Title: Mountainside Memorial (Love)
Fandom: Final Fantasy VII
Disclaimer: No ownership implied, no profit gained. This is a fanwork.
Characters/Pairings: Cloud, full cast
Summary: Every year, they gather. Every year, Cloud mourns.
Every year... always the same... gathering...
They'd all gone their separate ways soon after the final battle, each in search of some peace, quiet, and anonymity. And to a degree, each found what they were after.
Yet every year they gathered, for various reasons perhaps, in Nibelheim.
Tifa peered over the bar at her three children as they built a fort beneath the tables of her closed pub. It was still morning and she didn't need to worry about opening for the day for several more hours. Her oldest had thought up the idea for the fort and the other two had scrambled to help, which meant hopefully they'd be busy awhile. All they had to do was behave for a few hours while a neighbor watched them. She was expected elsewhere soon.
With a sigh, Tifa propped her elbows on the smooth wood of the bar and rested her head on her hands. It wasn't so much the act, it was the spectacle. She knew the people who'd moved to town unknowing of Nibelheim's history stared at the yearly ritual, though they pretended to avert their eyes. The few ShinRa employees who stayed on understood at least some of what was happening, but they never said a word.
Tifa's husband was one of those employees and he was already away working for the day. He'd walked along with the procession one year and vowed never to do it again.
Down the street, the newly expanded inn contained most of the remaining group. Yuffie had gotten into town late though and had stayed with Tifa overnight. The ninja had grown into a slightly more respectable woman, though she was still a little irresponsible at times.
Tifa could hear the shower above and wondered just how dirty Yuffie thought she was.
Cid was staying on his airship, since it had more than ample space for his entire crew and himself.
Reeve had come by himself, but was rarely left alone. Most every second of his time had been spent yelling into one phone or another for the last couple days. He'd ignore the incessant ringing today though.
Barrett had taken the time to get Nanaki, who couldn't very well drive himself.
Vincent had just appeared, about a week beforehand. No one knew where he spent his time, yet no one ever really wanted to ask.
Everyone felt they knew too much already.
And then there was Cloud. He was living in Costa del Sol and running a small weapon shop as well as taking surfing lessons and relaxing in his villa. He sent postcards often. Yet that Cloud wasn't the one who had arrived in Nibelheim two days before and shuttered himself in his room at the inn.
Every year he reserved the oldest room in the inn, the one that had once been the only room.
There was a knock at the door but before Tifa could move, it opened. Her heart caught for a moment before she realized it was just her neighbor. They exchanged quick pleasantries that were followed shortly by Yuffie's arrival from upstairs.
Without words, Yuffie grabbed Tifa's hand as they walked out into the town square. Cid didn't smile as the women approached him. No one else was out yet, besides some of the townsfolk who were attempting to act as though they weren't trying to catch a glimpse of the procession.
Fifteen minutes later, only Vincent and Cloud were missing from the group.
Another minute passed, during which Cid fought to light a cigarette as a breeze passed through the open area. And then Cloud appeared, walking beside Vincent, his face seemingly frozen into a blank look. Expressionless. Almost zombie-like.
"It's time," Vincent said softly, before leading Cloud out of town and towards the mountain without issuing any further directions to the group.
They followed in pairs, glancing at one another but not speaking. Each was waiting for the moment when the weight of the situation would become too much. The moment when...
Tifa hadn't noticed before, but Vincent had an arm around Cloud. Not in any sort of romantic way, though, just guiding the blond as they ascended to the... spot.
No, that wasn't right. That wasn't...
The next part happened so fast yet it felt like slow motion. Vincent and Cloud cleared the curve in the path that had been hiding their destination from view. Even before Vincent could reach a hand to stop Cloud, he'd broken away and ran to the ornately carved stone memorial he'd erected on the mountainside. He'd explained that no matter what, he wanted to remember both the good and the bad, and he wanted others to remember as well.
Without that, he'd said, they'd done so much for nothing.
Tifa automatically wrapped her arms around Yuffie as the other woman looked down and buried her face against Tifa's shoulder.
The others just looked at the ground or off at the scenery for a moment, attempting to be oblivious to Cloud's sudden wail. Only Tifa and Vincent actually saw Cloud fall to his knees in front of the stone, his body shaking as he sobbed openly.
Tifa just held Yuffie close as she watched Vincent walk over and kneel down beside Cloud, offering some inaudible reassurance that did little good. A strong wind rushed down over the group less than a second later, which caused Yuffie to look up at Tifa.
Tifa just hushed Yuffie and turned her eyes back to Cloud. Instead of clawing at the ground as he'd done in previous years, he was just sitting there now, with his legs crossed, staring. Vincent was still on his knees beside him, looking ahead as well.
Surprisingly enough, it was Reeve who had carried an armful of flowers from town, and delicately he stepped around Vincent to lay the bouquet at the base of the stone. It obscured the bottom line of text, causing Cloud to reach out a hand to press the flowers downward and trace the letters.
"It's not like there's a body," Yuffie whispered as she finally pulled away from Tifa.
Tifa shot her a look that told her to shut up if she didn't want to be pushed off the side of the mountain. When they got back to town, she'd tell the ninja the truth.
At first, when Cloud erected the memorial, there was only a stone sitting on the ground. A memorial, not a grave.
It was a grave now, but the three people who knew dared not tell Cloud. Not a one of them wanted to imagine what Cloud would do in some fit of desperation and longing. If he knew that beneath the ground he sat on, buried not even so deep in the rocky soil, was the one person he'd ever loved...
They'd all seen him claw at the ground with his bare hands as though somehow he knew.
He'd not been told about Vincent showing up at Tifa's door one late night with a partial corpse wrapped in plastic amongst other items on the back of his chocobo. No one had told Cloud how she and Vincent had cleaned the body as best they could or how Tifa's husband had built a quick coffin and helped Vincent dig as deep into the mountainside as they could while Tifa looked on, her first child a baby in her arms.
Vincent had never offered an explanation as to why he had ventured out alone and retrieved the body, and Tifa had never asked him. Vincent seemed to know enough about mourning that she didn't question his judgment.
One by one they each stepped up beside Cloud and offered him a condolence. Back, before the final battle, none of them had realized just how he felt. But they all understood that he hadn't wanted to explain then either.
He'd explained almost too much the night before they went their separate ways.
Perhaps that was why they gathered each year. They each were begging to understand the obvious truth that they'd each blindly missed.
Cid and Barrett were the first to start the trek back toward town. The group departed in pairs, just as they'd ascended the mountain.
Finally, even Tifa turned away to walk back down to her home, her family, and her life. She knew Cloud would stay on the mountain until darkness fell, not speaking even to Vincent who always stayed with him.
She had stayed one year, but watching Cloud silently sob for hours straight had broken her heart. It was enough that she'd have to see him wailing in town later, inconsolable and most likely inebriated.
"I want somebody to love me that much."
"I said I want somebody to love me that much," Yuffie replied, sighing as she kicked a loose stone and watched it clatter along the path. "It's beautiful."
"Beautiful?" Tifa asked.
"Yeah. To care so much even after..."
Up on the mountain Cloud lay sprawled on the ground, unknowingly mirroring his lover's body in the earth beneath him. He hadn't spoken in more than three hours, just occasionally reached a finger up to trace the letters carved on the stone.
"Vincent," Cloud said softly, not even waiting to see if Vincent had heard him or not, "I feel so close to him."
A strong wind whipped down from the mountains just then, whistling through caverns and moaning ever so slightly as it passed over the mountainside grave.
Drink Lemonade! Tip Your Waitress!