Part 8- Doubts of Memory

 

Chapter 30

"I thought we were running."

Cloud turned to his green-eyed companion. "Where can we run?"

Aeris was silent for a moment, contemplating the question.

He stared down the dusky bluffs. Down, down...the bottom of the gorge beneath him was Cosmo Canyon. Behind him lay the gnarled mass that was the Forest of the Ancients. Beside him sat the sister of the person they flew from. "I cannot think of a safe place for us to go, except to watch for him, then fly in the opposite direction–fly." He emphasized the word.

"You really think that he could overtake the two of us?"

"Do you think either one of us could bear to lay a hand on him?"

Clutching the satchel close to her body, Aeris shook her head a bit. "I would do whatever it took to save him from himself."

"He has to want to be saved, Rissy." Cloud sighed and ran his hand through the sand, letting it sift through his fingers. "He has to have something to fight about, something to fight for, and something to fight with."

"I have faith in him."

"I want to," he said softly, "I want to. But it took a tragedy staring me in the face to begin to snap me out of it. I hope it won't come to that point for Patrick."

She bit her lip and gazed down into the canyon. "I...I see something!"

Cloud snapped to attention and peered down past where Aeris was pointing. "That's a Gold Chocobo and..." He squinted, trying to make out the indefinite shadows in the distance.

"Two people," she murmured. "He's got Zuri...it's too small to be my dad." There was a hint of strain in her light intonations, and Cloud squeezed her arm. "My gut tells me we have to hop on our bird now and go whichever way they're not..."

He read the tone of her voice. "You're conflicted, though."

"My heart tells me we have to go protect Zuri. She has her magic skills, but they're not totally developed, and Patrick could have overpowered her."

"What if he's luring us in? This could all be just a trap."

"I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do all in my power to protect her and try to save him also. This may be the best opportunity we ever have," Aeris said thoughtfully. "After all, we only ran because we wanted to make sure no one got hurt."

"And we shouldn't keep running just to save ourselves, is that what you're saying?"

"Absolutely." A weak smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

Cloud half-smiled in return before softly planting a kiss on her cheek. Making a step from his hands, he stood in front of his chocobo. "When it comes to saving the world, ladies first."

Aeris climbed up onto the bird, holding it steady as he hoisted himself up behind her. Once his arms were tightly around her waist, she guided their mount and quickly rode after the golden streak that was disappearing over the eastern horizon.

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

Raieyana paced the deck of the Highwind II, wondering if she could possibly have done the right thing. She couldn't have gotten the PHS call from Reeve more than half an hour ago, and she was rushing back to Cosmo Canyon.

(I should have said something to Vincent or Yuffie.) Truth was, she simply didn't have the strength in her to be the bearer of still grimmer news to people who had already had so much loss in one night.

The ship flew steadily to the southeast, the horizon line softly lightening. The blacks gave way to grays giving way to a purple-pink shade. Sunrise wasn't far off. (It's been quite some time since I've stayed up this long without sleep.)

Kati and Ishmael huddled together near the railing. Raieyana watched them, a pained expression on her face. (Should I have even told them?) She had been talking to them when the call came, and the pain in her eyes was something that would not be hidden.

She turned and faced the rock formations that steadily approached nearer, sighing as she thought about the look on her son's face as he boarded the Highwind. It was a look she knew well. Vengeance, a loss of compassion, burning... She'd seen those eyes before and known the vows that were silently recited in Ishmael's mind, for she'd lived to see them executed.

(He really does look like Reeve.) Raieyana's thought came quietly as one tear managed to slip past her reserve, tracing a line down the curve of her face. After a small lurch, she recognized the dusky cliffs surrounding them and made her way to the ladder.

She threw it over the railing and descended into Cosmo Canyon. It was time to greet emptiness once more.

.

He'd seen the look of hollow sadness once before, and that time it was his fault. Reeve watched the love of his life climbing down before him, wondering if she could forgive him for this time, too. (Ah, but she doesn't even know I am to blame for Reno. Would she even forgive that?)

"How are you?"

(She asked the same thing over the PHS after she heard the news, how can she...care about me when her son, her daughter, are all in danger?) He shook his head. "I am no one to be concerned about."

"Of course you are." Raieyana wrapped her arms around his waist the very same way she'd always done, for years. "Your children are out there in danger."

He turned his head away.

"Reeve." Her voice was firm. "You raised Patrick from birth. You've had just as much influence on him as on Riss and Ishmael, if not more."

"It makes what I have done the more wrong."

Kati and Ishmael quietly disappeared inside Tifa's home, avoiding the emotional discussion in front of them.

"No one's perfect, Reeve."

"I just regret that I have fallen so far from it. Mistake after mistake has fallen through my hands..."

Raieyana buried her head in his chest. "Don't go guilt-trip on me now. You've done better than many others could have in a similar situation."

"That's bullshit, Ray."

She looked up at him in a shocked silence.

"I turned him out in Undor-Hai after you got sick, though he saved your life. I have done things that I never could bear to tell you, lest you think me worthless."

"If my approval was so fickle, it would be meaningless anyway."

"I watched so many people die in Midgar, I betrayed Cloud first before he ever–"

"And my father was a Turk. He killed in cold blood and delivered good people over, but I still always loved him. Because he knew in the end, what he had done and felt remorse. That's all that matters." She warmly took his hand. "You wouldn't say these things to me if you didn't feel remorse. It's all that can matter to me. I can't lose you now, too...not when I feel I've lost all my children."

Reeve broke away, seemingly oblivious to her statements. "I went to Midgar tonight." (So afraid to lose her, I once did horrible things, but she has to know, or this will all mean nothing.) "In all these years, I never paid respects to Jack once."

"You were always welcome to join me," she said softly.

"I didn't do it before because there was always some part of me that wasn't sad. He did what he did voluntarily...and I know he had cheated death many times before. He told me on the flight over there, on that day...that he wished he'd been a hero, just once. Told the guy he already was one, but it wasn't enough for him I guess."

"Honey, nothing else could have been done that day. I'm just thankful that everyone was spared, considering they were there to save my son, unselfishly."

.

Raieyana bit her lip, hoping she could ease his conscience. The little things had always seemed to burn Reeve to the core. (Has he ever had peace?)

"Well..." He choked back the urge to just meekly say that he knew that and accept a loving embrace. "I can't hold it back any longer."

A weird look came into her eye. "Hold what back?"

"I knew the override code for the plate drop, too."

She smiled wanly. "But Reno volunteered so quickly, I'm sure you would've if he hadn–"

"That's not what I meant," he said somberly. "Mine was a simple cancel." The last few words were barely above a whisper.

"Oh." Raieyana looked like she'd just been stabbed. "Oh...my...god..." She slowly slipped to her knees, half in shock.

"I know this doesn't make it any better, but I didn't mean for him to die."

"How could you have no remorse?" A stray tear dropped from her cheek to the sand.

"I locked it away a bit, but part of me died that day. Many times since, I have wished that I'd just sacrificed the rest of myself instead of my integrity and my friend." His eyes glanced at the ground. "I found this, tonight. There's no doubt in my mind that you were the one meant to have it."

Something cool and metallic was slipped in to her palm right before he walked out onto the sand dunes. Raieyana glanced down and saw the gold plating glinting in the early morning light. "Combat tag," she whispered. Inside her, Reno died a second time.

 

Chapter 31

Azura was shaking in spite of herself. No matter how hard she tried to become convinced that her situation was entirely under control, it wasn't working. Maybe that feeling was caused by the huge storm blowing up behind them...or the huge waves splashing up around the back of their Gold Chocobo. It was a possibility.

"What are you spooked about, it's just a little squall," said Patrick tersely. His arm was still wrapped tightly around her waist.

Under any other circumstances, she would have been less than grateful. She shivered slightly. Suddenly, a huge crest of water broke on top of the pair; Azura was knocked free from the vise-like grip and cast off the chocobo. As this registered, she only had time for a short gasp before her entire mouth and nose were filled with salt water. The liquid flowed around her, but her landing was hard.

Bright mako eyes gazed up at her from atop the bird. "The shoreline becomes quite...indistinct when the waves are so large, doesn't it, Zuri?"

She pulled herself to her knees, brushing wet sand from her face. "You dropped me," she said incredulously.

"Just making sure you understand where the control lies in this little relationship of ours." He smirked.

"You are very sure of yourself...for a person who just ruined a piece of priceless materia with a juvenile temper tantrum only a little bit ago."

Patrick shook his head. "I cannot be juvenile."

She shrugged. "Then I know you're not really Pat. He's just a kid and he would admit it...to me at least."

("I could easily fool a child like you...but...making you believe isn't worth my time.")

Azura gasped, for Jenova's thought had entered her head. ("Child. Didn't you know that this would happen to you sooner or later...it will happen to all of your little group! How can you hope to defeat me when part of me is inside you all?")

Patrick turned to her. "If you destroy me, you will destroy yourself."

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

"We have to turn back!" Cloud shouted over the roar of the waves.

"And go where?" Aeris retorted as water broke and spun in the air around them. "We're at least halfway."

"We haven't hit the heart of the storm yet, though."

"At the heart of the storm lies Patrick." She bent down, attempting to soothe the startled chocobo.

Cloud yanked her back down into the saddle. "RISS! If we're riding to certain death, at least keep your butt down where I can keep a firm grip on it."

She turned back and grinned, even as another wave broke over them. "Why would you want a grip on my butt?"

He grabbed the reins and urged the bird to stop. It happily complied. "Even without the storm, this might be certain death."

"Cloud...for us, breathing brings us a step closer to certain death." She took the reins back. "If we're gonna die, we should at least be doing the right thing when it happens. Besides, I can see the shore from here."

The chocobo's terrified warks were barely heard above the roar of the water. Feet pounding through the troughs and peaks of waves, it soon reached the shore. He dismounted, automatically turning and helping Aeris down.

.

"I'm glad you could join the party," Patrick grinned. "It's just never the same without you guys."

Azura sat propped against a large rock, one hand on her temple, the other wrapped around herself for warmth.

Aeris' eyes widened. "If you laid one hand on her, I swear–"

"Calm yourself, sweet sister. Zuri is fine, isn't she?"

The small girl moaned and held her head. "It's not supposed to be like this, Pat."

("Hush.")

The voice seemed to reverberate through the land.

"It's not really there," Patrick announced. "But we all share a bond you see, a debt to the greatest being on the Planet. Without her, our lives as we know it? Zip. Nada."

"There are four of us," Cloud began carefully. "If we just keep together, we can easily break down the power of her attraction."

"Do we really want that, though?" Patrick smirked. "I mean, if you break your bond, you have to remember the pain you caused my mother. Didn't she scream when you held her down on the bed, Cloud?"

"Patrick!!" Aeris' hands formed into fists.

"Oh and you...my perfect big sis. So perfect that her father couldn't even stand to see her until she was about seven years old."

"He didn't know," she said defensively.

"He didn't care." He walked to Azura. "See what a beautiful happy family we are? Whose image are we made in?" He laughed derisively. "Alone, we are flawed, wretched mortals. Combined with her, we can become as gods."

"There was one who said that, long ago. His death was long, and he probably still has torment in his life. Is that what you want?" asked Cloud.

("What Patrick wants is what I want. Combined, we are the most powerful being that has ever existed on this Planet.")

Aeris walked silently over to Patrick. "With all the Planet has shown to me, it neglected...one..." She shook her head.

"Riss–"

She held up a hand, silencing Cloud. "It neglected one important thing. The most important fact of all."

Patrick grinned knowingly. "We are..."

Azura rose and walked up to the two of them. "...the children..."

A realization hit Cloud. He knew this scene. (But why am I just a spectator?) "No, stop!" he yelled. "Aeris..." His steps toward the group seemed as if they were slow motion.

"We are the children of Jenova." Aeris lifted the satchel off her shoulder, handing it to Patrick.

("You are left to simply watch because that's all you were ever good for, failure.") Jenova's words murmured in Cloud's mind.

Aeris turned her head to see him kneeling in pain. "Wait...Cloud?"

.

Patrick scowled and nodded to Azura. Suddenly the two of them were surrounded by a barrier of energy, which blasted Aeris away from them and onto her knees. She stumbled into Cloud.

"Oh no," she whispered.

"So..." There was a sickening lurch in his stomach. "She couldn't hold all of us at once. Looks like you're a spectator, too."

"No!" She jumped to her feet, hurling herself into the barrier.

Patrick laughed as his sister bounced off the blue wall of magic. "Zuri, darling."

The girl was back on her knees, holding her head. "No...get that away..."

"What?" His eyes were opened wide, in an expression of faux innocence. "Oh, you mean the huge materia?" Opening the top flap of the satchel, he scooped up the large red mako crystal. "I'm afraid it's stuck inside here with us."

(no...no...no...no... get it out...open the barrier...

"Make me. Asula, it's been a long time. I've been biding my time waiting for revenge. I'm going to need all of my strength to break this will...")

Patrick handed the materia to Azura. "You can put your energy into this. All your will for fighting, into this crystal. It will set you free."

"No. It won't." She felt her hands wrap around the cold materia anyway. It began to glow as soon as it made contact with her skin.

Aeris got up and banged on the divider between them. "Zuri...you can fight this."

She tried to drop the materia, but she found she couldn't. ("That loss of control you're feeling? I may not be able to completely control you, girl, but I can control the parts of you that count."

Control this!) Azura slammed her head directly into the barrier. Her hands lost grip on the materia, which slowly slipped down and landed gently on the ground.

"Zuri?" Patrick whispered, with a hint of his old self in the tone of his voice.

"See?" A drop of blood slid out of Azura's nose. "We can fight it, Pat. Tell me you want to fight it."

"I..." His eyes flashed. He shook his head. "I want to..." His voice dropped to a whisper. "...it's too damn hard." His head suddenly jerked to the right, as if listening to a voice that only he could hear.

"Pat?"

"She says...that she'll let us go, Zuri. We just have to use this materia...once."

"Jenova lies!" Cloud shouted.

"Be strong," Aeris said.

"Once, and we'll be free?" Azura asked weakly.

He nodded.

She jumped into his arms. "Okay."

.

Aeris buried her face in Cloud's shoulder. He watched the girl slowly pick up the materia. A bright blood red glow hung in the air around them, steadily glowing brighter. (I pray we have the strength to fight against whatever horror they are unleashing.)

.

.

Chapter 32

.

Now it's time for me to say goodbye

It's time for me to wave to my mother's hand and sigh

I'm still alive I cannot die

This empty tomb I will not hide

From you to me–don't die

–Fuel, "Alive and Dying"

.

Raieyana,

This is just stupid.

In a couple of days, I'll be done with this whole mess and tearing up this letter and getting on with my life. In more ways than one. The last thing I should be doing here is sitting and writing a letter to someone I love...when the best thing for us both would be if I left her with the better man.

We both know I'm too fucking selfish for that, though, don't we Ray? If I go down, I'll do it with your name on my lips. I'll have your taste on my tongue and my ears will be ringing with the sound of your laugh.

I doubt you're laughing at the moment though. I'm on a chopper right now, being hauled off to Edinborough by Shelding's lackeys. Luckily, these boys are old school. They gave me pen and paper and unshackled my right hand so I could do the Shinra tradition proud.

I don't know what to say though. I never put a letter in my capsule before.

I hope the labor isn't being too hard for you though...I was on my way out the door when Elena came in with...with the news about Junon being in trouble. When the little bastard comes out, tell him he should've been a couple hours earlier and then I could already be teaching him my dirty jokes.

I'd make a suck-ass dad, I guess.

Reeve's passed out...I think the guys that nabbed him were instructed to be a little extra rough. That's bullshit, ain't it, we're partners, and I thought I was twice as annoying. Funny how life works.

I never thought I'd be sitting here writing a letter that was never going to be read, to someone that would mean as much as you.

I wonder if they'll interrogate us. I wonder even more if these guys know half the techniques we Turks used. On one hand, a normal person'd be screwed by that sorta treatment. But I did it to people myself...I think I can get through it. Besides...it's not time yet for this annoying little street urchin to curl up and die. I want one more time...with you.

Your life wouldn't be complete without me tearing it up, right, Ray?

Okay, that one made me grin a bit. I can just see you telling me that it's not true and it's all your fault. Somehow though, I can't completely put this thing with us away.

You save me when you smile at me.

If for some...stupid reason or another...you end up reading this, remember. Whatever you do in the future, don't lose that smile. I couldn't lose that.

Dunno what I'm supposed to write next though. Love, truly, sincerely? All of the above? God, I never liked writing.

Jesus, how'd I manage to get to the bottom of the page? Surprised, I bet. Anyway...love ya, babe. I'll be thinking of your kisses (and other things...heh).

--Jack Reno

* * * * * *

Intoxicated from the deep sleep

Deep sleep

Do you wonder what it's like

Living in a permanent imagination

Sleeping to escape reality

But you like it like that

–Orgy, "Fiction (Dreams in Digital)"

.

It was tinted red, the air in there. The smoke hanging around in the air probably didn't help any. All I know is that it was a bar. Not just any bar, no, this was especially for Shinra students and employees. The bouncer outside only let in hotshots. Soldiers and students who seemed to be Turk and executive material. It's funny though, I never saw anyone who managed to make it higher up in the ranks ever frequent this place.

It's a lure to burn out the brightest prospects, probably. But anyone who could burn bright in a place like Midgar, even before it was finished, had a few screws loose. In more ways than one.

The dank evening air had surrounded me as I walked from my little studio dive into this smoke-filled hole in the wall. Of course, the first thing I do is light up a cigarette of my own. Cancer sticks, I know, but it's not like the life I lead isn't slowly killing me, anyway.

You know, it's funny, but I can't seem to remember when and where I picked up this smoking habit. I'm pretty sure it was Lavana's doing...I remember not smoking, at some point in my forgotten past, but now it just feels like I was born with one in my hand.

I watch the blue smoke waft up from my fingertips, swirling a bit on its ascent to the beams of the ceiling. This building is bare wood, but that's due to lazy finishing, not any degree of newness. Random "Guy + Girl" within hearts have been carved several times in most of these booths. The dates range from last Thursday to nearly ten years ago. This bar must've gone up with the plate.

Apparently, it takes booze to survive being employed by the Shinra. Would explain quite a bit of the behavior I've seen in my visits to the Headquarters.

The music is hard, pounding. Techno. One wouldn't expect such an uplifting sort of beat in a place like this, but I suppose anything sleepier than this and the customers would be ODing left and right. I glance nervously at the door.

It was almost time for my escape.

Of course, escape didn't arrive for about twenty more minutes. Jack was always late, disheveled. It was amazing that he could keep track of anything. Apparently though, he had "command potential" if he'd just learn to clean himself up a little bit more.

He slides onto the bench across from me, hair looking more like a chocobo's nest than anything that could possibly be considered of human origin. "You sure you wanna do this? Geez, man, you're clean cut boy. And you know the penalties if someone like you gets caught with what I've got."

"Do I joke about things like this, Reno?" I glance into my beer mug, swirling it gently, watching the head as it twists and contorts into various shapes, blending and separating from the amber liquid.

"Got a lot going for you though, man. I'm a slum kid, Reeve. You've always been middle class. Pot, booze...Shinra'll turn the other cheek. But...this shit is not misdemeanor brush off. And if you get tossed on your ass here, forget finding another job anywhere on this continent, let alone Midgar."

"I want to see it."

He hunches over the table, raising the arm nearest the edge, shielding the object he's about to display from the rest of the bar. A small vial filled with a glowing liquid. I can't tell if it's green or blue exactly, only that it contained a great deal of luminescence.

"This...is pure." Reno's eyes lit up a bit. "I got an insider friend at the science lab now. This is the exact shit that they do all the Soldier treatments with now. I did some last night...oh man, it was a rush." He hastily stuffed it back inside his inner jacket pocket. "But I'd be a goner this morning, shooting up pure Mako, except for the fact that I've got the glowy eyes already." He pointed up at his bright aquamarine orbs, as if I hadn't known the fact from the first time I saw him.

"I have dark eyes," I protest. "My mother was half Wutaian."

He examines my face, almost looking for any signs of weakness, stepping back. He really doesn't seem to be eager to make this deal. Not to me, anyway. Reaching back into his pocket, he slides a small paper bag across the table.

Picking it up, I feel the weight, the shape, and I know it's a vial like the one he showed me. "How much–"

He interrupts me before I can even finish the word. "I'll cover it."

Needless to say, I'm very puzzled by this. Reno was only in the dealing for the money, he'd told me this a thousand times. "You jerking me around?"

"No, man." He blinks a few times. "Not at all. Look, shit, I can't even begin to pretend that I know why you feel like you need an escape. But you look like you need this so bad you'd die if it didn't happen. And you're my boy, y'know? So I'm gonna take care of you."

I open my mouth to give him thanks, but the words continue before I get the chance.

"Once." Reno looks at me with the most serious, no-bullshit expression I have ever seen. "You're not gonna be an addict. And I'll kick your ass from here to Kalm if you even think about going elsewhere to get a fix, got it?"

I nod slowly before the gravity of his words kicks in. "Is it that addictive?"

"No." He sets his mouth. "It's an easy high, rush starts as soon as you get the shit in your veins, and a little part of you will never ever come down. That's how people get Mako poisoning. Too much...and they never come the fuck down."

The chattering of the other patrons of the bar comes to my ears as the two of us sit there silently.

"You got potential, Jordan, you've just got something deep down inside screwing around with ya. I understand that...but I ain't gonna help you destroy yourself. Just the pain." Reno stands up and prepares to leave. "Wish you'd stay out of here too. Electrical engineers with a chance to make it to the Shinra board of directors don't drink this booze."

I glance up at him. "You come in here."

"Climbing up slowly. It's better than a brothel."

He strides out of the place, as sure of himself as the moment he walked in. A few women tried to catch his eye on the way in and out, but he'd been too full of a purpose. Reno could really be some kinda guy when he felt like it.

.

Maybe things in my life would have been different if this one encounter hadn't happened.

I probably should have thrown the vial away then, but I was just some stupid, scared kid looking for an escape from the harsh reality that I lived in. Besides, there are things I didn't know then. Things I still don't know for sure now.

But I'm fairly certain that Reno's contact in the Science department had been tricked into dispensing tainted Mako to various drug circuits around Midgar. After all, that's a minimalist act compared to some of the other things Hojo did, right?

I remember the things Ray said in her book...about...the behavior of those who'd received injections of Hojo's special hybrid Jenova cells...

They fit me as well.

My eyes don't glow, and for awhile that comforted me. Recently though, I realized something. Ishmael's eyes don't glow either. Seems my confidence about not being caught was warranted.

However, passing the instance off as a one-time getaway was a mistake that I've only now realized. I just hope that it's not too late.

.

.

Chapter 33

.

When will this end it goes on and on

And over and over and over again

Keep spinning around I know it won't stop

‘Til I step down from this for good

.

I never thought I'd end up here, I never

Thought I'd be standing where I am

I guess I kind of thought it would be easier than this

I guess I was wrong

Now one more time

–Lifehouse, "Sick Cycle Carousel"

.

Azura's concentration on the materia in her hands eventually killed the potency of the blue barrier. Even as a reddish-purple vortex swirled in the heavens above, Aeris shoved her way past the blue energy.

"You gotta stop," she gasped.

The smaller girl glanced up, a reddish tinge highlighting her normally gray eyes. "There's no stopping it now," she murmured, fear just barely managing to creep into her words.

Aeris grabbed her arm.

One hard shove and the older girl was thrown to her knees. Azura glared. "Just because I can't stop it, doesn't mean that I'm finished with what I'm doing!"

"Rissy..." Cloud set his mouth and ran headstrong into the group, only to find a barrier in Patrick's left arm. (Never imagined that he could be so strong.) Struggling against the figure to his right, he suddenly heard a voice invading his thoughts.

("You didn't believe it, did you?")

He shook his head and continued to reach out towards the crystal. The vortex held steady, swirling and moving, giving the casual observer the impression that space was folding in on itself. The casual observer would probably be right.

("So how does it feel, letting the gates of hell open, with your son at your right hand?")

A look of recognition materialized in Cloud's eyes. (How...how did that voice from so long ago manage to get so many things right?)

.

Patrick turned, with a bemused expression on his face that contradicted the haunted look in his eyes. "Isn't this everything you ever imagined, father? Feel the glory. Your son caused all of this. This is how one person can mangle every hope of one Planet. Every twist and contortion in the intentions of fate is a perfect match. It matches every pant of breath, each scream of pain, all your moans of pleasure, every single drop of blood fallen from delicate flesh torn... Any and every curse whispered containing your name...mutated the light into a grisly tool, bent and molded to the every whim...of your most hated enemy."

"I did not make this!" He screamed in anguish, reaching down, straining against his son, with all of his strength. Seeking to wrench Patrick's arm away, he shoved his hand down–hard...

...into nothing.

Cloud nearly fell to his knees but managed to preserve his balanced stance. Twisting a bit, he heaved his shoulder into Patrick with all his might.

The boy tumbled from this unexpected blow, cursing a bit on his way down.

Immediately, he ran to Azura, wrapping his strong arms around her waist.

As she threw her self to and fro, grunting with exertion, in an attempt to free herself, Aeris rushed up. Raising one of her crystal sabres high, she made one single slash downwards towards the huge red rock.

It shattered like glass, shards falling into the soil, ringing whenever two pieces would clang together.

The mage collapsed almost instantly. "No..." she whispered.

"We had to do it, Zuri," said Cloud, still not knowing if she was in her right mind or not, "you were breaking the fabric of time and space. There already are pockets in the air itself that are holes to another place."

"You don't understand," the girl said softly. "I'm not quite sure what Jenova's intentions for that portal are...but I do know one thing. Without the materia, I don't know if there's any way on this Planet to seal that gate again."

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

Sean was walking along the outskirts of the ruins of his home. Burnt-out shells looked slightly less depressing when seen from a distance. The flames were long dead, but white smoke still billowed over the tops of the mighty elms where he stood. He turned away, not bearing the irony that a deed so terrible could produce anything with the purity of white.

A slight form suddenly stumbled into his side. "Oh!" cried out a small voice in surprise.

"Did you want to be alone, too?" He looked down into Marta's burgundy eyes.

"Well..." she twirled a chestnut curl around one of her fingers. "All the stuff I see in town scares me...and...Mama's reaction is just weirding me out. It's spooky here in the dark, too, though." She sighed a bit.

"Of course it does. Standing near a ghost town would disturb anyone."

The younger girl bit her lip in apprehension. "Oh gawd, I didn't mean it like that..."

"I know you didn't. And...you know, I'm just fucked up right now." He shook his head, remarking to himself about how he never used that sort of language. "Nothing or anything will set me off. Pick your favorite combination."

"Sean?" Her voice was nearly a whisper. "I have this weird rumbly feeling down inside me."

"What kinda feeling, Marta?"

"I don't think things are over yet."

He shrugged. "As long as that damn psychopath Patrick's running aroun–"

"No. I mean here. In Wutai."

A small shiver ran down his spine. "You're probably just–" His voice died as...he could have sworn some shadow just passed across the glowing moon.

She raised a hand to her mouth in terror.

"What the hell was that?" He shook a fist at the sky. "Why would anything come here? Everything is already fucking destroyed!"

Shakily, she took his hand in hers. "But...we're still here, right?" She tugged on his arm a bit. "Sean...us...our parents...drawing attacks like beacons. And they're all sitting ducks, mourning a burnt down town!"

He glared at her. "What did you say?" The tone was a menacing, low growl.

"They'll die if we don't go warn them something is after us. The destruction of the town can't be reversed. And neither will the harm that flying thing is gonna do if they get ambushed."

"Oh." Startled by the rashness of his own judgment, he leaned over and embraced Marta as way of apology. "We have to hurry."

With a quick nod of agreement from Marta, the two of them tore back towards the shell of Wutai.

A few minutes later, the embodiment of shadow landed in the very spot the pair had stood. Sniffing a bit, gathering their scent in its nostrils, the creature blinked its blood-red eyes and released a blood-curdling battle cry into the breaking dawn.

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

(I'm not sure where you came up with the concept that your life was going to be easy. Where would you be if you had contentment and solace? There would be nothing to strive for, nothing to achieve.

That's not the issue. The issue is whether or not it's right for a person to have to strive for sanity.

There's a difference between experiencing hardships and creating your own. Maybe you shouldn't have been so self-deprecating.

And maybe as the voice of reason, you should have piped up a bit more often.

Where did I have the chance? Between the fury and revenge, the sex and drugs, the corruption and deceit, the insecurity and begging, there really wasn't any room for me.

I'm too old for this.

Then you should just lay down and die.

I can't look her in the face after this.

Good thing that Raieyana is not the thing you need to protect the Planet from.

Me? I believe Patrick said it best when he said that I never really do anything.

Oh you've done quite a bit. It's been very obvious this whole time that you've been part of this story from the very beginning. Just waiting until you completely realizing the fact to do something about it?

Look, just because I helped protect the materia and Zuri doesn't mean anything, except that I was guilty.

Considering the fact that it's in the nature of males to detest the offspring of other males, don't you ever wonder where the unnatural guilt came from?

Adding more to the pile isn't much if the pile stretches an infinite distance.

The pile disappears if you atone.

I'm beginning to learn that.

Learning? Do you need any more information than that?)

.

Reeve broke away from his internal debate. "Information?" he whispered aloud.

(One who sees, one who burns...one who grieves, and...)

"...one who learns." A flash of realization danced upon his features. Rushing down the sand dunes, he held his speed as Cosmo Canyon came into sight. He ran into Tifa's house.

Raieyana rose somberly as he entered the dining room, a tattered and folded letter in her hand.

Pausing for a moment, he caught his breath before he attempted to speak. "I think...I am the last of the four."

Unshed tears glimmering in her emerald eyes, her only reaction was to clutch the paper to her heart, slightly nodding.

"I... You might understand my recent...admissions. I am the one who learns."

Quiet for a moment, she simply took in the new information. "This," she whispered, "was like having him back. It's been so long...I can't forget what you said to me, but it's been too many years for me to even wonder about the what-ifs." A bitter half-smile crossed her lips. "Besides...if Ryald hadn't tried to kill me, I probably would have run off with him anyway."

An uncomfortable silence hung in the air, the unfortunate side effect of too much information.

"I have a strange feeling that Patrick managed to get his hands on Cloud and Aeris...and the materia."

Raieyana nodded. "Me too. I had Cid go get the Airship ready."

"This is it, then? I'm about to head off to the battle of ages, and that's it?"

"I'm just glad that for once, it's not me in the prophecies."

Leaning back, Reeve slowly closed his eyes. "I can go back to Junon or something after this mess. Don't even worry about upsetting your own life because I was a–"

A burst of laughter interrupted his self-sacrificing speech.

He peered at her with curiosity.

"Reeve." She kept her eyes fixated firmly onto the ceiling beam directly above her. "My son's losing his mind, my daughter's fooling around with a guy that raped me, and my other son's got vengeance plan against his little brother. You may have contributed to the death of someone I loved, but that seems like ages ago. I don't need this. Not now. We can sort us out later. I'm not giving you up without a fight, though."

He was in shock. "Ray?"

She rolled her eyes. "The fight won't be with you...it'll be in myself. And later."

.

Cid burst into the house. "Come on, you lazy jackasses, it's time to save the world."

The two of them exchanged sheepish looks and headed out the door.

"Get your behinds in gear, too, because I want to get home sometime before my son fucking graduates from high school!"