Evolution of Innocence

Part 1: In the Eyes of an Angel
Chapter 1

"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."

"A Protector?"

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?"

"Barely nineteen."

"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.)

.

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Chapter 2

.

(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."

"Huh?"

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.

.

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Chapter 3

.

"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."

"My pleasure!"

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."

"Come again?"

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?"

.

"Daphne?"

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."

.

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Chapter 4

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"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."

"Everyone?"

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.

She nodded.

"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.)