Part 2- Distorted Reflections
"I'd like to rent another room," said Cloud.
"I'm sorry, there's no vacancies. That's normal when something like this convention happens in Junon."
Cloud looked at the desk clerk at the hotel. "Convention?" he asked.
"You don't know? I thought you were part of it," said the clerk, eyeing him, "you're certainly dressed for it."
"The first annual convention celebrating the battles between Shinra and Avalanche, of course. You certainly look like the leader of that Avalanche."
Daphne looked at him. "You were part of Avalanche?"
The clerk laughed. "Yeah, sweetheart, and he was the leader."
"Barret's the leader," Cloud said quietly to Daphne, "they just all look up to me." He turned to the clerk. "So you're telling me all the rooms in this town are booked for this convention?"
"Yep...there will be lots of folks dressed like you walking around here for about a week. And of course, some dressed like the Shinra...Rufus and Sephiroth fans..."
(People dressed like Sephiroth? That could mean...) "Where do the delegates for this convention meet?"
"The old Shinra building between Upper and Lower Junon."
"Okay," he said, "come on Daphne, you'll just have to stay in my room."
Daphne stood uneasily in the middle of Cloud's hotel room. "I'd rather just go home, I think," she said. "I don't want to impose on you."
"You're not, really, Daphne. Besides, there are two beds in here, so I don't have to sleep on the floor or anything. I was thinking maybe we should go to that convention tomorrow."
"I don't look like anyone from Avalanche," she said quietly.
"That's easily fixed," said Cloud. "We'll just dress you up like..." Then it hit him. (The only person she could imitate would be Aeris...it might insult Tifa and Yuffie if I had Daphne pretend to be a fan of theirs.)
"Like who?" asked Daphne. "No offense to your two female friends...but I like to wear a little more clothing myself."
"Don't worry. You just go to sleep. I'll pick up something for you to wear at one of the shops. Trust me, you'll be authentic." Cloud kissed her softly. "I should be back in about an hour..."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"I want an Aeris Gainsborough costume."
The shopkeeper laughed. "But you have such a nice Cloud costume."
"I have a date."
"You've certainly got the act down." She chuckled. "We only got one left...Planet Protector is a popular role among the ladies. Has a certain bit of elegance." She went in the back room.
Cloud leaned against the counter and sighed. (It's only been a few months... How is it that we're already pop culture? It's rather ridiculous. And Aeris... Perhaps I should just feel thankful that she won't be forgotten.)
A tall, pale man with dark hair walked into the shop as Cloud was paying for the pink dress and sweater. "I'd like a Zack costume," he said.
Cloud dropped his sword. A loud, resounding clatter echoed through the shop.
"I'm really into the minor characters," the man added.
The shopkeeper was bewildered. "I don't think we carry him. I'm sorry."
"Who's Zack?" asked Cloud lightly, trying hard to pretend he was just a fan.
"Zack is the man who made Cloud who he was." The man smiled and held out a hand. "I'm Derin."
Cloud shook the offered hand gingerly. "I'm Cloud."
The woman behind the counter cracked up. "Good one! Hahaha..."
"You are quite the annoying little bitch," shot Derin at the shopkeeper.
"Young man! We don't need that kind of language in this shop."
"Fine." He looked at Cloud. "Want to go for a drink? Maybe tell me your real name..."
(There's something odd about this guy...really odd...) "No thanks. I've got to get back, and give this to Aeris."
(Dammit, I did it again! I'll just gloss it over...) "My friend is dressing up," he said, holding up the costume he bought.
"All right. I'm sure we'll catch up with each other again sometime in the next couple of days." Derin walked towards the door. "You're going to love my costume," he added.
Cloud slowly walked back to the hotel, lost in thought. (I think this "Derin" may be the man we're looking for...)
* * * * * * * * * * * *
When Cloud walked into the room, he found himself in darkness and silence. (Is Daphne already asleep?) He slowly walked in and set the dress on the table.
Daphne awoke with a start and jumped up.
Almost immediately, Cloud felt a rod pressed to his neck.
"Who's there?" she demanded, frightened.
"Just me," he said softly. "I thought you were sleeping."
"Oh god, Cloud," she murmured shakily. Sinking down onto the bed, she turned on the lamp.
"What's wrong, Daphne?"
"After you left, I felt like getting something to drink. So I took the spare key you gave me, locked up the room, and headed down to the lobby. I bought something from the vending machine and came back. I couldn't have been gone more than five minutes, tops."
"When I came back, everything was locked up like I left it. But there was something sitting on the table."
Cloud suddenly noticed the other objects sitting on the table. (A basket of flowers and a pink ribbon.) "What in the world..." He started examining them.
She picked up a piece of paper from the floor and handed it to him. "This was lying next to it. I...I had a weird headache and blacked out after I read it."
"Yeah, like in front of the bar earlier? When I came to...I was so scared... I was just pretending to be asleep to catch the sicko that got in here."
Cloud looked at the note.
It seems to me, sweetheart, that you've forgotten just who you are. I brought you some things to stir your memory. Remember that day in the church, almost eight years ago? You made a promise to me. I will see you keep it tomorrow.
--The Black Falcon"
"I was just so terrified that whoever it was would try to come back before you got here..."
Cloud wrapped his arms around her. (At least she doesn't know what those items mean. Thank god she doesn't know...) "Do you want to see your costume?" he asked her.
He undid the packaging and held the pink dress out for her to see.
"Who am I supposed to be?"
"I want you to dress up as Aeris."
"Aeris? Isn't that..." (Don't ask him any uncomfortable questions. This must be very hard for him.)
"I figured you already had a rod...and all you need to do is braid your hair up." He glanced over. "Unknowingly, 'the Black Falcon' has helped us out a little." He handed her the pink ribbon. "Use this. You'll look just...like her."
"I don't know how to do it like her..."
"Here," he said, clumsily sweeping her long hair up with his hands. Except for the occasional wince of pain from Daphne, Cloud succeeded in entwining the fine strands into a loose braid that was remarkably similar to the one Aeris was so well known for. He tied the pink ribbon firmly at the crown of her head.
"Cloud," she whispered.
He looked deep into her eyes. So far inside, reaching the soul. The soul that gazed back. "Aeris," he murmured.
"No," said Daphne firmly, "No!" She shuddered and tore the ribbon from her hair. Her hair cascaded downward in a black waterfall.
Cloud snapped back to reality with a jolt. (It happened again!) "Daphne..."
She brushed a tear from her eye.
"I'm sorry," he said softly.
"I wasn't comfortable doing this, and I'm definitely not now!"
"But I need you in a costume..."
Daphne looked at him. "This doesn't bother you? I am dressed up like a dead girl you once knew and you are calling me by her name!" (And it feels completely natural...yet... Why am I so upset over this? I know. It's because Cloud looks at me and only sees Aeris. He doesn't see me. He is blind to the person that is Daphne. He can't care about me.)
"You are not Aeris!"
"I know," she said, "so why can't you look at me, right in the eyes, and whisper 'Daphne?'"
Cloud looked into her eyes. (I don't know, sweetheart, I just don't know.) "You are Daphne," he said firmly, "but you will be wearing an Aeris costume tomorrow. We will find this 'Black Falcon,' and see if it's our reincarnated bad guy."
Daphne sighed. "I just wish we could find a reincarnated good guy."
He kissed her softly on the cheek. "Maybe we have, and just haven't been looking hard enough to see him." A pause. "Or her," he added.
"I think I'm going to go to sleep for real now," she said.
He smiled. "I'll put this stuff away. You go to bed. Sweet dreams..."
She looked up at him. "I know I will have sweet dreams. You're here to make sure nothing spoils them." They stood there for a moment, gazing at each other.
Cloud softly nudged her towards one of the beds. "It's sleepy time now."
"Goodnight, Cloud." Daphne was fast asleep almost as soon as she hit the pillow.
Cloud reexamined the note left by the Black Falcon. (Into the minor characters, huh? I wonder what would give you such a case of Zack attack... Sephiroth.)
The petite red-headed woman walked through the crowds at the convention, silently laughing at the foolishness that was the masses. (They are all trying to relive the 'heroics' of...of...that damn Cloud and Avalanche! They stopped me before, they will not stop me this time!) She sighed. (If only I could have realized who I was before I saw that damn Cloud Strife in an arcade, then my plans would be well in place, and he would have no chance of stopping me.) She stopped walking and gazed over her shoulder.
A tall man with black hair was wearing clothes similar to Cloud's. Yet, they did not look like any of the cheesy, prefabricated costumes. Also, he was carrying a sword with a huge blade, but it had no decoration at all. It was a standard order Buster sword, issued in the earlier days of Soldier.
(I must get used to this body.) She knew that being a pretty young female would be quite a different type of life than she was used to. (No longer shall I command respect on sight. Perhaps I should make an example of this poor young man. I think I will.) Plastering on a seductive smile, and smoothing the deep blue skirt of her Elena costume, the woman turned around again towards the black haired man.
But he was nowhere to be seen. The only sight that greeted her was a crowd full of fanatics in cheesy costumes.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"What the hell is this, Vincent?" asked Tifa angrily, looking up at the banner.
"Apparently, the 'First Annual Shinra/Avalanche Convention, Celebrating the Epic Battle Between Good and Evil,'" read Vincent from the sign.
"Thank you for the sarcasm, you didn't have to include the subtitle." She sighed. "This is sad."
"Ah, but if we went in, Tifa, all these people would compliment us on our 'costumes,'" he replied.
"That doesn't make what they are doing to us any less sick or wrong!" She started to walk away.
"Where are you going now, Tifa?"
"I'm going to tell Cloud!"
"I hope for your sake, that he isn't occupied at the moment," said Vincent.
She paused. "Come with me. We'll tell Red."
His steady gaze caught her eye. "Smart woman," he said softly. They headed back into the main part of the city.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Cloud kept one arm wrapped tightly around Daphne and the other right next to his sword.
"Is all this precaution really necessary?" she asked. "I don't see anyone that looks dangerous, and besides, we're the only people I see with real weapons."
He scanned the crowd. (Perhaps I should have told the others about this "convention.") He wrapped his fingers around the PHS, then decided against it. (They would just be angry if they found out...and I don't have the time to deal with that right now. Where is that Derin character, anyway?)
Daphne stopped walking.
"C'mon," he said, trying to pull her forward.
"Cloud, I'm not going to walk into a display. You can if you want, but let go of me first!" She giggled.
He snapped back out of his thoughts. Right in front of him was a re-creation of the lake outside the building... (In the city of the ancients...the building that had the altar...where Aeris was...was butchered!! Damn you, Sephiroth, I'll find you today and avenge Aeris once more!)
Daphne gazed at the display, noting the 3x5 card. "Part I--Display 12. Inside this shell structure, our dear heroine was sacrificed on an altar by the evil nemesis, Sephiroth. Continue on to Part II." (I can only guess at to what this means...) She glanced at Cloud, noticing the pain in his eyes. (...is this the place where I...) She shook her head. (I would swear before now that I never saw this place before in my life. But I know what the inside of that building looks like. In the center, a fish stands guard to a crystal staircase. He will step aside for the Ancient daughter who has the power of Holy...)
Cloud was broken from solemn contemplation and plots of revenge by the clang and clatter of a rod. Daphne had passed out; the sound was her weapon clattering to the ground.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
"There's a what taking place in the old Shinra building?!"
"A convention, Red. Something us humans hold occasionally," said Tifa sarcastically.
"I know the meaning of the word, dear Tifa," the lion-like creature muttered. "However," he said, raising his voice, "the thought of one in honor of our accomplishments ever occurring in my lifetime, let alone yours, never crossed my mind." His brow furrowed in thought.
"There is something awry here, Red," said Vincent quietly, "because it appears that there are Shinraphiles among the attendees of this convention."
"Not only that," said Tifa, "but some of the people there like the Shinra."
Vincent supressed a smile. "That is true, Tifa," he said, amused.
"What? This is a serious issue," she said.
"Yes it is," said Red XIII. "Our reincarnated enemy will probably be attracted to this convention. Adorn him or herself as the former persona that was the previous existence. Or the one which is most suited to his or her personality."
"Then this is the best chance to catch the enemy, and off guard, also," said Vincent.
"I shall contact the others. Vincent, you and Tifa should get to the convention at once. I trust you don't need help looking like you belong."
"Hardly," said Vincent.
"Do I look like I belong?" asked Tifa, worried.
Vincent took the opportunity to scan Tifa from head to toe. "You look very...Tifa-like," he said cooly.
"I'm probably not cheesy enough."
"You're cheesiness factor is acceptable, considering the circumstances. Next time we go out, you may have time to enhance it."
She tossed him a curious look. "Next time we go out?" she repeated.
"Unless we kill the enemy today, I'm sure we will be required to go out of doors together at some point. What did you think I meant?"
"Nevermind." Tifa shook her head to get rid of the strange idea that had formed in her head. (Like Vincent Valentine would ask anyone out...before hell froze over.) "See you later, Red," she said, heading out the door.
"Goodbye," said Vincent.
"Vincent," said Red XIII with a concerned tone, "Tifa is fragile. Don't be an insufferable companion. We have enough to deal with."
"She makes for an insufferable companion herself, anyway."
"Still, treat her with a little compassion."
"I am, in my own way. I shall take leave of you now." He walked out the door.
Red XIII sighed and turned on the PHS. (I wish that the humans' personal problems were less of a soap opera. It interferes dreadfully with our duties.)
* * * * * * * * * * * *
("The Planet watches over me, the Planet shall guide me, for I am its child and my cries will not be forsaken."
"The Shadow will come, the Meteor will pass within a breadth of the Planet, but the Planet shall overcome the darkness with light. Purity will wash over the vile and the children of the Planet will be baptized in truth, faith, and hope."
"Your prayers are pretty little pieces of drivel, but they cannot save you from your end, they will not save you from my blade."
Aeris looked up from her prayer. "One day you will repent. One day those you have transgressed against will surround you with fire and light and you will burn in your soul. Until then, I will face whatever may come. For if the Planet dies, all here will certainly perish. If I can save others by dying myself, let it be so."
"You can do nothing by dying."
"I can do more in death than you will in either the land of the living or the world beyond."
"Ah...here comes my puppet. You will now learn that you are wrong."
"The Planet watches over me, the Planet shall guide me, for I am its child and my cries will not be forsaken.")
"The Planet watches over me, the Planet shall guide me, for I am its child and my cries will not be forsaken," whispered Daphne. She opened her eyes.
"Are you all right, kiddo?" asked a face with dark eyes and dark hair.
"Zack?" she murmured in confusion.
Derin almost dropped her. "Th...that's my costume," he spit out.
"Cloud?!" She sat up fast, in a panic.
"I'm here," Cloud said. "This nice guy here caught you when you passed out." He cleared his throat. "Wouldn't set you down until you woke up, he told me."
She put a hand to her head and groaned softly. (What was with that dream? And why did I say Zack?) She wasn't the only one confused about her slip of the tongue.
Derin chuckled. "It's okay about the costume thing. I thought no one would recognize me!" His mind was racing though. (Did she recognize me, my costume, because she was semi-conscious? Is it the ghost-like representations of places from her past?)
Cloud looked at her, concerned. "Can you get up, Daph? Should I take you to the doctor?" (How the hell did you know this shady character was supposed to be Zack?!) He felt like smacking himself for letting her fall into the hands, literally, of the person he suspected was their foe.
She slowly got to her feet. "I'll be okay, I think." Giving Cloud a weak smile, she picked up her rod and turned to the man who had been holding her. "Thank you for your kindness--"
"Derin. My name is Derin," he said, taking her hand. "And the pleasure was mine, I assure you. It would have been terrible for a pretty lady such as yourself to crash to the ground in a pile, when I was there to prevent it." Giving her a wink, he asked, "So you are an Aeris fan?"
"Aeris?" she asked, confused. "Oh, not really."
"That costume becomes you, like it's your everyday outfit."
"Thank you, Derin, but when I decided to come here today, Cloud went and chose it for me. He has the keen eye, not I." She smiled at Cloud. "It was a pleasure to meet you Derin, but Cloud and I should probably be on our way."
"Oh? I was going to see if you and Cloud would like to have coffee with me over there in the faux Seventh Heaven across the way."
"I don't think so--" Daphne began.
Cloud interrupted. "Thanks for the invitation."
She gave him a puzzled look.
"I think you ought to sit down for at least a little bit, hon," he said.
Putting a finger to her lips, he lowered his voice to a near whisper. "I can do some people watching there and you can recover a little."
"Okay. Cloud, buy me a mocha, then," she said with a laugh. (I thought Cloud would be jealous. But he wasn't...he's...wonderful.)
Derin started. (I have heard it said a laugh comes from the soul. It must. She laughs with Aeris' voice...the voice of an angel.)
"We're being stared at."
"I find myself often stared at," said Vincent. "I'm surprised this is something new for you."
"What are you implying?" asked Tifa.
Tifa and Vincent were walking through the convention displays, attracting glances from the delegates.
He caught her eye and shrugged. "In my opinion, you are not average. That's all I meant by what I said. I meant no offense."
A group of giggling pre-teen girls shoved their way between the two of them. The girls were all in very skimpy outfits, and had obviously stuffed their shirts to give the appearance of bustiness.
Tifa was visibly bothered. (Are they dressed like...me?) She blinked back a few tears.
"Their outfits don't do you justice."
"Do I...do I..." she stammered. "Vincent, is that what I really look like?"
"I already told you that it is not. Simple exaggeration. I can't wait to see what the portrayals of me look like." But the Vincent costumes were simply vampiric outfits with a fake claw. Nothing offensive there.
Tifa self-consciously ran a hand through her hair. (I didn't think to tie it back...how annoying.) "Everyone's looking at us!" It was a slightly paranoid thought, but she and Vincent were attracting a bit of attention.
"Well, I look weird, Tifa."
"People look at you because you're beautiful. That's nothing to be worried about." He cleared his throat and looked away. "There's Red and the others. I suppose we should go see what the plan is."
Still unnerved by what Vincent had just said to her, Tifa decided she needed some alone time. "I'll be over in a bit, okay? I see something I want to check out." She promptly lost herself in the crowd, without waiting for an answer.
Vincent watched her walk away and slowly turned towards where Red XIII was standing with the rest of the group. (Why do I bother to try and make her feel better? It is love she feels for Strife. I don't even think I love her, so why should I try to ruin that?) His mind argued back and forth. (When I show her attention though, at least she won't feel worthless. Cloud may be blind, but I am not.)
Red XIII growled. "I still think this harness is useless."
Yuffie sighed. "Just because it was my idea."
"I'm not your pet!"
"Of course not, you stubborn furball, but these silly people would go nuts if you just sauntered in here like a human being. Look, we know you're nice and all that, but they'd be scared."
"They are simple fools."
"You do realize that you're agreeing with me, right?"
"Especially the ones dressed as you," he continued sulkily.
"Hmph," she remarked with a pout.
"Grow up," growled Cid as he tossed a cigarette butt on the ground.
Barret nodded. "Yeah, you foo's are irking me something nasty. Now where's all the peeps who dress like me?"
"They must not be here yet," said Yuffie politely. She hurriedly changed the subject. "Oh look, there's Vincent."
"What have you seen so far, Vincent?" asked Red XIII.
"Well," he began, "we saw a bunch of people in really bad costumes. All pretty peppy, no one who looks like a threat. But there are many people, and I learned from the information desk that this convention is a week long."
Yuffie whimpered. "We have to stay here a week?!" she whined.
"We can save the Planet while you go home to your dollies," said Red XIII, "it's purely your choice."
She scowled. "It just seems like a waste of time."
"We can waste time now, as a price to gain the time we want to have in the future. Doesn't that make the choice seem easier?" Vincent was contemplative. "Although it does seem kind of pointless without a slim lead. But we haven't been here very long, either."
"Speaking of 'we,'" said Barret, "where the hell is Tifa?"
"She went to go check something out before I walked over here. She was rather vague."
Barret was enraged. "You let her go off alone when the evil spirit demon-y thing might be here? What's wrong wit' you?"
Vincent's eyes on Barret were as cold as ice. "She wanted to be alone. Why should I invade her need for privacy? She can take care of herself as well as any of the rest of us." He paused. "Well, except for Yuffie, perhaps."
"Damn you, I heard that!" Yuffie smacked Vincent on the arm.
"Thank you sweetheart," he said sarcastically. "Let's go look around. There's supposed to be a recreation of 7th Heaven here. I always wanted to see that place."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Daphne decided she needed a grande dose of introspection along with her double mocha. She sipped her hot drink carefully, her alert eyes scanning the crowd. (It's useless for me to be a lookout for someone weird. I don't know who half these people are supposed to look like, or even if they do look like who they dressed up as. I'm of no use to Cloud in any way. I'm just a young girl he met in a bar...why does he keep me around?)
As much as she let these thoughts spin around her head, she could not come up with a satisfactory answer to her questions. She only had one end in sight for her trail of thoughts. It was just as curious as the beginning. (Why am I staying with him?)
Cloud glanced over at Daphne to make sure she was all right. (She looks okay...but after that dizzy spell back there... I'm going to watch her like a hawk on its prey! Dammit, I'm going to protect her!) He kind of wondered if he wanted to protect her for her own sake, or more to satiate his guilty conscience for the times he had failed both Tifa and Aeris.
Deep blue eyes scrutinized every convention delegate that passed the coffee stand. (If the Planet were still at peace, we might all be sitting here, critiquing the costumes. It would be rather amusing. But instead, I'm looking for an enemy. I hate my life sometimes.) He indulged himself by letting his gaze glide across the body of a cute little red-head in a Turk outfit. She turned and met his eyes, smiling. Cloud quickly averted his eyes; he did not need a girl coming to hit on him. Especially not when she was a die-hard fan of his past battles, and especially especially not with Daphne sitting there. Not when Don Juan de Sephy was probably sitting next to her on the other side.
(I caught a flash of something in her eyes, though, and it was nothing close to admiration. Closer to hatred, more like malice. How silly...hating me because she's dressed like she was in Shinra!) He scowled into his black coffee. (I despise wannabes.) He wouldn't let his mind go on to admit that it was because he had once been a wannabe himself.
Derin was glad that Daphne wasn't paying any attention to him. It left him free to look at her as much as he wished. He was planning, plotting... (Soon, dearest, I will find a way to jog your memory perfectly. Then you will run into my arms and leave this wannabe behind.) He smiled to himself, and then noticed that Cloud had his eye on something-or rather, on someone. Derin allowed his gaze to follow the invisible trail and it then came to rest on the red-haired woman.
(So she is here.) Derin became lost in thought. If she was attracted to the convention, she might have realized her past already. (Does she recognize us?) He was on the verge of attacking the girl then and there, when her eyes met his. The velvety brown irises reflected a simple, sweet look. Her attitude, in respect to Derin, was as tame as a kitten. However, he was observant enough to catch the malice that rested there while she looked at Cloud. (She knows who Cloud is, but Aeris and I are still cloaked in the disguise of these bodies, thank the Planet.)
He continued to watch his adversary carefully. (She seems to have seen something across the room that interests her.) Indeed, the woman was scrutinizing someone or something near the other end of the large ballroom. Suddenly, she moved towards her point of interest. In that moment, Derin also saw what had kept his target so captivated. (Oh no. She's all alone, and the enemy will-)
Derin jumped up and, without a word to either Daphne or Cloud, he hopped over their table and into the crowds. He ran quickly through the mob in his way, following the path left by his red-haired adversary.
Daphne was startled out of her train of thought. "What was that all about?" she asked Cloud, worried.
His eyes narrowed. He could still see Derin, but not for much longer. (If I want to go after him, this is my only chance; if I don't, he may kill someone. I can't live with that. But...I can't risk Daphne.) "You stay here," he said firmly.
"What?!" Daphne was indignant.
"I have no time to argue. I need to follow him, but I have to make sure you're safe. So stay here. I'll follow Derin." Without another word, he had lost himself in the crowd.
Daphne looked around the ballroom. No familiar faces seemed to greet her; all she could see were caricatures of familiar faces. She pouted and sipped her coffee, hoping against hope that the caffeine would calm her. (Don't panic. Don't panic,) she told herself. Then she saw a flash of red. (...about the right height...) She didn't think another moment, and she ran towards it.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Barret growled. "Didn't any of these peoples ackshully ever see the damn 7th Heaven? Don't look a bit like this piece of-"
He was interrupted as a slender form ran up to Red XIII and enveloped him in a tight embrace.
The entire group was startled, but Vincent was the first to recover. "Does Red have an overzealous fan?"
"No," said the person with her head buried in Red XIII's mane. Then she burst into tears.
This worried Yuffie. She liked to play it cool, and this outpouring of emotions was a bother. "Hey, what's wrong?" She kneeled down next to the girl.
Daphne extracted her face from Red XIII's mane. Her words followed in a rush. "Cloud brought me here to look for an enemy and last night a weird man was in my room, but just a few minutes ago, Cloud ran after something and left me here alone. He was following Derin and I was scared I was going to be here all alone without anybody I knew with all these people dressed like you guys, but then I saw the fur and knew no one could fake that, so I had to follow it and I found...umm...Red."
Yuffie looked perplexed. (How do I help?) She reached out and patted Daphne's hand. (Gotta say something, don't I? I should have stayed up there with Red's leash!) "Umm...it'll be okay? You're with us now." Thus, Daphne's tight hug was transferred from Red XIII to Yuffie. "Ack...honey, I can't breathe over here."
"Sorry." Daphne sheepishly released Yuffie from her clutches. "I don't know what came over me." She did look rather confused.
"Y'all okay over there?" asked Barret.
The poor craftsmanship of the coffee stand finally dawned on Cid. "This piece of shit looks like a hunk of garbage," he remarked.
"Not to be critical, Cid," said Yuffie, "but 'hunk of garbage' would be a complimentary description of a piece of doo-doo. Doo-doo head!"
"I thought you were sixteen, not six," muttered Red XIII.
"And I thought you weren't going to talk inside the convention, 'cause it would give you away," she retorted. "Dumb-ass."
"Who are you calling dumb-ass, ignoramus?!"
"Would you children stop the bickering?" snapped Vincent. "Daphne has been nice enough to tell us that Cloud just ran after what might be our enemy, and you guys are hurling insults, which you can do any day. Our enemy is here now. I think that makes the matter a little more important than Yuffie and Red's annoying teenager aspects."
This put a slight hush over the group. Daphne's eyes were on Vincent, in awe. (Wow, he can make even this bunch listen to him.)
Vincent became aware that a pair of violet eyes were fixed on him. (Well, this certainly adds pressure to things.) He made himself meet them with his own. He gave Daphne a little smile. "Which way did Cloud go?"
"Well, pointing isn't very specific. I guess I will just have to lead the way." She picked up her rod. "That is, if you guys can forgive me for my hysterics." She winked at Red XIII.
Red XIII laughed. "Of course."
"You know Red, you really should keep it down," said Vincent, "pretending not to be the real Avalanche and all." He then looked back to Daphne, but the moment had passed.
Tossing her coffee cup in the trash, she made a gesture towards an exit. "C'mon guys, this way."
They made their way quickly to the door. However, when the sounds of battle met their ears at the exit, they rushed out into the evening air quicker than quick.
Tifa had decided that the convention was definitely not the place for her. At least, it wasn't while she was dressed the way she was. So, she thought it would ultimately be the best decision if she changed out of her battle gear and into some casual wear.
(I am not some slutty girl walking around with my breasts hanging out. I wear what I wear to fight easily. It has nothing to do with sex.) She thought for a bit and laid a hand on her chest. (I suppose a sports bra really wouldn't hurt anything, though.) She had made up her mind. She turned and walked towards the nearest exit she could find. (I have jeans and other casual things in my room at the inn. I'll come back here in a better state of mind.)
When Tifa was out of the old Shinra building and on the street, she paused to look around and figure out where she was. There was no chance that she was lost; she knew Junon like the back of her hand. She only needed to find a street sign so she would know the way she should walk to reach the inn.
Suddenly, she was jumped from behind. In her surprise, Tifa lost her balance and slipped to the hard asphalt. (Oh shit, not now.) She twisted around with a jerk and catapulted her opponent off of her with a trick move, involving her feet making contact with the enemy's midsection.
Tifa sprang up from the ground and cautiously approached her attacker, who was lying in a heap on the other side of the street. Her eyes widened in surprise at what she saw. (A little red-headed woman?)
The woman sat up and glared at Tifa with a piercing amount of viciousness. Her eyes became aglow suddenly, and the woman held out her arms in a ritualistic motion. "Tornado," she whispered.
Tifa felt her body tossed up high into the air like it was as light as a feather. But the swirling fury of the winds threw her around in a dizzying spiral, and before she knew it, she was hurtling towards the ground. (This is going to hurt. Bad!) The only precaution she could make was to pray that her body stayed limp, so it could absorb the shock of the impact a little more easily.
"I should have known you'd be here," a male voice said angrily.
The woman tossed her head. "Who are you to meddle in my affairs?" she asked haughtily. "I'm just settling a score here. This is none of your business."
The man was tall, and his dark eyes were full of fury. "The harm you do is my business. After what you did to me!" He ran towards the woman, prepared to fight to the death.
The woman laughed, and waved an arm, eyes glowing once more. "Wall," she announced.
Before the word was even finished, Derin uttered one of his own. His eyes flashed as he cast Dispel. "I'm not a little order follower this time. I do things my way now."
Tifa moaned. It felt like every bone in her body was broken. She slowly sat up and looked at the materia in her gloves. Everything would be all right if she could just will the strength to cast...
Derin's eyes flashed, and he whispered "Regen" so softly no one realized he said it. (I can sense her pride would be wounded if I cured her myself...so I'll just give her a little bit to do her own work.)
Feeling a little bit stronger, Tifa stretched out her arms and let the energy flow from the crystal into her body. "Full-cure!" she said, the word gaining intensity even as she said it. Swirls of light surrounded her body and she sprang up lightly from the ground. She didn't know if she trusted the man who had saved her, but she prepared to battle alongside him anyway, for the moment at least.
"If you know who I am, foolish boy," said the woman, "you know your piddly magic spells are futile against my innate powers." She tossed an arm lightly in the air and stepped back from them slightly. A red glow began to seep into the air around Derin and Tifa-the atmosphere became almost electric-until the woman started to become hazy.
"No!" He realized all too late what the woman meant to do.
"Oh yes, fools!" Her eyes glowed with an almost blinding intensity. Tifa shielded her eyes from them almost as one would shield them from the sun. Then the woman began to finish the casting she had started. "Ultimate En-"
She was interrupted as a dark-haired man attacked her, jumping down from above. He slashed at the woman many times with a long, thin sword.
Tifa looked at this new person, thinking to herself that both the man and his weapon were hauntingly familiar. (Something about the eyes...the hair...the goatee...)
Derin watched this attack with a careful eye, debating in his mind between facts he knew and possibilities that might have come to pass. (Could this be...)
The red-haired woman glanced between her three enemies. She was warding off the blows of the swordsman, but not for long. Casting a withering eye upon Tifa, she allowed herself one more spell. "Death Sentence," she cried out, before fleeing into the heart of the city, with the swordsman in hot pursuit.
Tifa was instantly shrouded in a dark smoke that was visible only to her. She began coughing in a fit, knowing she didn't have long before the magic worked completely and she became comatose.
Derin looked over at her, with concern. He saw her strength dwindling and looked at the materia he was wearing. (How foolish of me to leave my Heal at the inn...but I had to limit what I brought. Not much can be stored in a Buster Sword.) He searched his pockets but found his items were limited to a couple potions and some Sylkis greens. He looked one more time at his materia in despair. He had two Command materia. (One is Steal, the other is...)
Closing her eyes as the darkness was about to overtake her, Tifa was suddenly aware of a voice calling out into the dusky air. Clear and bright, she heard the two most beautiful words that she had heard in a long time...
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Cloud had lost Derin. (Dammit, dammit, dammit!) He decided that he just went out the wrong exit. (If I haul ass around the side of the building, I should be able to find where Derin went.) He winced as he rounded a corner and sounds of battle and spells came to his ears.
All of a sudden, a red-headed woman tore by, with a swordsman in hot pursuit. Cloud debated with himself for a few seconds whether or not to help her. Then he heard a scream of "Ice2" and the man cursing in pain. (No matter if they're playing or not, neither one sounds helpless, so I have no side to join.)
He ran quickly in the direction from which they had come. He saw a flash up ahead as a spell was cast, and further up the road... (Derin. There you are, you bastard. Hmm, he's kneeling over someone.) Cloud drew his sword and slowly walked up to them. (Wait a minute. That's...that's...)
Tifa looked into Derin's eyes. (I don't know who this guy is, but...he saved me. At least twice over.) "Thank you," she said softly. "Who are-" She was interrupted by a furious cry.
"Tifa! Get away from her you lying bastard!" Cloud ran up to Derin and swung at him with the Ultima Weapon.
Derin was barely able to raise his Buster Sword in time to block the violent swing. "Calm down, buddy," he said.
"Calm down? You are attacking one of my friends!" He withdrew his sword and prepared to lay another blow. "Prepare to pay for what you're doing in this life and what you've done in your past one."
Tifa jumped in front of him. The point of the blade was only a breadth from her chest. "First of all, Mr. Heroic," she spit out sarcastically, "where do you get off calling me one of your friends?"
"Get out of the way," growled Cloud, inching forward a bit.
She leaned back a bit to try to wriggle away from the sword tip, which had actually pierced the cloth of her shirt. (This is a very uncomfortable situation) she mused to herself.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Daphne peered out into the street. Dusk was upon them, and soon the only light they would have would be that of the streetlights. She glanced around. (Where did he go?)
Red XIII stepped beside her and pricked up his ears. Puzzled, he raised his nose to the air and sniffed as a light breeze passed the group by. (What the-?) The scents that had been carried to him were extremely confusing. But there was no time to ponder them, if Cloud was possibly fighting their enemy.
"Can you see, hear, or smell anything, Reddie?" asked Yuffie impatiently.
He narrowed his eyes and gestured with his head. "Cloud is down that street over there. I hear angry voices. A few battle noises."
The group was startled as a red-haired woman ran past them. She seemed not to notice the group and whispered a few words. Her body turned to mist and she simply disappeared.
A man ran up in hot pursuit, breathing heavily. He looked straight at them. "Where did she go?"
"Man, she just disappeared," said Cid with a touch of disinterest.
Barret gave the guy a strange look. "Reeve?! What in the hell?"
"We don't have time for that," said Vincent. "We need to go to Cloud."
Reeve glanced at the group and sheathed his sword. With a small shake of his head, he asked if he could go with them.
Red XIII looked him over. "You might as well. I have a few questions to ask you about that woman after our current issue is settled. She smelled...odd to me."
Nodding in response, he replied. "I would think she would."
Daphne looked at Red XIII. "Let's go find Cloud," she said softly.
He nodded and began following Cloud's scent. "This way."
"Get out of the way, and he'll pay for hurting you."
Tifa laughed. "He'll pay for hurting me? Who refuses to acknowledge my feelings? Who parades a little slut in front of my face?" A tear rolled down her cheek, which she brushed away in scorn. (Damn me for being weak.)
Red XIII walked up and was startled by the scene in front of him. Cloud, with his sword drawn, seemingly aimed at Tifa. She was crying, and she was still pale from the Death Sentence spell.
Daphne was following behind him, stopping as he stopped. (What is Cloud doing? Aiming at Tifa.... And there's Derin!)
The rest of the group came up behind the two and was just as surprised at the sight. There was too much surprise for any one of them to even make a sound. They just watched the events playing out, like a movie.
Cloud pressed on, even closer. "Tifa," he said softly. Every cadence of his voice seemed to shout a warning, which fell on deaf ears.
She looked at him hauntingly. As she leaned forward suddenly, the material of her shirt was slashed completely across the front. But she stood there, bare. "He was there to save me. And you're poking me with your damn sword." Ever word she uttered ached with a spiteful poison.
The spell of the scene was unlocked as Daphne rushed forward between the two. "Here," she said to Tifa, pulling off the sweater from her costume.
Tifa accepted the offer silently, pulling it on, fastening the buttons, and glaring at Cloud all the while. She glanced at Daphne. A passage of forgiveness, however brief, was placed in her heart for the violet-eyed girl. "Maybe now I can have the chance to thank you for saving my life." She turned to Derin.
"I only did what I had to do," he said, not without kindness. His eyes, however, were fixed on Daphne.
A bit of realization struck her...
"Why'd you do it, Rissy?" asked Zack. "Wait there for Sephiroth on the altar?"
Aeris sighed, pulling her silvery gown around her. "I only did what I had to do."
"Had to do? There's a thing called 'free will.' Eldor seems to live off of it. 'Human free will is the path to salvation, blah blah blah...'" He flashed a mischievous smile at Aeris.
(Even in a higher plane, when we're all supposed to have unclouded knowledge...he's still Zack.) She giggled. "Perhaps humans do. You're forgetting I'm an Ancient."
"No I'm not. I was just poking fun at you. I know that your sacrifice was what you had to do. You wanna know why?"
"Oh why, genius Zackie?" Her green eyes sparkled.
His voice was serious, and his eyes on her were... Aeris shivered. She had to admit, this unadulterated love still gave her the tingles. (Damn the cloudiness of mortality, no matter how irreverent the thought is. All this, here, is pure beauty.)
Zack continued. "...if you didn't do that, you wouldn't be Aeris. Rissy, love, you had to do it because you are you. No other reason."
"I would go back just to do it again, too," she said with a grave certainty.
Zack looked into her eyes. "If you ever do..." He paused to kiss her on the cheek. "...I promise you this. I'll come with you. I'll find you there no matter what clouds us from our truth. Because then, I'll be doing the only thing I have to do."
"You wouldn't have to..."
"Aeris. I'd only be doing what I had to do..."
Daphne looked at Derin, half-frightened. "What...?"
He gazed back at her. (I can see she remembers...oh, for the sake of the Planet, she's got to remember!) He walked up to her and took her hand. "Do you remember now?"
She met his eyes in bewilderment. "But...I...and...you..."
He nodded. "It's not complicated. Just close your eyes. Tell me who you are."
Daphne closed her eyes and allowed the images that had been haunting her for the past few weeks flood her brain again. When she opened them again, they seemed alight with an intense knowledge.
"I am Aeris."