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Part 4- A Soul Eclipsed

Part 4- A Soul Eclipsed


Chapter 13


"So...this is a serious problem, right guys?"

The rest of the group stared at Yuffie in wonderment.

"What is your problem? I want to know why we're just sitting here when there's a reincarnated 'Calamity from the Skies' using our Cloudie as a puppet again!"

"Well, I kind of had to tell them it was Jenova first," remarked Derin.

"You told us, now let's get going!" She prepared to stand up, but Red XIII held her in place with a paw to the back of the shirt.

"Don't let a hasty decision throw us in the wrong direction."

Yuffie settled back down and pouted. "I could be pointing us in the right direction, you know."

Vincent stood up. "She's heading for the Lifestream. We need to go to all the places on the Planet where Mako is at the surface." He sat back down.

The ninja shook her head. (Why does he always have to be such a drama queen? Mr. "I think I'm a Vampire." Sheesh.)

Daphne thought for a moment. "There's Mt. Nibel."

"True," said Tifa. "There's also Mideel and the Northern Crater, but you weren't with us when we visited those places."

Daphne looked at her old friend for a moment. (Somehow, some way, she seems hostile to me. And this isn't the first time I've felt some sort of negative energy coming from her. Why does she resent me?)

Derin had seen the look of confusion pass through Daphne's face; he understood why Tifa was acting the way she did, and also why Daphne was hurt. (If Rissy understood everything that had happened since she died, she would know why Tifa is hurt. But now, she can't see anything more than anyone else could.) He knew the jealousy in Tifa's heart well. For, try as he might, he could not tell by looking whether Daphne's care and concern for Cloud led deep into the heart.


"We should split up into three groups of three then," said Reeve. "That works out, right?"

Cid nodded. "But how the hell are we gonna decide who goes with who? I'll be damned if I'm with Miss Maturity over here," he complained as he gestured to Yuffie.

"I resent that!"

"You would!" he retorted.

"Umm...I'm confused." Yuffie shook her head. "Anyway, I don't wanna be in your group!" That was all she said, though she made puppy-dog eyes at Reeve.

"I'm going to Mt. Nibel," said Tifa softly.

"So am I." Vincent looked around. (If this were a time for jokes, I would remark here how I miss my old coffin back at the mansion.)

"I'll go wit' y'all." Barret crossed his arms, looking for any objections.

Derin set his jaw. "I'm going to the crater." He shot a meaningful glance at Daphne.

"I'd like to see it too," she added.

Cid extinguished his cigarette. "You're in luck. The legendary Cid Highwind shall be your tour guide."

"Living legend, eh?" Derin grinned.

At this remark, the pilot turned an interesting shade of red and muttered "I ain't that fucking old yet" under his breath.

Suddenly, something dawned on the lion-like creature. (That leaves me, Reeve, and...and...!) "Oh no. You are not even doing this to me!" cried Red XIII in protest.

"But you're the closest in mental age to Yuffie," remarked Tifa with a wicked gleam in her eye.

Reeve let out a sigh of resignation. "Red, ol' chap, cheer up. We get to go to the only place that isn't freezing cold right now."

"I have fur," he growled. "Someone reconsider their group. Now."

But the only response he got was a few amused "apologies," and the bearer of each had a twinkle in his or her eye.

"Let's get a bite to eat before we head out in the Airship," suggested Daphne.

She led the group out from the observatory, until Red XIII and Yuffie were the last ones in the room. He glared at her and stormed off with disgust.

At that moment, she finally realized what he had been angry about. "Hey! Don't you want to be in a group with me?" She ran after him, demanding an answer.

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

Cloud landed the stolen helicopter in a daze.

(Who am I? Where am I?

"Hush, puppet.")

He looked up at Kayley. "Is this the right place?" he asked flatly.

She glanced around at the landscape. (It is certainly the right area. But why are we so far from the place I want to be?) "Can't you get this thing any closer?" she demanded.

Surveying the area, Cloud shook his head. "This 'copter was the fastest, but it is the most sensitive. If I land it any closer, I doubt we could ever use it again. The gear would be so damaged, we'd crash."

Leaning back into her seat with dismay, she resigned herself to the long walk. (Although I will be able to withstand any crash by then, I don't want to lose my...precious puppet.) Before she could stop the urge, her hand was caressing Cloud's cheek. Fuming, she tore it back as soon as she regained control of herself. (Damn, damn, damn it! I have to be strong. I don't care what happens to this mere human, I can't!)


"Get up," she said menacingly.

Cloud sat up, although mechanically.

"Can't you do it more naturally?" As soon as the sentence came out of her mouth, Kayley giggled. "Don't you know any choreography?"

"I saw Loveless once."

"Do the Loveless dance," she demanded with a smirk. Cloud's attempts at the ballet and jazz steps were pitiful, at best. Throwing her head back with a laugh, Kayley decided it was time for her return to power. "That will be enough."

"Would you like me to sing?" asked Cloud.

She stared into his empty eyes. "Wait until I am stronger. Then I can make you do it, but with emotion." She sighed. (Using this manipulate materia is very taxing on this mortal body. Soon I will be one with my cells, though, and then I can throw away all of this worthless crystal.)


Kayley lifted her head up high. The day was beautiful. The sun was shining high up in the sky, and she would soon take over the Planet. It truly was a day to end all days. Wonderful, precious. Perfect.

She poked Cloud in the back. "Walk," she ordered. "I wish to be myself again by nightfall."

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

"Okay," said Cid to the other three people on the deck. "Now's the time. Remember, the goal is to kill the Kayley bitch before she turns back into Jenova." He headed towards the bridge, to steer the Airship to Mideel.

"Use only status-changing magic on Cloud." Daphne looked at Tifa and Vincent, making sure each nodded their affirmation. "We don't want to be his murderers."

A quiet hush descended at the mentioning of a murderer.

"Well, we don't." She rolled her eyes. "Guys, who cares that I was murdered? I'm back now."

"Who cares? Who cares?!" Tifa walked up to the taller girl and met her with a fiery glare. "I know you shouldn't care. You were the one who got to stop fighting, go to the Promised Land, while we had to work our asses off saving the world. All that while grieving for you." She shook her head. "Sure feels like a waste now," she muttered.

"Tifa?" Tears formed in Daphne's eyes. "You don't mean that, do you?"

"Why would I say something I didn't mean?" Her words were defensive only because the comment's aim had been so true. Tifa really didn't mean that her grief was a waste. Not when it was still so close to her, so real. She was just afraid to let it go. (I can't let it go. Because if I did, then who would be left to remember how much Cloud hurt after Aeris died? Just because she's back doesn't mean the pain never existed. Or that it magically goes away.)


Vincent walked up to Tifa and placed a hand on her shoulder. "We should not part ways on a disagreement. However, I think that it would take too much time to resolve this, and we are racing against time." He fixed red eyes on Daphne while he absentmindedly rubbed Tifa's shoulder.

Daphne nodded. "I'll go tell the others that we're near Mideel now. It's time to drop them off." She left them and went to the bridge.

"I didn't need your help dealing with that, you know," said Tifa. She brushed his hand off.

He looked down for a moment, then glanced at her. "What was I supposed to do? Let you two catfight on the deck over a moot point? You each have different views on Aeris' death, the reasons for which should be obvious."

"She doesn't understand that we hurt?"

"I think, Tifa...that she understood. Before she came back to the Planet. But now she's here and back to being a dim-witted mortal like the rest of us. She doesn't even have her part-Cetra body anymore."

"I guess you expect someone to be all knowing if they come back. More like Derin."

"He's got a fool soul. Just think. He's walking around the Promised Land, speaking the same way he does here, using the same tone and slang words."

Tifa smiled. "I hope my soul is a little deeper than that when it's my time. I'd like to think I learned a lot in this lifetime." She turned to Vincent with an amused look in her eyes. "So you really think I would have gotten into a catfight with 'Daph-ris'?"


"I would have won."

"Probably." Vincent shook his head. "I wouldn't like to see the state either of you would be in afterwards. I like women who haven't scratched each other up, and have left each other's hair inside the respective head."

"Well, what about the part where the girls tear off each other's clothes?" Tifa sat back, waiting for his response.

"Let me guess," he said dryly. "Another one of your questions to judge human nature by."

She nodded. "So...?"

Vincent walked to the doorway. "I'd prefer tearing your clothes off myself."

Tifa was stunned as she watched him walk out. Then gathering her wits, she ran after him, asking a Yuffie-esque question. "That was a joke, right?"



Chapter 14


Yuffie wrinkled her nose. "They haven't done anything to rebuild this town. What a bunch of lazy people!"

Reeve looked around Mideel. (Well, I wouldn't say they haven't done anything. They haven't done a lot...)

Not much in the way of repairs had been done to Mideel. The lazy southern town did not attract people full of initiative. Many people had left the town after the Mako eruption, and a lot of those people had gotten sick and died of Mako poisoning.

Mideel was hardly holding onto itself. A few more months like this, and it would officially be a ghost town.

Red XIII looked around the town. "Well, the Mako is flowing around here in the open. Any signs of Cloud or Kayley?"

"None at all." Reeve peered down into the large glowing pool. "What are the chances that they both just jumped in there?"

"I have no idea. Probably slim. I think she'd find what she was looking for fairly quickly."

"So what are we gonna do 'til then?" Yuffie's eyes darted about impatiently.

"I suppose we could have a look about the town. Why don't you go see if the materia shop is still around here somewhere?"

"Really Red?" She darted off towards the ramshackle buildings.

Reeve chuckled a bit. "Now, what are we supposed to do?"

Narrowing his eyes, Red XIII glanced into the pool. "How about some work? She'll probably be occupied for a little while, at least."

"You think they might be in there?"

He cautiously placed a paw on the flowing Lifestream. "I'm not sure. But don't you think there would be some clues to look for if they were? Let's get going."

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

"Okay, who forgot that it would take about three hours to walk through the mountains?" demanded Vincent.

"All of us." Tifa gave him an antagonizing smile.

"Damn, I'm tired." Barret sat down to rest.

"We just rested five minutes ago."

"I think it was a little longer than that, Vincent. Besides, even though we're in a hurry, she'll have just as much trouble as we are. She's still in a pesky human body, remember?"


Tifa shrugged and took a sip from her canteen. "Not to sound too much like the proverbial hare, but I think her unseasoned body is probably going over these mountains at tortoise speed. Not only that, but we don't know exactly what Mako pools are left. Neither would she."

"We'll prolly find 'er next time we start up."

"Maybe, Barret." Vincent looked uneasy. "What if she used her Manipulate materia and forced Cloud to go look for the Mako pools?"

"She'd have to follow him a little ways behind. He can only get so far away from the materia before it loses effect." She glanced at Barret. "We should probably get going again, though."

He stood up and brushed off his gun-arm. "I'm good," he said.

The group continued up the trail. They soon came to a fork in the road. "Which way, Guide Tifa?" Vincent glanced at the brunette.

She thought hard. "Well, we have a problem here. My memory tells me that there used to be Mako pools if you followed either trail, but the fountain was on the right."

"We should probably check out both."

She nodded. "I wouldn't want to spread ourselves too thin though, so I don't know if we should do one at a time, or split up."

"Hey." They looked at Barret. "The fountain is more likely to still have Mako. You two go there, and I'll peek the other way. I promise I be quiet enough to sneak back der to you's guys if I see that Kayley."

"And if you see nothing, then you can call us on the PHS." Vincent held up the portable phone and switched the ringer off. "This will vibrate if you call. If we can't pick up the phone, it means we've found them and probably, that we are fighting them."

"We should be able to take her if we get to her before she goes in the Mako pool." Tifa bit her lip. "I don't want to think about the alternative, because she'll manipulate Cloud onto her side."

Vincent looked at her. "If we go quickly," he said softly, "we'll most likely prevent the alternative."

She nodded. "Are you sure you'll be okay, Barret?"

The big man smiled and patted his gun-arm. "Just fine. Y'all just take care of you'selves. Oh and Vince? I'm holdin' ya personally responsible for Tifa's welfare."


He glanced at her. "Sorry, Teef, but I can't help it. You a good friend and a good Avalanche member. You've been with me the longest and I feeled I had to protect you, always." A glance downward. "'Specially after Sector 7."

"I think we understand," said Vincent smoothly. "You have my word that I will protect her at all costs. Just like you would."
"Loyalty and all that stuff. I'm gonna get going down my way now. Good luck, y'all."


Tifa watched him walk down the left fork and barely suppressed a giggle. "How's that last bit of conversation going to work into his 'big bad good guy' persona?"

"He's just being a good friend to you, that's all." Vincent began walking down the trail without her.

"You're going to say that and start walking, huh? Barret's right when he says you're a 'cold one.'"

"He says that because he doesn't understand me." He turned to face her. "Are you coming or not? I thought you were concerned with Cloud's welfare."

Tifa suddenly realized that she had forgotten about Cloud. She had been too busy becoming aggravated at Vincent's actions. "I am concerned," she said, more to reassure herself than to convince Vincent. She began walking quickly down the trail, passing him silently.

He followed her quietly, for a bit. She continued her maddening pace, and it soon became obvious to Vincent that she'd be too tired to face any enemy at their destination if she kept on like that. "Tifa, slow down a bit."

"Can't handle it?"

"I'm fine. But you're tiring yourself out too much. What'll be left inside to fight Kayley?"

She paused and turned. "I have to get down there fast, to protect Cloud. If Kayley regains the powers she had as Jenova, that's it for him. He'd be a puppet again."

"He wasn't completely a puppet before. I believe he was able to stop himself from killing Aeris."

"Why do you mention her?" asked Tifa spitefully.

"Because she was an ally of ours, is one now, and any mentioning of her in passing should not anger you so."

"Well, it does."

"Have you ever stopped to wonder why?" Vincent caught her eye and she could not bear to turn from it.

"No." She closed her eyes. "Why should I think about it? I don't question my feelings for Cloud."

"What are those feelings?"

(Why is he asking me these things, looking at me like this? This is not the time!) "Look," she said, "we can do this later."

He rolled his eyes. "We both know that if Kayley had decided to come here, she would have found Mako by now and become Jenova. She had a head start." He continued. "If she had gone to Mideel, there would have been an almost-instant PHS call from that group." Vincent sat down on a rock. "So she went to the Northern Crater. That group must catch up with her. They probably won't, and they'll barely escape and then we'll all get back together for a classic showdown."


"You think you're so smart, don't you?" She glared at him. "What if Kayley comes around that bend right now, power restored, and rips off your head as you speak?"

"Then I guess I'd be wrong," he said. His eyes sparkled.

Tifa cracked a smile in spite of herself. Sitting next to him, a small laugh escaped from her lips. "You could have saved Barret the trip. And the speech."

"But it was so touching."

"You're evil!"

"For teasing Barret? Nah." He met her eyes. "For wanting a conversation alone with you? Perhaps."

"Alone with me?" she repeated warily.

"I'm not going to kill you, you can relax." His tone was serious. "And I'm still waiting for the answer to my previous question."

"What my feelings are?"

He nodded.

"Isn't it obvious to you, oh observer of humanity? I love him."

"It's not that obvious, is it? Otherwise he would know."

"He does know." Her voice was bitter.

He changed the subject. "When did you know? ...that you loved him."

"I don't know." She tossed her head a bit. "I guess I always did, deep down inside."

"Always? Like when you two were children and you ignored him?"

"After that, I guess."

"So," said Vincent slowly, "it was after he left town to join Soldier and you never saw him again?"

Tifa was annoyed. "Fine, it was-"

He cut in. "That time at the reactor when he avoided you the whole time? He saved your life and you didn't even remember he was there until you looked into his head?"

"What are you driving at here?" A tear slipped down her cheek. "Fine, it's when I first saw him in Midgar. Why does the time I realized I love him fucking matter?"

"Well, for one thing, when you first saw him in Midgar, he was living a lie. The lie was that his Soldier career was remarkably like Zack's."

She was silent.

"I'm not trying to upset you."

"Then what are you trying? To make me hate you?" She took a shuddering breath. "I thought we were becoming really good friends...I thought..."

"If I didn't care, I wouldn't bother with this. Don't you get it? I'm trying to make you see. You spend all this time, expend all this energy, pour all your heart into this conquest of a person. Someone you rejected for nearly all the life he can remember."

"I always thought I could make it up to him."

"Maybe you can. But not through pretending to be in love with him."

She choked back a sob. "I'm not pretending!" she cried. "Why would I do this to myself?"

"You felt Cloud's pain when she died," he said softly, avoiding the mention of Aeris' name.

A nod.

"You saw his guilt for not saving her, his guilt for beating her, his guilt for nearly killing her. His guilt for giving Sephiroth the Black materia. Then he disappeared, and you didn't know what to do. Cloud was your link to the past, your link to each day one of your parents died. He'd led the group after Sephiroth; he led your vengeance on the man who burned your hometown to the ground."

"And I didn't know where to go without him there. I needed him to tell us where to go."

"You nursed him in Mideel because you needed him. When you were in the Lifestream, you were able to see inside his mind."

"So?" There was a slight hostile trace in her voice.

"You learned his most intimate secrets. Things that he perhaps would only tell to a lover? You feel close to him, you feel a bond. There's only one problem. The time you spent there awakened his consciousness, but he wasn't conscious during that time. You can't expect him to remember the things he said to you, and you to him."

"So he wouldn't know how close I felt to him then?"

"That basically would explain all of his coldness to you. There's still one problem with the closeness you feel to him. He acted most of the time you knew him as an adult...he acted like Zack."

"He became much quieter after he told the truth..."

"He spent quite a few years in that mansion in Nibelheim, Tifa, he probably feels like a teenager now. The shame of not making Soldier is still real to him. The pain he feels from how you treated him years ago is still with him."

"What does this have to do with my feelings?"

Vincent looked at her. "This is obviously news to you. And that's the problem. You keep saying all these things to me, to yourself. However, to anyone who takes the time to look at the situation... It seems to me that you haven't gotten to know the real Cloud at all."



Chapter 15


"This place looks scary." Daphne shivered.

"You think it looks scary now? You would've shit your pants a few months ago then."

"I doubt that Cid. I'm very clean." She gazed down over the summit of Gaia's Cliff. "I see something."

"So do I. A big hole."

She turned pleading eyes to Derin. "Can you help me out a little here, Zack?"

(There it goes again. Sometimes I'm Zack, sometimes I'm Derin.) Then he chastised himself for his attitude. (Gotta try to remember that she can't see what I see, feel what I feel. If only they could have sent me as a mortal soul...) "What, hon?"

"Look over there." She pointed. "What do you see?"

He peered into the distance. "A helicopter that says 'Junon Police' on it."

"Shit!" yelled Cid. "That's one-a my fleet!"

"Well, guess we know that Kayley's probably here, right?" Daphne bit her lip. "What should we do?"

"I think going after her would be a viable option," said Derin.

"No sarcasm. First, we should probably call the others on the PHS. Next, we should go look at the helicopter...judge the snow around it. The way the wind is up here, it would begin to be buried in no time."

"So?" Cid gave her a look of utter boredom.

"So...if it's still pretty clean, or if there are footprints, they didn't land too long ago. Which means, we have a decent chance of catching up to them before..."

"I understand." Derin reached in his pack and brought out the PHS. "You guys go check out the 'copter...carefully. I'll call the others."


Daphne walked towards the helicopter, with Cid following closely behind. She was becoming aware of the fact that while Cid was an excellent fighter, a good pilot with years of experience, and a very true companion, he was also very irritating and easily annoyed.

The pilot paused before the vehicle and, turning to the side, spat on the ground.

She shook her head in disgust. (Why do I feel this way about him? I don't remember ever disliking Cid.) In all honesty, as Aeris, she never had disliked Cid, nor had she noticed any jealousy from Tifa, though there were a few signs. (Have I lost something...something important that I had? Once upon a time, when I wore pink and sold flowers and laughed?) Daphne doubted that she had laughed, without forcing it out, since she realized who she really was.

"Tracks are half-filled with snow." Cid spat again. "Judging by these winds, the two have about an hour, hour and a half lead on us. Think we can cut it?"

Mustering up a statement that did justice to her former self, Daphne gave him a weak smile. "Of course we can. We have no other choice. Right now, we have an easy job. If we fail..." Something in her eyes hardened. "It's on our own heads."

He paused to give her an odd look before he waved Derin over to where they stood. "Looks like we're gonna go in."

Derin nodded. "We're going to head into the crater," he said softly into the PHS. "We'll talk to you when we've finished." Turning it off, he placed it back into his pack and looked at the duo standing in front of him. "We're all prepared for battle, right?"

There was a nod from the grim-faced pilot, and a moment of deliberation from the raven-haired girl. "I never got any materia," she said softly.

"Easily remedied. I manage to carry more than I can equip." Derin held out a small plastic box.

Daphne took the box and opened it. Both she and Cid gasped to see the rows of neatly arranged materia.

"I gotta get me one of those," he said emphatically.

She peered in the case, concentrating hard. Try as she might, she could barely remember what each materia did, let alone any important facts about their stats. She held up a yellow enemy skill and slipped it into her staff, then followed with random materia.

Derin studied her face and her selection. "If you need any help, Rissy, I can pick some good ones... It's hard to remember everything so quickly."

Daphne gazed at him coldly. "I'm just fine. Zack."

He closed his eyes and turned away from her, towards the crater. "Fine then. Let's go in."

The group made their way down into the crater, picking the beginnings of a trail from the collapsed caverns and hollows inside, while Derin remembered something. Something from long ago.


"The world never seemed to touch you Rissy. You could have been a drug dealing whore, and still have been just as innocent as when you were born."

Aeris smiled warmly at him. "I doubt that. If I were that innocent, I wouldn't have any use for the drug dealing." A pause. "Or the whoring," she added.

"Maybe I exaggerate a little." Zack grinned. "But I know that no matter what you would be doing, you were always innocent. Always sane."

"I had a gift. If I was evil, it would have been a curse."

"What is that?"

"My mother was always watching me, giving me advice. No matter where I went, I could hear the Planet. And...even through all its pain and knew I was its knew that I could hear it. Know its pain, feel its pain... How could I ever be petty or wordly when I had that knowledge with me. I carried it every day. I knew when someone I cared about hurt or died."

"Did you really?" The young man's brow furrowed. "Rissy," he said softly.

"I never betrayed you in my heart. I knew you had long returned to the Planet. I would never have let even a mere thought stray in my mind." She met his inquisitive glance. "But I couldn't let my heart die with you. I was still alive, and needed to at least feel some thrill. Even if I never got to know him..." She closed her eyes. "I know I love you and I never really got to know you on the Planet."

"You love me?" he asked softly. Zack knew the answer by heart, but grasped at an escape from the slightly painful conversation.

"Of course. Not a moment goes by that I don't think of you now. Things are different down there though. They always are. He's in such pain...he blames himself for my death. And I represent more than myself to him. I'm the first person who even tried to see him for himself, and by the time he found himself, there was no way for him to share it with me. He cared deeply, Zack."

"Someday he will forget." A bitter tone snuck into his voice.

"He didn't experience a death as I did. He is haunted, Zack. And I want to fix that. I don't want to leave you, but-"

"You don't want to leave me? Aeris, you don't have a choice. Not for another century, at least." He grabbed her hand. "Don't even bother yourself with this. The years begin to slip quickly and quietly. You can talk with him like this in the blink of your eye."

"Not a blink of his eye. Does he deserve the pain?" She stood. "I wanted to get your blessing before I spoke with Eldor."

"My blessing?" His words seemed empty. "Even if you were sent back, do you think that I would send you with my blessing? Bless you leaving me?" He stood up quickly. "Aeris," he said suddenly, clasping her hand. "You can't tell me that he means more than me."

She turned away. "Of course he doesn't. But you wouldn't suffer like he did. You told me yourself that the time seems like nothing at all. So take your nothing and let me buy what would be forever to him..."

"Even if they let you back, it wouldn't be as Aeris. You know that."

"We shall see. They owe me," she said with a sudden fierceness.

Zack saw that there was a hidden part of Aeris, that had never been put to flames before. But now that it had, it flared with the intensity of a thousand stars. Even the embers of it could put ordinary passion to shame. "But if you weren't Aeris," he said sadly, "you'd lose the part that kept you sane before."

"That's the chance that I would take. But I will go back as myself."

"Would I even know you if I saw you in that place?"

Aeris stepped closer and kissed him softly. "If you knew who I was, but not by what I'd know enough to...realize...that the cloud had surrounded me. Whatever happens in the paths that we are put to, remember Zack, that I do love you."

As she walked away, into the light that led to the Masters, Zack did not yet know that it was the last time they were to meet on that side, for a long time. He also had no idea that if he returned to life, he would remember the sweetness of the kiss...taste it on his lips, with every step he took; with every glance at the girl who had once lived before as Aeris; and with every step towards another man who she had said before-that she was going to buy happiness for. Buy Cloud's happiness, with the price being his own.



Chapter 16


It had seemed as though the Northern Crater had been in existence for time immemorial. However, the eyes of the Masters remembered a time when the surface of the Planet was unscarred. Yet in those times, Mako actually flowed more freely to the surface than it did at the present.

Perhaps the lack of Lifestream hotspots was a blessing in disguise. After all, if not for that fact, Kayley would have had a much shorter journey to reach her destination. This blessing became irrelevant as she entered a cavern with Cloud; a cavern that flowed freely with Lifestream.

She bade Cloud sit down, and sit down he did. Turning her attention to the greenish makofall cascading immediately in front of her, she scrutinized the material. (This is it?) Her thoughts had expected the precious giver of all life to look a little more...extraordinary.

Part of the mako flowed into a pool, with a shore lapping at the rocky floor beside her. Kneeling down to meet it, Kayley slowly brought her fingertips to the glowing liquid. A rush of...something...met her instantly. Her eyes widened in excitement and surprise. (I never knew that I could learn so much, just by touching this stuff.) An odd feeling was traveling through her, surging within her veins, and Jenova, within the human body, began searching the memories of the girl's brain.

(I do not feel that I was given power. Yet.) A small frown furrowed at her brow. (But I was given something...I know more now.) Indeed, the mind belonging to the extraterrestrial being from eons ago had just experienced something completely new to her. Somehow, through a miracle of the Masters, or even just the Lifestream itself, the soul of Jenova had gained knowledge.

The type of knowledge that can only come from being one with the Planet; it can only come to a person who cannot do the Planet harm. Some eager sort of human curiosity was beating within Kayley's breast, and she did not know the implications of what she had seen.

Images of peace, not power-but for some reason, she ached for more. Step by step, she waded into the pool. The Manipulate materia slipped from her simple weapon as she dropped it; the crystal shattering on the floor upon impact.


The first memory Cloud had was seeing the last glimpse of Kayley's rusty locks, as she disappeared completely into the Lifestream.

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

"I hope Barret meets us soon."

"What does it matter? Cid has the Airship, and he went into the crater."

Tifa looked at the ground. "It doesn't matter, in terms of the mission."

Vincent watched her fidget, with a knowing look in his eye. She would never look up and see it, that time. "I make you uncomfortable."

The brunette shrugged.

"Of course," he muttered.

(I wonder if he thinks I heard that or not.) As honest as Vincent was with his "observations," Tifa was still far from having any idea about what went on in his head. (It's unfair, the way he can say the right make me break down my guard. It took me months of trying to be subtle with Cloud. To tell him. Simple words were what I said. "You're more than a friend to me." They held years' worth of thinking, months' worth of debating. A lifetime of pain, I had told myself. But Vincent got it out, he got it all out. Yet I know no more about him than I thought I did. Except he eventually warms up enough to people to be sarcastic as hell.

Maybe his close ways were enough to earn his confidence. He cared for Lucrecia, I saw the pain in his eyes...but...but...what he had there... Is it enough for him to even understand my pain?)

She raised velvet eyes to his. "No. But somehow I feel uncomfortable that any one of us would be out alone. I'll be relieved to see Barret all right."

"So, if I were to whisk you off in the dead of night, no problem?"

"Why would you have a reason to do that?" She raised an eyebrow, calling on herself to meet his questions with equal strength of will. "Why would I have a reason to go?"

Vincent was as unmoved as a pile of stone. "None of that matters. I just marvel that any of this group could trust me, after seeing me...knowing how I failed someone important to me, long ago."

"I have trusted you with more of my insides than I have to anyone else," she said softly. (Though I still don't understand why, I wonder...could he understand me...what things mean to me?)

"Don't give me credit for that. Or blame yourself. You just acknowledged when my observations rang true or not."

"They always seem to ring true. Vincent."

It seemed to him that centuries should have passed before he heard his name roll off from a tongue again in that manner. Softly, with concern. Two syllables seemed to hold both trust and patience that he thought were far beyond his deserving.

"I wish I could return the favor though. It appears to me that you are hard to read, and wish that things stay that way. Such a shame." Tifa tried to make her tone lighter. "I'd like to put a spotlight on you for a change."

Neither smile nor frown passed his lips; he set his mouth and turned to watch the path for Barret. "Don't ask to open up Pandora's Box. I doubt anything inside of me should be held out in the light of day."

Vincent had a skill at making statements that shot straight into Tifa's psyche, like arrows of steel. For once, the favor was returned. "Then share them with someone who is unfaltering in the depths of the night."

He turned, searching her face with his eyes, but she stood up and moved past him, up the trail.

"I see Barret coming back. If we hurry on, we can reach Nibelheim before nightfall."


Tifa's happy-go-lucky façade returned as she chatted to Barret, speaking random encouraging words, about how Cid, Derin, and Daphne would most certainly save the day.

Vincent remained a little ways behind them as they backtracked down through the mountains. (It is not a question of whether I could find another who is strong enough to hear such things. More of whether I could hand them such a haunting burden, without adding to the chains and fetters already surrounding me.) A shudder went through him. (Simply killing innocence is one crime; but evolving it into something ugly is a multitude of them, and earns lifetimes' worth of repentance before salvation.)

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

(How did I get here? The last thing I remember is...the observatory...)


Daphne sucked in her breath, marveling at the beauty of the Mako-filled cave. She gave a sudden start when she saw a blond man, kneeling and holding his head. Of course, the spikey hairdo gave him away- "Cloud!" she exclaimed, rushing over to him.

Derin had been following right behind her, and watched as she fawned over her discovery. Cid brought up the rear and watched the exchange, with a slight disinterest in his eye.

"You are really Aeris?" Cloud murmured.

"Yes," she replied hesitantly.

"Then here, see the real me," he continued bitterly, "I can be a puppet even without Sephiroth or Jenova. Even when I don't want to pretend to be someone else."

"She had a manipulate materia..."

"Don't use that excuse, I was weak."

"Of course you were." She looked at him. "That's not always something to be ashamed of. You'll know better next time."

"If there is a next time for me."

"There will be." Taking his hand, Daphne smiled at him. "Where there's life...there's hope. Always."

Standing silent, Derin felt a bit of pain come over him. She sounded like she always had, just then. (It couldn't possibly be that...she's only different to me? When she told me she loved me...has she changed her mind now she's seen him again?)


He snatched his hand away from her. Ignoring her hurt eyes, Cloud took a deep breath. "I can only assume now that this girl is the enemy Red XIII had clues about. And I've screwed this whole damn thing up! Our enemy is probably calling back vicious disgusting things from the Lifestream, and it's all my fault!"

"Cloud! Don't say-"

"Don't say what? Don't say what? The truth, Aeris? That I failed my own convictions, and didn't do it for companionship, didn't do it to make Tifa happy, but did it because I was jealous?" He shook his head. "If I had cared about you, truly, then why wouldn't I have been ecstatic that you were happy with Zack?"

"Zack? But he was...well only then...and..."

"What?" A glance to Derin's shocked face was enough to back Cloud's hunch up. "You tell me that you have had no feelings for Zack since you were sixteen years old?"

Eyes filled with tears, and a soul tried to recall memories to help guide her, but there seemed to be shadows surrounding her. All Daphne knew at that moment was that she wanted something...could it be Cloud?

Fierce brown eyes watched the conversation intently. Blue mako eyes fixed on violet ones. A certain decision rested in them.

"No." The voice was firm. "Not since then."

He staggered back a bit. In all the time he had known Aeris, as a Cetra, a soul, or a human, never had she lied. There is a first time for everything. A pain that Derin had never known seemed to seep into every crevice of his heart, and it kept coming, flowing as endlessly as the Lifestream itself. It was a hard blow to take, for the avatar representing a young lady-killer who had been taught love through flowers and green eyes. (We knew the truth in the Promised Land...and if I still know it... How can it hurt this much?)

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