What the...? All right, who left this plot hole here?
The Author stirred and stared up at the ceiling. Yes, it was morning, all right. He should probably get up now.
You know, this was quite possibly the least comfortable bed he had ever had the misfortune to attempt to sleep in. Not only did the mattress feel like a slab of concrete, but his duvet had gone wandering off somewhere, too.
"Mmf," mumbled Aeris beside him, and pulled it further over to her side. The Author nodded sagely. Ah, so that would explain –
He sat bolt upright. Aeris?
Even after several none-too-gentle rubs of his eyes the conclusion was still the same. The girl lying peacefully beside him, cuddling the duvet like it was a favourite teddy bear, was quite definitely Aeris. It wasn't as if he'd mistake anyone else for her.
But, lying here like this, he couldn't help but let himself be distracted by just how beautiful she really was. He'd never been bothered by women before – after all, he was a lousy writer when it came to romance – but, for some reason, she...
He consciously derailed that train of thought by thwapping himself repeatedly about the head. Save the soppy stuff for later. What actually happened the night before? Think, man, think!
"Mornin'," called Mr. Big cheerily from the other side of the room. "Sleep well?"
The Author turned a supplicating expression to him. "What happened... with her?"
Mr. Big grinned widely. "Weeell..."
"No, on second thoughts, I don't want to hear it. Not from you, anyway."
"Oh, come on. It's a good story."
"I tell you what, I'll cut out all the boring bits and go straight to the fun part."
"How about just a teaser? You know, the bit with you and her –"
Mr. Big shrugged. "Fine. Your loss."
The Author wasn't listening. His attention had wandered, predictably, back to Aeris. "My word," he muttered. "That was out of character for me."
"Yeah, it would've been, wouldn't it?" the rabbit agreed.
"But, what..." The Author paused. "Hang on. 'Would have been?'"
Mr. Big chuckled. "You know, as much as I hate to say it, you didn't do anything. I guess you two were just exhausted after all that carousing and whatnot you did last after the play. You came back here, and I'd say it was probably about five minutes before she'd just collapsed on your bed. I think you were gonna sleep on the floor or something, but you pretty much keeled over on top of her."
The Author relaxed. "Phew. For a moment there I thought I was getting closer to her than was strictly professional."
"You underestimate yourself," said Mr. Big quietly.
"Well, if you want my opinion, –"
"Which I don't."
"...then I'd say you should go through with it," Mr. Big continued, keen to get his opinion out whether it was requested or not. "I mean, I doubt she'd object. You obviously wouldn't, and I always appreciate a good show."
"You," said the Author wearily, and then stopped to consider the sentence. "From now on, whenever I'm in the same place as her, I'm going to make sure you're locked in a room with... Barret or somebody."
"Oh, now don't do that. Play nice."
"Fine." The Author sighed and got to his feet, then reached for his clothes before realising he was still wearing all of them. As was Aeris, for that matter – wearing her clothes, not his. Don't be silly.
"So what's the battle plan for today, chief?" enquired the rabbit.
The Author shrugged. "I'm guessing we head straight to this Ancient Temple place," he guessed. "Once we're there we'll either stop for a picnic on the grass outside it, or go straight down and beat Sephiroth up in a suitably epic confrontation. Or something like that."
"Sounds good to me. I guess we'll time lapse 'til the Temple, then."
"Most likely. But..." The Author glanced over at Aeris. "I'd rather you didn't talk about things like that around her... or the others, for that matter."
"Why? You're gonna tell her sooner or later, aren't you?"
"Yes, but... I need to wait for the right moment. I will tell her the truth. It's just that I can't really slip it into a conversation, can I? 'Oh, by the way, you're a character in a game. Well, it's not just a game, it's a book as well, and I'm another character who's been sent by God into the book to make sure you don't die. Only I'm not just a character, I'm an Author as well...' You get the point."
And so it came to pass that, one cable car ride, one airship flight, several hours and a not inconsiderable time lapse later, the heroes found themselves standing at the edge of a large forest clearing. The sense of size was augmented by the temple in the centre. Temples have a way of doing these things. Looking big is what temples do best.
"It's big, isn't it?" said Croft after a while. Well, someone had to say it.
"So whadda we do now?" Barret asked.
"Sephiroth's in there," Cloud said flatly, "somewhere. We have to go in and find him. I don't know what he's doing in there, but whatever it is, we can't let him."
He glanced for confirmation at Perigee, who nodded.
"Well, I guess we just wander in then, right?" remarked Ess, starting off towards the huge stone staircase ahead of them.
They had only got about halfway up when Ess caught sight of something near the top.
"Hey..." she said, stopping. It wasn't a particularly abrupt stop, but even so Barret still walked into her. "Is that...?"
"...a Turk's uniform," Perigee finished for her. "Yes."
"Does that mean we get to go beat him up?" enquired Kasuto hopefully.
"Works for me," Cid agreed.
Mr. Big adjusted his sunglasses and stared up at the navy-blue figure in the distance. Rabbits do have good eyesight, and he was picking up a few minor details that he didn't think any of the others had noticed.
"Er, guys?" he said cautiously. "I think there's something you might want to know..."
"What?" asked Tifa.
"Well... that Turk up there, he's not quite as... upright as you might expect..."
"Yeah... He doesn't look that well, either..."
The Turk turned out upon closer inspection to be Rude. He was slumped against a statue of something that looked almost like a child's drawing of a cactus, breathing heavily and staring up at the cloudless sky. A network of sword cuts criss-crossed his chest, from all of which blood was seeping and forming a sticky pool around him.
He lowered his gaze as the group neared and gave them a weak smile. "......, ...... ... ......?"
"Sort of," admitted Cloud. "What happened to you?"
"... ...... ..., ...... ......," Rude explained, his voice practically inaudible. "......, .... ......, ...... ...."
"Ow," said Cid sympathetically.
"So... he's in there?" Croft asked, wanting to make sure he'd got everything clear in his mind.
"What?" the Major boomed. "The blighter's hiding? Better go push him out, what? Give him a taste of good old blood 'n' vinegar, eh? After me, old beans!"
He hurtled off towards the entrance to the temple. The Author caught him by one arm with practiced ease as he passed and spun him round to face the other way.
"You gonna be okay?" Cloud asked Rude.
"Okay, that's a very good point."
"Why da hell do we care 'bout some Turk anyway?" Barret shouted. "I say we jes' leave him here!"
"Now, Barret," Ess snapped, kneeling down next to Rude and checking him over briskly and professionally. Funny how things came back to you when you needed them. "Just because you don't like the Shinra doesn't mean we can just let him die." She turned to Rude. "Just sit still. I should be able to get you patched up."
"Hey!" Perigee called from the temple. "There's some kind of lift in here. Looks like it can take three people at once. And the Keystone's already in place!"
"Yeah, the Turk just told us that!" Cid shouted back.
"Oh, right. Sorry."
"Well," said Cloud decisively, "I'm going to go find Sephiroth."
"......," warned Rude.
"Nah, we'll be fine. Aeris, you're a Cetra, right? Okay, you come with me."
"Okay..." said Aeris nervously.
"No one else happens to be a Cetra, do they?" Cloud asked.
"No!" the Author piped up with unconvincing innocence.
"Oh, okay. Well, then..." Cloud looked around the group. "Ess, you coming?"
Ess shook her head. "No, I'd better stay here with Rude. If you're taking Aeris, then I'm the only one who can really look after him."
Cloud shrugged. "So..."
"Hey, now it's my pick!" Aeris exclaimed. "I choose... the Author."
This did not seem to surprise anyone.
"Subtle, girl, subtle," Mr. Big muttered to himself as he bounded over to Cid's shoulder. "Well, you two just try not to get up to too much down there, right?"
The Author threw a Pokéball at him.
"Okay, okay, point taken," sighed the Pokéball as it fell to the ground and began to bounce down the temple steps. "Now just let me out of here."
The Author gave Cloud a quick beam. "Shall we be off, then?"
A few hours later, Cloud, Aeris and the Author were lost. They'd been wandering around for what seemed like days, moving from random battle to pointless puzzle room and back again, with the monotony punctuated only by the occasional level up – at least for the Author, who noticed these things and was currently stumped as to what to do with his skill points – and the odd item chest. Aeris had managed to find another umbrella, and was trying to fight with both at once, with rather limited success.
As they walked down a singularly uninteresting corridor, the Author glanced up at the previous paragraph. "Interesting," he mused to himself. "That's quite a long time lapse. After all, the last scene was when we came in here. I wonder why such a lot was skipped out...?"
[Authors' note: Shut up. Not much interesting stuff actually happens in here, and the readers already know roughly what happens anyway so there's no need to write page after page of random waffle. Just go with the flow and you can get to the next setpiece as soon as possible.]
"Oh, right. Sorry."
The corridor led into a large rectangular room. One wall was completely covered by a strange mural of sorts, depicting lots of strangely proportioned men with one eye running around doing various things with big sticks. Scattered across the floor were six or seven hefty stone cubes, each face inscribed with a few symbols that looked like they should mean something.
"Wow!" Cloud exclaimed, running enthusiastically past the other two. "Another block puzzle! Cool!"
The other two made their way over to the decorated wall and inspected that instead. They had learned during their time in here that Cloud could manage block puzzles perfectly well on his own, and that he actually got quite irritable if people started giving him suggestions and messing with his carefully thought-out plans.
"Well?" the Author asked. "You're the Cetra. Any ideas?"
Aeris walked over to the left-hand end of the mural and stared up at it.
"I think I might be able to hazard a guess," she said eventually.
The Author wandered over and joined her. This panel seemed to depict a lot of little men wandering around happily, talking to one another and building houses and generally being unaware of the huge falling star-type object overhead. He noted with some confusion that one of the villagers appeared to be wearing a pair of Mickey Mouse ears.
"Do explain," he invited her.
Aeris pointed up at the comet. "There's a Cetra legend about a 'Cataclysm from the Skies' that fell a thousand years ago. Before then, the Cetra and humans had lived perfectly happily alongside one another, but afterwards..."
The Author glanced at the next picture, which showed the same men being quite definitely not happy. It was hard to be happy when you had what looked like a halibut thrust through your chest.
"Suddenly, the Cetra began to turn on the humans," Aeris continued. "And the humans fought back, of course, and a war began. Only a few Cetra and humans realised that it was the Cataclysm that was doing this, and they sought to cause an end to the war however they could."
There was a worried "um..." from the other end of the room. Aeris and the Author turned to see that all the stone blocks had somehow clustered over in one corner, leaving just about enough room between them and the wall to accommodate, say, Cloud.
"I think I messed up," called a rather embarrassed voice. "Could you help me out?"
Absently, the Author reached out and hauled on the lever marked 'reset' next to him. Making a deafening scraping noise, the stone blocks slid back to their original positions and settled down.
"Thanks," Cloud called, and promptly started pushing them around again.
"Anyway," the Author told Aeris as they moved to the third panel, "go on."
This one showed a lot of men clustered around something that, while details were not easy to make out, appeared to have at least three or four heads and a goodly number of arms to go with them. It looked Evil, in short.
It also had about five halibuts sticking into it.
"Eventually the Cataclysm was sealed within the Planet," explained Aeris. "But when the war ended, there were only a few Cetra left. And those that did survive were scared to reveal themselves, because most of the humans remembered only that it had been the Cetra who started the war. And that's pretty much how things have stayed."
The Author cast a glance at the fourth and final picture, which was pretty similar to the first. Only in this one, the object in the sky was a lot bigger.
"And that...?" he asked, pointing at it.
"Part of the legend says that the Cataclysm was never truly destroyed and that it will awaken one day to once more cause terror and destruction," Aeris went on. "The legend says that the Cataclysm will summon death from the sky that will cause the end of life on the Planet altogether."
The Author thought back to his briefing. "Ah," he said, nodding sagely. "The meteor."
Aeris gave him a curious glance. "You've heard the legend?"
"Er... I picked up bits and pieces."
"Aha!" Cloud announced proudly. "I think I've got it."
He shoved the last block into position next to the rest. Something clicked audibly, and a pedestal rose from the floor beside him. There was a surprisingly accurate model of the temple atop it.
"Hey, there's something written here," he observed, leaning down to stare at the strange characters chiselled into the stone stand. "Um... My eyesight isn't good enough to read this yet..."
Aeris joined him, the Author following a few paces behind.
"It's hiragana," she said. "I thought only the ancient Cetra ever used this..."
"Can you read it?" Cloud asked anxiously. "Does it say where the Black materia is? We can't let Sephiroth get his hands on it!"
"Oh, yes, that's why we're here, isn't it?" the Author remarked. "Thanks. I'd forgotten for a moment."
"I think I can read this," Aeris told them. She squatted beside the pedestal and peered closer. "Er... hang on..."
They waited patiently until she gasped in surprise.
"What?" Cloud asked. "Does it say? What does it say?"
"Say, it does what?" added the Author unhelpfully. "What, it says 'does?'"
Aeris stood up. "It says... it says the Temple is the Black materia."
Cloud looked around him. "It doesn't look very Black to me."
"Apparently this model here is the key. If you solve puzzles in it, the Temple shrinks. Once you've solved them all, the Temple will have condensed into the materia... or something." She looked down at the floor. "I'm afraid I'm not very good at reading hiragana."
"Well, if there are puzzles to be solved..." Cloud planted his feet about shoulder's width apart and struck a Heroic pose. "There's only one thing to do!"
"Wait!" Aeris exclaimed. "If you solve them, then the Temple will get smaller with us inside it! We'll be crushed!"
"Oh. Yeah." Cloud pondered this. "But we can't just leave it. I'm sure Sephiroth will have some way of getting it if we don't. We have to do this somehow."
They lapsed into silent thought.
The Author stared from one to the other, a slightly bemused expression on his face.
"Please correct me if I'm just missing something incredibly obvious," he said thoughtfully, "but why don't we just take the thing outside before solving the puzzles?"
Cloud looked up.
"Brilliant!" he exclaimed. "How did you think of that?"
The Author shrugged. "Lateral thinking," he replied modestly.
"Lateral...?" Cloud repeated. "What does that mean?"
"It's from the Latin 'latum,'" the Author informed him.
"And that means...?"
"It's a form of the verb 'to carry.'"
"There!" announced Barret in satisfaction. "Beat that!"
The others crowded round, except Mr. Big, who simply bounced up and down in his Pokéball and said, "What? What's going on?"
"Wow," said Perigee simply. "That's two triple word scores, using the Y from 'enemy' and the A from 'ultima,' and making... um... one hundred and seventy one points. Plus the fifty point bonus for using all your letters. Nice one, Barret."
"I do so hate to be the voice of reason here," Nanaki interjected, "but is 'pitydafoo' actually one word?"
"Well, yeah!" Barret replied. "As in, 'I pitydafoo what touches ma materia.'"
Kasuto suddenly tried to look innocent.
"Oh, let him have it," said Tifa. "He hasn't managed anything longer than four letters up 'til now."
"I withdraw my objection," Nanaki agreed honourably.
There was a pause.
"I think," began Perigee.
"Hey, guys!" Cloud called, cutting him off. "We're back!"
"Obviously," observed the Pokéball flatly.
"So?" Kasuto asked expectantly. "What happened in... What's that?"
"Oh, this?" Cloud glanced down at the perfect replica of the Temple the three of them were carrying. He was holding one end, while Aeris and the Author were having to work together to keep the other one up. "It's the Black materia."
"Really?" Kasuto obviously wasn't convinced. "It doesn't look very Black."
"Well, obviously." Cloud gave her a resigned look. "You've got to solve all the puzzles in it first."
"So," Cloud announced, setting his end of the model down on the ground and forcing the other two to hurriedly follow suit, "you guys go do whatever it is you want to, and I'll sort out all these puzzles."
He promptly sat himself down in front of the replica, while Aeris and the Author ambled over to see what the others had been up to. For someone as in tune with literature as he, witnessing the scrabble board was a rather traumatic experience. Not only was there Barret's pitydafoo, but Perigee had managed to spell the compound ethenal as C3H4O, and...
"Whose is that?" he enquired, pointing at a six letter word made up entirely of blanks.
Rude raised a hand.
"Ah. What word is it?"
"......," Rude explained.
"Yo, I gotta question," Barret said suddenly.
"Yes, Barret?" asked Perigee wearily.
"Why do we want this Black materia anyway?"
"Because if we don't get it, Sephiroth will. And whatever it is he's up to, we have to try and stop him."
"Ah. So... instead of comin' here for da materia, he'll chase us instead?"
"Er... yeah." Perigee reconsidered. Suddenly the idea didn't make as much sense as it had before.
"Yeah, and I've got a question, too," Mr. Big piped up.
"How'd you like to let me out now?"
The Author nodded. "Yes, I suppose you've served your term in there." He picked the ball up and tossed it gently into the air. "Go! Mr. Big!"
A rather dishevelled looking rabbit landed gracelessly on his shoulder.
"Don't," he said coldly, "ever do that again."
Behind them, a loud CLUNK heralded Cloud's success at solving the first puzzle.
"Wow," said Tifa. "That was quick."
The Author and Aeris exchanged glances.
"You have no idea how good that boy is at solving puzzles," the Author said after a while. "You'd think he spent his entire youth..."
"...sitting in his room playing with jigsaws or something."
"Hey," Kasuto said to Tifa, "weren't you two like, next-door neighbours or something? What was he like?"
"Well," began Tifa nervously.
"I do hope I'm not interrupting anything."
The voice was worryingly familiar.
"Please, don't get up," Sephiroth said calmly, wandering over to the group. "I'm not going to stay long. I'm just here to collect a certain... Black materia."
"Well, whoever you are, you're going to have to wait a while," said Cloud absently without looking up from the Temple model, his attention focused entirely on the task in hand. "There's still a lot of puzzles to go. Now keep quiet. Some of us are trying to think."
Sephiroth's smug grin froze.
"Am I too early?" he asked worriedly.
As one, the group nodded.
"Blast." Sephiroth's eyes darted from side to side, as if he were trying to spot a way out of this embarrassing situation. "I know. Why don't you all just forget this ever happened, and I'll come back in a few hours when you're done. How about that?"
"Um," said Perigee, speaking for everyone.
Once again, time passed. As it was doing so, nothing particularly interesting happened. Cloud sat by the temple replica, firmly refusing to listen to anyone's advice, no matter how helpful it might be. He had grown progressively more and more annoyed by the handy 'hints' presented to him, particularly when they turned out to be right.
In the meantime, the others had finished their scrabble game – which had been won, to the dismay of all and the surprise of none, by Barret – and moved onto other pastimes. There were a couple of hands of bridge going on. The Author and Mr. Big were taking on Perigee and the Major at chess, which was an interesting experience as neither team could remember how the horses were meant to move, and the Major kept trying to persuade all his pawns to charge over to the other end of the board under supporting fire from the rooks. And Kasuto was driving Cloud mad by staring over his shoulder and pestering him to let her have a go at the puzzles.
The reader may be wondering at this stage about the repeated time lapses in this chapter. Suffice to say that nothing really interesting can be expected to happen until the next one, so it makes sense to get there as quickly as possible.
And so, a couple of hours later, as the sun was just beginning to dip beneath the horizon, the bridge games had been abandoned when it had transpired that there were only forty three cards in each deck for some reason, and the Major's pawns were clustered around his fallen queen, defending her bravely from the black bishops until she felt well enough to get back up again.
A few dozen yards from the rest of the group, Cloud was stumped. He'd worked his way through a good ten or eleven tasks of varying difficulty, and both model and real temple were definitely looking a lot smaller now, but this infernal circular disks problem was stumping him. He'd managed to move the blue one over, but now the green and red ones were the wrong way round, and he'd completely lost track of where the yellow one had ended up. And to make matters worse, there didn't seem to be any way to reset this conundrum.
"Are you done yet?" asked a persistent voice.
"Go away, Kasuto," said Cloud automatically.
"Hey, you've made a real mess of this, haven't you? Why don't you move the big orange one over here?"
"Go away, Kasuto."
A good thirty seconds passed, hot on the metaphorical heels of the hours that had gone before them.
"Aren't you done yet?"
"No, I feel like hanging around for a bit, if it's all the same to you," Sephiroth replied calmly, leaning further over Cloud's shoulder to get a better view of the proceedings. "Oh, you're not seriously stuck on the three spindles problem, are you?"
"Well, what do you suggest?" snapped Cloud irritably. "I'd like to see you do better."
Sephiroth gave the puzzle a few seconds' thought.
"Personally, I'd recommend moving the blue one back over this way," he volunteered, reaching out and shifting the stone disk across, "which means you can shuffle the pink and red ones over here, revealing the yellow one, which you can then put on top of the blue one, and I think even you can see where to go from here."
Cloud stared at the new configuration.
"Oh yeah," he said meekly, beginning to carry on the sequence Sephiroth had initiated. "How did you spot that?"
Sephiroth shrugged modestly.
"This body isn't just strong," he remarked.
With a smug grin of victory, Cloud slid the last stone disk into position. The model clanked loudly, and the three stacks disappeared into it.
There was a pause.
"So what –" Cloud began.
Again the replica started to emit some frankly worrying noises. Then, raising a cloud of stone dust as gears ground against one another, it began to fold in on itself.
When it was about the size of a small paperback, the two noticed that something was happening to the temple itself. It, too, was becoming the centre of a cloud, only this one was big, black, and ominous. Lightning flashed from within it.
"Ah. Cumulonimbus," said Cid knowledgeably. "Don't normally see 'em at this altitude, though."
The cloud expanded. Then the ground began to shake. Then the cloud disappeared. And then the group saw that the temple had simply disappeared, leaving a considerable crater behind in its place.
Cloud and Sephiroth exchanged glances. They looked from the crater to each other, and back again. And then, with simultaneous cries of, "Mine!" they leaped to their feet and sprinted off towards it.
Cloud reached the materia first. It was a long way down into the crater, and while Sephiroth had the advantage of levitation, Cloud favoured the 'plummet' approach to descent. Okay, so he hit the rock at the bottom of the crater with a particularly loud splintering crack, but he got his fist clenched around the tiny materia sphere before Sephiroth did. And that was what counted.
"Hah," he said breathlessly as he lay there. "Mine."
Sephiroth landed silently next to him.
"Give it to me," he ordered.
"Oh, come on. It's not as if you're going to do anything with it."
"Look, I tell you what." Sephiroth reached into the inner confines of his cloak with one hand and produced a greenish materia. "I'll trade you this nice shiny new Destruct materia for that dull black one."
"A Destruct and a Transform?"
"I'll throw in this Nail Bat as well. Come on, not everyone has a plank of wood with a nail in it."
"N... hmm..." Cloud considered this. "No."
"Fine," Sephiroth sighed, throwing the Destruct materia at him in resignation. "Be like that. But, whatever you do with that materia, don't bring it to the Northern Crater within the next couple of days or so."
Sephiroth clasped a hand to his forehead, horrified. "Oh, my, I've said too much!" He glanced around him in mock worry. "I'd better disappear before I reveal anything more!"
He did so.
"The Northern Crater...?" repeated Cloud. "I wonder what he meant by that..."
"Okay, so let me see if I've got everything straight," Mr. Big said. "We've just got our hands on this Black materia thing, which is what Sephiroth wanted to use to blow up the world or whatever it was. So as long as we keep a hold of it, that's one objective done. Sorted. Out of the way."
Perigee nodded. The four of them – the two mentioned so far plus Ess and the Author – were seated round a small fire a short distance away from the rest of the group. Cloud had decided that they might as well stay the night here, seeing as they wouldn't be able to get to an inn before some unearthly hour, so the LTF crew were comparing ideas and making sure they all knew what was going on. They'd decided that Kasuto, the Major and Croft probably didn't need to hear the discussion, or wouldn't understand it anyway, so those three were babysitting Roch and making sure he didn't accidentally hear things that wouldn't do him any good at all.
"Which just leaves us with protecting Aeris," Ess observed helpfully.
"Yeah. So how'd we go about doing that?"
"I would have thought staying away from Sephiroth would be a good start," suggested Ess.
Perigee and the Author exchanged glances.
"Won't work," they said together.
"Because," the Author put in before Perigee could give his reasons, "a villain like Sephiroth will keep coming after her. The only way to bring a conclusive end to his pursuit – and therefore to the storyline – is to kill him off, or convert him to the light side or something like that. If we just leave him wandering around, he'll keep coming for her, and the story keeps going."
"And I'm guessing we can't quit halfway through a book," Mr. Big added.
"Plus we might not have accomplished the first objective yet," remarked Perigee.
Ess gave him a quizzical glance. "I thought you said..."
"Yes, yes, in the game, Sephiroth tries to destroy the planet by summoning Meteor using the Black materia. But with all the deviations we've had so far," he paused for just long enough to glare at the Author, "it's perfectly feasible that his schemes may have gone off on a tangent – reviving Jenova fully at the North Crater or something. Just look at the temple." He waved an arm at it, or at least where it had been until recently. "In the game, Cait Sith was supposed to solve the problems inside, sacrificing himself nobly and demonstrating that he was truly on the party's side!"
"Who's Cait Sith?" asked Ess.
"Oh, the robot you meet at the Gold Saucer."
The others considered this.
"I'm pretty certain Croft would have objected to the idea of sacrificing himself," said the Author slowly and deliberately.
"And that's another thing!" Perigee exclaimed. "We're missing a major character because one of your guys took his place!"
"He can't have been that major if he killed himself," Mr. Big mused.
"He comes back afterwards."
"So not that much of a noble sacrifice?"
"Yes, it... I mean, he was..."
"And weren't you saying something earlier about a thief called Yuffie?" Mr. Big continued, keen to press his point home. "Hasn't your Kasuto girl –"
"Anyway," the Author put in, feeling perhaps this conversation needed to be dragged forcefully back to the topic in hand, "what do we do now?"
"Well," said Perigee, calming down somewhat, "there's the Northern Crater."
"Oh, yeah, Cloud was saying something about that," Ess recalled. "He said we had to get there in the next couple of days. Why?"
Perigee shrugged. "He's probably being called by the Jenova cells in him or something."
"Jenova?" repeated Ess.
"Anyway," Perigee continued, "that area's where the next few big events happen, so we should be heading there regardless."
"One of those places where plot happens?" Mr. Big enquired. "What're they called...?"
"Event horizons," Perigee informed him.
"So," the Author suggested, "if we go there we could force a confrontation with Sephiroth and end everything there."
"I guess so," agreed Perigee. "Only..."
"To get to the crater you have to pass through the City of the Ancients."
"And that's bad because...?" asked Mr. Big. "Scary cave paintings? Evil guardians that've slept since the dawn of time? Unsafe floors?"
"It's where Aeris dies."
"Then wouldn't it be wiser to go around?" volunteered Ess sensibly. "Seeing as we are here to save her and all."
"So this is where your plan starts," the Author observed darkly. "Going through there so you know what's going to happen."
"Huh?" Ess turned to Perigee. "What's this?"
"I know how Aeris dies," the scientist replied. "Therefore we can stop it happening. We could even try to force a confrontation then, if you want."
"So you're going to use her as bait, basically?"
Perigee winced. "Don't put it like that."
"Wow." Ess was taken aback. "You're cold at times, aren't you?"
"I'm just being logical." Perigee spread his hands in a gesture of trustworthiness. "Look, it only happens in the game because Aeris runs away from the rest of the group and goes there on her own. That's not going to happen with us, is it? All we have to do is walk through there, and you guys can even wait outside if you want. The thing is, we know where and when Sephiroth's going to be waiting. So if we intercept him there, we can get both parts of the mission out of the way at once. Aeris will be saved, and we stop Sephiroth casting Meteor. Straight to the epilogue, and then we can be recalled. How about that?"
"Ehhh..." Mr. Big was obviously not convinced by the wisdom of this plan.
"Look, it makes sense. She's not going to be in any danger!" Perigee shook his head wearily and got to his feet. "I'll let you think about it, okay? It's safer for her if we get this over with, you know."
He walked off, somewhere between an amble and a stomp.
"I think I'll be... er, I'll see you two in the morning, then," said Ess, and followed him.
And this just left the two of them.
"I don't like this whole mission business," Mr. Big remarked. "Turns the entire affair into us versus them."
The Author nodded absently.
"Makes me really appreciate getting out of that crowd when we did," the rabbit went on, feeling that someone had to lighten the rather tense atmosphere. "They all take things way too... seriously... uh oh..."
His gaze, as it swept the surrounding area for a source of comic inspiration, had fallen on an approaching figure. Under most circumstances he would have held no complaints against a girl who came walking up to him late at night, but this time he was rightly worried. He recognised the rather unique single-braid hairstyle, but more importantly he recognised the vengeful expression on her face. It was one he saw quite often, usually before he got punted off into the middle distance by a particularly nasty kick.
"The 'mission?'" said Aeris coldly.
The Author glanced up at her, and despite the situation a brief ironic smile crossed his face. "Oh, of course you'd have heard that," he murmured. "How could I not have seen that one coming?"
"Well," Mr. Big observed, his eyes darting nervously from one to the other, "I think I'll just go and, er... There must be a decent patch of clover around here somewhere..."
With a sudden burst of speed only attainable by cute animals whose survival depends on being able to run away from creatures with more teeth than them, he shot off into the evening gloom.
The Author held Aeris' gaze evenly, which to be fair to him was quite an achievement.
"I'm assuming you heard pretty much everything," he stated. It wasn't a question. He'd overseen enough scenes like this to know how they went. Never thought he'd take part in one, though.
"I think I heard all that mattered," Aeris snapped. "I heard that I'm just a mission objective. That you're only looking after me because someone told you to."
The Author nodded once. "In the beginning, I'm afraid so. But –"
"And you thought you'd get me to like you because it would make it easier to keep an eye on me? Stop the target wandering off?"
The Author shot to his feet. "Hell no! I..." He hesitated. "Did I really just say that?"
Aeris said nothing.
"Look," the Author sighed, "perhaps I only came here because I was asked to by an old friend, but I'm hardly the sort of person who goes around seducing every available woman around him. I only fell in on you that day in the slums as the result of a mistake, but you can have no idea how thankful I am for that mistake. Aeris, it was never my intention to love you or to hurt you, but it seems I have inadvertently done both. I have no regrets over the first. I can only hope you can forgive me for the second."
Aeris backed away slowly. Her expression had softened slightly, but the flickering light from the fire glinted off tears in her eyes.
"How can I forgive you if I can't even trust you?" she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "How could you not tell me?"
"Because... Because I thought knowing that would only hurt you." A harsh laugh echoed briefly in the night air. "Because I'm a fool. Because I always assumed there would be a right time to tell you. Because I have never before met anyone who I thought would be able to understand."
Aeris did not pause in her retreat. "But how can I even believe you now?"
"You can't." The Author's gaze dropped to the fire, dying away at his feet. "I have no right to expect anything of you now. Anything you do to me is justified."
Aeris opened her mouth once more but, like the fire, her voice had died. For a brief moment she froze, unsure of who to turn to or what to do. Then she turned sharply and fled.
The Author watched her go, remaining even after she had disappeared into the night. Only after several minutes did he sink to the ground and put his face in his hands. The campfire embers seemed to glow solely for him, as if they understood his plight.
A friendly paw nudged him gently.
"I'm sorry, man," said Mr. Big's voice. "I'm sure –"
"Just keep your thoughts to yourself for tonight," the Author replied without looking.
Silence reigned, marred only briefly by the soft padding of retreating paws. The Author looked up, and his gaze once more fixed to the fire. Slowly and deliberately, he raised one hand and placed it, palm down, on the glowing charcoal, holding it there even after the hissing sound had faded away.
"Omega team," he murmured to himself. "The worst at everything we do."
Prologue: Writing of Wrongs
Part 1: For What We Are About to Receive
Chapter I: Editorial Changes
Chapter II: Insert Chapter Title Here
Chapter III: Biohazard
Part 2: Present Imperfect
Chapter IV: Ahead on our Way
Chapter V: On That Day, Five Years Ago...
Chapter VI: Feather in the Wind (reprise)
Part 3: World Travel
Chapter VII: Twelve Good Men on a Dead Man's Chest
Chapter VIII: Music of the Night
Chapter IX: Drawing Inexorably
Part 4: Crossroads
Chapter X: The Trousers of Time
Part 5: Calculus
Chapter XI: Differentiation & Integration
Chapter XII: The Sunrise and I
Chapter XIII: The Best Is Yet To Come
Part 6: Introduction to Destruction
Chapter XIV: Makes No Difference
Chapter XV: Second Impact
Chapter XVI: Judgment Day
Epilogue: Loose Ends
Return to index