Evolution of Innocence

Part 6- Enchantment Denied

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Chapter 21

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"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?"

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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."

"Dye job?"

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.

"Wark!"

"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.)

.

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Chapter 22

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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."

"Daphne?"

"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.

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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.

"Joel?"

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?"

"Sorry."

"Then make it up to me," she said lightly. "Tell me how you feel."

"About...?"

"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.

"See - "

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.

 

Chapter 23

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.

"Morning."

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?"

"Preferably? Today."

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.

"Hello?"

"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."

.

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Chapter 24

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("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...

.

("It's screaming."

What's screaming?

"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 here. 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."