Chapter 34

Rufus looked down at the massive, swollen body of the -Menace- that had once been Darksol. Already, it had begun to contract, shriveling nearly into nothingness.

He almost couldn’t believe they’d won.

But they had.

He shook his head. It was the craziest damn thing he’d ever seen, but they’d won. They’d even done something he hadn’t figured was possible. Saved the worlds.

It shouldn’t have been needed, after all.

But what the hell.

He raised his eyes. In contrast to the still-terrifying body of the -Menace-, the sight outside the Core was a beautiful one. Worlds, countless worlds, moving against the backdrop of stars, circling Homeworld.

Around the edges of the chamber, at last awakened from their trance, the -Heirs- ended their song. It hadn’t been nearly long enough to have called upon all the power that the Convergence was supposed to have needed.

Of course, that was what Rufus had figured.

Bugenhagen had told him everything.

"Is it over?" Jowy asked, wiping the blood from his swords. "The Convergence?"

Rufus nodded.

"And it worked? The worlds-"

"Were never in any danger from the start," Rufus said.

That got everyone’s attention.

Jowy frowned. "Never in any danger? But the Prophecy says-"

Rufus shook his head. "It says that ‘death shall reign forevermore over the world.’ World. Not worlds. It’s talking about one world. The Cetra’s ‘Homeworld.’ And it’s already dead - they used up all the life, all the magic, to do the Sundering in the first place. The point of all this..." He waved his hand around, taking in the battered Core chamber. "... is to put the life back. Get it started again. Terraform it, I guess you’d call it."

"You mean we weren’t even doing this to save the worlds?" Jowy took a step toward him, his eyes wide.

It did seem crazy, didn’t it? Being covered with -Menace- gore, risking your life, doing your duty, and it wasn’t even to save the worlds?

Well, he’d sure screwed around with the Prophecy, hadn’t he? The Leader wasn’t supposed to be out there risking his neck with the rest of them. He wasn’t a warrior, or a sorceror, or even a little of both. He was, always had been, a manager.

There was going to be a hell of a lot to manage.

Rufus chuckled. That was probably the best way to handle it, he figured - and it was kinda funny, if you looked at it right. "Nope. In fact, we didn’t even complete the Prophecy. Couldn’t have, for that matter. ShinRa, I mean the ShinRa company, my company, drained a ton of power out of the Lifestream here, and I figure we aren’t the only ones who did. There isn’t enough power left to bring Homeworld back to life. By the end, Bugenhagen must have realized that. I guess he still had to try.

"There is a little more to do, though, at least for me. The big world up there, that’s Homeworld. Our worlds, all of them, and a bunch more besides, are the moons of Homeworld. And they’re all gonna be finding out about each other for the first time in ten thousand years. Bugenhagen told me - this is what the Leader is for. To make sure that the reunion isn’t too unpleasant. Maybe not the most exciting job in the worlds, but at least I won’t be short of work." Rufus shook his head. That might just be the biggest understatement he’d heard in a while. "All this time, you guys didn’t even need me."

Aeris stepped forward. "No."

He glanced at her.

"Each of the Destined Ones had a role. But without any one of you, none of you would have been able to fulfill those roles - and we would all be dead, and the worlds wouldn’t have been saved." She smiled. "Thank you, brother."

Why, he couldn’t imagine, but Rufus smiled back.

Aeris turned to the others. "Thank all of you. Jowy, Ghaleon... and..."

.

Sephiroth dropped the Masamune beside the remains of the -Menace-.

He was free. For the first time in his life, he was truly free. The -Menace- was still a part of him, still gave him strength. But it had lost its power over him. That power had died, along with the monster before him.

Free. Never again would he have to fear what he could do. What he would do. His whole life, except when he gave in to the -Menace-, had been an exercise in control.

No more.

He looked up.

Aeris ran to him, half-slipping on the slick floor. She threw herself into his arms.

He caught her.

"And thank you, Sephiroth," she whispered.

"I am covered with blood," he said.

She nodded, the smile not leaving her face.

He raised an eyebrow. "You do not care?"

She shook her head.

"Good," he said. Slowly, haltingly, he, too, smiled. This, like freedom, was a first. He had never had cause to smile before. He hoped, and knew, that he would have cause again.

So long ago, when they’d first stayed in Burg, he’d wondered what she saw in her dreams. He’d wondered what world she’d inhabited, that he could not even begin to imagine.

Now, he was beginning to understand.

He leaned down, lifted her chin and kissed her.

.

Jowy watched Aeris and Sephiroth embrace. He remembered such embraces, though never, of course, in public. Highland’s nobles were not in the habit of such displays of affection. He chuckled. Of course, he and Jillia had never survived such a battle in public, either.

"You know," he said, "we ended up saving the worlds, anyway."

Rufus nodded, then laughed. "Yeah. Funny how these things work out, eh, Bearer?"

"It sure is." Jowy glanced at the remains of the -Menace-. "It sure is."

Inside him, the Beast Rune had, for the first time since he’d used it, truly grown quiet. It had been sated at last. The hunt, the battle that it had been created for, was over. Perhaps it would never arise from its slumber again.

For how long had it feasted on the weak, the innocent, eternally seeking worthy prey? Ten thousand years? More?

No more.

Its days were at an end.

Hopefully, it would never again be roused. If it was, Jowy was sure it would be because it was needed once more. Never again, that was his only hope.

Nothing could erase what he had done under its power. The blood he had shed would forever be on his hands. Even so great a battle as this had not washed them clean. But he would not be ruled forever by that mistake.

The Rune was, at last, resting.

The Star Dragon Sword, its blade still coated in gore from the -Menace-, said, "Perhaps it is time that we made our way home, Bearer?"

He looked down at the blade and nodded.

Yes.

It was time to go home.

.

Ghaleon was oblivious to the others. His only thought was of Althena. Gently, he brushed a strand of hair away from her face. Miraculously, the battle had left her untouched. No marks marred her flawless skin, no ichor caked the long blue gown she wore. Yet, he still asked, "You are well?"

She nodded. "I knew, always, that you would come for me."

But it had not been enough. Zalbard, that coward, that fool, had harmed her, defiled her. Ghaleon should have been there! "I was too la-"

"No." She rested her hand upon the shining platinum of his armor. "You were not. Any harm that came to me is nothing. Time, Ghaleon, heals all wounds. We have much time."

She turned away, to one of the great windows of the chamber. Her gaze followed the path of a pair of worlds, circling each other even as they orbited the great sphere of Homeworld. Lunar, and the world that the people of Lunar knew as the Blue Star. Home.

"And what will you do now?" Ghaleon asked, fearing the answer. Time did indeed heal all wounds. Yet, it could also change minds. He would be Althena’s protector for as long as she had need of him. But-

"I will go home," she said. "I will go to Lunar. I know now that I am not a goddess. But also, I have seen what happens when I abdicate my responsibility to my people. I will not do so again."

Ghaleon nodded. It was ironic, he thought, that he had been right about that, though for all the wrong reasons. "You will need a guardian, then."

Althena shook her head. "No."

So. Time had indeed changed her mind. She could not bear to look upon him, to have him at her side. And how could she have felt otherwise?

Ghaleon thought back to the lives he had destroyed, or tried to destroy, in his terrible quest.

He thought back to Teresa Wisemail, so cruelly used as a pawn, a plaything. To his unwitting agents, the mercenaries Viktor and Flik. Would they ever know whose cause they had served by finding the True Runes? To the King of Figaro, the only one who had matched his wits, who had lost friends and enemy alike when Ghaleon had stepped through the Rift. To Celes Chere, who he had used so terribly and cast aside without a thought. And to Mr. Locke Cole, who had pursued him across the worlds to get back the woman he loved.

And what of Atriedes’ family, Jillia and Pilika, who he had imprisoned, had used as weapons against the one they loved?

It was, indeed, no wonder that Althena could not bear to look upon him, when she considered what he had done.

But, no matter what she thought of him, no matter how right it was of her to think it, Althena still needed his protection! There would be other dangers! Though the -Menace- was gone, the Espers remained. Who could say what travails awaited on Lunar? On the other worlds, the moons that circled Homeworld? In ten thousand years, what might have arisen there? She would need his protection!

He must -

Althena turned. "Once, a man promised that I need never be alone again," she said softly. "I will need no guardian, no protector." She raised her eyes to his and smiled. "But I will need him to fulfill his promise."

Ghaleon returned her smile. He would fulfill that promise, would do so joyfully. He would be at her side, and he would make up for what he had done.

It was time... to live.