Good Intentions Part 4
by Sanche Llewellyn
Chapter XVI: Cats and Dogs
From a pleasant dream about Aeris walking in a meadow of flowers, John awoke to a hot tongue lapping at his face. He flinched and opened his eyes. Two yellow eyes stared back from behind a gray muzzle. Breath as foul as week-old dead goats blasted him square in the face.
"Aeris . . . what big teeth you have." The overgrown wolf thing licked its chops, releasing a dollop of drool.
"Yuck!" John tried to squirm free, but Aeris, apparently having a much more pleasant dream, tightened her grip.
The wolf thing growled. Aeris awoke with a start. The beast bared its teeth, then turned and urinated in the cooking pot.
"That does it!" John wrenched himself free of the clinging Aeris, grabbed her Princess Guard and tried to fend off the beast. In such close quarters he couldn't swing it--lucky for him--so the best he could do was jab with its end. The wolf apparently thought John wanted to play fetch, for it locked its jaws around the staff, its teeth making cat on a blackboard sounds against the metal.
The wolf backed up, pulling the staff and John. Thinking Aeris would be displeased if he gave away her Ancient temple priest weapon as a dumbbell, John ran his hands along her materia, searching for something that would not kill them all. He considered the ChocoMog summon, but dismissed it with a "Naw." Hey, now this one felt interesting.
A tornado shaped hand seized the wolf and everything nearby, flinging it all from the cave. John had to brace his body to keep from flying free himself.
"Take that, you overgrown poodle!"
John turned back to Aeris, who sat bundled up in the remains of their bedding. She raised her hands in exasperation.
John said, "What did I just do?"
"You cast Remove. You removed the glacier wolf from combat. Along with the campfire stones, our cooking utensils, our food supplies, our canteens, our backpacks, our change of clothes and every loose chunk of ice in this cave. Luckily, I held onto our coats and shoes.
"So I did bad."
"Not bad, though we'll have to hunt our breakfast."
"That's okay. I always wanted to explore the glacier in my pajamas. I never got to go to slumber parties as a child."
"Maybe we can wear the sleeping bags. Make it a three-legged race."
"We'll wrap these silver blankets around ourselves, then put on our coats. Hopefully we won't need our climbing tools to get out of this crack."
"If we do, I'll cast Remove on us."
Aeris shook her head vigorously. "Let's consider other options first."
John nodded as they gathered their remaining belongings. As they were leaving, he spotted something glimmering in the freshly scoured ice.
"Looks like a summon materia." Aeris aimed a fire spell at the ice. John squatted to dig it out.
"Let me see," Aeris said. "Never heard of this one. Little Bo-Peep materia."
"Little Bo-Peep? What a joke. Just my luck. Now we can call some sheep to feed those wolves." He clicked it into his armlet.
"Be careful with that."
"You bet. Materia and I have an agreement. I don't use them very often, and they make my life hell when I do." He led the way into the light.
The path continued upward until they came to another side crevasse. From there, both directions looked difficult, littered with piles of ice debris. They stood, bedrolls under their arms, frowning.
"You pick, John."
"That way, at least until we hear a growl."
Aeris led the way, Princess Guard at the ready. The going was narrow, twisty, and above all, obnoxious. John boosted Aeris over the worst obstacles, and she in turn pulled him up. They did make progress; the surface was now less than ten meters above them. In the morning light and calm wind, it looked like Aeris' Promised Land to John.
Right before the growl, that is. And after the growl came a scream.
John and Aeris hurried around a corner to find three glacier wolves snapping at a pair of legs dangling over the cliff's edge.
"That's not something you see every day," John said.
Aeris stepped forward, staff in hand.
"Wait. Maybe I can distract them with this Little Bo-Peep."
The red glow enveloped him. He saw Aeris dive for cover; apparently she knew him well. A little girl in a blue bonnet appeared, picking daisies in a circle of meadow (darned surreal in the ice, to say the least). She smiled and picked up a gnarled staff, beckoning to something beyond her.
The ice opened up to reveal a sheep the size of an elephant.
It charged, flattening the three wolves and slamming into the far wall, knocking a hailstorm of debris loose from above. Amidst the larger chunks was Tifa, who bounced twice off the sheep's back before sprawling like a wet dish cloth at their feet.
"I've heard of it raining cats and dogs, but this is new to me," John said.
Aeris rushed up to her fallen friend and knelt, bowing her head.
"Wait." John put his hand on her shoulder. He sat and cradled Tifa's head on his lap. "Allow me. We may have a long walk ahead, and you don't want to exhaust yourself."
He moved bundles of Tifa's hair aside; she had so much he almost needed a pitchfork. He picked up Aeris' Princess Guard. He bowed his head and released the staff. It danced a jig in front of them as John touched his forehead to the ice. He sat up and felt the energy surge into all three of them.
"Wow," John said. "Wow."
"How do you do that?" Aeris said. "Absorb and store other people's abilities?"
"A talent. Works with monsters too. I'm keeping your Great Gospel for a sunny day."
"Well, next time you do a Pulse of Life, you don't actually need to touch your forehead on the ground." She swatted the top of his head. "Silly."
Tifa moaned and opened her eyes. They didn't seem to focus.
"I had the strangest dream." Her voice was slurred, far away. "I fell into an ice crevasse and landed on a giant sheep."
"Really? I had the same dream."
"John? What are you doing here?"
"Call me your guardian angel."
Her eyes sharpened, focusing on him. "Why are you in your pajamas?"
John tucked his coat closed. "It's the new Avalanche uniform. Didn't Spike tell you?"
Tifa rolled her eyes. "I should have known you were behind all the weird events today." Tifa turned her head. John felt her jerk when she saw Aeris.
"Right the first time," John said.
"I'm dead. That's it, right?"
"No. The giant sheep cushioned your fall."
"But--then how--how can--" Tifa sat up. She took Aeris' hands, felt her forearms, reached up to touch her face. "Is it you? Are you real?"
"Yes. It's good to see you again, Tifa."
"But how? I saw you, after Sephiroth. You, uh--" Tifa choked up, tears glistening in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," Aeris said. "It was shocking for me to see too."
Tifa looked up, now confused. Aeris turned to John.
"Perhaps you should explain."
"You summoned yourself?" Tifa looked as if she had just taken a bite of the moon and found it was cheese after all.
"She couldn't have done it without my meddling," John said. "There I was, treading water, talking with her dead mother--"
"I thought I saw you. Then that flash, then Aeris kneeling there, that sword poking out her front, oh God!" Tifa shuddered.
"How did you fall in the crevasse?" John asked.
"It doesn't seem so weird now. Cloud has always had his, moments, but when he swore he saw a flying wolf wearing Aeris' dress we thought we had lost him. Then Cid nearly got cold cocked by a bag of rice.
"I'm sorry," Aeris said, holding herself and laughing. "Is he okay?"
"Yes. Then other stuff started falling. Chunks of ice, something metal. We all dove for cover. I unfortunately dove too far."
Aeris walked over to the bedrolls and scooped them up. "I'm glad you're okay now."
"Yes," John said. "Imagine. Flying assault rice. Someone desperate for Wutai take-out."
"Did someone mention Wutai?"
In a flash, Yuffie appeared on a small ledge and dropped, landing squarely in front of them.
"Hi Tifa. Hi John. Figured you'd be behind this. Thought old spiky Dorkus had lost it when he started seeing flying pink pigs but then I almost got brained by a nasty smelling cooking pot. What were you cooking in it, anyway? Some gross bug stir-fry?"
"I, wouldn't suggest you cook anything in it now."
Yuffie turned at a sound behind her.
"Holy jumping Da-Chao in Wutai!"
"I see you've met my traveling companion."
"But, you're dead! I mean, you're not dead! What's going on! Who are you?"
"Don't worry Yuffie. It really is me."
"For all practical purposes," John said.
All three of them looked at him.
"Tell you what. Can you get us out of this crevasse? Then I can tell the tale to your whole group. Or we can wait for them to drop in one at a time."
"But," Yuffie looked at Aeris. "Are you a ghost? Are you a clone? A long lost twin sister? How is this happening? I saw you die right in front of me. So did Tifa."
John sighed. "Okay, here goes." He told the story again. The planning, the talks with Ifalna, the rescue, the aftermath.
"I didn't know you felt so strongly about me," Aeris said. "I felt, like a voyeur, watching you."
"Shows what you know." Yuffie sniffed back a tear. "You were like a big sister to me. Since my mother, you know, you lost yours too, but at least you remember her." Yuffie clasped Aeris in a tearful hug. "Don't you go and die on me again. Promise."
Tifa and John looked on in silence.
"I don't know what to say," Tifa said. "This has been, quite a day."
Yuffie slipped from her embrace to face John. "As for you," Slap!
John found himself sitting on the ice holding his stinging cheek.
"How dare you! Saving her like that and keeping her from us?"
She slapped him again.
"Don't you realize what this did to us? We're a group of emotional wrecks!" She dropped to the ground, head in her hands. "I can't believe you tried to raise her dead body as well. You dorkus, what would you do if it had worked? How would the two of them deal with each other?"
"Aeris has the personality to get along with herself. So does Tifa. You, on the other hand, would drive yourself crazy."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, we'd better join your companions, before Cloud beats me up for stealing his women."
"Hey. I'm not Cloud's woman." She stared at Tifa. "As if he would notice."
Tifa blushed. "John's right. They'll be worried if we don't get back soon."
"And I can't wait to see their faces when I show them what I found." Yuffie unreeled her rope, attached a grappling hook, and hurled the business end high onto the ice. "I'll go up first to make sure it's attached. Then you all climb. Gawd, I can't believe it's you, Aeris."
The ascent went without mishap. John had been so sure he would fall he had planned to summon the sheep to land on. But, he now stood with the other three, out on the bright ice, shivering.
"Over that way. Those rocks," Yuffie said. "See that cliff? We have to climb it."
"What, now?" John felt as if his legs would melt.
"Gotchya. Tomorrow. There's a cabin over that ridge. Come on. Hey, there's Nanaki. Hey Fuzzball, over here! You're not going to believe this!"
"Your conclusion is not the only possible outcome." Nanaki sat at the head of the low table, his red paws clasped almost as if in prayer. John had to fight the urge to throw him a dog biscuit.
"You mean, we don't have to lose her again?" Cloud's voice was pleading. He sat across from John and Aeris and couldn't pull his eyes from her. Beside him, Tifa brightened.
"Ordinary summoning magic creates a copy of the creature out of magical energy, for a brief period, whether it accomplishes its objective or not. Holy is different. Holy recreated Aeris, flesh and blood, mind and memories, everything. A magical construct would not have to drink hot cider, for instance."
"I hope you're right." Barret's hulking form did not look nearly as menacing after John had seen him envelop Tifa and Aeris in a group bear hug that had knocked out John's wind just to watch.
"So do I." Cid ran his hands over his stubble. "I hadn't known Aeris very long. Didn't know how much I'd miss her until I was driving my spear into that damn Jenova thing. I'd say our chances to deck Sephiroth just tripled. Damn, I need a smoke."
"If you don't cut down," Yuffie said from her seat next to Aeris, "You won't live to see Sephiroth, old man."
"I don't need your damn lip, brat. Somebody get me some tea."
"I'll do it." John hopped up and walked into the next room where the cabin's owner, Holzoff, was pulling a sheet of scones out of the brick oven.
"Cid would like some--wow." John's eyes fixed on the man's green aura, as strong as that of Aeris. John recovered. "Some tea. Hot tea."
"Sure thing. There's a pot right here."
John took the tray. "Are you a--" He lowered his voice. "A Cetra?"
Holzoff looked at him with sad eyes. "Half. My mother . . . I was ill with colic the day of the picnic at Pebble Creek. She stayed home to take care of me. My father, my older brother and sister . . . everyone one else . . . " He choked up. John set down the tray and took his arm.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"My mother never recovered. Wouldn't remarry. Friends say she used to be a strong woman. She tried to raise me well, teach me about her heritage, but I watched her waste away. Died of a broken heart."
John was silent before replying. "You know what annoys me the most? I feel so powerless. I don't even have the luxury of blaming myself."
Holzoff nodded. "After Shinra took Ifalna away, I thought it best to hide. So I live out here, rescuing explorers and those crazy enough to tackle the cliffs. Not a bad life. Keeps me close to the Planet."
"Hey! Where's my damn tea!"
"Hold on!" John slipped off his bracelet and held it out. To Holzoff he said, "You might be interested in this. It was worn by one of your people."
"Where did you get this?"
"Aeris and I went on a . . . vision quest. One of the dead Cetra at the Pebble Creek park gave it to me. A peace offering perhaps."
"Then you should keep it. It is a bracelet of warmth. I have one like it myself, though not in mint condition like yours. It will help your climb up the cliffs. A gift from the Planet always brings good luck."
"In that case, I'd be honored to wear it."
"Hey Jenova!" Barret said. "You drinking Cid's tea?"
John felt mortified but Holzoff smiled. "Don't worry. Aeris told me about you. I was worried I'd never see one of my kind again. And Ifalna's daughter, no less. I'm grateful to you. Here, take these scones too. That will soothe the troops."
John nodded and picked up the trays. "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help."
Returning to the conference room, he placed his load on the table.
"Here you go, great patient Cid. Tea, cream, sugar, scones. If you need help quitting your smoking habit, I can project a vision of someone I knew who was in the last stages of emphysema."
Cid made to retort, but his hacking cough cut him off.
"Don't worry. I won't do it without your permission."
"As I was saying," Vincent said, "what do we do about the Jenova?"
"Excuse me?" John dropped a scone on his plate. "My name is John. Feel free to write me a dear John letter, but please don't call me 'the Jenova.' I don't call you 'the Vampire.'"
Vincent stared at him. John casually met his gaze, until he discovered it was a test of wills. Vincent's blue aura strengthened as the Jenova in him tried to overpower John's mind. John felt his own mind take up the battle. With the mental heat came a thought: John knew he would win. After all, he was a full Jenova, like it or not, and as such was more than a match for this--whatever Vincent was.
John pulled the plug, jerking his gaze away. He spotted Yuffie arguing with Barret and did a double take. "No. Spots in front of my eyes." He blinked several times. There. That's better. He hurried back to his seat.
"I don't know about you," Barret said, "but Jenova or no Jenova, anyone who attacks Shinra troops on sight has my vote."
Cloud said, "He has no combat skills. He might get in our way even if he stays true."
Aeris said, "For having no combat skills, he gets around. And he did save me back at Icicle Inn." She gave him a wry grin.
"Y-yes," Cloud said. "But we are talking about climbing the Gaia cliffs, where we will fight powerful monsters and face Sephiroth."
"You have Cait Sith," John said. "How good a climber is he?"
"He is light," Nanaki said. "We will haul him up with a rope sling. I'm worried they might need to do the same to me."
"You'll be fine." John thought of Fluffy. "As long as you don't have to climb down."
Cloud said, "Still, for your safety, John, I recommend--"
"I'm staying with Aeris." John spoke with the finality of a parent.
Cloud opened his mouth but Vincent spoke up. "Let him come."
"What?" Cloud said. "You?"
"If we try to stop him, he will come anyway. And in that case, he may well turn against us. This way, we can watch him. And I will personally watch out for Aeris."
"Uhm, thanks," John said. "Though I promise I would never turn traitor on you. Why would I, of all people, hurt Aeris?"
Vincent said nothing. Tifa smiled. "It's the closest to a compliment you can get from Vincent. Welcome aboard."
"Now that's settled," Cait said in his bouncy-bouncy voice. "How are we going to tackle the cliffs?"
"We'll go up in teams," Cloud said. "The first will be the best climbers. Tifa, Yuffie and I."
Barret snorted. "We have to depend on Yuffie?"
"Listen blockhead," Yuffie said. "If you think--"
Cloud cleared his throat. "The next group will be Nanaki, Barret and Cait. That way we can pull them up if the going gets too tough."
Yuffie gave Barret a triumphant leer.
"Don't push it, brat," Barret said.
"If I may continue?" Cloud said. "Thank you. The final team will be Aeris, John and Vincent, along with Cid to guard our rear."
"Sounds great," John said. "That way, if I misbehave, Cid can hold me down with his spear while you drop Barret on me."
John saw Cloud fight to hide a smile.
"Looks like we're ready," Tifa said. "Let's get moving while there's still light. I have a date with a long-haired guy named Sephiroth." She clapped her gloved fist into her other hand.
"Hey Spike," Barret said. "You're blushing."
They stood up with a 'Let's get going' urgency. John's mind flashed red.
"Ah, guys? There's . . . something I need to tell you."
Cloud gave him a dark look.
"Nestor Granth. He's been trying to kill Aeris."
Dead silence. Cloud and Barret stared at him with open hostility.
"If it makes you feel better, he wants to kill me too. He thinks I'm a Cetra. I think."
Barret's booming voice broke through the silence.
"Just when were you planning to tell us about this!"
People began to speak all at once. John knew the anger was directed at him, but he did not feel offended. He held up his hand to quiet them. Slowly, he recounted the tale of his first meeting with Nestor in the Shinra tower, the attack on Aeris at Icicle Inn, followed by their wild flight down the slope.
Cid grunted. "Kid, we need to teach you how to drive."
Barret said, "At least you dropped that Mako-guzzler off the nearest cliff."
Cloud sighed. "Anything, else, we need to know, John? Has my mother come back from the dead, perchance?"
John felt a bizarre tingling in his stomach. He ignored it. "Nothing you shouldn't expect. Besides, Nestor isn't the type to go rock climbing. More likely he will meet us on the other side."
"That's a cheery thought," Tifa said.
"We still have a cliff to climb." Cloud was all business now.
John stood up. "It would be a pleasure to serve with you, sir."
"Don't overdo it," Barret said. "You'll end up in one of those blue Shinra uniforms with that attitude."
"I'd rather gargle broken glass." He turned and helped Aeris up. "You sure you're feeling up to this?"
"Don't worry about me. The Planet wants me to stop Sephiroth, remember?"
The climb was easier than John had expected. It was, of course, cold. But they had many resting places where they could warm up using Fire materia. Holzoff had found some spiked gloves that fit over Nanaki's paws, giving him four clawed hands--the best climber of the lot. Holzoff had also fitted Barret's gun arm with a fired rope and grappling hook. With this, Barret reeled in Cait Sith like a white puffy trout.
The only excitement came when Yuffie kicked a green, multi-tentacled creature off a ledge, and the thing nearly knocked Cid loose. He held on, releasing a string of profanity.
"Watch it, brat!"
Yuffie shouted something back, but the wind snatched away the sound.
"Take it easy," Aeris said. "She didn't mean anything by it."
"Damn kid's careless. I need a smoke."
"Good luck, out here," John said.
"I hate climbin'. I hate the cold. Can barely breathe."
"That's the cigarettes. Give 'em up, and you'll be as spry as Yuffie."
"Bah!" He paused and hacked a string of coughs. Sounded like lung tissue loose in there. John began to worry about him, but he pulled himself up to onto the ledge next to Aeris. John sat beside him."
"Who wants the honor of doing the Fire materia this time?" John said.
"Why not you?" Vincent glided to a stop next to him.
"Because I value my life. Yours too."
"I'll do it," Cid said.
"Good idea. After all, if you can't have a smoke, you might as well have a fire."
Cid grunted, directing his spell toward a loose rock. After it started to glow, he and John removed their gloves and warmed their hands.
"Hey Aeris," Cid said. "No need to be shy. Plenty of rock for everyone."
"Aeris?" John looked at her. She sat, back against the cliff face, unmoving.
"You with us?" Cid said.
John leapt over to her. Her face was ice cold. "Aeris!" He began to shake her, getting no response. "Oh no!"
Vincent caught his arms. "She is breathing. Let's move her closer to the heat." He lifted her as if she weighed no more than Fluffy.
"Hey kid," Cid said. "Don't fade out on us. We just got you back, remember?"
"So . . . tired . . . "
"Hypothermia," John said. "Wind's brutal." He fumbled for a Restore materia. He cast the spell, hosing her down with the green energy. Her color improved, as presumably did Vincent's leg, which also received a dose from the spell.
"Th-thanks. I'm s-sorry."
"Glad you're feeling better." John looked up the cliff. "Though I don't know how we'll get you up the mountain. Maybe Barret can use his sling."
"No need." Vincent picked her up, cuddling her like a baby under his cape. "I shall carry her."
"How are you going to climb?"
In response, Vincent rose off the ground and began to drift upward at a slow walking pace.
"Well, damn." Cid shook his head. "Maybe I should pass out and get a ride too."
"Forget it," John said. "You aren't cute enough."
Over the Top
Yuffie announced the summit with a Wutai war whoop. Vincent floated past with Aeris, riding those mystical vampire thermals.
"Doesn't he ever have to rest?" Cid hawked and spat, the spittle crackling and turning to ice as it tinkled down the mountain.
"Check out the view from here. I'm sick of climbing, though. Everything you said about it? You were right. It sucks."
"Look at that! That's my darling!"
Something metal gleamed in the distant sky, coming closer by the second. Cid, obviously forgetting his fatigue, scrambled up the last few meters to where the others stood. John was the last over the crater's rim.
"It's the Highwind! Hey baby!" Cid fumbled out a cigarette, but the wind blew it away. He cursed.
Cloud said, "Let's find some shelter. We need to rest."
Everyone did look tired, Aeris worst of all. She stood where Vincent had placed her, leaning on both Tifa and Barret, barely supporting her weight.
"I don't understand," she said. "My legs. They feel like rubber."
Nanaki spoke up. "Seems the closer you get to the crater, the weaker you feel. Must be something to do with the exposed Lifestream. If you're the embodiment of Holy . . . "
Aeris moaned. "I don't want to be a burden."
"Nonsense," Barret said. "Teef and I will carry you while crawling on our knees if we have to." They each fastened an arm under one of hers. "Ready?"
Tifa nodded. "Don't worry about a thing, kiddo. We have you. We're not letting you die on us this time."
A war party of Cloud, Yuffie and Nanaki took the lead, followed by Aeris and her supporters. Cait Sith bounced along after them, leaving Cid, Vincent and John to bring in the rear.
"It is the Highwind." Cid waved his spear. "Over here! Give us a lift!"
John felt a bolt of danger. "Guys, perhaps we shouldn't attract their attention?"
Vincent disappeared over the ridge after the others.
"Bring my ship over here!"
The Highwind turned to face him.
"Duck!" John screamed. A barrage of missiles was swarming toward them. Cid, spry as a mountain goat when needed, jumped into a rock crevice, leaving John to plummet over the inside edge of the crater just before the missiles slammed into the rock above. He curled into a ball, counting the bruises as he bumped down the slope. Flying rock fragments stung his face and forearms.
When finally he stopped moving, he glimpsed Cait Sith bouncing back up the slope. John rolled onto his elbows, and heard Cid bark the word "Shinra" amidst a string of expletives, some of which John had never heard.
Nanaki bounded up the slope after Cait. Tifa, Barret and Aeris crawled to their knees from where the blast had slammed them flat.
"Look out!" Cloud said from somewhere out of sight. "They're coming for another pass!"
Cid howled another string of profanity but kept his head down. Tifa hoisted Aeris to her feet and hid her in a rock crevice. John stood, if shakily, feeling the weight of his materia armlet.
Barret opened up with his gun arm, a bit like attacking a tank with a fly swatter, but John supposed it made him feel better. No sign of Vincent or Yuffie. No matter.
John raised his arms. "Comet!"
Red fireballs screeched from the sky. Whoever was at the Highwind's helm dodged the worst of it, not that John was very accurate in the first place. Most of the flaming rocks went wide, over the edge of cliff, thundering onto the glacier beyond, but one small fireball caught the Highwind on the nose. The airship shuddered out a trail of sparks.
Cid bellowed, as if in pain. "My baby! My baby! What did you do to my baby?"
"And I'd do it again," John said to no one.
"Hey, there's Sephiroth!" Yuffie pointed down the path, which became a twisting ridge disappearing into the fog. Sure enough, a black caped figure stumbled along, swaying dangerously at the turns. The fog began to lift, exposing another robed figure. And another. And a fourth. Where had all those come from? John distinctly did not recall seeing any of them climbing the cliff.
Tifa stood and ran to Cloud. John limped down to Yuffie and Aeris.
"You guys going after Sephiroth?" he asked. "What about that?"
The Highwind above them sputtered to a hovering halt, its rotary blades beating at the air above. As John watched, dozens of parachutes appeared, each dangling a blue Shinra soldier.
Vincent floated down to him, vampire style.
"Hide Aeris," John said. "I'll help the others hold them off." That ought to be good for laughs, he thought. No one argued, so John took off running.
Barret was firing at random. "Shinra? Cool! Let me at 'em!"
"No!" Cloud said. "To Sephiroth!"
He, Barret and Tifa were the only ones outside the falling ring of blue. Yuffie made to follow but found herself cut off by landing blue suits. Cid crawled down from above, waving his spear and shouting insults. Cait and Nanaki waited nearby. A rope ladder dropped from the Highwind and a lone figure calmly descended, as if the ensuing battle was a mere nuisance in his corporate life. John expected to see Heidegger, or perhaps even President Rufus, and was shocked to realize the VIP was Nestor Granth.
"Who the hell are you?" Cid said. A nearby guard jabbed him in the ribs with a gun. Cid shoved him away with the butt of his spear.
"Who are you?" Nestor's imperious voice said. John noticed he wore a harness with a taught rope reaching up to the Highwind.
"I'm Cid Highwind, captain of that airship you Shinra creeps stole."
"If you're a captain, why hang out with these, heh, ruffians?"
Yuffie said, "Because we're trying to stop Sephiroth from destroying the world."
One of the soldiers made a grab for Yuffie's breasts, receiving an elbow to his stomach for his efforts.
Nestor said, "Let's end this circus. I've come for the Ancient."
"You haven't heard?" Cid said. "She's dead. Sephiroth killed her."
"Nonsense. I saw her in Icicle Inn, with this twerp." He pointed at John.
"I saw her die in the Forgotten City. Hard to miss. Only thing left was one of those damn Jenova creatures. I spiked it on my spear, just as I'll do to your worthless--"
"Tut-tut," Nestor said. "Let's be professional here. There will be time for insults later, when I order your deaths."
"Grrr!" Yuffie went for her shuriken, only to have a soldier knock it loose and put her in a hammer lock. Undaunted, she jerked forward, flipping him onto his back. She made to stomp his face but stopped when she saw three guns pointing at her.
"Wise decision." Nestor smiled. "Let's cut to the point. I know the girl Aeris is here because I can sense her."
"You sense me." John stepped forward. The soldiers parted, perhaps subconsciously. "Why are you and Hojo so interested in her, anyway?"
"That pathetic quack did get one thing right. He convinced me you are not an Ancient."
"You know? Grow your hair out. Leave it unwashed for a month, and you'll pass for Hojo's twin."
"Where is the girl?"
John rubbed his stomach. "I devoured her essence. That is why you sense her. You see, I am a Jenova. Better looking than that headless leper Sephiroth stole, too. But you know that, because you--"
John strained to pick up the blue aura he knew had to be there. But no. Strain as he might, no blue. Then he saw something else: flickering red, with sparks of black. What the heck?
"Because you're a grown man and should know better," he finished.
"I grow weary of this prattle. If he makes another sound," Nestor gazed around at the throng of soldiers, "Kill the red pooch."
Nanaki growled again.
With a confidence he did not feel, John placed his hand on his red materia. He stood right in front of his adversary, smiling, wishing he had Vincent's teeth. Nestor's neck looked tough, but inviting.
"Nestor?" John said sweetly. "Want to see what I did with her Cetra essence?"
"You don't catch on, do you? Guards! Kill the--"
The blue bonnet girl reappeared, picking more daisies. Nestor laughed.
"That's the most ridiculous--"
The attack was so sudden even John had to dive for cover. Cid gaped in amazement as the elephant sized sheep rammed through a knot of soldiers as if they were blue bowling pins. Nestor was knocked wide with a glancing blow, but before anyone could go after him, he gave his rope a quick jerk and flew upward like a reverse bungee jumper.
"Come back, you sick bastard!" Cid said.
"What a cool summon," Yuffie said, snatching her shuriken and dispatching Gus the Groper who had made another grab for her chest. "Stupid, but cool."
The sheep's wake had created a mini-avalanche, dozens of suitcase sized boulders chasing John down the inside of the crater. He scrambled to the side, somehow avoiding the onslaught. Setting his jaw, he scrambled back up to the path, where the battle raged.
Nanaki let loose a howl and leaped high in the air. John could envision him silhouetted against the moon, until he snarled into two soldiers, a whirl of gashing claws and teeth.
Yuffie fought as Fluffy would, were she human; kicking the nearest soldier in his crotch, she caught her returning shuriken with a free hand, slamming it again at Gus the Groper who hadn't had the sense to stay down. Above her, Cid jabbed and parried with his spear. Then Cait waded in, wobbling and punching with wild abandon.
Meanwhile, a trooper blindsided John with what felt like a lead baseball bat. His left arm felt numb below the shoulder, but when he tried to move it, blinding pain knocked him to the ground--luckily, because Bruce Lee's next blow was aimed at his head. John swore he could feel jagged ends of bone grinding away inside him.
Yuffie ran over to help. Turning to meet her charge, the trooper batted her shuriken aside like a Frisbee, delivering a punishing kick to her stomach. Eyes wide, she flew backward, though her skill at materia allowed her to cast a Cure spell at John even as she tumbled end over end to land in a painful heap. The soldier chuckled, slowly but gleefully advancing.
"Little girls shouldn't be out on a day like this."
John felt his frustration peak. One glance at his armlet told him his materia was useless. Little Bo-Peep was dark, and Comet--no, that would not do. In desperation, and fury, he smacked the ground with both fists, willing the Planet to send something his way. To his surprise, the response came as energy crackled through him and shot out to his companions.
He and his friends found themselves inside flashes of golden sheen, accented by the clang of metal.
Bruce Lee wobbled with the distraction, allowing Yuffie to squirt partially free. He changed his stomp into a kick, but his foot bounced off her side as if she were a steel armadillo.
"Ha!" said Yuffie, taking the blow with barely a nudge. She bounced to her feet, screamed a Wutai battlecry, raining a hurricane of blows, denting his helmet and nearly shoving the guy's breastplate up his nose. He dropped and, perhaps heeding the lesson of Gus the Groper, stayed dropped.
John hurried away from the battle, back down to where Vincent lay over Aeris like a red and black quilt.
"How is she doing?"
"Not well," Vincent said. "I fear, unless we can get her to a doctor, she may slip into a coma."
Aeris poked her head out. "I'm not so far gone I can't give Sephiroth a good sucker punch. We have to catch him before he uses the Black Materia, right?"
"If you feel up to it," John said.
"Of course I feel up to it." She crawled out, tried to stand, but flopped to hands and knees. "It's walking I find difficult."
Without a word, Vincent stood and scooped her, wrapping his cloak around her shivering body. Above them, judging from the sound, the battle was nearing conclusion.
"I saw your new limit technique. Impressive, Jenova."
"Thanks. I think."
Vincent tucked Aeris closer to himself and began to run down the winding path.
"Hey!" Yuffie kicked a Shinra helmet down the slope. John hoped there was no head inside. "I'm ready to go kick some Sephiroth butt."
"Yea." Cid panted to a halt and coughed. "Enough of those pansy Shinra bastards. Hey! Back here with my Highwind!"
The elongated airship rotated above them, then started toward the center of the crater. Cid swore.
John said, "Let me try something." He clenched his fist and stared at the ship, wondering if the thoughts he was projecting actually reached their target, vague as it was. "I don't think it worked." He slumped.
"What did you do?" Yuffie asked.
"Tried to project an image of the Captain here telling them to surrender. Even used his colorful language to make it believable."
Cid laughed. "If the guy I think is piloting that thing, I'll bet you made him wet his pants."
"With my luck, I tried talking to mice under the tail fins. Sorry I'm not much of a Jenova for you."
"I like you better than that one down there. Damn."
The mist cleared enough to reveal three tiny figures fighting a hulking but familiar form. After a dozen quick slashes of Cloud's sword, it lurched and collapsed.
"Glad I'm not that one too. What this time, a leg perhaps?"
Cait Sith bounced by. "Come on guys. You're missing the fun!"
"Damn cat in a clown's suit." Cid coughed.
Nanaki raced by.
"We'd better move." Cid pointed at the Highwind. "Hey, you made it stop."
"It's over the crater. But I'll take credit for the sun going down, too. We had better go."
Along the path they ran. Yuffie and Cid dispatched the few monsters unwise enough to cross their path. While John could tell the pair did not like each other, in combat they shined like a father-daughter team. John smiled, then coughed as he waved away the celebratory cigarette smoke.
They continued. After several twists the main path dead ended, though a treacherous route still led downward. The Highwind thrummed almost directly above them. A rope ladder hung from the lower deck, as well as a twitching tether line. Nestor.
Tifa popped her head up from below the ridge. "We have to hurry," she said. "Barret got all glassy-eyed and I'm afraid he'll do something stupid."
"Our Barret?" Yuffie said. "Do something stupid?"
"Cloud gave him the Black Materia to keep safe. He was here with me, but then he spaced out and said Cloud was in trouble."
"Not again," Yuffie said. "If dorkus gives the Black Materia to Sephiroth again, after all this--"
"We have to hurry!"
"Yuffie," John said, "think you can cut that tether line with your shuriken?"
"Yes," Cid said. "You hold that Nestor creep for us and I promise to say something nice about you."
"You do know the way to a girl's heart." She readied her weapon. She was about to throw it when she grinned. "I have a better idea." She launched herself out into space, barely snagging the rope, spinning around with a shriek.
"You! Stupid! Brat!" Cid was so flustered he flung his half smoked cigarette aside."What, what was she thinking? What is that little brat doing?"
"Sorry," John said. "My influence. Makes her crazy. We'd better get down there."
They arrived in the crystalline crater just as Barret handed a small object to a twitching Cloud. Barret bore an 'okay, if you say so' look on his rugged face. John personally did not like to entrust valuable objects to someone who spasmed every other step.
On one side of Cloud stood Cait Sith and Nanaki. Across from them stood a gaggle of blue Shinra; amidst them Heidegger stood next to Scarlet, her rotten-egg aura of evil practically glowing. And behind her . . .
"Hojo!" Vincent leapt amidst the group, red eyes ablaze.
"Ah, the wayward Turk. Hee-hee, woke up from your self-imposed slumber, no?"
"You will pay." Vincent's voice was a low rumble. "For Lucrecia."
"The vessel? You had feelings for her? Hee-hee. Don't pretend you have feelings now."
"Why are you here?"
"Why, to observe my experiment, of course. The Jenova reunion."
"Can you feel it, ex-Turk? Can you feel the pull? The Jenova within you crying out?" He turned to Cloud. "How about you, my failed experiment?"
Cloud looked at Hojo with a moan. Hojo doubled over in laughter for several seconds.
"How does it feel?" Hojo said through teary eyes, "to find out you are nothing but a failed lab experiment? That you are merely a clone of the great Sephiroth, and a defective one at that?"
"I'd say it would suck," John said, stepping forward, "But it hardly matters. When I found out I was a failed clone of an evil megalomaniac, I saw my life for the joke it was." He walked over to Cloud. "But in your case, it's not even true."
"I . . . I need a number."
"I . . . what?"
"I gave you a number. Now hand me that Black Materia."
"I need . . . a number."
"What's wrong with seven?"
"He doesn't have a number." Hojo danced a jig. "Failures don't get a number."
"Then he gets to make up his own number. How about pi? Ah, Spike, where are you going?"
"I'm . . . sorry."
"Don't listen to the greasy lunatic, number seven."
"I apologize, to everyone." Cloud was apparently off in the--well--clouds. "Especially you, Tifa. I've hurt you, and you only tried to help."
"Cloud, please." Tifa sounded near tears.
"Touching," said Scarlet. "The brain-dead loser and his slut."
"Shut up, Scarlet!" Barret, John figured, judging from the emotions pouring off Tifa, probably saved Scarlet's life.
"We don't let trash like you in the Promised Land," Scarlet said.
Barret leveled his gun arm and glared.
John looked up and around their crater. Plant-like crystals extended their glittering fingers toward the sky. Deep within their forms, a cool green light pulsed a slow rhythm.
"It's beautiful," said a voice behind him.
"The Ancient!" Hojo looked like a young boy digging into his Christmas stocking.
"Her name is Aeris," Yuffie said. "Learn it."
"The Ancients have returned to lead us to the Promised Land. Their spirits will rise around us and herald the building of New Midgar."
"How many were killed to build old Midgar?" John said, remembering Pebble Creek.
"I'll take that Ancient." Nestor strode into the clearing. Surprisingly, his tether was still taut. John looked at Yuffie, but she only smirked.
"Hee-hee, of course. Now that the Promised Land has been delivered, you can have as many Ancients as you want."
"Sounds like Heaven," John said. "The Promised Land. Overflowing with Mako energy, Ancients and shareholder value."
"No Shinra bastard will ever set foot in the Promised Land!" Barret swung his gun arm between Scarlet and Nestor.
"I have orders from Rufus," Nestor said. "You are to hand over the Ancient to me, for scientific research--"
"Science! Science!" Hojo convulsed in giggles.
"As for the rest of this rabble? Kill them."
Scarlet stepped forward. "It would be my pleasure to give that order, sir."
"Who's running Shinra, anyway?" Yuffie said. "This skinny geek here?"
"Soldiers?" Scarlet said. "Ready?"
"Ready to die?" Barret yelled back. Avalanche members assumed battle stances.
Reeve stepped from behind a growth of crystal.
"Excuse me, but I was just talking with Rufus and he--"
"Cloud!" Cid said. "What are you doing up there, you spiky haired freak?"
Everyone looked up, except Aeris, who bowed her head.
Cloud stood braced on an outstretched crystal limb, holding out something in his open palm. In front of him . . .
"Sephiroth," Tifa said. "Cloud, no!"
"What are you doing, dorkus?" Yuffie aimed her shuriken.
"Oh man!" Barret stomped his feet. "And just when we were about to wallop some Shinra butt."
"Barret?" Scarlet said, hand raised. "I need to ask you. Do you want to hear what your lovely wife said to me right before I put thirty bullets into her dancing corpse?"
There was a second of shocked silence. Nestor yanked on his cord. He frowned. Yuffie smirked. Aeris whispered something, lifting her arms. Gold stars swirled from her fingertips, flowing around her friends, leaving them bathed in a soft yellow glow. Nestor hauled on his rope again, looking more frustrated.
Barret threw back his head and howled.
"Right the first time," John said. Then the crater erupted in thunderous gunfire.
Aeris grabbed John's hand and tugged, pointing upward. John nodded. Pulling her arm, he practically dragged her up into the tangled crystal. Bullets pinged and whistled around them like a swarm of wasps.
"This is nuts!" John vainly tried to shield Aeris as the shots blow off tiny chunks of crystal all around them.
"Hurry." She forced the words out with her short breath. "My Planet Protector will not last much longer."
"Oh, so that's why we're not full of holes? And I thought it was my sweet charm. There's Cloud. Oh no."
Cloud's outstretched fingers touched a surface that appeared to be glass, yet rippled like the surface of a clear pond. Beyond it, another hand reached forward to take the proffered object.
Aeris shrieked and leapt upward, snagging Cloud's leg. The move threw off his balance, making him jerk back his hand. John scrambled up and, knowing he was nowhere a match for Cloud's strength, lunged at the hand and bit it.
Cloud's sword, like half a propeller, swung around and cut at John's waist. John would have become a twin of Bugenhagen had the Planet Protector worn off a tad sooner. Even so, he barely remained conscious as he bounced off the nearby crystal branches.
John looked up to see that sword raised overhead. He raised his hand in protest, just in time to see the last of his yellow protective field fade.
Cloud had stretched to his tiptoes for the final blow when Aeris, still dangling from his leg, rammed the Princess Guard straight up between his legs.
Cloud's eyes rolled back; John felt pity at the guy's spike of pain. The sword arm drooped, and from his other hand a golf ball sized orb slipped loose and clinked off the crystal with a musical note. A high F, John mused.
John lunged for the marble. He felt its cool power as it caromed off his fingertips. Never was good at pool, he thought. He grabbed for it again, shouting something Cid-like when it bounced off the back of his hand.
Aeris released Cloud, and would have snagged the materia herself had John not blundered into her side. He scrabbled for the cool black stone as it bounced teasingly down the crystal jungle gym. Meanwhile, the whole structure began to shudder. John glanced up to find two arms already emerged from their glass prison.
"Sephiroth," Aeris said. "He's coming through."
John kicked at the materia in disgust, actually connecting and sending it flying into parts unknown.
"Just great." He closed his eyes and released his copy of Aeris' Planet Protector.
The world exploded in a waterfall of shattered crystal. Through the raining kaleidoscope, John spotted the pink streak of Aeris and the glowing spike of Cloud's hair. John and Aeris landed amidst a jagged heap of crystal, which hurt like hell even with the protective ability.
Two feet the size of Volkswagens crashed into the pile of scrap. John and Aeris looked up, and up, and up.
Aeris stared, mouth agape. "I never expected him to be . . . so big . . . "
"Stop acting like a porn star and help us save the planet." Cid batted away pieces of crystal with the haft of his spear.
"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha." Sephiroth's booming voice echoed like a half court announcer. "I have returned. Mother and I have come to reclaim the Planet."
John said, "Aren't you carrying this Freudian thing too far? Most guys content themselves to driving fancy cars."
"You again? You are not my Jenova."
"No, I'm my own Jenova. As for your mother--"
"Her name is Lucrecia," Vincent said, floating above the ground for effect. "And this is Hojo, the man who raped her."
"No, no!" Hojo bunny-hopped around Sephiroth's feet. His lab coat, strangely, showed no signs of the recent battle. "She came to me willingly. She believed in me, in the Jenova project. And just look at you, my son. My, how you've grown. And the reunion is such a success. Look at the failure dangling from your ear."
"Cloud?" Tifa picked herself up from the rubble. "What are you doing up there?"
"The future is now!" Sephiroth lifted his sword up to the sky. John had to blink several times to make sure it wasn't a jet wing he was carrying around. "In the name of the mother, the son and the--"
"Wait!" John stepped back, kicking a dead Shinra soldier out of the way. Heidegger, he saw, lay curled in a ball, quivering behind a rock. Scarlet, on the other hand, lay stretched out in a bloody mess, eyes unseeing. The only part of her body still presentable was her curled talon of a left hand. John could not recall seeing anyone who looked so dead.
Sephiroth's head tilted forward, causing Cloud's feet to scissor in the air.
"Who does your hair?"
"Yea. Tifa here, she gets in a few battles and her hair is so snarled she could walk around with a dead rat in it and not notice. But you? Your hair is so silky, so shiny. I just wondered what you use on it."
"I have absorbed the very Lifestream of the Planet, bathed in the knowledge and wisdom of the Ancients."
"Swimming in the Lifestream? That's like throwing a dead pigeon in a water tank. I'll bet you whizzed in it as well."
"Did the kids in school pick on you for having long hair? Is that why you turned out so bad? Or were you driven insane from all those split ends?"
He swung his sword down, but it caught halfway with a metallic screech. A coral reef of crystal dislodged from the far wall and shattered on the ground. Sephiroth twisted his sword, this way and that, but still it remained, stuck fast.
"All right," Cid said. "We've been chasing Sephiroth. So let's smoke this bastard!"
He flew into a frenzy, bringing his spear down on the nearest foot. After several lunges, barely a mark could be seen.
"What the hell's this thing made of?"
"Good job tenderizing his sneaker," John said. "There was an old lady, who lived in a shoe . . . "
Barret opened up with his gun arm, spraying bullets up Sephiroth's legs. Yuffie's shuriken clanged harmlessly off a knobby knee.
"Ah-ha-ha-ha! I have absorbed the protective energy of the Planet itself! Your puny souls I will crush into jelly as Mother and I begin our crusade of fire!"
"Talks a lot, doesn't he?" John scrambled onto Sephiroth's shoe. The robe above creaked like a giant corset as Sephiroth still worried at his sword. Curtains of dust fell all around.
"Yuffie, Tifa, Cid. Know any good knots? Help me."
"What the hell are you doing?" Cid said.
"Tying his shoes together. It always works on me." John flung down coils of shoestring as thick as bridge cables. "Let's see how he moves with his gunboats anchored together."
Yuffie launched herself onto the neighboring shoe while Tifa and Cid hauled John's line toward her. They were ready to start tying when Sephiroth lifted his foot.
"Run!" John clung to a lace, preparing to rappel. The foot came down on Scarlet's body. Her good hand, with its crimson painted nails, was all that stuck out from underneath.
"Mother!" Sephiroth said. "Mother, you come!"
The ground cracked, revealing a radioactive green liquid below. Out of the crack reached two squid-like tentacles, followed by what looked like a giant, spongy glob of pus.
John jumped free, scampering through shards of crystal.
"I see the family resemblance," he said.
Hojo walked up, still wearing that pristine lab coat. "Jenova Synthesis. Can you feel the attraction? The reunion is at hand."
"Attraction? You want to go out with that thing?"
Sephiroth shuffled his feet again. Everyone but Hojo jumped back. Yuffie, Barret and Nanaki closed to fight the Jenova thing. John ran over to Tifa. Aeris stood nearby, leaning heavily on her staff. She looked winded, but still mobile. John gave her a thumbs up.
Cid whistled to Cait Sith. "Come here a moment, bouncy cat." The two unlikely allies huddled.
John said to Tifa, "I could hit Sephiroth with this Comet materia, if your boyfriend would get off his shoulders."
They both looked up.
Cloud clutched several strands of Sephiroth's hair, smashing against the giant's cheek with Sephiroth's every movement. He was so busy hanging on for dear life he was unable to bring his sword to bear.
"Don't you hate it when you get a bee stuck in your hair, Tifa?"
Spells and combat sounds raged by the Jenova blob. Sephiroth raised his foot again.
Cid called out, "Down here, you overgrown steroid freak!"
Cait Sith bounced forward and braced Cid's spear just before the foot came down.
John covered his ears to shut out the scream.
"Damn, that was my favorite spear," Cid said.
Sephiroth lifted his foot again. Underneath was a white wad, much like squashed bubble gum. John watched the whiteness pop into a roundish shape, then detach. It landed like a fried egg without the yolk. It hit the ground with a dinner plate roll, extending a pair of flippers to test the air, finally bulking into an off-kilter snowman shape. Out of the top popped a mashed feline face.
"Remind me," said the flat, tinny voice, "to put turbo rockets in the next model." Cait Sith fell to the side and lay still. "I think . . . I'll just rest . . . "
Sephiroth had his wounded foot upraised, his head lowered, his hand trying to work the object free.
"Someone will need a tetanus shot," John said.
The Highwind, which had been hovering nearby, flew into a low dive and sprayed a line of rockets across the giant's chest. Sephiroth staggered. John could see Cloud swing back onto the giant's shoulder and grasp an earlobe. Did Spike think he was George of the Jungle up there?
"Help me drag this damn cat toy out of here," Cid said. "I'll have to make him a catnip mouse."
"Cloud!" Tifa pointed upward.
Aeris clung panting on her shoulder. "What are you doing?"
Cloud's response was drowned out by three summoned monsters hitting the Jenova creature at once. It retaliated with an explosive green mist, throwing the three attackers onto their backs. Barret leveled his gun and blistered it with a stream of lead. Yuffie grabbed her shuriken and dove in, slashing left and right so hard her weapon flashed purple. She barely missed Nanaki who jumped from side to side slashing with claws and teeth. Yuffie's finishing leap and war whoop split the Jenova in half.
"This is for Aeris, for Tifa, for my hometown, for my mother," Cloud said, though barely audible on the ground. "All you need to do is lend an ear." He plunged his sword, up to his elbow, into Sephiroth's ear. The giant's eyes rolled back and, like a drunken skyscraper, his body began to fall.
"Heads!" Clouds said, leaping to a passing crystal.
The resounding crash never came. Sephiroth's outsized body folded up and inside itself before dropping limp under its blood smeared black cape. The giant masamune blade turned to glass and shattered into snowflakes. Sephiroth, now human sized, crouched on hands and knees, staring at the cleaved Jenova with the pulsing green pool behind it. He shuffled forward, pushing his normal sized masamune along the ground.
"Son?" Hojo lifted his stringy head, batting away a falling Shinra helmet.
Cloud leapt to the ground, clutching his midsection with his free arm.
"Don't let him get to the Lifestream," Aeris said. "Else it will start all over."
Sephiroth lurched to his feet at the sound of her voice. He turned and faced her. His green eyes lacked the primal fury of before, yet still bore no trace of sanity. He smiled.
"Didn't I kill you already?"
Aeris' body began to glow white. Pulling from Tifa's clutches, she advanced, a dainty spring in her step. She smiled back, eyes shining, her warmth filling the crater with a soft light.
"The Planet, has given me, enough strength, to take you with me, but not, to the Promised Land."
John leaped between them. "Oh no you don't, Aeris. Not this time. The Planet can find some other pawn." He held his hand out to her chest. "Or it will have to deal with me first."
"What's this?" Sephiroth said. "A Jenova and a Cetra working together? Touching show of bravado. I can feel the Planet quaking in fear of dealing with . . . John."
"Looks like you did absorb some Ancient wisdom after all," John said. "Stuff's dangerous, you know? Almost killed me."
"It is time," Sephiroth said. "At last. My journey ended. The Promised Land."
"Yes, it is time." Aeris glowed brighter. "The Planet must purge the taint of Jenova for good."
John clasped Aeris on the shoulder. She was getting hot. He turned his head to Sephiroth. "Time out, you two. Perhaps we can make a deal?"
Sephiroth raised his sword. Aeris tried to move toward him but John blocked her.
"Step aside, false Jenova!"
John again moved to block Aeris, who almost slipped past him.
"You, you don't want to try hitting me with that sword," John said.
"And why not?"
Behind Sephiroth came a primal yell. Cloud slashed in with his sword, slicing with lightning force, again, again, again, finally leaping into the air and bringing down the final blow in an explosion of light.
"Because," John said calmly, "Tifa's boyfriend is really pissed at you."
Cloud bent over, leaning on his sword hilt, panting. He still had enough strength to give Sephiroth a final jab.
Aeris sagged against John, the unearthly light dimming. "What? John? He's gone? I can't believe . . . I can't believe it's over."
All heads turned at the new voice. Nestor Granth walked toward them, holding a glass vial in the air.
"What the hell?" Barret said. "You?"
"This vial contains the Cetra disease. When it breaks, it will drain into the exposed Lifestream, spreading throughout the Planet, seeping into every crack, every corner, finishing the job started two thousand years ago. Every remaining Cetra, or half-breed, will be infected. Unless, of course, they refuse to draw the Planet's energy, but they won't know this. And what is a Cetra without that cursed Healing Wind?"
"Why you--" Barret said.
"Careful, boy." He waved the vial. The green glow from the Lifestream caught its evil glint. "We can do this the easy way. Bring the Ancient girl to me."
Doom of Squirrels
John was about to retort when Hojo began giggling. His high pitched laugh jabbed a fork of pain through John's teeth.
Barret kicked the scientist aside and strode right into Nestor's face.
"Back off, buckwheat," Nestor said. "I drop this vial, and your precious Cetra friends turn into a tapestry of open sores. They die quite ugly, assuming they don't mutate first."
"Enough!" Aeris looked barely able to stand as she leaned on her staff. Still, her eyes blazed with fury. Sweet little Aeris. Dying will do that to a person.
Barret was undeterred. "We didn't chase down Sephiroth and Shinra to let this upstart weasel threaten you or the Planet."
"I'll go to him," Aeris said.
"No!" Yuffie looked near tears. "Not after all this."
Tifa stepped in front of Aeris. "Won't happen. I let her down the first time, but not now. Not ever again."
She didn't look at Vincent, who was drifting around behind Nestor. Nanaki tensed to spring.
Cid picked up a crystal shard, long and sharp. "It's not the famous Dragoon Lance, but it will do. Guy back in Rocket Town keeps trying to sell me something called a Venus Gospel. I'll have to check it out. I thought it was a porn mag at first."
"We're all going to stop you, Nestor." John looked back towards Cloud, who was crawling forward with a 'hey, what did I miss' look on his face. "Most of us, anyway. Give it up." John focused on the vial. He had to keep it intact. If it didn't break--
"Nestor to Highwind." The guy held a black cell phone in one hand and the vial in the other. "Target this area, on my mark. If I fail to report back every two minutes, fire the forward missile batteries. Nestor out."
Cid let loose a string of curses as the Highwind drifted around.
"Now my dear Aeris, if you'll approach and roll up your sleeve for the injection, you can save your pathetic friends."
"You're bluffing," John said, blocking Aeris, though this time she had made no effort to advance.
"Say what?" Nestor raised his brow.
John pointed upward. "You've lost control of the Highwind."
"You can't possibly expect these lunkies to believe that.
"I'm a Jenova." John felt a twinge of pride. "I know about these things."
"Why you--" Nestor's eyes flashed fire. A green mist swirled toward them, erupting in a blast that threw the party in all directions. John lay half-stunned, hearing no sounds except the Highwind's thrumming and Hojo's giggling.
John wanted to throttle that scientist.
Nestor spoke, "I am Nestor, son of Gregor, who was the greatest Turk who ever lived, only to be butchered by Cetra terrorists. But I, Nestor, have carried on my father's legacy, his mission." He fingered his necklace. "I have claimed the ringleader's holy artifact, Ultima magic."
Again the green mist swirled out. John threw himself over Aeris.
"Oh, how touching," Nestor said as John shook his head to clear the static. "Let's see how you shield her from the Cetra Plague."
He shattered the vial at his feet. "And now, special delivery." The green mist of Ultima magic rose again. The party weathered yet another ear-popping blast. The hum of curative magic echoed in the din.
"Dammit John," Barret said, "We're running out of Cure spells. Can't you use your returning trick?"
"Not against materia spells. On the other hand--"
"There," Nestor said. "The virus will take root in all of you. If you would be so kind as to spread it--"
"Oh come on. We're all adults here--"
The giant sheep rammed Nestor against the crater wall, nearly impaling him on a protruding crystal. Alas, Nestor stood and shot off a quick spell. Yuffie's shuriken bounced off a force barrier, though it did cause him to wobble. Barret opened fire anyway.
"I wouldn't if I were you. You might hurt our guest." Nestor again stood smug behind his Wall spell.
"What the hell you talkin' about?"
"Bring her out."
From the shelter of a wall crevice walked two guards, escorting a young girl who twisted in their grasp and tried to stamp on their toes.
"Marlene!" Barret stood open-mouthed.
"My insurance policy. See? I'm going to walk out of here, and there's nothing you can do about it. Unless you want this sweet little girl to go the way of her mother."
Nestor beamed, a smug grin.
"And now, I must take my leave. Oh, the girl stays with me. I am not immortal. More's the pity. I need someone to carry on with my work."
Barret looked ready to stroke out. Somehow, he held back on releasing his traditional torrent of bullets. He did look ready to tear Nestor apart with his teeth, however.
Hojo interrupted by laughing so hard he started to snort. "I'd hate, I'd hate to be a squirrel right about now."
Nestor said, "Will somebody put that thing out of its misery?"
"Remember? Hee-hee-hee, when you broke into my lab? Remember the samples you stole? Northern Albino Ground Squirrel. That so-called plague you gave them?" He rolled onto his back, kicked his limbs, nearly choking with laughter. Hojo, finding his hidden talent for comedy, braced for the punch line.
"They'll, they'll all go nuts!"
A white streak raced between Marlene's legs, charging straight up Nestor's coat to tear at his neck. Apparently not tolerant of bad puns, nor forgiving of her mistress' murder, Fluffy transformed from shedding chest warmer to demonic Cuisinart.
"You killed all those cute squirrels?" Yuffie raised her shuriken. "The kind my Dad keeps in his sacred orchard?"
"Those are Wutai brown squirrels," Nanaki said. "If the plague doesn't target them, they might survive. In any case, they would only be affected if they are here in the crater with us, or if they use Healing Wind to tap the Lifestream."
"Squirrels?" Nestor said. "Your sample made me create a plague for squirrels?"
"The mark of a true scientist," Hojo clutched his side to slow his giggling," is to make the best of every situation. I gave you what you wanted to get you out of my lab. Now you are Nestor, Bane of Squirrels."
"I say we kill him anyway." Yuffie took up a throwing stance.
"Fools!" Nestor tried to fling Fluffy off his arm. He may have wished he had created a cat plague. The ball of fluff spat and howled, claws slashing in all directions.
Meanwhile, Marlene's guards hauled the girl closer to the pool of Lifestream. John gave her credit for requiring the efforts of two grown men to hold her. Barret was trying to get a clear shot when Reeve darted from nowhere and slammed one guard's legs in a rugby tackle. Marlene, thrown loose, turned on the other guy with a knife hand jab to the groin--about shoulder height for a five-year-old. A head butt followed, knocking the soldier over with such surprise in his eyes.
"You taught her well, Tifa," John said, watching Barret scoop up his adopted daughter.
"So what about squirrel-man?" Cid said. "We bring him in? Or slice him up and put him through a blender, like he deserves?"
"Bring him in where?" Barret said. "The only law is Shinra, or us."
"And he did try to kill Aeris with that plague vial," Tifa said. She glanced at Aeris, who moaned on the ground nearby. "I believe he will try again, if he gets the chance."
"Squirrel man, squirrel man." Hojo erupted in another round of giggles.
"Here's my vote." Barret turned and fired. Unfortunately, his gun merely let out a harsh click-click-click.
Nestor, meanwhile, attempted to batter Fluffy against a stalagmite, but the cat glowed green from the effects of Yuffie's spell.
"What did you cast?" Tifa asked.
Fluffy sprang and tried to rake off Nestor's face.
"Arrgh!" He fumbled in his pocket for something while fending off the beast with his free arm.
Nanaki growled. "How do you think you would stand against a real opponent?" He sprang forward, bouncing off the barrier, but knocking Nestor over. Fluffy went for the throat. Tifa, Cid and a recovering Cloud closed in.
Nestor finally got his hand free. In it was an amulet holding a glowing yellow gem. His grin widened, but that was after Fluffy drew her claws across his cheek.
Yellow light from the amulet's materia swirled about him.
"What the hell is Meld?" Cid said.
"Like in canasta," John said. "You lay your cards on the table."
The ground around Nestor seemed to ripple. Debris and chunks of dead Jenova began to swirl in. John saw Scarlet's loose hand flap by.
"Don't get caught in it," Cloud said.
The maelstrom around Nestor coalesced--into what? Looked like a four headed hydra, though its exact form kept changing. The party paused before attacking, perhaps to ask themselves if they had ever seen something like this, even after eating some of Vincent's whacky-whacky mushrooms.
"Let's see," Cid said. "One part Nestor, one part squid, on part insane house cat, on part giant manicured hand--am I supposed to take this monster seriously, or die laughing?"
Its response was uninspired. "Die, scum." Followed by another round of Ultima.
"Now I'm pissed." John picked himself off Aeris, where he noted he had been falling a lot lately.
Yuffie shouted a Wutai war cry and threw her shuriken. The creature caught it with one of its many spare tentacles and flung it back. Yuffie shrieked as it cut her side, sending her sprawling in a heap. Always on the alert for blood, Vincent flitted over to her. The green glow of spell casting eased her screams.
"I've had it!" John stood up. The sounds of battle boomed all around the hydra. The Nestor part picked up Sephiroth's sword and began sparring with Cloud. Nanaki was trading blows with an oversized cat head, paws the size of elephant feet raking in and out. Cid was trying to fend off a jungle of bloodsucking tentacles, while Tifa was facing off against a giant hand, the hand of an executive: polished skin, lacquered nails.
John, in one of those rare moments in his life, knew what to do. He smacked the ground with his fists. The familiar gold glow sparkled around him and his companions.
"Thanks kid." Cid threw off coiling tentacles and thrust onward with his crystal spear.
"Kya-ha-ha." The Scarlet hand went jab-jab-jab, scratch, rake, gouge, slap. It encored by trying to pull Tifa's hair. Even armored, Tifa would be sore in the morning. Right now she looked mad as hell. She packed a flurry of punches, a pair of kicks, a couple slams and a body drop onto the scrabbling hand.
"Arrgh! You broke my nail!" Scarlet's voice said.
Tifa gave it a flying hook kick in response. It jabbed. She heel-dropped, roundhouse kicked and spear hand punched right into its palm. It flinched, but delivered fresh jabs.
"In another place, this would be funny," John said, wondering what he could do.
Cid swore and thrust with his spear; Cloud merely hacked away. Neither made progress. Nanaki, meanwhile, had to contend with being battered around like a catnip mouse.
"Blue Lightning," said the Nestor thing. Bolts of blue electricity rained down upon the party.
John picked himself up and smiled. Finally, the creature had made a mistake. "Back-atchya," he said. The return bolts hit each of the four "heads," plus the bulbous body.
"Yea! Way to go!" Barret was directing from a distance, still trying to load his gun. Vincent, meanwhile, braced himself and fired at the central core. Yuffie sat nearby propped against a rock.
"Breath of despair," said the creature in a haunting voice that made Cloud stop and clutch his head. Half a dozen snake heads appeared and breathed an oily smoke. "Die, Cetra scum."
Aeris had pulled herself to a seated position; she activated her ChocoMog summon, which blew most of the smoke away. Still, the combatants were gasping, their movements slowed.
"See, Cid?" John said. "I told you smoking would be the death of you."
Aeris pried herself farther up. She leaned on her staff, steadied herself, and smiled. "G-great, great, gosp--"
She would have fallen had John not caught her. A few fresh smelling raindrops fell, but the effect did not continue.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I just can't."
"It's okay. You gave me an idea. You gave me a Great Gospel back at Icicle Inn, so I can just--"
"I'll do this much for you." She gripped her staff, glowed blue, sending electric sparks around her companions. John felt his rage peak when she slumped to the ground.
"Eat this!" Cid dove forward with several blitz swings. Nanaki also savaged the hydra thing. Cloud whipped his sword into a killing frenzy while Barret, having finally gotten his gun loaded, unloaded it with a barrage of lead into the hydra core.
The bizarre one was Vincent. He transformed into a freak with a hockey mask and chain saw, ran up and sawed off one of Scarlet's fingernails.
"I'll get you for that!" Scarlet's voice said.
"I think not," John said. "Nestor, this is for Shiela." John touched the ground with his palms before reaching high overhead as if trying to pull down the sky. His rage turned the sky momentarily red.
Half a dozen fireballs streaked down, detonating square on Nestor's head. Snake heads and tentacles shriveled. The lacquer on Scarlet's nails turned black.
"Wow," said Yuffie. "Better than Beta."
"Fools, you think a little fire can stop me?"
"A little of this, a little of that," Yuffie said. "Here's my Dad's favorite trick. Trine."
The party jumped back as a triangular prism of lightning flashed into the hydra. Fluffy's fur frizzed.
"Heartless Angel," came the Jenova voice, practically inside their heads.
John wasn't sure what hit him; he felt pain so excruciating it felt as if each cell were being pulled apart and dipped in acid. When his vision cleared, he saw everyone else moaning on the ground, while Nestor began releasing the green mist to finish them off. His head was the only functional part of the hydra now, except for a couple of Scarlet's scrabbling knuckles.
John propped himself up, gathering his wits.
"And this is for Aeris." John bowed his head. He released the rain and angels he had held since Icicle Inn.
"No, not again," Nestor whined. "How can it be? That same Cetra curse that killed my father!"
The Ultima spell went off, but nobody cared. The first to reach the Nestor thing was Tifa. She punched him in the chops, kicked him high and low, slammed him twice, hoisted the whole creature over her head and threw him to the ground.
"This is for Aeris too!" Building the energy behind her fist, she punched right through, bursting the disintegrating hydra core and flying out the other side.
"Looks like she read that manual you found for her," Vincent, who had returned to his normal form, said. "Final Heaven. Well named."
Nestor's limp body lay on the ground. Fluffy dragged herself to him, bit him on the ankle, then strutted over to Marlene.
Tifa kicked Nestor in the ribs. He did not move. Yuffie, apparently recovered enough to grab loose materia, pounced on his necklace. John pocketed the loose amulet before she could snag it too.
"Hey. Dibs on materia," she said.
"Take this one. I picked it up on the path while you and Cid were mashing monsters. I was afraid to use it, but I think you'll like it."
"Wow. Neo Bahamut. Cool."
"It's safer with you than with me."
"Can't you give me the other one, too?"
"Not yet. I have a wild idea."
"Aeris." Tifa's voice was sad. "Oh no, not again. Poor dear Aeris."
The party gathered around her still form. Yuffie started to sniffle.
"I can't believe this. After all we've been through, she still--"
"Still has a pulse," Vincent said.
"Trust a vampire to notice that at twenty paces," John said.
Vincent glared at him.
John looked away. "Yes, I'm worried about her too."
From the hovering Highwind, a rope ladder uncoiled. Suited men began to descend.
"Now what?" Barret said. "We fight more damn Shinra?"
"Hold your fire!"
It was Reeve, now holding Marlene close to his side but not, to his credit, as a human shield.
"Hello?" The voice came from above. "Captain?"
Cid's head perked up as if he just smelled catnip.
A limber form detached from the ladder and sprung to the ground, Yuffie-style. "Lt. Darian, at your service, sir."
"What's the meaning of this?"
"While you were fighting that, that thing, we took a quick vote among the Highwind crew. The consensus was Heidegger would better serve the company locked in the chocobo stall. Which leaves you, Captain, to take your place on the bridge."
Cid sputtered. The cigarette dangled from his mouth, and fell. "I'm--I'm honored."
"With your permission, sir," Darian said, "I need to feed Heidegger his next ration of greens."
Cid grinned. Darian mounted the ladder.
John looked at the hovering ship. Fingering the charm in his pocket, he gazed at Aeris.
"I have an idea."
Everyone stared at him.
"A little idea. It might work. I'm sure it will work. It has to work."
"What the hell are you babbling about?" Cid said.
"Yuffie, cast Regen on Aeris. I think we can save her."
"Save her?" Barret said. "This one of your Jenova tricks?" Barret wasn't pretty when he was angry.
"Cid, how fast can that Highwind get us to the lost Ancient City?"
"Why, within a couple hours, top speed. Why?"
"Call it a hunch. We need to hurry. And Barret, I can't help what I am, but I assure you, I didn't come all this way with Aeris to watch her die." He shuddered. "Again."
"Save Aeris?" Cloud's mind was a couple tracks behind, perhaps an aftereffect of his Omnislash attack, but at least he was headed the right direction.
"Yes. You ordered us to load her aboard the Highwind."
"Then what's everyone waiting for?" He straightened, coming alive.
"Your orders, sir. You said take her to the Ancient Capital."
"Then let's mosey."
"How do we get her up that ladder?" Tifa asked.
Vincent scooped Aeris into his arms and drifted skyward. Tifa raced up the ladder to steady them on their trip.
Meanwhile, Reeve used grappling hooks to direct the retrieval of Cait Sith. The whole party made it aboard the sleek floating airship in a matter of minutes.
The Highwind consisted of three main decks: a lower one partially exposed to the air, a middle one containing cargo bays, and a glassed in upper deck, the bridge. On this upper deck, Avalanche gathered, except for Cait Sith, whom Reeve had carried to a workshop on the middle deck.
Aeris lay on a fluffed bedroll atop a bench, flush against the side of the ship, a bench John presumed was used for sightseeing, perhaps even a romantic tryst, if one ignored all the nearby bridge personnel. The group huddled around her, except Cid who was cursing and barking orders. At last the Highwind began to move.
Tifa leaned down and cast a healing spell. Aeris' color improved, but it was like pouring water through a sieve. Her body didn't want to hold the Cure. "Hold on dear," Tifa said. "It won't be much longer. She looked at John for confirmation.
Nanaki cast his Cure spell. "Getting her away from the crater should help. I think the Planet's wound is draining her."
"How do you heal the embodiment of Holy?" Yuffie cast another Regen. "And what do we do when our spells run out?"
"I believe I've bought us some time." Vincent set down a dusty box filled with bottles. "Heidegger's collection of ethers. Some turboethers as well."
"And a bottle of bourbon," Barret said. "I think I'll keep this one."
"Pass 'em out," Yuffie said, looking green but determined. "I'm about tapped. Another round and I'll start puking my guts--oh grossness, why did I have to-- erk--"
Vincent slid a bucket over to her.
"Hey!" Cid said. "Don't you go messing up my new deck."
Cloud leaned in and cast his Cure.
Aeris fluttered her eyes and moaned.
"Aeris!" Cloud looked more alive than any time John remembered. Tifa, beside him, squeezed Aeris' hand and smiled.
"Aeris, hold on," he said. "I promise. I swear, I won't let you die this time."
Aeris smiled weakly. "Where, where am I?"
"Why, you're on my Highwind," Cid said. "Best little baby ever to take the skies."
"The Highwind." Her head turned toward the window.
"Here." Barret propped her up so she could see the mountains and snow fields slide by below.
"We're gonna fix you up real good. Just hang in there." Barret cast a Cure.
"Cloud." Aeris turned to him, a flicker of life in her eyes. "The Highwind. Just as you promised."
Her head began to droop so Vincent jumped in with his Cure.
"Cloud, Tifa, in case I don't make it . . ."
"Don't say that!" Yuffie said what was on everyone's lips.
Aeris smiled. "I know, but just in case, I wanted to tell you."
"What?" Tifa said.
"You two make a cute couple."
Tifa blushed. Cloud cleared his throat.
"I've been trying to tell them ever since I met them," John said. "But will they listen? No."
"And you, John." Aeris turned to him. "I want to thank you, for the second chance." She closed her eyes and went limp, the smile fading from her face.
John felt powerless. He willed Aeris to live. After all, brute force seemed to work for Barret.
"Hey Captain," the big guy said, after throwing another Cure, "Can't you make this crate go faster?"
"Maybe I should drive?" John said.
"No!" Aeris instantly reawakened, her face flushed. Then she smiled. "Sorry, John, but I do want to live."
"No offense taken. Just stay alive."
She nodded and fell back asleep.
John felt something big and furry nudge against him. He looked down to see Nanaki. John resisted the urge to scratch the red lion behind its ears.
"Care to indulge me?" the beast said. "What is your plan to save Aeris?"
Everyone turned to him. John pulled out the chain containing Nestor's materia amulet. "I suppose you could call this a plan." And he told them.
They were down to the last three ethers when the Highwind finally hovered to a stop over the shell house, the house by the lake where Aeris--the other Aeris--had been laid to rest.
During the trip, Cid had directed the Highwind's crew to cobble together a stretcher and a rope winch system, and it was in this contraption Aeris rode to the surface. Avalanche, including a now functional (if misshapen) Cait Sith, scrambled down the rope ladder with her.
Cloud and Barret splashed into the water on the dubious quest to retrieve the other Aeris. Tifa refused to watch. The living Aeris' face was serene, though her breathing was labored. John stayed out of the way, crossing his fingers and praying.
"This is the craziest damn plan I've ever heard of," Cid said. "But I hope to hell it works."
Cloud and Barret returned, holding the other form in pink. Everyone's head was bowed.
"Not a mark on her." Cloud's voice was choked. Yuffie grabbed John and held him, trembling. Nanaki cleared his throat.
"Looks like that amplified Cure spell did preserve her body. Good thinking, John."
"Sometimes luck has its place." John reached out and smoothed the wet Aeris' hair. He picked out a flopping minnow and tossed it back into the water. "I believe we should do this on the altar where she was praying. It's where the separation occurred."
"Let's mosey then." Cloud, dead Aeris in arms, marched toward the shell house with purpose. Cid and Tifa hurried after him, carrying the stretcher. Everyone else followed.
Soon the group huddled around the two Cetra twins, who lay side by side staring up through the broken clear ceiling. The glow from beyond gave the twins an angelic aura.
"I wish we could cover that hole," Tifa said. "I can still see Sephiroth--"
"Try to relax," Nanaki said. "Sephiroth is dead. He won't ever come back."
Still, she shuddered. She walked over to the living Aeris and knelt by her side.
"I was th-thinking. Our clothes. Will they interfere with--" She coughed, trying again to speak. Tifa held up her hand to silence her, and looked at John.
"She's right, I think," he said. "She may be a manifestation of Holy, but these clothes are not. Now the worst that may happen could be the creation of three-legged underwear, but--"
Cid swore. Others looked embarrassed.
Cloud took command. "No time for modesty. Tifa? Yuffie?" He snapped his fingers. The two sprung into action. John tried his best to look just at Aeris' face. She smiled weakly at him; he could tell she was laughing inside. John shook his head and rubbed his temples.
When the two were done, Vincent lay his cape over the twins.
"I don't think I've seen you without that on," John said. "Don't you feel naked without it?"
Vincent gave him a look. John checked his materia. He placed the yellow one next to the blue Magic Turbo. He considered, and popped out the Comet and slipped it into his pocket.
"Anything else you need?" Cloud asked.
"Wish me luck?"
"I can do better than that." He picked out a pink materia orb and handed it to John. "Luck Plus materia. If nothing else, it will improve your poker game."
John inserted the materia into his armlet. "Couldn't hurt. Turboether, anyone?"
Someone pressed a dusty bottle into his hand. Popping the cork, he took a deep swig. He choked as liquid fire burned its way through his insides.
"B-Barret, this, this is not, ack--"
"Sorry. Sorry man." Barret had the sense to look contrite. John shook his head and sputtered, hand pressed to his chest.
"That. Was. Awful."
"Here man." Barret handed him another, smaller bottle.
John looked at it carefully. Pulled off the lid and smelled it. Glancing down, he saw the cape twitching. Aeris was laughing. And her laughter was contagious; one by one the others picked up and began to snicker.
"You realize," Cloud said, unable to keep a straight face, "If you messed up John's spell, I'll have to k-k-kill you . . . " He bent over and held his stomach.
"Right." John drained the new bottle. "Disgusting. Why can't they make these in grape?"
Unable to delay any longer, he pressed his fingers to his materia, bowed his head, fixed his gaze on Aeris' face, and began to hum. He swayed a bit, until strong hands steadied him. Tifa. He could smell her herbal shampoo.
Everyone grew solemn. Straining as if giving birth to a boulder, John concentrated on Aeris, a living, breathing, laughing, dancing Aeris. Finally, it seemed hours later, he felt his materia warm and vibrate. A yellow glow, suffused with streaks of blue, billowed in swirls around him.
The glow flowed over the two bodies before him. Brighter and brighter, sparks of blue amidst the sea of yellow stung his eyes. Tifa held fast, her grip reassuring in its strength, as he dug deep to find energy reserves he never knew existed. A scream burst unbidden from his lips. Beyond them, from the waters around the gazebo, a white wind swirled in, burning his eyes like an acid fog. The burning light flamed against his skin, burrowed through his muscles and ate into his bones.
John was in agony, but there was no turning back. He began to feel thankful for the swig of Barret's bourbon. He pushed, willing, no, demanding, the Planet give Aeris her life force back.
Streaks of glowing green penetrated the whiteness like cool whispers. He continued to push. He could no longer see Aeris, but he was vaguely aware of his surroundings. Tifa's firm grip. The rough stone beneath his feet.
"What the hell?" Cid said.
"Lifestream." Nanaki's voice was full of wonder.
"How come we didn't get all these special effects when Nestor did this?"
"He was not trying to handle pure Holy. For a while it appeared the Planet was rejecting the Jenova. But now, watch."
The colors continued to swirl, though reduced in intensity. John could smell ozone, or maybe a fresh summer rain. Still, Tifa held fast. His energy spent, he felt his body slump. The armlet clanged to the ground. The Comet materia slipped from his pocket, bouncing only once before eager hands scooped it up. John could feel the flutter of Yuffie's delight. Beyond that, nothing. Blankness.
Sorry. Sorry, Aeris. I tried. I really did.
It was over. He could feel Aeris lying below him, very still, very cold . . . his own spirit beginning to leak away, perhaps the strain of the spell shorting out the synapses in his brain. He slumped forward, his body sprawling like a limp squid over the lifeless form beneath him. I'm sorry, he thought. I tried. I thought I could help. I thought I could save you. Now I can't even save myself. His mind began to drift in the white fog . . .
What was left of his consciousness, his stubbornness, or perhaps that of Aeris--
Don't give up!
What had Nanaki said? Lifestream? How can someone die in something called the Lifestream?
He gathered his wits, reaching out to scoop his leaking thoughts back from the white haze. He had to do this. What would Aeris think if he died drooling all over her?
Focus, John. You know your life lacks focus, but use it now. Hey, even if you don't save yourself, at least save Aeris. You can do it. You know you can.
He pulled himself together, gathered his hopes and dreams, looked straight into Aeris' dead green eyes and pushed.
Pop. Now he was back. The lights, the colors, all natural. Perhaps a bit bright. He blinked.
"Aeris!" Cloud said. John felt Tifa's gripon him again, lifting him up.Yuffie ran into view, reaching down to the form, the I form, wrapped in Vincent's cloak, and gave her a bear hug.
"Easy." Barret said. "Don't crush her like a beer can."
"Hello everyone," Aeris raised her bare arms. "It's so good to be in one piece. Oh, John. You're hurt."
John, with energy he didn't feel, glanced down at his spattered shirt. "Just . . . coughing up a little blood. No biggie." Then his world fizzed out.
He opened his eyes. He saw Ifalna, dressed in her same red dress, standing in a field of grass and flowers. A warm breeze blew across John's face; he realized he hadn't felt this warm in weeks.
"Am I dead?"
"No. Don't argue. I should know."
"I didn't think you would pull it off. But you did. Not only helped stop Sephiroth and the Crisis from the Sky, but outsmarted the Planet as well. Perhaps there is still hope for the world."
John tried to think of something clever to say. His thoughts eluded him.
"And to think. Help would come from--"
Ifalna nodded. "One thing I never learned while I was alive. A sense of irony. If only . . . well, that's water over the falls."
"Why am I here? Not that it isn't lovely."
"I need your help. To finish what I tried to do so long ago. To help my people."
"The Cetra? Are there any left?"
"So many mistakes. So much death. Greed. Revenge. It's--I'm sorry. You will leave soon. Will you help us?"
"Of course." Why stop now? He was on a roll.
"Thank you. The Planet is suffering. Not just because of the Mako reactors, but also from the loss of its Cetra. If we are gone . . . "
She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.
The scene faded from view, to be replaced by the familiar inside of a shell house. Aeris, Yuffie and Vincent peered down at him.
"Wow," John said again.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," Vincent said.
A strange phrase, coming from a vampire.
"Cool. You're awake." Yuffie nearly did a cartwheel. "I'll bet you're starved."
"I, could use a bite. Stay back, Vinnie."
"Tifa is a wonderful cook," Aeris said. "So is Barret, if you can believe that. The biggest problem is keeping them from fighting in the kitchen.
Yuffie said, "I still say he looks dorky with those egg beaters in his gun arm."
Cloud sidled into view.
"Congratulations. And thanks."
John smiled, but said nothing. Wonderful smells of cooking drifted up from below.
Cloud looked at Aeris. "I can't believe it's over. Sephiroth gone, and Aeris back. Unbelievable."
John must have said something--or thought really loud, because Cloud grew serious and stared down at him.
"It's not over yet, is it?"
John shrugged. He had a feeling, that's all. Not even a true vision. Something else. Something else could have awakened when he performed his spell on Aeris. Could it be? Oh, stop it, John. Why can't you declare victory and go home?
He shook his head. "Is it ever? Come on. Let's eat. I'm starved."