Evolution of Innocence

Part 7- Ribbons of Truth

 

Chapter 25

It seemed everywhere he turned, he caught the very end of a harsh whisper. The bearers of such tidings remained anonymous, but Cloud began to suspect that not all was hunky-dory in the company of Avalanche. "What the hell is going on here?" he muttered to himself.

"You've spooked everyone out, that's what, you retarded waste of hair gel." Cid's fierce verbal onslaught had returned, due to Barret's need to raid the pantry.

"I can't apologize for things that happened when I had lost complete control over myself."

"That's right, so apologize for everything else, you damn jackass!"

"Yeah!" chimed in a cheerful voice. Yuffie carefully sipped ginger ale in an attempt to appease her queasy innards.

Cloud waved them off. "We have to make sure Daphne is all right."

"She's probably just peachy." The ninja hopped from tile to tile on the floor of the cockpit. "I mean, Aeris was always okay by herself, all her troubles started when you came along." Winking, she stuck out her tongue.

"Why didn't we ditch you when we had the chance," the sullen pilot muttered.

"Who me?" Wide-eyed, Yuffie pointed to herself with a look of mock innocence.

"No, fucking moron, I'm talking about the lame-ass."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Highwind lurched to a stop just outside the limits of Junon City. "Hey," said Derin lightly to Cloud, "why don't you and Barret go and visit Elmyra in Kalm? There's a pretty good chance that Aeris would want to visit her mother, don't you think?"

Blond spikes bobbed a bit as he nodded. "That sounds like a decent proposal. If Barret will feel like joining me," he said, a bit of sadness in his voice.

"Of course I do, spikey-ass. Someone's gotta make sure ya don't screw shit up again!"

Giving a tentative smile to his hulky friend, he turned to Cid. "And you'll drop us off, right?"

"Sure thing, chocobo-brains." The pilot flashed him a thumbs-up.

The others began climbing down the ladder, headed towards the port town. "Wait," said Red XIII quickly, "how about taking Yuf - "

"No way!" the ninja yelped, and she hurriedly followed Reeve off the deck.

"Dammit," muttered the cat.

"Hey there, watch your fucking mouth!" admonished Cid.

"D'ya think Aeris would've needed to buy more materia, Reevie? Huh?"

"I'm not sure, Yuffie." He watched in mild amusement as she danced around him in circles, on the pretense of "working off the airsickness."

"Great idea, why don't you go check out the materia shops while we find other leads?" Red XIII looked hopeful.

"Really?" A hint of suspicion entered her upbeat tone.

"Oh, sure." Derin winked.

Vincent concurred. "It's certainly better than what Cloud had us do in Nibelheim."

Catching on, Reeve shook his head a bit and grinned. "Why don't I join you and we'll go check it out?"

"Cool beans!" She cheerfully ran off in the direction of the shopping district.

"Cool...beans?" Tifa looked quite confused.

Smoothing back his dark hair, the ex-executive followed behind. Turning back to his companions, he mouthed "Public Service Award?" before disappearing behind their hyper teenage friend.

"An award sounds like a good idea, actually." Tifa laughed. "So how much are you going to pay him, Red?"

"I'll give him my lifetime pass to Gold Saucer and buy him a grand of GP," the cat declared.

"Where should we begin?" Vincent asked.

"Bar!" declared Derin and Tifa simultaneously.

"...I was thinking her apartment might be a good lead." Red XIII cleared his throat. "That's where I met her and Cloud a few nights ago."

"Cloud met her at a bar," Tifa insisted, not able to completely delete the snide tone from her voice.

"A friend of hers owns a bar. She works there occasionally," Derin elaborated. "Plus, I have a feeling she went straight to this friend upon her Junon arrival."

"This need not be an ordeal. I'll accompany Red XIII to the apartment building, and you two can check out this bar you're speaking of." Vincent crossed his arms and looked at the others. "Sound easy enough?"

"Of course." Derin hopped up. "Follow me, Tifa."

The lion began walking in the opposite direction. "It is this way, I believe."

Tifa was amused to find that every time she peeked over her shoulder, she saw Vincent glancing over his.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Reno gazed absentmindedly out the door of "Joel's Tavern." He snorted to himself. (Maybe I can offer a suggestion of a new name for this stupid joint.) Taking a drag off his lit cigarette, he glanced inside to check on the others.

Elena and Rude were sitting in a booth, opposite each other, concentrating fiercely on the cards they held in their hands. Narrowing her eyes, the blonde woman reached a hand towards the undealt stack of cards, snatching one up.

After a moment or two of watching her sort through her hand, Rude spoke up. "Aren't you forgetting something, Lane?"

Closing her eyes in concentration, she shook her head. "Wait! I've got it." She set down her cards, save one which she discarded.

He stared at her demonstration at disbelief.

"Gin!" She jumped up and hopped a bit, pleased with herself. Then she caught Reno's scrutinizing gaze and froze.

Shaking his mussy red spikes, he mouthed a word at her. "Lame."

Dejectedly, she stuck out a tongue.

Rude, noticing the exchange, turned towards the door only to lower his shades, displaying his disapproval with the raise of an eyebrow.

Turning back to the street, Reno cracked his knuckles in boredom. (There aren't even any shady characters outside, let alone ones that want to bust into the bar.) He watched a couple enter the materia shop across the street. (Easy money is boring.)

"So, are you going to tell Ms. Angelon?"

He jumped at the voice that suddenly materialized behind him. "Wha?" He gave his companion a shove in the shoulder. "Damn Rude, stop doing that. And there's nothing here to tell."

"Well I suppose not, since they haven't entered the bar, but I would think she'd like to know who's across the street. We are keeping an eye out for Avalanche, aren't we?"

"Ava - "

Rude handed his partner a small pair of binoculars.

Shaking his head, Reno focused through the shop window onto the two browsing customers. (Guy in a suit. Dark hair, goatee...) "Whoa, that's Reeve," he muttered. "I oughta invite him over for a drink - ow!" He glared at his bald friend, who'd given him a "love tap" on the back of the head.

"That's not quite as important as the girl."

"She was pretty cute, come to think of it..." A threatening glare from Rude quieted him back down again. Focusing in on the other member of the pair, he suddenly realized just who he was looking at. "Fuck, that's Kisaragi?!"

Snatching back his equipment, Rude shook his head. "Very perceptive, Reno. Maybe you can be employee of the month now. Shall we tell her, then?"

"Tell me what?"

The pair jumped together, before turning to look behind them.

Daphne stood in front of them, arms crossed, with an expectant look on her face. "Well, boys?"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Kayley sighed and glanced around the chocobo stable of the Highwind. With Goldie gone, the place was empty. (Thank goodness) she thought to herself before plopping down on a warm bale of hay.

She'd been left alone on the Airship, for fear of what sort of reaction she'd inspire in the Ancient. (What a crock, I mean, that chick was psycho before I'd done a thing to her. That's pretty messed!)

Alone was a euphemism for being practically stalked from one end of the aircraft to the other by Cid's crew, of course. She'd ducked inside the stable in hopes of eluding them. (After all, if I wanted to do harm, this would not be the place to do it.) Plus, the traces of barnyard smells from its former occupants were probably deterring any thoughts of retrieving her.

She had to wonder about the amazing coincidences happening lately. "I was the one who saw Meteor again...when I was the one who had a hand in summoning it in the first place."

"It's not so much a coincidence, as very good planning," a voice suddenly said.

"Huh?" She glanced around in surprise. "I thought I was alone."

"That's a error in thought that most humans have in common." A mouse suddenly jumped up onto the hay next to her.

"A talking mouse? I'm going schizo," Kayley mumbled.

"Now, now child, calm down a bit. Mice still don't talk. However, there is a very important message that you need to hear, and the Planet works in mysterious ways." Hopping onto its hind legs, the small creature did a gesture with its forelimbs.

She shook her head slightly. "Whatever."

"We're going to go through an exercise in logic, all right?" The animal waited for her nod before continuing. "That Red XIII, he pretty much hit the nail on the head when he figured out that these problems on the surface are being caused by a spirit forcing its exit from the Lifestream. Now, while those of us in charge of souls don't generally allow anything life-threatening to bring harm to the Planet, we decided that a particular soul needed to be taught a lesson."

"What are you saying? That you let something force its way back into the land of the living?"

"I suppose you could say that, but it's a tad inaccurate. A spirit can't force its way back. So we forced the spirit back, therefore breaking the fabric between life and non-life. Instead of instantly reviving everything that ever lived, it's slowly reversing the events that occurred between the death of said spirit and the time that the spirit returned."

"That doesn't seem so bad."

"Until you look and notice a small planet is on a collision course with ours, and you realize that there may be a very huge foe regenerating itself as we speak."

"Sephiroth...?"

The mouse shrugged. "Yes, but that's not the most important enemy on the horizon. You're regenerating, but this time, entirely soulless. That may actually make Jenova weaker, but it will still be a tough battle nonetheless."

"Can anything be done?"

"Well, everything would revert to normal if the balance of souls is restored."

"Then someone has to kill the person responsible!"

"That won't work. The spirit returning must be willing...that's why we also brought along our own insurance. If the renegade is not willing to come back, we have another who can return in her stead."

"You said 'her'!"

The mouse nodded.

"Why are you giving all this information to me?" Kayley asked. "I mean, the person isn't me, and I doubt you're going to let me return in place of said stupid world-destroying soul."

"You are the one who must convince her to return." The mouse vanished from sight. "It will be hard, but the only true sacrifice is one that remains unselfish from this life to the next. Tell that to Aeris..."

Kayley sat up with a start. Her head had been resting on top of the hay bale, and her legs curled underneath her. She shook her head, attempting to clear her mind. However, she was certain that her dream was not some stupid menagerie created by her subconscious, but a true message from the Planet.

Unfortunately, it seemed the Planet wasn't anywhere close to finding Aeris, either.

You slip down into your own mind

Read the views you have defined

Demand you be repaid in kind

But insist you get to cross the line

Tune your memory with the stars

Dwarf the past, heal the scars

Attempt to make your heart unmarred

Then cage yourself with hidden bars

In truth, your soul lies still sealed

And soon reality will be revealed -

You thought nature could be appealed

Just because he cut you...as you kneeled

 

Chapter 26

Cloud walked through the streets of Kalm, deep in thought. Barret and the others were still at Elmyra's house. The kind woman had gone into shock once she had learned the reason for their visit.

(Aeris hadn't even left word with her own mother.) A light breeze rustled the green grass around him. (I just don't understand it.) An image of kind green eyes flashed in his mind; kind green eyes peering at her mother with concern.

(She just isn't being herself at all.

That's got to be the key to everything, right? The reason why she'd run from all her friends, ignore her mother... Is she even the same person that we all knew once?

I've been so caught up in my own hopes and dreams and ideas of how things were supposed to be. But...she'd been dead and gone for months. The world has passed on without her...so why wouldn't she have passed on without it?)

He began to argue with himself. (Then wouldn't she be better? More selfless, more eager, more adaptable, more...more like Derin.) Cloud admitted bitterly that the new incarnation of Zack had been not only a bit more agreeable than the original flavor, but also much, much easier to deal with than Daphne.

His own mind was confused with what to call the trio of dual personalities. Derin...he was easy. The more mature, grounded version of his old friend was different enough to warrant the name change. His insistence at referring to Kayley by name, and not by her former alien self had set a decent example for Cloud.

Though he hadn't so much as spoken to her since the disappearance, his thoughts had changed from volatile and derogatory to tolerant. Kayley was Kayley in his mind. There was no doubt, now, that she was quite separated from the actions of her slimy self.

That left him with one more person to contend with. The new Aeris Gainsborough, former flower girl, once-time girlfriend and the Rissy of Zack, what was she now? The other personality she had put on like a pair of old socks, and worn when she'd first met Cloud again, didn't seem that much like the old Aeris or the one who'd taken off into the depths of the night.

(She's not the girl I loved. And she's not the girl who used to be in that body.)

"Who are you now, Aeris?" he whispered to the wind. There was no response.

Only one person could answer his question, and she was nowhere to be found.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Daphne peered at two of her new employees. "I'm waiting."

Suddenly, two figures appeared in the doorway. "Then wait no longer, and maybe you can give us an explanation for a few things while you're at it." Derin tried his hardest to keep his face calm, composed. He peered into her eyes, searching for a glimpse of... If only there was a single spark of...

She shrank back. "You know, you were hired to watch out for this sort of thing," she half screamed at the two Turks in front of her.

Gingerly, Tifa pushed her way past Rude and Reno. "It's a shame that you didn't learn much of anything in the Promised Land, or you would have known that...well...we've beaten these guys up and down the tracks a few times. Thanks to you, our duties have been held up for the time being. I don't think telling us what the hell you were up to is out of the question."

A bit panicky, violet eyes danced around the room, trying to coax her security into action. Reno, who always had his head set against authority - any authority, crossed his arms and scowled a bit. "Actually, I think we're a bit curious with what's going on here. I never cared much for Avalanche, but I'd love to know your connection with them."

"They're on our bad side because they keep kicking our butts," Elena chirped from the booth where she'd been gathering up the cards for another game. She was dissuaded from any further explanation by two matching glares from her partners.

"Hey! What are you guys doing - " Yuffie had interrupted the chaos, only to find that her friends had completed the mission.

Reeve, close behind her, blinked back his surprise at seeing his old Shinra co-workers gathered around Daphne as well.

"Good thing we stood our ground," Reno muttered to Rude. "I dunno how good Jordan is at combat, but four against three would not be my idea of easy money."

Yuffie turned around the open/closed sign with a mischievous grin before walking over and plopping herself down on a stool at the counter. "So, lovely Aeris, why the hell did you run off without us?"

"You welcomed our enemy in with open arms. How can I feel any comfort next to my murderer?" Daphne's voice was full of spite.

"Funny thing," Derin replied, "that same person was responsible for my death but I understood that above all, the Planet's motives were above my personal feelings." His words were laced with poison.

The venomous dart hit its target. She blinked back tears, vaguely remembering her dreams of the Promised Land. "I guess...the Planet took my life, your life..."

He shook his head. "Yes and no. Jenova was unnatural...but...Sephiroth and his sword were of this Planet. She has to answer for the blame, while we still are bound by this Planet's rules."

She glanced around the room timidly. "I'm not the same person I was," she said softly. "I can't be the same. I barely remember you all." Her words ended with a muffled sob, and she sank down into the booth across from Elena.

Tifa felt a pang of guilt. She'd blamed a dead girl for Cloud's disinterest and continued to do so even after her return. (She's not the same any more...and Cloud's feelings are his own business.) It must be admitted, however, that she might have had a little more trouble with forgiveness if she did not know there was a tall, dark semi-stranger who was more than willing to try and see what feelings came up.

Yuffie was a bit more amiable, hopping up and sliding in next to Daphne. "Cloud's been going nutso on us, trying to find you."

"He really worries, huh?"

"We all worried, Aer..." The ninja's voice trailed off momentarily, confused with the idea of proper reincarnated-friend-nomenclature. "We had to lose you once, and you are our friend. Even though you look different, and you are confused right now, there have to still be some Aeris-y parts of you, deep down. It's a bit too much to give up again."

An image arose in Daphne's mind. Yuffie, crying in the night for weeks. Even a babe born during the tumult of a war had yet to see a companion die right before her eyes, especially one of the few who had ever treated her with a speck of respect. And - she thought she never could, but she finally did - she began to remember.

She smiled to herself, her pretty eyes shining. It was almost like discovering a long-lost secret. Daphne looked around. The concerned yet happy eyes of her friends, even the aloof amazement of the Turks, this was what she had come back for. (And I've been such a self-absorbed brat!) She made a declaration to herself. (Things will never be exactly the same as they would have been, I'm sure of that, but I must never lose sight again of why I needed to be here so badly, why I left the Promised Land. What I wanted was another chance with these people and - )

Derin's eerily calm voice broke through her thoughts. "I'm glad you understand." His deep eyes were pools of uncertainty, mystery, fear, pain... She could lose herself in them, and this made her afraid. "We have a bigger problem here though."

"I know, I'm sorry for stalling your quest against the reborn monsters..."

"I don't think it's a matter of rebirth, Rissy." It was the first time he'd managed to use the nickname, his inner thoughts included, in many days. "It's a matter of time going back." Walking to the picture window of the tavern, he drew up the blinds, revealing the bright blue sky with its puffy white clouds. A picturesque scene, really.

But the dark blemish near the sun had grown a bit more prominent. Now, instead of reflecting sunlight, it cast a shadow on that part of the sky.

"What is it?" she asked softly.

The answer nearly killed him coming out. "It's Meteor, Aeris. But this time there's no Holy-wielding maiden in the Promised Land to save the world."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

She was not brave; she was stupid. And she admonished herself thus as she hurriedly cast down the airship's ladder and descended down into Kalm. Her captors, her saviors had kept her away from them, but this was not a time to stick to alliances or fear induced declarations.

Kayley had never been through Kalm, neither as her human self nor her former alien incarnation. Such a sleepy town was never anything that mattered much, especially in earlier times when Midgar overshadowed it. She thought for a moment of the charred, bent metal that loomed ever present in the distance. Even a dead Midgar overshadowed the quaint little village.

She stopped in the square, confused. How would she know which way to turn, which way to go? Luckily there were some locals milling about, and she vaguely recalled the last name of the woman the others had sought out.

"Excuse me?" Her voice was soft, her expression timid, and the man she stopped could hardly help being polite.

"G'day, missie." He tipped his hat.

"Could you point out where Ms. Gainsborough lives?" Kayley put on the same "innocent face" she had used while seeking out Cloud, and she hoped that it actually did look pure.

"Turn down Wallace Ave. over there and it's the third house on the right." The middle aged man smiled proudly, displaying a missing front tooth. "We named our main streets over 'gain to honor Avalanche for savin' us all from Meteor and that evil Sephiroth."

She tried very hard to hide her repulsion and, for the most part, succeeded. "Thank you," she said sugary-sweet.

"Well, I dunno about tryin' to head over there at the moment though. You sees, Miz Gainsborough is friendly with those Avalanchers and they're at her house this very minute."

Kayley narrowed her eyes. She was quickly losing all the patience someone in her situation could muster. "I understand, but I just came from the Highwind. I don't think they'll turn me away." (At least they better not.)

"Lor' a mercy!" he exclaimed. "Do you think you can handle getting a helpful body like myself an au-to-graph of the heroes?"

"I apologize, but I'm really in a hurry." Sick of stupid, moronic human frivolities, she turned on her heel and ran towards the house the man had described.

"Well!" he muttered to himself before making his way towards the tavern. "Jus' 'cause she's a mate of famous people, don't mean such a young brat should go putting on such airs."

Kayley's nerves were about shot, however, by the time she'd reached Elmyra's front stoop. Her actions had been quite bold as it was, and then the townsperson had been grating, in all honesty. Biting back fear, she decided to get things over with and deal with real consequences instead of imagined ones.

Her rapping at the door was answered promptly by a sweet-faced girl with nut-brown hair.

This did not faze Kayley at all, of course not. Just because Aeris was fairly grown-up did not mean that her mother did not have other offspring. She put on her best smile for the girl. After all, even the one-time slimy headless being could admit that the child was cute as a button. "May I speak to your mother please?"

Instantly, the girl began to wail with an awful racket. "What's wrong?" Her voice was soothing, but to no avail. "Please, I need to speak to Elmyra Gainsborough!"

A terse voice answered her. "Tryin' to destroy the Planet ain't enough for ya, y'all had to go and make my Marlene cry." Barret finished his growling and lifted his adopted daughter to his shoulder. Already, her sobs had quieted down to subdued sniffling.

"I had a vision." Kayley held her ground. "Your precious Ancient is in Junon, and the fate of the Planet lies on her head this time, not mine. I thought 'y'all,'" she continued scathingly, "would like to maybe do something about it before it was too late."

 

Chapter 27

The bar was still closed when Joel arrived to take on the night rush. The occupants inside peered at him with curiosity and he, them, as he unlocked the door and entered. "What does this all mean, Daph?" he asked. Then, suddenly, he saw Tifa, Yuffie, and the newest arrivals Red XIII and Vincent, eyes blazing with recognition. "Why can't you all leave that poor girl alone? Just because Cloud Strife decides that he wants something - "

Something else stayed his words, though, a look in Daphne's eyes that he had never seen before. "There...are a few things that you don't know about me," she said miserably. First though, she nodded to the blue suited group across from her in the booth. "These are the bodyguards I hired. The Turks."

"Sir," Rude spoke up immediately, always having a knack with those in authority, "we can assure you that Avalanche means your friend no harm. We've been in here for a few hours...discussing some matters."

"What matters?" He looked around the room half-crazed. "This seems like a dream. What matters would any of you have with a young girl from Mideel?"

"I lied to you, Joel. I said that they thought I was Aeris...that part was true...but the lie is..." She looked up at him. "Promise me that you won't think I'm nuts."

With a dubious frown, he nodded.

"I am Aeris. Reincarnated, I guess you could say. Daphne was strong, Joel, but...things were too much for her." Part of her knew Daphne inside and out...part of her felt Daphne inside and out. There was still some love inside of her for Joel. She reached out, placing a hand on his arm. "She's resting now, in the Promised Land. I'm sure she's with her family...and I know that she and Rachel are happy." She began to cry.

"So what? You took over some girl's life to get your own back?"

"It was a willing trade. I would never ask a soul to sacrifice what I did."

He didn't know what to do. Daphne was sitting there, right in front of him, saying that she wasn't Daphne. Yet, yet...he felt... Pain built up inside of him, and before he could stop himself, he had run his fist straight through the wall. "Now there's a hole in the bar to match the one in me," he stated matter-of-factly. "I loved her and you took her away!" He strode towards this hollow shell, this sick and twisted...

Joel met a barrier in Derin. "Do not blame her because you did not tell the woman you loved her in time to make her feel less lonely."

"Out of my way."

"The masters would never force a soul out of their body. If they released your precious Daphne, it was only because she was about to release herself."

It was beginning to look like the soul avatar would end up on the wrong end of a fist when Daphne spoke. "Stop this, please! I don't mean to hurt you, Joel. This is very hard for me...I'm not the same Daphne you grew up with...but I still remember everything about her life." She sighed. "I think it was their intention that I live a life thinking I was her. But the convention revived my memory partially, and time has begun to restore other things."

Daphne's childhood friend took a deep breath. "When?" he asked. "When did you...switch?" The last voice was barely a whisper.

"The girl you took home from the shelter next to the hospital, the day my mother died, was I. Before that..." her voice trailed off.

His spirits rose a bit. This girl then, was the one he'd spent time with and the one he had fallen for. But she had another past, with another group of friends, and perhaps even. His eyes slid to the floor as he recalled the protective friend who'd blocked his path.

"Are we...are we friends?" she asked timidly.

Joel looked down at her. "Of course," he said softly. "I meant it when I said I'd always be here for you. I still will miss the way you used to be, of course...but that seems like a long time ago." He gave her a queer look. "So...you remember everything?"

Smiling, Daphne was about to open her mouth, probably to relate some sort of childhood anecdote, when interruption suddenly burst upon them.

Cloud, Barret, Cid, and Kayley walked into the bar. Well, Barret and Cid stormed, Kayley slunk, and Cloud dejectedly shuffled inside.

"The gang's all here," muttered Reno. His partners silenced him with glares.

"Hi." Daphne peered at them all guiltily.

"No time for none a' that shit!" Barret swore in anger. "That damn Meteor is closer to the Planet than it was a few hours ago. We all gonna be toast by next week, at this rate."

Kayley managed a weak smile before slowly walking over to Daphne. She began to breathe quickly, nearly hyperventilating. Eventually, she was able to spit something out. "Everything that happened since you died is becoming undone because you're alive again."

No one had dared say such a thing, not so plainly, and not in front of more than a few others. But she had just announced it to everyone, even the Turks!

"This isn't my fault," the raven-haired girl protested. "Why you're the one who forced herself back. You're an alien! You belong neither here nor the Promised Land."

She shrank back as if wounded. "That's what my life here is to determine. You forget that the masters decided I should be alive. I think the person who broke the rules was you!"

"No." The first word was feeble, but soon her insistence grew. "No, no, no!" Daphne sprung from her seat. "I'm here to save the Planet again! Zack, tell them about our mission. Tell them why we're here." Her eyes were bright, expectant, and filled with fear.

Derin gazed at her face with compassion and love. But he could not lie. "I was sent here so that there could be a mediator between the Planet and what the masters intend. Without an Ancient alive, there would be no other way to make sure their messages were interpreted correctly."

"...all this, to keep the Planet safe. Us, together," she said firmly. Her words may have been firm, but she looked pale and faint. A sudden blast of wind could have knocked her over in a heartbeat.

He closed his eyes in pain. "Rissy." His voice was delicate and precise, filled with restrained emotion. "Eldor...when he told me of what I was to do...and that I was to aid someone... You were never mentioned by name. Jenova was sent back the same time you were. It can't have been a coincidence. I...you...both of us, we misread the intentions of the masters. Like the imperfect souls we are."

The two of them stood, eyes locked together, for what seemed like an eternity. Slowly, the others began slipping out of the tavern in ones and twos until only they, Joel, Cloud, and Kayley remained.

All of a sudden, Daphne broke the silence. "...y - you don't have anything else left to tell me, do you?"

Shaking his head sorrowfully, Derin placed a hand on her shoulder. "I wish I did. By every deity that could ever have existed, I wish I did."

Choking back a sob, she nearly collapsed into his waiting arms. He silently held her quaking form as she wept into his chest. Almost like they were cued, Cloud and Joel slid towards the exit.

Kayley did not move to join them until she heard the subsequent whisper.

"Oh Zack...what am I supposed to do?" No cheer or hope existed in that voice; the girl sounded old and tired.

Not caring to reveal anything else at present, the redhead quickly made her way to the door. She was almost entirely outside when she heard Derin's cautious reply.

"I'm not sure, Riss."

But Kayley was, and she thought the same to herself, biting back tears of her own. Even for all the spite passed between the two women, even a life newly human could see the pain, heartbreak, and sorrow on the misunderstood girl's face. (...I know exactly what to do) she thought gloomily. She could not escape the declaration that the poor girl should die again - it was too much to bear! - and she began to cry.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"Why did it have to be like this?" Walking along the shore under Junon with Vincent, she was not sure if she demanded an answer from her stoic companion or the sea. It didn't matter; any answer that could be given would be better than the emptiness she felt right then.

"I don't know." At least he was being honest. They passed the next few minutes in silence, and then he dared to speak again. "After...after the Jenova project began...and Hojo...changed me, I bitterly renounced any belief in any sort of divine power beyond our Planet. Aeris' death reinforced that."

For awhile, no sound passed between the two, aside from the roar of the storm-filled currents beyond them.

"But then we destroyed the foe. Sephiroth...misused, maligned, abused Sephiroth was finally put to rest...we emerged battered, not broken. And we all saw the very fabric of life itself rise up from beneath the ground, in waves and spirals, deflecting the one thing left that could destroy us all." He took her hand in his good one. "However small and insignificant, it did give me a spark of hope."

"They could have kept her from coming back! Those masters or whatever the hell Derin is always submitting to...they had the power to send her back - knowing the havoc it would wreak on us all - and followed the simple, foolish desires of one of the souls they are supposed to guide." Tifa shook her head furiously. "They could have stopped her."

"They could have stopped Hojo and Lucrecia from doing their experiments, even if they could not control Jenova's crash landing here. They could have destroyed the Shinra, too, but they didn't."

Tears fell from burgundy eyes, and Tifa Lockhart still denied comprehension. "What kind of divine power could cause its children pain?"

Vincent seemed to ignore her question. "I believe Derin has told us the purpose of our lives before. What did he say it was?"

She looked away, out...out to the vanishing horizon. (It will be a moonless night.) After awhile, she turned back. "We live our lives to learn all that we need to know. That's what he said."

He released his grip on her hand, bringing his own up to caress her cheek, brushing away a stray tear. "And when do we learn most? When we fly through easily, without a care or a worry..." His voice sunk into deeper cadences. "...or when we fail?"

"I don't know!" Her voice rose, almost accusing him of causing all of this. In her heart, she knew such an idea was ridiculous, but right now he was the only one opposing her frank mope about parity, and damn it...Tifa didn't want to know when she learned the most. All she wanted is for the hurt to go away for just a little while. To let life give her the gifts she felt she had earned...

...and suddenly, she understood Aeris completely. But still, she repeated, "I don't know."

Wordlessly, Vincent backed a few steps away from her, trying not to flinch at her expression of alarm. He reached his hand up and began to unwrap the scarf that had been a constant attendant at his neck for as long as any of his friends had known him. At the top of his throat, from one side of his jaw to the other, ran a deep, ugly scar. Poorly healed and very discolored, it was obvious that...it had been a mortal wound.

Tifa gasped in alarm and sympathy.

Blood red eyes became unseeing as the man traveled back into the lost reaches of his memory. "My commander, when I was in the Turks, used to have a little saying. 'For every scar earned, a lesson learned.' I think you can understand the meaning nearly as well as I."

She nodded. They both knew if he dared to explore the region beneath her tank top, he'd find a gash down her chest nearly as ugly as the one on his neck.

"When we earn our scars, they hurt horribly, but they don't kill us. We patch up, but never the same. And we don't make the same mistake again." He began to wrap himself back up.

He walked back over to her, kissing her gently on the forehead. "Life hurts so much," Vincent whispered, "because we live to fail."

 

Chapter 28

Yuffie was inconsolable, seated obstinately between Reeve and Red XIII. The Turks, opposite them, merely looked on in disgust.

Finally, an irritated Reno broke the sniffle-filled silence. "Jeez, girl, you'd think your friend was dead again from the way you're carrying on."

"B - but Kayley just told us Aeris has to - " she gulped " - die or else Meteor will come!"

"At least you can tell her all the things you never got the chance to before," offered Elena in comfort.

The teen just burst into tears again at the thought.

Red XIII growled. "You're getting my fur soaking wet!"

"And you're a fucking heartless beast!" She yelled in return. "All of you!" she continued in accusation. "You not only don't give a crap whether the person who saved your lives gets to continue hers or not, but you can't even comp - re - hend what it means to me. She's the only one who ever treated me decently, with any bit of respect, and she'll be gone again, and there will be no one left who doesn't think I'm a selfish brat."

The others stared at her in startled silence.

"Aeris understood," she sobbed, "she knew that the materia was important to Wutai. All my life, all I ever heard about was the Shinra and how they were evil and how home would be strong again if we could only get our hands on materia. We'd have plenty and be safe and happy if we could get those pretty, shiny, little...tiny things."

The atmosphere around them turned to quiet once more, but the peace was a stale one. "Didn't she rip through time and space though?" Elena asked primly. "I mean, she can't go against nature without any consequences."

"It's more like a tipping of a scale," Red XIII replied. "I don't think she would necessarily have to go, but something has to return balance to the Lifestream."

"Well then she doesn't even have to die!"

"Would any of you take her place?" Yuffie burst out suddenly."

Elena shook her head. "Remember what I said about - "

"Oh right. Consequences. Nice talk coming from a member of a group of damn murderers. She saved our lives and you talk about consequences. You know what she deserves? To bend you all over the altar and rip into you herself. Ungrateful, horrible beasts!" She sprung to her feet and ran away into the night.

Slowly, Reeve rose. "We're in the middle of the city. Can't just let her run off like that."

His words were met with apathetic expressions.

"Red?"

"She'll come back," said the cat tersely. "She always does," he continued in a mutter.

The former executive just shook his head in disgust and followed in the direction of her egress. If Yuffie was that bad, then why was it that she was the only one making much sense at the moment?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

From the midst of Junon Park, Daphne looked at the night sky, expressionless. (I guess no being is ever meant to see the same stars twice.) Seemingly immortal globes suspended in the heavens, they lived and died, but their rate was a bit more tolerable to the stirrings of a dying mortal. (Our lives are like photographs to them. Only a brief moment captured in time. All I wanted was...a full moment. Mine was half-developed.)

A voice pierced through the cloak of silence. "Can we talk..." It trailed off into confusion. "I don't even know what to call you anymore."

She turned, gazed into blue Mako eyes, and nodded. "I don't even know what to call myself. 'Daphris' would probably be the most appropriate moniker at the moment."

Cloud smiled sadly at that. "I understand that you felt you had to come back. I understand, because I kept looking for you even though I knew that I wouldn't ever find you."

"Part of me wishes you never had," she whispered. "That I could be Daphne, a completely different person, and have my life with Joel...even if it did end in a week. I...I just feel that I gave and gave to life, and I get what? Death? My second chance forces me into another decision of self-sacrifice?"

He closed his eyes in frustration and pain; he'd given the situation all the thoughts he could muster. The only solution that existed was for someone to die, yet his answer was firm. "No."

"The Planet can't die for me. And...as twisted as it is now, what Eldor said in the Promised Land is true. Something is threatening the purpose of my sacrifice. Little did I know then that the threat was me." She shook her head. "No. I can't escape this. I caused this. I deserve to go back and end it like this all began. With my death."

Another voice entered the discussion. "No." Derin walked down the hill, joining them at the playground. "Think about it, Riss. I can't be happy here. I'm a pure soul. I belong back in the Promised Land, and you deserve a chance to live life to the fullest." He glanced at his old friend. "With...the person you love."

"But you came back for a reason," she whispered.

"To make sure that the right thing was done in the end. If you couldn't, wouldn't see the light, who do you think would have been there in your stead? Why can't you consciously let me go?"

"Because it's not your error to compensate for. You followed every rule. You encouraged me to stay, and told me all the reasons why I had to wait. Why my old life was gone, and how everyone would eventually be all right."

He took her hand. "That doesn't earn me a new lease on life, any more than laying your life under the blade earned you this one. You've learned from your mistake, though, and understand the problems that result from things. I have no problem..."

"I do." Daphne's voice broke. "I can't run away from the wrongs."

Cloud watched the scene, a mere spectator. Flashes, images of some sort, a memory were seeping into his mind.

"Hey buddy, I'm just going to set ya down a sec, okay?" Zack stretched his lean body, relaxing and tensing his tired muscles. It had been a long day's walk from Kalm. They were on a small cliff, overlooking their destination. Midgar, the floating city.

Cloud merely grunted in return. "Mu...st...mak...e...goo...time."

"That's right!" He smiled. "Hey, I think you're getting better. Anyway, look over there." He pointed in the distance. "That's where we'll head out to tomorrow. Ain't it great? They say that huge hunk of metal is suspended above the ground. Walking down the street is like being in a third floor apartment."

A rustling in the bushes startled him from cheerful speech.

"Geez, wonder what that was. Hang on," he said, backing away from his sick pal. Pulling back the branches of the lilac next to him, he peered outside their clearing.

The shots were loud, startling. It is doubtful that Zack even had time to register the thought that they were fired at him, before he hit the ground. Blood spattered from violated arteries, and his form lay lifeless in the dirt.

A man in a Soldier uniform walked up and kicked the corpse gingerly with one foot. Peering down at the body, he noticed the bleeding was dying down a bit. Of course, with the red stain coating the entire clearing in front of him, including the dead guy's buddy, it was pretty obvious to see that their target was dead.

"I'm getting sick of the AWOLs," his partner stated without sympathy.

He nodded his assent, then looked towards their second target.

"Goo...time?" Cloud asked, his face blank, lids blinking, and lashes brushing away the blood of his friend from his eyes. A clean path traced from his lower lip to his jaw, the after-effect of a long line of drool.

"This one's long gone." The first man set his jaw. "Even if he leaves, when the peacekeeping corps finds the body, they'll haul his ass in for murder."

"What are we gonna tell the boss?"

He slapped him. "What the hell you think? That we shot 'em both dead. Motherfucker..." He continued to curse as the two of them made their way back to their transport, and eventually the base in Midgar proper.

Cloud cocked his head to one side in confusion. (Friendmanquiet.) He crawled over to Zack's body, not understanding what was wrong with his traveling companion. His skin was cool. Suddenly, a flash of memory popped into his head.

(Longsilverhairman. Takeswordofdeadmanandliftup.) He reached out and grabbed the Buster Sword. Thunder crashed and lightning crackled through the air. Raindrops fell, cleansing the ground, even Zack's body...his own face.

And Cloud Strife raised his blade to the heavens and screamed in pain.

(I owe them both my life) he thought.

"Don't you agree that for me to go would be the best way?" Derin asked.

He shook his head. "What about me?" he asked.

Daphne's eyes widened. "Of course not! Cloud, you're an innocent spectator in all of this... Why, I can't even bear the thought of such a thing."

"You can't...you can't leave us again," he whispered.

She bowed her head, a teardrop falling from her eyes. "I have no other choice," she said, "and if you won't take me there and be my support, then I guess I shall have to run off on my own again and do it myself."

He had no other choice but to take her by the hand. The three of them walked away together to find the others. It was time to tell them the end result of everything. Apologies were whispered; more tears than anyone thought imaginable fell that night. No one slept; no one could bear to dream.

When Aurora swept away the evening sky with the first morning light, the Highwind was there to greet her. On its way to the Forgotten Capital, the time had come to finish the ending of the second story.

 

Chapter 29

The group filed down the ladder of the airship, one by one. No one thought they could stand to be an onlooker; however, none of them would allow being left behind. Morbid curiosity led them all down the path to a final goodbye.

The Turks had even gone along. "You got us mixed up in this, now we have to keep going on, even though we won't enjoy the ending," Reno had said.

In a way, that was also true. Who was really bound to Daphne? Derin, of course, then Cloud. Perhaps Joel, but he had not been informed of the decision that led them away from Junon. For the most part, he believed the woman he loved dead; there was no need for him to sit there and watch it.

Kayley should have been happy; by all accounts, she seemed to have a bitter distaste for Daphne. The two of them had clashed horribly, some of it due to jealousy regarding a certain blond man. The rest was due to the obvious animosity. Jenova had killed Aeris in the first place, and now Kayley had basically been the one to send her back to the grave.

They were all brave. The last of the tears had fallen from Yuffie's eyes, as she descended the ladder.

Not a sniffle, nor a sob broke the quiet still as they slowly tread through the city of fragile shells.

Distracting herself, Daphne mused on the origins of such large things. (What sort of sea creature left shells large enough for people to house themselves in? Was this valley once filled with water? The Cetra didn't live underwater did they? I mean, the scuba race seems a little absurd.)

There was an odd air of the surreal as the group crept up towards the building at the lake. Most of the people knew that Aeris had been laid to rest in the waters there.

What is it like, to stand at one's own grave? The question that was on all minds, but slipped to no tongues.

No barrier welcomed them at the entrance to the temple; the final indicator, at last, that the drastic measures being taken were the only ones that could be taken. Tifa blinked back some moisture. (So it does have to be like this.) She leaned a little on Vincent's shoulder as her feet stepped down a spiral glass staircase for the second time.

No matter how slow the pacing was, eventually there had to be an arrival. The path that led to the altar was narrow, and the place itself quite small. Some of the group immediately held back, but the others awaited a decision - someone's, they did not care who - telling them to stay away.

Maybe they should close their eyes too, while they were at it. Oh, why were they even there in the first place?

"Only Zack and Cloud," she whispered.

Obviously, the others were much relieved and held back as the trio slowly wound their way up to the platform. Daphne smiled a bit. "Come on guys, don't look so somber. Cloud's already been to my funeral, and Derin knows I don't have a reason in all the Planet to be sad to die."

"How?" Derin asked, not trusting his voice to utter more than a syllable. Unconsciously, he wrapped his hand around an object in his pocket. (I hope this will be enough, in time. Someday, she will thank me for all of this. Right now, she simply does not understand. For me to live this life out, here, is pointless. After all, I'm only an avatar of a soul...)

"I'm going to cast a Death spell," she said. "It will be fast and painless, and that was one of the materia that I took from you, so I already have it." Having already disposed of most of her equipment, she slipped the green orb into a stray Carbon Bangle that she'd found discarded on the Highwind.

Cloud gulped, grasping the object in his pocket tightly, hoping that his reflexes were as quick as he had hoped.

"Now then." She attempted to keep her voice light. "I must thank you, Cloud, for both of the wonderful dates that we have had. I am very glad that you were always so protective of me and persistent enough to make sure that I was safe, even when I did not care about such things myself."

He felt her arms quickly wrap around him, and soft lips gently brush his. He could not help being tense and stiff to these gestures. Any movement or change from the position he had taken would lead to a complete breakdown in front of her. (It is too hard for us all as it is...I have to keep calm...just a few minutes more.)

She placed her hand on Derin's shoulder, and he quickly covered it with his own. Biting her lip, Daphne buried her face in his chest for a few moments. "I'm sorry, Zack, that it took so long for me to see, to remember."

"Shh..." He brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. "I knew that it would be hard. After all we learned and talked about, how could you apologize because being here wasn't easy?" He kissed her forehead. "Riss, I'm sorry that I ever expected anything to be easy."

She took a few deep breaths. "I'm not scared for myself," she declared.

"I'm not either," he replied.

Daphne took a few steps back from them, slowly lowering herself to her knees. "I'm going to smile," she said bravely, "just happy that you all will be all right."

A glow began to surround her, as she summoned up the power to cast her final spell.

Derin clenched his teeth and told himself to have patience.

Cloud closed his eyes, murmuring the only prayer he had ever said in his entire life. (Please...give me the strength to carry on...)

Then everything went red.

Someone - most likely Yuffie - screamed in a shrill, nearly inhuman voice.

Somewhere in the haze of hot, wet, spattering liquid, eyes stared in disbelief, lids fluttering, lashes beating desperately in an attempt to clear the path of vision. Who was hurt, in pain? (There is materia...goddammit, someone in the fucking room has to have materia...)

(It wasn't supposed to happen like that. Only a second of hanging on, and then it would be over.)

(Where is the darkness?)

(Why is the Lifestream so heavy and red?)

(Who is crying? Why are there tears? This is supposed to make a happy ending...

...I see light.)

The body had been left behind long before, and a spirit flowed through cool green liquid. Suspended in the dense material, one felt weightless instantly. The current pushed through, and soon the surface was reached.

White sands, where the tide that approached was glowing of its own iridescence.

A man, grizzled, with a beard of the purest white was the greeter. He bore a robe of unstained cloth and spoke soothingly.

(He understands why I did what I did. The masters are in an uproar. This wasn't the plan at all, but he's not surprised.)

"I always knew you had it in you," the man said, with a laugh in his voice. Eldor rarely spoke without joy.

 

Chapter 30: Epistle

Hey. I know that I'm never going to be able to send a letter to you, but I have high hopes that Eldor is going to let you come read this over my shoulder. It'll be a comfort to us all. I don't think this is a normal everyday occurrence on our Planet, let alone the entire Creation.

Meteor receded...nearly instantly. It was quite surprising to see as we made our way up out of the altar and across the lake. You don't expect to see heavenly bodies disappear and reappear like that thing does. It was quite unnerving.

Not all of the monsters disappeared, of course, because there were ones before this whole incident ever happened. But hunting them is a lot easier now, since they will stay dead after we kill them. We can be sure that Jenova isn't lurking around any corner, too. That's a comfort, believe me.

Barret went back to Kalm and Marlene. You couldn't really expect anything different. Cid is in...Rocket Town, bitching Shera out every single day. I get this odd feeling inside that she likes it. Red XIII is still off in Junon, monster hunting, though I suspect he's getting quite sick of city life and is going to head back to Cosmo Canyon one of these days now.

Yuffie, you ask? Well, she didn't go back to her father in Wutai. She sent back some of her materia via the new Planet-wide mail system, but remained in Junon. I think she's got something for Reeve, but she won't admit it. Reeve's too nice to her, I think she'll be hurt in the end. He offered her a job at Shinra, which she accepted, so I guess they're both satisfied for the time being.

Kayley, well, I have no idea where she is. I think she went to check out Midgar, then Nibelheim, looking to see the places where Jenova had caused the most damage. I believe she started hanging around the Turks (who really aren't a bad lot, when all is said and done, by the way) but I lost track of them awhile ago. I have no doubts that our paths will cross again someday. They're just too damn obvious.

Now...on to Tifa. She's been very strong about this whole matter, of course. She never was one to voluntarily show weakness. She adjusted to the loss, I bet it was hard at first, but she had him by her side.

I kinda wonder how they managed to get together in the first place, but they seem to compliment each other. Vincent has continued to stay in the Shinra Mansion, while Tifa packed up and bought the replica of the house she grew up in. I have the sneaking suspicion that one or both of those residences might be abandoned soon...

I guess there's only one more person that needs to be talked about.

She's happy, pal, and I thought you needed to know that. That Joel guy? Well, they're working out their problems. He really seems to love her more than anything else in the world, and I can't begrudge him for that.

She deserves to find love and happiness, and if I'm not the one to give it to her this time around, then oh well. At least I know now that she loved me once, and some part of her deep inside will always care for me.

I think, in the end, we did the right thing for her. You're the only one right now who knows whether or not the masters agree with me. I'm not sure if I want to know if your choice was the right answer. I'd like to spend the rest of my life thinking that your sacrifice was the best way to go...that you did what you did because you wanted to, and had no regrets.

Her mission succeeded, you feel no pain, and as for me, well...

This voyage of mine began out of sacrifice. I never seemed to have the time, or heart, or concern for anyone else but myself, at least, not before Hojo put us into those tubes. I was a newborn soul, restless to try everything - and everyone - there was to have in life. Looking back, I was surprised that Aeris had the power to keep me concentrated on one person for that long.

Don't worry about me, I'm doing fine. I mostly keep to myself. I have to let Rissy alone, to live her new life, or else we'd both go crazy.

I can't feel sorry for myself. When I get to feeling down, I just remind myself that this life, here in the mortal realm, is gone in the blink of an eye. It just makes me wonder...

Will I ever be able to look at a flower again?

- Derin
The End
(January 2000-August 21, 2002)