Good Intentions Part 3
by Sanche Llewellyn
Part II - Good Intentions
John felt a swelling of awe and sorrow as he gazed down upon the abandoned city below him. The aquatic architecture was beautiful in its alien complexity-- giant conch shell houses and red coral structures interspersed with newer--though still old--store facades. Even the roads were fascinating segmented plates, as if someone had skinned a giant sea worm and laid out its covering. John crouched and felt the hard surface. Smooth. Much too old to hold any impressions of the builders. He stood up. Scanned the horizon. The wind picked up, sighing through the huge broken shells. It sounded like the crying of lost children.
Had it not been for his melancholy, John would have been startled. Instead, he simply turned and nodded at Aeris' approach.
"You feel it too?" she asked.
John said nothing. Just let the tears run down his face.
"I have to do it."
"I don't want--" he shuddered, "I don't want you to die."
Aeris smiled sadly. "I don't want to leave this beautiful Planet either. And in a way I will always be here."
John swept his hand across the lost city. "Can you feel them?"
Aeris nodded. "The Planet's voice is strong here."
"I don't hear the Planet, but the city. It's crying. Crying out for its lost Cetra. The forgotten lives. The lost dreams."
This time Aeris stood silent.
"Tell me. If you could jump back in time and save them, would you?"
Aeris turned away. John knew the answer. He also felt her resolve tighten. He might as well persuade a train to hop off its tracks and shinny up the nearest tree. The muted sunlight, filtering through the high clouds, caught the clear crystal in her hair ribbon, making it seem to chime with an inner light.
He stepped toward her, slipping his hand through her elbow. "You do what you have to do," he said softly. "I'm not saying I'll like it, but . . . "
She turned back to him. "You won't try to stop me?"
John shook his head. He looked away, then forced himself to look back.
Aeris smiled through moist eyes. "The answer, by the way, is yes."
"Wow. I should have asked you to marry me."
"You're terrible." She punched his arm. "I mean, what you said. I would go back. Try to save them."
"Oh man. My time machine is in the shop."
Looking down at the city below, they both grew solemn. It would make a unique place for a honeymoon. Too bad it would be so short. Unless, unless . . .
"Come on," Aeris said. "Walk me down."
"You had the boy. Why didn't you keep him?"
"I had what I needed. Not what I wanted, but what I needed. I can always track down the specimen again."
"I need him." Nestor leaned over, eyes boring into Hojo's forehead. "Where is he?"
"Hold this, will you?"
Nestor was so surprised, he did what he was told. That greasy geek had shrugged off his mental attack as if it had never happened. And there he was flipping switches and twisting dials on his new toy.
Two dozen wires led to the specimen, now suspended in a glowing bath of green liquid. Hojo checked the connections, dipped a finger in the liquid and adjusted a dial.
"There. Hee-hee, warm enough. Now, I'll take that headset. Thank you. Now, to imprint the brain wave patterns of a scientific mind."
"I need to know where the boy is now!"
Hojo moved back to the main machine, sliding two red levers toward the top. "Follow Avalanche. He always seems to show up with them."
"And the Cetra girl was with them?"
"Last I saw. Hee-hee, ready to go. Will you stay and witness this shining moment of science?"
"You would be better off animating a blow-up doll filled with lime Jell-O. At least you could eat the mess when it explodes."
Hojo concentrated on his work, which meant his mind entered Hojo mode. Mutter, mutter. "Avalanche." Mutter, mutter. "Temple of the Ancients." Mutter, mutter. "Ifalna. Last known Ancient." Mutter, mutter. "Icicle Inn."
Nestor was about to leave, but decided to see how the experiment turned out after all. It would be humorous if Hojo blew his lower lip off.
"Here we go, hee-hee, a new day dawns in science!" Hojo twisted a dial. Grabbing the two raised levers, he thrust them toward the floor. The green liquid surrounding the dead woman glowed brightly, giving the room a radioactive look. Blue sparks crackled along the liquid's surface. Hojo jiggled with glee as he fine tuned his instrument board.
"Great minds, great minds," Hojo giggled. "Now for the crowning moment."
He plugged his headset into his console, flipping a switch that lit up a green display.
"Let the data transfer begin."
He twisted a dial and punched a button. Immediately he leapt back, clutching at his head and screaming. Circuits began to overload, shorting out with the sharp smell of burnt rubber. In the tank, the body arched, slopping green rivulets over the glass sides. Hojo flailed for the two red levers. His feet flew out and he crashed to the floor, pulling a spaghetti feast of wires with him. With one final snap, the room went dark. The only sound was the popping of acrid bubbles from the body tank.
"I must say, I'm impressed," Nestor said, stepping over to Hojo's fallen form. A bubble formed in the scientist's open mouth. "The problem with data transfer," Nestor continued, "is you must designate direction of flow. You know, garbage in, garbage out?"
Chuckling and shaking his head, Nestor walked from the room.
They had bunked in a restored shell house on the eastern side of the lost city. Strange finding a ready made, do-it-yourself bed and breakfast in a ruin like this, but soon they discovered the house had been a center of operations for a scientific expedition, led by professor Gast of Shinra, Inc. According to some notes, Gast was trying to decipher the Ancients' language, and was looking for clues to the city's abandonment.
Both had risen early. Both had tried to sneak out, and had met at the entrance. Both had smiled, caught--though in the brief contest of wills it was John who slunk back into the shell house for more sleep.
Except he couldn't sleep. That horrible scene kept replaying in his head. He wanted to race out and carry her away, far from this place, but for one thing, he had given his word, and for another, she could beat him to a pulp. He had noticed that new stick she carried. Princess Guard, she had called it. Ceremonial weapon of the Cetra high priests, and considering she was the last known Cetra, that made her the high priestess. In any case, the few monsters they had met on the path she had dispatched with all haste.
John sat near the house's entrance, head in his hands. What had seemed so noble, giving in to Aeris (as if he had a choice), now made his heart feel hollow. He figured he had a day or two left with her at most. The bloody scene was rushing toward him like a runaway train.
His eyes fell upon a large glowing stone on the floor. What a curious place to put a light. A bit powerful for a night light too. He sank to his knees to peer more closely. The stone seemed to hum silently with stored energy. It was neither warm nor cool to the touch, but it sent such a rush of static through his brain he knocked his head against the far wall. The blow helped clear his head, though.
"Ugh." So that was the way of it? Well, maybe Aeris could walk all over him and he'd smile and take it, but no way was this stupid rock going to give him lip.
He crept back, approaching the stone as he would a cobra. The stone did not strike him. Slowly he extended his hand, keeping his mind shielded, a hot pan holder on the brain. He felt his skin tingle as his hand settled onto the glowing rock. Like a hot air balloon settling in a meadow, he let his mind drift to the surface. Easy, easy. The energy pushed against his defenses: swirling colors, green, red, blue, silver. A flash of light--almost painful, but he held. Voices, thousands of voices talking at once, but muted. Nothing he hadn't experienced before when he'd run out of medication. Voices, so much information. If only his mind could work fast enough to unscramble the threads.
"John?" The voice was clear and loud. Almost friendly.
"Yes? Do I know you?"
"Aeris has told me about you."
Indeed. What to say to that? It did occur to John he was talking to a rock, not terribly unusual for him, but still, had he taken his meds today?
"Who are you?"
"I am Ifalna. Aeris' mother." An image of a slender woman with long brown hair, wearing a bright red dress with a blue ruffle around the middle, floated into his mind. He couldn't remember talking to a rock this attractive before.
"What has Aeris said about me?"
Ifalna drifted closer, becoming more focused, and three dimensional. John caught a whiff of rose scented perfume. She smiled.
"She says you are kind-hearted and impulsive, but you have good intentions."
Ah. Now for the mallet. It may be a mallet wrapped in red, rose-scented velvet, but he knew it was a mallet all the same.
"Unfortunately, my good intentions are usually only that."
"You are hard on yourself."
"Takes my mind off other things." The vision, unbidden, flashed once more. The wicked point of that sword. Aeris' body, sickeningly limp; her green eyes forever glazed. The white orb, jostled loose from her hair ribbon, bouncing across the stone floor with a cling, cling, cling, only to drop into the deep waters beyond.
"Why!" John said. "Why does it have to happen this way? Don't tell me this is the only way to save the Planet!"
Ifalna was silent, her expression sad. "I'm sorry. Aeris will summon Holy. It's the only way."
"The Cetra were born from the Planet, and are its protectors. It is said the Cetra will unlock the Planet, and then the Cetra will return to the Promised Land. Aeris is the last of our kind, so--"
"Don't give me that. What kind of Planet would devour its own protectors? Don't tell me Aeris has to die because of some silly fairy tale. She isn't the last of her kind because of any divine destiny. She's the last of her kind because your parents didn't have the sense to have twelve children. Oh God--" John let his mouth outrun his brain too late to stop the train of thought from hurtling over the cliff. "Ifalna, I'm so sorry. Oh God, oh God . . . "
John felt the vision fly toward him like an incoming asteroid. Instead of hiding or running, he dropped his defenses and let it slam him full force.
Flash. Four young children ran across a sunny meadow, chasing butterflies.
Flash. An attractive, middle-aged woman, wearing a gold, red and green smock, stood in a doorway, beaming, a new baby in her arms.
Flash. A young girl with green eyes wrestled with younger twins on the floor while a toddler, sucking on a wooden chocobo, clapped his hands.
Flash. A large outing in a park, perhaps a community picnic. Snowcapped mountains rose in the distance. The family was there, along with dozens of other people of all ages. One little girl, who now resembled Ifalna, wandered off to look for pretty rocks in a stream, becoming lost in the woods.
Flash. A dozen armed Shinra soldiers mingled at the edge of the park. Also with them was a handful of blue-suited Turks. (None whom John recognized, though.) A helicopter buzzed overhead; peering out was the face of a young President Shinra, already overweight.
Flash. The girl in the stream hid beneath a log because she was afraid of thunder. With all the screams she heared, she assumed the others were afraid of it too.
The young Ifalna was spared seeing the carnage, but John was not. He saw it all. Many of the villagers were gunned down in flight. They were the lucky ones.
Flash. Ifalna, clutching a crushed bouquet of wildflowers, lay crying on top of a freshly covered trench. Three others like it were gouged across the park. Icy rain poured down. The girl finally pressed her flowers into the palm of an exposed hand.
It took a minute for John to realize the screams he heard were not his.
He opened his eyes, and would have screamed after all if his throat hadn't hurt so much. Instead he gazed blankly up at Aeris, who had now stopped screaming and was gaping down at the blood-spattered floor.
"Erk," John said as his stomach again tried to turn itself inside out.
"What, what happened to you?"
His insides felt as if they were tearing apart. Something wet trickled down his cheek. Blood and vomit splotched his shirt.
"Let me help you up." She pulled him to her shoulder and moved him to a bench.
John leaned on a wooden pole, willing his stomach to settle. He vaguely followed Aeris' words.
"Just stay still. Only a minute more."
Aeris released her staff, which danced between them. She went to her knees, lowering her head until it nearly touched the floor. Bright lights sparkled around the two of them, coalescing into a flashy glow on each of them. John felt his pain drain away and his energy renew while he watched Aeris' staff return to her hands. A buzz below the surface reminded him of his newly stored power. His stained shirt looked so out of place he could only stare at it.
"Now. Mind telling me why I found you bleeding to death in the doorway?"
John coughed. "I was that bad?"
Aeris looked at him. "I'm listening."
"I'm afraid, I made yet another enemy. A stupid slip of the tongue on my part. I didn't get anything I didn't deserve."
"My mother told me you were in distress. What on the Planet happened?"
"Murphy's other law. Whatever stupid thing I can say, I'll say it." He started to stand, but his head swam.
"You're still weak from blood loss. You need bed rest. Come on. You'll feel better in the evening."
John did not argue as she led him to the sleeping chamber. He pulled off his shirt and climbed in, mentioning she might want to burn it. Otherwise Hojo might try to lick the Jenova cells off it.
"He will do no such thing. You just rest, and I'll take care of everything. I'll see you when you're feeling better."
Something in her tone suggested this might not be true. Indeed, as she had run off from her companions, she would think nothing of doing the same to him.
"Your, mother, told you about me?"
"Yes. She was concerned you were hurt. Don't worry. She didn't tell me you wear long johns. Ancient Cetra joke."
John chuckled. "I think I'll leave the planet chatting to the you."
He lay in the silence after Aeris left him, not brooding this time, just thinking. Aeris' movements in the lower chamber soothed him, almost lulling him off to sleep. A smile formed on his lips as he dozed, because a plan began to seep into his mind. Finally, in one of those rare moments in his life, he knew what he had to do.
City of Glass
Way late in the night, John found himself descending the glowing crystal stairway into the underground city. True to her word, Aeris had returned the previous evening, and had shown him the spectacular panorama of glowing buildings in the underground cave (almost as large as the surface city).
"There's the Ancient Lake, and the island while I'll be praying to summon Holy."
They had walked out to a gazebo surrounded by water, with a series of stone pillars sunken into the water serving as stepping stones. The walls of the gazebo were open to the air, but the structure had a clear, crystalline ceiling. Through a round opening in this ceiling a blue oval of light shone on the floor, the light emanating from the top of the cave high above. Looking up, John could not determine the exact source of the eerie yet comforting light.
"I don't suppose you could pray, say, over here?" John eyed the solid stone beam overhead. Three of the four curved stone supports for the crystal ceiling still stood strong despite all the years.
"No. I must expose the white materia to the light of the cave crystal." She pointed to the bright oval on the ground.
John sighed. "So when will you start?"
"I'll need a night's rest. The ritual is long and tiring. No help falling asleep midway through."
John nodded. He looked way up to the top of the glowing cavern. He had to blink to assure himself nothing was flying down at them. How the hell would Sephiroth get up there, anyway?
They left, returning to the shell inn, where John prepared them an exotic dinner from their provisions and some herbs Aeris gathered. They sat up and talked late into the night, Aeris telling John of her childhood growing up in the Midgar slums, and John relating his rough and tumble cross-country adventures since the fall of the plate.
"Where are you from?" Aeris asked.
"Long story. Short version, I was born in a lab."
"Someone experimented on you?"
"In a way. A power hungry, sadistic lunatic who looks like an older version of me tried to clone himself. He succeeded. Sort of. My body stopped growing after a certain point, maybe some glandular problem from the whole process. I don't mind, except no one takes me seriously. I finally met him, my creator, and we had, a, disagreement. He had a bad habit of torturing and killing people and leaving my fingerprints and DNA behind, which interfered with my social life. So we had a showdown. I had help from friends, but he was still a tough nut to crack. Pun intended."
"Is he dead?"
"He . . . won't be bothering anyone, if that's what you mean." John shuddered.
"Don't worry. You're nothing like him."
"That's what my sister said. Thanks."
"You have a sister?"
"I used to. She saved my life when I was, hmm, less than fully functional."
Finally Aeris began to flag. She laid her head on his shoulder. "I really need to get some sleep. Tomorrow. Big day tomorrow."
"Yea. Things to do today. Die. It all seems unreal."
Aeris sat up and looked at him. "I know I have to do this. But I'm still scared."
"So am I. My stomach is doing somersaults." He tried not to think beyond their warm shell building.
"Do me a favor?" she said.
So now John found himself creeping down the spiral stairway into the glowing Cetra city. The words to "Stairway to Heaven" ran through his mind, although Heaven was neither at the top nor the bottom of those stairs. He could see Aeris below, kneeling in the oval of light. He marveled at her willpower. She had been there for hours. He was tempted to bring her a platter of hot brownies to tide her over, but he knew better than to disrupt her ritual. Though maybe it could distract Sephiroth?
He reached the bottom, emerging from a keyhole shaped stone doorway onto a balcony overlooking the lake. Not all Cetra buildings glowed, he noticed. He had on his armlet, with three materia: the Restore orb Aeris had given him, the blue one Sephiroth had thrown at him and a new green one he had found upstairs. Comet, Aeris had told him. If his plan failed, he was determined to give Sephiroth a piece of the rock.
He wore around his waist a floatation device. It was yellow but thank God it had no rubber ducky on it. He also carried a gray cloak, the same color as the stone of the gazebo. Anything to cover his glow in the dark white skin, and that bright yellow rubber non-ducky.
John reached the lower platform by the lake. Instead of hopping across the stepping stone pillars, he lowered himself into the cool water. Keeping the cloak bundled above his head, he paddled his way toward the gazebo. The thing was perched on a huge stone pillar that looked as though it had been run through a lathe. It was narrow at water level, but bulged outward in a newel post design to hold the gazebo overhead. Climbing the slick overhanging rock was out of the question, which is why he had sneaked out after Aeris fell asleep and had tied a rope ladder to one of the rear railing pillars. He found his ladder where he had tied off the bottom at the waterline. Luckily, Aeris hadn't spotted it. Or if she had, she had ignored it. John tested its support, found it sturdy, then climbed far enough up to shove the bundled cloak under the gazebo's handrail.
He slipped back down and reviewed his plan in his mind. Had he thought it through? He had spent hours pacing the joint, looking at angles and shadows, trying to find a place hidden both from straight above and from the balcony behind him, as well as not being in Aeris' direct line of sight. He didn't want her ritual disrupted because a glowing nine-ball climbed out of the lake.
"You are in the waters of the Ancient Lake."
What? Who had spoken? Not Aeris, he knew. He looked around, seeing no one. He looked down. The image of Ifalna floated on the water's surface. Her image was sharp, though it had all the thickness of an oil slick. She smiled wanly.
John spoke in a low whisper. "I figured I needed a bath."
"The water is reputed to burn the flesh of the Ancient enemy."
"Well, when it comes down to it, water is just two hydrogen atoms stuck to an oxygen atom." Though it would wash away the mess if he started puking his guts again. "Do you hate me, Ifalna?"
"For being born without a brain. Or, in my case, not even being born. I am a cutting from the poison tree. I'm sorry. For what I said, and what I am."
"Yet you spoke the truth. It is not the will of the Planet that our people be wiped out. In fact, if you listen, you can hear the Planet crying."
"But, what I said--" John swallowed a lump. "About your parents."
"You spoke from the heart, and you spoke the obvious."
"You are trying to save my daughter."
"Despite the fact your plan won't work."
"You are a good person."
"In time you will realize what that means."
John said nothing.
"That's why I can't let you go through with your self-destructive plan."
John sighed. Here comes that velvet covered hammer again. He almost wished the water would burn him and get it over with.
"How do you think Aeris would feel?"
"You're planning to take the sword for her. How would she feel?"
"Better than having a sword through her back."
"You know her, John. How do you feel right now, knowing she will die?"
John knew he had lost this argument. He knew Aeris would blame herself. He was not the only guilt-ridden wallflower. And he might disrupt the Holy summon to boot.
"Your backup plan. Even worse."
John looked at the materia in his armlet and frowned.
"Comet materia linked with Magic Turbo. You will blow the whole gazebo to smithereens. Probably kill yourself and anyone else standing on it. Worse yet, Sephiroth will most likely get away."
John hung his head. "So what do I do? Just give up? Pretend Aeris won't be, won't be . . . "
"What was your original plan?"
"Rush out, grab Aeris and dive into the water. But that would disrupt Holy. I gave my word I wouldn't interfere."
"So you'd rather take a sword in your back? Think, John."
"I, I don't understand."
"The Comet materia. Move it to the other, unlinked slot. Next to the Restore."
"But what--" Then it hit him. She was helping him. He dug his fingers into the slot, trying to dig out the little green ball. His wet hand couldn't get a grip on the slippery thing. Around and around it spun. "Ugh!" He wrenched at it, finally popping it free, barely catching it before it dropped into the water. He slipped it into the other free slot, almost losing it again in his haste. He looked at the blue Magic Turbo in its own slot, useless without another materia to support. He turned back to Ifalna.
"What good is that supposed to do?"
"Hurry. Her friends are already on the stairs."
Right. Show time. With a rocket boost of adrenaline, he heaved himself up the rope ladder, flipped open the cape (nearly losing it, too), threw it around himself and stepped over the railing.
For a horrible moment he thought he would fall backwards with a splash, or worse yet, knock himself senseless on the stone. Instead, he steadied himself and huddled behind one of the three support pillars.
Aeris still knelt, eyes open. If she had noticed him she gave no sign. John could feel, something, energy, gathering around her and growing exponentially. Something beneath the ground seemed to stir, like the eyelids of long hibernating dragon. Like movement of lava, its progress would soon become unstoppable.
It was Cloud, standing somewhere to John's left. Aeris did not move.
Cloud came into view, walking as if on stilts. He seemed to be struggling with his limbs, sagging from side to side while his hands reached back and grasped the hilt of his sword.
John saw the blue glow around Cloud intensify with each lurch. The sword came out. He stood staring dumbly at it, directly in front of Aeris. His feet and shoulders shifted, moving the sword ever higher. The glow--and the energy underneath--intensified. Cloud raised the sword above his head, his body going on tiptoes for the strike.
John was about to hit the guy with a mental blast of his own when Cloud's teammates shouted in unison.
"What are you doing?"
Cloud jumped back. He dropped his arms and stared, apparently not trusting himself. "What, what were you trying to make me do?"
Aeris looked up at him and smiled.
Now, thought John. He still held his fury, now that he no longer needed to knock a mind-controlled Spike out of the way. What he needed now was speed. Speed! He threw off his cloak and channeled the energy.
Blue fire swirled around him and, unexpectedly, shot toward Aeris and Cloud, both of whose eyes widened in surprise. From Cloud, the blue streak arced to the platform beyond.
"What the hell?" the gruff voice of Cid yelled.
What indeed. No time to think. Sephiroth was already half way down his descent. John had experienced the world seeming to slow down before--but this time, it really did slow. Sephiroth, angel of death with sword extended, much too close. John raced forward, a blue streak dashing to beat gravity. Aeris jerked her head toward him, her mouth forming his name in surprise. John could see the actual tip of Sephiroth's sword poke through he hole in the ceiling as he reached out, closer, sure he was already a microsecond too late.
Then his fingertips touched Aeris, her arm, her hair. No time for a scalp massage! John lowered his head and desperately tried to put his momentum into moving her, knowing he was too late, the sword had to be piercing her back even now, but still he had to try. He body-checked Aeris' form--and the world flashed a brilliant white.
And suddenly John was moving again. Was Aeris with him? Hard to tell, but there was some resistance. Some drag. His vision was a sea of milk, yet he sensed the gazebo's stone railing near. He felt an arm grasp his waist as he lifted a foot to vault the railing. His foot landed; he pushed off with the other and he was up. And away. Yes, he definitely had someone with him. They vaulted forward as if off a cliff but merely splashed in the water beyond.
Nothing like cold water to clear your senses. John kicked and squirmed forward. He turned his head, saw a mess of fluttering pink beside him. That dress of hers--not practical for swimming. He hooked her under her arm and shot for the surface, his yellow inner tube thing giving him added lift--he would even welcome a ducky--and suddenly they were through, gulping breaths of air. So. He hadn't saved her from that sword only to have her drown in her heavy dress. He reached forward, and to his surprise, found something solid. A sunken stone pillar, its top just below the surface. And a couple more, above the water, hidden in the shade of a lakeside building. They heaved themselves up these and panted. They turned to stare at each other. Yes, it was Aeris, her green eyes, her heart shaped face, her plastered brown hair, her vibrant Cetra green aura.
"I did it," they said in unison.
John gazed up at the crystalline cathedral ceiling in a moment of pure bliss. He didn't want to look away for fear of having the moment shattered. He held tight to Aeris' hand and whispered his thanks to Ifalna.
"Hmm?" Aeris said. "Whom are you talking to?"
"A friend. An imaginary friend."
"I can't believe I summoned Holy. I can feel it, tingling through me. Hard to describe." She smiled.
John lifted his head to drain the water from his ears. He heard Cloud howling and the sounds of battle. On the gazebo, a tall, grotesque humanoid shape flailed back as Yuffie's shuriken caught it in the neck. It threw out a blast of blue bubbles with enough force to pop John's ears, even at this distance.
"Your limit technique is still affecting them," Aeris said. Indeed, John could see the sparkling blue lights snapping around their legs.
Yuffie, unaffected somehow by the attack, flung her shuriken again. It sliced deep with a satisfying snick.
"That thing is a Jenova?" John had noticed the telltale blue aura. "Like my long lost distant cousin?"
The Jenova thing fired a series of blue laser blasts. Yuffie shrugged them off, but a blond man with a pole arm cussed his own blue streak before vaulting in the air and driving his spear over and over into the monster.
"Take that you goddamn mutant freak!"
"Wow." John didn't want to visit the wrong end of that spear.
"That's Cid," Aeris said. "He smokes like a volcano, but he's kind hearted when you get to know him."
The monster imploded on itself, leaving what looked like--a leg? Cloud bellowed and hurled it end over end into the water, where it burst into flames amidst a steamy froth.
"Whoa. Your mother was right about this water."
"Sorry. I just--I don't like myself having any kinship with that, that thing."
"Well, they took care of it. Without our help. We'd better get over there before they start to worry."
"Wait. Something's wrong."
"You're right. Is Cloud . . . crying?"
John lifted his head and strained his eyes. The whole crew was on the gazebo now, crowded around something, something pink.
No! It couldn't be!
Aeris' hand clenched in his. John looked at her. Her face paled and her eyes filled with tears.
John squeezed her hand back.
Cait Sith walked from the group, cat head hanging low. Nanaki let out a mournful howl, which echoed like a ghostly wind in the chamber. Barret stood before Cloud, shaking his head, before he trudged off after Nanaki. John could feel the desolation roll off him like an oily flood. Enough to make John see the hothead in a new light.
Yuffie wept openly, tears glistening on her cheeks. She through herself into Cloud's arms, shaking with sobs.
"I didn't realize she felt so strongly about me," Aeris said softly.
John looked at the young ninja, who now stood shuddering and bawling in front of Cloud.
"She looks up to you. Respects you. Wants to be like you."
"Like me? But, oh, poor Tifa."
Tifa bent over the other Aeris, stroking her face and loosening her hair. Then she too walked off crying, catching a hug from Cid--who himself appeared to have aged ten years--before collapsing against Barret, who smoothed her hair with his one good hand.
"This is so surreal," John said, looking at Aeris, the one beside him. "I don't understand. How can--you are real, right? And if so, who is that?"
"I, I don't know. I feel real."
Cloud picked up the limp, pink form and followed his crew across the stepping stones to the stairway. No sounds, except Yuffie's pitiful wailing. She clung to Tifa on the way up. The group soon passed out of sight.
"Now what?" John said. His mind still resembled spaghetti.
"Should we, follow?"
"Since the other option is to lie here in the water until we form our own coral reef, let's go. Ow! Ow-ow-ow!"
"This materia. The blue materia." John slipped down and dunked his arm into the water. A brief sizzling came from his armlet. "It's smoking hot!"
Aeris peered down. "Magic Turbo? Where did you find that?"
"Nibelheim. Sephiroth threw it at me."
"John, it's not linked to anything."
"I know. That's why I'm confused."
"Support materia does not work unless it's linked."
"But I was told . . . " He looked up at her, at the ribbon on top of her head. Still there, but its clear orb was gone. "What happened to--hurry. Let's go."
He pulled Aeris into the water and motored them across to the gazebo, where they could see the signs of the recent battle. Puddles of Jenova goo lay about, though these fizzled and disappeared with a few splashes of lake water.
"Like hydrogen peroxide," John muttered. He turned to look where Aeris was staring. Several splotches of red, an irregular crimson pool marred the stone floor. John set himself.
"I'm so not going to enjoy this." He knelt in the bright oval where Aeris had been praying. He studied the jagged spray of blood, now mostly smudged or washed away.
Aeris walked up beside him.
"What are you doing?"
"I need to know. I'm going to try for a vision."
Aeris was silent, but nodded.
"Do me a favor," John said. "If I flip out, hit me over the head with your staff."
"I'll do no such thing. Because you will not flip out."
"Don't know me very well. I have a hard enough time with accidental visions. Now I'm doing a deliberate one."
"You only have those problems because you have a conscience."
"But I--" He couldn't speak because he choked up. He nodded.
"I'll be here. You'll be fine. Pain shared is pain halved."
Or doubled. Still, he appreciated her presence. He steeled himself to keep from breaking down like Yuffie. Not that it wouldn't do him some good.
"In that case, do me a different favor."
Unlike the brutal visions of Ifalna's family, or even the previous hits of Aeris' death, this vision was as soft as a spring breeze.
The clear globe bounced off the stone floor, turning in the air to reflect the cavern's unearthly light, bounced again, again, toward the sunken pillars, where it bounced once, twice, before dropping into the water where it sank, deep through a chasm in the rock to darkness beyond. Just before it winked out of sight, the globe glowed a bright green.
"So tell me about Holy," John said later as they climbed the last of the stairs.
"I only know what my mother told me. Holy is the counter to Ultimate Destruction magic. A Cetra can try to contact the Planet, and if the Planet answers, the materia will turn green.
"And then what? You have a pretty night light?"
"Silly. The Planet sends forth a burst of energy to deal with whatever is threatening it."
"Hmm. And this energy, what form does it take? What does it look like?"
"I guess it depends on the nature of the threat."
"Which in this case is?"
"Meteor. Sephiroth wants to damage the Planet enough to attract its healing energy into one place, then absorb it all for himself. To become a god."
"Typical megalomaniac stuff. Stupid, too. Punch the Planet too hard, and you're god over all you survey, which would be a ball of slowly expanding dust."
"Don't worry though. It worked. I feel it. And you said the materia glowed green."
"Yes . . . " John did not like the garden path his mind was walking. "Now for the bonus question. How long does Holy last? After you summon it?"
"I guess, until the Planet's threat is gone. I've never thought about it."
"What I was afraid of."
"Afraid? Why afraid? Holy will stop Meteor, and everything will go back to normal."
They reached the top of the stairs, entering another spiral shell building. A row of glowing discs, some of them burnt out, lined the curved walls.
"Come here, Aeris." John pointed to a hole in the wall that must have once been a window. "See anything normal out there?"
"Oh, how sad."
Avalanche stood along the shore of a clear lake. Cloud was trudging out of the water, arms and head hung low. In the center, disappearing from view, was a glimpse of pink.
"It hurts to see them like this. I should go out there and--"
"See the problem?"
"Yes, but I don't understand. Why can't I let them see me? Why does it feel so wrong?"
John sat against the curved wall and buried his head in his hands. Presently he began to laugh, though he did not feel the least bit amused.
"I'm afraid to ask," Aeris said, "but what's so funny?"
"Don't you see?" John bounced up so fast she flinched. "I've done it again!"
"Taken a horrible mess and cleverly found a way to make it worse." He sat back down.
"I don't understand."
John tapped his armlet. "Magic turbo, you say? This baby right here--ouch!" He sucked on his finger. "Is still hot. But more important, it can't work without being linked. You said so. So there you were, trying to save the Planet, only I didn't want Sephiroth to kill you. So I'd planned to knock you aside and--it doesn't matter. The point is--"
"And what?" Aeris' voice was firm.
"The point is, I had a backup plan. In case I missed you and brained myself on one of those stone pillars."
"Knock me aside and what?"
"Hey, it's ironic Sephiroth wants to summon Meteor. I was going to give him a taste of--"
"No. You answer me. Knock me aside and what?"
John swallowed, looked away, looked back. "Take the hit. Bite the farm. So you wouldn't, ah . . . "
"Give up your life for me? No! You shouldn't."
"You're one to talk. Besides, half of Avalanche hates me."
"No they don't."
"Sure. Barret, for one. And I don't know why. Vinnie nearly ripped my throat out back in Nibelheim. And Spike said he'd kill me if I ever got near you. They sound like the audiences I used to draw in Midgar."
"Tifa likes you. And Yuffie thinks you're cool. Didn't used to mean much but I see her in a new light. I don't know about Cait Sith. He came through for us, but threatening little Marlene was low."
"Marlene? Oh, the little girl I gave Fluffy to. Reeve would never hurt her."
"Remember? In the lab? The guy with the soup? He controls Cait Sith."
"How did you know?"
John blinked his eyes rapidly. "Secret Jenova powers."
Aeris punched his arm.
"Anyway, I'm off the subject. I had Magic Turbo linked with--hold on. I have an idea." He grabbed for his armlet, digging out one of the green orbs. "Here, take this."
"Yes. Hold it so I can't do something both embarrassing and stupid."
With that, he bolted down and out of the building.
"Wait. Where are you going?"
Outside, John plunged headlong into the lake. He forded out to the middle, where the bottom dipped to a deep hole. Aeris--the other Aeris, lay peacefully at the bottom. He fumbled with his materia. Would he ever get the hang of these things? He popped out the Cure and clicked it next to the Magic Turbo, which was still hot enough to scald his fingers, prompting a comment about materia from hell.
He took a breath and dived, only to bob a meter below the surface. He realized he still had his floatation ring on. Oh well; try again. Two deep breaths, down; grabbing the edge of the sink hole, he pulled himself deeper. He flailed about, finally catching the dead woman's ankle. He sloppily wedged his arms beneath her and, shoving off the bottom, rose to the surface.
"John, what are you--yikes, that's me!"
John stepped back to shallow water, adjusting his grip to keep the woman cradled. He caught a glimpse of the nasty gash in her abdomen. He felt sick.
Concentrating on his materia, he willed the spell to cast. After a moment a green glow began to sparkle around her. Nothing dramatic, though. Not that he expected much. He tried again. More green light. He felt for a pulse. None. Oh well, once more for luck.
"You can't raise a dead body with Cure," Aeris said. "Not even with Life, unless the person just died."
John punched the spell a fourth time before conceding defeat. He did note, with frustration, not only were the wounds gone but the body had a healthy color to it, as if she were about to wake up and scold him for tangling her hair in the grass. Still no pulse. John looked back at the live Aeris, shook his head and guided the body back into its wet grave.
"Good a place as any," he said.
"That's sweet of you, trying to revive me." It felt weird to hear her say that. "Are you sure I'd get along with myself?"
"Are you kidding? Maybe Vincent would fight himself, but never you."
"I felt the Cure spells too," Aeris said. "My energy is back."
"Sit down." John pointed to a log. He sat himself. "Let me tell you my theory."
"I had a backup plan. Blast Sephiroth with that Comet materia."
Aeris looked at the green globe in her hand and smiled. "You don't go for subtle, do you?"
"But there was a problem. I didn't want to nuke everyone on the pagoda. So . . . " He moved the Cure materia from its linked slot, leaving the Magic Turbo bare. "See? Then when I bumped into you, which sounds like plan A but is really a new plan C, my materia met your materia and, bingo."
"So, you're saying you powered up my Holy summon?"
"Better than that. Remember my talent for snatching crushing defeat from the jaws of simple defeat? By bringing my Magic Turbo materia, along with my wild ideas in contact with your simple Holy summon, I, ah, affected your result."
"What are you saying? That I did not summon Holy? Surely not." She stretched out her hands. "I can still feel it."
"You summoned Holy, right before you died." John smiled in spite of himself. "Holy took on a form most suited for messing with Sephiroth, at least in my mind, and I was the one who messed with your summon. You summoned Holy . . . and I'm looking right at her."
Field of Tears
"Question," Aeris said later as they climbed a tall shell ruin. "How did you think to put magic Turbo in an open linked slot?"
"This is embarrassing." John helped her over another deadfall. "Ifalna told me to."
"We had a nice chat. Underneath the gazebo, no less. She told me to abandon plans A and B. Do you think I'm crazy?"
"At least I have an advantage over Sephiroth. Unlike him, I know I'm crazy. Does this shell thing ever end?"
"A little farther."
"A six story building could fit inside this whelk. I'd hate to meet the starfish who ate it."
The giant whelk thing was north of the Ancient capital. The suburbs, John supposed. He was beginning to wonder if sneaking out at night had been smart. Aeris had still wanted to talk to the others, despite the implications, and now, John could not think of a single reason not to go back and join them.
"Here we are." Aeris pulled John up through a hole in the top of the shell.
"Wow. It must have been something, in its day."
"I think we'll have to walk around on the outside to reach that ledge. Watch your step."
Okay, there was one reason. They would have to scramble all the way back down, only to climb back up this endless shell with the others. He grasped Aeris' hand. It felt soft and warm. No sense letting her fall off the edge without taking him with her.
Before their departure, John had sneaked into their base camp for provisions. He had grabbed Aeris' staff, plus a few materia for her use. With her Princess Guard she beat back the few monsters who dared to approach. Aeris commented on how most monsters avoided them, and John assured her it was an "evil Jenova thing."
They were now walking down a narrow canyon that had become a cave. Finally it ended, with a long stone ladder climbing way up out of sight.
They both groaned.
"I'll say this for your people," John said, gazing up at the rungs. "They loved to climb. Shall we take a break?"
John whirled to see three grotesque creatures clattering up the tunnel at them. What had spawned these nightmares? John supposed they fit in with the aquatic theme: huge multicolored crabs with bizarre appendages, as if someone had mated giant crabs with Swiss army knives. The one in the lead had its left claw replaced with pliers, and the right fitted with a giant drill. To top it off, the drill was a neon green color.
Aeris touched a red materia. She disappeared; through the side wall galloped a giant chicken. It slammed the crabs in a flurry of white haze, snatched its dislodged jockey (Aeris called the cute white thing a mog) and disappeared through the far wall.
"Comical, but I could use something stronger," Aeris said.
John, holding a stout club, dodged the spinning drill and blocked the pliers of the lead crab, who then used the pliers to snap his club in half.
"Better it than me," he said, dodging to the side as a rear crab jabbed a long spiky thing at his face. "Isn't that one of the poky things you draw circles with?" He barely dodged the third crab's extended mallet. "This is why I never liked that show Tool Time!"
Aeris shimmered green as she cast another spell. Pliers and drill bit bounced off a force barrier, but the impact still flung John back against the rock wall.
"Dip this in butter and boil it!" John touched a lone green materia on his armlet. With a scream of a low flying jet, a golden ball of fire streaked down onto the crabs, smacking the ground like a sledgehammer. A cascade of loose boulders followed. John meant to throw himself over Aeris but she dodged too fast, leaving him gallantly defending a mossy boulder.
"Are you all right?" Aeris unfolded herself from the corner.
John sheepishly exposed his rock. "Yea. What a rush. No wonder Sephiroth wants to do his meteor thing." He looked at the pile of boulders behind them. "You're friends will hate me for this."
"They'll get through. They are resourceful."
Something shifted beneath the boulders. Small rocks slid off the pile, one bumping against his foot. He heard a low growl, then the sound of a power tool chipping away at stone.
"Aeris?" He looked up at the ancient ladder. "I feel like climbing. Look. There's a ladder right here."
"Me too. Climbing is good for upper body strength."
"The more rungs the better. A great workout."
Aeris began shinnying up the ladder. John followed, not looking at the rumbling and shaking beneath the rock fall.
Nothing bothered them on their climb, however. The rungs went on and on, up to a circle of daylight above. It looked like Nirvana to John. Finally, panting and drained, they emerged from a cave onto a great snow field.
Aeris lifted her hands to the sky.
"I just love the feel of falling snow. Don't you?"
"I love anything without ladders."
Nestor walked toward Rufus' desk in the newly refurbished office.
"Icicle Inn. That's where we need to go if we wish to stop Avalanche."
"I don't recall you being president of the this company," Rufus said. "In fact, I don't recall you being an employee."
"Kya-ha-ha," Scarlet said. "He might deliver Avalanche to us. Let's hear him out."
"I'll do better," Nestor said, leaning close. "I know what you really want. I can hand you Avalanche on a platter. And, you? You only need to transport me to Icicle Inn. But I must get there before Avalanche."
"I don't see the point," Rufus said. "We are preparing a mission to the North Crater to handle the Sephiroth problem. Why should I waste valuable resources taking you on a ski trip?"
"Fool!" Nestor suddenly realized to whom he was talking. "I mean, of course, sir president. But may I prevail upon you for another favor?"
Rufus leaned forward until their faces nearly touched. "Depends. Will it get you out of my office?"
Nestor wondered what type of chief executive wore a white suit with a pink carnation through the lapel. He glanced at Scarlet. Now there was the real power behind the throne. She oozed "slept my way to the top."
"Since your brilliant scientist is spending his days in Costa Del Sol playing catch-my-own-hand, perhaps you could tell me everything you know about a young gentleman named John Philip Sorea."
Scarlet snorted. "Two bit loser. Thinks he can sing."
"I like his music," Rufus said, "as long as I don't listen to the words."
"He sounded better after I broke that guitar over his head."
Rufus eased back into his seat. He turned to his computer. A frown began to form on his youthful face. He blanked the screen and reached for the phone.
"Heidegger? This is Rufus. Report to my office immediately." He looked back at Nestor. "Why are you interested in a failed pop singer?"
"Personal business. Very personal."
"Sorry. No record of him in the Shinra database."
"President?" Heidegger lumbered through the door. Nestor guessed he must have brushed his teeth that morning, for his breath failed to wilt the president's carnation.
"Please escort our visitor to the elevator. he was having difficult finding his way out of the building."
"Gya-ha-ha! Shinra architecture is confusing to the untrained, right?"
Nestor did not reply. He allowed this Cro-Magnon to guide him through the door and down the steps. In the lobby of the sixty-eighth floor, Nestor grabbed the man's elbow, reminding himself to wash his hands later.
"How do you like escorting visitors like a kindergarten teacher?"
"Gya-ha-ha." He treated Nestor to a breath weapon strong enough to peel paint. "I'm organizing the most important mission in the history of Shinra. I don't have time to worry about mutts like you."
"Important mission, huh? Aren't you afraid you'll screw it up? Maybe president Blondie will appoint that bimbo Scarlet to your job? Word is you not only let the leader of Avalanche slip through your fingers on the Shinra ship, but you handed him a valuable new sword, right in front of the good president. Amazing, the rumors that float around in a place like this."
"How do you--"
"You want your mission to succeed, right?"
"Then surely you can find room for just one more passenger on your airship."
"Airship? What airship?"
"Come now. Aren't you terrified you'll walk right up to Cloud Strife and pee your pants? It could be the crowning moment of your career."
"Stay in touch. I'll expect a call saying I am to report to the Highwind for a trip to Icicle Inn. Then you will take me to the North Crater. And if you forget? I might mention some crucial details to Cloud Strife. Hard to keep straight whose plan is whose, isn't it?"
Heidegger stared at him blankly.
"I'll find the elevator myself. Why don't you go back and see if the good president has a new pair of boots to lick?"
Nestor walked down the corridors with a smug smile on his face. He greeted the techs and orderlies as he passed. He even poked his head into the lab to see how his cultures were growing. Yes, now that Hojo was busy blowing bubbles, he had all this equipment at his disposal. Unofficially, of course. No sense raising any alarms. It wouldn't matter in the end, though. Just as youth was wasted on the young, the might of Shinra was wasted on that seedling Rufus. With proper training, however . . .
Rufus, Nestor knew, wanted Avalanche. So Nestor would ensure Rufus would get Avalanche. And if Rufus should tragically become a casualty in the fight? Such were the risks of war. Nestor would give him a hero's burial, full honors.
That would leave Scarlet, of course, but he could foresee no problems dealing with her. He licked his lips. He would enjoy dealing with her. Keeping her around, as his personal pet.
But first, a more pressing problem. How unfortunate the Ancient girl had died before he could find her. That sniveling Reeve was still crying about her. Still, it left the boy, John Philip Sorea, the one the Turks could never seem to handle. No matter. He had probably hooked up with Avalanche, and Avalanche was headed toward Icicle Inn.
"This is fun!" Aeris sat back as the wind whipped through her loose hair.
John sat next to her in the rear of the dogsled as it raced down a wide valley. Two chains of mountains rose darkly into the sky.
"I'll never make fun of Jingle Bells again."
"Times like these, I could forget all our troubles," Aeris said.
They had discovered the hunter and his dog team camped by a frozen lake. The man had broken his leg in a fall, but had crawled to his sled and kept warm by snuggling with his dogs. When Aeris had healed him and John had fixed him a hot meal, he more than agreed to give them a lift.
The nearer they got to Icicle Inn, the more moody John became. True, he had no plan to handle Sephiroth, but he wasn't worried about that. He had careered through most of his life without a plan, and he had turned out, if not normal, at least still twitching. No, this was the more nebulous Dark Cloud of Foreboding, more troublesome because he didn't have a clear target to worry about.
He looked at Aeris. Her eyes were closed, her head lying back and her hair whipping streamers behind her. That was something. He didn't know when she was going to disappear on him. Something about seeing her there, against the laws of science, brought home how easily she could be torn from him again.
Stop it, John. She's here now, and you don't know what will happen.
But she's the embodiment of Holy. Here for one purpose only. Then she'll be gone.
Stop it! You don't know that.
Sure I do.
Do I have to slap you silly?
If it pleases you.
"John?" Aeris was sitting forward, her hair now draped over her left shoulder. "Why are you slapping yourself?"
"Bugs. Mosquitoes are bad this far north."
Aeris gave him a look. John took her hand.
"We will be fine," she said. "We will handle Sephiroth."
"Thanks," he said, giving her hand an extra squeeze. "Think I'll get some sleep. We have a long night ahead of us." He pulled his hat over his face, falling asleep and dreaming something nonsensical about kittens.
"Up here. This is the place."
"Are you sure, mate? Nobody goes to Pebble Creek anymore. Place gives me the willies."
John looked from the driver to Aeris, her bright eyes shining in the fading dusk.
"This is something I have to see," John said.
"Well, I owe ya. My place is just over those hills. If you still need a lift to Icicle Inn, stop by any time."
"Thank you for your help," Aeris said, following John off the sled.
"Be careful. They say there are some angry spirits in these woods."
John waved his thanks as the man departed. If what he suspected was true, he couldn't blame the spirits for being angry.
This area was forested, though a blanket of snow covered the exposed ground. John and Aeris supported each other as they slipped and slid down the wooded slope. Under the taller trees the ground lay bare of snow, the dim light barely filtering through the branches.
They stumbled across an old path, now eroded and overgrown, which led them down crumbling steps to a wooded footbridge across a shallow creek. Up the other side, a few turns later, it ended in an open field, the daylight still strong enough to reveal several low mounds. These were bare of snow and covered, surprisingly, with blooming flowers. John and Aeris stopped, breathing in the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle, so out of place in this wintry land.
"It's beautiful," Aeris said.
John took a step forward, holding out his hands as if testing the air.
"It reminds me of the ruined church in Midgar," Aeris continued.
"If what happened here also happened there, I hope I never see it."
Aeris frowned. "What did happen here?"
"Remember when you found me passed out in the doorway? Remember how I looked? A whole lot of that."
Aeris started forward. John pointed to one of the berms. "That one's probably safest."
She gave him a bemused look but followed his directions. "Oh, miniature roses. How cute! My mother loved them."
"That's because they reminded her of her own mother."
Aeris didn't respond. She sank to her knees and bowed her head. John walked around the end of the mound, studying the flowers but glancing at Aeris in case she appeared in distress. He ran his hand through a patch of fragrant violets, catching a vision of a brown-skinned, violet eyed teenage girl whose only fear had been a rejection from the boy she had intended to ask to dance. He pulled his hand away and crossed to Aeris. Even in the fading light, he could tell she was starting to tremble.
"What is it?" she said. "I don't understand."
John put a hand on her shoulder, lightly enough not to disturb her meditation, but there to pull her loose if she became overwhelmed.
"Danger? Where, here?"
John squeezed her shoulder a bit harder.
"I see. But why?"
Her head began to shake. "Angel of death? Crisis from the sky?"
John was tempted to probe mentally to catch the other side of the conversation, but he held back.
Aeris raised her head, smiling mirthlessly at John. "The Planet is crying. You have led us to the Field of Tears."
John pointed to a grass-covered knoll, largely free of flowers. They walked to it. Pieces of a smashed picnic table still lay scattered on the mound's far side. A few buttercups and similar pink flowers dotted the grass.
It was here the Shinra soldier dragged the weeping child to the Turk commander.
"Prisoner of war, sir. This one's not a Cetra."
"You think I care? You have your orders."
"No!" John flung himself at the ground, punched it a few times, then rolled over to face the scowling sky. His mouth worked as he struggled to stay out of the visions. Aeris' face appeared. She looked down, but then her eyes rolled upward and she collapsed beside him. John grasped her hand and, damning the consequences, merged his mind with hers.
They plunged into a kaleidoscope of colors. Lights flashed in and out. Sounds raced like a tape on fast forward. John also felt a sense of falling, not knowing which way was up.
Aeris' voice drifted through his mind. "What is it? I don't understand."
Good God. Is this what it was like to talk with the Planet? He stared at the racing colors. Like a super fast film strip, viewed way to close. His head began to pound.
The predominant color turned from green to red.
"Crisis from the sky?"
"Aeris? What the hell is this place?"
"We are in the Lifestream. Our minds are, anyway."
A jabbering of hundreds of voices filled his ears like a high tide. Aeris' voice continued, just audible above the chatter.
"I've never brought someone in with me. And it's usually nowhere this strong. It takes getting used to."
"So this happens to you every time you speak with the Planet?"
"Less intense, but yes."
John tried to concentrate, to dial down the volume. As he did, he began to pick out snippets of a message. Many fragments piled atop each other, like a fly's multifaceted vision.
"Crisis crisis crisis from crisis from the crisis from the sky from the sky from the sky."
"What, Sephiroth? Meteor?" John said.
"Crisis crisis crisis here crisis here crisis here."
"You mean the massacre?" He felt Aeris' hand tighten at that.
"Crisis crisis crisis you crisis you lead crisis you bring crisis you lead crisis follows crisis follows you follows you here."
"You lost me."
Aeris spoke up. "I get it. Crisis from the sky was the original Jenova."
"Crisis crisis new crisis two crisis new follows two follow you."
"This is why I take my medication," John said.
"Sephiroth passed near here?" Aeris said.
"We know that. I'm interested in--"
The scene changed.
A young man, a young father, ran through the trees clutching a little girl--his daughter?--to his chest. The girl was crying and blood was running down her leg. Other splotches of blood and mud clung to the man's clothes. John could feel the terror and grief from this man. He had just seen his wife and two young sons die in front of him.
A crash of thunder and the man pitched forward. His girl, pinned under him, tried to pull herself free, even as the blue Shinra soldier strolled forward.
Aeris' screams battered John's brain like a dull knife. Her distress seared his heart. He pushed a pulse of white static at the image, shattering it into snow. Deep through the haze he could make out points of light that could be stars.
"Are you all right?" John asked Aeris. He could sense her trembling. She clasped his hand tightly.
"That was horrible. That poor man, and his little girl, so terrified. She couldn't understand what was happening, or why. None of them did."
"Welcome to my brain. Want to be a Jenova for a day?"
"You, you get this all the time?" Her voice rose in pitch.
"Rarely this strong. I don't often get the Surround Sound either, but this place is powerful. And in a pinch I can block it."
"I, I could feel, the pain, when the bullets, hit that man."
"That's not so unusual for me. After all, why do you think I was so anxious for you not to be stabbed by Sephiroth? Other than not wanting you to die, of course."
"Do all Jenova feel this?"
"Hard to say. I haven't met many Jenova, and I didn't even know I was one until Bugenhagen told me. But my guess is no. Only a few, shall I say, gifted, feel the visions with this intensity. The one I was cloned from did. Although he--" John shuddered. "-- enjoyed feeling the pain he inflicted on others."
It was Aeris' turn to shudder. "You are nothing like him. I know you don't believe me. But when your mind touched mine, during that vision, I could feel your compassion and disgust. Please have faith in yourself."
John said nothing.
"I can feel the Planet calling me. Are you up for it?"
"Sure. I'd hate to miss act two."
John almost thought he had fallen asleep.
He and Aeris stood in the park, picnickers scattered around, sun shining through thin clouds, warm breeze blowing through his hair. The scene lacked the sharpness of his usual visions, yet he felt the growing dread. He searched the horizon and sky for approaching danger. Saw none. Maybe there was still time.
"Attention, everybody!" John spun around, cupping his hands to his mouth. "Your lives are in mortal danger here! Run! Leave! Hurry, while there is still time!"
He turned, finding the man with the young girl in front of him.
"What's done is done," the man said.
"The past is gone," his daughter said.
A young woman holding a baby appeared by his side. She slipped an arm around the man's waist. "Why do you return to torment us, Crisis from the Sky?"
John looked up at the sky. Saw no crisis, though one of the puffy clouds looked like a chocobo.
"We're here to help," Aeris said.
"You bring the Crisis with you?" Cyrine. That was the woman's name. Her hobbies had been quilt making and carpentry. Yes, carpentry. She had built a sun room onto their farmhouse a year before her youngest son was born.
John crumpled, pressing his knuckles to his forehead. "Please. Please don't make me watch it all again."
"That was then. This is now," the young girl said. Her name tiptoed out of reach as John blocked his mind. In a flash he saw himself and Aeris lying on the hill, staring slack-jawed at the sky.
"What do you need from us?" Aeris asked.
"They're confused, hurt and scared," a new voice said.
John looked up to see Aeris throw herself into Ifalna's arms.
"Mother, I've missed you!"
"I've always been there for you, my dear."
"Can you answer one question?" The purple-eyed, brown skinned girl stepped forward. John tagged her as Violet. "You are the bringer of death, yet you bring the daughter of the Planet."
"Never underestimate the power of incompetence," John said.
Ifalna released Aeris. "Brothers and sisters, he is not the Crisis from the Sky."
"Though I did come from the sky. And my life is a continual crisis."
"He did not deceive us with false visions," Ifalna said. "He came as himself."
"This danger you spoke of," Aeris said. "What is it? We know of Sephiroth, and Meteor."
"Death awaits in Icicle Inn," Ifalna said. "Of its form, I do not know, except its form is known to both of you."
"Why does it have to be in riddles?" John said. "I'd say I was making all this up, but I might wake up and find myself back in that lake looking at Sephiroth's handiwork."
"You swam in the water of the Ancients?" Cyrine said. "How is this possible?"
"First you fall in. Then you thrash about. It was cold."
Cyrine turned to Aeris. "How is it he survived the water?"
"I took swimming lessons," John said.
Aeris put her arm around John's shoulders. "The water did not harm my friend, because he is not your enemy."
"Jenova," said Violet, stepping forward, "killed our people. Destroyed our civilization."
"Did it?" John felt uneasy. "I'm, I'm sorry. I know that sounds lame. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Now he asks!" Cyrine shoved him. John saw the method of her death. He gagged. He concentrated on her silver and amethyst bracelet until his gorge settled. Cyrine went on. "He says he will help! Here that, brothers and sisters? And he's sorry! Doesn't that make you want to celebrate?"
"Stop it," Aeris snapped. "He wasn't the one who hurt you."
"It's okay, Aeris. I can handle it." He met Cyrine's gaze, unflinching. "I have no excuses for what happened to you and your loved ones. I wish--" He choked up. "I truly wish I could do something, anything." He spread his hands. "You have every right to hate me."
"Can you even tell us why? We were a peaceful farming village. Why did this happen to us?"
John looked from Cyrine, to Violet, to Ifalna, back to Cyrine. A smile crept onto is face. "You know? I think I can answer that."
He reached his free hand out to Cyrine. She looked surprised but took it.
Flash. A pudgy, young man--the former president Shinra--stood before an older figure seated at the desk. A plaque read, Berk Shinra.
"So, son," Berk said. "Mako. Limitless, inexpensive energy. This is the future. Yet some would stand in the way of progress."
"Yes. They call themselves Cetra, or Protectors of the Planet. They are trying to spread their protests to the general population.
"What do you suppose would happen?"
"People might not switch to Mako energy. They may even try to stop construction on new reactors."
"Which would mean?"
"Delays, legal costs, reduction of shareholder value."
"Exactly. Son, you are learning the ways of business. So tell me, how would you handle this sticky situation?"
The boy seemed ready to jump out of his suit. "Simple, sir! Just get rid of them."
Flash. The same room, the same scene. Only this time, a man with a curly mustache and dressed in a blue Turk suit stood next to the desk.
"Son," Berk said, "Meet Gregor, of the Turks. He will be directing Operation Black Wind. I have place an imperial escort guard of troops under his command. I would like you to go along as an observer."
"Oh yes, sir!" The boy almost started to bounce. "I won't let you down, sir."
John awoke, back on the cold knoll, staring at the unforgiving stars. A light wind wept through the trees. Beside him, Aeris was curled in a fetal position, shaking with desolate sobs. John, emotionally spent, rolled over, slipped his arm around her middle and spooned behind her. She cried more loudly at his touch; he tried to pull back but she seized his arm. John gave in and rode out the storm.
Aeris finally turned to meet his eyes. "All those people. My people. And for what?"
"I know. That fat old prez got better than he deserved when Sephiroth ran him through." John turned his head and spat. "Now what?"
"We go to Icicle Inn."
"Hold on. Didn't your mother warn us away from there?"
"We need to watch for danger, not turn back."
"Watch for what? For whom?"
Aeris wiped her eyes. "I don't know. Perhaps something in your visions?"
"Old prez is dead. Doesn't he have a son? And who is that Gregor guy? Never saw him before." John sat bolt upright and bunched his fists. "Damn it all! As if we don't have enough to worry about, with Sephiroth and Meteor, and his so-called Mother."
Aeris sat up. She smiled at him.
"Let me guess. I'm beautiful when I'm angry," John said. "You were right. We should have gone directly back to Cloud and others."
"You knew you wouldn't be able to save those people, yet you still tried."
"They're still hurt and angry, but at least they know why," she continued.
"Small comfort." John opened a clenched hand to find a silver bracelet dangling from his fingers. Not dirty or tarnished, either. Shiny and warm.
"It's beautiful," Aeris said. John reverently slipped it on his wrist.
"Here's to shareholder value."
They stood, giving each other a long look. After a final glance around the cold park, they walked arm in arm off the Field of Tears.
"Yes, I knew a woman named Ifalna. She lived in a cottage just outside of town. She was nice, but sad, until that scientist friend of hers came. Then one day some soldiers came and took her away. No one has seen her since."
Aeris thanked the aproned woman. The inn had a dark, almost romantic atmosphere, though John suspected it was because half the light bulbs were burnt out. The only bright area was the bar, where a group of hard bodied, tanned beach bums sat drinking and complaining.
"You see any strangers come through town?" John asked.
"Why yes. A silver haired man in a black cape. Cold, he was. No one wanted to go near him. He walked straight through town, down the north ski slope. Ever since, the run has been closed. Too dangerous, as if the land is angry. Blizzards whip up from nowhere."
"I can feel it," Aeris said. "The Planet is angry."
"Just like the Planet," John said. "Lash out at the nearest innocents."
Aeris waited until the server left before speaking. "John, the Planet feels pain, but it doesn't know the cause. It's the same when you or I have a mosquito bite. We can scratch it, but the mosquito is long gone."
"Or you can smack it. Why don't you tell the Planet about Sephiroth and be done with it?"
"It doesn't work like that. You remember what it feels like? All those voices at once? Concepts are hard to communicate."
"I just wish the Planet would do something useful. Where was the Planet back there in Pebble Creek when your people needed it? Sorry. I'm being a jerk."
"We're both tired. Let's find my mother's house."
It wasn't hard to find.
The locals had kept the place in good repair, even tending the pots of flowers growing in the windows. Aeris inspected a pot of miniature roses and smiled.
"My mother told me she was the village midwife and healer."
"Seems she was popular here," John said, staring at the framed picture of Ifalna and half a dozen women at what he guessed was a church function. "And this. A video collection."
"Let me see," Aeris said. She pulled out a tape labeled, "Baby's First Days." She popped it into the player and waited while John thumbed through some of the other titles, such as "Prof. Gast's Study of Jenova and the Ancients."
The screen flickered to life.
Ifalna sat in that very room, cuddling a tiny baby on her lap. The camera zoomed in, catching the sleepy baby's cute round face.
"Say hello to the world," Ifalna said, taking the baby's tiny hand and waving it. "Darling little Aeris. you are so sleepy, after being cranky last night."
In the real room, Aeris reached out and stroked the baby's image.
On the video, a man in a white coat walked into view. But instead of the wild, spacey look of Hojo, this man radiated intelligence and dignity. Ifalna snuggled up to him.
"Come to hold your daughter, oh great professor Gast? It's a cruel world for a child these days."
"Don't worry, dear. I'll always be here to protect you."
The tape ended.
"My father," Aeris said. "I finally get to see him."
"He seems like a wonderful guy. I wonder what happened to him."
The next tape told the story. The new family was sharing another Kodak moment, only to have Hojo burst in and claim Ifalna and the baby as lab subjects. Aeris flinched when Hojo's guards shot Mr. Gast. John felt her stab of pain at Ifalna's scream.
"Goddamn Hojo." John scuffed his foot into the floor. "Next time I see that sorry sack of--"
"Don't," Aeris said, grasping his arm. "We can't allow ourselves to become distracted."
John was about to argue when he saw the tears running down her face. He held her while she wept into his shoulder. After several long minutes John pulled out the tape and put it away. He selected the Jenova study tape, thinking an intellectual interview would calm his spirits. Typical John mistake, he thought later.
"Tell me about the Crisis from the Sky," Mr. Gast was saying.
"It approached us as a friend. It appeared as our dead brothers, our dead mothers."
John moved toward the screen with a growing premonition of a hammer blow.
"Soon, Jenova revealed its true nature, for it infected the Cetra with a virus . . . those who weren't killed outright went mad and transformed into monsters."
John fell backward, striking the floor with his rump. Aeris looked concerned.
" . . . then Jenova approached other Cetra clans, and gave them the virus . . . "
A keening cry escaped his lips. He rolled to all fours, staggered up, hobbled across the room and nearly tumbled down a set of stairs. Aeris cut the video but the words kept pounding in his head. Infected, infected, infected. The images of feverish victims twisting in agony under the unforgiving sun. Jenova, Crisis from the Sky. And he was one of them. No wonder the dead Cetra at Pebble Creek had been so wary of him.
He held his side as he descended, trying to keep his guts inside where they wouldn't stain the furniture.
"John? What's wrong?"
At least she didn't ask if he was all right. John limped between the beds. He picked up a picture of Ifalna and Gast, shook his head.
"I'm sorry," he said, gently placing the photo back on the end table. He brushed past Aeris and grabbed her Princess Guard.
"John, what are you doing?"
"Stay back! Please. I don't want to infect you."
"Nonsense. You don't carry the--" She broke off in a scream when John struck himself with her weapon.
He hit himself again, relishing the sharp gash of pain against his scalp. He felt the blood trickle down his forehead into his eye. Aeris screamed again. John fled upstairs and out into the snowy wind.
John doubled his speed, slipping and bumping his way into the village.
People dodged out of the way as he bumbled into the town square.
"I am Jenova! Crisis from the Sky! Bringer of death! You must destroy--"
A snowball popped him in the ear. A girl giggled.
"You are a preacher. Mommy says never talk to preachers."
"No. Listen. You aren't safe here. No one is safe around--arrgh! Why me!" He shouted at the sky. "Why me, of all people!"
"Pipe down, you crazy brat," a man shouted from an upstairs window.
John screamed at that, tearing off his coat and holding the Princess Guard aloft. He swung it around and banged himself between the shoulder blades.
"See me? I'm not safe! I'm not. I'm not."
A crack. A gunshot, and something hot grazed his shoulder. John turned toward the entrance to town, seeing a woman in a blue Turk's uniform, flanked by two Shinra guards. John's rage instantly turned outward. He lifted the staff high above his head and charged.
Somewhere, dimly, he heard Aeris shouting at him to stop. Reality finally squeezing into his skull? He supposed he would have stopped had the guards not been firing at him. The bullets bounced off a mental wall in front of him. Or perhaps Aeris had cast a Barrier spell. Either way, they didn't slow him, though he felt the sting of concussion.
The Turk woman, a better shot with a better gun, shot a round that punched through his barrier and smacked against his ribs. A glancing shot, John hoped, feeling the pain rip along his side as he imagined the bullet scraping along his rib. It sent him down to one knee, the staff slipping from his grasp as he whirled his arms in rage.
Eat that!" The woman made to fire again.
John felt his fury congeal into living energy.
An icy wind whipped snow and daggers of ice in a funnel cloud around the soldiers. The guards threw their arms over their faces as they sailed into nearby drifts. The gun flew from the woman's hand, and she nearly bent in a backward hoop under the onslaught.
"Now I'm mad!" She picked an ice shard from her bleeding cheek. "Take this." She pulled out a long gray rod, larger than Reno's shock stick. "Shattering Pulse!"
The medicine ball of gray energy struck him straight in the stomach. He felt himself fly back several meters. His head spinning like a neutron star, a red fury flared again. He forced himself to his feet, even on legs like rubbery lead. He saw the woman groping in the snow for her gun.
"Oh no you don't," John said. He flung his arms and spun full circle.
Tendrils of earth burst through the snow pack and wrapped themselves up the legs and bodies of the soldiers. The Turk woman was caught by her arms as well. She cried as her body bent at a painful angle.
His concentration broken, John turned to see a red-faced Aeris. The woman in blue moaned in relief as the earth tendrils flaked away. John sank to his knees, spent, prompting the Turk to launch herself at him.
"I said, stop!"
Aeris bowed her head. As in Battle Square, the warm rain and circling angels bathed the group, including the baffled guards, in a yellow glow.
John felt his wounds close and his energy soar. He slithered from beneath the Turk woman. She made a grab for his leg and he kicked at her, finally striking her in the side.
John found himself sprawled in the snow, looking up at a flushed Aeris, who held her Princess Guard in an 'anyone else want a piece of me?' stance.
She had hit him. Hard. He felt no pain (the yellow glow conferring a strong protective field). He had to laugh; she had clocked him a good one.
"Hey," the Turk said. "Aren't you supposed to be dead?"
"You mean Aeris?" John said, winded, his anger now evaporating like a summer mist. "She decided she'd rather live." He paused, panting. "You have no idea how stubborn she is."
"I'm Elena, of the Turks." The woman had blonde, TV anchorwoman hair.
"I'm John Philip Sorea, part time folk-rock singer, part time Crisis from the Sky."
"I'm Aeris, a flower girl from the slums."
Elena snorted. "You're handy with that staff."
"Not everyone in the slums wants flowers."
"And you," she turned to John, "have some nasty little tricks."
John felt his ribs, now healed, but still sensitive where Elena's bullet had indeed grazed him.
Aeris said, "It's the first time I've seen him fight effectively."
"I can't fight if I'm sane."
Elena gave John a long look. "Believe it or not," she said, "I'm not after the two of you. I want the leader of your terrorist group, Cloud Strife."
"Whatever for?" Aeris asked.
Elena hung her head. "He killed Tseng."
"Elena, he didn't. I was there. Sephiroth killed him."
"No Elena. He met us at the temple entrance, barely alive, where he gave us the keystone. He had already been stabbed by then."
"From what I've seen of Cloud Strife," John said, "Anyone cut up by Spike's sword does not wiggle around and get back up. They stay chopped into tiny pieces."
"Tseng was stabbed with a long, thin sword, Elena."
"And believe me. Aeris knows that sword." He shuddered at the memory. Aeris gave him an unflattering look. John blushed.
"You're just saying that to protect Cloud," Elena said.
John shrugged. Sooner this meeting was over, the better.
"I have to leave now. Cloud will be arriving within a day. "Though why you aren't with him," she said to Aeris, "is a mystery to me. And why did all my sources say you were dead?"
"Must have been some other Aeris," John said.
Elena snorted, motioning to her two guards who gulped down their drinks, and left the restaurant.
John held out his hands. "See? Even when I tell the truth they don't believe me."
Aeris shook her head, but smiled. "What do you think Elena's going to do? With Cloud?"
"Probably slap him. She's not as dumb as she acts."
"Should we wait for the others?"
"I think we should try to catch Sephiroth. Maybe slow him down. Of course, I'm crazy, so don't believe anything I say."
"You're not crazy, John."
"Yea? Ask anyone in this town."
"Maybe a little crazy. Remember what I told you?"
"What, after you hit me with your stick?"
"Like you didn't deserve it? Anyway, I watched the rest of the tapes. The virus, the virus that killed my people, it was something manufactured. Not something you carry. Understand? And this was two thousand years ago."
John hung his head, but nodded. Aeris clasped his hand.
"So next time you feel a breakdown coming on, talk to me, okay? Don't start pounding yourself with my staff."
John took a deep, shuddering breath. "I'm sorry. Just this whole thing--one atrocity after another. I feel so sick."
"That's okay. It's natural. It's human."
"Not that either of us are."
"Human is not just the species. It's the feeling, the caring. All else is appearance. Take Nanaki. No one would confuse him for a human outright, but once you get to know him, you realize inside he's no different from us."
"His Stardust Ray packs a mean punch," John said.
"He felt bad about that. He told me. Anyway--"
"I got it!" John stood so suddenly Aeris snatched her staff out of his reach.
"How could I be so stupid!"
The restaurant patrons were staring at him.
"Do you want an answer?" Aeris asked.
John sat. "Nestor. That creep Nestor."
"Remember in the lab? When I first met you?"
"A lot of things happened."
"A guy in a suit. He walked in, demanding to see the Cetra?"
"Oh. I remember."
"He thought I was a Cetra because I shot off your Healing Wind."
"You fooled all of us. By the way, how did you--"
"In his briefcase he had three drug vials. One of them he tried to inject into me. I dodged, and he injected the table. The other vials--after I got a vision off them, I chucked them into the incinerator. Aeris, those vials. They contained the Cetra disease. Nestor is trying to bring back the Cetra plague."
Aeris stared at him. "The bringer of death."
"Yes. And I'll bet he's right here in town."
"That's what Mother meant. Death awaits in Icicle Inn. But why, why start the Cetra plague? When I'm the only Cetra?"
"Perhaps you aren't. Perhaps, Shinra and the Turks missed some."
"And Nestor's trying to finish the job. How could he? Haven't my people suffered enough?"
"We need to leave town. Now."
"I agree." She stood, then put her hand to her forehead and gripped the table for support.
"Feeling a little faint. All this talk about the plague. Don't worry. It's not that. It'll pass. I'm just tired. That's all."
John could not read anything wrong as he helped her to the door. She soon recovered, and John turned his thoughts to finding a way out of town.
Nestor stared out the frosted window at the two Ancients walking along the icy path. They make a cute couple, he thought, sneering, though the girl was robbing the cradle. That pale boy couldn't be more than twelve. Beggars couldn't be choosers, he supposed. The two nits were probably already doing the hanky panky, desperate to revive their doomed race. He smiled at the image. Yes. That was it. That was why he hadn't killed them both right off when he saw them enter the village yesterday. They were entertaining. Perhaps he would capture them, make them perform for him. He looked down at his hands and saw they were shaking. Yes. They would perform for him. Amuse him. Then he would dispose of them. Personally.
The two paused outside a boutique, seemingly arguing with a Shinra foot soldier. Maybe they would get into another brawl for him, just like last night with that silly female Turk. Had the Turks sunk so low they were recruiting from brothels? He scowled. How far the Turks had fallen. In his father's day . . .
He pushed the thought, and its associated rage, away from his mind. Outside, the Ancient pair were walking away from the soldier, laughing. They had probably scrambled the poor lad's brain, making him think he was a rare species of tree moss.
Those two. They were a slippery pair, but he had learned a lot in the last few days. About the terrorists called Avalanche. That bubble-headed blonde (Lena? Ehlonna?) had said they were due in town this evening. But first things first.
He felt the smooth, cold metal of the rifle lying across his lap. Loaded with trank darts, not bullets; he could not very well test his new serum if the subjects were dead. There. Almost time.
He shoved the window open. It glided almost silently. Shinra technology in this backwater pond village. He rested the barrel on the window sill. Keeping the pair in sight, he lowered his eyes to the sights and raised the gun.
The girl first. A day ago he would have taken down the boy, as he had shown himself to have surprisingly unpredictable talents, but Nestor had seen the girl invoke the dreaded Great Gospel, a Cetra power he had thought a myth until he had read Hojo's notes detailing the havoc the girl's mother had caused with it during her three escapes from his labs, the final one being the one where Hojo had finally destroyed her. Least the bitch could have done was take the bumbling quack out with her.
There. The Ancient pair were sideways to him, holding an animated conversation. He sighted on the girl.
"Hold still, honey. Soon you will be in papa's arms--"
What the hell? In the blink of his eye, they had disappeared! He jerked his head up and squinted at the spot. There. They had to be there. They couldn't vanish. They weren't ghosts. Could that low hedge be hiding them? In the snow, yes. They must have dropped to the earth. He wished he had some live rounds so he could spray hot lead into their hidey hole, but . . . he had to opt for finesse. Still, he could play their game. It annoyed him, but he did enjoy the sport of the hunt.
Keeping his gaze glued to the spot, he pushed the window all the way open. He shoved his leg through the opening. Still watching his quarry, he slid out onto the outside sill, preparing to drop to the ground below.
He had not anticipated the ground's slight slope, nor the mangy mutt he nearly landed on. The dog snarled and bit his pant leg. In a lapse he knew he would regret, Nestor swung the rifle butt, clubbing the mutt's head. The dog went down with a yelp. A woman nearby screamed. Nestor screamed himself when he saw the pair of Ancients darting around the oversized battle tank the blonde Turk had driven into town. Damn ostentatious bitch. He fired off a wild shot. Idiot. Here he was wasting his ammo when he should be giving chase.
Ignoring the angry yells around him, Nestor leaped forward and tore after his prey.
"Would you look at that. What's wrong with this picture?"
John's gaze wandered up and down the quaint street, past the dogsleds, the occasional snowmobile to the hulking gray mega-Jeep, its frame a full meter off the ground, its tires as wide as rum kegs.
"It has a mako engine," Aeris said. "Burning up the Lifestream of the Planet. Just to keep from walking to the store."
"Maybe we can pull one of the tires off and use the inner tube to sled down the hill."
"Be serious, John. Look at the size of that thing."
"It needs to be big enough for both of us. I'd hate to undo two of those tires."
"We're not going to--"
"Huh?" John eyed the Shinra soldier.
"That's an expensive piece of equipment. You street kids had better not scratch it."
"You lucky I'm in a good mood," John said. "Else you might using that helmet as a chamber pot."
"You getting smart with me?"
Aeris inserted her rod between the two of them. "Don't hurt the poor guard, John. He can't help being a faceless minion of Shinra."
"We're leaving," John said, tugging on Aeris.
The guard blocked their path, so they stepped over a low hedge. The guard made to follow but John gave him a sharp stare. The soldier shook his head, giving a blank look (best he could manage behind that mask) and walked back toward the inn.
Suddenly Aeris rounded on John.
"What were you thinking? Do you have to pick a fight with every soldier? I might start calling you Barret."
"Come on. Tifa would--"
Danger! John did not ponder the premonition. He flung himself against Aeris, knocking her flat on her back. She opened her mouth to cry out. Finding his hands underneath her back, John covered her mouth the only way possible: with his.
Aeris' green eyes grew as large as hard boiled eggs.
Aeris twisted sideways, knocking John aside. He clung to her but their lips separated.
"Quiet!" John whispered. "He's out there. Watching for us."
"What are you doing?"
"Shh. Nestor is here somewhere."
"So you gave me a kiss?"
"No. I mean, yes, but I had to keep you quiet. That's all."
Aeris looked disappointed.
"Not that you aren't kissable."
She wrinkled her brow. "Kissable?"
"This was life and death. I had to act."
Somewhere, a dog snarled.
"So you'd rather kiss me than die?"
"No. I mean, yes, of course I'd rather . . . who wouldn't want--let's go! Come on. Now!"
John jerked Aeris to her feet. He was surprised at his strength, and also by her acquiescence.
A scream filtered from down the street. John stumbled to a halt next to the monster truck, Aeris skidding into him, knocking him against the icy metal.
"You'd better have an explanation for your behavior," she said.
"Look." He pointed at something metallic in the snow. "A drug dart. Probably filled with that Cetra plague virus."
Aeris paled. Her body began to tremble. "We, we have to go."
John twisted, pulling Aeris down on top of him, aided by his feet slipping on the wet ground. After barking his shin on metal, he landed in a drift of gravel and ice, sending a thousand needles of pain into his back.
A dart stuck itself in one of the oversized tires.
They both peered along the sidewalk to see Nestor pop into view, leveling his rifle at them.
"Off!" John shoved Aeris aside, then released the energy of Elena's gift. "Shattering Pulse!"
A shocked Nestor flew back out of sight, along with a blast of snow and broken tree branches.
John fell back, spent. Aeris tugged him to his feet.
"Come on. In here."
"Huh?" Then he noticed she had the Hummer's door open.
"It was unlocked. Hurry."
John scrambled up and across the seats. Aeris jumped in after him.
"There he is. Lock the doors. Oh look, the keys are in the ignition. Can you drive this, John? Oh, you're hurt."
John glanced absently at the blood trickling down his forearm before turning his attention to the crazed Nestor trying to bash in the driver's side window with a block of ice.
"Can I drive? Sure. How hard can it be?"
He turned the key and the engine fired up. Luckily, an automatic transmission: he shifted into drive. Glass spider-webbed in his window. He stomped on the accelerator. A big roar, but no movement.
"Parking brake," Aeris said.
"Ah." Chunks of glass rained down onto his lap and shoulder. He pressed the pedal. The Hummer pulverized an empty wooden cart and nearly hit a store wall as John fought with the steering.
"Buckle up!" The top of the ski slope beckoned. A man waved for them to stop, then dived out of the way. In the rearview mirror, Nestor and two Shinra soldiers raced after them.
"Reminds me of a joke." John clicked on his harness. "I'd rather die peacefully, like my grandpa in his sleep, not screaming, like the passengers in his car."
John put on a burst of speed. He saw Nestor lying in a heap after presumably trying to leap for the rear bumper. Shinra bullets pinged off the rear. Then the ground dropped away below them.
"A balloon, John."
"You score points for hitting it."
"Shucks. I missed it."
"Only thing so far."
"So many turns!"
"What was that?"
"Felt like a house."
"You can use the steering wheel, you know."
"It's for steering around--Oh God!"
"I got a balloon."
"And a boulder."
"Just clipped it."
"You lost a wheel!"
"We have extras."
"How did you do that?"
"What, the slide up the embankment thing?"
"Bridges are for going under, John."
"Hey, who built these snowmen?"
"I'd like to live, if that's okay with you."
"Steep up ahead."
"Watch those curves!"
"How quaint. A young evergreen forest, out here."
"Go around them, John!"
"Hey, that was a pine tree."
"What's one pine tree doing in a fir forest?"
"I can't watch anymore."
"One lonely pine tree. It goes through life, feeling so different, so alone."
"You almost missed that last one."
"I'm getting better. See?"
"You said you knew how to drive!"
"I do. I just didn't pass the driving test."
"Not more curves. . ."
"Ouch. What was that?"
"Now I know how Yuffie feels," Aeris said.
"Felt like we hit a train."
"If there's one out here, you'll find a way to hit it."
"Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow."
"Are we stopped?"
"Appears so. Only flat ice ahead of us."
"I can't believe we're stopped. My head. My stomach. I think they switched places."
"It's smooth sailing now, Aeris."
"Let's not do that again, okay?"
"Gotchya. From here on, it's straight roads. No stops. All we have to do is wait for this glacier to melt and Shinra to build a superhighway."
"Ow, that hurts."
"Feels like I just had a date with Tifa."
"John! There's no ground down there?"
"What do you mean? I see ice to the horizon."
"I'm looking down, and I swear there's nothing but air."
"Really? Let me see." He leaned over to peer out her window. Too late, he felt the vehicle tip.
The fall was quick and brutal. They smashed to the ground, wheels up. John's head smacked against the bowed ceiling, but he hardly felt the pain, since the seat belt had given his crotch the Heimlich maneuver.
"You okay?" Aeris gasped.
"Yea. Fine. No harm done, because, I'm a soprano already. Ow, ow, ow."
"I think. This. Will release--yikes!--us."
John groaned. "Beware. The Jenova pretzel."
"My pride, such as it is."
"I'm banged up too. Hold on."
A breeze drifted through the battered cabin. John felt the warmth seep back into his bones. File that one for later. He wondered how many abilities he could store like that. As long as he kept track--
"Aeris? What's wrong?"
"I feel so . . . weak. I can barely, lift my head."
"Hold on." She must be injured internally. John spun his armlet around and studied the materia. "Not Comet. Not Comet. The other one. Restore." The green orb glowed, as did its companion blue.
A rush of magic energy swirled around Aeris. John clamped his jaws and awaited disaster.
Aeris stirred. "Thanks. I think I was . . . light headed. Dizzy, after the fall. Concussion perhaps."
"But you're better now?"
"I don't feel any pain." She stretched her limbs. "Everything works."
"Let's get out then. See where we are."
With great effort, the two of them extracted themselves from the overturned vehicle. They leaned against one of the blue-white walls of the chasm, gazing at the Hummer, which now looked like King Kong's Hacky Sack. They managed to root out some supplies--heavy clothing and military packs. Those Shinra soldiers had better content themselves securing the drink tables in the bar.
"Path looks clear," John said. "Reckon Sephiroth is that direction?"
"Go north, past the snow fields. That's north."
"How handy the crevasse points the right direction."
They started off. The path zigzagged like an angry river, but kept in a northerly direction. Though sometimes narrow enough to make them walk single file, and cluttered enough to make them scramble over boulders and ice chunks, they made good time.
"It will be dark soon," Aeris said. Already the sun barely touched the top of the ice canyon walls. "We'll have to find shelter."
"Plenty of ice to freshen our drinks."
"Maybe something will turn up."
They continued. Soon, the path forked; they chose the path to the right but turned back after hearing a deep growl up ahead.
"I'll take door number two," John said, quickening his pace.
"Looks like we get to make another choice soon."
Indeed, the new path ahead split into two, an ice ledge slanting upward and the main path deepening into the frigid gloom. Either one could be a dead end.
"Let's take the high road," John said. "Best of both worlds. Still trapped in a crevasse too steep to climb, while preserving the exciting chance of falling to our deaths."
"John, you should wear a happy face button for all your positive outlook."
Upward. Their journey had its steep moments, but overall their path sloped gently enough to make their walk comfortable. John had hoped the ledge would soon take them to the surface, though when he felt the occasional stiffening breeze, he rethought his wish. Up there, the cold would be brutal. Down here, it was merely life threatening.
"We must rest soon," John said, noticing Aeris' pallor.
The young Cetra grasped a pillar of ice for support, breathing heavily. She nodded.
"Over there? Looks like an ice cave," John said.
They trudged, heads down. Now that they had slowed, John realized how hungry he was.
Aeris pointed to a concave entrance. They undid their packs and entered. Looking weary as the world, Aeris slumped with her back against the ice.
"Too bad we can't build a fire," John said. "No fuel, and we don't want to melt our cave."
"Pile some rocks." Aeris looked like she needed help holding her eyes open. Rather than continue to speak, she tapped a green materia on her armlet.
"Fire materia?" John said. "Gotchya."
Rocks lay strewn all over the cave, with larger ones outside. He formed a base of small rocks, then tiers of bigger ones, followed by a large round rock perched in the center.
Aeris managed to summon enough energy to cast a fire spell on the large rock, maintaining the spell until the rock glowed. The cave warmed enough for John to remove his outer coat.
"You'll feel better with food inside you," he said. They hadn't hauled a camp stove with them, but John had grabbed a frying pan and a ring stand that fit nicely over the glowing rock. "Lucky for us, that Elena is too squeamish to eat military rations." John held up a package of stir fry noodles. "Looks like she's a vegetarian, but one with taste. I'd hate to find out I'd stolen some tofu oat-flake loaf."
Aeris smiled. As the meal cooked she pulled off her gloves and held her hands in front of the hot rock. "Smells wonderful."
"Good to see some color back in your face."
"I didn't realize how cold and tired I was, until we stopped."
"I'm worried about you, Aeris. What's wrong?"
For a long time she said nothing. "I, I guess I need to conserve my strength."
"Any ideas on how we pop Sephiroth when we meet him?"
Aeris shook her head. John served the food and they ate in silence.
Maybe I should conserve my strength too, John thought. Even with his natural cold resistance, he could feel the glacier suck the warmth right out of him.
He looked at their bedrolls and frowned. These were made for cold weather, but hardly the arctic deep freeze around them. They also had a pair of Mylar-like blankets and the heavy coats they were sitting on.
John said, "We'll never live this down, but I have an idea."
Aeris threw another fire spell at the rock, turned to him and smiled.
"If you ignore our being lost on a frigid glacier, this is like a junior camp out." John had zipped the two sleeping bags together. With the blankets and their coats piled on top, they spooned in the fading red glow of their cave.
Aeris had her arm around his middle. John had insisted she curl up behind him, lest her hair try to climb down his throat in the dark.
"Tell me," Aeris said. "Back there in Icicle Inn. When you, saved me? Was that all it was? A wild impulse of yours?"
"Saving a life has to be an impulse. If I'd stopped to weigh the odds--"
"You kissed me, John."
"I had to keep you from crying out."
"You kissed me."
"It worked, didn't it?"
"But, you kissed me."
"And I'd do it again, should you be in danger like that."
"I have to be in danger?"
"Deadly peril is best, though I would consider it, even if you were about to step on a banana peel."
"You know? You are in just the right position for a noogie."
"See if I ever kiss you again."
"What would your mother think? Her only daughter. Kissing a Jenova."
"Want me to ask her?"
"Uhm . . . "
"So it meant nothing?"
"No. I mean, not nothing. It was a convenient--"
"Wait." She sent another burst of fire magic at the rock, brightening the cave.
"I was right. You are blushing."
"It's the heat."
"It's freezing in here."
"In that case don't bother with the magic. Just warm your hands on my face."
"So it did mean something."
John was silent.
"Do you have a crush on me?"
John stiffened. "If you don't stop picking on me," he said, turning his head to face her, "I'll have to kiss you again."