her eyes are sad where they never have been before. She's still lovely though. Hair softly brushing the curl of her neck where it joins her shoulder. Skin soft and smooth. Dress pink as she kneels against all of that greenery.
Yet, it's not her he really sees as he watches. Not her that occupies his mind. He's here but thinks of someone else.
And suddenly, her gaze isn't nearly so sorrowful.
She smiles then, and it's breathtaking. Beautiful. Her fingers touch his face. Her lips met his cheek. When he opens his eyes, she smiles
It's all the encouragement, all the permission Tseng needs.
It hasn't been nearly that long, but flowers already grow by the collapsed wall of the church.
Cloud is at the nearest border of the pond, back to the door. He looks up as Tseng comes closer, but his face is hard to read. Closed off. Blank even. Hesitating.
Tseng steps to his side, so nonchalant that even Reno would double-take. The nod he offers is casual. Enough so that Cloud just blinks at him. Searches his face for some trick. Some game.
But Tseng isn't playing. There is no mask. Just truth. And this dance has gone on long enough.
Tseng is already out of his dress shoes and has rolled up one leg of his pants before Cloud even thinks to react. The blond stares at him. His mouth opens. And then closes.
He's still watching as Tseng finishes and then slowly sits at the pond's edge. The water is surprisingly warm, soothing. He shouldn't be surprised, not with Aerith. He knows that she's smiling without even seeing her.
Cloud, however, is still staring. Shocked.
Until the moment, he isn't.
The sound he makes isn't a cry nor is it a laugh. Tseng is still deciding what to call it as Cloud's shoulders shake. It is Tseng's turn to stare a minute later as Cloud slips off his own boots.
Tseng turns his head away, but he can't hide his own smile. The remaining flowers aren't visible from here, but their scent grows stronger as the water laps at his feet. Cloud is a warm heat at his side, soaking into his skin and easing all the hard knots inside.
Aerith just laughs.