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Part 5- Cloak and Dagger


Chapter 17


Yuffie looked at her new shiny HP-Plus materia and sighed happily. (It's just so pinky-purple and pretty.) Spying Reeve sitting under a nearby tree, she trotted over to him. "Hi," she said nervously. (He's so cute...)

"Hi Yuffie," he replied politely.

"Where's the furball?"

He smiled at her reference to Red XIII. "Ah, he's over a little ways giving the villagers the third degree. You know, such is the way of the Red."

"Oh yeah." She nodded adamantly. "So...can I ask you a question?"

Reeve looked at her warily. "I suppose."

"Well..." She fidgeted a little. "...I was kinda wondering how you ended up at the convention. We didn't have time to call you."

"I heard about it through some members of the company. As president, I was rather interested in making sure that all the bad press was going towards the former executives of Shinra and not those of us involved with the new incarnation of it."

"Okay." A slight frowned crossed her face.

"What is it, Yuffie?"

"How'd you save Tifa?"

His eyes widened a bit and he blushed a little. "I never really got to meet with you guys in person, so I saw her...and I just knew I had to go talk to her. But I saw her leaving out the door, so I went out another exit to try to run around the side of the building and catch her."

"So you're into her." A little bit of jealousy crept into the ninja's voice.

"Only so much as I'd be interested in any of Avalanche. It was kind of weird for me...being there while not there at all. I still feel like an outsider, even though Red seems to like me."

"That's really weird, Red doesn't like anybody." She paused. "Naw, actually he just doesn't like me. No one did really, except for Aeris."

"Aww." (Poor kid.) "I always kinda liked you."

"Really?" Yuffie's eyes lit up and her face brightened.

The effect on her appearance was amazing, for Reeve could see that she was actually quite pretty. (It's too bad that she pouts and whines all the time, or the men in the convention would have had one more eligible woman to add to their debate of "best chick in Avalanche.") "You're spunky. I could've done without the materia snatching, though."

"I can't help that. My father trained me to be a thief. Even though materia is rare in Wutai, he gave me a lot of it. Of course, he gave me my first Steal materia, and I mastered it before I was twelve," she said proudly. "It's just too bad they aren't worth much."

"They aren't?"

"Of course not!" Yuffie giggled. "Don't you know anything about materia?"

"Not really. All I have with me now is a Sense, my level two Fire, a Cure, and an All."

She glanced down at the shiny orb in her hands. "Only four materia..." she murmured in a tiny voice. "" (He could really use this one I just bought to his advantage. Should I recommend the materia shop to him? Nah...they're pretty expensive. I just bought this 'cause I felt sorry for the shopkeeper. Maybe I should sell it to him for the best price going...)

Reeve had just smiled at her surprise and gazed into the Mako pool. Even after working all his years in Shinra, this was the first time he had ever seen so much of the stuff in person. (It's beautiful, yet can be so deadly. Especially if Kayley has gotten into it.)

Yuffie looked up, her decision made. "Would you like this?" she asked softly.

He looked down at her hand, his eyes widening in amazement. "A materia, Yuffie? Are you feeling okay?"


"I don't really need it anyway, and you could probably use some strength-boosting, Mr. Corporate Executive!" She tossed it down. "Gawd, why does everyone think that I'm selfish, anyway?" She turned to storm off, but her dramatic exit was interrupted by a loud roar and a large shadow passing overhead.

"What was that?"

Her eyes widened. "It can't be."

Another roar reverberated through the air, and Red XIII came running up to the pair under the tree. "The Crater party obviously didn't make it in time."

"What is that thing flying around?!" demanded Reeve.

Yuffie whimpered as another roar resounded. "The dang thing didn't even give me a decent weapon when I stole from it."

Red XIII winced as the shadow circled above once more. "We have to do something about it. We can't leave this town to be completely obliterated."

"But everyone's materia is all spread out! The best summoner I have is Leviathan!"

Reeve put his hands on his hips. "What is that white monster?"

"You want that thing to kill all these people?"

"Reeve is inexperienced and we have sucky equipment!"


A huge white monster landed in front of them and growled menacingly.

"That's the Diamond Weapon!" yelled Reeve.

"Well duh." Yuffie grabbed the HP-Plus materia and shoved it his armlet. "I hope we can handle this."

Red XIII turned from this exchange in disgust and prepared to cast Haste on the entire group. (First I'm stuck with Yuffie, now we have to battle something we thought dead. Can this day get any better?)

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

"I don't really trust that Zack any farther than I can throw 'em," stated Barret.

"I'm sure you could throw him pretty far," replied Tifa, grinning at Vincent.

The conversation wasn't eliciting any sort of response from the taciturn man. He had withdrawn himself a bit from the pair; he needed to think. But as much as he tried to lose himself in thought, he couldn't help but notice the confused expression on Tifa's face whenever he failed to respond to things she said.

(I never was a talkative man. Have I been changing? I told myself before that I was talking more in order to help Tifa...discuss things, get her to see things in another light. Take away her pain. But what importance should her pain be to me? Cloud's longing for Aeris barely causes a twinge in me. Barret's regret for his hometown...Yuffie's frustration for losing our trust and still not helping her father... It all matters little in the scheme of things, and thus, means little to me.)

She continued to talk to Barret, but Vincent did not hear. He was lost in the timid glances her burgundy eyes were sending in his direction.

(Her pain seems to matter little in the grand why do I ache whenever a tear falls from those eyes?) He broke the glance and clenched a fist, restraining himself. (I enjoyed getting her to reveal things to me, seeing if my guesses were correct. The more I hear though, the more I want to stop any pain she has. What does that mean? It cannot be love...someone like me doesn't deserve the feeling to come twice.)


"...of course they'll be all right defeating Kayley! And then Cloud will come back and we'll see them all and have a party. Maybe storm that convention, if it's still being held."

"Cloud, huh?" asked the burly man. "After his carrying on with th' Aeris business, you still want his spikey ass?"

"Huh? What are you talking about?" Tifa stared at him.

"It's pretty obvious that you's hung up on 'em. Don't deny it."

She stepped away from him. "He's not interested in me. So that's as far as this discussion should go. Dammit anyway, where is Cid and the Airship?"

Startled out of his reverie, Vincent eyed her. "They're not done. They would have called otherwise."

Her eyes blazed at him. "I know that." Looking back and forth between the two men, she sighed in frustration. "You two are impossible!" With that, she stormed off towards Nibelheim.

"Teef, wait!" Barret made a move to go after her, but Vincent held him back with a hand.

"Cloud is a touchy subject with her. You shouldn't have brought it up."

"Sorry. I just thought it would be easier to ask her what she thinks about him than whatever the hell she thinks about you."

"Me?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah. You've been all rilin' her up or some shit like that, don't deny it. Makin' her pain worser for whatever reason. Guess you're some sadistic bastard that gets off on that?"

Vincent grabbed the larger man by the collar. "Don't you ever suggest that I would cause her pain." Pushing him away, he turned down the trail. "You stay here. I'm going to go make sure she doesn't go too far."

Barret shrugged. "If she runs off farther to get away from you, I wouldn't be surprised."

(Neither would I) he thought bitterly.


Fairly sure that she had put some distance between herself and the others, Tifa sat down on a large rock, wrapping her arms around herself. (Could everyone tell about the fiasco with Cloud?) She sniffled. (They must all know how weak I am...and are laughing behind my back. Vincent probably talked to me to add to his penances or something.) "Who would ever want to talk to me?" she murmured to herself.

A twig snapped, and she looked up...and up. Into the reddish eyes of Vincent. He stood there silently, appraising the situation.

"What do you want?"

"I apologize if I said something that was disagreeable to you."

"They all know, don't they?"

He studied her pleading eyes. "Know what?"

"I've obviously shown them all that I was chasing after Cloud when he didn't want me."

"I doubt it. Barret's a close friend though...maybe he even mentioned something to Cloud once and it was he who spilled the beans...but I don't think you should let anything he asks you upset you so."

"Well I don't care what Cloud does anymore, so you can tell them all that."

"Even Cloud?"

Tifa sighed. "I can tell him myself."

"You always were a little too nice for him anyway." The suspicion in her eyes made him immediately regret his sentence.

"Oh yeah? You think that? When you knew that I 'didn't really love him'? And now I'm too nice for Mr. Cloud. Well who would you suggest for me?"

(She's daring me to answer her.) He debated his options. (I don't think there's a way to escape a question like this without hurting her.) He felt the ache inside again. (Tell her the truth.) An inner voice seemed to be speaking to him. (What is the truth? I have no other to suggest for her. And if there is no other, that leaves-) His eyes widened in surprise as he came to a realization.

Turning away from him to escape the wind, Tifa hugged herself tighter as a chill passed through her body. (Is the chill from the cold...or from being so...alone in the world? That one night... Cloud told us to find what we were fighting for...and I had nothing, nothing. I spent one night close to him. I thought I was fighting for him after that. With him gone from my life, that leaves no other.) Goosebumps appeared on her bare skin while she tried to hold back tears. (I'm alone in the cold.)

(It doesn't matter. I cannot chose myself. I don't deserve her...not even to share a rock with her.)

A shiver. Tifa felt herself trembling. (I can't cry. Not even if I'm alone and lonely and my confidante is a man of stone...why doesn't he see how much I've trusted him...) She closed her eyes. (Not only that, I've been depending on him. Don't I need him?)


Vincent turned to her. He was going to tell her that he couldn't chose a match for her, that it was her own decision, and... (She's shaking and close to tears.) Nothing else registered in his mind. He whisked off his cape, enclosing her small frame within it. Perching next to her, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "It's getting rather cold out here."

She nodded and opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

"What?" he asked cautiously.

"I was thinking. Maybe I'm not supposed to find anyone...and if..." Her eyes were wide and pleading. "I need someone to be there for me...I need a friend, a real friend. Will you be there for me, Vincent? I know it's not something that a person should ask about, but-"

"Of course."

A small smile brushed her lips and she unconsciously cuddled closer under his arm.

He could smell her hair; it was intoxicating, but he knew what his lot was going to be. (I don't deserve her. I can keep her as happy as I'm able to, though. It's better this way.)

The wind whistled up through the mountain pass, gusting in short bursts, drifting snow and creating blinding swirls of white in the air. It was tumultuous and peaceful at the same time.

The odd winter tranquility was interrupted by the roar of a monster and the sound of cursing mixed with gunfire. Tifa and Vincent glanced at each other, then ran as fast as they could back up the mountain.



Chapter 18


It was green, that was all she could see.

Green liquid flowing...glowing...knowing... It has seen ages of time pass before its depths. It has been used, abused by the men at the surface. Mako can kill; Mako can heal.

There was a light ahead of her, and Kayley reached out for it.



Suddenly, everything changed. Seated on the lush grass of a beautiful garden, dressed in a tunic of green, Kayley gazed at the figure in front of her, startled and half-frightened.

"You were mistaken about the properties of the Lifestream."

Composing herself, she shrugged. "I guess I was."

"Bodies do not exist here, cells do not exist here..." Eldor stroked his beard. "Essences are here."

"I thought-"

"I know," he said, "and others still on the surface thought that, and guessed your plan. But Jenova, a body decays while a spirit does not. That is what returning to the Planet means. The body stays on the Planet, and the essence of the person returns."

She lifted her head proudly. "But I was put into the Lifestream and was so strong that my spirit did not break apart."

"Yes. That was because the council had decided that you should remain."

"A council?" The woman appeared puzzled.

"Do you know where we are?" asked Eldor, apparently changing the subject.

"Of course..." Kayley trailed off. "At least, I know that I'm in the Lifestream. I entered it on the Northern Continent."

"What you say is true, yet not true at the same time. We are standing at a gateway. I have come to speak with you, since that is the decision that was made. You are standing at the very threshold of the Promised Land."

Gazing around her, Kayley found it hard to argue in the taunting way she used to do. "It...exists...?"

"There was no talk of such things on your home world. I understand why you thought it impossible. But yes, it exists. The Promised Land is a resting place for all growing souls between lives."

"The Cetra once said that they could speak to those in the Promised Land," she offered with a tinge of disbelief.

"As well they could. The Cetra were actually a race of more learned souls, who kept us informed here about the state of the Planet. Unfortunately, you destroyed them."

"Yes, well, the friends of the last one destroyed me, or at least thought they did."


Eldor sat down beside the woman with Jenova's soul. "Oh, they destroyed you. That's why we had the trial."


"Yes. It should never be said that the way to the Promised Land is hard, because it's not. Life is a pathway for learning, and many, many mistakes can be made."

"We did not speak of it where I came from."

"And the souls on your world continue to de-evolve. There was a great split between the Elders in charge of your world and this one...and now...we do not know what has become of them. All we know is that no more spirits have returned from life on your Planet."

"So all my people are without souls?"

"I do not know for sure. The decision was made by the council. You were to be given one incarnation as a human and that would be the basis for the state of your soul and of your entire world."

"But I broke free from the bounds of the Lifestream. I wasn't given a gift."

"No." Eldor looked at her. "We gave you this life. The old way is done."

"My body can regenerate though..."

"If Jenova ever regenerates again on this Planet, it will be like a comatose being. You shall not be able to enter it, and it will have no knowledge. The only thing processing within its mind will be involuntary body controls."

"What does that mean?"

"Jenova is dead. You can be Kayley. What you do with that is up to you." He helped her stand up. "You were given your memories to know what your lesson is to be. We knew you would need to come here and speak with us. When you return, your skill with materia will be gone and nothing will be any different from the way this body was before. Except you inhabit it."

"I didn't ask for this. I'd rather be dead!" Kayley fumed. "When you send me back, I will kill myself."

"So be it. Just remember that your soul was offered a chance for immortality...through compassion. And you refused it through your own folly."

Whirling on her heel, she began walking quickly away from him. "How do I get back?" she demanded.


Then she was back. The Lifestream, once inviting, now was suffocating and flowing in the opposite direction. Kayley coughed and choked as she accidentally breathed some Mako into her lungs. Struggling, she stroked upwards with her arms until she thought she would die from lack of oxygen.

After what seemed like an eternity, she broke through the surface and gasped for air. It took her a minute or two before she noticed. Cloud, Daphne, Derin, and Cid. All staring at her with contempt and fear.


For the first time ever, Jenova felt her body tremble.

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

(Please be all right Barret, please be all right...) Tifa chided herself for going off so far. (If we had been closer when we heard the battle start...) But all her worrying was in vain, for the most part. As she came over the top of the little rise in the trail, she saw Barret very much alive-but also very much in combat.

Vincent stepped into the fray, touching the Enemy Skill in his Death Penalty. The orb glowed with a steady light as he cast Enemy Guard. Energy surrounded the three of them, creating barriers against physical attacks and magical, plus giving them a boost so they were faster.

Feeling safe enough for a momentary pause, Barret turned to them. "'Bout time you two showed up! I think the peeps in the Crater failed, 'cause we've seen this monster before."

Tifa gasped as she recognized it. (The Materia Keeper? But how...?) "I thought we killed it!"

"Red XIII said that if Jenova found herself within the Lifestream, all of our previous enemies would return to life. I suppose this is the first of many tortuous battles. On the bright side, if we die today, it will be the last."

Her eyes were on him. (Don't say things like that.)

He turned away. (I can't help it. Even my normal way of talking upsets her...)


Barret jumped forward, spraying the creature with another barrage of bullets. The Materia Keeper took a swipe at the large man, but he was able to duck out of the way.

Vincent got a good shot at the monster's head, and the retaliation for his attack was a cast of Dispel upon Tifa. The energy barriers around her disappeared and she no longer had her rush of speed.

Gathering her energy, Tifa prepared to summon something big. She glanced at her armlet. (Choco/Mog. She lifted up her Premium Heart and looked in the slots. (Guess the best I can do is Odin.) The red orb glowed as she did the ritualistic motion. A haziness began to pervade the forms of the three allies and they faded away.

Storming down from the mountains, Odin charged upon his six-legged horse, tossing his Gunge Lance in the air. The huge heavy weapon delivered a shattering blow to the head of the Materia Keeper. Then the god picked up his lance and simply rode back into the distance.

The hit had been critical, and the monster was now enraged. Gathering what must have been close to all of its remaining energy, the Materia Keeper managed to whip up the strongest Trine spell that the group had ever seen.

Imagine a pyramid of lightning; they were all inside of it. The sheer force of the energy involved brought Vincent to his knees, but, for some reason or another, he was wearing his Tetra-Elemental pin. Any bolt that passed through his M-Barrier was drawn into the odd piece of metal, keeping him from harm. He got back to his feet and checked on the others.

Barret had stood his ground and was grinning as he held up his Bolt Armlet, dispersing anything that came near him.

A little moan of pain came from Vincent's other side. He turned and saw Tifa struggling to sit up from her position, lying on the ground. Even the last sparks were dancing around her body, flitting in her hair. There were burns on her bare skin. (How...?) Then he saw the problem. (Aurora Armlet, good for ice; Ribbon, prevents status change; and Fire-Elemental in her weapon; she was prepared for the Nibel Mountains but not such a deadly burst of electricity.) He also remembered the Dispel.

"Cure3," he said, feeling the energy soar through the materia. His blood ran cold as the monster's Ice3 spell struck him, but he did not take his eyes off of Tifa as she finally stood.

She suddenly felt herself being drawn to the ground again. The heaviness was unbearable. Feeling like she had gained a million pounds, she slumped in the snow. The Materia Keeper had cast a Demi spell on her.

Vincent looked at her in alarm. (Her breathing's becoming irregular...) He watched as a shiver passed through her. (...and the weather's getting to her...we've got to kill this thing and get to an inn.)

"You a holy terror," yelled Barret, shaking his gun arm at the creature, "so take this, ya piece a' shit!" He held up his arm to the sky and summoned Alexander.

For some particular reason, this summoner struck a chord with the Materia Keeper; the monster reeled on its heels and ran away as fast as it could. The last thing the party saw was Alexander running after it. A few minutes later came a death cry as the three of them returned back to the battle site.

Tifa fell to the ground, completely unconscious.

Barret went wide-eyed and immediately brought the soothing power of Life to her aid. Vincent quickly followed with White Wind from his Enemy Skill.

She didn't wake up. Falling to his knees, Vincent reached down, touching her. He checked her pulse, then felt her forehead, her cheek, her hand. "She's alive," he said, hiding his relief.

"Then what the hell is wrong?" demanded Barret.

"She's very cold." He glanced at her clothing. "Probably should have worn warmer clothing. She might be in shock despite all of our curative spells." Wrapping her up in his cape, he gently took her in his arms. "We have to get her inside...and quickly."

"Damn Nibelheim is closest place," muttered Barret.


He nodded silently, and began walking quickly down the mountain. Barret could barely keep up, but that wasn't a problem. Vincent did not think that this would be a good time to have to explain all the worry in his eyes. Or how tightly he was clutching Tifa's lifeless form.

(...if we die today...)



Chapter 19


She screamed.

Red XIII threw an X-Potion to Reeve, who managed to get the liquid down the quivering girl's throat.

Dizzily, Yuffie sat up and glared at the Diamond Weapon. "What did we do to piss off the Planet this time?"

Reeve dodged a swipe from the monstrosity and put his effort into calling up a Fire2. "We've stopped the Mako extracting!" he shouted at the Weapon, as if that was an important reason for its attack.

After the flames around the monster began to die down, Red XIII spewed forth his reserved energy. Calling upon Bahumet Zero, the figures of the three began to fade and blur while a serpentine creature flew to their aid. From a position galaxies away, Bahumet called upon the ancient powers of the universe; magic prior to the dawn of time.

As the beam shot towards the ground, towards the Diamond Weapon, Red XIII took the opportunity to shout his theory to the others. "I think the Planet didn't make this one! The Planet makes all sorts of different Weapons, all unique! This one was just regurgitated from the Lifestream!"

The Weapon fell over from the attack and was struggling to return to the upright position.

"I always wondered what it would do if that happened," said Yuffie. "Well, he deserves what he got. That thing pisses me off!"

An exasperated Red XIII rolled his eyes. "Then do something useful, like a Limit Break."

"I was going to, before you interrupted!"

By this time, the Weapon had gotten back to its feet and was preparing to send a beam of energy towards the bickering pair.

"Umm, guys?" said Reeve.

Turning to him, they glared. "What?!" they demanded at once.

He pointed to the Weapon.

"Eeek!" screamed Yuffie. Then she tore at the creature, unleashing the multiple blows of Doom of the Living.

"Red, isn't her master limit something else?"

"Yes," said Red XIII, "but even Yuffie realizes that multiple blows against an enemy are better than one semi-strong one."

"Ohhhhh," replied Reeve.

The Diamond Weapon shrieked in pain as the ninja delivered her last slice upwards. Red XIII and Reeve continued to assault the thing with their respective weapons.

Soon, the monster took a final shuddering breath, afterwards moving no more.


"Yay!" cheered Yuffie, hopping up and down.

"I just wonder why the Diamond Weapon picked here to attack," mused Red XIII.

Reeve shrugged. "Maybe because we're right next to a place where Lifestream is near the surface."

"That's gotta be it," said Yuffie.

"Probably." The lion nodded. "I don't know about anyone else, but I need a nice bath and a long rest."

The other two nodded their agreement vehemently. The group left the carcass of the Weapon in search of a place where three beds could be borrowed for a short time.

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

Timidly stepping out of the pool, Kayley brushed off the beads of Mako that formed on her arms. She noticed her pistol on the floor of the cavern; next to it lay a shattered Manipulate materia orb.

A pang hit her as she realized that she had been controlling Cloud with that orb. (That's because it was his job. He's a puppet!) The thought was as fierce as ever, but something in its tone echoed hollow. She knew the truth. (No matter. We are equal now.)

"Get ready to have your ass beat, you damn dirty bitch!" shouted Cid, attempting to rally the others around him.

They remained still though, surprised by the manner in which Kayley was moving around. She had a dramatic change in body language.

Cloud watched her angrily. (We have to be on our best guard for the evil falsity that is Jenova.)

"I suppose that is what I deserve," the woman replied humbly, kicking away her weapon. "Kill me."

Daphne turned to Derin in confusion. The look in her eyes was plain. (Is this part of the grand plan?)

A shudder went through Kayley's body. "Please," she said softly. (I doubt I have the will to do it myself any more.)

"Then let's have it done with," replied Cid triumphantly, preparing himself for a showdown. Daphne and Cloud did likewise.

"No." Derin's voice was firm.

"No?!" Daphne exclaimed.

Cloud's eyes widened. "So you're saying not to kill Jenova?"

"Kill me," Kayley begged as a tear fell from her eye to the ground. She stared at the drop in startled amazement. "I can cry?" she whispered.

He watched her with a discriminating eye, and then repeated himself. "No," Derin said once more.

"Why the fuck not?" demanded Cid.

"Something is off. If she had become one with herself, she would have become Jenova-Resurrection or some form of the sort. She's still Kayley and she wants to die." He sighed. "I suppose the Masters told me that the mission was such so we would chase her to the Lifestream."

"They told me I'm a human now," she spat out, disgusted. "You might as well kill me anyway, get your revenge while I stop my suffering."

Cloud looked at her. "But we're not supposed to do that, are we?"

Derin shook his head. "I doubt it."

Suddenly a loud shriek came from behind the group. Standing behind them was a gigantic form of what appeared to be Jenova.

"You tricked us!" cried Daphne. "You...bitch!" she shouted at Kayley.

The red-haired girl just shook her head in refusal and disbelief. Seeing what her form looked like through human eyes, she began to sob. First of all, she was weeping for what her life had been like and that she could never return.

The worst thing of all, though, was that through human eyes Jenova looked hideous. And the soul inside Kayley had never been more terrified in her life.

She watched as Cid impaled his spear in the monster's body. (What on the Planet can this mean?) she thought miserably.

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

(I'm still so cold. Why is it taking so long for Life to work completely?)

Tifa slowly became aware that she was covered by some sort of mantle or blanket. It felt like a hand was stroking her cheek-softly, so as not to wake her. She tried to summon the strength to open her eyes and sit up, but her eyelids felt like heavy weights.

She barely stirred and her lids fluttered, and Vincent took that as a cue. (She's waking up. Finally.) It had been a couple hours since they had gotten the rooms at the Nibelheim Inn. He had convinced Barret to rest off his battle wounds, but Vincent had been in one place, and one place only. Tifa's bedside.

Eyes finally open, she looked at her surroundings in confusion. A choked whisper came from her lips. "Where?"

Swallowing his relief and the flood of emotions he didn't understand, Vincent answered. "The inn. You're in Nibelheim."


"The physician said it was a combination of physical shock and hypothermia."

"Oh." She looked up at him.

"He told me to advise you to wear pants and a shirt that covers you up the next time you venture up into the mountains."

She shook her head a little. "I grew up here, I know what I can handl-"

"You nearly died. Perhaps you need to reinvestigate what you can handle."

"Vincent? I'm sorry...but what did I do to you? Why should you be mad at me? So the weather got a little chillier than I expected..." She sat up timidly. "No biggie."

He still did not look her. "Maybe you misheard what I said. You nearly died."

"Everything turned out fine though. I'm okay." Tifa tried to summon up a small smile.

(Thank the Planet for that.) But he said nothing.

"Vincent?" She shivered beneath the bedspread.

"Are you cold?"

"Only a little."

He met her eyes. "I can ask them to light you a fire."

"Nah, I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?" There was a concern lying deep within his red eyes. "Because the most important thing is for you to get better."

Tifa nodded slowly, her eyes still locked on his.

Never letting his gaze falter, Vincent leaned down and pulled the loose ends of the bedspread around her body. "Does that help?" he asked earnestly.

He had been careful to keep the cool metal of his claw far from her. This effort, along with moving the blanket, had left him with his one good arm nearly encircling her waist.

They had never broken eye contact. Their lips were only mere centimeters apart. She whispered. "Yes."


Instinct took over a mind ravaged with worry. Penance was forgotten for a moment.

The kiss was tender, and she instantly responded to it, wrapping her arms around him. Lips soon parted and his arm pulled her closer, crushing her against him.

"Vincent," breathed Tifa.

The soft sound intervened with his mind and he pulled himself away.

Confusion filled burgundy eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said, voice filled with remorse.

(Why is he sorry? Sorry for touching me? I-I...) Tifa's expression became full of pain.

(I cannot do anything right. Why did I ever release myself from my prison deep within the crypt of the mansion?) His eyes closed and he turned from her, walking towards the door.

She wanted to call out; she swore to herself she did. As she silently watched him exit the room and close the door behind him.

"Don't be sorry, Vincent," said Tifa, to no one in particular.



Chapter 20


The cloud of Bio3 sent over the group was suffocating, and they fell to their knees, coughing.

Derin coughed and used the White Wind enemy skill. The healing breezes restored their energy and health at once.

Jumping forward with his sword, Cloud viciously slashed the slimy being in front of him. Screeching and flailing, the form of Jenova unleashed a useless attack of "????" upon Daphne.

The girl smirked and touched one of her green materia. A sudden burst of energy penetrated the air, and a huge fireball enveloped Jenova. The casting had been so strong, that Daphne was knocked off her feet. "Geez, Derin, never told me your materia was that good," she shouted over the din.

Shaking his head, Cid turned back to the enemy and watched as the form took a final shuddering breath, then crumpled to the floor. "Well, shit, that was easy."

Derin cautiously approached the carcass. "This doesn't look like a very strong monster."

Puzzled, Cloud joined him. "Oh man. We've seen this form of Jenova before. It's just Jenova-Birth."


The group whirled around as they heard someone stand up behind them. Kayley glanced at them with frightened eyes. "I don't understand," she said softly, "I thought that things would come back to life after I made it into the Lifestream."

"Well you should be proud then," spat Daphne sarcastically, "you were right. You unleashed a bunch of terrors back onto this Planet. Terrors that we had already eliminated."

She stared back in surprise. "But that's the thing. the Lifestream...said that I didn't break free. He said that a council had decided that I should live a human life, and that coming here, to the crater, was what I needed to do to know my purpose."

Cloud glanced among his companions, to see if anyone was buying her crap. (Why does Derin look like he understands this oh so well?) "What is it, Derin?"

Ignoring his old spike-headed companion, he looked to Kayley. "What else did this person say to you?"

Tossing back her red locks, she held her head high. "That the Elders in charge of my home world were asses, and this life they gave me will determine the fate of everyone back on my planet." A bitter laugh escaped from her lips. "No pressure."

"What reason do we have to believe you?" demanded Daphne.

"Does it matter?! I already told you to kill me, you stupid bitch!"

The two girls glared at each other while Cloud and Derin watched this exchange nervously.

"Well does anyone have a fucking suggestion for what to do now?" muttered Cid.

The others turned to him expectantly.

"From my view, I see that we had a mission to save Cloud and make sure things weren't gonna come out of the Lifestream. Well we got Cloud, but those damn monsters are coming back, while Miss "I'm a Reincarnated E.T." claims that it isn't her fault and she was supposed to do what she did!"

"There isn't anything left here for us to do," said Derin, "so I suggest that we call the others, meet back up in Junon, and try to figure things out."

"What about the alien?" sneered Cid.

Seeing the fear in Kayley's eyes and pitying her situation, he looked thoughtful. "She's just one person. I suggest that as long as we keep her heavily guarded, the best place for her to be is with us. Having her will only help find the solution to this new problem."

A soft snicker came from Daphne's direction. "Whatever you say, Zack," she whispered to herself.

Cloud led the group out of the cavern. Next came Cid, who managed to keep his spear aimed directly at Kayley while carrying on a PHS conversation with Red XIII. Daphne lightly trotted behind them.

And Derin brought up the rear of the group, wondering if he had been the only one who heard Daphne mocking him.

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

Tifa slowly approached Vincent's door and cautiously, she knocked.

"Come in," replied a somber voice.

She kept her eyes directed on the lovely floorboards of the Nibelheim Inn bedroom. "I thought I heard the PHS ring."

"Yes." Vincent stood up and walked to the window. "Cid's group didn't stop Kayley. However, she appears to be of little threat at this moment. Cloud is fine."

"What are we supposed to do?" said Tifa, allowing herself to look up.

"Barret and I decided, and Cid agreed. We'll stay here tonight and the Airship will pick us up in the morning."

"Thanks for asking me," she muttered sarcastically.

"I thought you were asleep. You're supposed to be resting."

"According to you, I am. But I'm a grown woman, you know, I can take care of myself."

Vincent shrugged. "Fine then. How will you get along if you happen to pass out the next time in a situation where there's no one around to carry you to safety?"

Her eyes widened in anger. "What are you trying to do, Vincent?"

"Get you angry with me," he replied matter-of-factly. "You should have been mad for what I did to you in your room, but you're not, so I'm trying to give you a reason."

"Like I need any more reasons than those you already give to me? You butt into my life, my issues, and then act like I'm not supposed to care. You take it upon yourself to assume that you know my needs, my dreams, and my desires. Is there anything else you can do to me to make me more angry?"

"I'm not the first one to try and help you. Yet, you've brushed those people aside."

"Oh, so since I haven't managed to do that with you, you think it's all right to be this way?"

"I just don't see why this would bother you any more than with another person." He grabbed her shoulder, forcing her to face him.

"It bothers me because you've been absolutely right."

He blinked back surprise.

Tifa glanced down. "You've been absolutely right...up until the point where you left me in my room."


"Isn't in funny, how the thing I ought to object to most, according to something I wanted?" She brushed his hand from her shoulder. "I'll get out of your way now. It's time we dealt with what you want."


She paused at the doorway. "What?"

(Don't go!) his mind shouted.

"That's what I-"

His mouth formed words on its own. "My wants don't deserve to be fulfilled. I don't deserve to be happy. But if I did...I wouldn't be letting you walk out that door."

"But you are letting me," she said softly. Her eyes met his.

Vincent turned away, not chancing a glance in her direction until he heard the slam of the door behind her. (Things will be better this way.)

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

Cloud's group strode cheerfully into Icicle Inn. "Two rooms, please," he said.

Daphne started. "Only two?"

"One for sleeping, one for guarding Kayley," said Cid, "simple math, girl."

"Oh geez, thanks a lot," she muttered sarcastically.

"I want my own room," demanded Kayley.

"We're not leaving you alone," declared Cloud, pocketing his change.

"Oh, kinda like last night then," she said, smirking.

Daphne's eyes widened as she saw tinges of red come to his face. "What is she saying, Cloud?"

"It's nothing." He cleared his throat. "Let's drop off our junk and see about getting something to eat."


Trudging up the stairs, Kayley poked Daphne in the back. "Want to know about your man?" she whispered.

"Yes. I mean, well, he's not my man..." (Yet.)

The red-head flashed her brightest grin. "He was wonderful. Like a stallion. Lasted so long..."

"You slut," Daphne sneered as she turned to face her adversary.

"Believe me, I wouldn't take just anyone. Unlike spike-head over there. Maybe you'll need to invest in a tight leash once he is your man."

The others turned to face the pair, hearing some heated words, just in time to see Kayley get cracked across the face.

"You better learn to keep your mouth shut," Daphne said in a low voice, "because even if Derin has a soft righteous heart, there are several of us that would love to see you dead."

"It's nice to see your true colors come out now that you aren't hiding behind your disguise of savior of the Planet, Cetra," she replied, loud enough for the rest to hear.

Cloud grabbed her roughly by the arm, dragging her with him. He handed his bag to Daphne. "Drop this off for me. I guess I'll take first watch, since Kayley appears to be a little less harmless than some of us would think."

Daphne took the bag and walked quickly to the other hotel room.

Cid looked at Derin. "You knew Aeris a long time?"

He nodded.

"Well...maybe you can help me out a little. I didn't know the damn girl for that long, and she seemed nice enough. But to be blunt...she seems a little more...bitchy now. Maybe I should wait and see if it's PMS or something..."

"Cid." He took a deep breath and continued. "Yes, she's been acting a little different than she had in the time that I've known her. I think it may be partially because of the pressure of resuming her old life. We...came back here from a peaceful plane."

"You're taking it pretty well."

"I can still clearly remember that place. I was sent as a guide. Aeris came for her life back, so her memory has faded. In her fuzzy recollections, all she can tell is that this place isn't as happy as others she has been. Hopefully, she will become more tolerable."

He gave Derin a funny glance. "Mind if I ask something personal?"

"I guess not."

"You and Aeris? And then Cloud is butting in your way?"

"In some ways. Yes, I do love her," he said softly. "But in part, she came back for him. I have to accept that, it's a fact. Doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt."

"You're stronger than I thought, kid. Don't know what I'd do if Sh-if I was in a similar situation."

Derin worked up a little grin. "Oh I'm sure you'd be just as strong. Maybe curse a little more."

"Can't help that I like my words to be full of fucking color."

"Nope." (And I can't help but be startled... Aeris sounds so harsh to my ears. Was she always like this, and is it because my mind is clear now, that they sting so? Or has she become rough around the edges, lost, and striking out in fear...)

Sorry to leave you hanging, but you'll have to wait for Ms. Quinticia to finish the rest of the story :P. Go back then, I guess.

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