A Long, Hard Road
A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic
Dyami looked back at his sister impatiently. Annoyed with her clumsiness, though he'd only just started growing into his paws himself. Kani was doing her best, Nanaki even thought she might start outpacing her brother in a year or two - and heaven only knew the kind of arguments /that/ would cause.
"I can't keep up!"
"I'm not even going that fast. I slowed like, /way/ down..."
"Papa! Make him stop teasing me!"
"Dyami, slow down for your sister."
At times, Nanaki could hardly believe the loud, booming voice of authority actually came from him. Imagine, five-hundred years and he still hadn't quite grown into his skin.
The older cub growled a bit, grudgingly slowing his pace. Kani happily trotted alongside, paws nearly dancing in the grass as she sang to herself.
"Crowd, crowd crowd crowd crrrrrrrrrrrowd."
Dyami rolled his eyes with an expressive weariness that nearly made Nanaki laugh out loud.
"It's Cloud. Cloud. L-sound, moron. Uncle Cloud and Sephiroth said they'd be waiting for us today." A twitch of the burning tail betrayed the older cub's excitement. 'Uncle' Cloud always told the best and most exciting stories, and usually remembered to bring treats from Wutai as well.
"Se...Sef..." The younger cat's face screwed up in a fierce attempt to pronounce the difficult name.
"Oh, don't even bother. You'll never get it."
Kani stuck her tongue out at her brother, and this time Nanaki couldn't help but laugh.
It wasn't the first time they'd been here, these were far from the first cubs he'd brought along. Nanaki was still amazed when they crested the hill overlooking Midgar, or what remained of Midgar. His kind were known for long memories as well as long life, and he could remember when they brought him here the first time. The unyielding columns of steel and glass, the cold, noxious smell that permeated even the top levels of the ShinRa tower.
Midgar had been abandoned less than a decade after the end of the war, something to do with the infrastructure being compromised from all the Mako use - the more they found out about Mako, the more folly it had seemed to use it in the first place. Nanaki wondered if some of Midgar's final ruin hadn't been Aeris' doing. The mammoth city had turned into a ghost town, but after a bit, someone had noticed how well things seemed to be growing in the soil, when all had assumed it was permanently contaminated.
It seemed more than just 'well,' as massive trees had started breaking up through the concrete, pushing up and up until they destroyed much of the dome that had been over Midgar. People started gathering at the edges of the town - vagrants, the poor - picking their way through the ruins to discover it was a rather pleasant place to live, as long as one agreed to a respectful relationship with the plants and animals inside. The area had become kin to a second Cosmo Canyon, and when he'd finally visited Nanaki could only walk among the vine draped steel and crackling campfires of the inhabitants and marvel at the metamorphosis.
"Where /are/ they?! I don't /see/ them!" Dyami snorted in impatience, beating his paws against the ground.
"Patience. We just got here. We probably beat them." Nanaki glanced around the edges of Midgar, but none of the guardians were within sight. He couldn't remember exactly who had decided to live here - there had been cubs recently, he was sure he'd heard about that.
It was still amazing to realize just how many of his people now walked the earth, that his Grandfather had spent so much of his remaining days working on a plan for genetic diversity, to allow the canyon guardians to replenish their numbers in decades. AVALANCHE had been the one to push funding through, leaning hard on ShinRa even before initial plans could be made, and Rufus, the expected voice of dissent, had let it pass without argument. It was a wonderful blessing, the greatest prize he could have imagined winning for his people.
It also meant he and Li were caring for nine carefully created cubs on top of their own first litter of three. It had been an... interesting couple of years. Thankfully the Canyon had been overjoyed with the sudden population explosion - and there had been offers from many other places, North Corel, Wutai - once the cats felt the need to stretch their feet, they would be welcome in nearly all the world.
... even if they were a bit overenthusiastic at times.
Nanaki turned, two familiar shapes appearing over the edge of the ridge. Kani was already springing forward, and tackled Cloud with a wild leap that left him flat on his back, laughing at the enthusiastic greeting.
"Kani..." Nanaki sighed, as the cub alternately nuzzled and licked at Cloud's long spikes, tempted into gnawing on them despite herself. "Kani, what did I tell you about gnawing on humans?"
A surprising, soft laugh from Sephiroth, still on his feet with Dyami rubbing a bit at his ankles in greeting. The ice had taken a long time to thaw, but Nanaki could see the change, a certain measure of peace and ease as he reached down to give the playful cub a pat.
Sephiroth reached a hand out, helping Cloud to his feet as Kani jumped to the ground, though it still looked as if she was ready to pounce at the slightest provocation.
"Kani had her first real hunt last week."
"Oh she /did/, now." Cloud grinned. "... and how did it go?"
The cub never had a chance to answer, Dyami quickly butting in the way.
"She got her he-ead stuck in a treeee!" He sing-songed, and any further information was lost as Kani let loose with an impressive, warbling roar and tackled her brother, the two of them rolling off in a flurry of claws and fangs. Cloud looked from Nanaki to the mayhem and back again.
"I envy you. Really."
"It's actually rather nice... when they're asleep. Or with their mother."
Sephiroth was happy to settle back, half-listening to Nanaki and Cloud talk, half-aware of the two cubs trading furious insults and blows somewhere behind him. Cloud had laughed about it, when he'd realized that he'd become the one who spoke the most, the outgoing one. Not so unexpected a change, in the months after the war's end, when it had been one celebration after the next. The 'official' gatherings they'd all been asked to preside over, then Elena's child, then Cid and Shera's, Rufus' wedding to Scarlet - Zack trying to decide just where a couple like that had their gift registry - and of course the birth of Yuffie's baby, just in time to keep the father and grandfather from stress-related ulcers.
The child had been born just fine, just as Yuffie had claimed all along, although even she had been surprised by the tiny pair of wings that stretched out, dark blue and pointed, from the little girl's back.
Sephiroth had heard the story much later, couldn't have imagined the chaos, with half the room hollering 'vampire' at Vincent and the other half claiming the Bahamut materia was at fault, that no one had ever done what Yuffie had while carrying a child. All the while Godo and Vincent had both been flat on the floor, until Yuffie had been able to control her giggles enough to get someone to throw water on them.
He had always been tempted to mention the family lineage to Godo after that, just to rub in the fact that Vincent was his father and so the great ShinRa General and the leader of Wutai were - then - actually related by family ties. Until Vincent quietly remarked that he'd actually /seen/ the Godo blow the roof off the pagoda when he was angry enough.
Sephiroth conceded. They went fishing.
The wings became an imperial symbol, Yuffie's daughter as impulsive and headstrong and beloved as her mother, and were passed down intermittently among the generations that followed, usually to the heir to the throne. Still were, as far as Sephiroth knew.
Vincent had lived after Yuffie had died - inevitable old age, and only that at over one-hundred, without ever losing an inch of her spirit or demented humor. Nearly three-hundred years, Vincent had been a part of Wutai, and had finally died protecting his adopted clan, some suicide plot from a fragmented clan that met their end by his claws - though not before the bomb they carried had torn through him as well.
"He chose to die." Cloud said mildly, as they watched Vincent's body being buried with full imperial honors, backed by the most massive crowd of mourners Sephiroth had seen since Rufus' death - Rufus, the people's president. He often wondered if the man spun clockwise or counter-clockwise at the way history had remembered him.
"Vincent might have been able to survive that, but he was tired, and content. He wanted to see Yuffie again. It was time."
Cloud had changed so much, the breadth and depth of his peace a thing Sephiroth could not fathom, and when they buried Zack a hundred years later, a simple funeral, his body interred to the Lifestream as Tifa's had been centuries before - Sephiroth was certain Cloud could still hear him. He had not cried, letting go of his friend's body with a tender, bittersweet smile, not that Sephiroth had felt much more than a nostalgic sorrow himself. After all, four-hundred years was a long time to live, with children, and grandchildren....
//... and peace.//
Cloud had changed. As when he woke up early, one day after Zack had died, to find Cloud in the backyard of their small house, surrounded by twining tendrils of Lifestream, his eyes closed, and the most peaceful expression on his face. Connected to the Planet in a way Sephiroth knew he would never really understand. He could not help the small, quiet lurch of fear, though, taking a step forward, never quite trusting what kept Cloud with him instead of that other, holy place.
"Don't go." He didn't realize he'd spoken aloud until Cloud opened his eyes, and smiled.
He could no longer count the many, many times he had found Cloud talking to himself, quietly, little snippets of conversation for Aeris or Tifa - or when he randomly broke away in Wutai, two-hundred years after the war, throwing his arms around a bewildered young man, grinning and clapping him on the back and wishing him the best.
"It was Cid." He grinned by way of explanation. "Figured he wouldn't stay in the Lifestream forever. Space program had to appeal to him eventually."
Wutai had become the most powerful nation on the Planet, but they were not the only ones now experimenting with rockets. Better systems than the ShinRa ever had, and over the years Sephiroth had watched it vastly improve beyond even their greatest goals. He wondered if the Ancients had started out this way.
Cloud had asked him, a few times, curled together in the dark, if that was where he wanted to be. If he wanted to go into space - it could be done, of course, five-hundred years and they were in better shape than ever. All they would have to do was ask. Sephiroth said no, knew Cloud was happy here in this world, and though he wasn't old, didn't feel old, his interests had changed. He didn't need adventure, didn't need much, and if Nanaki invited them to Cosmo Canyon, he had every intention of asking Cloud if they could stay there for at least the next fifty years.
Cloud could teach there, Sephiroth knew, even if mentioning it made his lover blush and splutter and swear he didn't know anything so important. Of course he was wrong, and that was the other reason Sephiroth felt no need to adventure, no sense of boredom or longing for something new. He already had the nights when Cloud's voice didn't ask questions but just told stories, and truths. The Lifestream, and the stars, and what lay beyond them. Sephiroth never really understood, but was content to let the words wrap around him anyway, and paint the most beautiful pictures behind closed lids.
Sephiroth was fairly certain when the time came, and he was drawn to that place beyond time, within the Lifestream, where everything was perfect and precious and complete, he would likely not notice the difference.
"You're coming home with us, right Uncle Cloud?"
Cloud looked back. Sephiroth nodded his agreement - he'd been wanting to go back, and Cloud had to admit that the canyon was one of his favorite places, and so close to the Lifestream.
"If it's all right with your father."
The cubs' pleas were so loud Nanaki had to wait to speak over them, chuckling to himself.
"Of course, Of course. Li will be glad to see you."
Cloud took one long, last look at Midgar, trying to see much beyond the barest sketches of the town that had been there. What so long ago had defined his entire life - everyone's life - now seemed little more than a memory etched in charcoal, memories lined with soot that any errant wind could easily blow away.
A hand came up around his shoulder, and Cloud turned toward Sephiroth, toward the canyon guardian and the cubs playing below. He did not look back again, there was no need. Sephiroth's presence was steady at his side, warmer than the sun against his back. It didn't take so long for Midgar to vanish entirely as the ridge rose up behind them, leaving only a clear, blue sky.
Author's Notes -
1. So yeah. It's over. Woo. ^^
2. Thank you to everyone who reviewed, and I hope all of you who've stuck it out with this fic for the last four years are happy with the results. I pretty much am.
3. A special thank you to Erin, who I miss. The world will not be the same without you.
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