Departing from my trilogy (with its third installment delayed indefinitely), and needing something to do on the days when I have writer's block with my book, I have decided to write another separate fanfic. *pauses for cheers and/or groans* Since I can actually introduce this one nicely without spoiling any future revelations in the story, here goes... But first, I'd like to apologize. Yes, this fanfic deals with the A.R.F. (Aeris Resurrection Fetish). This is an A.R.F. fic. But it isn't any old clichéd A.R.F. fic. (I know it's a bad acronym, but it beats the hell out of writing everything over and over again.) So yes, I resurrect Aeris. Well, she's not Aeris...but Aeris isn't dead anymore...hmm...this introduction is getting a little confusing... Let's just say that this story will please the Aeris fans and hopefully, everyone sick of the same old Aeris resurrection fic. Or it could please no one and I will have rotten cyber fruit thrown at me.
Evolution of Innocence
Part 1- In the Eyes of an Angel
"This is not the end. This is only the beginning. I can't let it end like this. I won't let it end like this. I owe it to him; I owe it to everyone. There is too much pain involved." Aeris folded her arms across her chest and stared at the master with contempt.
"They wouldn't be sad if they knew the truth. If they understood what happens when they leave the Planet, they would feel happy for you."
"But...I... I hear his voice, calling me."
"If everyone went back because someone called them, don't you see what chaos there would be? But for you, there is a hope, my child."
Aeris eyed him warily. In this "Promised Land," she was beginning to doubt she ever had a physical life. She had begun to sink into her spiritual being. If she had completely done so, she would not have been so unhappy. (But if I let it all go, I will forget. And I won't, ever! Even if it means an eternity of pain, I will remember.) "Hope? For what? Reincarnation in a century or so, I suppose," she said scornfully.
"There has been a few, very few, sent back to their contemporary time," said Master Eldor.
"Don't lie to me. You told me when I got here what was done was done."
"You can't go back to your old life, to your own body."
She sat down and hugged her knees. (That's all I... all I...) She swallowed, trying to keep the tears from falling. "Then why would I want to go back?"
"So your death would not have been a waste. Why did you sacrifice yourself? To save everyone else? Well, everything you fought to protect is being threatened again. Sometimes, when it is necessary, a Protector is allowed to inhabit the body of a soul grown weary of life. Whose spirit has been broken so much, the peace of death is most welcome."
Eldor smiled. "Yes, you are a Protector. One who sacrifices their life, their future, for the lives of others. Leaves the Planet while their spirit is still so full of life, that it brings even the most stern, strong, and silent man to tears."
Aeris closed her eyes. She still could see the look in Cloud's eyes as she felt herself leave. It was getting harder to place; she had no idea how long ago it was she returned to the Planet. (Weeks? Months?) "I have a question."
"Yes, my child."
"If I decide to do this, what would it be like?"
"You would possess the life of the body you inhabit. You will probably not remember who you were, or why you're there. You will probably have only a vague feeling of purpose."
"What use would I be, then? To anyone?"
"Any feeling of purpose, no matter how abstract, will weigh greatly on the balances that decide whether the Planet lives or dies."
Aeris was silent for a moment. "Who will I be? When do I go?"
"You will become Daphne Angelon. You will go as soon as possible."
"What does she look like? What is her life like?"
"In many ways, she is like you," said Eldor, "yet, in many ways, she is completely unlike you. Even if you somehow are able to remember yourself, your mission will come to you at the time when you are least likely to find it. Hidden behind mortal dreams and pleasures lurks the purpose that you are being sent for. Do not allow yourself to become distracted. Good luck, Aeris, and godspeed."
The phone rang. Daphne sat up. (I must have dosed off in my chair.) She picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Is this Daphne Angelon?"
Fear struck her. (This is it. This is the call. It's all over.) "Yes."
"This is Dr. Armstrong, from Junon Medical Center. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your mother passed away about fifteen minutes ago. She didn't seem to be in pain, and I think she went peacefully in the end, which is rare in cases of extreme Mako poisoning. You and your family have my condolences."
"Th...thank you," she said numbly. Tears blurred her eyes as she hung up the phone. (Yeah, me and my family. She was my family.) Her body started shaking as she put her head in her hands and sobbed. (You would think it gets easier. When Dad died in the war, when I was three, when Artie and his family died in the Sector 7 collapse...) She thought of her older brother and his wife and small child. (I know if he were here right now, he would smile that cocky smile at me, and tell me how life was great in Midgar, how he was rolling in the gil.)
Daphne had been away visiting an old friend when the geyser erupted in Mideel. Her mother had been exposed to the Mako. It only took two weeks for the illness to hit her. So Daphne put her mother in the hospital in Junon and had been working two jobs to foot the bills. She sniffed. (And it was all for nothing...) The doctors had told her that the chance of recovery was very slim. But she had still hoped. (After everything, how could I have Mom taken away from me, too?) She laid her head back on the lumpy chair in the shelter she had called home for the past two weeks, after the bills took so much money she couldn't pay the rent even for her dive of an apartment. (Please, God, whoever the hell is listening, please just let me be with them all when I wake up. I'm so tired, and I'm lonely.)
Aeris looked up from the image of the broken young woman. "How old is she?"
"And to have had so much loss..." she murmured.
Eldor shrugged. "It's all relative. You had as much loss, didn't you?"
"I was never alone. I always heard my mother's voice. It was like I had a guardian angel." She looked at the sleeping raven-haired girl. "I can be her guardian angel."
"You will be the Planet's guardian angel. It is time."
"Will she know?"
"All she will feel is peace descending."
"'Scuse me, miss?"
Daphne opened her eyes, with difficulty. She looked at the shelter volunteer who had woken her up. "Yeah?"
"There's someone here looking for you."
A young man stepped out from the shadows. "Thank you ma'am." He came closer to Daphne. "What the hell you doing here, Daph? You know you could come and stay with us if shit got rough. What you doin' in a place like this?"
"I...I didn't want to be a burden, Joel." (Since Rachel was killed in that car wreck last month, I didn't want to come and remind your family of her.)
"It would've made my folks happy. They've been so down since Rach died, and to tell you the truth, they've been worried about you. So have I. You've been workin' yourself to death, and if you don't let anybody help you, you're gonna get real sick, too. How is your mom?"
Daphne closed her eyes. "She's dead."
Joel wrapped his arms around her. "I'm so sorry. But you shouldn't be alone like this. Especially now. C'mon, come with me. You can get a hot shower, as long as you want, and a real bed to sleep in, not this piece of crap."
She nodded. (I remember when I was little, and I had the biggest crush on Joel. Rach's older brother. Back when she was alive, and I had a life.)
Joel smiled, and picked up her suitcase. "Is this all your stuff? Well, then, come on, Daffster." He took her hand, and they started walking towards his house in Lower Junon.
Daphne took a deep breath. (I feel different somehow. As if before, I was a different person. Everything seemed hopeless. I can get through it now. I'll never be truly alone.)
(What am I doing wrong? I've done everything I could, I've tried everything I could think of, and still he ignores me.) Tifa sighed as she looked through her closet at her different outfits. (I've worn that one a zillion times...that one looks hideous on me...) She grabbed a short sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans. (No wonder Cloud ignores me. I'm so damn boring.) As she dressed, she contemplated what went wrong the last time she tried to get close to him.
(Well, we had the nice talk. Nice until he managed to start talking about Aeris, that is. But I steered him away from that, and the next thing I know, I'm kissing him, and he's kissing back... And it would have been fine if I had left it at that.) She shook her head and zipped the jeans. (If I would have just been satisfied for the time-being, instead of trying to get him into bed, we wouldn't be in this awkward position.) Cloud had quickly removed himself from her apartment, telling her that it wasn't that he didn't care about her... (...but he can't forget Aeris. I can't compete with a memory. I'm real, and I'm here, and I'll make more mistakes. But soon everything stupid she did will be forgotten and she'll be the perfect little martyr. And no matter how much he might have loved me, Cloud will resent it that I lived while she died.) A tear slipped down her cheek, and she quickly wiped it away. (No matter how much I sacrificed for the cause, her sacrifice was the ultimate.)
Tifa put on her shoes. (I don't hate her. She was a true friend. But I'll resent the way her presence lingers. Maybe I should thank her. Maybe if she lived, I wouldn't have had a chance with Cloud.) She left to go to Cloud's apartment. (I'll apologize, and then I'll wait for my next chance.)
Cloud and Tifa, along with Barret, were tired of traveling and had settled down in Kalm after Meteor had come, two months earlier. But Cloud still roamed over all the ends of the Planet, searching out every Sephiroth rumor, no matter how implausible. Tifa was still surprised to see him leaving his apartment decked out in full battle gear.
"Where did somebody see him now?" she asked spitefully.
"Junon. C'mon, Tifa, try to understand. I have to make sure he's really dead this time."
"Don't you think Cid would have told us if there were any Sephiroth impersonators in Junon?" Most of the rumors were just imitators trying to make a living in haunted houses.
"Just because Cid runs the airport there doesn't mean he knows everything that goes on there. I have to make sure he's dead for good. Otherwise, why did..." He broke off. "Look, Tifa, I know you think I'm a fool, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. You should thank me, I'm also keeping you safe."
"I don't need you to keep me safe." (I just need you to be here, with me.)
"Are you telling me to leave you alone?"
"If I'm holding you back from your quest for the pseudo-Sephiroth, by all means, go right ahead, leave town and don't come back. Hell, I even release you from your promise."
"Tifa. You're just angry about last night."
"Why shouldn't I be? You flat out rejected me. How do you think that makes me feel?"
"I'm not going to just go and have sex with you. If you really care about me, you'll give me the time to make it more than that. If I wanted sex, I could go find a whore somewhere. You're above that, Tifa. You need something more than that. I need something more than that. If you try to make us, what we are, just physical, you'll destroy our friendship."
"You're more than a friend to me, Cloud."
He gently turned her head and kissed her softly on the cheek. "I know." He mounted his golden chocobo. "Hopefully, I'll be back by evening." He tugged on the reins.
Raising her hand up in a gesture of good-bye, Tifa watched him ride off into the horizon. (I can give you time, Cloud. We have plenty of time.)
Cloud slapped the reins against Goldie's back. (Gotta improve her diet. She's going a lot slower these days.) "You're lucky, you know that?" he said to the chocobo. "Life's easy for you. Someone decides what you'll eat, where you'll go, who you'll mate with..." He sighed. (Why can't I make Tifa happy? I guess it's because I can't pretend that she's the only thing I think about. Because every time I go on a search for Sephiroth, I'm trying to find...Aeris. If only I could look in her eyes one more time. Tell her what I think. That she was the strongest one of us all. And how I don't know if I'll ever feel whole again.)
"Gimme a beer." Cloud sighed. (No Sephiroth. Just this guy traveling with a circus calling himself "Son of Sephiroth." Never mind that he's way too old to be Sephiroth's son.) The bartender handed him his drink. "Thanks," he said. He turned so he could watch the Friday night crowd stream past the bar's open door.
A young woman walked in, looking like she'd been assaulted.
"Are you okay?" Cloud asked.
She ignored him and turned to the bartender. "Joel, that's the last time I go get the latest video game for you. I almost got myself killed." She turned to Cloud, who was laughing. "What's so funny?"
"I'm sorry, you just look like you'd been robbed or something...all that for a video game?"
She shook her head. "I know, I'm going to have to kick Joel's ass for this."
Cloud looked her over. (Long, black hair, exquisite blue-violet eyes, legs that go on forever...she must be almost as tall as I am.) His eyes met hers.
"Do I know you?" she asked. "You look familiar."
"I don't think so, but I was thinking the same about you."
"Maybe I saw you in here before?"
He shook his head. "I haven't been in this bar in months."
"Oh." She held out a delicate hand. "I'm Daphne."
"Cloud." He shook her hand. "No offense, Daphne, but I don't think you'll get far beating your friend over here if you use those little hands of yours."
"She's been taking weapons training," said Joel, wiping his hands on a towel. "Only two lessons, but she's a devil with the ol' rod. Like she learned it in a past life or something. Either that, or she's a natural born killer in denial."
"The rod?" Cloud hesitated. "I knew someone...she was awesome with the thing."
"Aww," said Daphne with sympathy, picking up his tone, "troubles in love?"
"No, she's dead."
The silence hung thick in the room. "I'm sorry," she said.
"It's okay, you didn't know."
"I, of all people, should learn to have tact. I hate it when strangers ask me about my family, even though they would have no way of knowing that they were dead. This girl, what was her name?"
"Why do you care?" asked Cloud bitterly.
"It helps to talk," she said softly. "We all need someone to talk to. I was just hoping to ease this awkwardness. You don't have to say anything if you don't want to." She looked at Joel. "You look tired. I'll take over ‘til closing."
"It's only an hour."
She smiled. "Go play your game. I'll close."
"Fine, if you insist. We need some more vodka up here, though. You can get it, right?" Daphne went to the storeroom. He looked at Cloud. "If there's anyone on this Planet that understands what you feel like, it's Daph. You should talk with her."
Cloud gave him a puzzled look. "Why do you want me to hang with your girlfriend?"
"Daph's not my girlfriend. She...was my sister's best friend. Before Rachel died. And now her mom died and she's got nobody but me. She mopes around a lot. I just thought you could maybe be her friend, y'know? You two seem to compliment each other. You both are walking around with issues."
Daphne walked back into the bar. "Go, Joel, now!" she ordered, finger pointing to the door.
"Fine, Daphs," he said, putting his hat on. "Don't get too friendly with the drunks, baby."
Cloud stared into his drink. "Aeris," he said softly.
Daphne turned around and gave him a queer look. "What?"
"Her name was Aeris."
"Oh. You want to talk about her?"
He set down the empty mug. "Only if you want to listen."
She touched his hand and smiled. "Who wouldn't want to spend a few minutes with a cutie like you? Staring into those baby blues? I bet the only reason you carry that sword is to fend off the women."
Cloud stared at her. (No one has smiled at me like that besides...besides Aeris.) "Thank you for the compliment, but really, you're doing me a favor. I...you remind me of her."
"Now who's complimenting who? I say you've got nice eyes, and you tell me I remind you of someone you cared about a lot. What is it? Do I look like her?"
"Yes and no. Physically, not at all. Your mannerisms are the same, almost exactly."
"That's just weird," said Daphne.
"I agree with you, but the more I look at you, the way you act, and I just see that you're very similar. I guess my real problem lies with Tifa. Me and her go way back, and I think she's in love with me. And sure, I could be the jerk, take advantage of her feelings for me, but I refuse to be with her if I can't stop thinking of Aeris."
"That's very admirable. But not very realistic."
Daphne smiled. "You're going to get lonely someday, and you'll want companionship, and Tifa'll be there, and you'll settle. I'm sure if Aeris knew she would understand. I know that if I really loved someone, I wouldn't want him to be lonely. It's not like Aeris can come back from the dead and cry about how you're cheating on her, is it?"
Cloud looked at Daphne. Her eyes, the musical tones that rang in her voice...she was right, he was lonely. He scrutinized her face. "It's just too soon, I guess. Tell me, how is it that someone like you is alone?"
She shrugged, with another smile. "I won't be alone forever. And I have Joel. When I really think about it, I've had a lot more than some people ever will."
Cloud stood up. "I really have a long trip home now. But... Umm... How long are you planning to be in Junon?"
"Probably for a little while, at least."
"If I come back, in a couple of days, would you be here?"
She nodded. "I can be your psychologist."
He shook his head. "That's not what I mean." Gathering up his courage, he leaned across the bar counter and kissed her softly. "There's something magic about you," he whispered.
Daphne watched him walk out the door. (No, the magic is in you, Cloud Strife...) Then a realization hit her, and she almost dropped his empty mug. (He never told me his last name...how could I...) She watched the mysterious young man ride down the street on his chocobo. (Cloud Strife, a mercenary from Nibelheim.) She knew that was who he was. But she didn't know how she knew. That's what scared her.
"Why don't we get a video," suggested Tifa.
"Whatever." Cloud shrugged.
She put her hands on her hips. "I'm sorry for what I did. I'm sorry I got pissed off at you for going to Junon. But when you go on these pointless mission, it worries me for no reason. Can't you see where I'm coming from?"
"They're not pointless!"
"Did you find Sephiroth in Junon?"
"I found something...but not Sephiroth."
She looked at him. "What?"
"Dammit, Tifa, can't I have my own life? Can't you rent a fucking movie by yourself? Can't I ever have some time alone to think? If you think that I'll miraculously fall out of my mind head over heels in love with you if you keep hounding me, you're wrong! Tifa, don't do this to us. I swear, you're going to make me hate you."
"It looks like I'm too late to do that."
"I don't hate you, Tifa. But you're making too easy for me to want to hate you. Just give me some down time, okay? I'll go to Junon for a week or something. You stay here. We can both think and look deep inside ourselves. Then maybe we both can act like rational human beings again."
"Why don't you let me give you something to contemplate while you're away," she said. She kissed him passionately. She reached down and unbuckled his belt.
Cloud relaxed and his hands found the buttons of the tight blouse she was wearing.
(Victory!) Tifa drew herself closer, pressing herself against him. "Cloud," she murmured.
He snapped back to reality with a jolt. He had to force her off of him with both hands. "Damn, Tifa, why do you do this," he muttered as he refastened his pants. "If I didn't know you better, I would say you were acting like some little slut."
She shrank back like a wounded animal. "Yeah," she hissed, "because I'm just a little whore. Taking it anywhere. Doing it with anyone." She slapped him. "Get the hell out of here. I don't care if you come back or not."
Tifa watched Cloud storm out. Then she burst into tears.
(This is stupid.) Cloud stood outside the entrance to the bar where he had met Daphne. (You met a girl here, a week ago. Then you come back, like she'll be waiting for you. No girl would do that for me. Especially a hot one.)
A hand waved back and forth in front of his eyes. A sweet voice laughed.
Cloud turned around. "Daphne."
She smiled. "In the flesh."
(Well, I agree.) Cloud moved his eyes off her body and guiltily met her amused gaze. "What?"
"I've been waiting for a week for you to come back so I can ask you out."
Daphne lowered her eyes. "I don't meet that many people. I just wanted someone to do something with, that's all."
"What? No, I accept," said Cloud, "it's just that I thought there must be some hunky body builder standing behind me and you were talking to him."
She shook her head. "No. Besides," she said, running a hand lightly across his arm, "you're not exactly a ninety-pound weakling. And even though you're not the biggest guy in the world..."
"What are you saying?"
She drew herself up close to him and met his eyes. "I'm sure you make up for it in other ways," she whispered.
Cloud turned beet red. "How could you...know...that," he stammered.
Her eyes widened and she giggled. "I didn't before, but I do now." She put her hand to her head. "Damn."
"Are you okay?"
"Just a headache. I've been having a lot since mom died." Her mind flew back to a place in the past. It seemed like years ago.
"I have a job for you. Get me out of here."
Cloud arched an eyebrow. "Y'know, I'm not a charity. I charge quite a fee."
"Fine. How about if I go out with you once?"
She opened her eyes. She had fallen to her knees. (Did I hire Cloud?) "Are you sure, Cloud, that you never had met me before the other night?"
"Yes." His voice was firm. "I..." He faltered. (Gotta finish it.) "I would have remembered if I had ever seen you. You're beautiful."
She stood up and smoothed her clothes. She reached to fix the ribbon in her hair. (What? I don't have a ribbon in my hair. I never wear my hair up. What the hell is wrong with me?) "Let's go to the Junon Arcade," she suggested. "They have this awesome snowboarding game."
"Please tell me, Tifa, why do you want me to do this?"
She fidgeted. "I don't know, Red, it's just that I'm worried about Cloud, that's all. I just want you to follow him and make sure he isn't in any trouble. Or that he isn't drinking too much."
"Tifa," said Red XIII, "I will do this for you because you asked and you are my friend, but I am going to give you a word of advice. Cloud's business is his own business. And after tonight, if you want someone to tail Cloud, you can do it on your own. I could be out killing the monsters around Junon, you know."
(But I need to know what Cloud's up to. Why he seemed so eager to get back to Junon...) "I can follow him myself, if that's what bugs you. I just need you to track him down to begin with. Then you can make your rounds."
Red XIII sighed. "Well, I'll try my best."
"He's in the arcade."
Tifa peered inside the brightly lit building. "You're sure?"
"Yes, I haven't lost my sense of smell since Meteor." (Or maybe I have. I could have sworn I smelled...Aeris. Maybe Cloud possesses a token of hers. That must be it.) He turned to leave. "Anything else, Tifa?"
She shook her head. "No, this is more than enough. Thank you, Red."
He nodded and headed for the outskirts of town.
Tifa could hear Cloud's voice almost as soon as she walked into the arcade.
"It's not that hard, you can give it a try." He laughed. "Maybe if you stood the right way instead of backwards, you'd have a better chance."
She started to approach him, then stopped when she heard the sweet, feminine voice that replied.
"Cloud, you know I've never done this before. So don't mock me because of your experience. I'm not the one that didn't understand Whack-a-Mole." The snowboard game started, and the black-haired girl immediately fell off.
Cloud wrapped his strong hands around her waist and lifted Daphne back into position. "There, try to stay on it this time. It's not like you're really snowboarding."
"Oh, you..." Daphne was having better luck with the game. "This is cool." The game stopped, and she hopped off. "Let's try something else. Ever played Skee-ball?"
"Skee-what?" His eyes opened in amazement. "Daph, you beat my score and won a prize!"
She turned back to the game. "Bull-- I did win...but what is this blue thing?" She held up an All materia.
"It's a materia."
Her eyes brightened. "I never had a materia before. Well, I did, but..." (Wait a minute. I never had a materia, so why do I remember the White materia? Mother's?) "Holy?" she whispered in confusion. She closed her eyes and put a hand to her forehead.
"Daphne, you all right?" asked Cloud, with a worried look.
"I...I'm fine. It's just..." (I don't understand what is happening to me. The strange memories, the way I feel about you...) "I don't feel well, though. Can you take me home?"
"Of course." He wrapped an arm around her protectively and held her close. They slowly made their way to the exit of the arcade.
Tifa swallowed and tried to ignore the feeling that had settled in the pit of her stomach, and the tears burning her eyes. (All this time...hunting Sephiroth rumors...it all was a lie...he was meeting someone...someone he hardly knows... And I...and I...)
"It appears to me, Ms. Lockhart, that your eyes have seen something that was not intended for you to see."
She turned around and saw Vincent Valentine. "So you saw him, too? With...with that chick?" she said scornfully. "Cloud lied to me. He could have had the decency to tell me he was seeing someone."
"Cloud would not lie to you in order to hurt you, Tifa. You know that."
"You're right. He doesn't care about me enough to hurt me on purpose. He couldn't care less where I was, what I was doing..." She walked past him towards the door.
"Wait," said Vincent.
"No, I won't break down in public. I shouldn't even be so upset over him." Her voice wavered. "Please, Vincent."
"Red sent me to find you, and Cloud. Since he is...occupied at the moment, I suggest that we both go to Red's observatory."
"He has an observatory?"
Vincent shrugged. "A few pieces of equipment on the roof of his apartment building. Sadly, it's probably the most scientific place in the city. He has some news of great importance. Concerning the Planet."
"Is it in danger?"
"I don't know. I would assume so, since he plans to gather everyone."
"I'll go. But," she warned, "I may leave when Cloud comes." A tear slipped down her cheek. "I will leave."
"Then we should hurry, so you learn enough before his arrival."
"This is it."
Cloud looked around. "This place is..."
"All I can afford at the moment. My mother's hospital bills knocked me out. And I refuse to impose myself on Joel." Daphne managed a weak smile. "It's not that bad, really."
"It doesn't look safe."
"I can handle it, after all..." Her words trailed off. (What am I doing? Saying? I was going to say I grew up in the slums. I grew up in Mideel, the safest place on the planet. Well, when you're talking about crime, anyway...)
Cloud smiled. "I know you're not helpless. I just don't know how I could keep from worrying about you when this is where you live."
"Well, maybe..." She looked into his eyes. "Do you wanna be my bodyguard?"
(After what happened to Aeris?) "What?!" he asked angrily. He saw the hurt flash across her face. (It's not her fault. She doesn't know. She couldn't understand.) "I'm so sorry, Daphne."
She stepped back. "Fine," she said softly.
He grabbed her hand. "Wait. I didn't mean..." He looked down into her eyes. (Aeris.) He shook his head. (No, dammit, this is Daphne.) "Daphne," he whispered. "You're coming with me, so don't argue. You're going to pack yourself a suitcase and I'm going to rent you a room at the hotel."
"Why bother? Aren't you leaving tonight?"
"No, I'm staying there, too. I'm sort of on an...extended visit. I have some business to take care of. It would put my mind at ease to know you were safe. I'm sorry that I sounded mean. I would protect you with my life."
Daphne looked at him warily. "Why would you? You hardly know me."
"I feel like I've known you all my life. This all...feels right. Like it's supposed to be like this. For the first time ever, I think I understand things just a little."
(Not me. I've never been so confused in all my life. I don't understand what's going on, why I seem to be haunted by him. How is it that we can know each other before we get to know each other?) "Fine, then," she said, "I'll be back down in a minute."
"Cloud, I've been looking for you."
Cloud whirled around. "Damn, Red, what the hell are you doing here? You just freaked me out, big time."
"I need you to come with me to my observatory. Now."
"Well, you'll have to wait a bit..."
Red XIII growled. "The matter is imperative."
"I'm waiting for someone," said Cloud, "for godsakes, hold your horses."
"Cloud?" Daphne emerged from the building, eyeing Red XIII in fear. "Wh...what is that?"
Cloud walked over to her and took her hand. "A friend. A very impatient friend."
Red XIII shook his head in disgust. "A very annoyed friend who has been looking all over Junon for you."
Her eyes widened in alarm. "It talks!"
Red XIII stepped closer. "Yes, and with much more comprehension than the average human. Can we go, Cloud?"
Daphne shrank back and shielded herself behind Cloud. (I remember...being in a lab...and that animal...)
"Daphne? Are you okay?"
She looked into his concerned eyes. "I...can't help it..." She glanced at Red XIII. "I beg your pardon, s...sir, but I'm scared."
Red XIII turned and started walking. "Cloud, come with me. You can follow at a distance if the lady's fear prevents you from actually walking with me. We will be meeting everyone else."
Red XIII nodded. "Yes, you will be the last to arrive. Tifa, Barret, and even Yuffie were here before you. Although I'm sure they weren't having such an entertaining evening."
No one expected to be gathered again so soon. Reunions are good in their own little way, but only when the news relayed is good. The party did not want to come together for another crisis of the Planet. But, as Vincent put it, "We are the only ones who concern ourselves with the Planet's condition. Our journeys together have proven that. If we do not continue to protect it to the best of our abilities, the Planet will surely die. We have been chosen by whatever fates exist to carry on the roles of protectors. And carry them on we shall, if not for the Planet's sake, but for our own."
Red XIII looked around the room. "I'm sure you're all wondering why I called you here tonight."
Cid nodded and lit up a cigarette. "Damn straight..." he muttered.
"There is great distress in the voice of the Planet. The cries started up again right after Meteor fell, but for a while I disregarded them because I was certain... Well, no excuse is going to suffice. Once I started investigating the Planet's cries, I knew there was only one cause. A soul has forced its way from the Lifestream back onto the Planet. One who was dead now takes his place among the living."
Daphne looked around the room in amazement. (No one could possibly believe this, could they?) But everyone else looked completely at ease with the notion of the dead returning to life. She met Cloud's eyes.
He gave her a half-smile and squeezed her hand. "Red? Do you know for certain that this...spirit...is a he?"
Red XIII shrugged. "I doubt Aeris' return could cause such distress. I'll be blunt. Whatever soul has returned, it has done so without permission of the powers-that-be, and has tipped the scales back towards the Planet's destruction. It may be Sephiroth, Hojo, or even some ancient unknown force, but we have to all be prepared and informed now, so when this soul decides to reveal its identity, we can defeat it."
Daphne felt all sorts of fears settle in the pit of her stomach. (Why am I afraid? Why should I be afraid? Why do those names scare me so?) She held Cloud's hand even tighter.
"Don't worry," he whispered, "it's nothing major...Red's just a little paranoid." He kissed her softly on the cheek.
Tifa watched this exchange from her position on the opposite side of the room. (Damn you, Cloud! Why do you have to come here and shove that chick in my face? She doesn't have a clue what's going on...she isn't one of us...) "Red, do you have any idea of how we approach this spirit, or how to defeat it? Do you even know whether it has a body or not?"
Red XIII shook his head. "I have given you all the information that I have. I felt it necessary to notify you all so you can keep your eyes open at your respective locales...I need everyone aware so you can spot this evil. If you have a suspicion, do not hesitate to use the PHS and notify us all."
Daphne could feel a hazy question forming in the back of her mind. (What if...what would happen when a soul...) "Do you know whether a soul that returned would be in the same form or not? Or would they have to use the body of someone living?" she asked softly.
Everyone's eyes turned to Daphne.
"It is a thought-provoking question," said Vincent, "for if a powerful soul has forced itself into a living body, that would not only be the cause of these distress signals...it would be an unfortunate thing for us."
"The enemy could look like anyone," said Yuffie, "the enemy could be anyone."
Tifa scrutinized Daphne. (I bet I know who the enemy might be.)
"I swear, it ain't me this time," said Cait Sith. There was a click and a whir, and then they could hear Reeve's voice. "And next time we have a meeting, I'll actually be there."
"This body-switching idea sounds plausible," said Red XIII, "I don't know where you found this girl, Cloud, but she sounds like a smart one." He turned to Daphne. "Can you fight?"
"A little," she said shyly.
"One of her friends told me she was a devil with the rod," said Cloud, "she's probably being modest."
"The rod?" asked Barret. "We ain't got nobody on one of them since..." He trailed off.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Red XIII cleared his throat. "I think if a soul was inhabiting a different body, the soul would still be inclined to act as it did in its ‘former life.' So I would say a man running around in a black cape carrying a Masamune to be fairly dangerous. As well as a man in a lab coat looking for unusual research specimens."
(And maybe there's a girl with a pink hair ribbon, holding a rod and a basket of flowers...) Cloud's mind drifted off into a sea of possibilities and lost dreams.
"Cloud," she said softly, "everybody else is leaving."
"Aeris," he murmured.
"What?" asked Daphne, puzzled.
(Damn it, not again! If I can't get my mind off of Aeris, it is not fair to Daphne.) He looked into Daphne's pretty eyes. (I don't understand. Half the time, she helps me forget. And in the other half, she makes my memories breathe a new life.) "Are you ready to go?" he asked.
"Red, we're heading on out," Cloud said.
"Be careful, Cloud. Whoever or whatever is trying to start something again...they will probably have their eye on you for their first target. We are going to meet back here in a week unless there is something unforeseen that arises."
From his vantage point high above the city, Derin watched two figures emerge from one of the buildings. (There she is. With him. My maiden of light, and she walks with a man of darkness. His mind is a troubled storm.)
Derin stood exactly six feet tall. He wore a tight black T-shirt and a pair of black leather pants. The clothing emphasized both his lithe, muscular form and the contrast of his pale skin to his short black hair and dark brown eyes. On his face was a day's growth of beard and he looked haggard from lack of sleep.
(I have been searching for weeks and I have finally found her. In order to save you from the coming darkness, love, I have to save you from the man who helped destroy you before. I don't blame him for being weak. But I will not let you stay with him if he is weak and I am strong.)
Derin saw Cloud and Daphne leave Red XIII's and head for the Junon hotel. He picked up his gigantic sword and prepared to follow them. (Of course, I do have the advantage. Sweetheart, you only know who you are. I know who you were...and who I was...) He glanced behind his shoulder, making sure he would not be followed. (And I know who our enemy is.)
Part 2- Distorted Reflections
"I'd like to rent another room," said Cloud.
"I'm sorry, there's no vacancies. That's normal when something like this convention happens in Junon."
Cloud looked at the desk clerk at the hotel. "Convention?" he asked.
"You don't know? I thought you were part of it," said the clerk, eyeing him, "you're certainly dressed for it."
"The first annual convention celebrating the battles between Shinra and Avalanche, of course. You certainly look like the leader of that Avalanche."
Daphne looked at him. "You were part of Avalanche?"
The clerk laughed. "Yeah, sweetheart, and he was the leader."
"Barret's the leader," Cloud said quietly to Daphne, "they just all look up to me." He turned to the clerk. "So you're telling me all the rooms in this town are booked for this convention?"
"Yep...there will be lots of folks dressed like you walking around here for about a week. And of course, some dressed like the Shinra...Rufus and Sephiroth fans..."
(People dressed like Sephiroth? That could mean…) "Where do the delegates for this convention meet?"
"The old Shinra building between Upper and Lower Junon."
"Okay," he said, "come on Daphne, you'll just have to stay in my room."
Daphne stood uneasily in the middle of Cloud's hotel room. "I'd rather just go home, I think," she said. "I don't want to impose on you."
"You're not, really, Daphne. Besides, there are two beds in here, so I don't have to sleep on the floor or anything. I was thinking maybe we should go to that convention tomorrow."
"I don't look like anyone from Avalanche," she said quietly.
"That's easily fixed," said Cloud. "We'll just dress you up like…" Then it hit him. (The only person she could imitate would be Aeris...it might insult Tifa and Yuffie if I had Daphne pretend to be a fan of theirs.)
"Like who?" asked Daphne. "No offense to your two female friends…but I like to wear a little more clothing myself."
"Don't worry. You just go to sleep. I'll pick up something for you to wear at one of the shops. Trust me, you'll be authentic." Cloud kissed her softly. "I should be back in about an hour…"
"I want an Aeris Gainsborough costume."
The shopkeeper laughed. "But you have such a nice Cloud costume."
"I have a date."
"You've certainly got the act down." She chuckled. "We only got one left…Planet Protector is a popular role among the ladies. Has a certain bit of elegance." She went in the back room.
Cloud leaned against the counter and sighed. (It's only been a few months… How is it that we're already pop culture? It's rather ridiculous. And Aeris… Perhaps I should just feel thankful that she won't be forgotten.)
A tall, pale man with dark hair walked into the shop as Cloud was paying for the pink dress and sweater. "I'd like a Zack costume," he said.
Cloud dropped his sword. A loud, resounding clatter echoed through the shop.
"I'm really into the minor characters," the man added.
The shopkeeper was bewildered. "I don't think we carry him. I'm sorry."
"Who's Zack?" asked Cloud lightly, trying hard to pretend he was just a fan.
"Zack is the man who made Cloud who he was." The man smiled and held out a hand. "I'm Derin."
Cloud shook the offered hand gingerly. "I'm Cloud."
The woman behind the counter cracked up. "Good one! Hahaha…"
"You are quite the annoying little bitch," shot Derin at the shopkeeper.
"Young man! We don't need that kind of language in this shop."
"Fine." He looked at Cloud. "Want to go for a drink? Maybe tell me your real name..."
(There's something odd about this guy…really odd…) "No thanks. I've got to get back, and give this to Aeris."
(Dammit, I did it again! I'll just gloss it over…) "My friend is dressing up," he said, holding up the costume he bought.
"All right. I'm sure we'll catch up with each other again sometime in the next couple of days." Derin walked towards the door. "You're going to love my costume," he added.
Cloud slowly walked back to the hotel, lost in thought. (I think this "Derin" may be the man we're looking for…)
When Cloud walked into the room, he found himself in darkness and silence. (Is Daphne already asleep?) He slowly walked in and set the dress on the table.
Daphne awoke with a start and jumped up.
Almost immediately, Cloud felt a rod pressed to his neck.
"Who's there?" she demanded, frightened.
"Just me," he said softly. "I thought you were sleeping."
"Oh god, Cloud," she murmured shakily. Sinking down onto the bed, she turned on the lamp.
"What's wrong, Daphne?"
"After you left, I felt like getting something to drink. So I took the spare key you gave me, locked up the room, and headed down to the lobby. I bought something from the vending machine and came back. I couldn't have been gone more than five minutes, tops."
"When I came back, everything was locked up like I left it. But there was something sitting on the table."
Cloud suddenly noticed the other objects sitting on the table. (A basket of flowers and a pink ribbon.) "What in the world…" He started examining them.
She picked up a piece of paper from the floor and handed it to him. "This was lying next to it. I…I had a weird headache and blacked out after I read it."
"Yeah, like in front of the bar earlier? When I came to…I was so scared… I was just pretending to be asleep to catch the sicko that got in here."
Cloud looked at the note.
It seems to me, sweetheart, that you've forgotten just who you are. I brought you some things to stir your memory. Remember that day in the church, almost eight years ago? You made a promise to me. I will see you keep it tomorrow.
--The Black Falcon"
"I was just so terrified that whoever it was would try to come back before you got here…"
Cloud wrapped his arms around her. (At least she doesn't know what those items mean. Thank god she doesn't know…) "Do you want to see your costume?" he asked her.
He undid the packaging and held the pink dress out for her to see.
"Who am I supposed to be?"
"I want you to dress up as Aeris."
"Aeris? Isn't that…" (Don't ask him any uncomfortable questions. This must be very hard for him.)
"I figured you already had a rod...and all you need to do is braid your hair up." He glanced over. "Unknowingly, ‘the Black Falcon' has helped us out a little." He handed her the pink ribbon. "Use this. You'll look just…like her."
"I don't know how to do it like her…"
"Here," he said, clumsily sweeping her long hair up with his hands. Except for the occasional wince of pain from Daphne, Cloud succeeded in entwining the fine strands into a loose braid that was remarkably similar to the one Aeris was so well known for. He tied the pink ribbon firmly at the crown of her head.
"Cloud," she whispered.
He looked deep into her eyes. So far inside, reaching the soul. The soul that gazed back. "Aeris," he murmured.
"No," said Daphne firmly, "No!" She shuddered and tore the ribbon from her hair. Her hair cascaded downward in a black waterfall.
Cloud snapped back to reality with a jolt. (It happened again!) "Daphne…"
She brushed a tear from her eye.
"I'm sorry," he said softly.
"I wasn't comfortable doing this, and I'm definitely not now!"
"But I need you in a costume…"
Daphne looked at him. "This doesn't bother you? I am dressed up like a dead girl you once knew and you are calling me by her name!" (And it feels completely natural…yet… Why am I so upset over this? I know. It's because Cloud looks at me and only sees Aeris. He doesn't see me. He is blind to the person that is Daphne. He can't care about me.)
"You are not Aeris!"
"I know," she said, "so why can't you look at me, right in the eyes, and whisper ‘Daphne?'"
Cloud looked into her eyes. (I don't know, sweetheart, I just don't know.) "You are Daphne," he said firmly, "but you will be wearing an Aeris costume tomorrow. We will find this ‘Black Falcon,' and see if it's our reincarnated bad guy."
Daphne sighed. "I just wish we could find a reincarnated good guy."
He kissed her softly on the cheek. "Maybe we have, and just haven't been looking hard enough to see him." A pause. "Or her," he added.
"I think I'm going to go to sleep for real now," she said.
He smiled. "I'll put this stuff away. You go to bed. Sweet dreams…"
She looked up at him. "I know I will have sweet dreams. You're here to make sure nothing spoils them." They stood there for a moment, gazing at each other.
Cloud softly nudged her towards one of the beds. "It's sleepy time now."
"Goodnight, Cloud." Daphne was fast asleep almost as soon as she hit the pillow.
Cloud reexamined the note left by the Black Falcon. (Into the minor characters, huh? I wonder what would give you such a case of Zack attack… Sephiroth.)
The petite red-headed woman walked through the crowds at the convention, silently laughing at the foolishness that was the masses. (They are all trying to relive the ‘heroics' of…of…that damn Cloud and Avalanche! They stopped me before, they will not stop me this time!) She sighed. (If only I could have realized who I was before I saw that damn Cloud Strife in an arcade, then my plans would be well in place, and he would have no chance of stopping me.) She stopped walking and gazed over her shoulder.
A tall man with black hair was wearing clothes similar to Cloud's. Yet, they did not look like any of the cheesy, prefabricated costumes. Also, he was carrying a sword with a huge blade, but it had no decoration at all. It was a standard order Buster sword, issued in the earlier days of Soldier.
(I must get used to this body.) She knew that being a pretty young female would be quite a different type of life than she was used to. (No longer shall I command respect on sight. Perhaps I should make an example of this poor young man. I think I will.) Plastering on a seductive smile, and smoothing the deep blue skirt of her Elena costume, the woman turned around again towards the black haired man.
But he was nowhere to be seen. The only sight that greeted her was a crowd full of fanatics in cheesy costumes.
"What the hell is this, Vincent?" asked Tifa angrily, looking up at the banner.
"Apparently, the ‘First Annual Shinra/Avalanche Convention, Celebrating the Epic Battle Between Good and Evil,'" read Vincent from the sign.
"Thank you for the sarcasm, you didn't have to include the subtitle." She sighed. "This is sad."
"Ah, but if we went in, Tifa, all these people would compliment us on our ‘costumes,'" he replied.
"That doesn't make what they are doing to us any less sick or wrong!" She started to walk away.
"Where are you going now, Tifa?"
"I'm going to tell Cloud!"
"I hope for your sake, that he isn't occupied at the moment," said Vincent.
She paused. "Come with me. We'll tell Red."
His steady gaze caught her eye. "Smart woman," he said softly. They headed back into the main part of the city.
Cloud kept one arm wrapped tightly around Daphne and the other right next to his sword.
"Is all this precaution really necessary?" she asked. "I don't see anyone that looks dangerous, and besides, we're the only people I see with real weapons."
He scanned the crowd. (Perhaps I should have told the others about this "convention.") He wrapped his fingers around the PHS, then decided against it. (They would just be angry if they found out...and I don't have the time to deal with that right now. Where is that Derin character, anyway?)
Daphne stopped walking.
"C'mon," he said, trying to pull her forward.
"Cloud, I'm not going to walk into a display. You can if you want, but let go of me first!" She giggled.
He snapped back out of his thoughts. Right in front of him was a re-creation of the lake outside the building... (In the city of the ancients...the building that had the altar...where Aeris was...was butchered!! Damn you, Sephiroth, I'll find you today and avenge Aeris once more!)
Daphne gazed at the display, noting the 3x5 card. "Part I--Display 12. Inside this shell structure, our dear heroine was sacrificed on an altar by the evil nemesis, Sephiroth. Continue on to Part II."(I can only guess at to what this means...) She glanced at Cloud, noticing the pain in his eyes. (...is this the place where I...) She shook her head. (I would swear before now that I never saw this place before in my life. But I know what the inside of that building looks like. In the center, a fish stands guard to a crystal staircase. He will step aside for the Ancient daughter who has the power of Holy...)
Cloud was broken from solemn contemplation and plots of revenge by the clang and clatter of a rod. Daphne had passed out; the sound was her weapon clattering to the ground.
"There's a what taking place in the old Shinra building?!"
"A convention, Red. Something us humans hold occasionally," said Tifa sarcastically.
"I know the meaning of the word, dear Tifa," the lion-like creature muttered. "However," he said, raising his voice, "the thought of one in honor of our accomplishments ever occurring in my lifetime, let alone yours, never crossed my mind." His brow furrowed in thought.
"There is something awry here, Red," said Vincent quietly, "because it appears that there are Shinraphiles among the attendees of this convention."
"Not only that," said Tifa, "but some of the people there like the Shinra."
Vincent supressed a smile. "That is true, Tifa," he said, amused.
"What? This is a serious issue," she said.
"Yes it is," said Red XIII. "Our reincarnated enemy will probably be attracted to this convention. Adorn him or herself as the former persona that was the previous existence. Or the one which is most suited to his or her personality."
"Then this is the best chance to catch the enemy, and off guard, also," said Vincent.
"I shall contact the others. Vincent, you and Tifa should get to the convention at once. I trust you don't need help looking like you belong."
"Hardly," said Vincent.
"Do I look like I belong?" asked Tifa, worried.
Vincent took the opportunity to scan Tifa from head to toe. "You look very...Tifa-like," he said cooly.
"I'm probably not cheesy enough."
"You're cheesiness factor is acceptable, considering the circumstances. Next time we go out, you may have time to enhance it."
She tossed him a curious look. "Next time we go out?" she repeated.
"Unless we kill the enemy today, I'm sure we will be required to go out of doors together at some point. What did you think I meant?"
"Nevermind." Tifa shook her head to get rid of the strange idea that had formed in her head. (Like Vincent Valentine would ask anyone out...before hell froze over.) "See you later, Red," she said, heading out the door.
"Goodbye," said Vincent.
"Vincent," said Red XIII with a concerned tone, "Tifa is fragile. Don't be an insufferable companion. We have enough to deal with."
"She makes for an insufferable companion herself, anyway."
"Still, treat her with a little compassion."
"I am, in my own way. I shall take leave of you now." He walked out the door.
Red XIII sighed and turned on the PHS. (I wish that the humans' personal problems were less of a soap opera. It interferes dreadfully with our duties.)
("The Planet watches over me, the Planet shall guide me, for I am its child and my cries will not be forsaken."
"The Shadow will come, the Meteor will pass within a breadth of the Planet, but the Planet shall overcome the darkness with light. Purity will wash over the vile and the children of the Planet will be baptized in truth, faith, and hope."
"Your prayers are pretty little pieces of drivel, but they cannot save you from your end, they will not save you from my blade."
Aeris looked up from her prayer. "One day you will repent. One day those you have transgressed against will surround you with fire and light and you will burn in your soul. Until then, I will face whatever may come. For if the Planet dies, all here will certainly perish. If I can save others by dying myself, let it be so."
"You can do nothing by dying."
"I can do more in death than you will in either the land of the living or the world beyond."
"Ah...here comes my puppet. You will now learn that you are wrong."
"The Planet watches over me, the Planet shall guide me, for I am its child and my cries will not be forsaken.")
"The Planet watches over me, the Planet shall guide me, for I am its child and my cries will not be forsaken," whispered Daphne. She opened her eyes.
"Are you all right, kiddo?" asked a face with dark eyes and dark hair.
"Zack?" she murmured in confusion.
Derin almost dropped her. "Th...that's my costume," he spit out.
"Cloud?!" She sat up fast, in a panic.
"I'm here," Cloud said. "This nice guy here caught you when you passed out." He cleared his throat. "Wouldn't set you down until you woke up, he told me."
She put a hand to her head and groaned softly. (What was with that dream? And why did I say Zack?) She wasn't the only one confused about her slip of the tongue.
Derin chuckled. "It's okay about the costume thing. I thought no one would recognize me!" His mind was racing though. (Did she recognize me, my costume, because she was semi-conscious? Is it the ghost-like representations of places from her past?)
Cloud looked at her, concerned. "Can you get up, Daph? Should I take you to the doctor?" (How the hell did you know this shady character was supposed to be Zack?!) He felt like smacking himself for letting her fall into the hands, literally, of the person he suspected was their foe.
She slowly got to her feet. "I'll be okay, I think." Giving Cloud a weak smile, she picked up her rod and turned to the man who had been holding her. "Thank you for your kindness--"
"Derin. My name is Derin," he said, taking her hand. "And the pleasure was mine, I assure you. It would have been terrible for a pretty lady such as yourself to crash to the ground in a pile, when I was there to prevent it." Giving her a wink, he asked, "So you are an Aeris fan?"
"Aeris?" she asked, confused. "Oh, not really."
"That costume becomes you, like it's your everyday outfit."
"Thank you, Derin, but when I decided to come here today, Cloud went and chose it for me. He has the keen eye, not I." She smiled at Cloud. "It was a pleasure to meet you Derin, but Cloud and I should probably be on our way."
"Oh? I was going to see if you and Cloud would like to have coffee with me over there in the faux Seventh Heaven across the way."
"I don't think so--" Daphne began.
Cloud interrupted. "Thanks for the invitation."
She gave him a puzzled look.
"I think you ought to sit down for at least a little bit, hon," he said.
Putting a finger to her lips, he lowered his voice to a near whisper. "I can do some people watching there and you can recover a little."
"Okay. Cloud, buy me a mocha, then," she said with a laugh. (I thought Cloud would be jealous. But he wasn't...he's...wonderful.)
Derin started. (I have heard it said a laugh comes from the soul. It must. She laughs with Aeris' voice...the voice of an angel.)
"We're being stared at."
"I find myself often stared at," said Vincent. "I'm surprised this is something new for you."
"What are you implying?" asked Tifa.
Tifa and Vincent were walking through the convention displays, attracting glances from the delegates.
He caught her eye and shrugged. "In my opinion, you are not average. That's all I meant by what I said. I meant no offense."
A group of giggling pre-teen girls shoved their way between the two of them. The girls were all in very skimpy outfits, and had obviously stuffed their shirts to give the appearance of bustiness.
Tifa was visibly bothered. (Are they dressed like...me?) She blinked back a few tears.
"Their outfits don't do you justice."
"Do I...do I..." she stammered. "Vincent, is that what I really look like?"
"I already told you that it is not. Simple exaggeration. I can't wait to see what the portrayals of me look like." But the Vincent costumes were simply vampiric outfits with a fake claw. Nothing offensive there.
Tifa self-consciously ran a hand through her hair. (I didn't think to tie it back...how annoying.) "Everyone's looking at us!" It was a slightly paranoid thought, but she and Vincent were attracting a bit of attention.
"Well, I look weird, Tifa."
"People look at you because you're beautiful. That's nothing to be worried about." He cleared his throat and looked away. "There's Red and the others. I suppose we should go see what the plan is."
Still unnerved by what Vincent had just said to her, Tifa decided she needed some alone time. "I'll be over in a bit, okay? I see something I want to check out." She promptly lost herself in the crowd, without waiting for an answer.
Vincent watched her walk away and slowly turned towards where Red XIII was standing with the rest of the group. (Why do I bother to try and make her feel better? It is love she feels for Strife. I don't even think I love her, so why should I try to ruin that?) His mind argued back and forth. (When I show her attention though, at least she won't feel worthless. Cloud may be blind, but I am not.)
Red XIII growled. "I still think this harness is useless."
Yuffie sighed. "Just because it was my idea."
"I'm not your pet!"
"Of course not, you stubborn furball, but these silly people would go nuts if you just sauntered in here like a human being. Look, we know you're nice and all that, but they'd be scared."
"They are simple fools."
"You do realize that you're agreeing with me, right?"
"Especially the ones dressed as you," he continued sulkily.
"Hmph," she remarked with a pout.
"Grow up," growled Cid as he tossed a cigarette butt on the ground.
Barret nodded. "Yeah, you foo's are irking me something nasty. Now where's all the peeps who dress like me?"
"They must not be here yet," said Yuffie politely. She hurriedly changed the subject. "Oh look, there's Vincent."
"What have you seen so far, Vincent?" asked Red XIII.
"Well," he began, "we saw a bunch of people in really bad costumes. All pretty peppy, no one who looks like a threat. But there are many people, and I learned from the information desk that this convention is a week long."
Yuffie whimpered. "We have to stay here a week?!" she whined.
"We can save the Planet while you go home to your dollies," said Red XIII, "it's purely your choice."
She scowled. "It just seems like a waste of time."
"We can waste time now, as a price to gain the time we want to have in the future. Doesn't that make the choice seem easier?" Vincent was contemplative. "Although it does seem kind of pointless without a slim lead. But we haven't been here very long, either."
"Speaking of ‘we,'" said Barret, "where the hell is Tifa?"
"She went to go check something out before I walked over here. She was rather vague."
Barret was enraged. "You let her go off alone when the evil spirit demon-y thing might be here? What's wrong wit' you?"
Vincent's eyes on Barret were as cold as ice. "She wanted to be alone. Why should I invade her need for privacy? She can take care of herself as well as any of the rest of us." He paused. "Well, except for Yuffie, perhaps."
"Damn you, I heard that!" Yuffie smacked Vincent on the arm.
"Thank you sweetheart," he said sarcastically. "Let's go look around. There's supposed to be a recreation of 7th Heaven here. I always wanted to see that place."
Daphne decided she needed a grande dose of introspection along with her double mocha. She sipped her hot drink carefully, her alert eyes scanning the crowd. (It's useless for me to be a lookout for someone weird. I don't know who half these people are supposed to look like, or even if they do look like who they dressed up as. I'm of no use to Cloud in any way. I'm just a young girl he met in a bar...why does he keep me around?)
As much as she let these thoughts spin around her head, she could not come up with a satisfactory answer to her questions. She only had one end in sight for her trail of thoughts. It was just as curious as the beginning. (Why am I staying with him?)
Cloud glanced over at Daphne to make sure she was all right. (She looks okay...but after that dizzy spell back there... I'm going to watch her like a hawk on its prey! Dammit, I'm going to protect her!) He kind of wondered if he wanted to protect her for her own sake, or more to satiate his guilty conscience for the times he had failed both Tifa and Aeris.
Deep blue eyes scrutinized every convention delegate that passed the coffee stand. (If the Planet were still at peace, we might all be sitting here, critiquing the costumes. It would be rather amusing. But instead, I'm looking for an enemy. I hate my life sometimes.) He indulged himself by letting his gaze glide across the body of a cute little red-head in a Turk outfit. She turned and met his eyes, smiling. Cloud quickly averted his eyes; he did not need a girl coming to hit on him. Especially not when she was a die-hard fan of his past battles, and especially especially not with Daphne sitting there. Not when Don Juan de Sephy was probably sitting next to her on the other side.
(I caught a flash of something in her eyes, though, and it was nothing close to admiration. Closer to hatred, more like malice. How silly...hating me because she's dressed like she was in Shinra!) He scowled into his black coffee. (I despise wannabes.) He wouldn't let his mind go on to admit that it was because he had once been a wannabe himself.
Derin was glad that Daphne wasn't paying any attention to him. It left him free to look at her as much as he wished. He was planning, plotting... (Soon, dearest, I will find a way to jog your memory perfectly. Then you will run into my arms and leave this wannabe behind.) He smiled to himself, and then noticed that Cloud had his eye on something–or rather, on someone. Derin allowed his gaze to follow the invisible trail and it then came to rest on the red-haired woman.
(So she is here.) Derin became lost in thought. If she was attracted to the convention, she might have realized her past already. (Does she recognize us?) He was on the verge of attacking the girl then and there, when her eyes met his. The velvety brown irises reflected a simple, sweet look. Her attitude, in respect to Derin, was as tame as a kitten. However, he was observant enough to catch the malice that rested there while she looked at Cloud. (She knows who Cloud is, but Aeris and I are still cloaked in the disguise of these bodies, thank the Planet.)
He continued to watch his adversary carefully. (She seems to have seen something across the room that interests her.) Indeed, the woman was scrutinizing someone or something near the other end of the large ballroom. Suddenly, she moved towards her point of interest. In that moment, Derin also saw what had kept his target so captivated. (Oh no. She's all alone, and the enemy will–)
Derin jumped up and, without a word to either Daphne or Cloud, he hopped over their table and into the crowds. He ran quickly through the mob in his way, following the path left by his red-haired adversary.
Daphne was startled out of her train of thought. "What was that all about?" she asked Cloud, worried.
His eyes narrowed. He could still see Derin, but not for much longer. (If I want to go after him, this is my only chance; if I don't, he may kill someone. I can't live with that. But...I can't risk Daphne.) "You stay here," he said firmly.
"What?!" Daphne was indignant.
"I have no time to argue. I need to follow him, but I have to make sure you're safe. So stay here. I'll follow Derin." Without another word, he had lost himself in the crowd.
Daphne looked around the ballroom. No familiar faces seemed to greet her; all she could see were caricatures of familiar faces. She pouted and sipped her coffee, hoping against hope that the caffeine would calm her. (Don't panic. Don't panic,) she told herself. Then she saw a flash of red. (...about the right height...) She didn't think another moment, and she ran towards it.
Barret growled. "Didn't any of these peoples ackshully ever see the damn 7th Heaven? Don't look a bit like this piece of–"
He was interrupted as a slender form ran up to Red XIII and enveloped him in a tight embrace.
The entire group was startled, but Vincent was the first to recover. "Does Red have an overzealous fan?"
"No," said the person with her head buried in Red XIII's mane. Then she burst into tears.
This worried Yuffie. She liked to play it cool, and this outpouring of emotions was a bother. "Hey, what's wrong?" She kneeled down next to the girl.
Daphne extracted her face from Red XIII's mane. Her words followed in a rush. "Cloud brought me here to look for an enemy and last night a weird man was in my room, but just a few minutes ago, Cloud ran after something and left me here alone. He was following Derin and I was scared I was going to be here all alone without anybody I knew with all these people dressed like you guys, but then I saw the fur and knew no one could fake that, so I had to follow it and I found...umm...Red."
Yuffie looked perplexed. (How do I help?) She reached out and patted Daphne's hand. (Gotta say something, don't I? I should have stayed up there with Red's leash!) "Umm...it'll be okay? You're with us now." Thus, Daphne's tight hug was transferred from Red XIII to Yuffie. "Ack...honey, I can't breathe over here."
"Sorry." Daphne sheepishly released Yuffie from her clutches. "I don't know what came over me." She did look rather confused.
"Y'all okay over there?" asked Barret.
The poor craftsmanship of the coffee stand finally dawned on Cid. "This piece of shit looks like a hunk of garbage," he remarked.
"Not to be critical, Cid," said Yuffie, "but ‘hunk of garbage' would be a complimentary description of a piece of doo-doo. Doo-doo head!"
"I thought you were sixteen, not six," muttered Red XIII.
"And I thought you weren't going to talk inside the convention, ‘cause it would give you away," she retorted. "Dumb-ass."
"Who are you calling dumb-ass, ignoramus?!"
"Would you children stop the bickering?" snapped Vincent. "Daphne has been nice enough to tell us that Cloud just ran after what might be our enemy, and you guys are hurling insults, which you can do any day. Our enemy is here now. I think that makes the matter a little more important than Yuffie and Red's annoying teenager aspects."
This put a slight hush over the group. Daphne's eyes were on Vincent, in awe. (Wow, he can make even this bunch listen to him.)
Vincent became aware that a pair of violet eyes were fixed on him. (Well, this certainly adds pressure to things.) He made himself meet them with his own. He gave Daphne a little smile. "Which way did Cloud go?"
"Well, pointing isn't very specific. I guess I will just have to lead the way." She picked up her rod. "That is, if you guys can forgive me for my hysterics." She winked at Red XIII.
Red XIII laughed. "Of course."
"You know Red, you really should keep it down," said Vincent, "pretending not to be the real Avalanche and all." He then looked back to Daphne, but the moment had passed.
Tossing her coffee cup in the trash, she made a gesture towards an exit. "C'mon guys, this way."
They made their way quickly to the door. However, when the sounds of battle met their ears at the exit, they rushed out into the evening air quicker than quick.
Tifa had decided that the convention was definitely not the place for her. At least, it wasn't while she was dressed the way she was. So, she thought it would ultimately be the best decision if she changed out of her battle gear and into some casual wear.
(I am not some slutty girl walking around with my breasts hanging out. I wear what I wear to fight easily. It has nothing to do with sex.) She thought for a bit and laid a hand on her chest. (I suppose a sports bra really wouldn't hurt anything, though.) She had made up her mind. She turned and walked towards the nearest exit she could find. (I have jeans and other casual things in my room at the inn. I'll come back here in a better state of mind.)
When Tifa was out of the old Shinra building and on the street, she paused to look around and figure out where she was. There was no chance that she was lost; she knew Junon like the back of her hand. She only needed to find a street sign so she would know the way she should walk to reach the inn.
Suddenly, she was jumped from behind. In her surprise, Tifa lost her balance and slipped to the hard asphalt. (Oh shit, not now.) She twisted around with a jerk and catapulted her opponent off of her with a trick move, involving her feet making contact with the enemy's midsection.
Tifa sprang up from the ground and cautiously approached her attacker, who was lying in a heap on the other side of the street. Her eyes widened in surprise at what she saw. (A little red-headed woman?)
The woman sat up and glared at Tifa with a piercing amount of viciousness. Her eyes became aglow suddenly, and the woman held out her arms in a ritualistic motion. "Tornado," she whispered.
Tifa felt her body tossed up high into the air like it was as light as a feather. But the swirling fury of the winds threw her around in a dizzying spiral, and before she knew it, she was hurtling towards the ground. (This is going to hurt. Bad!) The only precaution she could make was to pray that her body stayed limp, so it could absorb the shock of the impact a little more easily.
"I should have known you'd be here," a male voice said angrily.
The woman tossed her head. "Who are you to meddle in my affairs?" she asked haughtily. "I'm just settling a score here. This is none of your business."
The man was tall, and his dark eyes were full of fury. "The harm you do is my business. After what you did to me!" He ran towards the woman, prepared to fight to the death.
The woman laughed, and waved an arm, eyes glowing once more. "Wall," she announced.
Before the word was even finished, Derin uttered one of his own. His eyes flashed as he cast Dispel. "I'm not a little order follower this time. I do things my way now."
Tifa moaned. It felt like every bone in her body was broken. She slowly sat up and looked at the materia in her gloves. Everything would be all right if she could just will the strength to cast...
Derin's eyes flashed, and he whispered "Regen" so softly no one realized he said it. (I can sense her pride would be wounded if I cured her myself...so I'll just give her a little bit to do her own work.)
Feeling a little bit stronger, Tifa stretched out her arms and let the energy flow from the crystal into her body. "Full-cure!" she said, the word gaining intensity even as she said it. Swirls of light surrounded her body and she sprang up lightly from the ground. She didn't know if she trusted the man who had saved her, but she prepared to battle alongside him anyway, for the moment at least.
"If you know who I am, foolish boy," said the woman, "you know your piddly magic spells are futile against my innate powers." She tossed an arm lightly in the air and stepped back from them slightly. A red glow began to seep into the air around Derin and Tifa–the atmosphere became almost electric–until the woman started to become hazy.
"No!" He realized all too late what the woman meant to do.
"Oh yes, fools!" Her eyes glowed with an almost blinding intensity. Tifa shielded her eyes from them almost as one would shield them from the sun. Then the woman began to finish the casting she had started. "Ultimate En–"
She was interrupted as a dark-haired man attacked her, jumping down from above. He slashed at the woman many times with a long, thin sword.
Tifa looked at this new person, thinking to herself that both the man and his weapon were hauntingly familiar. (Something about the eyes...the hair...the goatee...)
Derin watched this attack with a careful eye, debating in his mind between facts he knew and possibilities that might have come to pass. (Could this be...)
The red-haired woman glanced between her three enemies. She was warding off the blows of the swordsman, but not for long. Casting a withering eye upon Tifa, she allowed herself one more spell. "Death Sentence," she cried out, before fleeing into the heart of the city, with the swordsman in hot pursuit.
Tifa was instantly shrouded in a dark smoke that was visible only to her. She began coughing in a fit, knowing she didn't have long before the magic worked completely and she became comatose.
Derin looked over at her, with concern. He saw her strength dwindling and looked at the materia he was wearing. (How foolish of me to leave my Heal at the inn...but I had to limit what I brought. Not much can be stored in a Buster Sword.) He searched his pockets but found his items were limited to a couple potions and some Sylkis greens. He looked one more time at his materia in despair. He had two Command materia. (One is Steal, the other is...)
Closing her eyes as the darkness was about to overtake her, Tifa was suddenly aware of a voice calling out into the dusky air. Clear and bright, she heard the two most beautiful words that she had heard in a long time...
Cloud had lost Derin. (Dammit, dammit, dammit!) He decided that he just went out the wrong exit. (If I haul ass around the side of the building, I should be able to find where Derin went.) He winced as he rounded a corner and sounds of battle and spells came to his ears.
All of a sudden, a red-headed woman tore by, with a swordsman in hot pursuit. Cloud debated with himself for a few seconds whether or not to help her. Then he heard a scream of "Ice2" and the man cursing in pain. (No matter if they're playing or not, neither one sounds helpless, so I have no side to join.)
He ran quickly in the direction from which they had come. He saw a flash up ahead as a spell was cast, and further up the road... (Derin. There you are, you bastard. Hmm, he's kneeling over someone.) Cloud drew his sword and slowly walked up to them. (Wait a minute. That's...that's...)
Tifa looked into Derin's eyes. (I don't know who this guy is, but...he saved me. At least twice over.) "Thank you," she said softly. "Who are–" She was interrupted by a furious cry.
"Tifa! Get away from her you lying bastard!" Cloud ran up to Derin and swung at him with the Ultima Weapon.
Derin was barely able to raise his Buster Sword in time to block the violent swing. "Calm down, buddy," he said.
"Calm down? You are attacking one of my friends!" He withdrew his sword and prepared to lay another blow. "Prepare to pay for what you're doing in this life and what you've done in your past one."
Tifa jumped in front of him. The point of the blade was only a breadth from her chest. "First of all, Mr. Heroic," she spit out sarcastically, "where do you get off calling me one of your friends?"
"Get out of the way," growled Cloud, inching forward a bit.
She leaned back a bit to try to wriggle away from the sword tip, which had actually pierced the cloth of her shirt. (This is a very uncomfortable situation) she mused to herself.
Daphne peered out into the street. Dusk was upon them, and soon the only light they would have would be that of the streetlights. She glanced around. (Where did he go?)
Red XIII stepped beside her and pricked up his ears. Puzzled, he raised his nose to the air and sniffed as a light breeze passed the group by. (What the–?) The scents that had been carried to him were extremely confusing. But there was no time to ponder them, if Cloud was possibly fighting their enemy.
"Can you see, hear, or smell anything, Reddie?" asked Yuffie impatiently.
He narrowed his eyes and gestured with his head. "Cloud is down that street over there. I hear angry voices. A few battle noises."
The group was startled as a red-haired woman ran past them. She seemed not to notice the group and whispered a few words. Her body turned to mist and she simply disappeared.
A man ran up in hot pursuit, breathing heavily. He looked straight at them. "Where did she go?"
"Man, she just disappeared," said Cid with a touch of disinterest.
Barret gave the guy a strange look. "Reeve?! What in the hell?"
"We don't have time for that," said Vincent. "We need to go to Cloud."
Reeve glanced at the group and sheathed his sword. With a small shake of his head, he asked if he could go with them.
Red XIII looked him over. "You might as well. I have a few questions to ask you about that woman after our current issue is settled. She smelled...odd to me."
Nodding in response, he replied. "I would think she would."
Daphne looked at Red XIII. "Let's go find Cloud," she said softly.
He nodded and began following Cloud's scent. "This way."
"Get out of the way, and he'll pay for hurting you."
Tifa laughed. "He'll pay for hurting me? Who refuses to acknowledge my feelings? Who parades a little slut in front of my face?" A tear rolled down her cheek, which she brushed away in scorn. (Damn me for being weak.)
Red XIII walked up and was startled by the scene in front of him. Cloud, with his sword drawn, seemingly aimed at Tifa. She was crying, and she was still pale from the Death Sentence spell.
Daphne was following behind him, stopping as he stopped. (What is Cloud doing? Aiming at Tifa.... And there's Derin!)
The rest of the group came up behind the two and was just as surprised at the sight. There was too much surprise for any one of them to even make a sound. They just watched the events playing out, like a movie.
Cloud pressed on, even closer. "Tifa," he said softly. Every cadence of his voice seemed to shout a warning, which fell on deaf ears.
She looked at him hauntingly. As she leaned forward suddenly, the material of her shirt was slashed completely across the front. But she stood there, bare. "He was there to save me. And you're poking me with your damn sword." Ever word she uttered ached with a spiteful poison.
The spell of the scene was unlocked as Daphne rushed forward between the two. "Here," she said to Tifa, pulling off the sweater from her costume.
Tifa accepted the offer silently, pulling it on, fastening the buttons, and glaring at Cloud all the while. She glanced at Daphne. A passage of forgiveness, however brief, was placed in her heart for the violet-eyed girl. "Maybe now I can have the chance to thank you for saving my life." She turned to Derin.
"I only did what I had to do," he said, not without kindness. His eyes, however, were fixed on Daphne.
A bit of realization struck her...
"Why'd you do it, Rissy?" asked Zack. "Wait there for Sephiroth on the altar?"
Aeris sighed, pulling her silvery gown around her. "I only did what I had to do."
"Had to do? There's a thing called ‘free will.' Eldor seems to live off of it. ‘Human free will is the path to salvation, blah blah blah...'" He flashed a mischievous smile at Aeris.
(Even in a higher plane, when we're all supposed to have unclouded knowledge...he's still Zack.) She giggled. "Perhaps humans do. You're forgetting I'm an Ancient."
"No I'm not. I was just poking fun at you. I know that your sacrifice was what you had to do. You wanna know why?"
"Oh why, genius Zackie?" Her green eyes sparkled.
His voice was serious, and his eyes on her were... Aeris shivered. She had to admit, this unadulterated love still gave her the tingles. (Damn the cloudiness of mortality, no matter how irreverent the thought is. All this, here, is pure beauty.)
Zack continued. "...if you didn't do that, you wouldn't be Aeris. Rissy, love, you had to do it because you are you. No other reason."
"I would go back just to do it again, too," she said with a grave certainty.
Zack looked into her eyes. "If you ever do..." He paused to kiss her on the cheek. "...I promise you this. I'll come with you. I'll find you there no matter what clouds us from our truth. Because then, I'll be doing the only thing I have to do."
"You wouldn't have to..."
"Aeris. I'd only be doing what I had to do..."
Daphne looked at Derin, half-frightened. "What...?"
He gazed back at her. (I can see she remembers...oh, for the sake of the Planet, she's got to remember!) He walked up to her and took her hand. "Do you remember now?"
She met his eyes in bewilderment. "But...I...and...you..."
He nodded. "It's not complicated. Just close your eyes. Tell me who you are."
Daphne closed her eyes and allowed the images that had been haunting her for the past few weeks flood her brain again. When she opened them again, they seemed alight with an intense knowledge.
"I am Aeris."
Part 3- The Meaning Divided by the Shadow
"No!" Cloud stepped between Derin and Daphne. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he shook her. "How's he got you brainwashed?"
Derin laid a hand on Cloud's arm. "I've done nothing to her but help her remember."
"Remember?" Cloud trembled. "She can't remember things she never knew."
Daphne met Cloud's eye. "You are right about that. So what if I do remember things that only Aeris could have known?"
"He put them in your head, then."
"Now how the hell would I do that." Derin shook his head.
"You tell me!"
Red XIII stepped forward. "Cloud. If Daphne says she remembers things about Aeris, maybe you should be open to–"
"I don't remember things about her," Daphne said, "I remember everything. I am her."
The only response she met was eight pairs of doubting eyes.
"Cloud," she said desperately, "I told you my payment for your bodyguard duties would be going out with you once...Tifa, I told you never to call me ‘Ms. Aeris,' and Barret, I told you that Marlene was safe. Even though I knew Tseng was going to hit me."
The three of them were stunned, but remained silent.
Red XIII started at the sound of his birth name. (We never told Daphne what my real name was...how...?)
"The reason why I was afraid of you outside of my apartment is I partially remembered how Hojo shut us up in that cell together...he raised you up on an elevator." She glanced around. "Should I continue?"
Cid lit a cigarette and took a long drag. "Say something about me."
"When we were flying the Tiny Bronco and Shinra shot us down, you told us to ‘hold on to your drawers and don't piss in ‘em.'"
For maybe the first time in his life, Cid Highwind actually looked meek. He looked at the raven-haired girl in awe.
"Yuffie," she said softly, "I was so sorry for you. Sorry that you had to go down to the altar with Cloud that day. I know you cried every night for weeks. I just wanted to give you a big hug and tell you everything was going to be all right."
"You could see that?" Yuffie whispered.
Daphne nodded. "I watched you all. I had to make sure that everything was going to work out after my sacrifice."
Vincent was silent.
"Oh, I forgot to mention you," she said with a toss of her long hair. "I remember you too. How you went back into your coffin like a big grouch after we told you we were hunting Sephiroth."
He looked at her and raised an eyebrow.
"And then only going with us so you could beat on Hojo! Geez...." She smiled. "Not that he didn't deserve it, but I would hope you answered to a higher obligation than revenge."
"I'm here now, aren't I?"
"Yes." Daphne's eyes sparkled. "I'm so proud...of...all of you. Still hard at work, protecting the Planet, even when you've earned a retirement."
"How ‘bout you?" asked Barret. "You paid a higher price than all a' us. Yet...you're back... how?"
Derin smiled. "There are many souls who are weary of life. The powers-that-be don't feel too badly in letting them trade their bodies for peace. Then protectors are sent in place of the weary souls. More life insurance for the Planet."
"How do you know all of this?" Cloud glared at him with an almost inhuman amount of viciousness.
"Haven't you guessed?" he asked, amused.
Cloud just narrowed his eyes.
Daphne placed her hand softly on Cloud's shoulder. "That's Zack."
Cloud just turned on his heel and slowly walked away from the group, disappearing in the darkness.
"I suppose the revelation was quite startling," said Derin. The entire group, still sans Cloud, was gathered at Red XIII's rooftop observatory.
"That still leaves him little excuse for abandoning us," remarked Vincent. "After learning that Aeris was standing there with us, I expected to learn that Sephiroth was here, too."
Derin was oddly silent.
"I keep getting the feeling that you know more about all of this mess than you are willing to let on."
"I was...advised, before my passage back to this Planet, that I was not to give the solutions to questions, but to guide others to the answers."
"What does that mean?"
"Well...it seems that I'm more like insurance than anything. The Masters in the Promised Land expected that you all should be able to solve these problems. I'm here ‘just in case.' I didn't really have a role in all of this."
"No role?" Red XIII furrowed his brow. "Then why were you allowed to return here?"
"I made a promise once to someone very special," Derin said softly, "and in the Promised Land, promises are never broken. Because of this, the Masters understand that sometimes allowances must be made in their plans." He glanced at Daphne, wondering how slowly her memories were returning to her.
Daphne was quiet because all this talk about promises had indeed brought a memory back to her...
("I want to meet the ‘real you,' Cloud," Aeris whispered.)
Cloud started from his dream. Aeris had been dead for three months. In some ways, it had seemed like three seconds; the images of her were burned so deeply into his memory. (But other times it seems like three centuries. That she was gone, long gone before I ever got a chance to do the things I wanted. Say what I wanted to say. I was so stupid then, still lost in my delusions. She probably just saw how I acted like Zack and cared for the Zack-like parts of me...)
He lay awake a long time, thinking bitterly. Eventually he found he was able to close his eyes and drift back into the land of slumber and thoughtless wandering.
Aeris glanced up from the pool where she had viewed this scene. True, the Promised Land was lovely, but she was compelled to check in on her friends as often as the Masters would allow. She knew they sometimes wondered at her attachment to the material world.
(They don't understand. I was so close to the spiritual when I was alive... That I am still close to the tangible while I am only a spirit myself.)
She was held in great reverence by the Masters, and they even allowed her to visit the dreams of her friends. (After I argued my case by showing them Yuffie's grief, they said I could come to them, but only in dreams. I would go to ease their pain as well as my own. The Masters thought I would soon let go. But I swear, I won't. Not now, not next week, not ever... As long as my friends live, I will watch them and visit them.)
Aeris descended down into Cloud's dream...
("Aeris, where are you?" Cloud cried. He was wandering down a dark trail in a forest in the middle of the night. The only thing that guided him was a glimpse of pink ribbon now and again.
Suddenly, in front of him, walking softly, was a maidenly form. Clothed in all silver, the girl stepped out of the trees. The air around her sparkled; she seemed to be giving off her own radiance. Her green eyes glittered with unshed tears. "Cloud, you have to stop doing this to yourself."
"I can bring you back with me," he whispered. "Just let me find a way."
"That wouldn't be right. I did what I had to do. This was my part. We all wanted to save the Planet; this was my way."
"No." A tear traced a path down his cheek. "I had so much to tell you. Show you who I really am down inside. Prove to you that I was worthy of you, and not just some Zack wannabe."
"What about Tifa?" Aeris asked diplomatically.
Cloud stood silent for awhile. "She means a lot to me. But, I doubt I can get over the hurt from when I got blamed for the bad things in her life. Back when we were small."
"She cares for you deeply. What if you cause bad things for her now?"
"I'll try not to." He suddenly looked at her, locking his eyes onto hers. Blue eyes met green; both were filled with pain and grieving.
Aeris broke eye contact first. "Neither one of us needs to regret what could have been."
"How about what should have been?" Cloud asked with sudden insight.
Aeris had come to soothe him. He, in turn, had led her to question herself, and the powers that reigned over her. "I don't know."
"I'll promise to live and let live, if you just give me one bit of hope, swear to me..." he began.
"If you ever come back, if there's a way for me to see you...that you'll give me a chance to be to you what I should have been to you on that altar."
"Give me one thing to hope for. I could live to be a hundred years old, and if you give me that, I'll have one reason to breathe if nothing else."
"I promise you Cloud," said Aeris, "that if we ever meet again..." But she could not bear it any longer. She turned and fled back down the dark path into the forest.)
That was the last time Aeris visited a dream, any dream. She finished the promise in her own head, back in the Promised Land. (I promise you Cloud. If I find a way back...I'll tell you how I feel about you. Let you have your say. Then maybe we can both have peace.)
The next time she met with a Master, she met with Eldor. She had a few questions to ask him.
Cloud decided that he was never going to go into a bar again. (All that I ever find are girls who are all too willing to hit on me.) He prepared to give the owner of that feminine voice the most scathing look he could muster. Then he recognized her.
"What?" she asked with innocent eyes, noticing how his eyes were studying her. "Do I have something caught in my teeth?"
"Nah," he replied quickly. (Too quickly) he thought to himself. (What's the problem, Strife? You've got nothing to prove to her.) He regained his composure. "I recognized you from outside the convention, that's all."
"Oh really!" she breathed.
(Her face lit up like someone had turned a lamp on inside her skull.) Cloud allowed himself a smile. "That's right. You were, uh ‘battling' some guy with a Masamune, I believe."
The red-headed girl was quite animated at this point. "You actually noticed that? Wow. Cloud Strife noticed me casting a little ol' Ice spell." She leaned closer and batted eyelashes over her gray eyes. "I'm sure you have a lot more in your repertoire that you could show me."
He met her eyes, which held a question deep within them. Studying her face, he wondered what she wanted him to say. "Uhh... You have me at a disadvantage," he muttered. "What is your name?"
"Jen Nova." The girl burst into giggles. "Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Nova is my last name, oddly enough though. My name is Kayley Nova."
"Are you from Junon?" asked Cloud politely.
"No," she said with a light twist to her voice. She met his eyes and then slowly smoothed the jacket of her costume.
He noticed that she wasn't wearing a blouse with the outfit, and the girl had also bent over ever so slightly–with the full intent of giving him an eyeful of cleavage.
"I'm staying at a hotel across the street." Kayley rested a hand on his arm and leaned over so she was speaking softly into his ear. "I have a nice bottle of wine up there. It's a lot cheaper than the watery beer here."
"Oh really," Cloud managed to get out. (There is something about this girl, either her eyes or...goddammit, her brand of shampoo.) He had let his eyes close when she got near, and he felt intoxicated by the scent of...this woman.
She let her lips brush his ear ever so slightly before she withdrew. Noticing the response her invitation had managed to elicit from the taciturn hero, she decided to get an answer. "So, want to have a drink and chill out? I promise I won't bite," she purred.
Cloud was unsure of his responses, how he ought to respond. The military and mercenary work hadn't really prepared him for dealings with the fairer sex, which previously had been limited to Tifa, Aeris, and Yuffie. (And Daphne...who is Aeris...) He was still confused over everything.
"I'm waiting for an answer." Kayley pouted.
(She came back with Zack! I don't owe her a thing.) His mind was made up in the heat of the moment and without a bit of afterthought.
Kayley led her prey across the street, up three flights of stairs, and into her bed.
"Only one question remains," said Vincent.
"One?!" Yuffie scratched her head. "How do you come up with that?"
"Simple math. You should try it," growled Red XIII.
She stuck her tongue out. "You red beast. I don't understand how he can say ‘only one question remains'! Why is Aeris back? Who is the enemy? Where is Cloud? What is Reeve doing here? Who's that red-headed disappear-y lady? Why did Cloud cut off Tifa's clothes?"
"She has a point," said Cid, "and I have a few more to add once her lil' mouth gets tired of jabbering."
"Why you so crabby?" Yuffie sniffled.
"Nicotine withdrawal," muttered Red XIII.
Yuffie muffled a snicker and the rest of the group found it hard not to crack a smile.
"I heard that." Cid smirked. "Believe me, if I was in withdrawal, you wouldn't be smiling that cocky smile right now. If you did, I would slap it clear into Reeve's lap."
"Which brings us back to the beginning." Vincent smiled. "Reeve, what were you doing when our paths crossed yours?"
"I could take your question literally, but Cid's not in too good of a mood right now, and I like the present location of my mouth. I'm sure Derin can corroborate when I say that red-headed woman is a force to be reckoned with. To make a long story short, I was reckoning with her."
"She didn't look so tuff," said Barret.
"Well, she attacked me from behind, cast Tornado on me, then cast Death Sentence on me." Tifa looked at her old friend. "Knowing how I fight, what's your opinion of her now?"
He looked stunned. "Well, I dunno Tifa," he said slowly. "Except that I told Vincent that he shouldn't have let ya go off all by you'self." Barret threw a vicious glare in the direction of the gunman.
"Barret. Vincent was kind enough to take leave of me when I asked." She smiled warmly at Vincent. (He can be so kind sometimes. An odd contrast to his cold exterior.) "Besides, technically, I was attacked outside the convention. Who'da thunk it? Besides, Derin came along to save me."
Derin met her eyes and smiled. "I saw that woman follow Tifa out the door and I knew that it was our enemy. I had seen the way she looked at Cloud while we were sitting at the coffee shop. I thought, ‘okay, she has it in for him. How odd.' But when she started an active pursuit, there was no time to be lost."
"And he saved the day," finished Daphne softly.
"No, Rissy," he said firmly. "That bitch was about to cast some summon called ‘Ultimate End' on us–"
Yuffie jumped up. "Knights of the Round?! But we have the only orb for that!" She checked her pockets. "Where'd it go?"
"I have it," said Vincent quietly. "So hush."
"But how would witch lady have it?"
"Remember the Master Materia?" asked Red XIII. "We have two Knights of the Round, since we have the Master Materia, but haven't mastered the red orb. This woman might be carrying pieces of Huge Materia, though I have no idea how she could have gotten any."
"It would explain how she would be able to do so many attacks," said Daphne. "Tifa had Tornado and Death Sentence on her, almost had Knights...and we saw her vanish from Reeve before our very eyes. I bet she used Exit."
"Speaking of Reeve, what were you saying, Derin?" asked Vincent.
"I was saying...that as Tifa and I were about to be chopped up into hamburger by King Arthur and his men, Reeve just jumped onto this woman and started hacking her to bits with the Masamune."
This revelation put the group in shock. "The Masamune?!"
Reeve drew his sword, in answer. "Yep, the Masamune."
Kayley looked down at the blond man lying in bed next to her with a mixture of contempt and loathing. (You are a fool, boy. Nothing more than a simple fool. I will manipulate you into doing the things I wish. In return, you'll receive something you believe is emotional fulfillment.)
She knew once she reached Gaia's Cliff, and she had climbed to the rift in the Planet where the Lifestream flowed freely, that she would dispose of Cloud. (I will return to power and glory before this poor boy's eyes. By the time he realizes what he has done, he will become either my first puppet or my first sacrifice. It's so hard to decide.)
There was a strange pang of emotion within her. Kayley sighed. She despised this new incarnation, hoping with the core of her being that full contact with the Lifestream would not only fully restore her powers, but also free her of this annoying human feeling of remorse. As could be expected, the enigma living within the body of a pretty young woman was also in possession of the memories of that woman. A blessing or curse, depending on whether it was well suited to motives.
Remembering how to be a sweet innocent girl was helpful for the poisonous beast residing within; however, remembering a first kiss, Kayley's mother, or watching Sephiroth stab another secretary within the Shinra building was a burden. The soul inside Kayley couldn't help but wonder if that one deed of Sephiroth's was wrong.
(No! It is one thing to reek of humanity, while being trapped inside the prison of a human body. Yet, another thing entirely to let humanity breed inside oneself. Once I enter the Lifestream and find myself...I'll tear this body limb from limb. Free myself from this loath and vile instrument. For that's all a human is. An instrument for my own wishes.)
She looked upon Cloud's face. It was peaceful as he slipped away into sleep. The night had grown old and daylight had begun to peek from the mountaintops. Rays of light surrounded the area where he lay and she could not help but reach a hand out to caress his face. Already, a change had taken place in her. She wanted to keep him.
(Perhaps...tool is an incorrect word here. Humans feel things, and they are smart enough to shelter themselves from the weather and light fires when they feel a chill in their body. They fight a quick seizure of control, yet are too blind to see their natural rights slowly slip away. Natural rights? Ha! That is a concept conceived by foolish dreamers.
Maybe I should keep him as a pet. For as long as I'm in this body, at least, he can give me pleasure. This body enjoys when he smiles at it. I do enjoy receiving compliments on the appearance of my prison; I chose a pretty one because I could.
And as for afterwards...I could see if this human pleasure could be transferred to my original form. I will control this child, anyway. I can make him do the things he did to me tonight. Make him relive this night over and over again.)
She couldn't help but wonder at the sinking feeling within her heart as she contemplated these things. Then Kayley came to a startling realization. She wanted Cloud to make love to her from his own will, as he had that night. At that moment, she also realized he only had slept with her because of stress.
Her eyes were alight with an internal flame. She cast a Sleep spell over Cloud to make sure he did not stir, and she quickly put on some clothes. As cold as ice, her gaze rested back down on his face. (No more fool thoughts. The only things that matters is this mission. His foolish friends will not raise a hand to me while I am in his company. He will lead me to what I need.)
She slapped his face as hard as she could without breaking the spell. (Then I will dispose of him. I have no use for such an inferior specimen. He can never lead, only follow. It will be a mercy killing...but why do I care about mercy?)
Kayley spent the early morning as silent as stone. The only thoughts she allowed to cross her mind were thoughts about her mission; it would begin when Cloud awoke.
Tifa's martial arts training had long insisted on her body awakening at the break of dawn. No matter how hard she attempted to shake this habit off, she found herself always losing her extra couple hours of sleep to an ingrained memory. (Damn training.)
She walked down to the lobby of the Junon inn, wondering if there was any chance in hell that a continental breakfast would be set out so early. (I want a bagel. With cream cheese. And then some donuts and coffee. If there are any hard-boiled eggs, I'm gonna eat a bunch. So there, body!) She suppressed a giggle at her bizarre thoughts.
"I suppose if there was any person who would giggle at this ungodly hour, it would be you, Tifa."
Startled, she jumped around and met the amused glance of Vincent. He was holding a glass of some sort of red liquid and had made himself comfortable on the loveseat, facing a television. The screen was black, though. Raising an eyebrow, he patted the seat cushion next to him.
"Won't you? Nothing's on, anyway."
Tifa attempted to suppress all feelings of surprise, both at the fact that Vincent was just sitting on a couch in a hotel lobby, and also that he was patting a couch cushion and inviting her to sit down. She gingerly sat down at the opposite end, still leaving hardly any room between them. The word "loveseat" is not a misnomer.
"You seem suddenly quiet. I haven't bothered you, have I?" He sipped his red beverage thoughtfully. "Would you like a drink or something?"
"What do you have there?" she asked cautiously.
"Blood." Then suddenly, a smile cracked his somber features. "No. I just wanted to see your reaction."
Tifa smiled. "I didn't believe you!"
"Cranberry juice and vodka, which is probably more surprising to you." He shrugged. "Throwback to my Turk days, I suppose. The bar's about to close though, so if you want anything..."
"Nah. I'd just complain about the skill of their bartending."
"I suppose you would. You were probably the best Midgar had ever seen."
"Hmm?" She gave him an inquisitive glance.
He shifted his weight and became seemingly closer to her. "I just pick up the perfectionist vibes in you. I doubt you can help it. You're awake because ‘wake up at dawn' has been engraved on the inside of your skull."
He stared at her in wonderment, then actually let a little laugh escape from his lips.
"So that is your reaction."
"You were testing me?" Vincent was surprised.
"You're not the only one who can be a silent observer on human nature." Tifa paused. "No, that's wrong. No one can sit back and just be an observer. No matter how hard they try."
"You really think so?"
She stood up. "You can sit here and watch life through a little window you allow yourself. That's one choice. There's another one, though. Participating in life instead of letting it stream by." Her eyes were off on some introspective tangent, but eventually returned to Vincent. "Anyway, the discipline smushed into my brain tells me I need to find that granola bar I stashed in my backpack. Just in case I might faint before breakfast without it. See you later, Vincent."
Daphne sat in her room that morning with a feeling of dread that just wouldn't go away. She was still in the hotel room she had been sharing with Cloud. There was one problem, however. ("Sharing" a room with someone usually means that they actually are in the room, too...
(Cloud never came back last night. I knew he was upset with me...but I waited so long for him to go back. He could've come back and kicked me out or whatever, but he has no right to make me worry so much.) She sighed. (I haven't been this worried about him since the day I died. Since the time he almost stabbed me. I have to wonder sometimes if he's in complete control of himself. I know that Tifa and Cloud supposedly found each other in the Lifestream...but...
(The endless searching for Sephiroth, the endless searching for me...I think through it all, Cloud was really searching for himself. Just like he said he wanted to prove to me that he was more than just a wannabe version of Zack...when the thing he really needs to do is prove that to himself. Maybe he can't do that with Zack back here, but he can't really help that now.)
She grabbed a pair of black pants and a pink shirt. (I hope he soon reappears, if just to let us know he's okay.)
"You were sure asleep long enough."
Cloud looked up at his companion from the previous night. "Whatever. I had a long day yesterday." He shook his head, trying to detach himself from his actions. It didn't quite work.
"Are you just going to leave me now?" Kayley pouted.
"I'm really sorry," he said, disinterested, "but I do have pressing business here in Junon." (Just the news that someone I cared deeply for is back from the dead, along with her ex-boyfriend. The person I emulated, and the person she's probably truly in love with.)
"Can I come along?"
"No. Sorry. It's private business." He looked at the disappointed girl. "Personal problems."
"You would think from the way it was last night, I'd understand ‘personal' problems," she retorted.
Annoyed, he turned and glared at her as he attempted to put his pants back on. "Look. In case you haven't figured it out, you were a one-night stand. Sorry. It's not really my style, but I couldn't help myself. You asked me if I wanted it."
Kayley appraised him with cold eyes. "I just need a ride somewhere. Could you arrange that, in return for my supposed favor to you?"
(Even for me, the "fuck-and-runs" get fucked up royally.) "I got a connection at the airport; I'll see what I can do." Cloud narrowed his eyes at her. "You come with me now, you get your lift, and you're going to leave me alone, right?"
She smirked. (I'll let you think that.) "Sure. Unless we made ‘Cloud Junior' last night."
(What a bitch!) "I hope to whatever god there is we didn't. He might take after you, and that would suck royally."
Inside, Kayley steamed. (Even if I don't kill you painfully, you will pay for that comment. For an excruciatingly long period of time.)
Derin had met Daphne at the hotel for the walk back to Red XIII's observatory. The meeting was going to be a discussion of how to go about searching for the mysterious red-headed woman. They all had decided late last night that there was no possible way she would have been stupid enough to stay in Junon after her deflected attack of Tifa.
She smiled to herself as she walked along the familiar street, remembering the conversation with Reeve.
"Yep, the Masamune."
Barret looked at him cautiously. "Can y'all be so kind as to tell us what th' hell you's doing with that thing?"
Reeve smiled. "Of course. I got sick of the stuffed cat."
"Umm, pardon me," said Red XIII. "You're not the newest avatar of Sephiroth, are you Reeve?"
"Certainly not. I like my life now. I got to take over the company, shut down the three largest Mako reactors, and set up three test plants. One is solar, one is thermal, and one is hydroelectric. The most productive one will be used to replace the rest of the Mako reactors."
"Maybe you don't understand us, Reeve," said Tifa. "What the hell do you have Sephiroth's sword for?"
"In case you didn't notice the cape," he replied sarcastically, "Sephiroth is my costume."
The sound of multiple people slapping their foreheads could be heard down on the street.
"This is," he continued, "a real Masamune though. For some reason, Rufus hung up the sword that was left in his father's body, up in his office. Which I inherited. I took it with me, and boy, it came in handy, didn't it..." His sentence trailed off, and he looked at Derin. "Should I call you Derin or Zack?"
There was a moment of deep thought before he responded. "Let's just go with Derin. That's what all my I.D.'s say, and no one here besides Cloud or Rissy knew me in my previous life, anyway."
Daphne raised an eyebrow. "Then why don't you call me Daphne?" she teased.
"Well he knew that you were Aeris for a long damn time," said Yuffie. "We're just all confused, so we call you Daphne still. Wait until we get used to the idea enough, and we get mixed up and call you ‘Daph-ris.'"
She wrinkled her nose. "Ew. That sounds like a disease." She turned to the group as a whole. "You can call me anything you want, just make sure it's one name by itself, and not a disgusting combo."
"Sure thing, Araphne," said Cid.
He had to dodge many rolled up pieces of paper as they were tossed at his head. "Hey!"
"Hey is right," said Red XIII. "How am I supposed to solve any problems if you throw my notes at Cid!"
So even after Cloud's disappearance, the night had ended on a slightly positive note. The entire group had been reunited–almost.
Daphne and Derin made their way up to the roof; they were the last ones to arrive. "We can finally begin," said Red XIII. "Our main pressing point of interest is how to locate our new adversary."
"Maybe we should split up," suggested Vincent.
The conversation stopped as they heard someone walking up the stairs to join them. They all looked up and were very surprised. Extremely surprised.
"Hi guys," said Cloud. Following close behind him was the red-headed woman.
Everyone jumped up from where they were seated and took on a defensive stance.
"What's the problem?" Cloud looked bewildered.
"That's the person who attacked me last night!" shouted Tifa.
Cloud glanced at his companion, who had folded her arms across her chest, sneering at the brunette's accusations.
Derin stepped forward, wielding his Buster sword. "Hey man, no biggie, you saved us the trouble of finding the bitch."
Kayley raised an eyebrow. "Do you really think I am so easy to kill, Protector?"
"No. Then again, neither was I, Calamity from the Skies."
A light went on in Vincent's eyes. "Jenova." A glare hardened his features and he lifted his Death Penalty to place a well-aimed shot.
Yuffie darted forward. "Stupid alien!" She delivered a startlingly quick set of slices to Kayley's body with her Conformer.
Kayley raised an arm and sent the ninja flying with a blow to the stomach.
"Oww! You're mean!"
"And you're annoying." She effortlessly cast a spell upon Yuffie. "Toad." The girl turned into a small, chattering amphibian, still ready to charge until Red XIII scooped her up into his mouth.
"What th' hell is the point of this shit?" asked a confused Barret.
Tossing her head back to give out a good laugh, Kayley addressed the group. "The fear factor, of course. See how powerful I am in a mere human body? Just wait until I regain my old powers...and install my plans into being."
"How do you intend to do that?" Reeve leveled his Masamune, waiting for the first open shot at her heart.
"The same way I always do." She smirked and held up a yellow Command Materia. "Controlling Cloud." She slipped it into a bracelet and paused, letting the energy flow inside her.
"Oh no, she's got a Manipulate Materia!" Daphne ran to Cloud.
"Oh yes." Kayley gave the raven-haired girl a devilish grin. "Cloud, get rid of that annoying wretch."
Cloud sent the girl flying across the room with a toss of his arm.
"Good boy." She turned to the group. "I'll see you guys later. I have some cells of mine to find." She winked and prepared another spell. Raising her arms, she announced "Exit–All," making both her and Cloud vanish from the room.
"So Derin, you're our insurance, huh? Well unless that's all bullshit, I think you owe us. We paid our deductible, that damn Strife again." Cid looked at Red XIII. "I can smoke, right?" He lit up before he received an answer. "Mmm...menthols."
"Zack?" asked Daphne softly.
"Okay, okay." Derin leaned forward. "The Masters are good...well, can't call them people, they're more like entities. They're old souls. They're so old that they don't have to go be human and learn things anymore. They are here to guide us young souls and help us along our way, both in life and between lives."
"I could have said that Derin," she muttered, "tell us something new and original."
(So you switch to my name in this life when you don't need something from me, interesting.) Derin gave Daphne a searching look before continuing. "Anyway, after they sent Aeris back here, they took a promise of mine into account, and decided that you guys needed help. They felt a disturbance in the life-death barrier, and that's the reason why they let Rissy return. By the time they got around to dealing with me bitching about her going back all alone, they figured out something big."
"What could be bigger than the return of Jenova to the Planet?" Vincent spit out his comment bitterly.
"The return of Jenova with a plan. The problem here is that Jenova can't completely die until all of her cells are dead. And since I don't plan to go and execute everyone who had Jenova injections, she will never die until the descendents of those people die out. If she could force her way back, she would just need to find a small collection of those cells, fuse them into her new body, and recapture her old abilities."
"How could anyone force their way back though?" asked Red XIII. "As far as I know, even our Revive spells only initiate respiration and heart rate, doing nothing for blood loss or brain death."
"Good souls go to the Promised Land. Totally lost, vile souls are dispersed into the Lifestream, which is used in the creation of new souls. Most cases, the person goes to the Promised Land and is reincarnated. So even Sephiroth and President Shinra are awaiting their returns. Their next lives will put them in the situations of the people whom they hurt. Hojo's energy was dispersed, as his soul had basically its last chance in Hojo's life."
"Talk about complete failure," whispered Vincent.
Tifa glanced at him. In spite of her own worry for Cloud, she couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy for Vincent as all these hurtful people from his past were brought up.
"Jenova had a very powerful life force within her. I say her, because to her people she was female. It came from her chronological age and also because of the fact she was an extraterrestrial. She was far from being consumed into the Lifestream, and she was fighting the process and looking for a way out. She found it where there was a weak place in the cloth between life and death. Her strength helped her so much here, all she had to do was wait for someone with Jenova in them to die in a controversial way."
"Ribbit!" The small Yuffie-toad hopped up and down impatiently.
The group looked at Red XIII. "What, my duty was to change her back? I at least kept her from dying!"
"Red," said Daphne gently.
"Oh fine." He looked at them all. "Well someone at least hand me a Transform materia."
"She had the only one," said Vincent softly.
The Yuffie-toad blushed. It hopped one last time and shouted "Toad!" Yuffie was standing before them. "Sorry guys."
"Derin." Vincent looked up. "What would be a controversial death?"
"Oh anything with murder involved. A mysterious accident. Or suicide." Derin shook his head. "Jenova escaped the Lifestream after a woman decapitated herself."
Yuffie looked at him in shock. "Decap–herself?"
"The woman had attempted suicide countless times, but the Jenova within her caused the attempts to fail every time but this one. Her name was Lucrecia."
Tifa expected Vincent to jump up in rage, exclaim how it couldn't be, run off to go check for himself...just to do something. Not to sit there and look at his hands. She hadn't expected anything like that. (I can sense the emotion running through him from here. But do I dare...do I try...?) She reached over and took his good hand in her own.
He looked up slightly, barely catching her eye. But he had caught it. Usually blazing, whether in disgust at the world, with hatred for Hojo, or in amusement at some silly member of the human race, it now seemed slightly dull. It looked like someone had not just kicked him where it hurt, but cut it off too.
Tifa looked down and moved her hand. (How stupid to think that I could even make him feel better. I don't know what it's like to have someone I love that much die.) She thought of Cloud in the clutches of Jenova. (At least...not yet.) She did not catch the small flash in his eye as she looked away.
It was a flash of agony.
Derin, who had no idea of Lucrecia's connection with any of the party members, continued on. "She used that slight opening to break herself out. Because of the cells in the woman, Jenova knew the precise moment and location of her death. She forced a woman named Kayley Nova from her body, but she did not realize one very important thing."
"Which is...?" Red XIII began.
"The reason why a soul has to go down to the Planet to learn things is that mortal existence is very cloudy. Any soul going back to a life here could make all sorts of plans, but become distracted and forgetful and relish the experience and not learn a thing. If it was easy, the Masters would not think it necessary for us all. When Jenova returned here, at first she did not remember who she was."
"She obviously knows now!" snorted Cid.
"Of course. All she needed were enough images from her past. That's why reincarnation isn't allowed until a few centuries after your last life. So you can't remember. But you start out not knowing. And I bet if Rissy had never met Cloud a couple weeks ago, she might never have remembered her past unless I came along or she went to that convention."
"How'd you remember your past, Zack?" asked Daphne eagerly.
"I was just about to come to that. The reason why I have to be careful with what I reveal to you is...I never forgot. I did take over someone's life, but the Masters were very worried with Jenova's return. They sent me back as an avatar. I am my pure soul, in a mortal body."
"Now don't say this sounds silly," exclaimed Yuffie, "but why aren't you all godlike and stuff then?"
"It's not a silly question. The answer is simple, though. I'm a very young soul, so I act young even when I'm all ‘godlike and stuff.'"
Vincent turned dull eyes to Derin. "What is Jenova's plan?"
"I don't know exactly how she attempts to do this, because the Masters did not know yet, but she has a very very bad plan. Essentially, it's to open the gates of hell."
"Hey now," said Barret, "you never said nothing about no hell!"
"It's her plan in essence, even if there is no hell. She has the idea to regurgitate souls back from the Lifestream, and that would not be pretty. Anyone with a shot of saving themselves gets another chance, and winds up in the Promised Land, you see."
"So my theories were right." Red XIII looked dismal. "If we fail to stop her, we will see the return of an ancient enemy. And all the other enemies that ever existed on this Planet."
Part 4- A Soul Eclipsed
"So...this is a serious problem, right guys?"
The rest of the group stared at Yuffie in wonderment.
"What is your problem? I want to know why we're just sitting here when there's a reincarnated ‘Calamity from the Skies' using our Cloudie as a puppet again!"
"Well, I kind of had to tell them it was Jenova first," remarked Derin.
"You told us, now let's get going!" She prepared to stand up, but Red XIII held her in place with a paw to the back of the shirt.
"Don't let a hasty decision throw us in the wrong direction."
Yuffie settled back down and pouted. "I could be pointing us in the right direction, you know."
Vincent stood up. "She's heading for the Lifestream. We need to go to all the places on the Planet where Mako is at the surface." He sat back down.
The ninja shook her head. (Why does he always have to be such a drama queen? Mr. "I think I'm a Vampire." Sheesh.)
Daphne thought for a moment. "There's Mt. Nibel."
"True," said Tifa. "There's also Mideel and the Northern Crater, but you weren't with us when we visited those places."
Daphne looked at her old friend for a moment. (Somehow, some way, she seems hostile to me. And this isn't the first time I've felt some sort of negative energy coming from her. Why does she resent me?)
Derin had seen the look of confusion pass through Daphne's face; he understood why Tifa was acting the way she did, and also why Daphne was hurt. (If Rissy understood everything that had happened since she died, she would know why Tifa is hurt. But now, she can't see anything more than anyone else could.) He knew the jealousy in Tifa's heart well. For, try as he might, he could not tell by looking whether Daphne's care and concern for Cloud led deep into the heart.
"We should split up into three groups of three then," said Reeve. "That works out, right?"
Cid nodded. "But how the hell are we gonna decide who goes with who? I'll be damned if I'm with Miss Maturity over here," he complained as he gestured to Yuffie.
"I resent that!"
"You would!" he retorted.
"Umm...I'm confused." Yuffie shook her head. "Anyway, I don't wanna be in your group!" That was all she said, though she made puppy-dog eyes at Reeve.
"I'm going to Mt. Nibel," said Tifa softly.
"So am I." Vincent looked around. (If this were a time for jokes, I would remark here how I miss my old coffin back at the mansion.)
"I'll go wit' y'all." Barret crossed his arms, looking for any objections.
Derin set his jaw. "I'm going to the crater." He shot a meaningful glance at Daphne.
"I'd like to see it too," she added.
Cid extinguished his cigarette. "You're in luck. The legendary Cid Highwind shall be your tour guide."
"Living legend, eh?" Derin grinned.
At this remark, the pilot turned an interesting shade of red and muttered "I ain't that fucking old yet" under his breath.
Suddenly, something dawned on the lion-like creature. (That leaves me, Reeve, and...and...!) "Oh no. You are not even doing this to me!" cried Red XIII in protest.
"But you're the closest in mental age to Yuffie," remarked Tifa with a wicked gleam in her eye.
Reeve let out a sigh of resignation. "Red, ol' chap, cheer up. We get to go to the only place that isn't freezing cold right now."
"I have fur," he growled. "Someone reconsider their group. Now."
But the only response he got was a few amused "apologies," and the bearer of each had a twinkle in his or her eye.
"Let's get a bite to eat before we head out in the Airship," suggested Daphne.
She led the group out from the observatory, until Red XIII and Yuffie were the last ones in the room. He glared at her and stormed off with disgust.
At that moment, she finally realized what he had been angry about. "Hey! Don't you want to be in a group with me?" She ran after him, demanding an answer.
Cloud landed the stolen helicopter in a daze.
(Who am I? Where am I?
He looked up at Kayley. "Is this the right place?" he asked flatly.
She glanced around at the landscape. (It is certainly the right area. But why are we so far from the place I want to be?) "Can't you get this thing any closer?" she demanded.
Surveying the area, Cloud shook his head. "This ‘copter was the fastest, but it is the most sensitive. If I land it any closer, I doubt we could ever use it again. The gear would be so damaged, we'd crash."
Leaning back into her seat with dismay, she resigned herself to the long walk. (Although I will be able to withstand any crash by then, I don't want to lose my...precious puppet.) Before she could stop the urge, her hand was caressing Cloud's cheek. Fuming, she tore it back as soon as she regained control of herself. (Damn, damn, damn it! I have to be strong. I don't care what happens to this mere human, I can't!)
"Get up," she said menacingly.
Cloud sat up, although mechanically.
"Can't you do it more naturally?" As soon as the sentence came out of her mouth, Kayley giggled. "Don't you know any choreography?"
"I saw Loveless once."
"Do the Loveless dance," she demanded with a smirk. Cloud's attempts at the ballet and jazz steps were pitiful, at best. Throwing her head back with a laugh, Kayley decided it was time for her return to power. "That will be enough."
"Would you like me to sing?" asked Cloud.
She stared into his empty eyes. "Wait until I am stronger. Then I can make you do it, but with emotion." She sighed. (Using this manipulate materia is very taxing on this mortal body. Soon I will be one with my cells, though, and then I can throw away all of this worthless crystal.)
Kayley lifted her head up high. The day was beautiful. The sun was shining high up in the sky, and she would soon take over the Planet. It truly was a day to end all days. Wonderful, precious. Perfect.
She poked Cloud in the back. "Walk," she ordered. "I wish to be myself again by nightfall."
"Okay," said Cid to the other three people on the deck. "Now's the time. Remember, the goal is to kill the Kayley bitch before she turns back into Jenova." He headed towards the bridge, to steer the Airship to Mideel.
"Use only status-changing magic on Cloud." Daphne looked at Tifa and Vincent, making sure each nodded their affirmation. "We don't want to be his murderers."
A quiet hush descended at the mentioning of a murderer.
"Well, we don't." She rolled her eyes. "Guys, who cares that I was murdered? I'm back now."
"Who cares? Who cares?!" Tifa walked up to the taller girl and met her with a fiery glare. "I know you shouldn't care. You were the one who got to stop fighting, go to the Promised Land, while we had to work our asses off saving the world. All that while grieving for you." She shook her head. "Sure feels like a waste now," she muttered.
"Tifa?" Tears formed in Daphne's eyes. "You don't mean that, do you?"
"Why would I say something I didn't mean?" Her words were defensive only because the comment's aim had been so true. Tifa really didn't mean that her grief was a waste. Not when it was still so close to her, so real. She was just afraid to let it go. (I can't let it go. Because if I did, then who would be left to remember how much Cloud hurt after Aeris died? Just because she's back doesn't mean the pain never existed. Or that it magically goes away.)
Vincent walked up to Tifa and placed a hand on her shoulder. "We should not part ways on a disagreement. However, I think that it would take too much time to resolve this, and we are racing against time." He fixed red eyes on Daphne while he absentmindedly rubbed Tifa's shoulder.
Daphne nodded. "I'll go tell the others that we're near Mideel now. It's time to drop them off." She left them and went to the bridge.
"I didn't need your help dealing with that, you know," said Tifa. She brushed his hand off.
He looked down for a moment, then glanced at her. "What was I supposed to do? Let you two catfight on the deck over a moot point? You each have different views on Aeris' death, the reasons for which should be obvious."
"She doesn't understand that we hurt?"
"I think, Tifa...that she understood. Before she came back to the Planet. But now she's here and back to being a dim-witted mortal like the rest of us. She doesn't even have her part-Cetra body anymore."
"I guess you expect someone to be all knowing if they come back. More like Derin."
"He's got a fool soul. Just think. He's walking around the Promised Land, speaking the same way he does here, using the same tone and slang words."
Tifa smiled. "I hope my soul is a little deeper than that when it's my time. I'd like to think I learned a lot in this lifetime." She turned to Vincent with an amused look in her eyes. "So you really think I would have gotten into a catfight with ‘Daph-ris'?"
"I would have won."
"Probably." Vincent shook his head. "I wouldn't like to see the state either of you would be in afterwards. I like women who haven't scratched each other up, and have left each other's hair inside the respective head."
"Well, what about the part where the girls tear off each other's clothes?" Tifa sat back, waiting for his response.
"Let me guess," he said dryly. "Another one of your questions to judge human nature by."
She nodded. "So...?"
Vincent walked to the doorway. "I'd prefer tearing your clothes off myself."
Tifa was stunned as she watched him walk out. Then gathering her wits, she ran after him, asking a Yuffie-esque question. "That was a joke, right?"
Yuffie wrinkled her nose. "They haven't done anything to rebuild this town. What a bunch of lazy people!"
Reeve looked around Mideel. (Well, I wouldn't say they haven't done anything. They haven't done a lot...)
Not much in the way of repairs had been done to Mideel. The lazy southern town did not attract people full of initiative. Many people had left the town after the Mako eruption, and a lot of those people had gotten sick and died of Mako poisoning.
Mideel was hardly holding onto itself. A few more months like this, and it would officially be a ghost town.
Red XIII looked around the town. "Well, the Mako is flowing around here in the open. Any signs of Cloud or Kayley?"
"None at all." Reeve peered down into the large glowing pool. "What are the chances that they both just jumped in there?"
"I have no idea. Probably slim. I think she'd find what she was looking for fairly quickly."
"So what are we gonna do ‘til then?" Yuffie's eyes darted about impatiently.
"I suppose we could have a look about the town. Why don't you go see if the materia shop is still around here somewhere?"
"Really Red?" She darted off towards the ramshackle buildings.
Reeve chuckled a bit. "Now, what are we supposed to do?"
Narrowing his eyes, Red XIII glanced into the pool. "How about some work? She'll probably be occupied for a little while, at least."
"You think they might be in there?"
He cautiously placed a paw on the flowing Lifestream. "I'm not sure. But don't you think there would be some clues to look for if they were? Let's get going."
"Okay, who forgot that it would take about three hours to walk through the mountains?" demanded Vincent.
"All of us." Tifa gave him an antagonizing smile.
"Damn, I'm tired." Barret sat down to rest.
"We just rested five minutes ago."
"I think it was a little longer than that, Vincent. Besides, even though we're in a hurry, she'll have just as much trouble as we are. She's still in a pesky human body, remember?"
Tifa shrugged and took a sip from her canteen. "Not to sound too much like the proverbial hare, but I think her unseasoned body is probably going over these mountains at tortoise speed. Not only that, but we don't know exactly what Mako pools are left. Neither would she."
"We'll prolly find ‘er next time we start up."
"Maybe, Barret." Vincent looked uneasy. "What if she used her Manipulate materia and forced Cloud to go look for the Mako pools?"
"She'd have to follow him a little ways behind. He can only get so far away from the materia before it loses effect." She glanced at Barret. "We should probably get going again, though."
He stood up and brushed off his gun-arm. "I'm good," he said.
The group continued up the trail. They soon came to a fork in the road. "Which way, Guide Tifa?" Vincent glanced at the brunette.
She thought hard. "Well, we have a problem here. My memory tells me that there used to be Mako pools if you followed either trail, but the fountain was on the right."
"We should probably check out both."
She nodded. "I wouldn't want to spread ourselves too thin though, so I don't know if we should do one at a time, or split up."
"Hey." They looked at Barret. "The fountain is more likely to still have Mako. You two go there, and I'll peek the other way. I promise I be quiet enough to sneak back der to you's guys if I see that Kayley."
"And if you see nothing, then you can call us on the PHS." Vincent held up the portable phone and switched the ringer off. "This will vibrate if you call. If we can't pick up the phone, it means we've found them and probably, that we are fighting them."
"We should be able to take her if we get to her before she goes in the Mako pool." Tifa bit her lip. "I don't want to think about the alternative, because she'll manipulate Cloud onto her side."
Vincent looked at her. "If we go quickly," he said softly, "we'll most likely prevent the alternative."
She nodded. "Are you sure you'll be okay, Barret?"
The big man smiled and patted his gun-arm. "Just fine. Y'all just take care of you'selves. Oh and Vince? I'm holdin' ya personally responsible for Tifa's welfare."
He glanced at her. "Sorry, Teef, but I can't help it. You a good friend and a good Avalanche member. You've been with me the longest and I feeled I had to protect you, always." A glance downward. "‘Specially after Sector 7."
"I think we understand," said Vincent smoothly. "You have my word that I will protect her at all costs. Just like you would."
"Loyalty and all that stuff. I'm gonna get going down my way now. Good luck, y'all."
Tifa watched him walk down the left fork and barely suppressed a giggle. "How's that last bit of conversation going to work into his ‘big bad good guy' persona?"
"He's just being a good friend to you, that's all." Vincent began walking down the trail without her.
"You're going to say that and start walking, huh? Barret's right when he says you're a ‘cold one.'"
"He says that because he doesn't understand me." He turned to face her. "Are you coming or not? I thought you were concerned with Cloud's welfare."
Tifa suddenly realized that she had forgotten about Cloud. She had been too busy becoming aggravated at Vincent's actions. "I am concerned," she said, more to reassure herself than to convince Vincent. She began walking quickly down the trail, passing him silently.
He followed her quietly, for a bit. She continued her maddening pace, and it soon became obvious to Vincent that she'd be too tired to face any enemy at their destination if she kept on like that. "Tifa, slow down a bit."
"Can't handle it?"
"I'm fine. But you're tiring yourself out too much. What'll be left inside to fight Kayley?"
She paused and turned. "I have to get down there fast, to protect Cloud. If Kayley regains the powers she had as Jenova, that's it for him. He'd be a puppet again."
"He wasn't completely a puppet before. I believe he was able to stop himself from killing Aeris."
"Why do you mention her?" asked Tifa spitefully.
"Because she was an ally of ours, is one now, and any mentioning of her in passing should not anger you so."
"Well, it does."
"Have you ever stopped to wonder why?" Vincent caught her eye and she could not bear to turn from it.
"No." She closed her eyes. "Why should I think about it? I don't question my feelings for Cloud."
"What are those feelings?"
(Why is he asking me these things, looking at me like this? This is not the time!) "Look," she said, "we can do this later."
He rolled his eyes. "We both know that if Kayley had decided to come here, she would have found Mako by now and become Jenova. She had a head start." He continued. "If she had gone to Mideel, there would have been an almost-instant PHS call from that group." Vincent sat down on a rock. "So she went to the Northern Crater. That group must catch up with her. They probably won't, and they'll barely escape and then we'll all get back together for a classic showdown."
"You think you're so smart, don't you?" She glared at him. "What if Kayley comes around that bend right now, power restored, and rips off your head as you speak?"
"Then I guess I'd be wrong," he said. His eyes sparkled.
Tifa cracked a smile in spite of herself. Sitting next to him, a small laugh escaped from her lips. "You could have saved Barret the trip. And the speech."
"But it was so touching."
"For teasing Barret? Nah." He met her eyes. "For wanting a conversation alone with you? Perhaps."
"Alone with me?" she repeated warily.
"I'm not going to kill you, you can relax." His tone was serious. "And I'm still waiting for the answer to my previous question."
"What my feelings are?"
"Isn't it obvious to you, oh observer of humanity? I love him."
"It's not that obvious, is it? Otherwise he would know."
"He does know." Her voice was bitter.
He changed the subject. "When did you know? ...that you loved him."
"I don't know." She tossed her head a bit. "I guess I always did, deep down inside."
"Always? Like when you two were children and you ignored him?"
"After that, I guess."
"So," said Vincent slowly, "it was after he left town to join Soldier and you never saw him again?"
Tifa was annoyed. "Fine, it was–"
He cut in. "That time at the reactor when he avoided you the whole time? He saved your life and you didn't even remember he was there until you looked into his head?"
"What are you driving at here?" A tear slipped down her cheek. "Fine, it's when I first saw him in Midgar. Why does the time I realized I love him fucking matter?"
"Well, for one thing, when you first saw him in Midgar, he was living a lie. The lie was that his Soldier career was remarkably like Zack's."
She was silent.
"I'm not trying to upset you."
"Then what are you trying? To make me hate you?" She took a shuddering breath. "I thought we were becoming really good friends...I thought..."
"If I didn't care, I wouldn't bother with this. Don't you get it? I'm trying to make you see. You spend all this time, expend all this energy, pour all your heart into this conquest of a person. Someone you rejected for nearly all the life he can remember."
"I always thought I could make it up to him."
"Maybe you can. But not through pretending to be in love with him."
She choked back a sob. "I'm not pretending!" she cried. "Why would I do this to myself?"
"You felt Cloud's pain when she died," he said softly, avoiding the mention of Aeris' name.
"You saw his guilt for not saving her, his guilt for beating her, his guilt for nearly killing her. His guilt for giving Sephiroth the Black materia. Then he disappeared, and you didn't know what to do. Cloud was your link to the past, your link to each day one of your parents died. He'd led the group after Sephiroth; he led your vengeance on the man who burned your hometown to the ground."
"And I didn't know where to go without him there. I needed him to tell us where to go."
"You nursed him in Mideel because you needed him. When you were in the Lifestream, you were able to see inside his mind."
"So?" There was a slight hostile trace in her voice.
"You learned his most intimate secrets. Things that he perhaps would only tell to a lover? You feel close to him, you feel a bond. There's only one problem. The time you spent there awakened his consciousness, but he wasn't conscious during that time. You can't expect him to remember the things he said to you, and you to him."
"So he wouldn't know how close I felt to him then?"
"That basically would explain all of his coldness to you. There's still one problem with the closeness you feel to him. He acted most of the time you knew him as an adult...he acted like Zack."
"He became much quieter after he told the truth..."
"He spent quite a few years in that mansion in Nibelheim, Tifa, he probably feels like a teenager now. The shame of not making Soldier is still real to him. The pain he feels from how you treated him years ago is still with him."
"What does this have to do with my feelings?"
Vincent looked at her. "This is obviously news to you. And that's the problem. You keep saying all these things to me, to yourself. However, to anyone who takes the time to look at the situation... It seems to me that you haven't gotten to know the real Cloud at all."
"This place looks scary." Daphne shivered.
"You think it looks scary now? You would've shit your pants a few months ago then."
"I doubt that Cid. I'm very clean." She gazed down over the summit of Gaia's Cliff. "I see something."
"So do I. A big hole."
She turned pleading eyes to Derin. "Can you help me out a little here, Zack?"
(There it goes again. Sometimes I'm Zack, sometimes I'm Derin.) Then he chastised himself for his attitude. (Gotta try to remember that she can't see what I see, feel what I feel. If only they could have sent me as a mortal soul...) "What, hon?"
"Look over there." She pointed. "What do you see?"
He peered into the distance. "A helicopter that says ‘Junon Police' on it."
"Shit!" yelled Cid. "That's one-a my fleet!"
"Well, guess we know that Kayley's probably here, right?" Daphne bit her lip. "What should we do?"
"I think going after her would be a viable option," said Derin.
"No sarcasm. First, we should probably call the others on the PHS. Next, we should go look at the helicopter...judge the snow around it. The way the wind is up here, it would begin to be buried in no time."
"So?" Cid gave her a look of utter boredom.
"So...if it's still pretty clean, or if there are footprints, they didn't land too long ago. Which means, we have a decent chance of catching up to them before..."
"I understand." Derin reached in his pack and brought out the PHS. "You guys go check out the ‘copter...carefully. I'll call the others."
Daphne walked towards the helicopter, with Cid following closely behind. She was becoming aware of the fact that while Cid was an excellent fighter, a good pilot with years of experience, and a very true companion, he was also very irritating and easily annoyed.
The pilot paused before the vehicle and, turning to the side, spat on the ground.
She shook her head in disgust. (Why do I feel this way about him? I don't remember ever disliking Cid.) In all honesty, as Aeris, she never had disliked Cid, nor had she noticed any jealousy from Tifa, though there were a few signs. (Have I lost something...something important that I had? Once upon a time, when I wore pink and sold flowers and laughed?) Daphne doubted that she had laughed, without forcing it out, since she realized who she really was.
"Tracks are half-filled with snow." Cid spat again. "Judging by these winds, the two have about an hour, hour and a half lead on us. Think we can cut it?"
Mustering up a statement that did justice to her former self, Daphne gave him a weak smile. "Of course we can. We have no other choice. Right now, we have an easy job. If we fail..." Something in her eyes hardened. "It's on our own heads."
He paused to give her an odd look before he waved Derin over to where they stood. "Looks like we're gonna go in."
Derin nodded. "We're going to head into the crater," he said softly into the PHS. "We'll talk to you when we've finished." Turning it off, he placed it back into his pack and looked at the duo standing in front of him. "We're all prepared for battle, right?"
There was a nod from the grim-faced pilot, and a moment of deliberation from the raven-haired girl. "I never got any materia," she said softly.
"Easily remedied. I manage to carry more than I can equip." Derin held out a small plastic box.
Daphne took the box and opened it. Both she and Cid gasped to see the rows of neatly arranged materia.
"I gotta get me one of those," he said emphatically.
She peered in the case, concentrating hard. Try as she might, she could barely remember what each materia did, let alone any important facts about their stats. She held up a yellow enemy skill and slipped it into her staff, then followed with random materia.
Derin studied her face and her selection. "If you need any help, Rissy, I can pick some good ones... It's hard to remember everything so quickly."
Daphne gazed at him coldly. "I'm just fine. Zack."
He closed his eyes and turned away from her, towards the crater. "Fine then. Let's go in."
The group made their way down into the crater, picking the beginnings of a trail from the collapsed caverns and hollows inside, while Derin remembered something. Something from long ago.
"The world never seemed to touch you Rissy. You could have been a drug dealing whore, and still have been just as innocent as when you were born."
Aeris smiled warmly at him. "I doubt that. If I were that innocent, I wouldn't have any use for the drug dealing." A pause. "Or the whoring," she added.
"Maybe I exaggerate a little." Zack grinned. "But I know that no matter what you would be doing, you were always innocent. Always sane."
"I had a gift. If I was evil, it would have been a curse."
"What is that?"
"My mother was always watching me, giving me advice. No matter where I went, I could hear the Planet. And...even through all its pain and suffering...it knew I was its child...it knew that I could hear it. Know its pain, feel its pain... How could I ever be petty or wordly when I had that knowledge with me. I carried it every day. I knew when someone I cared about hurt or died."
"Did you really?" The young man's brow furrowed. "Rissy," he said softly.
"I never betrayed you in my heart. I knew you had long returned to the Planet. I would never have let even a mere thought stray in my mind." She met his inquisitive glance. "But I couldn't let my heart die with you. I was still alive, and needed to at least feel some thrill. Even if I never got to know him..." She closed her eyes. "I know I love you and I never really got to know you on the Planet."
"You love me?" he asked softly. Zack knew the answer by heart, but grasped at an escape from the slightly painful conversation.
"Of course. Not a moment goes by that I don't think of you now. Things are different down there though. They always are. He's in such pain...he blames himself for my death. And I represent more than myself to him. I'm the first person who even tried to see him for himself, and by the time he found himself, there was no way for him to share it with me. He cared deeply, Zack."
"Someday he will forget." A bitter tone snuck into his voice.
"He didn't experience a death as I did. He is haunted, Zack. And I want to fix that. I don't want to leave you, but–"
"You don't want to leave me? Aeris, you don't have a choice. Not for another century, at least." He grabbed her hand. "Don't even bother yourself with this. The years begin to slip quickly and quietly. You can talk with him like this in the blink of your eye."
"Not a blink of his eye. Does he deserve the pain?" She stood. "I wanted to get your blessing before I spoke with Eldor."
"My blessing?" His words seemed empty. "Even if you were sent back, do you think that I would send you with my blessing? Bless you leaving me?" He stood up quickly. "Aeris," he said suddenly, clasping her hand. "You can't tell me that he means more than me."
She turned away. "Of course he doesn't. But you wouldn't suffer like he did. You told me yourself that the time seems like nothing at all. So take your nothing and let me buy what would be forever to him..."
"Even if they let you back, it wouldn't be as Aeris. You know that."
"We shall see. They owe me," she said with a sudden fierceness.
Zack saw that there was a hidden part of Aeris, that had never been put to flames before. But now that it had, it flared with the intensity of a thousand stars. Even the embers of it could put ordinary passion to shame. "But if you weren't Aeris," he said sadly, "you'd lose the part that kept you sane before."
"That's the chance that I would take. But I will go back as myself."
"Would I even know you if I saw you in that place?"
Aeris stepped closer and kissed him softly. "If you knew who I was, but not by what I did...you'd know enough to...realize...that the cloud had surrounded me. Whatever happens in the paths that we are put to, remember Zack, that I do love you."
As she walked away, into the light that led to the Masters, Zack did not yet know that it was the last time they were to meet on that side, for a long time. He also had no idea that if he returned to life, he would remember the sweetness of the kiss...taste it on his lips, with every step he took; with every glance at the girl who had once lived before as Aeris; and with every step towards another man who she had said before–that she was going to buy happiness for. Buy Cloud's happiness, with the price being his own.
It had seemed as though the Northern Crater had been in existence for time immemorial. However, the eyes of the Masters remembered a time when the surface of the Planet was unscarred. Yet in those times, Mako actually flowed more freely to the surface than it did at the present.
Perhaps the lack of Lifestream hotspots was a blessing in disguise. After all, if not for that fact, Kayley would have had a much shorter journey to reach her destination. This blessing became irrelevant as she entered a cavern with Cloud; a cavern that flowed freely with Lifestream.
She bade Cloud sit down, and sit down he did. Turning her attention to the greenish makofall cascading immediately in front of her, she scrutinized the material. (This is it?) Her thoughts had expected the precious giver of all life to look a little more...extraordinary.
Part of the mako flowed into a pool, with a shore lapping at the rocky floor beside her. Kneeling down to meet it, Kayley slowly brought her fingertips to the glowing liquid. A rush of...something...met her instantly. Her eyes widened in excitement and surprise. (I never knew that I could learn so much, just by touching this stuff.) An odd feeling was traveling through her, surging within her veins, and Jenova, within the human body, began searching the memories of the girl's brain.
(I do not feel that I was given power. Yet.) A small frown furrowed at her brow. (But I was given something...I know more now.) Indeed, the mind belonging to the extraterrestrial being from eons ago had just experienced something completely new to her. Somehow, through a miracle of the Masters, or even just the Lifestream itself, the soul of Jenova had gained knowledge.
The type of knowledge that can only come from being one with the Planet; it can only come to a person who cannot do the Planet harm. Some eager sort of human curiosity was beating within Kayley's breast, and she did not know the implications of what she had seen.
Images of peace, not power–but for some reason, she ached for more. Step by step, she waded into the pool. The Manipulate materia slipped from her simple weapon as she dropped it; the crystal shattering on the floor upon impact.
The first memory Cloud had was seeing the last glimpse of Kayley's rusty locks, as she disappeared completely into the Lifestream.
"I hope Barret meets us soon."
"What does it matter? Cid has the Airship, and he went into the crater."
Tifa looked at the ground. "It doesn't matter, in terms of the mission."
Vincent watched her fidget, with a knowing look in his eye. She would never look up and see it, that time. "I make you uncomfortable."
The brunette shrugged.
"Of course," he muttered.
(I wonder if he thinks I heard that or not.) As honest as Vincent was with his "observations," Tifa was still far from having any idea about what went on in his head. (It's unfair, the way he can say the right words...to make me break down my guard. It took me months of trying to be subtle with Cloud. To tell him. Simple words were what I said. "You're more than a friend to me." They held years' worth of thinking, months' worth of debating. A lifetime of pain, I had told myself. But Vincent got it out, he got it all out. Yet I know no more about him than I thought I did. Except he eventually warms up enough to people to be sarcastic as hell.
Maybe his close ways were enough to earn his confidence. He cared for Lucrecia, I saw the pain in his eyes...but...but...what he had there... Is it enough for him to even understand my pain?)
She raised velvet eyes to his. "No. But somehow I feel uncomfortable that any one of us would be out alone. I'll be relieved to see Barret all right."
"So, if I were to whisk you off in the dead of night, no problem?"
"Why would you have a reason to do that?" She raised an eyebrow, calling on herself to meet his questions with equal strength of will. "Why would I have a reason to go?"
Vincent was as unmoved as a pile of stone. "None of that matters. I just marvel that any of this group could trust me, after seeing me...knowing how I failed someone important to me, long ago."
"I have trusted you with more of my insides than I have to anyone else," she said softly. (Though I still don't understand why, I wonder...could he understand me...what things mean to me?)
"Don't give me credit for that. Or blame yourself. You just acknowledged when my observations rang true or not."
"They always seem to ring true. Vincent."
It seemed to him that centuries should have passed before he heard his name roll off from a tongue again in that manner. Softly, with concern. Two syllables seemed to hold both trust and patience that he thought were far beyond his deserving.
"I wish I could return the favor though. It appears to me that you are hard to read, and wish that things stay that way. Such a shame." Tifa tried to make her tone lighter. "I'd like to put a spotlight on you for a change."
Neither smile nor frown passed his lips; he set his mouth and turned to watch the path for Barret. "Don't ask to open up Pandora's Box. I doubt anything inside of me should be held out in the light of day."
Vincent had a skill at making statements that shot straight into Tifa's psyche, like arrows of steel. For once, the favor was returned. "Then share them with someone who is unfaltering in the depths of the night."
He turned, searching her face with his eyes, but she stood up and moved past him, up the trail.
"I see Barret coming back. If we hurry on, we can reach Nibelheim before nightfall."
Tifa's happy-go-lucky façade returned as she chatted to Barret, speaking random encouraging words, about how Cid, Derin, and Daphne would most certainly save the day.
Vincent remained a little ways behind them as they backtracked down through the mountains. (It is not a question of whether I could find another who is strong enough to hear such things. More of whether I could hand them such a haunting burden, without adding to the chains and fetters already surrounding me.) A shudder went through him. (Simply killing innocence is one crime; but evolving it into something ugly is a multitude of them, and earns lifetimes' worth of repentance before salvation.)
(How did I get here? The last thing I remember is...the observatory...)
Daphne sucked in her breath, marveling at the beauty of the Mako-filled cave. She gave a sudden start when she saw a blond man, kneeling and holding his head. Of course, the spikey hairdo gave him away– "Cloud!" she exclaimed, rushing over to him.
Derin had been following right behind her, and watched as she fawned over her discovery. Cid brought up the rear and watched the exchange, with a slight disinterest in his eye.
"You are really Aeris?" Cloud murmured.
"Yes," she replied hesitantly.
"Then here, see the real me," he continued bitterly, "I can be a puppet even without Sephiroth or Jenova. Even when I don't want to pretend to be someone else."
"She had a manipulate materia..."
"Don't use that excuse, I was weak."
"Of course you were." She looked at him. "That's not always something to be ashamed of. You'll know better next time."
"If there is a next time for me."
"There will be." Taking his hand, Daphne smiled at him. "Where there's life...there's hope. Always."
Standing silent, Derin felt a bit of pain come over him. She sounded like she always had, just then. (It couldn't possibly be that...she's only different to me? When she told me she loved me...has she changed her mind now she's seen him again?)
He snatched his hand away from her. Ignoring her hurt eyes, Cloud took a deep breath. "I can only assume now that this girl is the enemy Red XIII had clues about. And I've screwed this whole damn thing up! Our enemy is probably calling back vicious disgusting things from the Lifestream, and it's all my fault!"
"Cloud! Don't say–"
"Don't say what? Don't say what? The truth, Aeris? That I failed my own convictions, and didn't do it for companionship, didn't do it to make Tifa happy, but did it because I was jealous?" He shook his head. "If I had cared about you, truly, then why wouldn't I have been ecstatic that you were happy with Zack?"
"Zack? But he was...well only then...and..."
"What?" A glance to Derin's shocked face was enough to back Cloud's hunch up. "You tell me that you have had no feelings for Zack since you were sixteen years old?"
Eyes filled with tears, and a soul tried to recall memories to help guide her, but there seemed to be shadows surrounding her. All Daphne knew at that moment was that she wanted something...could it be Cloud?
Fierce brown eyes watched the conversation intently. Blue mako eyes fixed on violet ones. A certain decision rested in them.
"No." The voice was firm. "Not since then."
He staggered back a bit. In all the time he had known Aeris, as a Cetra, a soul, or a human, never had she lied. There is a first time for everything. A pain that Derin had never known seemed to seep into every crevice of his heart, and it kept coming, flowing as endlessly as the Lifestream itself. It was a hard blow to take, for the avatar representing a young lady-killer who had been taught love through flowers and green eyes. (We knew the truth in the Promised Land...and if I still know it... How can it hurt this much?)
Part 5- Cloak and Dagger
Yuffie looked at her new shiny HP-Plus materia and sighed happily. (It's just so pinky-purple and pretty.) Spying Reeve sitting under a nearby tree, she trotted over to him. "Hi," she said nervously. (He's so cute...)
"Hi Yuffie," he replied politely.
"Where's the furball?"
He smiled at her reference to Red XIII. "Ah, he's over a little ways giving the villagers the third degree. You know, such is the way of the Red."
"Oh yeah." She nodded adamantly. "So...can I ask you a question?"
Reeve looked at her warily. "I suppose."
"Well..." She fidgeted a little. "...I was kinda wondering how you ended up at the convention. We didn't have time to call you."
"I heard about it through some members of the company. As president, I was rather interested in making sure that all the bad press was going towards the former executives of Shinra and not those of us involved with the new incarnation of it."
"Okay." A slight frowned crossed her face.
"What is it, Yuffie?"
"How'd you save Tifa?"
His eyes widened a bit and he blushed a little. "I never really got to meet with you guys in person, so I saw her...and I just knew I had to go talk to her. But I saw her leaving out the door, so I went out another exit to try to run around the side of the building and catch her."
"So you're into her." A little bit of jealousy crept into the ninja's voice.
"Only so much as I'd be interested in any of Avalanche. It was kind of weird for me...being there while not there at all. I still feel like an outsider, even though Red seems to like me."
"That's really weird, Red doesn't like anybody." She paused. "Naw, actually he just doesn't like me. No one did really, except for Aeris."
"Aww." (Poor kid.) "I always kinda liked you."
"Really?" Yuffie's eyes lit up and her face brightened.
The effect on her appearance was amazing, for Reeve could see that she was actually quite pretty. (It's too bad that she pouts and whines all the time, or the men in the convention would have had one more eligible woman to add to their debate of "best chick in Avalanche.") "You're spunky. I could've done without the materia snatching, though."
"I can't help that. My father trained me to be a thief. Even though materia is rare in Wutai, he gave me a lot of it. Of course, he gave me my first Steal materia, and I mastered it before I was twelve," she said proudly. "It's just too bad they aren't worth much."
"Of course not!" Yuffie giggled. "Don't you know anything about materia?"
"Not really. All I have with me now is a Sense, my level two Fire, a Cure, and an All."
She glanced down at the shiny orb in her hands. "Only four materia..." she murmured in a tiny voice. "...wow." (He could really use this one I just bought to his advantage. Should I recommend the materia shop to him? Nah...they're pretty expensive. I just bought this ‘cause I felt sorry for the shopkeeper. Maybe I should sell it to him for the best price going...)
Reeve had just smiled at her surprise and gazed into the Mako pool. Even after working all his years in Shinra, this was the first time he had ever seen so much of the stuff in person. (It's beautiful, yet can be so deadly. Especially if Kayley has gotten into it.)
Yuffie looked up, her decision made. "Would you like this?" she asked softly.
He looked down at her hand, his eyes widening in amazement. "A materia, Yuffie? Are you feeling okay?"
"I don't really need it anyway, and you could probably use some strength-boosting, Mr. Corporate Executive!" She tossed it down. "Gawd, why does everyone think that I'm selfish, anyway?" She turned to storm off, but her dramatic exit was interrupted by a loud roar and a large shadow passing overhead.
"What was that?"
Her eyes widened. "It can't be."
Another roar reverberated through the air, and Red XIII came running up to the pair under the tree. "The Crater party obviously didn't make it in time."
"What is that thing flying around?!" demanded Reeve.
Yuffie whimpered as another roar resounded. "The dang thing didn't even give me a decent weapon when I stole from it."
Red XIII winced as the shadow circled above once more. "We have to do something about it. We can't leave this town to be completely obliterated."
"But everyone's materia is all spread out! The best summoner I have is Leviathan!"
Reeve put his hands on his hips. "What is that white monster?"
"You want that thing to kill all these people?"
"Reeve is inexperienced and we have sucky equipment!"
A huge white monster landed in front of them and growled menacingly.
"That's the Diamond Weapon!" yelled Reeve.
"Well duh." Yuffie grabbed the HP-Plus materia and shoved it his armlet. "I hope we can handle this."
Red XIII turned from this exchange in disgust and prepared to cast Haste on the entire group. (First I'm stuck with Yuffie, now we have to battle something we thought dead. Can this day get any better?)
"I don't really trust that Zack any farther than I can throw ‘em," stated Barret.
"I'm sure you could throw him pretty far," replied Tifa, grinning at Vincent.
The conversation wasn't eliciting any sort of response from the taciturn man. He had withdrawn himself a bit from the pair; he needed to think. But as much as he tried to lose himself in thought, he couldn't help but notice the confused expression on Tifa's face whenever he failed to respond to things she said.
(I never was a talkative man. Have I been changing? I told myself before that I was talking more in order to help Tifa...discuss things, get her to see things in another light. Take away her pain. But what importance should her pain be to me? Cloud's longing for Aeris barely causes a twinge in me. Barret's regret for his hometown...Yuffie's frustration for losing our trust and still not helping her father... It all matters little in the scheme of things, and thus, means little to me.)
She continued to talk to Barret, but Vincent did not hear. He was lost in the timid glances her burgundy eyes were sending in his direction.
(Her pain seems to matter little in the grand design...so why do I ache whenever a tear falls from those eyes?) He broke the glance and clenched a fist, restraining himself. (I enjoyed getting her to reveal things to me, seeing if my guesses were correct. The more I hear though, the more I want to stop any pain she has. What does that mean? It cannot be love...someone like me doesn't deserve the feeling to come twice.)
"...of course they'll be all right defeating Kayley! And then Cloud will come back and we'll see them all and have a party. Maybe storm that convention, if it's still being held."
"Cloud, huh?" asked the burly man. "After his carrying on with th' Aeris business, you still want his spikey ass?"
"Huh? What are you talking about?" Tifa stared at him.
"It's pretty obvious that you's hung up on ‘em. Don't deny it."
She stepped away from him. "He's not interested in me. So that's as far as this discussion should go. Dammit anyway, where is Cid and the Airship?"
Startled out of his reverie, Vincent eyed her. "They're not done. They would have called otherwise."
Her eyes blazed at him. "I know that." Looking back and forth between the two men, she sighed in frustration. "You two are impossible!" With that, she stormed off towards Nibelheim.
"Teef, wait!" Barret made a move to go after her, but Vincent held him back with a hand.
"Cloud is a touchy subject with her. You shouldn't have brought it up."
"Sorry. I just thought it would be easier to ask her what she thinks about him than whatever the hell she thinks about you."
"Me?" He raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah. You've been all rilin' her up or some shit like that, don't deny it. Makin' her pain worser for whatever reason. Guess you're some sadistic bastard that gets off on that?"
Vincent grabbed the larger man by the collar. "Don't you ever suggest that I would cause her pain." Pushing him away, he turned down the trail. "You stay here. I'm going to go make sure she doesn't go too far."
Barret shrugged. "If she runs off farther to get away from you, I wouldn't be surprised."
(Neither would I) he thought bitterly.
Fairly sure that she had put some distance between herself and the others, Tifa sat down on a large rock, wrapping her arms around herself. (Could everyone tell about the fiasco with Cloud?) She sniffled. (They must all know how weak I am...and are laughing behind my back. Vincent probably talked to me to add to his penances or something.) "Who would ever want to talk to me?" she murmured to herself.
A twig snapped, and she looked up...and up. Into the reddish eyes of Vincent. He stood there silently, appraising the situation.
"What do you want?"
"I apologize if I said something that was disagreeable to you."
"They all know, don't they?"
He studied her pleading eyes. "Know what?"
"I've obviously shown them all that I was chasing after Cloud when he didn't want me."
"I doubt it. Barret's a close friend though...maybe he even mentioned something to Cloud once and it was he who spilled the beans...but I don't think you should let anything he asks you upset you so."
"Well I don't care what Cloud does anymore, so you can tell them all that."
Tifa sighed. "I can tell him myself."
"You always were a little too nice for him anyway." The suspicion in her eyes made him immediately regret his sentence.
"Oh yeah? You think that? When you knew that I ‘didn't really love him'? And now I'm too nice for Mr. Cloud. Well who would you suggest for me?"
(She's daring me to answer her.) He debated his options. (I don't think there's a way to escape a question like this without hurting her.) He felt the ache inside again. (Tell her the truth.) An inner voice seemed to be speaking to him. (What is the truth? I have no other to suggest for her. And if there is no other, that leaves–) His eyes widened in surprise as he came to a realization.
Turning away from him to escape the wind, Tifa hugged herself tighter as a chill passed through her body. (Is the chill from the cold...or from being so...alone in the world? That one night... Cloud told us to find what we were fighting for...and I had nothing, nothing. I spent one night close to him. I thought I was fighting for him after that. With him gone from my life, that leaves no other.) Goosebumps appeared on her bare skin while she tried to hold back tears. (I'm alone in the cold.)
(It doesn't matter. I cannot chose myself. I don't deserve her...not even to share a rock with her.)
A shiver. Tifa felt herself trembling. (I can't cry. Not even if I'm alone and lonely and my confidante is a man of stone...why doesn't he see how much I've trusted him...) She closed her eyes. (Not only that, I've been depending on him. Don't I need him?)
Vincent turned to her. He was going to tell her that he couldn't chose a match for her, that it was her own decision, and... (She's shaking and close to tears.) Nothing else registered in his mind. He whisked off his cape, enclosing her small frame within it. Perching next to her, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "It's getting rather cold out here."
She nodded and opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
"What?" he asked cautiously.
"I was thinking. Maybe I'm not supposed to find anyone...and if..." Her eyes were wide and pleading. "I need someone to be there for me...I need a friend, a real friend. Will you be there for me, Vincent? I know it's not something that a person should ask about, but–"
A small smile brushed her lips and she unconsciously cuddled closer under his arm.
He could smell her hair; it was intoxicating, but he knew what his lot was going to be. (I don't deserve her. I can keep her as happy as I'm able to, though. It's better this way.)
The wind whistled up through the mountain pass, gusting in short bursts, drifting snow and creating blinding swirls of white in the air. It was tumultuous and peaceful at the same time.
The odd winter tranquility was interrupted by the roar of a monster and the sound of cursing mixed with gunfire. Tifa and Vincent glanced at each other, then ran as fast as they could back up the mountain.
It was green, that was all she could see.
Green liquid flowing...glowing...knowing... It has seen ages of time pass before its depths. It has been used, abused by the men at the surface. Mako can kill; Mako can heal.
There was a light ahead of her, and Kayley reached out for it.
Suddenly, everything changed. Seated on the lush grass of a beautiful garden, dressed in a tunic of green, Kayley gazed at the figure in front of her, startled and half-frightened.
"You were mistaken about the properties of the Lifestream."
Composing herself, she shrugged. "I guess I was."
"Bodies do not exist here, cells do not exist here..." Eldor stroked his beard. "Essences are here."
"I know," he said, "and others still on the surface thought that, and guessed your plan. But Jenova, a body decays while a spirit does not. That is what returning to the Planet means. The body stays on the Planet, and the essence of the person returns."
She lifted her head proudly. "But I was put into the Lifestream and was so strong that my spirit did not break apart."
"Yes. That was because the council had decided that you should remain."
"A council?" The woman appeared puzzled.
"Do you know where we are?" asked Eldor, apparently changing the subject.
"Of course..." Kayley trailed off. "At least, I know that I'm in the Lifestream. I entered it on the Northern Continent."
"What you say is true, yet not true at the same time. We are standing at a gateway. I have come to speak with you, since that is the decision that was made. You are standing at the very threshold of the Promised Land."
Gazing around her, Kayley found it hard to argue in the taunting way she used to do. "It...exists...?"
"There was no talk of such things on your home world. I understand why you thought it impossible. But yes, it exists. The Promised Land is a resting place for all growing souls between lives."
"The Cetra once said that they could speak to those in the Promised Land," she offered with a tinge of disbelief.
"As well they could. The Cetra were actually a race of more learned souls, who kept us informed here about the state of the Planet. Unfortunately, you destroyed them."
"Yes, well, the friends of the last one destroyed me, or at least thought they did."
Eldor sat down beside the woman with Jenova's soul. "Oh, they destroyed you. That's why we had the trial."
"Yes. It should never be said that the way to the Promised Land is hard, because it's not. Life is a pathway for learning, and many, many mistakes can be made."
"We did not speak of it where I came from."
"And the souls on your world continue to de-evolve. There was a great split between the Elders in charge of your world and this one...and now...we do not know what has become of them. All we know is that no more spirits have returned from life on your Planet."
"So all my people are without souls?"
"I do not know for sure. The decision was made by the council. You were to be given one incarnation as a human and that would be the basis for the state of your soul and of your entire world."
"But I broke free from the bounds of the Lifestream. I wasn't given a gift."
"No." Eldor looked at her. "We gave you this life. The old way is done."
"My body can regenerate though..."
"If Jenova ever regenerates again on this Planet, it will be like a comatose being. You shall not be able to enter it, and it will have no knowledge. The only thing processing within its mind will be involuntary body controls."
"What does that mean?"
"Jenova is dead. You can be Kayley. What you do with that is up to you." He helped her stand up. "You were given your memories to know what your lesson is to be. We knew you would need to come here and speak with us. When you return, your skill with materia will be gone and nothing will be any different from the way this body was before. Except you inhabit it."
"I didn't ask for this. I'd rather be dead!" Kayley fumed. "When you send me back, I will kill myself."
"So be it. Just remember that your soul was offered a chance for immortality...through compassion. And you refused it through your own folly."
Whirling on her heel, she began walking quickly away from him. "How do I get back?" she demanded.
Then she was back. The Lifestream, once inviting, now was suffocating and flowing in the opposite direction. Kayley coughed and choked as she accidentally breathed some Mako into her lungs. Struggling, she stroked upwards with her arms until she thought she would die from lack of oxygen.
After what seemed like an eternity, she broke through the surface and gasped for air. It took her a minute or two before she noticed. Cloud, Daphne, Derin, and Cid. All staring at her with contempt and fear.
For the first time ever, Jenova felt her body tremble.
(Please be all right Barret, please be all right...) Tifa chided herself for going off so far. (If we had been closer when we heard the battle start...) But all her worrying was in vain, for the most part. As she came over the top of the little rise in the trail, she saw Barret very much alive–but also very much in combat.
Vincent stepped into the fray, touching the Enemy Skill in his Death Penalty. The orb glowed with a steady light as he cast Enemy Guard. Energy surrounded the three of them, creating barriers against physical attacks and magical, plus giving them a boost so they were faster.
Feeling safe enough for a momentary pause, Barret turned to them. "‘Bout time you two showed up! I think the peeps in the Crater failed, ‘cause we've seen this monster before."
Tifa gasped as she recognized it. (The Materia Keeper? But how...?) "I thought we killed it!"
"Red XIII said that if Jenova found herself within the Lifestream, all of our previous enemies would return to life. I suppose this is the first of many tortuous battles. On the bright side, if we die today, it will be the last."
Her eyes were on him. (Don't say things like that.)
He turned away. (I can't help it. Even my normal way of talking upsets her...)
Barret jumped forward, spraying the creature with another barrage of bullets. The Materia Keeper took a swipe at the large man, but he was able to duck out of the way.
Vincent got a good shot at the monster's head, and the retaliation for his attack was a cast of Dispel upon Tifa. The energy barriers around her disappeared and she no longer had her rush of speed.
Gathering her energy, Tifa prepared to summon something big. She glanced at her armlet. (Choco/Mog. Umm...no.) She lifted up her Premium Heart and looked in the slots. (Guess the best I can do is Odin.) The red orb glowed as she did the ritualistic motion. A haziness began to pervade the forms of the three allies and they faded away.
Storming down from the mountains, Odin charged upon his six-legged horse, tossing his Gunge Lance in the air. The huge heavy weapon delivered a shattering blow to the head of the Materia Keeper. Then the god picked up his lance and simply rode back into the distance.
The hit had been critical, and the monster was now enraged. Gathering what must have been close to all of its remaining energy, the Materia Keeper managed to whip up the strongest Trine spell that the group had ever seen.
Imagine a pyramid of lightning; they were all inside of it. The sheer force of the energy involved brought Vincent to his knees, but, for some reason or another, he was wearing his Tetra-Elemental pin. Any bolt that passed through his M-Barrier was drawn into the odd piece of metal, keeping him from harm. He got back to his feet and checked on the others.
Barret had stood his ground and was grinning as he held up his Bolt Armlet, dispersing anything that came near him.
A little moan of pain came from Vincent's other side. He turned and saw Tifa struggling to sit up from her position, lying on the ground. Even the last sparks were dancing around her body, flitting in her hair. There were burns on her bare skin. (How...?) Then he saw the problem. (Aurora Armlet, good for ice; Ribbon, prevents status change; and Fire-Elemental in her weapon; she was prepared for the Nibel Mountains but not such a deadly burst of electricity.) He also remembered the Dispel.
"Cure3," he said, feeling the energy soar through the materia. His blood ran cold as the monster's Ice3 spell struck him, but he did not take his eyes off of Tifa as she finally stood.
She suddenly felt herself being drawn to the ground again. The heaviness was unbearable. Feeling like she had gained a million pounds, she slumped in the snow. The Materia Keeper had cast a Demi spell on her.
Vincent looked at her in alarm. (Her breathing's becoming irregular...) He watched as a shiver passed through her. (...and the weather's getting to her...we've got to kill this thing and get to an inn.)
"You a holy terror," yelled Barret, shaking his gun arm at the creature, "so take this, ya piece a' shit!" He held up his arm to the sky and summoned Alexander.
For some particular reason, this summoner struck a chord with the Materia Keeper; the monster reeled on its heels and ran away as fast as it could. The last thing the party saw was Alexander running after it. A few minutes later came a death cry as the three of them returned back to the battle site.
Tifa fell to the ground, completely unconscious.
Barret went wide-eyed and immediately brought the soothing power of Life to her aid. Vincent quickly followed with White Wind from his Enemy Skill.
She didn't wake up. Falling to his knees, Vincent reached down, touching her. He checked her pulse, then felt her forehead, her cheek, her hand. "She's alive," he said, hiding his relief.
"Then what the hell is wrong?" demanded Barret.
"She's very cold." He glanced at her clothing. "Probably should have worn warmer clothing. She might be in shock despite all of our curative spells." Wrapping her up in his cape, he gently took her in his arms. "We have to get her inside...and quickly."
"Damn Nibelheim is closest place," muttered Barret.
He nodded silently, and began walking quickly down the mountain. Barret could barely keep up, but that wasn't a problem. Vincent did not think that this would be a good time to have to explain all the worry in his eyes. Or how tightly he was clutching Tifa's lifeless form.
(...if we die today...)
Red XIII threw an X-Potion to Reeve, who managed to get the liquid down the quivering girl's throat.
Dizzily, Yuffie sat up and glared at the Diamond Weapon. "What did we do to piss off the Planet this time?"
Reeve dodged a swipe from the monstrosity and put his effort into calling up a Fire2. "We've stopped the Mako extracting!" he shouted at the Weapon, as if that was an important reason for its attack.
After the flames around the monster began to die down, Red XIII spewed forth his reserved energy. Calling upon Bahumet Zero, the figures of the three began to fade and blur while a serpentine creature flew to their aid. From a position galaxies away, Bahumet called upon the ancient powers of the universe; magic prior to the dawn of time.
As the beam shot towards the ground, towards the Diamond Weapon, Red XIII took the opportunity to shout his theory to the others. "I think the Planet didn't make this one! The Planet makes all sorts of different Weapons, all unique! This one was just regurgitated from the Lifestream!"
The Weapon fell over from the attack and was struggling to return to the upright position.
"I always wondered what it would do if that happened," said Yuffie. "Well, he deserves what he got. That thing pisses me off!"
An exasperated Red XIII rolled his eyes. "Then do something useful, like a Limit Break."
"I was going to, before you interrupted!"
By this time, the Weapon had gotten back to its feet and was preparing to send a beam of energy towards the bickering pair.
"Umm, guys?" said Reeve.
Turning to him, they glared. "What?!" they demanded at once.
He pointed to the Weapon.
"Eeek!" screamed Yuffie. Then she tore at the creature, unleashing the multiple blows of Doom of the Living.
"Red, isn't her master limit something else?"
"Yes," said Red XIII, "but even Yuffie realizes that multiple blows against an enemy are better than one semi-strong one."
"Ohhhhh," replied Reeve.
The Diamond Weapon shrieked in pain as the ninja delivered her last slice upwards. Red XIII and Reeve continued to assault the thing with their respective weapons.
Soon, the monster took a final shuddering breath, afterwards moving no more.
"Yay!" cheered Yuffie, hopping up and down.
"I just wonder why the Diamond Weapon picked here to attack," mused Red XIII.
Reeve shrugged. "Maybe because we're right next to a place where Lifestream is near the surface."
"That's gotta be it," said Yuffie.
"Probably." The lion nodded. "I don't know about anyone else, but I need a nice bath and a long rest."
The other two nodded their agreement vehemently. The group left the carcass of the Weapon in search of a place where three beds could be borrowed for a short time.
Timidly stepping out of the pool, Kayley brushed off the beads of Mako that formed on her arms. She noticed her pistol on the floor of the cavern; next to it lay a shattered Manipulate materia orb.
A pang hit her as she realized that she had been controlling Cloud with that orb. (That's because it was his job. He's a puppet!) The thought was as fierce as ever, but something in its tone echoed hollow. She knew the truth. (No matter. We are equal now.)
"Get ready to have your ass beat, you damn dirty bitch!" shouted Cid, attempting to rally the others around him.
They remained still though, surprised by the manner in which Kayley was moving around. She had a dramatic change in body language.
Cloud watched her angrily. (We have to be on our best guard for the evil falsity that is Jenova.)
"I suppose that is what I deserve," the woman replied humbly, kicking away her weapon. "Kill me."
Daphne turned to Derin in confusion. The look in her eyes was plain. (Is this part of the grand plan?)
A shudder went through Kayley's body. "Please," she said softly. (I doubt I have the will to do it myself any more.)
"Then let's have it done with," replied Cid triumphantly, preparing himself for a showdown. Daphne and Cloud did likewise.
"No." Derin's voice was firm.
"No?!" Daphne exclaimed.
Cloud's eyes widened. "So you're saying not to kill Jenova?"
"Kill me," Kayley begged as a tear fell from her eye to the ground. She stared at the drop in startled amazement. "I can cry?" she whispered.
He watched her with a discriminating eye, and then repeated himself. "No," Derin said once more.
"Why the fuck not?" demanded Cid.
"Something is off. If she had become one with herself, she would have become Jenova-Resurrection or some form of the sort. She's still Kayley and she wants to die." He sighed. "I suppose the Masters told me that the mission was such so we would chase her to the Lifestream."
"They told me I'm a human now," she spat out, disgusted. "You might as well kill me anyway, get your revenge while I stop my suffering."
Cloud looked at her. "But we're not supposed to do that, are we?"
Derin shook his head. "I doubt it."
Suddenly a loud shriek came from behind the group. Standing behind them was a gigantic form of what appeared to be Jenova.
"You tricked us!" cried Daphne. "You...bitch!" she shouted at Kayley.
The red-haired girl just shook her head in refusal and disbelief. Seeing what her form looked like through human eyes, she began to sob. First of all, she was weeping for what her life had been like and that she could never return.
The worst thing of all, though, was that through human eyes Jenova looked hideous. And the soul inside Kayley had never been more terrified in her life.
She watched as Cid impaled his spear in the monster's body. (What on the Planet can this mean?) she thought miserably.
(I'm still so cold. Why is it taking so long for Life to work completely?)
Tifa slowly became aware that she was covered by some sort of mantle or blanket. It felt like a hand was stroking her cheek–softly, so as not to wake her. She tried to summon the strength to open her eyes and sit up, but her eyelids felt like heavy weights.
She barely stirred and her lids fluttered, and Vincent took that as a cue. (She's waking up. Finally.) It had been a couple hours since they had gotten the rooms at the Nibelheim Inn. He had convinced Barret to rest off his battle wounds, but Vincent had been in one place, and one place only. Tifa's bedside.
Eyes finally open, she looked at her surroundings in confusion. A choked whisper came from her lips. "Where?"
Swallowing his relief and the flood of emotions he didn't understand, Vincent answered. "The inn. You're in Nibelheim."
"The physician said it was a combination of physical shock and hypothermia."
"Oh." She looked up at him.
"He told me to advise you to wear pants and a shirt that covers you up the next time you venture up into the mountains."
She shook her head a little. "I grew up here, I know what I can handl–"
"You nearly died. Perhaps you need to reinvestigate what you can handle."
"Vincent? I'm sorry...but what did I do to you? Why should you be mad at me? So the weather got a little chillier than I expected..." She sat up timidly. "No biggie."
He still did not look her. "Maybe you misheard what I said. You nearly died."
"Everything turned out fine though. I'm okay." Tifa tried to summon up a small smile.
(Thank the Planet for that.) But he said nothing.
"Vincent?" She shivered beneath the bedspread.
"Are you cold?"
"Only a little."
He met her eyes. "I can ask them to light you a fire."
"Nah, I'll be fine."
"Are you sure?" There was a concern lying deep within his red eyes. "Because the most important thing is for you to get better."
Tifa nodded slowly, her eyes still locked on his.
Never letting his gaze falter, Vincent leaned down and pulled the loose ends of the bedspread around her body. "Does that help?" he asked earnestly.
He had been careful to keep the cool metal of his claw far from her. This effort, along with moving the blanket, had left him with his one good arm nearly encircling her waist.
They had never broken eye contact. Their lips were only mere centimeters apart. She whispered. "Yes."
Instinct took over a mind ravaged with worry. Penance was forgotten for a moment.
The kiss was tender, and she instantly responded to it, wrapping her arms around him. Lips soon parted and his arm pulled her closer, crushing her against him.
"Vincent," breathed Tifa.
The soft sound intervened with his mind and he pulled himself away.
Confusion filled burgundy eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said, voice filled with remorse.
(Why is he sorry? Sorry for touching me? I–I...) Tifa's expression became full of pain.
(I cannot do anything right. Why did I ever release myself from my prison deep within the crypt of the mansion?) His eyes closed and he turned from her, walking towards the door.
She wanted to call out; she swore to herself she did. As she silently watched him exit the room and close the door behind him.
"Don't be sorry, Vincent," said Tifa, to no one in particular.
The cloud of Bio3 sent over the group was suffocating, and they fell to their knees, coughing.
Derin coughed and used the White Wind enemy skill. The healing breezes restored their energy and health at once.
Jumping forward with his sword, Cloud viciously slashed the slimy being in front of him. Screeching and flailing, the form of Jenova unleashed a useless attack of "????" upon Daphne.
The girl smirked and touched one of her green materia. A sudden burst of energy penetrated the air, and a huge fireball enveloped Jenova. The casting had been so strong, that Daphne was knocked off her feet. "Geez, Derin, never told me your materia was that good," she shouted over the din.
Shaking his head, Cid turned back to the enemy and watched as the form took a final shuddering breath, then crumpled to the floor. "Well, shit, that was easy."
Derin cautiously approached the carcass. "This doesn't look like a very strong monster."
Puzzled, Cloud joined him. "Oh man. We've seen this form of Jenova before. It's just Jenova-Birth."
The group whirled around as they heard someone stand up behind them. Kayley glanced at them with frightened eyes. "I don't understand," she said softly, "I thought that things would come back to life after I made it into the Lifestream."
"Well you should be proud then," spat Daphne sarcastically, "you were right. You unleashed a bunch of terrors back onto this Planet. Terrors that we had already eliminated."
She stared back in surprise. "But that's the thing. Someone...in the Lifestream...said that I didn't break free. He said that a council had decided that I should live a human life, and that coming here, to the crater, was what I needed to do to know my purpose."
Cloud glanced among his companions, to see if anyone was buying her crap. (Why does Derin look like he understands this oh so well?) "What is it, Derin?"
Ignoring his old spike-headed companion, he looked to Kayley. "What else did this person say to you?"
Tossing back her red locks, she held her head high. "That the Elders in charge of my home world were asses, and this life they gave me will determine the fate of everyone back on my planet." A bitter laugh escaped from her lips. "No pressure."
"What reason do we have to believe you?" demanded Daphne.
"Does it matter?! I already told you to kill me, you stupid bitch!"
The two girls glared at each other while Cloud and Derin watched this exchange nervously.
"Well does anyone have a fucking suggestion for what to do now?" muttered Cid.
The others turned to him expectantly.
"From my view, I see that we had a mission to save Cloud and make sure things weren't gonna come out of the Lifestream. Well we got Cloud, but those damn monsters are coming back, while Miss "I'm a Reincarnated E.T." claims that it isn't her fault and she was supposed to do what she did!"
"There isn't anything left here for us to do," said Derin, "so I suggest that we call the others, meet back up in Junon, and try to figure things out."
"What about the alien?" sneered Cid.
Seeing the fear in Kayley's eyes and pitying her situation, he looked thoughtful. "She's just one person. I suggest that as long as we keep her heavily guarded, the best place for her to be is with us. Having her will only help find the solution to this new problem."
A soft snicker came from Daphne's direction. "Whatever you say, Zack," she whispered to herself.
Cloud led the group out of the cavern. Next came Cid, who managed to keep his spear aimed directly at Kayley while carrying on a PHS conversation with Red XIII. Daphne lightly trotted behind them.
And Derin brought up the rear of the group, wondering if he had been the only one who heard Daphne mocking him.
Tifa slowly approached Vincent's door and cautiously, she knocked.
"Come in," replied a somber voice.
She kept her eyes directed on the lovely floorboards of the Nibelheim Inn bedroom. "I thought I heard the PHS ring."
"Yes." Vincent stood up and walked to the window. "Cid's group didn't stop Kayley. However, she appears to be of little threat at this moment. Cloud is fine."
"What are we supposed to do?" said Tifa, allowing herself to look up.
"Barret and I decided, and Cid agreed. We'll stay here tonight and the Airship will pick us up in the morning."
"Thanks for asking me," she muttered sarcastically.
"I thought you were asleep. You're supposed to be resting."
"According to you, I am. But I'm a grown woman, you know, I can take care of myself."
Vincent shrugged. "Fine then. How will you get along if you happen to pass out the next time in a situation where there's no one around to carry you to safety?"
Her eyes widened in anger. "What are you trying to do, Vincent?"
"Get you angry with me," he replied matter-of-factly. "You should have been mad for what I did to you in your room, but you're not, so I'm trying to give you a reason."
"Like I need any more reasons than those you already give to me? You butt into my life, my issues, and then act like I'm not supposed to care. You take it upon yourself to assume that you know my needs, my dreams, and my desires. Is there anything else you can do to me to make me more angry?"
"I'm not the first one to try and help you. Yet, you've brushed those people aside."
"Oh, so since I haven't managed to do that with you, you think it's all right to be this way?"
"I just don't see why this would bother you any more than with another person." He grabbed her shoulder, forcing her to face him.
"It bothers me because you've been absolutely right."
He blinked back surprise.
Tifa glanced down. "You've been absolutely right...up until the point where you left me in my room."
"Isn't in funny, how the thing I ought to object to most, according to you...is something I wanted?" She brushed his hand from her shoulder. "I'll get out of your way now. It's time we dealt with what you want."
She paused at the doorway. "What?"
(Don't go!) his mind shouted.
"That's what I–"
His mouth formed words on its own. "My wants don't deserve to be fulfilled. I don't deserve to be happy. But if I did...I wouldn't be letting you walk out that door."
"But you are letting me," she said softly. Her eyes met his.
Vincent turned away, not chancing a glance in her direction until he heard the slam of the door behind her. (Things will be better this way.)
Cloud's group strode cheerfully into Icicle Inn. "Two rooms, please," he said.
Daphne started. "Only two?"
"One for sleeping, one for guarding Kayley," said Cid, "simple math, girl."
"Oh geez, thanks a lot," she muttered sarcastically.
"I want my own room," demanded Kayley.
"We're not leaving you alone," declared Cloud, pocketing his change.
"Oh, kinda like last night then," she said, smirking.
Daphne's eyes widened as she saw tinges of red come to his face. "What is she saying, Cloud?"
"It's nothing." He cleared his throat. "Let's drop off our junk and see about getting something to eat."
Trudging up the stairs, Kayley poked Daphne in the back. "Want to know about your man?" she whispered.
"Yes. I mean, well, he's not my man..." (Yet.)
The red-head flashed her brightest grin. "He was wonderful. Like a stallion. Lasted so long..."
"You slut," Daphne sneered as she turned to face her adversary.
"Believe me, I wouldn't take just anyone. Unlike spike-head over there. Maybe you'll need to invest in a tight leash once he is your man."
The others turned to face the pair, hearing some heated words, just in time to see Kayley get cracked across the face.
"You better learn to keep your mouth shut," Daphne said in a low voice, "because even if Derin has a soft righteous heart, there are several of us that would love to see you dead."
"It's nice to see your true colors come out now that you aren't hiding behind your disguise of savior of the Planet, Cetra," she replied, loud enough for the rest to hear.
Cloud grabbed her roughly by the arm, dragging her with him. He handed his bag to Daphne. "Drop this off for me. I guess I'll take first watch, since Kayley appears to be a little less harmless than some of us would think."
Daphne took the bag and walked quickly to the other hotel room.
Cid looked at Derin. "You knew Aeris a long time?"
"Well...maybe you can help me out a little. I didn't know the damn girl for that long, and she seemed nice enough. But to be blunt...she seems a little more...bitchy now. Maybe I should wait and see if it's PMS or something..."
"Cid." He took a deep breath and continued. "Yes, she's been acting a little different than she had in the time that I've known her. I think it may be partially because of the pressure of resuming her old life. We...came back here from a peaceful plane."
"You're taking it pretty well."
"I can still clearly remember that place. I was sent as a guide. Aeris came for her life back, so her memory has faded. In her fuzzy recollections, all she can tell is that this place isn't as happy as others she has been. Hopefully, she will become more tolerable."
He gave Derin a funny glance. "Mind if I ask something personal?"
"I guess not."
"You and Aeris? And then Cloud is butting in your way?"
"In some ways. Yes, I do love her," he said softly. "But in part, she came back for him. I have to accept that, it's a fact. Doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt."
"You're stronger than I thought, kid. Don't know what I'd do if Sh–if I was in a similar situation."
Derin worked up a little grin. "Oh I'm sure you'd be just as strong. Maybe curse a little more."
"Can't help that I like my words to be full of fucking color."
"Nope." (And I can't help but be startled... Aeris sounds so harsh to my ears. Was she always like this, and is it because my mind is clear now, that they sting so? Or has she become rough around the edges, lost, and striking out in fear...)
Part 6- Enchantment Denied
"Child." Eldor smiled. His smile brought with it the warmth and glow of a summer's day. The grace of the Elders was so encompassing, it made the Promised Land itself seem brighter.
Aeris paused, her gown and hair fluttering in the light, spring-like breeze.
"Sit." He gestured to a place beside him.
She did as she was directed, managing a tentative smile.
"You have a question on your mind."
Nodding, she finally dared to speak. "It is a very serious question, one which I bring to you only after much consideration. I fear that it is wrong to ask it, though."
"The only wrong question here is that which is left unspoken. You are here for us to guide you. If you are lost, the only way to lead you to your path–is to know the point where you've wandered off."
"Do all questions come from losing the path?"
Eldor contemplated his reply. "It's not quite as black and white as that. A question comes form not seeing the path, but you can be on the path and not know it. It's clearer here, but on the Planet, the path is invisible; yet many walk along it nonetheless."
He continued. "Questions aren't the indicator there, it's the answers. Here, you will always get guiding answers; it's your decision whether or not to embrace them."
"I want to find my path," said Aeris softly.
"Then, child, I must hear your question."
"Can I go back?"
"Already? Don't you like it here?"
"Not if my death causes another person so much pain." She sighed. "I don't ask this for myself."
"Are you sure? What you want most, that is your greatest illusion. You cannot move along the path and have that desire come to be."
"Zack told me that the time a life exists is but a blink of an eye up here. If it were about me missing this person, I could cope. But down there, things are harder. Time moves so slowly."
The Elder looked at her, with eyes full of sadness. "This grieves me. You have come so far in these months. Life is a lesson...and you ask to defy the lesson."
"Then you can join me. It is an ironic agony, to feel so much sorrow in the midst of paradise."
"You lived a life close to the Promised Land. When your next time comes, it will be hard for you, you will be separated from this place you hold dear. That is your next lesson."
"I just want a short time as myself!"
Eldor's voice was stern. "You will never return as Aeris. Aeris will never be on the Planet again. Her consciousness is sensitive..."
"I am Aeris. That is not something you can know, my strengths."
"The return of Aeris would be unnatural. The results would be nothing like you expected. And the price would be high for you...perhaps even the Planet. You could potentially cause the upset of a delicate balance...asking for me or another elder to extricate the mortal component of a consciousness from the Lifestream."
"My death itself was unnatural!" cried Aeris. "It was decided by the motives of a being outside the Planet, outside us!"
"You would have me put the Planet at risk, just because you think your course was altered by something beyond it?"
"You would imprison me here? A slight risk has that much bearing...when I myself had saved the Planet?"
He was silent for a moment, thinking quietly to himself. "Most souls enjoy a longer rest. But if you are so eager, I will allow you to continue your lesson." (And until she departs, she will now hear only what she wants to hear from me. For at this stage...that is all she will listen to.)
"Thank you for allowing me to question things." She bowed.
"Tell me now, the main reason why you wish to live again."
"This is not the end. This is only the beginning. I can't let it end like this. I won't let it end like this..."
(Such a rare young soul...so wise and fresh at the same time. She learned one lesson quickly–discrimination–to be able to set aside her desires to fulfill her destiny. She will soon learn another–distinguishing.
Each time on the Planet is a unique time and a unique role. There is no mystical rule barring a soul from going back to the previous role–it is simply impossible. And after learning this lesson, no soul would try to go back.)
"...There is too much pain involved." Aeris folded her arms across her chest and stared at the master with contempt.
(Yes, pain. But not in the manner you perceive it. Soon, child, you will know that all too well.)
Daphne awoke with a start, her mind racing. ("...put the Planet at risk...") She shook her head. (It was only a dream. Even the images of it are beginning to fade. They would stay fresh...I would remember everything if it had really happened in the Promised Land...right?) She closed her eyes. The truth was, she couldn't remember anything about the Promised Land except for joy...and some sort of slight aching.
A tear rolled slowly down her cheek. (I could see the beyond much more clearly even as Aeris. I was never lonely, I was never afraid. Somehow, I know in my heart that it was a beautiful place, a place where pain was forgotten, and many things were taught.)
(What could have possibly been so important that I would want to leave such a place? I probably begged to go...I wonder why?)
She wrapped her blanket around herself and snuggled into her pillow, silent tears softly falling. (I wonder why I have this feeling that I had to hurt someone in order to go...)
Derin sat on one of the beds, sword tip placed on the floor. He had the hilt in one hand and was spinning it with the other.
"Isn't this rich? You have to miss out on sleep to guard a suicidal me. I have to miss out on sleep because I don't trust you."
"I won't kill you."
"Why do you understand so much of what I said? Why do you believe me?"
He sighed. "I was sent here from the Promised Land to guard against some sort of imminent danger. I'm an avatar of my pure soul, so I have a feeling I'm a tad bit more understanding than...well anybody."
"Is that a normal thing to happen here?" Kayley looked at him questioningly. "Every time this ol' chunk of rock is in danger, to send a special protector from the Promised Land?"
"Now that I think about it...not really." He looked slightly puzzled. "I mean, until recently, there were Ancients here, but their existence wasn't to save the Planet. They were the ‘let life happen as it may,' led by destiny, nomadic types."
"But you're here to help this place?"
He nodded. "Maybe even to help you. The Elders were mysterious in my job description. They told me I'd eventually figure out why they sent me, though."
"You know what would help me?" The redhead smiled a little. "If you could get that chick with the black hair to get off my case."
"Riss hasn't been anything like herself lately. Of course, that's to be expected, I suppose."
"You have feelings for her?"
(She's quickly learning insights, for a former alien.) "In some ways, if there were an essence beyond feelings, that would express what it is I–" He paused. "I care for her now. When I loved her, she had brown hair and green eyes."
Derin laughed bitterly. "No. Her last life...she was the last Ancient."
"She's kinda harsh for a special protection person, don't you think?" Kayley's eyes were wide. "I mean, that's what she is, isn't she?"
"That's what she thinks she is."
The night air surrounding Icicle Inn was cool and crisp, awakening Daphne's sleepy mind as she slipped out the lobby entrance. (What am I doing? I don't even know where I'm going to go...) She closed her eyes for a brief moment, then forced herself to move forward, slipping onto the Airship.
(All I know is that I have to go. The way we have been seeing things is terribly wrong somehow. I need to figure out who I am before we can figure out how to set the Planet right.)
The mechanical door slid open with a whoosh. Daphne stepped inside the stable and silently thanked all the powers that be. For a golden chocobo, Cloud's chocobo in fact, was tied up inside, cheerfully munching on some greens.
"Hey girl," she whispered softly to it.
"That's it." She grabbed the reins, stuffing some greens into her bag, and slowly led the chocobo through the ship and onto the gangplank. With a light hop, she boosted herself on top of it.
Tugging gently on the reins, she led the bird at a trot until she was well outside the village. Daphne looked back at the inn, noticing that only one of the rooms was lit at this late hour. "I'll come back," she whispered. "You got to know who you are, and what your purpose is. I need to know mine."
Urging Goldie on, she galloped away, her course lit by moonlight. (It wasn't supposed to be like this.)
It was nearing daybreak when Derin stumbled into the alternate hotel room, off of his late watch. "Cid, your turn," he said.
The pilot rolled over and swung at the source of the voice. "Already went...don't wanna get up. Have Aeris do it."
"Whatever..." his voice trailed off into incoherent mumblings that were most likely cursing.
Scratching his head, Derin thought to himself. (I only need a couple hours of sleep...maybe she can handle it.) He looked around the room. (Okay, that yellow spike has to belong to Cloud and then...) Two empty beds. His first conclusion led him to scrutinize Cloud's bed, but the guy was alone, snoring pretty loudly to boot. (The bathroom?) No, that was empty. He slowly walked back over to where Cid was sleeping. "She's gone."
"Good riddance...Shera was a dumbass."
"No, Daphne's gone!" He raised his voice so loud there was a stirring across the room.
"Daphne left? Maybe she's just at the store or something."
"At four in the morning?"
"It was never like Aeris to take off to be by herself."
Derin shrugged. "If you find her here, then I'll believe you. But she may be in danger, and then we definitely need to find her."
Dying moonlight shined down on an unlikely trio sleeping outside the inn at Mideel. Two humans curled together comfortably and were using a fire-red creature as their pillow.
Reeve blinked awake, taking a moment to gather his surroundings, before remembering what led him there. (First, the "no vacancy" sign. No compassion from the innkeeper, not even for the exhausted people who had prevented a second trashing of his town.) Eventually, he had managed to convince a growly Red XIII to keep those of his friends not graced with a fur coat cozy and warm.
He had just laid down next to Yuffie, covering them both with the cape of the Sephiroth costume and voila–warmth.
As if on cue, the restless ninja tossed off the makeshift blanket. Reeve waited until she stopped stirring, then placed it back around her. (I know she stole materia and everything, but this kid still gets a bum rap. I'm more accepted by these guys, and I was privy to the Sector 7 plate drop! She's not that bad. It's just unfortunate that any niceness or attention on my part encourages her crush on me...but someone has to show her kindness.)
Suddenly, the silence about them was broken by the ring of a PHS. Reeve grabbed it and held it to his ear as his companions awoke, grumbling. "Hello?"
"Reeve?" Cloud's voice wavered. "She's gone."
"Who's gone?" Yuffie and Red XIII exchanged concerned looks.
"Aeris. She's vanished. Last time this happened, she–"
"Have you checked all around Icicle Inn?"
"No trace. It's been snowing, and...she took my gold chocobo. That's why I'm calling. She could be anywhere."
"Yeah, that's probably true." Reeve covered the mouthpiece and addressed his wide-eyes friends. "It's Cloud. Apparently Aeris–Daphne–got on his chocobo and took off. He's pretty distraught." He went back to the conversation. "Well, what do you want us to do?"
"Look for her! Daphne lived in Mideel."
"Okay. If she asks about you, we'll let you–"
"Wait. You have to bring her–"
"Could. She's obviously going through a complicated time right now. She has a right to privacy–"
"I don't know why I bothered calling here. The cat's a stoic, Yuff's a brat, and you're just Shinra."
Reeve heard a click as the line went dead. "I think he hung up on me."
"He must be pretty shaken up," remarked Red XIII. "I'll call Cid later to confirm our time of departure in the morning."
Yuffie was more reactive to this news. "What a jerk! If I was Aeris, I'd run away, too."
"It must be pretty overwhelming for her."
"I bet, Red." An odd look crossed Reeve's face. "Maybe she's torn between Daphne's life and her old one. We have no idea how long she lived as this girl."
Joel rested his head on his pillow, sleepily musing about his life. He liked having his own place; he'd been there about a month, ever since Daphne convinced him to get out from under his parents' roof.
(I can't believe I was foolish enough to think she told me to move...because she wanted to get me alone.) Before, there had been a huge age difference. Before, he hadn't wanted to be tied down...
(She's shown me such strength. I'm in so much awe at her resilience. Losing everything but...me. I was stupid enough to think that would keep her here.)
It had been three days without a word from Daphne, and Joel was worried.
A soft knock came at the door of his studio apartment. Standing up, he went to unlock the door. "Come in," he said, stepping back to prepare for anything.
His eyes widened in surprise, and, without a word, he had his visitor locked in a tight embrace.
"I guess this means you're glad to see me?"
"Daph." His voice was barely above a whisper. "I–why didn't you tell me you were going away?"
"I'm sorry if I worried you." She lowered her eyes to the floor. "It's been a wild few days. You know that guy I met at the bar a couple weeks ago?"
"The blonde poky hair kid?"
"Yeah." Daphne nodded. "I saw him in town and we went out to the arcade. Turns out he's Cloud Strife."
Joel's eyes were as big as saucers. "The Cloud Strife? Of Avalanche?"
"There's been some trouble happening around the Planet lately. I managed to get myself mixed up in all of it."
"My Daph's been busy saving the world?"
"I like that." She smiled.
"Saving the world?"
Daphne shook her head. "No, the other part. But anyway... I'm in trouble."
"What is it?"
"I don't know how this happened...but for some reason or another, Cloud thinks that I'm his dead friend...that Aeris girl?" She shivered. "I ran away. I got scared...I don't know how to make him think I'm just me...normal me."
"Sounds like he's a little crazy." Joel's voice was cold. "Pretending you're someone else? When he could just have...you."
She wrapped her arms around him, drawing him even closer. "He might come after me," Daphne whispered.
"Strife'll have to go through me," he swore.
She looked up at met his eyes. "Joel...you don't have to..."
"Yes, I do." He was startled as he felt her lips on his, forceful and steady. He deepened the kiss and held her tightly, nearly crushing her body against his.
Breaking away, she looked up at him. "I've been up all night," she said softly.
"I'm sorry...are you all right?"
"Don't be sorry. And besides being tired, I'm perfectly fine."
He led her to his bed and tucked her in after she laid down. "All I have is yours. Everything will be okay. You're home now, Daphne."
Gazing up at the warmth in his eyes and the first morning light reflected in them, she snuggled down into the warm bed. (I'm home.)
Tifa pushed her scrambled eggs around the breakfast plate. Sighing, she set her fork down and took another sip of coffee.
Barret eyed her with firm judgment. "Aw come on, Teef, ya gotta eat something. ‘Specially after yesterday."
"I'm fine," she insisted.
"I woulda complained that you hadn't even buttered your toast...but since ya haven't even taken a bite outta it..."
"Barret, please. I'm trying my best." She forced a mouthful of eggs down just to prove her point. "Besides, I'm sure when Vincent gets off the PHS, he'll be telling us we need to hurry out of here to catch the Airship."
"Hardly." The two of them looked up from their meal to see the dark-haired man glowering in the doorway. "Cloud has decided we're not going to be leaving today."
"What the hell?"
"That was my thought, Barret. Apparently, Aeris, or Daphne if you will, has left and Cloud wants us to search the area for her."
"How would she have gotten here so quickly?" Tifa absentmindedly spread some butter on her toast and took a bite.
"She stole his golden chocobo. I doubt she's here, though."
"She probably went home," concurred the brunette. "I mean, just because we're used to leaving people at the drop of a hat, she never was. Besides, Aeris just learned she was back. Maybe she wants to visit other friends that she hasn't seen since she died."
Barret tossed down his napkin and stood up. "Well, I'll go look around just to satisfy spike-head." He walked to the door. "And you, eat something!" he yelled to Tifa, in parting.
"Seems like I'm not the only one concerned about you," remarked Vincent.
"Between you and him, I feel like an infant."
"I can cool it. Barret either cannot or will not, so that's not much help in terms of breakfast." He smiled slightly. "Besides, I think you took care of breakfast during our conversation."
Tifa glanced down and noticed that she really had eaten most everything on her plate. "Wow. I guess I just needed a little distraction."
"How are you?" he asked, his tone of voice changing slightly.
"Confused," she answered honestly. "You?"
"Then make it up to me," she said lightly. "Tell me how you feel."
"Don't shit me around, Vincent. We both know what I'm asking for. Let's just say I'll accept that in lieu of any sorrowful apology you may want to spit out at me." She drank the last bit of her coffee. "Let me know what's on your mind for once."
"I feel that you should not be in pain any longer. I would like to take it all away, but I don't know how to do so without causing more."
"How do you think you cause me pain?" Tifa asked cautiously.
He was silent for a moment. "I never make you smile. I make you frown or cry."
"You think too much. You don't make me frown, you just happened to be there when I had something to frown about. I caused my own pain."
"I want you to have joy."
"Then do something about it."
All he did was look away.
"Is that it, then? You're just going to give up? I guess I am better off without you trying to make me happy!"
"What do you want me to do?"
Tifa opened her mouth to respond but shook her head.
She interrupted him. "Kiss me."
They were motionless for a moment, both stunned by her frankness. Then Vincent silently walked over to where she was sitting, leaned over, and did what he was best at. He listened.
The late morning sun shone on Daphne's face. She sat up, lazily stretching her arms above her head. Crawling out of bed, she gazed out the window.
She answered without turning around. "It's gorgeous outside. Only a cloud in the sky." She peered at the strange spot near the sun and shrugged a bit.
Joel yawned loudly.
"Long night? I hope I didn't wake you when I came in last night."
"Nah. I'd just gotten off, actually. Running the bar alone has been killing me."
"I'm sorry for taking off," she apologized.
"It's all right. Helping me wasn't even your job anyway."
"It can be. Tell ya what. Give me the keys and I'll open."
"What if Strife comes back?"
She smiled. "I'll look into hiring some security." Daphne had thought up an interesting idea while sitting at the convention.
"Still wear blue suits, huh?"
Rude peered at the stranger above his sunglasses. "You are going to complain about neat presentation?"
"No, I'm happy." Daphne shook her head, ebony hair swishing gently. "Three guards, ready to go, they even come with a uniform."
"We're more than just security guards...shit..." Reno leaned back into his chair. "What the hell are we doing here, guys, we're the Turks–elite forces."
"Elite forces that can't get a job," Elena reminded him. "Well, at least, you can't."
"She's right. You're the one who's been holding us back from all the other job offers we've had." Rude was probably glaring behind his shades.
"Hey, just ‘cause they're missing out on a great thing, don't mean it's my fault!" the disheveled man protested.
The blonde rolled her eyes. "So when do we start?"
Reno raised an eyebrow. "Short notice there, babe."
Daphne crossed her arms. "Look I have my reasons."
Elena and Rude shot pointed looks at their inept comrade.
"Fine, fine...we'll do it." He threw his hands up in the air.
"Great!" She hopped up from the table. "One of you should stand near the door, and the other two should stay inside and make sure no one causes trouble." She began walking towards the storage room in back. "Oh, and one more thing. If anyone from Avalanche comes in...feel free to toss them back on the street immediately."
Reno's eyes appreciatively followed her out of the room. "My kinda girl."
Elena gave another pointed look to Reno. "It's a secure job. Just promise you won't do anything stupid."
"Have I ever–"
"Yes," answered his partners in unison.
Red XIII paced around the sandy shore impatiently. (Damn Cloud and his irrational mind. There are more serious problems on our hands then whether or not his girlfriend would like some alone time.)
"It's just as we thought." Reeve caught up with the big cat, Yuffie trailing a few footsteps behind him.
A grimace. "No Daphne," he growled.
Reeve sighed and plopped himself down on the beach. "Of course not."
"This is very annoying." Yuffie bounced up and down impatiently.
"The last thing we should be doing is going on wild goose chases such as these. It was bad enough back when we were chasing Sephi–" Red XIII was interrupted by the ring of their PHS.
Grabbing the portable phone, Reeve held it up to the feline's ear, figuring that way was easier than waiting for him to sit down.
"This is Derin."
"Do you feel like picking us up yet?"
"We're on our way. Finally. We just barely managed to convince Cloud not to haul us back up to the crater."
Red XIII rolled his eye. "That's a relief, at least. How is Jenova?"
"I'm very surprised at her behavior. But her story seems to be checking out. She's rather weak and tired at the moment, since she hasn't slept. I've been keeping watch on her, mainly because I think she's going to jump out the window."
"Guilt for her crimes. Living as one of us. May actually have to start respecting the powers-that-be for that little decision."
"I'm more worried about these creatures...that you all say that you've seen–and destroyed–before."
"Somehow, the delicate balance between life and death has become upset. Not only is it disturbing, but I fear that it will place more strain on the Planet than it can handle. It has only begun to repair itself from the damage of Meteor."
"I wonder what is causing it."
"At the moment, I don't even want to ponder it. Even though Cloud's erratic behavior has been slowing us down...we may need to figure out what the cause of that is before we continue. That is how things were before."
"As we said in my Soldier days, a group is only as strong as its leader. I'm gonna let you go, seeing as the island chain Mideel is on just came in sight."
"We will continue this discussion soon." Red XIII nodded to Reeve, who put up the phone. "The Highwind will arrive shortly." His furry brow was knitted with fierce concentration. ("As we said in my Soldier days..." I hope I have not been speaking foolishly. Derin and Daphne could very well present the key to Cloud's behavior. Not with their presence, but because of their pasts.)
Walking along the cobblestone street, Vincent gazed at the sleepy little village around him. (Nothing is different than it was five years ago–or twenty-five.) The rebuilding feat was truly a marvel, for nothing in this town had seemed to age. (No wonder I awoke and thought only a year or two had passed. Imagine my surprise to know that the child and woman I'd failed to protect...had grown, decayed...and now, have died.)
Of course, everything except for the mansion had stayed the same. There were even a few spots along one of the corners of the wrought-iron fence where the Shinra renovators had neglected to fix the paint that had been blackened by lapping flames. The house itself lay dilapidated. Even from the street, the smell of rotting wood would waft over to the nose of a curious passer-by.
The dark figure turned, fixated on some distant sound that human ears would not have picked up at such a distance. Walking down the square opposite his crypt-site for the past quarter century, he entered the second house. Once inside, the sound became clearer. Piano music, the tones a simple tune, uplifting and haunting at the same time. He walked up the stairs, following the song to a bedroom door, which he quietly opened.
Tifa sat in a replica of her former room, hands gliding over ivory and ebony, playing from the sheet music that had been left behind.
"I thought you might be here."
She stopped, a bit startled, and turned to gaze at her interrupter.
"The Shinra duplication of this village was remarkably accurate."
Tifa poked a key. B flat. "They left a piano that's out of key, though." The note rang clear at first, but slowly the tone sounded more and more warped. "Big no-no."
"I received a call earlier, via PHS. Red and I were discussing the reemergence of past foes. He believes that these revived monsters are a crisis for the Planet." Vincent looked at her entreatingly.
"What do you want me to say?" She laughed a bit. "A crisis for the Planet? Why wouldn't it be? Generally speaking, after we kill things, we expect them to be dead."
"I am sure that's what Sephiroth expected."
"You can't possibly be suggesting..." Tifa's voice trailed off as she examined the expression on his face. "Look, I have a reason to be picking trouble with Aeris, but even I think it's preposterous to suggest that she's at fault for the rebirth of monsters."
"My idea did not come about because I begrudge the girl anything, certainly not. I respect what she did, giving her life for ours. I would not give any more time to the concept, except for the fact that it still remains logical despite scrutinizing it from every different angle I can find."
"Things can't work like that." She shook her head. "She gave up so much before...she's only getting what she deserves. This can't be her fault...it's impossible...it's not fair!"
"Was it fair for Sephiroth to be mutilated in utero, raised in a cold unforgiving laboratory, trained to kill, and then deceived by an alien being from beyond our star system?" Vincent placed a hand on her shoulder. "I couldn't even bring up my idea to Barret. Please respect my confidence."
Tifa nodded a bit, her eyes damp. "It can't be Aeris though...there must be something we're missing..."
"The Airship is coming to pick us up shortly...I think I will have to call a group discussion for this."
"Cloud won't like your idea," she whispered.
"Cloud," Vincent said quietly, "has not had a rational outlook on this subject at any point in time. For him to take one now would be more than out of character, it would be miraculous."
("It's not merely whispering to you this time.")
Daphne's dozy eyes popped open with a start, her heart racing. (Must have been a dream.) She shook her head. The day at the bar was being quite slow indeed. Leaning forward and resting her chin on her arm, she glanced around at the one customer they were entertaining. (I wonder if Joel will let me go home...) She knew it would be stupid to ask for that, though. A bar was busiest in the evening.
She lay her head down in the crook of her elbow, yawning a bit. She'd hardly gotten any sleep the night before. What little shut-eye she'd managed to collect, was contaminated with bizarre, upsetting dreams...
"The Planet. Are you too far away to hear, or too close-minded?"
Only Ancients can hear the Planet...
"You assume too much. Did you ever stop to ponder that only Ancients heard the Planet, because they were the only people who cared enough to listen?"
I used to hear the Planet, the Promised Land...but now I don't. I've tried!
"Hmm...so now you are deaf, dumb...and blind? Look around you. Can't you see what's happening? Things are coming to pass. Maybe you never got the chance to see them before...but you know what you're looking at. You know in your heart that something has gone terribly, horribly wrong."
Isn't there always something?
"Perhaps. But that doesn't mean a soul should go out of their way to cause problems. The ‘somethings' that always seem to come up, are easily managed by the Planet. Natural catastrophes, floods, droughts, simple meteor showers, earthquakes, forest fires...these are all natural and part of the Planet's functioning. Jenova came from beyond this Planet. Her destruction was nothing short of unnatural."
I understand that. That's why I had to fight it...fight her. Don't presume that I am stupid.
"This is not assumption, merely observation. You disregard nature...break nature...why not allow others to do so."
I didn't go against nature! I only asked for my reward...I asked for my life back, I just wanted to have a chance to live out my–
"Your sacrifice was great. You gave your life to save the Planet. By returning, you are taking back your gift. You paid a price. And now you're asking for your money back. So sure, take your life..."
"You're only rendering your sacrifice worthless.")
Kayley walked along the deck of the Highwind, actually alone for once. She gazed down at the swiftly passing landscapes, in awe of the speed and height at which she was moving. Somewhere in her mind, though, lurked the faint memories of hyperdrives, light speed, time dilation, and star systems so far away, the light of their birth only reached this Planet as the stars themselves were dying.
(Why do I find such wonder and delight at these simple, low-level experiences? I know of better ways to fly...better things to see...and of places these base creatures could not even hope to fathom.)
Still though, she gazed at the sky with a bit of wonder. The eyes in this body detected light differently from those in her old one. She never knew...the sky was such a bright color, cool and austere. Wisps of purity silently glided by... (Water vapor) she scoffed, but could not deny herself the beauty.
She dared to glance at the shiny orb lighting up the sky, despite her vague knowledge that it wasn't quite good for one's eyesight to do so. She admired the young, yellow star. It was not as harsh or as volatile as the twin set she could just barely remember.
She began to turn her attentions elsewhere, but noticed a dark blotch out of the corner of her eye. (Such a large sunspot?) A queer feeling of deja vu began to settle over her.
(Where have I seen that before...?) Kayley searched her mind, bringing up haunting images of alien moons, huge comets, asteroids...
A look of shock materialized on her face. "...meteor?" she whispered.
Barret had just climbed aboard, cursing up a storm, as Vincent's wild hair appeared from beneath the deck of the Highwind. Lightly hopping up, he turned, extending his good hand to help Tifa onboard.
While Barret had gone, probably to cuss out Cloud for "taking so damn long to pick our asses up," the other two stayed to speak with those who had come out to greet them.
"Seems as if there's only a few of us with decent heads on our shoulders," Red XIII said in a low growl, nodding to Reeve and Derin, who were standing on either side of him.
"Cid and Yuffie are quite worked up...I'm not sure if they've stopped screaming at Cloud all day," Reeve said, with a hint of amusement on his face.
"I think they're working in shifts," Derin added.
Vincent's face remained stern and cold. "But if they're occupied, we should be able to come up with some sort of plan...without their interference."
"Are you really sure that's wise?" asked Reeve. "Even if Cloud's being a little nuts at the moment–"
"Those who aren't here are irrational all of the time, as opposed to Cloud's most of the time." Red eyes glowed menacingly. "I'm not trying to be cruel, just realistic. If we want to nip this problem...whatever decision we make now will definitely play a huge role in..."
"...the survival of our Planet," Red XIII finished for him. "I sensed disturbance before Kayley's trip to the Crater. Even if we didn't notice anything out of the ordinary until she did go...that doesn't necessarily mean that nothing wrong was happening prior to that point."
"So you think that Kayley was just coincidental?" Tifa asked softly.
The large cat nodded. "I truly think she was given a mission from the beyond."
"As do I," Derin added solemnly. "She's more harmful to herself than to any of us. Except maybe Daphne..."
"Unfortunately, this conclusion leads me to believe some other form exiting the Lifestream...precipitated the revival of many other things. And to suspect Daphne, and you, Derin."
He nodded. "I can understand why you would wonder about me. But I didn't force my way out at all...they wanted me to go...but..."
"But what?" Vincent prompted.
"Aeris was very gung-ho on getting a chance to come back her. I don't think there's any way in hell though, that one soul, even if it did save this Planet once, that the minds of the Elders could be changed in such a way."
"I doubt they would send anyone to destroy a world, though," Reeve said.
"That's what confuses me."
Suddenly, the small group was interrupted as Kayley ran up to them, from the far end of the deck. "I think there's something y'all need to see."
Curious, they followed her back to her observation point. She gestured up to the sun. "Do any of you see anything?"
"It's not good to look at the sun," Reeve chided.
"Of course not!" she snapped. "Don't look at the sun. Look next to it."
As they gazed up into the sky, squinting a bit...
Vincent's sharp eyes caught something with their enhanced vision. "There is a circular blemish in the sky, appearing to be near the sun. However it is much, much closer to our Planet. There is a bit of reddish haze around it."
The others had turned to him in shock.
"Is that what I think it is?" Tifa whispered.
He slowly nodded. "I don't understand, though. The Black Materia should be buried in the Northern Crater. Our people who were just there, would have found it..."
"It was destroyed by Lifestream, though," Red XIII said. "Maybe it has also returned because of the chaos life has been thrown into."
"But it's an object!" Tifa shook her head.
"So were the Weapons." Derin lightly placed a hand on her shoulder. "Look at how high it is, though. We still have time...more time than you did the first time."
"The first time, you guys knew what you were fighting against." Kayley spoke up suddenly. "This time..."
Reeve peered at the shadow again. "What I think, is that we need answers. Shinra is gone. Sephiroth is gone. The Black Materia is gone..."
"Aeris is not." Vincent met his eye. "Are you suggesting what I think you are?"
"Cloud's desires actually coincide with our own. We must find Daphne. We can't let him scare ‘er off though."
"So where should we start looking?" Derin wondered.
"Where did you guys first find her? I said many times before she probably just wanted her old life back."
"Junon." Red XIII nodded to the others. "I shall go inform Cid of our destination."
Part 7- Ribbons of Truth
It seemed everywhere he turned, he caught the very end of a harsh whisper. The bearers of such tidings remained anonymous, but Cloud began to suspect that not all was hunky-dory in the company of Avalanche. "What the hell is going on here?" he muttered to himself.
"You've spooked everyone out, that's what, you retarded waste of hair gel." Cid's fierce verbal onslaught had returned, due to Barret's need to raid the pantry.
"I can't apologize for things that happened when I had lost complete control over myself."
"That's right, so apologize for everything else, you damn jackass!"
"Yeah!" chimed in a cheerful voice. Yuffie carefully sipped ginger ale in an attempt to appease her queasy innards.
Cloud waved them off. "We have to make sure Daphne is all right."
"She's probably just peachy." The ninja hopped from tile to tile on the floor of the cockpit. "I mean, Aeris was always okay by herself, all her troubles started when you came along." Winking, she stuck out her tongue.
"Why didn't we ditch you when we had the chance," the sullen pilot muttered.
"Who me?" Wide-eyed, Yuffie pointed to herself with a look of mock innocence.
"No, fucking moron, I'm talking about the lame-ass."
The Highwind lurched to a stop just outside the limits of Junon City. "Hey," said Derin lightly to Cloud, "why don't you and Barret go and visit Elmyra in Kalm? There's a pretty good chance that Aeris would want to visit her mother, don't you think?"
Blond spikes bobbed a bit as he nodded. "That sounds like a decent proposal. If Barret will feel like joining me," he said, a bit of sadness in his voice.
"Of course I do, spikey-ass. Someone's gotta make sure ya don't screw shit up again!"
Giving a tentative smile to his hulky friend, he turned to Cid. "And you'll drop us off, right?"
"Sure thing, chocobo-brains." The pilot flashed him a thumbs-up.
The others began climbing down the ladder, headed towards the port town. "Wait," said Red XIII quickly, "how about taking Yuf–"
"No way!" the ninja yelped, and she hurriedly followed Reeve off the deck.
"Dammit," muttered the cat.
"Hey there, watch your fucking mouth!" admonished Cid.
"D'ya think Aeris would've needed to buy more materia, Reevie? Huh?"
"I'm not sure, Yuffie." He watched in mild amusement as she danced around him in circles, on the pretense of "working off the airsickness."
"Great idea, why don't you go check out the materia shops while we find other leads?" Red XIII looked hopeful.
"Really?" A hint of suspicion entered her upbeat tone.
"Oh, sure." Derin winked.
Vincent concurred. "It's certainly better than what Cloud had us do in Nibelheim."
Catching on, Reeve shook his head a bit and grinned. "Why don't I join you and we'll go check it out?"
"Cool beans!" She cheerfully ran off in the direction of the shopping district.
"Cool...beans?" Tifa looked quite confused.
Smoothing back his dark hair, the ex-executive followed behind. Turning back to his companions, he mouthed "Public Service Award?" before disappearing behind their hyper teenage friend.
"An award sounds like a good idea, actually." Tifa laughed. "So how much are you going to pay him, Red?"
"I'll give him my lifetime pass to Gold Saucer and buy him a grand of GP," the cat declared.
"Where should we begin?" Vincent asked.
"Bar!" declared Derin and Tifa simultaneously.
"...I was thinking her apartment might be a good lead." Red XIII cleared his throat. "That's where I met her and Cloud a few nights ago."
"Cloud met her at a bar," Tifa insisted, not able to completely delete the snide tone from her voice.
"A friend of hers owns a bar. She works there occasionally," Derin elaborated. "Plus, I have a feeling she went straight to this friend upon her Junon arrival."
"This need not be an ordeal. I'll accompany Red XIII to the apartment building, and you two can check out this bar you're speaking of." Vincent crossed his arms and looked at the others. "Sound easy enough?"
"Of course." Derin hopped up. "Follow me, Tifa."
The lion began walking in the opposite direction. "It is this way, I believe."
Tifa was amused to find that every time she peeked over her shoulder, she saw Vincent glancing over his.
Reno gazed absentmindedly out the door of "Joel's Tavern." He snorted to himself. (Maybe I can offer a suggestion of a new name for this stupid joint.) Taking a drag off his lit cigarette, he glanced inside to check on the others.
Elena and Rude were sitting in a booth, opposite each other, concentrating fiercely on the cards they held in their hands. Narrowing her eyes, the blonde woman reached a hand towards the undealt stack of cards, snatching one up.
After a moment or two of watching her sort through her hand, Rude spoke up. "Aren't you forgetting something, Lane?"
Closing her eyes in concentration, she shook her head. "Wait! I've got it." She set down her cards, save one which she discarded.
He stared at her demonstration at disbelief.
"Gin!" She jumped up and hopped a bit, pleased with herself. Then she caught Reno's scrutinizing gaze and froze.
Shaking his mussy red spikes, he mouthed a word at her. "Lame."
Dejectedly, she stuck out a tongue.
Rude, noticing the exchange, turned towards the door only to lower his shades, displaying his disapproval with the raise of an eyebrow.
Turning back to the street, Reno cracked his knuckles in boredom. (There aren't even any shady characters outside, let alone ones that want to bust into the bar.) He watched a couple enter the materia shop across the street. (Easy money is boring.)
"So, are you going to tell Ms. Angelon?"
He jumped at the voice that suddenly materialized behind him. "Wha?" He gave his companion a shove in the shoulder. "Damn Rude, stop doing that. And there's nothing here to tell."
"Well I suppose not, since they haven't entered the bar, but I would think she'd like to know who's across the street. We are keeping an eye out for Avalanche, aren't we?"
Rude handed his partner a small pair of binoculars.
Shaking his head, Reno focused through the shop window onto the two browsing customers. (Guy in a suit. Dark hair, goatee...) "Whoa, that's Reeve," he muttered. "I oughta invite him over for a drink–ow!" He glared at his bald friend, who'd given him a "love tap" on the back of the head.
"That's not quite as important as the girl."
"She was pretty cute, come to think of it..." A threatening glare from Rude quieted him back down again. Focusing in on the other member of the pair, he suddenly realized just who he was looking at. "Fuck, that's Kisaragi?!"
Snatching back his equipment, Rude shook his head. "Very perceptive, Reno. Maybe you can be employee of the month now. Shall we tell her, then?"
"Tell me what?"
The pair jumped together, before turning to look behind them.
Daphne stood in front of them, arms crossed, with an expectant look on her face. "Well, boys?"
Kayley sighed and glanced around the chocobo stable of the Highwind. With Goldie gone, the place was empty. (Thank goodness) she thought to herself before plopping down on a warm bale of hay.
She'd been left alone on the Airship, for fear of what sort of reaction she'd inspire in the Ancient. (What a crock, I mean, that chick was psycho before I'd done a thing to her. That's pretty messed!)
Alone was a euphemism for being practically stalked from one end of the aircraft to the other by Cid's crew, of course. She'd ducked inside the stable in hopes of eluding them. (After all, if I wanted to do harm, this would not be the place to do it.) Plus, the traces of barnyard smells from its former occupants were probably deterring any thoughts of retrieving her.
She had to wonder about the amazing coincidences happening lately. "I was the one who saw Meteor again...when I was the one who had a hand in summoning it in the first place."
"It's not so much a coincidence, as very good planning," a voice suddenly said.
"Huh?" She glanced around in surprise. "I thought I was alone."
"That's a error in thought that most humans have in common." A mouse suddenly jumped up onto the hay next to her.
"A talking mouse? I'm going schizo," Kayley mumbled.
"Now, now child, calm down a bit. Mice still don't talk. However, there is a very important message that you need to hear, and the Planet works in mysterious ways." Hopping onto its hind legs, the small creature did a gesture with its forelimbs.
She shook her head slightly. "Whatever."
"We're going to go through an exercise in logic, all right?" The animal waited for her nod before continuing. "That Red XIII, he pretty much hit the nail on the head when he figured out that these problems on the surface are being caused by a spirit forcing its exit from the Lifestream. Now, while those of us in charge of souls don't generally allow anything life-threatening to bring harm to the Planet, we decided that a particular soul needed to be taught a lesson."
"What are you saying? That you let something force its way back into the land of the living?"
"I suppose you could say that, but it's a tad inaccurate. A spirit can't force its way back. So we forced the spirit back, therefore breaking the fabric between life and non-life. Instead of instantly reviving everything that ever lived, it's slowly reversing the events that occurred between the death of said spirit and the time that the spirit returned."
"That doesn't seem so bad."
"Until you look and notice a small planet is on a collision course with ours, and you realize that there may be a very huge foe regenerating itself as we speak."
The mouse shrugged. "Yes, but that's not the most important enemy on the horizon. You're regenerating, but this time, entirely soulless. That may actually make Jenova weaker, but it will still be a tough battle nonetheless."
"Can anything be done?"
"Well, everything would revert to normal if the balance of souls is restored."
"Then someone has to kill the person responsible!"
"That won't work. The spirit returning must be willing...that's why we also brought along our own insurance. If the renegade is not willing to come back, we have another who can return in her stead."
"You said ‘her'!"
The mouse nodded.
"Why are you giving all this information to me?" Kayley asked. "I mean, the person isn't me, and I doubt you're going to let me return in place of said stupid world-destroying soul."
"You are the one who must convince her to return." The mouse vanished from sight. "It will be hard, but the only true sacrifice is one that remains unselfish from this life to the next. Tell that to Aeris..."
Kayley sat up with a start. Her head had been resting on top of the hay bale, and her legs curled underneath her. She shook her head, attempting to clear her mind. However, she was certain that her dream was not some stupid menagerie created by her subconscious, but a true message from the Planet.
Unfortunately, it seemed the Planet wasn't anywhere close to finding Aeris, either.
You slip down into your own mind
Read the views you have defined
Demand you be repaid in kind
But insist you get to cross the line
Tune your memory with the stars
Dwarf the past, heal the scars
Attempt to make your heart unmarred
Then cage yourself with hidden bars
In truth, your soul lies still sealed
And soon reality will be revealed–
You thought nature could be appealed
Just because he cut you...as you kneeled
Cloud walked through the streets of Kalm, deep in thought. Barret and the others were still at Elmyra's house. The kind woman had gone into shock once she had learned the reason for their visit.
(Aeris hadn't even left word with her own mother.) A light breeze rustled the green grass around him. (I just don't understand it.) An image of kind green eyes flashed in his mind; kind green eyes peering at her mother with concern.
(She just isn't being herself at all.
That's got to be the key to everything, right? The reason why she'd run from all her friends, ignore her mother... Is she even the same person that we all knew once?
I've been so caught up in my own hopes and dreams and ideas of how things were supposed to be. But...she'd been dead and gone for months. The world has passed on without her...so why wouldn't she have passed on without it?)
He began to argue with himself. (Then wouldn't she be better? More selfless, more eager, more adaptable, more...more like Derin.) Cloud admitted bitterly that the new incarnation of Zack had been not only a bit more agreeable than the original flavor, but also much, much easier to deal with than Daphne.
His own mind was confused with what to call the trio of dual personalities. Derin...he was easy. The more mature, grounded version of his old friend was different enough to warrant the name change. His insistence at referring to Kayley by name, and not by her former alien self had set a decent example for Cloud.
Though he hadn't so much as spoken to her since the disappearance, his thoughts had changed from volatile and derogatory to tolerant. Kayley was Kayley in his mind. There was no doubt, now, that she was quite separated from the actions of her slimy self.
That left him with one more person to contend with. The new Aeris Gainsborough, former flower girl, once-time girlfriend and the Rissy of Zack, what was she now? The other personality she had put on like a pair of old socks, and worn when she'd first met Cloud again, didn't seem that much like the old Aeris or the one who'd taken off into the depths of the night.
(She's not the girl I loved. And she's not the girl who used to be in that body.)
"Who are you now, Aeris?" he whispered to the wind. There was no response.
Only one person could answer his question, and she was nowhere to be found.
Daphne peered at two of her new employees. "I'm waiting."
Suddenly, two figures appeared in the doorway. "Then wait no longer, and maybe you can give us an explanation for a few things while you're at it." Derin tried his hardest to keep his face calm, composed. He peered into her eyes, searching for a glimpse of... If only there was a single spark of...
She shrank back. "You know, you were hired to watch out for this sort of thing," she half screamed at the two Turks in front of her.
Gingerly, Tifa pushed her way past Rude and Reno. "It's a shame that you didn't learn much of anything in the Promised Land, or you would have known that...well...we've beaten these guys up and down the tracks a few times. Thanks to you, our duties have been held up for the time being. I don't think telling us what the hell you were up to is out of the question."
A bit panicky, violet eyes danced around the room, trying to coax her security into action. Reno, who always had his head set against authority–any authority, crossed his arms and scowled a bit. "Actually, I think we're a bit curious with what's going on here. I never cared much for Avalanche, but I'd love to know your connection with them."
"They're on our bad side because they keep kicking our butts," Elena chirped from the booth where she'd been gathering up the cards for another game. She was dissuaded from any further explanation by two matching glares from her partners.
"Hey! What are you guys doing–" Yuffie had interrupted the chaos, only to find that her friends had completed the mission.
Reeve, close behind her, blinked back his surprise at seeing his old Shinra co-workers gathered around Daphne as well.
"Good thing we stood our ground," Reno muttered to Rude. "I dunno how good Jordan is at combat, but four against three would not be my idea of easy money."
Yuffie turned around the open/closed sign with a mischievous grin before walking over and plopping herself down on a stool at the counter. "So, lovely Aeris, why the hell did you run off without us?"
"You welcomed our enemy in with open arms. How can I feel any comfort next to my murderer?" Daphne's voice was full of spite.
"Funny thing," Derin replied, "that same person was responsible for my death but I understood that above all, the Planet's motives were above my personal feelings." His words were laced with poison.
The venomous dart hit its target. She blinked back tears, vaguely remembering her dreams of the Promised Land. "I guess...the Planet took my life, your life..."
He shook his head. "Yes and no. Jenova was unnatural...but...Sephiroth and his sword were of this Planet. She has to answer for the blame, while we still are bound by this Planet's rules."
She glanced around the room timidly. "I'm not the same person I was," she said softly. "I can't be the same. I barely remember you all." Her words ended with a muffled sob, and she sank down into the booth across from Elena.
Tifa felt a pang of guilt. She'd blamed a dead girl for Cloud's disinterest and continued to do so even after her return. (She's not the same any more...and Cloud's feelings are his own business.) It must be admitted, however, that she might have had a little more trouble with forgiveness if she did not know there was a tall, dark semi-stranger who was more than willing to try and see what feelings came up.
Yuffie was a bit more amiable, hopping up and sliding in next to Daphne. "Cloud's been going nutso on us, trying to find you."
"He really worries, huh?"
"We all worried, Aer..." The ninja's voice trailed off momentarily, confused with the idea of proper reincarnated-friend-nomenclature. "We had to lose you once, and you are our friend. Even though you look different, and you are confused right now, there have to still be some Aeris-y parts of you, deep down. It's a bit too much to give up again."
An image arose in Daphne's mind. Yuffie, crying in the night for weeks. Even a babe born during the tumult of a war had yet to see a companion die right before her eyes, especially one of the few who had ever treated her with a speck of respect. And–she thought she never could, but she finally did–she began to remember.
She smiled to herself, her pretty eyes shining. It was almost like discovering a long-lost secret. Daphne looked around. The concerned yet happy eyes of her friends, even the aloof amazement of the Turks, this was what she had come back for. (And I've been such a self-absorbed brat!) She made a declaration to herself. (Things will never be exactly the same as they would have been, I'm sure of that, but I must never lose sight again of why I needed to be here so badly, why I left the Promised Land. What I wanted was another chance with these people and–)
Derin's eerily calm voice broke through her thoughts. "I'm glad you understand." His deep eyes were pools of uncertainty, mystery, fear, pain... She could lose herself in them, and this made her afraid. "We have a bigger problem here though."
"I know, I'm sorry for stalling your quest against the reborn monsters..."
"I don't think it's a matter of rebirth, Rissy." It was the first time he'd managed to use the nickname, his inner thoughts included, in many days. "It's a matter of time going back." Walking to the picture window of the tavern, he drew up the blinds, revealing the bright blue sky with its puffy white clouds. A picturesque scene, really.
But the dark blemish near the sun had grown a bit more prominent. Now, instead of reflecting sunlight, it cast a shadow on that part of the sky.
"What is it?" she asked softly.
The answer nearly killed him coming out. "It's Meteor, Aeris. But this time there's no Holy-wielding maiden in the Promised Land to save the world."
She was not brave; she was stupid. And she admonished herself thus as she hurriedly cast down the airship's ladder and descended down into Kalm. Her captors, her saviors had kept her away from them, but this was not a time to stick to alliances or fear induced declarations.
Kayley had never been through Kalm, neither as her human self nor her former alien incarnation. Such a sleepy town was never anything that mattered much, especially in earlier times when Midgar overshadowed it. She thought for a moment of the charred, bent metal that loomed ever present in the distance. Even a dead Midgar overshadowed the quaint little village.
She stopped in the square, confused. How would she know which way to turn, which way to go? Luckily there were some locals milling about, and she vaguely recalled the last name of the woman the others had sought out.
"Excuse me?" Her voice was soft, her expression timid, and the man she stopped could hardly help being polite.
"G'day, missie." He tipped his hat.
"Could you point out where Ms. Gainsborough lives?" Kayley put on the same "innocent face" she had used while seeking out Cloud, and she hoped that it actually did look pure.
"Turn down Wallace Ave. over there and it's the third house on the right." The middle aged man smiled proudly, displaying a missing front tooth. "We named our main streets over ‘gain to honor Avalanche for savin' us all from Meteor and that evil Sephiroth."
She tried very hard to hide her repulsion and, for the most part, succeeded. "Thank you," she said sugary-sweet.
"Well, I dunno about tryin' to head over there at the moment though. You sees, Miz Gainsborough is friendly with those Avalanchers and they're at her house this very minute."
Kayley narrowed her eyes. She was quickly losing all the patience someone in her situation could muster. "I understand, but I just came from the Highwind. I don't think they'll turn me away." (At least they better not.)
"Lor' a mercy!" he exclaimed. "Do you think you can handle getting a helpful body like myself an au-to-graph of the heroes?"
"I apologize, but I'm really in a hurry." Sick of stupid, moronic human frivolities, she turned on her heel and ran towards the house the man had described.
"Well!" he muttered to himself before making his way towards the tavern. "Jus' ‘cause she's a mate of famous people, don't mean such a young brat should go putting on such airs."
Kayley's nerves were about shot, however, by the time she'd reached Elmyra's front stoop. Her actions had been quite bold as it was, and then the townsperson had been grating, in all honesty. Biting back fear, she decided to get things over with and deal with real consequences instead of imagined ones.
Her rapping at the door was answered promptly by a sweet-faced girl with nut-brown hair.
This did not faze Kayley at all, of course not. Just because Aeris was fairly grown-up did not mean that her mother did not have other offspring. She put on her best smile for the girl. After all, even the one-time slimy headless being could admit that the child was cute as a button. "May I speak to your mother please?"
Instantly, the girl began to wail with an awful racket. "What's wrong?" Her voice was soothing, but to no avail. "Please, I need to speak to Elmyra Gainsborough!"
A terse voice answered her. "Tryin' to destroy the Planet ain't enough for ya, y'all had to go and make my Marlene cry." Barret finished his growling and lifted his adopted daughter to his shoulder. Already, her sobs had quieted down to subdued sniffling.
"I had a vision." Kayley held her ground. "Your precious Ancient is in Junon, and the fate of the Planet lies on her head this time, not mine. I thought ‘y'all,'" she continued scathingly, "would like to maybe do something about it before it was too late."
The bar was still closed when Joel arrived to take on the night rush. The occupants inside peered at him with curiosity and he, them, as he unlocked the door and entered. "What does this all mean, Daph?" he asked. Then, suddenly, he saw Tifa, Yuffie, and the newest arrivals Red XIII and Vincent, eyes blazing with recognition. "Why can't you all leave that poor girl alone? Just because Cloud Strife decides that he wants something–"
Something else stayed his words, though, a look in Daphne's eyes that he had never seen before. "There...are a few things that you don't know about me," she said miserably. First though, she nodded to the blue suited group across from her in the booth. "These are the bodyguards I hired. The Turks."
"Sir," Rude spoke up immediately, always having a knack with those in authority, "we can assure you that Avalanche means your friend no harm. We've been in here for a few hours...discussing some matters."
"What matters?" He looked around the room half-crazed. "This seems like a dream. What matters would any of you have with a young girl from Mideel?"
"I lied to you, Joel. I said that they thought I was Aeris...that part was true...but the lie is..." She looked up at him. "Promise me that you won't think I'm nuts."
With a dubious frown, he nodded.
"I am Aeris. Reincarnated, I guess you could say. Daphne was strong, Joel, but...things were too much for her." Part of her knew Daphne inside and out...part of her felt Daphne inside and out. There was still some love inside of her for Joel. She reached out, placing a hand on his arm. "She's resting now, in the Promised Land. I'm sure she's with her family...and I know that she and Rachel are happy." She began to cry.
"So what? You took over some girl's life to get your own back?"
"It was a willing trade. I would never ask a soul to sacrifice what I did."
He didn't know what to do. Daphne was sitting there, right in front of him, saying that she wasn't Daphne. Yet, yet...he felt... Pain built up inside of him, and before he could stop himself, he had run his fist straight through the wall. "Now there's a hole in the bar to match the one in me," he stated matter-of-factly. "I loved her and you took her away!" He strode towards this hollow shell, this sick and twisted...
Joel met a barrier in Derin. "Do not blame her because you did not tell the woman you loved her in time to make her feel less lonely."
"Out of my way."
"The masters would never force a soul out of their body. If they released your precious Daphne, it was only because she was about to release herself."
It was beginning to look like the soul avatar would end up on the wrong end of a fist when Daphne spoke. "Stop this, please! I don't mean to hurt you, Joel. This is very hard for me...I'm not the same Daphne you grew up with...but I still remember everything about her life." She sighed. "I think it was their intention that I live a life thinking I was her. But the convention revived my memory partially, and time has begun to restore other things."
Daphne's childhood friend took a deep breath. "When?" he asked. "When did you...switch?" The last voice was barely a whisper.
"The girl you took home from the shelter next to the hospital, the day my mother died, was I. Before that..." her voice trailed off.
His spirits rose a bit. This girl then, was the one he'd spent time with and the one he had fallen for. But she had another past, with another group of friends, and perhaps even. His eyes slid to the floor as he recalled the protective friend who'd blocked his path.
"Are we...are we friends?" she asked timidly.
Joel looked down at her. "Of course," he said softly. "I meant it when I said I'd always be here for you. I still will miss the way you used to be, of course...but that seems like a long time ago." He gave her a queer look. "So...you remember everything?"
Smiling, Daphne was about to open her mouth, probably to relate some sort of childhood anecdote, when interruption suddenly burst upon them.
Cloud, Barret, Cid, and Kayley walked into the bar. Well, Barret and Cid stormed, Kayley slunk, and Cloud dejectedly shuffled inside.
"The gang's all here," muttered Reno. His partners silenced him with glares.
"Hi." Daphne peered at them all guiltily.
"No time for none a' that shit!" Barret swore in anger. "That damn Meteor is closer to the Planet than it was a few hours ago. We all gonna be toast by next week, at this rate."
Kayley managed a weak smile before slowly walking over to Daphne. She began to breathe quickly, nearly hyperventilating. Eventually, she was able to spit something out. "Everything that happened since you died is becoming undone because you're alive again."
No one had dared say such a thing, not so plainly, and not in front of more than a few others. But she had just announced it to everyone, even the Turks!
"This isn't my fault," the raven-haired girl protested. "Why you're the one who forced herself back. You're an alien! You belong neither here nor the Promised Land."
She shrank back as if wounded. "That's what my life here is to determine. You forget that the masters decided I should be alive. I think the person who broke the rules was you!"
"No." The first word was feeble, but soon her insistence grew. "No, no, no!" Daphne sprung from her seat. "I'm here to save the Planet again! Zack, tell them about our mission. Tell them why we're here." Her eyes were bright, expectant, and filled with fear.
Derin gazed at her face with compassion and love. But he could not lie. "I was sent here so that there could be a mediator between the Planet and what the masters intend. Without an Ancient alive, there would be no other way to make sure their messages were interpreted correctly."
"...all this, to keep the Planet safe. Us, together," she said firmly. Her words may have been firm, but she looked pale and faint. A sudden blast of wind could have knocked her over in a heartbeat.
He closed his eyes in pain. "Rissy." His voice was delicate and precise, filled with restrained emotion. "Eldor...when he told me of what I was to do...and that I was to aid someone... You were never mentioned by name. Jenova was sent back the same time you were. It can't have been a coincidence. I...you...both of us, we misread the intentions of the masters. Like the imperfect souls we are."
The two of them stood, eyes locked together, for what seemed like an eternity. Slowly, the others began slipping out of the tavern in ones and twos until only they, Joel, Cloud, and Kayley remained.
All of a sudden, Daphne broke the silence. "...y–you don't have anything else left to tell me, do you?"
Shaking his head sorrowfully, Derin placed a hand on her shoulder. "I wish I did. By every deity that could ever have existed, I wish I did."
Choking back a sob, she nearly collapsed into his waiting arms. He silently held her quaking form as she wept into his chest. Almost like they were cued, Cloud and Joel slid towards the exit.
Kayley did not move to join them until she heard the subsequent whisper.
"Oh Zack...what am I supposed to do?" No cheer or hope existed in that voice; the girl sounded old and tired.
Not caring to reveal anything else at present, the redhead quickly made her way to the door. She was almost entirely outside when she heard Derin's cautious reply.
"I'm not sure, Riss."
But Kayley was, and she thought the same to herself, biting back tears of her own. Even for all the spite passed between the two women, even a life newly human could see the pain, heartbreak, and sorrow on the misunderstood girl's face. (...I know exactly what to do) she thought gloomily. She could not escape the declaration that the poor girl should die again–it was too much to bear!–and she began to cry.
"Why did it have to be like this?" Walking along the shore under Junon with Vincent, she was not sure if she demanded an answer from her stoic companion or the sea. It didn't matter; any answer that could be given would be better than the emptiness she felt right then.
"I don't know." At least he was being honest. They passed the next few minutes in silence, and then he dared to speak again. "After...after the Jenova project began...and Hojo...changed me, I bitterly renounced any belief in any sort of divine power beyond our Planet. Aeris' death reinforced that."
For awhile, no sound passed between the two, aside from the roar of the storm-filled currents beyond them.
"But then we destroyed the foe. Sephiroth...misused, maligned, abused Sephiroth was finally put to rest...we emerged battered, not broken. And we all saw the very fabric of life itself rise up from beneath the ground, in waves and spirals, deflecting the one thing left that could destroy us all." He took her hand in his good one. "However small and insignificant, it did give me a spark of hope."
"They could have kept her from coming back! Those masters or whatever the hell Derin is always submitting to...they had the power to send her back–knowing the havoc it would wreak on us all–and followed the simple, foolish desires of one of the souls they are supposed to guide." Tifa shook her head furiously. "They could have stopped her."
"They could have stopped Hojo and Lucrecia from doing their experiments, even if they could not control Jenova's crash landing here. They could have destroyed the Shinra, too, but they didn't."
Tears fell from burgundy eyes, and Tifa Lockhart still denied comprehension. "What kind of divine power could cause its children pain?"
Vincent seemed to ignore her question. "I believe Derin has told us the purpose of our lives before. What did he say it was?"
She looked away, out...out to the vanishing horizon. (It will be a moonless night.) After awhile, she turned back. "We live our lives to learn all that we need to know. That's what he said."
He released his grip on her hand, bringing his own up to caress her cheek, brushing away a stray tear. "And when do we learn most? When we fly through easily, without a care or a worry..." His voice sunk into deeper cadences. "...or when we fail?"
"I don't know!" Her voice rose, almost accusing him of causing all of this. In her heart, she knew such an idea was ridiculous, but right now he was the only one opposing her frank mope about parity, and damn it...Tifa didn't want to know when she learned the most. All she wanted is for the hurt to go away for just a little while. To let life give her the gifts she felt she had earned...
...and suddenly, she understood Aeris completely. But still, she repeated, "I don't know."
Wordlessly, Vincent backed a few steps away from her, trying not to flinch at her expression of alarm. He reached his hand up and began to unwrap the scarf that had been a constant attendant at his neck for as long as any of his friends had known him. At the top of his throat, from one side of his jaw to the other, ran a deep, ugly scar. Poorly healed and very discolored, it was obvious that...it had been a mortal wound.
Tifa gasped in alarm and sympathy.
Blood red eyes became unseeing as the man traveled back into the lost reaches of his memory. "My commander, when I was in the Turks, used to have a little saying. ‘For every scar earned, a lesson learned.' I think you can understand the meaning nearly as well as I."
She nodded. They both knew if he dared to explore the region beneath her tank top, he'd find a gash down her chest nearly as ugly as the one on his neck.
"When we earn our scars, they hurt horribly, but they don't kill us. We patch up, but never the same. And we don't make the same mistake again." He began to wrap himself back up.
He walked back over to her, kissing her gently on the forehead. "Life hurts so much," Vincent whispered, "because we live to fail."
Yuffie was inconsolable, seated obstinately between Reeve and Red XIII. The Turks, opposite them, merely looked on in disgust.
Finally, an irritated Reno broke the sniffle-filled silence. "Jeez, girl, you'd think your friend was dead again from the way you're carrying on."
"B–but Kayley just told us Aeris has to–" she gulped "–die or else Meteor will come!"
"At least you can tell her all the things you never got the chance to before," offered Elena in comfort.
The teen just burst into tears again at the thought.
Red XIII growled. "You're getting my fur soaking wet!"
"And you're a fucking heartless beast!" She yelled in return. "All of you!" she continued in accusation. "You not only don't give a crap whether the person who saved your lives gets to continue hers or not, but you can't even comp–re–hend what it means to me. She's the only one who ever treated me decently, with any bit of respect, and she'll be gone again, and there will be no one left who doesn't think I'm a selfish brat."
The others stared at her in startled silence.
"Aeris understood," she sobbed, "she knew that the materia was important to Wutai. All my life, all I ever heard about was the Shinra and how they were evil and how home would be strong again if we could only get our hands on materia. We'd have plenty and be safe and happy if we could get those pretty, shiny, little...tiny things."
The atmosphere around them turned to quiet once more, but the peace was a stale one. "Didn't she rip through time and space though?" Elena asked primly. "I mean, she can't go against nature without any consequences."
"It's more like a tipping of a scale," Red XIII replied. "I don't think she would necessarily have to go, but something has to return balance to the Lifestream."
"Well then she doesn't even have to die!"
"Would any of you take her place?" Yuffie burst out suddenly."
Elena shook her head. "Remember what I said about–"
"Oh right. Consequences. Nice talk coming from a member of a group of damn murderers. She saved our lives and you talk about consequences. You know what she deserves? To bend you all over the altar and rip into you herself. Ungrateful, horrible beasts!" She sprung to her feet and ran away into the night.
Slowly, Reeve rose. "We're in the middle of the city. Can't just let her run off like that."
His words were met with apathetic expressions.
"She'll come back," said the cat tersely. "She always does," he continued in a mutter.
The former executive just shook his head in disgust and followed in the direction of her egress. If Yuffie was that bad, then why was it that she was the only one making much sense at the moment?
From the midst of Junon Park, Daphne looked at the night sky, expressionless. (I guess no being is ever meant to see the same stars twice.) Seemingly immortal globes suspended in the heavens, they lived and died, but their rate was a bit more tolerable to the stirrings of a dying mortal. (Our lives are like photographs to them. Only a brief moment captured in time. All I wanted was...a full moment. Mine was half-developed.)
A voice pierced through the cloak of silence. "Can we talk..." It trailed off into confusion. "I don't even know what to call you anymore."
She turned, gazed into blue Mako eyes, and nodded. "I don't even know what to call myself. ‘Daphris' would probably be the most appropriate moniker at the moment."
Cloud smiled sadly at that. "I understand that you felt you had to come back. I understand, because I kept looking for you even though I knew that I wouldn't ever find you."
"Part of me wishes you never had," she whispered. "That I could be Daphne, a completely different person, and have my life with Joel...even if it did end in a week. I...I just feel that I gave and gave to life, and I get what? Death? My second chance forces me into another decision of self-sacrifice?"
He closed his eyes in frustration and pain; he'd given the situation all the thoughts he could muster. The only solution that existed was for someone to die, yet his answer was firm. "No."
"The Planet can't die for me. And...as twisted as it is now, what Eldor said in the Promised Land is true. Something is threatening the purpose of my sacrifice. Little did I know then that the threat was me." She shook her head. "No. I can't escape this. I caused this. I deserve to go back and end it like this all began. With my death."
Another voice entered the discussion. "No." Derin walked down the hill, joining them at the playground. "Think about it, Riss. I can't be happy here. I'm a pure soul. I belong back in the Promised Land, and you deserve a chance to live life to the fullest." He glanced at his old friend. "With...the person you love."
"But you came back for a reason," she whispered.
"To make sure that the right thing was done in the end. If you couldn't, wouldn't see the light, who do you think would have been there in your stead? Why can't you consciously let me go?"
"Because it's not your error to compensate for. You followed every rule. You encouraged me to stay, and told me all the reasons why I had to wait. Why my old life was gone, and how everyone would eventually be all right."
He took her hand. "That doesn't earn me a new lease on life, any more than laying your life under the blade earned you this one. You've learned from your mistake, though, and understand the problems that result from things. I have no problem..."
"I do." Daphne's voice broke. "I can't run away from the wrongs."
Cloud watched the scene, a mere spectator. Flashes, images of some sort, a memory were seeping into his mind.
"Hey buddy, I'm just going to set ya down a sec, okay?" Zack stretched his lean body, relaxing and tensing his tired muscles. It had been a long day's walk from Kalm. They were on a small cliff, overlooking their destination. Midgar, the floating city.
Cloud merely grunted in return. "Mu...st...mak...e...goo...time."
"That's right!" He smiled. "Hey, I think you're getting better. Anyway, look over there." He pointed in the distance. "That's where we'll head out to tomorrow. Ain't it great? They say that huge hunk of metal is suspended above the ground. Walking down the street is like being in a third floor apartment."
A rustling in the bushes startled him from cheerful speech.
"Geez, wonder what that was. Hang on," he said, backing away from his sick pal. Pulling back the branches of the lilac next to him, he peered outside their clearing.
The shots were loud, startling. It is doubtful that Zack even had time to register the thought that they were fired at him, before he hit the ground. Blood spattered from violated arteries, and his form lay lifeless in the dirt.
A man in a Soldier uniform walked up and kicked the corpse gingerly with one foot. Peering down at the body, he noticed the bleeding was dying down a bit. Of course, with the red stain coating the entire clearing in front of him, including the dead guy's buddy, it was pretty obvious to see that their target was dead.
"I'm getting sick of the AWOLs," his partner stated without sympathy.
He nodded his assent, then looked towards their second target.
"Goo...time?" Cloud asked, his face blank, lids blinking, and lashes brushing away the blood of his friend from his eyes. A clean path traced from his lower lip to his jaw, the after-effect of a long line of drool.
"This one's long gone." The first man set his jaw. "Even if he leaves, when the peacekeeping corps finds the body, they'll haul his ass in for murder."
"What are we gonna tell the boss?"
He slapped him. "What the hell you think? That we shot ‘em both dead. Motherfucker..." He continued to curse as the two of them made their way back to their transport, and eventually the base in Midgar proper.
Cloud cocked his head to one side in confusion. (Friendmanquiet.) He crawled over to Zack's body, not understanding what was wrong with his traveling companion. His skin was cool. Suddenly, a flash of memory popped into his head.
(Longsilverhairman. Takeswordofdeadmanandliftup.) He reached out and grabbed the Buster Sword. Thunder crashed and lightning crackled through the air. Raindrops fell, cleansing the ground, even Zack's body...his own face.
And Cloud Strife raised his blade to the heavens and screamed in pain.
(I owe them both my life) he thought.
"Don't you agree that for me to go would be the best way?" Derin asked.
He shook his head. "What about me?" he asked.
Daphne's eyes widened. "Of course not! Cloud, you're an innocent spectator in all of this... Why, I can't even bear the thought of such a thing."
"You can't...you can't leave us again," he whispered.
She bowed her head, a teardrop falling from her eyes. "I have no other choice," she said, "and if you won't take me there and be my support, then I guess I shall have to run off on my own again and do it myself."
He had no other choice but to take her by the hand. The three of them walked away together to find the others. It was time to tell them the end result of everything. Apologies were whispered; more tears than anyone thought imaginable fell that night. No one slept; no one could bear to dream.
When Aurora swept away the evening sky with the first morning light, the Highwind was there to greet her. On its way to the Forgotten Capital, the time had come to finish the ending of the second story.
The group filed down the ladder of the airship, one by one. No one thought they could stand to be an onlooker; however, none of them would allow being left behind. Morbid curiosity led them all down the path to a final goodbye.
The Turks had even gone along. "You got us mixed up in this, now we have to keep going on, even though we won't enjoy the ending," Reno had said.
In a way, that was also true. Who was really bound to Daphne? Derin, of course, then Cloud. Perhaps Joel, but he had not been informed of the decision that led them away from Junon. For the most part, he believed the woman he loved dead; there was no need for him to sit there and watch it.
Kayley should have been happy; by all accounts, she seemed to have a bitter distaste for Daphne. The two of them had clashed horribly, some of it due to jealousy regarding a certain blond man. The rest was due to the obvious animosity. Jenova had killed Aeris in the first place, and now Kayley had basically been the one to send her back to the grave.
They were all brave. The last of the tears had fallen from Yuffie's eyes, as she descended the ladder.
Not a sniffle, nor a sob broke the quiet still as they slowly tread through the city of fragile shells.
Distracting herself, Daphne mused on the origins of such large things. (What sort of sea creature left shells large enough for people to house themselves in? Was this valley once filled with water? The Cetra didn't live underwater did they? I mean, the scuba race seems a little absurd.)
There was an odd air of the surreal as the group crept up towards the building at the lake. Most of the people knew that Aeris had been laid to rest in the waters there.
What is it like, to stand at one's own grave? The question that was on all minds, but slipped to no tongues.
No barrier welcomed them at the entrance to the temple; the final indicator, at last, that the drastic measures being taken were the only ones that could be taken. Tifa blinked back some moisture. (So it does have to be like this.) She leaned a little on Vincent's shoulder as her feet stepped down a spiral glass staircase for the second time.
No matter how slow the pacing was, eventually there had to be an arrival. The path that led to the altar was narrow, and the place itself quite small. Some of the group immediately held back, but the others awaited a decision–someone's, they did not care who–telling them to stay away.
Maybe they should close their eyes too, while they were at it. Oh, why were they even there in the first place?
"Only Zack and Cloud," she whispered.
Obviously, the others were much relieved and held back as the trio slowly wound their way up to the platform. Daphne smiled a bit. "Come on guys, don't look so somber. Cloud's already been to my funeral, and Derin knows I don't have a reason in all the Planet to be sad to die."
"How?" Derin asked, not trusting his voice to utter more than a syllable. Unconsciously, he wrapped his hand around an object in his pocket. (I hope this will be enough, in time. Someday, she will thank me for all of this. Right now, she simply does not understand. For me to live this life out, here, is pointless. After all, I'm only an avatar of a soul...)
"I'm going to cast a Death spell," she said. "It will be fast and painless, and that was one of the materia that I took from you, so I already have it." Having already disposed of most of her equipment, she slipped the green orb into a stray Carbon Bangle that she'd found discarded on the Highwind.
Cloud gulped, grasping the object in his pocket tightly, hoping that his reflexes were as quick as he had hoped.
"Now then." She attempted to keep her voice light. "I must thank you, Cloud, for both of the wonderful dates that we have had. I am very glad that you were always so protective of me and persistent enough to make sure that I was safe, even when I did not care about such things myself."
He felt her arms quickly wrap around him, and soft lips gently brush his. He could not help being tense and stiff to these gestures. Any movement or change from the position he had taken would lead to a complete breakdown in front of her. (It is too hard for us all as it is...I have to keep calm...just a few minutes more.)
She placed her hand on Derin's shoulder, and he quickly covered it with his own. Biting her lip, Daphne buried her face in his chest for a few moments. "I'm sorry, Zack, that it took so long for me to see, to remember."
"Shh..." He brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. "I knew that it would be hard. After all we learned and talked about, how could you apologize because being here wasn't easy?" He kissed her forehead. "Riss, I'm sorry that I ever expected anything to be easy."
She took a few deep breaths. "I'm not scared for myself," she declared.
"I'm not either," he replied.
Daphne took a few steps back from them, slowly lowering herself to her knees. "I'm going to smile," she said bravely, "just happy that you all will be all right."
A glow began to surround her, as she summoned up the power to cast her final spell.
Derin clenched his teeth and told himself to have patience.
Cloud closed his eyes, murmuring the only prayer he had ever said in his entire life. (Please...give me the strength to carry on...)
Then everything went red.
Someone–most likely Yuffie–screamed in a shrill, nearly inhuman voice.
Somewhere in the haze of hot, wet, spattering liquid, eyes stared in disbelief, lids fluttering, lashes beating desperately in an attempt to clear the path of vision. Who was hurt, in pain? (There is materia...goddammit, someone in the fucking room has to have materia...)
(It wasn't supposed to happen like that. Only a second of hanging on, and then it would be over.)
(Where is the darkness?)
(Why is the Lifestream so heavy and red?)
(Who is crying? Why are there tears? This is supposed to make a happy ending...
...I see light.)
The body had been left behind long before, and a spirit flowed through cool green liquid. Suspended in the dense material, one felt weightless instantly. The current pushed through, and soon the surface was reached.
White sands, where the tide that approached was glowing of its own iridescence.
A man, grizzled, with a beard of the purest white was the greeter. He bore a robe of unstained cloth and spoke soothingly.
(He understands why I did what I did. The masters are in an uproar. This wasn't the plan at all, but he's not surprised.)
"I always knew you had it in you," the man said, with a laugh in his voice. Eldor rarely spoke without joy.
Chapter 30: Epistle
Hey. I know that I'm never going to be able to send a letter to you, but I have high hopes that Eldor is going to let you come read this over my shoulder. It'll be a comfort to us all. I don't think this is a normal everyday occurrence on our Planet, let alone the entire Creation.
Meteor receded...nearly instantly. It was quite surprising to see as we made our way up out of the altar and across the lake. You don't expect to see heavenly bodies disappear and reappear like that thing does. It was quite unnerving.
Not all of the monsters disappeared, of course, because there were ones before this whole incident ever happened. But hunting them is a lot easier now, since they will stay dead after we kill them. We can be sure that Jenova isn't lurking around any corner, too. That's a comfort, believe me.
Barret went back to Kalm and Marlene. You couldn't really expect anything different. Cid is in...Rocket Town, bitching Shera out every single day. I get this odd feeling inside that she likes it. Red XIII is still off in Junon, monster hunting, though I suspect he's getting quite sick of city life and is going to head back to Cosmo Canyon one of these days now.
Yuffie, you ask? Well, she didn't go back to her father in Wutai. She sent back some of her materia via the new Planet-wide mail system, but remained in Junon. I think she's got something for Reeve, but she won't admit it. Reeve's too nice to her, I think she'll be hurt in the end. He offered her a job at Shinra, which she accepted, so I guess they're both satisfied for the time being.
Kayley, well, I have no idea where she is. I think she went to check out Midgar, then Nibelheim, looking to see the places where Jenova had caused the most damage. I believe she started hanging around the Turks (who really aren't a bad lot, when all is said and done, by the way) but I lost track of them awhile ago. I have no doubts that our paths will cross again someday. They're just too damn obvious.
Now...on to Tifa. She's been very strong about this whole matter, of course. She never was one to voluntarily show weakness. She adjusted to the loss, I bet it was hard at first, but she had him by her side.
I kinda wonder how they managed to get together in the first place, but they seem to compliment each other. Vincent has continued to stay in the Shinra Mansion, while Tifa packed up and bought the replica of the house she grew up in. I have the sneaking suspicion that one or both of those residences might be abandoned soon...
I guess there's only one more person that needs to be talked about.
She's happy, pal, and I thought you needed to know that. That Joel guy? Well, they're working out their problems. He really seems to love her more than anything else in the world, and I can't begrudge him for that.
She deserves to find love and happiness, and if I'm not the one to give it to her this time around, then oh well. At least I know now that she loved me once, and some part of her deep inside will always care for me.
I think, in the end, we did the right thing for her. You're the only one right now who knows whether or not the masters agree with me. I'm not sure if I want to know if your choice was the right answer. I'd like to spend the rest of my life thinking that your sacrifice was the best way to go...that you did what you did because you wanted to, and had no regrets.
Her mission succeeded, you feel no pain, and as for me, well...
This voyage of mine began out of sacrifice. I never seemed to have the time, or heart, or concern for anyone else but myself, at least, not before Hojo put us into those tubes. I was a newborn soul, restless to try everything–and everyone–there was to have in life. Looking back, I was surprised that Aeris had the power to keep me concentrated on one person for that long.
Don't worry about me, I'm doing fine. I mostly keep to myself. I have to let Rissy alone, to live her new life, or else we'd both go crazy.
I can't feel sorry for myself. When I get to feeling down, I just remind myself that this life, here in the mortal realm, is gone in the blink of an eye. It just makes me wonder...
Will I ever be able to look at a flower again?
(January 2000-August 21, 2002)