Another Chapter is here!

Quathis: True, true

Kazeshuriken: Yes it is.

Enjoy!

"Mmm… mm…" Yuffie shifted as she slowly roused from the depths of unconsciousness. Her entire body ached, even swaddled in the long forgotten sensation of being nestled within a futon. She just wanted to sleep a little longer…

Then her memories caught up to her. She recalled that she had just beaten her father in heated combat and then nothing. So what was she doing in a futon? The thought caused her to snap upright, leaving the cover to slide down to her waist and reveal that she had been changed into a white kosode.

Her dark-brown eyes skimmed the room and she realized that she was inside the head temple, her father's home that she moved out of ages ago. Her father himself was sitting at the table across from her in a seiza position, on a cushion. His back was to her, but she could tell he was slowly stirring tea in a cup.

"You've awakened," he said without looking at her. "Come and sit. We have much to talk about."

His tone sounded… weary, if Yuffie had to place a label on it. No fight or presence within it at all. She slipped out of the futon and then walked around to the other end of the table, taking a seat on the cushion cross-legged and then eyeing the spread laid out. There was a plate of youkan, which were jellied sweet dessert blocks made of red bean paste, and baked rectangle-shaped rice snacks called okaki in the center.

"I take it you still like your Green Tea sweet?" he asked as he blended the tea. She nodded and watched as he added a dollop of honey to the mix, the golden swirl slowly blending into the liquid. He blew gently across the rim of the cup, the rich and familiar aroma teasing her nose, before he slid it across to her.

She eyed it cautiously and then him, the change in his demeanor bothering her on some level deeper than she would like to admit. But hunger and thirst gnawed at her. She picked up the tea cup with one hand and a snack with the other. "What happened?"

"You won our bout—" A smile appeared on her face. "—then you nearly fell to your death."

Her smile faltered, the rim of the cup stopping an inch from her mouth. "Oh…" She set the cup down. "Does that mean it doesn't count?"

"I had to watch helplessly as you fell to your death because of your brashness. If it were up to me, you would never set foot outside of the village again." He crossed his arms, hiding them within the sleeves so they looked connected. "However, my will has been overruled by Lord Leviathan in the matter. You will go with your companions in accordance to its will."

She blinked. "I… feel like I'm missing something here…."

"I suspect as much." Her father sighed and then recounted what happened after she passed out. No one could reach her and he couldn't move or transform, leaving her fate sealed if not for the timely appearance of Leviathan from the holy jewel that had been passed down from generation-to-generation, supposedly containing its soul.

"Aerith… mmph… must've called it out," Yuffie reasoned, whilst chewing on her snack. "She can hear the voices of the summonings inside their Materia."

"So I've gathered." He didn't sound pleased about it as he reached down and then pulled out a scroll. "Regardless, the declaration was made. I cannot aid you once you leave beyond this. It is a manual with the teachings of the All Creation that guided me years ago in becoming the Omni."

She took and unraveled it, only to find archaic text in her native language. A displeased grumble bubbled up in her throat. It would take her ages to decipher it. "I still don't get why you didn't fight against Shinra with all that power before."

"… Yuffie," he said with tensed patience. "What do you think would have happened if we waged war with that power? What would it have accomplished?"

She pointed out the obvious. "We could have won the war."

"Presuming that was true… would we be better off for it?" he asked.

Her first thought was 'Yes' at the moment, but after that last fight she was starting to have some doubts.

"You believe that many of our people have left because of how the village has been presented to the outside world, but did you consider how many died fighting for our cause? How many were tired of hearing the sound of bombs being dropped and living in fear? We faced an enemy of unparalleled numbers, and they would have laid waste to the lands we had tended to for centuries. Would it have been worth it then?"

That gave her pause. She could still recall them some nights, the sounds of war being waged in the distance, and the faces of those whose loved ones didn't come back home. Yuri's father had been among the lost.

"In all honesty, I would rather you remained in the village," he said. "You are… so reckless with the life that your mother and I gave you."

"Why do you care now?" Yuffie asked bluntly. "When I came home, you dragged me off to try and have be punished by the others. Your first words weren't 'welcome home' or 'how have you been' or anything like that."

"When you first spoke to me upon returning home, it was not an apology for just running off in the middle of a night, stealing a boat, and then never contacting me," he pointed out, making an effort to keep his voice leveled. "It was just a recount of how many battles you've been in, how many lives you've participated in taking, and how much power you've gathered for the sake of waging war. What father would be happy listening to all of that?"

She pouted, but didn't give an answer. She just grabbed another youkan to munch on.

He took that as a cue to continue. "You focus so much on the martial history and pride of our people, but give no consideration for the other aspects. Yes, you've grown strong, but all that power in the hands of someone who only sees that strength in terms of violence will inevitably lead us to ruin. That is a disservice to all those who died defending our way of living, as well as our culture."

"You've turned… mmph… this place into…mmph…a tourist trap," Yuffie said between bites, only to swallow afterwards. "How is that not a disservice?"

"It may appear gaudy on the outside, but our culture is still intact," he said. "And the revenue from the attractions has allowed us to remain aloft in lieu of losing so many people and thus a suitable workforce. No, it is not ideal compared to the past. But isn't it better than losing everything because of our pride."

"…Oh…" She hadn't considered all of that. It never crossed her mind that such things were necessary for the village to stay functional.

"You frustrate me because you should have known these things," her father admitted, massaging the bridge of his nose. "I should have taught you better, but back then I was so consumed with the battles that lay ahead that all you saw of me was that side. It took root inside of you, and nearly cost you your life right in front of my eyes. Now I must allow you to go do more of the same with utter strangers."

"… It's not like I only fought with those guys," she said, after a moment of thought on how to ease his worries. "I met some nice people too, like the people beneath Junon and Priscilla. I guess what happened to them is sort of what you were trying to explain. But that's all the more reason I have to fight, so things don't end up like that. The world doesn't stop at our shores, I know that much now."

"Then I can only pray that you will become wise to the world along your journey, and return with that wisdom to us once more…."

[-oOo-]

Aerith hesitated as she stood at the stairway leading down into the ground-level of Yuffie's home. Yuffie's friend had brought the materia they loaned her back, stating that she was awake and having a long discussion with her father. Now she cradled the rest of Crimson's materia, who had gone down there after she had finished bathing to plan their next move in peace.

The memory of her earlier, how she wanted Aerith to maintain the summoning despite it getting ready to kill her friend's father, kept playing out in her head. Having witnessed her own birthmother's death, Aerith wasn't keen on being responsible for the death of a friend's parent. Yet, Crimson had been so willing...

She looked down to Ramuh's Summoning Materia and recalled what she had told Crimson when she handed it over. If she truly felt like she was becoming a monster, he would be the one to stop her if she fell onto that path. What would have been his judgment if she had him on her at the time she made that declaration?

When she could no longer delay the inevitable, she climbed down the stairs to see that Crimson was on the phone.

"—do what you think needs to be done," she said into it. "But watch it. Tseng and the others likely have something planned on the train."

Aerith approached her as she hung up and handed over the materia she loaned Yuffie. "That Yuri boy brought these back."

Crimson silently accepted them, not daring to look her in the eyes, before turning back towards a map. The silence that followed only caused the question Aerith wanted to ask to violently stir inside of her, until she couldn't hold it in anymore. "Were you really going to let Yuffie's father die?"

"It didn't come to that," Crimson said, as if expecting it. "Everyone got out of it safe and sound."

"But would you have let it happen?" she asked again.

"…Yes. If need be," she admitted in an emotionless voice. "One death is cleaner than if we had to force our way into the facility. If you had cut the summoning and Godo refused to honor his end of the bargain, then I would have been forced to act while they couldn't transform again and may have had to kill more than one to get the point across. If Leviathan, their patron god, did the deed himself for Godo being an oath-breaker, then that would be considered an act of divine punishment rather than murder."

"But would it have been worth it?" Aerith asked. "To sentence her father to death after she fought him to that point… using me to do it?"

"I would have taken responsibility for it and told her the truth, because I was the one who helped her get into a position to necessitate Leviathan's summoning." Her hair shifted as she lowered her head. "Believe me, I'm glad that it didn't come to that. But if it had, I would be the one to blame—neither of you would be at fault."

Aerith looked away from her at that. Even if that was the case, the fact that it was her magic that was being used to do so made it partially her fault. "I thought you wanted to change… what would Cloud think if he knew that?"

"I'm sure he knows already." Aerith looked up at that to see her fists were clenched. "He was close enough to hear with his ears being as sharp as they were. He was just too polite to say anything earlier, I'm sure."

The last of the Cetra had nothing to say after that. So she left back up the stairs.

[-oOo-]

"I'm such a hypocrite," Crimson said to herself after Aerith left. She saw an easy way to ensure they got what they needed and took it in the end. Her hand clutched the Summoning Materia tightly. "Ramuh… I need your judgment."

The jolt to her mind preceded the appearance of the Elder Justiciar of Lightning. His appearance thickened the air with the scent of ozone, but there was no bolt of retribution or crackling sparks accompanying him. He merely stood there with his hands behind his back.

"You were observing what was happening from the materia, weren't you?" He nodded to her question. "Then tell me, have I started on that path I feared?"

"I did deign to offer my wisdom if need be, so I would be remiss not to when asked," spoke the sagely summoning. "Let me tell you a story of my time as a mortal justiciar, if I may have your ear?"

She nodded and gave him her full attention.

"Back when I was a mortal, it was rather uncommon for a justiciar to play the role of judge and executioner. Yet, it was such that I became renowned for." He extended his hand and his staff appeared by magic. "In my case, I wielded a staff tipped with a raw, natural Thunder Materia I stumbled upon by chance. If I passed judgment that one was to be executed for their crime, I deemed to carry out the task by my own hand rather than placing the burden on an executioner. Do you know why that is?"

Crimson brought a hand to her chin in thought. There was a point to the story he was telling her, relating to the matter at hand. "Was it because it was your responsibility?"

He nodded his head once and brought a hand to his long, white beard. "I made the call and arbitrated the decision that would lead to someone's death. Therefore, it was my responsibility to see to it myself rather than wash my hands clean of my role in things like most others in my time, and allow the executioner to the one to take a life. By doing so, I was reminded that every decision I carried out held the weight of a life behind it and was never to be taken lightly. The form you see before you is the result of a life spent doing such. "

Though he died as a human, the memories wove into the Lifestream were condensed and compiled into the entity before her. Even if he didn't exactly look as such in life, his sagely demeanor was reflected in how the people remembered him upon their return to the great flow within the planet.

"So, child, I do not believe that you are a monster as you fear, if you are sincere in your claim to take responsibility," he continued. "You believed the circumstances were enough to warrant it and that it would prevent a greater loss of life should he rein on his end of the deal. It was not a decision made lightly, even though you knew that it would alienate you from one whom you call a friend."

"…Thank you," Crimson said, after a pause.

"All the same, should you ever take those decisions involving a life lightly—" He raised his staff forward and luminous lightning crackled at the tip. "—I will also be there to pass judgment by my own hands, for that is my responsibility when I entrusted myself to you."

The message carried. "I understand."

As the summoning dissipated into glimmering motes, she cradled the materia tenderly until the sound of shifting wood from the floorboards reached her ears. It came from beyond the closed door. "Aerith, is that you?"

The door opened, and down came Cloud instead. "She left out to sit outside and talk to her mother."

"Oh…" She sighed, wondering if the fledgling friendship she had been building with her was in ruins now. "How much did you hear?"

"Enough," Cloud said as he walked down the stairs.

"And what do you think?" The thought of hearing his opinions matching Aerith's made her stomach churn and her chest tighten, but she had to ask. "Do you think I went too far again?"

"I can't say whether it's right or wrong either, but…" He hesitated to find the right words. "No one can say that you take things lightly, even when they don't turn out well… even when you suffer the most because you try to do it all yourself."

She bit her lips as he drew closer. The feeling in her stomach hinted at what he was suggesting. "You mean Costa del Sol?"

"I had to carry you the majority of the time you were bleeding out from being shot." He brought his hands to his chest-level and stared down at them. "And then there was Nibelheim, when you went off without telling us and nearly got killed because you tried to do it alone, and then you spent that time in Rocket Town ignoring me. Sometimes I wonder if it's because you can't rely on me because of my memories… or because I'm a clone."

"That's not it!" She walked forward and placed her hands on his arms, looking him in the eyes apologetically. "I'm sorry for all of that, Cloud. It's not you… I know that I do that a lot. I'm trying to do better about it, but these things are easier said than done. If you want me to tell you why, it's…."

Crimson trailed off as she gathered herself for what would come next. Aerith had said she should talk to him about it, and she had given her reasons for not doing so. But, if he felt that she was neglecting him because of everything he'd been through, it was a greater crime to keep it from him. Even if the dynamics changed, it would be better than simply letting him suffer further because she tried to hide it all away.

Her hands slid down his arms to wrap around his palms. "Cloud, I spent all my life since the orphanage training to close off secrets and work like this. I want to be more open with you of all people, but it's hard. And then there's this…."

His hands were guided to her chest. The shirt she wore was all that separated him from the soft flesh just above her heart. It was beating frantically.

"Can you feel it?" she asked, a slight blush on her face befitting her name. "How fast it's beating?"

"Yeah…." His body drew closer to her on its own, as if allured by the rising pulse of life beneath his fingers. "Your heart's racing."

"That's because we're here now, alone," she confessed. "Kunsel said that my judgment might be compromised because I felt deeply about you, but I didn't acknowledge he was right until Nibelheim. I was afraid that it would get someone hurt, so I tried to push you away in Rocket Town."

"Oh…" The surprise on his face offset the normally subdued demeanor he had. "I didn't know that."

She pinned his hands against her heart as she leaned closer into him. Their warmth radiated off one another at mere inches apart. She continued to unravel everything to him. "Cloud, you gave me a chance to become something more than an agent of the Company. You never blamed me for my past, only what I do in the present. I feel like I can become someone better when I'm around you."

"…I think you're giving me too much credit," he told her softly. But he didn't try retreating from her, even though it would be easy with how strong he was.

Crimson shook her head and her red-hair swayed softly. But she had no words strong enough to convey what she thought about that. Instead, her breathing stilled, her toes pushed her upwards, and her head moved in as her eyes lost themselves in his.

Their lips connected and conveyed what her words couldn't.