The Thief of Hell

Section 4

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The four travelers arrived in Rocket Town a few hours after Ni'esla left Cid's house. Vincent led the group to the white picket fence surrounding the Captain's back yard. When they arrived, Cloud dismounted his green Chocobo and lashed the reins to one of the fence posts. Vincent, Djin-Fe, and Sri-Danat did the same. Vincent spied Shera standing in her backyard so he led the other three around to the gate and then to Shera. She turned to look at Vincent, her expression one of shock bordering on out-right denial. It was not a momentary shock, either; it was one that suggested something unbelievable in its magnitude had occurred. He wondered what had happened in the two days they had been gone.

"What happened?" the dark man asked.

Shera didn't answer for a moment. It was clear she didn't want to say anything. "He's asleep," she finally muttered. Vincent decided to leave it at that. There was no use prying.

"We found out what happened to Cid," Cloud stated. "We brought these two with us to see if there was something we could do to stop it. See, what happened—"

Shera interrupted him before he could finish. "I know what happened," she said in a shaky voice. She turned to look back at her house. "Hehe told me." Looking over at the two strangers, she asked Vincent, "Who are these?"

"Their names are Djin-Fe and Sri-Danat," he answered in his emotionless voice.

Shera's eyes narrowed and her face hardened. "Why did you do this?" she spat at the two.

Sri-Danat shuffled his feet in the tall grass. Every reason he had suddenly disintegrated and blew away like the smoke-screens they were. In Shera's piercing gaze he saw the pain his experiments had caused and could not deny it. He could not deny itbut neither would he admit it. In one instant all his justifications were declared as shams, but he stubbornly clung to them, unwilling to admit he had been wrong. It was for a good cause, it was to further knowledge, it was for his mother, it was for his sister and brother, it wasn't his faultit was not his fault. He looked up into Shera's dark eyes and declared as much. "I did nothing. It was him," he said, pointing an accusing finger at his brother.

Djin-Fe gaped in shock at his brother. He looked back at Shera, then quickly flicked his eyes down, unable to meet her intense gaze. He couldn't look at anyone, really. Ever since Cloud and Vincent had discovered their actions, he had been plagued by thoughts of what he had and had not done. His own careful delusions had begun to crumble as well. It had not been a slight concern' as he previously thought. He shook his head, unable to give the woman an answer.

"Now that we're here, we have to decide what we can do. Can this whole process be reversed?" Cloud asked Djin-Fe. He knew the bald one was the scientist, but he had quickly acquired a healthy distaste for the man. He refused to even look at him; besides, he had asked him already and knew his answer. Djin-Fe had committed the greater crime, but he seemed to at least feel some remorse.

Sri-Danat answered quickly. "I can't. I couldn't even perform the normal experiment; how could I stomach repeating what my siblings did?"

Vincent leveled his blood red gaze at the scientist. "You would do nothing to set right this atrocity? You are responsible for destroying a man's humanity and you will do nothing?" He remembered not long ago Sri-Danat had said much the same thing, but it still surprised him.

"We haven't seen the results. How do you know he has lost anything?" Sri-Danat countered.

Vincent looked to Shera to answer. It was true, they had not seen Cid; but he knew from the expression on her face that all was not well. Shera looked at the ground, unable to respond. She could hardly come to grips with Cid's transformation; how could she even begin to explain?

Djin-Fe sneered in disgust at his brother. Then he turned to Vincent and said, "I don't think it would work anyway. Maybe we could reverse the genetic alteration, turn him human again, but we would have to repeat the whole thing." He paused and swallowed hard, shifting his gaze from one person to another. He didn't care what happened to anyone but himselfso why was he feeling so uncomfortable? "II couldn't do itIt was hard enough the first timehe almost diedI don't think he would make it through a second time. Besides, even if it did work, there's nothing we could do about the elemental process." Djin-Fe brushed some of his black hair out of his eyes and said to Sri-Danat, "It changed Ni'esla, Sri. It's not a mean streak."

"What do you mean?" Shera asked, still hostile.

Djin-Fe explained. "Something about it, about the air elemental process twisted her. She turned evil. It didn't happen with the other elementsI remember hearing that when evil spirits take on form, they can only use the air. Maybe that has something to do with it."

Before anything else could be said, Shera heard someone trying her front door. She rushed into the house, leaving the four others. Shera knew it was the wind elemental calling.

Some time after that woman slammed the door in her face and minutes after Vincent and the others had arrived, Ni'esla wandered back to the subject's home. The wind was becoming furious now, blowing new green leaves everywhere and tearing branches down. Most of the residents of the small town had taken refuge in their houses; it was fortunate for them that all their electricity was carried by underground cables. Ni'esla could feel the wind on the verge of finishing its work; the materia absorbed by the subject was summoning it and soon he would be made of naught but air as she was. She stepped up to the door and tried the knob; there was no point in asking to be let in. The door was locked; this did not surprise her. She took a step back, focusing the airs into her fists. When she let go, they hit the door with enough force to break it. Without a sound, it cracked down the middle but still stood. The elemental had not allowed the sound to carry through her air. Once more, Ni'esla gathered the wind and released it; this time, the door shivered in half. One half fell into the front room while the other hung on broken hinges. She pushed it away and stepped into the nascent elemental's house. She came face to face with a very angry Shera, who had a rifle cocked and leveled at Ni'esla's head.

"Get the hell out of my house," Shera growled through clenched teeth. Her finger held the trigger a hair's breadth from firing.

Ni'esla sneered and edged further into the house, ignoring everyone but Shera. She stopped when Shera pulled her finger back just a little more. "Ah, what fury animals display when their mates are threatened," she hissed, her voice dripping with venom. "Even the timid mouse will bear her teeth."

Shera just narrowed her eyes. Yes, she was angry; she felt such hatred and rage as she had never experienced before. But it did not cloud her judgment; in fact, it left her mind focused and clear. She gazed down the length of the barrel, checking her aim.

Ni'esla raised her hands, readying the wind, intending to rob the mouse' of her breath. As soon as she did, however, Shera fired. The wind elemental howled in pain as the bullet tore through her. She stumbled and fell, breathing hard and glaring murder, holding one thin hand over her chest. Shera's aim was true.

But it would take more than a bullet to kill Ni'esla. She slowly found her footing and stood on shaky legs, stooped over from the pain. She shifted her gaze from Shera to Cid, who had just come into the room. He looked startled and half-asleep at the same time.

Shera looked over at him then instinctively turned away, still unable to really look at him. She lowered her rifle, struck by a sudden weariness. It hurt her to see Cid this way.

Cid noticed but said nothing. With hooded eyes, the pilot turned to look at Ni'esla. Just looking at her made his skin crawl, riled his dragon instincts; he wanted so badly to dig his claws into her skin, to tear her, to make her bleed, to revenge himself upon her. He turned his glowing eyes away from her in an effort to quiet the desires of the beast he was becoming.

Ni'esla smiled cruelly. She watched him battle, his own form betraying him and weakening him. "What is the point? You cannot hope to win this fight," Ni'esla whispered, glancing sidelong at him. She suddenly lunged at Shera, catching her by surprise and tearing the air from around her. The air returned with a reverberating boom, knocking her down.

Cid's tenuous control snapped. He shrieked and jumped at the demon, dark claws extended and sharp teeth bared. He could not stand the thought of that evil creature hurting his love; he would not allow it. Any protective instinct that had been roused in Shera paled in comparison to the true dragon rage that now drove Cid. For himself he could not face Ni'esla, but there was nothing he would not do for Shera. His blue-white dragon fire blazed bright around his fist.

The wind elemental's eyes flew wide, startled, as Cid fell on her and knocked her down. She had expected to provoke him; what she had not realized was with what power he would retaliate. Ni'esla screamed as Cid bit deep into her shoulder and mauled her. His draconian roots traced not to common, rude wyrms but to the unquestioned King of them all. The dragon he was becoming was no less than a son of Bahamut, a prince among monsters; he held more power than Ni'esla realized. His dragon spirit burned her.

Shera stood and shook her head, clearing it from the little black and white pinpricks that Ni'esla's attack had caused. When she saw what was happening, however, she sucked in a breath and dropped her rifle in horror. She backed up a few steps, then bolted down the hall and into the backyard. Ni'esla saw her go and started laughing in spite of her pain. Her dark laughter cut through Cid's animal rage and struck fear into his heart. He jumped far back, landing on all fours on his kitchen table, claws clattering against the hardwood, leaving the wind elemental alone for now. What was he doing? He couldn't think. The dragon in him darkened his mind; he was losing himself in it.

Ni'esla gingerly picked herself up, watching the pilot all the while. It wouldn't be long. Provoking him had helped speed things along, that much was clear. His dark, twisted horns had grown several inches in only a few minutes; all it took was letting go. She smiled at him; she could feel his loathsome light grow cold and the blackness begin to engulf him. "Just give inthere is nothing you can do. You are a wind dragon now; nothing can change that," Ni'esla stated slowly. "Do you know what it means to be an element of the air?"

The wind demanded an answer of him. Cid blinked a few times, desperately trying to regain his equilibrium. What did it mean to be an elemental? He already knew it would have to give himself up if he wanted any peace in his warring body, but that battle was fought against the dragon. What did the air want?

And Sri thinks it's just a mean streak.

You see, the wind requires something in order to bear one's spirit.

"What does it mean, what does it require?" Cid asked, his voice shaking. He had managed to find some little peace for the moment, a little piece of the man he was. He looked down at his hands, wincing as they began to tense again.

Ni'esla took a few slow steps toward Cid, stopping when she stood in front of him. She set her long hand on his scaly cheek, smiling in satisfaction when he cringed and closed his eyes. He didn't pull away; it was as though he could not move. He was helpless again, waiting in horrible anticipation for when she would hurt him again. Ni'esla's smile widened and her expression hardened. She felt a profound and deeply wicked pleasure in seeing his helplessness and knowing she had not only caused it but that she could do to him anything she wanted because of it. That hideous thing he had, the filler and destroyer of dark emptiness, the light she had felt when she first came into his presence several days ago was now grown very dim. Before, just the very existence of something that could banish the dark and satisfy the deep hungers of one's soul had disgusted her, knowing she could never have it. That he had it, that anyone could escape her Hell, enraged her. It was that more than anything else which had driven her to torture him. Now, though, it was almost of no consequence. The darkness was crowding out the light in him and soon it would blot it out all together. He could not live and still have any good in him; the air would drive it out. He would not escape; her kingdom was off to a promising start.

Ni'esla dropped her hand and said, "I think you know. You know what I am." With that she left the house, grinning cruelly as she walked. As an utterly corrupt prince among dragons he would be a power to be reckoned with.

Several minutes later, Cid slowly slipped off the table, balancing precariously on legs that didn't want to obey him. He did know what she was. She was evil, without any light. He guessed that was what the air required. The dragon only wanted control; it could care less the condition of his soul, although if he gave up that fight he would lose himself. But the air demanded more than just a surrender; it required an active acceptance. No one could be as evil as Ni'esla unless they had consciously made a choice to abandon all hope. What would happen if he refused to give up his hope? Once, he thought he might have done it, not knowing the truth that was deeper than belief, not knowing that there really was a such thing as hope as the Venus Gospel had given it. But he knew it nowhe could no more deny it than he could deny that the sky was blue. He knew there was truth, that there was a Promised Land, that there was more in life than what was immediately obvious. He had tasted it. There were no words to express how deeply he knew it.

He felt it would take an incredible effort to deny what he knew to be true. Was it worth it to live?

Suddenly his choice became very clear. Live in abject and hopeless misery or die in peace. Living death. Again he was presented with a choice between life and death, but this time it was given by Ni'esla and not the Venus Gospel. This time he would have to chose death.

He was dead anyway.

* * *

Vincent turned away from the two brothers, unable to put up with them much longer. After Shera went into the house, they had begun arguing with each other. The longer they argued, the deeper Sri-Danat dug his heels in. He refused to believe he was wrong. Djin-Fe refused to accept all the blame; but at least he knew he had done something terrible. He clenched and unclenched his fists, resisting the urge to strike them both. How could they bicker like this? How could they not appreciate the hell they put his friend through? Did they not realize what it was like to be changed into a monster, to have to constantly fight the inner beasts that threatened to break forth at any moment?

No, of course they didn't. They may have lost "the milk of human kindness", but they were still human. Vincent wished more than anything to be alone in his knowledge. They didn't knowbut Cid knew. Those two stupid, squabbling, selfish brothers had inflicted on his closest friend a knowledge of things too horrible to know, that no one deserved to know.

Despite all his anger at the situation, in the deep places Vincent was almost glad, in a grim manner, that someone else might share his miserysomeone would understand. He tried to ignore the feeling; how could he possibly want anyone, much less Cid, to know what it was like to have one's humanity ripped from them, to be made a monster? His red eyes narrowed, angry at himself now for entertaining such a thought. Another sin to heap on the rest.

What a worthless, wretched beast he was. He hadn't even gone in to see him.

Suddenly, a shot rang out. Djin-Fe and Sri-Danat instantly stopped arguing. All four turned to the back door, hesitating for a moment. Vincent held up his hand, indicating to Cloud that he should stay with the two brothers. Cloud nodded while Vincent started striding quickly up to the back door. He began moving faster when he heard the howl of an angry dragon. He had come up with enough dragons in the Nibel Mountains to know what they sounded like. Just as he reached the door, Shera stumbled out and bumped into him, her expression one of mixed horror and disgust. She looked up at Vincent and whispered with almost no voice, "What is he?" She quickly stepped away and stood with her back to the group, ignoring them entirely.

Vincent watched her for a second, wondering if anyone had ever looked at him that way when his back was turned. Shera was a kind woman and an understanding one, but even she could not ignore the gut-level revulsion at seeing someone become a monster. Even without seeing Cid, he knew just from the look in Shera's eyes that that was exactly what had happened. He didn't know if Cid would be like him, with an appearance of humanity most of the time, or if he would be permanently changed. But he knew that Cid was not human inside this house; it was his voice he heard shrieking in fury. The dark man turned his head back toward the door. A sudden loathing assailed him; he didn't want to see what had happened. He clenched his teeth in self-disgust; he knew he felt the same trepidation others felt about him when he lost control and became a monster. How dare he feel like this? How dare he ignore his friend, turn his back, just because he knew he was a monster? How dare he?!

But that was exactly what he did. Vincent backed away a few steps and closed the door. He let his arm fall limp at his side while he stared at the door. His features were flat as always, giving no hint to the turmoil he felt inside. How dare he.

After several minutes of awkward silence, Cloud saw an apparition pass by the fence. To him it looked like a ghost anyway. It was that wind elemental he had seen in the recording. He quickly began to give chase. The others saw him then followed as well; even Sri-Danat and Djin-Fe. They both wanted to see their sister and have words with her. Ni'esla saw them and began moving at a dead run; all her injuries had healed over quickly.

Shera stood silent, not even turning to see them go.

* * *

It only took a few minutes for Vincent and Cloud to catch up with Ni'esla. When she realized she could not out run them, she turned to face them. They were of no consequence to her; she was not in the least bit threatened. She could always fly away if she needed to.

Djin-Fe ran up behind them; he could not run quite as fast as the two trained warriors. He stood, breathing hard for a moment. Sri-Danat came up a moment later, panting and gasping for air. He glared murder at his sister. She just grinned in triumph.

"Why do you chase me down? It won't accomplish anything," she sneered.

"How could you!!" Sri-Danat shouted, "How could you hurt someone like that?"

Ni'esla shook her head, her long hair whipping in the wind. "You are such a fool. You do not even know what it is you have done. Let me explain, dear, stupid Sri. You have perfected a scientific process that takes humans and makes them into demons."

Sri-Danat's eyes widened in disbelief. "Wh, what do you mean?" he asked, his voice shaking.

Ni'esla glared at him. "You destroyed all that was ever good in me." Then she smiled and continued, "I do not care, of course. How better to make and rule my demon kingdom than to be one myself? The wind cannot clothe anything good or holy. It is no fault of the air; that is just the way it is. Do you see now, my foolish Sri?"

Sri-Danat was at a loss for words. Could it be true? Could he be responsible for making possible a kingdom of demons? Is that what the kingdom of the air was? "I don't believe it. That couldn't be true. Did mother know that?"

The wind elemental paused for a moment, then said, "I think she did. She was always full of hate. Now I know how to make elementals myself; it is indeed an ingenious process, and I thank you for showing it to me."

There was something strange in her tone, a note of finality that none of the four quite understood until it was too late. Ni'esla threw back her hands, commanding the air to leave Sri-Danat's immediate vicinity. Then she dropped her arms. The wind fell back into the vacuum she had created with the noise of thunder and enough force to crush and kill Sri-Danat. The scientist died with a look of utter shock on his broken face.

The remaining three took a step back from the murdering elemental. Djin-Fe said nothing; for some reason he was not surprised that his sister would kill his brother. She knew no remorse. Cloud felt a sickening sense of evil come of her like rays from a blackened and sickly sun. He almost pitied Djin-Feit could have been that he allowed Ni'esla to do what she did because he was afraid to stop her.

"Do you feel the wind? It is finished. There is now a wind dragon in our midst, and he is powerful." She smiled wickedly, then rose into the air and flew away as fast as the violent wind would take her.

Vincent stood motionless, without expression. There was nothing they could do. Somehow he knew she was right; he could feel it in the windwhat ever its work, it was finished now. He turned back toward the center of town and began walking slowly, almost aimlessly.

Cloud shrugged and followed. He wasn't sure why Vincent looked so, well, sadthey didn't know if Ni'esla was right; how could they trust her judgment? Even if she was, there still might be a way to reverse whatever it was she had done. Djin-Fe looked just as depressed, but he supposed that was understandable. All three headed back to the Captain's house in a mode of defeat.

* * *

The wind was blowing, but it blew in silence. The fierce wind had turned strange; it had become one that silenced the birds and held them to the earth. No birds would fly in it. It was a dry wind and an eerie one—Shera had never felt one like it before. All around she heard with a strange clarity the rustling of the leaves and grass, but no howling wind, and no birds. She was standing in her backyard, nearly knee-deep in overgrown grass. Her white coat flew out behind her in the quiet wind, as did her brown hair. She stared off into the distance, focusing on nothing. Crossing her arms over her chest, she tried to stave off the loneliness she felt creeping up on her. She heard Cid come out and close the door slowly behind him. She wasn't alone yet, but she felt like she was. Without turning to face him, she addressed her long time companion. "You're not human anymore, are you." It was not a question.

"No," he answered, in the same voice he always had, but the deep schism forming in him was undeniable. He wasn't human, wasn't anything now.

After a long moment of silence, Shera added sadly, "I can't look at you, CidI'm sorry."

For a second, he didn't respond, but he understood. He could barely stand to see himself; he couldn't imagine what it must be like for her. "It's okayjust, just stay with me for a while, talk to me"

Shera nodded, looking down at her crossed arms. The air was cool, but not too cold; it almost felt feverish, in a way. What strange airbut she understood why, even if she couldn't accept it. When Ni'esla, that wind elemental, had come to Rocket Town, when Cid had remembered the awful things she had done, it had become clear what was happening. Even as she stood there, Cid was becoming more and more an air elemental; Sri-Danat, Djin-Fe, and Ni'esla had cruelly induced a process in his body that as every human cell was infected and died, it was replaced by those of an ancestral dragon, one of Bahamut's kind. And the wind filled the new cells. Even as he stood there, he was losing himself.

The wind had grown hostile the farther along Cid was in becoming a wind elemental. No one could reverse it because there was no one who was willing to commit the atrocities required. It was an act of calculated brutality that had set this process in motion and it would take the same to stop it; but there was no guarantee it would work even if they tried. Sri-Danat wouldn't do it; he couldn't stomach it. Djin-Fe refused; he thought it wouldn't work, and although he had helped perform the experiment the first time, he would not repeat it.

"I can't live like thiswhat they didit didn't work," Cid whispered.

Shera blinked her surprise. "You don't mean that do you?"

"I wish there were another way," Cid said quietly. "II wish I could live longer for you"

Shera choked back a sob, squeezing her eyes shut. He did mean it. He wasn't going to lose himself; he was going to die. "You still," she cried, but she couldn't finish her words. He was leaving hershe almost felt as though he were gone already.

"No," Cid replied, "I can'tI'm exhausted. I know I'm going to die todayplease, please look at me Shera."

She shook her head and sobbed, "I can't! I can't" She hated that she couldn't bear to look at him.

The wind whipped past her, tearing at her hair and her clothes, utterly silent. The eerie feeling was getting worse. Shera instinctively knew he was right; he didn't have long. She turned, finally, to face him, to look for a little while on the one she loved.

How he had remained standing was a mystery. What had been done to him was horribly flawed; they had tried to make him into a dragon but hadn't known it could be fought. His skin had become scaly, but in everything else, his humanity warred with the dragon in him. In order to stave off the transformation, he had to take hold of the one bit of uncorrupted truth in his soul; his rapidly corrupting form retaliated by tensing his muscles and twisting his limbs until they were now almost useless. Most of his hair had fallen out and his face had been deformed somewhat, but not enough to erase his expression or destroy his appearance. He lowered his blue eyes and turned his face when he saw Shera's horrified expression.

She stepped over to him quickly, stroking his face and what was left of his hair. "I'm so sorryso sorry," she whispered through her tears.

Cid closed his eyes and smiled faintly, exposing one or two sharp, crooked teeth. He tried to return her gentle touch, but his arms and his hands refused to obey. His fight was over; the lot was cast, and for a little while he was himself again. He was so glad the disgust he had seen in Shera's eyes was gone.

Shera saw how hard it was for him to stand on his crippled legs, so she carefully helped him to lie down in the long grass. She lay on her side next to him, still stroking his cheek and brushing away a few tears he had shed. He was so cold, and the wind was blowing so hard.

"It taunts me, the windI could give in to it, and I would live," Cid whispered.

"What do you mean?" Shera asked as she took one of his gloved hands in hers. She held it tightly, but he couldn't return the grasp. How could Cid have a choice in this?

Looking up at the sky, Cid paused for a moment. He then explained quietly, "I'm going to diebecause I won't give up the gift I've been given." He closed his glowing blue eyes, pondering this strange choice. "It saved me, made life worth livingyou know what I'm talking aboutbut I could turn away from it, let go of it, then I could live in what I'm becoming"

Shera did know what it was he spoke of. It was that gift of the Venus Gospel, the stillness inside that had broken down every wall and granted imperishable security, the foundation which gave back her innocence and allowed her to love. If he let go of it, if he turned his back on what he knew was true, then his unholy soul could live in his unholy body. Previously she had known it was worth living for; now she realized it was also worth dying for. So now, Cid would have to die for it. He was dead without it anyway.

She knew now that he would die in peace. As hard as it was, she knew neither of them could be happy any other way. She knew she would rather he die uncompromised than live forever damned. She took off Cid's leather gloves and kissed his twisted, clawed hands, then entwined her fingers with his. "Stay with me," she whispered through her tears, knowing it could not be.

"Come with me," he replied weakly. This also could not be.

Shera sniffled and told him, "You are a good man, Cid." For a brief second, she saw an image of Cid standing in the grass, completely still, watching the horizon, with the Venus Gospel held like a staff in his hand. It quickly vanished. Tears streamed down her face as she choked out, "Don't ever forgetdon't ever forget meI love you"

Cid looked over at her, unable to speak. He was too weak now to do more than look at her. Not long after he turned his gaze to the horizon, clouded by grass, but he could still see the sky and the first few stars. His eyes unfocused and he closed them half way. Then he died.

Shera stood and looked toward those few stars, flickering strangely bright on the horizon. She remembered falling away from those same stars, falling back to the Planet, and what he had said as they fell. Could it be meant for us? Is it even real?' he had asked, heedless of the tears streaming down his face. I don't know,' she had answeredbut she knew now. It was very real. She had just now held him as he died for it. She wiped her face, brushing away her tears. Come with me' to our Promised Land. "Oh, God," she whispered, falling to her knees and covering her mouth with one hand. He wasn't coming back.

The wind blew on in silence.

* * *

Vincent wandered back to the Captain's house, almost shuffling his feet. There was no dragon here; he knew it. No hope; there never was. Without looking, just be listening to his footsteps, he knew Cloud thought there was a chance. No chance, no hope. His friend, his only friend, was dead. Of that he had no doubt. There were no miracles in this world. If Cid was not a dragon then he was dead. There was no dragon here.

Cloud looked at the ex-Turk, watched his barely perceptible foot-dragging. He didn't know the dark man as well as Cid had, or even Shera, but he had been around him long enough to see that he was deeply troubled. He walked up along side Vincent and asked, "What's wrong? We don't know if that woman is right." The only response he got was a dim, desolate look in Vincent's dull eyes. The rest of his pale face was as blank as always.

Cloud shrugged and fell back a step or two. Djin-Fe looked toward the blond swordsman with an expression as lost as Vincent's. His whole world had just tumbled down around him, leaving him bereft and extremely confused. No one was forcing the dark-haired man to go with them anymore; Vincent had pretty much given up and Cloud really didn't know what to do with him. The late Sri-Danat was the scientist; this man couldn't be expected to figure out how to reverse a process he didn't create in the first place.

But Djin-Fe continued with them, partly because he was in shock over his brother's death, but mostly because he didn't know what else to do. He had finally realized his mistake in thinking he cared for nothing; he really and truly cared deeper than even Sri-Danat had for the welfare of others. He didn't remember why he had ever begun pretending he didn't, but it really didn't matter. Trying to protect himself, perhaps, but all it ended up doing was forcing him to hurt himself and others with his actions and indifference, over and over again. His last and by far his worst act of indifference, his worst sin of omission, was to allow Ni'esla to hurt Cid the way she had. He had nothing now but to follow these two and see what happened next. He had never felt so empty in his entire life.

"Cloudcan I ask you something?" Djin-Fe ventured.

Cloud gave him a dirty look. After a moment his face softened, remembering the passing thought he had when after Ni'esla murdered Sri-Danat. "Go ahead," he answered softly.

Djin-Fe cleared his throat and asked tentatively, "Um, do you thinkdo you think that Shera could ever forgive me?"

Cloud watched the man's face as they walked. "I think it would be easier for her if you could do something to help Cid." He shrugged again. "She's a kind lady. She forgives easier than most. Why do you ask? Sudden fit of conscience?" Cloud wasn't willing to just let it slide, no matter whether ha had been cowed by his demonic sister or not. He had seen the recording; Djin-Fe had used that needle in his hand as well.

Djin-Fe flinched, but didn't respond. The continued walking; shortly they arrived at Cid's house. They turned toward the back yard where they saw Shera standing with her back toward them.

"The weather is strange," Cloud commented as they walked through the gate. Dry, cold, and otherworldly. The wind easily picked up Vincent's crimson cape and his black hair, causing it to flick and swirl behind him. If the dry and silent air had been strange before, it was not so now; today the wind was bitter cold and it whispered in a soft, slight voice that was unearthly. He walked up behind Shera and stood facing her back. She looked back, nodding slowly, dry tears streaking her cheek, then returned her gaze to the east. Several bright stars flickered on the horizon even though it was still early afternoon.

Cloud was about to say something when he suddenly stopped and looked in the grass near Shera's feet. He sighed heavily and visibly drooped. He had thought perhaps Ni'esla was wrongand she was, but not in the way he had hoped. There in the grass lay Cid's pale form, clad in dragon scales and held motionless by death. He blinked and took a step back, motioning to Vincent.

The dark man looked down at his friend, not surprised in the least to see him there yet still deeply affected. Vincent turned and watched the same stars that Shera stared at for a little while. He and Cid had managed to forge an unexpected friendship, one he shared with no one else. And he had turned his back on that friendanother sin. He could do nothing to help him.

Djin-Fe followed Cloud's gaze. When he saw the end result of his actions, the deformed corpse of a man who would still be here if Djin had not found him, he turned his back and sat heavily in the grass, a sudden rush of tears trailing down his face. No one could forgive him for this.

While the others stood behind her, Shera gazed up at the deep blue sky, silently wishing for the last few days to vanish. She wanted so much to hear Cid's voice, shouting some curse, at the Tiny Bronco, at the old rocket, even at her. But she knew he wouldn't. She knew she would never hear his voice again, never see his face, whether scowling in anger or grinning wide. He laughed every bit as much as he had hollered; he had enjoyed life as much as he had cried. He'd been so expressive, so confidentshe knew who the hell he was—he was Cid, that's who the hell he was. But that hadn't been enough.

Shera shook her head. That wasn't right; it had been entirely enough. He had not died in weakness, lacking anything. Nohe had faced death down, called its bluffshe knew he had won, although he lay lifeless now. Death could not scare Cid into living as an evil worse than death itself.

But it didn't make it any easier to accept.

When Vincent walked over to stand next to her, she glanced at him then resumed watching the horizon. "How can I live in that house without him? We built it together, with our own hands. We lived here together so longyou remember, you asked me how could I put up with the way he treated me? You know why? Because he's my brother. He's closer than a brother. It made me so mad, and so bitter, but when it all came down to it, we hated each other and loved each other the way only siblings can. He's my brother and my best friend and how can I live here without him?!" Shera sat heavily on the white bench next to the steps and began crying uncontrollably.

Vincent silently watched her, wishing for a moment he could do something for her. What could he do? It happens sometimeslosing people you love. He had made a careful and exquisitely crafted wall around his heart so complete that hardly anything touched him anymore. He felt awkward, without words to even pretend to offer. He did hurt for her and for himself as wellbut he had forgotten long ago how to express it. So the hurt just sat there like a dead thing that one might run across on a road, stinking and going nowhere. He didn't know what to do with it. Maybe he had, once, but that was a long time past.

Cloud said nothing for a long moment. He remembered vividly the pain he had felt when Aeris died, but somehow he knew it was nothing compared to Shera's. Yes, it had hurt, and badly, but to be absolutely honest, he hadn't known her that well. Aeris had been with them for only a few months; Cid and Shera had lived together for ten years. Cloud had many holes in his heart, ones that had been empty for many years; perhaps someday, if she had lived long enough, Aeris might have occupied some of them. Tifa was only beginning to do so. His life had never been deeply intertwined with another's, not really, so he knew he could not quiet fathom the quality of hurt Shera must feel. He wondered in passing if the possibility of having something forcefully ripped from his empty places would be worth the wonder of having them filled. He shook the thought out of his head, then moved over to Shera and put a hand on her shoulder. He didn't think it would help much but it was all he could do.

Vincent turned and knelt down by Cid's body. After a second, he gathered him up into his arms and carried him to the back door. Djin-Fe saw what he was doing and opened it for him. The three stayed outside as Vincent took Cid into the house to lay him out as was the custom of the world. He carried him into his room and laid him on his bed, then closed the door behind him.

Vincent looked at the door for a moment then proceeded to unbuckle his blood red cape, the one he had worn for so long. He flipped it out before him and said, "I have been buried in this too long." Slowly he began tearing it into thin strips, sometimes using his golden claws to cut them. Several minutes later, the dark man had a large number of the strips. The air was so strange in here; for some reason it was becoming slightly difficult to breath.

Some of the scales that had become Cid's skin had fallen away, revealing a very human skin beneath. The ones who had committed this crime hadn't considered Cid's strong will. Or rather, his deep-seated stubbornness. He was worse than any mule, Vincent thought to himself as he carefully removed as many of the scales as he could. For a moment, Vincent allowed himself to envy his friend. If only he had had some of that strength when he had been changed.

When the last of the loose scales had been removed, Vincent laid Cid out. The IV was still in the back of Cid's hand, so Vincent carefully removed it. He wanted to replace his gloves; he never remembered seeing Cid without them, but he didn't think he would be able. So instead, he wrapped two of the long strips of cloth around each arm, leaving his hands uncovered. After this, he took up the Venus Gospel, intending to lay it in the crook of the pilot's arm as it was customary to do with a fallen warrior's weapon, but for some reason he held it a little longer. He felt its power snake up his arms, but it wasn't searching; Vincent was certain the strange weapon knew that Cid had died.

love is as jealous as the grave

Vincent turned the long spear in his hands, running his still human hand along the vibrant green haft. But one must prevailalways the grave prevails in the end, Vincent thought to himself. The tendrils that had flicked up his arms almost winked at him as they slowly retreated back into the blade that owned them. Vincent finally laid the Venus Gospel in the crook of Cid's left arm, and bound the end of it to his right ankle using another piece of his torn cape. He used another to catch the haft of the Venus Gospel to his arms so it wouldn't move. He bound his legs, then his hands, wrapping the red cloth so that it held them in place over his stomach. The last strip was used to hold his mouth closed by wrapping it under his chin. Vincent took what was left of his red cape and draped it over Cid's chest, tucking it behind his shoulders.

Vincent looked for a while at what he had done. He knew Shera could never have finished this task—it was hard even for him to prepare his sole friend for the grave. He took a sheet and placed it over Cid's body.

Why was it so hard to breathe in here? Vincent shook his head and walked to the door, casting a last glance at his deceased friend. He saw that the sheet had been cut where he had laid it over the blade of the Venus Gospel. Strange that it should be so sharp; it was normally very dull without Cid's magic. He turned and left, closing the door softly behind him.

* * *

The next day, Cloud decided to take the Highwind and gather up the rest of what once had been AVALANCHE so they could pay their last respects. He, Shera, Vincent, and Djin-Fe had stayed the night at the Shanghai Inn, as Shera refused to sleep in her house, at least for now. The innkeeper let them stay for free, considering the circumstances. The Captain was in essence the mayor of Rocket Town and the least the innkeeper could do for him was to put up his companions for the night.

Before Cloud left, however, he decided to go downstairs to the tavern and get something to eat. He found Djin-Fe sitting in the far corner of the Shanghai-Tei, sipping some orange juice and basically ignoring the plate of food in front of him. Cloud walked over to the table and set his hands on the edge, leaning over and glaring at the man. Djin-Fe looked up at him with a totally blank expression.

"What are you doing here? Don't you have lives to ruin elsewhere?" Cloud ground out.

Djin looked back down at his untouched Uribo and Chocobo eggs, moving them around his plate with his fork. He said nothing.

Cloud rolled his eyes and straightened. While Cid was alive, he was willing to give this man a chance, because Cid had a chance. But that was over with Cid' life. "Get out of here before I force the issue."

The man stood with his head bowed and straightened his tunic. Without a glance at Cloud, Djin-Fe made his way to the door of the tavern. Just then, Shera walked down the stairs. Djin-Fe paused, looking up at her for a moment. He shook his head and muttered an apology, then continued out the tavern door. Shera said nothing as she stopped at the last step for a moment or two, then walked over to Cloud's side.

"What did you say to him?" Shera asked tonelessly.

Cloud grumbled and answered, "I just told him to leaveDamn, why did ever have to come here? That bastard was here, in this same room, when Seir showed up."

Shera sat slowly at the now unoccupied table and began diddling with an unused fork. "There's nothing we can do about it nowhe died wellat least."

Cloud gave Shera a strange look. "What do you mean, died well'? There's no such thing. There's just living and dying. If he was still alive, he'd have a chance," he said bitterly.

"That's not true," Shera responded quietly. "He didn't have a chance."

"You don't know that! Someone could have figured out some way to reverse it! Then he would still be here!" Cloud shouted, mindless of Shera's feelings. He was angry at everything, from the Planet that allowed such people as Hojo and those three siblings to live on it to Cid for not living. He should have held on, not give upthere was a chance.

Shera looked off at nothing. "Cloud, he would be a demon if he was alive. It's better this way."

"How can you say that!" the swordsman continued. "How can anyone be better off dead? If he was still here, if he held on, there would be a chance for him. Now there's nothing. He's dead. He's not coming back."

Shera stood suddenly and looked Cloud in the face. "Don't you think I know that?!" she shouted in anger.

After a second, Cloud backed down. "Ah, damn, Shera. I'm sorry. I just don't understand how it's better this way."

She nodded slowly. "I know. But he had something he thought that to live without was not to live at all. He had to fight to die standinghe didn't give up." She then broke down in silent sobs.

Cloud shuffled his feet, suddenly feeling very stupid and coarse. If that was the way Shera saw it, so much the better for dealing with a difficult loss. Who was he to argue it? But he still didn't understand. If it was The Right Thing To Do', for Cid to die the way he had, it still just got him dead. It seemed to Cloud sometimes that doing what was good just got one the shaft. He had, of course, heard the old adage that it was better to die standing than to live kneelingbut he thought, somehow, that if one lived kneeling, one might be able to stand again someday. It was a warped hope, he supposed, to hold onto in his life of misery, but it kept him alive. Otherwise he would have committed suicide long ago. He wondered which of them was the stronger: Cid, for dying unbowed, or himself, for living stooped over in foolish hope it would get better someday. Maybe he would find out after all was said and done, after it was too late to do anything about it.

He scratched his head, momentarily dislodging a spike or two, then muttered, "We should get goingcall everyone before we pick them up."

Shera sighed, wiping a few tears away. Then she nodded and walked out of the Shanghai-Tei. Cloud followed her out. When they arrived outside, they found that Vincent was already up. Djin-Fe was standing next to him. They were both watching something off in the direction of the Captain's house.

Vincent was turned toward the old rocket launch pad, squinting his red eyes. The weather was changing, and it looks like for the worse. The sky was darkening, but not with clouds. All the blue was leaving, all the light but the sun was still high in the sky. Shera still cried a little, but she noticed the change and looked around. The wind had picked up, gathering in intensity in whipping the grass. Trees began to sway dangerously. It would probably have been best to seek shelter, but the three were rooted in place by what they now saw. The sky was black as night, but the stars shone with unbelievable intensity and beauty. There were countless meteors shooting across the dark sky, flaming out in glorious streaks. Though the sky was dark, everything was lit as brightly as always at this time of day. It was surreal but captivating. Bolts of lightning began to strike the launch pad, one after another, falling from the cloudless sky. There was no thunder, but now the wind was howling.

go now go now go now

Cloud look toward Vincent with a question in his eye. But the tall man hadn't said anything; in fact, he looked as confused as to the source of the words as he himself did. Shera started to back away from her house. It was getting hard to breathe. Djin-Fe turned and ran, unsure as to why he felt it so imperative, so much a choice between life or death.

GO NOW GO NOW GO NOW!!

The remaining three took heed to the unheard words and ran as fast as they could away from the town. The wind chased them out, burning them with its deeply unnatural and sudden cold. When they were far enough out of Rocket Town that they no longer felt the strange raging wind, they turned to look back. There was so much lightning striking the launch pad now that it was nearing destruction. But the lightning struck nothing else. Overhead, the sun and the stars were too bright to look at.

Moments later, the lightning stopped and the wind grew calmer, but the sky stayed the same black, black as night. It didn't look like it would change anytime soon.

The other residents of Rocket Town, who the three just noticed, began trickling back in the town. "A spectacle!" exclaimed one of Shera's neighbors. Cloud began walking back into town with the other residents.

Vincent and Shera exchanged glances and followed Cloud into town. It was a mess, but thankfully, the wind hadn't knocked any houses down, only trees. That in itself was strange; the houses of Rocket Town had originally been built for temporary shelter as the engineers built the rocket. They were hardly the most stable buildings around, while the trees were old growth forest and had been there much longer. In fact, it wasn't until the launch failed that most of the trees were cleared from the new Rocket Town. But every tree had been felled, no matter how deep the roots.

The town was excruciatingly cold. If the weather hadn't been so dry there would have been icicles everywhere. What little dampness had been the air had condensed on windows and turned to frost. As the three approached Shera's house, they caught sight of the old rocket launch pad. It had been completely destroyed. The lightning hadn't started any fires, which was a surprise; everything was so dry it should have been easy tinder.

"The air is different," Vincent observed as he approached Shera's front door. She opened it then immediately closed it.

"It's freezing in there! It's colder in there than it is out here!" Shera exclaimed. A few other shouts around town confirmed that everyone's house was like that.

Shera pulled her white coat tight, shivering from the cold. She bit her lip and lowered her head. This was too much. All too much. She sniffed and shook her head; she wanted so much right now to go into her icy house and make sure Cid was all right. She knew he wasn't, that he wouldn't care because he wasn't there to care, but she wanted to check anyway. She began to cry silently and turned away from her house, walking toward the outskirts of Rocket Town.

It was bitterly cold out, and for now they had no where to go. The Highwind was berthed within town limits and it was far too cold to go get it at the moment. As they walked toward the outskirts of town, the four noticed it getting colder and colder. Within moments they were again forced to run out of town, this time by the fast dropping temperatures. When they finally reached a place where it was no longer bone-chillingly cold, all four began stomping feeling back into their feet and rubbing warmth into their numb hands.

"How in the Planet did it get so cold so fast?" Cloud asked no one in particular. "I swear it's gotta be colder than the ninth circle of Hell in there." Setzer, Cid's black Chocobo, wandered up and warked nervously. For the most part, every person who lived in Rocket Town had gathered in little clumps near by. Some began trying to light fires using the dry, dead wood scattered on the ground, but to no avail. Cloud heard one man calling for his pet cat.

"Maybe we should try to light a fire. I have a few mastered Fire materia in my pocket," Djin-Fe offered after several moments of silence. Cloud narrowed his eyes at the man, then nodded his head. He was right about this at least; it was too cold to go without fire. Djin-Fe handed the swordsman a small green orb. Cloud took it and examined it; normally, magic materia glowed, but this particular one looked dull and was roughly the color of swamp water. Vincent picked up a few thick branches and arranged them in a short cone-shaped pile. Cloud set the materia in his armlet and concentrated for a moment. He spoke the Ancient words to call up the fire magic, but nothing happened. He tried again, but still nothing happened. Even after shouting the words to invoke Fire 3, all that happened was the appearance of a tiny tendril of smoke that curled up from the firewood.

"Well," Cloud muttered as he rubbed the back of his head, "that didn't work. Now what?"

"We should call Reeve. He may be able to send shelter, food, and heaters. We don't know how long Rocket Town will be uninhabitable," Vincent stated simply.

"Yeahhe's pretty wealthy," Cloud responded as he fished through his pockets for the PHS. It took a moment, but he found it and dialed Reeve's number.

It rang a few times, then someone picked up on the other side. "may I speak to Reeve please?" Cloud answered. After a few moments he explained the whole situation to the ex-Shin-Ra executive, sketching for him what had happened to Cid and their current situation. After a short conversation, Cloud flipped closed the PHS and said, "He's gonna send some supplies. He also said he would round everyone up and bring them out here as soon as possible."

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Vincent headed back into town.

"Where are you going?" Cloud asked.

The dark man looked back and intoned, "Shera will need something warmer to wear." Then he ran as fast as he could to her house.

It was extremely cold, so much that Vincent huddled up and shivered. Normally, temperature extremes either didn't bother him or he didn't allow them to, but it was much colder here, colder even than Gaia's Glacier. A few moments of hard running and Vincent reached the house and entered it. Moving quickly, Vincent entered Shera's room and grabbed a thick overcoat. Thinking that he also might need something warmer, he stepped into Cid's room. The pilot had been a good head shorter than Vincent, but much stockier, so he didn't feel it would be difficult to find something to fit him. Opening the closet, he quickly riffled through the contents until he found a lined leather trench coat. It didn't look much like something Cid would wear, the visit Vincent didn't question finding it in his closet. He shrugged it on quickly, grateful that the sleeves are wide enough to allow him to pull them over his clawed hand.

love never fails, Vincent

Vincent spun around and glanced about fearfully. He was very rarely afraid, but he couldn't shake the twinge of anxiety that he felt when he heard the voice in his head. Another sensation accompanied the voice, one that caused Vincent to stride over to where Cid lay and throw back the sheet which served as his burial shroud. He was unsure exactly what he expected, but nothing had changed; Cid Highwind still lay there, dead.

He heard something else, faint, but undeniably there; a triumphant sound, the sound of laughter. Something about it was so infectious that Vincent found himself smiling down at Cid's lifeless form, tears of joy trickling down his pale cheeks. It had been years uncounted since he had shed any tears, but he knew he never in his life felt such a joy. It welled up inside him and filled in. He could hardly help laughing with whatever else was laughing here. The later he would wonder at the appropriateness of it; right now he stood next to Cid, filled with unspeakably joy. It was wonderfully unexpected, far more than a beam of sunlight poking through dismal and black clouds.

Oh, how long has it been since I laughed?! Any pity for himself and his years of darkness fled away in the face of this powerful joy. Even thoughts of losing his friend somehow seemed impossible. I can't mourn what I haven't lost!

With a deeper and richer laugh, Vincent realized what he was doing. He was laughing in the face of death, as was the other, what ever it was. Somehow, he knew Cid had laughed in death's face as well.

For the first time, Vincent saw that Cid wore the faintest of smiles. As if it were nothing at all to die as he hadas if that last night had no power. What was it that laughed triumphant over death? What was it that could look in the gates of Hades and say with great joy, I am greater than this? Was there something stronger than death?

you'll find me yet, Vincent

The tall man turned away from his friend and walked out of his room, the laughter having slowed but the joy still there. He left without an answer, somehow unable to shake the notion that something was fundamentally different here and that he would understand soon.

He had forgotten all about the cold.

* * *

Two days later, the rest of what had been AVALANCHE found themselves staring up at the extraordinary sky that spread over Rocket Town. The stars flared bright in the black sky, unflinching, joined by the blazing sun. The lightning had stopped, as had the meteor shower, but the sky still seemed to have opened up and allowed space in all its frightening glory to descend on Rocket Town.

They all gathered at the community of tents that had sprung up just outside of town, as all the houses were still too cold to occupy. The group that stood just outside one tent consisted of Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Yuffie, Red XIII, and Cait Sith. Shera and Vincent walked up shortly while Djin-Fe stood off to one side, unsure as to what he should do with himself. It was generally assumed that Reeve had sent Cait Sith because he felt the cat might have some answers for the small group, but no one was certain of this.

Tifa looked around and said, "I have so many questions, I don't know which to ask first!"

But right now she found herself more concerned with what she saw; it was nothing short of a singular phenomenon overhead and equally unusual was the way Vincent looked. It was hard to put a finger on, but she knew it wasn't just the fact that his blood red cape was missing.

Cait Sith nodded, then pushed up the small gold crown that had slipped forward with the motion. The Mog he perched on rubbed its arms and puffed with the cold air. "You know, I've been thinking about this fire business. There's been some elemental funny business going on," at this Cait Sith bowed his head in sympathy toward Shera. After a moment's silence, the cat when on. "Seein' as how I'm a fortune teller and all, I've done a bit o' studyin' on astrology and what not. Now while I don't see anything of that nature here, my studies did take me inter lookin' at the circles of the planets and all—"

"Ya foo' cat, what does that have ta do wit anything?! We isn't here ta be educated bout no circles n squares n junk," Barret interjected. He was here to help Shera any way he could, not to get his head all confused with weird theories and stuff.

Cait Sith shot the bigger man an irritated look then continued. "What I learned about was all the elementals. Seein' as how our late friend was bein' turned elemental and all, I got to thinkin' about it see, we all knows about the most common elementals. There's magic ones, like fire, ice, bolt, and poison. Then there's the oddball ones, what bein' gravity and holy. Now after that's the physical ones, which are earth, water, air, and fire. We knows a bit more about them because of recent circumstance. Now what most people don't know is that there are two more elementals that are physical. They don't exist below the circle of the moon, so we don't run inter them much. They are holy air and holy fire, ether and empyria. Now these is truly holy elements; what ever it is we call holy' element down here is just a healing magic what is so strong that it tries and cures us corrupted peoples of bein' corrupted, which don't really work out all that well. That's why it's called holy, because it ends up destroyin' anything less perfect than itself. You follow?"

Cloud scratched his head and shrugged, while Red XIII, Shera, Tifa, and Vincent nodded. Yuffie had wandered off somewhere and Barret was fuming.

Cait Sith continued, "Well, anyhow. Now seeing as I am a magic cat—"

"Oh, you is not Reeve! We all knows that you's really a Shin-Ra ex-ec-u-tive spy and not no stupid furball cat," Barret huffed.

Cait Sith flattened his ears against his skull and said in a tiny, fierce voice, "How do you know what makes me walk and talk and tell fortunes?! I'm telling you, I am a certifiable magic cat!!" The large cat preened for a moment then added in a condescending tone, "Now seeing as how I am a magic cat." He paused to glare pointedly at Barret, then said more normally, "I can feel these elementals at work. I think there's too much air and ether all swirlin' around fer us ter be able ter use any others, including fire. I think that's why it's so dry, too. Water bein' an elemental and all, the strong air concentration would drive it out."

Barret flung his large hands in the air. "Now you is makin' me mad! I thought you jes got through tellin' us that there ain't no ether under no circle o' the moon'!!"

The cat sighed theatrically and said, "I know I said that, cept I said normally there isn't! Right now, I'd say there's a bloody lot of it, n that's why, I think, the sky looks the way it does. You all said it got hard to breathe too, didn't ya?"

Red XIII's nodded in understanding. "If the elements drive each other out, how can there be a high concentration of both air and ether?"

Cait Sith shrugged. "I think the ether drove the air out of town. But the concentration's probably been going down, so soon I think we should be able to light fires normally. And as ter why this all happened, I can't tell."

A long silence followed. Cloud motioned the others to follow him to Rocket Town. The town was still very cold, but they did not intend on being there long. Strange as the sky was, they had all come to pay their last respects, and Cloud thought they should. As they were walking, Shera came up alongside Cait Sith and whispered, "Cait, can I ask you something?"

Cait Sith nodded. "Of course, Shera," he replied quietly.

Shera paused for a moment then said quietly, "Do you know whywhy he died?"

The large Mog stopped and Cait Sith turned to look down at Shera. "No, I don't, not exactlyI thought it was because of a botched experiment?" he said, changing his tone to ask a tacit question.

Shera shook her head. " Noit was because he refused to be compromised. He wastoo holyto live as an air elemental"

Cait Sith's yellow eyes went wide. He stammered for a moment, then said quickly, "Angelsangels and, and, other uncorrupted spiritsthey, they, they! When they come down here, they wear ether!" Cait Sith pointed forward and his Mog left the dead run for Rocket Town.

Shera blinked in surprise, then wondered aloud, "Does he mean an angel came down to Rocket Town?"

Cloud looked back at Shera and asked, "What's his rush?"

Shera shrugged and looked at the earth for a moment. It slowly dawned on her what the other possibility was and she too ran after the cat. Cloud shrugged and followed, as did the others.

When Cloud and the others finally caught up with Shera and Cait Sith, they found the door to her house open. They followed them in, huddling against the cold. They all couldn't fit in the hallway, so only Cloud went in with Vincent following. They found Shera and Cait Sith in Cid's room. Shera was standing at a distance, chewing on a fingernail while Cait Sith had hopped off his huge Mog and was standing by the bed, watching Cid with his unblinking stare. Cloud glanced a question at Vincent, but was surprised to find a smile on his face. Cloud raised his eyebrows in surprise; he never remembered seeing Vincent smile before. He wondered what would make him start now.

Cloud desperately wanted to ask someone what the hell was going on, but he didn't want to break the silence, and besides, whom could he ask? He could hardly disturbed Shera, he didn't think Vincent would answer, and Cait Sith was watching Cid's body so closely he thought the cat might jump out of his skin if he talked to him. So the swordsman decided to stand next to Vincent, who was at the door, and wait.

Cait Sith was boring metaphorical holes through Cid's head. What Shera had said, how Cid had diedhe couldn't be wrong, could he? There was enough holy air in the room to make his whiskers itch and his hackles stand on end. He stood there, tail twitching, for several minutes. Shera and Vincent had stayed, unmoving. Cloud was shifting from foot to foot, obviously confused, but dying of curiosity. No, he couldn't be wrong. He wouldn't allow himself to be wrong.

He wasn't wrong.

Cait Sith gasped when he saw that Cid had shifted a little. He looked back at Shera, his mouth open wide. Shera took a step closer, hardly daring to believe that the cat might be right, that the ether had come down so Cid could live. Soon disbelief was banished as Cid turned his head away and made a soft moaning noise. He turned again and jerked his bound hands. It looked for all the world as if he had just been sleeping deeply and was now trying to wake up. Every trace of the wind dragon had been erased.

Cait Sith yanked off his white gloves, exposing the eight furry fingers tipped with very sharp claws. The cat began shredding the crimson strips of cloth on Cid's hands as Shera and Vincent went to work untying and tearing those binding his jaw and legs. All the while, Cloud stood gaping.

A moment after Shera finished untying the red cloth on Cid's head, Cid's eyes flutter open, just a little, and he whispered in a voice barely audible, " SheraI sawheaven and"

Shera's response was to hold him tight and cry. It was beyond all understanding, but he was there, she heard this voice and she could feel him breathing softly, could feel his heart beating. When he had use of his hands again, he returned the embrace.

A few minutes later, Vincent and Cait Sith finished removing all the red cloth, leaving it strewn about. Vincent gently touched Shera's shoulder with his golden claw and said, "It's too cold in here. We should go outside."

Shera nodded and pulled her coat closer as she stood. In her expectation and hope, she hadn't noticed how cold it was in the room; now she did and she wished there was something she could do to warm up a little. Cid must be freezing. She grinned a little, a tear tracing its way down her cheek. Cid could be freezing now!

Cait Sith chose that moment to leap on Cid's chest and exclaim, "Do you have any idea how worried you had us?! Don't you dare go dyin' on as again, y'hear?!" He grabbed the lapels on Cid's blue leather jacket and began shaking him.

Cid smiled a little at the large cat and decided to scratch the inside of his large, furry ear. Cait Sith began to purr uncontrollably and muttered, "I'm mad at ya Cid. What do ya think yer doin', making me purr like that." Cait's large Mog grinned as the cat closed his eyes and smiled, still muttering about how mad he was.

"Now get off of me, Cait. I want to get up," Cid told the robotic cat. Cait Sith hopped off, still purring and muttering and smiling. Cid sat up and shifted the Venus Gospel into his hand. Then he stood up and immediately swept Shera into his arms, grinning like a fool and holding her a little tighter than necessary. Even though she was slightly taller than him, he lifted her off her feet and looked up at her. He said nothing, just kissed her.

After a moment Shera said, "I missed you." She hugged him again and began crying on his shoulder.

Cid smiled and whispered in her ear, "You'll never have to do that againNow it's too cold in here for you, so we should do as Vincent says and go outside." He set her down and herded everyone out of his room, but was stopped by a sudden and unexpected bear hug from Vincent. Cloud and Cait Sith were a little surprised to say the least.

But Cid was not. He returned the embrace and said very quietly to his dark friend, "I heard you laughing, Vincent."

Vincent pulled back with a questioning expression. He blinked his red eyes a time or two, then shrugged a little. His erstwhile late friend was just that, so maybe he had been there to hear him. At this point, everything seemed possible. Then he said, "I'm sorry I turned my back on you."

Cid shook his head. "It's okayIt's all just as well. Someone tried to turn me into a wind elemental, but they only got it half right." He looked down at himself and his hands, which were as they had always been. "Strange how it works out this wayI'm made of ether now. That means I won't ever die again. And I won't ever get sick again. I'm whole, Vincent, nothing broken."

Cait Sith hopped up on his Mog and asked loudly, "What, are you an angel now?"

"Nojust, well, whole. I don't know how else to say it," Cid answered.

Shera was taken a back. It suddenly dawned on her how young Cid looked. And how oldlike he didn't have an age anymore. "You won't get old, will you?"

Cid shook his head, still smiling. Shera watched him as they headed outside. He looked absolutely untouched, as if everything that had happened in the last few weeks had been completely erasedno, as if every event, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, that had ever weighed on his mind or darkened his heart had been entirely robbed of their significance and put away forever. She began to wonder if he had forgotten those things. "Did you forget? What happened?"

He shook his head again, setting the Venus Gospel over his shoulder. "No, I didn't forget. Actually, I remember everything better than I ever have. I really don't know how to say it. It'skinda like it never happened and kinda like it's just, well, natural growing pains. I dunnoI really can't describe it." It was obvious to everyone that those terrible events that had led Cid to this place bothered him not at all. In his face, no one could see a hint of fear or shadow.

Vincent watched Cid as well. A great change had come over him, more profound, perhaps, than those Sri-Danat's experiment had produced. The small group stepped out the door to join the larger, and Cid was greeted warmly. Djin-Fe stood a ways off, watching in surprise but not saying anything. To Vincent, it looked from the expressions on many of their faces that they failed to grasp the significance of the whole thing. They had not seen Cid dead, so perhaps the finality of it had never quite sunk in. That was understandable; it might seem all a bad dream to them. But Vincent had seen everything, even dressed Cid to bury him. And now he was alive, more alive than before. He had in his eyes the same laughter and victorious joy that the laugher had, what ever it was. Was that what he meant by whole? No fear, no sorrow, nothing to cast any shadowall the shadow-casters remembered as nothing but temporary albeit necessary growing pains? Vincent smiled a little. His friend was alivehe had never lost him. Long months ago Cid had become a new person from the inside, but what was outside still had power to cow and terrify him. Now he was just new, period—Vincent realized now that nothing would ever harm Cid again. You'll find me yet "Cid, what was it that I laughed with? Did it bring the ether down?" He had a hunch it had.

As the now complete AVALANCHE group headed out of the cold town, Cid came up alongside Vincent. He whispered in a conspiratorial voice, "The Venus Gospel brought the ether down. I'm finding my spear is quite a bit more than I thought." He looked around a little, apparently trying to make sure no one could overhear him, then added, "I think God speaks in it. He was the one who was laughing."

Vincent shoot him a confused look. "That isunexpected."

"Yeah," he grinned, "but it makes sense." He moved away from Vincent then said louder, "I've got to go see about Ni'esla. Ihave the feeling she's been waiting for me." He started moving away from the group, toward the Nibel Mountains.

Shera came up next to him with a question in her gaze. "Why do you need to see her?"

Cid set the butt of the Venus Gospel on the grass and leaned on it. "She needs a reckoning. Maybe I can do something for her. But I can't leave it like this. She's gonna try this on someone else, and I can't allow that."

Shera nodded. She might have been concerned for him, but somehow she wasn't. Just looking at him now, she had begun to wholly forget the battle he had fought only days before, the battle to keep his humanity even if it meant death. It seemed unimportant. He had proven himself capable of fightinghe had won this war; so Shera knew Ni'esla was no threat to him now. "Cid, I'm sorry for doubting youI knew you weren't a monster."

Cid answered, "Don't worry about it. I understand. But see? It doesn't matter now. Of course, I'm gonna hafta apologize to Devon."

"I hope he'll understandbut I think we might try getting him a kitten." She gave him another hug, thankful that she could, before he left.

When Cid was several feet away from the group, Djin-Fe ran and caught up with him. "I, um, Ican I go with you? Ineed to see her."

The pilot looked at the younger man for a long minute. "You look a bit regretful. True?"

Djin-Fe looked away for a long moment. "Yeah." He didn't know what else to say. What else could he say?

Cid continued to gaze at the man, unswervingly. Djin-Fe raked his hand through his black hair, obviously uncomfortable. What else could he say, indeed. He could face up to what he had done and apologize to this man he had killed.

"Yeah, I am. I'm sorryI'm sorry," Djin-Fe muttered, unable to add anything more to it. Anything more would have diminished the magnitude of what he had done.

"Thank you. Now c'mon, let's go see your sister."

* * *

Ni'esla stood on a small hill, gaping in shock at what she saw. Her brother was approaching, walking alongside the wind dragonexcept he wasn't a wind dragon. How could that happen? She could feel, even from a distance, that this man was not even a wind elemental. She growled and walked toward them, angry at this unexpected turn.

When they met up, Cid flipped the Venus Gospel over and stuck the tip of the long, golden blade into the ground. Ni'esla glared at him and hissed, "How is it you are not an elemental? Did Djin-Fe find a way to reverse it?"

"No," Cid answered, "he didn't. The wind made its demand and I refused it." He said this simply, matter-of-factly.

Djin-Fe thought about adding something, but then decided not to. Instead he took a step back, thinking he would watch what was about to unfold and not interfere.

Ni'esla bared her teeth, unsure for once. This man had been terrified of her. It was obvious he wasn't now. "Answer me. How is it you are not an elemental?"

The pilot watched the wind elemental with pity. He had hoped that perhaps he could do something to help her, but he could feel there was nothing to be done. In her evil presence he felt the abject hopelessness of one who truly has made her choice. It was just as he had. "I am an elemental, just not the way you had planned."

"What sort? How could that happen? If you refused the wind then you would be dead," Ni'esla snapped, anger rising. She felt her shadow had passed from him. The light that had dimmed to almost nothing not long before now blazed bright. Something tickled at the back of her mind, some explanation that she refused to entertain for its consequences.

Cid grabbed her wrist with his bare hand. As soon as he touched her, Ni'esla shrank down, hissing and glaring. She looked up at him sidelong, seeing clearly that she was beaten. "Are you going to revenge yourself on me now?" she hissed, voice full of venom. That violent, hateful brightness glared down on her blackness, threatening to destroy it. Before, her darkness had threatened to consume that light, had almost succeeded. Now it was as impossible that that should happen as it was futile to try to cast a shadow on the sun. She was outmatched. Surely he had come for revenge. It was all she could think of.

"I was dead. I'm an ether elemental now," Cid answered. If only something could be done for her.

When she heard those words, Ni'esla shrieked in rage. She knew what the ether demanded as well as she knew the requirements of the wind. This one truly did have something she could never have and it infuriated her. Not long ago, that rage had driven her to torture Cid, to make every effort to take it from him, but it had not worked. Now it was impossible to take. The huge, hungry emptiness in her craved after it in futility; she knew that she could never have it, but worse than that was the knowledge that someone else did. Her misery could not swallow this one up. It had triedand it had failed. He had already died. Her shadow was the power of death, the power of Hell. It had no power over one who had already died. She jerked her hand free, still howling incoherently. Blackness and death were futile in the face of this one. Her despair was made all that much worse knowing that someone had escaped it, that death would forever be denied its prize.

Ni'esla wanted nothing more than to utterly destroy Cid. She backed up a few steps, still screaming. It would never happen. Ether was incorruptible; it could not be destroyed, not ever, not by her. His existence would always taunt her, declare to her that she had turned her back on a real hope, had settled for physical life at the price of her soul, her real life. He and his hateful light would always be there to remind her that she was among the living dead. The living damned. And that she had no hope.

"I wish I could do something for you," Cid said quietly. "Even if it was just to put you out of your misery. But I can't even do that."

Djin-Fe watched his howling sister, almost dumbfounded. "What's wrong with her?" he asked in concern.

Cid looked at him as he pulled the Venus Gospel out of the ground and flipped it over his shoulder. "I thinkthat she realized that no one can help her. She's far more miserable than any of us have ever beenbecause of it." He turned away from the raging wind elemental and started back toward Rocket Town. After a second, he paused and turned back toward Ni'esla. He didn't want to, but he really had no choice. He had to kill her, to protect others from her destruction. She made her choice long ago.

With one swift motion, Cid swung the Venus Gospel, slashing Ni'esla and turning her to mist. She died instantly. A moment later, and without regret, he set off for Rocket Town.

Cid wasn't going to waste this chance. As he walked he took some of the ether still left in the atmosphere and started forming it into a tiny star. When it was finished he would set it in a gold ring and give it to Shera. She wouldn't have to wait thirty years. He smiled as he walked, the glimmer of ether growing larger in his fingers. Could an ether elemental have kids? All he could do was try. And when his love became old and finally died, he would follow her home. For the first time since he had come back, he began to think about what he had been given. He really would have foreverall else was forgotten for now but this little joy.

Djin-Fe sighed heavily, sad to see his sister go, but knowing it was the only thing that could be done. Evil such as she had could not be allowed to exist in the world. He began walking back toward Rocket Town, unsure of what he was going to do with the rest of his life, but thinking that perhaps there might be something out there for him. For the first time in a long time, Djin-Fe felt a glimmer of hope.

---

~The End~

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Author's Note

This is a sequel to Venus Gospel. I did not originally intend it to be so, but in order to tell this story, it was necessary for it to become that. But unlike Venus Gospel, this is not in anyway autobiographical. It obviously deals with my thoughts on life, the universe, and everything, but not so much my life. It was partly inspired by a rather sad death scene I read in another fanfiction and how the characters dealt with it. More than that, however, it is about fighting one's sinful nature. There's more to it than that, of course, but that is a start.

I might also note that I didn't make up this stuff about ether and the other elements. It was a worldview widely held in past time and is rather fascinating to look into. If you're interested, try to find stuff on Elizabethan worldviews, or the science of that time.

Many thanks to Jen for reading it over in a draft, and for the handful of people who gave me the impetus to finish this. I hope you enjoy it. I always welcome feedback!

—Princess Artemis

P.S. I like cats. I have one, really!