Part 6- Deserts of Deception
Chapter 22

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"Can one of you please tell me something?"

Ishmael looked up. "What is it, Dad?"

Reeve gingerly shifted the shirt of his disguise. "Why is it always grunge?"

Kati giggled.

Tossing a concerned glance at his fiancee, Ishmael grinned. "I don't think that laughing at my dad is the safest thing to be doing right now."

"Aw, what's the harm in it?"

"Well, I'd kind of like to have you alive for our-"

She held a finger to her lips. He read her mind through her eyes. (Wait until we've made our announcement, Ish.)

He smiled and wrapped his arms around her. Barret and Cid stepped out onto the deck, obviously uncomfortable in their own disguises.

"What's with the paste-on mohawk and all this gold jewelry?" demanded Barret.

"What's with the pipe, glasses, and this odd flappy hat?" Cid snarled.

"Elementary, my dear Cid," murmured Sean, setting off peals of laughter from the others.

"You know," said Reeve, "I've decided that my disguise isn't that bad."

"Is it off to the Shinra building then?" asked Cid, as he squirmed in his beige trenchcoat.

"Uh no, Cid," said Ishmael, "we're going to the Alcor building."

"Same difference."

"My dad started Alcor!"

"Nice help that is to us now, ain't it?"

"Oh, just hurry up and get your ass down that rope ladder."

Cid glanced up at him. "I like your spirit, kid, but if I weren't about to go fight some idiots, I'd have to beat your fucking ass." He descended down the rope ladder.

"And if you weren't stricken with emphysema, I might actually let you try," muttered Ishmael.

"Son," said Reeve with a tone of warning in his voice.

"I'm joking, Dad!" He turned and was down the rope ladder.

"I sure hope this isn't too hard," said Kati softly.

Reeve looked towards the city, at the high top of the Alcor building. (Me too, Kati.) He then took his turn to climb down from the Airship.

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

"I just can't believe that they wouldn't even let us take out one gold chocobo," said Cloud. "If they had given us that we could've bypassed Junon."

Aeris slapped the reins on the black chocobo that the Undorian stable manager had insisted she drive. "I don't know. We probably could bypass Junon on this one, but it would take forever."

"Yes. I don't know if the shallows have shifted in the past, oh, twenty or so years since I've had to use them." He became aware of how his own words dated him, and how it made him feel like even his hands on the young girl's waist made him a dirty old man. "I just hope my chocobo is safe with Patrick," he murmured softly into her ear, having no idea how well the boy could hear him.

"Oh," she said lightly, "Zuri seems to be doing wonders for his personality. I'd be surprised to see him hurt a fly in her presence. That is, unless that fly bit her or something. Then watch out, buggie!" She grinned.

Even if Cloud had believed in reincarnation, he knew it would have been impossible in this case for the flower girl's soul to be in Raieyana's daughter. (I spoke to her on the other side when Rissy was just a little one...but...she is a lot like her grandmother. So much more than Raieyana ever was.)

Catching up with Patrick and Azura, Aeris called out to them. "We're getting pretty close. We might want to take it down a notch."

Azura shook her head. "The quicker the better. Besides, has anyone thought of what we're going to do with the chocobos on the ship? We'll need them to get to the Canyon."

"Del Sol runs another ferry to the coast outside of Cosmo Canyon. We'll send Blackie back to Undor-Hai, but..." She turned back to Cloud. "What about yours?"

"I'll tell him to go to Cosmo Canyon."

"He's that well trained?" she asked in surprise.

"We're going to see today. If nothing else, I'll borrow a Gold chocobo from the farm and send it back when I get home." Suddenly, the chocobo stopped and Cloud was thrown off of it.

"Oh no!" Aeris hopped down. "Did I not tell you we were close?"

Sitting up and rubbing his head, he raised an eyebrow at her. "You didn't tell me that you couldn't handle a chocobo."

"Oh...the Undorian chocobos suck." She giggled.

.

Patrick walked over to them, leading Cloud's chocobo by the reins. "You wanted to send this guy some psychic traveling directions or something?"

"Sure." Cloud lightly hopped up and patted his chocobo's forehead. "Hey buddy...we're heading towards Cosmo Canyon now. Do you got that?"

The chocobo warked and lightly ran off, towards the ocean.

"Let's hope that worked."

"I'm sure it did!" Aeris grabbed his arm.

He was startled a bit, but regained control of himself and flashed her a smile. "C'mon, let's get in and out of this city as quickly as possible."

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

"Are you sure you shouldn't be resting?"

"I woke up to learn I'd been in bed for days," said Raieyana dryly, "so rest is probably the last thing I need right now."

"Maybe," said Tifa. "But you don't need to be trying to translate anything."

"I'm not." She smiled. "I'm correcting the work you guys did."

"And?" Red XIII leaned forward.

"It looks fine as far as I can tell. Did you guys stay up all night or something doing this?"

They looked at each other guiltily.

"I thought so." She took a deep breath and began to think to herself. These new pieces of information had both raised and answered questions in her mind. It was beginning to seem that everything in her life had been planned, completely. (Well, not to a "t"...) The prophecies had no word of Reno...or of the events with Ryald.

The great cat looked at her with concern in his eyes. "Are you sure you're not tired?"

"Yes." She bit her lip. "But I just wish that Reeve wasn't away..."

"He wouldn't have left if it weren't important."

"Oh I know that."

"Besides, I have the feeling that if he had any idea when you would...recover, he would have scheduled his life around that."

Her eyes opened wide. "I'm not doubting him, Red! We've been married for fourteen years, which takes trust. I just miss him, that's all..." A faraway look entered her eyes and she gazed out the window. "I hope that he'll be okay...with all that mission will take."

Tifa looked at the worried woman and sighed. (I don't envy her anymore. Not now, when I know all that she's been through...and...her son is in the wilderness. Fending both for himself and for Azura, when he's just a child.)

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

Dirk laughed as he traveled down the elevator to the underwater laboratory. He had connected it to the Alcor building... (...but I'm going to cut it off now, for my own safety. Even if those fools manage to recapture their company, I have all the information I need.) He held, in his hand, a computer disk. It was labeled "The Truth About Shinra and the Jenova Project."

He had conveniently taken it from a company lockbox, in Reeve's private office, that his workers had hacked into. Nevermind the fact that the lockbox had been legally bequeathed to one Patrick Jordan on his eighteenth birthday.

Or the fact that it meant Reeve had somehow come to possess a copy of Raieyana's abandoned book...

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(Soon I will have all the information... ...needed to set my plans into motion...)

Dirk exited into a hallway, then entered a small control room. Entering the necessary codes, he watched on screen as millions of gallons of water flowed into the elevator shaft. The codes necessary for the removal of the water could only be accessed from down below.

(I think it is time that you had some more medicine.)

Nodding, the man left for his personal part of the laboratory. Inserting the disk into his computer, he then walked to a refrigeration unit. Inside lay vial upon vial of a glowing liquid. He removed one and grabbed a cellophane-wrapped syringe from the counter. Opening it, he then slowly extracted all of the liquid into the shaft of his instrument.

Dirk rolled up his sleeve and touched his inner arm, feeling for the vein. As he slowly injected the liquid into his bloodstream, a voice within him gave praise.

( One more puppet for me... The last battle for Pa'at Rich...Patrick...whichever name the wretch goes by. Before I'm done, he'll wish he never had been born. The son of the sun is no match for the Jenn--the Calamity.

As Meteor blocked the sun, so shall I block him. My race transcends time and space. We transcend this Planet and any defense it may call, and through this, bring upon to it its destruction. So was my order, so shall it be done.

Thy will be done.)

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Chapter 23

. Bright blue eyes watched every movement of the bewitching figure as it moved among the people of the village Azrael-Merdot, known as the gem of the North.

Asula knew this had been the home base of the others for close to a century. While Igmar-Boleyn had been a nomadic group's winter hunting grounds, this group had broken away from the Cetra way of life-and the Planet.

The girl settled herself back down into the brush, smoothing back light brown hair. (I have been cursed. Cursed to be the only one left.) She had searched ashes, bent over frozen corpses chanting healing spells, to no avail. The young, beautiful magic prodigy could not reverse time or completely defy the rules of nature.

So the tears ran down her face. She, who once thought she held the heavens in her hands, now knew the truth. The heavens could wrench her fragile body with the scorching heat of a thousand stars.

To emerge from such a gauntlet alone truly was a curse. She prayed with every fiber of her being that such a curse was shared by her extraterrestrial adversary. Erhiz had told the tribal elders to pray that the Calamity had arrived alone.

Erhiz had understood a lot of things. The price for that understanding was her life. Brushing back the tears became much harder, as Asula was now weeping openly. Sobs wracked her delicate frame; she held herself, as there was no one left to do it for her.

"Things cannot continue on this way forever," she murmured, "something has to give out, and if it is me...the Planet will give out soon after."

For she remembered the last thing Erhiz had said to her: "I can see that this time, Asula, it will be up to you. You cannot eliminate her, but only you have the strength to slow her down enough for the Planet to prepare.

"When the right moment finally comes, Asula, he will be there by your side."

.

Pa'at Rich ben lumine auglina Jenn O'Vahh-the son of the sun will shine brighter than the Calamity from the skies.

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

"I never knew it was this big!" Kati whispered loudly.

"Welcome to the city, country mouse." Cid laughed like he had just made the funniest joke in the world.

Brother and sister exchanged meaningful "is fifty-three too young to be senile" looks before Sean shushed him. "We gotta look inconspicuous and not suspicious, sir."

"But not uncommitted."

"Err...right, Mr. Highwind." Kati tapped her foot impatiently. "What diversion tactics do you have planned?"

"I'm gonna pretend to be a disgruntled customer of Alcor and cuss a lot."

"What about us?"

"You can cuss, too, just don't tell your mother."

Sean shook his head. "Nevermind. We'll back you up. Ready when you are."

Cid tossed his cigarette to the ground, extinguishing it with his shoe. "Let's get this field trip over and done with."

.

"They just went in, Dad. We can get ready and go right behind them."

"Then we gonna bust these asses!"

"Just try to contain the excitement, Barret," said Reeve. "The most important goal is to save Marlene, Yorlain, and the rest of the executive board."

Ishmael was still watching the Alcor lobby carefully from their hiding spot. "They haven't sent out the signal yet," he said, frowning.

Reeve shrugged. "I wouldn't be too concerned yet. Maybe it was harder for security to be distracted by Cid than we all thought."

.

It was almost like a platoon of the old Soldiers had stuck around just to play body guards to crooks. Cid had known the place would be heavily guarded after a violent takeover, but these guys were supposedly keeping a tame face in front of the public.

Not after today. (We look like normal customers. Why did they ambush us?) Sean had never expected to use his Undorian training, even for this distraction bit. However, he decided to shower many expensive gifts at Raieyana's feet after her broadsword techniques became his lifesavers.

Kati stumbled and fell, about to be cornered by three huge men, and completely unable to get the signal off to the others outside. (It was Arctic Blast for the go-ahead, Bolt Plume for help...) she thought as she dropped her katana for a shuriken, hurling it at her opponents. Grabbing for her weapons, she looked up in time to see one of the men reach for her leg.

The soldier fell down after Cid's burst of third level fire, rolling to extinguish the flames before turning his murderous thoughts onto the middle-aged pilot.

She had forgotten about the other two, and one repeated his friend's move, successfully whipping her feet out from under her. The man grinned viciously before wrenching one of her feet violently to the left.

The loud shattering of her ankle filled the room, but her scream was carried on the wind.

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

The trek through Junon had been relatively easy, but quite cautious, so far. The quartet was linked by their common goal of not running into Reeve's group. So far, so good. Junon was eerily quiet. Cloud had seen it like this a few times before; the others were perplexed by it. Truth be told, Junon was a very intuitive city.

The group was more focused on themselves, though. Problem was, and always had been, this: the Alcor building was on the only street that connected Upper and Lower Junon. Therefore, the only way to reach the docks was to pass by it.

"I wish we had thought to get disguises," lamented Aeris.

"I'm sure the others are quite busy with their work," said Azura. "If we just hurry by quickly and quietly, they'd never ever notice us if they did manage to see us."

"It's really the best chance we've got." Cloud looked thoughtful. "We can't risk the time looking for disguises here. But Patrick and Azura look quite striking, I must say. Let's keep them on the inside of the sidewalk. Should mostly block them from view of the street."

The others nodded and arranged themselves. With a collective deep breath, they began walking towards the building.

They were just in time to hear a feminine wail and watch as two dark haired men began to race to the entrance, followed by a burly man with a gun arm-they recognized the trio all too well.

Someone also recognized the scream. "Oh god," said Azura softly, "that was Kati."

.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, Patrick." She sniffled. "She must be in pain. They must be in trouble."

"I'm sure they're fine. Ishmael, Reeve, and Barret just went in to help." Patrick's eyes narrowed.

A tear rolled down her cheek. "Pat..."

His look softened and he turned towards Cloud and Aeris. "Is there any way for us to gauge the battle from this distance?"

"Well I used to hear rumors about this strong materia user...who possessed the ability to remote view using a Sense materia..." Cloud's voice trailed off. "That was over twenty-five years ago, though."

"Do either of you two have a Sense?"

Aeris reached into her armlet and yanked out a yellow stone, handing it to him.

"Thanks." Patrick turned to Azura. "I want you to try using this, Zuri. So we'll know if we need to help them."

"How?" She looked bewildered as she slid the orb into an empty slot on her armlet.

"Normally," said Cloud, "the energy of Sense focuses your mind towards the interior of an enemy. You can feel its strengths and weaknesses, plus use its health to estimate how many more hits it can take. What Patrick wants you to do is focus inside the building."

"Yes," Patrick said. "Concentrate on the entrance and lobby once you begin. It might also help to think of Kati, Sean, Barret or the others while you build energy."

"I'll try my best," she said softly, secretly relieved that she had put the orb into her armlet. Materia seemed to work better the closer it was to her body. She closed her eyes, concentrating.

The air around them crackled with energy, and Cloud felt an odd twinge inside. With all his experience, he had never seen something like it before. This twinge turned to shock when he realized the materia wasn't even glowing. (She's doing this all on her own.)

A yellow glow coursed around her skin, yet Azura's eyes were closed tight. (Show me. I need to see... Open my eyes-) "I'lionne telemaar!" In a flash, the vision came to her. Six people, outnumbered, and slowly fading. If she concentrated on a certain person, she not only saw them clearly, but felt every throb of their wounds...

"They do need our help." Azura opened her eyes.

The other three nodded, and Patrick stepped forward. "We'll all go in. Stay close to me, do the spells you know. I'll protect you." He leaned over, kissing her forehead, whispering in her ear. "I need you."

As they ran towards the entrance of the Alcor building, to protect the very people they wanted to avoid, Patrick wondered what the others thought of Azura and her power. Her awesome power...he knew by the looks on their faces that they had seen, too.

Azura had not just brought the vision to herself, but to all of them.

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Chapter 24

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The dull glow of the monitor lit up the room in restrained flashes. "I told you we'd be ready for them, sir."

"Yes, beautiful." Dirk peered at the images transmitted by the Alcor security cameras.

"You were so smart, devising this takeover plan and convincing all those men to help us out."

"Child's play." Suddenly, he leaned forward. "Who the hell is that?!" he yelled, pointing towards the screen.

"Hold on." The man froze the image and zoomed in. "Does that help, sir?"

The color drained from Dirk's face. (Can that be... ...how did he get here?) "I must go up there, now!"

"The elevator will take hours to drain..."

"Well get me a sub, anything! I am the only one who knows how to quell the power of that young man!"

"I can arrange a team for you to give a directive to-"

"That will not work. I cannot say why, but it must be me." (I never expected the chance...for Pa'at Rich to be so close to me, not knowing his power, his identity, or the truths of the Planet itself...

I can make my foe a tool, a puppet. A weapon stronger than any forged-for it was one forged to defeat me.)

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

Cloud glanced around the lobby, forcing his mind to make a valid assessment of the chaos. All in all, Reeve's group was doing badly, and he wasn't sure if making the number go up to ten versus about sixty would do much good.

Azura broke from Patrick's side, rushing to her sister's aid, even shoving Ishmael out of her way. "Go fight," she urged him, even as she charged power for a spell.

Regen fell over Kati's form in a green Mako rain, softly and carefully allowing the fracture to knit. Although it wasn't instant, it was the surest way for her ankle to heal.

"Does that help?"

Kati nodded, her eyes widening as she realized her healer was Azura. "How...?" she murmured.

"Zuri!" Patrick ran over to them. "I told you to stay with me."

She pointed to Kati and raised an eyebrow. "I'm here to help, not to hide. The others need your help fighting more than I do."

He touched her hand. "The second I step away, I want to concentrate on a Shell spell around you and Kati. Use this." He handed her a green Master Magic materia.

"Pat..."

"You'll make better use of it than I." With one last caring gaze, Patrick turned and threw himself into the fray.

"I saw him look at his mother the same way, on the night she went crazy," said Kati.

"He viciously protects anything he loves." Azura steadily concentrated on the barrier, creating a domed force field around them.

.

Ishmael ran to attack a guard head on. Leaning back, he prepared to give his axe a strong swing. Suddenly, his opponent pitched forward, lacking a head. In his place stood a green-eyed blonde. "Rissy?"

"Duck!" she screamed, swiping the space his head had just occupied with her sabre.

After hearing another head thud to his right, Ishmael stood up. "You made it in time for the fun."

"Brought some help, too," she said softly.

Looking just beyond Aeris, he saw Azura steadily holding a shell around herself and a healing Kati. To his right, little brother Patrick was using his 4x cut materia to maul a group of the guards. To his left, a strange blond-haired man was rushing to the aid of his father.

.

(I suppose it was stupid to taunt a person whose friends outnumber you.) Reeve was pinned firmly to the floor, a dagger held to his neck.

"I promise you...this will definitely not be fast." The guard chuckled cruelly, slowly slicing into Reeve's left arm.

Then his head was gone.

"Today's death of choice: decapitation," joked Reeve. "Thank-" His voice died as he saw the man who had saved him.

"I owed you one," said Cloud. He suddenly pointed his sword behind him. The guard running in for the ambush ended up impaling himself before Reeve could give out a warning.

"Nice," he managed.

"I think we got most of them. Adding four more to the mix as you ran in probably turned the tide."

As if on cue, Cid, Barret, and Sean finished off the remaining forces, and the group gathered. The lobby seemed eerily quiet, but maybe that aspect of the atmosphere came from the bodies littering the floor.

"Oh God, how gross!" exclaimed Sean, after stepping in a pool of blood.

"Four extra people, Cloud? I count nine of us," Reeve said.

Cloud looked around. "Hmm..."

With Kati leaning on her shoulder, Azura walked up to them. "Where's Pat?" she asked.

Nine pairs of eyes peered around the room and its bodies. Whether living or dead, Patrick was gone.

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

"We're very close to the rear sub dock, Mr. Earlham," announced the captain.

"Good," said Dirk, "then I shall use the cargo elevator. I have an idea where dear Pat may be."

"Closing in-"

"Hush...hush..." (I can begin to speak to him now...this will be easier than I thought...)

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

Patrick dashed through the corridors of one of the upper floors. He wished he had paid more attention to Reeve's descriptions of the Alcor building. (Where the hell are these cells? This was supposed to be quick...the others downstairs might be in trouble without me...

Oh, you know why you're here. You left the others because you don't belong with them.

Just great. Little psycho voice...not now.

I'm not just a voice. I'm someone very real, here to tell you the truth. What the others have grown afraid to admit to themselves, but know in their hearts...

Some would never lie to me. I have people who love me. Zuri...

Zuri is scared to death of you...even now...)

Patrick fell to his knees, consumed by a vision.

.

Azura was sitting in his living room, back in Undor-Hai, with her parents. "...Patrick would hurt me..."

(No!

Imagine what she would think...how quickly she would turn her back and run from you...if she knew the truth...)

.

Raieyana turning to Reeve, hand resting on her flat abdomen. "...that was the purpose of the rape..."

.

Raieyana sitting on a dirty cot next to a man with a striking resemblance to the night-time intruder. She was beginning to show... "I'm so scared, Reno. The baby's growing too fast...it's too strong..."

. Inside a cave, a near term Raieyana, slowly writing words in a notebook. The lines and strokes blurred together, but two words were clearly visible.

"...a monster..."

.

"No..." Patrick moaned, shouting out loud. "It's all lies!"

He heard a reply. "No, it isn't."

Spinning around to face the source of the sound, he drew his sword. "You're going to die."

"Calm down," it continued pleasantly. Dirk Earlham stepped from the shadow of an open doorway. "I come to you, alone, and armed only with this." He held up a computer disk.

Patrick looked at it warily. "Wha-"

"Don't worry, it's not going to explode or anything. Let me take a few steps closer, so you can see the label. Whose writing could that be?"

Bewildered, he took a step back. "It...It's Mother's."

"Ah, yes. Raieyana...she's a clever one. On this disk, she figured out how and why you exist. She never wanted you to..."

"Give it to me."

"You can have it, but I ask you to discard your weapon, and come with me to embrace who you truly are. Afterwards, if you wish, you can go straight back home."

"Yeah right." Patrick prepared to attack.

"Wait. Move one more inch with that sharp thing, and I'll send enough men to make sure the pieces of your friends in the lobby are never found."

He dropped the sword and walked to Dirk. Patrick gazed into his eyes and felt the abyss of a black hole.

"It is good you still think yourself a man. My tactics would have failed otherwise."

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

The others watched Azura in amazement, a yellow glow surrounding her. "I got him. He went up to rescue the prisoners...but he's in trouble!" She ran off towards the elevator.

No one else snapped out of the trance quite so easily. Cloud stood and slowly walked, followed by Reeve. Ishmael stood, but Azura stopped him. "You need to stay with them until they wake up."

The elevator doors closed, and the engine hummed as the three zoomed towards the 55th floor. "Patrick and some puny guy is what I saw...why do you say he's in trouble, Zuri?" asked Cloud.

"Because I could feel what he felt."

A chime sounded, and the doors popped open. They ran down the corridor.

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

(Lean over and grab his arm...tightly.) Dirk did as he was told.

"Hey...what the-" All of a sudden, Patrick's mind exploded with visions. All ugly, all dark... (...all me.

That's because it is you.

You don't sound the same...

That's because I'm something different. I'm not someone to guide you.) Patrick put a hand to his head and groaned. (I am you.)

.

Suddenly, Cloud, Reeve, and Azura burst into the area. "Pat," said Azura cautiously.

Patrick's eyes looked cold; his voice was indifferent. "What are you banging around and looking so worried over?"

"I-I saw you. Pat?" She looked confused.

"This young man has made a very important decision today." Dirk smiled. "He's coming with me. In return, I'm letting you guys have a little more time to live before I have you killed."

"We'll see about that." Cloud pointed his Ultima Weapon at the man.

Patrick glared. "I'd think twice about that, if I were you. Daddy," he sneered.

"Pat, you don't need to do this!" Azura ran up to him, grabbing his hand.

He wrenched it away, slapping her so hard she fell to her knees. (Zuri...

...expected this from you, from me. Do what you were born to do.) Patrick turned away. "Don't tell me what I need to do if you can't trust me to handle myself. He nodded to Dirk.

.

Azura watched through her tears as Dirk cast a powerful Exit spell, encircling the two men with heavy mist. When the air cleared, the men were gone.

Patrick was gone.

Azura wept as Patrick's two fathers stood in shocked silence.

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Chapter 25

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"Is she still in her room?"

"Yes," said Yuffie softly. "But things are a little better. I think I got her to eat a piece of bread."

"Are you going to hop up and down, then spin in a circle?" Vincent smiled sadly.

"Right now, it is enough to make me do that old victory dance of mine." She sighed. "I wish we could find out what exactly happened with Patrick. The three that saw him last aren't exactly being talkative, though."

"Did you ask Zuri if I could see her today?"

"Yeah. She still says no."

His eyes closed in pain. "I just want to tell her I forgive her."

Wrapping her arms around him, Yuffie held him tight. "I know Vince, I know."

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

"Is this sand taken?"

Cloud looked up into a pair of soulful green eyes. "Of course not, there's always room for one more to watch the canyon at dusk."

"Sane people stay around the Cosmo Candle. I didn't expect you to be sitting right in my favorite spot of the desert." Aeris sat down next to him on the blanket.

"Well...I do kinda hope you're the only other one out to find this spot."

"One of those moods?"

"I don't think anyone's broken out of 'one of these moods' yet."

She smiled weakly. "I guess not. We freed those people at Alcor, but the company isn't safe...and I've lost my brother. I wish I could've told him that I didn't think he was an outcast."

Cloud carefully wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I'm sure he knows it somewhere deep inside. We just have to find a way to get down to him, and reach his inside." He lowered his eyes. "I know that from experience."

"Then there's hope for Patrick." Aeris touched his chest, right over his heart. "If you came out of it, so can he. We just have to be strong, those of us that love him."

"It wasn't easy, Rissy. I was plagued for years."

"I can see...that if we can win him back...we'll be able to make sure no one is ever troubled like you again."

He met her eyes. "I was told that before...in a dream."

"Rather convincing, wasn't it? If it managed to get you out of hiding and into store-bought clothes." Aeris grinned. "You know, for Pat's sake, this mood has to break sooner or later."

"Pat?"

"Zuri's little name has grown on me."

"He's worth saving, even if he weren't my son."

"We can only save him by being our old selves. Daring, sarcastic, and everything." Suddenly, Aeris hugged him tight. "I'm depressed too, but I'm getting sick of all the doom and gloom down there."

He stroked her hair thoughtfully. "Yeah...I'm action guy...starting to get antsy after two weeks of this."

"I'll talk to Zuri later. She'll be important."

"Yeah." Cloud sighed. "I think we missed sunset."

"Oh, I'm sorry. And now it's dark...gloomy time?" She smiled.

"Nah, Riss. I was still looking at something beautiful."

Cloud had been expecting a blush or some words of denial, but was very surprised. There was a barely audible "thanks," and then a set of soft, full lips pressed against his own...then the world ceased to spin.

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

Tifa had probably exhausted Cosmo Canyon's supply of black clothing, all of which was now residing in the closet where Azura had been staying. She had been there in Raieyana's old private room, ever since she stepped off the Airship from Junon.

Not that it really mattered what she wore. Azura hadn't left the room, except to bathe. She barely touched the trays of food Yuffie carried in to her.

From day one, she had made it clear. She wasn't coming out, and only Yuffie and Tifa could enter.

She didn't cry, shout, write, or sleep. Mostly, she sat on the bed, which hadn't been unmade since she'd arrived.

No one had any idea what she had been doing.

.

Yuffie knocked softly on the closed door. "Honey?" After a minute or so without an answer, she cautiously opened it.

The room was empty.

Gasping, she glanced around the room to confirm her fears. Turning to the hallway, she called out. "Zuri?!"

"Yes, Mother?"

Yuffie whirled back around. Much to her disbelief, Azura was right there, sitting on the still-made bed. "Umm..." She paused, confused. "Someone asked to speak with you."

"I don't want to see him. Still."

"It's not your father. It's Raieyana. She'd like to-"

"All right. But tell her I couldn't bear for it to be very long."

"Sweetie, she'll know." Yuffie walked away to get her.

.

Azura laid down against the pillows. (That was a close one. She almost thought I was gone.) She wasn't quite sure when exactly she realized that her magic could be cast without materia, but she had been practicing ever since. She'd invented spells never seen before on the books.

It had been a simple progression, that day. Float had become a complete levitation, which had turned into a mist transformation. She was getting very close to a teleportation spell, better than a simple Exit.

If she could target another person as well, she could abduct Patrick and force him back, she thought. (Even if it does work...and he can be made like he was again, would he even recognize me anymore?)

.

A soft voice broke the silence. "Azura?"

"Mrs. Jordan."

"No need for the formalities. Raieyana actually has less syllables." She nodded to the door. "May I?"

"Please."

She closed it. "I think everyone else is afraid to say something, so I'll be the sensible one. You can't lock yourself in here forever. Patrick won't be saved like this."

"Oh no?" Azura dared Raieyana to challenge her, with her eyes.

"Of course not. Even if you can manage to magick yourself in there, wherever he is, you wouldn't take him by force. One of you would die."

"I don't care if I do."

Raieyana shrugged. "Too bad. You'd care if he died, others care about you, and if he's saved, he will care a whole damn lot."

"So what," Azura said, rolling her eyes, "do you have a way to get him?"

"I would never suggest that. This is a delicate situation. I think it's better to work together than alone. Even if Reeve and your father are wary of him and this whole mess, there are others here who really want the same thing you do."

"That's nice." She turned her head.

"If you cared, you'd get your ass outside so everyone could help you."

Azura stood up and ran over, enraged. "How dare you tell me what I feel!"

"I'm daring enough to try for results." Raieyana smiled sadly. "I got you off the bed, didn't I?"

Ashamed of herself, she looked down at her feet. "I'm afraid we won't ever get him back."

Hugging her, Raieyana attempted words of comfort. "If you let the fear lock you up inside, you never will."

"I have to find him" The tears began slowly. Hanging on for dear life, sobs wrenched her body, Azura finally let out the emotions that she had been hiding inside.

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

Reeve was sitting next to Vincent at the tavern. "I'm torn. I can't just ignore what instinct has been telling me for years...but Zuri's face...and his eyes...it wasn't Patrick. It's something that I helped build."

Vincent simply stared at his drink. Scotch on the rocks. Hard times called for hard drinks.

"I hope that the real Patrick hasn't...died."

"If he has, so will my daughter."

"She's stronger than that Vince-"

He held up his hand, to quiet Reeve. "Tifa and Red found that prophecy. Without Patrick...it may turn out that we all can just sign our death certificates."

"Reeve." Tifa quickly walked over to join them. "Raieyana wanted to know if you could find Rissy."

"I think she has this spot out in the desert..."

"You should probably get her. Ray and Zuri want to talk about a plan for finding Patrick."

Tifa ran out of the bar with Reeve. After a couple blinks, Vincent raised his drink to his mouth and downed the entire glass.

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

"Sir!"

Cold eyes gazed down at the man from atop a gold chocobo. "What is your report?"

"All the caves here are empty of any Mako, let alone a large piece of red materia...just like the civilians said."

(A wild goose chase...my time wouldn't have been wasted if those damn simpletons hadn't looked like liars. They must pay...

But this is Zuri's home.

...the better to show that Patrick has finally embraced his true self.

I won't let this happen!

Just close these eyes and feel the rage. There's a reason why you always embraced it before...)

Patrick pointed his mount east, toward the Nibel mountains. "You can call the other men off. Tell Earlham the next target is Nibel."

"Yes, sir." The man turned to leave.

"Oh, one more thing." Patrick grinned. "Burn Wutai. Burn it to the ground and scatter the ashes."

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

Aeris lay down on the blanket, pulling Cloud down on top of her.

He kissed her gently, then raised an eyebrow. "You're gonna have so much sand in your hair."

"Wanna help wash it out later?"

"How'd you get ideas like that? You keep telling me you're like a little school girl."

"I can't help it." She reached up, stroking his face. "They come every time I look at you."

"I keep wondering about that, about us. It's not worth it to go on if this is merely physical."

"Can any people under these life and death circumstances come together and leave without a connection?"

Her answer came as he ran his hand along the length of her body, as he kissed her with a hunger known only to those who have been denied love.

.

Reeve saw this tender exchange as he reached the top of the plateau. If this had happened a couple weeks earlier, before Patrick had turned his back, Reeve would have killed Cloud. Or, at the very least, have wanted to.

But he had seen the pain in Cloud's eyes, and the gentleness in his touch as he led Azura away from Junon, even as she cried. There was no more room inside for the anger.

Reeve turned around and slowly walked back the same way he came.