----The Forgotten City----
The air in the mountains that sequestered the Forgotten City was frigid no matter what time of the year. The teeth chattering and blood-freezing temperatures were particularly harsh the closer it was to the mountain, but it never stopped Kunlun from entering the hidden city under the mountains near his home village. It was a well-known secret among the villagers that little Kunlun would disappear into the city inside the mountain. Rumors used to circulate that he would commune with the mountain as if he were some sort of self-appointed priest of the mountain who brought them blessings. While others say he was a deity reborn and he would pray to the mountains to retrieve his godhood. But, in truth, he was simply an orphan of a pair of hunters who never came home after a horrid blizzard. He was a lonely child who found solace in exploring the long-abandoned city and found a connection to the Lifestream and the Planet that flourished the more he remained inside the city.
Kunlun had long accepted he would never see home again.
He had been so young (younger than Shen Wei and Ye Zun had been when he first met them) when he had been found by SINRA in the mountains near his home. The villagers had been sincere when they told the SHINRA representatives that he had been a blessing by the Planet. The "Boy Who Spoke to the Mountain" is what they had fondly called him after a while. A blessing to the villages since he could feel the precise arrival of spring to soothe away the frigid rage of the long winter storms. He knew where the elk and the deer migrated and advised the hunters on which paths to hunt for a successful haul. He could feel where the land was most fertile and direct the villagers to where they should plant their crops. He looked to the giant crater at the northernmost part of their world and felt nothing but bone-wrenching sadness for the unnamed souls who had once resided in it. He came to fear and revere the titan that raged in the polar north; trapped in the crystallized Mako while its nemesis roamed free.
He also spoke to the lost spirit that lived within the Forgotten City.
No one knew of the lonely spirit that tended to the lilies in the ancient city. Kunlun had found her sitting idly on an altar surrounded by white lilies that he now grew to love. She was pretty, she was kind, wise, and patient. Often quick to tease, but even quicker to show her affection. She was powerful and taught him everything he knew about his growing abilities and connection to the mountain. She often looked at him in awe, as if he had been a miracle born from the heart of the Planet itself like everyone seems to say. But he remembers her more for the flowers she tended to that grew around the city. White lilies that smelled like a spring morning after rainfall. She had once told him; he had been born to an unprecedented world. A world whose destiny even she, in the several lives she had lived and repeated, could not even foresee. Kunlun couldn't help but feel proud and important of that knowledge. But he had long since been rid of that naive notion.
The world was vast, beautiful, and so full of life. He was like a starving plant in the first rays of daylight when he first stepped foot into an all-new continent. He felt the heartbeat of the Planet in every new place he arrived in and felt its life flow through him. He had met countless people as he traveled the world working for SHINRA, but their looming presence never hindered his ability to establish friendships. Through it all, the lady in the city guided him at every turn. The Lifestream flows within each person he met as it does for every living being and it helped strengthen his connection to the world, his friendships strengthened his powers and his love for this world became unshakable.
But the world was also heartless and cruel, he had come to learn. The villagers had handed him over to SHINRA under the naive notion he will grow up well taught and respected. SHINRA fooled his caretakers into believing they will raise him with the promise he would return to lead them into a more modern life beyond their hunting and farming lifestyle. SHINRA promised them that he will return home and lead them to prosperity. He wondered, how long it took the villagers to realize little Kunlun will never return and brought about their own demise by believing such a bold-faced lie.
Kunlun knew the little village that looked after him has long since been abandoned. Its residents now scattered among the larger towns further away from the mountain where they lived better off (and better off forgetting him). He wondered whether they felt abandoned by the boy they all raised and placed their hopes in, or if they blame themselves for giving away their blessing. Or if they blamed him at all for the inevitable collapse of their home.
He wondered if they knew sending him away was to send him to a doomed life and a slow and wretched death.
Kunlun felt his knees give out at the old stone steps of the Forgotten City. The ancient ruins remained untouched even after all these years. Despite their reverence for the old ruins, the villagers feared entering them in fear of cursing themselves. He used to relish the silence of the old city, with its otherworldly tranquility leaving him detached from the world beyond the ruins. As it was when he left all those years ago, the ruins remained unchanged and unmolested. It was quiet save for the ragged huffs of his breath and the sound of his dying body dragged across its dusty pathways. Fire materia perpetually powered by Mako radiated warmth and illuminated the silent streets.
His body followed the familiar pathways that led him to where he wanted to go. The scent of lilies greets him before everything else and he felt like he was a young boy once again, in awe of the sight of a garden of lilies on an altar under the mountains. Kunlun let a sigh of relief escaped him as he let his body rest on the center of the altar. How fitting was it that he will die in the same place he had met the person who taught him how to live?
Taking Jenova's body was a risk he knew was going to cost him his life, but he had long since readied himself this. Jenova had infused herself into his body as he flew away from Midgar to help sever her connection to Shen Wei. She was a poison that slowly ate into his body. He knew he isn't long for this world. Jenova was going to retaliate, she was like every living creature out there. Desperate to survive and will do anything and everything to keep herself from dying. He had nearly dropped himself into the ocean when Jenova began to fuse herself into his flesh, and it took the last of his strength to take himself to his old home where he knew he would have help from his old friend in the Forgotten City. Jenova should not be left alive, she was a parasite that would inevitably destroy this Planet. Ancestor after ancestor had risked their lives to rid the world of the living plague that was Jenova, and every single one of them failed in the end.
"You're back," Kunlun heard a voice say above him. He smiled despite the pain, he had hoped to see the lady on the altar one more time, it didn't even matter if she sounded sad and heartbroken, "you didn't have to do all of this..."
"I had to" Kunlun said, gone were the restrictions of his decrepit and mangled body as he spoke into the space around him, " I had to protect Xiao-Wei and Ah-Zun ."
He heard the echo of a sob while he felt a faint whisper of warmth brush his scarred face, " You've been through so much...I'm sorry I couldn't help you more. "
" You saved everyone in the slums, " Kunlun said, " Don't think I didn't know about that. "
" That was my home... " She laughed before correcting herself, she was a whisper of a life that could have been, she had never truly existed, " That could have been my home ."
" Do you hate Zhao Yunlan for taking that? " Kunlun asked. She shook her head as they both felt the air around them shift at the mention of the name.
"No, no I don't. Not when this world shows so much promise in being different than the others...than the ones I've been in."
Kunlun felt the remnants of his soul unyoke from what was once his body. He now stood tall, taller than he had ever felt in years since his physical body had taken the form it had. He took his first breath as a spirit while his body had taken its last. He looks at her, recalling the moment they had first met at this very same place, how she said she was a ghost of what could have been, and how he vowed to keep her company. Kunlun closed his eyes and felt something in him settle; like every part of him breathing a cathartic sigh after a long hard day. Standing side by side with his long-time friend and mentor, Kunlun now felt like himself once again. He felt as if he had finally returned home.
In that very instance, his (once) body began to contort and change. Gone were the restrictions Kunlun had placed on it to prevent Jenova from fully taking over. And without his soul to combat her at every turn, Jenova fully infused herself into his body, making it her own. The air around them shifted and Kunlun watched as Mako seeped through every corner of the Forgotten City and enclosed his/Jenova's body in a crystal prison. She struggled, roared, and raged; furious that she was quickly denied the freedom she had waited for millennia.
"This won't hold her for long," his friend said, they watched in detached fascination as the Mako she summoned crystalized around Jenova, while the parasite struggled and raged at being trapped once again, "Once she breaks through the Mako, Ultima and the others will have no choice but to awaken to fight her."
"I would rather not that happen," Kunlun said, thinking of the titan that slept fitfully in the crater in the north. He remembered the stories she told him as a child about Ultima and the other Weapons that lay dormant underneath the Planet. Far too many lives would be lost if any one of them would waken.
Before him, the lady of the altar, his guide since childhood, gave him a determined smile. " This is as much as we can do, for now. The rest is up to your protege."
Kunlun scratched the back of his head, "I could hardly call him my protege, " he said, " everything he knew he learned from the Planet itself, Yunlan will learn the rest for himself."
They both felt a wisp of a presence shift behind them and both spirits turned as one to the final soul who had been silent through it all. The lady of the altar gave the presence a kind smile, its body not fully manifested as he is still whole and living. She brought her hands to her hips and gave the specter a jokingly stern reprimand.
"Did you hear that, Zhao Yunlan? " She said, " We'll leave the rest up to you, don't mess this up!"
In another continent, underneath the stars that blanketed the night sky, Zhao Yunlan woke with a gasp.
The air was crisp and fresh very early in the morning, the moisture lingering in the surface of the lush green grass and transforming into dew that already began to glisten at the rise of the morning sun. Fresh air was something Zhao Shen Xi hadn't realized she had missed. She spent most of her time walking the edges of the chocobo ranch they found refuge in after they emerged from the Mythril Mines.
The farm was owned by Sam's father, an old chocobo rancher who went by the nickname 'Chocobo Bill' in his younger days. The years have slowly chipped away at the old rancher's strength, and he could find more often than not sleeping in an old rocking chair by his front porch. In recent years, the ranch is now run by Sam's younger brother, but Shen Xi had long learned from Andrea and Madam M that the relationship between siblings had gone sour. The awkward unfamiliarity between Sam and his young niece and nephew shows how scarce his presence was in the family after he had left for Midgar.
The awkwardness was something everyone had to bear, for now. It would only be a few more days before Avalanche would arrive to take them to their base in Wutai. She doesn't know how the weather was like in Wutai. Having only experienced frigid cold weather in her home country and the dry weather in Midgar. She isn't sure how she would handle humidity.
The scent of cigarette smoke was a distinct contrast to the freshness of the air and Shen Xi couldn't suppress the groan of disgust she let out. She made her way back to the front of the house to find her eldest son smoking on the front porch. It was nearly five in the morning and she wasn't surprised at finding him out there at this point. Zhao Yunlan hadn't had a solid night's sleep since they left Kalm...since they left Midgar. She could accept that most of them hadn't been able to sleep well because of stress, but Yunlan's reignited smoking was something she will not tolerate. Yunlan had picked up smoking after he began working with a construction and landscaping crew in his mid-teens to help establish the farm.
It was a habit he had kept hidden for a while under the guise of picking up the scent from the rest of his coworkers. She had slapped the cigarette he had been smoking off his hand the first time she ever caught him with one in public. In a fit of anger, she had told him he better start saving his own money for when the smoke finally ruined his lungs. She may be his mother, but she wasn't going to waste her hard work over her sons' idiocy.
In the end, it had been Shen Wei who had helped her son kick the habit. Shen Wei's sense of smell was particularly sensitive because of his enhanced senses, and Yunlan had been washing thoroughly and it kept him oblivious for a while. All it had taken was Shen Wei finding her son smoking behind the church and avoiding him for weeks for Yunlan to quit smoking.
"I don't like it when he's disappointed in me, Ma," Yunlan told her. If she hadn’t known since he was ten that her son was infatuated with Shen Wei, this would have been the moment that would have solidified an ignorant mother's suspicions. But her son was an open book to her when he isn't to most people. She had smacked him across the head that day and told him to give her all of his cigarettes so she could burn them all to ashes.
She doesn't know where he found this particular pack, but she was going to beat the moron who enabled her son.
"I got it from Grandpa Bill, Ma" Zhao Yunlan said from where he was slouched on the porch's railing, "please don't be angry with him, he's got dementia, he's already forgotten he gave me one."
"So, you're saying I should beat your ass then?" Shen Xi said bitterly while she climbed the porch steps and settled herself next to her son, "because you know how much I hate it when you smoked. Just because Xiao-Wei isn't here doesn't mean you can go back to your bullshit."
"...that's a low blow, Ma," Zhao Yunlan said quietly but made no move to put out the cigarette.
"I'd be a shit mother if I didn't stop my kid from making bad decisions." Shen Xi reached for the cigarette on her son's hand and crushed it with the heel of her shoe, "Ah-Lan, I know you're stressed out, but don't be stupid."
"I know, Ma."
"And even Xiao-Wei knew you were going to be stupid that he had to tell Ah-Zun to tell you not to be stupid."
Yunlan turned his head away at the continued mention of Shen Wei's name.
"Ah-Lan, I know you feel guilty about Xiao-Wei and everything's gone to shit, but-"
“Ma, I know !”
“Then give me the rest of the cigarettes Old Bill gave you.” Shen Xi held her hand out in demand, “You’re not going to pick up old habits just because you’re upset, Ah-Lan.”
Her son said nothing but watched as she made her way down the porch once again to dispose of the cigarettes with a quiet Fire spell.
“I don’t know how you handled being away from dad,” Zhao Yunlan said quietly after Shen Xi returned to his side.
“It helped that he kept sending me letters,” she replied, thinking of Xinci’s letters to her that she’s kept in a box under her bed to this day.
“I should be lucky then, that I have Ye Zun to tell me if Shen Wei’s okay.” Yunlan laughed bitterly.
Shen Xi let out a huff, “You and I both know Xiao-Wei won’t tell his brother everything,” she points out, “he’ll keep all his pains to himself before he would let anyone worry about him. Let’s just hope that new president isn’t doing anything that would have me rip his skin out.”
“...you need to stop hanging out with Madam M, Ma.”
“I’m your mother, you can’t stop me from doing shit.”
Shen Xi allowed the silence to take over after a while. Basking in the quietness of the morning, another novelty she had come to appreciate after hearing the constant noise of the reactors for decades.
"I think I just saw Kunlun die."
Shen Xi frowned at the sudden change in subject and eyed her son, "Why do you think that?"
"I... I think I saw it happen in my dreams last night," Yunlan said, his face folded in confusion, "It isn't like how Shen Wei and Ye Zun communicate, because I was just watching it happen. But Jenova was there and... I don't know what the hell was happening, but there was a girl there and she looked at me and talked to me before I woke up."
Her son shook his head before looking at her, "Ma, everything's gone and I left Shen Wei behind, and now this...I don't know what's going on or what to do anymore."
Shen Xi fell silent, feeling that profound sense of loss for the home she had made for her children. She hadn't felt lost and adrift from grief since Xinci's death and she had forgotten how hard it was to move on from it. As much as she hated Midgar for taking away her husband, Sector 5 and that house in the slums had been her home; the place Ah-Lan and Ah-Qing grew up and made a name and place for themselves. All of it was gone in one night, once again by the same people who took away Xinci from her.
"I can see you're terrified, Ah-Lan," Shen Xi said reaching for her eldest son to pull him against her tightly, "but I'm right here for you and Ah-Qing, don't shoulder this all by yourself just because Xiao-Wei isn't here with us."
"It's just so damn hard to feel anything else," Yunlan said, his voice barely above a whisper, "I'm worried we won't get away from SHINRA fast enough, that we'd lose someone out there, and Shen Wei...Ma, we left Shen Wei alone back there..."
"I know, baobao , I know" Shen Xi murmured against her son's ear, "but you have to trust that Xiao-Wei will be fine and that we’ll all be alright."
"I don't know how to do that..."
She understood the kind of grief Yunlan was going through. She had spent the first three years of her son's life with that gaping void in her chest that longed for Xinci to come home. The ache of separation when their relationship had been so new and hadn't yet fully explored. The late-night prayers to the Planet when the thoughts of her husband never returning became too intrusive, and how every piece of herself felt broken and raw after his death. She could feel her son's sadness because it was very much her own.
She hopes, no, prays that their fate would not end up like hers and Xinci's.