Chapter Three

Holy shit, it really is gone. I thought the rookie was exaggerating, but there's just a big damn crater where the Temple of the Ancients oughta be. I bring the chopper down a distance from the pit, so the rotor wash won't disturb any tracks Tseng might've left. "Spread out, find him!" I order as I jog towards the pit, carefully examining the ground as I approach.

"But sir, what if he was still in the temple?" the rookie asks, voice on the verge of panic.

I point towards the jungle. "He limped off that way."

"What? How do you know that?"

"You sleep through wilderness training or something, rookie? Look!" I point to some distinctive scuffs and impressions in the ground before continuing, "Someone in dress shoes, Tseng's size, limped away here. He can't be hurt that bad." That said, I turn away and head towards the jungle at a quick walk, careful not to lose sight of his tracks. The rookie and the grunts run ahead, yelling for Tseng. Dumbasses. I should've come alone.

It's no surprise that I find him first. He's still alive, but my scan materia tells me he's got a punctured lung. Someone stuck him with something very sharp and slender, with a slight curve to it. He's lost a lotta blood too. It may be too late to heal the damage with my materia, but I can still use it to stabilize him. His eyes begin to open after I hit him with a couple cures. "Easy, boss, it's me. You're gonna be fine."

He tries to talk, and ends up spitting out a mouthful of blood instead. "Reno?" he asks, eyes opening fully.

"Yeah, boss, It's me." I then turn on my radio. "I found him. Get your asses over here immediately."

"I got... careless, let Sephiroth... thought I could handle him... I've one last order for you..."

"Don't talk like that, man, I ain't about to let you die," I insist as I grab his hand.

"Take care of Aeris, please...," he asks.

"Hey, knock it off, boss. You're not gonna die. It's just a punctured lung, no big deal. Medics're on the way. You're just gonna get some paid vacation in the hospital, that's all." He slips back into unconsciousness before I can say anything else, so I focus on keeping him stabilized until the medics catch up.

As soon as I step out of the door to the operating room, Rude and Elena rush to their feet, eager for news. "He's gonna be fine," I inform them. "They had to take the lung out, so he's gonna be stuck in intensive care for a while. The docs figure it'll be a couple weeks till he's ready to get a new one transplanted, then at least a month before they'll let him go back on active duty. That makes me acting commander." Heh, the rookie doesn't look too thrilled with the idea of me being in charge.

"You, keep an eye on Tseng," I order her.

"Sir?" she asks, looking confused. "You think he's going to be attacked?"

"No. But being stuck in a hospital can get pretty damned boring and lonely. So unless we call you for something else, I want you in here, keeping him company. And try and sneak in some caviar, he really loves that shit."

"Th-thank you, sir!"

Heh, for a second there, I thought she was gonna hug me. Probably just confused the hell out of her. Now, that's the proper way to deal with a love triangle. If she does her job right, Tseng won't be getting in my way anymore... "C'mon, Rude, I got some work for you, too," I say as I turn to walk away.

It's just like Reeve said. Avalanche's holed up in Gongaga, Spike's in some sorta coma, and Aeris's gone. Slipped out of town just yesterday, so it shouldn't be too hard to find her tracks.

After spending a couple hours slowly circling the village, I find them. Looks like she's headed east...

Her tracks lead me to a port town so tiny, I'm having trouble remembering the name. Ah well, no matter. Tracking her oughta get easier, now. A ship's visible in the distance, steaming north. Hmmm, can't be that long since it left port...

A quick visit to the harbormaster's office confirms my suspicions. She's aboard, headed to Bone Village, of all places. Odd. Maybe she thinks she's being followed, that's an easy way to confuse pursuit. I put in a call for a surveillance plane to shadow the ship and a chopper to take me to Costa, where I'll board when her ship stops to refuel if she doesn't ditch it first. Hmm, may as well check around the port while I'm waiting, make sure she didn't ditch the ship from the start.

She's been avoiding me, but she's definitely on board. All I've managed to do is see glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye, and catch occasional whiffs of her perfume. Frustrating, but I have to admit it's damned impressive, doing this on such a small ship. Even now, standing at the ship's prow, I feel her eyes on my back. She's done this disappearing trick before, avoiding everyone for days at a time. Communing with the planet, that's what she'd always tell me she was doing when she decided to be social again. She'll be ready to talk again sooner or later, she always is.

But why head north? Nothing's on the whole continent but a couple ski resorts, a hand full of pissant villages, and a few archeological digs. But something up here's obviously worrying the hell out of her. If only I knew what it was, or could get her to let me help... Guess there's nothing I can do now but stick with her and wait. I'm sure I'll find out what she's up to soon enough.

I finally spot her as she leaves the ship and makes a beeline for the forest behind the village. I lose sight of her as she enters the treeline, but her tracks are easy enough to follow. Doesn't look like she's in much of a hurry.

The scent of her perfume's the only warning I get an instant before I feel a weight land on my back and soft limbs wrap around my torso. "Surprise!" she shouts, laughing.

"Holy shit, you almost gave me a heart attack!" I claim, trying not to laugh as I place a hand over my chest for dramatic effect.

"That's what you always say," she chuckles. "You know I can't let you surprise me so many times without getting you back."

"Heh, yeah, guess not. So, need a lift, babe?" I ask as I resume walking, placing my hands under her legs to help support her weight.

"Thanks, Reno," she says, resting her head on my shoulder. "You always were good at making me smile, I've really been needing that."

"Hey, no problem, babe." We walk in silence for some time after that. I've no idea where we're going, and don't particularly care. I'm too busy enjoying the moment, the sensation of her relaxing on my back, while it lasts.

I'm starting to think she's fallen asleep when she speaks up again. "I wish I could stay here with you."

"Why don't you?" I need to know.

"I can't. I have to fulfill my duty as a Cetra."

"Then take me with you."

"I can't do that either."


"I can't. If you go much farther... you'll die."

So, it finally comes out. I come to a halt and take a deep breath to steady my nerves. A cold feeling spreads from the pit of my stomach as I ask, "What about you?"

"It doesn't matter, it's my duty. You understand, right?"

"Yeah...," I understand duty, all right.

"I'm going to have to leave soon," she informs me, voice full of regret.

"Wait, before you go, I have to tell you something...," I try to keep my breathing steady as my pulse increases. C'mon, man, moment of truth, don't choke... "I... well, I... Um..."

"I know." She interrupts.

"Wha-?" I turn to look at her and she cuts me off by clamping her mouth over mine and kissing me passionately enough to send any doubts fleeing from my mind.

After what seems like an eternity, she pulls back and climbs off my back. "We don't have much time left..."

I hate seeing her look so sad, even more than I hate the desperation I feel creeping up inside me. "Can't you stay... at least a little longer?"

Her eyes close and her face assumes the serene expression that tells me that she's speaking to the planet. A smile comes to her face as her eyes open. "We still have some time." She kisses me hungrily as I wrap my arms around her. The forest floor makes a surprisingly soft bed as we make love for the first and possibly last time.

Some time later we lay on the fallen leaves, wrapped around one another and enjoying the blissful afterglow. "Thank you, Reno," she whispers into my ear, "for everything. I know we'll meet again someday. Be patient, I'll be waiting for you. Goodbye, Reno." She kisses me again, then suddenly disappears. Wait, I know that feeling. She used a stop spell to get a head start. Clever.

It doesn't take me long to find her tracks and I'm off, pulling my clothes back on as I go. Suddenly, I step through the treeline and find myself back in Bone Village. "What the hell?" I burst out. Looking down, I find her tracks and my own, leading back into the forest. Alright, I need to calm down. Obviously, I got sloppy and got turned around somehow. I can't go letting my emotions get the better of me like that.

I spend the next few minutes just standing there, breathing slowly. When I feel ready, I turn and head back into the forest, completely cool and focused on the task at hand. I refuse to accept that there's nothing I can do to help her. My focus is shaken a few minutes later when I find myself back at the village. By the fourth time I get turned around, I'm starting to get a bit pissed off. Alright, time to rethink this...

Damn forest. It's really pissing me off. I've tried everything I can think of over the last day and haven't gotten any closer to my goal. Even rappelling in by chopper, I ended up back at the village. And those damned trees, defoliant, fire materia, and even napalm hardly had any effect on them. So here I am, at the end of my rope, holding down a table in what passes for a bar in this shithole of a town. I've never felt so damned helpless before in my life. The locals claim there's some sorta curse on the forest, but there's obviously some way through. Maybe I'll have some new ideas to try in the morning. Or maybe she's already dead. I wipe my eyes and take another shot of cheap rotgut Whiskey, hoping it'll dull the pain.

The pyramid of shot glasses on the table in front of me's starting to take shape nicely when one of my least favorite voices interrupts me. "What're you doing here?" the former lab rat asks. I guess him staying in a coma was too much to ask for. And he brought his whole freakshow crew, too.

"Isn't it obvious?" I ask dryly, raising another shotglass in mock salute before throwing it back and adding it to the pyramid. "Now go away, you're making my buzz wear off." Strife stands there looking confused for a few moments before apparently realizing how dumb he looks standing in the middle of the inn with his sword out.

Guess this must be the only restaurant in town, too. I spend the next half hour building my pyramid and ignoring the losers seated on the other side of the room. No point even eavesdropping on them, they're obviously following Aeris, too. Kinda surprised they even made it this far, what'd she draw them a map or something? Ah well, doesn't matter. They'll find out for themselves how frustrating that damned forest is, soon enough.

Finally. They're leaving and I'm starting to get pretty smashed. Things're starting to look up. I'll probably be calling it a night myself pretty soon. Just gotta finish off this bottle, then I'll take one more up to the room I rented to finish myself off. "Um, excuse me." I look up at the voice and find Rude's favorite bartender standing in front of my table, intently staring at her shoes.

"Well?" I ask when she doesn't say anything else.

"Is... Is Rude here, too?" Well, this is amusing, she's actually blushing.

I smirk. "You really think I'd be drinking alone if my drinking buddy was here?"

"Oh. Sorry."

"What d'ya want him for, anyway?" I ask. Wow, I don't think I've seen anyone blush that bright before. On any normal day, I'd be laughing my ass off right now. Even in my current shitty mood, I manage to crack a smile. Guess the booze must be working.

"I... kinda wanted to talk to him again."

Those must be the world's most interesting shoes she's wearing, she hasn't looked up once. Well, may as well give my buddy a hand with his crush. "So, go talk to him," I say while scrawling out his PHS number on a napkin. "Tell him I said hi." She stammers something vaguely sounding like thanks before snatching the napkin and taking off, practically running. Wonder if she'll have the guts to call him? Ah well, back to the task at hand. Looks like about three more shots before I head upstairs.

I wake up with a blinding headache and no idea where I am. Opening my eyes reveals that it's too damned bright, so I quickly shut them. I open them more cautiously this time and see a mostly empty bottle of Whiskey on the floor in front of my face. I slowly sit up as I take in the dingy hotel room around me. Ugh, I really feel like shit. Haven't drank like that since Sector Seven... Suddenly, I remember why I'm here. Aeris. There's gotta be some way to get into that forest and help her. I stagger out the door while digging through my pockets, hoping to find some aspirin.

I arrive at the forest armed with a rope and a crossbow, thanks to some ideas Rude left on my voicemail last night. He was thanking me on the message too. Damned if I know why, but the last evening's still a hazy mess in my mind. Hope I didn't do something stupid like give him my car while I was drunk...

I can't put my finger on it, but something seems different about the forest. I shrug and assume it's just the lingering effects of my hangover. Huh, there's more tracks here. That's right, Avalanche came into town yesterday. Well, I doubt they're having much luck. I'll probably pass them while they're on the way out. I tie one end of the rope to my belt and the other to a crossbow bolt before firing it into the woods. Now, even if the forest messes with my head I shouldn't be able to get turned around. When I reach the tree my bolt's embedded in, I carefully fire it again, using the mark in the tree to make sure I'm still going in the right direction.

Sometime after the fourth time I fire the bolt, I find the spot where my tracks turn back, but Aeris's and Avalanche's continue on. Wonder how they did that? I can barely breathe as I step over the line where I had been turned back so many times before and breathe a sigh of relief when I pass it. Looks like I've finally beat those damned trees.

After several hours in the woods, I find a strange sight. A city built out of what appear to be giant shells. What the hell? I've never heard of anything like this being up here. And it's open to the sky, too. How the hell could it stay undiscovered like this? I should've been able to see it from the chopper when I rappelled down. Nothing about this damned forest makes any sense. Ah well, nothing I can do but press on. The tracks go into the city, so I follow them inside.

Inside, Avalanche's tracks wander all over but Aeris's lead directly to the center of the city. She obviously knew where she was going. There's another set of recent tracks too, but this one seems to be alone. Someone in old style Soldier combat boots, the type issued to officers back in the war. Aeris's tracks intersect the others repeatedly before meeting at the top of a staircase. As I climb down the strange crystalline steps I try not to think of the implications of ten sets of tracks entering the stairwell and only nine leaving.

At the bottom, I find nothing but a large platform with what looks like a small alter on it. A cold chill runs down my spine at the sight of a large pool of blood in front of the alter. Signs of battle cover the rest of the platform. Someone died here, or came very close to it. But who?

Searching for more evidence, I enter the water below the platform and spend some time swimming around with a flashlight. The first thing I spot are twisted remains, resembling those we found on the transport ship when Avalanche hitched a ride to Costa. Hojo called it Jenova's spawn, guess this's more of the same.

After coming back up for air, I continue my search and find something even stranger. A single piece of materia, glowing like it's being used. But no one's touching it. That goes against everything I've ever learned about that stuff. As I cautiously approach, I recognize the etchings on the small, crystalline globe. It's Aeris's.

She told me once that it was her mother's and that it didn't do anything. Even let me try it a few times, but I never could get a connection with it. Well, it's obviously doing something now. Hmm, Rude and Tseng couldn't connect with that materia either... I wonder, maybe you need Cetra blood to use it? I suppose it's got something to do with the task only a Cetra could do that she was so vague about. So, does this mean she won?

I return to the surface, leaving the materia untouched for fear of disrupting whatever it was she did with it. My eyes return to the pool of blood. Whoever was wounded there was obviously carried out. Deciding that there's no more clues to be found down here, I retrace my steps up the stairs.

The tracks from the old-style officers boots head straight into the mountains to the north while the others mill around a small lake before following. No, wait, they actually go into the lake. Why? I wade in, carefully scanning for evidence of what happened here.

I've seen many bodies in my time as a Turk, and in every stage of decomposition. So many, that I thought I'd been hardened to the point that seeing one couldn't disturb me, but this one shocks me to the core. Aeris. As my mind recoils in denial, my training takes over and I find myself activating my scan materia. It tells me that she hasn't been dead long, and was killed with a weapon identical to the one used to wound Tseng. Sephiroth did this. I should be burning with rage right now, but all I feel is a strange numbness. Part of me wants to stay down here, just let the oxygen run out and rest with my love.

No. She wouldn't want that, otherwise she would've let me come with her. The last thing she told me was to be patient. I may not've been able to save her, but I can at least honor her last request. Wait, there's something else I can do for her, too.

My lungs begin to burn as I swim for the surface, her body held in my arms. I don't know why her so-called friends just tossed her in a lake, but I can at least give her a proper burial.

Emerging from the lake, I spot the perfect place a short distance away. A small cherry tree, in full bloom. It's pure white petals are just beginning to fall, mingling with the brightly colored wildflowers surrounding it's trunk. She'd approve, I know it. Setting her down in the flowers, I get to work.

I don't have any proper tools, but I've used my combat knife as a spade before. It works well enough to move flowers aside and make room for a grave. She'd always laugh when I used this knife to help in her garden, working by her side...

It takes a bit of blinking before I'm able to see again well enough to get back to work. It grows increasingly difficult to control my breathing as the preternatural calm of shock wears off. No, not yet. I have to keep focused enough to finish this one last favor for her first. Gotta keep digging.

It's hard to dig with shaking hands, especially when my only tool's a knife, but I'm managing well enough. The grave's almost a foot deep now. Wiping my eyes, I look up and estimate it's almost midday. Working through the night, I should be able to lay her to rest in the morning.

After deepening the grave by several inches, I'm surprised to hear the sound of an impact directly in front of me. I blink several times, thinking I'm hallucinating, but there's still a shovel in front of me. My eyes follow the handle up and find Rude at the other end with another shovel over his shoulder and sorrow written all over his normally impassive face. I'm surprised I didn't hear him, there's a chopper behind him and those things aren't exactly silent. I take the offered shovel and he gets to work digging. Not trusting my voice, I follow his example. Thanks aren't really needed, anyway. He knows I'd do the same for him if the woman he loved turned up dead. Except if that happened, we wouldn't have to hide her in an unmarked grave, for fear of Hojo coming to reclaim his specimen.

Working together, we excavate feet in the time it took me to scratch out inches. The sun's just starting to set when we reach a full six feet. We don't have a proper coffin, but Rude brought a parachute from the chopper. The silk canopy'll serve well enough as a burial shroud. Wrapping it around her, I pause and kiss Aeris's cold blue lips one last time. For a moment I'm overcome with memories. "Damn, I miss you..." I whisper. I've never been the religious type, but she said she'd be waiting for me. Nothing I can do but trust that she was right about that. "I'll wait, too," I promise before covering her face.

It's hard to let go of her, to leave my lover in the bottom of her grave, but I've no choice. The petals from the tree continue to fall as we slowly replace the soil atop her. Setting the shovels aside, I pull my knife again and begin transplant the flowers I'd moved back onto her grave.

It's dark by time I finish. I stand for some time before Rude takes me by the shoulder and leads me to the chopper. A few short minutes later and we're back in Bone Village. Right in front of the closest bar, he knows me well. No words are exchanged as we take a table in the corner and set to work, drinking our way into oblivion.

Author's Note: Wow, that was a hell of a long delay, wasn't it? Sorry bout that, folks, but I've been kinda busy lately. Among other things a hard drive crash when I was halfway done, job dis-satisfaction, a job hunt, and starting a new job since the last update've slowed my writing a bit. But if anyone's still reading this, please, review. Don't be an asshole lurker, tell me what you think of my fic. And as always, big thanks go to Noroi for betaing this. Go read her stuff after you're done writing me a review.

New note: Edited again because some site update deleted all the '--' lines I used to use to denote scene changes. So time to slap horizontal rulers into all my fics.