Chapter 30

"Don't you people ever make an appointment?"

Hiei grunted. Koenma sighed, shuffling his papers into something resembling a pile, and sweeping the open books to the edge of his desk. Obviously he wasn't going to get any work done now. Getting Hiei to attend mission briefings was difficult enough as it was. He never visited of his own accord.

That likely meant this meeting was going to be one of those ones. Maybe he should just call George and have him fetch one of Koenma's favorite lollipops. He was probably going to need it after this.

Or maybe he just needed an emergency lollipop button. Yes. Right under his desk. It felt like he found himself wanting one more and more often as of late.

"Well?" The godling tapped his finger on the semi-cleared surface of his desk. Waiting. He didn't have much time to spare, his father's quarterly audit would be happening soon, and he still hadn't figured out what to do with England. Or Minerva. And then there was even the thing that Genkai wanted him to plan. And that was on top of his normal duties.

He definitely didn't want his father to find out why one of his Spirit Detectives was on probation. Not without having figured out what to do about it. The entire situation just didn't make sense! He had Botan tracking down a possible lead—if anyone would know about it, the fates would, but those sisters hardly showed themselves unless they wanted to, even at the behest of the (working) Lord of the Spirit World.

"Kyuubi." Hiei stepped forward, red eyes narrowed and fists clenched, "Where can I find it?"

…was that all? Hiei was hunting down an artifact at a time like this? Frustrated, Koenma waved vaguely in the air, "Why would I know? The last time the Spirit World had a lock on that necklace it was somewhere in the Makai. Don't tell me you came all this way to ask me that?"

"Not the necklace. The god."

"Kyuubi hasn't been counted among the gods in ages." Koenma grumbled, rubbing his temples to try and stave off the headache he could feel building. Just remembering the time wasn't pleasant. No one knew what had set off Inari's son, but the nine-tailed fox had cut such a swathe of destruction through the mortal world that his father decided to forcefully split it in two, the last in a chain of events that led to the creation of the Makai. "His mortal avatar was killed, and his soul was sealed by a human miko, and vanished. Surely you know the story."

So many people died. Not only from the killings themselves, but from the famine that followed after. Inari was the goddess of rice as well as foxes, and in her fury and grief, crops all over the human world withered and failed. He hadn't been old enough then to run everything like he did now, but the workload had been so great his father had been forced to bring him in to help process them all.

"Hn." Hiei's dismissive grunt wasn't what Koenma expected. He looked up in time to see Hiei's fist uncurl, a small clear crystal with a cloudy center sitting in his palm. With a flick of his wrist, Hiei tossed it at the godling, far slower than he normally would have, since it gave Koenma a chance to actually catch it, bouncing it awkwardly between his small palms.

…a memory crystal? They were common practice for the Spirit World's informants—how else could he have neat little videos for his briefings?—but where did Hiei get one? Scratch that. The fire demon had been a thief once. It probably hadn't been difficult to nick one from the storerooms.

"Do I want to know where you got this?"

The fire demon just snorted. Koenma studied the energy trapped within the crystal—he'd need to use one of the readers to actually access whatever information was contained within the crystalized spirit energy, but the colors usually gave a clue to where it came from.

Gold was usually youki. But there were wisps of blue if he looked hard enough. A mixed-blood then? They were unusual enough…but why would Hiei bring one to him?

"What's on it?"

"Kurama's contract."

Kurama's—Koenma stared incredulously at Hiei, and then back down at the crystal. He knew the energy signatures of his own detectives. Kurama's was the usual blue of human spirit energy, with the gold of his demonic energy threaded subtly through it. This was the complete opposite.

"He wasn't the one to make it. He merely agreed to pay the cost." Hiei said at last, crossing his arms and scowling, "Watch the memory for details. Now I'm going to ask again—where would Kyuubi be?"

The last line was more of a growl than a question. Koenma's small fists tightened, the edges of the crystalline facets digging into his palms.

Kyuubi.

He had been right. Minerva didn't deal with mortals.

But she would deal with a demigod.

"Kyuubi was Inari's favored child…" Koenma began slowly, "If he managed to escape the miko's seal, he would probably return to her—Hear me out, Hiei!" Koenma's voice rose to near glass shattering levels as Hiei immediately turned away and began to head for the door, "Let me go through the proper channels! Messing with a godde—HIEI!"

The door slammed shut, leaving Koenma alone with his worries, and a small filled memory crystal. Damn it.

Hiei had less of a track record than Yuusuke for pulling stupid stunts, but the fire demon had fewer scruples about what he wasn't willing to do. Why was Hiei so invested in this situation? Was it because it involved Kurama, who was the only person other than Yukina he seemed to tolerate willingly?

Or was it as simple as having been involved since the beginning, and had come to consider it a personal affront? Minerva had indirectly attacked him when she broke his wards that day in Koenma's office.

Hell if Koenma knew. He just made a note to be prepared to handle the potential damage control. At least one good thing had come of this.

"George! I need a viewing machine!"

The shrill shout through the phone would have his ogre receptionist scrambling. Koenma settled back into his chair to wait, sucking thoughtfully on his energy storage device (not a pacifier, thank you.) Knowing the details of the deal would help his case with his father. And maybe he could work out something with Inari…

…and he'd always been curious about Minerva. The stories said she was quite the lovely lady…

x-x-x

Kunsel awoke to nauseated confusion. He rolled onto his side, clamping down on the bile rising in his throat the best that he could. The blankets draped over him resisted the motion—damn. Had Zack convinced him to go out drinking? Sometimes Zack didn't realize Kunsel couldn't handle quite as much alcohol as he could. He eventually pulled free of the resistance, groping in the vague direction of his bedside table for his helmet, eyes squeezed shut to save his pounding head from the blinding glare of the overhead lights.

…why had he left the lights on?

Nothing. A rough wood surface met his searching hand.

…he didn't have any wood in his apartment. Wooden furniture was a premium in midgar, since it had to be imported from beyond the wastes.

…this wasn't his apartment.

"Ohoho. It's good one of you are awake." The thin, elderly voice came from somewhere to his left, a faint hum (machinery?) growing louder as it approached. An unfamiliar voice. Kunsel forced his watering eyes open—so bright, so damn bright. Everything was blurred, the wavering motion of the world only adding to the contracting in his throat. His bangle was a familiar weight around his lower forearm, he wasn't unarmed. He could reach the materia if he needed to.

"Calm down, young man." The voice came again, drawing Kunsel's blurry vision to a small splotch of…green and purple at the end of the bed. "You've been exposed to more of the planet's spirit energy than your body was accustomed; you need peace. And rest. Only then will it calm enough to settle."

The lights don't help with that. Kunsel thought bitterly, but considered the man's words, pausing over the use of 'spirit energy.' He knew the term, having come across it during his research into the summon creatures. But it was only used it one place. By one accredited scientist, even if most of the students of mako sciences considered him a crackpot.

And where did he get exposed to mako of all things— "I don't have the magic to waste on you." Muffled by spears of ice. Machinery hummed. Neon green crashing down. Shelter turned into a trap. Frozen fire raging through the world. He couldn't think—Kunsel shuddered, a hand tentatively reaching up to touch the phantom sensation of burning ice. Rough, raised edges met searching fingertips.

"Mmmm yes. There is some minor scarring from the burns along your shoulder and face, I'm afraid." The old man must have noticed the motion, because he responded shortly after, cheerfully "But nothing disfiguring! From what I understand subtle facial scars are considered quite fetching on warriors these days."

…Genesis. Genesis had done this. Pushed him back into the flooding mako container. Someone else had dragged him out.

"…the others?"

His voice felt almost rough against his throat, but as the memories filtered back through the confusion Kunsel felt the concern building. He didn't care about scars. They were the least of his worries, and he usually wore a helmet anyway—damn he wished he hadn't lost his though, it might have spared him. Better scars than…what happened to Hollander.

"All in one piece, more or less." The old man mused…bobbing… closer. Kunsel's vision was slowly getting used to the light, although it was still painful. He was much…smaller than he'd thought. The little man was balding with more salt than pepper in his hair and beard, dark sunglasses, and floating on a curious little orb device. He was currently stroking his thick beard thoughtfully "The younger first class—hmmm...Fair was it?—is currently under an intensive Restore materia regiment. Sephiroth conceded to letting me splint his arm, and the young private isn't wounded at all." The older man had a small smile on his face, "I notice you haven't asked who I am yet, or where you are."

"Spirit energy. Buganhagan." Kunsel shrugged, and settled back against the pillows. And that he had the medical facilities and the license to operate on a SOLDIER. Cosmo Canyon did not have the resources of Junon, or even ShinRa's outpost at Costa del Sol, but it was the nearest, licensed emergency medical stop for the western half of the continent.

"Ohoh." The old man chuckled, "You are an observant one. I had thought modern science disregarded my theories years ago."

"I've done some personal research…"

Overall, it was reassuring news. That Zack needed a major restorative treatment was worrisome, but it also meant he'd survived. They'd all survived. No mention of Tifa, or Genesis, but he would need to ask Sephiroth or Zack about that most likely. As soon as he felt like he could get out of bed without his legs collapsing.

But…where was Loki?

The eidolon's snarky voice hadn't intruded on his thoughts even once since he'd woken up. Considering his last memories where of Loki putting him to sleep… unless something had happened to interrupt the summoning. He hadn't had that happen since he found the damn orb.

Buganhagan continued chatting with him for some time, Kunsel listening with interest, even if he couldn't add much due to the …classified reason for his knowledge. He'd always been interested in visiting Cosmo Canyon, but had never had the chance.

But every now and then he'd glance down at the bracer on his arm, at the false green cap concealing the summon materia. He could still feel the miniscule magic drain…but where was he?

Clang.

Metal against stone echoed through the room. A knock on the stone outside the doorway. Sephiroth ignored it, sitting with his back to the doorway, staring out the window into the sky, painted reds and oranges of Cosmo Canyon's famous sunset. It would have been beautiful, if it didn't remind him of blood.

He'd watched the cargo plane slowly vanish into the north western sky just hours before, on its way back to Nibelhiem. He wished he were still on it, at least then he could have a cabin door he could lock, rather than the thin drape that acted as the privacy barriers to the inn's guest rooms. He only had that flimsy cloth between him and everything else.

"I'm coming in."

Especially since someone didn't seem to understand that he wanted to be left alone.

He could hear the rustle of cloth as that person pushed passed, the scrape of metal boots crossing the smooth floor. It wasn't long before Valentine came into view, the red light from the sunset highlighting the edges of his gauntlet. Held carefully in those sharp claws were—Sephiroth grimaced. "Buganhagan already set it."

The marksman just gave him a flat stare—which was very odd. Was that how he looked to others?—and set the supplies on the empty space next to Sephiroth. Bandages and gauze were one thing, but there was also a long, thin sheet of plastic? "Not your arm. You refused to take off the cloak for Buganhagan. You have other injuries."

"No." Sephiroth had been purposefully trying to forget it was even there. It had been difficult, but he'd been able to bind his ribs himself, even with one arm in a sling. They ached, but the burn of the mako assured him at least that was being taken care of. Unlike the useless growth attached to his shoulder. "There is no need." Genesis' wing could be manifested at will. The opposite must hold true. And if it didn't… He was good at ignoring pain. Once they returned to Midgar he would just have someone amputate it.

"…you are a warrior." Valentine crossed his arms, frowning down at Sephiroth. Seated on the bed like he was, the marksman towered over him. This man had the unnerving effect of making him feel like an errant child. Sephiroth hadn't been a child in a long time. "You know the consequences of an untreated injury."

Not only pain, but distraction. Infection. Mako healing an injury wrong. Sephiroth had seen cases of SOLDIERs pushing themselves too far, ignoring or not reporting injuries to receive the proper medical attention. He'd even scolded them himself. There were many reasons, usually pride

Sephiroth shot Valentine an irritated glare, but with a frustrated sigh he reluctantly conceded the point. He used his uninjured arm to shrug the red cloak off his shoulders, freeing the twisted black feathers onto the bed. The air was unusually chill on the bare skin of his back, the faint throb of pain he'd been ignoring suddenly flaring into immediate agony, but he refused to let it show and give Valentine the satisfaction of being right.

Luckily, the marksman did not say anything, merely moved toward the other side of the bed. Sephiroth refused to watch as he examined the wing, focusing on the sky outside the stone window. The phantom feeling of fingers on the appendage almost made him shudder, even as the prodding made the pain pulse with each touch.

Just…

"Chop it off."

Valentine paused. Sephiroth could feel the weight of the marksman's heavy gaze drilling into the back of his head.

"…no."

Sephiroth tried to jerk away, but Valentine's grip tightened in response, the resulting waves of agony had Sephiroth hissing in pain, fingers twisted into the cloth covering the bed. "It's my choice." He shot a glare over his shoulder. The marksman had no right.

"It won't work." Valentine wasn't even looking at him anymore, those red eyes focused on the black feathers spilling across his lap as if Sephiroth had never interrupted.

"Why not?" Valentine's probing touch made the damand come out sharper than he'd intended.

Sigh.

"…you'd risk further mutation as the infected cells attempt regrowth." The words were reluctant, delivered in such an artificially disinterested tone that Sephiroth knew it had unpleasant memories attached. "Activated J-cells are anything but stable."

Sephiroth swallowed a grunt as the feathers pressed against his skin, that unnatural point behind his shoulder, just off the center of his back, aching with both unfamiliar and unused muscles, compounding on the already constant pain of the fracture. He pointedly looked away while the marksman folded the useless growth against Sephiroth's back, following the first rule of field splints that even Sephiroth knew. Immobilize the limb. Fine. Whatever. Splint the damn thing.

"Can you hold it?"

Sephiroth grimaced, but the alien muscle tightened instinctively, causing the marksman to hum in approval and begin the binding. The silence stretched. The spiking pain fluctuating as the pressure on the wing increased with each wrap of the gauze. The plastic sheet was slipped between the fold, and sturdier bandages began the dance again, binding the padded fracture to the support. To distract himself from the marksman's work, Sephiroth finally asked one of the questions that had been nagging at him "…how do you know what to do? About that."

Sephiroth had known about degredation. He'd seen the changes to Genesis. He'd heard from Zack about…what happened to Angeal. Mutation wasn't new to Sephiroth, as someone who'd grown up in a lab setting, yet he still couldn't accept the fact that this was happening to him.

"…I asked the stable boy about treating chocobo fractures."

Sephiroth turned his head sharply at the deadpan statement, frowning at the marksman over his shoulder. Red eyes lifted, catching Sephiroth's own steady for a few moments, the binding faltering. It hung in the air. Like a stooping hawk, moments before the dive.

"…mutation was common in the early trials of the Jenova project." Valentine's murmur was soft, and Sephiroth studied the marksman's carefully blank face. The pressure on the wing increased, as Valentine lightly bound the joint with a cross-like pattern to prevent movement—had he asked for a full-on demonstration from the stable boy? The movements were incredibly precise—but the pain was no longer overwhelming, becoming more like the dull, much more manageable pain of his properly splinted arm. "A splinter project focused on metamorphosis. I have seen…similar situations."

Early trials. Jenova project.

Hojo told him his mother's name was Jenova. JENOVA…

Jenova.

He was caught in glowing red eyes and he couldn't look away.

The pressure eased as Valentine was satisfied with the tightness of the splint, pulling back and setting the mostly spent bandages to the side, inspecting his work. "Will you be able to hold it indefinitely?"

Valentine's question shooed the troubling thoughts away like a soft breeze scattering smoke. Sephiroth considered the wing. After the initial folding and the discovery of that unknown muscle…it seemed content to stay that way, nestled against his back. Like the resting position of a chocobo.

…it was easier to think of it that way, as undignified as it was.

Sephiroth didn't answer directly, merely reaching down to pick up the discarded cloak. Valentine's cloak, although the marksman hadn't protested Sephiroth's continued use of the garment. It was tattered. Burned. Ruined as a result of the…incident in the reactor…

But it concealed the wing for the most part, and that was all he cared about right now.

Valentine stood up as Sephiroth got the cloak settled, silently gathering the odd bits and pieces that hadn't been used in the splinting process. Sephiroth had expected it. While Valentine seemed to be infuriatingly fixated on making sure Sephiroth took care of himself, he wasn't the type to hang around when the job was done.

"Another thing…" The unexpected words caught his attention again, "Kunsel has awoken. I'd arrange to speak with him when you can. You should consider what to do when the Turks report their findings."

That was something he'd been turning over in his mind since they'd arrived at Cosmo Canyon. He didn't know what the Turks would find. He didn't know what orders would be waiting for them once they reached Costa del Sol. It was difficult to predict given Zack was the only one who actually knew what happened in the reactor, and Cosmo Canyon didn't have the equipment available to review the surveillance tapes Valentine had procured. All he had to go on were Hojo's words— will not be pleased you decided to follow Hollander's trash!—that he should be removed from command.

And…Valentine had gotten Hojo to back down. A question was nagging at Sephiroth now, one he'd been too distracted to consider at the reactor, all things consider. Just who was Valentine? Even just now, he'd admitted to knowledge of the early trials of the Jenova project.

Metal boots scraped along the stone floor. Valentine was leaving.

"Wait!"

They stopped. Sephiroth found himself standing, facing the marksman who was nearly to the door.

What was he doing?

"What else can you tell me about my—the JENOVA project?" His mother's name was heavy. It almost caught in his throat, but he forced it out in a tumble of sounds.

Mother will always love you.

A thought that once had been accompanied by a childlike longing, now only made him recoil in disgust and horror. Zack's rattling attempts to breathe echoing in his mind. The blood of his friend and subordinate spilling onto his hands. He needed to know why it happened. How. So it would never happen again.

Valentine's normally stoic face noticeably hardened. Red eyes flicked uncertainly toward the flimsy privacy curtain between the room and the inn.

"…not…as much detail as you would like." Valentine admitted carefully. "Before my…introduction to the splinter project, I was retained as one of the guards for the facility. The project was originally begun by Professor Gast as a means to study the remains of an ancient being. Hojo sought to replicate the creature's extraordinary healing abilities within a human specimen…" Valentine wasn't looking at him anymore, staring down at the golden armor of his gauntlet, examining the play of light across the metal surface, "It was discovered that the creature's cells granted more than just regeneration. Increased physical and magical abilities. Far beyond the scope of the known human baseline."

"The SOLDIER project." Sephiroth flinched, the taste of bile tart on his tongue. This was sounding familiar to what he'd received in his briefings on Hollander's activities. Valentine nodded.

"The results were promising—inhumanly powerful fighters. An undefeatable army with which to conquer the remaining areas of the world…only the introduction of the cells, and proximity to the source eroded the mental stability of the subjects, or encouraged rampant mutation of the specimen."

Sephiroth didn't want to hear this. He didn't. He could feel the cracks spreading, the fragile peace he'd been clinging to slowly eroding. But Zack had almost died because of whatever had happened in the reactor room with his mother's name on it. Sephiroth couldn't afford not to know. Especially when it had the chance to…affect him like it had in the reactor. The source…was—Mother—truly that thing? The crystal etched monster that seemed to linger crisp and clear where nothing else did. Nothing save for Zack's dying face.

"When…it reached the point they were willing to subject it on the unborn child of one of the researchers…I couldn't stand by any longer." Valentine shrugged, "I was…removed from duty and…reassigned to a different area of research."

Subjecting it on children. Project G. Project Gillian. Angeal's mother. Project J. The Jenova Project. His own mother's name was Jenova.

Mother will always love you.

"…you weren't just a guard, were you?"

A simple guard wouldn't have paid attention to the shifting power structures or the politics between researchers. A simple guard wouldn't have invoked that fear in Hojo's eyes when he saw him in front of the reactor. He knew Hojo's tendencies better than anyone. A simple guard would have been disposed of, and forgotten. Hojo only remembered the important ones.

Valentine didn't answer. "If you are interested in the scientific details of the project, Kunsel may know. I found him in the laboratory's library before it burned."

And then he was gone.

Kurama paused in the entryway, in the process of slipping his shoes on. His school bag was a heavy weight on his shoulder—why was he even bothering to go? It was routine, and his mother would be concerned if he didn't.

But…maybe she was concerned anyway. She was standing in the hall door, all dressed and ready for her recent part-time job, yet still in her house slippers. She was normally gone before he left for school. Was he that early? He wasn't sure. He didn't sleep last night. It had just all blurred into a chaotic primordial soup of memories and worries until he just decided he had to get out.

Kurama really did hate mental intrusions, even if they were invited or performed with the best of intentions. Hiei had been careful, but that sort of delving had consequences. It knocked everything loose. Maybe it was a good thing he was early. He could go to the park for a few minutes before first bell. Try and clear his head.

"Suuichi?"

"Yes, mother?" It was easy to keep his melancholy out of his voice, defaulting to the polite attention he'd cultivated over the years. It wasn't even an act, most of the time. Unbidden his eyes drifted away from her face to her arms, to the faint white scars peaking out from the crisp lines of her jacket.

Such a stupid selfless human.

Broken glass littering the floor, the evening sun shining through the kitchen window stained the edges with a firey glow to match the blood pooling beneath them. Shards that would have barely broken his skin for more than an hour, even as a child.

"…did you hear me, Suuichi?"

"I'm sorry." Kurama ducked his head, focusing his attention on the wooden grain of the floor paneling instead of the scars, "I've been…distracted this morning."

Distracted was an understatement.

"Morning?" She sounded…worried. "Suuichi, it's already evening. Are you feeling well? Is that why you didn't go to school?"

…what? Kurama stared at her, and then spun, checking the clock hanging on the in the entryway. He hadn't seen it wrong. It was before 7 but… He quickly catalogued the windows he'd passed as he'd walked through the house. The light had been on the wrong side. It just hadn't registered.

Damn. He was out of it, and now he'd gotten his mother all worried.

He sighed, turning back to her. "…yes. I wasn't feeling well. I thought I should run an assignment over that was due today."

"Concerned about your grades?" She smiled at him. It was supposed to be reassuring, but it only seemed sad. She crossed the small space to rest her hand on his upper arm, "I'll call the school in the morning. I know you are worried about the application, but you should just rest tonight. Have you heard anything?"

…application? Oh. Right. Another one of the lies. "Ah, no. But they said I should know before the term is done."

A prestigious school. A study abroad opportunity to the Makai that might never end.

He could probably talk Boton into delivering the occasional letters from the Makai, to support the lie. At least for a while. He hadn't planned after that.

"You'll be fine dear." A comforting squeeze on his arm, and then she brushed at his bangs like she used to do when he was a child, tucking the longer locks behind his ear. Kurama forced himself to still the instinctive flinch as her fingertips barely missed the stock of partially sprouted seeds clinging to the strands with dainty roots, "With your record, one missed day won't change anything." Her smile faltered for a moment, and she pulled closer—almost uncomfortably closer. She was his mother, but even she didn't come so close to him anymore. Not since he'd grown. She threaded her fingers through his hair, separating a handful of strands from the rest, "Have you hit your head recently?"

He frowned, and then carefully shook his head, "Not that I can recall?"

A sharp tug, the brief sting of pain in his scalp, and she had a short strand of hair held loosely between her thumb and forefinger. Kurama felt his stomach lurch at the silver shimmering in the hallway's dim light. He'd bottled up his youki. He knew it. He knew his own energy, it was locked down as tight as he could keep it after last night.

But the silver still winked back at him.

"I think you've been worrying too much, it's been known to turn your hair grey." His mother joked gently and swooped in for a hug, "Now, come. Take your shoes off. I'll make your favorite for dinner, okay? We haven't been able to talk much recently, with you out so late… It's wonderful that you are taking an interest in tutoring your friend—Yuusuke was it? That boy does seem like he might need a helping hand now and then…"

He didn't have the heart to tell her that he wasn't hungry.

The air was chilly as Aerith stepped into the dream. The rough stone beneath her sandaled feet was odd, used as she was to the packed earth of her home. But even more than that was the sky. She turned her face to the sun, in awe of the clear crystalline blue that surrounded her, bordered on all sides by the distant purple shadows of what could only be mountains. She'd only ever saw the sky in books, or in dreams, save for through the cracks in the plate that allowed her flowers to grow, or in the narrow corridors of the upper plate. Never so wide. So expansive.

So…free…

But…this was just a dream…but it wasn't her dream.

The stone plateau stretched out before her as she dragged her eyes back to the earth, scanning the edge of the large canyon before her. She'd been called here…

Ah. There. The edge of the plateau was a crack in the world. White structures spiraled out of drab grey stone, the sunlight gave the shell-shaped structures a pearly sheen, setting the crystal clear lake at the center of the little village sparkling with thousands of tiny stars. As lovely an image as it was…the sight of it only stirred a sense of sorrow deep in her chest. Her mother's voice murmured in her memory, wordless, as memories from that age would be, but charged with the familiarity and longing of a child who had been alone for far too long. Stories she barely remembered, ones that had her briefly touching the tiny cool materia nestled in the twist of her braid…

And this was getting depressing, wasn't it? Aerith shooed the feelings away like a persistent gnat, annoying, but overall powerless. She hadn't been called here to brood over someone else's dream. She turned away from the oddly hypnotic view, and instead approached the only muddled image in this otherwise crystal clear recollection.

"Mind if I join you?"

The blurred lines shifted, sharpening slightly into an image she found more familiar. The boy she'd rescued from the lifestream stared back up at her curiously, but he was…off. He wasn't a drifting spirit this time, anchored properly, so that was a positive, but there was still something that…unsettled her.

Cloud's response was a soft pat against the rough stone beside him. Aerith took the invitation, automatically arranging her dress properly as she folded her legs beneath her. It may be a dream, but that was no reason to act improper!

She had to be the one to break the silence again, a companionable one, but silence wasn't what she'd come for. Cloud's attention was rapt on the empty structures below, so she decided to start with that. "This is such a lovely dream, Cloud."

"Isn't it?" Cloud looked away for the briefest moment, smiling at her. But his vision inevitably was drawn back to the pearly view, losing that moment of focus. Aerith frowned, feeling him slip away. Just a little bit. Not drifting, no, but the fact that she could even find the dream was troublesome. Most people didn't dream so close to the lifestream. "But…I don't think it's mine. It feels sad."

"I'm afraid you're probably right." Threads of melancholy were weaved into this dream, familiar in a way she couldn't quite put her finger on. And then there was a distinct lack of something that should be here. Cloud hadn't been the presence she'd been seeking, the one that had reached out and nudged her while she'd been enjoying a quiet dream in her meadow. "Where's Kohaku, Cloud?"

For a brief moment, everything froze, a shudder running through the weave of the dream surrounding them. The previously spotless sky was filled with clouds, dark and heavy with rain, casting the pearly city into shadow. Even Cloud was affected, lines and colors blurred and distorted, almost like the image on her mother's television when there was a particularly nasty storm going on above the plate. Fuzzy. His colors were off. And his face…

And then it was gone. The sky just as clear as it had been.

"Who?"

Cloud's face was curious, but the reaction—which was the longest she'd seen so far—did nothing to calm her worries. Especially since for that one brief moment, he hadn't been Cloud, she was sure of it.

"Don't you remember? He came to pick you up when you visited me."

The boy began to shake his head slowly, feather blonde spikes bobbing in the slight wind. Then paused, looking down at the closed fist resting on his knees. Something wet landed on Aerith's head, a quick glance to the sky had it growing a little darker, the impression of faint thunder rumbling in the distance. A stray raindrop? She'd been caught up on the plate during a shower before, but usually the weather's whims didn't mean much in the Slums. This dreamscape was odd. And then there was that odd impression that the dream wasn't Cloud's, despite the fact that he was quite grounded this time, and in no danger of drifting into the lifestream as he'd been when she found him last…

"I am dreaming, right?"

"Of course." She smoothed her skirts, "I couldn't be here otherwise, you know. I have never left Midgar that I can remember."

"I…can't tell anymore." She almost couldn't hear him, "Was the river a dream too?" His fist uncurled, and a small pile of glittering shards caught what light managed to filter through the gathering stormclouds. The wind was steadily picked up, tugging insistently on her bangs, and she could even feel her much heavier braid shifting against her back. The weather was somewhat of an afterthought as she studied the slivers of red.

My Oathstone is broken.

…yet he had felt so much like Cloud. A summon's energies mingled with their summoner's…yet always remained grounded to the materia. She'd had plenty of time to observe Zack interacting with Ammy, even before he had given her the materia.

What if the materia was gone?She could still sense Kohaku's presence in the Lifestream, one of a handful of presences too distinct to be human, yet too tied up with a human life to be one of the ancestors that spoke to her.

"Cloud…" She caught his attention again. "Would you mind…if I called him?"

She was careful not to say the name. Names had power, especially for those not from this world.

Clould's knuckles were turning white, the shards leaving pale markings against the boy's skin. She could see the confusion in the frown. He remembered her. If not her name or her face, he remembered how she felt. She had seen it when he'd first noticed her for the first time. Seen the dawning recognition, seen how he relaxed. He registered her as safe.

Given the responses to even hinting, he had to remember Kohaku. And something about that memory was not safe.

Sorry, Cloud. Aerith thought, as she reached for the quiet power that was always at her fingertips. The power to hear…and call if she wished. There was something wrong here. She took a breath, the gentle, cradling consciousness of the Cetra delivering the information she sought, the name of the entity tangled up with the human before her. "Nigihayami Kohaku nushi. I wish to speak with you."

The sky tore open, the looming storm coming crashing down around them. Cloud doubled over, grunting and curling on himself, the edges of his body blurring again, shifting. Oh no no. She hadn't wanted to hurt him! She tried to take back the magic, but it was too late, rippling through the dream around them.

With a muffled, pained cry, Cloud's unclear dream form shattered into shreds of mist, leaving Aerith alone on the now drenched plateau, the shards he'd been holding falling to a clatter to the stone. She shivered against the cold wind and wet fabric, pushing to her feet and whirling frantically around. Water. Wind. All rushing down at her in a pandemonium of sound and sensations she'd never experienced before, sheltered by the Midgar plate even by the worst of the summer storms. There was no shelter here. Empty air behind her, flat stone before her. No where to run. Or hide. She clung to the only thing familiar-she could still feel Cloud's presence, mixed as it was with the roaring magic that swirled around them, crashing through the sky in a rumble of noise she knew intellectually was thunder, but was nothing like the far off rumble that was the most the Slums ever heard—

The wind-driven water stung at her eyes painfully, but she kept searching. The once beautiful view was shrouded by pouring rain and raging clouds, blocking off even the distant purple silhouettes of the mountains from sight. It almost seemed as if the world had contracted, narrowing to the small sphere that she could still see.

"Cloud!" Thunder crashed directly overhead, ringing in her ears, sending the entire world vibrating with its force. She took an instinctive step back, irrational fear triggering a sudden desire to run—only to have her foot meet nothing.

The edge.

A hand swirled out of water droplets, catching her by the arm and yanked her sharply away from the plateau's edge. The rest of the body condensed out of the falling rain, catching her even as Aerith stumbled forward into the shorter boy's chest. White silk broke her fall, somehow undamaged by the pouring rain.

"That name is tied to power here." At least the polite tones were familiar, and carried clearly through the raging storm, even if almost nothing else was. The Kohaku who'd retrieved Cloud had been…smaller. A young boy. Not even a teenager yet. This one… "Invoking it is something that should be done warily, even by a dreamwalker."

She allowed herself to be pulled further into the plateau's center, the rain easing with every step away from the canyon—

And then with one step, it changed. She was standing, soaking, on wet, spongy earth before a pool of water, rippled occasionally by the drizzle that manage to seep through the leaves overhead. She stared, almost dumbfounded at the trees with their thick trunks and tall canopies, nothing like the little, neatly kept trees that decorated main thoroughfares above the plate. Was this was a true forest was like?

Mist curled around her feet. The water rippled, and then surged upward, spraying drops everywhere and nearly succeeding in soaking her again. A head rose from the water, attached to a long serpentine neck. Aerith almost turned and ran, her nerves shot by the strangeness of this dream, but then stopped, recognizing the presence of the beast.

"…Kohaku?"

just Haku will do. The words weren't so much words, but she understood them all the same. White-scaled forelegs settled on the edge of the pool, claws digging into the moist earth, but didn't pull the rest of his body free from the pond. Instead, that long neck stooped, so the great head was at her eyelevel.

"Haku then." Aerith agreed, stepping back a few paces, not out of fear, but so she could see him better. With the storm of magic settling down, she was beginning to calm her racing heart. Slowly. This might have been too much for one night. "You…didn't look like this before."

I am as you see me. The dragon responded with a soft snort, long white whiskers twitching with the exhaled air. There are…complications with the form you may be more accustomed to. I felt it wasn't wise to use it without some explanation.

Complications…

"Where's Cloud?"

She could still feel him…but only faintly. Such as before, where she'd felt Kohaku's presence only ambiantly, but Cloud had been right there…

That is the reason I called you, Aerith. Your goddess does not seem to consider the consequences for those she uses…

Goddess…? Ammy had mentioned a goddess in passing—the Lifebringer—but… Consequences?

I have no longer have an oathstone to tie me to this world. My contract was fulfilled. She offered me a chance to watch over him. A frustrated snort, the gust of wind rippling the long thin whiskers, Had I foreseen the consequences, I might have chosen otherwise.

…Cloud and Haku were sharing the same dream. They felt different than when she'd first met them, something just the slightest bit off, that she couldn't quite put her finger on it. Even now…

…he still felt like Cloud.

An Eidolon requires an anchor in this world, and she made him mine. Cloud is no dreamwalker. His connection to the spirits is nothing like yours. Nowhere large enough for a spirit of my status. She tore it open.

…the roaring power in the storm. The power than had answered when she'd called his true name.

…The power that had torn Cloud apart.

She sunk to her knees. She could still see Cloud's dream self being reduced to ribbons of mist spiraling out of her frantic grip and into a sea of angry wind and sky. She'd done that. She could still feel him, yes, but was he…? She'd been clinging to the fact that this was a dream, and that yes, his presence was still here… "What have I done…?"

"…peace. He is merely aside for a moment. However, I do need your help to try and fix this mess." Those were sounds. Actual words. She looked up, meeting with calm grey eyes in a human face. Blurred, as if two images were being overlaid, but it was Cloud's face. His hair wasn't anywhere near as reminiscent of a chocobo, slightly less gravity defying, and the wrong color, but it was Cloud she was looking at, not the sharp-eyed quiet boy who'd retrieved him from her church. "I'm afraid we are getting...tangled up, for lack of a better term. I was able to keep it to a minimum for a time, but… Cloud picked up on one of my Nightmares and things…escalated."

"…what can I do?" She wanted to help. Wanted to make things right. But what could she do? She was in Midgar. She didn't know where Cloud was. She didn't even know where Zack was, and he'd probably be the only person with the connections to find out—

…no. That wasn't true. Her blue suited shadows might. But would going to them make it better, or worse?

A gentle, comforting hand landed on her shoulder, a soft pat, "For now...I merely ask you to help me with the stream of spirits. He is…rather susceptible to their influence and without that interference…it should be easier for me to strengthen the difference."

"You can't act on your own?" He seemed more than knowledgeable about the situation than she was—even her knowledge on the lifestream was limited to what she'd carefully managed to explore and what her ancestors deemed important enough to tell her. They were always a quiet, reassuring buzz in the back of her mind, more coherent during her dreams, but for the moment, they'd been fairly quiet. Waiting and watching, not teaching.

A small nod was her answer, "Even without an Oathstone, I am still considered an Eidolon; my ability to influence is minimal without my name being invoked. The situation has just gotten…a little more personal." Aerith took his offered hand and brushed the earth from where it clung to her dress. As she stood, she caught a quiet sigh. She decided to pretend she didn't hear that. His sadness was seeping into the dreamscape surrounding them, the already muted colors of the dreamscape going just a twinge greyer. She was now more sure than ever—this dream was his as much as it had been Cloud's. "Everything will be okay, right? You and Cloud and…everything?"

She had known about summon beasts, of course. Everyone did. But until Ammy…she'd never actually met one. Ammy was the sun. She was bright and kind, but get too close and even Aerith knew she would be burned.

Shattered into shreds of mist…

She shuddered. That image was going to haunt her. If Haku was right, Cloud had just gotten the sun trapped inside him.

…and he expected her to be able to help with something like that?

"There are more…permanent methods, but none that we have the resources for right now." He took a step away from the pool, that odd double vision worsening as he motioned for her to follow, "…come. I'll show you the worst of the damage."

It's not like she could walk away from this, but the dread weighed her down as she followed not-Cloud, but not-quite-Haku away from the misty pool, a veil of thick fog lurking beyond the edge of the trees. Haku paused at the edge, bits of green-tinged mist detaching from the thick wall and trailing from his fingertips. She could feel it now, where she hadn't before. Aerith was used to a faint lifestream's glow on the very edge of her dreams, an even fainter feel of it the few times she'd accidently wandered into her Mom's dream. But…never like this. It looked thick, but diffused. And beyond it…

She wasn't sure how she knew, but there was something daunting beyond it.

Haku made a slashing motion with his hand, cutting through the veil as if it were solid, the mists dissolving away to show a shattered sky. Bright green spider-webbed through the blue-grey clouds, with wisps of lifestream seeping from the fractures and then falling to the ground in a spotty rain. The heaviest concentration was forming a glowing pond around a shell-shaped structure—almost like the buildings she and Cloud had seen in the earlier dream, but half sunken in the soft ground of the marsh. Red crystals glittered around it—materia?—jutting out from the tiny green pool, framing the pearly shell.

"Is that…" She looked up again, craning her neck and studying the array of cracks. The largest break was directly above the structure, with the cracks spreading outward.

"It's the anchor." Haku nodded, lifting his own eyes to the sky, "And that…is where she shoved it through."

And that was what she needed to fix.

She wasn't sure if it was possible. And even if it was, the remaining night would not be long enough for this.

But for them, she would try. For the boy she'd found wandering on the edges of her dream. For the dragon who'd come in search of the lost one, locked in a bargain with unexpected consequences. She didn't know their story, only what bits and pieces she'd gotten out of Cloud, and later what Haku had told her, but she didn't need to.

She reached out for the collection of her ancestors—the souls of all the cetra who came before her. They'd always been faint, the sound muffled by the insulation of her own dreams, but here…standing so close to where that insulation had been carelessly stripped away…

The ghost of arms around her, the scent of lilies. Her mother's voice, even now only a distant memory. It was in that collective somewhere. She could almost imagine her mother's smile, even as she could no longer recall her face. If she could step through one of those cracks, out of the safety of human dreams, would she see that smile again?

Not yet. It seemed to turn sad, but maybe someday.

Aerith let the knowledge of the Ancients flow through her, searching for a way to heal a torn soul.

x-x-x

Terrified humans didn't quite have the same appeal as they once did, Hiei thought, watching the last of the priests run screaming off the edge of the shrine's property and down the tall flight of stone stairs. Fire-light lit the night, dancing on the burning remains of a stall somewhat to his left. Souvenirs. The priest had been closing up when Hiei'd arrived.

Hiei hadn't been gentle or even subtle, he needed the priest's fear to summon the guardians, but he hadn't been the one to set the stall on fire. The culprit for that was the broken oil lamp in shattered pieces on the ground where a flailing arm had knocked it off.

Humans. It was pathetic. At least the Moron kept his head in the face of a demon, even if he didn't use it much.

And where the hell were the guardians? If bullying the attending priests and threatening to burn the shrine down weren't enough—

"You won't attract them that way."

Well, well. Looks like he'd drawn a fox. It just wasn't quite the fox he was looking for.

"Hn."

Kurama stepped out of the shadows near the tori-gate, and Hiei eyed the other detective. He looked exhausted. His youki was agitated, almost eclipsing the sense of his human spirit energy. Hn, looked like the instability hadn't settled down yet. He shouldn't be out here and pushing it, especially not with being on probation.

"Koenma sent you." It wasn't a hard conclusion. The fox wouldn't be here for any other reason. He specifically picked a shrine away from Kurama's neighborhood. Any consequences from his blaspheming would have fallen on him alone. Koenma had a tendency to send Kurama when he wanted to talk Hiei out of something

"Mmm, yes." Kurama stepped toward the merrily burning fire, now catching onto the advertisement suspended above the stall. His eyes seemed to reflect the warm light of the fire. "He seemed convinced you would do something…reckless. You really should probably put that out. We wouldn't want the neighbors to call the fire brigade. The guardians know you are holding the fire. The humans, would not."

Hn. He should have just let the place burn. Would have, once upon a time. Hiei withdrew the youki he'd been using to fan the flames, but kept a grip on the fire itself so it wouldn't leap from the already charred stall to the nearby wooden buildings. The guardians would know, would they? Then they should know he was the reason the entire place didn't go up in flames when the priest knocked over an oil lamp near wooden buildings.

He chose to ignore the fact that it likely wouldn't have happened without his presence here.

Without his youki feeding it, and its source of fuel already used up, the fire quickly faded to embers, stubbornly clinging to the charred remains of the souvenir stall.

"I won't apologize."

Damn omnipotent gods and their servants. He glared up at the shadowed silhouettes of the pair of fox statues flanking the main shrine, silly red bib and all. They just seemed to laugh at his attempts to draw them out. If he really had to do major damage to get their attention… His hand drifted to his sword, loosening the blade from saya with a snick of metal. Maybe a shattered statue was a good start…

"Don't even think about it," Kurama knew him well enough to guess where his mind was going, "There's no need."

"This isn't just about you, fox." Hiei crossed his arm, "You don't get to decide that."

He wanted to see this through to the end. Even if that meant hunting down a god. If no humans were hurt, Spirit World couldn't get after him about it. Property damage was a necessary evil on a case, and this was his case.

"I do." With the firelight gone, so was the golden glow in the fox's eyes, leaving them a shaded green in the faint light from the moon. Hiei narrowed his eyes—no gold in the eyes, no silver bleeding into his hair… With the amount of youki currently running through the fox's aura, he should be on the edge of transforming, not calmly picking up some small half-charred trinket from the stone-paved yard and shaking his head at the waste. Frowning, Hiei loosened his grip on the Jagan, intending to check on the damage…

Hiei froze. And then moved, pinning the too-slow fox to the stone-paved yard, his drawn sword sitting naked against the exposed neck.

"Who are you?" He growled. It wasn't just that his youki was eclipsing the human reiki, there wasn't any. Hiei had studied the other detective's aura for months, tracking the fluctuations between mostly- human and the spike of youki before the summonings. It was a close fake, definitely kitsune. But not close enough. Kurama's youki had been unstable and unusually prominent last night, yes, but even fully transformed, his human spirit energy would still be there—woven tightly into the fabric of his strength. Kurama, as much as Hiei was loath to admit it, was a human as much as he was demon. One of the few tolerable ones.

"Aren't you being a little rash?" Damn it, the impostor even had Kurama's mannerisms down, still calm despite the precarious position, that stupid smile indicating amusement. Irritated, Hiei increased the pressure on the blade, a drop of blood trickling from the thin slice. "Too bad. This could have been much easier."

…something else moved in the yard, a gathering cloud of youki behind him.

Hiei moved, the force of his sudden jump sending him to the top of the tori gate at the entrance to the shrine before the large claws finished slicing through the afterimage he left behind. The second fox was a shadow in the night, a hulking and indistinct guardian hovering over the impostor as he stood, brushing dirt and dust off his uniform.

…of course there was more than one guardian. There'd been a pair of statues laughing at him.

"Koenma's request had been a peaceful resolution." The impostor shook his head regretfully, "But you have assaulted a guardian. Gintarou won't tolerate that. I'm sorry."

Hn. Hiei gripped his weapon, the fox's blood a dark, drying stain against the reflected moonlight. Good. Peaceful resolutions were boring anyway.

A/N:

I've been holding onto this chapter for a while, but I seem to have been stalled on this story sadly. So I decided to give it to ya'll anyway. No idea when the next chapter will be, or when I'll get steam with it again, but enjoy! 3