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Those Called by the Storm

Chapter Text

"Shit."

Tifa ducked back around the corner of the building before they saw her. The station was already crawling with Shinra soldiers.

On the other end of the square she'd come through, she could just make out a large clock, its hands nearing midnight. She had minutes before the last train out of Sector 8 left the station. She could risk it, maybe, on the chance that the soldiers might not think she looked like a member of AVALANCHE.

She looked down at her fingers, smudged with soot from the blast Jessie had rigged to clear their way out of the reactor. Probably the rest of her was, too. Even with the reactor down, the station's power was steady, and it was too well-lit for them not to notice.

Had the others made it? she wondered. Biggs and Jessie knew the city better than any of them, she was sure they had. Barret wasn't good at doing anything in a circuitous way, he'd probably come straight here. And Wedge... Who'd suspect Wedge of anything? Even if he missed the train, she didn't think he'd be apprehended. She hoped not. She hoped none of them would.

The train whistle blew, sounding its final call. Tifa risked another glance around the corner. The soldiers had detained a man trying to board the train. His anxious voice and their sharp commands echoed down the platform. He wasn't anxious because he'd done anything wrong; he was anxious because he'd been only a few blocks from the explosion. Much closer and he could have been struck by debris, or been trapped in one of the neighboring buildings that had caught fire.

The explosion had been so much bigger than they'd intended.

Tifa closed her eyes, took a calming breath, and turned away from the station. Behind her, she could hear the slow chug of the train departing. The soldiers were still interrogating their hapless detainee. She'd have to find another way back to the slums.

She moved back across the square, keeping her eyes down and forcing herself not to run. No soldiers here, but enough other people, people who'd be on edge, alert for anything out of the ordinary or frightening. She needed to be nondescript, just another bystander hoping to get away from the disaster.

"Excuse me," said a woman. "Has the train left already?"

Tifa looked up.

This woman had no business being in Midgar, was her immediate thought. There was something almost ethereal about the way the streetlight caught in her hair, and her eyes were warm, inviting--although, maybe not open. She looked like someone with a secret.

"Y-yes," Tifa stammered. "Just a minute ago."

The woman clicked her tongue in disappointment and adjusted a basket on her arm. Tifa stared. A basket of flowers. When was the last time she'd seen flowers in Midgar? Had she ever?

She nearly asked about them, but then her eye caught the clock on the wall ahead, and she heard boots enter the square from the direction of the station. Soldiers, walking in step. Her back stiffened.

The woman glanced past her, and then smiled at her. "You know, the trains run later out of the Sector 1 station. Why don't I show you the way?"

"Sure," Tifa found herself saying. "I'd appreciate that."

It was hard not to look behind her as she fell into step beside the stranger, headed out of the square. The sound of footsteps didn't fade; the soldiers were following.

"We'll lose them in a minute," the woman said confidently. She turned right at the next intersection and hopped the gate into a small yard with more ease than Tifa would have expected. They ducked behind the steps leading up to the house's front stoop, concealing themselves in shadow.

Tifa held her breath. The footsteps grew louder and then stopped.

"Which way did they go?"

"I don't know. I don't see 'em."

"Well, they couldn't have just disappeared! Let's try this way."

Footfalls receding. Tifa waited until she couldn't hear them anymore and then cautiously lifted her head above the stairs. The street was empty.

"I think we're in the clear," said the woman. "I'm Aeris, by the way."

"Tifa."

"Nice to meet you."

Tifa looked back at her. "Why are you helping me?"

"Let's just say there's a reason I know a thing or two about dodging Shinra soldiers. Besides, I have a hunch you might be one of them. The... 'protectors of the Planet'?"

Tifa hesitated to confirm it, but if Aeris had come this far already assuming she was a member of AVALANCHE... "I didn't think we had many supporters."

"You've got at least one. Besides, I just found out you're the owner of Seventh Heaven. It's gotten kind of famous in the slums, and it'd be a shame if I missed the chance to check it out."

Tifa bit back a laugh. It was absurd, an absurd thing for her to say right now. "You've heard of me?"

"Just that your food is good," Aeris said.

"Well, if you ever come by the bar, it's on me." Leaving their hiding place, she hopped the fence back out of the yard and offered her hand to help Aeris over. She took it with a smile.

"Oh, I'll definitely come by. I have to get you home, after all."

"I thought you were just getting me to the train station."

"Are you telling me I'm not invited?"

"I didn't say that..."

Aeris laughed. "You don't have to take it so seriously. We can say our goodbyes at the station if you want. I know we're still strangers."

"It's not that," Tifa said. Somehow, she trusted Aeris. "I just want to make sure you know, you don't have to get any more involved. I can take care of myself."

"So can I," Aeris said, with a touch of defensiveness. "I... might not have the muscles to prove it, but you're making some assumptions about my life, Miss Tifa."

"Maybe I am. But you sure don't look like..."

"A terrorist?"

Tifa frowned.

"Sorry, poor choice of words."

"No. That is what they call us, after all."

And maybe it wasn't entirely wrong. Innocent people had died tonight, because of them.

Aeris met her gaze solemnly. "I don't know if I can condone your methods," she admitted, "but... Shinra is killing this Planet. I can feel it."

"Feel it?"

"Can't you?"

Tifa hesitated, but she nodded. This whole city felt wrong to her, it always had. But she wasn't sure sometimes, how much of that was her. The anger and loss she carried inside of her, the likes of which she hadn't known in her youth, a fury that had ignited back in Nibelheim but never had the chance to take root until she was here. How could anything feel right, when that was the background radiation of her life now?

But there was something about Midgar, about the mountains back home, the lifelessness of any place that Shinra touched. She'd heard it from Barret and from others who'd come to Midgar from places no one had heard of: their lands were dying. It wasn't just her.

Her attention came back to Aeris's flowers. The blooms still looked fresh, as though they'd been picked only hours ago.

"Where did you get those, anyway?" she wondered. She could imagine people on the plate being able to get flowers, but they had to be expensive, she thought. Imported. They'd never grow in Midgar, even on the plate. The rain would poison them, and they'd never see the sun through the smog.

"Oh. We didn't get to that part, did we? I'm a flower girl. I grow them."

"Here?"

Aeris smiled. "I know. It must be the last place they'll grow, but they do. I think it's because of the old church. It's a holy place."

Tifa shook her head incredulously. It had to be some kind of magic for sure, to grow plants that healthy.

"Hey, what's your fake name?" Aeris asked suddenly.

"What?"

"On your ID. I'm assuming it's not Tifa, and I don't want to slip up."

A sign ahead pointed them to the Sector 1 station at the next intersection, and she could just make out a uniformed sleeve around the corner. More soldiers.

"Lila Sturgis," she said, not taking her eyes off of him.

Aeris touched her arm to stop her, and reached into her pocket for a handkerchief. "Don't worry," she said as she leaned up to wipe soot from Tifa's face, "we're farther from the action now, I'm sure this is just a routine check. There. That's better."

Tifa tucked her hair behind her ear. "You're sure you want to go through together? If they make me..."

"I'm sure."

Tifa nodded and didn't ask again.

There were half a dozen soldiers around the station, a heavier presence than usual but most of them looked bored. A handful of people were queued up to board the train, and one soldier was checking IDs but not asking many questions. These men had been ordered here, but she didn't think they'd witnessed the bombing for themselves.

Tifa stepped into line ahead of Aeris. The people in front of her made it on, and the soldier glanced at her wearily.

"ID?"

She offered it to him.

"Lila. What were you doing out so late?"

"Meant to catch an earlier train," she said, "but we lost track of time and there's all that commotion over in Sector 8. Do you know what's going on?"

The soldier shrugged. "It'll be on the news. What were you doing in Sector 8?"

"Visiting a friend," Tifa said.

"She just moved up here," Aeris chimed in. "I thought it was supposed to be safer on the plate, but it's been pretty scary tonight. Still, at least you all are out here. That makes me feel better leaving her on her own."

The soldier hesitated, but he motioned Tifa on ahead and held his hand out to Aeris. "ID?"

Moments later, Aeris joined her in the train car, and they found seats at the far end where Tifa had a clear view of the other passengers.

"I think we can relax a little now," Aeris said, sitting down opposite Tifa and setting her flower basket down on the empty seat beside her. "You'll be home in no time."

"I don't know. They'll probably be deploying more men to the slums, too."

"Maybe, but not yet. It hasn't even been an hour since the bombing, and they're still doing damage control. It'll be a little while before they can mobilize in the slums."

Tifa looked at her thoughtfully. "You seem to know a lot about this."

"I grew up in Midgar. You get used to it after a while."

"Guess I'm not quite as used to it yet as you are."

"Where are you from?" Aeris asked.

Tifa glanced out the window. The door had shut and the train was beginning to move. "A village out on the Western Continent," she said. "You wouldn't have heard of it."

"That small, huh? It's hard for me to imagine. Midgar is so crowded with people."

"It was definitely quieter. But, you know. Nothing exciting going on."

"I'm guessing Midgar didn't really live up to your expectations."

"It seems that way for everyone, really."

How had she imagined it when she was younger, when all the boys in the village were first leaving to come here? She'd been full of their excitement for the big city--fast pace, new people, the opportunity to do more than take over their parents' shops and farmlands.

But then she'd read their letters. They never wrote about their disappointment, not in so many words, but it had been plain as they related their struggles to find their dream jobs, and then decent jobs, and then any jobs. The spartan descriptions of their living spaces, accompanied by hurried and unconvincing assurances that they'd find better places soon. That was the Midgar she would have expected, if she'd known she would ever come here.

The train passed into a tunnel, and the intercom chimed on. "Good evening, and welcome to Midgar Lines. Due to temporary power outages at some of our stations, our final stop will be Sector 4, lower city. Expected time of arrival is 1:07am, Midgar Standard Time."

Tifa exchanged glances with Aeris.

"Well," said Aeris, "that's a little inconvenient. Do you want to stay at my place tonight? I live in Sector 5, it won't be so far from the station."

"I don't want to impose..."

"No imposition. It's an invitation."

Tifa hesitated. The time of day was largely meaningless in the slums when you couldn't see the sky, so daytime wasn't any safer, but the power outages might make it a different story. On top of that, she was tired. Did she really want to cross three sectors in pitch dark after the day she'd had?

"I guess I'll take you up on it then. Thank you."

The Sector 4 station wasn't far from the wall that divided it from Sector 5. They passed through the crude gate and into a world in darkness. Bad as they were in other ways, the slums were usually well-lit, both by the huge lights on the underside of the plate and its supports, and by the array of screens and lights and neon signs scavenged by the inhabitants below. All of those had gone dark, replaced by a dim red haze from trash fires people had started after they'd lost power. They put a foul smell into the air that never really would have seemed out of place.

Aeris knew the way, but visibility was bad, and they walked slowly. They never saw anyone clearly, but sometimes shapes moved on the edge of the light, and Tifa held her fists ready. They were nearly there, Aeris said, when the electric lights started to buzz and flicker back on. A man poked his head out of his house to see what was happening, gave Aeris a nod when he saw her, and ducked back inside.

"That's a little better," Aeris said, letting out a breath. "Come on, this way."

Aeris's house didn't belong in Midgar either, not anymore. It must have always been here, since before the plate was built, before Sector 5 was Sector 5, before it was even a town. It was a house for a smaller, more peaceful world, like the one Tifa had grown up in what felt like ages ago. It made her heart twist.

"You all right?" Aeris asked.

Beyond the house were flowers, whole beds of them, blooming in the heavy spotlight glare from above as though it were sunlight. Tifa had seen attempts at garden plots in the slums, but she had never seen more than a few scrappy weeds struggling up through the earth.

"It's like you live in a dream," Tifa said.

Aeris laughed. "I don't know about that," she said, "but it's home."

She opened the door, and Tifa followed her inside.

"Mom, I'm home," Aeris said, and almost before she had gotten the words out, an older woman was embracing her.

"Thank the gods, I was so worried. I heard from Jo there was some sort of attack--"

"I'm okay, Mom. Tifa helped me out."

Only then did Aeris's mother notice her. She stepped back, blinking. "Oh," she said. "Thank you, Tifa, for getting my daughter home safely. I'm Elmyra."

"It's nice to meet you," Tifa said, "but it's really more the other way around."

"Well, she needed some directions," Aeris said, "but I felt safer having her with me."

Tifa glanced at her, wondering if any part of that sentiment were true. Aeris had exuded confidence and calm almost the entire time.

"Anyway, I told her she could spend the night here."

"Of course," said Elmyra, though she gave Tifa a look of appraisal as she spoke. "This is no time to be out and about."

"Thank you," Tifa said. It wasn't easy letting a stranger into your home in a place like this.

"This way," Aeris said, motioning her to the stairs. There were flowers everywhere inside of the house, too, in vases and pots atop every available surface. Their scent hung in the air, a respite from Midgar's usual smells on any day, and nearly an overwhelming relief now.

The floorboards creaked beneath their feet as they would in any old house, and Aeris showed her to a small bedroom at the end of the hall.

"Oh- Sorry it's a little messy in here," she said.

The bed wasn't made, and a few boxes of junk cluttered the floor, but Tifa shrugged. "It's fine," she said. It was lovely.

Aeris smiled. "Get some sleep, okay? We'll get you home in the morning."

Tifa nodded. "Thanks, Aeris. For everything."

"Don't mention it."

Aeris stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her and leaving Tifa alone in the room. She sat down on the bed, feeling the weave of the blanket beneath her fingers. Something out of another time, another place. A bittersweet sense of calm.

She lay down and closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

Aeris woke early, and opened the door a crack into the other room to check if Tifa was still there. She wouldn't have put it past her to try sneaking out, after all that fuss she'd made about it being dangerous to associate with her, but she hadn't. Her dark hair pooled on the bed, and her chest rose and fell slowly beneath the blanket. Still sound asleep.

Probably shouldn't stare, Aeris told herself, and carefully shut the door.

Her mother was downstairs at the kitchen table, listening to the news on her radio. Her hands were loosely wrapped around a cup of tea, but she seemed to have forgotten it. She looked up as Aeris came down.

"Gods, Aeris, they're saying a reactor was bombed."

"I know, Mom." Aeris went to the stove to pour herself some tea. "I wasn't that far when it happened."

"That's what worries me. I know how you feel about Mako energy, but I don't think this is the way to stop it. People were killed last night."

Aeris turned her back on her mother, going into the pantry for sugar. "I don't like it either, but... a lot more people are going to die, if the Planet does. If Shinra keeps doing what it's doing."

"So you're still sympathetic to these AVALANCHE people, even after last night?"

"I think they're good people, Mom. Just... desperate. I understand that."

Elmyra studied her carefully as Aeris joined her at the table. "Your new friend... Tell me, did she have anything to do with it?"

"Mom!"

"Well, I think I should know if I'm harboring a terrorist."

"She's not a terrorist."

"But she is with AVALANCHE," her mother concluded.

Aeris looked at her meaningfully. "You can't tell anyone."

"Of course I can't. We're the last people who can afford to bring the Shinra down on us, which is why..." The door to the bedroom upstairs opened, and footsteps creaked in the hall. Elmyra lowered her voice to a whisper. "Which is why I don't think you should have anything more to do with her. Just let her go home on her own."

Aeris shook her head, but Tifa was coming down the stairs, and she couldn't reply.

"Good morning," she said instead. "You sleep okay?"

"Better than I have in ages," Tifa confessed. "My housemates snore."

Aeris smiled. She didn't know if Tifa was always so reserved, but she hadn't let on much about herself last night, and Aeris was hungry for these small insights into the reality of her life.

"Would you like some breakfast before you head home, Tifa?" asked Elmyra, a picture of hospitality, but Aeris shot her a look, knowing it was her way of suggesting that Tifa get going soon.

"Not if it's any trouble," said Tifa, glancing between them without understanding. "I'm sure I can eat when I get back to Sector 7."

"Breakfast sounds great, Mom," Aeris interjected. "I hear Tifa's a great cook, but I didn't catch much of a dinner last night."

"All right then," Elmyra said.

Tifa slid cautiously into the other chair as Elmyra moved into the kitchen.

Is something wrong? she mouthed at Aeris, who shook her head in reply. It wasn't Tifa's problem.

"Anything on the radio about the power outages?" Tifa asked aloud.

"It's still out in places," Elmyra answered from the kitchen, "but I think you should be all right on the way home."

"That's good to know," Aeris said, and reached to switch it off, sure there wasn't anything else they needed to know from the news report right now.

Tifa caught her hand. "I'd like to listen for a bit," she said.

Aeris nodded, though she didn't think it was a good idea. All the news was Shinra news, and they referred to AVALANCHE constantly as villains and monsters, calling for their arrest, even their execution. Why was Tifa doing this to herself? But, watching her face as they listened, she thought she understood.

Tifa felt guilty about what had happened. The casualty reports hadn't been finalized, and Aeris wasn't sure they could trust the news to report on them accurately, but the claim was more than a dozen confirmed dead so far. More than a dozen people whose deaths Tifa and her friends were responsible for.

Aeris let her listen until Elmyra had finished readying breakfast, and then switched it off anyway. "They're just repeating themselves now," she said.

"It's a scary time, though, isn't it?" Elmyra said as she sat down with them. Her eyes were on Tifa.

"It is," Tifa agreed, "but Shinra's responses just keep getting worse and worse. Did you catch that they're declaring martial law over this?"

"I don't like it, but bombing a reactor is serious business."

"Mom."

"I didn't say I thought they should declare martial law," Elmyra protested. "But a lot of people must think it's justified. I don't want all those soldiers around, and I certainly don't want you out there with them."

Tifa opened her mouth, and Aeris said quickly, "Tifa'll be with me, and I'm really looking forward to seeing Seventh Heaven. Besides, it's not going to be any more dangerous than last night, right?"

Elmyra sighed, giving up at last. "I should hope not."

"I promise I'll look after her," Tifa said.

"Oh, please. I'm not a baby."

"That's true," said her mother. "I sometimes think there are babies who listen better."

Aeris caught Tifa stifling a laugh, and she eased into a smile herself. "Well, anyway... Thanks for breakfast, Mom."

"You're welcome."

Tifa insisted on doing the dishes once they had finished eating, prompting Elmyra to confide in a whisper that "She certainly has good manners for a terrorist."

They stepped out into a morning that thankfully smelled better than last night. The lights were steady overhead, and the fires were out. Some of the neighborhood people were out in the street, and Aeris greeted them as they passed by.

Tifa let her lead them through Sector 5, but once they reached Sector 6, she seemed to recognize the way for herself. Aeris didn't have to warn her to be on her guard for the monsters that sometimes crawled out from the shadows of abandoned hovels. Tifa saw the first of them before she did, and Aeris stood back in undisguised awe as Tifa utterly destroyed it with her bare fists.

She almost forgot to look for any others, but nothing showed. Maybe they weren't eager to share in the beatdown. Aeris relaxed her grip on her staff.

"I guess those muscles aren't just for show," she said.

Tifa looked back at her, seeming unsure how to respond.

"Sorry, I'm just impressed."

"Oh. Well, thanks." Tifa dusted off her hands and gave her an awkward nod. "Let's keep moving."

They ran into a few more of the creatures as they hurried through the worst part of Sector 6. Aeris got a few solid hits in, but Tifa was easily the better fighter, and she probably could have handled them on her own, though she came out of the last fight with a nasty scratch on her leg. Once they were through the gate into the relative safety of the park beyond, Aeris motioned for her to stop and sit down.

"Let me take a look at that for you," she said.

"It looks worse than it is," said Tifa.

"Just hold still. I may not be much of a fighter, but..." She closed her eyes to concentrate, and summoned her magic to close the wound. When she opened her eyes, Tifa was rubbing the blood off to look at her bare skin.

"I should've known," she said. "You're a healer."

"A bit," Aeris said.

"A bit is plenty," Tifa said with a glance at her braid. "I've never gotten the hang of materia."

She assumed Aeris had used the materia pinned in her hair, and Aeris didn't correct her.

As they moved on into Sector 7, Tifa first began to relax, and then her pace quickened. Eager to get home, Aeris supposed, especially after the night she'd had.

Aeris had never been to this part of Sector 7, but she spotted the bar immediately. It stood out from the surrounding buildings, and not just from being a story taller or having a neon sign out front proclaiming its name. At least the first story managed to look like it hadn't been cobbled together from scrap materials, the way most buildings in the slums did. Someone had put real effort and care into its construction.

A few people in the street hailed Tifa as they passed, and she responded with friendly but quick hellos, never slowing to chat.

The 'open' sign out front of the bar wasn't lit, but of course Tifa pushed on through the doors. A group of people sat around one of the tables, but their talk silenced and stools quickly scraped back. Aeris stood in the doorway as they erupted in a chorus of relieved exclamations.

"Tifa!"

"We were so worried, Tifa."

"Thank the gods you made it back safely."

They crowded her with hugs, and Tifa smiled in a way Aeris hadn't seen yet. "I'm glad to find you all here," she said. "I didn't know if you'd made it either."

"Tifa!" exclaimed a tiny voice, and Aeris stared as a little girl pushed her way through the sea of legs to reach her. "You're back!"

Tifa knelt down and scooped the girl up into her arms. "Yeah," she said. "Sorry if I worried you, Marlene. I just missed the train is all."

Gods, Aeris thought. This wasn't a resistance cell. This was a family. Was Marlene Tifa's daughter? She knew kids went through that phase sometimes where they called their parents by their names. And then, it had started off that way with her and Elmyra.

The other woman in the group noticed her standing in the doorway, and nodded in her direction. "Who's this?" she asked.

"Oh!" Tifa shifted Marlene in her arms as she turned back towards the door. "This is Aeris. She helped smuggle me down here and let me crash at her place. Aeris, this is Jessie, Barret, Biggs, Wedge, and of course Marlene."

Marlene had tucked her head shyly against Tifa's shoulder, but Tifa poked her nose at her introduction, and she gave a little giggle.

"It's nice to meet you all," said Aeris.

Barret regarded her skeptically, and it was Jessie who stepped forward first to offer her hand. "Thanks for helping out our girl."

"Yeah," said Biggs. "We, uh, got separated, up on the plate. With all that commotion."

Jessie rolled her eyes. "She already knows who we are, you dunce, or Tifa wouldn't have brought her here. Right?"

Tifa nodded. "She knows."

"Doesn't seem so smart," Barret said, "leading her right to us." He folded his arms across his chest, and Aeris realized that one of them did not end in a hand. If not for the open affection he'd shown Tifa moments ago, Aeris would have found him more than a little intimidating.

"I promise, I'm not going to tell anyone," she said. "I think what you're doing is really brave, going against the Shinra."

"And if she wanted to rat us out, she's already had plenty of chances," Tifa put in. "I trust her, Barret."

"Well, all right. But that don't make her one of us." He took his eyes off Aeris and nodded to Tifa. "We gotta talk about last night, and make some plans."

"Right," Tifa said, setting Marlene down.

The rest of the team started making their way towards the back of the bar; Aeris guessed they had a back room of some kind.

"I'd be happy to watch Marlene for you," Aeris offered, "while you're having your meeting."

Barret bristled at the suggestion, and she knew she had misread the situation. He scooped Marlene up with his good arm and placed her on his shoulder, much to her delight even as he kept on scowling. "Marlene stays with me," he said.

He joined the others, who had gathered by the pinball machine. Biggs pulled a hidden switch, and the platform descended through the floor into a room below.

Tifa had stayed behind, and she gave Aeris a rueful smile. "Sorry about that. Barret will trust you with his life before he trusts you with his daughter. Nothing matters more to him."

"Oh. She's Barret's daughter?"

"You thought she was mine?"

Aeris shrugged sheepishly. "There is kind of a resemblance."

Tifa tucked her hair behind her ear. "I guess I have known her since she was a baby. She's family. They both are."

"Are you and Barret...?"

The blank look that held on Tifa's face for several seconds answered that question for her, but then comprehension hit and Tifa shook her head. "No, no. Just good friends."

"Got it. You all seem really close, I guess I'm just trying to figure it out. But hadn't you better get to your meeting?"

"Yeah. Um. Are you okay to wait up here? I still owe you lunch, after all."

"Sure. I don't mind."

"Thanks."

Tifa took the pinball elevator down to join the others, and Aeris stood listening to the clank of its gears until it had returned again to its place, disguising the basement. This place must have been built from the start to house a secret base, but she wondered how long Tifa had been involved. She'd only heard about the bar recently, but she lived in Sector 5; Tifa could have been running this front for years.

Aeris leaned her staff against the wall by the door and went to the jukebox. Maybe later she could play something, but she'd noticed some pictures on the wall beside it. They turned out to be nothing personal, though. A few photos of the slums' minor celebrities, one of them signed, and some framed postcards of faraway places that Aeris couldn't name. Maybe Tifa knew them, or maybe she just liked mountains.

The fridge was a different story, covered in crayon stick figure drawings depicting the various AVALANCHE members. Taped prominently in the center was a drawing of Tifa, Marlene, and Barret that read 'Happy Birthday Tifa' in careful letters. No date, though.

These were the people fighting for the Planet. Maybe Aeris should have been one of them. She knew how dire the situation was for the Planet, better than anyone. It had been her own act of defiance, she thought, keeping out of Shinra's grasp. Whatever they wanted with her, she knew it couldn't be good.

But not helping them wasn't the same as tearing them down. There weren't a lot of people willing to stand up to Shinra these days. After Wutai had lost the war, it hadn't seemed like anyone would ever be strong enough to.

Tifa's friends were only a small group of people, but they were willing and determined to fight, whatever the cost... And the cost bothered her, but someone had to do something, or Shinra would kill the Planet.

Her mother, her birth mother, kept saying lately that Midgar wasn't safe for her anymore anyway. Maybe it was time to take a risk, and stop hiding.

Aeris heard a shuffling just outside the door, and she turned towards it, but no one came in. With an uneasy feeling, she crossed the bar as quietly as she could and retrieved her staff. She took a deep breath and opened the door.

A man outside jumped and hurriedly attempted to compose himself. "Uhhh... Bar's not open?" he asked.

"No," she said. "It's closed this morning."

"Uh-huh, uh-huh... Why is that?"

"It's a bar, those are just the hours," Aeris lied. She had no idea when Seventh Heaven was typically open, but he didn't seem to either.

"Well, what are you doing here?"

"Visiting Tifa."

"Tifa?"

She pointed up at the sign above the door, where Tifa's name was prominent.

"Oh, right. But she doesn't live here alone, does she?"

"That's a weird question," Aeris stated.

"I was just curious. Can't a guy be curious?"

"There's being curious, and there's being a creep."

"I'm not being a creep! I'm just... new in town! Yeah, and trying to learn a little about my neighbors."

He wasn't a creep, Aeris realized. He was a spy. She didn't know how much he knew about AVALANCHE, but he at least knew that some of them hung around here. At worst, he already suspected this was their base, and he was trying to eavesdrop on their activities. Either way, she couldn't let him leave.

"Well, Tifa had a late night and she's still sleeping, but I'm sure she'll be up soon if you want to meet her."

"Nah, I think I'll try again another time..."

"I insist! I'll introduce you."

"I don't wanna put you to any trouble."

"Oh, it's no trouble," Aeris said, and she planted her staff meaningfully on the stoop. He looked down, and then tried to make a break for it. Aeris swept her staff under his feet, tripping him and sending him sprawling down the steps. The clatter drew the attention of Tifa's neighbors, and Aeris hoped they could hear it in the basement, too.

"Wow, are you okay?" she said loudly. "That looked like a nasty fall."

"You tripped me!" he exclaimed, pushing himself up on his hands and scrambling back from her as she descended the stairs to crouch beside him.

"I would never," Aeris said.

Faintly, she could hear the clank of the pinball elevator. She planted a hand on the man's chest, holding her staff ready in the other.

"You should lie still a second, so I can check if you hurt yourself."

She didn't think she could keep him for long, but thankfully the door opened, and Tifa stepped outside. "Aeris?"

"Oh, thank goodness. This poor man tripped on your stairs and I think he hit his head. We'd really better get him inside."

"I'm fine!" the man shouted.

Tifa looked at him, met Aeris's gaze, and nodded in understanding. "You're right, we should make sure he doesn't have a concussion."

Aeris stepped back as Tifa hauled the man to his feet and manhandled him inside. Aeris followed, and stood by the door to block his exit. Although, Barret had come up from below, and she was sure between him and Tifa, they had the situation under control.

"Have a seat," Tifa said, pushing the man down onto a stool.

"I haven't done anything," he protested, looking uneasily between her and Barret. "I just wanted to know what time the bar opened, and this crazy lady pushed me down the stairs."

"He was snooping around being a creep," Aeris corrected. "And then he tripped."

Tifa looked at her with an amusement that said she clearly knew Aeris was responsible.

"The bar's open when the sign says 'open,'" Barret said. "What're you really after? You tryin' to mess with Tifa?"

"No! No. I was just curious... a-about my new neighbors. I'm new in town."

"That right? Where you stayin'?"

"Umm.... I don't have a place yet."

Barret approached the man, towering over him, and tapped his gun arm slowly on the table. "You better start tellin' the truth now. I don't got a lot of patience for creeps."

The man swallowed. "I... I'm just doing what I was told."

"And what's that?"

"L-looking for you. The man with the gun arm. They wanted to know where you live."

"Who did?"

"I don't know."

"Well, who're you reportin' back to?"

"I... was supposed to leave a message. At that place in Sector 6. You know, the inn."

Barret nodded, tapping his gun arm again on the table as he did.

"I don't know who it's for, I swear! And- and I'm not the only one looking into you. S-so even if you get rid of me, it won't make any difference!"

Barret looked to Tifa. "You believe 'im, Teef?"

"Maybe," she said. "But I think we'd better look into it, just to be sure."

"A-and then you'll let me go? You'll let me go, right?"

Barret kicked the man's stool, nearly knocking it over. "Can it! Ain't no one talking to you anymore."

The man swallowed again and nodded.

"So I can head to Wall Market," Tifa went on, "find whoever's supposed to pick up this message, and see what they know."

Barret grimaced. "That's a nasty place, Teef. I don't like the idea of you goin' in there."

"We need to know, don't we?"

Aeris spoke up. "She doesn't need to go on her own," she suggested.

Tifa glanced at her, and Barret nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, maybe Jessie could back you up... We'll talk it over."

"What do you want to do with him in the meantime?"

"We keep the rope downstairs, yeah?"

Barret hauled the spy up by his collar, and he and Tifa headed for the pinball elevator. Barret paused before flipping the switch and threw a look over his shoulder.

"Aeris, you comin'? Or you wanna stay up here on lookout?"

Aeris gave a start. "Coming!" she said, and hurried over to join them.

As the elevator started down, Tifa threw her a smile and mouthed, Nice work.

Chapter Text

Wall Market had to be the absolute worst place in the slums. Tifa knew with certainty that it was the worst place in Sector 6; she'd take the abandoned scrap heaps full of monsters over Wall Market. It wasn't a good place for women, and it wasn't a good place for women to do the sort of work they did there.

So she couldn't understand why Aeris was so excited about it.

"You do know what kind of place Wall Market is, don't you?" she asked as she pulled her only dress out of her closet.

"Of course I do," Aeris said, and she seemed to catch Tifa's confusion. "It's not that part I'm looking forward to. I'm just happy to be part of the team."

"Are you looking to join AVALANCHE?" asked Jessie as she dumped the armful of clothes she had brought up from the basement across the back room's cot. Marlene followed her, helpfully topping the pile with a hat.

"I don't know," said Aeris. "Are you recruiting new members?"

"Always," said Jessie. "And you already won a lot of points with Barret for catching that guy."

"You should make sure you think it over first," Tifa added. "Obviously there's a lot of risk involved."

"I know," Aeris said, her expression sobering. She looked as though she wanted to say more, but she didn't.

"Everybody's real nice," Marlene put in. Now that Aeris had Barret's approval, Marlene was warming up to her, too.

"I've noticed," Aeris said, smiling at her. She looked to Tifa. "I am hoping we can all be friends."

"Friends, huh?" said Jessie thoughtfully. Before joining AVALANCHE, Tifa didn't think she'd had many friends besides Biggs.

Tifa had gotten her gloves off, and when she started to pull off her shirt, Aeris hurriedly turned her back. Tifa exchanged glances with Jessie, who shrugged. They'd banished the boys to the basement while they were getting ready, but otherwise there wasn't much room for modesty in such a crowded living situation.

"Tifa doesn't mind if you're a girl," Marlene informed Aeris. "You just can't ask about it."

"Ask about what?" said Aeris, and Marlene drew a line down her chest with her finger. Aeris glanced over her shoulder, noted the scar, and turned back around. "I see," she said.

Tifa didn't say anything. She pulled on her blue dress and, reluctantly, the heels that went with it. She gave her sneakers a longing look, but they were too big to fit into her purse.

"I could carry a bag," Jessie offered. Once they'd lifted the membership card off of their captive, Jessie had opted to go a different route, and had dressed herself in the nicest clothes Biggs owned. They were a little loose on her smaller frame, but that would help to disguise her gender. She was pulling her hair up now to fit under the hat Marlene had brought her.

"No," Tifa decided. "It'd be a little unusual, and we don't want to do anything unusual if we can help it. You can turn around now, Aeris."

Aeris turned back around, stared at Tifa, and said, "You look really nice."

Tifa tucked her hair behind her ear. "Um, thanks. But what about you?"

"Hmm." Aeris glanced at the closet, but anything Tifa owned wouldn't have fit her very well. Instead she shrugged out of the red jacket she wore over her dress and undid the end of her braid, loosening it so a mass of curls fell down her back and about her shoulders. "How about this?"

"Looks good," Tifa managed.

"No one's going to be looking at your shoes," Jessie agreed.

Marlene, who'd been watching the exchange very intently, came up to Tifa and tugged at her arm. When she leaned down, Marlene whispered into her ear, "I think Aeris likes you."

Tifa felt her face heating as she glanced at Aeris. She'd experienced plenty of male attention in her life, but someone like Aeris? That was new. "You think so?" she whispered back.

"Uh-huh."

"What's the verdict?" Aeris asked. She made it sound like she was expecting Marlene's opinion on her outfit, but her knowing expression suggested otherwise.

"I'm not sure," Tifa admitted. "What do you think, Marlene?"

Marlene looked between the two of them and announced, "Maybe!"

Aeris shrugged. "I guess that'll have to be good enough."

Their attire earned them a suspicious look from the neighborhood gossip as they passed, but there was no helping that; just about anything piqued her interest. Sitting on the front stoop next door, Johnny's cousin wolf-whistled at them, prompting Johnny to smack him in the back of the head. Tifa didn't even have to do anything.

As expected, Shinra soldiers had been deployed to the slums following last night's bombing. Biggs had noted a few patrols, and several men now guarded the way to the support pillar. Useless, Tifa thought. Of course Shinra would station them outside the last place anyone in the slums would ever target, instead of having them help with any real problems, like the monster infestations. The company didn't care about monsters as long as they weren't hurting profits.

One of the soldiers tapped his wrist as they walked by. There was a curfew in place, but Tifa knew it would never be enforced in Wall Market. Too many Shinra execs liked to come down there after work. Another reason to hate the place: it was just scum catering to scum.

"So," said Aeris, "maybe I'm missing something obvious, but can I ask why one of the guys isn't playing the part of the, well, guy?"

"Because all of our guys are a little afraid of being inappropriate with Tifa," Jessie answered, "even for pretend."

Aeris threw Tifa a look of appreciation, and Tifa shrugged. "A useful talent in any other situation," she said.

They passed out of Sector 7, and soon into Wall Market on the other side of the wall that divided them. It wasn't far from the south entrance to the Honey Bee Inn, but they still managed to get catcalled at least three times before they reached it.

The building was as gaudy as they came, plastered with pink neon signs and flashing hearts. Tifa had never understood the appeal, but she wasn't exactly the target audience. A few men loitered outside, and a pair of bouncers blocked their path to the door.

"Hey, hold on," said the first man. "You a member?"

"Sure am," Jessie replied in the manliest voice she could muster. Tifa thought she was putting some sleaze into it, too, which was fine. She offered the bouncer her stolen membership card for inspection. "Got me some new broads and I figure, what better place to break them in, if you know what I mean?"

Tifa felt a hand on her ass. "Jessie," she whispered.

"Overselling it?"

"Mmhm."

The bouncer looked over the card and eyed Tifa and Aeris with interest. "Well, I hope you talk to the boss while you're at it. He'd pay a fortune for these beauties."

"Thinking about it, thinking about it," said Jessie.

The bouncer handed her back the card. "You can head on in. Enjoy yourself."

"I definitely will."

With a hand on each of them, not too low this time, Jessie maneuvered them between the bouncers and towards the door.

Behind them, Tifa heard the second bouncer ask his companion, "Was that a woman?"

"Maybe," said the first. "Don't matter to me as long as they pay the dues."

The inside of the brothel wasn't quite so gaudy as its exterior. There was a heavy gold motif, but the lighting was dimmer, not so harsh on the eyes. A woman in one of those unfortunate bee costumes approached them. Why bees? Tifa always wondered. Did men really find this enticing?

"Hello and welcome to the Honey Bee Inn," said the woman. "Please let me know if I can be of service."

"We just need one of your rooms," said Jessie. "106?"

"I'm sorry. 106 is reserved tonight for one of our regular customers."

"I know. He's a business partner of mine, you could say. He called me up earlier and asked if I could get him something real special for tonight."

"Oh, I see. Right this way then."

"Actually," said Tifa, "is there somewhere I could freshen up first? I want to look my best."

"Of course. We have a dressing room just this way."

"Thanks," Tifa said. She leaned in close to Jessie to whisper, "I want to check in with some of the girls here, see if they know anything. I'll catch up with you."

Jessie nodded and gave her a conspiratorial wink. "Oh, that's real dirty," she said.

Tifa winked back and walked off to the dressing room as their hostess led Jessie and Aeris to the room.

There were only two women in the dressing room touching up their makeup, and Tifa was surprised to recognize one of them as a woman from her own neighborhood.

"Nance?" she said. "What are you doing here? I thought you got out."

Nance swivelled in her chair to look at her, and then she dropped her eyes. "You know how it is. Dad got sick."

Regrettable, but understandable. Real doctors cost money that was hard to pick up as a shop clerk. "No judgment," said Tifa. "But you know you could be making twice as much at some other brothel."

"Sure, on the other side of the city. I don't have ID for the trains, and I've heard about two people already today who got caught with fake ones. They're not working anymore."

Tifa nodded, reaching into her purse. "I heard about that from Jessie. They just implemented a new system." She pressed a few hundred gil into Nance's hand. "Here. It's not a lot, but it's something."

"Thanks, Tifa. But what are you doing here? The bar's doing fine, isn't it?"

Tifa glanced at the other woman, who pretended not to pay them any mind, but who had clearly noted the exchange of money. "I'm meeting someone," she said, "after a fashion. Do you know the regular in 106?"

Nance scrunched up her face. "I forget his name, but he's one of those Shinra suits. He's a real creep, Tifa."

"His name is Branson," the other woman put in, "or something stupid like that. He's in here all the time, and I've heard about him stalking one of the other girls. You want to be careful with him."

"Thanks for the warning," Tifa said with a smile. She fished a few more coins out of her purse and held them out. The woman took them cautiously.

"Thanks," she said, "but if you've got money to throw around, then you shouldn't be here in the first place."

Nance nodded in agreement. "I don't know what you're up to, Tifa, but you take care of yourself, all right?"

"Don't worry. I've got it handled."

Leaving the dressing room, Tifa made her way down the hall to room 106. The door was unlocked, and she let herself in.

"Learn anything?" asked Aeris.

"The guy we're waiting for is some Shinra sleazebag named Branson," she said. "The girls here do not like him."

"What a surprise," said Jessie, rolling her eyes.

Aeris moved as if to sit down on the bed, and then thought better of it. "What happens," she asked, "if the Shinra do know where your base is already?"

Tifa exchanged glances with Jessie. It was a possibility they'd discussed a few times, but they'd never reached a definitive plan. "I guess we'll have to consider leaving Sector 7," she said. "At least for a little while."

"Weird thing to think about," said Jessie. "I've lived in Sector 7 my whole life. You know I can remember when it still had a sky?"

"Really?" Aeris asked in surprise.

"Sure. People act like the plate's been there forever, but they only started work on it about thirty years ago. We watched that thing go up as kids. Biggs used to make-believe it was an alien spaceship, come to invade the Planet. I wonder if aliens would've been nicer."

"I don't know," Aeris said, considering it with more solemnity than the prospect was really worth. "I get the feeling that... that wouldn't have been so great either."

"You think about aliens a lot?" Tifa wondered.

Aeris shrugged, looking sheepish. "Anyway, if it comes to it, I know a place in Sector 5 where you could hide out, at least for a little while."

"I don't think your mom would be up for that."

"Oh, no, I don't mean my house. There's an abandoned church nearby. No one really goes there except me."

The door opened before they could discuss it further, and a balding, middle-aged man in a suit stepped through. His eyes fell on Tifa and Aeris, missing Jessie where she stood closer to the door, and she easily slipped behind his line of sight.

"Oh, wow," he said, looking them each up and down. "Mm, excellent. They've really outdone themselves tonight, finding you two for me."

He shut the door behind him, and didn't notice Jessie until she clicked the lock shut.

"What-- Who are you?"

"We have a few questions for you, Branson," Tifa said. There weren't any chairs in the room, so she shoved him backwards onto the bed.

"Well, this could be fun, I suppose," he said. He grinned, but he shot Jessie another confused look.

"It won't be," Tifa assured him.

"You came here to pick up a message, right?" Aeris asked, approaching the bed to stand beside Tifa.

"Message?" The uneasy grin vanished. "No, that's silly. I came here to have a good time with you girls."

"Cut the crap," Tifa said. "You sent spies to look into AVALANCHE. I want to know what you learned."

"I don't know what you're talking about. And if this is some sort of game, then I don't care for it."

He was inching backwards on the bed, and Tifa caught his wrist and pinned it down, making sure he felt the strength of her grip. "How attached are you to your balls?" she asked. "Because that could change real soon if you don't start talking."

"They'll hear you," he said. "If you do anything to me, they'll hear you, and they'll get security in here."

"Man, they must hear a lot of weird noises around here, don't you think?" She glanced at Aeris, who nodded in agreement. "Especially coming from your room. I've heard rough is how you like it, and I bet you scream like a girl."

He swallowed, but didn't say anything.

"You'd better start talking," Aeris said, "or I'll rip them off."

She sounded serious about that, and Tifa would have to applaud her acting later. She wouldn't have thought Aeris could be that intimidating.

"A-all right. Okay. But it wasn't my idea, all right? I'm just following orders."

"Whose orders?"

"Heidegger's. The Head of Public Safety."

Tifa snorted at the title, but that was higher up the chain than she had expected. They'd really caught Shinra's attention this time. "And what have you found out for him?"

"The leader of AVALANCHE, they say he's a man with a gun arm. He and his crew hide out in Sector 7. The message I was picking up tonight was supposed to confirm where, but it won't matter."

"What do you mean?"

"I- I can't tell you that. They'll disappear me."

Tifa tightened her grip on his wrist, coming closer to breaking it. "You think we'll do any less to you for keeping quiet?"

Branson grimaced, and his body jerked back reflexively. "It's the plate," he said through clenched teeth. "They're dropping the plate."

"What?"

An ugly smirk crossed his face. "I hear they're doing it tonight. They wanted to wait until curfew was in effect."

"No..."

Her heart sank into the pit of her stomach, and she let go of Branson's wrist. If she'd said she couldn't believe it, it would have been a lie. This was how Shinra dealt with their problems, wasn't it? They crushed them, ruthlessly. They didn't care how many lives it cost, as long as they saw more gil in it in the long run.

And with the curfew, they were guaranteeing as many people would be at home as possible, the greatest loss of life. It would be devastating, the worst disaster in living memory. No one would dare cross the Shinra after that.

Jessie had come away from the door. "How are they doing it? You can't drop the plate just like that."

"You can if you destroy the main support," said Branson.

"It'll still take time," Aeris reasoned. "Won't it? Curfew's only just hit."

Tifa nodded. "We still have time."

"What do you want to do with him?" Jessie asked.

Tifa looked at Branson for a beat, and then bent down to grab his foot.

"You're stealing my shoes?"

"Can't run in heels."

She tossed her pumps aside and stuffed her feet into his business shoes. Not ideal for running, but better than barefoot. Jessie and Aeris were already halfway out the door, and Branson got to his feet as Tifa did. He opened his mouth to shout, but she clocked him in the face, and he fell back into the bed, clutching his now broken nose. He started to whine something through his hand, but she didn't stay to listen.

They were out of the Honey Bee Inn too fast for anyone to even realize they should attempt to stop them. Tifa's mind was racing.

"Jessie, Aeris, I want you evacuating everyone you can. Get Marlene out of there. And get someone to Nance's house; her father's sick and I don't know if he can make it out on his own."

"Got it," said Jessie.

"What are you going to do?" Aeris asked.

"I'm headed for the pillar. The only way we save everyone is if someone stops this."

"I'll send Barret your way," Jessie promised.

They split up just past the entrance to Sector 7. Two soldiers still stood guard on the way to the pillar, but they didn't react in time to draw their weapons before Tifa's fist struck the first guard in the jaw. She disarmed the second and hit him with the butt of his own rifle. Bending down, she searched them for a key into the compound around the pillar.

Above them, things looked quiet, for now. But would there be any commotion, if no one knew what Shinra was planning? They controlled the pillar, and so they could send a team to plant explosives without anyone being the wiser.

Tifa slung the rifle over her shoulder and made for the fence. She didn't like guns, but she might need the range. She unlocked the gate, pushed it open, and looked up at stairway attached to the side of the pillar. She could do this.

Chapter Text

Jessie sent Aeris on to Seventh Heaven; she didn't know Sector 7 as well as the rest of them, but she knew the bar, and she knew what to tell the others. She could get Marlene out first, to safety.

For Jessie's part, she went straight to the town gossip. No one knew how to spread information better. In spite of the curfew, the woman was still sitting out on her front stoop.

"Quickly! We have to evacuate all of Sector 7. They're going to drop the plate on us!"

The gossip regarded her shrewdly. "Drop the plate? What are you on about?"

Would anyone really believe that Shinra would do something like this to them, even here in the slums? Her heart broke as the words formed in her mind, but Jessie said, "The pillar. The terrorists said they're going to bomb the pillar."

The gossip's face went white. "Oh my gods," she said. But then she took a breath and nodded seriously. "I'm on it."

"Great, thanks." Jessie didn't stay long enough to hear anything else she had to say. She ran on to Nance's house and pounded on the door. "Mr. Carpenter, are you in there?"

No answer.

"Johnny!" He'd just come out of his cousin's house, and she waved him down. "Johnny, do you know if Mr. Carpenter is home? I heard he's sick."

"Yeah, yeah, but I don't have the key!"

"Okay. Just- You get your family out."

Johnny nodded and ran off. Jessie fumbled out her lockpicking tools, but her hands shook as she fitted them to the lock. She felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Easy, Jess."

She looked up. "Oh, Biggs."

"Don't get weepy on me. Just stand back."

Behind him, she could see Barret barrelling down the street, Marlene in his arms, Aeris and Wedge close behind. She backed away from the door.

Biggs kicked it open, and they went in together, finding Nance's father struggling to get out of bed. They got him up and, each with an arm under him, walked him out of the house.

Jessie glanced down the street. "What did you do with--?"

"The spy? We cut him loose."

She nodded. He was a scumbag, but he didn't deserve to be left to die. Biggs flagged down the owner of the weapons shop, and they passed Mr. Carpenter to him and his son to carry the rest of the way. Biggs turned to her.

"Aren't you going to help Tifa?" she asked him. "She went up there on her own."

"I will," he said. "I just didn't want the last thing I really said to you to be 'you look stupid in that hat.'"

"It won't be the last..." Jessie trailed off. They both knew that if the plate fell, this really could be the last time they ever spoke. The pillar could go at any moment, and they'd be crushed.

Biggs took her by the arms. "I love you like a sister, all right?"

Jessie hugged him tightly. "I love you, too."

He squeezed her back, and then all too quickly he was gone, down the street after Barret and the others. Jessie took a shaky breath and ran off in the other direction.

She pounded on every door she passed, shouting at the top of her lungs about the 'terrorist threat' to the pillar. The gossip had done her work, and others joined her in spreading the word. People came out into the street just to see what all the commotion was about, and when they heard, most of them got moving.

Horrifyingly, some people just shrugged and went back inside. Jessie couldn't say whether they didn't believe it, or whether they just didn't care if the end was coming for them. She didn't have the time to convince them either way.

On the next street, a knot of Shinra soldiers were stopping people. "Hey, hey, there's a curfew in place! Get back inside!"

"No!" Jessie shouted. She ran up to them, stumbling to a halt when they trained their weapons on her. "You can't enforce that at a time like this! There's a bomb threat to the pillar!"

They exchanged glances. "I haven't heard anything about that," said one.

"You can go over there right now if you don't believe me. There's- there's terrorists climbing the pillar!"

They regarded her skeptically, but with everyone waiting in uncertainty, they caught the echo of gunfire high above. They all looked up. It was too far to see anything clearly, but the sound was unmistakable.

The soldiers hesitated, but then their leader lowered his gun and waved his arm at the people standing in the street. "All right, everybody get moving! Get going!"

Jessie let out a breath of relief.

"You two, get these people out of the sector, I'm gonna go check out the pillar."

"Yes, sir!"

The soldiers dispersed, and Jessie had time only for a fleeting worry that she'd sent one of them after her friends. They'd rather that than have him holding up the evacuation, wouldn't they?

She worked her way down the street, pounding on doors until her voice was hoarse and her knuckles were raw. Fewer people were coming out, and she hoped that was because they had already left.

She stopped to catch her breath, and looked up at the pillar. She was closer to it now, and she could hear the gunfire more clearly. Her friends were up there, fighting for all of their lives.

It was time that she joined them.

Jessie ran to the base of the support, where she found that one soldier trying to persuade a crowd of onlookers to evacuate. She left him to it, pushing past them and through the fence. But just as she gripped the railing of the stairs, there was a shout from above, and a crash that she could feel through the rail. She looked up in time to see a figure tumbling down from several flights above her. As they came to a stop, she recognized them as--

"Wedge!"

She took the steps two at a time until she reached him. She glanced up, but whoever had knocked him down didn't follow. He lay groaning on the landing, and she could see blood seeping through his sleeve below the shoulder. She hurriedly shrugged out of Biggs' jacket and knelt down beside him.

"Wedge, it's me. Can you hear me?"

"Jessie," he said, opening his eyes. "They went on ahead."

"I know," she said, wadding up the jacket and pressing it against his arm. He winced.

Above them came a whirring sound, and she looked up as a helicopter approached the uppermost platform. Her heart sank. That was probably how Shinra was retrieving its men, before the pillar went... unless they were very lucky, and Tifa and the others had driven them off. She wanted to think they had, but the feeling in the pit of her stomach told her otherwise. If she reached her friends now, it would only be to die with them.

And maybe... Maybe that was what she deserved. It was their actions that had made a target of Sector 7. Wasn't it fitting for them to give their lives defending it?

Wedge groaned again, and she looked down. She didn't want him to die with her.

"Can you stand?" she asked him.

"M-maybe."

Jessie tied the jacket tightly around his arm and took his other hand, putting her full weight into hauling him to his feet. He staggered against the railing, and she got under his arm to support him. Together they stumbled back down the stairs.

"The others--" Wedge began.

"There's no time."

The only decent Shinra soldier in the world, as Jessie had decided to dub him, had started threatening the onlookers to get moving, but only a few of them did. He glanced up at the helicopter, met Jessie's gaze briefly, and ran off with the last of the evacuees.

They had made it almost to the archway into Sector 6 when Jessie heard the helicopter moving off. Any moment, she expected to hear the blast that would announce her death, and she urged Wedge faster and faster. They staggered through the arch and kept going.

"Move, move!" she shouted. Too many people were standing too close to the wall.

They made it as far as the cat-shaped playhouse and Jessie shoved Wedge into it ahead of her just as she heard the first distant boom. The playhouse had been there a long time, it had to be sturdy. She crawled in behind Wedge and curled up, wrapping her arms around her head and bracing herself for the crash.

The screams came first as the explosion progressed, people watching it happen from the wrong side of the wall. Then the plate came down, silencing them in a cacophony of metal. It was the loudest thing that Jessie had ever heard, and it lasted longer than she could ever have imagined.

Then, at last, silence.

Someone was weeping, and it took her a minute to realize it was her own voice. She swallowed her tears, sucked in a breath, and finally opened her eyes.

"You all right?" she asked Wedge.

His eyes were wide with horror, but he nodded dumbly.

They crawled out from inside the playhouse. Several steel beams had embedded themselves in the top of the thing; Jessie hadn't heard their impact over the rest of the noise. The few shacks between it and the wall had collapsed beneath chunks of debris. That Shinra soldier was lying wounded near one of them, someone crouched beside him, and for once Jessie hoped he'd be okay.

Ahead, through the archway into Sector 7, there was nothing but a heap of tangled metal and wires. Something inside of that was burning, and she could hear the groans and crashes of debris settling beyond the wall. Above, in that gap between the wall and the Sector 6 plate, where the Sector 7 plate should have been, was only the green haze that was the Midgar sky.

Jessie stood and stared. Wedge sank to the ground, his back thudding against the playhouse.

Biggs... Barret... Tifa...

"Jessie!"

She gave a start, and in the moment she recognized the voice, the moment before she turned around, she thought it was her mind playing tricks on her, giving her what she most wanted to hear in that moment.

But it really was Barret running towards her. Tifa limped up just behind him. They looked awful. Barret was bleeding from a gash in his head, Tifa's legs were badly scraped and bruised, and both of them were covered in an ashy film from the blast.

"You- You're alive!" Jessie exclaimed.

Tifa threw her arms around her and held her tightly, saying nothing. Relief swept over her. They were alive...

...but then she realized, someone was missing.

"Biggs?" she whispered into Tifa's shoulder.

Tifa was shaking her head. "He took a bullet on the way up... We couldn't go back for him. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Jessie."

The tears welled up again in her eyes. "He went out... protecting everyone," Jessie mumbled. "You all bought us time, I know you did. He'd... he'd be proud of that."

"Yeah," said Tifa.

"Gods damn them!!"

They pulled apart at the sound of Barret's voice. He stood in front of the rubble, his whole body shaking. Tifa started towards him.

"Damn them!" he shouted again. "The hell do they think they are!? Playin' god? Destroyin' people's lives?"

He lifted his gun arm to aim it at the rubble, but Tifa caught his arm. "Barret, stop," she said hoarsely. "Ricochet."

Barret turned his head to stare at her, and then slowly lowered his arm again.

Jessie looked around. There were a handful of people in the park; she knew it wasn't everyone who had escaped. "Where's Aeris?" she asked. "She made it out, didn't she?"

Tifa looked at her in a moment of horror. "Didn't she?" she repeated. She shook her head to clear it. "Maybe she went on to Sector 5," she said.

"Hey, are you talking about that lady in the pink?" someone asked.

They turned. "That's right," said Tifa. "She would've had a little girl with her?"

"I heard she was taking people to some church," said the survivor. "But I didn't want to go, yet."

"You know where this church is, Teef?" said Barret. There was an edge to his voice, and Jessie felt it, too. A need to be sure. Marlene.

"I have an idea," Tifa said. "She said it was near her house." She knelt down beside Wedge. "How bad is it?"

"It hurts, but I can walk." Reading the expression on her face, he pleaded, "Don't leave me behind. I want to know, too, that they're okay."

Tifa nodded, and helped him to his feet. They all gave the ruins of Sector 7 one last look before turning away, and pressing on through Sector 6.

Their pace was slow. Jessie was probably in the best shape of the four of them, and she was exhausted. Thankfully, a number of the survivors wordlessly decided to go with them, and together they were a large enough group that the monsters kept their distance.

Tifa led the way once they reached Sector 5, and when they were closer to where Jessie supposed Aeris's house was, she started asking about the church. They got directions quickly, and Jessie could tell from the residents' solemn gazes and lack of questions that they weren't the first to pass this way.

The foundation of one of the church's towers had crumbled and it had half-collapsed against the main structure, but otherwise the church was in better condition than Jessie had expected for a building in the slums. Even the bell was still in the bell tower.

Jessie recognized the owner of the weapons shop and one of his employees standing outside the doors. They seemed to have stationed themselves there, though in what capacity, even they didn't seem sure.

"Good to see you guys made it out," said the owner.

"Marlene--" Barret began, but the man was already nodding.

"Your daughter's inside."

Barret rushed past them into the church, and the rest of them followed.

"Papa!" Marlene wasn't far from the doors, and she ran into Barret's arms as he dropped to his knees in front of her. "Papa, you hurt your face!"

"It's okay," he said, holding her close. "You're okay. That's all that matters. You're okay."

"Thank the gods," Tifa whispered from beside her.

And the church was full of people. Jessie recognized so many familiar faces--not all of them, which meant not enough of them, but a lot. Nance's father lay on one of the pews. Johnny was crouched down talking to two of the neighborhood kids, trying to keep their attention. Jessie wasn't sure where their parents were.

The town gossip was at the front of the church, trying to get people organized in some fashion. When she spotted them at the entrance, she marched down the center aisle towards them. She looked Jessie dead in the eye, reading the facts in her expression.

"It really happened then?" she asked.

Jessie could only nod. She didn't have the words right now.

"Where's Aeris?" Tifa asked suddenly.

Jessie looked around again, but she didn't see Aeris anywhere. When her eyes swept over them, some of the people sitting on the pews nearby looked away.

It was Marlene who said, "They took her away."

Tifa knelt down beside her and Barret. "What do you mean? Who took her away?"

"Some men from Shinra came," said one of the refugees at last. "When the first group of us got here with her. There was a dark-haired man in a suit... He said he'd have us all shot if she didn't go with them."

"Why would they take Aeris?" Jessie asked, puzzled. If it was because she'd become involved with AVALANCHE, then it didn't make sense to pursue her as a separate target when they already expected to wipe them all out along with with Sector 7.

Tifa shook her head. "I don't know. It doesn't make any sense to me. But... I'd better tell her mother what happened."

"I'm goin' with you," Barret decided. "Aeris got caught savin' Marlene, so I gotta pay my respects."

"I'm going, too," said Jessie. "If we'd only stuck together, then maybe..."

Tifa shook her head. "If it's anyone's fault, it's mine, for getting her involved in all of this."

"Shit," said Barret. "How 'bout blamin' the damn Shinra? They're the ones that took her."

There was a short silence. He wasn't wrong, but Jessie didn't exactly feel blameless either.

"Um," said Wedge. He had eased himself down onto the nearest pew, and when they all looked at him, he said, "I'll keep an eye on things here for you."

"Good man," said Barret.

After listening intently to their conversation, the gossip finally turned away and raised her voice. "All right, who's got the medical kit?"

Barret stood, holding Marlene close in his arms, and turned to Tifa. "Which way?"

Tifa led them only a few blocks from the church, to an impossible house, a house that had survived from the time before the plate was built. Flowers bloomed all around it, and Jessie rubbed her eyes, wondering if she'd dozed off somehow.

Tifa knocked at the door, and a woman answered it as though she'd been waiting for someone to come. Her gaze swept over them, recognizing Tifa, taking in their condition. "What happened to Aeris?" she said.

"The Shinra took her," Tifa said quickly, before Aeris's mother could reach a worse conclusion. "I'm so sorry, Elmyra."

Elmyra didn't look surprised. "Was it the Turks?" she asked.

Tifa exchanged glances with her friends. "I'm not sure. It was a dark-haired man in a suit..."

"Tseng," Elmyra said in recognition. She opened the door wider. "I guess you all had better come in."

They filed inside, and Elmyra bid them take a seat at her kitchen table. Marlene had fallen asleep on the walk over, and Barret sat rocking her gently in his arms.

"I heard about what happened to Sector 7," Elmyra said, not sitting down with them. "You all must have lost so much."

"Thank you," said Tifa. "But I don't understand. What do the Turks want with Aeris?"

"They've been after her for a long time," said Elmyra. "Aeris is... the sole survivor of the Ancients."

"The Ancients?" Tifa repeated.

"I thought you were her mother," Barret said.

Elmyra nodded at Marlene. "Is she your daughter?"

"Of course Marlene's my..." He trailed off, taking her point.

"It's been 15 years since I took Aeris in as my own. Back then, I didn't believe her, but she told me that she'd escaped from some research laboratory somewhere. Her mother, her birth mother, was injured in the escape. Her dying words were to ask me to keep Aeris safe. I've done my best over the years, but..."

"She's her own person now," Tifa finished. "She's going to take risks."

Elmyra nodded. "I was worried this day might be coming. The Shinra need her, so I don't think they'll let any harm come to her, but I worry how they'll treat her."

"What do they need her for?" Jessie asked. "The Ancients, they're practically a faerie tale."

"They say that she has special powers, and that she could lead them to some place called 'the Promised Land.'"

"Is any of that true?" Tifa asked.

"Aeris would tell you it isn't. But I'm her mother, and I know when she's trying to hide things from me. I don't know about this Promised Land of theirs, but she is special."

They all fell silent.

"I'm sorry," Tifa said again. "I should never have let Aeris come back with me..."

"Don't blame yourself," Elmyra said. "Aeris didn't do anything that she didn't want to. She wanted to help you. And whatever you all have done... There's no doubt in my mind after today, the Shinra are truly evil. You have to fight them."

"Fuck," Barret cursed under his breath, earning him a raised eyebrow from Elmyra. Marlene slumbered on. "Sorry," he went on, "but we gotta go after her, right? I don't know if I get what they're planning for Aeris, but we can't let the Shinra have her."

"You're right," said Tifa. "We have to go after her, no matter what."

Jessie nodded her agreement. "After all, she's one of us now, isn't she?"

There were tears in Elmyra's eyes. "Thank you all," she said, and quickly turned her back on them to collect herself. After a moment, she went on, "You need rest first. You can stay here for the night."

Tifa rose to her feet and put a hand on Elmyra's shoulder. "We'll get her back," she said. "I promise."

Jessie hoped it was a promise they could keep. She didn't want to lose anyone else.

Chapter Text

Aeris had been young enough that her memories of the Shinra building were hazy by now. She was left mostly with impressions. Sterility. Indifference. Isolation. Her mother had been her entire world, but if she couldn't still talk to her sometimes, Aeris wasn't sure how clearly she would remember her either.

She rode the elevator upwards with Tseng, her hands clasped tightly in front of her. She hadn't said a word to him since she had agreed to go with him.

"I never expected you of all people to get involved with an anti-Shinra group," Tseng said at last.

Her mouth twitched. Maybe she should have kept up the silent treatment, but she said, "Really? Me, of all people?"

"I thought you had more sense than that."

"Because of AVALANCHE, people had some warning about what you were doing. People were able to make it out. I'm proud that I could be a part of that."

"Well, there's nothing for you to be a part of anymore."

Aeris turned away. Through the glass walls of the elevator, she could see the fallen plate, alight with the fires of ruined buildings. Had Shinra made any effort to evacuate the people above? How many people had made it out of the slums besides the small group that Aeris had brought to the church? She had gotten Marlene to safety, but she had no idea if Tifa or any of her friends had escaped.

She didn't want to acknowledge that Tseng could be right. She wanted to believe that the people she had just begun to connect to were out there somewhere, alive, even if she might never see them again.

The elevator dinged, opening out onto the 67th floor. The number meant nothing to her, but the sight of the corridor ahead made her pulse quicken, and her chest felt tight. She didn't move until Tseng took her by the arm and pulled her from the elevator.

He escorted her to an observation room, and that was where he was. The Professor.

The Professor didn't notice them until Tseng loudly cleared his throat, but when he laid eyes on her, a sickening delight spread across his face.

"Finally! I've been waiting on this specimen for far too long."

Aeris hated his voice. Everything about him made her skin crawl.

"Where do you want her?" Tseng asked mechanically.

"Ah, yes. I still need time to prepare the tests for her. I was only just informed that you had found her. Let's see... I think Specimen Chamber D is open. You can put her in there for now."

Tseng nodded stiffly and took Aeris by the arm again. He led her to a short hallway with a series of identical doors on either side. They had little windows in them, but Aeris wasn't able to look through them. What else was he keeping in here? Who else might he be keeping in here?

The cell that Tseng opened for her was windowless, and empty. He didn't push her inside, but there was nowhere else for her to go.

"I wish it hadn't come to this," he said.

"You're the one who brought me here," she retorted.

Tseng's only answer was to press a button on the keypad, sealing the door. There was no way to open it from the inside, and Aeris choked down a sob. She couldn't remember how they had escaped this place. She only remembered that they had.

 

* * *

 

Before Tifa and the others turned in that night, they went back for Wedge; it was better for him to sleep in a real bed. They put him up in the smaller bedroom, with Jessie on the sofa. The refugees at the church had tended to his arm as best they could, and Elmyra gave them what she had to bandage the rest of their injuries.

Tifa slept in the other room with Barret, Marlene nestled safely between them. After the events of the day, Tifa was exhausted enough that she could sleep, for which she was grateful.

When she woke the next morning, she found Barret lying awake, watching Marlene as she slept.

"I almost lost her, Tifa," he whispered.

"I know. That was too close." And what if something had happened to the rest of them? What if none of them had made it out of Sector 7? Marlene would have been left on her own. She could imagine that one of the survivors might have looked after her, but she didn't know. They'd never talked about it with anyone, and it was no easy thing to take in a child.

"You think... Elmyra'd look after her a while?" Barret wondered. "Things're gonna get real dangerous for us now. More than they were."

Tifa knew it must have broken his heart to even suggest it, but it was the right thing to do. "I think so," she said. "At least for now, until things calm down."

Barret nodded. "One day, Tifa, we're gonna win this fight. And then... I won't have to always be leavin' her."

"Yeah," she said.

She felt numb. Last night's loss was too big to process, and maybe she understood that if she tried, she might fall apart. She'd been here before, a worse place than here, having lost everything she'd ever known. She'd lost a good friend, she'd lost neighbors, she'd lost her home... But she had to remind herself that she had more now than she had had then. Barret, Marlene, Jessie, Wedge... Aeris, maybe. If they could get her back.

They could get her back, right?

It was an ambitious undertaking. Probably a little crazy. But if they didn't do it, if they just stayed put and licked their wounds, she was scared she'd wind up back at rock bottom, no matter who she had with her. She had to do something. She had to feel like it wasn't futile to keep trying.

Tifa sat up. "I'm going to ask Elmyra if she has anything else I can wear," she said.

"Awright," said Barret. "I'll be here, a while longer."

Tifa left the room, closing the door softly behind her. The floorboards creaked under her feet, the same as the last time she'd been here. It was only the night before that she'd stayed here with Aeris, but it felt like longer.

She found Elmyra alone at the kitchen table, her head in her hands. She didn't look up.

Tifa wasn't sure what Elmyra thought of her. She'd had the impression, yesterday morning, that it wasn't positive. That either Aeris had told her who Tifa was, or she'd figured it out for herself, and she didn't approve. But she'd told her not to blame herself for Aeris's kidnapping.

She wanted to say something, but she didn't know what. She'd promised to get Aeris back, but she'd also promised to look after her in the first place, and she'd failed. Why should Elmyra believe her this time?

"How about I make breakfast this morning?" she offered. Something simple. Something she could do.

Elmyra looked up. "Oh... All right."

Tifa smiled at her, though she had to force it, and walked to the kitchen. She started to look through the cupboards. "And, I know this is another favor, but I was hoping you might have a change of clothes I could borrow."

Elmyra didn't answer immediately. When Tifa glanced at her, she was staring off at nothing. Maybe she hadn't slept, or maybe her mind was struggling through its own numbness. Finally she blinked and said, "Yes. Um... You probably want something you can fight in. I think I still have some of my husband's old clothes, in one of the boxes upstairs."

"All right. I'll look for them after. I don't want to wake Wedge and Jessie up yet."

"Yes... That boy needs his rest. He isn't going with you, is he?"

"No. He'll have to stay behind."

"And that little girl, Marlene?"

Tifa glanced up at the stairs, but she hadn't heard any movement. "Barret wanted to ask you... if she could stay here with you a while. If it's not too much trouble, I mean. Wedge could probably look after her, but..."

"They're both welcome to stay," Elmyra said.

"Thank you."

"Although..." Elmyra hesitated for a long moment. "I don't know. Maybe it's not such a good idea to stay in Midgar any longer. For any of us, but for Aeris especially. If you can get her out, I think we'll have to leave."

Tifa nodded. "You're probably right, now that I think about it. If... when we get Aeris back, this is the first place they'll look for her."

"Why don't we meet you somewhere?" Elmyra suggested. "Once your friend is able to travel... I know someone with a Cure materia, I'll see if I can get her to come here. And then we'll go. Take Marlene with us."

"Kalm isn't far," Tifa proposed, "and Wedge is from that area. He'll know the way."

"Kalm it is then," Elmyra said.

The ceiling creaked, and Jessie came down the stairs.

"Good morning," Elmyra said reflexively. Tifa glanced at her, and saw her open her mouth again as though to correct herself. Instead she said, "Tifa asked me about a change of clothes. Could you use something, too?"

Jessie stopped and stared at her. She shook her head slowly, wrapping her arms around herself. "No. I... don't want to."

Elmyra looked baffled, and Tifa explained softly, "Those are... were Biggs's clothes."

"I see. I'm sorry."

"Is Wedge awake yet?" Tifa asked.

Jessie sat down at the table and reached out to touch the flowers in the middle. "Yeah," she said, "but I told him to stay put. The arm's the worst of it, but he's pretty banged up all over."

Tifa nodded. "Right. I'll take something up to him then."

"Oh. You're making breakfast?" Jessie noticed.

"It seemed like the thing to do."

Barret came downstairs with Marlene not long before she had finished cooking. They could probably smell it. There weren't enough chairs, so Tifa ate standing in the kitchen. That was fine; no one wanted to talk much anyway.

"Listen," Barret began at last, "about Marlene..."

"Tifa already mentioned it to me," Elmyra said. "I'd be happy to look after her. But not forever, because you're going to be coming back for her."

Barret nodded. "Always. And... thanks."

Tifa went upstairs, leaving them to talk over the details and explain the situation to Marlene. She knocked on the door to the back bedroom, and went on inside.

"I brought you breakfast," she said.

"Smells good," said Wedge. "Just like always."

Except it wasn't like always. He sat up, leaning back against the headboard, and took the plate from her. Tifa sat down on the sofa.

"Are you guys still going today, to rescue Aeris?"

"That's right."

"I wish I could come with you."

"I know." Tifa took a breath. "You know... Elmyra's going to be looking after Marlene for a little while, and she plans on leaving Midgar. I was hoping you could go, too, to look after them."

Wedge smiled wryly. "You're being real nice about it, making it sound like I'd be doing something heroic and protecting somebody, instead of just bailing on you."

"You wouldn't be bailing on us, Wedge. I know you want to fight for the Planet, but I'm not sure you have it in you to be as... hard, as the rest of us sometimes have to be."

Wedge shook his head. "You're not hard, Tifa. You're strong."

"What's the difference exactly?"

"A hard person wouldn't be up here talking to me like this, and they wouldn't be fighting for the Planet."

Tifa looked down at her hands. "To be honest, Wedge... I'm not sure how much I'm really doing this for the Planet. I hate the Shinra. They've given me a lot of reasons to, I know, but it's not exactly noble."

Wedge was quiet for a moment. "Well, even if you're not doing it for the Planet, it's not about hate either. You care about people. You want to stop the Shinra from hurting anyone else. That's... why you want me to go with Elmyra and Marlene, isn't it?"

Tifa looked back at him and smiled, a genuine one this time. "You know, sometimes I think you're the smartest one of us? You really do get people. We could use more of that in the world."

Wedge blushed. "Well, shucks..."

"Eat up," she said. "You've still got to take care of yourself first."

As he got back to his breakfast, Tifa had a look at the boxes on the floor, and found the one Elmyra had meant. The clothes were plain, but sturdy, and when she went into the other room to change, she found they weren't too ill-fitting.

When she went back downstairs, Barret and Jessie looked ready, if Marlene didn't.

"Don't leave," Marlene said as Tifa knelt down by her.

"It's only for a little while. Wedge and Elmyra will look after you, and we'll all be together again before you know it."

"Promise?"

Gods, she hoped this wasn't another promise she couldn't keep. "I promise."

They said their goodbyes, hoping they weren't final goodbyes, and left the house before it got too hard to leave.

"So," said Tifa with the door shut behind them. "How are we doing this?"

"Good question," said Barret. "Goin' straight to Shinra headquarters... That's gotta be a lot of security."

Jessie gave her head a shake. "Actually, security should be light right now. With the extra troops deployed in the slums, they won't be at headquarters. And... our best advantage is they must think we're all dead, so they won't be expecting us. There's no way they know about that wire stunt you two pulled."

"All right, so how do we get there?" asked Barret. "Ain't no trains up that far these days."

"What about the train tunnels?" Tifa said.

"You're right," said Jessie. "They might not be in use, but they still exist. Now, as far as I know, the new security scanners are only in place near the top of the central pillar, for trains headed to the surface. That means we'll be able to ride most of the way up before we have to get off."

Tifa rubbed her leg, still keenly aware of all the scrapes she'd taken. "And by get off, you mean..."

"We'll have to jump. But the trains slow down when they're making that spiral."

"An' then what? We still gotta get past the scanner."

"Yeah..." Jessie frowned thoughtfully, chewing on her lip. "But! If we time it right, I bet we can pass through the sensors just as another train's going through. Shinra will assume they're dealing with unauthorized passengers, and by the time they figure out the train's clear, we'll be long gone."

Tifa nodded. "So we'll hoof it from there, and make it to the old station in Sector 0..."

"That station's been shut down for years, so there shouldn't be much security. Maybe a few locked doors, but that shouldn't be a problem. I don't see us running into any trouble until we hit the Shinra building itself."

"Apart from having to jump off a moving train anyway," Tifa said.

Jessie gave her a rueful look. "It's the only thing I can think of, unless you wanna walk the whole way."

Barret shook his head. "That'd take too long. We can't leave Aeris waitin.'"

"Agreed," said Tifa. She glanced up at Aeris's house, and nodded to herself. They'd get her back. "All right. Let's see what supplies we can find around here."

Chapter Text

Jessie's plan worked smoothly, at least in terms of getting them to Sector 0. Tifa didn't want to go jumping off of anything again for a long while.

Evening was falling as they approached the Shinra building from the abandoned train station. Any other place, they would have had hours of daylight left, but it was overcast on top of the smog, and the light seemed to fail early in Midgar.

The building loomed above them, lit windows glowing in the haze. Somewhere up there were the people responsible for the destruction of Sector 7. Tifa wondered how many of them were complicit. She didn't think most of the employees would know--she couldn't imagine this many people would knowingly work for a company that evil--but they had to have an inkling, didn't they? At some point, there were just too many atrocities for Shinra to cover up completely.

They ducked behind a truck parked on the opposite side of the street so they could case the entrance. Tifa had expected to see soldiers or even roboguards posted out front, but the steps were clear; she could only make out a few security guards stationed just past the glass doors. Maybe the Shinra figured that no one was crazy enough to take them head-on at their own headquarters.

"Looks like you were right about the security, Jess," said Barret. "Let's go."

He started to stand up, but Tifa caught his arm. "Hold on, Barret. We can't just go charging in."

"Tifa's right. It's a big building, and we don't know where they're holding Aeris. We need to do this quiet."

Barret ducked back down with a grimace. "Is quiet gonna be fast? She's been in there long enough."

Tifa understood how he felt. "I know, I know... But it won't do her any good if we get caught." She scanned the building again and pointed. "Look. That looks like a sign for a loading dock. There must be another entrance around that way."

She started to pull away, but Jessie tapped her shoulder. "Wait, look."

A man in a suit was just exiting the building, but Tifa didn't see the significance.

"What about him?"

"You need a keycard to access the top floors..."

"I see where you're goin,' Jess." Barret nodded to Tifa. "We'll take care of it."

They took note of which street the man went down, slipped back down the alley they'd come through, and made a block to intercept him. He gaped at them in disbelief as they stepped into his path, and Tifa could practically read his thoughts. Hooligans, in my part of the city?

They relieved him of his keycard but not his money and left him gagged and tied to a lamppost where someone would find him sooner or later. Meeting back up with Jessie, Tifa handed her the keycard.

"Pretty good," she said. "It looks like this'll at least get us to the 64th floor."

"Let's go then," said Barret.

Maybe it was getting late for deliveries, because they didn't find any crew at the loading dock, just a few trucks parked there for the night. All the garage doors were shut, and their stolen keycard was useless at this end of things. Barret smashed one of the locks open with his arm, and they ducked inside.

The sound attracted some attention, and they had to hide behind some shipping crates as a security guard investigated the area. They maneuvered themselves to keep out of her sight, and after some minutes she gave up her search with a shrug, and turned down the hall.

They found a freight elevator nearby and climbed on.

"What floor...?" Tifa wondered.

"Hey, this one only goes to 59," Barret noted. "Go for that. They've gotta be keepin' Aeris on one o' those floors with the restricted access."

Tifa pushed the button, the doors closed, and the elevator car began its ascent.

"I can't believe we're in the Shinra building," Jessie murmured. "Right in the heart of things..." Her hands clenched at her sides, and she was shaking a little.

"Jessie?"

"The thought just crossed my mind... that we should blow the whole thing up. They just destroyed a whole town! And they're probably all up here going around like nothing's happened."

"I know," Tifa said quietly, her jaw set. It was all too familiar an anger. "It's hard to wrap your mind around it."

"We'll get 'em back for it," said Barret. "Shinra's gonna pay for what they did. Might not be today, but as long as AVALANCHE's alive, then one day we're gonna take 'em down."

Jessie nodded. "For Biggs... For all of them, we have to keep fighting."

Barret laid a hand on her shoulder, and they passed the rest of the ride in silence.

The elevator let them out onto a wide open floor, and across the way was another set of elevators guarded by two Shinra soldiers. Tifa tensed for a fight.

"Hey," said one of the soldiers. "What are you doing up here?"

"M-maintenance crew," Jessie blurted.

"Right." Tifa went along with it, sidestepping to block their view of Barret's arm until he caught the hint and moved it behind his back. "They're having a problem with the air conditioning up on the 64th floor."

The soldiers exchanged glances, but they didn't seem alarmed, so the bluff must have been a plausible one. "You got ID?"

Jessie stepped forward to show them the keycard, which thankfully wasn't printed with the picture of the man they'd stolen it from, just his surname.

"All right, go on up. I don't wanna hear those suits pitching a fit because they got exposed to summer for a few hours."

They filed into the other elevator, Barret maneuvering to keep his arm out of sight, and Jessie swiped the keycard. Tifa pushed the button for the 64th floor to get it moving so the soldiers wouldn't see them hesitate.

"I'm not sure what's on the 64th floor," Jessie said.

"I don't know either," Tifa said. "I guess we'll find out."

"Hopefully there's a directory or a computer somewhere we can use... I don't know how many times that maintenance bluff is going to work."

"We gotta find Aeris fast," Barret agreed.

They got off the elevator, and Jessie cautiously poked her head into the first room down the hallway. She relaxed into confusion, and Barret and Tifa looked in over her head.

"They got a damn private gym up here?" Barret hissed.

"Let's... try going back down a floor," Jessie suggested. "I don't think this is going to have what we need."

They had better luck on the 63rd floor, quickly finding an empty room with a computer terminal. Jessie wheeled herself in front of it and fit the keycard into a slot.

"Okay, directory, directory... Here we go. Looks like this floor is all storage. Below us are the Midgar government offices--that's a joke--and research libraries, and the lounge."

"They gotta have a private lounge, too?"

"I guess so. I really hate rich people."

"None of those sound like a place where we'd find Aeris," Tifa said.

Jessie nodded. "We'll have to go higher up. The next couple floors are just offices and conference rooms for the different departments... And then there's the lab."

"The lab?"

"Shinra Science and Research Division," Jessie said, pointing to the screen. "I don't have access to any more details, but it takes up two whole floors by itself."

"That must be it," Tifa said grimly. "Elmyra said Aeris and her mother escaped from some kind of lab."

"Man," said Barret. "I know the Shinra're evil, but studyin' people like lab rats... Adds a whole new level to it."

"So how are we going to get to the 67th floor?" Tifa asked.

"Give me a few minutes," said Jessie. "Let me see if I can change the access level on Mr. Ackerman's file here."

They waited, watching Jessie's fingers fly across the keys. The computer made some unhappy beeps at her, but from the text prompts Tifa caught, she seemed to be making process. At last she smiled, sat back, and handed the keycard triumphantly to Tifa.

"Okay. I've promoted him to lab technician, and our card should get us to the 67th floor now. I couldn't get it to give me permissions for 68--it looks like there's an even stricter security protocol for the second floor of the lab for some reason--but with any luck we won't need them."

"Nice work," said Barret. "You're makin' breakin' into Shinra headquarters look easy."

"I don't think that's going to last much longer," Jessie said, but she was smiling at the praise.

On the 67th floor, they were immediately conspicuous. A lab technician in the hall when they came off the elevator gave a start at their appearance and shied away from them as they passed her.

"Just maintenance, miss," Jessie said to her, trying to put her at ease, but Jessie exchanged glances with Tifa afterwards. There was a good chance the woman was going to notify security on them.

The hallway opened out into a large room packed with storage containers and several sealed glass chambers which appeared empty at the moment. Tifa read a few of the labels as she walked by--numbered specimens, no other indication of what was inside.

At the other end of the room was another freight elevator. Tifa tried the keycard on it, but as expected, the door wouldn't open.

"What the--" said Jessie from behind her. "Did you guys see this?"

Tifa spun around. Jessie was staring through the window of a large metal stasis chamber. Barret and Tifa joined her. It looked like something out of a nightmare--a woman's body covered over in veins and unnameable growths, eyes in places they shouldn't have been. Somehow it looked like it was breathing, even though--

"Where the fuck's its head?" said Barret.

Tifa shook her head. "I don't know, and I don't care. It's got nothing to do with Aeris, and this is a dead end."

"Right," Barret said, tearing himself away. "Fuckin' creepy-ass place though."

They turned to move on, but a group of Shinra soldiers blocked their path. Tifa counted three, four... They were still appearing from the hall that led to the elevators.

"You there, halt!"

Barret fired the first shot, and Tifa pulled Jessie down behind a stack of containers before the soldiers began to return fire.

"Barret!" Jessie shouted, and he ducked down with them as she hurled a grenade at the soldiers. Screams accompanied the blast.

Tifa lifted her head up over the containers, but gunshots forced her back down.

"How many left?" Barret asked.

"Just two, I think," she said. Across the way, she spotted a door into an office--judging by the placement, it could lead into the same room they'd passed in the hall on the way in here. Another way out. "Cover me."

Barret nodded, and she sprinted to the door as he laid down cover fire. It opened with the keycard and she ducked inside. Monitors, a lab tech hiding under a desk, and a second door on the far side. Tifa keyed it open and poked her head out. She was behind the two remaining soldiers, and they hadn't heard the door open over the gunfire.

Barret ceased fire the moment she stepped into the hallway, but the soldiers didn't notice her until her foot connected with the first one's head, slamming him into the other. She'd knocked the first unconscious, and she made sure the second one joined him.

"Guess that concludes the quiet part," Barret said as he and Jessie joined her.

"Guess so," Tifa agreed. "Come on."

They ran back down the hall to the part of the floor they hadn't searched yet. Past another observation room full of frightened lab assistants, they came to a short hall with a series of identical doors on either side. They hurried to check the windows into the rooms.

"Here! She's in here!" Barret waved them over.

Tifa could see Aeris inside, but the keycard wouldn't open the door. At the sight of Barret, Aeris had approached, and she was trying to say something, but her voice was almost completely muted.

"How do we get the door open?" Tifa said, looking to Jessie.

"Um..." Jessie was looking at the keypad, but she seemed unsure.

"Screw that," Barret announced. "Is this an intercom? Aeris, get back, all right?"

Aeris nodded and backed away from the door.

"Barret, I don't know if that's such a good--"

But before Jessie could finish speaking, he was already firing at the keypad. The bullets tore into the circuitry, exposing wires, but the door hadn't budged. Barret gave it a final kick, and it slid open, sounding an alarm.

"How's that for a passcode?"

Aeris ran out from the room and threw her arms around Tifa. "I'm so glad to see you! I never thought..."

"Are you all right?" Tifa asked her, pulling back to look her over.

She nodded. "I'm okay."

"Then we'd better get moving," said Jessie. "It won't be long before they send more men."

"Wait!" said Aeris. "There's someone else here, we were talking through the wall."

She looked to the cell next to hers, and Barret leaned in to peer through the window. "Uh... I don't wanna judge, Aeris, but..."

Aeris approached to look in, too, and a frown of confusion crossed her face. "Oh. Hm." Still, she pressed the intercom button and said, "Hey. Is that you?"

The speaker only seemed to go one way, but whoever was inside must have given a satisfactory answer, because Aeris nodded to Barret.

"You sure?" he said.

"Yes. Please get him out."

Barret motioned them back as he used the same foolproof method to get the door open. He kept his gun raised and trained on the large, red-furred creature which slowly stepped out into the hall. It looked like a cross between a wolf and a lion, with a ridged mane and a long tail that glowed at its end. Tifa looked at it in astonishment as it spoke.

"Hello," it said. "I assume you are friends of Aeris."

"It talks?" Jessie said incredulously.

"Yes, in fact, it does," the animal said dryly.

"I'm sorry," Aeris said. "Even I wasn't really expecting... Well! I guess it doesn't matter right now. We should hurry."

Barret shook his head, lowering his gun arm. "Fuck, if it'll bite some Shinra ass, I'll take a dog."

He led the way back towards the elevators, and the rest of them followed.

"You didn't tell me your name," Aeris said to the creature as they ran.

"'Red' is fine," he said. "It's what Hojo calls me."

Aeris frowned at that, but she said, "All right. Red it is."

They reached the elevators and Tifa swiped the keycard. Nothing happened.

"Shit," said Jessie. "They must've realized we were using it and disabled his access... Barret, don't shoot the elevator. That's not going to help here."

"There's no other way down..." Aeris said uneasily.

"Try one of the lab technicians," Red suggested.

Tifa ran back into the nearest observation room and pulled the cowering lab tech out from under the desk.

"P-please don't kill me!" he stammered.

"I just need your keycard," she said.

"Here! Here, take it!" He was wearing it on a lanyard beneath his lab coat, but it was like he'd forgotten how to pull things over his head. Tifa unclipped it from the cord.

"Thanks," she said, and dropped him.

His keycard still worked, and the five of them crammed into the elevator. Tifa smashed the button for the 1st floor, and they started down.

"Thanks for coming for me," Aeris said softly.

"We ain't out of it yet," Barret said.

"I know. But it means a lot to me that you would risk it. We barely know each other."

"You're one of us," said Jessie. "You're part of AVALANCHE."

Aeris smiled, but it faded again. "How is everyone?" she asked. "Marlene? Biggs and Wedge?"

There was a short silence; no one wanted to answer that question.

"Wedge'll be all right," Tifa said. "He and Marlene are with your mom. Biggs... didn't make it."

"I'm sorry," said Aeris, touching Tifa's arm. Tifa flashed her a small, appreciative smile, but she didn't want to dwell on it right now, and the sincerity in Aeris's voice made that hard.

The elevator jerked to a abrupt halt on the 60th floor, and the doors opened to reveal an arsenal waiting for them. Tifa counted four roboguards flanked by a platoon of soldiers. At their head stood a dark-haired man in a suit. Barret raised his gun arm and Red tensed as if to pounce, but they had no chance of fighting through this many men. Jessie tried to get the elevator moving again, but the power had gone dead.

"This is as far as you go," said the man in the suit.

Aeris stepped forward. "Tseng, why are you doing this?"

"This is my job," he replied with a frown.

"I dodged you for years and you let me," she said. "I know I'm not good enough to evade the Turks for that long on my own. You could just let us all go."

Tseng raised his eyebrows. "Allow two lab rats and the remaining members of AVALANCHE to escape? It would be career suicide." He took several steps towards them. "But if you come quietly, your friends won't have to die. At least, not right away."

Aeris looked to Tifa, but she could only shake her head.

"There's nothing we can do," Tifa said.

"We made it pretty far..." Jessie said ruefully.

Barret finally lowered his gun arm. "Hell," he said. "It ain't over 'til it's over, right?"

Red sat back on his haunches, and the rest of them put their hands up. Shinra soldiers surrounded them, and none-too-gently took them into custody.

Chapter Text

The soldiers didn't return Aeris and Red to the lab, which was the only up-side Tifa could see to their current situation. Instead Tseng took all of them to a set of holding cells on a lower floor.

Some man who must have been one of the head scientists came down to argue about it, but Tseng was firm. Because of the escape attempt, he said, the matter would have to be resolved by security before anyone could be released to the research department. The scientist stormed off in a huff, saying the President would see things his way.

Tseng, too, moved out of sight, leaving them with the guards posted in the cell block.

Jessie had already taken a seat on the cot in their cell, and Tifa joined her. Okay, she thought, so they were prisoners. Shinra probably wouldn't kill them until they had interrogated them to determine whether there were any other surviving members of AVALANCHE, but she wasn't sure how much time that really bought them. Shinra wouldn't need all three of them to find the answer.

There had to be something in this cell they could use to get the door open... and then fight their way through the guards and whatever heightened security Shinra had probably put in place now that their headquarters had been breached.

"Hey, Aeris," said Jessie, "are you there?"

"I'm here," came Aeris's voice from the neighboring cell.

"I just wanted to say, if you've got any special powers that could help us out of this, now's the time to share."

Tifa shot her a look, and Jessie whispered, "What? Isn't it worth asking? We're in kind of a bind here."

"It didn't help her any before," Tifa whispered back.

"...who did you hear about that from?" Aeris asked quietly.

"Elmyra told us," Tifa answered, "about you being an Ancient. Whatever that really means. You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

A short silence. "I kind of want to," Aeris said. "I just wish it didn't have to be here." She sighed softly and Tifa heard her get up from her cot and move closer to the front of her cell. "I'm not sure I know a lot about being a Cetra... an 'Ancient.' My birth mother died when I was seven, and sometimes I can still hear her, but it's not the same as talking to a living person."

"You can talk to the dead?" Tifa asked. That qualified as a special power, all right, just not anything that could help them escape.

"Mm, not exactly," Aeris said. "I can hear the Lifestream, a little. It's hard in Midgar, because it's so crowded here, and because of what Shinra's doing to the Planet. The only voice I've ever been able to pick out is my mother's. She said, one day I'd get out of Midgar and speak with the Planet. But I'm not sure what that means."

"What about the 'Promised Land' the Shinra want you to take them to?"

Aeris answered as though she were reciting something. "The Cetra were born from the Planet, speak with the Planet, and unlock the Planet. And in the end, the Cetra will return to the Promised Land, and find happiness."

"What does that mean?"

"More than words, I don't know. And I don't know what the Shinra expect to gain from it."

Tifa nodded to herself. She got up from the cot and went to the cell door, though she couldn't lean out to see Aeris. "Once we get out of here, and out of Midgar, maybe you can start to figure some of it out."

"You think we'll get out of here?"

Tifa hesitated and glanced at Jessie, who seemed to be looking to her, too, for some sort of guidance. "We can't give up hope," she said.

Barret spoke up from the other cell. "Get some rest, Teef. We'll figure this out, but they ain't gonna kill us just yet."

"Yeah," Tifa said. Just a couple hours of sleep, and maybe something would come to them.

 

* * *

 

Tifa woke to the sound of screaming.

She jumped up from the floor and looked to Jessie, who was sitting up from the cot in alarm. It hadn't been her.

"Aeris? Barret? You guys okay?"

"Yeah," came Aeris's anxious voice.

"We're okay in here," Barret confirmed. "The hell's goin' on?"

The guards outside their cells had moved out of sight. "Hey!" Tifa called out from the cell door. "What's happening?"

There was no response. Another scream sounded in the distance, echoing down the corridor.

"I don't like this," said Jessie.

"Me neither," Tifa said.

She jumped at a loud slam from Barret's cell, and she realized he was trying to break the door down. The Shinra had removed the gun from his arm, but not the metal base it was mounted on, and he was using it to ram the lock.

"Any luck?" Tifa asked after a few tries.

"Damn thing won't budge," Barret said, though he gave it another slam for good measure.

"My hairpins," said Red.

"Your what?"

"Hojo has never taken them. They're decorative, but perhaps you could use them to pick the lock."

"Ain't exactly my strong suit," Barret grumbled, but after a few moments, Tifa heard the faint click of metal on metal.

The screams were getting closer.

"Hurry, Barret," said Jessie.

"I'm tryin'!"

Barret's cell door at last swung open, and he and Red rushed out into the corridor. Barret passed the hairpins through the bars to Jessie. "Here, Jess, you're better at this than me. We're gonna scout ahead, see what's up."

"Got it," said Jessie, and set to work on the lock. She got them out faster than Barret, and moved on to Aeris's cell while Tifa stood watch. The guards were nowhere to be seen, but soon enough they had Aeris out, too.

Barret reappeared down the hall. "Found our stuff," he said. He had already fit his gun arm back into place, and he tossed Tifa and Jessie their confiscated gear.

"Careful...!" Jessie hissed belatedly, but Tifa had forgotten about the grenades in her bag, too.

"Did you find anything out?" Tifa asked him.

Barret's face was grim. "Lotta dead bodies," he said. "It's pretty bloody out there. I don't know who's doin' it, but we're not gonna get a better shot at gettin' outta here."

Someone was slaughtering Shinra employees? Another anti-Shinra group? She'd never heard of them.

Barret was right; whoever was doing it had left them an opening, and that was all that mattered right now. "Let's get to the elevators," she said.

Red was waiting for them around the corner, and when they reached him, he loped on ahead. The rest of them followed.

Tifa wanted to move quickly, without stopping, but when they came across the first corpse, Aeris gasped in horror, and something about it struck Tifa unexpectedly. She'd seen dead bodies before--hell, they'd killed people on this very mission--but this was different.

"Barret, these aren't gunshot wounds," she said.

"Nah, looks like some kinda sword," he agreed.

She swallowed. Why should that bother her? Other people used swords. Most of Shinra's elite SOLDIER force did.

Jessie knelt down to tug the rifle from the man's fingers and slung it over her shoulder. "I think I might need this," she said.

Barret laid a hand on Tifa's shoulder. His face showed concern without understanding. "Come on, Teef. We gotta keep moving."

Tifa nodded, but before they could, they heard a shout from close by, followed by a strangled scream.

A body tumbled out of a doorway into the hall ahead of them, and a tall figure followed. A man in a long, black coat. Long silver hair, stained at the ends with blood, just like the sword he carried.

He paused in the hall, and turned to look in their direction.

Tifa met his gaze, those glowing green eyes, and her blood ran cold.

"Isn't that...?" Aeris began.

"Run," Tifa whispered. Her hands clenched into fists and her weight shifted forward.

What was she doing?

She grabbed blindly at her friends, never taking her eyes off of him, found someone's arm. She gripped it tight, feeling the warmth of life in it, and found her voice. "We have to run, now."

She tore her eyes away and pulled Jessie with her as she turned and bolted back down the hallway. She heard her friends following; they didn't ask questions.

He was blocking the way to the elevators, so she didn't know where she was running to. There was only one other way to go that didn't dead-end them back in the cell block.

"There is stair access from this floor," said Red, pushing ahead of her. "I'll lead the way."

As they followed him, Tifa expected at every bend to see him standing in their path, but they saw only evidence of his earlier passage. Red leapt easily over the corpses, the rest of them stumbling as they tried to keep pace.

They reached the stairwell unimpeded. Tifa shoved the door open and hurtled down the stairs. Two flights in, she missed a step; Barret's arm caught her around the waist and kept her from falling.

"Hey. Maybe you wanna slow down a bit now."

"We can't," Tifa said breathlessly. She recovered her balance, pulled away from him, and glanced up towards the door they'd come through. "We can't slow down."

But she realized that Jessie and Aeris were falling behind. They caught up to her and Barret on the steps and came to a stop, winded.

"We can try the elevator from a lower floor," Red suggested.

Tifa shook her head. "What if he follows us?"

"How would he know," Jessie said, "what floor we get off?"

Tifa could think of no rational way to counter her point. There was no reason that he would, no reason for him to follow them at all, except that she felt it was within his power as a nightmare made flesh. She fisted her hand in her shirt, conscious of the scar beneath.

"Okay," she said shakily. "A few more floors, then we'll switch."

They exited at the 42nd floor, and Tifa braced herself for a fight, but they found it empty. Nothing but a series of offices, their lights dimmed after hours, and a fairly straight shot to the elevators. She still crossed the floor at a run.

Once they were inside the elevator, Tifa slumped against the wall and slid to the floor. Everyone but Red was out of breath, and for several floors no one spoke.

Finally Barret asked, "What's goin' on, Tifa? I've never seen you this spooked."

She could only shake her head. How could she explain to them her terror over losing them to that man, the way she'd lost everything to him? Her terror at herself, because she'd almost charged straight for him?

Aeris crouched down in front of her. "Look at me," she said, and took one of Tifa's hands in her own. "We're all still together, and we're going to make it out."

Tifa looked into her face. Green eyes, but so, so different. Tifa sat up and put her hands around Aeris's. "Right," she said. "I promised to get you out."

"That was Sephiroth. Wasn't it?" said Jessie.

Tifa sucked in a breath. She hadn't wanted to say it, as though like some fae monstrosity, speaking his name aloud would make him more powerful. She released Aeris's hands and pushed herself to her feet. "Yes," she said, "but as long as he isn't following us... then that doesn't matter right now."

"You gonna be all right, Teef?" Barret asked, looking at her in concern.

She nodded. "I can hold it together. Sorry."

They rode the elevator all the way down to the first floor, and it let them out into the lobby. At first Tifa thought it was clear, too; she could see the corpses of the security guards lying not far from the main doors, and no movement from anyone else.

But there was sound from just outside, and beyond the glass windows, soldiers were gathering, preparing to storm the building. Of course. A response to Sephiroth's slaughter. She knew with a numb certainty that they were preparing to meet their deaths.

"Shit," said Barret. "Can't get out that way."

"Let's try the way we came in," said Jessie. "Maybe they haven't surrounded the building."

She found her bearings more swiftly than the rest of them, and they followed her through a service door out of the lobby and through the halls to the loading dock. Barret hauled open one of the garage doors, startling a handful of men stationed just outside. Red sprang out, tackling the first before he had time to raise his weapon. Tifa and Jessie went for the other two; one of them got off a few shots before he went down, but the spray of bullets hit only the concrete wall of the building.

Barret helped Aeris down from the loading dock and let the garage door slam shut.

"Do any of you know how to drive?" Aeris asked.

Tifa looked at the trucks parked there. She had had a few lessons from Mr. Kiefer, who owned the only truck in town, back before...

She exchanged glances with Barret and Jessie.

"How hard can it be?" Jessie said, though plainly she had never driven before.

"I think I can remember," Tifa decided.

They searched the trucks until they found one whose driver had left the keys on the seat. Tifa climbed up behind the wheel and Jessie and Barret joined her in the front, while Aeris and Red slid into the narrow seat behind them. A group of soldiers, drawn by the earlier burst of gunfire, appeared around the side of the building as Tifa turned the key in the ignition.

"Stop!!"

Tifa barely remembered to put the truck in reverse, and wheeled it sharply backwards so that their shots struck the trailer instead of the cab when they opened fire. She shifted the truck into what she hoped was the right gear and slammed her foot on the accelerator. The truck charged down the street behind the Shinra building, clipping one of the other trucks as it left the loading dock area.

"Way to go, Tifa!" Jessie exclaimed, leaning past Barret to look out the window behind them. In the side mirror, Tifa could see the Shinra building and the soldiers there falling away into the distance.

"Where are we going?" she asked, looking ahead. Of course she had never driven in Midgar; she didn't know the roads.

"Um, that way! To the right!" said Jessie, pointing to a sign ahead directing them onto the highway.

"Are you sure?"

"It should take us to the city limits."

Tifa turned the wheel. Jessie had studied enough of the city's plans, Tifa figured, that she must have some knowledge of its streets. The highway stretched ahead of them, disappearing into the horizon. It was the middle of the night, and lights crowded the city, a poor imitation of the stars that were never visible above the smog. The green glow of a Mako reactor loomed in the distance.

The truck jolted forward as something rammed it from behind, throwing Tifa into the steering wheel. She recovered quickly and straightened them out, glancing at the mirrors. Motorcycles had come into view behind them.

"Are they chasin' us?" said Barret.

"Well, why wouldn't they?" said Jessie. "They probably think we're the ones who killed everybody!"

"Hold on," Tifa said. She thought they could go faster if she just... Right. She switched them into a different gear, and the truck accelerated, a little.

Barret leaned out the window, exchanging fire with their pursuers. Jessie passed him a grenade, and he pulled the pin and tossed it. The explosion followed seconds later, and Tifa counted two motorcycles fewer.

"Guys, get down!" Aeris shouted.

A motorcycle had pulled alongside the driver side of the truck and its rider leveled a gun at them. Tifa ducked down as the others did the same, and a spray of bullets went over their heads. The moment it stopped, Jessie sat up, lifting her rifle, and fired back out the window. She struck him, and the motorcycle fell out of view, crashing somewhere behind them.

Barret and Jessie managed to keep the rest of them at bay, until they ran out of grenades. The motorcycles slammed into the truck again and again, and Tifa felt herself losing control.

"They're gonna run us off the road!" she said.

"Then pull over!" said Jessie. "We can use the truck for cover."

"There're only a few left," Aeris put in, glancing out the window.

Tifa slammed on the brakes, and she felt something crash into the trailer. The truck squealed to a halt, and the remaining two motorcycles flew past ahead of them.

"Everyone all right?"

"Yeah," Aeris confirmed.

They piled out of the cab and ran for the rear of the truck. The third man lay not far from them, thrown from his motorcycle. Jessie hurried to check him, making sure he was down for the count, and then searched him for weapons.

"Damn, these guys must be from SOLDIER," she said, holding aloft a green orb.

"Give it to me," said Aeris, and Jessie obliged, tossing her the materia.

They regrouped behind the trailer. Aeris leaned around the side, and Tifa looked out above her head. The soldiers had turned back around and were closing in when a bloom of fire exploded in front of the nearer one's chest, knocking him from his motorcycle. The bike fell sideways and skidded down the pavement to a stop.

The last remaining soldier stared at his comrade as he rode by, doing nothing to attack them. Once he had passed, he swerved slightly as if to circle back, but then he seemed to think better of it and straightened out, disappearing back into the city.

Tifa strode to the downed soldier, kicking his weapon away from him.

"Is he... dead?" Aeris asked, clutching the materia to her chest.

Tifa knelt down and felt for a pulse. "No," she said. "But we'd better get moving again."

They climbed back into the truck and Tifa got it started again. No one else came after them.

Once they were out of Midgar, Jessie offered to take over from her, insisting that she pretty well had it figured out from watching Tifa drive. Tifa let her, leaning back against the middle seat and closing her eyes.

"Hey, Teef," said Barret softly from beside her. "We made it."

"Yeah. We made it."

Chapter Text

They drove the truck until it ran out of gas, just a few miles from Kalm. They used the last of the fumes to drive it off the road and into a ditch, where it would be harder for anyone following them to find. From there, they hiked the rest of the way.

The sun was coming up as they reached Kalm, but none of them had caught more than a couple hours' sleep, and they went straight to the inn. The innkeeper stared at them from behind her desk.

"Can we get a room?" Tifa asked tiredly, putting a few hundred gil down on the counter without asking the price. They expected to have to wait a few days for Elmyra, Wedge, and Marlene to join them, and they could use the rest anyway.

"Um, sure," the innkeeper said, and she slowly handed Tifa a key. "It's on the second floor. But we don't allow... dogs..."

"He's a cat," Barret said, and went ahead up the stairs. Red followed him with a flick of his tail, and Tifa shrugged at the innkeeper as if to say 'what can you do?' She, Aeris, and Jessie went up after them.

Tifa shut and locked the door behind them and leaned back against it. Now that everything was quiet, she felt like she didn't know what she was supposed to be doing. She ran a hand through her bangs. "I need a shower," she said.

"Go ahead," said Jessie. "We'll take turns."

"Thanks," Tifa said, and walked past them into the bathroom.

She undressed, folding Mr. Gainsborough's clothes and setting them aside. Aeris had healed her scrapes during the drive, so she peeled the bandages off of her legs and inspected them. Just old blood on top of unbroken skin.

She turned the water on, and stepped into the shower. She hadn't taken the time to bathe since the plate had fallen, and all the dirt and ash in her hair briefly turned the water black. She watched it disappear down the drain until it ran clear.

What were these past few days? Was it only the night before that Sector 7 had been destroyed? Everything was starting to blur together. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or maybe it was just too much to wrap her head around, one thing piling on top of the last.

And now... Sephiroth was back.

It was as senseless as before. She didn't know why he'd murdered all those Shinra soldiers any more than she knew why he had burned down her village. Only, it frightened her. When she had regained consciousness after Nibelheim, weeks had passed already with no word of another massacre, and there had been some security in that, if nothing else. Now, it had been only hours. She didn't know where his killing would end, how far it would reach.

Tifa shut off the water. She towelled her hair dry as best she could, dressed, and stepped out into the room.

Everyone had gathered in front of the TV, watching it raptly enough that no one looked up as she joined them.

"What's happened?" she asked. Hadn't they experienced anything newsworthy for themselves?

"President Shinra's dead," Barret answered her.

"What?"

"They're blaming it on us, but it must've been Sephiroth... right?" Jessie glanced up at her for confirmation.

"Must've been," Tifa echoed, staring at the screen.

"He really decimated the Shinra for us," Jessie said. There was something almost like admiration in her voice, and Tifa bristled.

"He is not our ally," she said.

"Tifa..." Barret began. "Are you gonna tell us what the hell happened with you back there?"

Tifa hesitated. Aeris glanced at her and then said, "I don't think this is the time. Why don't we all get cleaned up and get some sleep first, okay?"

"Yeah, all right," Barret agreed.

Tifa nodded her thanks to Aeris and wordlessly crawled into one of the beds. She pulled the blanket over her head and shut her eyes, but she lay awake for a long time. Her friends tried to be quiet, shutting off the TV and not speaking except to coordinate who got the bathroom next.

Time passed. She felt Jessie climb into the bed beside her; there weren't enough for everyone, and that was fine. The presence of one of her friends so close at last helped her to relax, and she drifted off to sleep.

 

* * *

 

Tifa woke in the mid-afternoon, although she wouldn't have known it but for the clock above the television. A glance outside told her it was raining.

Barret was still snoring softly, but Jessie lay awake in the bed, reading a book she'd found in the room. She gave Tifa a two-fingered wave as she noticed her up. Red lay across the end of the third, otherwise empty, bed, but she wasn't sure if he was asleep or not.

"Where's Aeris?" Tifa asked softly.

"She wanted to go outside."

"It's raining."

Jessie shrugged. "It's still outside, isn't it?"

She had a point. It wasn't ideal weather, but it wasn't Midgar and it certainly wasn't a Shinra lab. Aeris had implied that she never expected to be rescued. Why not celebrate her hard-won freedom by going out in the rain?

"I'm going to look for her," Tifa decided, throwing back the covers. She got up, pulled her hair into a loose ponytail, and pushed her feet into her borrowed shoes.

"She's something else, isn't she?" Jessie said.

Tifa glanced back at her. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"Ah... Never mind."

Tifa went downstairs and stepped out of the inn, pausing just outside. She had to admit, it smelled good--damp, but fresh, like living things. Midgar never smelled like this.

She spotted Aeris at the far end of the square, walking slowly without a care for her destination or for how wet she was getting. Tifa stepped out from beneath the shelter of the inn's sign and went to join her.

"Tifa!" Aeris exclaimed as she noticed her. Her boots splashed in a puddle as she turned, and the noise seemed to delight her. Her bangs were plastered to her face, but her eyes were bright. "I've never been out in the rain like this before. You always have to take shelter in Midgar, it's so polluted."

Tifa couldn't help smiling. It was infectious. "I guess it is sort of nice," she admitted.

"'Sort of'? How is it 'sort of' after Midgar?" She took Tifa by the arms and pushed her sleeves up. "Here, feel it on your skin, it's wonderful."

It did feel nice, but it was the touch of Aeris's fingers sliding up her skin that made a little shiver go up her spine, and she didn't think it was because Aeris's hands were growing cold. She wanted to hold onto them, but Aeris turned away from her.

"Come on," she said. "Walk with me."

They had the street to themselves, as every sensible person was inside staying dry. Aeris bounded up the steps at the end of the square and spun around at the top, looking out over the town.

"Is this anything like your hometown?" she asked. "It feels so quaint. And it's so much quieter here."

Aeris didn't know, Tifa reminded herself. There was no way she could. So Tifa turned to look out at the town with her. "It's a little bit like home," she decided. "A little bigger, a little newer. Definitely bluer. Home was... earthier. Rain like this always turned the streets to mud."

Aeris glanced at her. Tifa had said 'was'; had she noticed?

"So, can you hear the Planet here?" Tifa asked her before she could remark on it.

"A little, I think." Aeris was looking off into the distance. "It doesn't really speak with words, so I'm not sure I understand it yet. For now, I think I just have to listen."

"We're still pretty close to Midgar. Maybe it'll get clearer."

"Mmhm. But, I still really like it here. I think I'd like to live in a place like this," Aeris said, and then she laughed. "But you know, it's the very first place I've seen outside of Midgar. I'd probably have felt that way about anywhere."

"You don't think you'll miss it?" Tifa asked her.

Aeris's expression sobered again. "Of course I will. It's been home for such a long time... But I never wanted to stay there forever."

"Me neither."

"I'm sorry it isn't there to go back to," Aeris said, touching her shoulder. "I'm sure it must be easier to leave home if you know you can go back, someday."

Tifa shook her head. "It's not your fault, Aeris. This is... just the way things turned out. This is what we have to live with now."

"At least none of us are alone, right?"

"Right." Tifa's eyes fell on the inn, and she let out a breath. "We should probably get back. Everyone's waiting on me."

"No one's going to push you," Aeris said gently.

"I know. But it's important. So, let's get it over with."

They walked slowly back to the inn, and the innkeeper eyed them over again as they came in, dripping wet. When they got back to the room, Barret and Red were awake. Tifa and Aeris dried themselves off as best they could, and Aeris took a seat on the nearer bed beside Jessie. They all looked at her with an expectant air.

"I've never told this story before," Tifa said. "I guess I was hoping I'd never have to."

"Take your time," Aeris said.

Tifa nodded. How did she even begin?

"... I grew up in a town called Nibelheim, in the mountains west of Corel. One of Shinra's first reactors was built on Mt. Nibel, long before I was born. About five years ago, it started malfunctioning, and producing monsters, so Shinra sent SOLDIER to investigate.

"I remember I was excited at first. Most of the boys my age had already left town for Midgar, and one of them told me he was going to join SOLDIER. I was hoping I'd see him. But... Sephiroth was the one they sent. Sephiroth and... another man. I don't remember his name..."

Aeris was looking at her with an expression that was hard to describe. "Tifa... What do you remember about him?" she asked.

"Is that really important?"

Aeris looked down at her lap, where she had clasped her hands together. "I used to know someone in SOLDIER. We got pretty close, but then one day he went out on a mission, and I stopped hearing from him. That was about five years ago..."

Tifa had never anticipated that her story might connect somehow to any of her friends. "I remember he was tall," she said cautiously, "almost as tall as Sephiroth. But he had wild black hair, and blue eyes. I thought he was very friendly for someone in the military."

Aeris closed her eyes. "That sounds like Zack," she said softly.

"Zack... Yes, I think that was his name." Tifa bit her lip. "I'm sorry, Aeris."

"Is he... Did he... die, there?"

Tifa shook her head. "I don't know. He was alive the last time I saw him, but... This story doesn't have a happy ending."

"I understand," Aeris said. She took a steadying breath. "Go on."

Tifa faltered. This was already worse than she had expected, but there was nothing for it but to keep going. "Sephiroth and Zack," she began again, "arrived in our town, along with several Shinra soldiers. At the time, I was working as a guide, and Shinra had hired me to take them up Mt. Nibel to the reactor. When we left that morning, that was my first time seeing Sephiroth up close. He was supposed to be this great war hero, but... I thought he was very cold. I remember, I felt a foreboding about him...

"And it was frightening, to watch him in battle. Every monster we ran into on the way up the mountain, he took care of almost single-handedly. The way he cut down those soldiers in the Shinra building... the monsters weren't any different.

"When we got to the reactor, they wouldn't let me inside. Sephiroth and Zack went in alone, and I waited outside with one of the soldiers for a long time. When they came out, Sephiroth seemed... upset. Not long after we got back to the village, he shut himself up in the old Shinra mansion... He stayed in there for days, and the other Shinra people couldn't tell us what was going on."

"Even Zack didn't know?" Aeris wondered.

Tifa shook her head. "If he did, he wouldn't tell the rest of us. He seemed worried, but... I'm sure he couldn't have predicted what happened."

"What did happen?" Jessie asked quietly.

"When Sephiroth finally came out..." Tifa shut her eyes; the image was clear in her mind. "He set fire to the village. It happened so fast, everything was up in flames in minutes. The heat was... powerful, and the smoke got so thick. Some people made it out into the street, only for Sephiroth to cut them down. I found my teacher, and he told me that my father was at the reactor... where Sephiroth had gone.

"By the time I caught up with them, it was too late. He'd struck down my father and... left him there to die. I was too late, and he..." Her voice stuck in her throat, and her fingers clenched. She remembered, feeling the life going out of him. She remembered that moment.

"Sephiroth had killed him," she finished. She swallowed and went on. "His sword was lying on the ground, so I took it. I ran into the reactor, and I tried to kill him. But, I didn't stand a chance. He cut me down, too."

"That explains the scar," Jessie murmured.

"I don't remember much after that," Tifa said. "I think that Zack came... but I can't be sure." After all, she thought she remembered her childhood friend there, too, but she must have imagined it, delirious from the blood loss. "I don't remember making it out. I woke up in a hospital in Midgar, weeks later. The doctors told me some man brought me in."

"You don't know who it was?" Aeris asked, and Tifa could tell she was hopeful that somehow it had been Zack.

"No. He didn't leave his name, and he didn't stay. He left money for the doctors, but... it took me a while, to recover, and then I didn't have a gil to my name. I moved down to the slums, and a year later, that's when I met you, Barret."

Barret hadn't said a word throughout her story, his brow furrowed. "Yeah," he said. "I remember how messed up you still were over it. All those nightmares..."

"You had plenty yourself," she reminded him. He had a past they had never talked about either, one that had given him his own reasons to hate the Shinra.

He nodded. "One day soon, I'll tell you 'bout that. It's... We got more in common than I wish we did."

"I knew you'd been through something," said Jessie, "but I never thought it was like that. And now... Sector 7..."

"We're all dealing with that," Tifa said.

"But Sephiroth..." Aeris began. "I remember reading it in the paper that he died, but obviously that's not true. So either the Shinra were covering it up, or they don't know what happened to him either."

"It is strange that he was dormant for five years," Red remarked. Tifa hadn't been sure he was even paying attention.

"Should we care what he was up to all that time, if he wasn't murderin' people?" Barret said.

"Maybe we should," said Tifa. "I don't know what made him snap in Nibelheim, and I don't know why he's back now. I just know that... he's dangerous, maybe more dangerous than the Shinra. Killing the President--that's a message. I don't know who it's for or what it means, but I think the Shinra building was only the beginning."

"More dangerous than the Shinra, huh," Barret said. "If he was only dangerous to the Shinra, I'd say let 'im be, but that just ain't the case."

Jessie scratched her head. "If you're saying Sephiroth is our new target, then... I don't know, guys. I don't even know where to start."

"What about the Shinra mansion?" said Aeris.

Tifa looked at her in confusion. "What about it?"

"Well, before he went in there, Sephiroth was... I don't know if fine is the word, but he wasn't killing everyone. Something happened to him in there. So, what I'm wondering is... could there be anything left of it?"

"You're suggesting we might find information there to shed light on his motives," said Red, and Aeris nodded.

"It was set back from the rest of the village..." Tifa closed her eyes. "I don't remember it being on fire."

"And the reactor," Jessie added. "There could be something there, too."

"I know the thought of going back there must be hard," Aeris said, "so if you think it's a bad idea, just tell me."

Tifa shook her head. "No. Jessie's right. We really don't know anything..."

"We're gonna be here a couple days anyway," said Barret. "We got some time to think about it. Maybe we'll come up with somethin' else."

"Maybe," Tifa said, but she thought she had better resign herself to the idea. If she was going back there, then she wanted to be prepared for it, as much as she could be.

"Why don't we give ourselves a break for the rest of the day anyhow?" Jessie suggested. "Do you think this is one of those fancy inns with room service? I'm starving."

Tifa managed a faint smile. "I don't know," she said, "but let's find out."

Chapter Text

The sky cleared overnight, and Aeris saw the sun rise for only the second time the next morning. The train could never get her onto the plate early enough to see it, and she doubted it would have been as spectacular a sight as from above the main square in Kalm.

Unexpectedly, Red chose to join her. He said it was because Barret's snoring kept him up anyway, but she suspected he wanted to see the sunrise, too. It had probably been a while.

Color blossomed into the sky, catching the few remaining clouds and painting them in a rosy hue. The sun broke above the walls of Kalm, bright and clear. In spite of everything, her heart felt light, and she wished she could share the feeling with Tifa. With all of them. The events of the past few days weighed on them so heavily.

Aeris.

Mom! she thought in surprise, because Tifa was right; they weren't far from Midgar, and her mother's voice felt like it came to her across a great distance.

I was worried, Ifalna said. Vague impressions accompanied the words as though her mother had forgotten how to shape them. The lab. The Professor. Danger.

My new friends got me out, said Aeris. They're really incredible people.

A warmth, like smiling. You're finally under the sky.

Yes. I think I'm starting to hear the Planet.

Listen well. There will be much to learn now.

I know. All of a sudden I feel like there's so much I don't know about myself.

The worry returned. There's a great danger. He'll try to deceive you, but he isn't one of us.

What do you mean?

But the connection was fading again. Aeris was left the thought of going north, but no understanding of why, what her mother was trying to tell her.

"Are you all right, Aeris?" Red asked her.

She gave herself a shake and smiled at him. "Yes, I'm fine." Without thinking, she reached out to pet him on the head, but she quickly drew her hand back. "Oh! I'm sorry, I should have asked. Your fur just looks so soft. Is it all right?"

Red looked at her for a long moment and then slowly blinked his one eye. "I suppose," he said. "But don't tug."

"Of course not," she said, and resumed stroking his fur. "You know, are you really sure you want us to keep calling you 'Red,' like the Professor did?"

"I'm sure."

"Why?"

He made a low noise in his throat. "I find it more comfortable," he said, "than sharing with strangers a name that is precious to me."

Aeris frowned. "I didn't really think we were strangers at this point."

"I am grateful to you all for helping me escape," he conceded, "but I only intend to journey with you until I can return to my homeland. Shinra and Sephiroth... those are the concerns of two-legged things."

Aeris was disappointed, but she nodded. "I understand. You must have had a rough time of it."

Red didn't respond except to close his eye in acknowledgment. Aeris certainly wasn't going to press him about it. The less she dwelt on her time in that place, the better.

Across the square, the door to the inn opened, and Aeris perked up eagerly. Jessie stepped out--not quite who she was hoping for, but a welcome face nonetheless. Jessie looked around, and Aeris waved to catch her attention.

As Jessie started across the square to join them, Red shifted away, and Aeris gathered that he'd rather no one else know he'd let her pet him. She gave his head a final pat and settled her hands in her lap.

"Morning, Aeris," said Jessie as she reached them. "Red."

"Good morning," Aeris replied, while Red gave a disinterested nod. "Did you sleep well?"

Jessie nodded. "I feel like I'm good and caught up now. Ready to be out and about again."

"Do we have plans today?" Aeris wondered.

"Gotta do a little shopping. We need some supplies for the road, and... we can't keep wearing borrowed clothes forever, I guess." She plucked at the end of her sleeve--Biggs's sleeve. Aeris didn't remark on it.

"Does that mean Tifa's joining us?" she asked instead.

"Yeah, in a bit. She wanted to talk to the innkeeper about something first."

Aeris nodded and looked to Red. "Did you need anything? I know it's dumb, but they'll probably make a fuss over you being in the shops, too."

Red swished his tail. "I can't think of anything."

"All right. Let me know if you do." She picked herself up off the ledge and went with Jessie to scout out the nearby shops.

"What do you make of him?" Jessie asked, throwing a look over her shoulder.

"I don't think he's had the best experience with humans," Aeris said. "It's a shame. He seems like someone I'd like to get to know."

Jessie shrugged. "I don't know if I'd go that far, but I guess he's been helpful."

"You'd be grumpy, too, if people kept mistaking you for a pet."

"Fair enough."

It was still early, and with the exception of the weapons store, most of the shops weren't open yet. They stopped outside of it to wait for Tifa, who had yet to emerge from the inn.

"So," said Aeris, "while it's just the two of us, I wanted to ask you about Tifa."

"What about her?" Jessie asked. "We just about got her life story yesterday."

"Only a part of it. A pretty big, life-changing part, but still just a part. Anyway, I was interested in something a little more... mundane. Like, has she ever had a boyfriend?"

Jessie smirked, throwing her a knowing look. "Or a girlfriend?"

Aeris didn't see any reason to be embarrassed about it. "Yes, that sort of thing."

"Well, not that I know of," Jessie admitted. "But she's sure never shown much interest in men."

"That's promising, but it doesn't mean she's interested in women either."

"Tifa might not be as obvious about it as us heart-on-our-sleeve types, but from what I can tell she seems like she's into it. She just might not be ready to admit it yet."

"So I should take it slow," Aeris concluded.

"No, no," Jessie said. "I meant you're going to have to make the first move. I say be bold. I mean, the lives we lead, there's never a 'right time' for anything. You just have to go for it."

"You're right. You never know what's going to happen." Aeris smiled. "I appreciate the encouragement."

"Of course. You both deserve it, and this way I get to live vicariously through Tifa's love life."

"Hmm. Well, now I'm going to have to think about setting you up with someone."

"In that case, I like the quiet, broody types," Jessie confided with a wink.

Aeris laughed. "That's unexpected, but I'll keep it in mind."

"Look, here's Tifa," Jessie said, pointing. Sure enough, Tifa had come out of the inn, and she was already headed in their direction. She had a brusque, confident sort of stride, but Aeris wondered if she realized how gorgeous she was. She made even that borrowed work shirt and trousers look good.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," she said as she joined them.

Jessie shrugged. "No big deal. This is the only place that's open yet anyway." They went on inside, and Jessie asked, "So what was it you wanted to ask the innkeeper?"

"Oh, I was hoping to use their kitchen, for when Wedge gets here."

"You know he doesn't actually need your cooking to survive."

Tifa laughed, and it was good to hear it, after yesterday. "I know that," she said. "I just thought it would be nice to make us all a meal together, before we move on."

Jessie nodded in understanding. "Yeah. That's a good idea."

"So did they say yes?" Aeris asked.

"Oh. Yes. It took a little convincing since she thinks we're all weirdos, but I pointed out that we're keeping the room clean and our 'dog' has been very well-behaved, and it turns out the cook's fine with it."

"That's good."

They'd both been absent-mindedly following Jessie through the store, and she glanced back at them. "Hey, you know I'm only here to check out the things that go boom, and I don't think that's either of your jam. Why don't you look for a new staff, Aeris?"

"Oh." Aeris turned, looking around the store. "I guess you're right. Even if I'm not very good, it is the only thing I've had any practice with."

"Maybe Tifa could give you some pointers," Jessie suggested.

Tifa had located the display of staves, but she looked over in confusion. "What? Why me?"

"You are the martial artist."

"Yes, but I've never trained much with staves..."

"'Not much' is better than not at all," Aeris pointed out. "I'll bet you can still show me a thing or two. Or you could teach me how to fight like you," she added, putting her fists up in imitation of Tifa's fighting stance.

Tifa regarded her in amusement, saying nothing.

"I could get buff," Aeris insisted.

"We'll work on it," Tifa said. She turned back to the staves, picking one up and hefting it. "In the meantime, you should have something you're familiar with. Besides, these are good staves. They must make them with metal out of the mythril mines, see how lightweight that is?"

Aeris took the staff as Tifa handed it to her. It did feel lighter than the one she'd had in Midgar, but not in any way flimsy. "That does feel nice," she said.

"Well, I can at least tell you you should have your hands farther apart," Tifa observed.

"Oh?" Aeris knew what she meant, but she pretended not to, because the next thing Tifa did was take her hands and move them herself. Behind Tifa's back, Jessie gave Aeris a thumbs up.

"Thanks," Aeris said.

Besides the staff, they restocked Jessie's supply of grenades and picked up some ammo for Barret. While they were waiting for the rest of the stores to open, they took everything back to the inn, so they wouldn't be doing the rest of their shopping armed to the teeth.

"How are we paying for all of this anyway?" Aeris asked as they headed back out. "I don't know about you two, but they confiscated all my gil back at Shinra headquarters."

"Oh, they took ours, too," Jessie said, "but Barret reclaimed it. Plus a little extra. I guess they weren't doing a good job separating what belonged to which detainee."

"That doesn't exactly feel right... But I guess it's better we have it than the Shinra."

"Right. We'll put it to good use."

Of course, the use they were putting it to now was clothes shopping, which was something Aeris hadn't gotten to do in a while. As an avid people-watcher, she could recognize that the styles here were a season or two behind Midgar chic, but she'd never been able to keep up with that anyway.

Tifa and Jessie didn't seem any more or less enthused than when they had been looking at weapons, which Aeris thought was a shame because this was undoubtedly the more fun activity. She picked up an off-the-shoulder blouse that she was sure would look stunning on Tifa.

"What do you think?" she asked.

"Cute," said Tifa, "but I think we should stick to the basics right now."

Aeris pouted. Maybe she'd get it for herself. "Come on," she said, "don't you ever like to show off a little?"

"Sure. But I'm not a teenager anymore. If we've got a lot of mountain hiking in our future, I want something practical."

"And how old are you?"

"Twenty."

Aeris nodded. "So, by 'not a teenager anymore,' you mean, until a few months ago you were a teenager."

Tifa paused, having just replaced a pair of pants on the rack. "...yes," she admitted. "Jessie, did you say something?"

"Wasn't me."

"The birthday card on your fridge," Aeris said. "I didn't think it could be that old."

Tifa scratched her head. "Well, you got me, I guess. But you can't be that much older."

"I don't know. You can gain a lot of emotional maturity in two years," Aeris said, and Jessie started laughing.

"You two are hilarious," she said. "You're both just kids."

"I don't know about that..." Aeris said.

"Trust me. When you make it into your thirties, you'll see it."

Aeris thought about it for a minute. "Well, if we're kids, then we should have some fun." She pushed the blouse at Tifa. "You should at least try it on."

Tifa tossed a pair of pants back at her. "Same to you," she said.

Aeris wasn't wild about pants... but Tifa had a point about them being more practical for hiking. Aeris was just hoping she could achieve cute and practical at the same time.

In the end she wasn't able to persuade Tifa to buy the blouse, but Tifa left the store in a tank top that exposed her arms again, and with biceps like those, Aeris didn't really have any room to complain.

"All right," said Jessie, "why don't I take the rest of this stuff back to the inn, and you two take what we have left and check out the materia?"

"You know more about materia than I do, Jessie," Tifa said in confusion.

"Yeah, but I'm not a natural like Aeris. Besides, I want to check up on Barret. He's got to be finished cleaning his gun arm by now, and the new President Rufus is supposed to be giving a speech on TV this morning... We don't want a repeat of that incident, especially after you just got done convincing them we're model guests."

Tifa nodded. "Good idea. We'll meet you back there."

Jessie piled all of their clothes in her arms, gave Aeris a quick wink, and headed for the inn. Aeris couldn't have asked for a better wingman.

"What incident was she talking about?" she wondered as they entered the materia store.

"Oh... We used to have this outdoor television near the bar. President Shinra was giving one of his speeches one time, and Barret shot up the TV."

"That's pretty intense," Aeris said. "But you know, I always hated his speeches, too."

"Yeah. I'm only sorry I missed my chance to slug him in the face."

"There's always Rufus," Aeris suggested.

Tifa nodded thoughtfully. "There's always Rufus," she agreed.

Aeris walked up to look at the display case of materia, but though she could sense the magic they channelled, she wasn't really paying attention.

"So when do you think Wedge and my mom will get here with Marlene?" she asked.

"I don't know," Tifa said. She was eyeing the materia skeptically, as though trying to suss out what any of it was even for. "Even if Elmyra found someone to heal him, they'll be coming on foot, and I don't see them covering that much ground in a day. Maybe sometime tomorrow, at the earliest."

"I guess we have plenty of time, then," Aeris concluded.

"I guess so. Did you want to work on your fighting technique later?"

Aeris leaned in to catch Tifa's eye. "Actually," she said, "how would you feel about going on a date with me?"

Tifa straightened up, her cheeks pinking. "What?"

Behind her, the shop clerks exchanged glances and then made a very obvious pretense of not paying any attention.

"You know, a date," said Aeris. "You and me, doing something romantic."

"I, uh..."

Clearly the question had caught her by surprise, even though Aeris felt she had been fairly overt about her interest. Tifa's mouth worked, and there was a hint of a smile that made Aeris think she was going to say yes, but then a shadow came over her expression, and her brow furrowed.

"I don't know," Tifa said. "I don't think I'd feel right, going on a date at a time like this."

Aeris tried to hide her disappointment. Part of her wanted to bring up Jessie's point about there never being a right time, but if this was how Tifa felt about it, then she had to respect it. Besides, it wasn't an outright no. "But, you are interested?" she asked.

"Um." Tifa tucked her hair back behind her ear, which was a really cute nervous tick that Aeris was noticing she had. "Yes? Yes. I'm interested."

Aeris smiled. "All right. Then I'll just owe you one."

"Owe me?"

"You did rescue me and all."

Tifa gave her a wry look. "Are you going to go out with Barret and Jessie, too?"

"Well, no. This is a special, Tifa-only offer."

"You know, it's funny. I always imagined someone would rescue me, and then I'd..." Tifa trailed off, blushed, and cleared her throat. "I feel like I need to be honest with you, I've never been on a date before."

Later, Aeris would have to learn more about that fantasy of hers. "I find it hard to believe that no one's ever asked you before, so I'm going to assume no one ever made the cut."

"Well..." Tifa fidgeted with her hair again. "No woman's ever asked me before."

"I see."

"I guess you've dated though?"

"Oh, sure. Not a lot. It's always been a little hard for me to get close to people."

"I can understand that," Tifa said. Now that they were talking about the general concept of dating, rather than the specifics of them dating each other, she seemed to be relaxing again. That was good.

"You have some really good friends, though, Tifa. I admit, I'm a little envious."

"They're your friends now, too," Tifa pointed out.

"And I'm looking forward to getting to know them better, but it's still new, right now."

Tifa nodded. "So, is any of this materia useful, or have you even been looking at it?"

Aeris laughed and shook her head. "I really haven't been looking."

"You want to get out of here? We can come back later."

Aeris agreed, and they left the store to explore the rest of the town. It wasn't a date, but Tifa didn't seem to have any objection to spending time together. It was just too hard for her to think about anything more right now, Aeris guessed.

 

* * *

 

Elmyra, Wedge, and Marlene reached Kalm late in the afternoon the following day. Aeris had taken Tifa up on her offer to train together, and they saw them approaching from the square. Aeris and Tifa went down the road to meet them outside of the walls. Wedge carried Marlene, who was sleepy but still obviously happy to see Tifa, and wrapped her arms tight about Tifa's neck as she took her from Wedge.

"I'm so glad to find you here," Elmyra said, embracing Aeris. Aeris hugged her back tightly.

"Did you all make it out okay?" Wedge asked, searching their faces anxiously for any sign of more loss.

"Yeah," Tifa assured him. "We even picked up a new ally."

"I was so worried," Elmyra said. "We haven't caught any of the news since leaving Midgar... I kept thinking we would make it here only to hear something awful had happened at the Shinra building."

Tifa and Aeris exchanged glances.

"Well... Things did get pretty bad," Aeris admitted, and on the way into town, Tifa went on to tell them, in simple terms, how things had gone down at headquarters. And when her voice faltered at the subject of Sephiroth, Aeris quickly picked up the thread.

"Gods," said Elmyra when they'd finished. "I'm glad I'm only hearing about that now that I already know you're safe."

"Yeah," Wedge agreed. "Wow."

They entered the inn, and Aeris gave a little wave to the innkeeper, who watched them now with brow furrowed, trying to determine how the newcomers fit into their odd group.

"I guess we'll need a second room for tonight," Tifa remarked thoughtfully, "but we can take care of that later."

They went on up to join Barret, Jessie, and Red in the room, and after introducing Red to the new arrivals, everyone spent a good while talking over the events of the past few days. Underneath it all, they were just trying to reassure each other that everything was as well as it could be, that the time apart hadn't cost them anything.

"I brought your seeds," Elmyra said, patting the bag she had brought with her, "and some of your clothes. We couldn't take too much, but I thought you might like them."

"Thanks, Mom," Aeris said, and she squeezed her mother's hand because she knew it meant that Elmyra wasn't sure they could ever go back.

"I checked in with the people at the church before we left," Elmyra went on. "They're very happy to look after your flowers, though I doubt they'll do as good a job."

"That's still nice to know."

Elmyra sighed. "You're going with them when they leave Kalm, aren't you?"

"Yeah," Aeris confirmed. "I think I'm a member of AVALANCHE now. At least Jessie keeps saying it."

"Well... I wish that you could be safe, but maybe the safest place for you to be right now is with them. They did get you out, and they seem to look after their own."

"I told you they were good people."

Presently Tifa disentangled herself from her friends and got up. "I'm going to go borrow the kitchen downstairs," she announced, "and get dinner going."

"Can I help?" asked Wedge.

Barret put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. "In a minute, Wedge. I still gotta talk to you 'bout somethin.'"

"Oh... All right."

Tifa nodded as though she already knew what it was, and left the room.

"Listen," Barret went on, "I want you to stay with Marlene an' Elmyra. If the Shinra sniff out our trail... I don't want them usin' my daughter against me, you understand? I'm sure Aeris doesn't want that with her mom either," he added, glancing over at them.

Wedge looked disappointed. "Is this your way of saying I'd just slow you down?" he asked.

"Wedge. I'm trustin' you with my daughter's safety. There's no job on the Planet more important than that."

At that, Wedge drew himself up, puffing out his chest. "Understood," he said. "...we can go stay with my little brother. It's not far, but there's no Mako and nobody's ever heard of it, so I doubt they'll come lookin' for us there. Is that okay, Elmyra?"

Elmyra nodded. "It sounds like a fine idea."

Looking more pleased with himself, Wedge went on down to help Tifa with dinner. They all ate together in the room in what would probably be the last meal they shared together for some time.

The original AVALANCHE members seemed to understand something without it ever being spoken aloud between them, and after the dinner conversation died down, they left the inn. Aeris caught Tifa's eye inquisitively, and Tifa motioned for her to come along. Not far outside the town walls, they gathered in a circle in the twilight.

"Before we go on," Barret said solemnly, "we gotta take the time to remember who we're leavin' behind. Biggs was a part of our team, and none of us woulda made it this far without 'im. He could be a hothead, but he was willin' to give his all for the Planet."

"He was a kindred spirit," Tifa agreed. "I mean... He was family. For a while before I met you all, I wasn't sure I'd ever have that again. But Biggs got to be like an older brother. I don't know how many times he pulled me out of myself, and got me to go along with whatever he was up to."

"He always looked out for me," said Wedge. "Back when I was the newcomer, he made me feel like I was part of the team. He made me feel like I could do all sorts of things, and I always thought one day we'd be celebrating saving the Planet together."

They all looked to Jessie, who didn't make eye contact with anyone.

"Aeris," she said, "did you want to say anything?"

"...I didn't know Biggs very well," Aeris admitted, "but I know he didn't hesitate to risk his life for others. He was a good man."

Jessie nodded. "He could be a real idiot sometimes, but he was a good man. I knew him... almost my entire life. I guess I can't remember not knowing him. We grew up together, and when we both lost people to Shinra, we became each other's family. We had each other's backs. Part of me thinks, we should've met our ends together, but I know he wouldn't want that. He gave his life fighting for our home, and for everyone gathered here... so for his sake, we have to keep up that fight, and make sure it wasn't in vain."

"We don't got a body to bury," Barret said, "and I ain't about to ask anyone to give up the only thing we got left of 'im. So we're just gonna take a minute."

They all stood in silence for a long minute. Probably, quite a bit longer than a minute. At last, with the same tacit understanding that had brought them out here, they all turned back for the town, and returned to the inn. After night fell, and they all turned in, Aeris heard Jessie crying in the dark, and she promised herself that they were all going to make it through this together, so they wouldn't have to lose anyone else.

Chapter Text

It was hard saying goodbye all over again, but this time Tifa knew they'd be able to talk again. Jessie had picked up some old phones at one of the shops and refurbished them, and they left one with Wedge. It was easier leaving Marlene when they could promise to call before bedtime.

Headed south from Kalm, Tifa thought they were still seeing the effects of Midgar. Despite the rains of the other day, the grass was patchy and brown, and no trees grew anywhere on the horizon. The summer heat made it unpleasant for walking, and they didn't talk much during the morning.

They stopped for a rest around midday, and Tifa was grateful for the temporary shade of some passing clouds.

"You just have to walk directly behind Barret," Jessie advised her with a laugh, and Barret gave her a gentle shove.

"I'm really looking forward to those mountains at this point," said Tifa.

"I never imagined the sky could feel so... big," Aeris said. She was lying on her back in the dry grass, staring up at it.

"It really does sometimes," said Tifa. "But just wait until we get clear of Midgar, and night falls."

"What happens then?"

"Well, the stars come out."

"The stars..." Aeris murmured, and she smiled softly. The thought of her expression when she saw them for the first time gave Tifa something to look forward to.

Jessie and Barret were both looking at her curiously. "What?" said Tifa.

"Nothin,'" said Barret. "Come on, we oughtta get movin' again."

But an hour or so later when Aeris was ahead of them chatting with Red, Barret and Jessie fell back to walk in step with her.

"So how are things going with Aeris?" Jessie asked slyly.

"Yeah," Barret chimed in, "seein' stars sounds pretty romantic."

"What--" Had Aeris said something to them? "We're not dating."

"You turned her down?" Jessie said incredulously. She said it loudly enough that one of Red's ears swivelled back, but Aeris seemed oblivious.

"I said I'd take a rain check," Tifa said, pointedly keeping her voice down.

"What were you thinking?" Jessie hissed, at least taking that hint. "When's the next time you figure we're going to spend a few days in a nice town doing nothing?"

"And you're into her, ain't you?"

"I can't believe you're in on this, too," Tifa said. Jessie didn't surprise her, but Barret? Since when did he show interest in her love life?

Barret shrugged. "First time I've seen it since that girl at the weapons shop moved away," he said.

Jessie's eyebrows rose. "Is that why you were always going over there for us? It never made any sense to me, you hate guns."

"Look, that was more than a year ago," Tifa protested.

"You're right," said Jessie. "This is about Aeris, and why you should absolutely go on that date the first chance you get."

"Well- What if she's just being nice?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Tifa faltered. She hadn't meant to say it out loud, but if she was being as obvious about it as they said, maybe Aeris had picked up on that. She'd said she owed Tifa, so maybe it was just... "You know, like a pity date. After she heard about... everything."

"That's ridiculous," Jessie stated. "Have you seen you?"

"I'm pretty sure Zack was her boyfriend," Tifa pointed out.

"So she's bisexual, so what?"

Tifa opened her mouth, closed it again. Right. Having a boyfriend once five years ago didn't really mean anything, did it?

"Teef, a four-year-old could figure out she's into you," Barret said.

"A four-year-old did figure out she's into you," Jessie added.

Tifa looked ahead to where Aeris was walking. "I'm just..."

"Nervous?" Jessie finished, looking at her sympathetically. "That's okay. But it's not gonna get any easier if you put it off."

"All right, all right. First chance we get."

Well, she didn't think they could have a proper date while they were on the road. That gave her until Junon, at least.

It was a weird mix of feelings to be dealing with. There was always that voice in grief, she'd found, that told her she wasn't allowed to feel other things. That to find joy in anything was to betray the people she'd lost and the happiness she'd shared with them. There were so many deaths she had a duty to avenge... But it was a feeling she tried to fight, because she didn't owe that vengeance every part of her. If she ever conquered her enemies, there had to be something left of her afterwards.

Still, it would have been easier if she'd met Aeris earlier, at a time when her life had some semblance of balance. She was adrift right now, with no certainty of what lay ahead.

Or was it good that it came now, to give her something normal to worry about in the midst of everything else? This was the sort of thing she was meant to be dealing with at twenty years old. Not vengeance. Not the fate of the Planet.

The sky clouded over late in the day, which was a relief not only because of the weather but because it meant there would be no stargazing that night. Tifa wanted Aeris to see them, of course, but she didn't think she could have borne the teasing. Not yet.

They called Wedge as they made camp for the night, and spoke to Marlene as they'd promised. They'd made it to Wedge's brother, but Marlene was disappointed it had only taken them a day; she'd gotten to sleep outside on her journey out of Midgar, and the novelty of it hadn't worn off for her. Barret promised her they'd all go camping, once they were back together.

Tifa hadn't slept out under the sky in... a long time. It felt strange, like it was a trick somehow, and really there was some invisible barrier between her and all that wide open emptiness above her. She couldn't say quite how it made her feel--if it frightened her somehow, or made her long for something she couldn't remember.

She turned over onto her side and closed her eyes.

In the morning, they started up into the mountain pass. Tifa had no memory of her journey to Midgar, but Barret had come this way years before. She wasn't sure how far they would retrace his steps, because he'd never told her his hometown. After his words the other day, she worried that he, too, came from a place that no longer existed.

The road through the mountains wasn't a difficult one; it was meant for vehicle traffic, though there wasn't much. Red's ears were sharper than anyone's, and he alerted them to the few approaching cars so they could get off the road and out of sight, in case it was Shinra. Tifa wasn't sure, at this point, if the Shinra were making any effort to track them down. After the massacre at headquarters, they might have bigger problems. But if they happened across each other, there was no way Shinra would just let them go.

As they continued through the pass, they began to see trees, and soon enough, birdsong followed. Tifa hadn't heard that sound in years, and no one argued when she halted the party just to listen. Aeris laid her hand against the trunk of a tree as though she could feel the life in it, and for all Tifa knew, she could.

"This is closer, isn't it?" she said.

"What do you mean?"

"To how things ought to be. But it's still so..." Aeris trailed off, and let her hand drop. "Never mind. Maybe I'm a little overwhelmed. To think I've never seen all this before..."

"It's a lot to miss out on," Tifa agreed.

"If it weren't for the Shinra, it could be like this everywhere," said Barret.

"I wonder if it'll come back," Jessie said. "I mean, if we could shut off every reactor today, right now, do you think that land could recover? What're the chances we'd ever see Midgar looking like this?"

"Well, Aeris could still grow things there," Tifa pointed out, and they all looked to her.

"I think the Planet will need our help," she said. "These are wounds we've made, and they go deep. They'll need to be healed."

Barret scratched his head. "Is that somethin' people like us can do? Or is that, y'know, one o' those powers the Ancients had?"

Aeris smiled at him. "It might be," she admitted, "but I think you can still help. We're all born from the Planet, even humans."

"Never thought I'd be envisioning my future as a gardener," Jessie mused. "I guess there's all sorts of loud flowers I could plant. Like an explosion of color!"

"That's one way to think about it," Tifa laughed. The idea of AVALANCHE retiring to plant flowers did sound pretty absurd... but it also sounded peaceful. She could go for peaceful.

In the afternoon, they stopped for a rest beneath the trees, and Barret motioned towards what might have been a path to higher ground.

"I'm gonna see if I can get an idea o' how far we are through," he said.

"I'll come with you," Tifa decided.

The trail had been made by animals, she thought, rather than people. It was too narrow in places for either one of them, but Tifa didn't mind pushing through the undergrowth. The shade made shifting patterns on their skin, and unseen creatures scampered away from them into the brush. After a short hike, they came out onto a rocky outcropping some hundred feet above the road.

It was hard to pick out the road ahead, but Tifa could see down into the forested valley. Another, gentler mountain range rose in the distance, and she thought Junon lay just beyond that.

Barret was nodding to himself. "Yeah... We must be a little more 'n halfway through. Might hit the valley by tonight."

"I can't say I feel like rushing right now," Tifa said. "This is a great view."

Barret glanced at her. "Yeah? Well, we can just sit for a minute."

They found an obliging rock and sat down overlooking the valley. A cool breeze drifted into their faces, and rustled the leaves overhead.

"The mountains back home aren't anything like this," Tifa said. "The reactor sucked the life out of them a long time ago."

"You dreadin' it?"

"I've been trying not to think about it. We still have to cross the ocean before we get anywhere close to it. It's a long way away."

Barret nodded. "Yeah, well. It's bringin' up some memories for me already, goin' back this way. So if you get there and you need to talk, I'm here."

Tifa looked over at him. His grief, whatever it was, must have been fresh, when last he came through these mountains. "Same goes for you," she said, "if you need to talk."

"I'm all right for now."

Tifa nodded and returned her attention to the valley. "I haven't really thanked you, for supporting me on this."

"What d'you mean?"

"Going after Sephiroth. It's not exactly our M.O."

"Maybe not," Barret conceded. "But like you said, he's dangerous, and he's still Shinra, ain't he? Or, he was. Not exactly sure how it's all connected anymore, but that's part of what we're tryin' to figure out, right?"

"He was Shinra... and that's what led me to AVALANCHE. But I don't know if fighting him has anything to do with saving the Planet."

"I gotta be honest, half the time I don't know if AVALANCHE's got anythin' to do with savin' the Planet. It was vengeance to start... I mean, I wanna make the world better, for Marlene, but I hate the Shinra."

Tifa smiled ruefully. "I know what you mean," she said.

"Anyway, even if this thing with Sephiroth winds up just bein' about revenge... I'll still back you, 'cause I get that. We've been fightin' together for years. I'm not about to let you do it alone now."

"...thanks."

"Besides, I ain't so sure how to fight the Shinra right now. If they'll kill that many people, just to get to us..."

Tifa shook her head. "We can't let that stop us. We both know they'll destroy lives whether we provoke them or not."

"I know! I ain't sayin' we give up. Hell no." Barret smacked his gun arm against the rock for emphasis, scaring away a nearby squirrel. "But maybe we gotta think through some other way. So it's not bad if we're off trackin' down some other lead for now, is what I'm sayin.'"

"I get it," she said. "We needed to get out of Midgar for a while anyway."

"Yeah, exactly."

Tifa leaned back on her hands. "Well," she said, "Aeris did propose a plan where we go punch Rufus in the face. I think that's worth some consideration."

Barret chuckled. "She doesn't look it, but she's got spunk, huh?"

"Yeah."

"I hope you're not mad about us teasin' you. Me an' Jess, we just want you to be happy."

"I know. And I don't know, maybe I could use the pushing. You know that feeling, right? Where you almost feel like you have to be depressed, or you're a bad person."

"Yeah, I know the feelin.' But I gotta remember it's no good for Marlene for me to be like that. We're fightin' for the living, too, Teef."

Tifa nodded. Was it okay to fight for herself then? she wondered, but she didn't ask.

"Anyhow, we oughtta get back to 'em before they start thinkin' somethin's happened to us," Barret reasoned, getting to his feet.

"You can head on back, but I'm gonna stay here for a few minutes longer if you don't mind."

"Yeah, sure. Catch you back down there."

Tifa listened to his noisy passage back through the trees grow fainter, until at last it was just her and the natural sounds of the world around her. She closed her eyes and breathed in the mountain air, knowing Mt. Nibel wouldn't smell anything like this, wouldn't feel anything like this. But maybe, like Aeris said, this was closer to how it was meant to be.

"Hello, Tifa."

Her eyes snapped open. She leapt to her feet and whirled around, and there he was, perched atop another rock not far from her, his long sword planted into the ground between his feet.

"Sephiroth...!" Her eyes darted towards the path. He could block it easily, but Barret hadn't been gone long, and he might hear her if she shouted--

"Are you certain it's wise to alert your friends to my presence?" said Sephiroth. "After all... you don't need all of them, do you?"

Tifa shut her mouth. She glanced behind her; it was a steep slope down from the overlook, but she thought she could climb it. But would that be any escape unless he let her go?

"...what are you doing here?" she asked, clenching her fists in an effort to keep her body from shaking. He hadn't made any move towards her yet.

"I wanted to commend you, for looking after Aeris," he said. "Finally she'll be able to hear the Planet, and awaken to the true calling of our people."

"'Our' people?"

"The Cetra."

Tifa grimaced. "Aeris is nothing like you," she said. What was he trying to gain by a lie like that?

Sephiroth smiled, and it was an even colder expression than she remembered. "Aeris simply hasn't spent enough time in the world, listening to the cries of the Planet and observing the atrocities of the people who crawl upon it."

"You're the one committing atrocities."

"Poor Tifa." Sephiroth stood, pulling his sword from the ground, and Tifa took a step back, but he didn't advance. "You really are unenlightened. But I suppose that's to be expected; we left you in the dark back then, didn't we? You never knew why your village had to be erased from the map."

"There could never be any reason that had to happen."

Sephiroth tilted his head. "Are you sure? Really think about the greatest threat to this Planet... It isn't me."

"You're a threat to the people on it," she stated.

Sephiroth shrugged, as though there was no arguing with that. "Take care of Aeris," he said, and then he turned and disappeared soundlessly into the trees. The brush wasn't disturbed; it was like he wasn't even there.

Tifa's heart thudded in her ears. She wanted desperately to return to her friends, but it took her several minutes to get her feet to move. When they did, she raced down the path, heedless of the branches that scraped against her, and came crashing out into the space where her friends were waiting.

Barret was on his feet already at the noise. "Tifa--?"

"What happened?" Jessie finished.

"Sephiroth," she said breathlessly. "He was here."

Her eyes darted over them. Aeris and Red were there, too, getting to their feet with the others. They were all alarmed by her arrival, but unharmed. Sephiroth hadn't reached them; he had left them alone.

"Sephiroth?" Barret repeated, half-raising his gun arm as he looked behind her up the path. "I was just up there with you!"

"He came after you left," she said. "I thought... But he didn't come this way. Did he?"

Aeris shook her head. "No. We haven't seen him. Are you okay, Tifa?"

Tifa leaned back against the nearest tree and closed her eyes. She nodded. "I'm okay."

"Perhaps you could tell us precisely what happened," Red suggested.

"Give her a minute," said Jessie.

Tifa didn't respond, focusing on catching her breath and calming her racing heart. She must have scared off the birds in her mad dash through the trees, but slowly the birdsong returned. Like nothing had happened. But she hadn't imagined it.

She opened her eyes. "He just showed up," she said, "and started talking to me."

"What did he say?" Aeris asked.

Gods. Aeris. How could Tifa tell her what he had said? There was no way that they were both Cetra, and it was even crazier to suggest that Aeris might ever come to think like he did, but to plant even the smallest doubt in Aeris's mind about who she was, what she was... Tifa couldn't do that to her. She couldn't let Aeris think, even for a second, that she could have some connection to that monster.

"Nothing important," Tifa said, looking away. "I'm sure he just wanted to mess with my head."

"He didn't say anything about what his plans might be?" Jessie said.

Tifa shook her head. "Not really. He... he told me that Nibelheim had to be destroyed, but I was too stupid to understand why. And he said he wanted to congratulate me for escaping the Shinra."

"That's... odd," said Aeris.

"He's a fuckin' nutjob is what it sounds like," Barret said. "The hell's he gotta tell you that for?"

"I don't know," Tifa said. "It'd make more sense if he tried to kill me, right? To finish the job he started five years ago."

"But if he isn't simply crazy," said Red, "then it stands to reason he must want something from you. Which is troubling."

Not from her, but from Aeris. He couldn't really expect her to turn on them, so what did he want from her? Something to do with her powers?

"Well, he didn't tell me," Tifa said, "and I don't think we're going to figure it out on our own. I think we should just forget about it for now."

Aeris was watching her with a frown. Did she suspect Tifa was holding something back, or was she just worried? Hard to say, especially when Tifa already felt guilt twisting her stomach over lying.

"Yeah... all right," said Barret. "I'm just glad you're all right, Tifa."

"Did you want to rest here a while longer?" Jessie asked.

"No. I'd rather just get moving again."

She didn't want to stay so close to where he'd shown up, even though he could just as easily follow them, or be waiting to ambush them farther down the road. She didn't want her fear to paralyze her.

Twilight was falling as they came down into the valley, and they made camp out of sight of the road. They made a fire, and Tifa cooked, because it gave her a task to focus on. There was conversation, but she had trouble following it. She was still listening for an approach--as if she'd hear a warning when she hadn't before.

"Tifa, look."

Aeris's voice drew her out of her narrow focus, and she looked over. Aeris was pointing skyward.

Tifa hadn't really noticed earlier, but the sky was clear, and the trees were sparser here; in the patch of deepening blue above them, a few points of light now shone.

"The stars are coming out," Tifa murmured.

"There was a bigger clearing back that way," said Jessie, "if you wanted to get a better look once it's darker."

"What do you think, Tifa?" said Aeris. "You want to join me?"

Tifa knew they were trying to find a way to distract her, to get her to relax after earlier. But she could also tell that Aeris was genuinely excited, bouncing a little on her toes as she waited for an answer.

"Sure," Tifa said.

They ate, and whatever they chatted about, Aeris was constantly looking overhead. All of them were; it had been a long time since any of them had seen the stars.

After they had cleaned up, Barret made ready to call Wedge, but Tifa didn't want to talk to them tonight. She didn't want Marlene to pick up on something in her voice, and start to worry. Instead she bade Barret give them her love, and walked with Aeris back through the trees to the clearing nearer to the road.

The sky opened up above them, strewn with lights, and Aeris walked into the center of the clearing, starlight catching in the materia in her hair. She stretched out on the ground and patted the earth beside her. "You, too, come on."

Tifa joined her, and glanced over at her face. It wasn't peace that she saw there, but wonder. A thirst to know the world's beauty. Tifa turned her head to look up.

"There are even more than this, you know," she said. It was still early in the night, and a crescent moon held the deepest dark at bay.

"Really? More than this?"

"Mmhm."

"Do you think any of those stars out there has a planet like ours?" Aeris wondered. "There must be, right? It's so vast..."

"I've never thought about it, but I imagine there must be. It's... too much emptiness otherwise."

"No, it can't be emptiness. But, I suppose they might be very far away."

"Yeah. Who knows, maybe there's someone out there at the other end of the sky, wondering the same thing."

"That's a nice thought," Aeris said, and Tifa could hear the smile in her voice. "Say, don't people wish on stars? I think I've heard that before."

"Shooting stars," Tifa said.

"What are those?"

"Well... I think they're actually comets, but they're still far away enough it looks like a flash of light streaking across the sky."

"Have you ever seen one?"

Tifa was quiet for a moment. She could remember a different night, what felt like ages ago. It had been colder then, not yet spring, and a moonless night had let the stars come out in full. It was at once a silly childhood moment from before she'd really known herself, and a precious memory.

She could talk about it, couldn't she? What good did it do to hide away even the things worth remembering? Was she letting Sephiroth erase them, too?

"Yeah," she said. "It was about seven years ago. The boy next door called me out to the well in the middle of town. He said he was leaving, but he promised he'd come rescue me if I was ever in trouble."

"It sounds like he had a crush on you," Aeris said.

"I don't know. Maybe. I did think it was what romance was supposed to be like. I mean, we made a promise and there was a shooting star and everything. After he left home, I imagined I liked him for a while... But now I think back on it, and I'm just relieved he left. A lot of my friends left, before it happened."

"They left for Midgar, right? Did you ever look any of them up?"

Tifa let out a slow breath. "How could I?" she said. "I didn't want to be the one to tell them... Or worse, what if I couldn't track any of them down?" It would have been like she really was the only one who had made it out, the only one left.

"You wanted to imagine they were all okay somewhere," Aeris said.

"Yeah."

"It sounds lonely, though. You did know people in the city, but you went it alone anyway."

"It's what I wanted at the time. It's hard to explain."

"I don't think I could've done it," Aeris said. "I've never been that close to a lot of people, but I've never been on my own either."

"That's fine. I'm glad you haven't been. It can't have been easy either, going through what you did."

"I don't really think about it," Aeris said, and Tifa wondered if that were true. "Mom gave me a pretty normal life."

Tifa turned her head to glance at her. "And yet you seemed pretty eager to join us."

"Maybe normal got boring!" Aeris laughed, but her voice grew serious again. "I wanted to do something, you know? The Planet's hurting, and I'm a Cetra. I'm meant to be protecting it, somehow."

The greatest threat to this Planet...

Tifa forced Sephiroth's words out of her mind.

"I hope," she said, "that what we're doing really can help it."

"It can. It will. I'm sure of it."

"How?"

"It's just a feeling. Like I'm in the right place."

Tifa looked back at the stars overhead. "I wish I had your certainty," she said.

She felt the touch of Aeris's fingers against hers, gently twining them together. Aeris gave her hand a light squeeze. "Maybe you can borrow a little of mine," she said.

Tifa closed her fingers around Aeris's. There was no shooting star overhead, but by now she thought maybe it was better to be... grounded.

Chapter Text

The Planet hummed with life. Its pain had always been the loudest thing, the only thing Aeris could pick up on in Midgar when she could hear it at all, but here in the midst of green growing things, there was a different undercurrent, more like a song.

I'm here, she said to it. Was it aware of her? Did it know her?

If there was a reply, she wasn't able to interpret it, not yet.

The others weren't supposed to be able to hear it, but Aeris wondered if they did, at least on some level. As they struck camp that morning, she noticed each of them take little moments to breathe in the air, or listen to the birds, as though really they were stopping to listen to something else.

Tifa looked tired, which worried her. Her encounter with Sephiroth seemed to have shaken her more than their brief run-in with him in the Shinra building. Aeris thought that there was something more Sephiroth had said to her that she hadn't shared with them. Something she was letting eat at her like the story of Nibelheim's destruction.

But she was also sure that Tifa wouldn't say a word about it until she was ready.

"What a nice morning," Aeris said, instead of pressing anything. "I think I'm getting to like this sleeping outside thing."

"I'm a long ways from used to it," said Jessie. "I kind of expected it to be quieter, but there's still animals moving around, and the wind in the trees..."

"Beats the hum of Mako energy and people makin' a ruckus in the street, though," Barret said.

"Oh, sure. I wasn't saying they were bad sounds, just unfamiliar ones for now."

Red stretched out his forelegs and shook his mane. "I certainly prefer them," he said.

"You catch somethin' good, cat?" Barret asked him.

Red had shared their food with reluctance after leaving Midgar, but now that there was more wildlife in the area, he'd taken to hunting for his meals. He didn't respond to Barret's question, but there was a definite satisfaction in his expression.

Tifa slung her pack onto her shoulders and looked at the rest of them expectantly. "Everyone ready to go?" she asked. Mission-focused again. Aeris thought it was a bad sign.

Barret exchanged glances with Jessie. "Yeah, I guess so," he said.

They returned to the road, walking along the side beneath the shade of the trees. Tifa led the way at a brisk pace, and Aeris quickened her step to catch up and walk alongside her.

"Hey, are you okay?" she had to ask.

"I'm all right. I just feel better when I'm doing something."

"Well, just make sure you don't overdo it. I'm not sure any of us can keep up this pace."

Tifa blinked, glanced behind her, and slowed down. "Sorry."

"That's okay. I guess you're just excited to get to Junon, huh?"

"Not exactly."

Aeris had expected as much, but she thought she'd try to plant the idea. Maybe if Tifa had something to look forward to, she wouldn't dwell as much on what Sephiroth had said. "Well, I think it could be fun. It's on the ocean, isn't it? Have you ever seen the ocean before?"

"I haven't, actually."

"I thought so. I haven't seen it either, but it must be pretty impressive. I know I'm looking forward to it."

Tifa tilted her head thoughtfully. "I guess you're right... And then we'll be at sea. I've never been on a boat--at least, not that I remember."

It was working, Aeris thought. "Do you know how to swim?"

"Sure. It's been a while, but I don't think that's something you really forget."

"Well, I've never learned in the first place, so if I go overboard, you'd better jump in and save me."

Tifa looked at her, torn between incredulous and amused. Amused was good. "Why on earth would you go overboard?"

"It seems to be a thing that happens on boats," Aeris reasoned. "You never know."

"Well, just... don't go too close to the railing. Because if that's a thing that happens, then a sea monster might eat you before I can rescue you."

Aeris gaped at her delightedly. "A sea monster? You'd really let me get eaten by a sea monster?"

"It'd be your own fault for going over the side."

"Now I'm just going to have to hold onto you the whole time, so I take you with me if I go."

Tifa looked her over skeptically. "I don't think that's how it would happen, but at least it'd keep your feet on the deck."

"Fair enough."

"And maybe I should teach you how to swim, if we get the chance."

"I'd like that," Aeris said.

She considered bringing up the possibility of shopping for swimsuits, but decided against it. Some of the tension had left Tifa's shoulders, and Aeris didn't want to change that by teasing her, as fun as that might have been. It was enough to get her thinking of something lighthearted, and inconsequential.

Barret approached her later, when they stopped for a short rest. "Thanks for lookin' after her," he said quietly, glancing at Tifa. She was off with Jessie, the two of them trying to put a name to a colorful bird they'd spotted.

"It's nothing," said Aeris. "She's had it rough lately. You all have."

"Don't know why you're countin' yourself out," Barret said. "I ain't gonna ask what went down in that lab, but it seemed like a real fucked up place. I know I'd have some feelings about that if I was you."

Aeris shook her head. "I do, but... Honestly, I wasn't there for long, before you all came and got me. The worst part was leaving... All those men in the Shinra building. It was awful, what happened to them."

"Least they went quick," Barret said grimly.

"Do you think they did, all of them? I've seen Tifa's scar... He didn't kill her, he just left her to die."

Barret scratched his head. "Guess you're right. But I'm not losin' a lotta sleep over them. I just wish I knew what the hell he wants with Tifa now."

"Me, too." Aeris didn't mention her suspicion that Tifa might already have some idea. She wasn't sure Barret would be discreet about it, and she could be wrong.

"Well, we'll keep an eye on 'er, and she oughtta be all right. She's a tough lady."

"I guess you've known her longer than anyone," Aeris reasoned.

"Yeah, I guess so."

"So, what's her favorite color?"

Barret chuckled, and she got in a few more questions before Tifa and Jessie gave up their birdwatching and the party moved on.

It really was a beautiful day. Summers in Midgar could be sweltering, trapped between the smog and the asphalt. They weren't so hot beneath the plate, but the air was still bad. But here and now the air was clean in her lungs and the sun reached them only some of the time through the canopy, pleasant kisses of warmth on her skin.

The flash came out of nowhere, and a loud clap assaulted her ears. Aeris stumbled to a halt where she stood, trying to blink her vision clear. She couldn't see anything.

"What's going on?" she tried to shout, but she could barely hear her own voice over the ringing in her ears.

She felt a tug on her hair and whirled around. What was this? Were they under attack?

After a few cautious steps forward, she felt someone take her arm. "Tifa?" No; her vision was starting to return--Jessie.

Jessie was trying to say something to her, but she couldn't make it out, and she shook her head. She looked around, squinting, to make out the shapes of her friends. They were all there, they all seemed okay, and she couldn't make out anyone else. Barret was looking around, too, his hand on his gun arm, ready to fire... but at what?

Red tossed his head and growled something indistinct. Jessie looked towards him, but he bounded off into the trees even as she was speaking. Tifa went after him.

"What's going on?" Aeris tried again, and this time she could hear herself through the persistent ringing.

"Flashbang," Jessie said. Her voice was muffled, like she was speaking through a wall, and Aeris picked it up as much from watching her lips as from the sound. "You okay?"

"I can barely hear you."

Jessie nodded. "That's temporary. Don't worry."

"Where'd it come from?"

"Not sure. It didn't hit Red too bad; he thinks he heard someone."

Aeris nodded. He'd been walking farther ahead of the rest of them. "Should we go after him?" she asked, but Jessie shrugged. It would have been hard to follow at this point.

Jessie gave her shoulder a pat and left her to inspect a canister on the ground nearby. The grenade had landed really close to her, Aeris realized. "I've never seen one quite like this," Jessie remarked.

"Sure ain't Shinra issue," Barret agreed.

The Shinra wouldn't have just thrown it at them and run, Aeris thought, and it certainly didn't seem like something Sephiroth would do either, or she would have been more worried about Tifa and Red going off on their own. But who would do this? What was the point?

Her ears were still ringing, but her vision had mostly cleared, and that was when she finally noticed: the empty materia slot in her staff. With a start, she felt at her hair ribbon.

"My materia," she said in alarm. "They took it."

"Shit," said Barret. "Shoulda figured it for a thief."

He and Jessie both looked into the trees, and Aeris thought she might have heard it, too--a shout somewhere not far away. After several minutes, Tifa reappeared.

"We caught her," she said. "This way."

Aeris's shoulders sagged in relief, and Tifa looked at her in concern.

"You okay, Aeris?"

She nodded. "For a minute, I thought... A memento from my mother. I was worried I'd lost it."

Tifa smiled gently in understanding. "Then I'm really glad we found her. Come on."

They followed her a short way through the forest until they reached Red, who had someone pinned to the ground.

It was just a young girl, Aeris realized. A teenager.

"Oh, man," said the girl as she saw all of them gathering above her. She spoke with a faint accent, one Aeris had never heard before. "Look, you got me, so can you get your... dog... off of me?"

Red growled, keeping his paws on her chest.

"Or he can stay right here," said the girl. "That's cool, too."

"Where's the stuff you took?" Barret asked her.

"Oh, um..." Eyeing Red the entire time, she reached slowly into her pocket and pulled out several materia orbs, including the Restore they'd bought for Jessie in Kalm. "Here. Take 'em."

"When did she even...?" Jessie said, checking her bag. How had she even known to look inside?

Aeris bent down to retrieve the materia, and passed Jessie's back to her. "I think you can let her up now, Red, can't you?"

He glanced at her as though he disagreed, but he backed off. The girl sat up cautiously.

"Least he's well-trained," she mumbled.

"I am not trained," Red stated in annoyance, and the girl gaped at him.

"Did you just talk!?"

"Yes."

She looked around at the rest of them, pointing at Red incredulously. "I'm not hallucinating, right? He talks?"

"He talks," Aeris confirmed.

"Wow. What a bunch of weirdos."

"As a common thief, I don't see that you have room to judge," said Red.

"I am not a common thief!" the girl said indignantly. "I heard you. You're Shinra sympathizers."

"What?" said Jessie, and she exchanged incredulous looks with Aeris and Tifa.

"Shinra sympathizers!?" Barret repeated angrily, and he actually started to raise his gun arm.

"What exactly did you hear?" Aeris asked quickly.

The girl glowered at her. "You were talking about how awful it was that all those guys at the Shinra building got killed."

"But that was... How long have you been following us?"

"...a while."

"And we didn't notice..." Jessie murmured.

Tifa joined Aeris, crouching down in front of the girl. "Well, we're not Shinra sympathizers," she stated. She glanced at Jessie and then went on, "Have you heard of AVALANCHE?"

"AVALANCHE... Wait, aren't those the guys who killed President Shinra? That's you!?"

Tifa shook her head. "That got blamed on us, but it wasn't us. We were actually being held prisoner at the Shinra building when the murders happened. And they were... pretty brutal. I'm not sure I'd wish that even on the Shinra."

"Well, I would," said the girl.

"Yeah, you're making that pretty clear," said Jessie. "I kinda like her, Tifa."

Tifa gave her a wry look. "You know she used that grenade on us, right?"

"Hey, if the kid knows her explosives..."

"I'm not a kid!" the girl protested.

Aeris smiled. She couldn't help it. "What's your name?" she asked.

The girl folded her arms. "That's rude, asking me first before you introduce yourselves."

Aeris didn't see how, but there was no harm in obliging her. "I'm Aeris," she said. "This is Tifa, Jessie, and Red, and that's Barret."

"...I'm Yuffie."

"It's nice to meet you, Yuffie. Even though you did throw a grenade at me and steal my materia."

The admonishment didn't faze her. "I've never seen one like that before," she said.

"It is special," Aeris admitted, "but I'm afraid you wouldn't be able to use it anyway."

Yuffie scrutinized her for a moment, shrugged, and finally picked herself up off the ground. Aeris and Tifa stood with her, and Red quietly circled around behind her to block her escape. Yuffie glanced at him uneasily.

"Anyway," she said, "if you guys are AVALANCHE, what're you doing out here? Shouldn't you be in Midgar or something? Seems like a good time to get stuff done with the President dead and all."

"We're lookin' into somethin' else right now," said Barret.

Yuffie nodded thoughtfully. "Are you headed for Junon? I heard Rufus was gonna be there."

"Is that right?" Barret said, exchanging glances with Tifa.

"As much as we'd love to pay our respects," said Tifa, "we're just planning on passing through."

"Then you're headed west," Yuffie concluded. "I could help you with that."

"An' why would we need your help?" Barret asked skeptically.

Yuffie lifted her chin. "Those Shinra goons don't let just anybody through, you know. If you guys wanna get on a ship, you're gonna have to know how to slip past 'em."

"An' you know how to do that?"

"She was tailing us for at least a couple of hours," Aeris pointed out.

"Yeah, exactly," said Yuffie, looking pleased with herself.

Tifa pulled the rest of them aside, leaving Red to keep an eye on Yuffie. "I know it's a little unusual, but maybe we could use the help," she said. "You're the only one who's even been to Junon, Barret."

"And that was four years ago," Jessie added, "when you weren't on Shinra's most wanted list. We're not gonna be okay to go through their checkpoints."

Barret scratched his head. "I mean, yeah, but you guys really wanna trust her?"

"She's just a kid, Barret," said Tifa. "What's she doing out here on her own anyway?"

"Stealin,'" he said flatly.

"She did think we were pro-Shinra," Aeris pointed out. "I mean, I'm not sure what her story is, but maybe we're on the same side."

"Obviously we'd have to keep an eye on her," said Jessie, "but she's got some skills."

Barret sighed. "Guess I'm bein' outvoted..."

They turned back to Yuffie, and Tifa said, "We've decided to take you up on your offer."

"Great!" said Yuffie. "That'll be 3000 gil, up-front."

"Or she could be trying to fleece us..." Aeris considered quietly.

"Nice try," said Tifa. "We'll make it 1000, after we're through."

"Mmm, I guess that'll have to do," Yuffie decided, and she held out her hand for Tifa to shake. "It's a deal."

They made their way back to the road, everyone making sure that Yuffie remained in the center of the group. Aeris fastened the White Materia back in place in her hair and elected to walk beside the new, if perhaps temporary, member of their group, while Tifa flanked her on the other side.

"So, Yuffie," she said, "where is it you come from anyway?"

"Isn't it obvious? I'm from Wutai."

Well, that explained a lot about her attitude towards the Shinra.

"You're a long way from home," Jessie remarked. "What are you doing all the way out here?"

"I don't see what's weird about it," said Yuffie. "And what is this anyway, an interrogation? I thought we already had a deal."

"I just thought it might be nice to get to know each other a little better," Aeris said.

"What for? I'm only gonna be with you guys a couple days."

"That's right," said Barret. "This is just a temporary business arrangement. AVALANCHE ain't lookin' for new recruits right now."

Aeris glanced back at him. She knew it wasn't her call, especially being the newest member, but she didn't see why they should be turning anyone away. "Well," she said, "maybe we'll just see how it goes."

"I'm not gonna stick around where I'm not wanted," said Yuffie, "but I bet you're gonna find me indispensable. I mean, it seems like you could really use somebody with my skills. You only caught me at all because of your talking dog."

Ahead of them, Red huffed loudly, his tail lashing.

"He's not a dog," Aeris said, "and he doesn't belong to us."

"Then what is he exactly?" Yuffie asked.

Aeris exchanged glances with Tifa. They never had asked him, but if he hadn't volunteered the information by now, Aeris didn't think he was about to for Yuffie's sake.

"He's... his own person," Tifa decided.

Yuffie nodded thoughtfully. "Like a free agent, huh? I guess maybe he's more of a cat. I like cats."

The feeling definitely wasn't mutual at the moment, but Aeris at least thought Yuffie would be an interesting person to have around. And a good distraction, maybe, for her friends.

They came upon the river late in the afternoon. Aeris heard the rushing sound first, not knowing what it meant, though none of her friends showed any alarm. Then they came out of the trees, and the bridge stretched across ahead of them, spanning hundreds, maybe even a thousand feet of water.

Aeris ran ahead to the side rail and leaned over, staring down. The river banks were steep, but the water below looked calm, a slow-moving current barely disturbed by the bridge's piers.

"You'd think she'd never seen water before," she heard Yuffie remark from behind her.

"It's my first river," she said. "I didn't know they were so wide!"

"Depends on the river," Tifa said, coming up beside her. "Try not to fall in."

Aeris threw her a mischievous look and leaned farther forward. "Oh no... I think I might be slipping...!"

"Oh, don't you dare," said Tifa. She was smiling, but Aeris could tell she wasn't entirely sure Aeris wouldn't jump into the river just for fun (she wouldn't; it looked calm but also deep). Tifa took her by the waist, plucking her off the railing like she weighed nothing, and set her back down squarely on the bridge.

Amazing.

"A sort of preemptive rescue, I see," Aeris said, beaming at her in delight.

"It seemed prudent," said Tifa, tucking her hair back behind her ear.

"You guys are the weirdest," Yuffie pronounced, walking on past them to continue across the bridge. Red and Jessie went with her, Jessie giving Aeris a nod of approval.

"C'mon, you two," said Barret, bringing up the rear. "I know it's a sight, but we still got ground to cover 'fore nightfall."

"Oh, I guess so," Aeris said, reluctantly following after him. Tifa kept pace at her side, and they didn't have to be in any hurry to get across, Aeris decided. The sinking afternoon sun reflected in the water, and Aeris amended her mental list of places she might like to live someday to include a quiet house by a riverbank. Once she learned how to swim, at least.

Chapter Text

They reached Junon the morning of the third day, and though Jessie had never been there, it had an unfortunate familiarity. Stronger than the salt smell of the ocean was the stench of Mako, and a run-down little village lay in the shadow of the massive city overhead.

It wasn't in as bad a shape as the Midgar slums. The siding on the buildings was peeling, their walls darkened with soot, but they looked structurally sound, and their windows were in tact. Scaffolding plunged down between houses, supporting some part of the base above, but out to the west, towards the ocean, the sky was open.

"Well, this place still sucks," said Yuffie, wrinkling her nose.

They stopped just past the first house, and Barret turned to Yuffie. "So what's the plan, kid?"

She didn't answer, but instead stared at him with all the silent offense a teenager could muster.

Jessie bit back a laugh and said, "Sorry. He means, what's the plan, Yuffie?"

Yuffie nodded, relenting. "Okay," she said, "so the only way to the upper city is through the base elevator, but there's this one guard I know who'll take bribes--"

"That's it?" Barret interrupted. "We just gotta bribe a guy?"

"No, I'm not finished!"

"Let her talk, Barret," said Tifa.

"Thank you. Now, there's no way he's gonna let all of us up, you guys are way too suspicious as a group. But once I get up there, I can steal you some uniforms. Then we just wait for the shift change, and go on through like we all belong. It should be no problem getting on a ship the same way."

"That's great for the rest of us, but..." Aeris looked down at Red uncertainly.

"What about me?" he finished.

"I've been thinkin' about that," said Yuffie, tapping a finger to her lip. "We could try to pass you off as like a weird-looking guard hound. Like maybe if you weren't wearing all the feathers and stuff?"

"I've seen ones with red fur," Jessie recalled, though it seemed like a stretch. "It might work."

"Everyone else we've run into takes him for a weird-looking dog," Tifa pointed out. "Why not the Shinra?"

They all looked at Red. He was about the same size and build as Shinra's guard hounds, but his mane and tail were distinctly different. Especially the tail, which he was swishing now in apparent agitation.

Aeris crouched down in front of him. "We'll just try to make sure no one gets too close a look at you, Red. Okay?"

"...all right."

Hopefully no one would, Jessie thought, if they could move quickly enough through the base and the city. And that depended on Yuffie. She'd behaved herself on the road, but Jessie knew Barret still had his suspicions. There was a chance, however small, that she might ditch them here and turn them over to the Shinra in hopes of a reward greater than the 1000 gil they'd promised her.

"Are you sure about going up there on your own?" Jessie asked her.

"I've done it before," said Yuffie.

"I know, but have you done it before and stolen uniforms for five people?"

At that Yuffie hesitated. "I guess I could take you," she said. "You're the only normal-looking one of the lot."

"Well, thanks."

Tifa exchanged glances with Aeris and asked, "We're not normal-looking?"

"No way," said Yuffie. "You've both got way too much hair, and you look like you wrestle bears for fun. Plus you're both kind of loony."

Jessie couldn't hold back a laugh at that. Yuffie apparently hadn't reached the stage yet where she had any interest in dating, and it had continued to baffle her whenever Aeris and Tifa flirted. She really did think they were the kind of weirdos who had to be stopped sometimes from jumping off bridges.

"You okay to go with her, Jess?" Barret asked.

"Sure. I mean, she has a point, I'm a little less conspicuous than you guys, and I've snuck into Shinra facilities before."

Barret nodded. "Awright. Good luck, an' keep an eye on her."

Yuffie stuck out her tongue at him and then nodded to Jessie. "C'mon. The guy I know usually gets the morning shift, let's see if he's there."

The base elevator was sealed off behind a massive door at the far end of the street, guarded by a single soldier. They might have attacked him and taken the elevator by force, but the control panel was in easy reach for him, and Jessie saw what looked like an alarm button. No good.

The helmets they wore made it hard to distinguish Shinra soldiers from one another, but Yuffie seemed to recognize him, and they approached.

"Hey," said Yuffie. "How's it goin'?"

"Oh, hey," he said in recognition. "Didn't expect to see you coming through here again so soon."

Yuffie shrugged. "Got an unexpected business opportunity. You know how it goes. The usual deal still on?"

The guard gestured to Jessie. "She with you?"

"Yeah, that's right."

"Then it'll be double the usual."

"Come on, man, really?"

"200 gil, take it or leave it. I could get in a lot of trouble if anybody found out about this, so you better make it worth my while."

Yuffie sighed and motioned to Jessie. "Fine. Pay the guy."

Jessie was not surprised Yuffie wasn't willing to fork over her own money, but it was fine; it was AVALANCHE's mission, after all, not Yuffie's. She paid the soldier, who opened the door into the elevator and motioned them through.

"I'm a little surprised he's willing to do this," Jessie remarked as they started upwards.

"They don't pay those guys enough," Yuffie said. "Anyway, I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm some kinda smuggler and not like, an actual criminal, like you guys."

Jessie couldn't argue with that one, considering the crimes that had been ascribed to AVALANCHE, alongside the ones they'd actually committed. "Is there anybody guarding the top?" she asked instead.

Yuffie shook her head. "We're gonna come up down the hall from the barracks. It's a couple hours to shift change, so the halls should be pretty clear right now. Just let me go first and I'll make sure."

"How'd you figure all this out? I mean, they don't exactly let people scout the base. Barret said when he came through before, everybody who wasn't a Junon resident had to submit to a search and a military escort out of the city."

"Like I was gonna put up with that kinda treatment," said Yuffie. "People don't look up a lot, you know. You don't get searched if they never know you're there."

It was a puzzling explanation to Jessie until the elevator reached the upper level, and the doors opened into a hallway within the base. Exposed pipes ran along the ceiling, and Jessie pointed up at them inquisitively. Yuffie nodded.

Jessie had always wondered how the Wutai War had gone on so long when Shinra had both the superior technology and manpower, but if this was how they trained their teenagers, then it started to make a little more sense.

Yuffie scouted ahead and beckoned Jessie down the empty corridor. They came to a locker room, and shut the door behind them.

"Okay," said Yuffie, "let's see what they've got for the taking."

"We're looking for uniforms," Jessie reminded her, checking first for any lockers that were already open.

"I know that! But if we happen to see anything else worth while, there's no reason to leave it with the Shinra."

Jessie didn't expect lowly infantrymen to have much of value, much less keep it in their lockers, but if they did... Maybe Yuffie had a point.

"So what's your story anyway?" Yuffie asked as she started down the lockers on the other side of the room.

"Huh?"

"You know, why do you hate the Shinra?"

"I thought you weren't interested in getting to know us," Jessie said.

"I dunno. Maybe I'll stick around."

Jessie nodded thoughtfully. Yuffie struck her as someone who was used to being on her own, but didn't necessarily want to be. Jessie just wasn't sure if anyone else was on board with her joining besides Aeris.

"Shinra's been messing up everyone's lives since I was a kid," she said. "We've all lost a lot to them."

"If they're that bad to their own people," Yuffie said, "how come there's not more of you?"

"It's their propaganda machine," Jessie explained. "A lot of people are convinced, no matter how poor they are right now, if they just work hard enough, they'll get to be the ones on top. And most everybody else is too scared. I thought one of the things we could do as AVALANCHE was to make people realize they could stand up to Shinra, but... If you heard what happened at the Shinra building, then you must know what they did to Sector 7, too."

Yuffie glanced over at her, and her response was solemn. "Yeah. I mean, I heard it was AVALANCHE, but I thought that sounded fishy."

"I go back and forth, since then. Sometimes I think I get why people wouldn't want to fight, when you risk bringing that down on the people you're fighting for... But then I get so angry, that it happened."

"I get angry, too," Yuffie said, and there wasn't any ambivalence in her voice, no back and forth. "I don't care if we lost the war, I'm not done fighting."

Jessie smiled ruefully to herself. That kind of surety only came to her in flashes, soon followed by worries and insecurities. She knew that fighting the Shinra was the right thing to do, but the how of it could be pretty unsavory. She wasn't sure if Yuffie had had to face the reality of that yet.

She'd found some uniforms she thought would fit the girls when she heard footsteps in the corridor. Yuffie met her gaze across the room, and they both froze for an instant.

Then Yuffie was vaulting up on top of the lockers and maneuvering someone's duffel bag to hide her. Jessie couldn't move that fast.

The door opened, and a red-clad officer stepped in.

"What are you doing in here?" he demanded.

"Uh... Changing," Jessie tried. Surely he didn't know every soldier on the base.

"Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"No? My... clock broke."

"Well, you're late," the officer said, and Jessie tried not to look relieved. "We're already halfway through drills for the parade."

Parade? "Sorry, sir. I'll hurry up."

"You'd better," he said, folding his arms and not moving.

"Are you... going to watch?"

She couldn't see his face, but the question clearly flustered him. There weren't a lot of women in the army, so maybe he'd just forgotten himself and how inappropriate it would be.

"Uh, no, of course not! But I expect to see you out there in ten!"

With that, he turned and marched back out of the locker room. Yuffie came down from her hiding place and put her hands on her hips.

"It's a good thing they're so dumb," she said.

"Come on, let's finish up," said Jessie.

The hardest part, as she'd expected, was finding something large enough to fit Barret. They'd gone through more than half the lockers before Jessie decided they'd found the largest size they were going to. It would have to do; she didn't want to use up their ten minutes and run into that officer on the way out.

They stuffed the uniforms into an empty duffel bag, and Yuffie led the way back to the elevator. When they stepped out at the bottom, Yuffie waved at the guard. "Thanks for the help," she said cheerfully, but he only shut the door again quickly behind them.

They found Barret where they'd left him, and he explained that the others had gone down to the beach. He walked down with them, and Jessie stopped to look out at the ocean while Yuffie deposited the duffel bag triumphantly on the sand.

"I take it it was a success," Tifa observed.

"Yeah," said Yuffie. "No problem, just like I told you."

A sudden trumpet blast of music from overhead startled all of them. The fanfare continued, swelling as other instruments joined in, and even a hundred feet below the upper city streets, it was surprisingly loud.

"What is that?" said Barret.

"Must be the parade," Jessie said.

"What parade?" asked Aeris.

"Uhh, I did have a brief run-in upstairs, but he didn't make me. He said something about a parade though."

"Yuffie, you said Rufus was going to be here? Maybe it has something to do with that."

"I guess," she said, sticking her hands over her ears. "Whatever it is, I already hate it."

"Agreed," Red growled, his ears flattening against his head.

"This is good news for us, though," said Aeris, and they all looked at her. "Well, think about it. A big, loud spectacle like that? No one's going to notice a few soldiers who don't quite know what they're doing."

"Good timing on our part," Jessie decided.

They took turns changing in a corner behind one of the houses. Tifa managed to braid her hair tightly enough to get it up under the helmet, but Aeris's proved too thick and she had to tuck it into the cowl. Jessie was happy not to be a member of the Too Much Hair Club; she didn't know how they managed it any other time either.

Barret's uniform was a strain, but the harder part turned out to be convincing him to remove his gun arm. It was a dead giveaway; the Shinra knew him by that arm. Grudgingly, he agreed to carry it in the duffel bag along with the few other things that wouldn't fit in their packs.

"Hey, Yuffie," Tifa said. "How well do you know the base layout?"

"Pretty well. Why?"

Tifa showed Jessie a slip of paper she'd found in the pocket of her uniform; it looked like a username and password. "Could you get us to a computer?" she asked.

Yuffie looked skeptical. "I could, but I've only seen 'em in the command center. There's gonna be someone there, even at a time like this."

Tifa nodded and looked to Jessie. "What do you think? Worth the risk?"

"Well... If there's a parade on, all the big shots are gonna be there, not hanging around the command center, right? And if we can get to any intel about what Shinra's up to, or Sephiroth... Yeah, I think it's worth it."

"Sephiroth?" Yuffie repeated. "As in, the Shinra general? Don't tell me they've got him looking for you guys."

Tifa frowned, and Barret said, "He's the one who murdered all those guys at headquarters, includin' the President."

"He switched sides?" Yuffie said, her brow furrowing in puzzlement.

"Nah, he's just a murderin' bastard now. Don't seem to have any regard for who it is."

"So what's that got to do with us?"

They all glanced at Tifa, and Aeris said, "Let's just say we're worried about who else he's going to be after. If we can stop him, then that's for the best."

Yuffie scratched her head. "Okay, well. Good to know, I guess. Can't say I've ever been a fan anyhow."

They had Yuffie scratch a partial map of the base in the sand, showing them the way to the command center, but they still had a while until the shift change. Jessie could tell that Tifa and Barret especially didn't care for the wait; Tifa kept plucking at her uniform like she already couldn't wait to get out of it, and Barret was constantly fidgeting with his arms. Jessie could understand their distaste for it, but she thought there was something exciting about being in disguise. They were about to outwit the Shinra, slip right past under their noses.

At last they watched another soldier come down from the base, relieving the man who'd taken their bribe. They checked each other over one final time, making sure they all looked as nondescript as they were going to.

"Everybody ready?" Barret asked, and at their confirmation, he led the way to the base elevator.

Jessie couldn't read the guard's expression to tell whether he was suspicious of them or not. A group of five soldiers accompanied by an unusual guard hound... She guessed they looked like a unit coming in from long range patrol.

Hopefully it wasn't so obvious that any of them but Tifa were women. A unit with four women on it was probably unheard of.

"Anything to report?" the soldier asked them.

"Nothin' unusual," Barret replied. "But they're gonna expect us to check in anyhow."

"That's the way it goes sometimes, huh? Lotta nothing paperwork. Least you're not stuck down here for the whole parade. I swear I've got the worst luck in assignments."

"They get so hypercritical when you're gonna be close to the big brass though," Jessie said, using her manly voice. "It's a lot less pressure to stay out of the whole thing."

The soldier nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, I guess you're right. This is boring, but it's easy. Anyway you probably wanna head on up."

He opened the elevator for them, and Jessie was relieved that he didn't want to chat any longer. They all filed inside, and for a second it looked like he was going to say something about Red, but Yuffie pushed the button to go up, and the door closed before he could.

"What's with the voice?" Yuffie asked. "That guy earlier didn't bat an eye about you being a girl."

"Yeah, well, there's four of us this time. I don't think that's believable."

Tifa glanced around as though realizing it for the first time. "Sorry, Barret," she said. "Looks like you're really getting outnumbered here."

"Guess me an' the cat are gonna have to do some bonding," he chuckled.

Red huffed. "Perhaps if you stopped referring to me as 'the cat.'"

"We all know Red ain't your real name, so what's the difference?"

"Man," said Yuffie, "I figured Red was a nickname, but are you really that dedicated to being mysterious or what?"

"I simply prefer my privacy," he said.

The chatter ceased as the elevator reached the base.

"Meet you two at the harbor," Barret said. "Don't get caught."

Jessie nodded. "Same to you."

Yuffie led the others down the corridor leading out of the base, and Jessie went with Tifa in the other direction.

The command center was a huge room on the upper level of the compound. They passed a few soldiers in the halls without incident, and the command center turned out to be largely empty. From somewhere across the room was the clacking of keys, but the typist was hidden from view by the bank of computers.

Jessie slid into a chair in front of the nearest computer, not wanting to stray farther from the exit, and Tifa stood watch beside her. She logged in using the borrowed username and password, no problem, but the system didn't present her with much.

"Your guy must be a fairly new recruit," she said quietly. It would explain why he was still carrying around his password on paper. "I've only got a few recent bulletins here."

"Recent's not bad," Tifa said. "What've we got?"

"There's a couple about today's parade. Looks like it ends at the harbor; Rufus is headed west, too. I guess he's making the rounds now that he's head honcho."

"Does that mean we'll be on the same boat?"

"I dunno. Maybe. I'm not sure if that's a risk or an opportunity..."

In the back of her mind, she was already thinking about it. To be that close to him, disguised as his own men...

Leaning over her shoulder, Tifa pointed suddenly at the screen. "Wait, what's this one from yesterday? Something about a black cape?"

Jessie clicked into it, and frowned. "'Several units have reported sightings of a man in a black cape,'" she read, "and as of the notice, at least five soldiers have turned up dead..."

Tifa said nothing, and neither one of them needed to name him. They knew exactly who that had to be.

"I'd almost think he was following us," Jessie said, "if he hadn't gotten here first. I wonder what he's doing in Junon..."

"Can you pull up any files about him? Shouldn't Junon at least have his military record?"

Jessie doubted their new recruit was going to have access to much, but she ran the search anyway. She shook her head at the result. "There's a file, but this all looks like public knowledge. Right down to the part where he was supposedly killed in action five years ago."

"Never mind then, that's no good. What about AVALANCHE? Anything on us?"

That search was unfortunately a more fruitful one. "Ah. Yeah. Names and descriptions for you and Barret. Descriptions of me and Aeris. No mention of Red, so that's good. Last seen headed south from Kalm, suspected to arrive in Junon... Not so good."

"But not that surprising," Tifa pointed out. "Kalm is pretty pro-Shinra, they were probably all too happy to provide intel when Shinra came looking."

"Yeah, that's fair." Jessie smiled then, realizing, "This doesn't mention Wedge either. I guess that's a clean getaway."

"That's good," said Tifa.

"I think that's about all we're gonna find out through this guy, but let me see if I can--"

Jessie heard footsteps approaching, and only then did she realize she hadn't heard the other person on the keyboard for a few minutes now.

"Do you two have authorization to be up here right now?"

Tifa turned around, and Jessie spun in her chair. She didn't think his uniform was any different from theirs, but he spoke with authority, implying he knew he had seniority.

"We were just reading up on those AVALANCHE criminals, sir," said Tifa.

"You should've been briefed on AVALANCHE days ago," said the soldier.

"I think I was sick that day," Jessie volunteered.

He looked between the two of them and shook his head in disappointment. "Look, I know they've done some horrific stuff so maybe you're scared about them showing up, but that's no excuse to shirk your duties. Where are you meant to be right now?"

"The harbor," Tifa answered.

"Hell, and you're trying to get out of cargo loading, too? Come on, let's go."

"We know the way, sir," said Jessie.

"Sure you do, and you'll conveniently forget once you're outta my sight. Not gonna happen."

Jessie exchanged looks with Tifa, who shrugged. If he didn't suspect them, it was probably best to go along with it for now. At least they'd be headed to the right place, and someone who knew the way would be taking them.

They followed the soldier out of the command center, back down the stairs, and past that stupid statue of President Shinra that Jessie had wanted to kick on the way in.

"You know, you're lucky it was me who found you," he said. "Lot of other soldiers, they don't have any sympathy for you ladies coming into the military at a time like this. There's a lot to be scared of between AVALANCHE and all these weird murders."

Tifa's jaw set, and she asked, "Did you read the report on AVALANCHE, sir?"

"Sure I did. Why?"

"No reason!" Jessie said, elbowing Tifa. If it hadn't occurred to him that three of the four known members were women, they didn't need to be reminding him.

"Well, you can rest assured I keep up on these things, and they haven't been spotted here in Junon yet," he said, and this time Jessie had to stifle a snort.

They exited the base, and he led them down the backstreets towards the harbor. The parade was still going, the music even louder now, and Jessie caught glimpses of it down cross streets as they passed. All those soldiers, all that manpower, wasted--if they'd been manning the base like usual, they might have realized that AVALANCHE was right here in their midst. It made her hold her head up higher.

In time, they pulled ahead of the parade route, and they covered the final few blocks to the harbor on the main street. Civilians hung out of windows in the tall apartment buildings on one side of the street, waiting to catch a glimpse of their new President Rufus. As if he deserved the attention. Jessie was sure he didn't care any more about them than his father had; they were nothing more than a means to an ever-greater fortune.

At the harbor, most of the work had already been completed. A few last crates had yet to be loaded, and their escort waved to the men about to handle it.

"Hey, take a break," he said. "I found you some slackers!"

The soldiers backed off and had a good chuckle as they stood waiting for the newcomers to handle the rest. Jessie wasn't sure if it was because they were late or because they were women--or both?--but if they expected failure then Tifa was definitely going to disappoint.

Jessie couldn't say the same of herself, of course, but they worked together, and she didn't really feel like she was doing much of the lifting. The men had stopped laughing before they got the last of the crates squared away.

"Wow!" said one of the soldiers, and he sounded young. "You new guys are pretty strong."

"Uh, thanks," said Tifa.

"Did you see any of the parade?" asked another. "I thought about slacking off, too, you know. I've only seen Rufus on TV."

Tifa shook her head. "We got caught before we could see him," she said. She glanced to the side, but the man who'd escorted them here had left while they were working.

"He ought to be showing up here soon," said the soldier, "but we're supposed to clear out of here now that our job's done. Doesn't seem fair."

Tifa shrugged as though in commiseration.

"Oh, well. We're gonna go grab a drink, do you two wanna join us?"

"No, thanks," said Tifa. "We're still on duty, and I don't wanna get chewed out again."

The soldiers all nodded in understanding, and started to move off as a group. Jessie and Tifa waited until they had disappeared around a building before hurrying into the cargo hold.

"Good, you made it," said a low voice among the crates, and Jessie spotted Red crouching there.

"Is everyone else here?" asked Tifa.

Red nodded. "Yuffie, too."

"She's coming with us?" Jessie said in surprise.

"Barret was impressed with how well she kept up her end of the deal," Red explained. "He decided she was welcome to continue on with us."

"Y'know, I'm glad," Jessie said. "I like the kid."

Red looked less than enthused, but he didn't sound too put out by it. His ears pricked up and he added, "It sounds like Rufus is nearly here. You both should hide."

Tifa and Jessie nodded, and they split off to hide themselves amongst the cargo until the ship had left the harbor.

So, Jessie thought, Rufus was going to be aboard the same ship... She wondered how many soldiers were travelling with him. How well guarded would he be? Maybe she could get a glimpse of his retinue, as he came on board. It would be risky, and it would be ugly, but she'd have plenty of time to think through some sort of plan to make it happen.

Chapter Text

Tifa came out of hiding once Rufus and his men had left the cargo hold and the ship had gotten underway. He'd passed by close, so close to her hiding place... She recognized him by his appearances on TV recently, but it was the first time she had seen him with her own eyes. That white suit he wore, as though his hands were clean... how arrogant of him.

Red elected to stay in the hold, out of sight, but Tifa met up with Jessie and together they headed up on deck to look for the others.

"Oh, good, you both made it."

It was Aeris, standing just outside the hold, and Tifa could see her smile of relief even if the rest of her face was hidden. Tifa scanned the deck, but though she saw a few soldiers and crew, none of them were easily recognizable.

"Where's Barret?" she asked.

"He's making the rounds," Aeris said, "checking out the ship."

"And checking out where Rufus is?" Jessie asked.

"Probably."

"What about Yuffie?"

"Oh, she's..." Aeris gestured to the side of the ship where a slight figure in uniform was heaving her breakfast into the ocean.

Jessie grimaced sympathetically. "Poor kid."

"I feel a little sick myself," Aeris admitted, "but not that bad."

"I wish we had something to help her feel better," Tifa said. "Red said she really came through for you all."

Aeris nodded. "We didn't have any trouble making it to the harbor, and then she distracted the soldiers handling the cargo so we could get on board without them noticing. And now that we're here, nobody seems to question whether we're supposed to be."

"They probably assume it's extra security, with the President on board," Jessie reasoned.

"We should find Barret," Tifa decided. "I want to make sure he doesn't do anything rash."

Jessie nodded her agreement, and Aeris came with them as they searched farther up the ship. They found Barret crouched outside the deckhouse, staring through the window with his jaw clenched and his arms shaking.

Inside, President Rufus Shinra stood discussing something with a man Tifa recognized as Heidegger, their words muted by the glass. Both of them were right there...

"We could kill 'im right here," Barret said. He must have noticed them approach, though he hadn't torn his eyes away from the window. "Rufus, and that damn Heidegger... Because of him..."

His voice was low in his throat, almost a growl. Rufus started to turn in their direction, and Tifa pulled down hard on Barret's arm. "Get down...!"

They ducked out of sight beneath the window, and held their breath. A minute passed, and no commotion.

"...we could, though," said Jessie.

"What?" said Aeris.

"I've been thinking about it," Jessie went on. "Shinra's only recovered this well because Rufus was ready to step in and assume his father's role. But he doesn't have any snotty kids yet. We kill Rufus, and the rest of the execs are gonna be left to fight over who's in charge. No matter who wins, the others are never gonna be loyal. It's not a crippling blow, but it would be a big one."

A risk, or an opportunity, Tifa thought. She'd noticed soldiers posted at the door, guarding Rufus and Heidegger. "Okay, but what's our exit strategy?" she asked. "I mean, maybe we could get close enough to do it here, but then what? We're in the middle of the ocean on a ship crawling with Shinra soldiers."

"Are you really considering this?" Aeris cut in. "Killing someone in cold blood?"

Barret glanced at her. "What're you talkin' about, cold blood? The Shinra're the ones drenched in it, and he's right at the top."

"He's far from innocent, Aeris," Tifa said.

"...I know. This just doesn't feel right to me."

"Well, you don't gotta be involved," said Barret.

It was difficult to read Aeris's expression, beneath that helmet. She'd voiced her doubts from the very beginning about AVALANCHE's methods, but since she'd joined them, they hadn't really run into a scenario like this. It was murder they were talking about... but what other kind of justice could there be for someone like Rufus? Who was going to put him on trial for the things he'd done? Who was going to sign the execution order?

At last Aeris nodded slightly. "Okay," she said.

"Anyway," said Jessie, "this ocean crossing takes a few days. Tifa's right, we should take our time and figure out a good plan. And... probably not talk about it anymore right outside this window."

Barret nodded, some of the tension leaving his shoulders with their consensus to take action. "Right. An' we probably don't wanna be seen hangin' around as a group too often either. Let's split up for now an' we'll meet back later to figure it out."

They went their separate ways for the rest of the day, crossing paths now and again but mostly trying to look like they knew what they were doing. No one directed Tifa to do anything, so she supposed she was doing a convincing job. She was a little worried when one of the crew approached Yuffie and talked to her for a while, but it turned out he just wanted to give her something to settle her stomach. She still didn't eat much at the mess that evening, but at least she seemed more able to move about the ship.

The crew quarters were unfortunately but unsurprisingly a shared space. Only Rufus and Heidegger were getting private rooms on this trip, she suspected. Maybe some of the officers.

But she couldn't go the entire voyage without sleep, so Tifa found an empty bunk and waited until those around her had drifted off to remove her helmet. She threw the blanket over her head and slept fitfully.

In the morning, she checked in on each of her friends, one at a time. She thought she would have heard some kind of commotion otherwise, but they had each passed the night undiscovered. Even Red had remained out of sight of the soldiers assigned to guard the cargo hold and the adjacent engine room, though Tifa felt bad for him that he couldn't move around much, and she promised to bring him something to eat later.

She located Aeris last, pretending to keep lookout atop a raised platform. She gave a practiced salute as Tifa joined her.

"I think I've seen everyone but Red this morning," Aeris said. "Do you know if he's okay?"

"They haven't found him," Tifa confirmed.

Aeris nodded. "It's weird, being in these uniforms," she went on. "They all treat us like we're part of the team."

"Yeah. It kinda makes my skin crawl."

"Really? I've been thinking some of them don't seem so bad."

Tifa gave her a look, or tried to; she wasn't sure how much of it translated through the helmet. "They're Shinra soldiers, Aeris."

"I know, but we all know Shinra lies to them. I think a lot of them honestly believe they're protecting people."

Tifa shook her head. "Maybe they believe that when they first sign up, but they can't stay that naive forever, with the missions they get put on. You think the men we fought at the pillar believed they were protecting anybody? They know what Shinra is."

"Not all of them," Aeris insisted. "It can't be all of them. Zack wasn't like that at all. And your childhood friend went off to join SOLDIER, didn't he? Do you think he was a bad person?"

"No. But things were different during the war. There were enemy soldiers to fight, and if you quit back then, you were a deserter. It's not like that these days."

"...I don't know."

"Why do you want to defend them so badly?" Tifa asked her.

"There are just so many people with Shinra. Maybe it's too depressing to think that they're all bad. After all, if they are, then how could you ever defeat them? Even if you got rid of Rufus and all the higher-ups, there would still be all these awful people in the world..."

Tifa had to admit that she'd never thought about it that way. Taking down Shinra had always seemed like such a faraway goal, and these soldiers were just faceless extensions of the corporation. But if they did put an end to Shinra, if these men were one day going to put their uniforms aside...

"...maybe you're right," she conceded, because it was too depressing to think so many of them might still be enemies. "Some of them do seem pretty clueless."

Aeris smiled at her. "One of them tried to ask me out," she said.

Tifa wasn't sure what to make of that. "Really?"

"Mmhm. But, I told him I was already seeing someone."

Tifa hesitated, and leaned on the railing of the lookout post. "Maybe in Costa del Sol," she ventured. It was a resort town, so it had to be the sort of place people went on dates, right?

"A beach date?" Aeris proposed.

"Yeah. That sounds nice."

"Good! I'll look forward to it."

Tifa wondered if she still would when they arrived. If they succeeded in their plan to take out Rufus--no, to kill Rufus. Best not to euphemize it. Aeris had mentioned it casually just a few minutes ago, but even if she thought she'd come to terms with the idea of it, she might feel differently when it actually happened.

But surely Aeris had known from the start that Tifa was the sort of person who would make this choice. Her guilt over the collateral damage from the reactor explosion was one thing. Targeting the leader of Shinra himself? She could stomach that.

Tifa met up with Barret and Jessie later, near the bow of the ship. They checked around to make sure no one was watching them, but tried to maintain a casual air, as though they were just chewing the fat.

"Awright," said Barret, "how we gonna do this?"

"However it happens," said Jessie, "they're going to start searching the ship for the culprit, so the closer we are to Costa del Sol, the better. We could even do it as we disembark..."

"I don't know if I like that idea," said Tifa. "If we do it at port, we'll bring suspicion down on the locals, too."

Barret caught her eye and nodded in agreement. "Yeah. Let's not give 'em any excuses."

"All right," said Jessie. "When the town's in sight then."

"Now," said Barret, "I saw a couple o' crates down there marked explosive. Think there's anything in there we can use, Jess?"

"I thought about that, but even getting the crates open to take a look is going to make a lot of noise, and then they'd know someone'd been poking around. Besides, we probably don't want to do too much damage to the ship while we're on it."

"What about the explosives we already have?" Tifa proposed. "Yuffie's got more flashbangs. We get ourselves on the duty roster for the last day, guarding outside the deckhouse. Throw one in, act quick while everyone's stunned. I know it's risky--it doesn't give us any time to get out again, but the uniforms give us some anonymity, and it won't be suspicious for us to be in the thick of it if that's our post."

"Not a lotta time, but it only takes one good shot," said Barret, patting the stump of his arm.

"You can't use your gun arm, Barret," said Jessie. "If we really want it to be anonymous, it'll have to be a Shinra issue rifle, like everyone's got."

"Fair enough. I can fire one o' those just as easy."

Tifa looked to him and nodded. He wanted to take the shot; she'd cover him. "All right. Jessie, you want to talk to Yuffie? I doubt she'll have a problem contributing to this plan, but she seems to like you best."

"Yeah, I'm on it."

"And you an' me can see about updatin' that duty roster," said Barret.

"Right," Tifa said.

She was hoping that the apparent lack of coordination between the different units on board would continue to work to their advantage. She'd noticed a distinction between the soldiers who formed Rufus's security detail, and the soldiers who regularly worked aboard the cargo ship. Each group seemed to assume that the extra five soldiers on board belonged to the other. Of course, that meant that the security detail might realize they didn't belong on guard duty, but with a little luck, that wouldn't happen until it was too late.

They had the time, so they took it, observing the movements of the soldiers and checking back with each other to refine the plan. They learned who was in charge of the duty roster and when and where he prepared it. The day before they were due to arrive in Costa del Sol, Tifa snuck into his office and carefully changed the names, matching his handwriting as closely as she could. Hopefully neither he nor anyone else on the list would notice.

Tifa was on her way to her post that morning when she noticed Aeris standing stock still outside the entrance to the cargo hold.

"You all right?" Tifa asked her, glancing around. There were people around, but not that close.

"He's here," Aeris said.

Sephiroth? Tifa thought, her heart thudding in her chest. Stay calm, don't jump to conclusions. "He who?"

"Professor Hojo. He's the head of the science department. How have we not seen him before now...?"

Had he been the one arguing with Tseng, back in the Shinra building? "He didn't look like someone who got out much," Tifa said.

Aeris didn't reply. Her mouth fell into a frown, and she strode for the cargo hold.

Tifa hurried to catch her arm. "What are you doing?"

"I just want to see what he's up to," Aeris said, and Tifa didn't quite believe her. "Besides, Red's down there. We can't let him get caught."

"...all right. But I'm going with you."

As they descended the stairs into the hold, Tifa could see a scrawny man in a lab coat inspecting one of the larger crates. It was the same man from the Shinra building.

"Well, it seems that you were wrong," he said without looking at them.

"Excuse me?" said Aeris.

Hojo looked up, adjusting his glasses. "Oh... You're different ones, aren't you? No matter. One of your colleagues had some story about something moving down here. He was worried one of my specimens had escaped. But as you see, they're all safe and sound."

Tifa's mouth twisted in distaste. He was transporting living things in there? Monsters? Animals? ...people?

Whatever the case, he had no idea Red was down here, and that was all they needed to know. "Right," she said. "Well, if everything's in order here, you can go on back to the deckhouse."

"Oh? I told Rufus I wouldn't have any updates until we reach land." He tapped the crate, as though that had something to do with it. "Though I suppose that's soon, isn't it? How exciting."

"What sort of updates?" Aeris asked, and Tifa glanced at her uneasily. They needed to end this interaction, before he recognized her.

"That isn't for someone like you to concern yourself with," Hojo said, and he waved a hand at them dismissively. "Don't you have someplace to be? Go on."

Before Tifa could stop her, Aeris had pulled her helmet off.

"No," she said. "I'm right where I want to be."

Tifa could hardly blame her. She'd thought about having this sort of confrontation with Rufus and Heidegger often enough throughout the voyage, but they were always under guard. But here was Hojo, alone with them in the cargo hold, a frail old man.

He looked puzzled, rather than frightened, as though he couldn't remember where he'd seen Aeris before.

Red slunk out from behind the crate, growling, "I wouldn't try shouting for help if I were you."

"Oh," said Hojo. "I know you. You're the Ancient."

"It's Aeris! The least you could do is remember my name."

He adjusted his glasses again, frowning. "What is it that you want then? Do you intend to kill me? I don't think it's advisable."

"And why not?" Aeris demanded. "My mother died because of you, you know. So why shouldn't I?" She was trembling, and Tifa didn't think actually doing it was any more than a fleeting consideration for her.

But if they didn't kill him, then what were they going to do with him? Tifa glanced around. He hadn't alerted anyone to their presence yet. Maybe they could gag him and leave him tied up with the cargo.

"You shouldn't kill me," Hojo said, "because I'm the only one who truly understands what's going on."

Aeris frowned. "What do you mean?"

Hojo opened his mouth to answer, but only a weak cry emerged. Blood gurgled from his lips; a sword protruded from his chest, and pushed farther, and farther out.

Sephiroth hadn't been there moments ago, but he stood there now. Red shied away, backing up towards Aeris and Tifa as Sephiroth pulled his sword back out of Hojo's chest and dumped his body on the floor of the cargo hold.

He looked up at Aeris.

"Haven't you always wanted to do that?" he asked.

Aeris clapped a hand over her mouth, gagging at the sight. Tifa tore her helmet off and took Aeris by the shoulders, turning her away from it. "Aeris, go get the others."

"But--"

"Go. Hurry."

Aeris nodded and raced up the steps. Tifa turned back to Sephiroth and raised her fists. Red glanced up at her, but he didn't leave her side.

Sephiroth looked amused as he met her gaze. "Tifa, do you really think you're going to stop me here?"

"It's as good a place as any," she said, trying to marshal her courage. She had to believe they could do it, which meant they could do it here. She could avenge Nibelheim.

She looked at that sword, held so casually at his side. She had to neutralize it, find a way inside his reach. Let him make the first move.

"If you want to fight that badly, I'll oblige you," said Sephiroth. He raised his sword and charged forward.

Only to fly past over her head. Tifa whirled around to track his passage, and saw her friends coming down from above. They ducked as Sephiroth flew on past them and out of sight.

"Tifa!" Red shouted, and she spun back around.

An enormous creature now stood over Hojo's dead body. Grey-skinned and vaguely humanoid, its head hunched forward over its chest on a long neck. Thick tentacles protruded where arms and legs should have been, and too many of them. Stiff, wing-like appendages arched behind its back.

"The fuck is that!?" Barret exclaimed.

"Doesn't matter!" said Jessie. "I don't think its friendly!"

Tifa heard them running down the steps to join her as the creature whipped its tentacles forward. A blast of energy shot out from their ends, raking over the party. Tifa felt a searing pain, and she fell back. Barret and Jessie shouted behind her, but when she rolled onto her hands and knees to look up, she saw Aeris and Yuffie, farther back, still on their feet.

"You didn't warn me about this!" Yuffie exclaimed, but to her credit, she didn't run. Instead she pulled something out of her pack and hurled it at the monster. Tifa braced herself for another flashbang, but this was something else, something that exploded in flames around the thing's lower tentacles.

Tifa took the opportunity to push onto her feet, and she charged at the creature as the flames died down. She grabbed hold of the nearest tentacle and wrenched it as hard as she could--but she couldn't tell if this thing even had bones. Red leapt in with her, sinking his teeth deep into the thing's torso. It threw them both off, and then she heard gunfire.

Barret had gotten his gun arm reattached. Jessie was back on her feet, too, and she leveled her rifle at the monster's head. Tifa could have sworn she hit it right between the eyes, but it didn't stop moving.

A thick green smoke poured out of its mouth, and upon reaching the floor, it rolled forward like a fog. Barret kept firing, but the smog didn't stop. Red began to hack as it enveloped him, and Tifa heard him collapse inside of it.

"Red!" Tifa pulled the cowl of her uniform up over her nose and mouth and darted towards him. She got her other arm under his chest and dragged him out of the spreading fumes. The others were backing up the steps away from it, but then fire erupted again beneath the creature. It caught the gas, burning most of it away. Tifa glanced up and nodded her thanks to Aeris.

The strange, bladed weapon Yuffie carried flashed through the air, slicing into one of the creature's tentacles before it returned to Yuffie's hand. Tifa saw an opportunity.

"You okay?" she asked Red. He was still wheezing a bit, but he nodded, and she left him. Tifa ran for the monster, grabbed hold of the half-severed tentacle, and she felt the flesh giving. It tore free and she flung it to the ground. It was a sickening sensation, and the monster didn't seem to bleed so much as ooze.

"Gross!" Yuffie shouted, and Tifa thought she might have vomited.

The creature's remaining tentacles writhed, and Tifa ducked as another barrage of energy blasts flew out of them. They seemed to go everywhere this time, and Tifa felt the heat of one graze her shoulder. Aeris and Jessie cried out, and Barret grunted.

"I've got it, I've got it," Yuffie was muttering to herself. Aeris, Jessie, and Barret were all moving, but slowly.

Tifa looked to Red, who nodded, and they charged the monster together. He sank his teeth again into its body, but this time he braced himself to restrict its movement. Tifa vaulted up one of the tentacles to reach the head and delivered as hard a blow as she could. There was a wet snap, not like bone but like tendons, and its head jerked to the side.

The thing sort of staggered, tearing out of Red's grip. Its lower tentacles stretched out and found new purchase. It righted itself.

"Seriously!?" Barret said.

"Tifa, Red, get clear!" shouted Jessie. Tifa saw the grenade in her hand and complied, running with Red back behind some of the crates. An explosion followed seconds after they reached cover, and Tifa watched several tentacles go flying, their ichor splattering the cargo hold.

She lifted her head, and the thing was still moving. It only had a few tentacles remaining, but it dragged itself across the floor, its head lopsided on its ooze-darkened torso.

Barret fired another spray of bullets into its body, and it slowed. Fire enveloped it as Aeris cast the spell again, and the stench was awful, but as the flames cleared, the monster finally stilled.

Everyone stood watching, holding their breath. Barret shot it again.

"Is it dead?" Jessie asked.

Tifa emerged from behind the crates, approached cautiously, and kicked it in the head. They all flinched, but it only flopped lifelessly onto its side.

"Ugh," said Yuffie, turning away. "What was that thing?"

"I feel I've seen it somewhere before," said Red, padding carefully closer.

"You're right," said Jessie. "It does look sort of familiar."

"Shit!" Barret exclaimed. "It's that damn headless spook from the Shinra building!"

He was right, Tifa realized--sort of. There were a lot of similarities, but... "Barret, this thing has a head."

"Fuck, I don't know, maybe they got more than one of 'em."

Tifa glanced around the room. "None of these crates have been opened," she said, "so where did it come from?"

"It simply appeared when Sephiroth charged you," said Red. "In the place where he'd been standing."

"I don't like this," said Aeris. "I feel sick."

"You an' me both," said Yuffie.

Tifa glanced up at them, and then past them up the stairs. They had made a hell of a lot of noise at this point. "Why hasn't anyone come to investigate?" she wondered.

"Maybe they did, but they opened the door, saw the huge monster, and thought better of it," Jessie suggested, and it was true, they probably wouldn't have noticed if anyone had checked on them.

Static jumped out of the intercom, followed by a shaky voice. "All workers, prepare for docking. We'll be arriving in Costa del Sol in five minutes."

"He sounded like something spooked him," Aeris observed.

"Well, whether they know what happened down here or not, I think we'd better hide again until we get the chance to get off," Tifa reasoned, and the others nodded. They all gave the monster a wide berth as they dispersed among the cargo.

"Man, so much for gettin' Rufus," Barret muttered. Tifa had almost forgotten; it was a plan that seemed safe in comparison to the fight they'd just been through.

"Hey, do you remember what that thing was called?" Jessie asked. "Back at the Shinra building. It had a label."

"Jenova," said Tifa. "I think it was Jenova."

Chapter Text

Tifa and the others limped off of the cargo ship the first chance they were able, and scrambled to find a hiding place when they heard footsteps descending after them. Tifa peered cautiously out, and watched as Rufus, Heidegger, and their entourage stepped out onto the docks.

"That was... quite a mess," Rufus observed.

"Yes," Heidegger agreed. "The men are telling me they saw a man in a black coat leaving the cargo hold."

"Sephiroth again?"

"Most likely. I can't say I'm surprised he went after Hojo. He never liked the man."

"I can't think of many who did." Rufus brushed his hair back. "Still, it's inconvenient. Will we be able to proceed without him?"

"I think so," said Heidegger. "I'll have a word with his assistant once the little weirdo calms down. What I can't figure is where that creature came from; it wasn't one of ours."

"No?"

"No. They're all still secure."

"Hmm. But it was different from the Jenova specimen he took from headquarters, wasn't it?"

"Yes. I can't explain it."

On the pad nearby, a helicopter was spinning up. "Well, I'm going on ahead," said Rufus. "Find out everything you can about what happened here and report to me later. Don't tell me then that you can't explain it."

"Yes, sir! Understood!"

A pair of soldiers escorted Rufus to the helicopter, and Heidegger returned to the cargo ship.

Tifa turned to the others. "It doesn't sound like they even knew we were there," she remarked.

"We were fighting that thing in their uniforms," Jessie said, "even if I don't think their soldiers could've handled it."

Hopefully that meant Heidegger would just wind up with another mystery: a report that his own men had killed it, without any of them taking responsibility for an action that could have earned them a reward.

"Well, let's get out of these uniforms," Tifa said, "before any of the locals see us. Then we can find an inn."

And take a good long shower, she thought, plucking at her shirt. It was sticky with the monster's blood, and she could feel some of it on her face. Glancing at Red, she could see he hadn't fared any better--worse, probably, since he'd bitten the damn thing.

They changed quickly in their hiding place, and Tifa and Aeris left their uniforms piled up in the corner--Tifa's was filthy, and Aeris had lost her helmet. The others held onto theirs; they might come in handy again someday.

Only as they left the docks and headed into the town did Tifa really start to pay attention to where they were. The sun was hot and bright on her back, and the air smelled of the sea, without the Mako pollution that had tainted it back in Junon. People walked the street at a lazy, easygoing pace, dressed in nothing but flip-flops and swimwear.

A number of inns and resorts lined the street just up from the beach, and they booked a pair of rooms at the cheapest one they could find. They gathered in the larger room, and Tifa eyed the door to the bathroom, but Barret spoke first.

"All right. Anybody wanna help me unpack what the fuck just happened?"

"Yeah," Yuffie chimed in. "I mean, one, weird monster. And two, no one ever told me Sephiroth could fly."

The rest of them looked at Tifa, and she spread her hands. "Don't look at me, I'd never seen him do that before."

"Let's go through what we know," Red suggested calmly. "Sephiroth has been dormant for five years, since the massacre at Nibelheim. He showed up again almost two weeks ago, killed President Shinra, and apparently took the Jenova specimen from the Shinra building."

"According to Rufus and Heidegger," Jessie said, "what we fought wasn't the same one, but it looked like it. And it sounds like the Shinra have more monsters like it."

"Hojo implied he was going to do something with them once they reached Costa del Sol," said Tifa. "I think that's what Rufus was asking about."

"Professor Hojo also said he was the only one who understood what was happening..." Aeris looked at Tifa. "If Sephiroth is connected to this Jenova thing, do you think that's what he meant?"

"That he understood the connection? I don't know. But maybe Sephiroth killed him to shut him up."

"I sure don't get it," said Barret. "What's he want with some weird monster if he's already so good at killin' people?"

"Maybe the monster gave him flying powers," Yuffie suggested, and they all looked at her. "What? He had to get them somehow, right?"

Well, they couldn't exactly rule it out at this point, Tifa supposed.

"I don't know," she said. "But... I do wonder if these could be the monsters Shinra was producing at Nibelheim."

"You think the connection goes that far back?" Aeris wondered.

"It could, right? Maybe it has something to do with why he changed then."

"Won't be too much farther now," said Barret. "Hopefully we find somethin' when we get there."

"Wait, we're headed to Nibelheim?" said Yuffie. "I thought I heard that place burned down."

Tifa took a breath. "It did. But we're hoping there's something left to investigate."

"So you can learn more about Sephiroth? He's what you're looking into," Yuffie concluded.

Tifa nodded.

"Are you still okay with that," Aeris asked her, "after what happened today?"

"Well..." Yuffie hesitated for only a second before her usual bravado returned. "I mean, I came through the whole thing unscathed, you know. I think I can handle it just fine."

"You even fought that thing on a moving boat," Jessie said, and laughed when Yuffie started to look green at just the thought of it.

But with that, there was nothing more to cover. Yuffie was caught up, and they didn't know enough to explain the Jenova monster. Tifa proposed they take the rest of the day off, and the others agreed.

Tifa and Red got cleaned up first, and then Aeris insisted on sitting them down to look at their injuries. Barret and Jessie took the next turn, Barret saying he needed to wash off the stink of wearing a Shinra uniform more than anything else.

"What about the rest of you?" Tifa asked as she sat down on the edge of a bed. "You got hit by that thing's magic, too."

"Actually, Yuffie healed the worst of it, back on the ship," Aeris said, "and Jessie helped while you were in the shower."

"Yuffie did?" Tifa wondered, glancing over at her. "I didn't realize you had any materia."

"I don't! I gave it all back, I swear."

"I wasn't accusing you," Tifa said. She felt Aeris's healing wash over her, soothing her bruises and the strange burns that monster's magic had left.

"Oh," said Yuffie. "Well, then... yeah, I healed 'em."

"How?" Tifa wondered.

"It's magic from the water god," Yuffie explained.

Tifa had no idea what that was supposed to mean, really. She glanced at Aeris, who had knelt down to check on Red, but Aeris just shrugged.

"Why're you guys acting like you don't get it? Aeris is doing literally the same thing right now."

Right, so maybe Yuffie wasn't entirely caught up. Tifa didn't want to answer for Aeris; the rest of them knew about her, but she hadn't gotten to make the choice to tell them herself. She was quiet for a minute, finishing up with Red.

"Breathing okay?" she asked him, and he nodded.

"Thank you, Aeris."

Aeris got to her feet, straightening her dress. "Well," she said, "I don't know why you have healing magic, Yuffie. I only have it because I'm a Cetra. An Ancient."

Yuffie leaned back, narrowing her eyes. "You pulling my leg?" she asked suspiciously.

"No. It's true."

"I thought the Cetra were just a legend," said Yuffie. "And even the legend says they all died like, a thousand years ago."

"Most of us did die out a long time ago," Aeris confirmed. "As far as I know, I'm... the only one left."

Yuffie's reaction was unexpected. Her eyes widened, and she said, "But if you're the only one, then that means-- your folks... Man, that sucks."

Aeris blinked in surprise, and then she smiled gently. "Thanks, Yuffie. I'm all right, though."

"Well, at least now you know you're not the only one who can do a little magic without materia," said Yuffie. "That's something, right?"

"It's something," Aeris agreed.

Red spoke up, almost shyly, to ask for their assistance, and Aeris and Tifa helped him back on with the bracelets and mane decorations that they had removed back in Junon to help him pass for a guard hound. If he didn't like people--well, humans--then Tifa wondered where it had all come from, but she didn't ask. Apparently they still weren't on a first name basis with him, though she thought he'd begun warming up to them, a bit.

After they'd all gotten cleaned up, most of them went back out into the town. Barret and Jessie were looking for lunch and a drink, while Yuffie was trying to convince Red that they could make some good money together by scamming people who assumed he was just a dog. In other circumstances, Tifa would have expected Aeris to be first out the door, but she wasn't surprised when instead Aeris settled onto one of the beds and lay back.

"You okay?" Tifa asked her.

"Oh... sure," Aeris said without conviction. "I'm sorry. I know we were supposed to have our date, but do you mind? I think I want to take a nap first."

"...all right." Tifa was reluctant to leave her on her own, but if it was what Aeris wanted, then she wouldn't force it. Her hand was on the doorknob when Aeris spoke again.

"No, wait. That's a lie."

Tifa turned around to find her sitting up again in bed.

"Sorry, I... I thought I'd try talking to Mom about it, but that seems too cruel. And if it's just me, I think I'll wind up going in circles and getting myself even more mixed up."

"I don't know if I have any answers," Tifa said, "but I'm happy to listen."

"That's fine. That's all I need."

Tifa let go of the door and walked back to sit on the bed beside her. "It's about Hojo. Isn't it?"

Aeris nodded, and flopped back again. "I feel like such a hypocrite... I was judging you all for wanting to kill Rufus, and then I went after the Professor the moment I saw him."

"That's a little different, I think," said Tifa. It was more personal for Aeris.

"Still, I should apologize to Barret and Jessie. You, too, Tifa. I'm sorry I messed up your plan."

Tifa shook her head. "Don't even worry about that. If Sephiroth was on board... I'm not sure things could have gone our way anyway."

"Mm. Maybe. I'm just surprised at myself... But I guess I wasn't really dealing with it. What happened at the Shinra building... what almost happened at the Shinra building. Barret said something before about how I must have a lot of feelings about it, but I wasn't thinking about it. Then I saw the Professor, and it all came flooding over me at once. I was so angry, and for the first time, you know, he didn't have any power over me."

"So you wanted to confront him."

"I don't know what I meant to do. I was thinking about Mom..." Aeris closed her eyes. "I was so young back then. The tests weren't so bad for me. But Mom... he put her through everything. I'm sure I don't know the half of what he did to her. She doesn't talk about it, and I've never asked."

It was strange to hear the duality in the way Aeris talked about her birth mother. She was dead, but she wasn't gone, not to Aeris. And that didn't make it not a tragedy, but it was like Aeris's mother shared in it, like she could be upset about her own death.

And everything that had happened to her before it.

Tifa swallowed. "But that's what you were going to be facing, if we hadn't come..."

"Probably," said Aeris. "But you did come, and he's... gone, now."

Tifa looked down at her, trying to read her expression. What would it feel like, she wondered, if someone were to kill Sephiroth in front of her? If someone just as awful, like the Shinra, were to do it? "It's okay if you're relieved by that," she said.

"I'm not sure how I feel," Aeris admitted. "It was unnerving, the way he said that to me--Sephiroth, I mean. I'm not exactly like you all. I know the Shinra do evil things, but I've never hated them... except for the Professor."

"I don't think you could've killed him," Tifa said.

Aeris shook her head. "That doesn't mean I never fantasized about him dying. Not about killing him, but just... an accident. A horrible one."

"That's natural," said Tifa. "Just because Sephiroth did something you might have wanted to happen, doesn't make you anything like him. Hell, how much did we all want President Shinra dead?"

"I guess you're right," said Aeris. "It's just the way he was looking at me... I wonder if he was always like that."

Tifa leaned back on her hands. "I remember, back when I first met him, it made me uncomfortable, but... not like that."

"Oh, gods," Aeris said suddenly, sitting up. "Are you okay? Here I am going on and on, when I left you with him, back on the ship."

"I told you to," Tifa reminded her.

"I know, but still..."

"It's all right," Tifa insisted. "Anyway, it's strange, but... It's like it's getting a little less scary, each time. For years, he's been in my nightmares. Now, I've been seeing him in the flesh... He might be powerful, but not as powerful as a nightmare. You can't kill those."

Aeris just looked at her for a long moment, and then she said, "You're really brave, Tifa. Sometimes I don't know if you know that."

Tifa tucked her hair back behind her ear. "You still want to take that nap?" she asked.

"No," Aeris said firmly. "Let's go out."

"...'go out' go out?"

"Yeah! Screw Sephiroth and- Hojo! We deserve to have some fun."

Tifa couldn't help smiling at the way she said that. "All right. I'm game." She stood and offered Aeris her hand.

Aeris took it, climbing up off the bed. "First order of business: we need swimsuits."

"Do we?"

"You said you'd teach me how to swim, didn't you?"

"Sure, but you don't really need swimsuits for that."

Aeris looked at her as though scandalized. "Tifa! Are you talking about skinny dipping?"

Tifa felt her face heating. "No! No, I mean... You can swim in a tank top and shorts, that's all."

"Hmm... Well, I don't have those, so I might as well buy a cute swimsuit," Aeris decided. "Let's go!"

Tifa wasn't as into shopping as Aeris, but she made no effort to rush them through it. She wanted to see that Aeris was really enjoying herself, and not just forcing a smile to spite the events of the morning. And it seemed to happen, somewhere in the midst of trying on oversized sunhats and pushing different suits at Tifa to try on, that Aeris's smile grew easier. When Aeris tried on one of the more risqué suits and doubled over laughing at Tifa's expression, then Tifa was sure.

Aeris eventually settled on a high-waisted green two piece, while Tifa chose something a little more conservative. Maybe one day she'd be comfortable baring her scar... but not today. They threw in sunblock and a couple pairs of cheap flip-flops and headed for the beach.

Just down from the shops and the big resorts, the sand was crowded with beach chairs and umbrellas. People lay sunbathing and sipping drinks served by the nearby bars. Children splashed in the shallows, and a few people were trying to surf, though the waves coming in were gentle.

Tifa and Aeris walked along the shore until they found a place for themselves. They set down the towels they'd brought from the inn, and Aeris eagerly kicked off her flip-flops and hurried the few paces over the hot sand to the waves. Tifa followed, and they stood for a moment as the water lapped in over their feet and the wet sand seeped up between their toes. The sun was high overhead and the sky was bright and blue to the horizon, where it met only ocean.

Aeris looked out across the water, and her gaze grew distant. Tifa didn't think it was the waves she was listening to. What sort of things did a planet have to say? she wondered.

"How does it feel?" Tifa asked after a few minutes.

"It's like I'm being called by something... Like there's somewhere I'm meant to be going."

"Do you know where?"

Aeris glanced towards the northern sky, but she shook her head. "No. I'm not sure yet. It's like listening to a voice in the next room... I can't quite make it out, but maybe I can find the door."

Tifa nodded. "Let me know if you do," she said. "If there is somewhere you need to go."

"I will," Aeris said, and then she turned to smile at Tifa. "But for now, I think I'm meant to be in the ocean."

Tifa smiled back. "I don't know if we'll get you swimming today, but we can at least get you comfortable in the water."

"Right. I'll defer to your expertise."

"I hope I have expertise," Tifa said as she directed Aeris to wade out farther with her. "I've never taught anyone to swim before."

They stopped when the water reached about chest height. The waves swayed them just a little on their feet, and Aeris held onto her for stability. Tifa did her best to explain floating, and kept a gentle hold on Aeris as she took several tries floating on her back.

"So who taught you?" Aeris wondered.

"Ah... I think it was my father," Tifa said. "We... We used to take day trips in the summer out to a river nearby, us and some of the other families. I think I learned pretty young, because I wouldn't stay put in the shallows. I was pretty fearless as a kid. Telling me something was dangerous just turned it into a challenge."

"I'm not sure that's changed," said Aeris.

"Well... Maybe not much."

"You must've been such a troublemaker."

"I was... but I'm not sure even my father realized how much. I was the only girl-- you do something reckless, and most people assume it's the boys' idea. But, uh. I was sort of the ringleader."

"Oh no. Oh, that's too funny." Aeris's giggling was starting to make her sink. She sputtered as water got into her mouth, and Tifa helped her right herself. She looked at Tifa with a grin. "I can't believe you were the worst one, and you never got the blame."

It was pretty funny, wasn't it? Tifa thought. "My friends were surprisingly loyal," she added. "They never ratted me out."

"Well, they probably thought you were the coolest. I wouldn't be surprised if they all had crushes on you."

"Oh, come on. We were children."

"Children get crushes," said Aeris. She regarded Tifa thoughtfully and then added, "But maybe you didn't. Were you the only girl in the whole village?"

"Well- almost. The neighbors had a girl, but she was a lot younger than me."

"So that must've been a new experience when you got to Midgar."

"...yeah. Yeah, I guess it was."

"Ahhh, I kind of wish I'd been there. You must've been adorable."

Tifa answered that by splashing her, and a short water fight ensued before they got back to the lesson. In time, Aeris managed to achieve a crude doggy paddle, and she decided that was enough for now. It was better than nothing, and she seemed pleased with herself.

"So what about you?" Tifa asked her as they returned to the shore. "Did you have a lot of friends growing up in Sector 5?"

"None at all, actually!" Aeris answered with an incongruous cheerfulness.

Tifa stopped, her towel barely around her shoulders. "What? You're kidding."

Aeris shook her head. "For a while when I first came to live there, I was scared of leaving the house. It's kind of funny, but I'd never been allowed to go anywhere before, you know? No matter what Mom said, I thought I'd get in trouble somehow."

"You obviously got over that," Tifa observed.

"Eventually. But I was still a pretty strange child. I think I made the other kids uncomfortable."

"It's kind of hard to imagine..."

Aeris finished towelling herself dry, apart from her soaked braid, and spread the towel across the sand so she could sit down. "I started getting more popular once I made it through puberty," she said.

"Started getting asked out a lot, huh?" Tifa didn't know what she'd been like at that age, but she was both beautiful and approachable now. More than enough for someone braver in these matters than Tifa.

"I wouldn't say a lot," Aeris said, "but I snuck a few boys up to my room."

Tifa joined her on the sand and ventured, "No girls?"

Aeris threw her a mischievous look. "Oh, I didn't have to sneak the girls. Mom didn't figure it out until... last year, maybe."

Tifa pushed her hair back behind her ear. "So, have you ever...?"

Aeris shook her head. "No. I've come close once or twice, though. I thought maybe, with Zack..."

"But then he disappeared."

"Really we weren't that serious," Aeris admitted, "but I was young, and I thought we could've been. It took me a while to get over him."

"He seemed like a nice guy," Tifa said, though she had a vague memory of saying some truly awful things to him.

"Yeah. He could be a real flirt, though. I don't know how loyal he would've been."

"Well, he never flirted with me."

"Really?" Aeris brightened. "That's nice to know, actually. I used to think he must have found someone else and just never told me, and I got pretty mad about it. I guess he didn't deserve that."

"You couldn't have known what happened," Tifa pointed out.

"No... I still don't really know." She was quiet for a moment, looking out at the ocean, and then she said, "I think I'd like to imagine he's out there somewhere. That maybe he had to go into hiding after what happened. Shinra wouldn't want anyone knowing the truth about it, right?"

"It's not impossible," Tifa said. It couldn't hurt to entertain the hope, could it? Aeris understood how unlikely it was by this point. "And... maybe one of these days he'll catch wind of AVALANCHE, and we'll meet up with him."

"Mm. Poor Zack, though. I'd have to break the news to him that I have a girlfriend now."

"A girlfriend?" How could Aeris say these things so casually?

Aeris looked over at her. "Well, I may not know when our next date will be, but we'll have one, won't we?"

Right. That was how it worked, you went on multiple dates with someone, as long as you liked them. And Tifa did like her, enough that she'd put so much weight on this first date that she hadn't thought beyond it.

A second date. A relationship. Girlfriends.

"...yeah," she said. "There'll be another."

Aeris smiled. "This isn't that nerve-racking, is it? I mean, I don't think I'm intimidating."

"It's just new," Tifa said. "I don't know how it works. I'm not even sure I've been doing it right so far."

"Relax," Aeris laughed. "The important thing is to have fun, and get to know each other better. Isn't that what we've been doing?"

Tifa nodded, and it did help to hear Aeris say that. Funny how she felt like she knew more what she was doing when she was plotting an assassination than when she was on a date. What did that say about her life?

Aeris lay back on her towel, folding her arms beneath her head. "So," she said, "what I want to know is: what happens after AVALANCHE?"

"After AVALANCHE?"

"Yeah. What happens once we beat Shinra?"

"That's a long ways off, isn't it?" Tifa said. Not impossible, surely. She couldn't think that. But years, easily.

"Maybe, maybe not," Aeris said, "but that's not the question. Say the unexpected happened, and Shinra collapsed tomorrow. What would you do?"

"Probably spend the day walking around in shock..."

"Tifa."

"Sorry." Tifa knew that wasn't the answer she was looking for, but nothing else was coming to mind. "Why don't you go first? What would you do?"

Aeris didn't have to think about it. "Well," she said, "I always wanted to travel the world, if I ever got out of Midgar. I think I'd keep doing that! There's so much out there that I haven't seen."

"A world traveller, huh?"

"For a while anyway. I'd like to settle down eventually, find somewhere I could grow flowers."

"That's just about anywhere for you, isn't it?"

"I guess! But I do need a plot of land."

"Maybe you could open up a shop," Tifa suggested. "You know, instead of selling them on the streets."

"Oh, that could be nice. I could sell seeds and plants, too, and teach people how to grow them." Aeris smiled up at her. "See, you're not so bad at this."

"Just don't ask me to help you name it. Seventh Heaven was suggested to me."

"I should have plenty of time to think of a name... But now it's your turn. Would you open up another bar?"

"...maybe," Tifa considered. "I did like the work, and... being a part of the community. You get to know your regulars, and what's happening around town. It was nice."

"You could probably get to know everyone even better if you didn't have to worry about them finding your rebel hideout, too," said Aeris, and Tifa laughed.

"Probably. But you know..." Tifa leaned forward, putting her arms across her knees. Now that she thought about it, she was beginning to realize why she had trouble imagining it. It wasn't just her decision. "It's going to depend a lot on Barret, and what he wants to do."

Aeris sat up, looking at her curiously. "You want to stick together?"

"I told you, he and Marlene are family. I want to be there when she's growing up."

Aeris nodded. "That makes sense. But you could open your bar wherever you all settle down."

"Yeah. Maybe somewhere with a good school... We were trying to save up so she could go soon."

"You miss her, don't you?"

Tifa felt a little sheepish. "I know it hasn't been that long, but we had our daily routine, you know? Just talking on the phone isn't the same."

And they hadn't even done that in a few days, since they had left on the cargo ship. Maybe today, she thought, they'd get the chance.

"I wonder if I'll ever have kids," Aeris mused.

Marlene wasn't exactly her daughter... but she wasn't far off, so Tifa didn't protest the comparison. Barret had always seemed content not to put labels on their little family, and Tifa had never sought to define what they were to each other in so many words. Whether she was more like Marlene's mother, or an aunt, or a much older sister... As long as Marlene knew she was loved, it didn't matter.

"Do you want kids?" Tifa asked instead.

"Maybe... It seems pretty rewarding, to have that kind of relationship. But tough, too. And I don't know if this is the kind of world I'd want to bring a child into, right now."

Tifa nodded in understanding. It wasn't the world she wanted Marlene to grow up in. "One more reason to fight to change it," she said.

"Say, do you think Marlene likes me?" Aeris wondered.

"She doesn't talk to people she doesn't like."

"Good. I'm glad I made the cut."

Tifa tucked her head into her arms and confided, "Marlene's the one who said you liked me."

"That's a smart kid you're raising," said Aeris. "Maybe I should've asked her about you instead of Jessie."

"Why? What did Jessie say?"

Aeris didn't get the chance to answer, as they were interrupted by the approach of two men from farther up the beach. Tifa straightened up to look, and she saw a few others hanging back, watching to see how the interaction went.

"Hey," said the taller of the two. "We couldn't help noticing you two are new around here. We thought we'd come make sure you had everything you need to get the most out of your trip."

"That's... nice," said Tifa, "but we're not here for long, and I think we have it covered."

"Are you sure?" asked the other. "We really know our way around."

"Are we sure?" Aeris asked, catching Tifa's eye. "There's probably something these nice men could do for us."

It took Tifa a second, but she realized Aeris was proposing they take advantage of the situation. They could probably get a free drink out of it, at the very least, but... "No, that's all right. I was just enjoying our time, undisturbed."

Aeris looked back at the men and shrugged. "Better luck next time," she told them.

The shorter man looked like he wanted to press it, but the taller one managed some grace. "All right. But we'll be around if you change your minds."

They returned to their friends, who seemed ready to offer condolences.

"Hmm," said Aeris, watching them. "I think we need to be more obvious."

"Some people aren't going to get it no matter what," Tifa reasoned. "Besides, I don't want to give anyone a show."

"Fair enough," said Aeris. "But I was sort of hoping we could get them to bring us food. How do you feel about grabbing lunch?"

"Sounds good to me."

They gathered their things and started back across the sand, headed for the inn. As they passed the group of men, Aeris's arm found its way around Tifa's waist. Tifa didn't glance back to see what they made of it, and neither did Aeris. Maybe that wasn't what it was about.

What if this was what Aeris wanted, and making it clear to strangers was just an easy excuse she'd offered for Tifa to use? An excuse Tifa had passed up, as though she weren't interested.

As they came back up to the street, Tifa slipped her arm around Aeris in turn. Her bare skin was soft beneath Tifa's fingers, warm from the sun. Aeris smiled at her.

Their room back at the inn was empty, and private. Aeris started to disentangle herself, but Tifa didn't. She didn't always want to be the one reacting--Aeris leading the way with her fumbling over even the smallest step forward. Didn't she want this? Didn't she know how to show it?

Aeris's face was already close, and Tifa leaned that short distance closer to press a kiss into the corner of her mouth. It was easier to be obvious when no one else was around.

Aeris's eyes widened in surprise, then her expression softened. She leaned up to return the gesture, and Tifa's heartbeat quickened. She thought of the girls Aeris had taken up to her room, she thought of going further. In the moment, she wanted more--but more scared her, too.

Aeris met her gaze, green eyes deep enough to fall into, and she knew without having to ask.

"It's only our first date," Aeris said. "We don't have to rush anything."

"I just don't want you to think..." Tifa faltered. "I wanted to make sure you knew."

"You did already agree to a second date," Aeris reminded her. "But I appreciate the clarity."

Tifa blushed.

Aeris reached for her hand, gave it a squeeze. "Honestly."

Just because Aeris wasn't plagued with the same doubts as Tifa, didn't mean she had none. "Okay," said Tifa, relaxing a little. "Lunch, then?"

"Lunch," Aeris agreed. There was nothing scary about that.

As they got cleaned up from the beach, though, Tifa smiled to herself. She had it in her to be a little bold-- just a little. It was more than she thought.

Chapter Text

Jessie and Barret took their time at lunch. The food was a little overpriced, and Jessie wanted to make sure they got their money's worth. The bar was cool and spacious, and decent music was playing on the jukebox, so at least it was comfortable.

But the company was quieter than usual. Barret wasn't as naturally talkative as she was, but he usually put in a word here and there, even when she was getting too deep into a subject he knew nothing about. Now, she wasn't even sure he was listening. Something was on his mind.

"All right," she said at last, "what is it?"

"Huh?"

"Are you still thinking about that Jenova thing?"

Barret snorted. "Hell no. I ain't even gonna try to wrap my mind around that one."

Jessie couldn't blame him. As much as she knew her mind would keep circling back to try to puzzle it out, she didn't anticipate success without new information. And what they did know was disturbing. Not exactly a pleasant thing to mull over fruitlessly.

"Is it Rufus then?" she wondered. "I'm sure we'll have other opportunities."

"Nah," Barret said. "Woulda made it a much more satisfyin' boat ride, but it wasn't why we got on in the first place."

"Are you gonna make me keep guessing?"

Barret hunched forward over the table. A man his size could never manage to look small, but he did look almost vulnerable. "Just ain't lookin' forward to where we're headed, that's all."

"Nibelheim?" No, that didn't seem right. "You mean North Corel."

He nodded.

"Is that where you're from?" Jessie ventured.

"Thereabouts," he said.

Barret never talked about his past; Jessie didn't think even Tifa knew. For the rest of them, his story began on his journey to Midgar, when he met someone from Cosmo Canyon who taught him a little about Planet life, and he resolved to fight the Shinra. They all knew he was taking vengeance for something, because nearly all of them had that kind of story, but they didn't know the details.

"If we knew more about what you're worried about," Jessie said, "then maybe we could help."

"It's just somethin' I gotta deal with on my own."

"Why?"

Barret squinted at her as though it was a stupid question.

"Well, come on. Tifa finally opened up to us about Nibelheim, and we're not letting her deal with that on her own. We didn't leave Aeris to deal with that lab on her own. We don't have a lot in this world, Barret, but we've got each other, don't we?"

"Yeah," Barret said. "We got that." He frowned into what remained of his drink. "I don't wanna get into it here. Tifa deserves to hear 'bout it, too. But I ain't expectin' any kinda welcome. I messed up, and a lotta lives got ruined because of it."

"Hey." Jessie reached across the table to touch his arm and get him to look at her. "I'm sure it's not as bad as all that."

Barret shook his head. "It's just the facts. Anybody from Corel's gonna tell you the same."

"If you say so," she said skeptically.

Barret downed the rest of his drink and got up. "C'mon, let's get outta here. I ain't a fan o' this resort town, but we oughtta look into pickin' up some supplies."

Jessie nodded and got to her feet. She liked to think she'd helped a little bit; at least he wasn't lost in thought about it anymore.

They left the bar, and they had paused outside to get their bearings when someone called out to them.

"Hey, you two!" The voice belonged to a woman sitting at the information kiosk nearby. "Are you interested in joining tomorrow's tour group to Gold Saucer? There are still a few seats left!"

"We ain't interested," Barret stated, and Jessie threw him a look.

"We might be," she amended. "Is it a direct trip?"

"No," said the woman, "but it's as close to direct as you can get! The bus takes you straight through the mountains to North Corel, where you can catch the ropeway up to Gold Saucer. It's very convenient."

"It sounds like it," said Jessie. "How much are tickets? For the bus, I mean."

"That depends! Are you two a couple?"

Jessie exchanged glances with Barret.

"Uh... yes," she said. "Is there a discount?"

"You bet! It's 100 gil per person, but there's a 30 gil discount for couples!"

"What about kids?"

"Yes, it's only 50 gil for children under fourteen."

Yuffie was definitely older than fourteen, but Jessie said, "That sounds perfect! We're travelling with another couple and my.. niece, you know, and I don't think she turns fourteen until next month."

"So you're interested in purchasing five tickets then?"

"Well..." Jessie glanced up at Barret, who had folded his arms impatiently. "Hang on a minute while I talk it over with my, uh, boyfriend. Okay?" She pulled him aside and dropped her voice. "Look, it's not a bad deal, and the sooner we get there, the less time you spend dreading it, right?"

"Seems kinda expensive for a bus," he said. "And I sure don't look like no tourist, Jess."

"We'll get you one of those flowery shirts, you'll fit right in."

Barret fixed her with a flat stare.

"Come on, I'm kidding. But do the math with me here. That bus could get us there in hours instead of days, and that's a whole trip through the Corel mountains that we won't need to buy supplies for. Plus we'll be better rested for the hike into Nibelheim, which I'm pretty sure Tifa said is a harder climb."

"I guess..."

"Joining a tour group isn't something the Shinra would expect us to do either," Jessie went on. "So if Heidegger's investigation turns up any evidence we were here, that's better for us."

Barret sighed and dropped his arms. "Yeah, all right. It's a good idea."

"Okay." Jessie walked back to the woman at the kiosk. "Sorry about that. He gets a little stingy, you know? But I sure don't want to walk all that way."

"I know, right? I can't even imagine it. Anyway, it'll be 390 gil for the five of you. And that'll just about fill us up!"

Barret paid the woman, and Jessie collected the tickets and confirmed where and when the bus would be leaving the next morning. As they turned away, Jessie spotted Tifa and Aeris headed back to the inn from the beach, arms around each other.

"Well, it looks like they won't have any trouble convincing anyone they're a couple," Jessie remarked, smiling.

"Yeah. Good for them."

Barret's tone was brusque, but Jessie knew he meant it. "We probably shouldn't head back just yet," she suggested. "Give them some privacy."

"You really think they're...?"

"Hey, I don't know, but I don't wanna walk in on anything."

Barret scratched his head. "We'll still need supplies for headin' on to Nibelheim," he said. "Don't think we're gonna find much in North Corel."

Jessie nodded her agreement, and they headed for the shops in search of climbing gear and provisions.

They took their time, and didn't return to the inn until nearly two hours later, interrupting absolutely nothing, since the room was empty. Jessie saw the clock as they came in, and something clicked in her mind.

"Oh! Barret, you wanted to call Marlene, didn't you?"

"Yeah? It's still afternoon."

"Not in Kalm it isn't. They're three or four hours ahead of us now, it'll be evening there."

"Shit," he said, already reaching to pull out his phone. "Thanks for bein' on top o' that, Jess."

He dialed Wedge, who answered promptly. "Hey, Barret. Lemme put you on speaker."

"Papa!" Marlene exclaimed, the phone picking up her voice even before Wedge switched it over. In the background, they could hear dishes clinking, as of someone cleaning up after a meal.

Barret relaxed onto the edge of one of the beds, a wide smile breaking across his face. "Hey, baby girl. Sorry we haven't been able to talk these past coupla days."

"You're off the boat now?" Marlene asked.

"Yeah! We just got into Costa del Sol this mornin.' Real sunny out here, an' I gotta take you to see the ocean first chance we get."

"Is it big?"

"So big," Barret answered. "Nothin' but blue water all the way to the horizon."

"It's not scary?"

"C'mon. I'd be with you the whole time. Nothin's scary then, is it?"

"No," Marlene confirmed with a giggle.

"So what've you been up to, huh?"

"Growin' flowers!"

"For real?"

Wedge interjected, "My brother put me to work on the farm, and Marlene wanted to help, too, so she an' Elmyra have been in the vegetable garden. I'm not sure any of them are flowers, but..."

"They're pretty though!" Marlene finished. "I wanna show Aeris."

"I'm sure she'll be real proud," Barret said.

"Is she there? Where's Tifa?"

Jessie sat down next to Barret and confided, "The two of them are on a date right now."

"Ohhhh," said Marlene. "I knew it!"

"Yeah," said Barret. "How d'you feel about that?"

"They're pretty together."

"Yeah, we're fans, too," Jessie agreed.

"If they get married," Marlene went on, "they both get to wear dresses."

Jessie bit back a laugh; how embarrassed would Tifa have been at that if she'd been here? "They would, wouldn't they?" she said.

"Might be a while 'fore that happens, though," Barret said.

"That's okay," said Marlene. "You have to save the Planet first."

Barret's smile grew bittersweet, and he said, "That's right. But then we're gonna have time for weddings an' all kinds o' nice stuff, without havin' to worry 'bout nothin.'"

"I hope it's soon. I miss you."

"I hope so, too. You know all I want in the world's to be with you there right now."

They went on talking for a little while, and Tifa and Aeris returned in time to say hello before Marlene's bedtime. For a minute, it was almost like nobody had any troubles on their mind at all. But then the call ended, and Barret's pensive demeanor returned.

Jessie looked to the others. "You two have fun?" she asked.

"Definitely," Aeris answered, and Tifa blushed. That could've meant anything, though. Jessie would have to ask her about it later.

Yuffie and Red returned shortly, the former looking triumphant, and the latter rather less so. Jessie was surprised if they'd stuck together all day, but maybe Red had just needed her to open the doors for him.

"And what have you been up to?" she asked.

"We went around to some of the classier resorts and dazzled people with the smartest dog on the Planet," Yuffie said.

"You really went along with that, Red?" Aeris asked in surprise.

His ears twitched, and he said, "It was demeaning, but I was concerned for our funds. Speaking of which, we agreed half the take is rightfully mine, Yuffie."

"Of course, but you need someone to hold onto it for you, don't you?"

"Yes. Would you kindly give it to Tifa?"

"What? Come on, don't you trust me?"

He cocked his head at her, regarding her with his one eye. "Certainly not with my money, after today."

"All right, all right," Yuffie grumbled. She counted out a sum of gil and started to hold it out to Tifa.

"My half ought to be 800," Red said mildly.

Yuffie shot him a quick frown, and added a few more coins before handing it over.

"Thank you, Red," said Tifa.

"Hey, it was my idea!" Yuffie protested.

"Well, I guess it helped," was all Tifa amended it to, and Yuffie folded her arms. Maybe it was a little mean, but she was the only one of them not pooling their funds. Not that Jessie expected that to change any time soon... or possibly ever.

"It definitely got us enough to cover the next leg of the trip," Jessie offered instead.

"Oh?" Tifa wondered.

"There's a tour bus headed over the mountains tomorrow morning-- you know, so people can go to Gold Saucer. Barret and I already picked up tickets for us. As far as the tour company's concerned, we're a couple, you two are a couple, Yuffie, you're my almost-fourteen-year-old niece, and... sorry, Red, but you'll probably have to be our dog again."

"Fourteen?" Yuffie repeated in affront.

"Almost fourteen," Aeris corrected helpfully.

"There was a discount," Jessie explained.

All offense immediately vanished from Yuffie's face and she relaxed in complete understanding. "Oh. Then you got it, Aunt Jessie, I'm absolutely thirteen."

"Well, at least one of those things is true," Aeris said, favoring Tifa with a smile, "but you're looking a little grumpy for a tourist, Barret. Is everything all right?"

Barret let out a long sigh and glanced at Jessie. She nodded in encouragement.

"All right," he said. "All right. Guess I've put this off long enough."

"Huh?" said Yuffie, glancing at the rest of them in confusion. "What's going on?"

"Tomorrow we're gonna be passin' through North Corel," Barret explained. "It ain't my hometown, but it's where most people wound up, after."

"After..." Aeris repeated. She sat down on the other bed. "This is another sad story we're about to hear, isn't it?"

"Yeah," he said. "My real hometown, Corel, used to be farther south. It was a coal mining town... It was dangerous, dirty work, an' we were makin' less an' less out of it, with more people turnin' to Mako. So when the Shinra showed up, offerin' us jobs with them if we let 'em build on our land... I thought it was a good deal. Hell, I campaigned for 'em, tried to convince my best friend Dyne to go along with it. An' in the end, he was the only one against it. Got outvoted."

"So they built the reactor," Jessie concluded. She knew there was one in the Corel area; it was probably the one powering the lights in the room they sat in now.

"With our help," Barret confirmed ruefully. "But then, not long after... Dyne an' me were outta town when it happened. There was an explosion at the reactor. Shinra blamed it on our town, said it was done by a rebel faction. By the time I made it back, Shinra troops had the whole town up in flames."

"Just like Nibelheim..." Tifa murmured.

Barret nodded. "My wife Myrna, my whole family... they all died in the fire."

Jessie rested a hand on his back. "I'm so sorry, Barret. That's awful."

No one said anything, until Aeris asked, "What about Dyne?"

"We ran into Shinra soldiers, on the way back to town. Dyne got shot, fell into a ravine... I tried to save 'im, but... That's how my arm got messed up." He looked down at it, lifting it as though in memory of some gesture, and then let it drop back into his lap. "His wife died in the fire, too, but Marlene... Somehow she survived. I knew I owed it to Dyne, to take care o' her. It was my fault, all o' that happened."

"Yeah," said Yuffie. "That was pretty stupid of you, trusting the Shinra."

"Yuffie!" Tifa exclaimed, and Jessie looked at her sharply.

"No," said Barret. "She's right. I shoulda known better than to think a bunch o' rich folks in fancy suits would really wanna do anything for the likes of us."

Jessie shook her head, frowning. "I'm sorry, Barret, but she's not right. Yuffie, if you're from Wutai, then you grew up someplace where Shinra was always the enemy. But they always present themselves as friends first, they always sound like they've got a good deal to offer. And for every story like ours, there's somebody out there living in luxury and convenience, just like they promised."

"No way," Yuffie said, stubbornly folding her arms. "You don't get a pass on that. The Shinra came to us with the same bullshit offer, wanting our land for their stupid reactors, and we saw 'em for what they were. If it weren't for you guys rolling over and letting them do what they want, they wouldn't have half so much power as they've got now."

"...that's rather harsh of you," Red remarked.

"Yeah, well, I wasn't about to sugarcoat it."

Jessie looked down at the floor. No sympathy, huh? She wondered if Yuffie was right. Could they have seen Shinra for what it was, back then, if they'd wanted to? Did some of the blame fall on them, for letting themselves be fooled by empty promises? For wanting a nice life, without having to put in work to get there?

"But you know," Yuffie ventured into the silence, "you guys've turned it around now. So I guess I can forgive ya."

Jessie looked back up at her, and managed a small, appreciative smile.

"Well, that's more 'n I can say for myself," Barret said.

"Come on, Barret," said Tifa. "What did you say after Sector 7? It's the Shinra who are to blame. Maybe we were naive in the past, but... we're not responsible for the people they've killed. That was their choice."

"I agree," said Aeris. "And even as someone who's always known about the Shinra... They make it their business to hide that as much as possible." She glanced at Tifa. "That's all SOLDIER and the Turks are for anymore, isn't it? To hide the evidence."

Jessie nodded. "And they're good at it. Yuffie's the only one of us who'd heard about Nibelheim, and none of us knew about Corel. You couldn't have known."

"Look," said Barret. "I appreciate you all wantin' to make excuses for me, but I'm always gonna see it as somethin' I gotta atone for. That's just how it is."

"Then we'll help you do that," Tifa decided.

"Yeah," said Jessie. "Everything we're doing as AVALANCHE-- that should balance it out, shouldn't it?"

"I think it should be more than enough," said Aeris.

Barret looked between the three of them, and he nodded. He didn't express any thanks aloud, but Jessie could tell. It meant a lot to him to have their support.

"Man, you guys are depressing though," said Yuffie. "Do any of you come from a place that still exists?"

Jessie exchanged glances with Barret and Tifa.

"Sector 5 is still standing," Aeris offered.

"My hometown as well," said Red.

"And where's that?" Yuffie wondered.

Jessie didn't expect Red to answer, but he sat back on his haunches and curled his tail neatly about his paws. "Cosmo Canyon," he said.

Barret perked up. "Shit, Cosmo Canyon? You been from there this whole time and you never said anything?"

"I saw no reason to. When you all made the decision to go to Nibelheim, I assumed we would part ways there. It's near enough I can go the rest of the way on my own."

"What exactly does Cosmo Canyon mean to you, Barret?" Aeris wondered.

"The place is famous for the study of Planet life," he explained. "I always wanted to go there."

"Barret used to say we'd go there to celebrate, once we saved the Planet," Jessie added. "All of us together..."

Now, Biggs would never get to see it.

"I think he'd still like for you to go," Aeris said, "wouldn't he?"

Jessie nodded.

"I am sure," said Red, "that as those fighting for the Planet, you would be welcome."

"You havin' a change o' heart, cat?" Barret wondered. "Thought you weren't too fond of us."

Red's ears flicked. "Nicknames aside, you all have been... more considerate than I expected. I couldn't have come this far without your help."

"Any chance that means we get to know your name?" Tifa asked.

He cocked his head to the side, considering it. "I suppose," he said carefully, "that if you were to come to Cosmo Canyon, you might learn it anyway. My name is Nanaki."

"Nanaki," Aeris repeated with a smile. "It's nice to finally know that."

"Yeah," said Barret. "Welcome to the team, cat. Shit, I mean Nanaki."

"It feels like AVALANCHE is growing, doesn't it?" said Jessie.

"Oh. I finally get the name," said Yuffie. "I don't know if I'd call myself, like, a member though. More like an ally."

Nanaki nodded in agreement. "Yes, I think membership may be premature. But allies, certainly."

"Well, AVALANCHE ain't never really had allies before," Barret said. "I'm callin' it a win."

Jessie smiled, because it was good to hear him thinking positively about something. Funny that Nanaki would be the one to do it, but there was a strong appeal to where he came from, and what it represented. Certainly none of them had come to this seeking fame or praise, but after all they'd been through, a little validation might be nice. And maybe, being in a place where their efforts might actually be respected would help them all to forgive themselves.

Chapter Text

Lining up with the tour group the following morning drew them some attention. It was clear they didn't belong; the real tourists had money, at least enough to splurge once in a while on a vacation to Gold Saucer. They travelled with matching luggage and outfits they had probably put together specifically for the occasion.

Tifa and her friends meanwhile carried their gear in cheap, army surplus packs and though their clothes might be new, they weren't fashionable. They moved differently, spoke differently. Even Aeris seemed a little rough compared to the vacationing rich.

No one protested when they claimed the back of the bus for themselves. Barret wedged himself into a corner and proceeded to ignore everyone, even Jessie as she sat down next to him. Yuffie claimed the entire opposite seat for herself, while Nanaki settled in the aisle between them. Aeris tugged Tifa into the seats in front of Barret and Jessie, taking the window for herself.

As could be expected, Barret made the other travellers uneasy, but Aeris preemptively assuaged their fears by telling them that he was a wrestler, and the arm was part of his gimmick. It certainly wasn't a real gun, she told them. Most of them were still too intimidated by his demeanor to try talking to him, but it otherwise put them at ease, and Tifa overheard some murmured speculation about whether he was headed to the Gold Saucer for a match with Dio, its owner.

The bus got moving precisely on time, and they soon left the streets of Costa del Sol behind for the stretch of plains beyond. A guide at the front of the bus chattered for a while about the history of Gold Saucer. Its existence had been 'made possible by the completion of the Corel Mako reactor,' she said, and Tifa could practically feel Barret's mood darkening behind her. It was a relief when the woman reached the end of her little history lesson and left them to travel a while in relative peace.

The Corel mountains were far enough inland that it could have easily taken them more than a day on foot just to reach the foothills. By bus, Tifa watched the plains between flash by outside, and it was still morning when they started up the winding road into the mountains. As they climbed higher, Aeris leaned close against the window, captivated by the view.

Jessie tapped Tifa on the shoulder and leaned forward to whisper, "So? How was it?"

Tifa glanced at Aeris, but she was too focused on the scenery outside to pay them any mind. She turned back to Jessie, and couldn't stop the smile coming to her face as she confided, "I kissed her."

"Good for you," Jessie said with a grin.

"It was really something," Tifa admitted, "even just that."

"That's how it should be."

Tifa didn't want to talk any more about it with Aeris right there, but maybe later, she'd work up the nerve to seek Jessie's advice. Jessie had admitted in the past to never having a relationship last longer than a few months, but it was more experience than Tifa had by far, and she didn't think she could ask Barret. Even once his mood improved, it might be hard for him to draw on experience that would remind him of the loss of his wife.

The tour bus pulled off the road around midday to allow them to stretch their legs and eat a lunch provided by the tour company. They were still high up in the mountains, and the tourists eagerly snapped photos of the view.

Tifa couldn't really blame them; she might have done the same had she owned a camera, and she could see the look on Aeris's face as she took in the sight of peaks stretching across the horizon. Tifa would have loved to enjoy it with her, but she wanted to check on Barret.

"Good luck," said Jessie with a shake of her head. She'd tried talking with him some on the bus, but he'd barely acknowledged her.

Tifa found him alone on a rock with his back to the view. At least he was eating, though by his face anyone would have thought it was the worst meal he'd ever tasted. Tifa sat herself down next to him.

"How are you holding up?" she asked.

Barret didn't look at her. "We're pretty close to that damn reactor now," he said. "Hope she doesn't make any more fuss over it."

"Yeah," Tifa agreed. "That was a little painful."

"An' these rich folks," he went on, "you think they really got no idea? You can tell they don't like us bein' here. Thought they were payin' for an experience where we don't exist."

"Yeah, well... We only have to put up with each other for a few more hours."

Barret grimaced. It really wasn't any relief, because once they stopped having to put up with the tourists, that meant they were in North Corel. The tour group was annoying, but that was something worse.

"I don't think I've ever seen you in this bad a mood," Tifa observed. "I know it's going to be rough, but..." She hesitated. At least there'd been survivors, she thought, and she couldn't say it. But she'd never seen him like this, where it seemed like all the drive had gone out of him. It was like he had resigned himself to something.

"...is there something else?" she wondered, and from the way he looked at her, she knew that there was. "You know I'm here to listen, whatever it is."

Barret glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one else was in earshot, and even then he kept his voice low. "Dyne ain't dead," he said. "Leastways, I don't think he is."

Tifa sat back. "Why do you say that?"

"Back when I got this gun grafted onto my arm, the doc told me, there was another man who got the same operation. Only, his was the left arm. That's the one that got shot up when I was holdin' onto 'im."

"But you haven't seen him, since then."

Barret shook his head. "I tried to leave word at the camp in North Corel, told 'im I was headed for Midgar. It ain't a surprise if he wants nothin' to do with me, but... Marlene..."

Tifa could see now why this was troubling him so much. "If he got your message," she said, "you'd think he'd want to see her."

"Yeah. So... If he's there, in North Corel, I gotta tell 'im. I gotta tell 'im his daughter's alive."

Tifa pressed her lips together. "Can't you imagine that would be a good thing?" she asked. "He was your best friend, wasn't he? If he's there, you'll be reunited, you'll be bringing him good news..."

"Everyone blamed me, after Corel got burned down," said Barret. "Can't imagine Dyne'd be any different. So... what if he wants her back, Teef? What am I supposed to do?"

"...I don't know," Tifa admitted, feeling a weight settle in the pit of her stomach. If Dyne was alive, they could hardly keep him from his own daughter. It wasn't his fault he hadn't been there to raise her, and no doubt he'd loved her, mourned her.

"I don't wanna lose her," Barret said. "But I don't know if I got a claim to her, over her real father."

Tifa shook her head. She didn't want to lose Marlene either. "You're her father," she said, "the only one she's ever known. Even if Dyne wants her back, he'd have to understand... it would be cruel to take you away from her like that." Surely a good father would understand that.

Barret glanced at her. "An' you, too. You an' Jess an' Wedge-- you're the family she knows."

"Maybe you're wrong about Dyne. Maybe he doesn't blame you. He might even join us. I mean... Do you think he got that weapon for a different reason than you did?"

"Maybe it's me he wanted vengeance on," Barret said bitterly.

"I think he could've done a better job tracking you down, if that's the case."

Barret shook his head. "I just don't know..."

Tifa laid a hand on his arm and tried a smile. "Whatever happens, we've got your back, okay?"

"...thanks, Teef. However it goes down... feel like I got pretty lucky with some o' my friends."

"I feel the same way," Tifa said, and she leaned closer to rest her head on his shoulder. They sat quietly like that for a minute.

"Y'know, you oughtta get back to Aeris," Barret suggested. "Seein' as how you're s'posed to be a couple."

Tifa straightened up and tucked her hair back behind her ear. "I think maybe we are a couple," she said.

"S'what I figured. But, journey like we're on, you gotta take your time when you can."

"Yeah. You're right."

Tifa gave him a parting smile and then followed his advice. Aeris had climbed up onto a higher outcropping, in search of an even better view, and sat with her legs dangling. She looked up as Tifa joined her.

"How's Barret?" she asked.

"Hanging in there," Tifa said.

Aeris nodded, but she looked thoughtful. "You know, Barret can be pretty brooding sometimes, can't he?" she said.

"He's got plenty of reason to, doesn't he?"

"Oh, I'm not saying he doesn't. It just reminded me of something. Do you know what his type is?"

Tifa looked at her askance. "His type?"

"You know, romantically speaking."

"Um... We've never talked about it. I don't think he's really interested in dating."

"I know he's really focused on Marlene and AVALANCHE right now," Aeris said, "but do you think he wouldn't be open to it, once things calm down a little?"

"I thought you weren't going to go out with Barret," Tifa said wryly. Where was this even coming from?

"Oh, no. I'm not thinking about me."

Tifa followed her gaze to where Jessie sat eating lunch with Yuffie and Nanaki, and she frowned. "Look, I don't know if that's a good idea. Jessie has a tendency to fall hard and fast, and I'm not sure Barret's over his wife."

"Did you even know he'd been married, before?" Aeris wondered.

"I knew. I only heard him mention her once, though, so I don't think he meant to let on. I think he wanted to keep it private."

"I see..."

"Yeah. So... don't push anything, okay?"

Aeris nodded. "I won't. But I don't think they'd make a bad match, do you?"

Tifa shrugged. "I've never thought about it, but... maybe. They've always gotten along pretty well."

"You never like to play matchmaker, even just to think about?" Aeris wondered.

"I don't really feel like it's any of my business."

"Well, that's all right. I'm sure Jessie will indulge me. I'll just leave it to her to tell me if she's got any crushes."

Tifa laughed. "That does sound more up her alley. Believe me, she won't make a secret of it."

The tour guide called a ten minute warning before the bus would be leaving, so they finished their lunches and climbed back down from their spot.

The bus got moving again, and even though it meant they were drawing nearer to North Corel, Barret seemed to be in a slightly better mood. Jessie tried striking up another conversation, and while he didn't give her much to work with, he at least put in a word here and there to show he was listening. Tifa found herself trying to imagine what the two of them would be like as a couple, and she wondered if Jessie had made it their cover story for any other reason than to get the discount. But, she would've said something if she were interested in Barret.

They got into North Corel late in the afternoon. For the real tourists, it was fine timing for them to take the ropeway on up to Gold Saucer and check into some pricey hotel on the amusement park grounds. The rest of them collected their gear and turned their backs on the sign for the ropeway.

It was hard to say which was worse, this or the Midgar slums. North Corel had the sky above, a point in its favor, but there was nothing else to recommend it. Beyond a cluster of dusty tents were a few dilapidated stone buildings that looked like they'd barely survived some kind of bombing--and might collapse at any moment, still. Piles of junk lay everywhere, mostly trash that had already been separated from anything useful, collected maybe for some sense that they had anything at all.

A few men were standing around outside carrying on a conversation, but as the bus pulled away, they looked over and noticed Barret. The conversation ceased. They squared their shoulders and marched over, and before anyone could react, the first man raised a fist and punched Barret square in the jaw.

Barret didn't react, and Tifa grabbed the man's arm as he pulled back to strike again. "Hey, knock it off!"

The man didn't struggle against her, but instead looked directly at Barret and spat on the ground. "You got a lotta nerve showin' your face here," he said.

Barret hung his head. "Sorry. We're just passin' through. Don't mean to bother anybody."

Tifa released the man with a shove, and only then did he even glance at her.

"Well, shit, my day's already ruined," he said.

Another of the men nodded in agreement. "Gonna be spendin' the next week wonderin' what kinda bad luck he's brought on us this time."

"Do you even hear yourselves?" Jessie demanded. "Barret wasn't the only one who supported the reactor. You all made the same mistake, except for Dyne."

The first man snorted. "Yeah, Dyne. How 'bout that? The two of 'em go outta town for a couple days, an' only one of 'em comes back."

"Because of the Shinra!" Aeris exclaimed. "Are you really accusing him of murdering his own best friend?"

"Seems awful suspicious, is all I'm sayin.'"

Tifa shook her head. "What's awful is how you're treating one of your own. You all survived the same disaster. What does it get you to be this cruel?"

"It's what he deserves," said the man, and he nodded at Barret. "An' he knows it."

The third man, who'd been silent until now, nudged him with an elbow and said, "Fuck 'im. He ain't worth the effort."

The first man nodded. "Yeah. Waste o' breath," he agreed.

As one, they turned their backs and marched off, disappearing into one of the collapsing buildings.

"Wow, what a bunch of jerks," said Yuffie, and there was something encouraging about that after how harsh she'd been before.

"You all right, Barret?" Jessie asked.

He didn't answer. He was staring out over the encampment, brow furrowed. None of those men had been Dyne, and they seemed to think he was dead, but that was no confirmation.

"...I'll take care of it, Barret," said Tifa.

"Take care of what?" Aeris asked.

Tifa hesitated. He'd told her what he had in confidence, so she couldn't very well share it with the others. She quickly thought of something else. "Well," she said, "since Sephiroth's been showing up everywhere we go, we figured we ought to ask around after him, before we move on. So, let's split up and see if anyone's seen him. Barret, you can just wait here."

Barret met her gaze and nodded a silent thanks.

"I'll stay with him," Jessie said. "If anybody else wants a shot at him, they'll have to get through me first."

She pounded a fist into her palm, and Tifa smiled. Jessie wasn't the strongest fighter, but Tifa had taught her a thing or two about how to throw a punch. Barret was in good hands.

Aeris nearly came along with Tifa, but Tifa caught her eye, and she seemed to grasp that there was something else going on. She walked off with Nanaki instead, and Yuffie easily peeled off on her own.

The first few people Tifa spoke to had much the same attitude.

"Dyne?" said one. "Nah, I ain't seen 'im. Thought Barret was the last one who did. Always figured that was it for Dyne, hangin' around a walkin' death sentence like that."

Tifa noticed a woman watching her after she came out of the first tent, and after she'd tried two more without learning anything, the woman approached her.

"You one o' the folks who came with Barret?" she asked.

"That's right," Tifa said guardedly. "He's a friend of mine."

The woman nodded, no malice in her expression. "That's good to hear, that he's got friends."

"You don't hate him?"

"No. I always thought it was shameful, the way everyone's acted. Barret might've been the loudest about supportin' the reactor, but we all went along with it. But nobody wants to think we brought this on ourselves, so they blame him."

"What about blaming the Shinra?" Tifa said.

The woman laughed. "Sounds simple when you say it, but it feels like blamin' a force o' nature."

Tifa shook her head. "They're not, though. We have to believe they can be stopped."

"Hm. You sound like Barret. I heard he got that arm to get revenge on the Shinra. We got word recently that someone murdered the President. Wonder if that was him."

Tifa shrugged. She didn't want to let on to knowing more than she should have, and maybe she didn't want to take it away from Barret either. "They say it was an anti-Shinra group," she said.

"'Landslide' or somethin,' right?"

"Something like that."

The woman nodded. "Anyway, you've been tryin' to ask about somethin,' right?"

"Yeah. Barret thinks his friend Dyne might have survived, back then. I was wondering if anyone here had seen him?"

"Dyne..." She tapped her lip thoughtfully and then shook her head. "No, can't say I've even heard that name in a while. Thought he must've died in the fire, with his poor wife. It's a miracle their baby girl survived."

"All right. But if you ever do hear anything, do you think you could get word to us? We're on the road a lot, but we have a friend Wedge staying near Kalm. He'd be able to pass the message on."

"Of course. Wouldn't hold my breath, though... Or expect it to be good news, if it came. It's been four years, an' with the kinda anger we've got festerin' inside..."

"...I understand what you mean," Tifa said, and she did. Too well. "But I have to ask."

"Yeah. Guess even that kinda closure might be worth somethin.'"

Tifa nodded. "Thanks for your time," she said, and she made her way back to Barret.

She couldn't be direct about it with Jessie standing right there, but she said, "No one I talked to has seen or heard anything about him."

Barret nodded grimly. "Don't know if that's good news or bad news," he said.

On the one hand, it meant Dyne wouldn't be challenging them for Marlene. On the other hand, his best friend's fate remained uncertain.

Aeris, Nanaki, and Yuffie returned shortly, and they had much the same thing to report about Sephiroth: no one had seen any men in black coats recently. And again, Tifa didn't know if that was good news or bad news. Sephiroth might not be nearby, but that also meant they didn't know where he was.

"Well, guess we oughtta get movin' then," said Barret.

"There isn't much daylight remaining," Nanaki observed.

"Yeah, but we ain't welcome here."

"I don't wanna stay in what passes for an inn around here anyway," Yuffie said. "I'd be too worried the roof'd fall down on me to get any sleep!"

"We'll find someplace to camp along the pass," Tifa decided. "We won't be hitting the Nibel mountains just yet, so it won't be too dangerous."

Barret caught her eye and nodded slightly, like an acknowledgment that they were leaving behind the place of his greatest fears, and moving on to hers. Even before they had completely left the camp, she could see the change in him. He'd survived the brief return to his people, and his anxieties over a confrontation with Dyne were being shoved back into the same place he'd kept them these past four years. He could be someone to lean on again, when it was her turn to need it.

The Corel mountain range dominated the western horizon, backlit by the sunset light, and Tifa knew somewhere beyond them the mountains of home waited. A few days more, and she would be back in Nibelheim. And there would be no semblance of life, no survivors to hate her. What she expected instead was a void, a graveyard of ghosts.

Tifa set her jaw and pressed on.

Chapter Text

From the start, their journey into Nibelheim was nowhere near as easy as the passage through the mountains north of Junon. It wasn't a journey people typically made, so there was no road, although at least there was a trail. Still, Aeris found it taxing even before they made it into the Nibel mountain range.

She thought she would need Tifa to tell her when they passed out of Corel, but the difference was stark. The peaks of Nibel were jagged and strange, looking more like horns growing up out of the earth than like stone. They camped for the night in the dip between the two ranges, and the black shapes silhouetted against the night sky made her uneasy.

Was it always like this? Aeris asked of the Planet, and for an instant it was as though she remembered it: veins of vibrant color winding through those strange peaks, forests of pines growing up from rich soil. She'd never had so clear an answer before--or never heard it.

Planet, what do you need from me? How can I help?

A wail rose up from the undercurrent of its pain.

I know you're hurting. I want to help. We're trying to help.

Anxiety. A reluctance, maybe.

What's in the north?

No answer.

Mom? she tried instead. Her mother had been quiet since Kalm, but that wasn't unusual. Aeris wasn't sure how clearly she experienced the passage of time anymore.

Aeris, came the response, like someone coming into focus after waking.

Mom, I need to ask you something, Aeris said. She hated to be so direct, sometimes, but she never knew how long her mother's voice would remain clear. You must know about it, I think you tried to tell me before. There's something important in the north, isn't there?

Many things in the north. Ifalna said it with a great sadness, but also with an intense longing, not unlike the way Tifa spoke of Nibelheim. The site of the Planet's deepest wound. The once great capital of our people. The home you never knew...

Which one is calling me?

The Planet is frightened. It has awakened. You are the last one of us left, there is a power that only you can use, but only with the strength of your ancestors.

In the city of our people... Aeris concluded. She touched the materia in her hair. Her mother had told her a long time ago that it could summon a great power, but she'd never known how.

Yes, Ifalna confirmed. But it isn't needed, yet. Maybe it won't be.

The thing that's awakened... Do you mean Sephiroth?

Sephiroth is a part of it.

She had to press while her mother was still lucid. What can you tell me about him?

About the man? Very little. But I met him a few times.

You did?

He was just a boy. The Professor had him in that lab, too.

Aeris's breath stilled in her chest. Haven't you always wanted to do that? The way he'd looked at her, inviting her into the act, to share in it vicariously. It wasn't something he'd done just to shut Hojo up or to inspire horror in her, it was a desire they'd shared. A past they had in common.

I pitied him, Ifalna went on. I knew no good could come of him.

How could you know? Aeris asked. That had been her childhood, too, so what was the difference?

Because of what they did to him. Your father told me.

My father? Aeris straightened, straining to hear the slightest nuance. Her mother hardly ever spoke of him.

He was a good man, said Ifalna, sadly. That longing again. But he made a mistake.

Aeris wanted to ask what he'd been like, but she knew from experience that that would only send her mother retreating into her memories, sharing none of them with her. What mistake? she asked instead.

It happened at Nibelheim. He didn't know then, it wasn't one of us. Those words again. Not one of us. It pained him. He wished he could atone. Maybe you could do this for him.

Mom... You've never even told me his name.

Gast, said Ifalna, and her voice was beginning to fade away. His name was Gast...

Aeris closed her eyes. A name, at last, at least. And maybe in Nibelheim, she would find some answers of her own.

"Are you all right, Aeris?"

It was Tifa. Aeris looked up at her, and realized only then that there were tears in her eyes. She wiped her face dry. "I'm okay," she said.

Tifa sat down next to her. Aeris couldn't see her face clearly, backlit by the campfire as she was. "That's not usually what tears mean," she said.

"Oh... I was just talking to Mom. I guess she was a little sad, and it rubbed off on me."

"Anything you want to talk about?"

Aeris shook her head. "I think, not yet. She gave me some things to think about, though."

Tifa nodded, letting it lie.

"How are you doing?" Aeris asked her.

"Hard to say," Tifa admitted. She lifted her head, looking up at the sky and the dark shapes against it. "Everyone was afraid of these mountains when I was a child. Even the adults avoided them."

"So you took it for a challenge?"

Tifa was quiet for a moment. "Back then, I used to believe, it was where the souls of the dead went. When my mom died, that was the first time I went into these mountains. I thought I could find her here."

Aeris didn't know quite what to say. Here she'd sat, talking to her own dead mother, only moments ago. "You weren't wrong, exactly," she ventured. "Her spirit returned to the Planet, but sometimes they try to linger on, near the people they loved."

"So she might have been with me?"

"Maybe."

"I wonder about the souls of Nibelheim. Where they've gone by now."

"Probably... they're with the Planet."

"That doesn't sound so bad," Tifa said. "It doesn't sound lonely."

"No," Aeris agreed. "I don't think it's lonely."

Tifa leaned back on her hands, her gaze lifting higher. "The stars are still beautiful here."

"That's something I don't think you could ever lose."

"I guess not. These stars have always been here. It's me who went away somewhere I couldn't see them..."

"Hmm. But maybe they'll see the stars again in Midgar one day," Aeris said.

She'd meant it to be a hopeful thing, but Tifa took a practical turn with it. "How do you fix a place like Midgar, I wonder?" she said. "The slums are unliveable without power, so... It's a problem that's going to take more than a handful of people to solve, isn't it?"

Aeris could see what she meant. To shut down the reactors of Midgar, you would first have to evacuate the slums--or, an even bigger undertaking, dismantle the plate. She could see why Tifa had trouble imagining a future beyond all that work. AVALANCHE only had the resources to make small, strategic strikes against the Shinra. Who would be able to organize something like that?

"Well, don't forget," she said. "AVALANCHE has allies now."

Tifa glanced behind her to where the others still sat around the campfire. "Yuffie and Nanaki?" she wondered skeptically.

"I'm thinking more about where they come from," Aeris said. "I don't know what kind of standing they have in their homelands, but Wutai and Cosmo Canyon would make strong allies, wouldn't they?"

Tifa considered it. "Maybe," she said. "Wutai's not the power it used to be, but if we could destabilize the Shinra enough... maybe they'd be willing to take up the fight again."

"I should hope so. Yuffie can't be the only one who feels the way she does."

"I don't know about Cosmo Canyon, though. Aren't they pacifists?"

"I don't know," Aeris admitted. "It's not a place I know much about... but that doesn't mean they couldn't help in other ways, right? Especially if they aren't under Shinra's influence."

Tifa looked up and Aeris gave a start as Yuffie abruptly plopped down on the ground beside them.

"So what're you guys talking about?" she asked. "Jessie said she's going to sleep, and you two are always going off talking by yourselves. I want in."

Aeris shared an amused look with Tifa. They'd said it at least a few times in front of her, but Yuffie still hadn't seemed to grasp the notion that they were dating.

"We were just talking about you, actually," Aeris said.

"What, me?"

"And Wutai," Tifa clarified. "We were wondering if there might be anyone else there who'd be willing to join forces."

"I wouldn't count on it," said Yuffie. "Lord Godo and the other old coots are a buncha cowards."

"What about your parents...?" Aeris ventured.

Yuffie snorted. "Trust me, there's no way my dad's gettin' involved with any o' this." She hesitated, and then went on, "If I went back with some materia, though, there's people that might start takin' me seriously."

"Is that what that's about?" Aeris said. She thought it was a little simplistic, but Yuffie was, after all, still a child.

"It's powerful, isn't it? And the Shinra have loads of it somehow."

"That's because they manufacture it," said Tifa. "Naturally occurring materia is rare, but the Shinra make it by condensing the Mako in their reactors."

"Is that how they do it?" said Aeris. "I never knew that."

"I learned that from Sephiroth, actually. I guess he must know all sorts of company secrets."

"So you used to know him or something?" Yuffie asked at last.

"Only for a few days," Tifa said tersely. "Before he burned Nibelheim to the ground."

Yuffie nodded. "He did a number on Wutai, too, so I kinda know how you feel."

Aeris smiled softly. Yuffie wasn't the best at empathy, but she did try, didn't she?

"Thanks, Yuffie," said Tifa. "Anyway, we should probably follow Jessie's lead and turn in. It's going to get tough from here on out."

They spent the night in the shadow of the mountains, and in the morning, they began their journey up into them.

Without Tifa to lead the way, they would have quickly gotten lost. The path was unclear, and in places required them to make almost vertical climbs. Tifa, Nanaki, and Yuffie scaled the rock almost effortlessly, it seemed to Aeris. At least Barret and Jessie clambered up with as little grace as she did, but it soon became apparent that they had more stamina. The group took more frequent rests, but even so, she always felt like she was out of breath.

To make matters worse, the place was infested with monsters. Aeris finally put her staff to some use fending off strange birds and oversized bugs, but even the lightweight mythril began to feel heavy as they pressed on.

By the sunset hours, they were still deep in the midst of the mountains. They stretched out like a maze to the horizon, and Aeris couldn't have traced the path they'd come had her life depended on it.

"You sure you know where you're going?" Yuffie asked.

"I'm sure," said Tifa. "It's not so much farther now. We'll reach Nibelheim tomorrow."

"I'm holding you to that," said Jessie. "I'm wiped."

"Yeah," Aeris agreed, and she looked at Tifa hopefully. "Any chance you could carry me the rest of the way?"

"Hey, I'm tired, too," said Tifa. "We'll get some rest tonight, and tomorrow should be easier."

They found a cave to shelter in for the night, and Tifa and Nanaki checked it out first to make sure nothing was living in it. Once they'd determined it was safe, the rest followed, and as tired as she was, Aeris couldn't help staring a little. The light of Nanaki's tail caught bright streaks of color in the cave walls. There was still some life in here, she thought, even if everything on the surface had withered away.

She thought she heard an affirming whisper from the Planet: Yes, there was still life. It still had life.

In the morning, Aeris's arms were so sore that she almost wasn't sure she could lift them. She managed to push herself up.

"Ahh... I really am going to get buff," she said, and Tifa smiled at her. It was good she could smile, even with what lay ahead.

Tifa didn't rush them, and by the time they got moving, the sun had already risen above the eastern peaks behind them. The cave had been chilly, and Aeris was glad to have its light on her back.

And maybe the path was more level today, a little easier of a hike. They didn't run into nearly so many monsters, and Aeris thought that was lucky, too. It was still morning when Tifa informed them that they were drawing close to the reactor. The path here was narrow as it hugged the side of the mountain, but clear and relatively gentle.

"Get down!" Jessie shouted, and Aeris ducked without knowing what for.

A stream of fire struck the stone above their heads and traced a short line along the mountain. Aeris followed its path backwards, and watched as a green dragon flew past them.

Oh, she thought. That was where all the other monsters had gone.

"Shit," said Tifa. "I was afraid this might happen."

Everyone seemed to be all right, but in the distance, the dragon was banking on its wings, turning around to make another pass.

"We can't fight this thing here, Teef," said Barret.

"I know," she said. "Everyone keep moving! The reactor's close!"

They took off running, or as close to running as their worn out muscles could get them. They were still out in the open when the dragon moved back into range.

Planet, protect us, Aeris thought, and she focused inward. The Planet was right here, it was listening, all she asked was a moment's protection.

They all dropped to the ground as the dragon opened its mouth, but this time it anticipated their movement, and the fire came straight for them anyway.

Only to dissipate harmlessly before it reached them.

"It worked," Aeris breathed.

The dragon alighted on one of the rocky spires over the path ahead of them and roared in fury.

"Well, great," said Yuffie as they picked themselves back up. "Now what?"

"Gonna have to chase it off, I guess," said Barret. He readied his gun arm as Jessie unslung the rifle from her back. With a long-suffering sigh, Yuffie pulled out her weapon, too.

Why was Fire the only offensive materia she had? Aeris wondered, biting her lip.

Jessie took the first shot, but she missed, hitting the spire instead as the dragon adjusted its footing. Barret began firing shortly after, and the dragon roared again as some of the bullets found their mark. It launched itself from the spire and swooped towards them.

Yuffie hurled her weapon at it, and the blades tore a gash in one of the dragon's wings. It cried out and veered to the side, away from them.

But not before its tail lashed out and swept Yuffie off the ledge.

Aeris's heart plummeted into her stomach as she heard Yuffie shriek, because she knew her legs were moving too slowly.

Nanaki sprang to the edge and clamped his teeth around Yuffie's gauntleted wrist before it vanished from sight. His paws slid as he took on her weight, but he braced himself and held on.

"Ow! Fuck!" Yuffie cried out.

Tifa was there in a second, what would have been a second too late. "Yuffie, give me your other hand, I'll pull you up!"

Yuffie swung her arm up and Tifa hauled her back up over the edge. Nanaki released her and stepped back, looking away.

"Sorry," he said, and there was blood on his fangs.

"B-beats goin' splat," Yuffie managed.

Aeris reached for her, but the dragon was coming around for another pass.

"I'm sorry, we don't have time," Tifa said. She lifted Yuffie into her arms and ran on up the path. Aeris snatched up Yuffie's weapon from where it had landed and ran after her, the others joining.

Ahead she could see a dark cave opening: safety from the dragon, but what else might find them inside? No time to investigate. The group barrelled on through the entrance and scattered to either side as a plume of flames burst through after them.

The dragon landed outside with a heavy thump, but the cave entrance was too narrow for it to fit through. A few more blasts of fire came through the cave before the dragon roared once more and took off. The force of its wing beats created a wind even inside the cave.

Silence fell, and Barret cautiously poked his head out of the entrance. "Looks like it's gone," he said.

"Thank the gods," Aeris said, and she rushed over to Yuffie, but Jessie had reached her first, ready with her Restore materia in hand. Yuffie winced as Jessie took her hand, but then her expression eased.

"Thanks, Jessie," Yuffie said. She flexed her wrist, glanced uncertainly at Nanaki, and gave him a nod. "You, too, Red."

He didn't protest her calling him by the old nickname. Instead he returned the nod. "Of course."

Now that they had a moment to breathe, Aeris looked around. The cave might be free of monsters, but it was hardly empty. A Mako glow illuminated it from beneath, and huge pipes sprouted from the walls, some disappearing into the Mako pit, others burrowing into the ground. A series of ladders and rusting platforms connected the level where they stood with cave exits higher up.

"Guess you weren't kiddin' about the reactor bein' close," Barret observed.

Tifa nodded. "Let's take a minute," she suggested.

They all found themselves someplace to rest, keeping a wary distance from the cave entrance. Aeris dropped down beside Nanaki, who still seemed uncomfortable. Not for the first time, she wondered how old he was. He was so reserved most of the time, but he had a sincerity that made him seem young sometimes.

"You saved her life, you know," she said. "There's no reason to be ashamed."

"I know," he said. "But I did bite her."

"That bothers you?"

"I am not a beast, but that is how people see me, isn't it? I can never really be one of you that way."

Aeris nodded thoughtfully. "Do you think it would be better if we stopped pretending you're something you aren't?" she asked. "You know, whenever we go places... I thought it would be easier for you, but maybe we just let people be shocked, if they're going to be shocked."

Nanaki tossed his mane. "Might that not make it difficult to get anything done? If you are constantly explaining that I do, in fact, speak."

"Hmm... Maybe we could get some pamphlets printed," Aeris suggested.

He snorted, and she smiled.

"Anyway, it's up to you. If you want to be yourself, then I don't mind explaining it to everyone we come across. That's just how it'll be."

"I'll consider it," Nanaki decided.

The rusty scaffolding groaned as Tifa led them up it to the nearer of the two cave exits, but it held. They stepped back out into daylight, and the reactor loomed directly ahead of them.

Aeris had only seen Midgar's reactors at a distance, from outside of their compounds. She had never been this close to one, much less inside of one. As they approached, she felt a weight pressing on her chest, and from the Planet, she sensed only anguish.

The reactor had Tifa's full attention, and it was Jessie who quietly asked, "You okay?"

"The Planet's in a lot of pain," Aeris explained, and Jessie nodded in understanding.

Tifa stopped briefly at the steps leading up to the reactor, and then she pressed on. They followed.

There weren't any personnel, Aeris realized. With a remote location like this, maybe Shinra felt it was unnecessary. Not many people were likely to brave the mountains and the monsters to break into this facility. But it made it even eerier somehow. Amidst the clanking of turning gears and the hiss of steam, Aeris kept thinking she heard something else, like they weren't really alone here.

"This really is an old reactor," Jessie remarked as they climbed down from the entrance to a catwalk suspended over a pit of Mako. "The No. 1 reactor wasn't exactly new, and it still hardly looked anything like this."

"Guess they came up with some improvements," Barret said wryly.

The Mako stench filled Aeris's nostrils, stronger than she'd ever smelled it before, and it made her stomach turn. It churned in the pit far below them. The Planet's lifeblood, sucked up through the skin of the earth, a constant, untended wound. Aeris swallowed and forced herself across the catwalk.

But Tifa had come to a stop on the other side, several paces back from the door into the next room. Her eyes were on the floor, and her fingers clenched.

"Tifa?" Aeris said, coming up beside her.

Tifa breathed slowly in and out several times before she responded. "This is where my father died," she said.

However hard this was for Aeris, it brought Tifa back to one of the worst days of her life. Aeris touched her shoulder. "We're all here with you."

Tifa nodded, and she pushed herself forward into the next room.

Aeris felt something stick in her throat at the sight of it. Pipes crowded the room, all snaking up, up into the chamber beyond, a door at the top of the stairs marked with a name: Jenova.

"I really don't like this place," said Yuffie, voicing what they all had to be feeling.

Some of the smaller tubes wound their way down into a series of pods that filled the room. They each had a small window on the front, but even standing on tip-toe, Aeris couldn't reach to see inside. Barret came up beside her, looking in without difficulty.

"It's empty," he said.

"Are they all empty?" Jessie wondered.

Barret glanced at her. "Gimme a minute an' I'll check."

As he made his way down the rows, Aeris returned to Tifa. "How are you doing?" she asked.

Tifa shook her head. "It's strange. I know I've been here, but I barely remember this room. I know Sephiroth was... there." She gestured to the door at the top of the stairs. "He had his back turned. I thought I could do it."

Aeris could picture it in her mind: Tifa, full of grief and rage at the death of her father, running up those stairs to attack Sephiroth, Shinra's great general, with his own sword...

"I'm just glad you survived," Aeris said.

"All empty," Barret announced from the top of the room. "Some kinda lock on this door, though."

Jessie climbed the stairs to join him and bent to inspect the keypad. "I think I can get it open," she said. "Like I said, this place is not top of the line."

Tifa didn't move to join her, so Aeris stayed with her at the bottom of the steps. She kept looking around at different parts of the room, like she was trying to fit her hazy memories into the reality of it.

"Zack was here," she said abruptly. "I remember we spoke. I told him... I hated him."

Aeris looked at her. If Zack had come here, then had he come to face down Sephiroth, like Tifa had? Was she standing now in the place where Zack had died?

Or, had he been the one to take Tifa to safety? Aeris wasn't sure she'd known him well enough to say which choice he might have made. To save one person, knowing that he could, or to try to save many more, by killing Sephiroth...

"I'm sure he knew you didn't mean it," was what she said. "You were injured, right?"

Tifa nodded. "I just wish I'd... said something nicer, if it was the last time."

"Got it!" Jessie exclaimed, and the door marked Jenova slid open with a hiss. The chamber beyond was dark, and Nanaki bounded up the stairs to provide some light. Tifa followed more slowly, Aeris and Yuffie with her.

The chamber was just large enough for all of them to stand comfortably inside. A single massive tube snaked upwards and into a dim glass tank. Nanaki padded closer, revealing broken wires and snapped tubes hanging from the ceiling. The tank was empty.

"Nothin' here either," Barret observed.

"I think that makes sense," Jessie said slowly. "My theory is, originally, there was only one Jenova specimen. Five years ago, it was kept here, and more recently, it was at the Shinra building. Sephiroth came for it both times, but for whatever reason, the first time, he failed."

"But what's he want with it?" Barret asked.

"There was some kind of experiment going on here," said Aeris. "Right? When Jenova was here, I'm sure there was something in those pods, too. Sephiroth must have seen that, the first time he came here, and..."

"And what?" said Tifa. "He was high up in the company, right under Heidegger. He must have already known about the kinds of experiments Shinra was doing, or at least suspected. I don't see how it could've been that big a shock to him."

Aeris looked up at the empty glass chamber. "Maybe it's because it was Jenova, that it affected him."

"What do you mean?"

"My mother told me... that she met Sephiroth, when he was still a child. He was being kept in the lab, just like we were. She said they did something to him. She said it happened at Nibelheim."

Tifa frowned. "So you think, he was part of these experiments himself."

Aeris nodded.

"It would explain a lot," Jessie said.

"But then he still woulda known already, wouldn't he?" Barret asked.

"I wonder," said Aeris. "I don't know how old he was when he made it out of that lab, or what they might have told him. There's a procedure that people in SOLDIER go through--maybe Professor Hojo told him he'd been through an early trial, and he never knew any different until he came here, and saw this experiment."

"But the question remains," said Nanaki, "just what is Jenova?"

"That, I don't know," said Aeris, "but maybe there are some records at Nibelheim."

Tifa nodded, but she made no move to leave. Instead she looked to Jessie. "What would it take," she asked, "to shut this place down?"

Jessie scratched her head. "Sorry, Tifa, but we don't have anything with that much power right now, and I don't know enough about this tech to operate it."

"We can come back, though," said Barret. "Blow this whole place to kingdom come."

"Yeah," said Tifa. "When we get the chance, I think we should."

They filed out of the chamber, and Aeris lingered for a moment just outside of it. No one was asking the other question, probably because they had no answer to that either, of what had stopped Sephiroth here five years ago. Had it been Zack? Had he given his life to wound Sephiroth so badly that it had taken him five years to resume whatever he'd begun in Nibelheim?

To be honest, she'd rather have the mystery, if it meant Zack had survived.

Aeris hurried after the others. Either way, the reactor wasn't any place she wanted to stay.

Chapter Text

Tifa didn't know how the village would look, now, but she had tried to imagine it. As they neared the mouth of the valley, she braced herself for burnt-out shells of buildings, for a pile of rubble where her house had once stood.

What she hadn't prepared for was for everything to look... the same. There was the general store, and her neighbors' house, and the well in the center of the square. There was the roof of her own house, rising up behind the Strifes.'

"They rebuilt it?" said Jessie.

Tifa shook her head slowly. "It can't be..."

Aeris looked at her in concern. "What is it, Tifa?"

They thought it was something new. That other people had come and built new homes here, in the place where hers had once stood.

"This is... how it looked before," she said. "That's the well. That's my house. It's like it never happened."

They were all looking at her, and no one seemed to know what to say.

"I know it happened," Tifa whispered.

Aeris took her hand and gave it a squeeze, grounding her in the reality of the moment. "We believe you," she said.

"Yeah," Barret agreed. "Whatever's goin' on here, we'll figure it out."

"Let's see if there's anyone around," Jessie suggested.

Tifa nodded. She drew in a long, slow breath, and let it out, and got her feet moving again.

Maybe it wasn't exactly right, she thought. Small things, small enough that she might have been remembering them wrong. But the lampposts looked different. Had the square always been paved? Yes, but the stones had been half-buried under dirt. Maybe that house had one too many windows, that one too few. Metal looked shinier, stone cleaner.

She led them first into the general store, because that seemed easier. It was part of home, but not a place that she'd loved when she'd lived here. The interior looked like she remembered, but the woman at the counter was a stranger.

"Welcome!" said the stranger. "Let me know if you need anything. We've been in business here a long time."

"Wow," said Yuffie. "That's some bullshit."

"I beg your pardon?"

"How long do you mean, by 'a long time'?" Aeris asked more diplomatically.

"Oh, I don't know. Just about forever, it seems like. This was my parents' shop, you know."

Tifa shook her head. "No, it wasn't," she said.

"Well, now, how would you know? You just came into town, didn't you?"

"I used to live here. I grew up here. I've never seen you before in my life. This store... this store belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Hirsch. I was friends with their son Kyle, but he moved away to Midgar before..."

The stranger frowned at her. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "Are you feeling all right?"

"The hell kinda game you playin' at?" Barret demanded.

"I think you all had better leave," said the stranger, wringing her hands.

Barret opened his mouth, but Tifa caught his eye and shook her head. "Not here. Not yet."

They turned and left the store.

Across the square was her house. The house that looked like hers, anyway. Tifa clenched her hands and strode across the pavement. She pushed open the door.

Again, it wasn't quite right, but it was too close. The rug leading into the kitchen was the wrong color, but the right size, in the right place. The grandfather clock looked almost new; it didn't have the crack in the glass from when she and her friends had accidentally knocked it over.

The house appeared empty. No one came at the sound of the door, and she didn't hear anyone upstairs.

Slowly, Tifa moved to stand in the kitchen doorway. A table with three place settings. The old furnace, not looking so old now. Pots hanging on the wall above the stove where she and her father had learned together how to cook, except it wasn't the same stove, not really.

"Tifa?" said Aeris.

"I don't understand it," she said. "Someone put a lot of effort into making this look like my house... It's so close, like they had record of everything, down to how many spoons we had. But still, it's not quite right... A person could go mad."

"Do you want to leave?"

Tifa shook her head. "I need answers. I won't find them unless we keep looking."

"We could look for you," Barret offered. Like she'd done for him, in North Corel. But she shook her head again.

"You all won't notice what's different," she said. "I'm all right. I can handle this."

She pressed on, making her way upstairs. Straight ahead from the landing, she could see into her parents' room, but she turned left to go into her own.

As she pushed open the door, her eyes fell on a figure in black huddled in the corner by her dresser, and she snatched her hand back from the doorknob, readying her fists.

The figure hardly moved. They sat rocking themself slightly, but they gave no sign that they had noticed her. A deep hood shadowed their face.

"Who the hell is that?" Barret asked, looking in over her head.

Tifa cautiously lowered her fists. "Hello?"

"Huhhn?" the figure replied. A man's voice. Almost like he was trying to imitate her, but couldn't form the sounds. No threat at all, she decided.

She approached to crouch down in front of him. "Are you all right?"

"Huh?" The rocking stopped, and the man lifted his head to stare at her with blue eyes that almost seemed to glow. Was there something familiar about them?

"He's got a tattoo," said Aeris, crouching down beside her. Tifa glanced at her, and followed her gaze to his hand, which bore the numeral XIV. "I've seen this before."

"You have?"

Aeris nodded. "Back in Sector 5. There was a man who'd arrived recently, and he was very sick. He had a tattoo on his hand. The number 2."

"It looks like mine," said Nanaki uneasily.

"Where did you get that tattoo?" Aeris asked him.

"Hojo," he answered. "The rest I had before, but the number was done by Hojo."

Tifa bit her lip. Another victim of that awful man... and there were at least fourteen of them. The man had started rocking again, and she reached out to touch his hand. "Hey. Let's get you up off the floor. Is that okay?"

"Hn," he said, but she thought he nodded a bit. She got her arm around him, helped him up, and guided him across the room to her bed. It was easy; he was skinny, and about her height, and he made no protest. She sat him down, and gently pushed back the hood to get a better look at him.

Wild, blond hair, and a face that looked... She hadn't seen him in seven years, but the resemblance was too strong to be a coincidence.

"...Cloud?" she said. "Cloud Strife?"

"You know him?" said Yuffie.

He looked at her again, and his brow furrowed, like he was trying very hard to understand something. Tifa had plenty of questions of her own. What had happened to him? What was he doing here?

"Do you remember me?" she asked him gently. "We were neighbors."

"Uhhh.... T... Tifa?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Tifa," he repeated. "And I'm..." It took him a very long time to finish, but at last he said, "I'm Cloud."

"I never thought I'd find you here," she said.

Cloud looked around, as though he'd had no idea where 'here' was until she'd mentioned it. "This... isn't real," he said.

"You mean..." Tifa hesitated, pushing her hair back behind her ear. "You know about the fire?"

He stilled for a moment, and then nodded. He didn't say anything.

"Cloud, do you know how you got here?"

"...no. I don't remember."

"What do you remember?"

Cloud looked up at her, and a pained expression crossed his face. He opened his mouth, but then something else seemed to occur to him, and he looked around again. "Zack," he said. "What happened to Zack?"

"Y-you know Zack?" said Aeris, stepping forward.

"I don't know you," said Cloud, though he sounded unsure.

"No, we've never met before. I'm Aeris. I'm... I was a friend of Zack's."

"Me, too. We're friends." He said it with a nod, as though he needed to remind himself out loud.

Tifa turned to Aeris. "Is there anything you can do for him?"

Aeris's brow knit together. "I don't know," she said. "I can try, but... I wasn't able to help the man in Sector 5. He wasn't injured, just..."

"I understand. But it's worth a try, right?"

Aeris nodded, and she approached the bed to take Cloud's hand. She concentrated for several moments, but she sighed and said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I can help."

"Sorry," Cloud mumbled.

"It's all right, Cloud," Tifa said. "I just wish we knew what happened to you. I wish we knew what was going on here."

Cloud fisted a hand in his hair, shutting his eyes tightly. "I knew it a minute ago," he said. "We were waiting..."

"Who's 'we'?"

"...I don't know."

"Hey, Cloud?" said Aeris. "Were you in SOLDIER, with Zack?"

He looked up at her, and then at Tifa, and he hung his head. "No. Just him."

Aeris nodded and pulled Tifa aside, to where the others waited on the other side of the room. "That glow in his eyes... that's a mark of SOLDIER. But if he wasn't in SOLDIER, then... it might be Mako poisoning."

"I've heard of that," said Jessie. "They say it messes with your head."

"But having you here seems to be helping, Tifa," Aeris added.

"I wish I could do more," Tifa said, "but I haven't so much as heard from him in seven years. I guess he joined Shinra, but I don't know how he got mixed up in something Hojo was doing. Or is that normal, for them to experiment on their own people just because?"

"Wouldn't put it past 'em," said Barret.

"Uh, Tifa?" said Yuffie. She'd been leaning against Tifa's writing desk, but now she picked up a few papers laying on top. "You might wanna look at this."

Tifa took them from her. "'Periodic report to Professor Hojo,'" she read, and frowned, skimming over the rest. On the one hand, it was a small relief to know she wasn't losing her mind, that it had really happened. But she felt her anger rising up inside of her.

"What's it say?" Jessie asked.

"It's all Shinra," Tifa said bitterly. "They rebuilt the town as a cover-up. Everyone living here is an actor, they're all in on it. And now they're using it for some sort of experiment, monitoring 'clones'..." She glanced at Cloud; could it be talking about him?

Jessie took it from her to read it for herself, and it got passed around to the others.

"What does that mean, 'clone'?" Nanaki wondered. "Tifa, you know him, don't you?"

She nodded. "He lived in the house next door, growing up. I'm sure it's him."

"Man, I feel like we're just gettin' more questions," Barret said, scratching his head.

"We should go to the Shinra mansion," Tifa decided. "Sephiroth was there for days; there must be something there."

Jessie glanced over at Cloud. "What about him?"

Tifa hesitated. She didn't want to leave him here, but she didn't think he was up for coming along, and she couldn't leave it to the others to find her answers for her. "Could one of you stay with him?"

Her friends exchanged glances.

"I'll look after 'im for ya," Barret volunteered. "I ain't much good at wrappin' my head around this crap anyways."

"Thanks, Barret." Tifa turned back to Cloud. He already seemed more lucid just from the way he was looking at her.

"Man," he said, "I must really be losing it. I could've sworn that wolf was talking..."

Tifa couldn't help a small smile. "No, that's real. He talks."

"Huh."

"We're going to take a look around town, and see if we can find some answers. My friend Barret is going to stay here with you, so you're not alone." When Cloud looked up at Barret uneasily, she added, "I know he seems a little intimidating, but trust me, he's a good person."

"And he's your friend?"

"That's right. I've known him for years."

Cloud nodded slowly. "All right. But you're... coming back, right?"

"Of course. And maybe then, we'll have some idea what's happened to you."

Tifa straightened and moved towards the door. Barret caught her eye.

"We'll be here," he said. "You come grab me if you need me. An' don't worry 'bout him. I'll try an' talk to 'im. Seems like we got a friend in common at least."

"Thanks," she said again, touching his arm briefly before she left the room. She gave her parents' room only a cursory check before she went back down the stairs and out of the house. It wasn't much of a relief; the rest of the fake Nibelheim still surrounded her.

"So that was weird, right?" said Yuffie. "Your childhood friend hanging out in a black cloak in your bedroom that's not really your bedroom?"

"Definitely weird," Tifa agreed, but she didn't know if any of that had been his choice. If it was, then maybe some part of him had remembered that night at the well, and the brief connection they'd shared.

"He seemed pretty coherent, even if he can't remember a lot," Jessie said. "That's gotta be a good sign."

"I hope so," Tifa said.

The Shinra mansion looked as it always had. An imposing building set back behind its walled yard and half-hidden from view by tall pines. As children, they had climbed over the wall out of sight of their parents' eyes and snuck in through one of the windows that had a broken latch. Now, they walked through the gate and up to the front door. It was lighter than Tifa had expected, but the sound of it closing behind them echoed in the large foyer.

"This isn't a copy," Tifa said with certainty as she looked around. The peeling paint, the grime on the windows, the heavy coat of dust over everything--they couldn't have faked those.

"So," said Jessie, "where do you think those records would be?"

"I'm not sure," Tifa admitted. "We snuck in here a couple times as kids, but we never explored the whole place. My friends thought they heard a monster in one of the back rooms and got spooked. It didn't seem worth it to come alone."

"There probably could've been a monster," Aeris said, "don't you think?"

"Could've been," Tifa agreed. Maybe it was for the best that her friends had gotten scared.

"Let's split up and look around," Jessie suggested.

"Uh, in teams though, right?" said Yuffie. "I'm goin' with Nanaki."

Nanaki cocked his head at her in apparent surprise, but he didn't protest.

"Sure, all right," said Jessie. "I guess the rest of us will stick together. Holler if you find anything."

They separated, Yuffie and Nanaki taking the west wing of the mansion, while Tifa and the others took the east, which was where her friends had claimed to hear the monster. There was a lot of junk in those back rooms. Boxes of old newspapers, canned goods decades past their expiration dates, a set of china, half-unpacked--or half-packed, it wasn't clear. Candlesticks arranged on the dining room table. An old wedding portrait on the wall, the faces obscured by dust.

"It seems like whoever lived here left a lot behind," said Aeris, as she stood looking at the portrait.

"Maybe they broke up," Jessie suggested. "I can see not wanting a painting of you and your ex."

"Maybe," said Tifa. "It's definitely worthless to us. Let's check upstairs."

The staircase groaned as they ascended to the upper landing. The tall windows there had probably been beautiful when the place was new, but now only a pallid, yellow light struggled through the dirty panes, throwing a haze over the foyer.

To the right, they found a sitting room, and what must have been the master bedroom. Jessie went to inspect the bookshelf, but Tifa was beginning to wonder if there was anything to find. They hadn't heard anything but creaking floorboards from Yuffie and Nanaki's progression through the manor, and everything left seemed to be junk or abandoned personal items. Had Sephiroth only come here to be alone?

"What's with this wall?" Aeris asked. She was staring at a curved, stone wall that cut into the corner of the room.

"It is strange, isn't it?" Tifa realized. "From the outside, I always assumed it was for a furnace, but it was all closed off downstairs, too."

"Does this place have a basement?" Aeris wondered.

Tifa shook her head. "I've never seen any stairs going down."

"No, look," said Jessie. "The bricks all line up along these edges here--" She laid her hand against the wall and pushed, and it gave a little. Tifa joined her, and shoved it the rest of the way open, revealing a spiral staircase descending into darkness.

"A hidden passage!" Aeris exclaimed. "Now this is promising."

Jessie stepped into the hall to call Yuffie and Nanaki over, and within minutes they were all together in the room.

"I guess you two didn't find anything?" Aeris asked.

"Well," said Yuffie, "there is a safe over there. That means there's something worth locking up, right?"

"Or something better left that way," said Nanaki. "It was making noises."

"Doesn't mean the monster doesn't have valuables."

"I think we'd better let it alone for now, Yuffie," Tifa said. "Nanaki, if you wouldn't mind leading the way?"

He nodded and approached the staircase.

"You know, there's something to be said for natural light, but we should probably still invest in a flashlight," Jessie remarked as they started after him.

"Yes," Nanaki agreed. "I don't always enjoy going first into dark places."

"Sorry," Tifa said.

They reached the bottom of the staircase and proceeded down a short tunnel that looked like it could have been natural, there before the house was built. Maybe this site had been chosen to take advantage of it.

Near the end of the tunnel were two doors, but the first was locked. Jessie put her ear to it.

"Well, I don't hear any monsters in there," she said. "I'll go ahead and take a stab at it."

The second door was unlocked, but Tifa couldn't see far into it without the light from Nanaki's tail, so she rejoined Jessie. Yuffie did have a point about finding more valuable things under lock and key. And it must have been a tricky one, because it took Jessie longer than usual, but at last she got it open.

Nanaki ventured in first, and Tifa followed close behind.

"Aw, man," said Yuffie. "A creepy murder room?"

"Not exactly what I was expecting," Aeris agreed.

The room held nothing but coffins and the scattered remains of human skeletons. A place to hide the evidence of failed experiments? Why lock it when the basement was already hidden?

Nanaki lifted his head, sniffing the air. "There is something alive in here," he said, nodding to the one casket that remained closed.

"That's cool," said Yuffie. "It can stay there."

"The monster might have valuables," Nanaki reminded her, shooting her a look of amusement.

"In a safe, sure. Not in a coffin!"

"I don't know, I'm kinda with Yuffie on this one," said Jessie. "What if whatever's in there killed all the other things in here?"

"Hello?" called Aeris to the coffin. "Mr. Monster, are you about to murder us?"

"What are you doing?" Yuffie hissed at her.

Tifa hoped Aeris had good reason to think it was safe. She got a sense about these things sometimes, didn't she? The coffin lid started to slide back, and Tifa raised her fists.

A man sat up from the coffin. Not a monster, at least by appearance--although he was strange-looking. He was about the palest person Tifa had ever seen, in stark contrast to the mess of black hair that fell forward over his face and down his back. His eyes were a true red, more intense than her own, and they seemed to glow, like Cloud's had.

Tifa didn't relax. He could still be dangerous.

"Why do you wake me?" he asked.

"Um..." said Jessie. "Seems like a bad idea to sleep in a coffin?"

"It is what I have chosen. Now leave me."

"Wait just a moment," said Aeris, quickly stepping forward before he could do more than put his hand back on the lid. "Do you know anything about this mansion? We came here in search of answers, and you seem to be the only living person here."

He hesitated, and his gaze swept over their party. "What sort of answers do you seek?"

Tifa joined Aeris nearer the coffin. "Five years ago, the rest of this village was burned to the ground. The man who did it spent the few days prior holed up in this mansion. We think there's a connection."

"This man, what was his name?"

"Sephiroth."

The man closed his eyes. It was difficult to read his expression, but the name clearly meant something to him. "How long has it been?" he asked. "What year is it?"

Tifa exchanged glances with Aeris, who mouthed the word 'vampire?' at her. Tifa told him the year.

"Thirty years," he murmured. "Much has happened, I suppose."

"You've been locked up in here for thirty years?" Jessie said incredulously. "How are you not dead?"

The man glanced at her. "That's a rather personal question to ask a stranger, isn't it?"

"Uh, sorry, I guess. But can you blame a girl for being curious?"

"You've been here that long," Tifa said slowly, "but you know the name Sephiroth?"

He looked back at her. "Yes. Tell me: what do you know of him? Does he still live?"

"He does," Tifa said, but she felt reluctant to say more. She couldn't be sure, but the man seemed eager for an affirmative answer. He wanted Sephiroth to be alive, even after learning he'd destroyed a whole village.

Aeris glanced at her and then offered, "We know he spent at least part of his childhood in a lab, supervised by Professor Hojo. At some point he joined SOLDIER, and he became famous as a hero in the Wutai War. And then... five years ago, he came here. After the massacre, he disappeared for a while, until recently. That's why we're looking into him now."

"I see..." said the man. "Are you seeking vengeance?"

"Shouldn't we?" Tifa asked. "He's killed a lot of people. He can't be allowed to continue."

"If what you say is true, then perhaps not."

"If what we say is true?" she repeated indignantly.

"I don't know you," he said, "so I have no reason to trust what you've told me."

"What reason would we have to lie to you?" said Nanaki. "After all, you're nothing more to us than a strange man we found sleeping in a basement."

"Yeah, and you could be lying, too," Yuffie chimed in. "Saying you've been here thirty years--maybe you're just some weirdo who came down here yesterday hoping to freak people out."

The man looked from one of them to the other, but he said nothing, not even to remark on the fact that Nanaki could speak.

"I'm Aeris," Aeris offered at last, holding out her hand.

He took it as though he scarcely recalled what a handshake was. "...Vincent," he said. "Formerly of the Turks."

"The Turks?" Jessie repeated in alarm.

"Formerly," he said again.

Tifa didn't care to offer her hand, but she could give her name. "Well, I'm Tifa. That's Jessie, Nanaki, and Yuffie."

Vincent nodded at them. "I take it you do not care for Shinra."

"Definitely not," said Yuffie. "We hate the Shinra."

"I can understand that, considering the actions they have taken in the name of research."

"Those are the actions we'd really like to know about," Tifa said pointedly.

"Before that," Vincent said, "there is one person that I would like to know about. You know of Hojo and Sephiroth, so perhaps you know her. Dr. Lucrecia Crescent."

Tifa looked to Aeris, figuring her the most likely to know the name, but Aeris shook her head. "I'm sorry. I've never heard of her."

"She was a biologist working under Professor Gast... But if she's left Shinra, that's for the best."

"Professor Gast," Aeris repeated. "You knew him?" There was an eagerness to her voice, and Tifa looked at her quizzically. "He- he was my father," she explained.

Her father, a Shinra scientist? Tifa had assumed that Aeris had never had the chance to know him, and so she wasn't able to speak to him as she did her mother. But a scientist... Had Aeris been born in captivity? She didn't speak the name with any resentment.

"You are Gast's daughter?" Vincent seemed surprised, too. He shook his head. "He did not have a family when I knew him. For your sake, I hope that that changed him."

"What do you mean?" Aeris asked.

Vincent considered her question for a long moment, and then at last he placed his hands on the sides of the coffin and climbed out of it. A tall man, he towered over them, but he wasn't so tall as Barret.

"I think I will tell you," he said, as though he hadn't meant to before. "I had my opinions, but Gast was someone Lucrecia respected..."

He swept past them out the door, and Tifa exchanged glances with the others.

"I think he wants us to follow him," said Jessie.

Vincent didn't go far. He strode into the other room at the end of the tunnel and switched on the lights. Tifa was surprised that they worked, until she noticed that unlike the rest of the mansion, this room had only the faintest coating of dust. The lights revealed laboratory equipment: an operating table, shelves of labeled specimen jars, empty glass tanks that still smelled faintly of Mako. Farther in, the walls were lined with books--not literature like in the house above, but scientific journals.

"In my time," said Vincent, "Professor Gast was the lead scientist of the Jenova Project. Hojo and Lucrecia were his assistants, and as a Turk, I was assigned to their protection."

Vincent's hand came to rest on the operating table, in memory of something, and Tifa waited for him to go on.

"It was a task at which I failed. Lucrecia became too invested in the project... and so her unborn child became a part of the experiment."

"...and that child was Sephiroth," Aeris concluded.

Vincent nodded. "Once she made up her mind to go through with it, there was no way to stop her. That was my sin. I let the one I loved, the one I respected most, face the worst."

"And then you decided to spend thirty years in a coffin?" Yuffie asked skeptically.

Vincent didn't reply.

Tifa had a different question in mind, but she didn't voice it, unsure of how she herself might react to the answer. Vincent had loved this woman, and he'd made no mention of a father. There were enough similarities, she thought. His height, the broad-shouldered yet slender build, the slope of his nose. If those eyes had been green, would they have looked so different?

But she couldn't ask, because if he confirmed it, then she didn't know what she might do to him.

"Vincent," Aeris said, "what do you know about Jenova itself?"

That answer came easier. "It was a specimen that Professor Gast excavated from the ice in the north, frozen several thousand years ago, in the time of the Ancients. The theory behind the experiment was that they might reproduce the abilities of the Ancients in someone by using Jenova's cells."

"That can't be right," Tifa said, looking sharply to Aeris. This was exactly what she hadn't wanted to find, evidence of a connection between Aeris and...

But Aeris was already shaking her head. "No," she said. "Jenova wasn't an Ancient."

"You're sure, Aeris?" asked Jessie.

"My mother told me. She said my father made a mistake... I think this is what she meant."

Vincent was looking at her intently. "When was it that Gast realized this?" he asked.

"I guess it must have been when he met my mother," Aeris reasoned. "She was a Cetra."

"Well, yeah," said Yuffie. "I don't know how you mistake that thing for someone like you, Aeris. I mean, this Gast guy had eyes, right?"

Aeris shook her head. "It's not just that. I think my mother knew exactly what Jenova was. I think Jenova was an enemy of the Cetra... and of the Planet."

"But how much of this does Sephiroth know?" Nanaki wondered. "If the project was completed before Gast learned of his mistake, then there may be no record here of Jenova's true nature."

"Come on, you really think he believes he's a Cetra?" said Yuffie.

Tifa hesitated. That was what he'd said, when he'd spoken to her. She had taken it for a lie at the time, but what if he really thought it was true? Was that why he wanted Aeris alive, because he thought he was like her? How might that change things for Aeris, knowing that even if they weren't the same, Sephiroth believed they were?

But they were already speculating on it. Why keep it a secret any longer?

"I... I didn't say anything before, Aeris, because I was worried how you'd take it, but Sephiroth did say to me that he was a Cetra. He said that... once you saw how awful people were, then you'd awaken to your 'true calling,' like he did."

Aeris frowned. "Does that mean... Sephiroth thinks that humans need to die, to save the Planet?"

"That doesn't exactly add up, does it?" said Jessie. "I mean, if he really wanted to save the Planet, wouldn't he have burned Nibelheim's reactor to the ground, not the town? I'm no Ancient and I still know that's what's doing it the most harm."

Tifa nodded. "You're right. It has to be an act." She looked to Aeris, brow furrowing. "I think he wants something from you, Aeris, and he thought he might get it if you believed he was like you."

"Something only a Cetra would know..." Aeris murmured.

"...the Promised Land?" Jessie suggested.

"What would Sephiroth want with that?" Nanaki wondered.

"What do the Shinra want with it?" said Jessie. "They must think there's a power there they could harness. Sephiroth, too."

Aeris frowned thoughtfully. "So, has he been following us, hoping that I'd lead him there?"

"I don't know," said Tifa. "But you don't know where it is, right?"

Aeris shook her head. "It's not the place I've felt drawn to either. I don't think."

"If you're not sure, then maybe we shouldn't go there. We don't want Sephiroth to have it. If Jenova's an enemy of the Planet... and he's an enemy of the Planet... then gods know what he'd do with it."

"I think this is something different, but... I'll try talking to my mother again, when I can."

Tifa nodded. Aeris seemed to have trouble getting clear answers from her mother, but maybe now that she knew more, she'd be able to ask the right questions.

"I'm still not certain where your friend fits into all this, Tifa," Nanaki remarked, looking up at her. He seemed more preoccupied with that than she'd expected. Maybe because of his tattoo.

"Vincent," said Jessie, turning back to him, "do you know about any other experiments done with Jenova's cells?"

"No," he said, "but even if Gast realized his mistake, I doubt it would deter Hojo."

"What are you thinking, Jessie?" Tifa asked.

"Well, between those pods at the reactor, and that report about 'clones'... Sephiroth was a huge win for Shinra, until Nibelheim. What if they've been trying to reproduce that success? But, it takes a long time for a kid to grow up."

"So they tried using adults..."

"I wouldn't exactly call Cloud a success," said Yuffie.

Jessie shrugged. "I'm not saying the shortcut worked out for them."

Vincent spoke up again. "This lab has been used much more recently than my time, and there are more journals here than I remember. I suspect some of them may pertain to newer experiments. Perhaps you could find record of what happened to your friend."

Tifa looked at him. He'd been reluctant to help, but he had given them information, and now for the first time he had volunteered something. She didn't have to like him or trust him, but she had come here for answers, and he was providing them.

"Could you tell us which journals are the new ones?" she ventured.

"Yes, I believe so."

"I'd appreciate that," she said.

Finally, things were becoming clearer. They still didn't know what Sephiroth was up to, but they could begin to guess. An enemy of the Planet... That sounded right to Tifa.

Chapter Text

There was a lot to go through in that basement library, even with Vincent skimming the abstracts for them to weed out the less relevant documents. Jessie could see how Sephiroth had spent days here. They were each of them working their way through a stack of journals, even Nanaki, who was remarkably adept at turning pages with his claws.

Jessie was nose-deep in journals about the Jenova Project, and whatever else might be said for Dr. Lucrecia Crescent, mother of Sephiroth, she had clear handwriting. Besides the data on the experiment itself, she had taken meticulous notes on research into the Cetra that seemed to support Aeris's theory. It had been there right in front of them: a disaster that struck the Cetra civilization two thousand years ago, and an organism found, two-thousand-years-old, at the site of the great Northern Crater.

But they'd been hopeful, and named it an Ancient.

Given the horrific nature of the experiment, and the man it had produced, it was strange to read her and Professor Gast's hopes for it. They didn't fit with Jessie's image of Shinra, and maybe back then, the company had been a different monster, a fledgling horror that went unrecognized. Gast and Lucrecia didn't care about military applications. They thought they could make a better world by bringing the Cetra back into it. A people who spoke to and understood the Planet intuitively, without needing science to act as an intermediary.

Jessie snuck a glance at Aeris. It was ironic, in a way. Gast had put all this effort into trying to make an Ancient, and in the end, he'd done it the old-fashioned way.

"Ugh," said Yuffie, leaning back from the book she was reading. "Hojo had the worst handwriting. Somebody wanna trade me?"

She held it out hopefully towards where Nanaki and Vincent sat on the floor across from them. Vincent looked at it in distaste, and Nanaki shook his head.

"This is Hojo's as well," he said.

"I'll try it," Jessie offered. "Lucrecia is pretty easy to read."

She felt Vincent's eyes on them as she traded with Yuffie, but when she glanced up, he'd returned to reading.

Yuffie leaned closer to her. "Y'know," she whispered, "he never did explain the whole sleeping-in-a-coffin thing."

"I think we might have to let that one go," Jessie whispered back.

"But it's so weird! How did he even breathe in there?"

"We're sitting in a lab where they did human experiments, Yuffie. I think that's pretty self-evident."

Yuffie eyed Vincent over. "You think these scientists experimented on him, too?"

"I don't know how else you explain how a man who should be at least fifty looks like that," Jessie said. He could do with a haircut and an updated wardrobe, but he was really a very attractive man, she thought.

The epitome of brooding.

Jessie dropped her gaze to the journal, and grimaced. Hojo really had had bad handwriting. She squinted her way through it, and it wasn't just the tiny scrawl, but the dispassionate way he wrote that put her off. He spoke of Lucrecia and her pregnancy only in the most clinical terms, as though he'd never so much as met the woman who must have been his close colleague.

Aeris let out a small gasp, and Jessie looked up. She and Tifa had chosen to read through the more recent files, and maybe she'd finally found something about Cloud.

"What is it?" Tifa asked her.

"This one has a list of test subjects from when they started the experiment. There aren't any names, but listen: 'approximately 18 years of age, SOLDIER 1st Class'..." Aeris's voice faltered as she reached the end of the description. "'Extensive injuries'..."

"Let me see that," said Tifa, taking the book from her. "Here, it has them numbered, so this must be Cloud. '16 years of age, infantryman, extensive injuries.' It's the same note, and he's alive." She hesitated, her expression darkening. "At least half of these people are listed as survivors from the Nibelheim massacre. Including him."

"You never mentioned he was there," Aeris said.

"I didn't think he was..."

Infantryman, the document said. "You did say there were soldiers, though," Jessie recalled, and she shadowed the top half of her face with her hand in imitation of their helmets. "Maybe you didn't recognize him?"

Tifa looked over at her. "And he never said anything? I know we weren't close, but you think he'd have said hello."

"We can ask him," Aeris said. "He did know about the fire, so... maybe he remembers it."

Tifa nodded, but as she read over the remainder of the list, she only looked more heartbroken. "Oh, no..."

"What?" Jessie asked.

"'Ages... 7 and 3'... That must be... That's about how old the Reiher kids must've been."

"They took children for this?"

"That's not exactly new," Aeris reminded them grimly.

"Right. Of course," said Jessie. "It's just... still awful."

Tifa ran her fingers over the page, and then she looked up. "Nanaki... It's Zack that's listed as number thirteen here. I don't think this experiment has anything to do with you."

"I... Thank you, Tifa," Nanaki said, bowing his head.

Jessie thought it would have been odd for him to be involved in this one, but more and more, she was learning you could never tell with Shinra. Nothing was too strange or horrible for them.

The uncomfortable thought crossed her mind, turning her stomach to ash: if Shinra had used the survivors of one disaster for an experiment, had they done it for others? What were they doing now, in the remains of Sector 7? Could they have pulled people, still living, from the rubble, only to trap them into something even worse?

There was no way Biggs had survived, she thought, and for the first time there was the tiniest grain of relief in that. At least he'd never be put through something like this.

Eventually, everything she was reading began to run together, and Jessie sat back. "I think I've learned about all I'm going to about this Jenova Project," she said. "How are you guys doing?"

"I'm done if you are!" Yuffie declared, snapping her book shut. She hadn't actually turned a page in a while, so either she'd already given up or she'd been having trouble focusing. It made her smile, briefly. Biggs would've been the same way.

"Yes," Nanaki agreed, "I doubt there's much to gain from delving into the minutiae."

Jessie looked to Tifa, who nodded reluctantly. "There's enough here about what was done to them, but not the reason. It's not even referenced."

"Well," said Aeris, closing her book and setting it aside, "there are a few references to the original Jenova Project, so I think Jessie's theory is probably right. Hojo was trying to make another Sephiroth, but he failed."

Nanaki shook his head. "I wouldn't be so certain. Hojo tends to dispose of failed experiments, but we've encountered at least two of these 'clones,' and that report indicated they were being monitored."

"The report did make it sound like Hojo was still expecting something from them," Jessie conceded. "He thought they'd be leaving town for some reason."

"You don't think what they've got is contagious, do you?" said Yuffie, making a face.

"No, I don't think so," said Tifa. "But I don't know what you'd expect from someone in the shape Cloud was in..."

"Let's just get back to Barret," Jessie suggested, picking herself up off the floor. "He's been alone with poor Cloud for hours now."

Tifa nodded. "I can guess that went one of two ways. Either he's had to listen to some long rants about Shinra and how they're destroying the Planet, or he's had all the best Marlene stories."

"Oh," said Aeris, "now I'm jealous."

They only put the library back in enough order that they could make their way out without tripping over anything. The last one out, Tifa switched off the lights. They started down the tunnel to the staircase, but Vincent separated from them, moving towards the crypt.

"What- You're not going back to sleep, are you?" Jessie said.

"It is my punishment," he replied.

"Gods, you're even weirder than the rest of this bunch," said Yuffie.

Aeris turned to him. "Vincent, why don't you come with us? Instead of punishing yourself, you could be helping people."

"Nothing I do now would rectify my mistake."

"What about Sephiroth? Do you think Lucrecia would want her son to be doing what he is?"

Vincent didn't reply.

"You don't know what happened to her either, right?" Jessie put in. "Maybe you could find out."

"...what of Hojo?" Vincent asked.

"He's dead," said Tifa. "Sephiroth killed him only a few days ago."

"Hm. A fitting end."

With that, he turned his back on them and disappeared into the crypt. Jessie exchanged uncertain glances with Aeris. Was it worth trying to convince him? She didn't have any reference point for people who wanted to waste away in coffins.

"At least he was some help," said Tifa. She didn't seem to like Vincent, but she was looking at the crypt door with a frown.

"Well, I say good riddance to that giant downer," Yuffie declared, making the decision for them as she turned to go on. Nanaki started after her, and with a shrug, Jessie turned to follow.

But then Yuffie shrieked as something sprang out of the darkness ahead. Cold hands slammed into Jessie's shoulders, and her back hit the ground, knocking the wind out of her. Silhouetted above her was a deformed torso... with two heads. Saliva dripped down onto her cheek from a wide and grinning mouth.

A shot rang out. One of the heads snapped back, and fell limp. The other head let out a strange hooting noise before Tifa's foot connected with the monster's rib cage, knocking it off of her.

"Jessie!" Aeris exclaimed, and she knelt to help Jessie to her feet. Tifa had planted herself between them and the monster. In the doorway behind them stood Vincent, gun drawn.

The monster arched its back and righted itself, swaying on gangly legs. It jerked up one of its too-long arms, and a wave of lightning swept across the room, hitting the four of them knotted together in front of it. Jessie stumbled back into Vincent, while Aeris planted her staff to keep her footing, and Tifa dropped to one knee.

From behind the monster, Nanaki growled and leapt for it, sinking his teeth into its leg. It twisted in a grotesquely impossible way and swung its arm into his head, knocking him off. It crouched as though to spring after him, but Yuffie threw her shuriken and sent it staggering back.

Before it found its balance, Tifa knocked its legs out from under it, and Aeris brought her staff down on it to keep it from getting up. Jessie felt a metal hand on her shoulder, steadying her, and Vincent fired two more shots into the creature's second head. It stilled, and did not rise again.

"Um... Thanks," Jessie said, turning as Vincent's hand left her shoulder.

He nodded wordlessly.

She had to try again. Didn't it mean something that he'd reemerged so swiftly to help them with the monster? "Are you sure we can't persuade you?" Jessie asked. "You've already been a big help, and we could always use another ally."

Vincent hesitated, and he seemed to be looking at the dead monster. At last he holstered his gun and stepped out from the doorway. "Very well. I will accompany you, if I can be of use."

Jessie couldn't have guessed with any certainty what had caused the change of heart, and who knew if she'd ever find out, but she thought he'd come to it before she'd asked. Whatever his reasons, it could never hurt to have someone else along.

She just worried how Barret was going to react when he found out they'd recruited an ex-Turk.

It was a relief to get back outside again. As much as Jessie understood the wrongness of the place and how hard it was on Tifa, the village didn't give her the creeps the way the mansion had. The afternoon sun had begun its descent into the west, throwing a warm light on the faces of houses that looked perfectly cozy.

Vincent squinted in that light, raising his left arm to shade his eyes. Jessie had tried to sneak enough discreet glances earlier to figure it out, but now in the daylight she could see clearly that it wasn't a gauntlet. What had come first in this aesthetic? she wondered. The prosthetic arm or the vampire cape? Neither of them were part of any Turk uniform these days.

"I thought you said all of this had burned down," he said.

"Shinra rebuilt it," Jessie explained, so Tifa wouldn't have to. "To cover up what happened."

They returned to the replica of Tifa's house, and Jessie could hear conversation from upstairs.

"The hell difference does that make?" Barret was saying. "Doesn't make 'em better than anybody."

Cloud's reply was softer, too hard to make out.

"That's just basic--"

"Was that the door?"

They reached Tifa's room, and Barret rose from his seat on the piano stool as they entered. Cloud still sat on the bed, but he'd shrugged out of the shapeless black cloak, revealing a stained and ratty Shinra uniform beneath.

Barret opened his mouth, frowned at the sight of Vincent, and asked, "Who's this guy?"

"Barret, this is Vincent," said Tifa as diplomatically as she could. "Vincent, this is Barret, and Cloud."

"We found him locked in the basement of the Shinra mansion," Jessie added, because she knew a name wouldn't be enough explanation for Barret.

"He's probably a vampire," Yuffie put in.

"We just saw him in the sunlight, Yuffie," said Aeris.

Vincent stepped forward and offered Barret his clawed left hand. "I assure you I am not a vampire," he said, and Jessie hid a grin behind her hand. Did he have a sense of humor or did he really think that was important to clarify?

Barret just looked at the claw for moment before he took it with his hand and gave it a solid shake. "Don't know what any of that's supposed to mean," he said, "but I guess you helped or Tifa wouldn't've brought you."

Aeris nodded. "He helped us find some information about the Jenova Project, and... that other experiment," she said, glancing cautiously at Cloud.

Tifa motioned Barret closer and asked quietly, "How's he been?"

"Little spacey," Barret answered, "but he ain't gone catatonic or nothin.' Freaked out a little when I mentioned Sephiroth."

"Can you guys stop talking about me like I'm not here?" Cloud asked.

"Sorry, Cloud," said Tifa. "We're just into some pretty heavy stuff right now, and I'm not sure what you're up for, considering..."

Cloud shook his head. "I think it's hurting my head more not knowing."

"...all right," Tifa decided. "But do you want to get out of that uniform?"

Cloud glanced down at himself. "Don't have anything else."

"There's probably some clothes in the other room you could wear."

"But... that's your father's..."

"I know. It's all right."

Cloud hesitated, but he nodded. He got to his feet, unsteady on them for a second, like he hadn't used them in a long time. Then he made his way out of the room, keeping his head down to avoid everyone's gazes. As he passed between them, Jessie could see that the tear on the front of his shirt had a matching one in the back, as though he'd been stabbed clean through. 'Extensive injuries' was right.

Tifa looked back to Barret. "How badly did he freak out, about Sephiroth?"

Barret shrugged. "Seemed scared, mostly. Kinda like you back when we ran into 'im at Shinra HQ."

"All right. Hopefully that means it gets easier."

"Teef... do you wanna get outta here?"

"What?"

"Outta this town," Barret elaborated. "We got what we came for, right? I know you don't wanna spend the night in this fucked up place, an' I ain't too keen on it either knowin' all the folks here are Shinra."

Tifa nodded slowly. "Yeah. I guess you're right. We should get going, find someplace to camp before nightfall..."

Cloud returned, though he lingered just outside the doorway without entering. The clothes he'd changed into were plain and unremarkable, but when Tifa saw him, a faraway look crossed her face.

"You're... going somewhere?" Cloud asked uncertainly.

"I'm not sure where we're going," Tifa admitted, "but we can't stay in Nibelheim. It's your decision, but... I'd like for you to come with us. I don't like the idea of leaving you in this place."

"...me neither," said Cloud. "I'll come."

"Shouldn't we search the rest of the town before we go?" said Aeris. "I mean, Tifa, you don't have to see any more of it, but..."

"I get it. Zack could be here."

"Zack?" Cloud repeated, perking up.

Tifa and Aeris both hesitated, so Jessie spoke up. "There was a record of him being number 13," she said, gesturing to her hand. "So, if there are any others like you here..."

"I want to look, too," Cloud decided.

"Are you sure?" Tifa asked him. "It's... not easy, seeing it all like this."

Cloud glanced out the bedroom windows into the square below. "...I have to look," he said.

"All right."

"Aeris is right, though," said Jessie. "I think you should sit this part out, Tifa. You haven't given yourself any breaks this whole time."

Tifa nodded, and it was a sign of how much the place was getting to her that she didn't protest. "But you'll come get me if you find anyone else?" she asked.

"Yeah," Aeris assured her. "We'll let you know."

"Let's go for a walk, okay?" Jessie suggested. "Get outta this house."

Tifa let Jessie steer her out of the bedroom, though she threw a glance back over her shoulder as they left.

Barret's voice carried down the stairs. "Awright," he was saying, "rest of us'll split up and check the other houses. New guy, you're with me, so I can keep an eye on ya."

Jessie smiled, unsurprised. "I wonder how they're going to get along," she said.

"I wonder," said Tifa. "Maybe Barret preferred being outnumbered."

They stepped out into the street, and either way they went, it wouldn't have taken long to get out of the village, but Tifa chose south, and Jessie kept pace with her.

"Do you think Cloud's going to join us, too?" Jessie wondered.

Tifa shook her head. "I don't know if he should. I mean... He's lucid now, but I don't know how fragile that is. Sooner or later, we're going to confront Sephiroth, and... he's barely coping with being here."

"I dunno," said Jessie. "I think I'd be more worried if he wasn't overwhelmed. Look at it from his perspective: it's like he just woke up in a place he didn't think existed anymore, and his old neighbor showed up with a bunch of her weird new friends and told him to sit tight while they look into something they won't tell him about."

"...I guess that is a lot."

"He does seem kinda fragile right now, but we'll see how he handles learning about the experiment and everything, right?"

Tifa nodded. "Yeah. And... I do want to keep an eye on him, at least for a little while."

Jessie glanced at her. Of course she was already thinking of someone else's needs. "So how are you holding up, with all of this?" she asked. "I can't imagine how much it's messing with your head, finding Nibelheim like this."

And Jessie had tried imagining it. What would it be like if she went back to Midgar to find Sector 7 just the way she remembered it before its destruction, only full of strangers who told her she'd never had any place there? She'd probably feel like she was going crazy, but would she be angry? Upset? Would there be any strange kind of relief, to see the place standing again?

"It... doesn't quite feel real," Tifa admitted, "like most of today's been some kind of dream."

"I can see that. These things don't always hit you right away."

They passed beneath the gate at the edge of town, and within a few paces, the pavement beneath them gave way to a narrow dirt road.

"I think it's an insult, though," Tifa went on.

"An insult?" Jessie repeated.

"My Nibelheim is gone. It can't be brought back. But they put this thing where it used to be... I wish it weren't here, I really do, but..."

"...you can't imagine destroying it," Jessie concluded.

Tifa nodded. "It's too awful."

It was like Shinra had defiled someone's grave, Jessie thought. The grave of a hometown... and who knew what had happened to the people who had died there. Hojo had taken the survivors for his experiment, but what about the dead? Where were their bodies now? Somewhere hidden beneath the foundations, or... thrown away like so much trash?

"I'm sorry, Tifa. All I can say is... we'll be leaving soon."

"I don't ever want to come back."

"At least you found one real thing here," Jessie ventured. "You found a survivor. That's the first time you've seen anyone else from Nibelheim since then, right?"

"Right... You're right. I never really thought I'd see anyone from home again."

"He's kinda cute, too."

Tifa looked at her askance. "Really?"

"What? I'm not allowed to think so?"

"I didn't say that, I'm just... surprised you can even think about that right now."

Jessie shrugged. "This situation's not that rough on me, and I'm pretty good at multitasking."

"Still. I'm sorry you keep having to deal with all of our shit," Tifa said.

"Isn't that what friends are for?"

"I just don't want you to feel like you can't lean on us because of everything that's going on."

Jessie shook her head. "I can't dump on you right now."

"Why not?"

"You went through the same thing I did, when Sector 7 fell."

And anyway, they'd left all of Jessie's ghosts far behind them in Midgar, so she hadn't been forced face-to-face with them like Tifa and Barret had, or even Aeris. There was no way she could've handled it this well.

"Barret and I have been through it before," Tifa said, and if she was about to shrug it off because of that, then Jessie would have to have some words with her. But instead she went on, "I wonder now... It's taken us this long to talk about it. Maybe it would've been easier to get through if we'd had people around from the start that we trusted enough to share it with."

Maybe Tifa was right. Maybe it was hypocritical of her to ask them to open up, and then keep this to herself. It's just that her instinct was to talk to Biggs... someone who wasn't here.

"...I keep forgetting," Jessie confessed. "When I'm not thinking about it, I feel like Sector 7 is still there, and Biggs is off with Wedge somewhere. Until I think of something I want to tell him later, and I realize I won't be able to."

Tifa nodded. "That happens to me, too."

"I feel awful about it. I mean, how do you just forget something that important?"

"Biggs was important," Tifa stated. "You're not forgetting him. The fact that he's gone... that's a whole new reality. And you knew him your whole life."

Jessie hesitated. "...how long did it take you to accept that Nibelheim was gone?"

Tifa drew in a breath. "A while," she admitted. "You'd think being in Midgar would've been a constant reminder... but sometimes I'd think about writing home to my father about it. Or I'd wake up in the middle of the night thinking I was in my house in Nibelheim. I guess it was... around the time I met Barret that that didn't happen so much anymore."

"A year, huh..."

"It's a process. And gods, I hope you only have to go through it once."

Jessie nodded. It was pretty depressing that Tifa could be a voice of experience on this. "We're all kind of a mess, aren't we?" she said. "At least Yuffie seems relatively untraumatized."

"That's saying something, considering she grew up during the war."

"...yeah, I guess it is. But I wonder if it's really okay for her to come along on all this."

Tifa shook her head. "As long as she wants to come, it seems hypocritical to tell her no. I was her age when we started AVALANCHE."

"Damn, that's right, isn't it? I forget sometimes, you seemed so mature."

"It's kind of heartening that Yuffie isn't, in a lot of ways."

"Yeah," Jessie agreed, and then she ventured a smile. "You know, I was thinking of starting a pool on when she figures out you and Aeris, but I don't know what we'd bet."

"...camp chores?" Tifa suggested.

"All right. Then I call full-on kissing. She won't get it until she sees you two making out."

Tifa blushed.

"...have you yet?"

"I mean..." Tifa spread her hands. "When was I supposed to? Between the monster-infested mountains and the basement where her old boyfriend got experimented on, I sure know how to show a girl a good time, right?"

Jessie couldn't help a snort. "Okay, fair point. But c'mon, you've gotta seize the moments you can. If she's upset after all this stuff with Zack and her father, then you put your arm around her and you tell her everything's gonna be okay. Girls like that."

"Jessie, I am a girl."

"Do you want my advice or not?"

"...I do, actually."

"Okay," Jessie went on, "so I may not be an expert on relationships, but I know if they're going to work, they've gotta work when things are rough, especially for us. It's like you were telling me, now's not the time to keep your distance thinking you don't wanna burden her."

"I thought I was supposed to tell her everything's all right," Tifa said.

"Her things. Your things can be a mess, vulnerability's attractive."

"You're making this sound complicated."

"It doesn't have to be," Jessie insisted. "Look, how about this? Just don't get in your own way. If you're in the moment, and you want to say something, then say it. If you want to kiss her, then kiss her. Don't think about it."

"That's very you," said Tifa.

"Well, I'm the one you're talking to."

"I guess I can try it. I'll let you know how it goes."

"You'd better," said Jessie. "I'm counting on you to have a bright future."

"You're a part of that. Aeris is supposed to teach you gardening, remember?"

"That's right! Now that's something to look forward to. You're gonna settle down with your girlfriend, and I have some kind of midlife crisis and completely change careers."

"Would you say being in AVALANCHE is a career...?" Tifa wondered.

"You know, I'm not sure anymore," Jessie admitted. "It used to be Barret was my boss, and I got paid on a semi-regular basis. But now I think we're just an increasingly weird group of people who might be family..."

"I think I like that better," said Tifa.

"Yeah," Jessie agreed. "Me, too."

Chapter Text

The others' search of the village turned up six more of the so-called clones, but none of them were Zack. They weren't in all of the houses, but too many of them, and Shinra's staff acted like they didn't even exist.

Tifa insisted on going to see each of them, but she wasn't able to snap any of them out of it the way she had Cloud, and it was so hard, to see them that way. She almost broke down when they took her to the Reiher children. They were huddled together in the replica of their house, older now but still so small in the folds of those black cloaks. The little boy still echoed his sister's words, even though all she would say now was 'Sephiroth.' Tifa wasn't surprised she couldn't get through to them; they'd been young enough that they might not have remembered her even if something awful hadn't befallen them. But it was heartbreaking.

She really thought she had a chance with Mr. Hirsch. His son had been one of her closest friends, and he'd been friends with her father in turn. Their two families had spent plenty of time together. Surely he'd known her at least as well as Cloud, the boy who had gotten into fights with her friends and hardly ever spoke to her. But nothing she said worked on him either.

Cloud didn't go back into any of the buildings with her. He'd already tried a few times in his own way, and Aeris confided privately that his eyes had gone a little glassy, like the other 'clones' were more likely to sway him than the other way around. He waited uneasily in the square, searching Tifa's face each time she came back outside.

Disappointed each time.

"It ain't your fault, Tifa," Barret said after the last one. "Don't even go there."

"I just... what can we even do for them?"

"We can't take them with us," said Jessie. "There are too many of them."

Nanaki spoke up. "I have a suggestion."

"Let's hear it," said Barret.

"I think we ought to take Cloud to Cosmo Canyon and let the doctors there assess his condition. If they're able to do anything for him, they could return here to help the others."

"That's... not a bad idea," Tifa said.

"You really think they could help, Nanaki?" said Aeris.

"I don't know," he admitted. "But my grandfather ought to know something about Mako poisoning, and some of the most learned people in the world gather there."

"How do you feel about it, Cloud?" Tifa asked, looking to him.

He met her gaze only briefly before dropping his eyes. "...I want to get better," he said.

"Awright," Barret said. "We oughtta get movin' then." He nodded to the south, and Tifa followed his gaze. Going in and out of houses, she hadn't noticed, but the horizon was dark with distant storm clouds.

"Should we be travelling into that?" Jessie asked uncertainly. "I know we didn't want to stay here, but..."

"It's farmland to the south of here," Tifa said. "Hopefully we can find someone willing to put us up until the storm passes."

"I'm not sure we'd get there fast enough," Yuffie said skeptically. "Not that I have a problem getting rained on when the other option's staying in this crappy place."

Tifa's eyes fell on the only truck in town, sitting outside the replica of Mr. Kiefer's house. Of course, it probably wasn't really his truck either. "Let's see if they put any gas in that thing," she suggested.

"Oh, good idea," said Aeris.

"I still vote for getting rained on," said Yuffie as she trailed after them.

The keys had been left carelessly on the driver's seat, Shinra's actors trying to emulate the trust of small town people, Tifa supposed. The truck started without trouble, and the fuel gauge read about half full.

"Hey, Vincent," said Aeris. "Any chance you know how to drive?"

Tifa looked at her out the open door of the truck. "Is this a critique of my driving?"

"Don't get me wrong, you did great getting us out of Midgar, but..."

"Not the smoothest ride," Jessie finished.

"We were being chased," Tifa reminded them.

"I do know how to drive," Vincent offered mildly. "If it's necessary."

Tifa shrugged and climbed out of the truck, deciding she might as well leave it to him. It wasn't like she exactly enjoyed driving.

"I call shotgun!" Yuffie exclaimed, making for the passenger side before Vincent had even gotten into the truck.

"You want to sit up front with Vincent?" Jessie asked in surprise.

"If I have to ride in this thing, I am not getting tossed around in the back."

"Anyone mind if I squeeze up there with her?" Jessie asked, looking around at the rest of them.

Tifa shook her head. "Someone'll have to. It's gonna be a little crowded back here."

It was snug, five of them sitting in the truck bed with their gear, but it wasn't too bad. Aeris sat close beside her, and, remembering what Jessie had said, Tifa put an arm around her shoulders, trying to seem casual. Aeris leaned into her without remarking on it.

Vincent started the truck again and backed them out into the road without crashing into anything, already proving himself the better driver. They turned south, and if Tifa leaned her head back, she could see the storm clouds ahead, tinged with red as the sun had begun to set. But it was like Yuffie had said; she'd rather drive straight into that than stay in Nibelheim another minute.

As they drove into the farmlands, it was plain that some of the fields had been left untended, and they found the farmhouse overlooking them abandoned. Tifa wondered for how long. Maybe the people living here had heard about the Nibelheim massacre, and left for fear of anything like it befalling them.

Of course there was no electricity in a house like this, but they found some candles and an oil lantern. They gathered what chairs they could find around the kitchen table, and there weren't quite enough of them, but Vincent elected to stand. Jessie and Aeris wiped the dust off the furniture with some old rags, while Barret helped Tifa clean out the old wood-burning stove before the storm hit.

The storm brought twilight early, and darkness was already gathering outside as Tifa got the stove lit to cook up some of their provisions. Wind whistled in through cracks in the wall of the house, and it rustled the trees in the yard. It put Tifa in mind of her childhood, watching thunderstorms through her bedroom windows as she sat safe in her mother's arms. Her father had never liked them, too practical about the danger, but for a few years after her mother had died, he'd sat on her bed and watched them with her.

"So," said Barret as they all settled down, "what'd you guys find out in that mansion?"

And they told him, and Cloud, about the Jenova Project, and about the experiment that Hojo had started five years ago with the survivors of Nibelheim. Barret asked some questions, but Cloud sat silently through it all, looking pale and uneasy. Tifa watched him carefully, but though he jumped sometimes at the crash of thunder, he didn't freak out or slip back into his earlier catatonia.

"Do you... remember any of that, Cloud?" Aeris asked him at the end.

He shook his head slowly. "Not... really." He hesitated, and they waited for him to find his words. "It doesn't sound wrong, though. You say Hojo, and I don't remember ever meeting him, but I know who that is."

"And you don't remember what happened to Zack?"

"...I just feel like he's always been there, 'til lately."

Tifa looked to Aeris. "At least that means he survived, right?"

Aeris nodded. "Yeah. I wanted to believe it before, but I have a lot more hope now. So... thank you, Cloud."

Cloud scratched his head awkwardly.

The worst of the storm had passed while they shared what they'd learned at the Shinra mansion, but thunder still rumbled in the distance, making itself known in the quiet pauses.

"Cloud..." Tifa faltered. "At this point, I'm pretty sure I know the answer, but... you were there, five years ago, weren't you?"

"...yeah."

"And you came to the reactor?"

He nodded, glanced at her chest, and looked down. "I was too late, though. You and Zack were both... I thought you were a goner."

Tifa smiled gently. "I guess we both made it, somehow."

"You remember anything 'bout what happened to Sephiroth at that reactor?" Barret asked.

"I... remember Zack told me to finish him," Cloud said, and he spread his hands, shaking his head. "But I'm... me. There's no way I was any match for Sephiroth."

"But Zack could've been," said Aeris. "They were both 1st Class, right?"

"Sephiroth was... a whole other level," said Cloud. "I'm sorry. I really can't tell you what happened."

"Does it matter?" said Yuffie. "Whatever anybody did to Sephiroth five years ago, it's not gonna help us any. He's not dead, so it obviously didn't do the trick."

"Five years is still a long time to be out of commission," said Jessie. "If Zack did that, then we could really use him as an ally, wherever he is."

"Ain't gonna be much help if he's like the rest of 'em," said Barret.

Tifa shot him a look, and he scratched his head. Cloud folded his arms close about himself, as though trying to take up even less space.

"Don't worry, Cloud," Tifa said. "If you can come out of it, I'm sure Zack can, too."

"It's not that," he said. "I'm... You're acting like I'm just sick, but I've got Jenova in me, right? Like Sephiroth."

"That doesn't make you like him."

He looked up at her, shaking his head emphatically. "You don't know that. When Sephiroth found out, he went crazy. What if I... What if I'm dangerous? What if I hurt you?"

"That doesn't seem very likely to me," Tifa said.

"Yeah," Yuffie agreed. "I mean, I bet I could take you blindfolded."

That wasn't exactly what Tifa meant, and she cast Yuffie a wry look.

"Considering he's been exposed to both Jenova and Mako, he may be stronger than he appears," Nanaki put in. "However, I doubt you could be a match for all seven of us."

"Um," said Tifa, "I really don't expect to have to fight you, Cloud, but he's probably right, if it makes you feel any better."

He still looked worried, so probably it didn't.

"I don't think Sephiroth's the one you should be comparing yourself to anyway," Jessie offered. "After all, he had Jenova in him from birth. It was always part of him, not a foreign substance like it is with you."

"We don't know what that could mean either," said Cloud.

"Well, we do a little," Jessie said. "Lucrecia got sick from the Jenova cells, but the records indicate she started to recover a few months after giving birth to Sephiroth. If we could find out where she went after the Jenova Project, if she's alive today--that might give us some idea of what to expect for you long term, Cloud."

Vincent had been a motionless presence in the shadows of the kitchen throughout their discussion, but at the mention of finding Lucrecia, he shifted, his attention focused intently on Jessie.

"A few months," Cloud repeated. "But I... You said it's been five years."

"Right," said Jessie, "but Hojo kept you under for most of that time. Plus you were badly injured when the whole thing started."

Cloud said nothing, touching his chest where the tear in his old uniform had been.

"It may be, actually, that the Jenova cells are what saved your life," said Nanaki.

"What do you mean?" Tifa asked, frowning.

"Gast observed in them a remarkable ability for regeneration. When he first discovered the Jenova organism, he believed it to be dead. However, once removed from the ice, it was as though the creature began to spontaneously reverse that necrosis..."

Tifa shook her head slowly. "You're not telling me it's immortal."

"Perhaps not immortal, but certainly very difficult to kill."

"Which is why it must have spelled the end for the Cetra..." Aeris murmured. Her eyes were on her clasped hands atop the table, her brow furrowed. Was she worried, Tifa wondered, that the same fate might befall her as it had her ancestors?

Tifa remembered the day she'd first told the others about Nibelheim, thinking as she began her story that it had nothing to do with them. Now, maybe it had even more to do with Aeris than it did with her. Sephiroth had destroyed Tifa's home, but Jenova's crimes stretched back untold generations. It had left Aeris not as the sole survivor of one day's massacre but of a genocide.

"But you're still here," Tifa said. "Jenova wasn't the end of the Cetra, and it's not going to be the end of the Planet. We're going to stop it, and Sephiroth."

"That's great and all," said Yuffie, "but how?"

Tifa hesitated. How indeed? They'd gained some allies, and they knew a lot more today than they had yesterday, but she still didn't have any kind of plan.

"We ain't gonna figure that out right this second," said Barret. "It's been a long-ass day, and we got a lotta new shit rattlin' around in our heads. Gonna take time for it to settle. We'll head to Cosmo Canyon tomorrow, and we'll get ourselves sorted. Then we can work on a plan."

Tifa smiled at him appreciatively. "Yeah. You're right."

They dispersed to find themselves places to settle down for the night. The beds were nowhere near clean enough to sleep in, but the farmhouse had enough rooms to afford them more privacy than they'd grown used to. Tifa caught up to Aeris in one of the smaller bedrooms. A candle sat on the nightstand, lending a small but warm glow to the abandoned room.

"Are you all right?" Tifa asked.

Aeris straightened from laying out her bedroll and turned to look at her, cocking her head to the side. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?"

"I mean, I'm not, but... We got some answers, and we're out of Nibelheim. I think the worst is behind me."

"I'd ask if you wanted to talk about it, but that's all we've been doing."

Tifa nodded. "Yeah. I think I'm about talked out."

Aeris looked at her, and she smiled softly, that smile that said she had a secret. She walked past Tifa to the door, and closed it behind them. "Let's not talk then," she said.

That was good, Tifa thought, because a million questions at once leapt into her mind, and she had no idea how to express any of them. But Aeris gently took her sleeping bag from her arms and laid it out on the floor right next to her own. She sat down, and patted the space beside her.

Tifa joined her, watching her face uncertainly. "Aeris, I..."

"I just want to be close to someone right now. There's so much I don't know about myself. I want to feel like someone knows me."

Tifa nodded. "I know you," she said.

She found Aeris's hand atop the bedroll, and Aeris leaned in and kissed her, softly at first, and then seeming to melt into her, in a way Tifa hadn't known was possible. Aeris's fingers slid through her hair and came to rest on her neck, pulling her closer, pulling Tifa down on top of her as she laid back.

It was too much. Their lips parted. "I can't..." Tifa began.

"I know. I know, I'm not ready either. I just want this." Aeris leaned up and kissed her again. "Just this, okay?"

'Just'? Tifa wondered. Like it was something small and inconsequential, instead of everything. It was enough to fill her whole world right now--and she understood, that was what Aeris wanted. A world that was just this, just for a little while, just for now. For as long as Tifa could give it to her.

Tifa leaned back down, and that was her world for a while, too. Aeris's lips, and Aeris's hands in her hair, down her back, cautiously tracing the sides of her breasts. Aeris's body warm beneath her, glimpses of her green eyes in the candlelight. Tifa hadn't known much about kissing when they started, but Aeris made sure she learned.

Eventually, eventually, Tifa got up long enough to blow out the candle. She lay back down beside Aeris, who pressed up against her. Tifa put an arm around her.

Everything's going to be all right, she thought, but she didn't say it, because it wasn't about words right now.

She scarcely lay awake at all before sleep found her, and she woke in the morning as light drifted in through a gap in the curtains.

Aeris was still asleep in her arms. The reality of that in the daylight made her heart thud in her chest. Of everything that had happened yesterday, that stood out as the most incredible, the most unbelievable thing. She traced a finger over her lips at the memory of it.

Aeris stirred. Her eyes found Tifa's from beneath her lashes and she smiled. "Morning, Tifa."

"M-morning."

Aeris made no move to get up, but instead snuggled closer, tucking her head beneath Tifa's chin. "Thanks," she said, "for last night."

"...I needed it, too," said Tifa.

"Mm. I thought so. But you knew that I... Yesterday was a lot, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Barret's right. It's going to take some time to make sense of it all. We talked through all the facts, but it's like it's still too much for my head right now."

"We'll figure it out. Just take it a little bit at a time."

"Ahhh... I think the smallest thing is getting up, but I don't want to!"

Tifa smiled as Aeris tried to burrow somehow even closer. "Want me to carry you?" she offered.

Aeris giggled into her chest and pulled back just enough to look at her. "Would you? Just carry me around all morning, no explanation to the others."

"That'd really be something for Jessie's pool."

"Pool?"

"She was joking about starting a pool for what it'll take before Yuffie figures out we're dating," Tifa explained.

"Ohh... I'm not sure that'd do it. I think she'll need to see us kiss."

"Jessie already called making out."

"Well... I say a chaste kiss, then. I don't think she's that oblivious, I think she just doesn't care."

"You wanna test that theory?"

Aeris's face split into a grin. "Oh, you're getting bold now, aren't you?"

Tifa blushed. "It's just one little kiss," she said.

Aeris shifted and gave her a peck on the lips. "Like that? I think maybe we should practice, we didn't really do 'chaste' last night."

Tifa thought practice sounded nice, but a loud knock made her start.

"You two up yet?" Barret called through the door. "Jessie's almost got breakfast ready."

"Be there in a minute!" Tifa called back hurriedly, not wanting him to walk in on them.

"Show time," Aeris whispered, giving Tifa another quick kiss before she at last started to extricate herself.

They packed up their bedrolls and headed out to the kitchen. Most of the others were already there. Barret was reorganizing some of their gear, while Yuffie sat yawning at the table with Nanaki near her feet. Vincent stood in the corner, but a different corner from before, so at least he hadn't been there all night.

Jessie was at the stove, and she caught Tifa's eye inquisitively as she walked in with Aeris. 'Kissing,' Tifa mouthed to her, and she nodded in satisfaction.

"You need any help, Jessie?" Tifa asked aloud.

"Nah, you just relax. I'm almost done."

In a few minutes, she was distributing the food onto their camping plates. Tifa passed one to Aeris, who, casual as anything, leaned in to give her a kiss.

"Thanks, Tifa."

"Gross," said Yuffie almost immediately. "You guys really gotta do that in front of me this early in the morning?"

Aeris and Jessie both burst out laughing, and Barret chuckled. Tifa was still a few seconds behind, caught in that moment where Aeris kissed her in front of everyone.

"Looks like I was right," Aeris declared.

"Oh, you were betting, too?" said Jessie.

"Betting on what?" Yuffie demanded.

"I thought it would take more than that for you to get it," Jessie explained.

"What? You made bets about that?"

"Nobody gave me a chance to get in on it," said Barret.

"Sorry," said Aeris, though she certainly didn't sound it. "I guess I kind of cheated."

Yuffie pouted. "I thought it was for pretend. You know, with the whole tour group thing? Wait, you're not gonna tell me you and Barret are really dating, are you?" she asked, pointing between him and Jessie.

"Oh, no," said Jessie, and for some reason she glanced at Vincent. "That was for pretend."

"Okay, good," Yuffie said. "Anything else going on I should know about?"

Tifa exchanged glances with Jessie. "Not that I know of," she said.

They finished setting the plates out on the table, and Tifa stepped back. Someone was still missing.

"Where's Cloud?" she asked.

The others exchanged uncertain glances, and it soon became apparent that the answer from everyone was the same: he hadn't slept in the same room as any of them, and no one had seen him since last night's discussion.

Tifa swallowed her anxiety and asked them to do a quick check of the house, but she found him almost right away as she stepped out onto the porch. He sat with his legs over the edge, hunched forward with his arms across his knees and his head down.

"Cloud?" she said.

He glanced up at her, and she let out a quiet breath of relief. "Oh, Tifa. Hi."

"How long have you been out here?"

He didn't answer, and she moved to sit down beside him, peering carefully into his face. He looked exhausted, dark circles under his eyes.

"...all night?" she said.

He nodded.

"You really couldn't sleep?"

Cloud didn't answer right away. "...I'm scared," he admitted at last. "If I go to sleep... what if I... don't really wake up?"

Tifa bit her lip. What a horrible thing to have to fear. Getting lost again in that haze she'd found him in. "I'll be here," she offered, "right?"

Cloud glanced at her again. "Yeah, but... I don't wanna go there again, at all. I feel like... I wasn't me."

"I'm sorry. I don't know how else I can help."

"That's okay. It's not really your job."

"My job?" she repeated, raising an eyebrow.

"I mean... you don't have to feel so responsible for me. It's not your fault what happened, and I'm just your neighbor from a long time ago."

"Maybe that means more than you think it does."

"Huh?"

"I know we weren't close growing up, and maybe that's my fault for not reaching out, but I feel like we should've been friends. I don't know why you didn't say anything when you came back five years ago."

Cloud faltered. "I was probably being stupid," he admitted, "but I was... ashamed."

"Ashamed?" Tifa sat back in surprise. "Of what?"

"Well, I left home saying I was going to join SOLDIER. And then I couldn't cut it."

"A lot of people don't make it into SOLDIER," she pointed out.

"I know. But I really wanted to prove that I could... be somebody."

"You don't have to prove anything like that to me."

Unexpectedly, Cloud let out a soft laugh. "Yeah. I guess not," he said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she wondered.

"Well, uh..." Cloud scratched his head. "Barret told me, you're with Aeris?"

Tifa stared at him for a second. "Oh," she said. He really had had a crush on her? "Um, yeah. She's my... girlfriend." It was the first time she'd said it herself, but she didn't see any other way to put it, after last night. She felt her cheeks heating.

"That's nice," said Cloud. "I'm glad you have someone. And I mean, I don't want you to think I'm still-- That was a long time ago."

"All right then," said Tifa. Whether it was true or not, she'd take him at his word. She didn't want to embarrass him. "So, what else did Barret tell you?"

"...his daughter seems really talented," Cloud said, and Tifa laughed.

"I thought that might happen," she said. "Barret's not the greatest conversationalist, but he can always talk about Marlene."

"He told me how you guys met, too. And a little about AVALANCHE. It sounds like you've done a lot with your life, these past five years."

Tifa was sure he didn't mean to sound envious, but it was still there in his voice. He'd had those five years stolen from him. She put a hand on his shoulder. "You've got time now," she said.

"...I hope so."

"I know so," she said, and maybe she didn't, but she wanted to believe it, and she wanted him to believe it, too.

She thought he probably saw through that, but he said, "Thanks, Tifa."

"Now, you want to come in for some breakfast?"

Cloud nodded, and Tifa gave him a hand up to go back inside.

"Everything all right?" Aeris asked.

Tifa glanced at Cloud. "More or less," she said.

"Maybe breakfast'll help," Jessie suggested. "You look tired, Cloud."

"Thanks," he said, taking a seat at the table. Realizing everyone's eyes were on him, he glanced up shyly and added, "Sorry if I worried everyone."

"That's all right," said Jessie. "We do a lot of worrying about each other around here."

"That, and they try to get you to join AVALANCHE," Yuffie put in around a mouthful.

Tifa slid into a chair, arching an eyebrow at Yuffie. "Without much success, apparently."

Aeris nudged her from the seat next to her. "You got me. I'm a proud AVALANCHE member."

Tifa smiled.

"Little too soon to extend invites to you two," Barret said, looking from Cloud to Vincent, "but we'll see how it goes."

"Isn't that up to Tifa?" said Yuffie, and they all looked at her. "What? She's in charge, right?"

Tifa blinked. "What, me?"

"Y'know..." said Barret thoughtfully, "you been callin' the shots lately, Teef. An' doin' a pretty good job, I'd say."

"I had assumed you were the leader as well," Nanaki admitted.

"Um..." Tifa pushed back her hair. "I don't think it really matters, does it?"

"Sometimes you gotta call a thing what it is," said Barret. "You got everybody lookin' to you... might as well make it official."

"Are you really all right with that?"

"Long as it's you... Yeah, I ain't got no problem with that. I'll be your right-hand man. Whatever you need."

"Well, if Barret's on board, then I'm all for it," said Jessie.

Aeris smiled at her. "Looks like congratulations are in order, Miss Leader."

They really were all looking to her. Barret and Jessie, who'd been a part of this with her for years. Aeris, with her unwavering support from day one. Yuffie and Nanaki, seeing this as just a confirmation of what they'd already believed. Even Vincent and Cloud, new to the group, their positions not yet cemented... She couldn't read Vincent's expression, but Cloud's was soft, almost a smile.

The idea of leading them all would have been overwhelming, if they hadn't said she was already doing it, if she didn't know she had them to back her up. It was never anything Barret had done alone either.

"Thanks, everyone," Tifa said. "I'll do my best."

Chapter Text

Funny how much one little make out session could improve a person's mood, Aeris thought. Tifa was too private a person to be so openly affectionate in front of the others, but Aeris took what little touches she could get. Even the shared glances she felt bolstering her spirit, affording her the strength she would need to face the doubts that she had pushed to the back of her mind.

The night's sleep seemed to have improved about everyone's mood, with the exception of Cloud, who didn't appear to have slept at all, and Vincent, who looked exactly the same. Aeris could hope that he had found some enjoyment in sleeping someplace other than a coffin for the first time in thirty years, but she really had no idea. The man was a real mystery.

What wasn't a mystery was Jessie, and the reason she again elected to sit wedged up front between him and Yuffie. Aeris had noticed the glances she'd thrown Vincent's way, and she had a pretty good idea what was going on there.

Tifa stood discussing the route briefly with Vincent, before she climbed on into the back with the rest of them. As she settled herself, she draped an arm loosely across Aeris's shoulders, and Aeris smiled to herself, glad they had at least come that far.

They drove south through more farmland, fields and fields of growing things passing by, things humans had cultivated themselves. The Planet's voice grew stronger the farther they got from Mt Nibel, and Aeris leaned back against Tifa, closing her eyes.

What did the Promised Land feel like? she wondered. She understood it wasn't meant to be known, like a fact, but searched for and discovered. And in the moment, she wondered why it should feel more like a place, rather than a person.

Should I be able to sense it at all yet, Planet? I've still only just begun my journey.

In response, she felt an affection from it, and for a moment the sun felt warmer on her skin.

"You daydreamin' over there?" came Barret's voice, and she opened her eyes to see him watching her in amusement.

"Just trying to have a conversation," she said.

"Huh?"

"With the Planet, I assume?" Nanaki ventured, and he glanced at Barret. "Perhaps we ought to give her some quiet."

Barret scratched his head. "Sorry."

Aeris smiled at him and closed her eyes again.

The city my mother told me about in the north, that isn't the Promised Land, is it? It's something else.

A confirmation, but not an outright dismissal. The idea of journeying there, and journeying on. Like it was a stepping stone on the path to the Promised Land. Maybe, if she went there, whatever sense she was meant to have of it would grow stronger.

Can Sephiroth find the Promised Land? Can Jenova?

The warmth faded swiftly into unease, and that unease churned inside of her before taking shape. A negative, certainly, but also a sense of futility.

Are you sure?

Certainty. A complete rejection of Sephiroth and of Jenova.

Do they know?

No answer to that. She thought maybe the Planet didn't have one.

"What does the Planet have to say?" Tifa asked cautiously as she opened her eyes again.

"Sephiroth can never find the Promised Land," Aeris said. "Even if I knew where it was, even if I were to lead him straight to it. He isn't of this Planet, so he'd never see it."

"Does he know that?" Tifa wondered.

"I don't know. I hope not, because if he does, then that means it isn't the Promised Land he's searching for."

"Didn't he say it was?" Cloud asked.

"...do you remember him saying that, Cloud?" Tifa asked. They could speculate, but none of them had heard it from Sephiroth himself.

Cloud hesitated. "I don't know. I was just really sure for a second, that he had."

"Maybe he did, back in Nibelheim," Tifa considered with a frown. "Who knows? Maybe he's been searching for it all this time."

It was an uncomfortable thought, though Aeris couldn't quite pin it down. Searching in vain all this time, until, maybe, he thought to use her... Why now? Was it only a coincidence that he'd appeared in the Shinra building so soon after her capture?

A couple hours' drive brought them to a riverside village, where they refueled the truck and found passage across a ferry. This river was wider even than the one near Junon, but the current seemed calm here, too.

"Is this where you learned to swim?" she asked Tifa.

Tifa nodded. "A little farther upriver from here, but yeah. I guess you probably learned here, too, didn't you, Cloud?"

"...yeah. Mom got Mr. Kiefer to take me sometimes."

It must have been as bittersweet a memory for him as for Tifa. He'd lost the same home in that fire. Only, he hadn't had five years of living to distance himself from it, or to build a new family. Just a hazy gap in his memories. Aeris felt for him, and in some ways, she related. Feeling out of his depth out in the world after being kept by Hojo... She remembered that.

As they got going again, Aeris noticed he was having trouble keeping his eyes open. He nearly dozed off a few times, but jerked himself upright again after only a few minutes.

"You'll have to sleep sometime," Tifa said to him. "But we'll all be here. Right?"

Cloud hesitated, but he nodded. "Wake me when we get there?"

"Of course."

South of the river, the landscape began to change. It was subtle at first, the dirt road taking on a reddish hue that Aeris could see occasionally in the earth beneath the grasses, too. Then the greenery grew sparser, but not because of anything unnatural like a Mako reactor. It was simply a land that saw less rain.

It was hard to see the way ahead from the back of the truck, and so it seemed to Aeris that the canyon came upon them suddenly. Great walls rose up on either side of them and threw the road into shadow. Aeris sat up straighter, watching the winding corridor of earth unfold behind them, a deep reddish brown, slashed in varied shades and hues.

Eventually, Vincent brought the truck to a stop, and craning her neck, Aeris caught a glimpse of some structure above them. Nanaki leapt eagerly out of the truck, and he circled it impatiently while the rest of them gathered their gear.

Tifa gave Cloud's shoulder a gentle shake, rousing him.

"We're here," she said.

"Here?" He looked up at her, glanced around, and nodded. "Cosmo Canyon."

Tifa smiled, her shoulders relaxing. "Yeah. How are you feeling?"

"I'm okay," he said, returning the smile ever-so-slightly.

They were the last ones out of the truck, and as soon as Cloud's boots were on the ground, Nanaki trotted on to a long staircase cut into the rock. Unable to hold himself back any longer, he bounded ahead out of sight.

"Nanaki?" came a startled voice from above. "You're back! Hey, Nanaki's back!"

Aeris was winded by the time she reached the top of the steps, and she was happy to take a moment to catch her breath, but Tifa and Barret tried to go on through the gate.

"Woah there," said the man who had greeted Nanaki. "I'm afraid we don't let just anyone in here."

Aeris lifted her head. Nanaki had already run halfway up another flight of stairs within the settlement, but he paused as he caught sight of them gathered outside the gate.

"They're with me, Ira!" he called down to the gatekeeper. "Please let them in."

"Is that right?" said Ira, looking over them again. "You're friends of our Nanaki?"

"That's right," answered Tifa. "We've travelled a long way together. I promise we don't mean to make any trouble here."

"Yeah, no way," said Barret. "I always wanted to come here, I ain't gonna mess it up."

Ira glanced at his gun arm, but he nodded and stepped aside. "Well then, welcome to Cosmo Canyon."

"Thanks," said Tifa, and Aeris offered the man a grateful smile of her own as she followed Tifa and Barret through the gate.

"Guess he must've run off to find his folks," Barret said, glancing up. Nanaki had vanished out of sight.

"You can usually find Bugenhagen up at the observatory," offered Ira, overhearing him. He pointed up to the very top of the settlement. "I'm sure that's where Nanaki's gone to. He's been away a long time."

"Maybe we shouldn't go after him just yet," Aeris considered. "Let him enjoy being home for a bit."

Tifa nodded. "Yeah. That makes sense."

"C'mon," said Jessie, pushing ahead eagerly. "Let's get settled at the inn so we can explore the place."

"What's to explore?" said Yuffie. "I don't get what you're all so excited about."

"It's the birthplace of AVALANCHE, Yuffie," Jessie replied.

"Yeah, yeah. And it's full of scholars or something. I got enough of studying back in Nibelheim, thank you very much."

Jessie shrugged, not trying to convince her but not letting Yuffie dampen her enthusiasm either.

They located the inn easily and secured a couple rooms for their party. Aeris would have liked to have a private room for her and Tifa, but she understood they couldn't waste money like that. It had been a few days since she'd gotten to sleep in a bed, so at least there was that.

"Man, we gotta call Marlene and Wedge," said Barret, plopping down on one of the beds.

"Poor Wedge," said Jessie. "He's going to be so jealous."

"We'll have to come back with him later," said Tifa.

Yuffie and Vincent left the room before Barret had even started dialing, and Aeris wasn't surprised; neither of them had ever met the people they were calling. Cloud lingered through the first hellos and telling Wedge where they were, but it seemed to make him uncomfortable, and he slipped out, too.

Tifa watched him go, her brow furrowing in concern. Aeris touched her hand to let her know she'd noticed and got up to go after him. He hadn't gone far, just out to the inn's reception area overlooking the pub. Vincent must have stepped outside, but Yuffie sat below about to pick an argument with the bartender over how old she was.

"You all right, Cloud?" Aeris asked.

He glanced back at her and nodded. "Yeah. Just felt like I was intruding."

"I'm sure Tifa doesn't feel that way."

"I know," he said. "Just... reminds me of when we were kids. She had a lot of friends then, too."

"I get it," Aeris said, smiling sympathetically. "I was a little jealous at first, too. She has a certain magnetism... People are drawn to her without her even realizing."

Cloud raised an eyebrow at her. "You were jealous?"

"Oh, I'm a lot more confident now, but I never used to have many friends either."

Cloud smiled wryly. "Guess... that's the type Zack's drawn to, huh?"

"Hmm. It does seem that way, doesn't it? I mean, he'd make friends with anyone, but maybe he decided we were the ones who needed it most."

"Do you think... Um..."

Catching his eye, Aeris thought she knew what he was trying to ask. "I'm sure he'd be thrilled if we were friends, too," she said.

Cloud smiled shyly and nodded.

Nanaki found them shortly after the others had finished up their call. "Come," he said. "Grandfather wants to meet you all."

They followed him through the settlement, and all the way up to the observatory. Aeris caught only brief glimpses of the view out over the canyon, as it was hard keeping up with Nanaki in his excitement.

Inside the observatory, the oldest man Aeris had ever seen was waiting for them. Even behind his dark glasses and the thick droopy eyebrows, she could make out deep crinkles in the corners of his eyes from decades of smiling. Strangely, he didn't stand, but hovered a little above the floor on some sort of contraption.

Even stranger, the Planet's voice was loud in this room, almost like she was hearing it from outside of her.

Nanaki introduced them all to the old man, and then went on, "This is my grandfather, Bugen. He's the wisest person you'll ever meet."

Bugenhagen chuckled fondly and said, "Nanaki tells me you all helped him to return home. I thank you for looking after him. He is still a child, you see."

"Grandfather, I'm 48."

Aeris exchanged glances with Tifa. They were all familiar enough with unconventional families that she hadn't batted an eye at Nanaki calling a human his grandfather, but at 48, he was older than all of them, except for Vincent.

"You call that a child?" Jessie wondered.

"Nanaki's tribe is incredibly long-lived," Bugenhagen explained. "So you see his 48 years might only be the equivalent of a human of 16 or 17."

Aeris glanced at Yuffie, supposing that put them at about the same age, but she didn't seem to be paying attention.

"What's that sound?" Yuffie asked.

"What sound?" said Aeris.

"You don't hear that?" Tifa asked, gesturing vaguely upwards. "Sort of like a... wailing."

Aeris stared at her, and she looked around at her friends, who all seemed to be hearing something, trying to determine where it was coming from. Cloud was even wincing. "You mean... you all can hear that?"

"It's one of grandfather's machines," Nanaki explained. "It picks up and amplifies the voice of the Planet."

"You got a machine that can do that?" Barret wondered.

"Indeed," said Bugenhagen, and Aeris thought he was looking at her from behind his glasses. "Though I suspect it is a poor substitute for an actual conversation."

"Do you really hear this all the time, Aeris?" Jessie asked.

"...yes," she said. "The Planet is always in pain. Though he's right. This isn't the only thing it has to say, just... the loudest."

"Man, I'd go nuts if I had to listen to this 24/7," said Yuffie. "We'd better kick the crap out of Sephiroth and the Shinra real soon."

Bugenhagen chuckled again, but this time there was something sad about it. "Nanaki told me that you hope to save the Planet. What a challenge you've set for yourselves... but I envy you your optimism."

"You don't think it can be done?" Tifa asked with a frown.

"Every day, Shinra's reactors drain more and more of this Planet's life force. Perhaps I ought to have more hope than to think that we have passed the point of no return, but I've spent decades listening to this Planet's misery, and it seems to me that anything we do now only delays the inevitable..." He laughed again. "Ah, but what do I know? I am only an old man, and my feelings shouldn't keep you from trying."

But his words made Aeris uneasy, and she shook her head slowly. "There's still life in this Planet," she said. "It's fighting so hard..."

"That's why we gotta fight for it, too," Barret said decisively.

Aeris looked up at him with a smile. "Yeah. You're right."

"Grandfather," said Nanaki, "why don't you show them your planetarium? They might find that more inspiring."

Bugenhagen nodded. "Yes, I suppose they might. And it's a good way to begin a study of planet life. But I'm afraid there's only room for three of you at once."

"I'll pass," said Yuffie. "I did not come up here for any kinda lesson."

Tifa looked to Aeris, but she shook her head. "I think... the original AVALANCHE should see it," she said. "I already know something of planet life, and I think I'd like to clear my head."

"You're sure?" Tifa asked.

Aeris nodded. "I can always come see it later."

"Well then, this way," said Bugenhagen, guiding Tifa, Barret, and Jessie into an adjacent room. The door closed behind them.

"Cloud, why don't I take you to meet some of our doctors?" Nanaki said, turning to him. "Is that all right?"

Cloud hesitated, then let out a breath. "Yeah. There's no sense putting it off."

They left the observatory, leaving Aeris momentarily alone with Yuffie. She blinked. "Yuffie, did you see where Vincent disappeared to?"

"Vincent? Yeah, he just kinda slipped past and went up there while everybody was talking," Yuffie said, pointing to a ladder at the back of the room. "You think he's up to something?"

Aeris shook her head. "I don't know. He doesn't strike me as one for crowds."

"I'm kinda feelin' that way myself right now," Yuffie admitted. "So... If it's cool with you, I'm gonna take off, see if I can find anything fun to do in this place."

"Sure. Good luck."

Yuffie left, and Aeris turned to the ladder. Past what must have been Bugenhagen's private bedroom, the ladder led on up to a balcony encircling the outside of the observatory. She found Vincent sitting up there, his back resting against the domed roof. He glanced at her as she approached, but said nothing.

Aeris didn't say anything either at first, going instead to the railing. It was an incredible view from up here. She could see the whole of the settlement below, the windmills that powered it glinting as they turned, and the path of the canyon stretching for miles to the horizon. The sun was setting now, streaking red and gold across the sky and intensifying the colors of the canyon.

"Have you been here before?" she asked Vincent.

"...yes," he answered. "I made several trips with Professor Gast. These machines were his gift to the friends he had here."

Her father had had friends here. She wondered how close he'd been with Bugenhagen, what Bugenhagen had thought of him. Aeris found it difficult to reconcile the things she'd heard of him. Her mother called him a good man, but he'd proposed and led the Jenova Project, an experiment Aeris would have considered morally reprehensible even if it hadn't had such disastrous results.

And what of Sephiroth, the child? Aeris knew more than enough about Shinra to know how difficult it would have been for Gast to take Sephiroth and leave the company, but had her father even tried? Or had he abandoned Sephiroth to be raised by Hojo, turning his back on the whole affair?

She knew Vincent wouldn't have the answer to that--it had happened while he slept--but Aeris left the railing and cautiously took a seat beside him. It was the first chance she'd had to speak with him alone, but her thoughts had been in too much disarray yesterday anyway.

"Could you... tell me about him?" she asked. "Professor Gast?"

"I only knew him in a professional capacity," said Vincent.

"I know. But I never knew him at all, and my mother barely talks about him. I'd really appreciate anything you could tell me."

Vincent considered the request before speaking. "He was a courteous man," he said. "Not used to giving orders. He always phrased them as requests. And I believe he tried to be kind... but his research held so much of his focus, he often failed to notice what was happening to those around him."

"You mean, to Lucrecia?" Aeris ventured.

"...yes. I don't think that Gast ever pressured her. But he didn't know her well enough to realize that she felt pressured."

"By Hojo?"

Vincent nodded. "Though it wasn't only him. She was... very hard on herself."

"It seems like you had that in common," Aeris observed.

Vincent glanced at her without saying anything, but the look spoke volumes. He had cared so deeply for this Lucrecia, but ultimately, he had lost her. Whether it had been the Project that divided them, or something else... Or maybe even, an unrequited love. Aeris didn't know.

And she wouldn't have sought an answer if her own father hadn't been so integral to what had happened, if it wasn't that woman's son who they meant to kill one day soon.

"Vincent," she said, "I'm sorry to ask you this, but... is Sephiroth your son?"

There was a long pause before Vincent's answer. "...no," he said at last.

"You're sure?"

"Yes."

Aeris studied his face, and decided he was telling the truth. There was something painful about that question, but he wasn't Sephiroth's father.

But if not Vincent, then who? Aeris clasped her hands tightly in her lap. Her father had led the Project. Lucrecia had respected him.

"But he couldn't be... I mean, he and I aren't..."

"No," Vincent cut in the moment he grasped where her thoughts had taken her. "You have no relation. Hojo... was Lucrecia's husband."

Aeris closed her eyes and let out a breath. What a relief, to know that she and Sephiroth didn't share that connection. But in a way, it was almost worse. That that man had had a wife, that he'd fathered a child...

"How... sad for them," she said.

Vincent nodded, and they both sat in silence for a while. Surprisingly, it was Vincent who broke it. "May I ask... how it was that Professor Gast died?"

"Mom told me he died trying to protect us," Aeris answered. "I always assumed it was Hojo, or someone working for him, but I never guessed that they would have known each other. That they used to be colleagues."

"Hojo always was jealous of Gast," Vincent said.

"...I guess he must have been jealous of you, too, in a different way." There must have been something between him and Lucrecia. She couldn't imagine Hojo showing a person any love, let alone enough love.

"It is fair to say we hated one another," said Vincent.

"Was he the one who locked you in that basement?"

"I have no memory of it, but I expect he was."

"You know... If you used to be with the Turks, it seems to me like you could've gotten out. I mean, Jessie picked the lock. Or you could have shot it open."

Vincent didn't reply.

"I don't mean to sound like I'm judging. I just think it's sad, that you wanted to stay. I mean... Look at this view." She gestured to the canyon sprawling before them. "I spent my whole life in Midgar, until a couple weeks ago. I always wanted to see things like this."

"Midgar..." Vincent murmured. "So they built it then."

"Oh... that's right. Jessie said they only started construction about thirty years ago. It's... so central to everything now, it's hard to imagine the world without it."

"Nibelheim still looked the same," said Vincent, "and this place is hardly any different. Strange, how some things endure, while others only seem to."

Aeris couldn't guess precisely what he was thinking of in that moment, but she nodded. "In a way that's comforting. Shinra's been around a while, but not that long, in the scheme of things. Maybe in another thirty years, people will be asking, 'Shinra who?'"

"Perhaps," Vincent agreed.

Aeris smiled at him. "Anyway, thanks for talking to me. I'm sure it must be hard for you after all this time. And we're all here, if you need anything."

He looked at her as though she'd said something unexpected, and then he inclined his head. "Thank you," he said.

Aeris picked herself up off the floor. "I'll leave you to enjoy the view, though, if that's all right. There are a lot of people here I want to talk to."

Vincent nodded. "I hope you find the answers you're looking for."

Maybe not such a mystery, Aeris thought. A reserved man, but a kind one.

She made her way back down the ladder. Putting her ear to the door, Aeris could make out muffled voices from the planetarium, but she decided not to wait for them. Instead she continued down into the main settlement, and took her time, poking her head into rooms that Nanaki had hurried them past on the way up.

Some of them were homes, others shops, but in one, she found an old man sifting through documents, and while he said he'd been acquainted with Gast, he directed her to one of his colleagues who'd known him more closely. She thanked him, and went on down to the pub. In their absence, an older man, probably in his sixties, had settled in for dinner.

"Are you Elder Bugah?" she asked.

"Hm?" he said, looking up from something he'd been reading. "Yes, that's me. Let's see, you're one of the people who came with Nanaki, aren't you?"

"That's right. My name is Aeris."

"Pleasure to meet you. He's been gone too long, we were all quite worried about him."

"How long has it been exactly?" she wondered. "He's never said."

"Hmm... More than a year now, must be. Some of those Shinra people took him. We were all at a loss... We're a peaceful people, and it's been a long time now since we had any connections within the company."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about, actually. I was told that you used to know my father, Professor Gast?"

Bugah leaned back in surprise, looking her over anew. "You're Gast's daughter? He had a daughter? Well! I'm doubly pleased to meet you. Please, sit down. Have you eaten yet? It's on me."

What a reaction, Aeris thought. "Oh... Thank you," she said, taking a seat opposite him. He called to the barkeep and arranged for him to get a meal out to her.

"So, how is he?" Bugah asked, leaning across the table eagerly. "What's he gotten himself up to these days? It's been ages."

Aeris faltered. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but he died. When I was a baby."

"Oh... Oh, I see."

"That's why I wanted to talk to you. I was hoping you could tell me about him."

"Of course, of course... Gods, what a shame, though. Was it the Shinra? Did they get after him?"

"Yes. I think that's what happened."

Bugah shook his head. "Poor bastard. I never thought he should've had anything to do with them. Didn't seem the type, he was far too genuine a person."

"Genuine?" Aeris wondered.

"Mm." Bugah took a drink and continued, "He dedicated his life to studying the Ancients, and whenever he came here, we'd get to drinking and talking each others' ears off about it. Wish you could've seen how excited he got over it. Of course we were both still young men then, even me. But knowledge was everything to him, he thought that was what would make the world a better place. Really he had more in common with all of us here than he did with the Shinra. But I suppose it was their funding that got him that dig up north. I still remember how elated he was when he found that Ancient..."

"He told you about that?"

"Sure. Not in too much detail... Company secrets and all that. But he checked in a few times after that, told me his research was going well. At least, until the last time I saw him... He showed up here one day, out of his mind distressed. I'd never seen him like that. All he'd tell me was that Jenova wasn't an Ancient and that he'd done a terrible thing. I just couldn't get him to calm down, and he wound up leaving again. I heard he never went back to Shinra."

"I see," said Aeris. Of course he had left the company, or her mother would never have had much to do with him. How early had they been in their acquaintance then?

"He never mentioned a wife to me," Bugah went on, "so I guess it must have been after that, he managed to settle down and find a little peace. At least, I hope so."

"My mother told me they were happy together, even if it was only for a few years."

"That's good. He deserved a little happiness."

"You think so?"

Bugah frowned at her in confusion. "Why? You don't?"

"No, I... I wouldn't say that," she said. "It's just, the terrible thing he did... it really was terrible. I know my mother forgave him for it, but I've only just learned about it. It's... hard to think about."

"Well, I knew the man, and about the most terrible thing you would've expected of him is writing in the margins of a book you lent him. Not that I'm doubting you, that's just the kind of person he was. He never would've wanted anything bad to come out of his research, but I can see how that's exactly what the Shinra would've wanted from him."

Aeris nodded. "I guess everyone makes mistakes. I'm sure... he would've tried to fix it, if he could, right?"

"I imagine so," said Bugah. "Hard to go up against the Shinra, though. Even back then."

Maybe he had tried to help Sephiroth, she thought, but it was something even her mother might not know, and she likely wouldn't want to talk about it even if she did. Aeris would just have to be satisfied with the hope.

"I wonder if you also knew Vincent?" she asked instead.

"Who?"

"Vincent. He would've been a Turk then, accompanying Professor Gast."

"Hmm..." Bugah tapped his chin thoughtfully. "I do remember he came a few times with this tall fellow, quiet sort. I can't say we ever spoke. Why do you ask?"

Aeris shrugged. "No real reason. Just someone else I was curious about. But, thank you for telling me about my father."

Bugah waved a hand. "Don't mention it. But if you don't mind, maybe you could tell me a bit about yourself, and your mother. I'd love to hear about an old friend's family."

"Sure. I don't mind at all." But she hesitated, just for a moment. It occurred to her that she'd never been in a place so removed from Shinra's influence. She could be as open as she wanted. "My mother's name was Ifalna. And... she was a Cetra."

Bugah gaped at her. "You keep blowing me away, young lady. First Nanaki's friend, then Gast's daughter, and now one of the Cetra. Ah... but I'm sorry; you said 'was.' Has she passed?"

"Yes. But it's all right. It happened a long time ago, and we still talk sometimes."

"Is that so...?" Bugah shook his head. "You know, I have so many questions for you, but I'm sure you didn't sit down expecting to help an old man with a lifetime's worth of study."

Aeris smiled. "No, but I can try to answer a few of them."

"Well then," he said, drumming his fingers on the table as he sorted through what he most wanted to know. "Maybe you could tell me something about the Promised Land. It wasn't something that interested Gast, but it's become a topic of discussion lately. Unfortunately, all we can do is theorize."

The Promised Land again. "Well... It's something that I'm still learning about myself," she confessed. "All I know for sure is that its location isn't something that can be shared. And I'm starting to think... that maybe each person has a Promised Land of their own. Even humans, maybe, if you listen carefully enough."

Bugah smiled at her. "You know... That's a lovely thought. And I dare say you must have gotten your looks from your mother, but I think I do see a bit of your father in you."

"You do?"

He nodded. "He was always thinking about things, always curious. And, despite the state of the world, he was an optimist."

Aeris smiled softly. That was all right then, wasn't it? Despite his failings, despite what he'd brought into the world, maybe he'd left her something, too. A part of her that was like him, the better parts of him.

Helping him to atone... Maybe it was something she could do.

Chapter Text

Cosmo Canyon definitely wasn't the worst place Yuffie had ever been to with this lot. Especially after Nibelheim, it was actually pretty nice, and that made her hate it a little. With all Wutai's might, it had fallen to the Shinra, while this peaceful nothing town carried on unassailed.

And it was the kind of place where you could feel how old it was, decades of tradition held within the walls of the canyon. Generally speaking, it wasn't Yuffie's jam. Too dry, too full of stuffy old nerds who smiled politely at her as she passed them in the corridors. It was dull as anything, but she could tell that was the way it wanted to be. It suited the people here.

There was a shop that sold some materia, but it was weak magic, and overpriced. Yuffie considered pocketing a few. It would've been child's play--the shopkeeper was dozing behind the counter--but if he realized later that anything was missing from his inventory, Tifa and the others would look straight to her. She'd have to put it off until they were about to leave.

Although, there was nothing stopping her from leaving now, on her own. To be honest, she'd stuck with this group a lot longer than she'd originally intended. She'd meant to stay only long enough to gain their trust, so they'd let their guard down around her, and she could make off with their valuables... Maybe not Aeris's special materia, since Yuffie had to admit it had felt like a dud to her, but the rest.

But then, they actually had started to trust her. She'd fought alongside them and listened to their stories, and they even speculated about her helping them out with future plans. Jessie and Aeris talked to her like they were friends, and even Barret had started actually listening to what she had to say. When she'd nearly beefed it up on Mt. Nibel, they'd all been so worried, so relieved. She mattered to them, and, unexpectedly, that mattered to her.

She could hear people out in the hall chatting about Nanaki being back. They were excited, happy. Yuffie couldn't imagine anyone talking about her like that, if she went back home to Wutai empty-handed. Probably nobody missed her except her cats. She was sure plenty of people were even thrilled to have her gone.

But things were getting pretty heavy lately. She'd be smart to bail, before they actually did come up against Sephiroth. It was one thing, when he'd been the former Shinra general who'd conquered her homeland. It was something else to volunteer to fight some kind of superhuman science experiment and his genocidal monster friend.

So, why was leaving the harder option to consider? Why should it matter what Tifa and the others would think?

Cosmo Canyon wasn't a big settlement, and it didn't take Yuffie long to get the lay of it, and to confirm there really wasn't anything fun to do if you weren't into books. At loose ends, she wandered back towards the clinic, wondering if Nanaki was still there with Cloud.

She stopped in the hall outside, hearing voices.

"There's unfortunately no prescribed treatment for Mako poisoning," someone woman was saying, probably a doctor. "It isn't a typical illness, but a reaction of the brain to an overload of stimuli. Since Mako is condensed from the Lifestream, it contains the memory fragments of the dead, and the human mind doesn't know how to process them."

"Are you saying there's no way to cleanse his body of the Mako?" asked Jessie.

"The Mako itself isn't the problem at this point. We've observed that in most cases, as long as the body survives the initial exposure, it will eventually process the excess energy. It's the mind that has trouble recovering. But most cases do improve with time, and there's evidence that being around the familiar does help." A pause. "And you seem to be doing quite well for your level of exposure."

She must have been talking to Cloud, but he didn't say anything. He wasn't exactly a talker, that one.

"What about relapse?" asked Tifa. "Is that a risk?"

"Typically only with additional exposure," said the doctor. "He shouldn't be going anywhere near a Mako reactor. But... as to this 'Jenova' he says he has... I don't know the first thing about it."

"Aren't there... I don't know, any tests you can run?"

"I'm going to run some standard ones, to get a sense of his general physical health, but otherwise I wouldn't know what to look for. I'd need more information on the contaminant."

"I see..."

They were all so worried about him, especially Tifa. He was pretty pathetic, so Yuffie could see how a nice person would be sympathetic.

Yuffie didn't think she was a nice person. Sure, it was messed up what had happened to Cloud, but she didn't see why it was their responsibility to do anything about it. And was a guy like that really going to join AVALANCHE? What was he going to contribute? The whole idea of it was just a way for them to keep looking after him.

And now they were talking about sending people back to Nibelheim to take care of the rest of the freak show. Of course it was Nanaki's suggestion; he was quiet, but he was like the rest of them that way. Nice.

"Yes, I think perhaps we ought to," Bugenhagen was saying in response. "Even if there's nothing that we can do for them in the end, I can't imagine they're being well cared for by the Shinra."

"Thank you," said Tifa. "I don't know how we can repay you for looking after them."

"Nonsense!" said Bugenhagen. "If you should save the Planet, then we'll all be in your debt."

Yuffie might have mentioned how they'd brought Nanaki back home, so the old man ought to be grateful already, but nobody brought it up.

"Huh," said Barret. "We ain't exactly used to people bein' that grateful for anythin' we're doin.'"

No kidding.

"Well, we've never bought into anything the Shinra had to say," said the doctor. "Anyone on the side of the Planet is welcome here."

"Knew I was gonna like this place," said Barret.

"You know, speaking of all that," said Jessie, "we should celebrate."

"Celebrate?" Tifa wondered.

"AVALANCHE, and its new leader."

"Oh. You mean embarrass me."

"Only a little," Jessie said. "You wanna come, too, Cloud? And Nanaki... I have no idea if you drink, but you're welcome to join us."

"I appreciate that," said Nanaki, "but I'd like to take the time to enjoy being home."

"Oh, of course."

"I... could maybe go for a drink," said Cloud, proving he wasn't mute after all.

"And we should see if anyone knows where Aeris has gotten to," said Tifa.

"Wouldn't be a proper celebration without her," Jessie agreed.

Yuffie waited a beat, but no one mentioned her, and she heard footsteps. Hurriedly she slipped down the corridor and ducked into the next room over so they wouldn't see her. They were noisy as they passed, already chatting about the planetarium show they'd seen, but soon their voices faded away down the hall. Yuffie let out a breath.

"Yuffie?"

She jumped and looked around, and then down, as Nanaki padded to a stop outside the doorway. "How'd you know I was here?" she demanded.

"Your scent."

"Hey!"

"I don't mean that you smell bad," he clarified. "My nose is just sharp."

"Oh."

"Why were you spying on us?"

"I wasn't spying," Yuffie said, folding her arms. "Just listening. I like to know what's going on, too, you know."

"There's no need to do that in secret. I'm sure they would have invited you."

"Maybe I didn't wanna be invited."

Nanaki tilted his head. "Not in a celebratory mood?"

"No," Yuffie said, more emphatically than she'd intended.

Nanaki regarded her steadily with his one eye, and then he said, "What about a walk?"

"A walk? What, you wanna take a walk with me?"

"I think it would be good," he said mildly, "after that long drive today."

Yuffie's instinct was to suspect him of some kind of ulterior motive here, but she couldn't see it. Was he just trying to be nice? After he'd saved her life up on Mt. Nibel, she was pretty sure he didn't hate her, but that was different from actually wanting to spend time with her.

"...sure," she decided cautiously.

She wasn't sure what to expect--a lecture, some kind of attempted heart-to-heart?--but Nanaki made no effort to strike up a conversation. Yuffie followed him out of the canyon's torch-lit corridors and into the early twilight. He moved at a leisurely pace now, and though she had no idea what was going through his head, she could read his body language well enough to recognize that he was more relaxed here than she'd ever seen him.

A couple kids ran past, delightedly shouting Nanaki's name though they didn't stop to talk to him. Everybody here knew him, and why wouldn't they? He stood out.

Yuffie frowned at the thought.

"How come there aren't any more... whatever-you-ares here? This is your hometown, right?"

Nanaki's tail flicked in discomfort. "My parents both died defending this canyon," he said, "when I was still a cub. I am the last of my kind."

"Like Aeris?" Yuffie had been hoping for a different explanation, like some weird series of events that led to Bugenhagen adopting him even though there were a bunch of other cat-things living someplace else. But of course it wasn't that. This bunch was one tragic backstory after another.

"Yes," Nanaki said. "We have that unfortunate trait in common."

Yuffie figured she might be the last Kisaragi, since she sure as hell didn't plan on having kids, but the things that made her family line significant could be taught. They weren't in her blood.

"That really sucks," she said. "It's gotta be so much pressure, being the last of something. Everybody expects you to be all the things your ancestors were, but it's all gonna end with you anyways."

"...that's surprisingly insightful," Nanaki remarked.

Yuffie shot him a look. "You don't have to act surprised whenever I say something smart. I'm not stupid."

"I didn't mean to imply it. It's simply that... you aren't the most sensitive, to others' feelings."

"So I'm self-centered, is that what you're saying?"

"Well..." Nanaki faltered.

"You know what? That's fine. I don't have some sob story about how I lost everything and that turned me against the Shinra. I'm in this for me, because I want more. Wutai's so pathetic these days I could just die--but I'm gonna change all that."

Nanaki was regarding her thoughtfully again. "I see," he said. "You care as much about your homeland as I do mine."

Not the reaction she was expecting. "Yeah, maybe," she admitted. "But are you really gonna stay here when we move on?"

"It is my duty to protect this place."

"Yeah, but like... What do you think's more likely to happen? Shinra troops show up to storm the place, or they mess up the Planet so bad that the whole thing's done for?"

Nanaki didn't reply, but his tail swished again.

"You know I'm right," she said, a touch triumphantly. Nanaki really was smart, so it felt good to get one over on him. Of course, now she was starting to convince herself, too. "Nothing was gonna happen if I hung around Wutai waiting for a fight. You gotta take the fight to them. Besides, didn't you get caught by that Hojo guy, too? Don't you wanna get back at 'em?"

"It almost sounds," Nanaki said, "as though you don't want me to leave the group."

"Hey, I'm not gonna go so far as saying I'd miss you or anything, but you're like... the most dependable one of the lot. And you don't care about any of that stupid stuff like who likes who."

"No," he agreed. "It would be quite pointless."

Maybe he would've cared more if there were other cat-things around to like, Yuffie reflected, but she wasn't going to take it back. "Anyway you should think about it," she said.

"Perhaps I will," he said. "But tonight, I am home."

"Yeah, rub it in why don't you."

"I am sorry that you miss your homeland. But I was unsure I would ever see mine again. I think I have every right to enjoy it, and you are quite welcome here yourself."

"I don't feel all that welcome," Yuffie said, and for whatever reason that was the thing that really seemed to annoy him.

"If you want to join them, then join them," he said. "But don't complain to me about feeling left out."

He walked on in the direction of the pub, and Yuffie didn't follow him. What was that about? she wondered. Hadn't they been getting along okay? Besides, they'd invited him, so it wasn't like she'd hit on a nerve or anything.

Or had he taken it as an insult to his hospitality?

Yuffie had never been good with manners like that. It was one of the things that drove her dad crazy.

She hung around by the bonfire, watching the entrance to the pub, before she made up her mind. The inn was right there. She'd go in, and if they invited her to sit down, then she'd sit down, but if not, then screw them. They could have their little celebration without her.

Yuffie could hear raised voices as she approached, a toast to AVALANCHE. Glasses clinked as she ducked inside, and she was sure they'd be too caught up in that to notice her, but she paused to look around. Jessie and Barret sat on one side of a table, with Aeris and Tifa close together on the other. Cloud sat quietly on the end, having barely touched his drink. She didn't see Nanaki anywhere.

"Yuffie!" Jessie exclaimed, lifting her hand in a wave. "You up for joining us? Aeris was saying you wanted some time to yourself."

Was it as simple as that? They'd run into Aeris first and figured Yuffie wasn't interested?

"I can stay for a little while," Yuffie said, taking a seat next to Jessie. "Nanaki's not with you?"

Jessie shook her head. "He went by a minute ago. Said his room's back that way." She gestured to a door in back of the pub, below the inn.

"So did you find anything fun to do?" Aeris asked her, leaning forward like her interest was sincere.

"No. This whole place is a drag. Even their materia sucks." Yuffie hesitated. "How was the... planetarium?" she ventured.

"It was amazing!" said Jessie. "You've gotta see it, Yuffie. I thought it'd just be a display projected on the ceiling, but it's a whole 3D simulation based on actual data picked up by the telescope. Really advanced stuff. I want one."

Yuffie didn't give a damn about technology, but she appreciated Jessie's unabashed avarice in that moment.

"So I think we know where to find Jessie the next couple days," Tifa remarked, amused.

"Was pretty impressive, though," said Barret. "An' I never realized how... connected it all is. The Planet havin' life is what makes it possible for everythin' else to be born. Like we're all just borrowin' a piece of it as we make our journey through life."

"You know, I like that way of putting it," said Aeris.

"Still sounds like a bunch of nerd crap," Yuffie decided.

"Sure you're not just jealous?" Jessie asked. "I'm sure Bugenhagen would take you through it if you asked."

"Ugh. Pain in the ass. Old people go on forever if you let 'em."

"So much for that," Aeris said with a shrug.

"Say, Yuffie," Jessie said, gesturing at Barret and herself, "are we old people?"

"Huh? This some kinda trick question?"

"I'm just curious how we seem from your perspective."

Definitely a trick question, Yuffie thought. Had they been talking about her again when she wasn't here? "If you're about to call me a kid," she said suspiciously, "then yeah, you're old people."

Jessie laughed. "Well, in that case, how 'bout a drink?"

Yuffie sat back in surprise. "Seriously?" Sure, she'd tried to get a drink from the bartender earlier, but that was because he'd told her no right off the bat, before she could even tell him she didn't want anything alcoholic. She'd had to argue, on principle.

"Why not?" said Jessie. "We're all celebrating, you should join us. Tifa'll get you something good for a beginner."

Yuffie glanced around the table at their various half-empty mugs. "Can't I just have what you guys are having?" she asked. Since this was supposed to be a bonding experience and all.

But Tifa shook her head. "You're not gonna have any fun starting with the hard stuff, trust me." She waved to the barkeep and without deliberation ordered Yuffie some kind of cocktail.

"Who made you the expert?" Yuffie wondered.

"She is a bartender," Aeris said.

"Since when?"

"Well, not lately," Tifa admitted. "My bar was in Sector 7."

"Oh."

"You mighta noticed," said Barret, "bein' in AVALANCHE don't pay that well. The bar helped with that."

"Um..." Cloud spoke up from the end of the table. "What happened to Sector 7?"

They all looked at him in one of those silences where nobody wanted to explain. The bartender brought Yuffie's drink, and she took a cautious sip instead of offering what the others would probably take for an insensitive explanation. She'd tasted alcohol a couple times before and been put off by it, but this wasn't so bad. Sort of fruity. She guessed Tifa really did know what she was doing.

"Shinra dropped the plate," Barret told Cloud at last. "Destroyed the whole town."

"What? I didn't think even Shinra would..." He trailed off.

"Says the human experiment," Yuffie remarked. He was definitely still messed up in the head if he thought Shinra was capable of having morals after that experience.

"It's a pretty hard thing to wrap your mind around," Jessie said sympathetically. "But it's just one more reason we gotta take 'em out."

Cloud nodded. "Yeah... I kinda wish I could help."

"Well, why can't you?" Jessie said. "Maybe you weren't in SOLDIER, but you still got some kinda training, right? None of us've actually been part of Shinra, except for Vincent, and any insider info he's got is thirty years out of date."

Well, there was the invite. Yuffie couldn't complain about how nice Jessie had been to her, treating her like an equal from the start, but she thought Jessie was a little too eager to trust people.

"I guess... I might know a little," Cloud said.

"Wait, Vincent was with Shinra?" said Barret.

Jessie glanced at him. "Oh... I guess we forgot to mention the Turk part."

"An' he was a Turk?"

"You really didn't realize he was with the Shinra, Barret?" Tifa asked. "How did you think he knew about the Jenova Project?"

"You said you found 'im locked up down there. I figured he knew 'cause he was an experiment, too. Sure looks weird enough."

"...I guess that's a fair assumption," Jessie admitted.

"Man, if I'da known we brought a Turk in..."

"It was thirty years ago," Aeris reminded him.

"Yeah," Jessie agreed. "That's a lot longer than any of us've been turned off to Shinra, when you think about it. You know, I'm gonna see if I can find him. He should be here, too."

"I'm not sure he's one for celebrating," Tifa said.

"Maybe not. But maybe he'd at least be up for a little one-on-one social interaction, you know?"

Aeris laughed. "Well, last time I saw him, he was all the way up on top of the observatory."

"Got it," Jessie said. "Thanks, Aeris." She downed the last of her drink, hopped up from the table, and left the pub.

"...Jessie's sure got weird taste in men," Barret remarked once she had gone.

"I'll say," said Yuffie, making a face. She was into Vincent? He was so creepy. Plus he smelled funny. She wondered if Nanaki thought so, too.

"You know," said Tifa, "I always assumed I was just missing something."

Barret shook his head. "Don't think so. I used to think Biggs was jealous, way he acted whenever she was seein' somebody, but I think he was just worried 'bout her judgment."

"Oh, come on," said Aeris. "What's wrong with Vincent? Sure the outfit's a bit dramatic, but I think he's handsome."

"I don't know," Tifa said. "It still feels like he's hiding things from us."

"Doesn't he have a right to keep some things to himself? Nanaki didn't even tell us his own name when we met."

"...I guess you're right. I just worry, about his connection to Sephiroth."

"Why'd you bring 'im along then?" Barret wondered, and Yuffie thought it was one of the smartest questions he'd ever asked.

Tifa shook her head. "Well, I didn't want him shutting himself back up in that coffin. That's awful."

"He seemed pretty into it," Yuffie pointed out, but Tifa just gave her a wry look.

"It could be," Aeris said seriously, "that when the time comes, Vincent won't be able to help us fight Sephiroth... But I don't think he'll stand in the way."

"Did you talk to him?" Tifa asked.

"A little," Aeris said.

There was a clink at the end of the table, and Cloud straightened up with a start. "Sorry, guys," he said, rubbing at his eyes. "I think I've gotta hit the sack."

"Yeah, go ahead," said Tifa. "We'll see you in the morning."

Yuffie watched him make his way up to the inn and said, "Can I maybe vote on the next person we let join up? Since I'm not the newest member anymore and these last two've been real duds."

"Thought you weren't really a member," Barret remarked.

"Oh, hell, I don't know," Yuffie said. "But I've sure got seniority over Cloud."

Aeris smiled at her. "In that case, maybe you should show him the ropes. Since you've got the experience and all."

"No way!"

"It's him or Vincent," Tifa put in.

"Ugh..."

"Come on," said Aeris. "Your positive attitude might just rub off on them."

"You're joking, right?"

"Absolutely," Aeris confirmed, her smile widening.

Jessie never did come back with Vincent, but Tifa reasoned it was more likely they'd lost her to Bugenhagen's machines than that she was having some kind of alone time with him. Yuffie made it through her one drink without feeling a thing until she stood up and the room spun a little. She let Aeris steady her with an arm around her shoulders on the way back to their room.

They were short a bed, which Yuffie had noticed earlier and decided not to care about, since she wasn't going to be sharing. She sat down to tug off her sneakers and narrowed her eyes at Aeris and Tifa on the other side of the room.

"I'm right here," she reminded them. "Don't you two do anything gross."

Aeris laughed. "We'll behave," she promised, and it was true all they did was cuddle, but even the cuddling was bad enough. Yuffie rolled over and slept with her back to them.

They were gone when she woke, though Jessie lay sprawled across the middle bed, sound asleep. Yuffie had no idea how late she'd been out, and decided to let her be.

But she had the misfortune of running into Cloud as she stepped out into the hallway. She started to grimace, but then she decided she could give being nice a try for five seconds. Maybe she'd like it, you never knew.

"Morning," she said.

"Morning," Cloud replied, scratching his head. He looked unsure, maybe even wary. Was he scared of her? There was a confidence booster.

"Tifa's up already," Yuffie went on, figuring he might be looking for her. "She's probably getting breakfast with Aeris or something."

Cloud nodded, and Yuffie walked with him out into the inn's reception area.

"Good morning!" greeted the innkeeper. "Did you sleep well?"

"Uhh, yeah," Yuffie said, taken aback by the level of cheer in his voice.

"It's nice having so many new faces recently," the innkeeper went on, like they were having some kind of conversation. "They don't let a lot of people in, so it's usually just my long term guests."

Yuffie didn't really care what he thought of it, but there was something about the way he said it that told her there might be some information worth finding out. "You got other guests besides us?" she asked.

"Not right now, but there was a young man who spent the night just the other day, before you came."

A young man? Yuffie wondered, tapping her lip. It had been a while since they'd heard anything about Sephiroth, and while she wouldn't have called him young, this guy was getting up there. "Did he leave his name or anything?"

The innkeeper shook his head. "No, but he had quite a look. Real spiky black hair."

Cloud, who'd started to wander away towards the pub, froze and then turned on his heel. "Did- did he have a scar on his cheek?" he asked, pointing to his face. "Here."

"Come to think of it, I think he did. He a friend of yours?"

Cloud nodded. "Y-yeah."

Yuffie glanced at him. If he wasn't going to ask follow-up questions then she'd have to. "He didn't happen to mention where he was headed, did he?"

"Not to me," said the innkeeper, "but I know he spoke to some of the elders here. You could try asking them."

"Yeah, all right. Thanks."

Cloud hadn't moved, so Yuffie sighed and grabbed him by the arm. "C'mon. We gotta tell Aeris and Tifa."

Frankly she didn't give a damn about this Zack guy either, but everyone else seemed to. If they were close to tracking him down, then Yuffie hoped he lived up to at least some of the hype.

Chapter Text

Talking to others in the canyon confirmed it: a man fitting Zack's description had passed through Cosmo Canyon only the day before. He'd spoken to several of the elders, and though he hadn't told anyone where he was going, the gatekeeper had seen him headed east as he left.

It worried Tifa, though she couldn't put her finger on why. Maybe it was the questions he'd been asking. Maybe it was learning that he was lucid enough to be on his own, but he hadn't gone back for Cloud. Or were his memories still hazy, too? What was he after?

"What's east of here?" Aeris wondered once they had gathered everyone back at the pub. They were all up now, though Jessie hid a yawn behind her hand.

"Mostly forest, some villages I think," Tifa said. "Nothing big that I know about."

"Gongaga," Cloud said suddenly.

"What?"

"Zack's hometown, Gongaga. We- were both from villages nobody's heard of. I'm pretty sure it was around here somewhere."

"So he's headed home?" said Aeris.

"Then what was he asking about all that other stuff for?" Yuffie wondered.

"Perhaps it's only a detour," Nanaki suggested. "It must have been some time since he was last able to visit, and Gongaga isn't far from here."

"So then, are we gonna go after 'im?" Barret asked.

"We are, right?" said Aeris.

Everyone was looking to Tifa for a decision, and she nodded. There was no question. "But I don't think all of us need to go just to check out a lead," she said. "We only just got here, there's still a lot we could learn. And... it's as good a home base as we're likely to have, while we figure out our next move."

"So who's going?" asked Jessie.

"I am," Aeris said immediately. "I'm going for sure."

"Me, too," said Cloud. "I know what you're going to say, Tifa, but they said familiar faces help, right? And, um... I can drive us."

"You know how to drive?" Tifa wondered.

He nodded. "They taught us, in the army."

Tifa hesitated, but he'd been all right so far, and maybe, if they found Zack, it would be good for him, too. "All right," she decided. "The three of us knew him, so we'll go together."

"I wanna come, too," said Yuffie. "I'm gonna be bored out of my mind if I have to hang around this place. Plus I figure you need somebody who can be objective about the whole thing."

She really must have disliked the canyon if she was opting for a drive instead, but Tifa didn't have any reason to tell her no. "All right. Sure."

"Rest of us'll hang out here, see what we can learn from the elders," said Barret.

"That Temple of the Ancients Zack was asking about..." Jessie said thoughtfully. "You really don't know anything about it, Aeris?"

"No," said Aeris, her brow furrowing. "I've never heard of it."

"The whole thing bothers me," said Tifa, "but I guess we can ask him what that's about when we find him."

Aeris looked at her and nodded. "Yeah."

They got directions from the innkeeper, who marked the village for them on their map, and packed up some of their gear. If Zack was on foot, there was a chance they'd catch up to him before ever reaching Gongaga, but if they met him at the village, then Tifa wasn't sure what to expect from it. For all she knew, it was a Shinra town; certainly growing up there hadn't deterred Zack from joining their ranks.

And what to expect from Zack? She wondered if Yuffie had noted it, too, how Aeris and Cloud were too caught up in the hope of finding him to reflect on how strange it was. How had even known about the Temple of the Ancients to ask about it in the first place?

But maybe Tifa had her own reason for dwelling on what might in the end have a perfectly reasonable explanation. Something petty, especially beside what Aeris was feeling.

There she was, eager for a reunion with someone she'd cared about in the past, someone she had suspected was dead. It was perfectly understandable, a feeling she had every right to. Everything she'd ever said indicated that her romantic feelings for Zack were in the past, so there was no reason for Tifa to be bothered by that eagerness. No reason at all.

Tifa climbed up into the truck after Aeris and sat down opposite her. She called to Cloud that they were ready to go, and he turned the key in the ignition.

"You okay, Tifa?" Aeris asked.

"Yeah. I guess I'm just not sure how to deal with Zack if we find him. What would I say to him? I'm not the person I was back then. Maybe he isn't either."

"Five years is a long time," Aeris agreed. "I'm not sure what'll come out either. But we can always start with 'hello,' I think."

Tifa smiled wryly. "Sure. 'Hello. Funny meeting like this, right? You probably thought I was dead, too.'"

"I wonder how much of a shock he'll get out of us knowing each other."

"There's probably a lot we could shock him with. I mean, he doesn't even know you're an Ancient, does he?"

Aeris shook her head. "No, I never told him. And he doesn't know I have a girlfriend, or that I've joined an anti-Shinra group... And even I didn't know I was the daughter of the scientist responsible for Sephiroth!"

"How are you... coping with that?" Tifa wondered. "You said you got some answers, right?"

"Yeah. I think... I've decided to forgive him. People tell me he wanted to do something good. And like a lot of people who want to change the world... I think he sacrificed some of his morals in the process. The outcome was just so much worse than anyone could've imagined."

Tifa wondered if she had considered AVALANCHE in that sentiment. They'd sacrificed some of their morals, hadn't they? They were willing to take lives... How did a willingness to experiment on a child compare? He hadn't intended for anyone to get hurt. Tifa couldn't say the same.

"Well..." she said, "he did help to bring something good into the world. Didn't he?"

Aeris smiled at her. "You know, I'll take it. But what are you and your extremely biased opinion doing all the way over there anyway?"

Tifa shook her head, not sure she wanted to or even could explain herself, and moved over to sit beside Aeris. "Better?"

"Much," Aeris said, bumping shoulders with her. "And you know, Yuffie can't see us back here, so we can be as gross as we want."

Tifa laughed softly. "There's still the rear-view mirror," she said, nodding to Cloud in the driver's seat.

"You think he'd mind...?"

"I'm not sure. But, I don't want to make him uncomfortable."

"Well, all right," Aeris sighed, leaning her head against Tifa's shoulder. "This is still nice."

"Mm."

Tifa shouldn't have needed the reassurance... but it was nice to have it anyway.

As they continued east, the landscape grew lush. Vines cascaded down the canyon walls, and trees crowded the heights above. Forest surrounded them as they at last left the canyon. The shade and the scent of it calmed her.

They'd learned so much in the past few days and yet, Tifa still wasn't sure what picture it made when it came together. When Sephiroth had burned Nibelheim to the ground, had it been out of rage, or part of a bigger plan? Did he hope that Aeris could lead him to the Promised Land, or was it something else he sought? If he was an enemy of the Planet, if he wanted to harm it, he need only learn from the Shinra.

Maybe Zack would know. He'd been closer to Sephiroth than any of them, in the days before the disaster. Maybe that was how he knew what he did.

After driving through the morning, the forest thinned and then cleared, and the truck slowed. Through the rear window, Tifa could see Cloud staring at something ahead of them, and when the truck came to a stop, she stood to look over the cab.

It wasn't hard to pick out what had caught his attention. A shadow loomed in the distance, twisted metal shapes centered in a stretch of lifeless, blackened earth... The ruins of a reactor.

Here, too?

There was a village, or at least, a collection of round huts. Some of them showed damage from the explosion that had taken the reactor, and Tifa wondered if the place had been bigger, once. Maybe when Zack had lived here.

Tifa helped Aeris down from the truck, and they joined Cloud and Yuffie.

"Zack's gonna have one of those stories, too, isn't he?" Yuffie remarked, eyes still on the reactor.

"Let's see if anyone's seen him," Aeris suggested, and they started into the village. They didn't get far, though, before she gasped and pointed. "Look!"

From behind one of the far huts, a figure came into view. Tall, with spiky black hair. He didn't appear to have noticed them yet.

Cloud ran towards him, Aeris close behind. Tifa exchanged glances with Yuffie, and they followed.

"Zack?" Aeris called out as they neared him. They all came to a stop a few paces away.

It was him, now that Tifa could see his face. Older, of course, than she remembered it, his hair a little longer, but those were the same features, the same scar on his cheek. He stared at them with the same Mako eyes that she remembered.

"Aeris?" he said. "Cloud! And... Tifa, too." He shook his head in disbelief. "You guys know each other? What are you all doing here?"

Cloud stood staring back mutely. Aeris had tears in her eyes.

"Looking for you, dummy!" she exclaimed. "We heard you'd come this way, and-- Well, look at you. You're... alive."

"...and you're okay," Cloud added.

Zack scratched his head sheepishly. "Sorry to worry you."

"Where have you been?" Aeris demanded. "I... I mean I know, about everything with Hojo, but... Weren't you with Cloud?"

"Yeah... Things are a little foggy for me there. But, once my head started to clear, I heard about Sephiroth being back and I had to look into some things."

So it was like with Cloud. Zack must have come to somewhere without knowing how he'd gotten there, or how they'd been separated. And then, he'd heard about Sephiroth. Anyone who'd been at Nibelheim would have felt an urgency about that.

"And that's why you went to Cosmo Canyon?" Tifa asked him.

Zack nodded. "I heard up in North Corel that Sephiroth's been looking for some place called the Temple of the Ancients. I'm not sure what's so important about it, but I figure we can't let him get there first. That's why I've been trying to find out where it is. You guys don't know anything about it, do you?"

Cloud took a step back. "Don't- don't tell him anything," he said.

"What?" said Tifa, looking at him.

He shook his head, his brow furrowed. "Something's not right."

"Aeris?"

"I..." Aeris faltered. "It's been so long, I'm not sure..."

"Isn't it a little fishy how he just assumed we'd know about Sephiroth, too?" asked Yuffie.

Now that she mentioned it... he'd barely questioned anything about the situation. Maybe he could put together that they'd followed him here from Cosmo Canyon, but he hadn't asked what they themselves had been doing there. He wasn't surprised that Tifa had survived, or that Cloud had recovered. He hadn't expressed any relief or joy at seeing them. He hadn't asked who Yuffie was.

"I mean," said Zack, "if anyone would know about Sephiroth, it's the people who were there at Nibelheim, right?"

Aeris shook her head. "No... They're right. Something's wrong. I would've thought you'd be happier to see us... Especially Cloud. He wasn't well the last time you saw him."

"I am glad to see you, I'm just kind of thrown."

"You're not Zack," Cloud stated. "Zack... wouldn't have left me behind."

Zack looked at him, and then he began to chuckle, and it wasn't the way Tifa remembered him laughing. "Well, it was worth a try," he said.

And like blinking, it was no longer Zack who stood there, but--

"Sephiroth...!" Tifa exclaimed.

Cloud staggered backwards as though struck, doubling over and clutching his head with both hands. Yuffie backed away, too. Tifa held her ground, and so did Aeris, though her hands trembled around her staff.

"I suppose it was a little too hard to believe," said Sephiroth, his eyes on Aeris. "After all, why would Zack work against me? He's as much my friend as he was yours. How did Cloud put it? We're his type."

Aeris shook her head slowly. "How did you..."

"It doesn't matter," he said. "What does matter is the Temple of the Ancients. Have you heard of it?"

Aeris didn't respond. Tifa watched him silently, alert for his slightest movement. Her heart was pounding, but she focused on her breathing, steadying herself. This time, she thought, there would be a confrontation. He hadn't come here only to taunt them.

"The Cetra are an inferior race in many respects," Sephiroth went on, idly tracing an arc across the ground with the Masamune, "but I must commend you on your tenacity. Travelling the Lifestream, I've learned nearly everything your people once knew. But even after two thousand years, the guardians of the Temple haven't returned to the Planet, and so they've kept from me the knowledge of its location. But, you're going to tell me."

"I don't know where it is," said Aeris.

"Ah, but the Planet does. And I think it would rather share that with you than allow the last of its chosen people to perish."

Tifa stepped in front of Aeris, catching her eye just briefly. When she held out her hand, Aeris passed her her staff without question.

"I won't let you touch her," Tifa said.

Sephiroth smiled, an acceptance of her challenge.

As the Masamune swung towards them, Tifa swung the staff, catching the edge of the blade and deflecting it down. Then she rushed forward, swinging the other end for his head.

Sephiroth caught it with his right hand. He met her gaze and smiled, and for an instant, she was back in the Nibelheim reactor, moments before he cut her down. He shoved her backwards and raised his sword.

Only this time she wasn't alone. Fire erupted around him, blinding him if nothing else, and Yuffie shouted, hurling her shuriken. The arc of the Masamune travelled up to deflect it, leaving Tifa an opening. She closed the distance, slamming the staff full force into his chest.

On a normal person, it would have broken ribs. Sephiroth took a step back.

Tossing Aeris back her staff, Tifa rammed Sephiroth with her shoulder and grabbed the hilt of the Masamune, trying to wrench it from his grasp. His grip held fast, but she could feel the tension in his arm. His strength might be superhuman, but she was making him use it. He couldn't hurt her friends with this sword, as long as she held onto it.

But he still had his magic. He lifted his right hand, and Tifa braced herself, knowing there was no dodging it even if she let go. There was a flash of light, but no pain-- Sephiroth stumbled back, and the Masamune slipped ever so slightly in his grasp.

His own spell had reflected back on him. Aeris? Tifa risked a glance back. She stood deep in concentration, channeling magic not through the materia in her staff but directly from the Planet, as she'd done on Mt. Nibel, as she must have done moments earlier while Tifa had her staff.

Yuffie's shuriken flashed again, catching Sephiroth's forearm as he lifted it to protect his head, but it left no wound. Not even torn cloth. There was a faint smell, one Tifa couldn't pinpoint in the moment.

Sephiroth wasn't smiling as he grabbed a fistful of her hair. His intention was obvious, and Tifa acted faster, crashing her skull into his head. Better than the alternative, but the impact made her lose her grip on the Masamune and stumble back a few steps.

Sephiroth swung the blade out as though flexing a muscle, and then it swung back again. Tifa was still inside his effective reach. She could avoid it.

But then, someone pushed her.

"Cloud!?" Yuffie shrieked, and Aeris screamed.

Tifa felt the Masamune slice into her side. She staggered, and fell. Her hands pressed against the wound, but blood dribbled up warm between her fingers.

Cloud stood a pace away from her, staring in horror. He backed away slowly, tripped over a stone, and sat hard on the ground.

"Tifa!" Aeris cried. She sprang forward, but the Masamune came down between them. Aeris raised her staff, but Sephiroth disarmed her in a flash and brought his blade to her throat. He forced her several steps farther from Tifa.

"Now," he said, "perhaps you'll reconsider. She'll be dead soon if no one tends to that wound. Speak to the Planet, tell me what I want to know, and I'll give you that chance."

"Don't," said Tifa. "He'll just kill you."

Tears welled in Aeris's eyes. "But, I..."

Yuffie was inching slowly towards Tifa, but Sephiroth noticed and swept the Masamune in an arc, forcing her to leap back to avoid it.

Aeris swallowed. Her hands clenched at her sides and she turned to Sephiroth. "No," she said slowly, "you won't kill me. Will you? After all... you won't know if what I tell you is the truth until you go there yourself."

"You think I won't know if you're lying?" Sephiroth wondered, sweeping his blade back towards her.

"I think... you can't afford to risk it. I'm all you've got. And maybe I'm a better liar than you think I am."

"Aeris, you can't..." Tifa said hoarsely.

"Just tell him!" cried Yuffie. "We'll stop him there, but just- just tell him!"

Aeris looked to Yuffie and nodded. She closed her eyes, and Tifa could see her trying to force her body to relax as she reached out to the Planet.

Maybe it wouldn't answer, Tifa thought, but the possibility brought terror rather than hope. If Aeris couldn't tell Sephiroth what he wanted to know, what if he killed her anyway in anger? Tifa put a hand to the ground, shifting her body and pulling herself a few inches closer to Aeris. Her head throbbed, her vision going black at the edges.

"I know where it is," said Aeris. "The Temple... It's almost due east of here, on an island at the tip of the eastern continent. You'll find it hidden deep in the forests."

"There," said Sephiroth. "That wasn't so hard."

"Now let me heal her," Aeris pressed.

The Masamune lingered near her throat, and for a second Tifa couldn't breathe.

A bolt of energy flashed from out of sight and struck the blade, knocking it away. A man ran into the fray, grabbing Aeris by the arm and hauling her back to put himself between her and Sephiroth, weapon drawn.

Blue suit. Red hair. Tifa recognized him... The Turk who'd blown the pillar. Reno.

"What--?" Aeris exclaimed.

"Back off," Reno said to Sephiroth. Tifa couldn't be sure if he was shaking or if it was just her vision going. "You two had a deal, right? She gave you what you wanted."

Sephiroth tilted his head in appraisal. "Very well," he said. He nodded to Aeris. "I'll see you again, at the Temple."

And then he was gone, but he hadn't left them alone. Tifa couldn't lift her head high enough to take it all in, but she saw the thick tentacles coiled across the ground, and there was that familiar scent. She knew this monster.

"Oh, fuck me!" Reno exclaimed.

Aeris pushed past him and dropped to Tifa's side, heedless of the new enemy. "Hang on, Tifa," she said.

She felt the warmth of healing wash over her wound, slowly closing it back up. Her head began to clear, and she became aware of Reno and Yuffie flanking them, fighting to hold Jenova at bay.

"Hurry it up, Aeris," Reno barked. "We gotta move."

Tifa struggled to push herself up even before Aeris had finished. "We can't just leave," she said. "The villagers..."

"Screw the villagers!" said Reno. "I'm not--"

"I'm staying," Aeris interrupted sharply. "If you're here to help, then help. The three of us can take it."

"I don't know, Aeris," said Yuffie, stumbling back a few steps as she blocked an attack with her shuriken. "There were more of us last time..."

Tifa wanted to say she'd fight with them, but Aeris had to help her to her feet, and she wasn't sure she could stay there on her own. How could she fight when she couldn't even stand? With Aeris supporting her, they moved away from the fight as quickly as Tifa could manage, and Aeris eased her down onto the ground.

She spotted Cloud not far away, sitting with his head in his hands. Right now, they were equally useless, she thought grimly.

"I'll be back," Aeris promised.

"Be careful," Tifa said, catching her hand for a moment. "They're right, we... You run if you have to."

It was hard, watching the battle unfold, unable to do anything. She kept trying to think of small ways she could help, her body tensed for action. Her fists clenched and unclenched, but the stickiness of her fingers reminded her that her hands were covered in her own blood. She would only get in the way.

Tifa hated to feel any gratitude for Reno, but he was a capable fighter, alert and quick on his feet. He protected Aeris in her stead, warning her of attacks, and pulling her out of the way when she was too slow. She didn't understand his motives, but at least for now, he was helping.

Yuffie fought hard, too. Whether it was determination or desperation, she threw herself more into this fight than Tifa had seen before. Her shuriken flashed again and again, slicing through tentacles, and she used what must have been the last of her incendiaries to buy her companions time.

And Aeris. Aeris with her slender frame and her clumsily-wielded staff. Her magic protected them against Jenova's, and brought powerful flames against it, and ultimately it was that magic that reduced this incarnation, too, to a scorching heap of flesh.

Tifa managed to struggle to her feet and made her way back over to them. When Aeris spotted her, she hurried over to support her, stumbling a little over her own feet.

"You all right?" Tifa asked her, trying to look her over for injuries.

Aeris nodded. "I think so."

"Yuffie?"

"I think I'm gonna hurl," Yuffie said, and she turned her back on Jenova, but otherwise she seemed to be moving all right.

Reno prodded the corpse with his nightstick. "Man, this is not how I wanted to spend my lunch hour."

Tifa regarded him warily. "What are you doing here? Why help us?"

He turned towards her, distrust in his own bearing. "Don't get the wrong idea," he said. "Tseng would murder me if I let anything happen to Aeris. That's all."

"Have you been following us?" Aeris asked.

He shrugged. "The boss's plan for tracking Sephiroth didn't pan out. We figured you guys might help us pick up his trail again. Looks like we were right on the money."

"Um," said Yuffie. "Who is this guy anyway?"

"Reno, of the Turks," he answered.

"What!? We just got help from a Turk?"

"Hey, I'm not thrilled about it either," Reno said, shaking his head. "Tifa gave me a pretty rough time last time we met."

"You deserved it," Tifa stated coldly.

"So, now what?" said Aeris uncertainly. "We just go our separate ways...?"

"Works for me," said Reno. "It'd be pretty pathetic, if we tried to fight each other now."

Tifa's jaw clenched. He was right. They might outnumber him, but they were all so exhausted that she couldn't be sure they could overpower him. "All right," she said. "Fine. But don't expect me to forget Sector 7 just because you helped out a little."

"Feeling's mutual," he said, and swinging his nightstick up to rest on his shoulder, he turned to go.

"But Reno," Aeris began, and he paused to glance over his shoulder. "Thanks."

He didn't reply, and soon disappeared down the road.

"We're not staying here either, right?" said Yuffie. "I mean, it wasn't really Zack, so..."

Tifa frowned. There hadn't been any time to think about it, but what exactly had happened there? Sephiroth had some kind of illusion magic, to let him look like Zack? Sound like Zack?

She exchanged glances with Aeris.

"And now Sephiroth knows about the Temple," Tifa said.

Aeris shook her head. "He knows where it is, but he won't be able to get inside without the key."

"Are we sure he doesn't already have it?" Yuffie asked, and it was a fair point. They didn't know.

"We need to get back and tell the others," Tifa decided, and she looked back at Cloud, still sitting in the same spot.

"I don't think he's driving us," Yuffie observed skeptically. "Wouldn't trust 'im to anyway."

"I don't think that was his fault," said Aeris.

"Whether he means to crash and kill us all or not, it doesn't exactly change how dead we'd be."

Aeris didn't argue with that, and Tifa couldn't think of any counterpoint either.

"I'm... going to go talk to him," she said. "Could you two check in with the villagers? Tell them they need to burn the body. Destroy it as completely as they can."

Aeris nodded, and handed Tifa her staff to lean on. Tifa limped her way over to Cloud and crouched down carefully in front of him. He didn't seem aware of her, and she wondered if he'd retreated back into the state she'd found him in.

"Cloud...?"

But he flinched at the sound of her voice and coiled his body tighter, burying his head in his arms.

"Cloud, I'm all right. Everything's all right now."

"It's not," he mumbled. "I..."

Tifa reached out to touch his arm, but she saw the blood on her hand, and she hesitated. "I know you didn't mean to," she said instead. "Sephiroth... did something to you, right?"

"He was in my head, and then..." He lifted his head to look at her. "What did I do, Tifa? I..."

"I'm all right," she repeated.

Cloud's eyes fell to the blood caking her shirt. He shook his head slowly. "But... now he knows where to find the Temple... It's my fault."

"No. You were the one who told us not to trust him, when he was pretending to be Zack. You knew something was wrong. If you hadn't been here... we might've told him, and never known we'd given the information to Sephiroth."

Cloud didn't say anything.

"We have to get going," Tifa went on. "We have to tell the others."

He shook his head. "I don't think I should go with you. I'm... I might hurt you again."

"It'll be all right. Now that you know... You can fight it. And we'll all be here to help you."

Cloud didn't move. He sat staring at nothing, his brow furrowed.

"If you stay here, what are you going to do?"

"I..." He took a breath. "I'll go with you, back to Cosmo Canyon. But only because I don't know if I can hold it together on my own. Once I'm there... I don't know, maybe they can lock me up somewhere."

Tifa bit her lip. "Cloud..."

"I don't wanna hurt anyone," he insisted. "It's my choice, right?"

She didn't know how to talk him out of it, right then, but she'd have time, as long as he came with them, so she nodded. She held out a hand, but Cloud was the one who helped her back to her feet. As soon as she'd found her balance, he let go and backed away from her, averting even his gaze.

"Are we ready to go?" Aeris asked, approaching with Yuffie.

Tifa nodded. "I think so."

"Who's driving though?" Yuffie asked, eyeing Cloud suspiciously. "I'm not getting in the truck if it's him."

Aeris looked at Tifa, and then shrugged. "I guess it's up to you and me, Yuffie. It's not like there was any traffic on the way here, so... we just have to stay on the road and not hit any trees."

"Wonderful," said Yuffie.

They returned to the truck, and Yuffie at least allowed Cloud to turn it around for them. After that, he insisted on sitting in the back, apart from them. Aeris took the keys from him and climbed into the driver's seat with Yuffie beside her, and Tifa to direct them. It was a fairly straight road. They'd make it back somehow or other.

That was the easy part.

Tifa leaned her head back against the seat as they got moving. Aeris hadn't said what the Temple of the Ancients was, and Tifa didn't ask. She didn't want to know, not yet. She couldn't do anything about it now, so maybe it was better to leave that terrible revelation for later.

Chapter Text

Jessie's friends had grabbed breakfast before her, so she wound up sharing a meal with Elder Bugah, whom they'd met briefly the night before on finding Aeris at the pub. He was good company, friendly, eager for conversation, quick to laugh. Biggs would have liked him.

She listened to some of his thoughts on planet life, but it wasn't the only thing that interested her, and after breakfast he helped her track down one of the canyon's engineers. She wanted to know more about those windmills--how much energy they generated, how that compared to Mako and coal. Aside from some electric lights, the people of the canyon seemed to live fairly simply, but Bugenhagen's machines had to be a big power drain.

It was something Jessie had had trouble reconciling in the past. Her love of technology, against the knowledge that the energy that sustained it was destructive. But here was evidence that she could have it both ways. After AVALANCHE achieved its mission, she could still spend her days cobbling together computers and digging through lines of code, starting the projects she'd never had the time or resources for.

Not that there was nothing appealing about learning how to garden, but it would've been settling, if that was all she had to focus on in her retirement. She thought she'd like it as a hobby, but not a life.

She found Barret later at the bonfire, looking thoughtful, and she plopped down next to him.

"Learn anything interesting?" she asked.

"Talked a while with Elder Hargo," he said. "He doesn't think the Promised Land ever existed. Least, not like a place. He figured for the Ancients, it was just when they returned to the Planet, 'cause that wasn't somethin' they feared. Sorta like goin' to sleep knowin' you'd have good dreams."

"Is that anything like what Aeris said?" Jessie wondered.

"Dunno. Don't exactly contradict it. She was sayin' how Jenova'd never be able to find the Promised Land 'cause it's not from this Planet. It'd make sense, with what Bugenhagen told us, that it couldn't return to this Planet's Lifestream, right?"

"Yeah..." So what did happen to Jenova when they killed it? "It's too bad Shinra cancelled their space program. We could've bundled them both off in a rocket and shot them into space, back wherever they came from."

Barret snorted. "Ain't so sure they'd be into that."

"Well, Jenova crashed here, right? Maybe it never wanted to be here."

"Don't really care what it wants. It's tryin' to hurt the Planet, we gotta stop it. Simple as that."

"Heh." Jessie shook her head. "None of it's really been simple, has it?"

"Figure you gotta make it simple when you can."

"I guess you're right. You know, Biggs would've thought the same way. The Jenova Project, Sephiroth... it's a lot to deal with. We've gotta break it down into something we can handle."

Barret nodded, but he was frowning. "Hate to say it, but Aeris's probably the key to that. If Sephiroth wants somethin' from her, he ain't gonna wait around on it forever."

Jessie looked at him. "Are you talking about using her as bait?"

"I don't like it," he said again, "but that's about all we got on 'im, right?"

She sat back, brow furrowing. If they were going to confront Sephiroth, then ideally they'd want to control when and where. That meant either knowing where he was, which they didn't, or having something he needed.

"Unless we can figure out whatever connection Cloud and the other 'clones' have to him... probably," she admitted.

Barret nodded. "Guess we'll see what Tifa an' the others come back with. Could be this Zack guy knows more 'n we do. He's gotta be in better shape than Cloud, if he's goin' around on his own like that."

"I hope they find him. All this uncertainty has to be really hard on Aeris. Not knowing if he's alive or dead, or what kind of shape he's in..."

"Yeah," said Barret. "I know the feelin.'"

"Huh?"

His mouth twisted and he tapped his thumb on the ground, considering something. At last he said, "I told Tifa this already, but... I dunno 'bout Dyne. If he survived or not. That's what she was really askin' after, back in North Corel."

"Oh..." Jessie thought back to that day. How Tifa had insisted on speaking to the refugees alone, how she'd come back with the same thing to say as the others. Barret still didn't know. "Well... maybe after all this business with Sephiroth is over, we can look for him. I'd kind of like to get into Shinra's database somehow. They're always collecting intel on people, maybe they've got something."

"Maybe."

"Seems like there's a lot of people we could stand to find," she observed. "Zack... Dyne... Lucrecia..."

Barret grimaced. "Sephiroth's mother?"

"Well, you know. She'd certainly know a lot, and maybe she'd help us. She was important to Vincent, too."

"Oh. Hm."

"For someone who doesn't talk much, he's surprisingly open about his feelings for her."

Barret shook his head. "Think the most I've heard 'im say is when he told me he wasn't a vampire."

It was true, he'd done most of his talking in that basement, when they'd first found him and pressed him with questions. But they'd never asked him how he felt about Lucrecia; he'd volunteered it. Of all the things he considered private, that wasn't one of them.

Jessie frowned.

"Barret, can I ask you something that's probably pretty uncomfortable? And you don't have to answer."

He glanced at her, guarded. "...yeah, all right."

"How come you never talk about your wife?"

Barret looked away, and she thought maybe she shouldn't have asked at all. "...never felt like I deserved to," he said.

"Like you deserved to talk about her?" Jessie repeated, puzzled.

"Yeah. Folks get sympathetic, an' that ain't right when it's my fault she died."

Jessie wanted to tell him that it wasn't, but they'd tried that road already. He wasn't at a place yet where he could forgive himself. But it didn't feel right to her to leave it at that, to leave it all unspoken because of his guilt. Wouldn't Biggs have hated it if they never spoke of him again?

"You think she'd want to be forgotten?" she asked.

"What?" Barret looked at her in alarm and he shook his head emphatically. "No! 'course not. I haven't forgotten her."

"I know you haven't, but if you never talk about her... What happens to her memory, if something happens to you? Marlene doesn't even know she existed."

"That ain't really..."

"Doesn't it have everything to do with her?" Jessie broke in. "You can tell me if I'm out of line, but... even if you never talk about her with the rest of us, I think Marlene deserves to know. She's your family, so she should know about the rest of her family, about where she came from."

His hand clenched, and unclenched. "...always figured it'd be a burden on her. I don't wanna bring her heartache like that."

"She's gonna get curious eventually. I'm not saying you tell her now... She's pretty young, and I'm not sure she... really understands that Biggs isn't coming back. But she should know, I think."

Barret nodded slowly. "Yeah. Guess you're right," he admitted. After a pause, he went on, "Ain't like she never knew Myrna, exactly. We watched her sometimes when she was a baby, so Dyne an' Eleanor could have some time to themselves. Myrna loved it. Used to say, when she got better, we'd have one of our own."

Jessie had heard a lot about his feelings on Shinra over the years, she knew now the past that had led him to form AVALANCHE, she knew his hopes for the future and for Marlene... but she felt that this small detail was the most intimate thing he'd ever shared with her.

"...when she got better?" she echoed cautiously.

"She'd been sick for a while," he explained. "But she was the toughest woman I knew, always said she'd beat it."

"That's why you supported the reactor, wasn't it? You wanted that life with her."

"...yeah. That was a big part of it."

And then the Shinra had stolen it from him. Not just the future he'd hoped to have with Myrna, but the thought that he deserved a future like it at all.

"Well," Jessie said, "maybe I never knew her, but I don't think someone who wanted to raise a family with you would want you to beat yourself up over what happened. I think... she'd be real glad that you have Marlene."

"...maybe. Ain't so easy to let go of."

"I know. But maybe this is a start? Tifa was saying to me that maybe it's still so hard for you both because you never talked to anyone about it until lately. I know you say you don't want sympathy, but... that's kind of what you get when you make friends with people."

Barret snorted. "Gonna get it whether I talk or not, is that what you're sayin'?"

"Basically."

"Guess I'll think on it," he said with a shake of his head. "But we got other stuff to worry 'bout right now."

"That doesn't mean I can't listen," Jessie pointed out.

"Nah, that ain't what I mean. I don't wanna be a mess right now, is what. Wasn't much use 'round the time we went through Corel, if you remember."

"Oh. Well... That was understandable."

Barret shrugged. "Maybe. But I'm gonna focus on what I gotta focus on right now."

"All right," Jessie said. Putting it off until he had space to feel whatever he might feel wasn't avoiding it, she thought. Not like a flat refusal to talk about it.

"So, what'd you find out?" Barret asked her.

"Oh... A lot of technical specs," she said. "I won't bore you with the details, but I'm really excited about this wind energy. I don't think it'll work everywhere, but it's part of a solution, right? You and I both know people won't want to go back to the old ways after living with the convenience of Mako for so long."

Barret nodded. "Probably a little too used to it ourselves."

"We did survive a night in that farmhouse," Jessie pointed out. "And plenty of nights now out under the stars."

"Yeah, an' look who stayed up half the night fiddlin' with a telescope."

"Hey, you can't be trying to argue that I'm used to telescopes. I've never seen one before!"

Barret chuckled. "Fair point," he admitted.

On the far side of the bonfire, Vincent stepped out from the pub and stood for a moment in the daylight before turning to walk on. Jessie had to wonder what he was up to. He'd been present for the morning's meeting, but they'd left him to his own devices afterwards. She had no idea if he intended to learn from the people of the canyon, or if he only meant to help when specifically asked.

"Still hopin' for a little one-on-one social interaction?" Barret teased.

"Nothin' wrong with that, is there?" she replied.

"Ahh, go on," he said, waving her off. "I don't get it, but this one's probably gonna take some work, huh?"

Jessie grinned. "Oh, it's definitely a long shot, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the view."

She hopped down from the bonfire's raised platform and caught up with Vincent, falling into step beside him. "Hey, Vincent," she said.

He nodded in reply. Now that she was closer, she could see that his hair was damp, like he'd just taken a bath... and then changed into the exact same clothes. Well, not like he had anything else, she guessed.

"How long have you been wearing that?" she wondered.

Vincent glanced at her. Of course the answer, like most things, was probably 'thirty years.' Did the man not sweat anymore? His clothes had a musty smell, like old things boxed up in someone's basement, not like something a human being had been wearing day in and day out for that long. Or maybe it was a product of the kind of hibernation he'd been in. After all, he appeared to be breathing now.

She had so many questions that he definitely wouldn't answer. And the one she'd blurted out was 'How long have you been wearing that?'

"I just thought maybe you'd like something else," she went on. "I mean, it's summer, and that looks pretty heavy."

"I'm fine," he said. "I have no money anyway."

"Oh, well, that's all right. We generally pool ours, except for Yuffie. So I could buy you something if you want."

"That isn't necessary."

"Oh... All right."

Vincent stopped and turned to her. "Did you need something?" he asked.

She worried she was annoying him, but there was no way to know for sure unless he told her as much, so she wouldn't assume. "I was wondering if you'd like to see Bugenhagen's planetarium!" she said instead. "Aeris mentioned you were hanging around up there yesterday, but I don't know if you've seen the inside."

"I haven't," he said.

"Do you want to? Bugenhagen showed me how to turn it on, and I've figured out a lot about how it works on my own. It's pretty cool. And, you know, educational, if that's your deal."

Vincent glanced upwards, saying nothing.

"Or were you busy?" she asked. Best to offer him an out.

"No... I suppose I can go."

Or maybe he was the sort who had trouble giving himself permission to say yes, Jessie considered. After all, he'd been so consumed with guilt that he hadn't done anything but wallow in it for decades. What was it like to be out in the world again after so long? How hard was even the smallest decision?

Jessie led the way up to the observatory and cheerfully held the door open into the planetarium. "After you."

When they were both on the platform, she clicked off the lights and switched on the machine. The platform lifted them into the dome of the planetarium, and the model of the solar system surrounded them.

Vincent turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. She couldn't discern any curiosity in his expression, but at least he cared enough to look.

"All of this is generated from data collected by that telescope up top," she explained, "making it the most accurate model modern technology can provide. And it's interactive." She demonstrated, making the hand motion to zoom in on their Planet--and thankfully, doing it correctly instead of sending the Planet careening off into space like she'd done a few times the night before.

"This has to be one of the most accurate models of our Planet, too," she went on. "Apparently they've lost the signal, but this observatory used to be tapped into one of the satellites Shinra launched back during the space program. So all this, is exactly what our Planet looked like from space less than a year ago. See? Here's where we are, in Cosmo Canyon. And this is Midgar over here... I guess this is your first real look at it, huh?"

"Yes," he said. "I only heard they had begun construction."

Jessie shook her head. "I can't even imagine... Thirty years is a lot to miss. Almost all the events of my lifetime happened while you were sleeping. Midgar's construction, the entirety of the Wutai War, the disasters at Nibelheim and Corel... Mako wasn't even that common back then, was it?"

"No. Nibelheim's reactor was a prototype."

"Do you even know, then, what it's done to the Planet?" Jessie wondered. She gestured to the expanse of wasteland that surrounded Midgar. "All of this... That's because of Midgar. Because of its reactors."

Vincent said nothing.

"That's what AVALANCHE has been fighting," she said. "I don't know if anyone's done a good job explaining to you who we are. We've been fighting for the Planet--to stop Shinra, and the reactors. But then, Sephiroth showed up. Tifa said he could be even more dangerous than the Shinra, and it seems like she's right."

"One man... more dangerous than the entire company."

"I know. It's a little unreal. But even back during the war, he was a big deal. I'm not sure he lost a single battle. And now... he plowed through those soldiers at the Shinra building like they were nothing."

Vincent met her gaze, and Jessie felt like he'd never actually looked at her so directly before. It was intense. "Have you met him?" he asked.

"Not exactly," she admitted. "Just had a few glimpses."

"But based on what Tifa has told you, you believe the only way to stop him is to kill him?"

"Well, I don't think there's a prison that could hold him."

Vincent shook his head. "I mean to say... You don't believe he could be reasoned with."

Jessie was taken aback. "After everything he's done? No way."

Vincent frowned, and his gaze left her. Only then did she realize exactly what she'd said.

"Look," she faltered, "I know he's her kid, but family isn't about blood in my experience."

"She wanted them to be family," he said. "But... I fear Lucrecia must be dead. She would never have raised her son to become such a man."

"I'm sorry, Vincent."

"It's my fault. I could have stopped all of this."

Jessie sighed. Well, she'd known perfectly well that she'd be dealing with another man who blamed himself for the loss of the woman he'd loved.

"You said it was her choice, right?" she said. "So, if you couldn't persuade her, what were you supposed to do? Kidnap her? Kill Professor Gast and Hojo? That wouldn't show much respect for her and her right to decide."

"But she would be alive," said Vincent. "It would be all right if she hated me for it."

Jessie shook her head. "You're saying that now, with the benefit of hindsight. You couldn't have done anything like that if you really loved her."

"I could have kept trying. Instead I did nothing. I watched."

She wondered if he'd considered it his punishment to maintain that level of detachment. To continue sitting on the sidelines, feeling responsible for every terrible consequence. But something had changed his mind. He'd chosen to act.

"If doing nothing is a sin, then we're all complicit in something," she reasoned. "I knew Shinra was bad news for years before I ever met Barret and Tifa, but I was just the girl who did fake IDs. But you know, that's not where I'm at anymore. And if you're really with us, then you're not standing by anymore either."

Vincent glanced at her, and this time she thought there was some curiosity in it, but he didn't say anything.

"So, uh, do you think you will? Join AVALANCHE, I mean."

"I don't know," he said, his gaze falling on the model of the Planet, and Midgar.

Jessie scratched her head. "I guess you might want to get your bearings before making any big decisions. See the state of the world for yourself."

"I have missed... many things," he said. Then he frowned, and looked to the door. "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"Gunfire."

Jessie couldn't make out a thing over the hum of machinery, but she trusted him not to be making it up. She shut off the planetarium display, and they rushed out of the observatory.

Down below, Shinra soldiers stood at the gate, detaining Ira the gatekeeper, but none of the other people of the canyon were anywhere to be seen. Barret was pinned down on the far side of the bonfire, exchanging fire with a pair of dark-suited individuals nearer to the entrance. He might have made a break for the pub, but there were people there, and he'd avoid putting them in danger unless he had to.

Vincent was down the ladder before Jessie could say a word to him. She hurried after.

Jessie didn't have any weapons on her. She'd thought it would be disrespectful to the peace these people advocated, but it was bad luck now. They took the risk of going out onto the upper landing to get around to the weapons store, and Jessie ran to the counter, finding the shopkeeper hiding behind it.

"You have any guns?" Jessie asked her breathlessly. "I'll pay you back later."

"Y-yes, but we don't sell real ammo here. Just blanks."

Jessie cursed mentally and joined Vincent at the doorway. There was no way they could make it down from here without taking fire; it was too exposed, in direct view of the soldiers at the gate. Even in the doorway, they had no cover, just shadow to obscure them from view, unlike the soldiers, who had a giant rock nearby they could duck behind. Vincent had his gun drawn, but he hadn't fired yet.

In the back of her mind, Jessie tried to count shots. How much ammo did Barret have left? How long would it last him?

Nanaki came bounding up behind them, craning his neck to look out over the landing to the situation below.

"Nanaki!" Jessie exclaimed in a whisper, not wanting to alert the soldiers to their presence. "Is there another way down from here?"

He shook his head. "Not without exposing ourselves to fire."

"Then this is our position," said Vincent.

There were a few empty crates nearby from some recent shipment, and they dragged one over to the doorway to give Vincent some cover. Then he motioned them back.

Jessie shared a glance with Nanaki, and they both moved back from the doorway, losing their view of the gate. If they couldn't do anything, there was no sense in exposing themselves to danger. Vincent crouched behind the crate, took careful aim, and fired off the first shot.

A shout rose up instantly from the soldiers; he must have found his mark. They returned fire, and their first wild volleys only glanced off the stone around the entrance, but she imagined it was intended to hold him off while they dashed for cover. Vincent remained unfazed, each of his shots careful and deliberate. But maybe he didn't have any to waste.

Below, the blonde Turk shouted an order to the soldiers to get their act together, and their aim began to steady. Bullets began to tear splinters off the crate, and Vincent flinched back as one glanced off his arm.

"Careful, Vincent!" Jessie said anxiously.

He ducked behind the crate to reload, but the soldiers' fire never let up, like they meant to punch enough holes in it to reach him. Vincent got off a few more shots before something struck him, and he grunted. He dropped back, planting his clawed hand against the floor.

"Vincent!" Jessie did have her Restore materia, and she fumbled for it. "Where were you hit?"

He didn't answer. She hurried forward and reached for him, intending to pull him back to safety and heal him.

"Get away from me," he snapped the moment her fingers brushed his arm.

"What?"

"Move," he growled, and the unexpectedly raw anger of that command forced her back again.

Vincent dropped his gun and doubled over, his back hunching. A low moan grew into a roar, and when he threw his head back, it was bestial and horned. Jessie tried to take another step back and nearly tripped over Nanaki.

The monster that had been Vincent shoved the crate aside and charged ahead down the steps. Jessie made it to the doorway in time to see him grab one of the soldiers with his clawed right hand, smash him into the rock he'd been using for cover, and hurl him over the drop behind it. He was probably dead before he hit the bottom. The monster disappeared behind the rock, and the other soldiers screamed.

Materia clutched to her chest, Jessie could feel her own heart pounding. She exchanged glances with Nanaki, but neither of them spoke. Clearly Hojo had done more to Vincent than they'd thought, but had he known? Was he in control?

The screaming lasted only a few moments. Jessie retrieved Vincent's gun and ran after him, Nanaki close behind.

The soldiers at the gate were all dead, but though Ira sat on the ground shaking in terror, he appeared unharmed.

The two Turks had turned all their attention on the monster that was Vincent. He'd already mauled the man's arm, and the woman fired a full round into him, forcing him back only a few steps. She reached for a fresh clip while the man hurled off an ice spell to keep the monster at bay.

Jessie scanned past them, searching for Barret. She spotted him looking up over the bonfire platform. He met her gaze, and even across that distance, she read utter bafflement in his expression. She motioned him over.

The monster roared in anger and retaliated against the Turks with an intense fire magic. They stumbled back behind cover, and Jessie saw the light of a Cure spell being used. The monster stood panting. Had their attacks wounded him after all?

Cautiously, Jessie moved towards him, hoping to come within range to cast a Cure spell of her own. The monster looked at her sharply, making a low growl, and she stepped back again.

Barret reached her side. "The fuck's goin' on?" he asked. "That's Vincent's cape."

"That's Vincent," she said, shaking her head.

"Seriously?"

"Perhaps this is why he was locked up," Nanaki suggested.

"Hell..." Barret glanced behind them. "He's only attackin' the Shinra though."

But he wasn't attacking anything now. As they watched, the monster stumbled a few paces to a stand nearby and leaned against it with a left arm that was still metallic. He started to shrink, the horns receding into his skull and his skin returning to its pale hue. Vincent collapsed on the ground.

"We'd best make sure those Turks're still pinned down," Barret said, catching Nanaki's eye. The two of them ran ahead, while Jessie hurried to Vincent's side.

The monster's form was bigger than his, and although his clothes were loose-fitting, the transformation had ruined his boots and burst most of the buttons on his shirt. Jessie searched him anxiously for the bullet wounds that should have been there, but she found nothing.

Vincent was already struggling to sit up, his hand reaching to pull his shirt closed, and only then did she notice the old surgical scars. Jessie quickly helped him, doing up the few buttons that were still in tact.

"Secret's safe with me," she promised. It wasn't her place to tell, though she thought it would've been all right. They'd known plenty of trans people in the slums; Midgar attracted a lot of hopefuls, being one of the best places to get the surgery, but it wound up being too expensive for most of them. A Turk salary would probably do it, she thought.

Vincent grunted, and closed his eyes.

"You all right? I can still heal you, I just- I don't see any wounds."

"I'll be fine. Just tired."

Jessie hesitated. "Did you know?" she asked.

"...yes."

"Is that... Is that why you weren't sure about coming with us?"

"One reason," he said. He let out a breath and then shifted his weight to get up. Jessie offered him a hand, but he stood without taking it. Together they walked to where Barret had his gun arm trained on the two injured Turks. Nanaki, too, crouched ready for attack.

"Oh, man," said the woman at the sight of them--probably Vincent in particular. The man caught her eye and shook his head, and she bit back anything more she meant to say.

"Good," said Barret, nodding to Jessie and Vincent. "Could use a hand relievin' them o' their weapons."

Chapter Text

Driving made Aeris nervous, but on Yuffie's turn, she went five minutes before smashing one of the headlights against a tree, and they both agreed she made a better navigator. At least it consumed most of Aeris's attention, trying to feel like she was in control of the vehicle while also not driving like an old lady. If she'd been a passenger, she would have had more time to think about what had happened in Gongaga, and all the ramifications.

They didn't talk much, until Tifa eventually fell asleep, and Yuffie spoke up quietly.

"You don't think Tifa's mad that I told you to tell Sephiroth, do you?" Apparently she had plenty of space to worry, though it seemed to be distracting her from her usual motion sickness.

Aeris shook her head. "Of course not. She knows you were just worried about her."

"I never thought I'd see her go down like that," Yuffie admitted. "She's always such a badass."

Aeris glanced past her to Tifa, slumped against the opposite door. Her shirt and hands were stained dark with drying blood, evidence of those long minutes she'd spent lying on the ground, bleeding out just beyond Aeris's reach.

Tifa had told her not to tell, probably thinking it was her life against many, but they weren't there yet, and Aeris wasn't willing to make that sacrifice. She didn't think anyone's life would have been worth the information, but Tifa's in particular...

Maybe she hadn't quite understood it before. Of course Sephiroth had frightened her; she'd seen those bodies in the Shinra building, she'd watched him kill Hojo in front of her. But Gongaga had brought her closer to understanding what Tifa had gone through in Nibelheim. How she must have felt seeing her loved ones cut down by that man, how it must have terrified her to realize it could happen again.

And the frustration at her own powerlessness... Did she have that, too? An anger that drove her to act in defiance of what he'd almost taken from her, what he'd forced her to reveal...

"You okay, Aeris?"

Aeris gave her head a shake, realizing the truck had slowed nearly to a stop. "Yes, sorry."

"She just needs rest now, right?"

"Right. She'll be fine." Aeris's hands tightened around the steering wheel. Would she? Physically, she'd heal, but she'd been through so much.

"And she's got you," said Yuffie, awkwardly drumming her fingers on the dash. "And that's... I mean, it's probably a lot, right? That's how people always talk about that stuff anyhow."

Aeris smiled softly. "It is a lot," she agreed. "Thanks, Yuffie. I'm glad you came. You were really amazing back there."

"Yeah?" For a second, Yuffie's expression was unguarded, earnestly touched. "I mean, of course I was. I'm pretty awesome like that."

"Hmm. I wonder what you think of the rest of us, though. Still a bunch of weirdos?"

"Obviously. But... maybe I'm a little weird, too, 'cause I kinda like you guys."

"Well, I should hope so, because I've thought of us as friends for a while now."

"I usually go it solo. But it's not so bad having a few friends."

Aeris glanced away from the road to smile at her, but Yuffie broke her gaze, fidgeting in her seat. Open sentiment made her uncomfortable, but all the same, Aeris was sure she needed it. As strong of a front as Yuffie put on, confidence was hard at that age.

And she honestly didn't know what would have happened back there, without Yuffie. If she hadn't decided Cosmo Canyon was too boring for her, if she'd stayed behind, would they even have made it out? Or would Jenova have killed them?

It took them a little longer to return than it had to make the drive out to Gongaga, but Aeris at last brought the truck to a stop below Cosmo Canyon. She killed the engine, and let out a breath.

"Finally," said Yuffie.

Aeris opened the door and climbed out, and Yuffie was out after her in a flash. In the back of the truck, Cloud was already collecting their gear to carry up. She tried to catch his eye, but he avoided her gaze, so instead she walked around to the passenger side.

"...I hate to wake her," she said.

"Yeah, but which one of us d'you expect to carry her? She probably weighs as much as both of us combined."

Aeris threw Yuffie a wry look. "I don't think muscle is that dense, Yuffie. But maybe you could run ahead and get Barret?"

Tifa shifted in her seat. "I'm awake," she mumbled, though it took her a moment to open her eyes and find her bearings.

"We can still get Barret," Aeris said. "It's a lot of steps up to the settlement."

Tifa shook her head and opened the door to get out. Aeris hated to see how much she leaned into it, and she got under Tifa's arm to support her.

"Cloud?" Tifa called, twisting her neck.

"I'm here," he said, though he kept his distance.

Yuffie took Tifa's other side as they very slowly and carefully climbed the steps into Cosmo Canyon. Aeris's own weariness made each step a chore, and she used her staff to help push herself on. The earth felt unnaturally quiet, and she knew something was wrong before they reached the top. She didn't see Ira at the gate either.

A foul but not entirely unfamiliar smell greeted them at the top, and just past the gate lay a row of bodies, covered over in sheets. Aeris's chest grew tight. Who...? Who had they lost, who was responsible?

"What the hell?" said Yuffie.

"Shinra," said Tifa, and Aeris spotted the pile of helmets nearby. She counted; the same as the number of bodies. Relief swept over her, and she wondered if there was anything wrong with that. They were still people, important to someone if not to her.

Nanaki bounded up to them, his one eye sweeping over them. "Did they come after you all, too?"

Aeris shook her head. "Not the Shinra. We... ran into Sephiroth."

"What happened here?" Tifa asked. "Is everyone all right?"

"Yes, we're all fine," Nanaki assured them. "But I think we all ought to get together, to share what's happened."

He went off to get the others, and they went ahead to the inn. Cloud waited in the room while Aeris and Yuffie helped Tifa into the bathroom, where they got her out of her bloodied clothes and washed the stains from her skin. Aeris's healing meant that there wouldn't be a scar, but she couldn't keep her eyes from falling on the old one across Tifa's chest. Was it on Tifa's mind, too?

The others had gathered in the room by the time they came back out of the bathroom. As Nanaki had said, everyone was all right, but it took Aeris a moment to pinpoint something strange about their appearance: it was Vincent. He'd changed his clothes, which wasn't so surprising, but while at every other meeting they'd had, he'd elected to stand somewhere out of the way, now he sat on one of the beds. And he looked tired.

"Teef, you all right?" said Barret. She'd already reached the bed, but he took her arm and helped her ease down onto it. Aeris sat down beside her.

"Aeris took care of me," said Tifa. "I'll be all right."

"Nanaki said you ran into Sephiroth?" Jessie said, her brow knit in concern. She sat down on Tifa's other side, as though wanting to be close enough to confirm for herself that she was okay. Yuffie perched cross-legged on the end of the bed, and Barret took only a step back, Nanaki settling beside him on his haunches.

It reminded Aeris of that day she'd brought Tifa back to Seventh Heaven. Her friends were more solemn now in their affection, her condition cause for more worry than relief, but they were still here, gathered around her.

Tifa exchanged glances with Aeris, but before either of them could begin to explain what had happened, Cloud spoke up.

"I shouldn't stay. Just in case..." He met Aeris's gaze, and she understood. Sephiroth had known somehow, their private conversation. If they discussed the Temple, if they made plans... would he know that, too?

"Cloud," said Tifa, "you don't have to..."

"No, I do. I'll be in the other room, so you can... figure out what to do with me later."

Tifa frowned, but she didn't stop him. Aeris thought a lot of her faith in him was wishful thinking, a desire to take back Cloud and all the other Nibelheim survivors from the awful things that had befallen them, and maybe on some level she knew that.

"What was that about?" asked Jessie.

"...we'll get to that," said Tifa.

They went on to relate what had happened in Gongaga: Sephiroth's impersonation of Zack, the fight, Cloud's part in it, the information Aeris had surrendered, Reno's appearance, the battle with Jenova...

When they'd finished, Tifa asked what had happened here in their absence, and Barret and Jessie exchanged glances, hesitant for some reason.

"We got Turks here, too," said Barret, "but not so friendly. They forced their way in, said the townsfolk wouldn't come to any harm as long as they turned over the leader of AVALANCHE--I'm guessin' they meant me, since there's no way they coulda known otherwise. I went to confront 'em, gave the townsfolk time enough to run an' hide, but I wasn't about to go quiet. We fought, they had me pinned down a while..."

He trailed off and glanced at Jessie.

"Me and Vincent were up at the observatory when we heard it go down. We ran down to help, and..."

"Go on," said Vincent. He wasn't quite looking at her.

"Well, Vincent got shot. And that's when he... transformed into a monster. And, um, he took out all those soldiers on his own, and forced the Turks into corner. We were able to take 'em captive from there."

"Back up a sec," said Yuffie. "Vincent turned into a monster?"

"Yeah," said Jessie. "I guess it's something Hojo did to him. But he didn't hurt any of us. Just the Shinra."

"What... sort of monster?" Tifa wondered.

"Some kinda purple beast," Barret offered, "with these great big horns. Think it had a tail? Hard to tell with the cape."

"Vincent," Aeris began uncertainly, "were you still...? I mean, was it just your body?"

"You want to know if I, too, might lose control, and hurt you," Vincent concluded dispassionately. "It isn't impossible."

"But were you you?" Tifa pressed.

Vincent frowned, and Aeris wasn't sure he was going to answer, but at last he said, "I was no one else. But, my mind works differently, in that state."

"It's happened before?" Aeris wondered.

He nodded.

"Man," said Yuffie, "I didn't think you guys were gonna come close to topping what happened to us. That's pretty messed up."

"Where are you keeping the Turks?" Tifa asked. "Have they told you anything?"

Barret shook his head. "Not yet. We got 'em locked up in a store room, but we still been pickin' up the pieces, haven't had time to sit down for a real interrogation."

"Who are they?" Aeris asked. "I mean, do you know their names?"

"Woman's name is Elena. Don't know about the other one yet--some bald guy. Haven't seen either one of 'em before."

Not Tseng, Aeris thought. Just his underlings.

"I think the most important thing right now is the Temple," said Jessie, "isn't it? Aeris, you never said what it was."

Aeris took a breath. "Right. I guess that is what comes next." She looked down, folding her hands in her lap. It was a lot of information that the Planet had shared with her, all in a rush, and she'd barely sorted through it herself.

"The Temple of the Ancients... was created to hide a very dangerous magic," she said. "It houses and protects the Black Materia, which commands Meteor. It's capable of destroying this Planet."

"What the heck?" said Yuffie. "Why would the Planet ever make something like that?"

"It had to. It couldn't create the White Materia without also creating its counterpart."

"The White Materia?" Tifa asked.

Aeris reached up, unpinned it from her hair, and held it out for them to see. An unremarkable pale green orb, almost indistinguishable from any other materia. "This," she said. "While the Black Materia summons the ultimate destructive magic... the White Materia summons Holy, which has the power to cleanse the Planet of all threats. The Planet made them both in desperation after Jenova came. But, Holy has never been used."

"You've had that this whole time," said Yuffie. "Does Sephiroth know you've got it?"

"I don't know. If he knows about the Black Materia, he must know it exists, but he didn't try to take it from me. Maybe he didn't recognize it, or maybe he doesn't believe I can use it."

"You said it could cleanse the Planet of all threats..." Tifa said. "What does that mean exactly?"

"Yeah," said Jessie. "Would it wipe out the Shinra?"

"I'm... not sure," Aeris admitted. "But I know that it can counter Meteor, and I have to believe it's powerful enough to destroy Jenova, once and for all."

"All right, so let's use it," said Barret.

"It's not that simple. Such powerful magic requires the strength of more than one person."

Tifa glanced around the room. "We've got seven here..."

Aeris smiled at how eager her friends were to help her. She knew their hearts were willing, but... "More than that," she said. "I'd have to go north... to the forgotten capital of the Cetra. I think I could use it, there, with all of their spirits guiding me."

"North..." Tifa met her gaze. "The Planet's been wanting you to go there all this time. To do this."

"Yes... But Sephiroth doesn't have the Black Materia, yet."

"If summoning Holy will stop him and Meteor, then why don't we just go do that?" said Yuffie.

"Because we don't know for certain that it has the power to stop both of them," said Nanaki, and he looked to Aeris for confirmation. "Correct?"

"Right," she said. "If we can prevent Sephiroth from ever summoning Meteor... then Holy's power can be focused on Jenova."

"And that's how we kill it," said Jessie with a decisive nod.

"But first we need to go to the Temple," said Tifa, "and make sure Sephiroth doesn't get the Black Materia."

"First we need to rest," Aeris corrected. "We can't face him in the shape we're in."

"Yeah," Barret agreed. "We're gonna need our wits about us, too, 'specially if he can look like anybody now."

Nanaki nodded. "And if he has the power of illusion, then disguising himself may not be the only trick at his disposal."

Aeris blinked. How had it only just occurred to her? "Is it his power," she asked, "or Jenova's?"

"What's the difference?" said Jessie. "They're working together."

"I wonder..." Aeris said. "Two of the times we've seen him, Sephiroth left a Jenova creature in his place. What if it's never been him? What if that was just Jenova, dropping the illusion?"

Tifa looked at her with a frown. "Wouldn't it want to get away? We killed both of those monsters."

"Well," said Jessie, looking thoughtful, "we always figured there were more than one of them. After all, Shinra made ones like it, too. We've been assuming that they're all connected through Sephiroth, that he's the one running things..."

Barret scratched his head. "You think this Jenova thing's callin' the shots?"

"Why not? It is the source."

Aeris nodded. "It's possible... none of this is Sephiroth's will at all."

"What do you mean?" asked Tifa.

She knew that Tifa wasn't going to like this theory. That's why she still wasn't following it, even though Jessie and Barret were already starting to work it out, and Aeris could see comprehension in Nanaki's eye.

"Well," Aeris said, "we saw what happened with Cloud. Whoever we fought in Gongaga, they were able to influence him, if only for a moment. Sephiroth has more Jenova in him than anyone. Maybe, Nibelheim wasn't him going crazy. Maybe it was him finally being close enough to Jenova, and vulnerable enough, that it could take control."

Tifa didn't speak right away. Her jaw clenched in a quiet anger at the very idea of it.

"That is the creepiest thing I've ever heard," said Yuffie.

Tifa shook her head. "But... If that were true, then it would have to have all of Sephiroth's memories. He knew me, and he knew Zack well enough that he almost had us fooled. The way he talked, his body language..."

"And he knew something that Cloud had said to me in private," Aeris added. "Like he'd been able to eavesdrop somehow."

"...through the Jenova cells inside of Cloud," Nanaki concluded.

Aeris nodded. "For all we know, the real Sephiroth did die five years ago."

"And the reason it's all started up again now," Jessie ventured, "is because of Hojo's 'clones'?"

"How d'you figure that?" Barret wondered.

Jessie went on with more certainty. "If Jenova could've escaped confinement on its own, I think it would've done so a long time ago. It needed someone to free it. We thought that was Sephiroth, but it could've been one of the clones. They were released months ago, but it was probably hard for Jenova to exert enough control over such a long distance to bring one all the way to Midgar."

"And there was one in Midgar," Aeris recalled. The man with the number 2 tattoo, who'd been there in Sector 5 just days before everything at the Shinra building.

"Man, I don't like any o' this," said Barret. "Some alien thing, usin' people like puppets?"

"But it makes sense, doesn't it?" Aeris said. "We've been struggling to understand Sephiroth's motives this whole time... But of course Jenova would hate Nibelheim, where it was held captive, and President Shinra, and Hojo... And its aim was always harming the Planet."

"It does make a lot of sense," Tifa conceded, "but... I've hated Sephiroth for so long. And now you're saying maybe none of it was his fault? He was being manipulated and I should feel sorry for him?"

"It's still just a theory," Aeris said. "I don't know if it's true."

"Even if Sephiroth is a puppet of Jenova," said Nanaki, "as long as he is under its control, he is still our enemy."

"Yeah," Yuffie agreed. "Whether it's Sephiroth or Jenova we're fighting, they're still trying to hurt the Planet."

Vincent spoke up at last, and there was a strange edge to his voice. "You don't think this changes anything?"

Jessie looked at him, biting her lip. "Vincent..."

"If Sephiroth is a puppet," he went on, "then he could be freed from Jenova's control."

"I'm not sure how we'd do that..." Aeris said doubtfully, though she wondered why her own thoughts hadn't led her that far. Maybe, like Tifa, she didn't want him to be saved, even if it turned out he was no more culpable than Cloud.

"Cloud was able to come out of it, more or less, because of Tifa," Jessie said. "But, who's important enough to Sephiroth to do something like that?"

"I don't know," said Aeris. "The Sephiroth in Gongaga said that Zack was his friend, but even if that's true, Zack's at risk of Jenova's influence, too."

Tifa shook her head. "Even if we found him, he'd be a liability if we took him along to face Sephiroth. Maybe it's harsh, Vincent, but we can't prioritize rescuing Sephiroth in all this."

"Might be a mercy to kill 'im, if he's been brainwashed this long," Barret put in.

Vincent frowned and looked away, saying nothing.

"So then," said Nanaki, "what are we going to do about Cloud?"

"He only lost control for a moment," Tifa said. "I don't think we need to lock him up like he was saying, but if Sephiroth can use him to spy on us, then... we can't take him with us any farther."

"I wonder if it goes both ways though," said Jessie.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, that report back in Nibelheim said the clones were 'sensing' something."

Aeris nodded. "And there was that time he said he heard Sephiroth talking about the Promised Land..."

"Doesn't sound all that reliable," Barret remarked.

"No," Jessie conceded, "but maybe now that he knows about it, he could actually try to use it. Maybe we could learn something."

Tifa shook her head. "I don't know... I don't think he'll want to."

"Isn't it worth asking?" said Jessie.

"He does owe us, after Gongaga," Yuffie put in.

Tifa frowned at her.

"What? He messed up, and you almost died. I'm done being nice to him."

"I guess I'll talk to him," Tifa said. "But after we've all gotten some rest. I think we've about covered everything here."

Barret scratched his head. "We still gotta figure out how we're gettin' to that Temple, but you don't gotta worry about that. I'll ask around."

"Yes, there should be fishing villages farther east of Gongaga," Nanaki added. "I am sure we can find a boat."

"Right then. You just rest up now, Teef. There anything you need?"

"...maybe something to eat?" Tifa proposed.

"Like a nice steak," Aeris put in.

"I'll see what I can do," Barret said.

"And I'll let Cloud know he's not banished to the other room forever," said Jessie.

"Thanks," said Tifa.

The others all started to make their way out of the room. Yuffie was the last to move, sluggish as she unfolded her legs and slid off the edge of the bed.

"Yuffie?" Tifa said, catching her eye before she left. "I just wanted to say thanks."

"Huh? What for?"

"I know you tried to heal me, back in Gongaga."

"O-oh. Well... I'm just glad you're okay."

Tifa smiled and nodded. "Yeah. Me, too."

Yuffie scratched her head. "Anyway, I'm gonna go eat, too," she said, and they let her go, but her step seemed just a little lighter out the door.

Alone in the room with Tifa, Aeris felt a little uneasy somehow.

"...I'm sorry," she said, thinking maybe it was because of what she'd said earlier, about Sephiroth. "Maybe I should've kept that theory to myself. It doesn't really change anything."

Tifa looked back at her. "I don't know... Cloud said that it was Sephiroth in his head, but I think you might be right that it wasn't his body. Yuffie's weapon should've at least torn his coat. The illusion didn't go that far, I guess."

"But he did seem stronger than Jenova," Aeris said.

"Maybe he can only keep that up for so long. He almost seemed annoyed that he couldn't take me out faster."

"Hmm. Maybe."

"...are you all right, Aeris?"

"Me?"

"Maybe we're both just tired, but you seem... a little distant."

So Tifa had picked up on it. "I don't know... I can't help feeling like I let you down somehow, but maybe I am just tired. Sometimes, those feelings go away after a night's sleep."

Tifa reached over and took her hand, her fingers brushing the White Materia that Aeris still held in her palm. "You didn't let me down," she said. "You saved me. You were really brave."

"I don't feel brave," Aeris confessed. "I had to give him what he wanted."

"It's all right. He hasn't won yet."

Aeris lifted her eyes to Tifa's face. "I thought you'd be... in rougher shape. After he hurt you like that, again."

Tifa shook her head. "That's not what scared me," she said. "But you're all right... I'm all right. I know we came really close... but we didn't lose a damn thing to him. Next time, it'll be his turn to lose something."

Aeris nodded. There it was, the anger that Tifa drew strength from and turned into defiance. Even if she understood it better now, Aeris had always drawn her strength from the quiet moments, from carving out space for the bright things in life, and protecting them from falling back into the dark.

She put her other hand around Tifa's. "Hey," she said, "so if I saved you, does that mean you owe me a date?"

Tifa blinked. "Well... I don't know about this business of owing dates, but as a special, Aeris-only offer... I was hoping we'd find time, while we're here."

"I think we can. We're not going anywhere in a hurry."

"Yeah. I guess not."

Chapter Text

Tifa didn't think she was putting on a front, but her fear caught up to her in her nightmares. Racing up the steps of the reactor on Mt. Nibel, she found herself instead in the halls of the Shinra building. She ran through a maze of corridors, sometimes alone, sometimes not, sometimes afraid he was chasing her, other times desperate to reach something before him.

The laboratory cell block stretched out ahead of her, and she raced to the end of it, only to find Aeris dead in her cell. He laughed from somewhere behind her, and she woke gasping.

"Tifa?"

By the faint light coming through the crack under the door, Aeris was little more than a dark shape leaning over her. Tifa found her face with her hands and pulled her closer to kiss her, fervently. Aeris made a soft noise of surprise, but soon relaxed into her, kissing her back.

Tifa kissed along her jawline to her neck and buried her face in Aeris's curls, holding her close.

"Nice to see you, too," Aeris murmured. "You okay?"

"Bad dream," Tifa said.

"You wanna talk about it?"

"Not even a little." She thought Aeris could guess well enough. What was there to say?

Looking into the dark, Tifa couldn't make out Jessie and Yuffie in the other beds. She hoped she hadn't woken them. Yuffie especially needed her rest, and Jessie didn't need to worry any more than she already would.

Tifa closed her eyes, but the image of Aeris's bloody corpse was waiting behind her eyelids, and she snapped them open again, holding Aeris tighter.

"How about something to take your mind off of it?" Aeris suggested instead.

"We'd wake the others," Tifa said.

"They're not here," said Aeris. "And just what are you imagining anyway?"

Aeris was trying to tease her, she knew, but Tifa loosened her grip, frowning in confusion over at the apparently empty beds. "They're not here?"

"Mm. Apparently Yuffie fell asleep in Nanaki's room, so Jessie decided she'd bunk with the boys and give us our space."

"In Nanaki's room?"

"Yeah. Seems like those two are becoming friends, doesn't it?"

"Not something I expected," Tifa remarked.

"Me neither," said Aeris. She shifted, nuzzling into Tifa's neck. "So, how would we have woken them if they were here?"

"By talking too much?"

"Oh, is that all?"

"You really wanna wear me out while I'm still healing?" Tifa asked, but she felt her face flush, and she didn't know how Aeris could say things like that without getting embarrassed.

Aeris giggled. "No, I guess not. But there's still plenty we could do that's quiet... and gentle..." Aeris kissed her way down Tifa's neck to her shoulder, and Tifa hummed softly. If she could dream about this instead...

"Can we turn the lights on?" she asked.

"Oh." Aeris pulled back. "And here I had you figured for a lights-out kind of person."

"No. I want to see you."

Aeris leaned over to switch on the bedside lamp, throwing light across the room. Tifa had fallen asleep in her clothes, but Aeris had changed into the nightgown that Elmyra had brought her in Kalm, a pale pink slip that was honestly getting a little threadbare.

"Better?" Aeris asked, and Tifa nodded. Aeris looked tired, but very much alive. Color in her cheeks and her lips, eyes that returned Tifa's gaze steadily. Tifa pushed some of those curls back over Aeris's bare shoulder, feeling the warmth of her skin.

"What about you?" she asked. "Did I wake you?"

Aeris shook her head. "I was having trouble sleeping," she admitted.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

At the question, Aeris frowned and broke her gaze. Tifa felt sympathy reach her belatedly as she drank in the expressiveness of Aeris's face, the way her brow furrowed and her lashes dropped over her eyes.

"I don't know," said Aeris. "It's... hard to put into words."

"Are you worried about the Temple?" Tifa wondered.

"That's a part of it." Aeris sat back as she thought about it, one hand coming to rest loosely across Tifa's stomach. "So much of this is new to me. Back in Midgar, I tried so hard to pretend I was like everybody else, even to Mom. I didn't want to be a Cetra. It's become so important now... But it's still a part of me that I don't really understand, and I'm all alone in that, so much of the time."

Tifa wanted so badly in that moment to tell her she was wrong, to be the person who could understand, but she was no Cetra. There would always be a part of Aeris's experience completely out of her grasp. Out of anyone's grasp. She'd always be struggling with it as the last of her kind.

"I'm sorry if we've put too much pressure on you," Tifa said. "I don't want to be anything like Sephiroth or the Shinra, using you for what you can do."

"No," Aeris said quickly. "No, you've all been so supportive. You haven't done anything wrong. It's just circumstances... Maybe it would be different, if I hadn't tried to run from it for so long."

Tifa studied her face, remembering how much lighter she'd seemed in Kalm, in the rain, when she had first said she could hear the Planet.

"I got the feeling, when we first left Midgar, that you were looking forward to exploring it, finally. But maybe, it's all too much too fast? I mean, you were only just learning to speak to the Planet, and now you have this huge responsibility put on you, to do things even your ancestors never did. Of course that's scary."

Aeris nodded cautiously. "Yeah. Maybe that's it."

"I know I'm only human," Tifa admitted, "but... if all I can do is support you, you know I will. A hundred percent."

A soft smile bloomed across Aeris's face, and she dropped her eyes bashfully. "Ahh... I thought I was supposed to be making you feel better," she said.

"You were distracting me," Tifa reminded her.

"Hmm. I wonder, what do you dream about, when you have good dreams?"

Good dreams? "I don't know. Mundane things, mostly. Cooking for friends. Playing with Marlene. ...kicking the crap out of Shinra soldiers."

Aeris laughed quietly. "I guess I'm not surprised."

"What about you?" Tifa asked. "What do you dream about?"

"...I've always dreamt about flying," Aeris said. "But lately, it's been a little different. A few times, I've dreamt something more like this."

"This?"

"Being with you," she said. In bed with her, Tifa realized she meant. "I imagine... you'll be my first."

Her first... Tifa couldn't quite imagine it, but this time the prospect wasn't so overwhelming. Maybe she was too tired for it to frighten her, or maybe it was because of how natural it had become to reach for Aeris's hand, to hold her in her arms, to share a kiss in their private moments...

"Sounds like a nice dream," she said.

Aeris smiled, and her hair tumbled forward again as she leaned down for a kiss.

Tifa slept soundly through the rest of the night. If she dreamt, she didn't remember it, but that was all right. Aeris was here, a better reality than any dream.

Her body felt heavy as she pulled herself out of bed. Like something foreign, it didn't respond the way she was used to, moving slowly and clumsily, but she no longer needed Aeris's help to get around. It was, she reminded herself, so much faster than her recovery after Nibelheim, but it frustrated her when she knew that Sephiroth was out there, already headed for the Temple.

They found a late breakfast together and went to track down the others to see where things stood. They found Barret at the bonfire, unexpectedly accompanied by Cloud. Or was Barret keeping an eye on him?

"Hey, you're up," Barret observed as they approached. "Good to see you on your feet, Teef."

Tifa nodded. "I'm feeling stronger," she said. Just not strong enough.

"I'm really sorry, Tifa," said Cloud, and he managed to meet her eyes when he said it.

"Don't worry about it," she said, but it occurred to her that maybe that wasn't what he needed to hear. His guilt weighed on him, but she wouldn't even see it, wouldn't acknowledge it. "...I forgive you," she added.

He nodded, holding her gaze a second longer before looking down, and she thought that was the right thing to say.

She looked to Barret. "How do we stand right now?"

"We're holdin' it together," he said. "Jessie an' the others went up a bit ago to make sure our prisoners got somethin' to eat. Don't think we can hang onto 'em much longer... locals don't like it, and I don't blame 'em."

"Yuffie and Vincent are doing all right?" Aeris asked.

Barret scratched his head. "Well, Yuffie seems fine. Vincent was still asleep last I saw. Guess turnin' into a monster takes a lot outta you."

"He was wounded, too, wasn't he?" Tifa recalled.

"Supposedly. Had plenty o' holes in his shirt, but Jessie said she didn't have to heal 'im or nothin.'"

Tifa exchanged glances with Aeris. "I guess being a monster has its perks," Aeris said. "But no wonder he's tired."

"We'll have to check in on him," Tifa decided. "If he's up for it, it doesn't seem like a bad idea to have an ex-Turk along when questioning Turks."

"You feelin' up for it, Tifa?" Barret asked. "I figured you'd want in, but you know you can delegate, if you want."

"I'm up for it," Tifa said. She wanted to see these Turks for herself. But she glanced at Cloud and said, "You think you could give us a minute, first?"

Barret nodded. "Sure. I'll go ahead an' check on Vincent for ya."

He got up to leave the bonfire, and after catching Tifa's gaze inquisitively, Aeris went with him. Tifa sat down beside Cloud, who leaned forward, arms around his knees.

"How are you feeling?" she asked him. "Clear-headed?"

"Yeah. I have been since... he cut you."

"Can you tell me what happened?" she asked. "You said you heard Sephiroth in your head?"

Cloud shook his head. "Not... talking. It was worse than that. It was like... he was trying to be there instead of me. I think for a second he must've been. But that's no excuse. I shouldn't have let him..."

"You didn't let him. I know you were fighting him."

"I should've been fighting with you guys, but I helped him." His expression contorted into a grimace, and his grip tightened around his arms. "I helped the man who burned down my home and murdered my mother."

Tifa bit her lip. She knew it must have been awful for him, but she hadn't been thinking about it like that. Cloud's feelings towards Sephiroth, his desire for vengeance, they could be no different from her own, but his body had betrayed him. Because of that, he'd nearly helped Sephiroth kill her, nearly helped him finish what he'd done at that reactor.

"It wasn't your fault," she said again, knowing it wasn't much consolation, against that. "But you know what it tells us? He needed your help. I think Sephiroth lured us there thinking it would be easy if we were only at half strength. But he underestimated us. And that means all of us together have a real shot at defeating him."

"All of you," he corrected. "You can't risk having me there."

"...maybe," Tifa had to admit. "But there might be something you can do for us, if you're willing to try it."

Cloud looked to her hopefully, and she wished it were anything else she was about to ask him. "What is it?"

"If Sephiroth can see through you... Do you think there's any chance you could turn it around on him?"

"What...?"

Tifa looked away, frowning. "Jessie thought, you might be able to sense him. Where he is, or what he's thinking... I don't know. It does seem like you're tuned into something the rest of us aren't."

Cloud didn't answer right away, but at last he shook his head. "I don't know, Tifa. I want to help, but... that seems like giving in to what I'm supposed to be fighting."

"All right," she said. "I don't want to push you into doing something risky. I want you to stay you."

"If anything comes to me though," he added quickly, "I'll let you know."

Tifa smiled at him. "Thanks."

"You don't have to thank me for that."

"It's not about having to. You need to stop being so hard on yourself, all right?"

Cloud hesitated. "I'll try," he said. "I just wish... you could count on me. Like your other friends."

"I know," Tifa said, and she sat for a moment struggling to find the right words. "It won't be like that forever. We all have times when... we can't be there for someone like we wish we could. But we get stronger, and that changes."

"I guess I still need to figure out what that means for me. Getting stronger."

"That's all right. It's a hard thing to figure out."

"You seem like you've got it."

"I don't know," Tifa said with a shake of her head. "Anyway I've had a lot of help. I forget sometimes myself, but it's okay to lean on people."

Cloud nodded, but he looked past her towards the inn. "I know you've got a lot to do, though. I can be on my own for a little while."

Tifa followed his gaze to where Barret and Aeris were reemerging with Vincent in tow, still pulling his cape on over his shoulders as they walked. Tifa hadn't realized until yesterday just how thin he was beneath it, not nearly so imposing a figure without it. Better that he wear it when facing those Turks.

"You're sure?" she asked Cloud.

"Yeah. We... can talk again later, right?"

Tifa smiled at him. "Of course."

She pushed herself to her feet and went to join the others.

"What did he say?" Aeris asked her.

Tifa shook her head. "I don't think he can do what Jessie was suggesting. But he seems like he's doing a bit better than yesterday, at least."

"That's good. He must feel awful about it."

Tifa found Aeris's hand and gave it a squeeze, knowing she had her own regrets about what had happened in Gongaga.

"You ready to meet our guests?" Barret asked her.

"Yeah," said Tifa. "How about you, Vincent?"

He nodded. "I'll follow your lead."

Barret led the way inside and up to a store room behind the weapons shop. He knocked, and Jessie opened the door to let them in.

Yuffie sat on a crate just inside, with Nanaki close by. The two Turks sat on the floor, their feet bound but their hands free at the moment as they ate under supervision. As Barret had said, Tifa didn't recognize either one of them: a broad-shouldered bald man with a lot of ear piercings, and a young blonde woman. Jessie must have healed their injuries, but one of the man's sleeves was torn to ribbons, and both of their suits were singed from fire.

"Oh, great," said the woman--Elena, Tifa recalled. "Here come the rest of them."

Tifa nodded to Yuffie and Nanaki, and pulled a smaller crate over to sit down in front of their prisoners. She wasn't sure how long she could stand without showing her fatigue, and she didn't want the Turks to see it.

Elena set down her plate and met Tifa's gaze, but the man ignored her in favor of finishing the last few bites.

"If you've been following us," Tifa said, "then I guess you know who we are. So I don't need to introduce myself."

"You're Tifa Lockhart," Elena confirmed, "member of AVALANCHE."

Tifa exchanged glances with Barret, and debated for a moment whether she wanted to correct her or not. On the one hand, she'd be giving Shinra information, but on the other hand, it might shift the target off of Barret's back.

"Leader, actually," she said.

"What? Wasn't Wallace the leader?" Elena glanced at her comrade, but he gave her no confirmation.

"Guess you were misinformed," said Barret.

"So I know you're Elena," Tifa said, and she nodded to the man. "What about you?"

Elena glanced at him again, but he didn't answer. Definitely her superior, Tifa decided.

"It's not some kind of company secret, is it? Your name?"

"...Rude," he said.

"Oh, come on," said Yuffie, "you're gonna go on about manners now?"

"No, that is his name," said Elena. "His name is Rude."

"The hell kinda name is that?" said Barret.

"What kind of name is Barret?" Elena retorted.

"Never mind that," Aeris cut in. "It's not what we're here for."

"Right," said Tifa. "Now, I don't really care how you found us; we haven't exactly been hiding, so it wouldn't be that hard to track us down if you put the resources to it. I'm more interested in what you know about Sephiroth."

Elena folded her arms. "You haven't broken out any torture devices, so give me one reason why we should tell you anything."

Tifa thought for a moment. It was true; when they'd interrogated people in the past, they'd mostly relied on intimidation, backed up by a demonstration or two of brute strength. Turks weren't likely to be so easily persuaded, even if Elena was chattier than she would have expected.

Vincent caught her eye, and she nodded. Maybe he'd know how to convince them.

He took a step forward, and Elena looked at him immediately. Even Rude was visibly paying more attention. They were both wary of him.

"You misunderstand Tifa," said Vincent. "It isn't that we need information from you, so much as it would justify keeping you alive. Torture isn't necessary."

"You're not really gonna kill us," said Elena. Her voice was confident, but her eyes betrayed unease.

"Might be Shinra's credited us with a little more 'n our due," said Barret, "but you oughtta know AVALANCHE ain't got a clean record either. You really think we wouldn't kill a pair o' Shinra goons?"

Elena didn't answer.

"All evidence indicates that we know more than you do," Vincent went on. "After all, you were following us to learn of Sephiroth's whereabouts. And the fact that you're chasing him at all... tells me that you don't understand what it is he's really after."

"What does that matter?" said Elena. "He killed the President."

Vincent shook his head. "You aren't tracking him down for vengeance. That isn't how Shinra operates."

"And what would you know about that?"

"Perhaps you don't realize who I am. My name is Vincent Valentine."

Rude blinked in recognition, but Elena snorted.

"Is that supposed to mean something to me?" she asked.

"Elena," Rude said quietly. "He was one of us."

"What? You know him?"

Rude shook his head. "Before my time. He went missing almost thirty years ago, while assigned to Professor Gast."

"Professor Gast... The Jenova Project?" Elena's eyes widened, and she shut her mouth.

"So you see," said Vincent, "we are well-informed, and more than capable of disposing of you, if necessary."

"It doesn't have to come to that," Tifa offered. "Maybe you know something small that we don't. Maybe something about the Temple of the Ancients, or the key?"

"Keystone," Elena corrected, and then clapped a hand over her mouth.

"So you know about it. Do you know if Sephiroth's found it?"

Neither of them said anything.

"Look," Tifa went on, "I know we're enemies. But if Sephiroth gets inside that Temple, it's bad news for all of us. You're in no position to stop that right now, but we are."

Elena kept her mouth very deliberately shut, but after a long pause, Rude spoke up.

"He doesn't have it," he said.

"Then you know where it is?" asked Nanaki.

Rude shook his head. "I'm not telling you that."

Tifa frowned, glancing back at Aeris. "If the Shinra know, then it's still only a matter of time... If they get into the Temple, Sephiroth can just follow them, right?"

Aeris nodded, and she chewed on her lip before looking to Barret. "Did either of them have a phone on them?" she asked.

"Yeah, I think we lifted those off of 'em. Why?"

"Can I see one?"

Jessie reached into her bag and handed a cell phone to Aeris. "What are you thinking, Aeris?"

Aeris scrolled through the phone's contacts, nodded to herself, and glanced up at the others. "Outside," she said.

Nanaki circled close to the Turks, baring his teeth as Yuffie bound their hands again, and Jessie took their plates over Elena's protests that she hadn't finished yet. They all filed out of the store room, and Jessie locked it again behind them.

"I'm going to call their boss," said Aeris.

"What?" said Tifa.

"I know it's strange... but Tseng and I have known each other a long time."

"Isn't he the one who kidnapped you?" Jessie asked skeptically.

"Well, yes," Aeris admitted. "I'm not saying he's a good person. But I know him. He might just listen to me."

"Listen to you, and do what?" said Yuffie. "You think he'll give us the keystone?"

"No... but maybe he can convince Rufus that going to the Temple isn't in their best interest."

"Might he make a trade?" Nanaki proposed. "His people for the keystone?"

Aeris shook her head. "He'd never agree to that. They're not worth that much to him."

"Pretty cold," Barret remarked.

"Nanaki's right, though," said Tifa. "There has to be something he'd give us for them."

"Information," said Jessie, glancing at Barret. "We should ask for information."

"I don't think Tseng's going to give us anything the other two wouldn't," Tifa said.

"I'm not talking about intel on Sephiroth," Jessie elaborated. "I'm talking about potential allies. Zack. Lucrecia. ...people who went missing, after Corel. What better organization to ask than the Turks?"

Tifa looked from Jessie to Barret. He'd told her about Dyne, she realized. Well, good for him, if he was opening up to her, too. "That's not a bad idea," Tifa decided. "Aeris?"

Aeris nodded. "I'll let him know our terms." She took a breath, and hit the call button, quickly setting the phone on speaker as it dialed.

Tseng answered promptly. "Rude," he said. "You're late checking in."

"It's Aeris, actually."

"Aeris...?"

"I'm borrowing Rude's phone. He and Elena are all right, but I'm afraid AVALANCHE is looking after them for now."

There was a pause. "So AVALANCHE is taking hostages now, is it? You could have chosen better ones."

Aeris rolled her eyes. "You can tell me Turks are disposable to the company, but can you really afford to train new ones at a time like this? You let a pretty green one out in the field already."

"What do you want?" Tseng asked.

"Well," said Aeris, and she glanced at Tifa, the faintest uncertainty in her eye that never made it to her voice. "I know you won't give us the keystone. But what I'm asking for instead should be easy for you. I want access to some of your files."

"That's easy?"

"Sure. All you have to do is find a printer. And they shouldn't be anything all that important to Shinra."

Another pause before he asked, "What sort of files?"

"I'm looking for information on a few people, including their last known whereabouts. Zack Fair. Lucrecia Crescent. And--"

"Dyne Brody," Barret interjected quietly, and Aeris looked at him in surprise. Tifa did, too. That was putting it out there in front of all of them. Only Vincent wouldn't know the significance of that name.

"...Dyne Brody," Aeris repeated into the phone.

"That should be... manageable," said Tseng.

"And Tseng-- I know why Shinra's been following Sephiroth. I know Rufus thinks he'll lead you to the Promised Land, but trust me when I say that he won't. He can't. He isn't an Ancient. What Sephiroth is after is a way to destroy this Planet. So please, if you're going after the keystone, if you already have it-- don't use it."

"Why should I believe that, coming from you? You've never wanted Shinra to have the Promised Land."

"You know me. You really think I'd be asking you if it wasn't important?" When he didn't reply, she went on, "Look into Hojo's files then. He should've figured it out years ago, when he brought in my mother and me."

"Say Sephiroth isn't an Ancient. It won't change my orders."

"So stall!" Aeris said in frustration. "You've done it before."

"Rufus isn't as patient as his father."

"What's he going to do, replace you?"

Tseng didn't reply.

"Just... think about it. Okay?"

"Fine," he said. "Are you still at Cosmo Canyon?"

Nanaki stepped forward, caught Aeris's eye, and shook his head.

"Let's not meet there," said Aeris. "You know the river crossing just south of the canyon?"

"Yes. I can be there tonight. Before sundown."

"And it goes without saying--"

"I won't be coming alone to meet you and all your friends, Aeris. But I won't bring an army either."

"...all right. I'll see you there."

Tseng hung up without replying, and Aeris lowered the phone, letting out a breath.

"That was pretty good, Aeris," said Jessie. "You sounded like a pro."

"Thanks. I hope that's all right, as a meeting place. I didn't want to bring him here, but I didn't want to go too far either."

"Oughtta be all right," Barret assured her.

Yuffie was nodding thoughtfully. "There's plenty of cover around there. We get there first and it'll be a good set-up. Oh! And if we really wanna slow 'em down, we should totally steal whatever Tseng shows up in and strand 'em there."

Tifa blinked; she hadn't even thought of that. "I'm not sure the opportunity will come up, but if it does..." She glanced from Yuffie to Vincent. "You think you two can handle that? We'll all go this time, so I can manage the truck."

Vincent nodded. "If it isn't something I can operate, we can at least disable it."

"Perfect," Tifa said. With Shinra's resources, she doubted it would stall the Turks for long, but it could buy them a little time--and maybe some new resources of their own.

"We got some time between now and then," said Barret, catching her eye. "How 'bout you take it easy for a while?"

Tifa nodded. "I think that goes for all of us. Let's rest up while we can."

They took the time to sort out shifts for keeping an eye on the Turks, and then the rest of them dispersed.

Aeris took Tifa by the arm, and they walked slowly out onto the landing. "So," she said, "you don't think Yuffie's right that there's nothing to do around here, do you?"

Tifa shrugged. "It's the company that matters, isn't it?"

"That's true," Aeris said. "Anyway, I miss the normal, boring things. I wonder if my flowers are doing okay..."

"Plenty of people in Sector 7 came from places where they could've had a garden. There must be a few green thumbs."

Aeris nodded thoughtfully. "Say, the people here must grow some of their own food, right? Do you think they have a vegetable garden or something?"

"I'm sure we can find out," Tifa decided. "And it is your turn to teach me something this time. Between me and Papa, we weren't very good at keeping plants alive."

Aeris clicked her tongue. "Well, that won't do. I'd hate to have to ban you from my hypothetical future flower shop."

"I could always promise not to touch anything."

"That's a promise I definitely don't want you making."

Tifa smiled wryly. "What's with you and innuendos today?" she wondered.

Aeris gave her a playful look and answered, "Oh... Good dreams."

Tifa blushed, and she let Aeris tug her along towards the nearest shop to ask after any gardens. She was looking forward to seeing Aeris in her element, to spending a few hours at something mundane, even if it had never been part of Tifa's own routine. Maybe it would help her imagine that hypothetical future life.

Chapter Text

There weren't so many hours to kill before their mission that Yuffie even had to volunteer for one of those shifts guarding the Turks. Barret took the first of them, so she went off with Jessie, who was headed down to the pub to return the dishes, and Nanaki came with them.

Even if Cosmo Canyon wasn't any less boring now than it had been before, Yuffie was feeling pretty good about herself. Both Aeris and Tifa had made it a point to thank her after Gongaga, and Tifa had given her her own special part to play in the upcoming mission. She hadn't felt so integral to the team's success since she'd snuck them into Junon, back when it hadn't been anything but a business transaction. There was no way she could abandon them now.

...even if the thought of facing Sephiroth again at the Temple scared her, a lot.

Quickly casting about for a distraction, her eyes landed on Nanaki. "So," she said, "have you made up your mind about sticking with us? You sure keep talkin' like you are."

"I am," Nanaki confirmed, glancing up at her. His tail flicked in discomfort.

"You still don't seem too sure," Yuffie observed.

"I am worried for the people of the canyon," Nanaki admitted. "Shinra has retaliated against villages for lesser slights than harboring anti-Shinra groups. But... I spoke to Grandfather about it, and he agrees that Sephiroth is too great a threat to ignore."

"Wasn't that old guy really pessimistic about our chances?"

Jessie quirked an eyebrow at her. "You forgot his name, didn't you?"

"I did not!" Yuffie protested. "It's just weird, and he is an old guy." Seriously, who named their kid Bugenhagen?

"...at any rate," Nanaki began cautiously, "I think Grandfather wants to be hopeful. It isn't a certainty that the Planet is beyond recovery. So we must try."

"With that Holy spell Aeris was talking about, I like our chances," said Jessie.

"I still can't believe she's been hiding it in plain sight this whole time," said Yuffie.

"Yeah, it's a good thing we caught you before you made off with it."

"Hey!"

"You can hardly be offended over something you really did," said Nanaki, sounding amused.

"Besides," said Jessie, "I've got a surprise for you I think you're really going to like."

"What surprise?" Yuffie asked, immediately suspicious. Surprises were her job; she didn't care for them from other people.

But Jessie just smiled, and refused to elaborate until they'd reached the pub and she'd passed the dishes to one of the servers. Then she took a seat at a table and motioned Yuffie closer as she opened up her bag.

Inside of it, nestled between Jessie's lockpicking tools and the pilfered phones, there was no longer just the one but six shining green orbs.

"Materia...!" Okay, Yuffie could admit when she was wrong. This was a good surprise.

"Confiscated from our Turk friends," Jessie explained.

Yuffie sat down, taking the bag as Jessie offered it. She reached inside and pulled out one of the materia to inspect it. These were no duds either. Nanaki hopped up onto the seat beside her, but even if he was doing it to keep an eye on her, she didn't care.

"Man, how come you didn't tell me about this earlier?" Yuffie asked. It sure would've made for a brighter end to the mess that was yesterday.

"Well, I was gonna check in with Tifa about it first," Jessie admitted, "but she's obviously got other plans. Materia's not really her thing anyway. I still have to ask Vincent if he's any good with it, but otherwise it's down to the three of us and Aeris."

"I don't think Aeris needs it anymore," Yuffie remarked, turning another orb in her fingers.

"What?" said Jessie.

"Yeah. Back in Gongaga, she was casting all sorts of spells she doesn't have the materia for."

"It must be her Cetra heritage," Nanaki reasoned. "The rest of us only use materia because we cannot speak with the Planet."

Jessie scratched her head. "I guess she just needed to get out of Midgar so she could hear it better."

Yuffie nodded absently and closed her fingers around the Ice and Lightning materia. "I want these two," she decided.

"Remember, we should think strategically," said Nanaki.

"I am!" she said, shooting him a look. Did he think she was stupid? "I've got my own healing magic, so you or Vincent should take the other Restore, and I can take some of the offensive stuff. And you definitely have more of a fire vibe than I do."

Jessie looked amused, and she said, "Well, you can definitely have at least one of those."

"One?" Yuffie repeated indignantly. "Come on! All together now we've got seven, and we might only have to divvy it up between the three of us. Two is totally fair." It was downright magnanimous of her, honestly. Jessie had handed her a whole bag of materia and here she was thinking about how other people could make use of it.

"I don't really see a problem with it," Nanaki said mildly, "if you have the skill for it."

"'If'? Come on, don't insult me like that."

"I've never seen you use it. That's all."

"I haven't seen you use it either," Yuffie retorted.

"I'm sure you're both perfectly competent," Jessie said. "Nanaki, I guess we need to get you one of those bangles."

"No need," he said. "I have a clip for materia... somewhere in my room, I'm sure. I'll go fetch it."

He hopped down from the table and trotted off through the door in the back of the pub that led to his room. Yuffie watched him go, and then returned her attention to the materia in her hand. Just two. All her time away from home and this was what she had to show for it.

"D'you think I could have the rest of it, afterwards?"

"After what?" Jessie asked.

"After we beat Sephiroth."

"That's not exactly my call to make. Besides, after we beat Sephiroth, we'll be shifting our focus back to Shinra. You don't wanna stick around for that?"

Yuffie faltered. "Well... I mean, I do, but..."

Jessie regarded her sympathetically. "How long has it been since you've been home?" she asked.

"...three months? No, closer to four."

"That's a long time," said Jessie. "You got family or anything back there?"

"My dad's an ass," Yuffie declared. "I moved out a while back anyway."

She braced herself for the usual protests--that she was too young to be living on her own, that she shouldn't disrespect her father like that--but all Jessie said was, "Sorry to hear it."

"...you're not gonna tell me I should try an' patch things up with him?"

"I mean... I don't know the circumstances, but I know that family--the people you're related to by blood? Sometimes they just suck. There's no fixing that."

Yuffie blinked. That was the last thing she expected to hear. People back home acted like she was just going through some rebellious teenage phase. Lord Godo was in the right, he had his reasons for treating her the way he did, she was just being childish and stubborn. Misbehaving. But unlike any of them, Jessie was... commiserating.

"You sound like you're talking from experience," Yuffie observed.

"That's because I am."

"I always thought you lost your folks to Shinra, like just about everybody else in this crew."

Jessie shrugged. "In a manner of speaking, I did. My mom worked for Shinra--it was just the two of us--and maybe she still does, I don't know. I didn't think anything of it growing up, lots of people worked for them. But once I started to see the company for what it was, the second I acted against them--she sold me out."

"What?" Yuffie sat back in astonishment. "Are you serious? What'd you do?"

"Man, this was... almost before you were born, I think," Jessie reflected with a shake of her head. "One of my friends back then, he got killed by Shinra soldiers. They claimed he was some kind of criminal, which was complete bullshit. So, I stole my mom's company ID and tried to get to the bottom of it, but she ratted me out and got me arrested. It was Biggs who bailed me out."

"Biggs?" Yuffie thought she'd heard the name before, but she couldn't remember the context.

Jessie's face fell. "Oh, right. You never... He died, back in Sector 7. He was my real family, you know. Always had my back."

Then she really had lost her family to Shinra, Yuffie figured. She wasn't sure what to say. "...sorry you lost him," she managed.

"I'm sorry you never had the chance to meet him," said Jessie. "I think he would've liked you."

And what was she supposed to say to that? 'I wish I could've met your dead friend, too'? Yuffie chewed on her lip instead.

"Sorry about your dad, too," Jessie went on, just as Nanaki came back into the pub. "But you can still choose your family. It's kinda how the rest of us operate. Right, Nanaki?"

He was carrying a hair clip in his mouth, and he looked between the two of them uncertainly as he set it down on the table. "What?" he said.

"It's not like you and Bugenhagen are actually related," Jessie said.

"Obviously not," Nanaki said slowly. "But, he was friends with my parents."

"Right. Exactly."

"I don't really have anyone like that back in Wutai either," Yuffie said skeptically. "Not unless your family can be ten cats."

Jessie stared at her. "You... You don't really have ten cats, do you?"

"Well, it used to be six, but then one of them had kittens and what was I supposed to do? Turn 'em out? Those are my cats."

Nanaki was looking at her funny, too. Was it weird for him that people owned cats? What if there were tiny humans who didn't talk and people kept those as pets? Man, that was a weird thought.

"Who is looking after them now?" Nanaki asked her.

"They mostly take care of themselves," Yuffie said, "but I asked the old lady next door to look in on 'em while I'm gone."

"Good to know," said Jessie.

"Come on, it's not that weird!" Yuffie protested, and at that Jessie grinned at her.

"No, I think it is. I think you're going to have to face the facts, Yuffie: you're just as weird as the rest of us. Maybe even weirder than me."

"No way! You're the one who's into Vincent."

Jessie was unfazed. "Mmhm. And you're the lucky one who gets to team up with him to steal a car."

"...shit." Yuffie had been too happy about Tifa liking her idea to think too hard on that part of it. She'd have to work with Vincent... who now had the added creep factor of turning into a monster sometimes. She'd seen how even the Turks were scared of him just standing there.

"You know, maybe you'd feel better about it if you tried talking to him," Jessie suggested. "He can be a little intense, but he's not so bad."

"He's creepy and depressing," Yuffie maintained, "and I'm not having any more to do with him than I have to."

Jessie exchanged glances with Nanaki and then shrugged. "Well, as long as that doesn't get in the way, I guess."

Yuffie could totally work with people she didn't like. That was how she'd started this gig, wasn't it? Of course, her opinions of the AVALANCHE crew had improved a lot since then... but that didn't mean the same was going to happen for Vincent. There were just too many reasons not to like him, and he'd have to deal with that.

They left Cosmo Canyon in the late afternoon and headed south towards the river crossing. They blindfolded their prisoners, and Yuffie and Vincent kept quiet the whole drive, so the two Turks would never even know they'd come along. Which was easy, since Vincent never talked anyway, and Yuffie was too busy trying not to puke.

There was still plenty of time before sundown when they reached the river, and no sign of the Shinra. Yuffie sat on the bridge while the others finished scouting the area, because the water rushing beneath calmed her, and she needed her stomach to settle.

Once she was ready, she hopped up and made her own inspection of the area.

"I guess it really is good cover," Aeris remarked to her, looking around at the trees on either side of the river. It wasn't wide here, and the overhanging branches meant she'd have a path across besides the bridge.

Yuffie nodded. "They'll never know I'm there."

Not knowing which direction Tseng would be coming from, Yuffie took up a hiding place within sight of the bridge, and Vincent did the same. Jessie, too, hid herself in the brush, rifle out and ready in case of any trouble.

Yuffie saw Nanaki's ears prick up before she heard the motor on the approaching vehicle--coming from the south. It was still faint when it came to a stop out of sight of the bridge, and Yuffie heard doors slamming.

A minute later, Reno appeared from up the road, walking a step behind another suited man who must've been Tseng. Two soldiers flanked them, and the group came to a stop just shy of the bridge. They looked around, but their eyes didn't land on any of the hidden AVALANCHE members.

Tifa exchanged glances with Barret, and started forward with Aeris, closing the distance enough to speak easily.

Tseng spoke first. "Are you all right?" he asked Aeris. "I heard about your encounter with Sephiroth."

Gross, Yuffie thought. What was with this guy, trying to sound all friendly?

"I'm fine," said Aeris. "Not that it's any of your business."

"Rude and Elena?" Reno asked, and Yuffie thought it was fine if he sounded a little worried about them.

"They're all right," said Tifa. "They're back in the truck."

Yuffie decided she'd watched enough of this, and it was time to do her part. Carefully, she made her way through the branches, dropped down to the ground out of sight, and crept along the road until she spotted the truck they'd come in.

She didn't know a lot about cars, but it was obviously nicer than what AVALANCHE had been driving around in, and definitely military. She could remember a lot of similar trucks carrying soldiers into Wutai, after her father's surrender.

There were sounds of a scuffle from the far side of it, and Yuffie climbed up to get a better view in time to see one soldier carefully easing another to the ground and taking a sniper rifle from him. Two men already lay crumpled beside the truck, leaving the traitor as the last one standing. He stepped away from them and looked up towards the bridge. As Yuffie watched, he pulled off his helmet, revealing a mess of black hair.

Zack!?

Her heart thudded in her chest, and she tried to look around for Vincent, but it turned out he was pretty good at hiding, too, even wearing bright red. She wasn't prepared for this. This guy had already taken out three soldiers like it was nothing, and while that had probably done them a favor, it didn't mean he was on their side. What if it was Sephiroth again, and he got the jump on the others because she didn't do anything?

The guy who looked like Zack set his helmet down atop the hood of the truck and started forward up the road.

Yuffie panicked and jumped down in front of him, unslinging her shuriken to brandish it at him.

He backstepped, holding up his hands instead of reaching for his rifle. "Woah, woah, hang on. I'm not with Shinra."

"I know that," she said. "You're Zack-- or at least, you're pretending to be Zack."

Vincent stepped out of the woods from the other side of the road, and Yuffie never thought she would've been so glad to see him. Now there were two of them, in case it was Sephiroth.

...would Vincent fight Sephiroth? He at least wouldn't let Sephiroth kill her, right?

"What?" said maybe-Zack, looking between the two of them in confusion. There was no recognition on his face, but she wasn't about to trust that. "Look, is Aeris here? Are you AVALANCHE?"

"I'm asking the questions here," said Yuffie.

"You haven't actually asked any--"

"Are you really Zack this time?" she interrupted.

"...yes?" he said, looking even more confused. "When was last time?"

"We ran into you in Gongaga, but it turned out you were really Sephiroth. I'm not about to fall for that again."

"What?" He grimaced when she said the name Sephiroth, and now he sounded a little angry on top of the confusion. "You think I'm Sephiroth?"

"Can you prove you're not?" she demanded.

"I don't look anything like him. This isn't even a SOLDIER uniform. Have you never seen him before?"

Finally Vincent stepped in. "Sephiroth has the power of illusion," he explained. "He can disguise himself as anyone, and Zack was evidently someone he knew quite well."

The man who might have been Zack stared at him. "Oh-kay," he said. "That's new. Um... Shit. Look, Aeris will know it's me. Can you please just take me to her?"

Yuffie looked to Vincent, unsure. "What do you think?"

"I can't see what Sephiroth would gain from this charade. He already has the Temple's location, and it would be more to his benefit to remain in Tseng's entourage, rather than expose himself."

"So you think it might really be him?"

Vincent shrugged. "Perhaps."

"Oh, come on," said possibly-Zack.

Yuffie studied him cautiously. He was acting different from the Zack they'd met in Gongaga. Straight to the point of wanting to see Aeris, but not so smooth. Nothing practiced about his words or gestures. Maybe that just meant Sephiroth had improved his acting, but Vincent had a point, too. It was Tseng who had the keystone, and Aeris had told Sephiroth where the Temple was, so there wasn't anything more that he could want from her. It'd be stupid to try the same trick twice anyway.

And, Aeris was still the best person to know for sure, besides Cloud.

"Vincent's gonna take your weapons," Yuffie decided, "and then we're gonna tie you up. That's the only way I'm letting you anywhere near Aeris."

Zack looked between the two of them and then let out a sigh. "If that's how it's gotta be, I'll take it."

Vincent pulled a set of keys off of him as he searched him for other weapons besides the rifle, and Yuffie remembered their original mission of stealing the truck. The three real soldiers still lay beside it--unconscious, not dead. Sephiroth would have killed them, she thought. Vincent had a rifle trained on Zack, so Yuffie went to have a look inside.

There was some gear in the back, but nothing remarkable. Certainly nothing that looked keystone-like, but she figured Tseng would be too smart to bring it along. She did find some rope, which was lucky because she actually didn't know how they would've tied Zack up otherwise. This mission was supposed to be about releasing prisoners, not taking new ones.

Yuffie bound Zack's hands behind his back and then motioned him into the back of the truck. "Get in."

"Aren't they meeting up that way?" Zack asked, nodding in the direction of the bridge.

"Yeah, but we're appropriating this truck, and I'm not letting you get in the way of that."

"You're just gonna... drive it right past them?"

"No, stupid. There's another bridge east of here. We're just gonna have to take the long way around."

Zack glanced skeptically up the road. "I'm not, you know, getting myself kidnapped by two random strangers who don't actually know Aeris, am I?"

Yuffie rolled her eyes and gave him a shove to get him to climb into the truck. He sat down on one bench, shifting uncomfortably. She sat down across from him, pulling her shuriken back out. "I bet I know Aeris better than you do," she said. "She's told us all sorts of stuff she's never told anybody before."

"Yeah, like what?" Zack asked as Vincent started the truck.

"Do you know who her dad is?"

Zack opened his mouth, and closed it again.

"That's what I thought," Yuffie said smugly. Unfortunately, the feeling didn't last, as Vincent pulled the truck around and her stomach lurched.

"You okay over there?" Zack asked.

"Fine!" she lied, and swallowed hard.

"Y'know, a good friend of mine gets motion sick sometimes. Not too much you can do about it sitting back here, but he said talking helped distract him."

"...are you talking about Cloud?" Yuffie asked.

Zack sat up in surprise. "You know Cloud?"

"Yeah, he's a real jerk."

"But is he an alive jerk? An okay jerk?"

Yuffie regarded him with a frown. Even not knowing him, she was pretty sure at this point that this was the real Zack. And if that was the case... he didn't seem like a bad guy, she reflected. "Yeah, he's okay," she answered. "He's back at Cosmo Canyon, so as long as you check out with Aeris, you'll get to see him soon."

Zack's shoulders sagged with visible relief. "And he's really okay? Walkin' and talkin'?"

"Not that he talks a lot, but sure."

Zack chuckled softly, a sound nothing like the one Sephiroth had made back in Gongaga. "Yeah, he's kinda on the shy side. Where'd you run into him?"

"Back in Nibelheim. We were there a few days ago."

"That's right. That's what the Turks were saying."

"Have you been following them around?" Yuffie wondered.

Zack nodded. "I've been shadowing Tseng the past couple days, hoping I could figure out what the heck's going on. Never expected he'd get a call from Aeris about some kind of hostage negotiation."

Yuffie couldn't stop a grin coming to her face. "Oh, man. And she sounded like such a badass on that call!"

"Yeah, uh. What exactly is going on with her these days? I heard AVALANCHE is some sort of terrorist organization, and they killed President Shinra?"

"No, no. That was Sephiroth," Yuffie corrected.

"Disguised as somebody from AVALANCHE?"

"Uh, no. I don't think so." Yeah, that was right; Elena had blamed it on Sephiroth, too. "Anyway, AVALANCHE is an anti-Shinra group. And I guess Aeris joined up not long before I did."

Zack looked her over dubiously. "And... how long have you been a member?"

"I've been anti-Shinra since I was born," Yuffie replied, because she still wasn't sure she was a member, officially.

"Are you guys mostly from Wutai?" Zack wondered, which seemed like a weird question until she realized that Vincent did sort of look it, and Zack had only seen the two of them.

"Not really," she said.

Zack nodded, and then he ventured cautiously, "Seems like you're pretty strongly anti-Sephiroth, too."

"Yeah. Yeah, you could definitely say that."

"Does that mean you know what's going on with him?"

Yuffie's caution returned. Even if this was the real Zack, she remembered, Sephiroth might still be able to spy on what he was doing, like with Cloud. She had to be careful about what she said. "Maybe. But it's not my call, telling you any of that."

"Is it Aeris's?"

That wasn't anything Sephiroth didn't already know, but Yuffie decided against telling him. It might be a good test, seeing how he reacted to seeing Tifa after all this time. "You'll find out," she said.

"Was it something I said? I thought we were starting to get along."

"I'm just exercising some caution. That's all."

But he was right that talking had been a distraction, and the rest of the drive was pretty miserable. It was a relief when the truck came to a stop, and Yuffie knocked on the window separating them from the cab.

"Are we at the rendezvous?" she asked Vincent.

He looked back at her and nodded. "They're here already."

Not surprising, considering they hadn't had to make the same detour. Zack started to get up, but Yuffie pointed her shuriken at him.

"You stay put."

"...yes, ma'am," he said, and he sat back down, but the tension never left his muscles. He really wanted to get out of the truck, a feeling Yuffie generally related to, but for him it wasn't about hating trucks.

Yuffie climbed out to find the others waiting with the old truck just ahead of them on the road. Vincent got out, too.

"Looks like it was a success all around," Aeris said, smiling at the sight of them.

"Everything went smooth on your end?" Yuffie asked, looking them over. Everybody seemed okay.

Tifa nodded. "Surprisingly, yes."

Yuffie wondered how much of that had to do with Zack taking out those snipers before they even left the truck. Had Tseng just brought them along for insurance, or had he meant to go back on the deal and attack them? No way to know, really.

"Did you get the files?" Vincent asked.

Aeris nodded, and turned to reach into the truck bed. When she turned back around, folder in hand, her smile had faded. "You won't like it," she said, holding it out to Vincent.

"I expected as much," he said, taking the file from her.

Barret, Yuffie noticed, had a pensive frown on his face, meaning he'd already read up on Dyne, though Yuffie couldn't guess what it might've told him. Aeris and Tifa, on the other hand, didn't seem particularly affected by whatever the Turks had had on Zack. Nothing new, maybe.

"We've, uh. Got some news ourselves," Yuffie said. She glanced at Vincent, but he was already absorbed in reading, and he probably wasn't that great at breaking news either. "Don't freak out, but we got some unexpected help. I think it's really Zack this time."

"What?" said Aeris. "Are you sure?"

"Not a hundred percent," Yuffie admitted. "I mean, I didn't know the guy. But if it's Sephiroth, he's really stepped up his acting game. We've got him tied up in the back."

Aeris exchanged glances with Tifa, and Yuffie led them around the back of the truck to see for themselves.

"Aeris!" Zack exclaimed as she came into his line of sight. He got to his feet, and the look on his face... No, Yuffie didn't think he was faking it. He really was glad to see her, in that way where your face didn't know quite what expression to make.

"Zack," Aeris said, hands clasped to her chest. "Is it really you...?"

"Yeah. Yeah, it's me. I know there's been some doubts about that from your kidnapper friends, but give my brain a minute to start working right, and I'll prove it however you want."

A smile worked its way across Aeris's face, and she shook her head. "No. I can tell."

"You sure, Aeris?" Yuffie asked.

She nodded and started forward, but Tifa caught her arm. "Aeris," she said, and shook her head.

Zack blinked, noticing her for the first time. "Wait a second... Tifa? Is that you?"

"Yes," Tifa said, looking back at him warily. "It's me."

"You're... Shit, I thought you were dead!" A grin split his face, the complete opposite of her reaction. "Look at you. You... have definitely been working out."

Tifa's expression didn't change. "Yuffie and Aeris might think you're you, but I'm not convinced yet, and... I need to be sure. So, I want you to explain, from the beginning."

"The beginning?" he repeated.

"Nibelheim," she said. "What happened that day, when Sephiroth burned it to the ground? Where have you been since then?"

Zack drew in a long breath, not grinning anymore. "We really gotta get into that, huh? Not exactly how I pictured a reunion." He looked back at Aeris, brow knit together, and then he nodded. "I guess I owe you that explanation anyway. I promised I'd be back a lot sooner."

Aeris shook her head. "It's all right. I have a pretty good idea why you weren't. But, why don't you come out, and we'll all get caught up together."

Zack nodded, and he stepped down out of the truck.

Chapter Text

"Do I still have to be tied up for this?" Zack was asking.

"Whoever you are, you're ex-SOLDIER," said Barret, "so yeah. You're stayin' tied up 'til Tifa says otherwise."

But Aeris was sure, this time. She couldn't have explained it in so many words, but the way he looked at her, the way he spoke, even the slightly exasperated shrug of his shoulders... it was him. He was alive, and he was okay, and he was here.

"Are you at least gonna introduce me to the rest of your friends?" he asked, looking over their motley crew with raised eyebrows.

"Not yet," said Tifa.

"Soon," Aeris promised. She didn't want to argue with Tifa, even if she disagreed. Tifa had every reason to be cautious after Gongaga. To be slow and thorough, instead of trusting anyone's gut feeling, even Aeris's.

"Okay then," said Zack. "Nibelheim." But he hesitated still. "This isn't gonna be a fun time, Tifa."

"You think I don't know that?"

He nodded. "Right. Sorry. I just... haven't talked to anyone about it before. Sounds like you have."

Aeris felt for him. Nibelheim might not have been his hometown, but that didn't mean it wasn't painful for him to recall. Sephiroth had been his commanding officer, maybe even someone he'd considered a friend, and in a few short days he'd watched him descend into madness and slaughter innocent people.

"We know Tifa's part of the story," Aeris confirmed. "And we've talked to Cloud, too. But they're both missing some things."

Zack blinked, but Yuffie must have already told him about Cloud, because he didn't seem so surprised. "Right," he said, "if he's with you guys then... Well, at least he finally came clean about that." He paused, and under Tifa's steady gaze, he nodded again and went on.

"Okay. The reactor, then. You and Cloud were waiting outside, so you never saw how it all started. It wasn't a malfunction that the reactor was producing monsters; Hojo had set it up that way as part of some experiment. And right in the middle of it, there was this door with the name of Sephiroth's mother on it--"

"The door in there says 'Jenova,'" Yuffie interjected.

"Right," said Zack. "Sephiroth's mother."

Vincent finally looked up from the file Aeris had given him, but it was Jessie who said, "His mother's name is Lucrecia."

Zack frowned and shook his head. "Look, I only know what he told me, and he didn't say anything about a Lucrecia. He said his mother's name was Jenova, and that she died giving birth to him."

Vincent bristled. "Then he was lied to," he said.

"Yeah," said Zack. "That much I know. But just finding that door, and those monsters, he started freaking out. He was saying, maybe he was a monster, too. That he wasn't human."

It was still easy to pity Sephiroth, thinking of the life he'd led until then, and what he must have felt in that moment. Like Aeris, Shinra had treated him like a lab rat, but unlike Aeris, he hadn't always known what he was, where he'd come from. But the man he'd become... if that was really a path he'd chosen for himself, then there was no place for pity anymore.

"And then he went to the Shinra mansion," said Tifa.

Zack nodded. "I found him down in the basement, reading all these old files on something called the Jenova Project. The day he lost it... He told me that he was the product of an experiment, that Jenova was an Ancient and so was he. He said that humans had stolen the Planet from the Ancients, and that he was going to take it back."

Aeris frowned. "So, he really thought he was an Ancient, back then?"

"Are you saying he's not?"

"Jenova isn't an Ancient," Aeris said. "It's... something else. An alien thing that nearly wiped out the Cetra two thousand years ago, and wants to destroy our Planet. And Sephiroth knows that now."

"How do you know all that?" Zack wondered.

Aeris faltered. He was the one person here who still thought she was normal, and human. She realized as she thought of it that there was no longer anything appealing about that pretense, but she didn't think this was the moment to tell him.

"You still haven't finished your story," said Tifa.

Zack looked back at her, and then broke her gaze. It wasn't like him, but he'd never talked about anything like this with Aeris before. "Tifa... you know what happened next. I ran after him as fast as I could, but by the time I got out of the mansion, everything was already up in flames. Zangan told me you'd gone to the reactor looking for your father, and Sephiroth was headed there, too. But I got there too late. I really thought you were done for... I'm glad I was wrong."

"What happened then?" Tifa pressed.

"What else? I tried to put an end to it. To Sephiroth. But I... couldn't. That's when Cloud came. He took my sword and stabbed Sephiroth in the back."

Tifa blinked in surprise. "Cloud did?"

Zack nodded. "But I blacked out after that. Next thing I knew, Cloud and I were down in that damn basement, with lab techs looking after us."

"You remember being there?" Aeris wondered. Cloud didn't seem to remember any of it.

"Some," he said. "I was in and out a lot. I had no idea it'd been years until I got out of there."

"Yeah, an' how did you get out?" Barret asked suspiciously.

"No idea," Zack said with a shake of his head. "We were trying to plan an escape, me an' Cloud, but we never got to it. I had some weird dreams, and then I woke up outside of Midgar. Must've been about three weeks ago now."

"That's around the time Sephiroth was there," said Jessie, looking to Aeris. Aeris swallowed, remembering her theory that it might have been one of the clones who had freed Jenova. Zack was one of them, as much as Cloud was. But it couldn't really have been him that they'd seen in the Shinra building that night, could it?

"I'm not Sephiroth," Zack said, sounding like he'd said as much to Yuffie a few times already. "I don't know how I wound up there, all right? Still kinda freaks me out, to be honest."

"Well, how did you wind up here then?" Tifa asked him.

"I was trying to go back for Cloud," he explained. "I came down through Junon, and made my way west from there. Got really lost in those mountains for a couple days. I must've made it back to Nibelheim just after you guys had passed through."

The same general route that they had taken, Aeris thought. Had they really been so close this whole time, missing each other by days everywhere they went?

"You knew we were there?" Tifa asked guardedly.

"The kid told me," he said, "and the Turks showed up, while I was there. They'd been tracking you--tracking AVALANCHE, anyway. I didn't know that was you at the time. I figured I'd hitch a ride with my old buddy Tseng, and maybe I could find out from him what happened to Cloud and why the town looked like that."

"Tseng didn't say anything about that," Aeris said, brow furrowing in confusion. He'd handed her that file without a word.

"Sorry, I meant I stowed away and pretended to be one of his men." Zack nodded down at the uniform he was wearing. "I picked up this disguise back in Junon. Smelled better than what I'd been wearing, and it's really great for hiding in plain sight." He glanced at Tifa. "Even people who know you don't recognize you."

Tifa didn't respond to that. Instead she said, "And that's when you found out about his meeting with Aeris."

"Right! I couldn't pass up the chance."

"What about Cloud?"

Zack shook his head. "I found the mission report. The Turks didn't know where he'd gone either, and I guess after all this time I just really wanted to see a friendly face. Anyway, it worked out. He's back at Cosmo Canyon, right? That's not even an hour away from here."

His eagerness was obvious in his voice and his posture, and Aeris looked to Tifa. "Convinced yet?"

At last Tifa nodded, and Aeris hurried forward to untie him. His hands freed, Zack rubbed at his wrists.

"Am I allowed to hug you now," he asked, "or will your friends murder me?"

"No one's going to murder you," Tifa said, her voice finally softening.

Aeris was already wrapping her arms around him. She felt his enfold her, his chin coming to rest on the top of her head. There was a familiarity to it that took her back years. She'd been so much younger then, a different person really. They'd both been through so much in the time apart.

"Sorry about the third degree," Tifa went on. "We just... had to be sure, this time."

"I get it," Zack said over Aeris's head. "I mean, I don't really get it. The Sephiroth I knew would do a shit job of impersonating me, and I don't know why he'd do it. But... he's a dangerous guy. I get that."

"Yeah, well, I'm still gonna be keeping an eye on you," said Yuffie.

"Who is this kid anyway? She's pretty... forceful."

Aeris bit back a laugh and drew back from him. His hands dropped to her waist. "That's Yuffie--" she began.

"And I'm not a kid!"

"Right. She's young, but she's capable. I guess I'd better introduce you to everyone. This is Barret, he started AVALANCHE, and Jessie, she's our tech expert, sort of the brains of the operation."--Jessie beamed at the description--"And that's Nanaki, of Cosmo Canyon--yes, he talks. And that's Vincent... former Turk," she decided. There was a lot that could be said about Vincent, but that was how he'd introduced himself to them.

Zack did a double-take of Nanaki, who had yet to actually speak in his presence, and eyed Vincent curiously--he would've known any Turks from his time, and Vincent definitely wasn't one of them. "All right," he said. "Weird circumstances aside, it's nice to meet everyone."

Aeris caught Tifa's eye and went on, "And of course you've met Tifa, but she's the leader of AVALANCHE now. And... my girlfriend."

"Your girlfriend?" Zack repeated, and after a beat he hurriedly lifted his hands from her waist. "Sorry. Didn't know."

His reaction seemed to amuse Tifa, and she said, "It's okay. There's a lot you don't know, really."

"Five years in a tank'll do that," he said. "Care to fill me in? ...maybe on the way to Cosmo Canyon? I really wanna see Cloud, too."

"Sure," Tifa decided.

Between the two vehicles, there was plenty of space for them to ride comfortably, but Tifa was driving the old truck, so Aeris and Zack sat up front with her to talk, and Barret insisted on riding in the back. Zack might have been Zack, but he was still a newcomer, and Barret always had some suspicion for those.

"Where do we even start?" Aeris wondered as the truck got moving. "It's been so long."

"How's your mom?" Zack asked. "Is she doing okay?"

Aeris nodded. "She's fine. She's staying with some friends of Tifa's right now."

"That's good. I'm glad to hear that."

The first thing he'd done was ask after her mother. And as far as he knew, Elmyra was the only mother she'd ever had. "Actually... Before anything else, there is something I want to tell you, about me. It feels strange that you don't know, since you met me before everyone else, but I was working really hard back then to keep it a secret."

Zack quirked an eyebrow at her. "Is it that you're into girls? Because I think the cat's already out of the bag on that one."

"No, silly, and that was never a secret." She shook her head, smile fading. "I'm talking about... my heritage. Elmyra isn't my birth mom. I'm a Cetra. The very last."

"What?" said Zack, his expression slackening in clear surprise, and Tifa glanced over at him. "You don't mean... like Sephiroth thought he was?"

"Right. But, I really am."

"Wow. That's... Feels a little surreal."

"You're not freaking out, are you?"

Zack shook his head quickly. "No, no. I'm just trying to figure out what it means. Do you have any actual powers? Can you read my mind? ...man, I hope you can't read my mind."

Aeris laughed. "No, nothing like that. But, I can speak to the Planet."

"Huh. What, uh... What exactly do planets talk about?"

"Oh, lots of things," she said. "Right now... it's mostly worried."

"Because of Sephiroth?"

"Mm. He's trying to destroy it. But, we're not going to let him do that."

"I don't know if we should get into that too much," Tifa interjected finally.

Zack leaned forward, looking past Aeris to catch Tifa's eye. "Why not? I can help, you know."

Aeris exchanged glances with Tifa.

"...what am I missing here?" asked Zack.

"You know," Aeris began cautiously, "how Shinra was experimenting on you, right?"

Zack ran a hand through his hair. "Kinda hard to miss that," he said.

"Well, part of that experiment was to inject you with Jenova cells. Cloud went through the same thing, and... we think Sephiroth's been able to spy on us, through him."

"So... you can't read my mind, but you're saying Sephiroth can?"

Aeris shook her head. "Maybe. I'm not sure how it works."

"Well, why do you think that anyway? What's he done?"

"He... he knew something I'd said to Cloud in private. And I think he must have known how badly we wanted to find you, and that's why he tried to impersonate you."

Zack was quiet for a moment. "You were looking for me?"

Aeris nodded. "Once Cloud told us you were alive. And I really wish you could help, Zack. I'd like it if you could come with us."

"Well--" His mouth twisted into a grimace. "Come on, that's bullshit. Just don't tell me anything sensitive if it's gotta be that way. I can still swing a sword at him."

Tifa glanced his way again. "Well..."

"...he also took control of Cloud," Aeris finished. "Just for a second! But..."

"What the fuck?" said Zack. "Is Cloud okay?"

"He's been feeling pretty guilty about it, but he's not hurt," said Tifa.

"I know he'll be glad to see you," said Aeris, but then she remembered how much their run-in with Sephiroth in Gongaga would temper that, and she added, "Once he's sure it's you. He'll probably be wary at first, too."

Zack shook his head. "Man. I didn't need any more reasons to hate Sephiroth, but he's really racking them up. Making it so my friends can't trust me..."

"Sorry."

"Not your fault. But you know, I feel fine. I feel good. I feel like I could kick his ass."

Aeris looked hopefully to Tifa, and she frowned, but she said, "I'll think about it."

Zack sighed. "Can you at least tell me something about this AVALANCHE business? I was trying not to stare, but a lot of your crew is really begging for an explanation."

Tifa's expression softened. "Sure," she said. "I think we can catch you up on most things. We just can't get into our plans. That's all."

There was a lot to tell, and Tifa kept things brief as she told Zack how she'd wound up in Midgar and joined AVALANCHE--she still called it that, even though it sounded to Aeris like she and Jessie and Barret had formed it together. She told him about her bar, about Marlene, about Wedge, who he wouldn't meet just now, and Biggs, who he never would.

Aeris went on to tell him how they'd met after the bombing mission, and how everything had escalated from there. Sector 7's destruction, Aeris's kidnapping, their escape from the Shinra building... Meeting Yuffie on their journey west, the ocean crossing, their arrival in Nibelheim, where they'd found Cloud and Vincent, and some answers at last. They told him what had happened in Gongaga, and about the Turks' attack at Cosmo Canyon that had enabled them to negotiate with Tseng.

They left things out, of course. Aeris didn't want to get into what she'd learned of her father, and it wasn't their place to tell him the more personal things they'd learned about their companions over the past few weeks. He'd only just met them.

"Damn," said Zack, running a hand through his hair. "You guys have had an eventful few weeks."

"We really have," Aeris agreed. "After we beat Sephiroth, I think I'll take a vacation."

Tifa glanced at her. "You'll have earned it."

"Oh, you're coming with me," Aeris insisted. "There are still lots of places we haven't been to, so we're going to pick one, and we're going to go there, and do absolutely nothing."

"I'm not sure doing absolutely nothing would suit you," said Tifa. Was she implying what Aeris thought she was implying, or was she reading into things again? She decided not to test it, with Zack there.

The sunset light had gone from the sky by the time they reached Cosmo Canyon. Tifa was slow getting out of the truck, definitely getting tired, and Zack outpaced them up the steps. Ira greeted him at the gate, to their mutual confusion, since it hadn't really been Zack here a few days ago.

"Where's Cloud?" he asked as the others came up behind him, though he immediately turned again to the gatekeeper. "Spiky blond hair? He around somewhere?"

Aeris looked across the common and pointed. "Is that him at the bonfire?"

Zack was off in a flash to confirm it, and Aeris exchanged glances with Tifa. They started after him, but Yuffie was faster.

"Are you stupid or something?" Aeris heard Yuffie demanding as she caught him up.

Cloud still maintained a wary distance from Zack by the time Aeris and Tifa reached the bonfire, but he looked to them hopefully for confirmation.

"It's really him?"

Aeris nodded. "It really is."

"We grilled him pretty good," Tifa added.

"Boy, did they," said Zack. "This teenage punk tied me up and everything, and--"

He broke off as Cloud pulled him into a hug, and his expression softened as he returned it.

"Missed you, too, buddy."

"I didn't know where you'd gone..."

"Me neither, honestly. I'll tell you about it."

Most of the others had gathered behind them, there to witness the reunion, though Aeris noticed Vincent going off on his own. She couldn't blame him; Lucrecia's file didn't have any definitive answers about what had happened to her, but there wasn't much room in it for hope.

"Guess he's passed the Cloud test, too," Yuffie remarked from beside her, folding her arms.

"Weren't you the first one he convinced?" Aeris wondered.

"Yeah, but then he called me a kid, so he's back on my shit list."

Aeris smiled and shook her head. Zack and Cloud pulled apart, and Cloud looked him over.

"What are you wearing?" he asked.

"What are you wearing?" Zack replied, plucking at his shirt. "This is a real country boy look you've got going on."

Cloud blushed.

Oh, Aeris thought. Too soon to say for sure, but maybe she and Cloud had even more in common than she'd thought. She glanced at Tifa, but she didn't seem to have noticed anything.

"Maybe we should leave you two to catch up," Jessie suggested, and Aeris caught her eye. Had she seen it?

"What?" said Zack. "Come on, we just got everybody together. I'm thinking: huge party. Can we get cake here? I can't remember the last time I had cake."

"I'm surprised it wasn't a priority," said Aeris.

"Chocolate ice cream was the priority," Zack informed her seriously. "I've got a whole list here, but somehow I haven't crossed off cake yet," he went on, and Aeris stifled a laugh as he actually pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of the pocket of his uniform.

"You're such a dork," said Cloud, smiling.

"Like you're not," said Zack, ruffling his hair. "You just try an' tell me you don't have the biggest cake craving right now."

"...cake does sound nice," Cloud admitted.

"Well," said Tifa, "a party's not such a bad idea. It's probably our last night here."

"You sure about that, Teef?" Barret asked, and Aeris worried, too, that she was pushing herself too hard. Today hadn't quite been the day of rest that it should have.

But Tifa nodded. "Yeah. We need to get moving."

Zack was looking at her like he wanted to ask her again about coming along, but he kept his mouth shut. He hadn't given her much time to think it over, yet.

"There was some talk already of a welcome-home celebration for me," Nanaki spoke up. "Perhaps we can still put something together. Considering our mission and what you all have done to protect the canyon, I know people will be willing to help."

"Oh," said Tifa, "I didn't even think to involve them. I thought it would just be low-key."

"On such short notice, it likely will be."

"Do you need any help?" Jessie asked him.

"I will let you know," he said, and he trotted off towards the pub.

When was the last time Aeris had been to a party? And she'd never been to one under open sky, she thought as she glanced around the canyon, trying to imagine it. It was too bad she didn't have anything fun to dress up in. Her eyes fell on Zack, in that stolen uniform, and she frowned. That wouldn't do.

"All right," she announced, reaching for his hand, "you're coming with me. You can't go to this party in a Shinra uniform."

"Oh!" Zack glanced down at her hand and then at Tifa. "Well, if you insist..."

Aeris caught a look of disappointment flash across Cloud's face, and she nodded to him. "You, too, Cloud. It's about time you got some clothes of your own."

"No, that's--"

"My treat!" Zack interrupted. "Come on, it'll be fun."

Cloud nodded, relenting easily. Aeris threw Tifa a smile she hoped was reassuring before she led the two boys away from the bonfire towards a clothing shop she'd noted when she'd first explored the canyon. The styles here were earthy, maybe not to Zack's taste, and maybe not any less 'country' than what Cloud already wore, but better than nothing.

And Aeris could at least have fun looking.

"So, I get the feeling Tifa doesn't like me," Zack remarked as they started browsing.

"She just doesn't know how to talk to you," Aeris assured him. "And she approved your party idea, didn't she? Give it time."

"I guess we did meet at a weird time. Still, maybe you could put in a good word? Me and Cloud, we're not useless, you know."

Cloud glanced up from checking the size on a pair of pants. "What're you talking about?"

"If they're fighting Sephiroth, I wanna join up," said Zack. "Don't you?"

"...I can't, Zack."

"They told me what went down in Gongaga," said Zack, looking at him sympathetically. "But if Sephiroth's got some kind of mind tricks, we'll just have to keep each other sane. I mean, hell, you were the only one of us who even scored a hit on him back then."

Cloud stared at him. "Me?"

"Yeah, you. You stabbed him in the back, you really don't remember that?"

"Not really," Cloud admitted, but he looked thoughtful, and Aeris wondered if knowing that would give him any more confidence in himself. Maybe it would help him combat whatever hold Sephiroth might have on him, and maybe Zack was right, that they could fight it better together.

"I'll try talking to Tifa about it," she said. "I know she's hated leaving Cloud out of things, but she's worried. She's trying to think about what's going to give us our best chance."

"I feel like our best chance is to stick together," Zack insisted. "I hate to think of you facing him without me. You weren't even involved in any of this, before."

Cloud glanced between them, folded the pants over his arm, and picked up a shirt seemingly at random. "I'm gonna go try these on," he said.

Did he feel like he was intruding, again? Or maybe it was the way Zack had said that. It didn't seem like he'd told Cloud about her, but it wasn't hard to pick up on. It had been long enough, for her, but she could tell Zack's feelings hadn't had the space to fade.

"A lot's changed since then," Aeris reminded him. "I'm involved in it now. And, I think it was inevitable. I was called to this."

He quirked an eyebrow at her. "What, like a destiny?"

"More like a duty. Even before I knew Jenova had anything to do with it, I thought it was time. I have to do my part to protect this Planet."

"Heh."

"What?"

Zack shook his head. "Nothing, you just... It's really been five years, huh? You've grown up."

Aeris put her hands on her hips. "If you're saying I was immature..."

"Pot calling the kettle black, I know," he said. "We were both kids back then. And maybe I haven't changed that much, but you seem so much more sure of yourself."

"Well, I have had a lot more experience," she said, and then she threw him a sly look. "Maybe I'm the expert in kissing girls now."

Zack looked at her in exaggerated shock. "What? Come on, I can handle losing you to Tifa, but you really gotta move in on my territory like that?"

"Sorry," Aeris giggled. "But, since I won't be kissing any boys for the foreseeable future, maybe you could give that a try instead."

"Uh..."

"Not an option?" she wondered, and she glanced behind him, but Cloud was taking his time.

Zack scratched his head. "I didn't say that. I just didn't realize you knew."

"Subtlety isn't exactly your forte," Aeris pointed out. "You definitely checked out some guys' butts, back when we were dating."

"I... probably did do that, yes."

Aeris smiled and pushed a few shirts at him for him to try on. "Let's get you out of that uniform then," she said. "For the boys."

Zack smirked back at her. "All right. Okay. But then we gotta see about getting you dolled up for Tifa. Only fair, right?"

"Right," Aeris said, and she was glad, for how well he was taking it. While she'd given him up for a lost cause, she wondered if the thought of a reunion was something that had helped him keep going, during his captivity. Even after learning five years had passed, he must have still hoped, and she wouldn't have blamed him for showing his disappointment.

Instead, he seemed determined to show her that he supported her decision. They'd never just been friends, but it felt like an easy dynamic now. She hoped they could be.

Chapter Text

Tifa was impressed by how quickly the people of the canyon got to work. Nanaki could scarcely have had time to speak with anyone before she saw people carrying tables and benches out of the pub to set up closer to the bonfire.

Another time, Tifa would have gone to help, but the day had taken its toll on her. The mission had been a success, every member of her team had done their part, and yet, she felt thrown off kilter. She couldn't pin it down. Was it from dredging up Nibelheim again? From an unfounded, lingering worry that Zack wasn't Zack? Or, the even more unfounded worry at seeing Aeris with him?

Of course she was happy to see an old friend. Of course she wanted to spend time with him, especially if Tifa decided they'd have to leave him behind.

"You okay, Tifa?" Barret asked, and she gave her head a shake.

"I should be asking you," she said. "You're probably in about as much of a party mood as Vincent."

He shrugged and glanced at Yuffie, who still stood nearby. "Yeah, but I'll be all right."

Yuffie tilted her head thoughtfully, like she was trying to puzzle out what they meant. Tifa had skimmed through Dyne's file when they'd first gotten it from the Turks, and Barret had handed it off to Jessie, but Yuffie didn't even know why they'd wanted it.

"Yuffie," said Jessie, "you wanna go give Nanaki a hand?"

"He didn't say he needed one," Yuffie replied, missing the point until Jessie nodded meaningfully at Barret. "Oh! Um... I mean, I guess I can check. Who knows what these old nerds think qualifies as a party anyhow, right?"

Jessie smiled. "Right. Appreciate it."

"I mean it," Barret insisted as Yuffie walked off. "I'll be fine."

"Maybe," said Jessie, "but I think it bears some discussion. We didn't get the chance before, with everybody else around."

"I know it wasn't great news," said Tifa, "but at least you know where he is now."

Barret scratched his head. "Ain't exactly like I can go an' see 'im. Corel Prison don't got visitation. Can't even send 'im a letter..."

"Come on. Would sneaking into a prison be all that crazy for us?"

"...guess not. We don't got time for it now, though."

"We'll be headed north after the Temple, right?" said Jessie, and Tifa could see her already starting on some kind of plan. "I was thinking Costa del Sol's the best place for us to catch a ship to the northern continent. The prison wouldn't even be out of our way."

"Guess if we could figure out the terrain..." Barret considered.

"I know you're probably still worried about how he might react to seeing you again," said Tifa, "but it was Shinra soldiers he killed. That's not really any different from us."

Barret shook his head. "That's the thing, though. Seein' it on paper like that, it got me thinkin'... 'bout the kinda person I am. Maybe me an' Dyne got the same vendetta, but is that really the kinda person Marlene deserves for a father? We talk about savin' the Planet, fightin' the Shinra, but the way we been goin' about it... We cut those Turks loose today when we coulda killed 'em, and I got no idea if that was the right thing to do. They're Turks, but we don't got their blood on our hands..."

Tifa exchanged glances with Jessie. Marlene wasn't old enough yet to really comprehend what it was they did, and Tifa could hope that they'd be done with it by the time she was, but it wouldn't change the past. For the first time Tifa wondered how she might judge them for it when she was older.

She could see what Barret meant. You could call it a necessary evil, but that didn't make it anything Marlene deserved in her life. Shinra soldiers or no, Dyne was a convicted murderer.

Tifa shook her head. "I don't have any answers," she admitted. "I don't think you're going to have any about Dyne either, until you see him, but I can understand if you want to wait on that."

Barret hesitated, but then he let out a breath. "Nah. That'd be pretty selfish, wouldn't it? Makin' an old friend wait 'cause I'm worried 'bout the consequences for my life. He's in a damn prison."

Jessie put a hand on his arm. "I know all of us together've done some pretty questionable things... but you know, Barret, if he's anything like you, I think we'd be lucky to have him on our team."

"Hell," said Barret, looking embarrassed. "You shouldn't be allowed to say shit like that, Jess."

"Too bad. You're not my boss anymore."

"And I agree with her," Tifa added, "so you'll just have to suck it up, Barret."

"You ain't about to order me to have fun at this party, are ya?"

"No. But I'll encourage it. We could all use a little fun."

"Well," said Jessie, "if that's your attitude, then I say it's time for a quick makeover."

"What?" said Tifa.

"Your girlfriend's ex just showed up. If now's not the time to show off, I don't know when is."

"That's not... Zack isn't going to..." Tifa faltered and looked to Barret, but he only grinned in amusement and said absolutely nothing to help her. Well, at least he was having fun, she thought wryly. "You know I don't have anything nice," she settled on at last.

"We'll figure it out," said Jessie, undeterred. "I bet we can at least do something with your hair."

Tifa made one last appeal to Barret, but he just waved, and she allowed Jessie to drag her back to the inn.

"Okay," said Jessie, grabbing Tifa's bag and dumping it out on the bed before Tifa could ask her not to. "I know you had that big focus on practicality, so we don't have any dresses or anything fancy, but... Here we go, your ass looks fantastic in these pants."

"...why were you looking at my ass?"

"Aeris is the one who said it. Besides, you spend enough time walking behind someone and you can't help but notice these things."

Tifa rolled her eyes and held out a hand. "All right, give me the pants."

"You're probably fine with the tank top, though," Jessie reasoned, looking her over thoughtfully. "She's a big fan of your arms."

"She told you that, too?" Tifa wondered, tugging off her boots so she could change.

"She hasn't told you? Well, that might be smart. You embarrass easy."

Tifa tossed a pillow at her, and it hit Jessie unceremoniously in the face before falling into her lap.

"Yeah, like that. You think you'd be used to it, with all the guys who used to hit on you."

"It's completely different when it's Aeris," said Tifa.

"Because you actually want the attention?"

Tifa hesitated to admit it, but she nodded. "It's nice," she said, "but it's a lot sometimes, too. She told me last night that she's thought about... you know..."

"Sex?" Jessie finished bluntly, and Tifa flushed. "It's a nice thing to think about."

Tifa chewed on her lip. "How... do you know when you're ready?"

"You should probably be able to say it first," Jessie said in amusement. "But otherwise I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask. I think we've known Vincent about four days, and the fact I haven't made a move yet is taking things real slow for me."

"I know, I know... But at least you know what it's like."

"Never had sex with a girl before either," Jessie added, tapping her lip thoughtfully as though that was something she might need to look into. "But all right. You're probably building it up a lot in your head, psyching yourself out. People do that. I think it's okay to be a little nervous, but it's not gonna be anything life-changing. It's more like a fun activity you can do while you're naked."

"A fun activity, huh...?"

"Ideally, anyway. Sometimes it can be... not so great. You gotta find what works for you, and make sure she knows it, too."

What worked for her... Little things like having the lights on? "Um, thanks," Tifa said, tucking her hair behind her ear.

"Any time," said Jessie. "It's nice to know things are going well enough you're even thinking about it."

"Yeah. I just wish we could say the same for you."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well... you don't really expect anything from Vincent, do you? I mean, the man's in mourning."

Jessie shrugged. "I know. Sometimes that's when people want a little comfort."

"...I guess you're right," Tifa conceded. "I'll... hope it works out for you then." Hadn't she and Aeris found comfort in each other? Who was she to tell Jessie not to seek that out? If they barely knew Vincent, it also meant Tifa couldn't say for sure whether he'd want that, too.

"Now, c'mere," said Jessie, "and lemme see your hair."

Tifa was skeptical at first, since Jessie never did much with her own hair, but she clearly had something in mind. A look of concentration on her face, she worked the shorter side of Tifa's part into two small braids that pulled the hair back from her face.

"I saw it in a magazine the other month," Jessie confided. "Thought it'd look good on you."

"I like it," Tifa decided, and she hoped Aeris would, too. Because that was what this was about, really, not showing up Zack.

As they passed through the pub, the clang of pots and thunk of knives on cutting boards signaled people busy in the kitchen. Outside, the tables were all set up, and some standing torches had been brought out for additional light. Barret was helping to carry some drums over to where a few musicians already sat tuning their instruments.

"Live music!" Jessie exclaimed. "There's a nice surprise."

"Coming through!" said Yuffie from behind them, and they stepped aside to let her pass. She was carrying a couple trays of fruit, and judging from the uneven slices, Tifa thought she might have done it herself, but that made it nicer, in a way. Tifa had never seen her eager to pitch in on any group activity before.

A man came out behind her carrying a keg, and Jessie nodded appreciatively. "This is shaping up pretty good," she said. "I'm gonna see if there's anything I can help with."

Tifa nodded, but for her part she went to have a seat at one of the tables, keeping an eye on the activity. She hadn't expected so much effort from anyone. Part of her wondered if they deserved it, but she was sure the townspeople were doing it more for Nanaki than any of them.

Yuffie plopped down across from her. "You changed your hair," she observed.

Tifa touched the braids reflexively. "Jessie thought I should dress up a little," she said.

Yuffie glanced down at herself and then shrugged. "Whatever. I always look good," she said, and Tifa thought it must be nice to have that kind of confidence.

"I thought you were helping," came Nanaki's voice from behind her, and Tifa twisted to see him approaching with Bugenhagen floating along beside him.

"I was!" Yuffie protested. "Gods, am I not allowed to sit down for one minute to talk to Tifa?"

Nanaki's ears twitched. "Sorry," he said.

"Nanaki tells me you all are leaving tomorrow," said Bugenhagen. "I am glad we have the opportunity to send you off."

"We really haven't been here very long," Tifa said.

"But it has been a lively few days! And I am heartened that this time Nanaki goes in the company of friends, who will look after him."

"Grandfather..."

"Oh ho, am I embarrassing you? Well, it's my right, you know."

Tifa smiled. "We all try to look after each other," she said. "And I hope we'll be back to visit again before too long."

"So do I," Bugenhagen agreed. "You will always be welcome."

"And perhaps we could call sometimes," Nanaki suggested. "Grandfather has a telephone, it's just... very old."

"I disconnected it years ago, but I'm sure it still works."

"We'll be sure to test it, before we leave tomorrow," Tifa said. They had some phones to spare now if it didn't work, but she didn't manage to say that aloud, as she'd finally noticed Aeris coming down to the common behind them.

Bugenhagen smiled. "Well, I'll leave you to it. I'd like to see how things are progressing in the kitchen."

"...I'd better go with him," Nanaki said, watching the old man float off. "He always sneaks food when he thinks no one is looking."

Tifa nodded absently. "Of course," she said.

Aeris spotted her just as he was walking off, and approached with Zack and Cloud in tow. She'd let her hair down again, and she wore a silk scarf tied loosely about her neck. White, with blue butterflies. Had Zack bought it for her...?

"Oh, I love what you did with your hair," Aeris exclaimed immediately, and dropping down onto the bench beside Tifa, she reached out to run the braids through her fingers.

"Jessie did it," Tifa said.

"It looks good," said Zack.

"Thanks..." she said cautiously.

He and Cloud were both dressed simply, Zack all in shades of brown, and Cloud in a plain black T-shirt that reminded her of what he'd worn as a kid.

"It's an improvement," she decided.

"I'll take it," said Zack. "You mind if we join you?"

Tifa shook her head. "Go ahead."

Yuffie narrowed her eyes as Zack and Cloud sat down on her side of the table. For Zack's part, it was clear he had no idea what he'd done to slight her, but Cloud seemed resigned to it.

"They must really like you around here," Zack remarked as he observed the preparations.

"It's Nanaki they like," Yuffie informed him. "This is his hometown, and he's been away a while. Plus his grandpa's like, the oldest and nerdiest one here, which gives him a lot of pull with all the other nerds."

"She says it like that, but it's basically true," said Aeris. "I'm not sure they would've even let us in without Nanaki."

"Huh. Well, I'll have to thank him for using his popularity for good. Plus we've got the same tattoo, I figure we oughtta be buds, right?"

He'd been wearing gloves as part of the uniform, but now Tifa's eyes fell to his bare hands atop the table, and sure enough, there was a tattoo: the number XIII, like Nanaki.

Cloud looked at him doubtfully. "You know that was from Hojo... right?"

Zack shrugged. "Yeah, but I'm trying to look on the bright side here. It's not so bad having something in common with one of my new friends."

"I'm not sure that's the angle I'd use, Zack," said Aeris, shaking her head.

A lot of the activity was settling now, villagers beginning to mingle as they ran out of tasks to help with. The buffet table grew laden with food--simple fare but plenty of it--and the band started up, a soft drumbeat joined by flute and guitar.

"Oh, excellent," said Zack. "I'm gonna see if they can give us something we could dance to."

As he hopped up again, Aeris looked hopefully to Tifa, but she had to shake her head.

"Sorry. I don't think I have the energy for it."

"Not even for slow dancing?" said Aeris. "That's all I know anyway."

"Slow dancing?"

"You just sort of put your arms around each other and sway."

"Does that even qualify?" Tifa wondered skeptically.

"Mm, it's barely dancing," Aeris conceded. "Mostly an excuse to touch each other."

"Gross," said Yuffie.

"I could probably manage that," Tifa decided, "but I don't think it's what Zack has in mind."

"I'll make sure and ask them to mix it up," said Aeris, and then she leaned forward across the table. "What about you, Cloud? You up for dancing?"

Cloud ducked his head down. "Um... I don't... All I know are country dances."

"Where do you think we are?" Tifa asked him. "About the only city folk here are Aeris and Jessie. Maybe you can teach them a thing or two."

"I'm definitely open to learning!" Aeris declared. "Hmm, I wonder if Barret dances?"

Tifa had trouble imagining that, but she shrugged. "Seems like the perfect time to find out. Why don't you go ask him? But-- if he does, see if you can get him to take the arm off first?"

Aeris laughed and nodded. "Come on, Cloud. We've gotta check up on Zack, too. We can't let him monopolize the band."

Tifa watched them go and then turned to Yuffie. "You gonna get in on this?"

Yuffie snorted. "Hell no. I'm so not into anything that's all about touching people."

"Well, I guess you can keep me company then."

"Um..." Yuffie fidgeted. "I was actually hoping to ask you, like... How do you make it official, being part of AVALANCHE?"

The question made Tifa smile. "You pretty much just decide to, at this point. You've more than proven yourself."

"Just like that?"

"Mmhm."

Yuffie thought for a second, drumming her fingers on the table. "And it's not like, a forever kind of deal, right? I mean, you've got that one guy who's not with you right now."

"Wedge," Tifa said. "And you're right. No one's going to force you to stay if you ever find you need to bow out, or take a break. You just tell me."

Yuffie nodded to herself. "Okay. Then... Yeah, I think I want to join."

"Welcome to the team," Tifa said, and she extended a hand across the table. Yuffie shook it firmly.

"Anyway, while everybody else's off looking like idiots, maybe we should get some food?" Yuffie suggested.

"Good idea," Tifa agreed.

It made for good dinner entertainment, watching Zack and Cloud trying to wrangle their friends and some of the village children through a dance. Tifa barely recognized what they were trying to do, but despite the lack of coordination, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Even Barret gave it a try, though he gave up on it after only a few minutes and joined them at the table instead.

Nanaki reemerged outside with Bugenhagen, but they chose to sit at another table with the locals, and for tonight, Tifa thought that was exactly where Nanaki belonged.

Eventually some of the villagers took over with a different dance, and the rest of their friends took a break to eat.

"Looks like I might have to cross dance instructor off my list of potential new careers," Zack sighed as he rejoined them.

"We had fun," said Aeris. "That's the important part."

"And some of it might be the fault of your students," Jessie offered. "I'm not that coordinated."

"Hey, I don't wanna hear any of that," said Zack.

"We probably should've started simpler," said Cloud.

"Or agreed on the steps," Barret put in.

"Regional variation does make things a little tricky," Zack admitted.

"Maybe you guys can work on that and get it straightened out for next time," Jessie suggested.

Zack glanced at Tifa, hesitated, and nodded. "Yeah. Next time. We'll all wind up getting together again like this sooner or later, right?"

"Sooner or later," Tifa agreed. She could at least give him that much.

In time, the band got around to playing some slower music, and Aeris eagerly took Tifa by the hand and tugged her out onto the common. She placed Tifa's hands around her waist, slipped her own around Tifa's neck, and began to shuffle her feet slowly with the music.

"Is this how they dance in the city?" Tifa teased.

"Well, nobody's got the room for whatever Zack was trying to walk us through. People must've danced in your bar, though. You had the jukebox and everything."

"Sure, sometimes. But nothing this... restrained."

"I think I know exactly what you mean," Aeris laughed.

Tifa wondered where Aeris had picked this up, though. Had she ever gone dancing with Zack?

Aeris gave her a knowing look. "It's cute that you're jealous," she said, "but you don't have to worry. He's just an old friend."

She could have pointed out that Zack seemed to feel differently, but that didn't matter if it was one-sided. She had to trust what Aeris was telling her.

"I know," Tifa said instead. "Maybe it's not just that, I mean... He knew you when things weren't so crazy. He must've gotten to take you out to do normal things all the time, and not just... in between hostage negotiations."

"That's true," Aeris admitted. "But there were important parts of me that I was too scared for him to know. It's never been like that between us."

"So you would have told me about being a Cetra, if the Shinra hadn't taken you?"

"...maybe not so soon. But I wanted to. You were fighting for the Planet, and I wanted you to know how important it was to me, too."

Tifa remembered a few times, in those first couple days, when Aeris had seemed on the verge of saying something, and hadn't. Trying to work up the courage, but not there yet.

"Zack really wants to help, too, you know," Aeris added quietly.

Tifa shook her head. "I don't know if we can afford to be watching our backs around our own allies."

"It's only a problem when Sephiroth is nearby, right? It's not just him we're dealing with. The Shinra are headed for the Temple, too."

Tifa didn't reply right away. Against the Shinra, there was no question that Zack would be a strong ally. He was an ex-SOLDIER, and Yuffie had told them how easily he'd taken out those snipers. For the AVALANCHE of a month ago, she would have had far fewer doubts about recruiting him.

But they never knew when Sephiroth might show himself, and Zack might seem confident, but that didn't mean he wasn't vulnerable. Who had it really been, at the Shinra building? Sephiroth, or the illusion of him over someone else's body?

On the other hand... Maybe things were different now that he and Cloud knew about it. Maybe they could fight it. And didn't they have a right to try? Was it cruel to them, to keep them from a chance at vengeance, because of one split-second failure? Did that really prove they were unreliable?

They knew Sephiroth would be at the Temple. No surprises there. They'd already know to be on their guard.

"If they're going to come with," Tifa said carefully, "then I need Zack to listen to me. If I say he has to sit something out, then that's it. He can't go trying to play hero anyway."

Aeris smiled wryly. "He won't like that, but I think he can handle it."

"All right."

"Thanks, Tifa."

Tifa could see him now sitting with the others, talking animatedly about something. Cloud beside him, not talking much but talking sometimes, smiling. "...Cloud does seem better with him around, doesn't he?" she said.

"Yeah. I think they're going to be good for each other."

Not that Zack seemed to need it. And, maybe that was it. Maybe her jealousy wasn't as much about Aeris, as about Zack himself. Nibelheim had happened five years ago, and while Tifa could keep it together most of the time, it had changed her. Zack's ordeal had ended only weeks ago, and he seemed... fine. Hardly any different from the younger man she remembered. Friendly, outgoing, positive. How could he be so positive?

"...is Zack really okay, do you think?"

Aeris regarded her thoughtfully. "He has his worries, if that's what you mean," she said. "But he's not the only one who tries to shrug them off, around most people."

"You're talking about me?"

"Yeah. Are you sure tomorrow isn't too soon?"

Tifa frowned. "I know I could use more time," she admitted, "but I don't think we can afford it. I won't be alone... so it should be all right, shouldn't it?"

Aeris held her closer. "Everyone will be with you, this time. You'll have all the back-up you need."

"So will you. Whatever happens."

"I know."

Tifa turned her head into Aeris's, their cheeks brushing. "...I like the scarf, by the way," she said.

"Oh, I hoped you would," said Aeris. "Barret told me blue is your favorite color."

"You really do talk to all my friends about me, don't you?"

"Of course! And now you have one of mine you can talk to."

"That might be a little awkward," Tifa said wryly.

Aeris laughed. "Maybe."

"I'm okay with just... learning about you from you."

"I think you're more patient than I am that way. I want to know everything."

Tifa didn't worry about it as much as she had in the beginning, but she wondered if Aeris would really like everything, if she were to learn it. There had to be something that would disappoint her, even if it was something small. "Well," said Tifa, "what's one thing, right now?"

"Hmm..." Aeris pulled back to look her over thoughtfully. "If Cloud danced at your country parties, then you must have, too. Were you any good? What were they like?"

"They were festivals, not parties," Tifa corrected. "We'd have them in the summer months, and into the fall. I don't think I was so bad, but... Papa was, so we never really made an account of ourselves."

"You didn't think about switching partners?"

"Never crossed my mind," Tifa admitted. "It was just something we did together."

Aeris smiled. "That's sweet."

"Next time, you and me..."

"I'll look forward to it."

The band eventually moved on to a livelier tune, and they returned to their friends. Tifa caught Zack's eye, and gave him a nod. "All right," she said.

"Wait, is that a yes?" he said. "We can come along?"

"Yeah," Tifa confirmed. "When we leave tomorrow, you and Cloud are coming with us."

Zack grinned and reached across the table to clasp her hands. "Thank you," he said emphatically. "I promise you won't regret it. We're gonna kick some ass together this time, Tifa."

Taken aback, Tifa found herself glancing at Cloud, who shrugged, as if in silent agreement that Zack could be a little much sometimes. "...yeah," she said. "We're gonna kick some ass."

They spent the rest of the evening sitting and chatting about stupid things. Zack got his cake at last, which he graciously shared with all of them, and even with him there, the conversation grew easy. It had been a good idea, Tifa realized, getting them all together like this. It would make it easier to fight together, when the time came.

She'd lost track of the hour when at last people began to disperse, cleaning up what was left of the buffet but leaving the rest for morning.

"Maybe we shouldn't head out too early in the morning," Jessie proposed as they got up from their table.

"Maybe," Tifa agreed. As she glanced up at the night sky and the silhouette of the canyon, she recalled, "Has anyone seen Vincent? He doesn't know we're leaving tomorrow."

"I can go look for him," Jessie volunteered, but she'd had enough to drink that maybe all those stairs and ladders weren't the best idea right now.

"No," said Tifa. "I appreciate it, but I think I need to check in with him. If I'm the leader, I should know what's going on with my team, right?"

Barret offered to help her track him down, saving her some stairs, and they found him on one of the upper landings overlooking the common. He could have watched the whole party from up here. She wondered what he'd made of it.

Vincent glanced up at her as she stepped out onto the landing. "Did you need something?" he asked.

Tifa approached and sat down on the ledge beside him, and she knew that getting up again was going to be a chore. Below, someone had extinguished the last of the torches, leaving only the bonfire to illuminate the common. "I wanted to see how you were doing," she said. "I didn't expect you to join in, but that doesn't mean you wanted to be completely alone."

"I am accustomed to it."

"I figured. And I've been thinking you preferred it that way, but they're not the same thing, are they? So, how are you holding up?"

Vincent shook his head. "It was not so shocking as you imagine. I had already thought she must have died."

Tifa hesitated. "That's different from learning that she wanted to," she said.

She'd read that file, too. Lucrecia had tried to kill herself, following her recovery from Sephiroth's birth. After her second attempt, Professor Gast had filed paperwork for a leave of absence for her, implying some discussion between them, but she had simply vanished after the hospital released her. She hadn't gone home. She hadn't used her ID. No trace of her. It left an unfortunately easy conclusion.

"I just... I'm really sorry, Vincent."

"...thank you. But all of it happened... a very long time ago. Didn't it?"

"Does it feel that way to you?"

"No," he admitted. "It doesn't."

"If you'd rather not talk about it..."

Vincent shook his head again. "I don't know what there is to say. I never would have thought that someone like her... She was such a passionate, stubborn woman."

"I don't know if it matters," Tifa said, "the kind of person you are. If things get bad enough..."

"Then, if I had been there for her..."

"There's no way to know if it would have changed anything. I think... sometimes you can make yourself live for another person. Sometimes you can make yourself live for really stupid, tiny things. But sometimes there can be people loving you and supporting you, and it doesn't make any difference. I knew people like that."

A place like the Midgar slums made it easy to fall into that pit of hopelessness, and some people never made it out. But the way Vincent looked at her, he must have realized that she hadn't only talked about it with neighbors or bar patrons. She hadn't just learned it from other people. Tifa looked away.

"I always thought death would be lenient for me," said Vincent. A way of saying, indirectly, that he'd thought about it, too. "A way of shirking my punishment."

Tifa looked cautiously back at him. "Why did you decide to come with us?" she wondered.

"Difficult to say..." he admitted, and she waited until he went on. "I had not imagined that I could be of use to anyone, I suppose. I failed Lucrecia, failed the person most important to me. And there is no vengeance to be had on Hojo. But... the consequences of our mistakes should never have fallen on you. Perhaps I can play some small part now, to lessen your burden."

"That's... very kind of you."

"I would say too little, too late."

"For some things, maybe," Tifa conceded. "But without your help, I don't know if Barret and Jessie would be all right. Today's mission might not have been a success. If someone's keeping score, maybe that doesn't balance things out, but that's why we keep trying, right?"

"And what do you have to balance?"

"I've caused my share of collateral damage," Tifa said, recalling her earlier conversation with Barret and Jessie. They all had blood on their hands. "Some regular damage, too."

"Then, are we all atoning?" Vincent wondered.

"Most of us, I think. So I guess you're one of us after all."

"Hmm."

Tifa let out a breath. "You weren't there when we talked about it, so I should tell you, we're leaving tomorrow, for the Temple. Make sure you get some rest, okay?"

Vincent nodded, and as she pushed herself to her feet, he rose with her. He walked down to the inn with her, as though to make sure she followed her own advice. In the hallway outside their rooms, he caught her eye.

"Hold onto her," he said.

Tifa nodded, and Vincent disappeared into the other room. She wondered, briefly, if the certainty of Lucrecia's loss would change anything for him. Was Sephiroth the last remaining piece of her... or was he a consequence to be dealt with?

In her own room, Jessie lay sprawled already asleep on her back, while Yuffie was nothing more than a lump under the blankets. Aeris waited with a ready smile by the light of the bedside lamp. Tifa sat down to take her boots off, and then Aeris wrapped her arms around her from behind.

"You've done way too much today," she said softly. "Let's get some sleep."

Chapter Text

Aeris woke before Tifa, for once, but she lay still, not wanting to disturb her. Tifa's breathing was slow and even, a calming rhythm, and Aeris held onto that as her awareness of the Planet's anxiety settled. No worse than before, she thought.

The Planet had said nothing clearly to her since Gongaga, but she could sense its worry, and something akin to guilt over putting her in such danger. Even though it might not tell her in so many words, Aeris was sure that it would know if anyone--Shinra or Sephiroth--had reached the Temple. She was sure she would feel that alarm.

They still had time.

If only she knew how much, so she could tell Tifa she didn't have to press on just yet. She was so determined to put her whole self into everything, even when what she needed was to relax a little and let someone else take care of her for a change.

Planet, help me look after her, Aeris thought.

Yuffie was noisy when she woke--the clatter of the lamp as she nearly knocked it over switching it on, the sound of her bare feet across the floor, the bathroom door shutting just a little too forcefully. Jessie slumbered on, but Tifa stirred.

"Morning," Aeris said softly. "How'd you sleep?"

"Good," Tifa decided. "You?"

Aeris smiled and nodded. "Yesterday was a pretty good day."

"Hopefully some of that luck holds," said Tifa, and she started to get up, but Aeris put a hand on her chest.

"Why don't you stay put?" she suggested. "I'll get us breakfast in bed." At Tifa's skeptical look, she added, "It's not like we were going to skip breakfast."

"...all right."

Aeris pulled on a pair of pants beneath her nightgown, slipped her feet into her flip-flops, and headed out to the pub.

She was surprised to find Zack there, already halfway through a hearty breakfast. What was more, he was fully dressed and ready to go, with a new sword strapped across his back that he must have found at the weapons shop this morning.

"Morning!" he said brightly when he spotted her.

"I never knew you for an early riser," she said.

Zack shrugged sheepishly. "I was excited."

Aeris went to the counter to put in her order, and then sat down opposite him while she waited on it. "Funny thing to get excited about," she said. He didn't even know where they were going.

"Are you kidding?" Zack replied. "Do you know how long it's been since I got to hang out with this many people? I don't know what I was gonna do if Tifa said I couldn't go."

Aeris smiled ruefully. Zack, the social butterfly. It was one of his most charming traits, but she realized it must have been a worse torture than anything Hojo had intended, to go so long without meaningful human contact. No wonder he'd latched onto the one person he had had with him. "You still would've had Cloud," she reminded him.

Zack's expression softened. "Yeah. Yeah, but I feel like this is better for him, too. He needs her to have a little faith in him."

"I guess you know him pretty well, huh?"

"Sure. He's my best friend. We've been through a lot together."

"You know, I realized something," Aeris said. "You didn't know I'd left Midgar. But, you didn't try to visit me there, even though it would've been closer. You went looking for Cloud."

"Well... I figured it could wait, you were probably okay. Cloud wasn't." He looked at her uncertainly. "You're not... mad about that, are you?"

Aeris shook her head. "No, not at all. I think it's sweet, how loyal you are to him."

Zack scratched his head. "I know he'd do the same for me."

"Yeah. He was in pretty rough shape when we found him, but you were the first thing on his mind." She glanced back towards the inn. "I guess he's still sleeping?" Otherwise she was sure she would have found them together.

"Last I checked," Zack confirmed. "Only one I've seen up is Vincent--he was out here even before me. You know, I thought he was this silent loner type, but he was asking me about Sephiroth, what he was like before he went crazy."

"Mm... I'm not so surprised," Aeris said, but they hadn't told Zack much about Vincent. "He's a lot older than he looks, you know. He knew Sephiroth's mother."

"You mean that Lucrecia person?"

Aeris nodded. "But he's never met Sephiroth. He must have wanted to hear about her son from someone who didn't only know him as a murderer."

Zack shook his head. "Can't say I get it. We're out to kill the guy."

"You don't feel conflicted about that at all? You did know him."

"Yeah, I did. That's why I feel pretty confident in saying, he might still look like Sephiroth, but he's not the same guy anymore. I saw what he did. There's no coming back from that."

Aeris fell silent for a moment. Was that any proof, she wondered, that Sephiroth wasn't really in control? Certainly other people committed mass murder without being manipulated into it. Shinra had made that decision with Sector 7, with Corel. Maybe with Gongaga, too.

"You know," she said, "we'll be passing close to Gongaga. We should ask Tifa if you can visit for a little bit."

Zack's eyes widened. "Oh, man. I haven't been back there in... ten years now. Wonder how my folks are doing."

"I wish I could tell you. We didn't really take the time to talk to anyone, about the reactor."

His expression sobered. "Well... I should definitely check up on them then."

"I hope it turns out all right," said Aeris. A server came out with a tray for her, and she started to get up. "I'd better get back to Tifa. I'll see you again in a little while."

"Yeah. You let her know I'm ready to go whenever."

Aeris smiled at him and carried the tray on back to the inn. Jessie was in the hall, knocking on the boys' room to see if they were up, but when she spotted Aeris, she came and opened the door for her.

Tifa hadn't exactly stayed put, having gotten dressed in the meantime, but she'd settled back on the bed. Yuffie was out of the bathroom, dressed and lacing up her sneakers, and she looked up as Aeris entered.

"Okay, that's a nice perk," she said.

"Breakfast in bed is the thing that makes you want to date?" Aeris wondered as she passed the tray to Tifa so she could climb into bed beside her.

Yuffie snorted. "Hell no. But when I'm rich, I can totally pay someone to do it."

"You wouldn't rather have someone doing it because they wanted to?"

"Nope! 'cause then I'd have to share." Yuffie hopped up and grabbed her bag off the end of the bed. "I'll see you guys outside."

Aeris shook her head in amusement as the door shut behind her. "She seems eager to get going," she remarked.

"She's always saying she doesn't like it here," said Tifa. "Plus it's her first mission as an official AVALANCHE member... I get the feeling that's actually a big deal to her."

"It's a big mission, too."

Tifa caught her eye. "You worried?"

"A little," Aeris admitted, though Zack and his party had been a good distraction. "But let's not talk about that and get ourselves worked up before we even get there. What do you think about... vacation spots?"

Tifa smiled. "I'm not sure, but I'm betting you've given it some thought already."

"Uh-huh." Aeris settled in closer beside her, and over breakfast they chatted about possibilities. Aeris had been envisioning a romantic getaway, but Tifa clearly imagined something else, as she brought up Marlene almost immediately. Aeris could hardly object to the thought of their friends joining them; they all deserved a vacation, really. If it wasn't what Aeris had pictured, then that just meant another trip to plan. Even more to look forward to.

Just about everyone was ready by the time Aeris and Tifa were. Jessie came back for her bag, while Barret was carrying the rest of their gear ahead to the trucks. Tifa stopped to settle up with the innkeeper, who Aeris felt certain had undercharged them. Zack and Cloud sat talking at the pub beside a stack of empty dishes, but they got up to come along.

Outside, Bugenhagen, the other elders, and a number of the villagers stood gathered near the bonfire speaking with Nanaki. Yuffie stood nearby looking impatient, and Aeris spotted Vincent waiting ahead at the gate.

"Ah, Tifa," said Bugenhagen as they approached. "We got word this morning. Our people are on their way back from Nibelheim with your sick friends."

"Any change in their condition?" Tifa asked.

"No, but they're bringing some of that research back with them. We'll look into it."

"Thank you."

"These are... people like me an' Cloud?" Zack asked uncertainly.

"Right," Aeris said. "I'm sure we just need to find the right thing to bring them around, and they'll be okay. I mean, look at you two."

Zack nodded, glancing at Cloud. "Well, I'll wish 'em luck. Maybe it'll make things easier for 'em once we take out Sephiroth, too."

"Now there's a treatment plan we hadn't considered," Jessie remarked.

"Yes, and speaking of that," said Bugenhagen, "I wanted to give you all this." He held out a drawstring purse, which clinked as Tifa slowly accepted it.

"Money?" she asked, puzzled.

Bugenhagen smiled. "Consider it a donation to a worthy cause: all of us not dying in the end of the world."

"Sounds worthy to me," Zack put in.

"Then... thank you again," Tifa said, tucking the purse away.

"It's no more than doing our part," said Bugenhagen. He turned his attention to Nanaki, his smile growing rueful. "Now, Nanaki..."

"I know, Grandfather. You don't have to worry. I have no intention of leaving for so long again, and this time when I return, I'll have made you proud."

"You already have."

Yuffie rolled her eyes and started for the gate, and Aeris thought maybe it wasn't impatience after all, but something else. When Yuffie talked about Wutai, she didn't make it sound like anyone there supported what she was doing. Nanaki had his grandfather and the whole town behind him.

A chorus of goodbyes and good lucks followed them as they left the settlement, with Ira the last to wish them farewell as the passed beneath the gate. Nanaki picked up his pace, trotting ahead as though he needed the momentum to be able to leave at all. Aeris felt reluctant, too; she couldn't imagine receiving so warm a welcome anywhere else.

In a small victory, Aeris convinced Tifa to let Zack drive the old truck, letting her relax as a passenger in the stolen Shinra vehicle. She did regret it a little bit, as there weren't any windows in the back through which to watch the scenery go by, but it was definitely a more comfortable ride, and that was her goal for the moment.

They reached Gongaga around midday, where Tifa had agreed to stop for a little while. It was as good a place as any to catch lunch. As they piled out of the trucks just outside the village, Aeris's eyes fell on a patch of scorched earth where Jenova's corpse had been.

"Looks like they took our advice," Tifa observed.

"Yeah."

"Damn Shinra," said Barret, looking past the village to the ruined reactor in the distance. "They really gotta fuck things up everywhere, don't they?"

Jessie nodded in solemn agreement, but she took his arm and pointed. "Come on. That looks like an inn. Let's see what kind of food they've got."

The others started into the village, and Tifa looked to Zack. "You come meet us there when you're ready," she said.

Zack nodded distractedly, still taking in the scene. There'd been no reactor here when he was a child, and no disaster. Cloud had stayed behind, too, though Aeris thought it was as much because of his own unease at being back here as it was out of a desire to support his friend.

Aeris felt a pang of unease herself, as she watched Tifa walk off. Tifa glanced back at her, and maybe she felt the same. But, they were surrounded by friends, and there was no reason Sephiroth should be here.

"You two all right?" Aeris asked, but Cloud didn't answer her.

"Weird being back," said Zack. "I couldn't wait to get out of here."

"Is it really different?"

He nodded grimly. "Graveyard's new," he said. He finally stepped away from the truck, but his eyes slid over the names on the headstones without lingering too long on any of them. He looked ahead. "Our house is still standing."

"Let's go say hello," Aeris suggested gently.

"You're coming with?"

"Unless you don't want me to."

Zack hesitated, then shook his head. "I could probably use the back-up," he decided, and he looked to Cloud, who nodded. The three of them together approached the little house, and Zack knocked on the door.

A middle-aged woman answered it. Raven black hair, streaked with grey at the temples. Her eyes fell on Zack with a recognition she didn't yet believe. "Yes...?" she said slowly.

Zack took a breath and ran a hand through his hair. "Hi, Mom."

"Zack?" Her hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, my Zack, is it really you?"

A hand hauled the door open wider, revealing a tall, grey-haired man behind her. "Zack..." he said, staring at his son.

Zack's parents tumbled out of the doorway and embraced him at once. Zack's arms settled around the both of them, and Aeris let out a little breath of relief. She'd seen her friends go through enough loss.

"Oh, we missed you so much," said Zack's mother, scrubbing tears from her eyes as she pulled her face out of his shoulder. "I was starting to think... Whatever happened to you? It's been so long since we heard from you!"

"Sorry," Zack said. "I didn't mean to go so long without writing."

"Look how tall you've grown," said his father, his hand on Zack's shoulder. "And your eyes... You really did join SOLDIER then?"

Zack nodded, but he scarcely had time to say anything before his mother noticed Aeris and Cloud standing on either side of him.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Is this your girlfriend?"

"Oh, uh..." Zack glanced awkwardly at Aeris. She certainly might have been, when last he'd written them. "No, just a friend," he decided. "This is Aeris, and my best friend Cloud. Guys, these are my parents, Aaron and Rachael Fair."

"It's nice to meet you," said Aeris.

"You from SOLDIER, too?" Aaron asked of Cloud, noting his eyes.

"Umm... Not exactly," said Cloud.

"We did meet at Shinra," said Zack. "But we're both done with that these days."

"To tell you the truth, I'm glad to hear it," said Aaron. "After what happened with the reactor..."

"Everyone decided it was best not to have anything to do with Shinra anymore," Rachael finished.

Zack nodded solemnly. "I'm... glad you guys are okay. I saw the graveyard."

"We lost some good people that day," his mother said sadly.

"Well, won't you all come in and sit down?" Aaron said, pushing the door back open to motion them inside. "You can join us for lunch."

Zack glanced at Aeris, and she nodded. "Yeah," he said. "We've got time."

His parents exchanged looks, and his mother asked quietly, "Are you going away again?"

"There's somewhere we've got to be," Zack explained, scratching his head. "Gongaga was on the way."

"I see..."

"I'm sorry we don't have more time to visit," said Aeris, offering them a sympathetic smile. "But I won't let him get away with not contacting you again for so long."

"Yeah," Cloud agreed. "I bet we can come back when things quiet down."

"You, too, Cloud?" Zack wondered with some surprise.

Cloud met his gaze steadily. "...you're lucky, you know."

"...yeah. Sorry."

Rachael smiled softly at them. "At least you're making good friends," she decided.

As they settled down to lunch, Zack talked freely of his time in Midgar, about joining SOLDIER and meeting Cloud and Aeris, even about serving under Sephiroth. But he was never specific about when anything had happened, and he never mentioned Nibelheim or let on about where he'd been the past five years.

Aeris couldn't blame him for not wanting to tell them the truth. They'd spent years afraid that something awful had happened to him, how could he confirm for them that something had? Better to let them believe that he was happy, and healthy, and just maybe not the best son, for letting them worry.

She understood it, but it was sad, too. She'd known Zack wasn't close with his parents, but now the distance was painfully obvious.

When they'd finished their meal and confessed they had to be moving on, Zack's parents embraced him tightly again and made him promise to come visit again soon. Rachael hugged Aeris and Cloud, too, and thanked them for their part in bringing Zack home. Cloud was obviously taken aback, but he assured her he'd look after Zack for her.

The others were waiting for them at the inn, ready to go.

"I guess you must have found them," said Tifa. "How were they?"

"Good," said Zack. "Thanks for giving me the time."

Tifa nodded, and a wistful expression crossed her face before she announced that they needed to be moving on, and they headed back to the trucks. Aeris knew Tifa would never say what had crossed her mind, but she didn't have to. She'd seen the same look in Cloud's eyes. As they sat down, she rested her head on Tifa's shoulder.

"I'm sorry you lost all of that," she murmured softly.

Tifa was quiet for a moment, and then she said, "It's good he has things to come back to. I wouldn't wish that kind of loss on anyone."

Barret and Jessie wore similarly solemn expressions, and then Jessie took a breath. "We'll make a new home after all this is over," she said. "And it might not be all bad, starting fresh."

Tifa nodded slowly. "Yeah. This time... it'll be better."

They reached their destination late in the afternoon, a seaside fishing village that Elder Bugah had told them about. They located Bugah's friend with the boat, but nothing would persuade her to take them out this late in the day. They would lose the light before reaching the Temple's island, she said, and she didn't know those waters well enough to risk it.

Nanaki proposed asking some of the other fishermen, but there weren't so many to ask, and none of the others would consider taking them even in the daylight.

"Damn it," said Barret. "I can't believe we're stuck here."

"What if we borrowed a boat?" Yuffie suggested, but at the looks on everyone's faces, she concluded, "None of you know anything about sailing, do you?"

"This is my second time seeing the ocean, ever," Jessie reminded her.

"We only steal from the Shinra anyway," Tifa said.

"I said borrow, not steal. We'd give it back!"

Aeris shook her head. "We'll just have to wait until the morning. No one's gotten into the Temple yet. I think we'll be all right."

"You're sure?" Tifa asked her.

"Yes... I think I'd know. And Sephiroth and the Shinra don't know exactly where it is. It's a big island, there's a lot of forest to search."

"All right. Maybe it's better to get there in daylight anyway."

The village was too small for an inn, so they made camp just outside of it. Yuffie soon broke off on her own, headed down to the beach to walk along the shore. It gave Aeris an idea, but she saw Barret pulling out his phone, and she decided it could wait.

Tifa and Jessie settled down on either side of Barret, and Aeris stayed near enough to listen. As usual, they kept the focus on Marlene, asking her about her day. Recently she'd befriended a boy a few years older who lived on the neighboring farm, and today he'd introduced her to their barn cat. In turn, Barret told her, in simple terms, about the success of their mission, about the party, about how they were on the road again. He didn't mention the Temple, because they never told Marlene about the dangers they faced until after they'd conquered them, if at all.

Distance, again. And again, Aeris could understand it. But she was tired of distance.

As the conversation wound to its end, she spoke up. "Wedge, before you hang up, is my mom there?"

"Sure, she's here. You wanna talk to her?"

"Yes, if you don't mind giving her the phone," Aeris said, and she caught Barret's eye. He nodded, passing his phone to her, and she stepped away, taking it off of speaker.

"Ah... hello?" came Elmyra's voice after a moment.

"Hi, Mom. It's good to hear your voice."

"I'm sorry I don't speak up more. I do listen."

"It's okay," Aeris assured her. "I know you don't like to talk on the phone."

"There's something important though? You're about to do something dangerous, aren't you?"

"Yeah," Aeris admitted. "We'll probably be facing Sephiroth again, tomorrow. But I don't want you to worry too much. We have so many friends with us now, I'll be fine. It's just... it'll probably be a while still before I get to see you, and there's something I didn't want to wait to say."

"What is it?" Elmyra wondered, clearly perplexed.

Aeris had reached the shore, and she stopped just out of reach of the waves. "I'm sorry I never told you anything about being a Cetra," she said. "That I didn't let you know that part of me."

"Oh, Aeris... You really think just because you tried to hide that from me, that I don't know you? What child doesn't try to hide things from her parents?"

"I know. But I should've known you better, Mom. I was so scared, after Shinra, that people would treat me differently because of it... But my friends are so good to me. And I know it wouldn't have changed things between us either."

"Well..." Elmyra faltered. "I'm glad to hear that about your friends. And, ah... anything you want to say, of course I'll listen."

There was so much she'd never said, it was hard to think of where to start. "There's just so much more to it now than there was in Midgar, you know? It's like the daylight there. Even on the plate, you only see it dimly, but when you get beyond it, the sky is so open... I'm learning so much now."

"I did think," Elmyra ventured, "that it was beginning to hold you back, being in Midgar. Oh, but I didn't want you to go off on some big adventure."

"It won't be forever," Aeris promised. "I have a lot of plans for when it's over, you know."

"Do you?"

"Mmhm. A long vacation, for starters. And then I'm going to open up a flower shop, and teach AVALANCHE how to garden. Of course Tifa will be there. You could come, too, Mom."

"Where?"

"Well... We haven't really decided on a where yet. It's not as important as the who."

"I suppose... we can talk about it when you visit?"

"Right. We'll talk about it then."

They said their goodbyes, and Aeris lowered the phone. It felt good. Elmyra had been the start of it, the first person she'd loved but felt she had to hide herself from. She wanted to shove all of that aside.

She turned, meaning to give Barret back his phone, but she stopped at seeing Tifa already approaching.

"I wasn't eavesdropping," Tifa said preemptively. "I just came to check and saw you were off the phone."

Aeris smiled and nodded. "I figured."

"Were you missing her, after seeing Zack's parents?" Tifa ventured.

"Yeah... They hadn't seen their son in ten years, can you imagine? I don't have any idea what my life's going to look like in that long."

Tifa stopped beside her, and looked out at the ocean. "I thought you were the one always planning the future."

"Things don't always go like you plan them. I didn't plan to be where I am now, travelling the world with all of you, fighting to save the Planet from Sephiroth..."

"I guess that's my fault..."

"And I'm glad!" Aeris said, catching her eye with a smile. "I was a little stuck, I think. I didn't know where to go from Midgar, but there are so many possibilities now."

"I'm glad you see it that way," said Tifa.

Aeris turned to her, leaning in. "I do have an idea for right now, though. I think I could use another swimming lesson."

"What, now?"

"Why not? We still have daylight, and nowhere to be for the whole evening. Besides, I'm still not very good, and I want better odds against any sea monsters, if I'm going to have to save myself."

Tifa's expression softened into a smile. "I guess you make a good argument. We should get a little more use out of those swimsuits anyway."

Aeris took her by the hand and they headed back to the camp to change. It was good to have something to do, she thought, to keep them both from thinking about tomorrow. And Aeris planned to have forgotten some things since their last lesson, so she'd need extra attention.

Chapter Text

They left early enough the next morning that they were already on the water as the sun came up over the horizon. The boat rocked with the movement of the waves as Aeris watched that light blossom into the sky, but unlike during their ocean crossing, she didn't feel ill. Uneasy, tensed for something awful at any moment, but not ill.

It was a much smaller boat than the cargo ship, of course. There was room enough for everyone, but it made the boat seem crowded. There was nowhere for Vincent to go off and stand stoically alone, and nowhere for poor Yuffie to be seasick in peace. In fact Jessie seemed to be trying to keep the both of them company at once, an endeavor that Aeris hoped worked out for someone. Zack was doing the same for Cloud, who looked a little green himself.

Tifa and Barret were still talking with the boat's owner, trying to work out the details for a return trip. The woman had her superstitions about the island, for which Aeris could hardly blame her, and she wasn't keen on staying anywhere near it to wait for them.

Nanaki came up beside Aeris, poking his head out below the rail to watch the water going past beneath them.

"It's a lot better than being stuck in the hold, isn't it?" Aeris asked him.

"I do prefer it," he agreed.

Aeris smiled and looked back out at the water. "I'm glad you decided to come with us. It couldn't have been an easy decision."

"It is the duty of my tribe to protect the canyon, and there can be no canyon if the Planet is lost."

"That doesn't mean it was easy."

Nanaki glanced up at her. "Is it a heavy burden for you, Aeris? Your duty?"

She thought of Tifa's words to her the other night, her pledge of support. "I'm trying not to think of it as something that's only mine," she said, because then it was heavy, when she did. "We're all doing this together, even if... I am the only Cetra."

"I wonder sometimes what it is that makes you different from humans. You don't seem so different."

"I wonder that, too," Aeris admitted. "You wouldn't think... Well, why should it be something in my blood that lets me hear the voice of the Planet? Why not something else?"

Nanaki made a thoughtful rumble in his throat. "Is that the truth of it, or only what Hojo believed?"

"What do you mean?"

"What we read in the Shinra mansion... Humans are said to be descended from the Cetra, but it seems that they gained that name not by birth but by choice, when they abandoned their duty to the Planet. When Jenova came, was there any difference between them, or was it their own decision to ignore the Planet's distress that led to the loss of their abilities?"

Aeris looked towards the bow, towards Tifa. "What about all our friends now? They've taken up that duty, to protect the Planet."

"But they've never believed they could hear it," Nanaki pointed out. "Grandfather's machine is a crutch for him, I think. I'm sure he hears the Planet sometimes when it isn't even running."

Could Tifa's support grow into something more? Could someone really choose to be one of the Cetra? Aeris had never imagined that she might be able to share what she was going through with anyone living. And maybe it was a slim hope, but she felt sure that Tifa would be willing to try it, if Aeris even suggested that she could.

"...it's a nice thought," she said, "that it's something people could learn again."

"I may be the last of my kind, but I think I would be glad if that were not something we had in common."

Aeris looked down at him, smiling sadly, and gave him the lightest pat on the top of his head, knowing he wouldn't want the others to see. "I wish it were something neither one of us had to deal with," she said.

Nanaki bumped his head into her hand, but quickly drew away again. Tifa was walking back towards them.

"So, are we going to be stranded?" Aeris asked her.

"For a little while," Tifa said. "We're leaving her one of the Turks' phones, so we can call her when we need a ride back."

"Well, we shouldn't be in such a hurry then," Aeris reasoned.

Worry briefly creased Tifa's brow, but she didn't voice the possibility of their failure. "You're right," she said instead, "we shouldn't be."

"Do you know anything about what we might expect at the Temple, Aeris?" Nanaki asked, and maybe he'd noticed the look on Tifa's face, too. "Is there anything more we can do to prepare ourselves?"

"For the Temple itself? I'm not sure. I know it's designed to make it difficult to obtain the Black Materia, even once you're inside, but I don't know more than that." She wished that she did, because it wasn't the only uncertainty.

"Well, we don't need to get it ourselves," Tifa said. "We just need to stop Sephiroth."

As if that were the easier thing to do. Maybe it could be. An uneasiness had begun to settle in her chest, but Aeris tried to hold it in her mind, the way things had begun in Gongaga. The confidence with which Tifa had taken her staff, the force of it striking Sephiroth's chest. Every small moment where they'd forced him back. He wasn't invincible.

The Planet's anxiety spiked, and Aeris's grip on the railing went white-knuckle.

"Aeris?" said Tifa, touching her arm.

"I think they're inside," she said. "They've opened the way."

"The Shinra?"

"I don't know... I can't tell from... The Planet's just frightened."

"We're on our way," said Tifa. "Does it know that? Can you tell it?"

Aeris closed her eyes and leaned into Tifa. She wanted to reassure the Planet, this one person, small in the scheme of things, but so determined to make the world right that she thought nothing of the power of that sentiment. Aeris wanted to soak it in, to let it reassure her, too.

"I'm sure it knows," she murmured. "It keeps a close eye on us."

"Nanaki?" said Tifa. "Can you ask her if this boat can go any faster?"

Tifa held her the rest of the way, and though Aeris could feel a tension in her arms, she felt the strength in them, too.

Bugah's friend brought them as near to the shore as she could, and they splashed the rest of the way through shallow waters. Ignoring the discomfort of soaked clothing, Aeris pressed on towards the forest ahead.

"This way," she said. "I know exactly where to go."

It was a strange feeling, to be so certain of a place she'd never been. The trees were unfamiliar, but she knew the best path between their trunks, where undergrowth wouldn't slow their progress. She knew the Planet must be guiding her, but she couldn't have explained how. No images came to her mind, and no voices called to her. She simply knew.

They walked for hours, scarcely resting, before at last they broke through the trees, and the Temple was upon them, a tiered pyramid waiting across a rope bridge. In appearance, it was not so grand; the stone wall marking its border crumbled, and the ancient trees surrounding it grew taller than its peak, the better to hide it.

But it had a presence like a living thing, almost overwhelming. She knew the Black Materia lay within, a powerful magic, but the Temple itself was like a conduit, connecting her to... something. The voices she heard here weren't those of the Planet or any soul in the Lifestream. Something else whispered to her from within, but like the Planet, it knew no words to communicate. Worry and relief all jumbled together.

"Aeris!"

Aeris realized that Tifa had caught her arm to keep her upright, as though she'd stumbled over something.

"You okay?" asked Zack, only a pace behind.

"I'm okay," she said, lifting her eyes to the Temple. "I think... the guardians are trying to talk to me."

"Sephiroth mentioned them," Tifa recalled. "Will they... know we're on the Planet's side?"

Aeris looked at her for a moment without comprehension. Then she realized the sort of guardians Tifa must have imagined, and she shook her head. "They're not here to fight anyone," she said. "They're the Temple's caretakers... Cetra who never returned to the Planet."

"How is that possible?" asked Nanaki.

"It takes... an incredible willpower. It's amazing they have any sense of self, after such a long time. I'm not sure if they'll be able to help us."

"Guys..." Cloud spoke up. "Look."

Aeris followed his gaze to a black-cloaked figure stumbling its way up the first few steps of the Temple. Another crouched already in the shadow of its entrance.

"I thought Bugenhagen said they were on their way to Cosmo Canyon?" said Yuffie.

Jessie shook her head. "Not all of the clones were in Nibelheim. These must be... some of the others."

"It's still not all of them, is it?" said Tifa.

"No. There's still four unaccounted for..."

"...which means they could be inside," Aeris finished.

"Does that mean Sephiroth's here, too?" Yuffie asked.

"Pretty sure that's a yes," said Barret. He had approached the bridge, and stood looking down into the pit below. Aeris stepped forward to look, too, and through the mists, she could just make out the bodies of several Shinra soldiers.

"We should get moving," Tifa said grimly.

Zack had already started across the bridge, and they followed him. The nearer of the two clones had collapsed only partway up the steps, and he stooped to peer into their cowl. "Hello? Anybody home?"

The clone answered only in an unintelligible mumble.

Zack looked to Tifa. "What're we gonna do about these guys?"

"What about 'em?" Barret wondered.

Vincent spoke up quietly. "If they can function as extensions of Sephiroth's will, then it may not be wise to leave them unattended."

The others exchanged glances, doing the mental math. It hadn't served them well to split up before, but Vincent had a point. Cloud opened his mouth as if to say something, but he glanced at Zack and closed it again.

"I can stay and keep an eye on them," Jessie volunteered.

"Me, too," Yuffie said quickly. "I'll stay. I mean, one person on their own is a bad idea, right?"

Despite her eagerness yesterday, maybe it scared her, the thought of meeting Sephiroth inside the Temple, but no one said as much aloud. Why shouldn't it scare her?

"Right," said Tifa. "You two watch each other's backs, and keep an eye on things out here."

Jessie nodded. "Well try to contact you if anything comes up."

Tifa looked to Aeris, and they climbed the rest of the steps together up to the entrance, the others falling in behind them. The torchlit room beyond was small, with no other doors immediately visible, but Aeris didn't really take it in, as slumped on the floor before a stone altar sat--

"Tseng!" she exclaimed.

Beside her, Tifa started to raise her fists, only to drop them again. He was clearly wounded, his arm across his chest unable to hide the blood darkening his suit from a deep gash. He managed to look up at them, and his face was so pale.

"You were right... Aeris," he said. "Sephiroth... isn't after the Promised Land..."

"I told you," she said, swallowing hard. "I told you not to come here."

"Shit," said Zack, coming in behind them. "You look... rough."

"Zack...?" said Tseng in baffled recognition.

"Yeah, uh. Is anyone coming for you?"

Tseng shook his head slowly. "Phone broke," he said, nodding vaguely down to where he must have kept it inside his suit jacket.

Aeris took an uncertain step forward.

"Aeris?" said Tifa.

"I don't want to just leave him," she said. "He'll die."

"Not sure if that's our problem," said Barret.

Aeris bit her lip. She didn't know how to explain it. Tseng was their enemy, and he wasn't a good person. Many of the things he did for Shinra, she expected he did without remorse. But for whatever reason, she knew it hadn't been the same when it came to her. When Shinra had tasked him with finding her, he'd found her, but for years he'd done nothing more than ask her to join them. He'd allowed her the time to grow up, to have as peaceful a childhood as anyone could in a place like the Midgar slums.

She knelt down in front of him, and used her magic to heal the wound at least partway, slowing the bleeding. "Couldn't we call someone in to get him?" she asked, looking hopefully to Tifa.

"And bring more Shinra here?" Tifa said skeptically.

"I'll just get... Elena," said Tseng. "No one else."

Tifa frowned down at him, but at last she nodded slightly. "We can call it even," she decided, "for when Reno helped us out."

With a grimace, Barret tossed his phone to Aeris. She put the number in as Tseng dictated it to her, and then she handed the phone over to him. Elena answered, and true to his word, Tseng stressed that she come alone. He handed the phone back to Aeris.

"Have you been inside?" Aeris asked him.

"Yes," he said. "Help me off this altar... It's the way in."

It was Zack who got an arm under him and helped him limp a few paces to lean instead against one of the pillars. As Tseng slumped back down, he reached into his pocket to pull out a blue-green orb, and held it out to Zack.

"It's the keystone," he said. "Place it on the altar... But you can't come out... the same way."

Zack took the keystone from him and looked to the others. "All right. Everybody ready?"

The seven of them crowded onto the platform before the altar, and Zack put the keystone in. It began to glow, and they found themselves sinking through the floor. Aeris's breath caught as everything went dark, but then a mist cleared from around them, and her view expanded...

A labyrinth stretched out before them, as far as the eye could see. A dizzying maze of pathways. Stairways to nowhere and doorways with no way she could see to reach them.

"The hell?" said Barret. "How's all of this inside one damn building? Didn't look this big from the outside."

"It must be part of the Temple's magic," Nanaki reasoned. He lifted his head, scenting the air. "It smells old here... but almost familiar, in a way."

"I don't suppose that helps us any with which way to go?" said Tifa.

"Well, Tseng figured it out," said Zack. "It can't be that hard."

"No way back," Vincent observed, glancing up and around them. "Just as he said."

"I guess the only way is forward," said Aeris. "Let's go."

Aeris hoped that whatever had guided her before would guide her now, but it was Vincent who seemed to have the best eye for which path to take. And it was Nanaki who alerted them to the fact that they weren't alone. Gods knew how they survived here, but there were monsters within the Temple. Huge fanged lizards who could paralyze with a look and poison-spewing insects and things with too many eyes that Aeris could barely describe.

The Planet's magic came to her aid even if its voice offered no guidance, and though she hated every delay that these monsters represented, at least one good thing came of them: Zack was able to prove his worth as an ally. Aeris had seen him fight once or twice before, fending off monsters in the slums, but those were creatures even she could handle, even back then.

Now his skill with a blade was obvious, and he helped them make quick work of the obstacles the Temple threw at them. Tifa even thanked him once when he intercepted a monster's attack before it could reach her, though he mostly stayed close to Cloud, who maintained he wasn't trustworthy enough to carry a weapon, and wasn't anywhere near Tifa's equal at hand-to-hand.

It was difficult to say how much progress they were making, until Nanaki spotted a strange figure ahead and bounded after it.

"Wait!" Aeris called after him. "It's a friend!"

The figure disappeared through a doorway, which led into a dead-end room, allowing them to catch up. Dressed in a shapeless robe and a broad hat, the figure's every feature was obscured, if it even had features at all.

"Is this... one of the guardians?" Tifa asked uncertainly.

"Yes," said Aeris, a little winded. Their rapid trek through the forest and their battles within the Temple were beginning to wear on her. "Don't be afraid," she said to the guardian. "These are my friends."

Some sounds escaped the guardian, an approximation of speech that didn't come close to forming words.

"That's all right. I know you probably don't remember how to speak. Have you seen Sephiroth inside the Temple? Is it much farther?"

Instead of trying to speak, this time, sensations came to her. It didn't know Sephiroth, but something had come here that it feared, something with many faces. Ahead of them, but still moving.

"You understand this guy, Aeris?" Barret asked.

"I think so. I think Sephiroth is here, but he's still headed deeper into the Temple. He hasn't reached the Black Materia."

"I don't think he's far," said Cloud, and Zack glanced at him, brow furrowed.

"Good," said Tifa after a beat. "Then let's catch up to him."

Aeris nodded, but she spared a moment to turn back to the guardian. "Thank you," she said. "You sacrificed so much for this place... I hope you can be with the Planet again soon."

They left it behind and pressed on through the labyrinth, but it wasn't so much farther before they passed through a nondescript doorway and into a vast chamber, with a single long pathway suspended above a chasm. It was too dark to see the bottom, if there was one, and the way ahead was dim, but Aeris could make out a dark figure there, with long silver hair.

"Sephiroth!" Tifa shouted. She ran forward, and the others hurried to keep pace with her.

Sephiroth turned as they approached, and they caught themselves out of reach of his sword.

"Hello, Zack," he said. "I see you've sided with them after all."

"What other side would I be on?"

"We did use to be friends."

Zack shook his head, drawing his sword. "You're no friend of mine. Not anymore."

Vincent stepped forward, his cape brushing Aeris's arm as he moved past her. "Sephiroth... Can we talk a moment?"

Tifa looked at him with a frown, her hands clenched into ready fists, but she said nothing to protest it.

Sephiroth tilted his head, looking genuinely perplexed by the question. "Talk?"

"Yes," said Vincent. "It has been a very long time since we last met."

"I don't know you," said Sephiroth, narrowing his eyes.

"You wouldn't remember. You were only a baby."

Sephiroth studied him carefully. "I see," he said. "You're the Turk. Hojo's little experiment."

"Yes, I knew Hojo," Vincent confirmed. "But I also knew your mother. Not Jenova, but the woman who gave birth to you."

"You mean Lucrecia?" Sephiroth asked, and Vincent blinked. "Did you think by now I wouldn't know? And by what metric would you call such a woman my mother? She wasn't present for a single moment of my life. She abandoned me to her colleagues."

Vincent shook his head. "You were stolen from her. She wanted to raise you, to give you a loving home."

Sephiroth shrugged, the scarce torchlight glinting off his sword with the motion. "I don't really care," he said. "All of that was a long time ago, and it isn't relevant to what I'm doing now."

"And what are you doing now?" Vincent pressed. "Why work to destroy the Planet?"

"Destroy the Planet? No, that's what the humans are doing. My aim is to help it reach a higher plane of existence."

"What are you talking about?" Aeris demanded. Did he think she wouldn't know the Temple's purpose? He was the one who had come to her for information. "You're trying to summon Meteor!"

"Yes," Sephiroth answered calmly. "And do you know what will happen, when Meteor strikes this Planet?" He lifted his sword and stabbed it into the stone floor beneath his feet, and the sound echoed off distant, unseen walls. "The Planet will be forced to gather its energy at the site of that wound, in an effort to heal it. And my mother and I--my true mother--will harness that energy. We will join with it, with the very core of the Planet, and be reborn together as something new."

"What the fuck?" said Barret, and Aeris stared at Sephiroth.

"Join with the Planet?" she repeated. "After everything Jenova has done to it? Jenova was the one who first wounded it-- the one who massacred my ancestors-- And now you're talking about... erasing what the Planet is now, changing it into something else? How dare you."

Sephiroth's eyebrows rose. "And, why do you suppose the Planet ought to go on existing as it does now, as weak as it is now? Mother and I will transform it into something invincible, a god."

Aeris shook her head emphatically. "It doesn't want that. It's terrified!"

"Well... Sometimes we are frightened of the things that are best for us."

"Why do you get to decide what's best for anyone?" Tifa demanded.

"My knowledge and power are superior to that of any being on this Planet. Why not?"

"You're not superior..." Tifa said, shaking her head slowly. "You're nothing more than a common murderer. I don't need to hear anything more."

Zack caught her eye, hefting his sword. "Let's finish this."

"Tifa--" Vincent began.

"There's no reasoning with him, Vincent. I'm sorry."

"But he's been talking to us...!"

"He's stalling," Cloud said suddenly.

"What?" said Tifa, looking to him in alarm, and Zack picked that moment to charge forward, raising his sword.

"Zack!" Cloud shouted.

Sephiroth's image vanished, replaced by a black-hooded figure. Zack's sword halted just short of cutting them down, but the clone collapsed to the floor anyway.

A loud ringing startled everyone, and Barret pulled his phone from his pocket. "...Jess?"

Aeris could just make out her voice on the other end. "You guys... I'm not sure what's going on, but the clones out here just backed off from the Temple in a hurry. Are you okay in there?"

"We're okay for now, but..."

A tremor ran through the Temple, and a wave of anxiety flooded over her. Aeris wasn't sure if it was her own, or that of the guardians within. Movement at the far end of the pathway caught her eye: another guardian.

"Gonna have to get back to you, Jess," said Barret. "You keep your distance, awright?"

"This way," Aeris said, motioning to the others. Zack hesitated, then bent to haul the fallen clone up over his shoulder, and they all hurried to reach the guardian.

"You know what's happening," Aeris said to it, "don't you?"

It managed a nod, and then she felt concepts, images pushing at her. All out of order at first, until the guardian remembered how to slow down, and repeated what it was trying to communicate. Her heart sank as she began to grasp it.

"Are we too late?" asked Nanaki.

"Cloud's right," Aeris said. "Sephiroth was just buying time. There's someone deeper in the Temple..."

"So let's find them," said Tifa.

The Temple shuddered again, and Aeris shook her head. "We have to get out of here. But there might still be a chance to get the Black Materia."

"What do you mean?" Tifa asked, but she kept up as Aeris continued down the path.

"The Temple is the Black Materia," Aeris explained. "When you reach the center, you have to solve a puzzle, and then another, and so on... and each one shrinks the Temple, until it's small enough to fit in the palm of your hand."

"So then..." Barret began, glancing upwards as they entered a tunnel out of the huge chamber.

"Anyone inside when that happens... will be crushed by the Temple," Aeris confirmed.

"Couldn't we still stop him?" Tifa asked.

A more powerful tremor shook the Temple, forcing them to stop a moment in the corridor. Stone rumbled and cracked around them, knotting itself some inches closer together, and ahead came the sound of something huge crashing and echoing in the room beyond. Aeris hurried forward only to stumble to a halt at the edge of a pit.

This chamber was circular, with a series of numbered doorways evenly spaced around it, but no path to any of them. In the center of the room were the remains of a pillar, and Aeris made out one long stone spear wedged partway down between the pillar and the wall.

"No good," said Aeris. "There's no way across."

"What about the exit?" said Zack. "Do we turn back?"

She shook her head. "That's through here, too, at the twelve. There's... supposed to be a path. Like a clock face."

"That's not so far," Tifa reasoned, glancing up and around. The path didn't jut out at all over the chasm, making it impossible to see, but they must have stood beneath the number ten doorway. "We could probably climb to it."

Barret shook his head, and even as he spoke, one of the torches lighting the room broke from the wall and fell into the darkness below. "Risky with all these quakes. Already lost a part o' this room."

"I can make the jump," said Nanaki.

"You're sure?" Tifa asked him.

He nodded. "Do any of you have any rope? We can make our own path."

Tifa pulled some from her gear, and they backed up to give Nanaki space as he took one end in his mouth and leapt across the pit and into the number twelve doorway. With nothing for him to secure the rope to, he braced his front paws against the archway. Holding the other end, Tifa and Barret looked to Aeris.

"I... I guess I am the lightest, aren't I?" she said.

It wasn't so far, she repeated to herself, and she knew that, if Nanaki were to lose his grip, Tifa and Barret would still have her, as long as she held tight. She slung her staff across her back to free up her hands and started across. She made it to Nanaki just as another tremor shook the Temple, and the rope slackened just a bit as the walls pulled closer.

"Wait a bit and we could all jump it," Zack remarked wryly, but no one wanted to wait.

Aeris added her meagre strength to Nanaki's, and Cloud came across next. It was easier after that; as skinny as he was, Cloud was deceptively strong. Vincent followed, and then Zack, still carrying the unconscious clone.

Tifa was about to start across when the Temple quaked again. Stones shook loose from the walls of the chamber and tumbled into the depths, and Barret, Zack, and Vincent all hunched under the lowering ceilings. As the tremors subsided, Aeris could hear a buzzing sound from below.

"What is that?" asked Cloud, but they didn't have to wait for an answer.

A pair of winged creatures flew up from the pit--dragon-like, but with insectoid wings and forelegs. They made for one of the archways, but they were too large now to fit through.

"Shit," said Zack. He laid the clone carefully on the floor and called across to Tifa and Barret. "You two just take the rope and jump! We'll pull you up."

Tifa looked like she was about to argue, but instead she nodded. The dragons had turned away from the archway and spotted them.

"Aeris, you think you can hold 'em off a second?" Zack asked her.

"Right," she said, and as the dragons dove for Tifa and Barret, she called up a wind spell to blast them back. In the shrinking chamber, it sent them crashing into the far wall, and they fell a ways before their wings could catch them.

Meanwhile the others had backed away from the ledge and braced themselves. "Now!" Zack shouted, and Tifa and Barret leapt across the pit. They almost made it--

But not quite. Aeris flinched as she heard them crash into the wall just below her, and the others all stumbled forward as the rope went taut over the edge. Heart in her throat, Aeris risked a glance down, but they had both held on, and Tifa had already started climbing.

The buzzing grew loud again as the dragons recovered, and Aeris readied another spell, but one of the dragons struck first, a hail of sharp icicles raining down on her. Her foot slipped on the crumbling ledge, and she fell back beneath the shelter of the archway. From below, she heard a burst of gunfire, and Barret drove the dragon back again.

Tifa's hand appeared over the ledge, and Aeris brightened, but then she saw the second dragon lunging towards her. She couldn't scramble clear in time, but someone yanked her backwards by the staff on her back, and Aeris turned to see Cloud. He'd abandoned his place on the rope as Tifa climbed up, and he helped Aeris to her feet. She smiled a silent thanks, and he nodded.

Aeris got off one more spell to hold the dragons at bay, and they pulled Barret up over the edge. Zack lifted the clone back over his shoulder, and together all of them ran down the corridor as the Temple shook, and the crumbling stonework rained down on them.

Ahead was the door out. Once large and ornate, it had cracked and warped in its frame, and Tifa kicked it open. As they tumbled through, Barret's shoulders scraped the frame, and only Nanaki didn't have to duck his head.

Outside, the narrow staircase led now to a short drop into a huge pit that had held the foundations of the much larger Temple. They jumped down and got some distance from it before turning. This time, the quaking did not abate. The building collapsed in on itself, and a bright flash of light temporarily blinded them.

"Oh, thank the gods," Aeris heard Jessie exclaim from above as her vision cleared. Looking up, Aeris spotted her and Yuffie standing at the gate in the wall that now circled an empty pit.

No, not empty. At its very center rested a smooth, black orb.

Tifa started towards it, but Yuffie called down, "Look out!"

Sephiroth dropped down from above, alighting in the center of the pit.

"Sephiroth, stop!" shouted Vincent.

Smiling, Sephiroth knelt, and took the Black Materia in his gloved hand.

Zack had set the clone down, and now he raised his sword, but his first step forward faltered, and he fell to one knee, clutching at his head.

"Zack!" Cloud cried, and he moved with ease as he went to Zack's side, showing no signs of Sephiroth's control.

Sephiroth straightened. "Pity you all made it out," he remarked.

"You won't," said Tifa, raising her fists.

Zack had managed to pass his sword to Cloud, who now launched himself forward. Sephiroth parried his attack with ease, but Tifa rushed in just behind and delivered a sharp kick to Sephiroth's other hand, knocking the Black Materia from his grasp.

Vincent darted for it, but the blast of a fire spell sent him flying. Nanaki started after him, but Vincent's body shook beneath his cape, and Nanaki faltered.

Hurriedly, Aeris concentrated on casting a barrier around her friends, but Sephiroth looked directly at her, and before she could bring the spell together, flames exploded around her.

"Aeris!" several voices cried out. She hit the ground, and scarcely registered anything else until she felt healing magic wash over her.

Nanaki was at her side, nosing into her in concern. She pushed herself up. Her clothes were singed, and patches of skin still reddened and stinging, but she could manage. "I'm okay," she told him.

She looked up, and her breath stuck in her throat as she saw Sephiroth's sword flashing towards Tifa--but she dove out of the way, and this time Cloud moved in to try to counter it, but another flash of Sephiroth's blade sent him staggering backwards.

Sephiroth strode towards the Black Materia.

A bolt spell crashed down on him from above, slowing him a step, and there was a burst of gunfire, but Barret had been running low on ammunition in the Temple, and the gatling gun sputtered to a halt.

Sephiroth's hand closed again around the Black Materia. He stood, and his feet lifted from the ground.

Aeris summoned her strength for a bolt spell of her own, trying to strike him back down to the earth, and Nanaki leapt forward, clamping his teeth around Sephiroth's ankle as the spell dissipated. Tifa tried to run in, but she couldn't get past the sword. Sephiroth kicked Nanaki off and rose into the air.

In moments, he was gone.

"Jenova," Nanaki said, spitting ichor from his fangs. "It was Jenova this time."

Aeris pushed herself to her feet. Never having transformed, Vincent sat where he'd landed, making no effort to rise to his feet, and she hurried to check on him. The cape seemed to have offered him some protection from the fire, but burns stood out on his exposed arm. Vincent didn't look at her as she healed them; his eyes were trained on where Sephiroth had disappeared.

"Are you okay?" she asked him gently.

"No one told me," Vincent murmured. "He looks... like his mother."

Aeris didn't know what to say to that. She reached for his arm. "Come on," she said, and they helped each other up.

Zack was back on his feet, checking in with Cloud. Above, Jessie and Yuffie were lowering a rope down from the gate. Tifa and the other decent climbers went first, and helped pull the rest of them up after.

They rested a few moments, by the edge of the pit. No one knew quite what to say.

"Sorry," Zack said at last. "Looks like you were right about me."

"Don't say that," Aeris said, and Tifa nodded her agreement.

"You were a lot of help inside the Temple," she said.

"We lost the Black Materia," Yuffie said, "but we've still got--"

"Right," Aeris interrupted quickly, glancing at Zack and Cloud. If Sephiroth didn't know about the White Materia, they didn't need to tell him. "It's not over," she went on. "Sephiroth... won't be able to use it right away either. Even as powerful as he is, his strength alone won't do it."

"How would he gain such power?" asked Nanaki.

Aeris shook her head slowly. "He talked about using energy the Planet had gathered to heal a wound... It would do that if Meteor came, but I think it's already doing it, on a smaller scale. The wound that Jenova made when it came to this Planet: the Northern Crater."

"Then either way, we go north," Tifa said decisively.

They stood to go, but Tifa paused in the gateway, and Aeris realized why. Across the rope bridge, the other two clones shuffled near the treeline, and Elena knelt beside the wounded Tseng.

"I don't think she's going to make trouble," Aeris said softly. Just as Tseng had asked, she'd come alone.

Tifa nodded, and they made their way across. Elena watched them warily, but Tseng had since lost consciousness.

"What the hell happened in there?" Elena demanded. "Where's the Temple?"

"Gone," Aeris answered her simply. "...how's Tseng?"

"Alive," Elena said guardedly. Her gaze swept over all of them. "So, are we doing this again?"

Tifa shook her head. "We're not looking for prisoners; you do what you want."

Aeris looked past them into the trees, and couldn't stop a sigh from escaping her. "It's a long trek back," she murmured.

"I can take you," Elena said suddenly. "If you tell me what happened to the Temple, I can take you back to the mainland."

"In what?" Barret asked, glancing around.

"You think I walked here?" Elena said indignantly. "There's a clearing a little ways off. Big enough for a helicopter."

Tifa glanced skyward, and Aeris realized she was noting the time of day. With how long they'd spent inside the Temple, it was growing late enough that Bugah's friend might refuse to come, leaving them stuck again until morning.

"Hard to see what Shinra could get up to from knowing what happened," Jessie reasoned cautiously. "Not the kind of destruction they're interested in."

"I think it's something they'd even wanna stop," Zack put in. "For self-preservation if nothing else."

Elena looked between them, brow furrowed, but she waited on Tifa's answer.

"All right," Tifa decided. "We'll tell you once you get us to the mainland."

"But--"

"I don't want you taking us to some Shinra encampment," Tifa interrupted. "You don't get your answers until we're safe. But we held up our end of the bargain last time, didn't we?"

Elena nodded slowly and got to her feet to offer her hand. They shook on it, and everyone got moving. Barret hefted Tseng up into his arms, and Cloud and Jessie managed to wrangle the other two clones into shuffling along with them.

Aeris looked skyward again before they passed under the forest canopy, feeling a different pull. The Planet, in its fear, urging her north.

Soon, she told it, one small person reassuring a planet. We'll be on our way soon.

Chapter Text

Elena landed the helicopter about a mile north of the fishing village, and they explained to her how the Temple had been transformed into the Black Materia--how Sephiroth had taken it and planned to use it.

"Are you really telling me the world's doomed?" Elena asked, meeting Tifa's gaze with a grim disbelief.

Tifa shook her head. "Not yet. We're going after him, to stop him before he can use it. If Shinra's smart, you'll stay out of our way."

"You know where he's headed?"

"We have an idea."

"Then you should tell me! You think Shinra wants the world to end? We have a lot more resources than your little rag-tag band, you should let us handle Sephiroth."

"Shinra created Sephiroth," Jessie pointed out skeptically. "And I think our rag-tag band is doing pretty well compared to Shinra."

Elena glanced at the unconscious Tseng, and then she stuck her chin out. "It would never have happened this way if Aeris had just cooperated with us."

Tifa looked to Aeris, who had scarcely said a word since they'd left the Temple. "Yeah, well... That was never going to happen. Thanks for the ride, but this is where we part ways."

"Fine," Elena said grudgingly. She'd never once thanked them for helping Tseng or for the information, but Tifa didn't need gratitude from Shinra. As they got moving, she heard the helicopter blades whirring into motion again, and when she glanced back, she saw it disappearing to the north.

Except for the occasional mumbling of the clones, no one talked on the way back to the fishing village. Tifa had told herself that their earlier silence was because of Elena, because no one wanted to say anything in the presence of an enemy. But now, she knew that one thing weighed too heavily on her mind to leave space for anything else. She didn't want to say it aloud, and only now did she allow herself to think it.

Were they not strong enough?

They hadn't been able to stop Sephiroth from getting the Black Materia. How were they going to defeat him?

She looked at all of her friends, walking ahead of her as she brought up the rear. How many of them wondered the same thing? Thinking back over that brief fight at the Temple, trying to figure out what they'd done wrong, how their smallest misstep had contributed to their failure...

No, she couldn't think like that. They'd held their own, hadn't they? They hadn't lost; Sephiroth had run away. He had been hoping they would be crushed inside the Temple; now that he had no more use for Aeris, they were a threat that he wanted gone. If they could just meet him, head-on, in a real fight... Surely they could win, couldn't they?

If she couldn't believe that, then everything fell to Aeris, and Tifa couldn't do that to her.

On reaching the village, they tracked down Bugah's friend, who was understandably surprised to see them, but they explained about their other ride. They had checked in with Bugenhagen, and instead asked her if she'd do them a different favor: looking after their three sick friends until someone from Cosmo Canyon could come to get them. It might be best if they were locked up, Tifa advised; she didn't know if they were dangerous, but they kept trying to go north, after Sephiroth.

Tifa wanted to press on, too, sure that Sephiroth was wasting no time with rest, but she looked at her team... Jessie and Yuffie were all right, but the fatigue was clear in everyone who had gone into that Temple, even through Vincent's stoicism and Zack's SOLDIER training. Aeris especially looked exhausted, though Tifa couldn't say whether it was more from the magic she'd expended, or the gravity of their situation.

"We've still got some daylight," said Zack, noticing her look. "Bet we could cover a little more distance today."

"I could probably drive for a while," Jessie offered. "There's not exactly gonna be a lot of traffic around here, so it'll be good for practice."

"All right," Tifa decided. "We'll press on for a few more hours and then we'll all get some rest."

Zack insisted he was in better shape than Vincent, which may have been true after the blast Vincent had taken, but she thought Zack was trying to make up for his earlier helplessness. Still, it didn't hurt anything to let him, and he knew the area. Vincent rode instead with Jessie to give her some pointers.

Tifa settled into the back of the military truck beside Aeris, studying her face. How heavy did the task of summoning Holy weigh on her now? Tifa put her arm around her, pulling her close.

"You think we can call Wedge?" Aeris spoke up at last. "I know it's getting late for them, but... Mom must be worried. I'd like to let her know we're all right."

Barret nodded. "Sure. We can do that."

Marlene had already gone to bed, and in their brief conversation with Wedge and Elmyra, for once they were open about their situation. It was obvious Wedge wanted to do something more to help, and though Tifa couldn't think of anything, she promised they'd keep him posted.

They made camp about an hour after sundown, and most everyone turned in early, or tried to. Aeris seemed reluctant to sleep, her eyes on the horizon. Tifa made their bedrolls side-by-side, the way Aeris had done outside of Nibelheim, and she coaxed Aeris into lying down with her.

"Sorry," Aeris murmured. "I just... feel like I need to keep moving."

"I get it," said Tifa. "But we're on our way, aren't we?"

"I know. That pull is just so strong right now..."

"Like when you led us to the Temple?"

"Stronger," said Aeris, and the answer worried her.

"You can't keep going without rest," said Tifa.

"I know that, too." Aeris shifted closer, tucking her head beneath Tifa's chin. "Hold me tight, would you? I feel I could get lost in it, if you don't."

So Tifa held her tight, and lay awake a while longer, staring up at the stars. She wished the Planet could hear her, so she could ask it not to rely so heavily on the last Cetra. Aeris said it watched them, but did it understand how hard they were all fighting for it, not just Aeris?

It was a relief when she woke in the morning to find Aeris still with her, not vanished in the night, called by the Planet. Barret snored nearby, and Tifa could pick out the softer breathing of several of the others.

Aeris was already already awake, though, and sat up when Tifa found her gaze. Tifa rose with her. It was a grey morning; a fog sat on the water, obscuring any view out to sea.

Jessie was up, too, and apparently sorting through every last thing that she owned.

"What are you looking for?" Tifa wondered.

"I was hoping I still had the ticket from that tour bus," Jessie answered without looking up. "It might have the number on it."

"You want to call the tour company?"

"Yeah. They oughtta know the boat schedules out of Costa del Sol. I figured you and Aeris might feel better if you knew exactly when we could head north. And... it'd let us know how much time we have," she added, glancing at Barret.

The prison, Tifa recalled.

"You're right," she said. "I'll help you look."

Aeris joined in, and eventually they located the ticket caught inside the helmet of Jessie's pilfered Shinra uniform. Jessie stepped away from camp to make the call; more of the others were awake now, but Zack and Cloud slumbered on, and there was no reason to wake them yet.

Tifa got breakfast ready, finding some comfort in going through the motions of routine. Aeris stayed close, as though she didn't quite trust herself.

After Jessie had checked back in and everyone had eaten, Tifa sat them all down. "You all know we're headed north. But, the next ship out of Costa del Sol doesn't leave until three days from now. Since we have the time, we're making a slight detour to Corel Prison."

"What?" said Yuffie. "A prison?"

"We doing some kinda prison break?" Zack wondered.

Tifa glanced at Barret, who explained, "There's a friend o' mine from a while back, Dyne, who's in there. Dunno that he'll be too keen to have anythin' to do with us... but I owe it to 'im to check up on 'im."

"So that's what you guys were talking about," said Yuffie.

"I assume we hope to make an ally of him," said Nanaki, "but what exactly is he in prison for?"

"Murderin' Shinra soldiers," Barret answered. "It's a shorter rap sheet than some of us've got. We just ain't been caught for long."

Vincent spoke up, unexpectedly. "Do you need me for this?" he asked.

"I... guess not," Tifa said. "Did you want to sit this one out?"

He was quiet for a moment, considering something. Then he said, "Do you know the crater lake, southeast of Nibelheim?"

"I know of it."

"Lucrecia and I used to go there sometimes. If she has no grave, then... I would like to pay my respects there."

Looking for closure, Tifa guessed. They weren't far from one of the rivers fed by that lake, and she estimated the distance in her mind. "And you'll rendezvous with us back in Costa del Sol?" she asked.

"Yes. I believe we have the time."

Tifa nodded. "I think so. But I don't want you going on your own."

"I could accompany you," Nanaki offered, "if that's all right. I can't imagine I will be of any help infiltrating a prison."

Jessie glanced between Vincent and Barret, looking torn. Tifa could see her doing the math, trying to determine where she was most needed. "I can go, too," she decided at last. "If... that's all right with you, Barret. I figure..."

"It's all right, Jess," he interrupted. "Tifa'll have my back."

Jessie nodded. "Well... at least I can give you this," she said, passing him her rifle; he was still out of ammo for his gun arm. "In case you run into any trouble finding him. But I hope it goes well. I'd like to meet an old friend of yours."

Barret took the rifle, not looking at all hopeful. "We'll see," he said.

As they prepared to leave, loading up their gear, Jessie pulled Tifa aside. "Do you think it's really okay?" she wondered. "I mean, I do feel Vincent should have someone with him who knows him a bit better, but... I wasn't there for you all at the Temple. I wish I'd been more help back there."

Tifa shook her head. "We all did what we could," she said. "And it helped, knowing that if we didn't make it out, there'd still be someone out there."

Jessie's brow furrowed, and she looked uneasy at the thought. "You really think I could've gone on, without you all?"

Maybe Tifa shouldn't have said it. She thought of Sector 7, of having to go on, without Biggs. But she couldn't take it back now. "I know you would've thought of something," she said. "You and Yuffie are pretty resourceful."

"Well... I'm glad we didn't have to. I like the original plan: we go north, Aeris summons Holy, and then, even if Sephiroth does summon Meteor, the Planet will be safe."

"...yeah," Tifa said. They both knew it wasn't going to be that simple, but Tifa liked the way she put it, like there was no chance of failure.

Jessie managed a smile and put a hand on her arm. "We'll see you in Costa del Sol in a day or two," she said. "You'll probably get there before us, but maybe you and Aeris can find time for another one of your 'swimming lessons.'"

"What're you saying it like that for?" Tifa asked, but Jessie just laughed.

It was good to hear a little laughter.

They parted ways just after the river crossing, Vincent taking the old truck westward, while the rest of them continued north. They reached the edge of the desert in under an hour, and not long after that, Zack brought the truck to a stop.

"Uhh, think I might need some direction," he called back through the window. "It didn't used to be this bad here."

They climbed out of the truck to have a look, and Tifa could feel the heat radiating from the engine as they passed it. The road had vanished a while back, and ahead, the dry earth had split, forming a long fissure that stretched in either direction.

"Heard that it was nothin' but this desert guardin' the prison," Barret remarked. "Guess we're startin' to see why."

"Oh, come on," said Yuffie, "this is nothing. We could jump across, easy."

"The truck couldn't," said Zack.

"We don't want to cross the whole thing on foot," said Tifa. "We're not prepared for that." She looked to Barret with a frown, but before either one of them could say anything, Zack spoke up again.

"You know if there's still wild chocobos around here?"

Barret scratched his head. "Might be. You think they could handle the desert?"

"Yeah," said Zack, and he grinned. "And it just so happens we've got ourselves an expert chocobo-wrangler."

Tifa regarded him quizzically until she realized that it was Cloud he was grinning at.

"...you're kidding," said Cloud.

"Come on, I've seen you with them. They totally just accept you as one of their own."

Tifa found herself biting back a laugh, and she saw Aeris smile.

"Well, uh," said Tifa, "we can all give it a try, I guess." But Zack definitely had a point about that hair.

Zack turned the truck east, and they drove around for a while until Yuffie spotted a flock of chocobos in the distance, and they all got out to approach on foot.

Tifa had never caught a wild chocobo before, and it had been a while since she'd handled one at all. You saw them sometimes in Midgar, but they weren't common. Luckily, Cloud did have a knack for approaching them without causing alarm, while Yuffie was pretty good at sneaking up on them, and in the end, they managed to get their hands on three birds before the rest of the flock bolted.

"Can we really ride these things?" Barret wondered as Cloud and Aeris did their best to soothe the flighty animals.

"Sure," said Yuffie, who stood knotting rope into makeshift bridles. "Most of 'em are pretty chill with it once they figure out you're not gonna eat 'em."

"You've ridden wild ones before?" Tifa asked her.

"Yeah. Beats driving by a long shot."

"Somebody oughtta stay with the truck though," said Barret.

"Zack, you mind?" Tifa asked him.

Zack scratched his head. "You sure? I mean, maybe the desert's the only security, but these're still criminals you're dealing with."

"We're criminals," Tifa pointed out. "Actually, you're the one who used to be law enforcement."

"But... I've gone rogue now!" Zack protested. "Doesn't that count for something?"

"Sure. But... this whole thing is kind of personal anyway," she said, glancing at Barret.

"All right, I get it. I'll keep an eye on the truck."

"...I'm staying too," said Aeris. Her back was to them as she stroked one of the chocobos.

"Aeris?" said Tifa.

"I'm... still having a hard time focusing," Aeris admitted. "I don't want to be a liability in there."

Tifa stepped up beside her, trying to get a look at her face. "You sure you'll be okay, staying put?"

Aeris offered her a smile, tired but genuine. "Don't worry, I won't run off. Besides, Zack will be with me."

Tifa nodded, and touched her hand briefly. "We'll make this as quick as we can." She turned to Zack. "I'm trusting you to look after her."

"Yes, ma'am," said Zack, saluting her. "You can count on me."

She pulled out the phone she'd taken off Jessie and handed it to him. "In case we need to coordinate anything. Barret's number is in there."

"Along with half of Shinra," Zack observed, raising his eyebrows.

"Don't prank call anyone," said Cloud.

"Wouldn't dream of it," said Zack, unconvincingly.

They changed into whatever they had that would best protect them from the sun, borrowing from each other, even pulling the cowls from the Shinra uniforms to shield their faces from the dust. No one anticipated a pleasant journey.

The chocobos weren't keen on obeying anyone at first, but Yuffie managed to bribe them with bits of apple in lieu of greens. Once they'd been coaxed into accepting riders, Tifa and the others took all the water they could and headed for the desert.

As it turned out, Barret had never ridden a chocobo before; though he had some experience with them, the miners of Corel had mostly used them as beasts of burden. Yuffie, easily the lightest of them and the most experienced rider, graciously (for Yuffie) agreed to help him out. That left Tifa and Cloud with the other birds, and one of them, she supposed, might be riding back with Dyne.

The chocobos balked at entering the more difficult terrain, but Cloud persuaded his across the fissure, and the others followed, not wanting to be separated.

Tifa managed to maneuver her bird up alongside him, watching him. He carried himself a little differently since yesterday, head a little higher, shoulders looser. "You've been doing a lot better these past few days," she remarked at last.

"It's... good to have Zack back," he said. "And I know it's probably because of him that I was okay at the Temple, but even so..."

"What do you mean?" Tifa wondered. She'd assumed it was thanks to Zack's presence that he'd been able to fight it, but Cloud seemed to mean it differently.

"...Sephiroth went after him instead of me," he clarified. "He knows I'm no match for him anyway."

"You did wound him, Zack said."

Cloud shook his head. "If I stabbed him in the back, then it was mostly luck. Still... Maybe you're right. Maybe I can get lucky again." He glanced over at her and cautiously added, "We fought pretty well together... didn't we?"

Tifa met his gaze. "Yeah. Nibelheim's a mistake Sephiroth's going to come to regret."

As the chocobos grew more accustomed to their riders and to the terrain, they were able to pick up the pace. Tifa couldn't help but wonder, though, if they were getting anywhere. The sun had risen to its zenith, the mountains of Corel were still out of sight, and the earth stretched flat in every direction. The dust and the heat were suffocating, worse than the hottest summer day beneath the Midgar smog.

"Do we even know where we're going?" Yuffie asked finally, as they stopped again to water the chocobos.

"We're headed for that," said Barret, pointing to a glint in the distance that shimmered in and out of sight through the heat haze. It wasn't until they got moving again that Tifa began to make out the tiered structure of Gold Saucer.

"It's sitting on top of the prison?" she asked incredulously.

"Almost too obvious, ain't it?"

Tifa nodded. She didn't know what this prison population looked like, but knowing Shinra, she could imagine too many of them didn't belong there. They were just poor or unlucky, or both. Like Midgar, at extremes. The rich on vacation high above the people they'd trampled to get there.

Gold Saucer grew slowly closer, and when they finally came in sight of the so-called prison beneath, Tifa's heart sank at the realization of exactly what it was, and why Barret knew the way with such certainty. The desert had swallowed any smaller debris, but the burnt-out shells of some buildings remained, forming a scene closer to what Tifa had imagined Nibelheim would look like.

"Barret..."

He glanced at her. "I know."

They dismounted, and all eyes were on them as they entered the prison. Sweat made their clothes stick to their bodies, and grime to their skin, and no one here looked any better.

"Oh, man," said Yuffie. "This place looks rough."

"We've dealt with tougher," said Tifa. She shook some of the dust out of her hair as she swept her eyes over their audience, sizing them up. "You got an idea where we might find Dyne," she asked Barret, "or do we need to ask directions?"

"Couldn't hurt," said Barret. "His house... ain't here no more."

Tifa nodded, handed her chocobo off to Cloud, and approached one of the men. "We're looking for a man named Dyne," she said. "Any idea where we could find him?"

The man laughed. "You waltz in here with that name, and you don't got any idea who the boss is around here, do you?"

"Care to enlighten me?"

"Maybe. What're you offerin' in exchange, sweetheart?"

She'd been right; he was too distracted by the way her sweaty shirt clung to her chest to realize he was outmatched. He'd be easy to intimidate, and she wouldn't even have to feel bad about it.

"How 'bout I don't break your arm?" she offered, and he laughed again, but she cut it short by grabbing his arm and twisting it behind his back, forcing him onto his knees.

"Ow! What the fuck?"

"We're a little short on time," Tifa said, "so I'd appreciate you just telling me."

"The junkyard!" he said, gesturing sharply with his other arm. "Try the junkyard! Gods!"

Tifa let him go and turned to her friends. "All right then. Let's go."

They made their way through the town-turned-prison, the base of the Gold Saucer looming over them, and soon enough came across a place piled with old, rusted-out cars. Most of them were in terrible shape, frames bent and windows shattered, guts stripped for anything useful. One was more in tact, and looked as though someone may have been living in it, but it was empty now.

Ahead, the junkyard opened up, and Barret held out a hand to halt them. Tifa could just make out the silhouette of a man standing with his back to them.

"Is it him?" Tifa asked softly.

"Think so." Barret looked to Yuffie and Cloud. "You two stay here with the chocobos."

They didn't argue. Earlier in their friendship, Tifa thought Barret would have asked her to stay out of it, too, but now he met her gaze and nodded, and they approached the man together.

He was a big man, like Barret, though a little more slender and not quite as tall. He stood overlooking a deep crevasse, before which were planted two grave markers, and he didn't turn at the sound of their approach. In place of his left hand was the long barrel of a gun.

"Dyne..." said Barret.

"Now that's a voice I haven't heard in years..." said Dyne. "Was startin' to think I never would."

"I heard you might be alive, but I didn't know where to look for you."

Dyne turned, his face dark with a cold resentment. "Where to look for me?" he repeated. "I didn't go anywhere, Barret. I been here the whole time. You're the one went off to see the world, made himself some new friends." He nodded at Tifa.

"It ain't like that... We've been fightin' the Shinra, tryin' to make sure what happened to Corel doesn't happen to anybody else."

"An' hows' that been goin'?"

Barret hung his head.

"We were hoping maybe you could help," Tifa stepped in. "We heard about your arrest a few days ago. We came to get you out."

Dyne snorted. "Ain't interested in gettin' out. 'specially not to fight the damn Shinra with Barret, like it's gonna make up for him takin' their side instead o' mine way back when."

"I know I fucked up," said Barret. "Worst mistake I ever made, and I ain't askin' your forgiveness. I just couldn't live with that, too, knowin' you were here an' doin' nothin.'"

"Well, I don't want your help. You can turn around an' leave."

Barret shook his head slowly. "There's one more thing," he said. "I get it. I get wantin' to stay... I mighta done the same, if I hadn't found her. All I wanted was to be with Myrna. But then, I found Marlene... That little girl, s'obvious she wanted to live, an' this weren't no place for that. So I took her with me."

For a moment, the harshness of Dyne's expression eased. "Marlene... You sayin' she's alive?"

Barret looked up at him and nodded. "You wanna talk to 'er? She's stayin' with a friend, we could call 'em up. You could hear her voice."

"Does she even know who I am? Did you tell her?"

"Not yet... Didn't think she'd be old enough to understand. But she's real bright, Dyne. We could go an' see her together. We could tell her together."

Dyne half-turned, looking at the grave markers. One for his wife, and one for his daughter, only she wasn't dead. If he hadn't realized, had there even been anything left to bury? "You should've left her," he said.

"What?" said Barret. "Dyne, she woulda died."

"Yeah," said Dyne, and a cold feeling settled in Tifa's stomach. "An' then she'd be with her mom, instead o' livin' in this messed up world. The hell do you think you're doin,' Barret, raisin' my daughter in this world?"

Barret shook his head vehemently. "I know things're messed up, but I'm tryin' to make it better, for her. Don't you want that?"

"There ain't no place anymore for a light like hers. There's nothin' but death an' rot."

"That ain't true," Barret insisted. "Might be hard to see it sometimes, 'specially if you've spent the past four years in this place, but... Dyne, there's still plenty in this world worth savin.' Worth fightin' for."

"Not for me."

Barret was quiet for a moment. He glanced around. "Then... What're you still doin' here? What've you been holdin' onto all this time?"

Dyne shook his head slowly. "I couldn't leave... I couldn't leave this place."

"Dyne..." Barret took a step forward. "We gotta find a way to move forward."

"Stayin' with a friend, huh... Man like you's probably only got so many friends."

"...what're you gettin' at?"

Dyne looked back at him. "Marlene oughtta be with her mom."

Barret froze, and Tifa felt something seize in her chest. This was worse than anything they could have imagined.

"You're crazy!" she exclaimed against the horror of it, stepping forward to join Barret. "She's your daughter."

"Yeah. She's my daughter. Makes it my decision."

"No," said Barret. "Not for this."

"You gonna stand in the way then?" Dyne asked, and he raised his gun arm.

Barret shook his head sharply. "Dyne, we don't wanna fight you!"

"Thought I already established, I don't give a damn 'bout what you want."

"Barret, move!" Tifa grabbed him by the arm and pulled him with her, and they dove for cover behind one of the junked cars as Dyne opened fire.

Barret hunkered down, flinching with the sound of bullets striking the rusted metal at their backs. Blood ran down his arm, but Tifa thought it was only a graze. "Fuck," he whispered. "I didn't think it'd be like this..."

"No one could," Tifa said. The gunfire paused, and she risked a glance over the side of the car. Dyne wasn't following them, just reloading. She looked back at Barret. "I know he was your friend... but he's obviously not himself anymore. He wants to kill his own daughter."

Barret's hand went to the strap of the rifle slung over his shoulder, but he shook his head. "I can't... I know I gotta protect Marlene, but..."

Tifa swallowed. She'd promised to have his back, however this went down. "I'll do it," she said. "If you'll let me."

Barret met her gaze, but before he could say anything, Dyne shouted in alarm, and they both looked up over their cover.

An ice spell had encased Dyne's gun arm, preventing him from firing. He limped back a step, closer to the edge of the crevasse, and tried to smash the ice free.

Tifa looked back, and noticed Yuffie, crouching behind a junker on the other side of the path. She must have heard the gunfire and come to help. Catching Tifa's glance, Yuffie flashed her a thumbs up.

"Dyne!" Barret shouted, leaping over the junker. He grabbed Dyne's shirt and steadied him, pulling him back from the crevasse.

Dyne pushed him away. "Get the fuck off of me!"

Barret had left the rifle behind. He still wanted to believe there was another way out of this. Tifa looked at it, then grabbed it and ran after him. She hadn't known Dyne before, and she didn't know whether Barret saw evidence of the man he'd been, or if it was just wishful thinking. Dyne had gotten his arm free of the ice, and Tifa trained the rifle on him as she approached.

"Dyne, c'mon, man, you gotta come to your senses," Barret was saying.

"You want some kinda faerie tale, Barret, after what we went through."

Tifa's jaw set. A faerie tale? "You know, you're not the only one who lost everything," she said. "I thought you'd be like us... but you've got no idea how hard it's been, to get anything back."

"You can't get it back," Dyne said.

"You could've had your daughter," she said. "She's an amazing kid, but you just threw that chance away."

"Tifa..." said Barret, but she didn't look at him.

Dyne nodded to the rifle in her hands. "You really got the guts, to pull that trigger?"

Did she? He'd threatened her family, but he wasn't Shinra, and he wasn't Sephiroth. He was a man entirely at her mercy in this moment. Tifa hefted the rifle and swung it instead to strike his head with the butt, knocking him to the ground.

"I dunno what to do, Teef," said Barret, looking down at Dyne. "If he made it up to the Gold Saucer to kill those guys, means he could get outta this place, so we can't leave 'im. But we can't let 'im near Marlene."

"I know," said Tifa. So what did they do with him? Take him with them until they could find some other place to lock him up? Be constantly on their guard?

Yuffie walked up to join them. "What was that about? I thought this guy was supposed to be on our side."

"...he's lost his way," said Barret.

Tifa knelt down beside Dyne and ran her fingers over his gun arm, searching for the catch to disconnect it from its port. Dyne's eyes snapped open and his arm slammed into her, knocking her onto her back. He raised it to fire, Barret grabbed Yuffie and twisted to shield her with his body, and Tifa kicked at Dyne, throwing off his aim just enough that his first shot missed. He shifted himself out of her reach, and she scrabbled for the rifle at her side, found the trigger, fired.

It wasn't a fatal shot, not immediately. He lay gasping, and if Yuffie were to use her healing magic, he might survive. But Tifa looked up at Barret, still braced for Dyne's attack, and she wondered: how many more times? How many more times would he put himself at risk like this, for a man who maybe couldn't be saved, and didn't want to be? How many more times before it got him killed?

Tifa adjusted her aim, and fired again.

Silence settled in the wake of the shot. Barret didn't move, as though by not looking, he could prevent it from being real. Yuffie struggled out of his grip and turned.

"Oh, gods, is he dead?"

Tifa swallowed, and slowly set the rifle down on the ground beside her, letting her fingers unwind from the trigger. There didn't seem to be much point to it, but she checked for a pulse anyway.

"He's dead," she said hoarsely.

Barret's shoulders shook, and Tifa didn't know if she could go to him. He hadn't agreed to this.

The nervous warble of chocobos drew her attention, and she looked up as Cloud approached, all three of them in tow. "Are you guys okay?" he asked anxiously.

Yuffie looked between them uncertainly, and Barret turned away from Cloud. Tears had made tracks in the dust on his face. He met Tifa's gaze, and she let out a breath, finding no anger there.

"We'll live," Barret managed.

Tifa carefully got to her feet, and looked down at Dyne's body. She glanced at the grave markers, only paces away. "He'd... probably want to be buried here. Right?"

Barret nodded, saying nothing else.

"Yuffie? Let's go check the junkyard to see if there's anything we could use for a shovel."

Yuffie went on ahead of her without protest, and Tifa paused to catch Cloud's eye on the way. "Keep an eye on him?" she said softly. Much as she wanted to give Barret a moment alone, grief could make a person do rash things.

Cloud nodded, and Tifa went after Yuffie.

She wished there was something more to occupy her thoughts than searching for a shovel, more than digging a grave for a man she'd killed. It wasn't the first life she'd taken, but it weighed heavier than the others. Shinra soldiers, they'd made their choice. The innocent people who'd died in the reactor blast, she'd never seen. This man had been Barret's friend, Marlene's father.

Tifa froze, makeshift shovel wedged in the earth.

She'd killed Marlene's father.

She felt a hand on her arm. Cloud. "I can take over," he offered, and she let him, stepping away. She scrubbed a hand across her eyes, but the grime made them sting worse.

Dyne's body lay where he'd fallen, where she'd left him. The blood staining his shirt was still wet, sticky, it caught the light of the hot sun overhead and had seeped into the ground beneath him.

And the rifle still lay nearby. Jaw clenching, Tifa walked over and kicked it into the crevasse. She didn't want to touch it again, and she knew Jessie wouldn't want it back, once she'd learned what it had been used for.

The others all glanced at her.

"You know," said Yuffie, "he was trying to kill us all."

"Yeah," Barret agreed gruffly. "Don't blame you, Teef. Man I knew... died a long time ago, anyway."

Tifa swallowed and nodded.

They buried Dyne beside the grave marker where he'd etched his wife's name, and Tifa hoped that at least now he could be with her, somewhere in the Lifestream, however that worked. Barret jammed a piece of scrap down into the dirt to mark it and stepped back.

"I wish you coulda seen your daughter, Dyne," said Barret. "Wish you coulda held onto the man you used to be. But... maybe you can be at peace now. An' maybe one day you'll forgive me."

Standing close beside him, Tifa cautiously touched his back, and when he made no protest, she put her arm around him, and they stood there for a while, until one of the chocobos warked impatiently, and they decided it was time to go.

Chapter Text

There was no road headed west along the river, and it made for a bumpy ride, even though the ground was level. Jessie leaned out the window and called to Nanaki, "You okay back there?"

He gave her a nod, and she settled back down. She looked to Vincent, but his expression didn't give anything away about what he was thinking.

She didn't know the whole of what had happened inside the Temple. Tifa's explanation to Elena had been brief, and Jessie hadn't wanted to push for details while everyone was still processing. But she knew Vincent had seen Sephiroth there for the first time, and nothing anyone had said or done had kept him from proceeding with his plan.

And now Vincent wanted to pay his respects to Lucrecia. Because of what he'd learned from her file, or because of what he'd learned about her son?

"How are you feeling," Jessie ventured, "after yesterday? Aeris healed you up, right?"

"Yes," he answered. "I'm fine."

"I'm sorry it went down like that. I know you were hoping for something different."

Vincent glanced at her. "He may look something like her... but I saw nothing else of her. I suppose it's only an illusion, after all."

So Sephiroth looked like his mother? Jessie hadn't noticed from her photograph, but that must have made it that much harder on Vincent. "Maybe once all this is done," she said, "it'll give you some closure, and you can start moving forward."

"Hmm."

"Or you could stick with AVALANCHE a while longer. I won't complain."

After a pause, Vincent asked, "Why did you choose to come with me?"

"I figured you could use a friend," Jessie said. While they were on their way to visit a place he'd gone with his dead lover was absolutely not the time to confess a crush. "Nanaki's great and all, but he's a little slow to warm up to people. Not like me. Biggs used to say, I made a terrible criminal. Too quick to trust people."

"Biggs was your friend?"

"Yeah." She dropped her eyes to her lap. "I guess we sort of have that in common, losing someone. Not that it was romantic at all, and I know Barret and Tifa lost him, too, but they didn't know him like I did. You... must've known Lucrecia pretty well, too, right?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Vincent shake his head slowly. "I wonder," he said. "I couldn't predict the choices she made."

"Well... Even the people we're closest to can surprise us sometimes," Jessie reasoned.

Vincent didn't reply, and she thought that was the end of the conversation, but at length he said, "I'm sorry you lost your friend."

"...thanks."

A couple hours took them to the foothills of the mountains, and they had to leave the truck behind and continue on foot. The peaks rose sharply above them, but the path was easy enough as they followed the river. It was a long hike, though. They stopped to eat early in the afternoon, Jessie and Vincent sharing provisions while they watched Nanaki catching fish.

They pressed on, and at last they came to the crater lake. Jessie had noted it on the model of the Planet in Bugenhagen's planetarium, but it was different seeing it in person. It was so much bigger than she'd pictured, and the water was still enough to allow an imperfect reflection of the mountains that surrounded it on all sides.

The perfect sort of place for a romantic getaway, was her first thought. And then she had to wonder how anyone could want to destroy the world, when there were things like this in it.

"This way," said Vincent, continuing along the shore. "There is a waterfall on the far side, where it comes down from the mountains."

"This view is incredible," Jessie said. "Did you come here a lot?"

"Only when we could get away with it," he said, his expression wistful.

"Was it a secret?" Jessie wondered. She doubted he was meant to fall in love on assignment, and coming here might have interfered with his duties to Professor Gast.

"She was married," was what Vincent said.

"Oh."

Vincent glanced at her, but didn't elaborate.

"I'm not judging," Jessie said quickly, though Nanaki glanced at her dubiously. "I don't know nearly enough to do that. It just never occurred to me. You don't really talk like someone who had to hide it."

"There's no point to it now. That may be the only benefit to learning it was thirty years past."

Jessie couldn't disagree. He didn't have the distance that should have come with all that time, because he hadn't really experienced it. Maybe Tifa was right. That depth of feeling was so attractive in a man, but he was still so consumed by it. She wished she could ask him whether their journey here represented a desire to move on from that, or just a longing to revisit the past.

The waterfall had been in sight for a while before Jessie recognized it for what it was; she'd never seen one before. That ribbon of white cascading down from high in the mountains... The sound of it crashing into the lake waters grew louder and louder, and the white spray churning at its base turned to a mist that tickled her skin as they approached. Vincent kept going, as though he meant to drown in the deluge.

"Is this not our destination?" asked Nanaki, speaking up to be heard above the rushing water.

"There is a cave, behind the falls," Vincent explained. "But you can wait here."

Squinting, Jessie could begin to make out a narrow path behind the waterfall. "Are you sure there's nothing living in there?" she asked.

Vincent could hardly answer that after thirty years, and Nanaki nodded his agreement. "We should make certain of it, before we leave you to it."

"Very well," said Vincent.

The rocky path was slippery, and they went slowly, though Jessie sensed that both of her companions were surer of their footing than her. Thankfully it soon opened up into a tunnel, and strangely there was a light from ahead. The sound of the waterfall behind them faded to a soft echo as they emerged into a huge cavern.

Wherever the light was coming from, it couldn't illuminate the entire cave. Huge pillars of rock where stalactites and stalagmites had long ago joined together disappeared into the darkness beyond, but a human hand had shaped the nearer part of the cave. A wide circle had been smoothed out of the rock floor, leading up to a sort of altar.

And standing beside that altar, having turned at their approach, stood a tall woman Jessie hadn't expected to recognize. Like Vincent, she didn't appear to have aged a day; she looked as young as the photograph in her file, though it clearly didn't do her justice. Jessie knew she shouldn't have, but she felt a pang of disappointment at finding her here. Lucrecia was one of the most beautiful women she'd ever seen. There was no comparison.

Ahead of her, Vincent stopped and stared. "...Lucrecia?" he said.

She drew a sharp breath at the sound of his voice, and he started forward.

"Stay away!" Lucrecia exclaimed, throwing out her hands, and Vincent faltered to a halt. Her eyes swept over him, suspicion in her disbelief. "Is it... really you?" she asked.

"Yes, it's me. Though I know I don't look quite the same," he said, and Jessie wondered how he'd looked before, when it wasn't age that had changed him.

"Hojo told me you were dead. That he'd..." Lucrecia trailed off, and a rueful smile twisted her face. "Of course. I should have known not to believe him."

"And you... I never thought I would find you here."

"Then why did you come here?"

"I was asleep for a long time, but I heard that you had... I thought you were gone, long ago. I wanted to say goodbye."

Lucrecia looked away. "Maybe it's still for the best that you do. I'm no good to anyone, Vincent. Least of all you."

Vincent took a cautious step forward. "But you're alive."

"Not by choice. The Jenova inside of me... won't allow me anything else now. For a long time, I tried to find a way around it, a way to get rid of it, but it's no use."

Jessie had begun to turn away, thinking she'd intruded long enough on what probably should have been a private reunion between lovers, but on hearing that, she stopped. "Wait, are you saying you continued your research?"

Lucrecia looked past Vincent to take in her and Nanaki. Her expression grew a little colder, and Jessie could see it now, the resemblance between her and Sephiroth. "Yes," she said, "I did. To no avail."

Vincent was looking at her now, too, and Jessie scratched her head awkwardly. "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. It's just, we could really use your expertise."

"I don't understand," said Lucrecia.

"Lucrecia," said Vincent, "do you know what Jenova truly is? Surely you learned during your search."

She nodded. "Jenova was no Ancient. I felt it long before I learned for certain."

"Yes," Vincent confirmed. "And it's awakened. It's trying to do harm to this Planet, and the people I'm with... they aim to stop it."

"If you think I can help you to do that... I couldn't even..." Lucrecia trailed off, shaking her head. "As I said, I'm no good to anyone. You should say what you came to, Vincent, as if I really were dead."

"I won't pretend that you aren't here in front of me," Vincent insisted.

"It's an illusion, Vincent."

"It isn't."

Lucrecia regarded him steadily, and then closed her eyes in resignation. "I wanted to look the way that you remember me," she said. "But maybe if I don't, you'll understand that I'm not."

As she said it, that youthful appearance fell away, revealing a woman whom time had touched. She'd aged well, of course, but wrinkles had found the corners of her eyes, and grey had worked its way into her hair, which fell now only to her shoulders. Her clothes were different, a worn shirt and pants rather than the blouse and skirt she'd worn a moment ago.

It wasn't only her, either. The light source that Jessie hadn't been able to identify revealed itself now as an electric lantern set beside a messy bedroll and other gear on one side of the cavern.

But Vincent's attention never left Lucrecia. He approached her again, and this time she let him. "I don't care," he said, coming to a stop just before her.

Lucrecia lifted her hand to touch his face. "This is no illusion, is it? Hojo did this to you?"

"Yes... Does it matter?"

They were definitely intruding on something now, but after the power Lucrecia had just shown, the idea of leaving Vincent alone with her made Jessie uneasy. It would never occur to him to see her as any kind of threat. Jessie glanced at Nanaki, and saw his tail swishing in agitation. He met her eye. They stayed.

"Don't look at me like that, Vincent," said Lucrecia, dropping her hand and looking away. "You say you've been asleep all this time. I haven't. You're a memory, in love with a memory."

Vincent shook his head. "But you're alive. And... Hojo is gone."

Lucrecia looked back at him. "Gone?"

"...Sephiroth killed him."

Some complex mess of emotions played across Lucrecia's face. "Does he know," she asked, "what he did?"

"I don't know. He has learned that you are his mother."

With that brief exchange, Jessie finally put it together. Lucrecia hadn't taken his name, and there'd been nothing in the Shinra mansion library to even imply it, as though her marriage had been as much of a secret as her subsequent affair. But Sephiroth had murdered his own father back on that cargo ship, and there was a good chance he had no idea.

"His mother," Lucrecia murmured. "I wonder if you can really call me that. I never even got to hold him."

"That isn't your fault," said Vincent.

She shook her head. "I thought about going to meet him, when I heard that he had joined SOLDIER. Fighting on the front, away from Hojo... But it was too late then. He was a man grown, and he wouldn't have known me."

Vincent said nothing, and Lucrecia studied his face carefully.

"What do you know of him?" she asked. "The way you speak of him-- have you met him?"

"No... Not the Sephiroth who could have been your son."

Jessie could understand why he wouldn't want to tell her, but if they were going to get her help, then they couldn't coddle her. She took a step forward. "Shouldn't she know the truth?" she asked.

Lucrecia looked from Jessie back to Vincent. "Yes," she said. "I don't need you to lie to me, Vincent. Hojo did quite enough of that."

Vincent's frown disappeared behind his cowl as he dropped his gaze to the floor. His brow furrowed, but he spoke quietly and simply. "Five years ago, Sephiroth learned of the Jenova Project... and the knowledge of it drove him to burn Nibelheim to the ground. Some say that he also died there... and anything could be the truth. Someone with Sephiroth's likeness has obtained a powerful magic, and seeks to destroy the Planet. For your sake... I want to believe that it isn't him."

Lucrecia's expression grew tight as he spoke, and she shut her eyes, turning to the altar. Vincent lifted his hand, but let it fall back to his side. They left her in silence for several minutes.

"I understand," Lucrecia murmured at last. "That is the power of Jenova, to use the faces and memories of our loved ones against us. It might not be him. But then again... the Jenova inside of him wouldn't allow him to die so easily either."

Nanaki padded cautiously forward across the cave floor and sat back on his haunches. "May I ask you something?" he said.

Lucrecia turned to look at him, though she didn't seem surprised that he had spoken. "Yes," she said. "Go ahead."

"You have control over the power of Jenova," Nanaki observed, "but you aren't at its mercy. That doesn't seem to be the case with anyone else who has been exposed to Jenova."

Lucrecia's brow furrowed. "You don't speak only of Sephiroth, do you?"

"No. Hojo performed other experiments using Jenova's cells. Those infected with them appear vulnerable to Sephiroth's command, including two of our party."

"If it's different with you," Jessie added, "if you've overcome that somehow, then maybe you could help them."

"No," Lucrecia said slowly. "I've lived with Jenova a long time, but the powers you see are something I gave into. The temptation to be invisible, to be something I'm not... I haven't overcome anything, and I can't help your friends."

The finality of how she said that made Jessie frown. "So that's it? Do you just plan on staying here, in a cave in the middle of nowhere?"

"I didn't think I could trouble anyone here."

"Well... I think it's pretty selfish of you."

"Jessie," Vincent said sharply, and she flinched at his tone, but she went on anyway.

"I know you love her, Vincent, but... it's still selfish. She wants to hide away from everything, while a man she brought into the world is out there trying to destroy it. You know Tifa lost everything to him..." Jessie broke his gaze and turned to Lucrecia. "I don't blame you for how he's turned out, but that doesn't mean you can absolve yourself of all responsibility and dump it on us. We're asking for your help, and I don't think it's a big ask, but you won't even consider it?"

No one said anything. Lucrecia's expression was pained, and Vincent actually looked angry. Jessie dropped her head.

"I... I've said my piece. I'll wait outside."

Jessie turned back down the tunnel out of the cavern, walked far enough from it that the sound of the waterfall didn't drown out her own thoughts, and let out a shaky breath. Had she really just said all that to the woman Vincent idolized?

But wasn't it the same thing he blamed himself for, just standing by and watching?

She sat down by the water's edge, and only then did she realize that Nanaki had followed her.

"You think it's okay to leave him alone with her?" Jessie asked him.

Nanaki settled down beside her. "I think the greatest danger he faces is the temptation to stay here with her."

"...I guess that's his decision."

"Perhaps, but I believe it would be a poor one. I agree with you entirely."

Jessie gave him a wry smile. "Thanks. But I don't know if Vincent's going to forgive me for that."

"Someone should have said it," Nanaki maintained. "She is the only scientist of the Jenova Project left alive, and she's had decades to continue her research. All that knowledge, she's kept to herself. That isn't how I was taught. There is nothing noble in pursuing knowledge only to hoard it."

"Well, in her defense... Shinra wound up using her research and her kid for some really messed up shit. And that was her own husband."

"We aren't the Shinra. I don't think distrust is the issue."

"...I guess you're right," Jessie conceded.

"She seems very similar to Vincent in that regard," Nanaki observed. "I hope he is able to persuade her, and not the other way around."

If Lucrecia chose to stay... Jessie couldn't help feeling that Vincent would, too. He didn't have much connection to the rest of the world anymore, just a few days he'd spent in the company of some strangers hoping to save the world. And why stay with them on their journey to kill the son of the woman he loved, when he could be with her instead?

But was it selfish of her to think he'd be worse off with that decision? Jessie didn't think it was jealousy. The way Vincent loved Lucrecia, that uncritical, all-consuming devotion... If Lucrecia had made her own decision, with her husband, how had Vincent come to think he was at fault? Maybe it was just how he was, not wanting to blame her for anything, but...

"If he does want to stay..." Jessie began, but she decided to keep those thoughts to herself. "Well, sorry in advance for my driving," she said instead.

Nanaki shook his head. "Not at all. I'll be very grateful you decided to come. This has been uncomfortable enough as it is."

"You think so, too, huh?"

"I was already disinterested in humans and your love affairs."

Jessie laughed. "Well, I can't say the same, but it's still awkward being the third wheel to that. If it works out the other way, I might ride in back with you."

They were a while waiting. It certainly wasn't a bad place to do it, in the middle of all that beauty. The sunlight danced on the surface of the lake, and the mist from the falls kept the summer heat at bay. Jessie pulled her shoes off and dipped her feet in the lake waters, and she thought about asking Tifa for some actual swimming lessons.

She was just starting to wonder if they should go in to check on Vincent when she noticed movement behind the falls, and that telltale red cape. Vincent emerged, and so did Lucrecia, her hand in his as she picked her way carefully across the narrow path. He was carrying a pack, too, that must have belonged to her.

Lucrecia released his hand once she was on solid footing, and the two of them approached. Jessie exchanged glances with Nanaki and got to her feet. She looked to Vincent first, but she couldn't read his expression.

"Jessie... wasn't it?" said Lucrecia, extending a hand. She looked different out in the daylight, more real, and her hand felt solid as Jessie took it.

"Yeah," Jessie said. "And this is Nanaki."

Lucrecia nodded to him. "You're from Cosmo Canyon, aren't you?"

Nanaki blinked. "I... Yes."

"I've been there, several times," she explained. "It's a lovely place."

"So you're coming with us then?" Jessie asked her.

"To Costa del Sol," Lucrecia said. "To... make my apologies to your friends, if nothing else. I expect there won't be anything I can do for them, but... you're right, after all. I won't know for certain without looking into it."

Jessie nodded. "I'm glad you changed your mind," she said.

She retrieved her shoes, and together the four of them started back along the shore path. Jessie wanted to catch Vincent alone for a moment, to see where they stood, but she didn't think she'd have the opportunity for a while; he became Lucrecia's shadow, always walking at her side or a pace behind.

The sun dipped behind the western mountain ridge as they left the crater, and they kept on in the growing twilight until they made it back to where they had left the truck. They made camp there, and Jessie stepped away to call Tifa, figuring it was late enough now she wouldn't be interrupting anything.

But it wasn't Tifa's voice that answered the phone. "Uhh, hey!"

"Zack? Is that you?"

"Yeah," he confirmed. "Tifa lent me her phone earlier, I forgot to give it back."

"Well, can you hand it to her? I've got some news for her."

"Um... Now's not a great time. But I can let her know for you."

His tone began to make her uneasy. "What do you mean? What's going on?"

"I don't know the details, but the prison break didn't exactly go as planned."

"Is Tifa okay?" Jessie pressed.

"Yeah! Yeah, no one's hurt," Zack added quickly. "Just... apparently they had to kill Dyne."

"What?"

"Yeah. Yuffie said he went crazy and started attacking them, and he might've threatened Barret's kid? Tifa's the one who shot him, but she and Barret aren't really talking about it, so that's about all I know. Yuffie wasn't there for the whole thing."

"Oh, gods..." Jessie sat down on the ground. Even what little Zack knew was too awful to process. "Barret must be devastated. And Tifa..."

"She's off with Aeris, so I think she'll be all right," said Zack, and Jessie hoped he was right. But he didn't understand who Dyne was to Barret.

"What about Barret? Can you put him on?"

"Uh... I'll give it a try."

After a minute or so of scuffling and indistinct voices, the background noises subsided, and Barret said,

"Jess?"

His voice sounded so raw, even just saying her name.

"I'm so sorry, Barret," she said. "I wish I could've been there for you."

"I don't," he said bluntly. "Wouldn't've wanted you to see that... the way Dyne looked when he talked about..." He trailed off.

Jessie swallowed. "Did he really... threaten Marlene?"

"Yeah. Don't know how he went so wrong, sayin' all that."

If she could have, Jessie would have volunteered to take the whole thing on herself, in Barret's place. But here she was, miles away, just a voice on a phone. "I can't imagine how awful it must've been," she said. "You finally found your friend, and then..."

"I figured on 'im bein' pissed at me," said Barret. "But he was angry at the whole world. An' I get it, y'know? I got that anger, too. So I gotta wonder... if it was the other way around, if he was the one who made it back an' found Marlene..."

"Are you saying, if he'd been the one to raise her, then you would've...?" Jessie couldn't finish the thought either. "I can't see it, Barret. No way."

"Not much difference between us."

"Well then, not much was plenty. I'm sorry for what happened to Dyne, but don't think for a second that you're like him that way. You're a good man, and a great father."

Barret didn't argue, but he was quiet for a long time. Finally he said, "How do I tell her 'bout this, Jess?"

"...maybe you don't," she said. "It's not what she came from, and it's not a memory that needs preserving. Dyne died four years ago, trying to get back to Corel and his family. Isn't that better?"

"Yeah. Yeah, that's better."

"And... it's better for Tifa, too. I know how guilty she must feel."

"It shoulda been me. It was my problem to deal with."

"Well, Marlene is... she's special to all of us, you know?" Especially to Tifa, who'd been the only other person Barret would trust Marlene with, when Jessie had first met them. "So anyone who threatens her, that's not just your problem."

"Still," Barret insisted. "I didn't wanna lay that on Tifa. Not even sure she knows I don't blame her."

"Did you tell her?"

"Tried to. Don't think it's sunk in yet."

"Well... Give it some time. You've both got a lot to work through." And on top of everything else that had already happened... Jessie knew Barret had expected it to be a rough reunion, but not this rough. There should have been some reconciliation, some resolution that might have lifted some of the guilt he felt over what had happened to Corel. Not this.

"...how'd things go on your end?" Barret ventured.

"Oh, uh... Kind of the opposite," Jessie admitted, feeling now like that was unfair. "Turns out Lucrecia's not dead."

"That right?"

"Yeah. We ran into her in this cave by the lake. It took a little convincing, but she's coming with us to the rendezvous, so she can check up on Zack and Cloud."

"Think she'll be able to do anything for 'em?"

"I don't know. She's pretty pessimistic about it, but I think at the least, she'll be able to assess what's wrong with them better than the Cosmo Canyon doctors."

Barret made a soft grunt of agreement, and after a moment he added, "Kinda sucks for you, though, huh? How that worked out."

"Oh, come on, that's nothing," Jessie said. Especially after everything he'd been through today, it felt silly for him to even think of it.

"Doesn't mean it don't sting a little," he said.

"...yeah, I guess not," she admitted. It was nice of him to mention anyway. "Thanks."

"Don't wanna get stuck thinkin' about only my problems," Barret explained. "Tifa's gonna need me to step up this time."

"I understand," said Jessie. They never really got the time to mourn, did they? "I'll be there in a couple days to help out, though. And you can always call if you need to talk in the meantime, okay?"

"...I'll keep that in mind."

"You going to be okay tonight?"

"Yeah. You don't gotta worry."

"I'm going to anyway. You're my friend and I love you."

"Uh..."

"Sorry. I know we don't really say that, but I thought you might need to hear it from someone right now."

"'preciate it," he said gruffly. "G'night, Jess."

Jessie smiled to herself. If he could be awkward about it, then he'd probably be okay. "Good night," she said, and she hung up.

And that was when she noticed Lucrecia standing nearby. How long had she been there?

"...sorry," Lucrecia said slowly, as though she only realized at Jessie's expression that she'd done anything to apologize for. "It's been a long time since I've been around people. I wanted to tell you there's some dinner ready."

Jessie nodded, and picked herself up off the ground. "Thanks."

"Are your friends all right?"

"They've had a rough day, but they've had a lot of those, and they always pull through."

Lucrecia nodded, and she smiled ruefully. "I'm glad for them," she said.

Jessie hesitated. She hadn't been able to catch Vincent alone, but he hadn't followed Lucrecia to check on her, so maybe she could at least talk to the other half of the equation. "How long were you in that cave?" she wondered.

"Only a few weeks," Lucrecia answered. "I've gone back before, but this time, I thought I'd stay. Nothing bad... ever happened there."

"I guess I can see the appeal."

"I never expected anyone would find me there," Lucrecia went on, "least of all Vincent... It's so strange to see him again after all this time. He's changed, but he hasn't changed. I can tell the heartbreak is still fresh for him. He still thinks he can undo it."

"...can I ask what happened between you two?"

Lucrecia glanced behind her, back towards the camp, considering. "How much has he told you?" she asked.

"You were having an affair," Jessie said. "But it sounds like it ended with the Jenova Project."

Lucrecia nodded. "It was my fault from the start," she said. "Hojo was... different, after we married, and when I met Vincent, he was always so kind to me... Shy, though. Nothing would have happened if I hadn't begun it. It was good for a while, but Hojo grew jealous, even before he found out, and I knew I had to end it."

A fear that wasn't exactly unfounded, Jessie thought, considering what Hojo had done to Vincent in the end. That part made a lot more sense now, honestly. Not just some callous experiment on a man who'd questioned his actions, but a vicious attack on the body of his wife's lover, turning it into something at times monstrous and frightening. Like Hojo himself had been, by all accounts.

"And the Jenova Project?" Jessie wondered.

"The child came afterwards," Lucrecia confirmed. "I hoped it would convince Hojo, and stupidly, I thought it might change him. I suppose it did, just not for the better."

Jessie nodded. "Well, he is gone now," she offered. "You don't have to worry about him anymore."

"No. Only his legacy. Our legacy. Vincent thinks he's responsible in some way..." Lucrecia shook her head. "But at least that's led him to you all."

"You think that's a good thing?"

"Yes. I know it's hard on him, the thought of harming my son, but I think fighting alongside you is what will give him a chance of moving on."

"...that's the mistake you really care about fixing, isn't it?" Jessie observed, realizing that it wasn't anything she'd said that had convinced Lucrecia to change her mind, and probably nothing Vincent had said either. Lucrecia just didn't want to trap Vincent in that cave with her.

Lucrecia smiled ruefully. "Maybe I should care more about the fate of the world than about a man I once wronged. But until now, until I realized he was still in it... I wouldn't have minded if the world ended."

"Maybe don't mention that to the others," Jessie suggested. "We're all pretty into the world not ending."

"I'll remember that." Lucrecia turned back towards camp, inviting Jessie along with a nod of her head. "Maybe you could tell me a bit about them? The people Vincent's taken up with."

"Sure," Jessie said. "Some background'll probably help. We're an odd bunch."

Chapter Text

The solemnity that fell over the camp that evening was all too familiar to Yuffie. It was the same feeling that had stifled her home during the war. The fighting had never reached the capital, but so many of the city's people had gone off to fight, and so many had come back only as bodies to be buried in the family plot.

As a Kisaragi, Yuffie had gone to a lot of those funerals, so that even her own mother's blurred together with the rest. And with each of them, she'd seen her world growing that much smaller. One more person who'd never come back, one more empty space in her city that would go on being empty even after the fighting was done.

And when the war ended and her father had come home for good, he'd only made it worse. All the strength she'd known in him as a child had gone out of him, and he'd made himself a smaller, emptier version of himself for the Shinra, reprimanding her when she refused to do the same.

Everyone was making themselves small tonight, in the wake of Dyne's death. They'd gone through the motions of dinner, like it would have been harder to deviate from that routine, and afterwards, they'd all dispersed around the campsite. Tifa had disappeared out of sight, and Aeris had followed. Yuffie could hear Zack and Cloud--mostly Zack--talking indistinctly in the back of the truck. Barret was the only one still sitting by the dwindling campfire, and Yuffie watched him from her perch atop the roof of the truck.

She didn't think anyone else was dwelling on the thing that had stuck in her mind about today: when Dyne had pulled his gun on them, and Barret had grabbed her, shielding her with his body.

Barret had bothered her from the beginning. He phoned his daughter all the time, with genuine affection in his voice, and it still grated on her nerves. He called her a kid, and it drove her crazy, because at the same time she'd watched him acknowledge her skills and start listening to her words, sometimes even when the others dismissed them for some childish outburst. He didn't take the bait when she insulted him, and he'd never raised his voice to her since that first day.

It had taken her this long to figure it out, but he was, actually, a good dad, and she hated it the same way she hated Nanaki's perfect Cosmo Canyon.

But Yuffie was starting to wonder. Why should she even have to think of Godo as her dad when he wanted to pretend she didn't exist? If she could choose her family, then why not pick some other people who actually gave a damn about her?

Barret hadn't even thought about it. He'd just acted. Instinct, a matter of course, whatever it was for good people.

But it was stupid, too, wasn't it? What, was she just supposed to walk up and ask these people to be her new weird family? What if all of this was only meant to last until they'd beat Sephiroth?

Yuffie wrapped her arms around her knees, which only made her more keenly aware of how gross she felt. She'd stopped registering the stink of her own sweat, but she felt grit shifting in her clothes whenever she moved. But they barely had any drinking water left, there was nothing to wash with.

A phone rang in the back of the truck, interrupting Zack and Cloud's conversation, and she heard Zack answer it. After a minute, he strode across to the campfire and handed the phone to Barret. Too far away for Yuffie to make out anything they said, but she saw Barret's shoulders hunch, like they did when he was about to have an uncomfortable conversation.

Zack headed back in her direction, stopping to lean against the truck just below her. "You okay up there?"

"Was that Jessie calling?" she asked. "They have as depressing a day as we did?"

"Dunno. She said she had news, but she wanted to talk to Barret."

"Well, you're useless."

Zack frowned. "Hey, that was uncalled for. I came over here to check up on you, y'know."

Yuffie looked back at the campfire. "I'm fine. Good job."

Frustratingly, that wasn't enough for him. Zack went around the other side of the truck and climbed up onto the roof to sit down next to her.

"Oh, come on," she said. "Unless you can magically summon a bathtub, just get lost, will you? That's all I need right now."

"Maybe you're okay," he said, "but we're not. What'd I do to get on your bad side?"

Yuffie silently willed him to go away. It didn't work.

"Cloud's pretty sure you're down on him because of the whole Gongaga incident, which I get, but you've been giving me the cold shoulder since before the Temple."

"If you'd talked to anyone else besides Cloud, they'd tell you that's just how I am."

"Nah. You're a little nicer to the people you do like."

"Okay. Can't you just accept that I don't like you?"

"Well... I could," Zack admitted, "but I'd like to try and fix it first, if you'll let me. We're on the same team, after all, and you seem like an interesting person."

Yuffie sighed. She wasn't getting rid of him without giving him some kind of reason, and maybe the real one would get some results. "Then stop treating me like a kid," she said. "You're doing it right now, I mean, would you be trying to have some stupid heart-to-heart with Barret if he didn't like you? No, you'd just let it work itself out."

"You don't know me that well," said Zack, quirking an eyebrow at her. "But, all right. Maybe I've been doing it without thinking about it. I mean, you're what, fifteen?"

"Sixteen," she corrected, lifting her chin. "And I'll be seventeen in a couple months."

"Okay. I guess that's not much younger than I was when everything went to shit at Nibelheim. But speaking as a guy who ran off to join the military way too young and then lost five years to a crazy scientist... I don't know if I'd be in such a hurry to grow up if I were you."

"There's nothing good about being a kid. Nobody takes you seriously, everybody just expects you to obey your elders."

"Obey?" Zack repeated, sitting back on his hands. "Yikes. Whatever happened to goofing off with your friends?"

"My friends are trying to save the world," Yuffie stated. "They don't do a whole lot of goofing off."

Zack nodded, glancing off in the direction Tifa and Aeris had gone. "Yeah, I'm gonna have to work on that."

"Who made that your job?"

"It's a self-appointed one. If Tifa's in charge, I might as well focus my energy on keeping our morale up."

"What do you mean, 'if'? Of course Tifa's in charge."

"No, of course, I know that. It's just been weird, being this far down the command structure, if you know what I mean."

"I super don't."

Zack looked at her quizzically. "You know I was in SOLDIER," he said. "First Class? Sephiroth outranked me, but I ran my share of missions where I was the commanding officer."

"No way. They let you be in charge of people?"

"It hurts that you have so little faith in me."

Yuffie rolled her eyes. "You'll get over it. And just so we're clear, I do totally outrank you in this group."

Zack winced. "Yeah. Yeah, that does seem to be the case."

This was her out, Yuffie realized. "So. Now that that's established, I'm gonna order you to go leave me alone."

"What? Come on."

"Look, I've got stuff on my mind. You work on things and maybe I'll take you off my shit list."

"Well... All right." He sounded disappointed, but at least he was agreeing. "I'll let you get back to whatever deep thoughts you're thinking up here."

"Good. You do that."

Zack leapt down from the truck, and it did improve her mood a little that she could order him around, even if it wasn't anything important. She'd have to take advantage of that again in the future.

But as her attention fell back on Barret at the campfire, Yuffie wondered if any of the real responsibility would be coming her way. He and Tifa had barely spoken since they'd left the prison; Yuffie had had to tell Aeris and Zack what had happened. And then there was whatever was going on with Aeris... maybe the Planet was being louder in her head than usual, but she sure didn't seem up to much right now either.

Well, all they had to do was make it to Costa del Sol. Yuffie could bully people in and out of a truck if she had to.

Tifa was quiet when morning came, but Barret seemed to be pulling himself back together. Over breakfast, he told them gruffly about Jessie's news, and Yuffie made a face. Sephiroth's mom? Plus she felt cheated; they'd spent all that time reading her boring research papers when they could've just asked her for the important parts.

From the expressions on everyone else's faces, about the only person who didn't feel the same was Aeris. At least Jessie hadn't said anything about Lucrecia joining up.

They got moving without any fuss, and of course Zack tried to talk to her during the drive. Yuffie pretended to ignore him, but listening to his dumb stories actually did help distract her from the motion of the truck.

Close to midday, they left the parched earth behind for greener lands, and soon after drove into a rainstorm that had swept down from the mountains. Zack rolled up his window, but Yuffie left hers open, inviting it in. Zack stopped the truck just south of the next river crossing, and Yuffie was out before he'd killed the engine.

"Somethin' up?" Barret was asking behind her.

"Nah, I just thought you guys might wanna wash up," said Zack. "We've still got a long drive to Costa del Sol."

"Girls first!" Yuffie exclaimed immediately, spinning around to face the others. "And no peeking from the rest of you."

Tifa looked to Barret, who shrugged. "Fine by me. Rain's helpin' some already."

"Guess we're not cooking though," said Aeris. "Sandwiches?"

"Sure," said Tifa.

Yuffie didn't bother to wait for her. She headed down to the riverbank and walked along it until the truck was well out of sight. The rain made rippling patterns across the surface of the water, shifting with the current, bands of heavier rain standing out clear on the river.

Yuffie stripped down to her underwear, tossing yesterday's grimy clothes carelessly on the shore, and took a few steps in, testing the current. Not too strong, even in the downpour, and her toes gripped the stones of the riverbed. She waded out until the water came up to her waist and closed her eyes. The current buffeted her, eager to pull her along if she let it. Yuffie always felt rivers had a mind of their own that way, even if they could only flow the one direction out to sea.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, maybe we should stay where it's shallow," said Tifa.

Yuffie turned to glance up at her. She'd stripped down, too, revealing that long scar slashing across her chest beneath her bra. If it were Yuffie, she would've shown it off more, like a badge of honor, but she'd only glimpsed it before when Tifa was changing.

"I'm okay," Yuffie said. "The current's not that fast, and I'm a good swimmer."

"Still..."

Tifa was going to worry anyway, Yuffie realized, and she didn't need that right now. Yuffie waded a few steps back with her. "Better?"

Tifa nodded. "Sorry."

Yuffie shrugged. "Feels good, though, doesn't it?"

"Washing off all that crud?" Tifa said, slicking her bangs back from her face. "Definitely."

"Not just that. I kinda love being in the water on days like this. Everything all kinda flows together, like you can feel the gods in it."

"You mean your water god?"

"Yeah," said Yuffie. "Wutai's full of water, you know. The ocean, the rivers, the rainy season--that's all Leviathan's blessing on our land."

Tifa was looking at her strangely, and Yuffie fidgeted.

"What?"

"I just never took you for a spiritual person," said Tifa.

"Well, I mean... I'm not good at explaining this stuff, but I guess it's always seemed more reliable to me than people. Not that I count on the gods to do anything for me, that's not what it's about. You still gotta reach for stuff on your own, but it wouldn't be there to reach for if not for them."

"Hmm."

Tifa didn't ask her any more questions about it, and that was fine with Yuffie. She wasn't a priest or a scholar or anything, she didn't know how to talk about something she'd always just felt was true.

Yuffie dunked her head under the water and ran her fingers through her hair, glad again that it was short. How much shampoo did Tifa go through when she used it? Even now she was still working sand out of it, the same pensive look on her face.

"How are you doing?" Yuffie asked her. "Like, for real?"

"I'm okay," Tifa said. It wasn't exactly convincing, but putting any effort into pretending made it an improvement over yesterday. "I think the hardest part is just... the thought of having to lie to Marlene."

"Why would you have to lie? I mean, I get you don't tell her a lot of stuff now, she's just a kid, but..."

"Yuffie, Dyne was her father."

"How's that?"

Tifa frowned at her. "Don't you remember Barret's story?"

"No, I know he was her bio dad, but like, does that matter? Barret's been raising her since she was a baby, right?"

"Dyne didn't know she was alive."

"That's kinda bullshit," Yuffie pointed out.

"What?"

"Come on. We ran into a whole crappy town of survivors. You gonna tell me none of 'em knew Barret had Marlene? Did Dyne bother to look at all? Even my lame excuse for a dad would've wanted to make sure. Seems to me like you did her a giant favor, making sure she'd never meet that asshole. Maybe you oughtta be proud of that."

Tifa stared at her. "I don't know about that," she said slowly. "But... you're right, I didn't want her to meet that man."

Of course someone like Tifa would never be proud of killing someone, Yuffie reflected, but she could at least not beat herself up so much about it. She sure didn't need to be talking like she'd killed someone who was actually important to Barret's daughter.

"Y'know," Yuffie went on, "I thought you would've talked some of this out with Aeris. Wasn't she adopted?"

Tifa looked away. "We haven't really talked," she said.

"What? What were you doing all last night then?" As soon as the question was out of her mouth, Yuffie hurried to add, "Wait, don't tell me if it's gross."

"It's not," Tifa said with the faintest smile. "We just didn't talk. Did some stargazing."

"Oh. That's nice, I guess."

"Yeah. Maybe that's my thing-- like you and this rain."

Yuffie nodded. She wasn't sure Tifa totally understood, but it wasn't so bad that she was trying.

"Anyway, we should probably head back. Give Barret and Cloud their turn."

"Yeah, I guess," Yuffie agreed reluctantly.

Tifa had had more foresight than Yuffie, and left a pair of blankets wrapped in a tarp for them to use once they got out, so they wouldn't have to put on their wet, sweaty old clothes. Back at the truck, they kicked Zack out of its shelter long enough to change into clean clothes, and then Aeris passed them some sandwiches.

"Feeling better?" she asked, her gaze lingering on Tifa even though the question was ostensibly directed at both of them.

"Definitely," said Yuffie, and Tifa nodded.

"...it was kind of nice getting rained on," she said.

"Beach party," Zack said abruptly. "That's what we need when we get to Costa del Sol."

"Zack," Aeris said, shaking her head. "If this is just an excuse to see everyone in swimwear..."

"A man can have multiple goals," he said. "But honestly, I think we could all use it, and we're headed for a resort town. Be a shame not to take advantage."

Tifa shrugged. "We'll have a little downtime. Everyone can do what they like with it."

Which Yuffie took to mean, if there was a party, she wouldn't be participating this time. She exchanged glances with Aeris, who gave her a rueful smile. She looked worried.

They got moving again. Zack was telling her about beach parties, and even though she wasn't any less interested than before, Yuffie found herself glancing at the truck's clock display. It was harder to tell time on rainy days, but the afternoon hours passed slowly towards early evening. Finally she realized something.

"Is that the right time?"

"Huh?" Zack glanced at the clock. "Oh, yeah, more or less. Why?"

Yuffie glanced through the window into the back of the truck. She couldn't always catch their conversations back there, but she would've heard if they'd made the usual phone call.

Barret hadn't called his daughter.

Frowning, Yuffie settled back in her seat. Sure, he'd missed days, but only the days when it wouldn't have been safe to call. Not the days when there'd been nothing going on, no matter how rough they'd had it.

But it wasn't really her business. Not her problem. Right?

Zack kept glancing at her, and finally he asked, "You okay?"

Yuffie drew in a long breath, and then she spun around and rapped on the window. "Hey! Getting late, isn't it?"

"What?" said Barret.

She couldn't tell if he hadn't heard her or if he just didn't understand what she was getting at, but she made the phone gesture with her hand. "Aren't you s'posed to be doing something right now?"

Barret looked taken aback, and he glanced at Tifa. "We decided to put it off a day," he said.

"Oh, no way," Yuffie muttered under her breath, and she turned to Zack. "Hey, pull over."

"What? Over a phone call?"

"Trust me, it's a super important phone call. And I still outrank you."

Zack threw her a look like he thought she was losing it, but he brought the truck to a stop anyway. Yuffie jumped out and went around to the back.

"What do you mean, you're putting it off?" she demanded. "You got something better to do?"

Barret squinted at her. "Don't see how it's any of your business."

All four of them were looking at her the same way Zack was, and she got why. She'd never met Marlene, and she'd never stayed to listen to a single one of those phone calls all the way through.

"This'll make three days," said Yuffie, holding up her fingers. "You haven't gone that long without calling since that damn cargo ship, and I don't think 'we didn't feel like it' is as good of an excuse."

Barret glanced at Tifa again.

"Yuffie..." Aeris began.

"What? You think I'm wrong? She's a kid, three days is like forever, and you cannot start fucking up now."

"...you ain't wrong," Barret conceded quietly.

Tifa shook her head. "I can't. I'm sorry, I'm not ready."

Barret nodded. "You mind if I...?"

"No. Just... can you make something up for me? Tell her I'm not feeling well."

"Yeah, all right."

Tifa climbed down out of the truck and walked off into the rain. Aeris watched her go, then tapped Cloud on the shoulder and suggested, "Why don't we stretch our legs a little?"

They went, too, but Yuffie climbed up to sit down on the edge of the bench, as far as she could be from Barret without being outside. She folded her arms and looked away, but she could feel him looking at her for a minute longer before she heard the line ringing faintly.

He didn't put it on speaker this time, and Yuffie couldn't make out Marlene's words over the patter of rain on the roof. She was just a tiny, indistinct voice on the other end.

"Hey, baby girl," Barret said to her, and after a beat he went on, "Nah, it's just me. We had a rough day yesterday, Tifa's feelin' pretty tired. ... Yeah. There was this bad man, wanted to hurt a lot o' people, but Tifa stopped him, mostly on 'er own. She was real brave."

Barret's voice grew tight as he said it, and Yuffie glanced at him. Not exactly a lie there, and she wondered why Tifa couldn't get on board with it. But like hell was she going to go out and try to drag Tifa back here. She'd done as much as she could.

The rest of the conversation was super boring, like Yuffie always figured they were. Even just hearing Barret's side, she could tell the rest was just dumb kid stuff. Things that only seemed important when you were four. But that was how it was supposed to be.

Finally they said their goodbyes and Barret hung up.

"Dunno why you're on my case allova sudden," he said, "but thanks for lookin' out for my girl."

Yuffie shrugged. "Yeah, well. I know what it's like having your dad away all the time."

"Ain't you the one who's away?"

"I mean growing up," Yuffie clarified. "He was always at the front, and like... I missed him, I guess."

"Yeah. I miss her, too."

"He turned out to be a huge ass, though. I don't miss him at all now."

Barret looked skeptical, but he didn't say anything about it. "Right. Well, 'preciate you helpin' me avoid that."

"...you're welcome," Yuffie said, realizing just how weird it was that he'd listened to her on this. Her dad would've yelled right back, really stuck to that 'none of her business' line. She knew she was wrong sometimes, but Godo never admitted when he made a mistake, so she'd stopped ceding any ground either.

"Y'know, you oughtta meet her someday," said Barret.

Yuffie blinked at him. "Uh... I'm not great with kids."

"Marlene ain't just any kid," Barret said. "She's special. Bet she'd think you're pretty cool."

Usually it annoyed her to hear the pride in his voice whenever he talked about his daughter, but this wasn't so bad. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. She's been growin' up with some other tough ladies, after all."

Yuffie suppressed a smile at the compliment and glanced out into the rain where the others had disappeared. "...Tifa's gonna be okay, right?"

Barret frowned, but he nodded. "She's been through a lot. This ain't gonna be the thing that breaks her. She just needs a little time to sort herself out."

"I think I can get that."

"You doin' all right? Yesterday weren't no picnic for you either."

"I'm okay," Yuffie said, and she almost said something. The thought came into her head to mention how he'd looked out for her, to thank him for it, but it seemed so sappy, and it stuck in her throat.

"Awright," said Barret. "Just figured I'd check, since you're checkin' up on me."

Yuffie nodded, and she hopped up. "Guess we oughtta get the others back."

"Yeah. Probably didn't go far."

They abandoned the truck not far outside of Costa del Sol; it was a Shinra port, and they didn't need to draw any attention with their obviously stolen military vehicle. They were drenched by the time they reached the town, and Yuffie led the way to the same cheap inn they'd stayed at before. The innkeeper recognized them--they were pretty memorable--and Yuffie saw him glancing around for any sign of their 'dog' as he handed over the room keys.

"The rest of the weirdos are comin' later," Yuffie told him.

Barret dropped his bag in the hall outside their rooms and turned to Tifa. "You all go on an' get settled in. I'm gonna see if I can track us down some tickets for that boat."

"All right," said Tifa.

Yuffie looked between her and Aeris and then pushed her bag at Tifa. "I'm gonna go with him," she decided. "He's gonna intimidate those tour people by himself."

No one protested it, and as Yuffie walked off with Barret, she confided, "Those two need to talk."

"You made this your day to look after everybody, huh?" Barret remarked, without sarcasm. "Hope it does 'em both some good."

"Yeah," Yuffie agreed. "Me, too."

Looking after people was kind of a pain in the ass. She'd be glad when Tifa and Aeris were back to normal, and Jessie was back to just be a relatively normal person. Nanaki, too. Yuffie needed some people around she could count on to keep their distance from the drama.

Chapter Text

"It's sweet how she's worried about us," Aeris remarked as she closed the door to their room. She turned to look at Tifa, but Tifa avoided her gaze.

Instead she dropped Yuffie's bag down beside one of the beds and glanced around. It wasn't the same room they'd had before, but it looked nearly identical. The windows faced a different direction, she thought, but the rain obscured the view.

Aeris set down her own things and disappeared into the bathroom, returning with a pair of towels. She handed one to Tifa. "You still don't want to talk?" she asked softly. "Could I at least help take your mind off things?"

Tifa glanced her as she started to dry herself off from the rain. Of course the hardest part was how it would affect Marlene, like a waiting time bomb that might ultimately hurt her and ruin their relationship, but she worried it might ruin things with Aeris, too. Aeris wanted to know her, and this was the ugliest part of her, the part of her that could justify murder.

Yuffie had told it like Dyne had forced her hand, like she'd reacted in the moment to protect them, and Tifa had avoided telling anyone otherwise, though she was sure Barret at least understood. But she had to come clean sooner rather than later. Much as she wanted to, she couldn't keep holding on to the way Aeris looked at her now, unaware, eager to be close to her. It didn't feel right.

She thought they could still be friends, but that closeness... She might be about to lose it.

"Sorry," she said. "I wanted some time to pull it together, but... I can't take it back, so I'm going to have to live with it. And that means accepting how it might change how people think of me."

Aeris frowned, not understanding. "I know it was a hard thing, what you had to do," she said, "but it doesn't change anything for me."

"Even if there's more to it?" Tifa wondered.

"I know you. And I always knew... that you'd probably killed people. We met the night of the bombing, after all. And I know, after that, too... When you came to rescue me. What makes this time so different? Weren't you still protecting the people you love?"

Tifa sat down on the edge of the bed nearest to her, the towel beneath her. "That's the thing, though," she said. "It was just 'probably,' before. I took people down, but killing them wasn't the point, as long as they were out of the way. But Dyne... I made sure, Aeris."

Aeris sat down beside her, regarding her carefully. "What do you mean?"

"My first shot didn't kill him. That was a choice I made."

Aeris didn't respond right away. Like Tifa had expected, it was something she had to process. Tifa looked away, not really wanting to watch the expression on her face.

"Changes things," she said quietly, "doesn't it?"

"No," said Aeris, shaking her head. "No, I was just thinking about the last time we were here. About your plan to kill Rufus... I didn't like it, but I understood it. And honestly, this is easier. You didn't want Dyne dead. You made a decision to protect your family."

"I could've found another way."

"Maybe," Aeris admitted, "but I can guess what you were thinking: what if that other way failed? What if Barret and Marlene wound up dead because you let him live? And maybe not just them, but anyone who got in the way. Wedge. My mom. I don't think you could've forgiven yourself for that."

Tifa's thoughts had been stuck in the moment, but Aeris was right. If Dyne had escaped them and sought out Marlene... Wedge would have laid down his life to protect her, and Tifa couldn't imagine Elmyra standing aside either. What about Wedge's brother? The boy Marlene played with? All the people between here and that tiny village outside of Kalm? Dyne had stopped valuing human life, and maybe those Shinra soldiers weren't the first or the only people he'd hurt since Corel.

But Dyne wasn't Rufus. He'd been Barret's best friend, before her, and Marlene's father, for the first few months of her life. Whatever Yuffie said, Tifa felt that counted for something. And so if there'd been anything left of that man beneath the hatred and the cynicism, Tifa had erased it.

"I probably couldn't have," she agreed, "but that doesn't make this a good thing that I did. He used to be a good man, and I decided he was out of chances to get back to that."

"The way Yuffie told it, I thought you gave him a few. But he... wouldn't stop."

Tifa shook her head. "I don't think I want to justify it," she said. "If I do, if I can, then what about the next time? What if this is me slipping? I've already justified other things."

Aeris reached over and touched her hand. "No one's judging you for it, except for you, and I think that should tell you something. Everyone understands you made a tough call."

Tifa shut her eyes and let out a breath. "I just wish I knew it would be the last one," she said. "I wish I wouldn't keep coming up against these kinds of choices."

"Maybe it could be the last."

"You're kidding, right?" Tifa said, throwing her a look. Their entire mission was about killing Sephiroth, and even if that was an easy choice, it wouldn't make the world safe from Shinra. There was so much more for AVALANCHE to do.

"I'm not," said Aeris. "I know you're set on stopping Sephiroth, but you don't have to keep fighting, after that. It doesn't really seem fair to ask one person to save the world from everything."

"I can't just stop. The other option is always worse. Stand by while Shinra's still in the world? Leave my friends to do this on their own?" Tifa shook her head. "I can't."

Aeris squeezed her hand, and the look in her eyes made Tifa's chest grow tight. It was a look that said she hadn't lost anything. "Well... then your friends are right beside you," she said. "You're not doing this on your own either."

"I know," she said, and she gave Aeris's hand a little squeeze back. "How are you doing? I haven't really... checked in."

"I'm lovely," Aeris said. "The Planet has gotten easier to tune out, my girlfriend's talking to me again... And you know, we're back where we had our first date, so that seems like something, too."

"You're not just saying that?" Tifa pressed, searching her face. "It's really gotten better?"

"Mhm. The Planet understands we're getting there as fast as we can."

"Good. I would've told it that myself if I could."

"You could've given it a try anyway," Aeris suggested.

Tifa looked at her quizzically. "I didn't think the Planet listened to humans. I thought it only spoke to its 'chosen people.''

"Well, you're my chosen person, so I can probably vouch for you."

She said it playfully, but a tremor of uncertainty told Tifa that this was serious for Aeris, not just a joke or a whim. Something precious enough that she couldn't have borne having it rejected if she had presented it seriously.

"...you really think I could talk to the Planet?" Tifa asked cautiously.

"It's probably silly," Aeris insisted, "but Nanaki and I were talking about it. About what makes a Cetra, and if it could be something you choose. Maybe people can choose to listen to the Planet."

A choice? Tifa wondered. She had to admit, she'd never tried it. It wasn't until she'd met Barret that she'd even understood the Planet as a living thing, and it wasn't until Aeris that she'd known it had a voice, a consciousness. Most people were like that, so maybe it wasn't so far-fetched, what Aeris was saying. Not something impossible, but just forgotten.

She tucked her hair behind her ear. "You... want to try teaching me?"

Aeris's smile was almost shy. "I'd like that," she said.

"So, how do we start?"

"Let's get comfortable first," Aeris suggested, plucking at the damp fabric of her pants.

"We shouldn't be outside for it?"

"Huh?"

Tifa faltered. "Well, I mean... to be closer to it...? Didn't it help in Kalm?"

Aeris smiled and shook her head. "I already knew how to listen. It might help, but I think it's easiest when there are fewer distractions. It's quiet in here, and there's just the two of us."

Tifa nodded, and she got up to change, though she didn't think wet clothes were going to be her biggest obstacle. Listening in the quiet... she knew what was waiting for her.

Back in dry clothes, they settled cross-legged atop the bed, facing each other, and Tifa looked to Aeris for direction.

"How to start...?" Aeris wondered, not seeming any surer. "I hate to say it, but the easiest thing to pick up on is the Planet's pain. Like what you heard from Bugenhagen's machine... and I wonder if maybe you heard it back at the reactor on Mt Nibel. It was so intense there... but so was your own pain. You might not have noticed."

Tifa remembered how Aeris had asked her, that first night they'd met, whether she couldn't feel how Shinra was killing the Planet. Covering up a slip of the tongue, she thought now, by suggesting that it was something Tifa could sense, too, but Tifa had thought she understood at the time. The wrongness of Midgar... that was because of the wounds it inflicted on the Planet, wasn't it?

But she'd never heard anything like the sound emanating from Bugenhagen's machine. It was only the vaguest feeling, and maybe just something she projected onto her surroundings, something born out of her hatred for Shinra.

"How do I listen for it?" she asked.

"You have to focus inward," said Aeris, "but not really on yourself. You remember what Barret said, about borrowing a piece of the Planet? We're all born from the Planet, and we all return to it again in the end. You have to look for that connection, at the core of you. It'll be faint, at first. You won't be sure."

It reminded her of what Yuffie had said, too, about feeling her gods in the rain, everything being connected. Tifa closed her eyes and tried to focus like Aeris suggested. What was it that connected her to the Planet?

But she couldn't help feeling, right now, that she was doing something she shouldn't with what the Planet had given her. Would the Cetra have done anything that AVALANCHE had? Or was it a distinctly human way of dealing with problems? Holy, the Planet's greatest weapon against those who threatened it, had never been used, even in the face of Jenova.

And Tifa had chosen to end a man's life before he had even the chance to harm the people she loved. There was no connection in that, she thought, nothing of what the Planet would want for her. She tried to push past it, because she knew that wasn't what Aeris meant, but she didn't know how to look for the 'core' of her without seeing who she was now, in the moment.

"I'm sorry," she said at last. "I don't know what I'm doing. I don't hear anything."

"That's all right," said Aeris.

Tifa looked up at her. She hated to disappoint her. "I can keep trying," she said, "but... I think today's a bust."

Aeris shook her head. "Don't say that. Maybe nothing will come of it, but you don't know what it means to me that you're trying."

"I wish I could be... more, for you."

"Oh, Tifa," said Aeris, and she leaned forward to take both of Tifa's hands in hers. "Sometimes you don't know what you are, how much you... I love you, Tifa."

Tifa's heart skipped a beat and thudded hard in her chest. Now? she thought. Now, when she was such a mess of a person, barely holding it together? But if Aeris could love her at her worst... Tifa swallowed.

"I..."

"Sorry," Aeris said. "I know it's a weird time. I just... I felt it, and I wanted to tell you. I don't mean to put any pressure on you."

Tifa leaned closer until she could press her forehead against Aeris's and closed her eyes. She wanted to say it, but... "I want to be in a place where it would actually mean something."

"It would always mean something," Aeris said softly. "But I think I understand."

Tifa kissed her gently, because that was one thing she could say without words, but it turned a little desperate. She'd spent most of the time since Corel avoiding Aeris's touch, feeling undeserving. Maybe she still was, but she didn't feel any of that from Aeris. She returned the kiss eagerly, passionately. Despite everything, she still wanted more, she was still here for whatever Tifa had to offer.

"I hear you," Aeris murmured as they broke for air, her lips close enough to brush Tifa's as she spoke. Tifa started to move in again, but a loud knock stopped her short.

"Hey," Yuffie called through the door, "I'm making Zack get us food, you guys want anything?"

Aeris let out a soft laugh and shared a look with Tifa. "Foiled again," she murmured. At least Yuffie hadn't walked in on them.

"Sure," Tifa called back, and she got up to open the door.

She felt... calmer, the rest of the evening. That guilt still lay heavy on her chest, but Aeris had given her something to hold onto, to keep her from going under. Maybe she'd made a mistake, and maybe it was all she could see when she looked at herself now, but it couldn't be what defined her, for Aeris to feel the way that she did. There was something else, and she'd find it in time, and then she'd try again, listening for the Planet's voice.

Sleep remained elusive that night, but Tifa settled in with her guilt, and did her best to reshape it into something she could live with. If her mistake was in assuming Dyne would never change, then maybe she had to allow that for herself. She had time to change, to become a person who wouldn't let the ends justify the means. She saw it in Barret and Jessie, too; they wanted AVALANCHE to change.

The tough decisions ahead... they could be different, if they made them differently.

The rain finally ended sometime before dawn, because Tifa remembered seeing the first grey light through the window curtains, but she must have at last fallen asleep after that. She woke mid-morning when Barret came in to tell them that Jessie had called; the others had just reached town.

Tifa climbed out of bed and stuffed her feet into her boots, insisting on going with Barret to meet them. She didn't know where Yuffie had gone, but she asked Aeris to gather the others together at the inn.

Outside, the sun was struggling to break through the cloud cover, a bright white glow behind them, and Tifa's boots splashed through puddles over the short distance from the inn's entrance to the small lot beside it.

Vincent had just parked the truck, and Tifa watched as he held the door for the tall woman who climbed out after him. Lucrecia. Sephiroth's mother.

"Tifa! Barret!" Jessie had left her gear in the truck and come straight for them. She threw one arm around Tifa and reached for Barret with the other, managing to snag the edge of his vest. He obliged her by stepping closer so she could hug the both of them at once, and Tifa let herself lean into the two of them.

"I'm so sorry," Jessie went on. "How are you two holding up?"

Barret caught her eye over Jessie's head, and Tifa answered, "I think we're managing."

"If there's anything you need from me," Jessie said, drawing back to look at them. "Anything at all, you just say the word."

"Thanks, Jess," said Barret. "It's good to see you."

Nanaki had come up behind Jessie, his mane still damp from the early morning rain they must have driven through. "I am sorry your venture went so poorly," he offered, "but it is good to be back together."

"Yeah," Tifa agreed, but then she looked past him as Vincent approached with Lucrecia.

She could see the resemblance immediately, not the guessing game she'd played with Vincent. Sephiroth had clearly inherited his looks from his mother, a beautiful woman even as she must have been close to sixty. She offered Tifa a slight smile, and Tifa wished she hadn't. The shape of her mouth, the way it didn't quite reach her eyes... It was too much like him.

"You must be Tifa," she said. "I don't really know what I can say to you. I've heard of my son's actions... I can't imagine it's easy for you to meet with me."

"No, it's not," said Tifa, finding it a struggle to keep her tone civil. Because of this woman... She hadn't meant to create a monster, but she'd created one all the same. "You're going to get that with most of us, I'm afraid."

"I understand," said Lucrecia, though beside her, Vincent frowned.

"Where's everyone else?" Jessie wondered. "Inside?"

Tifa nodded. "I asked Aeris to get them together, so we can talk."

They collected the rest of the gear from the truck and went on inside, gathering in the larger of the two rooms they'd booked. The others had clearly told Lucrecia about their party, but Vincent ran through the introductions, putting names to faces. Lucrecia's gaze lingered on Aeris, and maybe it was just because Aeris was the only one not looking back at her with suspicion, but maybe it was something else. Tifa moved to stand beside Aeris, just in case.

"So this is Sephiroth's mom, huh," Yuffie remarked when Vincent had finished. "Shouldn't we tie her up or something?"

"What?" said Vincent.

"Well, that's way more suspicious than Zack, isn't it?"

"She's got a point," said Barret. "She ain't exactly the most trustworthy o' people."

"Guys," said Jessie, "she's been with us for two days, and it's been fine. She didn't kill us in our sleep or anything."

"Why would she?" said Yuffie. "It's smarter to wait 'til she met up with the rest of us."

"She came here to help you," Vincent stated.

"It's all right, Vincent," said Lucrecia, and she looked to Tifa. "I understand your distrust. You can restrain me if you want. I don't mind it."

"...I'm not sure we need to go that far," Tifa said. If this woman represented a threat, she didn't think it was the violent kind. "We'll just be keeping an eye on you."

Lucrecia nodded.

"So," said Zack, folding his arms, "you're here to check up on me and Cloud, huh?"

"I... suppose I am," said Lucrecia. "After all, my research contributed to what Hojo did to you. And of course to what... Sephiroth did to you." Her voice broke a little with those words, and she clasped her hands in front of her and bowed her head. "I am so sorry," she said, "for what he became. For what we created."

Tifa watched her carefully. Although she had a distant air, her remorse, like Vincent's, seemed genuine. Was there any reason to judge her more harshly than Gast, who'd made the same mistake and likewise left Shinra behind? Or more harshly than Vincent, who Tifa had suspected might be Sephiroth's father?

"Why didn't you do anything about it before?" Cloud asked into the quiet that followed that apology that no one seemed eager to accept. "Before Nibelheim?"

Lucrecia glanced at him and shook her head. "Because I'm a coward," she said. "I can say that Hojo kept me from our son, but I could have found a way to him. I could have told him the truth of things, before he found out on his own."

"'Our'...?" Tifa repeated with a grimace. Sephiroth was Hojo's son?

"Oh, gross," said Yuffie.

Lucrecia scanned their faces. "Ah. I assumed Vincent had told you."

Jessie scratched her head. "No. I just kind of figured it out, the way you were talking."

"...I almost feel bad for him now," Zack admitted. "He didn't even know. That guy's gotta be up there for the Shittiest Dad award."

"Like that's any excuse," said Yuffie.

"Didn't say it was. It does explain some things, though."

"But I do understand," Aeris spoke up at last, "why you never risked going back to Hojo. I spent a long time hiding from him, too. You disappeared the way you did because it was safer for you if he thought you were dead, right? After all... you have Jenova in you, too."

Lucrecia met her gaze and slowly inclined her head. "Yes. I do."

"Never mind all that," said Tifa. "Hojo's dead. This is about your actions, now."

"Right." Lucrecia drew a breath and looked to Zack and Cloud. "I... I'll need to track down some equipment, but if you'll allow it, I'd like to take some tissue samples from the two of you, though I'm... not sure how much help I can be. I have only myself for comparison."

"Shouldn't you be the expert?" asked Barret.

"With Gast gone... I suppose I might be. But the nature of Jenova is... something we should have seen much sooner as terrifying. There exists nothing like it on our Planet. Its regenerative properties, in my experience, make it impossible to eliminate from a host. Anything that could actually kill the Jenova... would certainly kill the host much more easily."

Tifa glanced sharply at Aeris, wondering for the first time-- if Holy had the chance to attack Jenova, would it only be the body of the creature itself, or...? The frown on Aeris's face said that the same thought had occurred to her.

"But if there was a way to kill only the Jenova in a host..." Aeris began slowly, "they'd be all right, wouldn't they?"

Lucrecia pressed her lips together. "In myself, I think not. Each time it's... healed me, it's taken a little more of me, and by now it's too much a part of me. But it's been only five years for the two of you, and for the others Hojo took. Your condition may not be nearly so advanced. I should at least be able to confirm that for you."

Zack made a face. "Guess that's something."

"Do you have a way?" Lucrecia asked, her eyes on Aeris again.

But Aeris shook her head. "Not really. I was just wondering."

No one said anything to contradict her, but Vincent caught Tifa's eye, something urgent in that look. They had just established that Holy might very well kill Lucrecia, and they were keeping that knowledge from her.

But they couldn't risk Sephiroth finding out about it, and Lucrecia could be as unwitting a spy for him as Cloud, or Zack. Tifa shook her head slightly. They couldn't tell her until it was done.

Vincent's flesh hand clenched into a fist at his side, but he kept silent.

For her part, Lucrecia appeared unconvinced, but she didn't pry. Instead she said, "Well then. Is it all right if I leave you to look for those supplies?"

Tifa nodded. "I think so. But not alone."

"I'll go with you," said Vincent, as expected.

"I can accompany you as well," Nanaki volunteered with a glance at Tifa. Obviously he understood that Vincent wouldn't be keeping an eye on Lucrecia expecting her to be the source of any danger.

"We could stand to pick up some supplies, too," Jessie said, looking to Barret. "You still out of ammo?"

Barret nodded, but Tifa interjected, "We'll leave that to you, Jessie. Barret and I need to talk."

He glanced at her, nodding again in understanding. "And, uh, you'll need to get somethin' for yourself there, too, Jess."

Jessie scarcely missed a beat. "Got it," she said, never asking what had happened to her rifle.

"If you're hitting up the weapons store, me an' Cloud'll join you," said Zack, and when Cloud looked at him quizzically, Zack nudged him with an elbow. "We can't share a sword, buddy. It's time for you to get your own."

"Plus we'll need some warmer stuff for up north," Jessie reasoned, beginning to frown.

"Do we have the money for all that?" Yuffie wondered. "We're actual ticketed passengers on that ship, and those weren't exactly cheap."

Tifa ran a hand through her hair. Bugenhagen had been generous, but it was still a lot to burn through all at once. "Maybe we can sell the truck," she considered. "We have to leave it behind anyway."

"You can leave that to me," Yuffie said.

Tifa almost pointed out that she could barely handle being a passenger, much less a driver, but... she was pretty good at getting money out of people.

Aeris glanced at Tifa and offered, "I'll help you out, Yuffie."

"What, you?"

Aeris smiled. "You're thinking, 'with this face'? But that's exactly the point, you know."

"Nobody ever suspects her of anything," Zack added. "Between the two of you, you might actually make money on that thing."

"Well, we didn't pay for it to begin with," said Yuffie, "so obviously."

"You guys steal a lot of cars for people who barely know how to drive."

Tifa shrugged. "Surprisingly good way to learn," she said.

Aeris clapped her hands together. "Anyway, it looks like we all have our jobs to do, so we'll get out of your hair." But she hung back for a moment as the others started out of the room, reached for Tifa's hand, and gave it a squeeze.

Tifa glanced around, but everyone's back was to them but Barret's. She leaned in and gave Aeris a quick kiss on the cheek. "Thanks," she murmured.

Aeris smiled, and she was the last one out the door, her step quickening to catch up to Yuffie.

"Guess you two had a good talk last night," Barret remarked.

Tifa tucked her hair behind her ear. "Yeah," she said. "I think she's... it for me, Barret. You know?"

"Yeah, I know," he said softly.

She gave her head a shake and looked back at him. "Sorry."

"Nah, it's good. I'm happy for you. 'sides, what am I, an old man already? Could happen again."

Tifa quirked an eyebrow at him. "Never heard you say that before."

Barret scratched his head. "Just sayin.' Don't want you feelin' bad on my account."

She eyed him a moment longer and let it drop. "Anyway," she said, sitting down on the edge of one of the beds. "Let's... figure this out."

Barret joined her, his expression sobering. "You sure you wanna do it now? We got plenty o' time to think it over. Marlene's too young to understand any of it."

"I know. But I need to know for me, before I can talk to her again."

He nodded in understanding. "I was plannin' on tellin' her 'bout her birth parents eventually... but I figure, it don't gotta end any different from what I told you guys to begin with. Eleanor died in the fire, an' Dyne went when he fell into that ravine. Now, could be that's it. I seen it both ways: some folks who've been adopted, they wanna know everything 'bout where they came from; some of 'em, they don't care."

"What if she does want to know everything? What if she asks us about him? It's one thing not to tell her, but I don't think I can lie to her."

"I know how you feel," said Barret, "but we gotta think about what's best for Marlene. How's it do her any good, learnin' that her birth father wanted to kill her? An' there's no way we could tell her how he really died without explainin' that."

"She could find out, though, that he didn't die four years ago. That it didn't happen until we went to that prison. I wouldn't want her hearing that from someone else."

"Don't figure that's too likely."

"But not impossible, right?"

It was an uncomfortable notion, the idea of Marlene ever seeing that prison town, those grave markers, but who knew what she would want when she was older. If she ever sensed that they were hiding something from her, maybe she'd want to seek out the truth. Tifa didn't think any of their friends would reveal it to her, but those prisoners would have pieced together that one of them had killed Dyne that day.

Barret frowned, glancing away. "...we oughtta see it comin,'" he reasoned, "if she gets that far. An' then... then maybe we tell her. Expect she'll be angry at first, but if we been doin' our jobs right 'til then, she'll understand."

"You think so?" Tifa wondered. It was hard enough for her to understand.

"Maybe we made some mistakes with how we been handlin' things--an' I ain't sayin' Dyne's one of 'em--but we do right by Marlene, don't we? We keep her safe an' looked after, an' I know I try to be the best man I can be, for her sake."

"...yeah."

Barret shook his head. "I'm hopin' she never has to find out about that day, though. Awful thing to know about your own father, even one you don't remember."

"I guess you're right. I'd be worried... she might start to think badly of herself, trying to find a reason for it." So it was better, wasn't it, for her never to know? If Tifa were to tell her, would it be for Marlene's sake, or just to alleviate some of her own guilt over carrying that secret around? She let out a breath. "It will be a while, before it comes up. I can figure out how to lie about it before then."

"I'm sorry you gotta be the one livin' with this, Teef."

"It wouldn't sit any easier with you. I'm just glad... you don't hate me for it."

"'course not," Barret said immediately. "You were protectin' my baby girl. And... protectin' me. Probably saved my life."

Tifa swallowed. He did understand what she'd done, didn't he? "You know I..."

"I know," he interrupted. "I don't just mean that day. I was bein' stupid-- wanted to think my friend was still in there, but I shoulda known the moment he said it. Dyne I knew woulda given his life for his family. Not... that."

Tifa leaned her head on his shoulder, saying nothing, and he put his arm around her.

"Think you'll be up for talkin' to her today?" he asked. "She misses you."

"Yeah. Just not right this second."

"Nah, I was thinkin' our usual time. We oughtta help the others runnin' errands. Don't really want Jessie pickin' out my clothes."

Tifa smiled. "Her fashion sense isn't so bad, but if the others get involved... who knows."

"Exactly."

Tifa drew a quick breath and got to her feet. "All right," she said. "Let's try to be normal."

"How's that go again?" Barret asked, and she just shrugged. When was the last time anything had been normal? At least they had each other to lean on.

Chapter Text

Aeris and Yuffie met the others back at the inn after they sold the truck. Lucrecia had found a decent medical supply store, and she went about her work as quickly as she could while Zack and Cloud grit their teeth and bore it. Even if Lucrecia were anyone else, Aeris would have understood it. After the years she'd spent in Hojo's 'care,' she wouldn't have wanted anyone around her with a needle either.

And she understood just as well when Zack jumped on the idea of one more shopping trip. Why dwell on ugly memories when there was any potential to make better ones?

Costa del Sol's shops sported a small selection of winter gear for those headed north from its port, and they descended upon them en masse, only Nanaki abstaining. As shopping trips went, the options were hardly exciting, but Aeris enjoyed the baffled looks their group garnered, and the light banter amid browsing coats and sweaters was a welcome change from the past few days. Tifa, of course, looked good in anything, and she obliged Aeris by trying on a few more things than was really necessary.

Their wallets took a hit, and Zack bemoaned the lost opportunity for swimwear, but never floated the idea seriously. He was, however, insistent that they hit the beach for the remainder of the day, and to that Tifa gave no objection.

The Planet thrummed in the back of Aeris's mind, anxious that she was staying in one place so long. It didn't understand the concept of boat schedules. The way doesn't open until tomorrow, she said. I promise we're going as soon as we can. And we could use the rest.

She wondered if it even understood something so crucial to the human existence as rest. After two thousand years with the wound Jenova had made, and now Shinra... maybe the loss of the reactors in Midgar and Gongaga was the closest thing in memory it had had to a respite.

They made a stop back at the inn, and most of the others went on ahead to the beach, hoping to secure a good spot. The sun had only just broken out of the clouds, and it might not have grown crowded yet. It was late in the season, too, Aeris supposed, with the last official day of summer just ahead of them.

Tifa and Aeris stayed behind to change, though Vincent and Lucrecia had yet to leave when Aeris took her turn. Vincent didn't require any convincing to go anywhere Lucrecia wanted to, but she was having a hard time persuading him that that heavy cape wasn't appropriate beach wear.

But when Aeris reemerged from the bathroom, Lucrecia was unfastening its buckles while Vincent stood stiffly in resignation.

"Success, I see," Aeris remarked.

"He's as bad as he was before," said Lucrecia. "I had so much trouble ever getting him out of uniform."

Aeris cocked her head, trying to imagine it. Vincent in the uniform of the Turks... he'd probably been handsome, for all that it signified. They made an odd couple now, Lucrecia pretty but nondescript in her practical clothes, and Vincent with his dramatic appearance, looking young enough to be her son.

But she had a son.

Aeris had never expected to meet the woman in the flesh. Sephiroth's mother. Hojo's wife. Vincent's great love. Always defined before by her relationships to the men in her life, but here now with a voice of her own. A woman weighed down by remorse, but seeming to come more alive, bit by bit, even since that morning.

The others treated her with suspicion, and Aeris wondered if they would have felt the same about her father, if he'd lived. The only difference between Gast and Lucrecia was that she was still alive to be held accountable. But Aeris wasn't interested in that. She'd faced consequences enough... and might still.

Tifa was looking at her expectantly, but as Lucrecia tossed the cape aside across one of the beds, Aeris looked from Tifa to Vincent.

"Could you two give us a minute?" she asked.

"Aeris?" said Tifa in confusion.

"I just want to talk, and you know Vincent's going to keep hogging her to himself. You understand, right?"

Tifa glanced at Lucrecia uneasily, but comprehension settled on her face, and she nodded. "I'll be right outside," she said.

So protective. Aeris couldn't help a smile. Vincent caught Lucrecia's eye, but he left the room with Tifa without saying a word.

Lucrecia was shaking her head as she took a seat, and Aeris noted a faint smile on her face that probably mirrored her own.

"You're still very fond of him," she observed, "aren't you?"

The smile faded. "Some loves... I don't think you ever quite get over."

"You could come with us," Aeris proposed, sitting down beside her. "We have an extra ticket." At Lucrecia's confused look, she explained, "Barret and Yuffie forgot and bought one for Nanaki. Which is sweet, but the tour people are going to count him as a pet, not a passenger."

"I see," said Lucrecia, but she shook her head. "Thank you, but I know I'm not welcome. And it's been hard enough seeing Vincent every day, with what Hojo did to him."

"Doesn't he look the same?"

Lucrecia looked off with a faraway expression, as though she were imagining it. "His eyes were brown when I knew him," she said. "And that arm... he won't touch me with it. He's so self-conscious of it, of himself. Worse than when we first met."

"Couldn't you get past it?" Aeris wondered.

"In time, if I wanted to, maybe. But he deserves the chance to move on. These few days are enough for me, to finally have the chance to say goodbye."

Aeris dropped her gaze to her hands. Would Lucrecia feel differently, she wondered, if she knew how little time she might have? In a few days, Aeris hoped to summon Holy, and if it responded to her call and erased Jenova from the Planet... it might erase the Jenova from inside Lucrecia, too, a presence that she needed by now to stay alive.

She didn't think Lucrecia would discourage her, if she knew. The way she spoke, she might even be glad to finally be rid of it, regardless of the cost. But it felt wrong to keep her in the dark.

And yet... she couldn't risk it. Holy was their last defense, should Sephiroth summon Meteor.

"Well then," she said at last, "you should make it memorable. I know you feel guilty about what happened back then, but I wouldn't let that get in the way if I were you."

Lucrecia's eyes were on her again. "There is something you aren't telling me, isn't there?" she asked.

"It's just..." Aeris faltered, and tried a different approach. "It's very dangerous, what we're doing. Going after Sephiroth."

"There's a chance Vincent might not survive it. That my son might kill him. Is that what you're saying?"

"Well... yes," Aeris admitted. What a thing to suggest to her instead. "And if we fail... Meteor will kill all of us."

Lucrecia said nothing for a time. At a glance she seemed calm, pensive, but Aeris noticed her clench her hands to cease a tremor in them. She swallowed.

"You know, it is almost tempting. To go with you just to see him, just once, before... But then I'd have to see what he's become. And to watch one of them kill the other... No. It's too much."

"...I understand," said Aeris, ceding defeat. At least Lucrecia understood that this might be a last farewell, even if she didn't quite understand why.

"Now," said Lucrecia, "you didn't just want to talk to me about Vincent, did you?"

It made sense for her to think so, didn't it? Why should Aeris be so invested in the relationship between a man she barely knew and a woman she'd just met? But there was something else she could ask of Lucrecia.

"You knew my father," she said. "Probably a lot better than Vincent, since you worked so closely with him. Maybe you could tell me a little about him."

"Gast..." Lucrecia said, smiling sadly. "Well... I can tell you what a joy it was, to work with someone so brilliant, and so open to collaboration. Hojo could get so jealous, if you had an idea that he hadn't thought of first... Your father wasn't like that. It's a shame I didn't meet him sooner, to know what it was really like to have someone respect me for my work."

Aeris didn't ask about Hojo, about their relationship. She knew as much about that man's character as she ever needed to. "Were you friends, outside of your work?"

"Well... To be honest, none of us were very good at having a life outside our work. It was Vincent who'd manage to get me out of my head... But yes, Gast and I were friends, in our own way. He was really the last person who was there for me... Hojo all but abandoned me after Sephiroth was born, and Vincent disappeared..."

"Gast tried to help you, right?" Aeris asked, recalling what they'd found in Lucrecia's file.

"Yes," Lucrecia confirmed. "Poor man, he didn't really understand, but he did try. I regret disappearing the way I did, if only because he must have felt responsible. But of all of us, I suppose he was the one who found a way to move on."

"...I wish I could've known him. I know what he did, but everyone speaks so well of him."

Lucrecia pursed her lips. "You know... I don't know how far north you mean to go, but if you make it to Icicle Inn, you ought to ask after your parents. That was their home, before Hojo found them. Some people may still remember them."

Aeris frowned at her. "How do you... know about all that?" she wondered. No one else she'd spoken to had known what had become of Gast after the Jenova Project; Aeris had been the one to tell them, and she'd assumed Vincent had related it to Lucrecia in turn. But even Aeris hadn't known where they'd lived.

"Many years ago," Lucrecia explained, "I tried to go north myself, back to the crater where they found Jenova. I thought I might learn something. I never made it all the way, but I did hear about Gast, and your mother. Their house was abandoned, then... You look very much like her, you know. Your mother."

Aeris's breath hitched in her throat. For her to say that... there must have been pictures. Of her mother when she was alive, Aeris had only the White Materia and her fading memories.

"I'm sorry," said Lucrecia. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"No, no. Thank you for telling me. I'll... have to look into it, someday."

It had been over twenty years, and so someone else could be living in that house by now, and emptied it of its treasures, but like Lucrecia said, there might be people who remembered her parents. People who'd known them together, in that brief time when they'd been happiest. And if nothing else, she could see the place where she'd been born.

"I just wish I had more for you," said Lucrecia. "Seeing you now... You've grown into such a kind young woman. It makes me imagine a different life."

For a moment, Aeris thought of it, too. A life where her parents hadn't died, where Lucrecia had raised her son, where all of them had had the chance to be family... Things could have been so different... but if they had been, would Aeris ever have met Tifa?

"If it's any consolation," she ventured, "Sephiroth wasn't always the person he is now. He was respected, he had friends... Maybe you could talk to Zack about him. He knew him before."

"Perhaps I will. But I think we've kept your friends waiting long enough."

Aeris smiled, and she laid her hand atop Lucrecia's for just a moment. "I'm sure Vincent's eager to spend more time with you, too."

Lucrecia shook her head. "That man... I don't deserve him."

"Forget about that," Aeris said. "He doesn't care, and I think you've both punished yourselves enough. Just... do what you want, with the time you have. Okay?"

Lucrecia laughed softly. "To be getting advice from Gast's daughter... that's a day I never imagined." But she rose to her feet and nodded to the door. "Shall we go?"

Tifa and Vincent both waited in the hall just outside the door, and Aeris wondered if they had overheard any of the conversation. Tifa wasn't the type to eavesdrop intentionally, but the walls here weren't the thickest. And Vincent... Well, who knew, but it might do him some good to hear how Lucrecia spoke of him.

Aeris looped an arm through Tifa's, smiling at her. "The beach awaits."

Vincent and Lucrecia fell behind them as they left the inn and headed down the street to the beach. Tifa glanced back at them and then asked softly, "Did you tell her...?"

Aeris shook her head. "But I encouraged her to make the most of the time they have. I mean... there's no guarantee for any of us, when you think about it."

Tifa reached up and took her hand. "We're making it through this," she said. "Otherwise what happens with all your plans?"

"You're right. We have to stay positive. And I do want a real vacation someday, not just the few hours we get here and there."

"Well... A few hours is what we have now, so let's make the most of them ourselves."

Aeris could tell it took her effort to talk that way, still struggling with her self-worth in the wake of the past few days, but it was good to see her pushing through it. She was allowing herself some fun, and she deserved it, whatever she felt. Aeris gave her hand a squeeze.

It was funny, she thought. Aeris had always imagined that it would feel more momentous to say that she loved someone, that there would be a clear before and after, but it had happened so naturally that she might have missed it but for Tifa's reaction. To her it was no more surprising than announcing the sun was warm, or the ocean wet. There was no longer any other way to describe it.

She thought Tifa felt the same, but the words were harder for her. She seemed not to want them to come from a heart still laden with so many other doubts, and Aeris could only do so much to help her through them.

The beach was much less crowded than the last time they'd come, but they by no means had it to themselves. Tourists had claimed the coveted section of beach close to the bars, and they walked on in search of their friends.

Barret was the easiest to spot, walking barefoot with Jessie through the waves along the shore. Splashes drew her eye to Zack and Yuffie, farther out in the water, engaged in what Aeris hoped was a friendly war with each other. Nanaki had claimed a place resting beneath one of the umbrellas, and Cloud stood nearby, watching the others.

"Not going swimming, Cloud?" Aeris asked him as they stopped to set down their towels.

"Huh?" he said, and she gestured to the shirt he still wore. "Oh. No big deal to swim in this. The scar's... pretty ugly."

"Oh. Mind if I take a peek?"

"Aeris?" said Tifa, looking at her sharply while Cloud took a step back in surprise.

"What? You're always hiding yours, but I don't think it looks so bad. I thought he could use a second opinion."

"I'm okay," said Cloud, giving the hem of his shirt a decisive tug down.

Aeris regarded him thoughtfully. "I don't think Zack will care either, if that's what you're worried about."

"What's Zack got to do with it?"

"You like him, right?"

Cloud didn't answer, but his ears went a bright red. It was cute, really, and she wondered at those little country villages turning out so many attractive people.

Tifa's hand found her back, pushing her towards the shore. "Sorry, Cloud," she said. "I'm gonna go throw this one in the ocean."

He smiled a little, scratching his head. "Thanks."

Aeris gave in and let Tifa lead her away, but she pouted. "I was only trying to help."

Tifa shook her head. "You really think he'd admit something like that to Zack's ex-girlfriend and an old crush?"

"Well, it would mean he and I have exactly the same taste in people," Aeris pointed out.

"I-" Tifa faltered, and shut her mouth. Apparently it hadn't occurred to her, but Aeris thought it made her eminently qualified to help out.

But she knew Tifa didn't like matchmaking, so instead she said, "Were you really going to throw me into the ocean? It sounds like fun."

Tifa looked at her, and with a soft smile, she swept Aeris up into her arms. Aeris lost a flip-flop in the process, and kicked off the other as Tifa carried her into the surf. When the water had reached her waist, she hefted Aeris up and dropped her in. Aeris shrieked in delight as the cool water enveloped her, and after a disoriented second, her foot found the sandy bottom. Tifa was there to grab onto once her head broke the surface, and Aeris tumbled into her, laughing.

"Hey!" Zack called to them, waving an arm. "Can I get a rescue over here?"

"No way!" said Yuffie. "They're on my side, right?"

Aeris waded over with Tifa, and from appearances, it certainly didn't look like Zack was the one who'd need rescuing. He was a solid foot taller than Yuffie, a fact emphasized now as the water reached her chest but came only to his waist. Unlike Cloud, he didn't have any problem baring his chest, which now sported a few scars that Aeris didn't recognize, from shallower slashes than Tifa's but probably obtained the same way.

And healed with the help of Jenova, she thought, her heart sinking a moment. He and Cloud didn't know either.

"Well..." said Tifa, considering their options, "I'm more inclined to side with Yuffie."

Yuffie grinned. "Yeah! Girls against boys."

Zack made a face. "No fair! That's three against one."

"You just need to drag Cloud out here to even things out," said Aeris. "I can barely swim, so I don't think I count for much."

"Yeah, right," said Zack, throwing her a knowing look. "But you're right about Cloud. Guy needs to loosen up."

He headed back for the shore, and Yuffie nodded in satisfaction. "We're going to destroy them," she said, and Aeris laughed.

It was hard to say, once they got into it, what the terms for winning or losing even were, only that each side was furiously determined not to be the loser. The right amount of splashing seemed to be enough to completely obscure sight of your opponents, and Aeris had swallowed seawater more than once by the time Barret waved Tifa over for their daily call, effecting a wary ceasefire.

Aeris didn't go after her, figuring she would want her space for this one, and instead she turned to Yuffie to see if she could help with her swimming lessons.

They headed back to shore later, whereupon Zack and Cloud started work on a sand castle. Yuffie loudly declared her disinterest and went off to join Nanaki, but Aeris had never made one before and she was happy to help with a few towers. Tifa soon joined them, and Jessie came by later to offer them some seashells for decoration.

As the day wore into evening, they picked up food from one of the restaurants and all ate together on the sand. The sun set behind the town, and most of the tourists abandoned the beach. The ocean stretched out dark and glimmering before them, and no one seemed in any hurry to leave.

But even with Tifa's arm around her, Aeris was starting to get a little chilly without the sun, and she knew Tifa hadn't slept well the night before. She caught her eye and nodded towards the inn.

"Yeah, all right," said Tifa, and they headed back together.

All the activity had moved into the bars, their light and sound spilling out into the streets through open doors. Another time, Aeris might have liked to go in, to feel that energy around her but not feel like she was missing out on some kind of secret, because she'd have Tifa with her, and no one could hold a candle to that.

But for now she preferred the quiet that found them when the door to the inn shut behind them. The hall lights were dimmed, and they made the only noise themselves. Shoes slapping against their feet, key turning in the lock, the door closing behind them.

The last time they had come back to this inn alone together, Tifa had kissed her for the first time. They'd come so far since then, since that tentative press of lips into the corner of her mouth, not even daring to kiss her full on. They reached everything by degrees that way, like easing into a too-hot bath.

Aeris wondered what the next step was.

"You want to take a shower?" she asked, kicking off her flip-flops.

Tifa waved a hand. "You can go first," she said. "It'll warm you up."

"Actually..." Aeris hesitated, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. "I thought maybe we could take one together."

Tifa's head snapped towards her, and her face flushed dark. Aeris felt her own heating a little. For all the time they'd spent sharing rooms and even beds, they'd never seen each other completely naked. And the shower, while big enough, was not exactly spacious.

"Um..." said Tifa.

Aeris smiled. "Just an invitation," she said quickly. "Up to you."

She turned to go on into the bathroom, leaving Tifa to process the idea. She left the door ajar, turned on the water, and stripped out of her bathing suit. She took the White Materia in its pin out of her hair, set it carefully atop the bathroom vanity, and glanced at the door. Well, a hot shower would be nice enough on its own, she decided with a shrug.

She had time enough to unwind her hair loose from its braid before she saw the door open, and Tifa's shape appeared, indistinct through the frosted glass of the shower. Aeris's heartbeat quickened, watching the motion of her stripping off her swimsuit. The shower door slid cautiously open, and Tifa stepped in.

Tifa's beauty had always been a little overwhelming, from the first glimpse Aeris had had of her: silky hair almost black in the Midgar night, the shape of her lips, worried into a frown, not yet noticing Aeris to realize that she had stared first. And now Aeris saw all of her, every curve from the ones she typically hid to the muscles of her arms. She wanted to touch every inch of that skin, ready and eager to make this again a place of firsts--

But she didn't think that Tifa was, so she let her set the pace. Tifa's face reddened as her eyes ran over Aeris's body, but her hands stayed at her sides, and she looked unsure.

Aeris hadn't been quite clear with her invitation, she realized. Innuendo, or just what she'd said?

"You can just help me wash my hair," she offered, "if you want."

Tifa relaxed, letting out a breath. Too big a step for her. But, Aeris had found that letting Tifa know what she wanted, what she was ready for, could lead to Tifa making some small step towards it on her own.

Tifa's fingers in her hair, the unavoidable brushes of skin against skin in the close quarters... It was intimate enough. And frankly, if they'd done anything more, without going all the way... Aeris might have needed another, colder shower.

Neither of them had remembered to bring a change of clothes into the bathroom, and while Tifa secured a towel around herself, Aeris peeked out into the room before stepping out naked and retrieving her nightgown off the edge of their bed.

Tifa gave the tank top she'd been wearing earlier a sniff and made a face. "I think I'm out of clothes that're even passably clean."

"Guess you'll just have to be naked," Aeris said lightly. "It's still too warm for sweaters."

"I don't think that'll work for tomorrow," Tifa said wryly. "I think it's time to hit the laundry room."

"Always an exciting date night activity."

Tifa pushed her hair back behind her ear. "We can at least wait until Jessie and Yuffie are back."

Aeris smiled and shrugged. "I don't think you'll be the one doing it anyway. Unless you're comfortable strolling around the inn in a towel."

Tifa glanced down at herself, a little sheepishly. She took a careful seat on their bed, making sure the towel remained secure.

Not that it really had to, Aeris thought... She gave her head a shake and went to sit down beside her. "I wanted to ask earlier: how did it go with Marlene?"

"...not the way I expected," Tifa admitted.

"Is that a good thing?"

Tifa took a moment to find her words. "Hearing her voice... made it harder to regret something I did to keep her safe. Just a little, anyway."

Aeris smiled. "I'm glad."

"Barret's been really great about everything, too," Tifa went on. "He told Marlene... I stopped a 'bad man' from hurting people. It must be so hard for him, to think of Dyne that way."

"Probably. But on balance, it's not hard to think of you that way--as someone who protects people."

"Well... I'll aim to keep it that way."

Aeris nodded, and reached over to give Tifa's hand a squeeze. Tifa shifted, winding their fingers together, looking down at their joined hands.

"So," she said, "tomorrow we go north."

"Mm," said Aeris. "I guess we'll have some time to ourselves on the ship, too. It's not as if they're going to ask us to row."

"True. And this time we don't have to wear those uniforms," Tifa added, making a face.

"They were a little itchy. And they hid half your face."

Tifa's expression sobered. "I wonder what the Shinra are up to, though... Hard to imagine they'd really just leave us alone."

"You think they're following us again, to learn where Sephiroth is headed?"

"Could be. I guess then we'd be valuable to them for a little while longer, as long as they don't pick up his trail on their own."

Aeris sat back, her brow furrowing. "I wonder if we should be worried about Lucrecia..."

"What for?"

"Well, she isn't coming with us, but if the Shinra are watching us, they'll know she's an ally. Maybe they even know who she is. I don't know what's happened to their science department with Hojo gone, but they'd probably be as interested in her expertise as we are, for their own reasons."

Tifa's frown was more one of doubt than concern. "We can mention it to her," she said, "but you're probably underestimating her. She's been on her own for almost thirty years, hasn't she?"

"I guess you're right. She's hidden from them all this time, she ought to be an expert in that, too."

"You don't hold any of it against her, do you?" Tifa asked her.

"No. She made the same mistake as Gast, didn't she?"

Tifa nodded slowly. "I thought that, too. But it's... easier to forgive your father than someone who looks like she does."

"It makes me sad for her," said Aeris. "It's probably not the only way he took after her... But she's helping us anyway, how she can."

"I guess so. Cloud and Zack didn't seem thrilled about it, getting prodded by another scientist."

"I don't think they're expecting much. But I know it'll be one worry off my mind if she can give us any sign that... that they'll be okay."

"...after Holy, you mean?" Tifa asked quietly.

Aeris nodded.

"I don't suppose the Planet can tell you anything?"

"I don't think so. There's no precedent for it."

Tifa gave her hand a squeeze. "They're strong enough to fight it off. I have to believe they'll be all right."

"...yeah. You're probably right."

Aeris knew right now that Tifa understood better than anyone. She'd been faced with the same dilemma as part of AVALANCHE, and come to the same decision Aeris had already made, but had yet to go through with. To risk sacrificing innocent lives in order to save the Planet... She could say that it was the Planet's decision, exactly what Holy would do, but Aeris had her part to play, too. She wondered if Tifa had felt with as much certainty that it was something she had to do, despite the cost.

And Tifa was hoping there wouldn't be one, because she knew what that felt like.

"Ahh... When did this get all serious? I'm going to do a mental rewind to you doing laundry in that towel."

Tifa smiled gently. "Why not go back a little further than that?"

Aeris raised her eyebrows, and her gaze dropped to the towel secured just above Tifa's chest. "Really?"

"Mentally, I mean," said Tifa, blushing and tucking her hair behind her ear. "I'm not getting naked again when Jessie and Yuffie could be back any minute."

Aeris clicked her tongue. "When we go on a real vacation, we're getting our own room."

"I like how you imagine we'll be suddenly rich then, too," Tifa remarked.

"Hmm... Think we could steal the funds from the Shinra? It's only fair when they're the ones who caused all of this."

Tifa laughed. "Definitely a good thought, worthy of an AVALANCHE member. I'm sure we'll figure it out."

"Good. Because I don't want it to be like when I imagined things back in Midgar, and never did anything about them."

"It won't be. I promise."

Aeris smiled and leaned her head on Tifa's shoulder, knowing that even if they were joking around, Tifa meant to keep that promise. After all of this was over, they'd figure it out.

Chapter Text

They left the inn early the next morning. Vincent and Lucrecia were ready before anyone else, and Tifa thought they might have been out all night, but she didn't ask. It was their own business.

A line of people waited at the docks, and their party stood out as much as they had in the tour group over the Corel mountains. Although the ship wasn't a military vessel, Tifa suspected most of its passengers worked for Shinra in one way or another, and she looked at the faces around her, seeing vacationing managers and off-duty officers.

Aeris made cheerful small talk with the people ahead of them, as though it hadn't occurred to her, or maybe it didn't bother her. She was in good spirits this morning, glad to be on their way, and... maybe Tifa had something to do with it, too.

Lucrecia saw them off as the line began to board the ship, her eyes scanning each of their faces.

"I had ambition once, too," she said, "to change the world... or so I thought. Looking back now, I think it was more selfish than that. A desire for recognition, greatness even... I can tell your endeavor isn't like that at all. I wish you luck in it."

"Thank you," said Aeris.

"Do you know where you're going from here?" Jessie asked her.

"Yes," said Lucrecia. "You needn't worry about me. I'll contact you when I can, with whatever help I can give you."

Tifa couldn't bring herself to express any gratitude to this woman, but she nodded. "We'll be expecting it."

"And look after Vincent for me, won't you?"

"Sure," said Tifa. That, she could do.

They went on to board the ship, but Vincent lingered behind, long enough that Tifa wondered if he might stay after all. At the last call, she watched him release Lucrecia's hand and make his way up the gangplank.

"Hey, let's go check out our rooms," said Aeris from beside her.

"I'll join you in a little bit," Tifa promised.

Aeris followed her gaze to where Vincent now stood against the rail, eyes on the dock. "Mm. We will have to keep an eye on him, won't we? So the brooding doesn't get too intense."

"Something like that."

Aeris gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll meet you at our room."

Tifa watched her go with a smile, and for a little while, she stayed put. The ship began to pull away from port, and she watched as Costa del Sol receded. One by one, the other passengers who had stayed to watch left to get settled, and at last even the spot where Lucrecia had been standing fell out of sight.

Vincent hadn't moved, and Tifa went over to join him. His face wasn't so expressionless as usual; he looked... forlorn.

"You all right?" she asked him.

"She's going with them," he said.

"What?"

"You suspect that the Turks have been following us again. I believe you're right."

Tifa could ask him if he'd seen them, but that wasn't what concerned her. "What do you mean, she's going with them?"

"In hopes of gaining access to Hojo's lab," Vincent explained. "She... wants to learn what he did to me."

"But that's..." She shook her head. "They won't just trust her to do whatever she wants. There's every chance she'll be a prisoner."

"She understands that."

Tifa wasn't sure what to make of the decision. Lucrecia wouldn't be able to compromise their mission; she only knew they were headed north. But what else might she give the Shinra, about Jenova, about Sephiroth? What might they push her into doing, and would she be able to help them as she'd promised? This was a riskier action than Tifa had expected from her, and she didn't know how far Lucrecia's bravery would carry her.

She glanced at Vincent, and kept that doubt to herself; she was sure he had faith in her intentions. "You must be worried," she said instead.

"Yes," he said. "I know that... it's her own decision. To take that from her would be to disrespect her. But, I wish there was a way for me to return to Shinra with her, to protect her."

"Well... I hope she knows what she's doing. But whatever else she is, she's smart, right?"

Vincent nodded. "And this is where she wanted me to be."

"With us?" Tifa wondered. "What about you, is that what you want?"

"I made a commitment to you all."

"I appreciate that, but it's not quite what I meant."

Vincent was quiet for a moment. "...I can't learn the truth unless I go with you. Whether Sephiroth is behind this or not... If he isn't, she'll be relieved to know. If he is... I can't allow her to be indirectly responsible for the end of the world."

So he was doing it for her now. Tifa wasn't surprised, but she said, "I'd like to think you don't want the world to end for its own sake."

At that, he finally looked at her, meeting her gaze. "No," he said, "I don't want the world to end. But, are you doing none of this for Aeris?"

Tifa opened her mouth, and then smiled wryly. "I like to think I'm doing it for all of us, but..." He had a point; somewhere along the line, Aeris had moved into the forefront. Tifa wanted to support her, wanted to make the world safe enough for all of her aspirations.

"You may not like Lucrecia," said Vincent, looking back out at the distant shore, "but I think you understand my feelings exactly."

Tifa nodded. Maybe she hadn't said the words, but... Looking at Vincent, she wondered how it would leave her, if she lost Aeris. And he'd already lost Lucrecia once. "I don't think Holy acts right away," she offered, "so maybe there'll be time to go back for her."

Vincent nodded without saying anything, and Tifa started to draw back from the railing.

"I'm gonna go check out the rooms," she said. "They've probably decided all the arrangements by now, so you should figure out later where they've stuck you."

"I will," he said.

Tifa left him to his thoughts, hefted up her bag, and headed down to the passenger deck. As she'd expected, everything had been settled in her absence, largely by Yuffie's declaration that she didn't want to room with her and Aeris because she wouldn't be able to handle any 'grossness' while at sea. They were three to a room, and no one had really argued it, letting her room with Jessie and Nanaki while Barret tentatively took the space with Tifa and Aeris, and that was fine with Tifa. She wasn't quite ready for them to... have their own room. Not quite.

That left Vincent with Zack and Cloud, and Tifa did hope he wouldn't pull another all-nighter. Maybe Zack would even make a mission out of befriending him, too.

Except for Yuffie and Nanaki, everyone wanted to explore the ship, and it was nice to have the freedom to this time. Compared to the cargo ship, everything was a small luxury. The rooms were cramped, but they didn't share them with strangers. The tables in the dining hall were smaller, laid neatly with table cloths, and there was more choice in the menu. There were even a few lounges to provide space inside to relax.

"A piano!" Aeris exclaimed as they entered one of them. Sure enough, an upright piano sat against the far wall. A couple tourists were sitting nearer the door, and glanced at them as they passed.

"You play?" Tifa wondered, following Aeris across the room.

Aeris turned to face her on reaching the piano and shook her head. "Not at all. But I thought you might. There was one in your room, wasn't there?"

"Yeah," said Tifa. She lifted the fallboard and let her fingers rest lightly atop the keys. "My mom taught piano, so, she used to teach me, too, but I wasn't great about practicing. They moved the piano into my room hoping it'd help. But that was just a few months before..."

"I see," said Aeris. "It's been a really long time then?"

"Well... I kept it up for a while. But I haven't played since Nibelheim, and I was already getting out of practice by then."

"That's too bad."

Tifa glanced around, but there was nothing to tell her she shouldn't, so why not? She still remembered a few songs, probably. She slid onto the piano bench, and her fingers searched out a starting position. She cautiously played a few notes, but the sound was richer and louder than she remembered, and she stopped, letting the notes fade. After a moment, she started again. Her fingers tripped over the notes, her time was off. The tune was recognizable, but it didn't sound how it was supposed to.

Aeris draped her arms around Tifa's shoulders from behind. "Doesn't sound so bad to me," she said softly, her voice close beside Tifa's ear. Tifa swallowed, remembering what she'd said before about having time to themselves here.

"Is it okay," she wondered, "if we just spend our time on the ship like this?"

"What do you mean?" Aeris asked, knowing she didn't mean the piano.

"...out of the room. Barret's not going to be there all the time."

"Oh..." Aeris withdrew and moved to sit down beside Tifa on the bench, catching her eye. "Of course it's okay. I'm always happy to spend any time with you."

"It's just, I know you want to."

"Sure, but it's no good unless both of us do."

"It's not that I don't want to..."

"...you're just not ready," Aeris finished. "I understand."

Tifa wondered if she really did, when she seemed so sure of herself. So comfortable and secure in the moment, not afraid of losing control... Maybe Jessie was right, that Tifa was building it up too much in her mind, but she knew how Aeris could make her feel with just a look or a few words. It was intense.

Aeris bumped shoulders with her. "You want to play the world's worst duet?" she asked.

Tifa smiled. "Sure," she said.

They spent the morning doing not much of anything that way. There wasn't much to do aboard the ship besides relax, but Tifa could only take so much relaxing, and it had been a while since they'd had this much downtime.

There was nowhere on the ship with the space for her to train without at least a few of the passengers gawking at her, but it was a routine she'd been too long away from, and she decided to do it anyway. Aeris seemed more than content to watch, too, at first. But the next day when Tifa announced her intent, she fetched her staff so they could train together.

Zack took note, too. When Tifa cautioned him that waving swords around probably wouldn't go over as well, he nodded thoughtfully like he'd decided to give it up, but later found someone's abandoned hat and set it out like he and Cloud were performers. They collected a small audience and a couple hundred gil before the crew came by to tell them it was against the rules. The next day, Zack made a sign announcing a 'free swordplay show,' and enough passengers protested that the crew threw up their hands and left them to it.

Meanwhile Jessie and Barret joined Tifa's sessions for some hand-to-hand practice, and they became more lesson than training. They didn't attract so many onlookers as Zack and Cloud's sparring sessions, but on their last day aboard, a man approached Tifa to ask her if she was a professional trainer, and if she might be interested in clientele of a 'higher echelon.' Tifa threw his card in the ocean at her first opportunity.

They got into port the evening of the third day, and the chill in the air felt like they'd leapt ahead into the middle of autumn. They found an inn for the night, but took the time to ask around after Sephiroth. Just earlier that day, someone said, they'd seen a man in black headed west.

But when morning came, to Zack's great confusion, they ignored the pass through the western mountains that would have taken them into the snowfields beyond and instead pressed on due north, following Aeris's direction.

They reached some sort of excavation site later in the morning, and Tifa couldn't help staring as they found themselves walking past the skeletons of creatures larger than she'd ever thought existed, bigger even than the dragons on Mt Nibel. The people camping here had stretched canvas between the gaps in some enormous rib cage, turning the bones into their ceiling beams.

The excavators turned and stared in turn at the party winding through their camp, but no one spoke to them until Aeris approached the woods at its northern border.

"Hey, wait! You're not just going right in, are you?"

Everyone paused except for Aeris, who had grown more and more single-minded and didn't seem to have heard him. Tifa caught her hand, and she looked back in confusion.

"This forest dangerous or somethin'?" asked Barret.

"Very," said the woman. "It's called the Sleeping Forest. It puts a fog over the mind of anyone who enters, so if you go in, you might never find your way out."

Tifa looked to Aeris, who'd been so certain of her every step.

"We'll be all right," she said. "I can find my way through."

The woman regarded her skeptically. "I wouldn't risk it if I were you. If you're that anxious to see the Forgotten City, you should get your hands on a Lunar Harp first. They're kind of rare, but if you talk to Conners down below, he might know where you could find one."

"We don't need it," Aeris insisted.

"You might be fine," said Yuffie, "but what about that brain fog thing hitting the rest of us?"

Aeris looked down at Tifa's hand, still joined with hers, and gave it a swing. "We can all hold hands. I'll lead you through."

"Will we retain enough presence of mind to hold on?" asked Nanaki, his tail flicking. Never mind that he didn't have any hands, likely placing him at the end of the line, having to trust entirely to someone else.

"He's got a point," said Jessie. "If it's that bad, maybe we should tie ourselves together?"

The woman who'd tried to warn them shook her head at them, but gave up on dissuading them and wished them luck as they dug out a length of rope.

Tifa didn't feel it at first, and she even felt a little silly, walking through the trees with a rope tied around her waist. The forest wasn't even dense. There was no undergrowth, and the trees were spaced far enough apart that sunlight filtered down through their canopy, playing over Aeris's hair and shoulders ahead of her. It was peaceful, even beautiful, the sort of place Tifa imagined would make hearing the Planet's voice even easier.

Maybe she almost did hear something... Like a whisper, on the edge of hearing. She turned her head, thinking she saw something moving past in the distance. Just trees. Everything was uncannily still, she realized. The air never stirred, and the only rustle of leaves came from Barret's head brushing past a low-hanging branch. There should have been utter silence save for their footsteps over the ground, and yet...

Tifa blinked. She felt as though she'd lost a moment, and the trees had shifted somehow without her noticing. Were they going the same way?

"Aeris, did we turn around?"

"No," said Aeris. "Just trust me."

And Tifa did, but she couldn't shake the sense that they were walking in circles. Or, that the forest itself was spinning about them, unstable and untethered. Tifa closed her eyes for a while in an attempt to ward off that dizzy feeling, but when she opened them, she realized with a flash of alarm that she couldn't remember where they were going.

"Guys, I think we're lost," she heard Jessie say from a little ways behind her. "Let's stop for a minute."

"No," said Nanaki. "Aeris knows the way."

"Man, this rope is driving me crazy, though," said Yuffie.

"Don't take it off," Aeris said sharply, throwing a look back over her shoulder.

"How much further is it to... where we're going?" Tifa asked.

"Not far now," Aeris assured her. "Hang in there."

Tifa nodded, but she had lost any sense of how long they'd been walking. The light seemed to fall down through the leaves in exactly the same angle, as though the sun hadn't shifted since they'd entered the forest. She wasn't tired exactly, but her body felt sluggish, like it moved through something thicker than air.

There was a light up ahead. The canopy above parted, and Tifa squinted at the daylight, which felt so much brighter than it should have. Aeris led them a short ways up a stony path and encouraged them to sit down for a rest.

Tifa lost time again. Her head cleared suddenly, like jolting awake from the edge of sleep. She looked to Aeris.

"That was... How long were we in there?"

"A couple hours, I think," said Aeris. "Are you feeling all right?"

Tifa nodded. "I think so. But the whole thing is sort of... slipping away. Like it was a dream or something."

"Yeah," said Jessie, "that was weird. Didn't care for it."

"Guess that's why most people don't come this route," said Zack.

Aeris smiled ruefully. "Sorry. We should be all right now."

Tifa realized she was hungry, so once they got the ropes off again, they rested a while longer outside the forest and ate. Not certain what lay ahead, they made an early call to Marlene. It was one of those days where they couldn't tell her much; they hadn't reached the city yet, and they didn't want to scare her with stories about huge skeletons or sleeping forests. It was about mid afternoon when they got moving again.

The rocky path led up to the crest of a hill, and an expansive valley opened up before them. Tifa had never seen anything like it; it was as though a part of the ocean floor had been pushed up long ago, exposing a vast coral reef to the air. She couldn't see anything from this vantage that looked like a city, but there was a strange path leading down into the valley, man-made but segmented in a way that reminded her of the spine of the huge animal back at the excavation camp.

As they descended into the valley, Tifa couldn't help feeling like they weren't meant to be here. Like even the air itself was something no one had breathed since the time of the Ancients.

There was water in the valley, as though the ocean hadn't left it entirely, a series of still lakes and pools. The path wound between them and bridged over them, and at last Tifa could see buildings ahead. Many of them had collapsed in the millennia since the Cetra must have abandoned the city, and at first they passed only the remnants of foundations.

Ahead of them, though, rose an enormous forest of white coral which Tifa had seen from above. They had lost the sun behind the mountains to the west, throwing the valley into shadow, but its rays still caught the uppermost boughs of the coral in a glowing halo. Tifa glanced at Aeris, and her eyes were fixed on it, like she was seeing something for the first time made real to her.

Yuffie rubbed her arms through her sweater. "Ugh, this place feels haunted."

"Hey, weren't the Ancients nomadic?" said Barret. "How come they had this big city here?"

Aeris gave her head a shake and glanced at him. "No one person ever stayed here for long," she said. "It was a gathering place, and a burial ground. A city of the dead."

"Definitely haunted," Yuffie decided.

Tifa could guess where they had to go now, but she stopped the party and glanced over their faces. They didn't know for certain how close Sephiroth might be, so they had to keep up this ruse a little while longer.

"I think it's worth looking around," she said. "Anyway, it's getting late, and there might be a good place to camp around here." She turned to Zack and Cloud. "You think you two could scout the way north? There's got to be another mountain pass at the far end of this valley."

By now she was sure they suspected something, but Zack nodded slowly without asking. "Yeah, sure," he said. "We'll check it out."

"Thanks. We'll meet back here later."

Tifa turned back to the others, starting to give them instruction as though they were going to split up to search the city, but once she was sure Zack and Cloud were out of earshot, she shook her head. "Scratch all that. Aeris, there's someplace in particular you need to go here, isn't there?"

Aeris nodded. "It's this way," she said, starting down the path towards the immense white coral.

They all followed after her, though Tifa threw a glance up the northern path as it branched off.

"Pretty soon we'll be able to stop lying to them," said Jessie.

"I'm looking forward to that," said Tifa. No more dreading that Sephiroth might be listening through them, because he already knew they were coming for him.

The coral grew dense on either side of them as they passed into the main structure, and had it still been a living thing, it could have overgrown the path centuries ago. The naked branches closed in overhead, blocking out much of the waning daylight, though enough filtered through to light their way. They walked single file, and ahead of her, Aeris's step never paused or faltered.

The coral fell away around them, opening up onto a small, still lake. The path circled it, leading to a building shaped like an enormous conch shell.

"It's just down here," said Aeris, glancing back at Tifa. Her step quickened along the shore, and she strode into the building, where she dropped her gear inside. A spiralling corridor led upwards, but Tifa was surprised to find it interrupted, and through a gap in its central railing, a crystalline staircase led down.

Beneath the city?

Aeris rushed down the first few steps, and Tifa hurried after her, catching her arm. It was an impossible stair, suspended over an immense darkness, with no railings on either side to catch them should they fall into... what, she didn't know. The whole city had an eerie feeling, and Tifa had understood Yuffie's unease, but this place frightened her. It didn't make sense.

"Let's take it easy," she said to Aeris. There was no turning back, but they could at least press forward with some caution.

Aeris smiled at her. "You're right," she said, and when Tifa released her, she descended the stairs more carefully. "It's just... I feel like I've been waiting to come here my whole life. This is... a sacred place. Hidden and folded inside of the city, the same magic as the Temple. You remember?"

Tifa nodded slowly, remembering how it had been infinitely larger within than it had appeared from without. She let her gaze fall to the glow beneath them, a cluster of buildings suspended in that darkness, sheltered from it by crystalline walls. Her fear began to subside in the face of the calm this place exuded. Not a trap, like the Temple, but a place of utter seclusion.

Coming down behind them, Barret gave a long, low whistle. "Damn, that's a sight."

"This place is beautiful, Aeris," Jessie added.

"Are you certain we're welcome here?" asked Vincent, and Tifa glanced back at hearing him voice her own feelings.

"You're with me," said Aeris. "It's a little confusing for everyone, and it makes them uneasy, but I've told them you're good people."

"Um," said Yuffie, "who's 'them'?"

"Think she means the dead folks," said Barret.

Aeris threw a gentle smile over her shoulder. "Don't worry. They won't do you any harm. But they are why we're here... Their voices are so clear here, I've never heard them like this before."

"Shouldn't they have returned to the Planet by now?" Nanaki wondered uncertainly, and Aeris laughed, a bright clear sound in the stillness.

"Oh, they're not the Cetra of thousands of years ago," she said. "They're... my mother, my grandparents, their families and their friends... The last traces of us, lingering behind for a moment like this."

She sounded delighted by it, and Tifa wondered if she'd been speaking to them since they'd arrived, connecting with family she'd never had the chance to know. Had they been watching over her, their voices too soft for her to hear until now?

The stairs lead into one of the buildings below, and they stepped out through a doorway onto a balcony. Towers rose on either side of them, and straight ahead a light fell from somewhere onto a sort of altar. Aeris took Tifa by the hand and led her towards it. They crossed a series of stone pillars laid out like stepping stones across the water below, and their passing sent faint ripples through the layer of mist that lay across the water.

The others paused uncertainly on the other side of the stones. The altar itself wasn't so large, and all of them together would crowd it.

"Should we come, too?" asked Yuffie.

Aeris looked back at them, and beckoned them across. "Come on. You're all here, and you all want this, too."

Aeris squeezed Tifa's hand, and they went up the steps to the altar together. There, Aeris at last knelt down in its center, and Tifa dropped with her. As the others joined them, forming an uncertain circle around them, Aeris motioned for them to sit, too.

"When I first told you about the White Materia," she said, "you all wanted to help me use it. I still don't know if you can... but I know that your will is the same as every Cetra here, and it can't hurt to try."

Her gaze met Tifa's as she finished speaking. It was the same thought she'd expressed that evening in Costa del Sol, maybe not said so clearly to the others, but she believed in them all the same. Each of them had their own reasons for being on this journey, but each of them was also here to save the Planet, and maybe that wish would lend some small bit of strength to her efforts, even coming from them.

"So what do we do?" asked Jessie.

"Just... pray with me?" said Aeris. "Pray for the life of the Planet, for Holy to wake and to protect it. If our wish should reach it, Holy will come."

Taking both of Tifa's hands in hers, Aeris closed her eyes.

Tifa glanced around at the others, nodded, and did the same.

This time, she couldn't let her doubts overrun her. Whether or not Holy or the Planet would ever hear them, Aeris was drawing on their strength. Having them here told her she wasn't alone in this. She wasn't a solitary voice trying to reach Holy, but the strongest of many.

And, it wasn't just those of them gathered around her here, Tifa thought. Maybe they didn't know about Holy, but Cloud and Zack were every bit as determined to protect the Planet from Sephiroth. And Wedge, back in that little farming village. Elmyra, and even Marlene, who knew the Planet needed saving even if she didn't quite know from what. Everyone in Cosmo Canyon who searched for answers, and worried. This was their wish, too.

And... the people they'd lost. Biggs. The people of Sector 7 and of Nibelheim who'd watched their worlds crumbling and held on anyway to what they could. Even if they were a part of the Planet now, that didn't mean everything they'd thought or felt was gone, did it?

...maybe that hope was the core of them. Something that had connected them to each other when they'd first formed AVALANCHE, and maybe something that connected them to the Planet, too.

Tifa still wasn't sure that she heard anything, but maybe the Planet had to hear her first, to trust her first. She thought of all the people she loved, and everything that they hoped for, and she prayed that there would be a future that could give it the chance to happen.

A distant sound from above filtered through her concentration, and Tifa opened her eyes to look up.

There was nothing to see but the crystalline stair, but the sounds continued. The clash of metal on metal, somewhere outside the shell house. The clash of swords.

Had Sephiroth found them after all? Had he realized what they had come here to do?

Tifa looked at Aeris. Her eyes remained closed, her expression placid, as though so deep in prayer that she hadn't noticed a thing.

The others had. Barret was starting to get to his feet, and he glanced at Tifa.

"I'm staying with Aeris," she said softly. "But that has to be Cloud and Zack fighting up there..."

"They'll need back-up," said Barret, finishing the thought. "Don't worry. We got this."

Jessie and Vincent got up to go with him, but Yuffie was still deep in concentration, and Nanaki looked to Aeris, settling back down. Whatever happened, they had to protect her.

Which meant that Tifa couldn't rejoin Aeris in her prayer; she had to stay alert. Her friends' footsteps echoed on the staircase above until they vanished from sight, and shortly gunfire joined the sounds of the battle.

A part of her desperately wanted to go after them. That was her battle, her vengeance; she'd started them on this path. What if one of them fell to Sephiroth, and she wasn't even there to see it? The same as her father...

But there was no way she could leave Aeris, vulnerable as she was. If he made it down here, he'd have to get through Tifa first, and she wouldn't make that easy for him this time.

Her anger and desperation roiled inside of her, and she hoped Aeris felt none of it. It was the antithesis of what she was sending out through the Planet, to Holy.

Suddenly Aeris opened her eyes, a smile spreading across her face. "We did it," she said eagerly. "Holy will come."

"You're sure?" said Tifa, but even as the question left her, a soft green glow began to surround Aeris--no, not to surround her. It was the White Materia in her hair, coming alive.

Aeris squeezed her hands and then climbed to her feet, tugging Tifa up with her. "Let's go help our friends," she said.

"You aren't tired?" asked Nanaki as he rose to his feet. Yuffie was slow to get up, and she looked above as though hearing the fighting for the first time.

Aeris shook her head. "No. I feel... strong. I feel like I could do anything."

Tifa nodded. "Then let's go," she agreed. "Let's stop him here."

Confusion flashed across Aeris's face, and then she said, "It isn't Sephiroth. It's the Shinra who followed us here."

Tifa nearly asked how she knew, when she'd been so out of it a moment ago, but she realized Aeris had to be more in tune with what was happening than any of them, informed by those who weren't part of the physical world.

Not Sephiroth, but the Shinra. Maybe they'd figured it out by now, where Sephiroth was headed, and decided they didn't need AVALANCHE anymore. But of all the places they might have chosen for a confrontation... Tifa's jaw set.

"Well, we still have to take care of them, don't we?" she said.

Aeris nodded, and the four of them rushed to join the others.

Chapter Text

Aeris wished that her friends could perceive the city the way that she did, not as something ancient and lonely, but as a link to something vast. To her, it was alive with voices. They filled the empty spaces, connected her to a past, a lineage, when all her life she'd barely grasped its edges.

And what she'd felt since Holy's answer, the Planet's relief washing over her. Its worries weren't gone, but they'd never been so quiet. Her step felt light up the stairs, as though enough of a push might send her floating up them.

I'm so proud, said her mother, and others echoed the sentiment, though they'd forgotten the words. And so glad. It was such a lonely burden, knowing one day the Planet might ask this of me. And when it fell to you... But you've done it.

I had help, said Aeris, looking to Tifa and then back at Nanaki and Yuffie. They'd been with her the whole time, lending her their strength.

They reached the top of the staircase and soon emerged from the shell house into the night. The stars were brighter overhead than Aeris had ever seen them, shining down into the clearing and catching the white of the coral. The light cast everything in shades of grey, but it was more than bright enough to see her friends on the shore of the lake.

They weren't fighting any human enemy, but instead engaged in battle with a robot at least fifteen feet tall. It stood on three legs, and two huge arms protruded from its top, giving it a hunched look. But, Aeris could see that its body was dented and scored, and one of those massive arms dangled limply as it moved.

The other arm was working fine, and before they could join the fight, it lunged into the midst of her friends, its fingers open and grasping.

"Zack!" Cloud shouted, but the arm knocked him down as it swung back and then flung forward. Zack's body hurtled across the clearing and splashed down in the center of the lake.

Aeris's hands flew to her mouth, but Tifa was tugging off her boots before she could process it. Zack hadn't surfaced, and Tifa dove into the water.

He'd be fine, wouldn't he? The Planet's calm in the wake of Holy's answer lay undisturbed within her, not feeding her own worry. He'd be fine. Tifa had it.

The robot whirred in preparation for something, but Yuffie channelled a bolt spell, stopping it short for a second, and they hurried to the others.

"Is everyone else all right?" asked Nanaki.

Barret was helping Cloud back to his feet, and Jessie and Vincent both stood out of the arm's range.

"Think so," said Barret, and he threw a look at Aeris. "You get it done?"

She nodded. "Everything's going to be all right."

The robot shuddered into motion again, its heavy legs thudding into the ground as it adjusted its position. Its arm swung for Cloud and Barret, but they leapt out of the way.

Aeris turned towards it, focusing, and the spell came together almost instantaneously. Here, in this place, there was less a conduit between her and the Planet and more a constant conversation, a mutual understanding amplified by generations of experience at her fingertips. A powerful bolt lanced through the machine, overloading circuitry in a shower of sparks.

"Damn, did that do it?" asked Yuffie.

"Not quite," said Jessie, as the robot took a few shuddering steps one way, then another. "But I think it's getting there."

Taking advantage of its disorientation, Cloud leapt up and brought his sword down on the joint of its good arm, and the heavy blade tore through the wiring, rendering it as useless as the other arm.

Aeris heard a splash and spun eagerly. Tifa's head broke the surface of the water, Zack in tow, though she couldn't help another flash of anxiety; he wasn't swimming for himself.

"Watch out!" shouted Nanaki.

The whirring noise started up again, but before Aeris could put together what to watch out for, Vincent had caught her about the waist and pulled her aside with him. A laser shot out from the robot, but its aim seemed off, and her friends scattered out of its path. It cut into the ground, and through the edge of the water, sending up a line of steam before it shut off.

"Sorry," said Vincent as he released her, but Aeris shook her head.

"No, thanks."

"Let's shut this thing up for good," said Barret, leveling his gun arm at the source of the laser. He fired off a round of bullets, and Yuffie channelled another bolt spell into it.

But Aeris could hear Tifa coming ashore. Vincent caught her eye and nodded, stepping between her and the robot, and she knew he'd continue to look out for them. She turned her back on the fight as Tifa hauled Zack out of the lake.

Cloud ran up, sword lowered. "Is he--?"

But Zack was already coughing up water as Aeris dropped to his side, and she let out a small breath of relief.

"Pretty sure he broke something," said Tifa, pushing her sopping bangs out of her face. She was shivering, but her eyes darted towards the fight.

Aeris laid her hands gently on Zack's chest and winced. "A few ribs, I think," she said, and she smiled at him in reassurance. "Don't worry, I'll take care of you."

Healing was the first magic Aeris had ever learned, a skill her mother had taught her in the cold confines of the Shinra building. She'd been doing it long enough to feel that it had always come naturally to her, even though she had memories of her mother's patience with her, and she knew it was something that had grown over time. But again, it was so easy here. Zack's bones knit back together at her will, and she hardly felt it had taken anything out of her. Her ancestors shared with her the burden of the spell.

Zack pushed himself up on his elbows, staring at her. He'd seen her magic before, at the Temple, but this was another level. Temporary, but powerful all the same. But then his gaze shifted. "Your materia..." he began, and trailed off into a grimace. He sat up, putting a hand to his forehead.

"Zack?"

"No, I'm okay," he said. "I think you really pissed 'im off, whatever you just did. That thing's not really 'useless,' is it?"

"No, it really isn't," Aeris said. "Are you sure you're all right?"

He nodded and flashed her a grin. "Yeah. Was sort of a... quick rage headache. It's gone now."

She and Tifa helped him to his feet. Zack felt icy cold beneath her grip, and he shivered, too. Cloud lingered nearby, torn between helping somehow and returning to the fight.

But the others had it well in hand. A panel on the front of the machine had come loose somehow, and the robot's arms swung limply and ineffectually as Jessie managed to pry it free and leap clear. Barret and Vincent opened fire on its exposed circuitry, and it shuddered, limbs jerking in random fits, until at last it ceased all motion.

They stopped firing, and in the quiet, they could hear that its motor had stopped running.

Barret walked up and gave it a kick in its ruined guts for good measure. "Damn Shinra," he said, "sendin' this thing to a place like this..."

"Sorry," said Zack, glancing at Aeris. "It did a lot of damage on the way in here, but we couldn't catch up to it sooner."

Aeris shook her head. "It's not your fault," she said.

"Where did it come from?" asked Nanaki. "The Shinra simply set it loose in the city?"

"Not sure," Zack admitted, and he stopped short of saying more, clamping his jaw shut to stop his teeth from chattering as a stronger shiver went through him.

Cloud had gone to retrieve Zack's sword from where he had dropped it, and he looked up at his friend in concern. "We were coming back from scouting," he added, "when we saw it headed in here. Figured the Shinra saw you come this way."

"Well, if they thought this thing was enough to take care of us, they were wrong," said Jessie with no little pride.

Tifa hadn't chimed in. She sat doing up the laces of her boots, fingers trembling.

"We need to get someplace warm," said Aeris. "We can talk more then."

Barret scratched his head, glancing around at the coral forest. "Hell, can you even burn any o' this stuff?"

"There's some normal trees north of the city," said Cloud, "where it runs into the mountains. And... one of those weird shell houses's got beds."

"What? After thousands o' years?"

Cloud shook his head. "Researchers, maybe. And not too long ago. They fixed the roof up pretty good, too."

"Sounds like a good place to spend the night," said Tifa, getting to her feet.

Barret nodded in agreement. "Why don't you all head there, an' I'll go with Cloud to get us some firewood. Can't have anybody freezin' to death."

They gathered their gear from the shell house and hurried back out of the heart of the city. Aeris felt a pang of distress on seeing the shards of coral that littered the path, too narrow for that great big machine. And they'd just left it on the shore of the lake, but how could they possibly move it? There was nothing to be done about it.

Don't fret, said her mother. The city was already a ruin, and it's served its purpose.

What about our history? Our legacy? Isn't that important?

Not as important as life. That's the only legacy that really matters. As caretakers of the Planet... people like your friends will replace us. You can guide them, but they have to find their own ways, too.

Everyone was with me today, said Aeris. Do you think... their voices reached the Planet?

Maybe, said Ifalna. Why don't you ask?

But it wasn't the time. Cloud was pointing out the house ahead of them, another conch shape, a hole in its roof patched with wooden beams and heavy canvas. He and Barret went on past it up the path, while the others went on inside.

A single glowing light illuminated the entryway, but they turned on their flashlights as they proceeded into the dark interior. Someone had fitted lanterns to the walls, and they lit them as they found them.

Most of the lower level had been converted to a storage room, with access to what looked like a hearth that rose through the center of the structure. A ladder led up to the second level, where a fresh wooden floor had been built atop the coral one, and three beds hugged the outer wall. Like Cloud had suggested, whoever used them must have been here no more a few weeks ago, because there was only a thin layer of dust atop the tables they had brought in. People from the excavation site, maybe. They'd known about the city.

"All right, off with all of that," Aeris said, turning to Tifa and Zack, "and let's get you under some blankets."

"Uh, we'll check up on the others," said Jessie with a glance at Zack. She and Yuffie had come up to explore with them, but now they retreated back down the ladder to join Vincent and Nanaki in the storage room.

Tifa and Zack eyed each other uncertainly.

"Oh, forget modesty," said Aeris, "you're both turning blue! Just turn around."

With a shrug, Tifa turned her back on Zack and started pulling her sweater over her head. Zack turned, too, but then he glanced at Aeris.

"...you're staying?"

"Well, I've already seen you both naked."

"What?" he said.

"Oh, um... I peeked."

That drew her a glance from Tifa. "You peeked when?"

"Ages ago, I swear."

"Man, this is an awkward time to find that out..." said Zack, though it hadn't stopped him from stripping to the waist.

"Aeris, I think you should turn around, too," said Tifa.

"Gosh!" she said, but if Tifa didn't want her seeing her ex-boyfriend naked again after five years, she could live with that. She waited until they'd both changed into dry underthings, and then bundled Tifa into bed.

"We're all decent up here!" she called down to the others, and then she took off her coat and climbed under the covers with Tifa. Her skin felt icy to the touch, and she shivered beneath the blankets, but Aeris didn't think she had any serious symptoms. She hadn't been clumsy at all undressing, and very alert about the peeking incident.

"I think you're enjoying this," said Tifa.

"A little," Aeris admitted as she snuggled closer, "but I really don't want you to get hypothermia."

"I think we're safe now that we can warm up," Tifa reasoned.

"Yeah," said Aeris, but she'd feel better once they had a fire going. In the meantime, she found Tifa's hands and took them in her own, bringing them up to her face to breathe some warmth into them.

"I missed saying it earlier," Zack spoke up from his bed, "but thanks. Both of you."

"Don't mention it," said Tifa. "I wasn't about to let you drown."

"I swear I was a lot more impressive before you guys showed up."

Aeris laughed. "I believe you. But who are you hoping to impress here?"

"...good point." He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "I guess you're the one who did something really impressive anyway. Right?"

"I promise, I'll tell you all about it once Cloud gets back."

"Whatever it was... I'm glad we didn't tip him off."

Whatever it was, Aeris repeated to herself. What had it been? Did you hear them, too, Planet? The voices of my friends, praying for you?

The Planet seemed bemused by the question, but understanding wasn't important to it. It was safe, the task was done, why wonder how it had been done?

I know. I know how relieved you are. But this is important to me, too. I've been the last of your people... but I don't want to be. You must remember how it used to be, when there were many of us. Could we be that again? Could my friends be the start of it?

The Planet seemed to settle, focusing its attention, though it remained confused. Of course there had been many voices reaching for Holy. There had to be.

But was mine the only living one?

Hesitation. Reflection.

Maybe there had been an echo, it thought, that came behind her prayer.

Well, that's a start, isn't it?

"How are you feeling?" Tifa asked her softly. "Now that it's done?"

"Good," said Aeris. "I feel really good."

Cloud and Barret returned shortly, and lit a fire in the hearth below, and some heat began to creep into the shell house. They came upstairs with Jessie to check on them, and Tifa began to sit up. Aeris moved with her, tugging the blankets into a cocoon around them. In the other bed, she could see Zack doing the same.

"How you guys doing?" Jessie asked. "Warming up?"

"Yeah," said Tifa. "We'll be all right."

"How 'bout you, Zack? You need someone to cuddle you over there?"

"I am feeling a little left out," he said. "I always like a good cuddle."

Jessie clapped a hand on Cloud's shoulder. "All right, Cloud. I'm nominating you, as his best friend."

Aeris hid her smile beneath the blanket, but Jessie met her eye across the room and winked at her. So she wasn't the only one who'd noticed.

"Uh," said Cloud. "I mean, if you need it..."

"C'mon, buddy, I'm dying over here," said Zack, and though he obviously wasn't serious, Aeris was pleasantly surprised to see Cloud walk past to join him; she would've thought he'd need more encouragement. Zack settled the blankets over their heads, messing up Cloud's carefully spiked hair, and Aeris bit back a laugh.

Barret looked amused, too, but he didn't comment. "Guess the rest of us get to fight over that last bed," he said instead.

"We're obviously not going anywhere for a while," Tifa said to Barret, "so could you get the others up here? I know they already know what's going on, but... I want us all to come clean together."

Barret nodded. "Yeah. Sounds about right."

As he headed down to fetch Yuffie, Nanaki, and Vincent, Jessie came to sit down on the other side of Tifa, as though to lend her a little more warmth.

Cloud was watching them uncertainly. "Is this about... what you guys were doing in that place?"

"Yeah," said Tifa. "We would've told you about it sooner, but..."

"...you didn't want Sephiroth to know," Cloud finished, and she nodded.

"I've known since Gongaga that we'd need to come here," said Aeris, "and we all talked about it afterwards..."

Barret was coming back up with the others, and she waited until they'd all settled themselves about the room before going on.

"You know that Sephiroth has the Black Materia, and means to summon Meteor," Aeris said, "but all this time... I've had the White Materia, from my mother. We came here to summon Holy, to protect the Planet from Meteor. And we did."

"You keep saying 'we,'" Jessie noted. "Did we actually help?"

Aeris smiled. "The Planet says... my voice wasn't alone. And it wasn't just the voices of my ancestors with me. I'm sure of it."

"So the Planet's safe from Meteor," said Zack, "but we still have to go after Sephiroth, don't we?"

"We're still going," Tifa confirmed. "If we can prevent him from summoning Meteor at all, there are other things Holy can protect the Planet from. Shinra... Jenova..."

"Jenova..." Zack repeated, and his expression grew pensive. "If it wipes out Jenova, then... are me and Cloud going, too?"

Aeris hated to see that comprehension on his face, of what she'd just done, and she shook her head. "No. Holy obeys the will of the Planet, and I'm going to make sure it understands, Jenova is hurting you the same way it's hurting the Planet. You need to be healed, not destroyed."

"Is a magic that powerful really gonna be that discerning?" Zack wondered.

Aeris faltered. Was it?

Zack nudged Cloud. "Guess it might be time to live like we're dying, huh, buddy?"

Cloud said nothing, but sat frowning at the floor.

"Cloud?" said Tifa.

"If Holy winds up killing us," he said slowly, "so it can heal the Planet, then that's all right. But if you're still going after Sephiroth... then we've got some time, right?"

"Some," Aeris confirmed. "Holy is slow. It's just beginning to wake."

Cloud nodded. "Then I'm going with you." He looked to Zack. "You're going, too, right?"

"Well..." said Zack. "I could head back down to Costa del Sol, spend the last of my days kicking back on the beach, learning to surf...... but I think I'd be too worried about you guys to relax. Besides, I'd rather go out doing something important."

"I really don't think you're going to die, Zack," Aeris said.

"I know you don't. But I can't tell if that's wishful thinking on your part, or if the Planet's really going to look after us. It's all right, though."

Aeris dropped her gaze. Tifa's hand found hers beneath the blankets and squeezed. Her grip was strong, confident, like she didn't believe they were going to die either.

"Well, I ain't gonna complain about you two stickin' around," said Barret. "You did good work today. Woulda been real bad, that thing catchin' us unawares."

Zack smiled, not as brightly as usual but not forced either. "Yeah, it kinda worked out, didn't it? Keeping us outta the loop. Got to be kinda heroic."

"Until you almost drowned, you mean," said Cloud.

"That's not working out so bad either," Zack said, wriggling under the blankets.

Cloud blushed. "W-what?"

"We got a bed! Think we mighta lost out otherwise and had to sleep on the floor."

"Oh," said Cloud.

Aeris was really going to have to talk to Zack later about being dense.

"So... who is getting the other bed?" Yuffie asked, speaking up for the first time since they'd entered the house. She'd been oddly quiet since they'd entered the city, really, and Aeris eyed her curiously as the others worked out the remainder of the sleeping arrangements.

It was a peaceful night, the first since Gongaga that Aeris had spent without the Planet worrying somewhere in the back of her mind. She could sense the presence of her ancestors, but they recognized more easily that she was resting, and what had begun as a tumble of thoughts and feelings had by now lapsed into quiet. They blew out the lantern on the wall, and there was only the sound of her friends breathing in the room with her.

There was more ahead of them, but everything was going to be all right, wasn't it? The lingering uncertainties--when Holy would come, what it might do, what fighting Sephiroth might cost them--couldn't shake that powerful calm for long. The satisfaction of a task completed. She'd had only the vaguest awareness of it for most of her life, but it was such a weight lifted. Maybe because the Planet had waited even longer, so much longer, for this day.

Aeris closed her eyes and shifted closer to Tifa. Tifa, who had been there to support her, just like she'd promised. And maybe, their voices had reached the Planet together...

The morning was cold, and Aeris didn't want to get out of bed, but Tifa got up ahead of her to get breakfast going, and staying under the covers lost some of its appeal.

Aeris climbed down to the lower level, intending to retrieve the clothes they'd left to dry by the hearth, but she found Yuffie standing in the corridor near the door out. She was turned away, backlit by that glowing light at the entryway that seemed to be a part of the original city.

"Everything all right?" Aeris asked her.

With a start, Yuffie snatched her hand back from the light and turned around. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay."

"You sure? You seem like you've had something on your mind since yesterday."

Yuffie fidgeted, rubbing at her arm. "It's just... This place creeps me out. It's like there's always somebody whispering behind my back. And down in that place, I could've sworn I heard..."

Aeris held her breath for a moment. "...what did you hear?" she asked cautiously.

"I don't know. It's like there weren't any words, or it was in a language I didn't know? It's probably all in my head anyhow."

"Yuffie... Who do you think you're talking to?"

"Yeah, but..." Yuffie shook her head, and let her body slump back against the wall behind her. "You're a Cetra. I'm just... me."

"Hmm." Aeris walked over to stand beside her. "I don't know much about Wutai, or the gods you worship," she admitted, "but they must be a part of this Planet, the same as anything else. If your magic comes from them, I wonder if it might not have same source as mine, when you get down to it?"

Yuffie glanced at her, brow furrowing.

"If you say you heard something," Aeris went on, "I believe you. This place is full of voices for me, and I know, when we were praying for Holy, that I heard an answer."

"Doesn't it weird you out," Yuffie wondered, "hearing dead people?"

"I didn't know it was meant to be weird, at first. I was seven when my mother died, and I've been hearing her voice ever since... It's always been a comfort."

Yuffie nodded thoughtfully. "That's still weird, but... it must be pretty cool, to talk to your mom like that."

"You've never mentioned yours," Aeris noted. "Is she...?"

"Yeah. She died in the war. Dad won't talk about it, but I bet she took a whole bunch of Shinra soldiers down with her. I bet she was kickass, you know? I had to get that from somewhere."

Aeris smiled. "I bet she was."

Yuffie looked down at her boots. "But she's probably... part of the Planet now, right? Normal people can't hang around as long as the Cetra, right?"

"Well, I used to think that. But if you heard the Planet yesterday, Yuffie, then I'm less and less sure what the difference is, between me and 'normal' people. Which... could be really wonderful, but it also means I don't have an answer for you."

"That's okay. It's worse when people act like they've got all the answers when they don't."

Aeris hesitated. "If you ever want to try listening for her... or anything like that... I'll help if I can, okay?"

Yuffie met her gaze, chewing on her lip. Then she said, "This is the first time I've heard anything like that, but I don't think Mom would hang around here. This place is for your ancestors. I think she'd be... back home. In Wutai."

"Well... I'd like to see it sometime. Your home."

Yuffie nodded. "Yeah. I want you guys to see it, too."

They heard feet on the ladder, and looked over as Jessie came down.

"Everything okay down here?" she asked.

Yuffie hesitated, so Aeris answered for her. "Uh-huh! Just not a big fan of haunted cities."

"Well, then come on up and have some breakfast," said Jessie. "The sooner we eat, the sooner we can get going, right?"

Yuffie nodded and headed on up.

"I'll be up in a minute," said Aeris. "Gotta grab those clothes."

As she went on into the storage room with her flashlight, she thought it was a shame that they had to leave again so quickly. The researchers had left a notebook behind, sketches of locations around the city and speculation on what the Cetra had used them for. Even if they returned, they could only ever guess, but Aeris might discover more answers in the voices of the dead. How much longer would they linger here before returning fully to the Planet? Now that they had helped to call on Holy, would their memories be lost to the ages?

But how much did it matter? No one had gathered in this city for centuries. Whatever traditions they'd practiced here were long gone, well before they could be passed down to Aeris or her mother. This place was dead, and one day it would simply be ancient, and lonely.

Aeris bundled the now-dry clothes in her arms and returned carefully to the second level.

"Well, not never," Jessie was saying, "but it only ever snows on the plate now, and that stuff's nasty. I haven't seen real snow since I was a kid."

"Man," said Yuffie, and she looked to Aeris as she came up. "Wait, that must mean you've really never seen it."

"Just what falls in Midgar," Aeris confirmed. "I've heard it's supposed to be white."

Tifa made a face at her as she collected her clothes from the pile. "Well, you'll get to see the real thing soon."

"Yeah..." said Aeris. It was just a casual conversation, but something they fit her into without thinking. She remembered when she'd envied Tifa, and the closeness she shared with her friends, but they'd all grown closer by now, hadn't they? A living thing she was a part of.

"Something wrong?" Tifa asked her, tilting her head.

"No," said Aeris. "Absolutely nothing."

Chapter Text

Aeris's unfailing sense of direction had had only one destination, and she was at as much of a loss as any of them when it came to the way forward. Their map didn't even show the Forgotten City, much less any roads out of it, and Jessie hadn't paid the area much attention when she'd had access to Bugenhagen's planetarium. Zack and Cloud had found the entrance to a cave leading into the mountains, and there was some evidence that other people had explored it before them. They hoped that was a sign that it led through to the other side.

It felt strange pressing on again so quickly, as though nothing much had happened in the city. They'd done something really important there yesterday, or at least Aeris had. But, maybe it wasn't so different from the morning after they'd bombed the No. 1 reactor. They'd been so worried when they realized Tifa hadn't made it back, and by the time they were reunited, the impulse to celebrate had passed. There was more to do.

And there was still Sephiroth ahead, in the Northern Crater. Jessie wondered if they'd take the time to celebrate after that.

She wondered if they'd all be there to celebrate.

It wasn't just Zack and Cloud. That was where the focus had fallen yesterday, but there was no guarantee that they would all make it through the battle with Sephiroth to see Holy's arrival. She thought most of them would, but...

They came to a few dead-ends within the caves, and one tough climb where Jessie needed Tifa to help her up, but after a couple hours, they saw natural light ahead, and shut off their flashlights. A dusting of snow had blown in through the cave opening, and the fields beyond were blindingly white. Jessie stopped beside Aeris and squinted.

The snow stretched almost as far as she could see, broken only by a dim glimpse of mountains in the distance ahead.

"We're a long way from Midgar," she remarked to Aeris, "aren't we?"

Aeris nodded mutely, and she took a few steps forward, boots sinking into the snow with that faint crunch that brought Jessie back to her childhood. Snowball fights through the shadows of the plate's scaffolding overhead.

Tifa stood watching Aeris fondly, but at Jessie's glance, she gave her head a shake and started out into the snow herself, testing its depth. A few paces from the cave entrance, it was about half a foot deep.

"This isn't bad," she said, "but it's going to get tiring before too long..."

"We'll deal with it," said Barret. "Just wanna make sure we hit those mountains before dark. I ain't interested in campin' way out in the open."

Tifa nodded in agreement. "All right. Let's get going."

Farther from the caves, a light wind picked up, stirring the surface layer of snow and blowing cold in their faces. Jessie pulled her hood tighter and glanced down at Nanaki, walking easily to her right.

"Are you really warm enough?" she wondered.

"I'm fine," he replied. "My winter coat is coming in."

Zack glanced back at them. "Your winter coat?"

"Don't you know anything about cats?" said Yuffie, and Zack shrugged his shoulders.

"I mean, yeah, but..."

"That's the funny thing about humans," said Nanaki. "Once you accept others as sentient, you start to perceive them as human, regardless of appearances. But, I do still have fur, you know."

"Well, I'm glad it's doing its job," said Jessie. Frankly, she was a little envious in the moment.

They soon fell into walking single-file, which made it easier following in the wake of those ahead. They took turns leading the way, but the mountains ahead still seemed far off, even as the ones behind them grew distant. Jessie couldn't help feeling very small, in the middle of all that white, walking in the footsteps of her friends.

Maybe it would be her, she thought, who wouldn't be there. It wouldn't be such a bad way to go--giving her life to save the Planet, the way Biggs had given his for the people of Sector 7. Going out in a blaze of glory. Maybe that was as much as an ordinary person like her could do against Sephiroth.

"You okay there, Jess?" Barret asked her. He'd just dropped back from the lead, letting Zack replace him, and fell into step beside her.

"You ever feel like you're out of place?" she asked him.

"What d'you mean?"

"Well... There's our fearless leader, seems like she can survive anything. Aeris is something else, and frankly a lot of our group isn't totally human. Even Yuffie's some kind of Wutai stealth prodigy."

"An' then there's us?"

It was pretty silly to leave him off that list, wasn't it? "Maybe it's just me," she amended.

"Maybe you don't got any special combat training or magic powers," Barret conceded, "but you're the smartest one here, Jess. Pretty important with all the crazy shit we've been havin' to deal with."

Jessie dropped her gaze, smiling. She wasn't sure if that was completely accurate, but she'd take the compliment. "Thanks..."

"But," he went on, "if you're talkin' about not knowin' what the hell we've got ourselves into, I feel ya there. We've come a long way from our early days, puttin' up flyers an' plannin' for months just to sabotage one factory. We're into end o' the world type shit now."

"Yeah. And I thought targeting a reactor was ambitious... We always talked about saving the world, but I guess we're really doing it now, huh?" She looked ahead at Aeris, but she'd pulled her hood up, hiding the glow of her materia. "I wonder if Holy will do anything about Shinra, in the end..."

"Dunno. Did put a bit about that in my prayin.'"

"Really?"

Barret shrugged. "Figured it couldn't hurt."

"Did you... feel like anyone was listening?" she wondered.

"I got no idea. Place was pretty spooky though. I'd believe those ghosts heard us at least."

"I'm not sure if that's creepy or not... I mean, it was Aeris's mom and all."

"I'm sure she was a nice lady, but I'm still goin' with creepy."

"Fair enough," Jessie conceded. "But if they did hear us... If Holy heard us, and it really does take care of Shinra for us, just like that... I wonder what the future of AVALANCHE looks like."

Barret glanced at her. "Dunno that it'll be that simple," he said, "but... Whatever happens, we ain't just some resistance group. I figure most of our newer recruits might go their separate ways, but you an' me, Tifa, Wedge... Aeris, too, now, I guess--whatever happens, we're still in it together."

Maybe the future wouldn't be simple, but it was simple for him to imagine her in it. That was comforting. "Yeah," she said. "I guess you're right."

"Yeah. So quit mopin' while we're on an upswing."

Barret clapped her on the shoulder, a little harder than he probably meant to, and Jessie stumbled in the snow. She caught herself and shot him a look, to which he responded with a sheepish grin.

He hadn't joked around with her so easily before, when he'd been her leader. Was it the natural progression of their friendship, with that burden of responsibility lifted, and more of his secrets out in the open? Or, a conscious choice, to fill a void?

What would Biggs have said if he knew she was thinking about the end? He'd have scolded her, too, she thought. Told her it was no good going into it with that kind of defeatist attitude. Of course by herself she was no match for Sephiroth--none of them were. It was the same as when she'd joined AVALANCHE. She'd never have had the power to stand up to Shinra alone. But put them together, and their strength grew and grew.

Just like there was no guarantee about surviving, death wasn't a certainty either. It was one thing to make sure she didn't have any regrets, but something else to resign herself to it. Besides, even after they defeated Sephiroth, even if Holy took care of Jenova and Shinra, and everything looked rosy, the Planet would still need people looking out for it. Jessie wanted to be one of them.

So why not try believing in that rosy future, just in case it came true?

They reached the mountains before twilight fell, and walked along the base of the slopes until they found a decent place to camp, where a thicket of pines provided a much-needed windbreak. As night fell, they heard wolves howling in the distance, the only sign they'd had of another living thing. They decided on a watch rotation, and kept the fire going all night, which Jessie was glad of. As cold as it was in the daytime, the temperature dropped even lower at night. By morning, they'd all shifted a lot closer to each other.

A second day walking through the snowfields, and Jessie was well over her initial wonder. A little snow was fine, she decided. Maybe even a lot of it, as long as you could get out of it when you wanted to. But Icicle Inn was at least another day away, and that was just a respite on their way to the Northern Crater. It wasn't for the first time, but she found herself missing Midgar.

The second night, they were lucky enough to stumble across a cave at the base of the mountains. Its roof was low enough that even Jessie had to stoop a little, but it was big enough for all of them. Once they got a fire going, it almost felt cozy, but when they settled in for the night, they laid their sleeping bags closer from the start.

Jessie was just getting comfortable when her phone rang. She fumbled it out and answered it.

"Hello?"

"Oh, it's late," came Lucrecia's voice, as though just realizing. "I'm sorry."

Jessie sat up. "No, it's fine," she said. "We've been waiting to hear from you."

"Lucrecia?" Vincent asked from across the cave, and Jessie nodded, switching it to speaker phone.

"We're all here," she added.

Vincent moved closer. "Are you all right? Is it safe for you to talk?"

"Yes, I'm fine," Lucrecia assured him. "Everyone else in the lab has gone home. There's only the guards waiting for me at the door."

"Then you really are with Shinra," said Tifa.

"Yes. They brought me to the headquarters in Midgar. The equipment here is excellent, but the recordkeeping leaves something to be desired."

"What are they... having you do?"

"Oh, I haven't been here long. They still expect me to be familiarizing myself with Hojo's work. Which I am, I suppose."

"Have you learned anything?" Jessie asked. "You must have, if you're calling."

"Zack and Cloud are there, too?"

"Yeah, we're here," Zack confirmed.

"I think I have good news for you," said Lucrecia. "I analyzed your samples, and as we hoped, the Jenova cells haven't spread throughout your bodies as they have in mine. They are more densely concentrated in your scar tissue, supporting the idea that they can integrate themselves more quickly during the healing process. But, in some of the other samples I took, they aren't present at all."

"So you think, the Jenova cells aren't critical to their survival?" asked Aeris.

"I think not, yes. And... that isn't the only thing I've discovered either."

"What else?" asked Tifa.

Lucrecia took a breath. "Let me see if I can explain this. I know you all read through a lot of Hojo's files on the experiment, but he had this terrible need to feel smarter than anyone. He was constantly leaving his conclusions out of his notes or making them so disorganized no one else could make sense of them. But now that I can see the data for myself, I understand what he was doing. He may have proposed the experiment to President Shinra as a way of creating another Sephiroth, but he was testing a theory he developed in his earlier experiments with Jenova."

"What theory is that?" Jessie wondered.

"Reunion," said Lucrecia. "One of the ways that Jenova propagates is by creating copies of itself from pieces of its body, and it retains control over those copies. But Hojo also theorized that if it were fragmented enough, it would eventually seek to become whole. So he injected his subjects with its cells, and waited to see if they would return here to its main body."

"Well..." Aeris began with an uncertain glance at Zack, "someone went to Midgar, for Jenova's body."

"Wasn't it missin' its head though?" said Barret.

"Sephiroth took it," said Zack, "back at Nibelheim. He cut it off."

"That's messed up."

"Tell me about it."

"And," Lucrecia went on cautiously, "you haven't seen Sephiroth's real body so far either, correct?"

"As far as we know," said Nanaki.

There was a pause, and Jessie heard Lucrecia draw another breath. "I still can't tell you... which one of them is in control of things, or if they really are working together. But I'm theorizing that Sephiroth's true body, Jenova's head... You'll find one or both of them where you're going, drawing everything to them."

Jessie exchanged glances with Tifa. That could mean they were headed for some more powerful incarnation of Sephiroth or Jenova than the ones they'd defeated before. If all they'd been fighting were pieces of Jenova, under the will of something stronger...

"But why not you, too?" Jessie asked Lucrecia.

Another pause. "I... think it's the manner in which I was infected," said Lucrecia. "We injected Jenova's cells into Sephiroth as a fetus, you understand... He grew into this hybrid inside of me. It's common enough even in normal pregnancies for something called fetal chimerism to occur--where some fetal cells pass into the mother's body and persist there. Jenova's presence made this a much more aggressive process, one which nearly killed me... But I was left with those hybrid genes. Sephiroth's genes. Ironically, he may be protecting me from his own influence, because what I have inside of me is not purely a piece of Jenova."

"So you're suggesting," said Nanaki, "that Sephiroth may not share Jenova's ability to manipulate pieces of himself? He can only manipulate Jenova?"

"Either that, or... The hybrid cells are different enough that Jenova can't control them."

Jessie tapped her lip with a finger. Neither of those possibilities could be easy for Lucrecia to consider. Even if it was Jenova manipulating the clones, Lucrecia's apparent immunity meant that Nibelheim, at least, had been Sephiroth's own will.

But if it was Sephiroth... There was something special about him, that he'd gained that ability when no one carrying pure Jenova cells had. Something that set him apart, and something Lucrecia might share, the same way she shared his talent for illusions.

"I don't suppose there's any chance that..." Jessie hesitated. "I mean, if it is Sephiroth who's controlling them, couldn't you... do the same?"

The others all looked at her in alarm, Vincent in particular.

"I..." Lucrecia faltered. "To what end?"

"Well, to break his control," Jessie suggested, realizing she hadn't exactly thought that part through. And she was supposed to be the smart one. "I don't know."

Tifa was exchanging glances now with Zack and Cloud, but still no one said anything.

Lucrecia spoke up again, slowly. "To impose my will on someone else... I wouldn't know where to begin, nor do I think I should."

"Yeah, I'd like to opt out," Zack put in, "of any more mind stuff. No offense, but one person shoving his way in there sometimes is bad enough."

"I understand," said Lucrecia. "It probably is best to let it alone."

Jessie scratched her head, threw Zack an apologetic look for bringing up that line of thought, and then decided to change the subject. "So, did you find anything on Vincent?" she asked.

"Not much, but..." She trailed off uncertainly.

"It's all right," said Vincent. "I don't mind if they hear it."

"Well... Quite frankly, it doesn't seem like even Hojo really understood the results. As near as I can tell, his aim was a more permanent transformation, but the monsters he joined to you didn't want to cooperate."

"Wait," said Yuffie. "Monsters... plural?"

"Yes," Lucrecia confirmed. "At least he wrote about using two different specimens, and implied they were both successful, to a degree."

"I see..." Vincent's brow had furrowed, and Jessie didn't think he'd known about the second monster supposedly inside of him somewhere.

"I wish I could tell you more," said Lucrecia, "or how to get rid of them, but... you did die, Vincent. And they've been a part of you since he brought you back."

Vincent shook his head. "It's fine. I didn't anticipate finding a way back to what I was."

Lucrecia fell silent, but Jessie couldn't imagine that she had nothing to say to that. She caught Tifa's eye and then offered, "You want to talk to Vincent alone now?"

"Yes. If you don't mind."

Jessie held the phone out to Vincent, who accepted it slowly. He got up and made his way out of the cave. Jessie only just made out the sound of his voice as he said something to Lucrecia. She wondered how they spoke to each other, when it was just the two of them.

About everyone was looking at her now, she realized. Sometimes Jessie regretted wearing her heart on her sleeve, and this was one of those times.

"Oh, stop," she said. "I'm over it! There's plenty of fish in the sea."

"Yeah," Yuffie agreed immediately. "Whatever that means. But the guy can turn into two whole monsters, you can do better than that."

Zack scratched his head. "Didn't realize you were suffering from losing out to a pretty woman, too. Maybe we can grab a drink over it once we hit Icicle Inn."

"Hey," said Barret, "you tryin' to say Jessie ain't pretty?"

"What? No!"

"Honestly, Zack," Aeris teased, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

"Look, it was just bad word choice. I was trying to commiserate here."

Jessie smiled. "It's all right, I got the idea. I wouldn't mind